Friday, December 29, 2017

The Fall by Albert Camus

The Fall by Albert Camus is a short novel told in the first person by a narrator who is perhaps unreliable and absolutely unlikable. The novel is short and a quick read.  I chose to read it because it takes place in Amsterdam.  The narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is a Parisian living in Amsterdam, describing himself and his life and how he became a Judge-Penitent.

The narrator is unintentionally amusing.  When he says he is not intelligent, he does so in a way that belies his words, clearly implying that he thinks himself intellectually superior to others.  He contradicts himself many times, even when he says he has told a “totally insignificant story” it took him “a long time to forget” (53).  Naturally the reader immediately recognizes that a forgotten story, insignificant or not, is not one that could be shared with another. 

Camus does a brilliant job of creating a complicated who is not merely manipulating the listener (reader) so much as he is manipulating himself and his story.  The novel is not driven by any real action.  The narrator describes an incident that occurred in Paris, one to which he returns more than a few times, eventually revealing the implication of this one moment on his own perspective on humanity, the culpability that we all share.  Written after World War II, this is especially harsh, an accusation that all of humanity has in the role of what happened.  After all, while we might want to believe that if we could do it all over again we would nonetheless act no differently because all of us do the best we can in the moment. 

It is this that the narrator drives home, that our best falls short of what we think we are and he reflects the worst of ourselves back onto us with each turn of the short novel’s page.

Amsterdam by Russell Shorto

Amsterdam:  A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto is a look at the history of the city of Amsterdam with an emphasis not on the movers and shakers that created history so much as the ideas that undergirded the many changes that formed the society.  The author, himself, writes from a place of love; he was born in the United States but relocated to Amsterdam.  His love for the city, for its societal and political ideals permeates the pages.  In some ways, this also colors the results.  Slavery is only mentioned twice in spite of the fact that the WIC (West India Company) was directly responsible for the enslavement of over 600,000 Africans.  

Shorto does not, however, shy away from the role that the Dutch had in the genocide of the Jews.  Obviously, Anne Frank and her family hid in Amsterdam during the German occupation during World War II he states “75 percent of the Jews in France lived . . . only 27 percent of the Dutch Jews did” (267).  There is a subtle implication in this rhetorical choice, inverting the numbers like this. 

Although I found this book interesting, I didn’t find it necessarily compelling.  By focusing on the abstract of ideas—how consumerism, democracy, and liberalism all informed the events of Amsterdam and the ripple effect this city had on other countries, including, of course, the United States itself—the author lost me.  Abstract ideas are harder to follow and without faces and names to attach to, I felt somewhat adrift.  However, the city was not so clearly defined by people because it wasn’t itself driven by a monarchy.  For whatever reason, I was less interested in the merchant leaders than I am in the “into the manor born” rulers.  Nonetheless, I finished reading this book feeling like I had learned a lot more about Amsterdam and became more curious about the Dutch influence on my own hometown, New York City.  I will read Shorto’s book The Island at the Center of the World someday soon. 

But first, I have a trip to Amsterdam which is, after all, the reason I wanted to read this book. 

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehouse

After going to Amsterdam, and perhaps because of the recent political climate, I find myself revisiting World War II.  I read many books, everything from non-fiction to novels, and watched movies and even miniseries.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that takes place in this moment in history.  And so I reached for A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead, a book which had been on my shelf for a long time.  

This book focuses on a group of women in the French Resistance who were sent together to the death camps of Nazi Germany.  The back story of the women is particularly interesting.  They have different motivations, from Communists who are eager to rise against the fascism of the German invaders to the French citizens who are subverting the invasion, following the inspiration of de Gaulle and others. Some mothers leave their children with other family members, willing to sacrifice anything but not risk everything.  Over time, they become increasingly bold and even careless.  Eventually, the women are caught, interrogated, imprisoned, and shipped via train to a concentration camp.  

While imprisoned, they draw strength from one another, support one another, and this profound bond is what ultimately empowers them to survive.  The horrors they face are familiar, to anyone who has read about life in the concentration camps, but Moorehead manages to immerse the reader in the lives of these women, making the nightmare of the concentration camps palpable.  This is why the book is easy to set aside. History becomes overwhelming.  

Moorehead carries the stories beyond their concentration camp experiences.  Those very few who survive are determined to tell their stories and most are deeply affected by what happened, emotionally scarred. None comes home unchanged and it is heartbreaking to know that the repercussions reach so far.  We are moving closer to a day when the final survivor will no longer be here to share his/her story.  I am grateful for those who are devoting their time and talents to ensure these stories are never forgotten.   

Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

I can’t remember the last time I was affected by a book as deeply as I was by Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart.  I have read memoirs by parents who have survived the loss of a child.  Some have been more profoundly impressive than others, have left me emotionally exhausted, but this is the first one I had to close repeatedly because I had tears in my eyes and could not read further.  Or I simply wanted to breathe in silence for a few moments before reading some more.

Yes, this graphic memoir is simply that good.  The images are rough and deceptively simple, not unlike grief itself.  There are allusions to classic comics, lyrics, and more.  None of these are gratuitous.  But there are visual allusions also used and they are so powerfully effective.  Nothing on the page is there without reason.  And every image, every word, every part of this memoir is breathtaking, bringing tears to my eyes, making me feel so much.  There are emotional experiences Hart has that are similar to those other grieving parents have expressed but at no point does this seem trite or cliché.  There is so much honesty poured into this graphic memoir, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.  It is not an easy book to read.  But it is beautiful.  

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson

A few years ago I said I wanted to read all of Shakespeare.  A few years later, I still haven’t done it.  But Hogarth Shakespeare gives me a reason to visit the plays I’ve never read or seen and to revisit the ones I have.  The publisher has invited some of our best writers (including a few of my favorites) to reinterpret Shakespeare’s dramas into contemporary novels.  This interests me because I’ve always been interested in productions of the play that move the drama from the traditional Elizabethan to other eras. 

Intrigued though I was, I confess I was surprised they invited anyone to tackle The Merchant of Venice, a play I have avoided because of the anti-Semitism.  I know that some contemporary interpreters have given a revisionist, and more sympathetic, understanding of Shylock and the truth is I don’t want to try to defend the character or Shakespeare’s intention whatsoever.  So let me just get on with my review.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is the story of vengeance, justice, love, and manipulation.  Truth is, I didn’t like any of the characters in this play at all.  Antonio lends money to Bassanio who wants to marry Portia for her money.  Antonio borrows money from Shylock whose daughter renounces her faith to marry Lorenzo.  When Shylock demands his “pound of flesh” payment, Portia saves the day and Shylock’s soul.  Yeah.  There’s a lot to dislike about this drama although it does have some lovely language, as is to be expected from Shakespeare.  In particular, Portia’s speech about mercy (IV.1).

My distaste for the play did not stop me from borrowing and watching a BBC production starring Maggie Smith.  Great performances all around, although I felt Charles Gray as Antonio left something to be desired.  Still, it is well staged with the camera cleverly moving from actor to actor by following other non-speaking actors walking behind the speakers effectively.  And because this is a BBC production, it has the feel of a staged drama rather than a cinematic one.  I like that but I know some might not.

By the time I Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name I was ready, even eager, for a sympathetic Shylock.   I also wasn’t sure how the author could possibly move this story into a contemporary context.   Had I read anything by Jacobson before, I would not have doubted.  After all, he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question and was shortlisted for it a second time for his novel J.  He makes one very significant change in the story by adding a character, Strulovitch.  It is through the discussions between Shylock and Strulovich that the author’s themes sparkle.  What it means to be Jewish in a society that is anti-Semitic , whether overtly or covertly.  And they are surrounded with characters who are clearly anti-Semitic, if not to themselves at least to the reader.

I can’t dispute that the author did an excellent job of taking this Renaissance play and moving it into modern times.  Unsurprisingly, Shylock is given a more sympathetic position within the story while the Christian characters, most of whom are given new names similar to those they bear in the play, are completely without compassion and become uninteresting.  It’s unfortunate that they have to take up any space at all in this novel because, as I said before, the most interesting and provocative parts of this novel are those moments when Shylock is discussing things with his host Strulovich.  However, without the insidious bigotry of the distasteful Christian characters, the two men’s discussions would not have a context, losing some of the veritas.   I’m all the more eager to read other volumes from this collection as they are published.  Next is Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, a take on The Taming of the Shrew.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Procrastinator's Guide to Getting Things Done by Monica Ramirez Basco

My friend Kanika and I occasionally go to Barnes & Noble to have coffee and chat. I say “occasionally” because we try not to go too often, given that we both have a bit of a book hoarding problem.  Okay.  Maybe hoarding is an exaggeration.  We just really love books and going to Barnes & Noble is like taking an alcoholic to a bar. Our avoiding the bookstore is a remarkable act of resistance.

