Monday, September 29, 2014

Completed: Cry, the Beloved Country

Dear Jenny,

As I mentioned in my status post (that I wrote back in JUNE!), I knew pretty much from the start that this book would be a downer, and I was correct. It is set in South Africa the year before apartheid came into being, so you know things are going to be f*cked from the start. Add to that a pretty depressing personal tale and... whee.

Ok! I deleted a few paragraphs here where I tried to tell the story right after I read this book and just got bogged down. It's convoluted and tragic -- some of the same sorts of "Weird-coincidence-results-in-crazy-tragedy" business that I also saw in Hunchback. (Aaaand... this may be the first time in history that someone has drawn a connection between Cry, the Beloved Country and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame...)

When I was in college, I was in a show called the South Africa Project and we did a lot of reading about apartheid, so I have some knowledge of it, but this book was set in the years leading up to it, which is an interesting (and kind of nerve-wracking) perspective -- it definitely adds a certain tension to the story (which is already pretty tense).

While I was reading this book, you sent me a link to this blog post, showing how almost every book about Africa gets the "acacia tree sunset treatment."

Second row, first book? Yup. That's Cry, the Beloved Country. My copy also has the acacia-tree-sunset treatment, as you can see at right.

What if every book set in the US got the same cover treatment? What would that look like? And eagle flying in front of the stars and bars with a gun and/or hamburger clutched in his talons?

One thing that I found of interest in this book -- things are falling apart in the rural areas, so the people are fleeing *to* the cities for salvation. Of course, that is the exact opposite of what is happening in many modern US cities, where people are fleeing to the suburbs to get away from the sh*t that's falling apart in the cities (hello, Detroit!)

I understand the reasons -- very different times, of course. Just particularly struck me on the heels of reading Detroit City is the Place to Be (yes, another one of my TBR books that I have not written about yet...)

Well, I feel like I kind of pooped out this "review."  It's another book that I wouldn't necessarily recommend, unless someone is really into reading a fictional story set in pre-apartheid South Africa. The writing style is very poetic, which can sometimes be lovely and sometimes feel like a slog, depending on one's mood.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that's the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing. Nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him if he gives too much. [80]
See what I mean? It's lovely and it's tragic.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Completed: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Dear Jenny,

First, a bit about my TBR progress (or lack thereof). Even though this is only my third post of the year, I have actually read eight of my books. This is the ninth month, sooo... reading-wise, I am *sort of* on track. (Ignoring the fact that the ninth month is nearly over... moving on!)

My problem with most of my books so far this year is that... I have soooo much to teeeellll yoooou. Heh. And so I need to make the time to get that all down (before I forget it all!) Or maybe now that so much time has passed, I will have forgotten what I read, so the writing will be easy ("I read this book. Done.") So this is all out of order, but The Hunchback of Notre-Dame* is pretty easy to talk about, so I'm doing it.

My mom bought this book for me when she was in Paris, and then she took a photo of herself holding it in front of Notre-Dame. That's pretty cute, so I committed to reading it. I've never been terribly interested in it, but I have always had a sort of vague notion of: "I... sort of know what that story is about... right?" Which is based on, I guess, "cultural literacy" -- some dude named Quasimodo who rings the bell at Notre-Dame and is in love with a chick named Esmerelda...?

But... when this image comes into my mind, I know there's probably more to the actual story than what we've gotten so far in in life (although I have never seen the Disney version, either.)

So I was somewhat prepared for it to be pretty dark (basically, the opposite of a Disney story) and... it was. It was also a little longer than I think it needed to be. Some have called this book a "Love letter to Paris" and I can see why -- there is a verrry extensive part of the book that is dedicated to describing Notre-Dame in great detail, as well as many, many other buildings all over Paris. I admit: I glazed over. The most interesting part of it was Hugo's condemnation of the changes that have been made to the various architecture -- he's basically pissed about a lot of the renovations/modernizations and his criticism is biting, well-written, and not-at-all veiled.

In discussing the changes to architecture around the city, he acknowledges that yes, time has a hand in any changes (ruination, decay, repair of said issues) but the egregious changes come from humans. About Notre-Dame, he writes: "Upon the face of this ancient queen of French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle, we constantly find a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior -- which we would willingly render thus: Time is blind, but man is stupid." [138]. This made me laugh out loud -- tell us how you really feel, Victor!

The only other book I've ever read by Hugo was Les Miserables and the person who recommended it to me said, "You can skip the 400 pages about the sewer systems of Paris... " It was good advice -- I skipped that. (There was also a 500 page detailed description of the war that I also skimmed... I was really in it for the love story.) I am grateful that Notre-Dame is about a third the total length of Les Mis, meaning that his digressions did not go on for nearly as long.

