Monday, 23 December 2013

The Family Moskat, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Why I read it: Western Canon, A Lifetime's Reading

Podcasts: None

Brow: Sprawling family tragedies can only rate as middle brow, even if they're about Jews in Warsaw at the beginning of the 20th century and even if they're written in Yiddish.

Summary: The story of the Moskats, a wealthy Jewish family in Warsaw from just before World War I to moments before the fall of Warsaw in 1939. At the centre is the forbidden romance between Asa Heshel Bannet, a poor student from the countryside and the beautiful Hadassah Moskat, granddaughter of family patriarch Meshulam Moskat, but the book has dozens of major and minor characters, each with his or her own plot, which may or may not intersect with what the other characters are up to.

What I liked about it: Despite the tragedy and the doomed romance, some parts of the book are hilarious, like when a Hassidic bumpkin comes to the city in search of his wayward wife who longs for modernity and refuses to stay in her house because she lacks a mezuzah. When she offers to go out and buy one, he again refuses, because it needs to be inspected by a rabbi in case it contains spelling errors. In just a few sentences, you understand fully why the wife wanted out. A lot of the minor characters are equally interesting, and I found myself wishing I could spend more time with say, Abram Shapiro, a womanizer who is married to one of the Moskat daughters and who is the character who seems most alive, or Leah Moskat Berman, who marries the family's thieving bailiff and moves to America, rather than the central romantic triangle, which quickly becomes tedious.

What I didn't like about it: Asa Heshel Bannet must be one of the most infuriating characters in literature. First, he falls in love with Hadassah, one of the Moskat granddaughters, but her grandfather Meshulam insists she has to marry a rich man, because forcing someone to marry against her will always works out so well. So Asa goes off to Switzerland, where he is followed by Meshulam's new stepdaughter Adele. They get married but then on their first visit back to Poland, Asa runs off to fuck Hadassah and get drafted in to the Polish army for World War I. He comes back after the war and is finally able to divorce Adele and marry Hadassah, only to leave his new wife for a gentile communist. Oh, and he never has a job through any of this, but he has tons of women throwing themselves at him all the same. Of course even more infuriating than Asa is Hadassah, who spends most of the book hiding in various rooms feeling sick or depressed or waiting for Asa to come back.

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, by Chris van Allsburg

Why I read it: New Yorker review

Podcasts: Alas, no.

Brow: If you're a child, this is pretty high-brow stuff, but if like me you loved the original book of drawings with captions and you picked this up out of nostalgia, it's middle brow.

Summary: Back in the 80s, Chris van Allsburg released a book of illustrations and captions that he claimed had been left at a publisher's office by a man identifying himself as Harris Burdick. Burdick promised to return the following day with stories to go along with the drawings, but never came back. Children and adults have been filling in the blanks with their own stories ever since. This is a collection by famous adult writers.

What I liked about it: I was obsessed with the original book of drawings as a kid and used it as my inspiration for nearly every creative writing project I had in school. Of course, these stories are not the same as the ones I would have written, but still, some of them have their own merits.

What I didn't like about it: Honestly, there's nothing not to like about it. If you still like whimsy and value creativity, buy one of the books and leave it on the shelf for visitors to discover and have their imaginations tickled by.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Poems, by Lord Byron

Why I read it: Western Canon

Podcasts: In Our Time

Brow: If you read this as a teenage girl in 1816, when Byron was the equivalent of the Beatles, well, you'd still be high-brow because yay! You beat the odds by a wide margin.

Summary: It's all of Byron's published poems except for Don Juan.

What I liked about it: I honestly thought when I borrowed this book from the library that all of his poems were like To M.S.G.: When'er I dream of that pure breast, / How could I dwell upon its snows! / Yet is the daring wish repress'd ,/ For that - would banish its repose. / A glance from thy soul-searching eye, / Can raise with hope, depress with fear / Yet I conceal my love - and why? / I would not force a painful tear.' All forbidden romance and tragic death at 24 from tuberculosis that has got teenage girls worked into a lather for centuries. But actually, a lot of his poetry is about adventure stories, like Lara or Childe Harold's Pilgrimage or tragic narrative like Beppo. It turns out a lot of the hype that got the ladies worked up was just an early understanding of how publicity works.

I think my favourite of his works is Cain, in which the first murderer expresses his resentment at being kicked out of the Garden of Eden and made mortal for his parents' mistake:
And this is Life! Toil! And wherefore should I toil? - because my father could not keep his place in Eden. What had I done in this? I was unborn: I sought not to be born; nor love the state to which that birth has brought me.
He then goes on to meet Satan and kill his brother and get banished to the Land of Nod.

What I didn't like about it:  Byron didn't write enough limericks. Here's the one example in the entire book: John Adams lies here, of the parish of Southwell / A carrier who carried his can to mouth well; / He carried so much and he carried so fast, / He could carry no more - so was carried at last; / For the liquor he drank, being too much for one / He could not carry off - so no he's carri-on. Limericks forever!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Beyond Belief, by Jenna Miscavige Hill

Why I read it: Salon excerpt

Podcast: Freethought Radio

Brow: 'I escaped from a cult' autobiographies cannot possibly be rated higher than lower middle brow.