But, if I learned nothing from the Star Trek universe, and I learned a lot, resistance is futile.  So a few months ago, we (and by “we” I mean “I”) picked up a random bargain book and, before we knew it (and this time I really mean “we”), we bought a book we agreed to read and work through together.
Which is how we read The Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Things Done by Monica Ramirez Basco.  The book begins by looking at why we procrastinate, including a quiz, a self-assessment that lays a foundation for better understand your “why.”  From there, each chapter provides information about the various reasons we put off for tomorrow what we know we could do today.  (I learned I’m an “all or nothing” person who occasionally gets caught up in “pleasure seeking.”)

The weakest part of this book, in my mind, is the vague entrance of a supposed Procrastinator’s Anonymous support group that I suppose is meant to give a face to the different types of procrastination.  The different characters seem contrived and a little flat.  Assuming any of them are real people with whom the author has worked in her practice, she may not have the narrative skills to create well-rounded characters.  

Perhaps this doesn’t even matter. I got a few things out of the book, although sometimes (more often than not) I had to slog through chapters that addressed types of procrastination that were not a part of my approach to daily tasks.  One huge takeaway for me is that there is nothing inherently wrong with procrastinating. In fact, the act of procrastinating serves a purpose.  And each chapter has several suggestions on how you can turn procrastination around by first knowing the thought process behind your why and how.

We both felt we learned a few things that made it easier for us to avoid further procrastination.  Not each and every time but with more frequency that I can say I am getting more things done, like writing book reviews and posting them.  And now, when I do choose to put off doing something, it is more often a choice and not merely a mindless action.  Knowledge is indeed power.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

Note: You'll probably see me reading more YA books in the coming months because my granddaughter has read all of  Harry Potter and I am looking for more books to pass along to her.

I picked up Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr and three of its sequels at a library book sale. I figured I would simply read the first and, if I enjoyed it, I could read the rest or, if I didn’t, I would simply donate them back to the public library for sale. I didn’t realize at the time that I didn’t have the second book in the series but figured that out when I got home.  Oops.  I’ll bet the second book was somewhere at the book sale and I overlooked it. 

One of the reasons I decided to take the plunge into this series is that it has fairies and my daughter-in-law loves fairies.  I figured, if I liked the books well enough, I could pass them along to her.  But I also knew I was going into the first book with some prejudice.  After all, I still cannot get over how many people have no issue with the abusive relationship between Bella and Edward in Twlight.  So a part of me hoped I would like this first book and a part of me was ready to hate it.

I actually like it.  I don’t love it but it stands up far better than I expected.  Okay, so maybe my expectations were pretty low.  After all, this is a supernatural romance and I am not especially fond of romance novels.  But the premise is intriguing.  Aislinn, called Ash by her friends, can see fairies, a trait she has inherited from her mother and her grandmother before her.  Her mother passed away in childbirth and her grandmother has taught her a few simple rules. 
Rule #3:  Don’t stare at invisible fairies. 
Rule #2:  Don’t speak to invisible fairies. 
Rule #1:  Don’t ever attract their attention.
But when Ash attracts the attention of the Summer King, a royal among the fairies, the rules no longer hold up.  She is pursued by him even as she tries to hold onto her normal life, including in particular her best friend, Seth. 

Marr has created an intriguing world and the four main characters—Ash, Seth, Keenan, and Donia—are compelling enough to keep the reader engaged. The Winter Queen is supposed to be the major threat of the novel but she seemed mostly trite and almost cliché.  I feel like her back story might have made her something more but, as it was, I just didn’t see her as a considerable threat because the reader is never really shown what she can do.  More camp than substance, I suppose.

I could have loved this book because Ash isn’t putting her entire life on hold in hopes of attracting the boy.  She doesn’t change herself to be more appealing.  She is who she is.  And Seth, although he is described as looking like your stereotypical “bad boy” is a good friend who cares about her very much. 

Where Marr nearly lost me is in Keenan.  He starts stalking Ash, which is precisely how she describes it.  In spite of this, she allows herself to go out on a date with him.  Ugh.  No.  This is not a message young readers should carry with them.  Absolutely not.  Anyone who is stalking should not be encouraged in any way. 

I almost gave up on the book at that point but I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t.  I wish the author could have found another way to move the story forward or had not made Keenan stalk Ash at all. I feel that Donia could have been used as an impetus or even the Winter Queen, perhaps making the latter more frightening and solidifying the idea that she and she alone was the real threat to Ash.

That said, I liked how the book ended, that although much of what Ash experiences is beyond her control she manages to take back some of her own.  I also liked that the girls in the novel who are also friends to Ash are sexually active and comfortable with their sexuality.  Ash is a bit too hung up on “protecting” her virginity for my taste but I can see why the author does this.  And at least Ash is unashamed of her sexual attraction.  She doesn’t resist temptation for the sake of some ideal; she does so because the temptation comes in the form of something she’s been warned against her entire life.