While I was reading the "I love you, Paris" part, I did think, "Could we just get to the story already?" but the story ends up being so convoluted that the reprieve into building description might have been a good thing, after all.

Overall, the story is tragic and well-told -- lots of confusion, unexpected reunions of "long-lost" relatives, convoluted situations where people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unrequited adoration. But it's also pretty weird -- a few times, I had a sort of "Wait... what now?" reaction to some of the business that Hugo was putting down. Aaaand... If this write-up was for an academic paper, I would have made a note to support that statement. But it's our personal reading blog, so I'll just say: "There was some weird sh*t in this book." (Almost... magical realism, I guess? But then it kind of gets explained away in the next chapter, so there's a sort of, "Just kidding" thing that happens a few times.)

Overall, this book was decent. Cleared up some of my "I think I know what this book is about" misconceptions, but a visit to Wikipedia could do the same thing. The writing is excellent but I'm not sure I would necessarily recommend it to anyone (unless they were super interested in Paris architecture in the 15th century. Then... go for it!)


PS -- I just realized this book was a carry-over from 2013. Go, me with the cleaning up! (Spoiler alert: 2014 could be the year that Don't Know Much About History gets played off the stage before it's done.)

* I hate the title of this book. I've had a couple of friends over the years with kyphosis and it makes me feel icky to use this out-dated term. The name of the book in the original French is Notre-Dame de Paris and I wish that we could just go with that here as well. /rant

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Completed: Solar by Ian McEwan


My friend Judy gave me this book, it was a "We're done with it, want it next?" sort of situation. I like free books, I've liked books by Ian McEwan, and of course I'd read a review of it. So why not?

I wish I would have done a little more investigating before putting it on my list. Because as soon as I opened it, I knew I was in trouble: the epipgraph in the front of the book is a quote from one of Updike's Rabbit books. I actually groaned out loud when I saw it.

Oh no. But having already abandoned one book this year, and being unsure about my ability to finish Postwar, I didn't think I could give up on this one. I decided to just read the damn thing despite my misgivings.

The main character, Michael Beard is a Nobel-prize winning physicist and an absolute and unrepentant dickbag. The book has 3 major sections, in 2000 as a loser coasting along on his Nobel win from at least a decade earlier. In this section, he witnesses the accidental death of someone, and rather than calling the cops, he decides to set up his wife's lover for the murder. Nice. In the second section, five years later, he has stolen all of the intellectual property of the dead man and is trying to make a business out of it, mostly through solar panels. He also finds out one of his girlfriends is pregnant. In the last section, he is about to get his whole solar array started when he is sued by a former co-worker who has proof he stole all the intellectual property.

Kelly. This book was so tedious. This character so self-absorbed. The themes so heavy handed---oh, unlikeable people can attempt to do good things for the world? Oh, the solar scientist is ignoring his own skin cancer? /rolls eyes. He treats every woman he meets with disdain and possessiveness. All his lovers and wives are one-sided and malleable, just a series of generous lovers willing to put up with his bullshit. There was a lot of science talk that I just skimmed through. As the book when on, he drinks and gets fatter, and I just kept hoping the thing would come to a sudden end with a massive heart attack.

Sadly, it was not to be.

Like all of McEwan's books, there was lovely writing and astute observations about the human condition. But mostly, I just wanted it to be over. And now it is.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Completed: Life with My Sister Madonna


I guess I don't have to say much about this one---I got it from you! This was the perfect, trashy book to end the summer with. AND, even more satisfying, I am now caught up with 8 books in August. Whew!

What is there to say about this little gem? I made a little list, but it's sort of more listicle than real review.

1) Christopher is obsessed with her money an portrays her as a total cheapskate, which seems sort of funny to me. This is particularly tough not only because she lacks generosity, but because she so grossly underpays him! In theory, I totally get that it's not her responsibility to support everyone who just happens to be related to her; but in reality, I guess I'd feel pretty upset if I had a sibling worth hundreds of millions of dollars and they weren't willing to help me. I am particularly sensitive to this because of my Mom's story, I guess. But still, even though I doubt it's all true, she just seems like a total ass about it.

2) Family photos were definitely the best. This freaky photo of Madonna at her First Communion....LOOKING JUST LIKE HERSELF! It's totally weird, right?

3) There were parts of this book that were just a little creepy to me. I don't care how embarrassed he was by it, the idea of a brother being his sister's dresser was just...bizarre and more than a little yucky. As were any and all scenes where he described how well they danced together, their being soul mates, etc.

4) Overall, I just felt sorry for him because his whole life is playing second fiddle to his megastar sister. He struck me as a little sad and pathetic. But I still enjoyed the gossipy nature of a lot of the book. I especially liked the parts about how faked Truth or Dare was...which doesn't surprise me at all. Mostly, though, it made me want to go back and watch that and other Madonna videos again.