Summary: Jenna Miscavige Hill was born into Scientology. Her parents were so dedicated, they became members of Sea Org, the closest thing the cult has to a clergy. For the first few years of her life, they all lived together, but when she was 4, she was sent to be raised communally on a ranch in Hemet, California. When she was 7, she joined the Sea Org herself, signing a billion-year contract. She continued to be a devoted member for the rest of her childhood and adolescence, even though she was frequently punished for doing such things as trying to call her parents, who she only saw a few times a year, and forming an extremely tame relationship with a boy when she was 16. It later turned out that most of the punishment was actually for her parents, who left the church around that time. When she was 18, she fell in love with her future husband, also a member of Sea Org. But when her faith finally started to wane, the cult tried to keep him, thus necessitating the harrowing escape of the subtitle.

What I liked about it: I don't know what it is that draws me to Scientology books - this is the second I've read this year, after Lawrence Wright's Going Clear - the celebrities, the public weirdness of those celebrities, the weirdness in general, but for some reason I can't seem to get enough of them. This book is interesting because it wasn't written by or about a celebrity, unlike Wright's book. Rather, Miscavige Hill was an ordinary member and in fact having the same name as her uncle, cult leader David Miscavige, turned out to cause her more trouble. So we learn a lot about what ordinary life is like for a member of the Sea Org, which turns out to be a lot of manual labour, plus a lot of looking words up in the dictionary, which is how L. Ron Hubbard thought we clear ourselves of bad experiences in past lives so we can move up through various levels and become masters of the universe. If you think about it, it makes about as much sense as the religion that's all about a deity who has a son with a virgin and then that son goes on to get himself hung up on a cross but promises to come back some day and destroy the world.

What I didn't like about it: Although Miscavige Hill has been out of Scientology for a few years now, she hasn't quite shaken the habit of peppering her writing with Scientology jargon and then failing to explain it. So unless you're really good at remembering the difference between EPF and RPF or Flag Base versus Int Base, be prepared to spend a lot of time flipping to the back to remind yourself what CMO is.

EPF = Estates Project Force: basic training for new members of Sea Org, only with a lot more manual labour and a lot less target practice.
RPF = Rehabilitation Project Force: punishment for Sea Org members, often lasting years
Flag Base = International Spiritual Headquarters in Clearwater, Florida
Int Bast = formerly Gold Base, aka The Ranch, in Hemet, California, also where members in RPF are thought to be kept
CMO = Commodore's Messenger Unit: Formerly the core of L. Ron Hubbard's inner circle, now David Miscavige's inner circle.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne

Why I read it: No idea. Possibly this Telegraph review

Podcasts: None

Brow: A biography of Evelyn Waugh would be middle brow. A biography that focuses on his homosexual exploits at Oxford in the 1920s and how it informed his most famous work is pretty low brow. So we'll split this one down the middle and call it lower-middle brow.

Summary: This is an unusual take on the literary biography. Rather than focus on the author, Paula Byrne makes the family and house that inspired Brideshead Revisited as her subject.

When Evelyn Waugh went up to Oxford in the 1920s, he fell in with a bunch of gay (in both senses of the word) young aristocrats who liked nothing better than to get drunk off their asses and smash up the town, much like David Cameron in the mid-80s. Among them was Hugh Lygon, who had grown up in the beautiful Madresfield Court with his six siblings. His father was in exile for homosexual acts, which were illegal in Britain at the time. Waugh, a middle class boy from London, fell in love with the entire family, its estate, and most particularly, the chapel, all of which found its way into his writing.

What I liked about it: Brideshead Revisted is a great book, even if it does have a weird Catholic conversion ending, and it was fun to find out who inspired the loveable drunk Sebastian Flyte and his even more loveable teddy bear Aloysius, his cold, disapproving mummy, and his beautiful chapel that he hates so much.

What I didn't like about it: Unfortunately, for some reason I've chosen a lot of biographies and autobiographies recently, and I seem to have life-story fatigue. My next few non-fiction books are going to be about science or history.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Cette Voix, Robert Pinget

Pourquoi je l'ai lu: Canon occidental

Baladodiffusions: Aucun

Brow: As high as it gets, even if you read it in translation.

Résumé: L'histoire de mort et de désintégration dans un village où rien ne disparaît ou devient perdu.

Ce que j'ai aimé: Franchement, quand j'ai emprunté ce livre de la bibliothèque, je cherchais un livre français qui ne demanderait beaucoup de moi: un roman simple avec un récit qui serait direct et linéaire. De plus, je l'ai lu sporadiquement pendant plus d'un mois, pas le moyen idéal.

Ce que je n'ai pas aimé: Je pense que n'aime pas des livres abstraits, même s'ils me font resembler comme une intellectuelle. Le réalisme socialiste pour moi.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford

Why I read it: Salon Review

Podcasts: New Books in History

Brow: Any book with the fictional inner voice of Nikita Khrushchev automatically rates as upper-middle brow.