Will I continue reading the series? Yes.  I put in a request for the second book in the series which, thankfully, is available through my local public library.  I’m hoping that the four main characters are further developed and that we get more of a back story.  There’s clearly potential for more back story as allusions to connections are made in the first book.  And perhaps the Winter Queen will be fleshed out some more? I would like to solidify in my own mind what, exactly, makes her such a threat and not just a two-dimensional Disney-style villain.

So four out of five stars.  Very good.  Not quite excellent but I’ll be passing this book onto my daughter-in-law and not donating it back to the public library book sale.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sexing the Cherry Jeanette Winterson

I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson’s novels for so long I hardly remember the first one I read but I know that the first one I wanted to read was Sexing the Cherry.  But I could never find it.  Not at the public library.  Not at the bookstore.  Not at the used bookstores.  Not at library book sales.  Yes, I could have ordered it online or even on ebay but, for some reason, I never did.  I think I wanted to either receive it as a gift or stumble upon it.

And finally I did, at a used bookstore. 

In this, one of her earlier novels, is full of mythic characters, including fairy tale characters, set during the civil war in 17th century England, specifically in London where a larger than life woman adopts a foundling boy, Jordan, raising him to be both proud of his untraditional mother and question the patriarchy.  Exotic fruit and fairy tale characters also come into play, along with a time shift that hints at quantum physics.

To call this novel an example of magical realism is to oversimplify what Winterson accomplishes.  The first person narrative alternates between mother and son.  Their experiences complement one another and their voices overlap, the way familial voices often do.  This further blurs the lines between gender roles.  The Dog Woman mother of Jordan is assertive, even aggressive, and dominant in ways that men are typically defined by society while Jordan shows a nurturing empathy and compassion typically relegated to women. 

Towards the end of the novel takes a large step sideways while continuing to contemplate the themes that have been interwoven throughout.  Winterson, as always, trusts her readers to meet the novel on its own terms.  It’s not a simple narrative arch.  You’ll have to think and make the connections for yourself.  That works for some readers and not for others.  For me, this works very well.  I wish my public library would keep all of Winterson’s books on the shelves. Unfortunately, even when I request they purchase them, they have been out too long for the library to make the investment.  This means, I have to wait to maybe stumble upon them at some used book resource.  There’s another public library book sale in October.  I can’t wait to see what I find there this time.   

Friday, July 28, 2017

Fear of Dying by Erica Jong

There was a time when there was nowhere you could go without seeing a copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying on a bookshelf.  Feminists embraced it for its celebration of a woman’s sexuality.  Frankly, I’ve never read it but when I was offered a chance to read Fear of Dying I was intrigued.  In a telephone conversation, I even mentioned it to my mother who immediately grunted dismissively.  I figured it was because Jong is known for writing about sex, something my mother doesn’t especially enjoy.  I proceeded to read the book with some curiosity.

Chalk this one up to yet another beach read.  In some ways, this novel serves as a sequel to Jong’s previous bestseller although the protagonist is not Isadora Wing but her best friend Vanessa Wonderman who is fighting her age even as she is surrounded by death and loss.  She turns to the “zipless fuck” in spite of her supposedly being happily married.  And why wouldn’t she be happy?  Yes, her parents are slowly dying but they have lived long lives and age is simply not a state-of-mind.  Her husband, who loves her and with whom she still has a sexually active life, loves her without looking away from her flaws.  And bonus:  He’s wealthy!  Her only daughter is expecting a child.  It’s all there.  Every reason for her to be happy.

Which is why her selfish narcissism is all the more distasteful.  At no point did I sympathize with Vanessa, and I felt as though I should because I am old enough to appreciate many of the frustrations that come with aging.  The novel is described as searingly funny, but I found it overly hetero-normative and judgmental of sexuality.

How can a book from an author who is praised for her sexual liberation be so sexually regressive?  The men who respond to her online anonymous-sex search happen to be interested in “deviant” sexual practices making the men seem like perverts rather than sexually different from the protagonist.  Clearly, in the author’s mind, the only acceptable forms of sex are traditional but not necessarily monogamous. 

More distasteful to me is how banal Vanessa’s and even Isadora’s sexuality seem to be.  The novel is told in the first person and here I quote Vanessa:
Erection—how we all seek it!  The hard cock standing up and validating our existence.  Men think like this—straight men and gay men both.  And women too—at least when hunger drives us.  (227)
Wow.  Really?  I guess the author never noticed that women get erections too!  Oh, and I believe there’s a fairly large number of women who absolutely do not seek it so, no, Vanessa/Erica, we do not “all seek it.”  In fact, and this will clearly come as a shock to the author, there are some people who have no sexual interest in clit or cock or anything else.

