Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner

Why I chose it: Every few years, The New Yorker runs a piece about genre fiction that makes it sound much better than it is, so I'll go ahead and get hold of ONE of the books mentioned in the article just to remind myself how much I dislike 99% of it. Then I don't read any until the next article.

Podcasts: None

Brow: Low

What I thought: As interesting as the New Yorker made Jennifer Weiner's fiction sound, this book didn't prove it. There's nothing wrong with the book, and given that while I was reading it, I was trying to grade a massive number of student papers AND write a master's-level paper, it was certainly a relief not to have a challenging novel facing me at the end of the day. But I certainly won't pick up another pop fiction book until the next piece.

Should you read it? If you're already a fan of Jennifer Weiner, you probably already have. It's among the most-reviewed books on Goodreads. If like me you mostly read literary fiction but the New Yorker piece got you interested and you want to know if you should try it out with this book, you shouldn't. Well, unless you like nitpicking things like when a character is wearing trousers in one scene, but then in the very next scene, which is only an hour or so later and in the same place, she's suddenly in a skirt with no mention of changing clothes, then this book will be a goldmine for you.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Poems, by Emily Brontë

Why I read it: Western Canon

Podcasts: None

Brow: Middle

What I thought of it: Honestly, this is what I thought Byron's poetry would be like: romantic quests, flowers, love notes, occasional tales from the land of Gondal, which the Brontës made up to amuse themselves before they all died of tuberculosis. I'm sure at the time it was very meaningful, and it's made even more meaningful by the fact that the author died unmarried and childless at age 25. Unfortunately, it isn't my kind of poetry. My kind of poetry turns out to be what Byron really wrote.

But should you read it? If you like romantic poetry that's more about imagery than adventure, this is the poetry for you. Most of it isn't very difficult to understand or relate to. Just make sure you get a version that just presents the poems and doesn't try to analyse every slip of Emily Brontë's pen, unless you're a Brontë scholar.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Year That Changed the World, by Michael Meyer

Why I read it: Economist Review

Podcast: C.V. Starr Center, which you can find on iTunes

Brow: High, even higher if you've actually been to Berlin.

Summary: Meyer was Newsweek's Eastern Europe correspondent in the 80s and was a firsthand witness to the extraordinary events that led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and its most hated symbol, the Berlin wall. He walks us through each country's transition, from Poland's first free elections in 1981 to a blunder at a press conference by a communist party spokesperson in East Berlin in 1989 that led to the wall being opened that very night, with liberal sprinklings from Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, and Romania thrown in for good measure.

But should you read it? If you've kind of heard of this thing called communism but aren't really sure what it was or why some parts of Europe seem so much poorer than say, Sweden or France, this is a great book to walk you through what happened. It's also short enough that it won't take you very long to read it.  Although this book was published before the Arab Spring, another interesting reason to read it is parallel between the fates of the countries that broke free of the Iron Curtain and what is currently happening now in the Middle East. Some of the revolutions were relatively peaceful (Czechoslovakia, Germany, Tunisia); others somewhat messy (Romania, Egypt) and still others led to years of civil war (the Balkans, Syria). It will be interesting to see where everything ends up in another 40 years. If you're looking for an in-depth country-by-country analysis of the collapse of communism, this isn't your book.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Why I read it: Western Canon

Podcasts: CBC Ideas

Brow: Upper Middle, but only if you already know how to pronounce the title character's name. Middle if you had to wait until Julia Turner said it on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

Summary: Jim Burden arrives in Nebraska at his grandparents' prosperous farm following the death of his parents back in Virginia. On the train with him is a poor but educated family of Bohemians who have bought a farm down the road. Jim is assigned by his grandmother to teach the oldest daughter, who is a few years his elder, English. The two strike up a lifelong friendship that endures even after Jim moves to town, finishes high school, and goes off to college, but is held back from turning into a romance by the gulf of social class. Years later, Jim, who has never married, returns and visits Antonia.

But should you read it? If you're a fan of Little House on the Prairie and doomed romances, this is definitely the book for you. If you get angry when two characters so obviously well-suited to each other are kept apart by their families' and society's expectations, perhaps you should give up on media altogether. It's also quite short at just 250 pages, probably just enough to tide you over during a train journey from Virginia to Nebraska.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Insane City, by Dave Barry

Why I read it: If I had a religion, Dave Barry would be in the pantheon of gods, along with cats, free parking and Aperol Spritz cocktails.

Podcast: Fresh Air Weekend

Brow: I love Dave Barry, but that doesn't elevate his works above low brow.

Summary: A bunch of people and one orangutan end up accidentally going on a crime spree in South Florida.

But should you read it? The only reason I read Carl Hiaasen's work is because Dave Barry doesn't write enough books anymore. This was his first novel for adults in 11 years. Luckily, he is still just as funny despite the gap, assembling his motely crew in Miami with the clock ticking down on the main character's wedding, he sets off a chain of events that will eventually encompass a stoned billionaire, an obnoxious stripper, and a pizza restaurant owner getting a suitcase full of cash on the beach in the middle of the night. The only unfortunate thing is that the book is only 384 pages long. Clearly it's missing some zeros.

Pakistan: A Hard Country, by Anatol Lieven

Why I read it: Economist Review

Podcast: LSE Public Events

Brow: Upper middle, unless you're a Pakistani reading this in Pakistan... well, actually you'd still be upper middle brow to be reading this in Pakistan, since the literacy rate is only 56%.

Summary: It's basically everything you need to know about modern Pakistan, from how the society is ordered and governed to how each region functions both internally and in relation to the others.

But should you read it? I recognise that foreign affairs is not most people's cup of tea, and that Pakistan is very foreign to most people, which allows us to tell ourselves that it's somehow unimportant or uninteresting. But that doesn't mean it's true. In fact, Pakistan is of immense geopolitical and geostrategic importance, and the fact that many in the west try to dismiss it as a mere 'failed state' belies that importance. It also helps that this book is well-researched and full of fun tidbits, like the fact that Pakistan's feudal politicians now complain that they have to convince their vassals to vote for them, whereas once a bribe or even the threat of cancelling their tenancy were enough.

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferranted

Why I read it: After reading My Brilliant Friend, it is impossible not to.

Podcast: NPR Fresh Air

Brow: For now, high. But when Ferrante's works start really getting the attention they deserve, they will become middle brow.

Summary: The Story of a New Name begins at the moment My Brilliant friend ends: 16 year old Lila Cerruto has just wed her fiance Stefano and realised that he doesn't share any of the ideals she holds dear. She spends the rest of the book fighting to escape her husband and avoid pregnancy despite having the right to divorce or access to birth control, and without slipping back into the violent poverty of her working-class Neapolitan neighbourhood. Observing all of this is her best friend Elena, who is envious of her friend's seemingly luxurious and romantic life while she toils away at high school and university. The two are further driven apart by Nino, a boy Elena has secretly loved since they were children, but who appears to prefer Lila, wedding ring notwithstanding.

But should you read it? Yes, absolutely, if only for the descriptions of the minute changes a female friendship undergoes in response to every experience the actors have. It doesn't hurt that the fierce, stubborn, passionate Lila is one of the most searing characters in recent fiction. I kept putting off bed time just so I could read one more chapter of her adventures.