5) I generally really dislike memoirs, as you know and so it was particularly irksome that Christopher & his ghost-writer wrote a *memoir* in *present tense*!!! This annoyed the fuck out of me pretty much the entire time I was reading it, and I dog-eared a few particularly cringe-worthy sentences that resulted from this choice: I last see Warren four years ago when we have lunch together...  Oh, really? You last see him? What the ever loving fuck? if hadn't have been for the Madonna angle, I totally would have quit this book out of sheer annoyance. Even if it's to make some sort of  literary point (he's always living his memories as if they are present!), it did not work and it bugged me throughout the entire book. In fact, it bugged me more than any other stylistic choice I've seen authors make, up to and including, the dreaded lack of quotation marks. So, that's saying something, right? No one  reads this book for the lovely prose, I get it... But it was still ~painful~ to read.

I know that's a super brief review, but it's just a fluffy little number, as you know.

PS. Do you want this book back, or should I send it on into the universe?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Completed: The Plot Against America


It feels really good to be getting back on track---especially before school gears up again in a week. I'm definitely hitting that Madonna book next! You've told me it will be fast and fun, and I'd love to be at 8 before Labor Day.

I just finished The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. I've had this book for a long time---at least 5 or 6 years is my guess, maybe more. I don't remember anything specific that made me buy it, but my guess is that I just read a good review of it. It just sounds like the kind of book I'd like: speculative historical fiction. In this novel, Roth creates a different version of the history of WW2. FDR loses in the election for his third term to Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh is a famous pilot, of course, but I guess he was also a Nazi sympathizer. He cashes in on his celebrity and becomes President after swearing to keep American neutral during the War. After his election, he signs a pact with Japan and Germany to stay out of Europe---meaning there is no Pearl Harbor to drag the US into WW2.

Against this somewhat creepy revisionist history, Roth tells the story of...the Roth family of Newark, New Jersey, and 9 year old Philip Roth is the narrator. In other words, the author is the narrator as a child, imagining how his life would have been different if a fascist had come into the White House at exactly the wrong moment. For example, Jews *in America* are subject to special laws and it becomes clear that Lindbergh intends to round up America's Jews and put them in internment camps, there are policies for Jewish resettlement, etc. In order to fight Hitler, young Jewish men (Philip's cousin Alvin is one of them) go off to Canada to fight.

I liked this book. Philip's family is full of interesting characters---his Mother longs to leave for Canada, seeing America is no longer their country. His Father clings to the idea that they will always belong and to leave is rash. Philip's brother Sandy comes to believe his parents are being foolish. The author brilliantly shows  tenor of their family life become confused, then threatened, then terror-filled as events spiral out of control.

More interesting is to see how people change and morph in a pressure cooker. Philip's Mother seems meek and not at all interesting in the beginning, but as time passes, Philip sees that she is the strongest member of his family. In one brilliant scene near the end, she marshals everything she knows in order to save a neighborhood boy. On the other hand, his father shows himself to be a good man with flaws, and certainly more stubborn than insightful. Again, near the end, there's a fascinating scene where his Father has a violent fist-fight with Alvin, the cousin back from Canada. Philip's description of the fight begins with it's aftermath, and a long description of the wreckage not only in their bodies, but also in their home. Only after is there a brief explanation of what started the fight. It was a brilliant scene---how often something small becomes something too big, so much so that the aftermath is more damaging than what started it. Philip understands it is symbolic of political forces winning in their effort to destroy and destabilize Jewish life itself, he observes, "The South Boston riots, the Detroit riots, the Louisville assassination, the Cincinnati firebombing, the mayhem in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Akron, Youngstown, Peoria, Scranton, and Syracuse...and now this: in an ordinary family living room--the anti-Semites were about to be abetted in their exhilarating solution to America's worst problem by our taking up the cudgels and hysterically destroying ourselves" (295). Kelly, it was hard to read these passages without thinking of Ferguson. This small scene perfectly describes how people put under immense pressure sometimes explode--with fury and an impotent and crushing sense of disappointment.

Philip is also an interesting character. As political events become more dangerous, he begins to take matters into his own hands to try to save himself and his family. At one point, he visits his aunt, recently estranged from the family. He says of her, "Never in my life had I so harshly judged any adult...nor had I understood till then how the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others" (213). We understand in this moment that Philip is becoming an adult in the sense that he is starting to judge and evaluate by himself rather than parroting what adults tell him. But this is a double-edged sword, because by the end of this scene, Philip himself has foolishly set another family on a different and dangerous path. His observation is true of both his aunt and of himself.