Remember that grunt my mother gave?  I’m right there with her.  Ugh.  Nope.  Not recommending this novel.  Now that it’s read and reviewed, I shall happily rid myself of it. 

Best things about it:  It’s short and there are some good quotes sprinkled within. 

Oh, and there’s a HUGE spoiler for Collette’s Chéri and Last of Chéri so proceed with caution if you haven’t read them.  Better still, don’t bother reading this novel and read Collette instead.  Seriously. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

I’ve been a bit Tudor obsessed since I was a young girl.  And by young I mean 8 or 9 and by bit I mean a lot, really.  Whenever I need a Tudor fix, I always turn to Alison Weir.  I made the mistake of reading a highly popular novel about Anne Boleyn and hated it.    The author made Anne aggressively power hungry and went so far as to “confirm” the worst rumors about her.  And what her enemies said about her is blatantly hateful.  I enjoyed The Tudors, even though they didn’t explore the lovely early part of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and took liberties with facts.  All things considered, however, they could have easily made the story more sensational by letting each and every rumor fill the screen.

So glad the writers and producers didn’t go there.

I was fairly confident going into this novel.  Unlike most Tudor novelists, Alison Weir is a Tudor historian.  So rather than just knowing a few historical facts, Weir has dug deep into the documents.  She’s brave enough to change her opinion about previously held facts when more research suggests another interpretation because of new documents.   

Weir manages to make her biographies highly readable, knowing how to tell a story without sensationalizing reality.  Which is why Anne Boleyn:  A King’s Obsession works so well.  There is no compromising of facts.  Rumors about the Boleyn family are often overshadowed with sensationalized rumors.  Unfortunately, these rumors have found a home in too many contemporary novels so I’m grateful to Weir for not wasting this reader’s time.

This is not to suggest that she writes a romanticized version of the truth, either.  In this novel, Anne is not an innocent child manipulated by the greedy patriarchy.  Neither is she manipulating King Henry VIII to her overpowering will.  Weir follows a young Anne to the Netherlands and France where she witnesses the power men have over women.  Her experiences in these countries undergird the choices she makes when she returns to England. 

Every page of this novel breathes life into the characters, although most of the male characters are two-dimensional.  The real challenge, of course, is to keep the reader turning the page when the inevitable outcome is set in stone.  We know how Anne’s reign ends and yet the urge to keep reading is there.  I wanted to devour this book, and likely would have had I not been busy with other things.  Now I need to go back and read the first book in what will obviously be a six book series,  Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen.  It looks like the books will be coming out annually, in May, so next year I’ll be sure to jump into Jane Seymour’s story as soon as it is released.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

My mother gave me her copy of Still Alice by Lisa Genova and I avoided reading it for a while.  When I eventually started reading I found traces of her left behind.  A couple of bits of napkin used to mark moments in the book—one a memory trick the protagonist uses early on to help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and another where she’s thinking about her religious upbringing.  I also found traces of frosting caked in the crease between a couple of pages. 

For as long as I can remember, my mother has been afraid of dementia.  It doesn’t help that she is innately forgetful.  It’s hard for her to trust that her forgetfulness is not a sign of something more dire.  I am the opposite.  I look at my forgetfulness as natural, an inevitable result of my being less mindful than I could be.  And of course, my age and menopause. I wanted to read this book the first time I heard about it.  So very glad I did!

The titular Alice is a fifty year old linguistic professor working at Harvard when she begins to have forgetful moments but it isn’t until a more alarming incident causes her to take seriously her menopausal forgetfulness that she seeks out a medical opinion.  Told in the third person limited, the reader lives inside of Alice’s head as her memory slowly shrinks.   Because we are inside Alice’s mind through most of the novel, the harrowing effects of the disease are

While this is obviously a fictional account of one woman’s experience, the author researched the disease and its progression, shared her manuscript with an Alzheimer’s organization, and they approved of the story and how it presented the experience of having Alzheimer’s.  And the experience is frightening. Watching the progression of this disease through Alice is harrowing.  I often found myself reading through tears in my eyes.

As soon as I finished the book, I reached for the movie. I love Julianne Moore and trusted she could carry the weight of this role beautifully. Alec Baldwin cast as the husband worked as well because I didn’t especially like her husband and I don’t like Baldwin much at all. The movie is good and I can see why it received good reviews and why Moore, in particular, received the accolades of awards.  It is not, however, has emotionally exhausting as the book itself. 

A good movie. A better book. But isn’t that usually how these things go?

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