It's interesting to consider that a work of speculative history has 2 choices---allow your novel to continue as is, or bump it back into the lane of historical reality. Roth takes the latter path, and has FDR returning to the presidency, engaging in the war, and the standard course of history resumes. However, that leaves little for Roth to do except wrap it up and leave the family to cope with their devastating losses and the knowledge of the harms done to others in an effort to protect themselves. I wouldn't say it's a bad ending, but it sure is abrupt. I actually turned the page looking for the next chapter! After thinking about it a little, I think it's probably a good thing---don't have a great plan for what to do when history returns to normal? Then just end the thing!

How are you doing? Making any progress with the reporting out?

PS I did find out that his book won The Sidewise Award for Alternate History. Who knew such a thing existed? I'm going to have to check that out. I might like more books like this one.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Completed: The Widow's War


To no one's surprise, I'm a bit stalled out on Postwar. I did listen to the first 7 or 8 hours of the audiobook, which took me up to Chapter 6. It's actually stunning to realize just how long it takes to read things out loud! But now that the commuting to Evanston has stopped, so has my audiobook listening. I certainly intend to read the back 2/3 of the book, but it won't be all that fast.

In a moment of panic, then, I thought maybe I ought to start reading some novels. I have two more weeks before I start back to work, and the fall quarter at Northwestern doesn't start until September 23rd.  There's no reason I can't knock out a couple of TBR books before then!

My Mom actually gave me this book, The Widow's War by Sally Gunning. Here's the weird part, she was telling me about it, and I was saying, "I feel like maybe I've already read that book, Mom." But it turns out that I had read the sequel, Bound. 

Both of Sally Gunning's novels are set in a small whaling town in Massachusetts (a state I still need help spelling, by the way) in the 1760s. In both novels, she uses her characters to explore the state of women in pre-Revolutionary society. The Widow's War begins when 39 year old Lyddie is told that her husband has drowned off of his whaling ship. Her husband's will is standard for the time, leaving her the "standard widow's third" which means their property goes to her nearest male relative (her despised son-in-law) who is charged with taking care of her financially. He can either sell or rent the house, leaving her with either a third of the property to use or a third of the interest of the sale, along with any personal belongings she brought into the marriage.

The story is the one of Lyddie's life in that first year after her husband's death. She decides to strike out on her own and live in 1/3 of the house rather than live with her daughter and son-in-law.  The story tells of her struggles to support herself, of how the town gossips about her and ostracizes her for her choices, etc.

It's a good book and a fast read. The thing that was weird about it (for me) is that I had read the sequel and so I sort of knew how things would turn out for her, so it did take some of the drama out of the "will she make it on her own" plot line. I liked this one better than it's sequel, which explores the harrowing life of an indentured servant. I think the question I always have in historical fiction is the question of accuracy: how likely was it that a 1760s woman would fight for property rights and her wish to live on her own? She knows how to take care of herself because her husband was gone for months at a time on whaling expeditions, but I'm still left wondering about her mindset. I'm absolutely sure that Sally Gunning did an amazing amount of research, and the book is full of fascinating details....but....I'm still left wondering.

Either way, I enjoyed it. And I definitely enjoyed knocking another book off my list.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jenny's next book: Postwar


It has been so long since I've written a real preview post, that I can't quite remember out naming protocol for it. Sorry about the awkward title of this post.

This is sort of a weird choice for my next book. After all, I'm taking 3 classes this quarter, and the summer quarter is short---only 6 weeks. You'd think I'd tee up the Madonna book, but I've picked this super long World War II book (next year, I pledge to make my TBR war book *not* about WW2!) by Tony Judt. It's called Post War: A History of Europe since 1945. 

I originally read about this book at the site of my favorite blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic. Basically, this book is right in my wheelhouse. I've read a lot of books about Europe during the war, and I read a book about Japan after the war, but not as much about Europe after the war.

Now, you might be wondering why on Earth I would tackle this behemoth of a book right now. The actual number of pages in the book is north of 900, but of course there's the huge number of endnotes. So what was am I thinking? I am thinking I had to burn an audible credit, so I looked to see which of my TBR books was available--and, voila! Postwar, weighing in at a massive 45 hours long. Is that normal?! It seems terrifically long, but then again, I'll be driving back and forth to Evanston three times a week, which is at least 45 minutes each way from my house. This is a lot of listening time!

I listened to the first 45 minutes today in the car. It's a little weird to listen to *history* rather than *a story*, and certainly I think there are going to be some problems when it comes to all of the names in other languages, etc. However, I am willing to give it a shot. I think I might have to review the text sometimes when I get home, but overall, I feel pretty hopeful about this as a way of tackling the text.

Speaking of which, I finally finished listening to the Veronica Mars book! I liked it. I think the best part of the book, honestly, was listening to Kristen Bell say "fuck" so many times. Hahah. I hope there's another one!

How are things going on your end?