Summary: Vignettes of everyday life in the Soviet Union from the 1950s to the 1970s, when it looked like the communist economy might actually overtake the capitalist west in terms of productivity and human development. Some of the characters are fictional, others are real.

What I liked about it: Everything. This is the first time in living memory that I read the footnotes at the end of every chapter in a book.

There is no linear narrative in this book. Each chapter is a portrait of some aspect of Soviet life in the 1950s through the 1970s, a time of optimism and social mobility for the young and educated, thanks to advances in science and technology, which were at least in part real. Some of the characters and incidents are real, some are lightly fictionalised versions of real events. All are great. To give one example, we'll take the case of Marina, who is given two chapters, the first when she's an ambitious student, and the second when she's a somewhat disillusioned married woman expecting her first child. When she goes into labour, she's taken to Moscow's best maternity hospital, where she's given an enema and forced to walk up the stairs to a ward with 7 other women struggling to deliver their babies, all without anaesthetic, because the Soviets told women that labour pains were a capitalist plot and that the secret to overcoming them was to not think about them. This happens as her contractions are 2 minutes apart. Every chapter is as filled with fun facts about everyday life in the time of Red Plenty as this one, even down to the excellent footnotes.

What I didn't like about it: There are some times when the chapter puts us inside the head of an obscure (to westerners, at least) Soviet official or scientist and you have to go back to the extensive list of characters at the beginning of the book to look that person up, which was not easy to do considering I read the digital edition on my phone, which is not the smartest of smartphones.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Becoming Sister Wives, by Kody, Meri, Jenelle, Christine and Robyn Brown

Why I read it: The show is one of my many guilty pleasures.

Podcasts: Life on the Swingset, which I'm sure the Browns would be thrilled about.

Brow: It's an autobiography by the stars of a reality show on TLC. This is about as low brow as it gets.

Summary: Kody Brown and his 4 wives trace their story from the realisation that they believed in polygamy (Kody and Jenelle were not raised in polygamy), to meeting each other, forming a family, and becoming famous on TLC. Along the way, they trace their many ups and downs, as always without giving away too many details.

What I liked about it: The Browns are somewhat more open about their relationships in the book than they are on the show. For instance, Meri admits that her relationship with Christine 'has no depth' and that she basically doesn't talk to Jenelle except for work. She doesn't even like Robyn that much, for all that she claims she saw her as a potential sister wife from day one. They also open up about their past: Meri and Jenelle's relationship was so bad that Jenelle lived 30 miles away for several years, and Meri and Christine had an enormous fight that their relationship has never recovered from. Christine is not over her bitterness at Kody for picking out Robyn's wedding dress after the ladies had all gone shopping together as a sort of bonding exercise. When Jenelle and Kody first got married, Meri and Kody kept on as if they were a monogamous couple, cuddling on the couch while Jenelle sat in a separate chair. Actually, at no point do they make plural marriage sound attractive, or show that they've mastered the thing that polygamy is supposed to teach them: suppressing one's jealousy.

What I didn't like about it: Just as in the TV show, the Browns are in total control of their message. While they say they agreed to do the programme so that people would see that polygamous families are just like yours and mine except they have more wives and more children, they never actually open up about their religion or how they actually support themselves. They take great pains to point out what's good in their religion - they ban child marriage, for example, even though at one point Kody and Meri wanted to add a 17 year old wife - but they never tell us what happens to the surplus boys in their community. Looking at the proportions of the Brown family children - they have 7 boys and 10 girls - they reproduce with the same statistics as anyone else, and clearly if both Kody and Jenelle are converts, women are not joining the religion at twice the numbers of men, so exactly how each man can have 2 or more wives without pushing at least half the boys out is unclear. And saying, 'Well, not all of them will want to be polygamous,' doesn't cut it, because again, I don't think the boys drop out at twice the rate the girls do unless it's made quite clear to them that they have no hope of getting married if they stay in the religion. In addition, the closest the Browns ever come to talking about their financial situation is to say that 'money was tight' quite a bit. They never mention that they have all declared bankruptcy or that Christine and Robyn were on food stamps as single mothers, despite their religion saying that they don't take advantage of the welfare system.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

Why I read it: After binge-watching the Netflix series, I needed MORE, so I binge-read the book.

Podcasts: There are many, but Fresh Air is always good.

Brow: I cannot say that a prison memoir is anything more than middle brow.

Summary: When she was 24, Piper Kerman carried some drug money to Belgium for a cartel her then-girlfriend was a member of. When the authorities finally caught up to the cartel 5 long years later, the now-ex girlfriend named Kerman as a member in exchange for a reduced sentence. Kerman was sentenced to a year in Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut. Now free, she wrote a memoir of her time there.

What I liked about it: Kerman is an excellent writer who can paint vivid portraits in just a few lines. She turns her sharp critique on the entire prison system: the justice system that locks up millions of people for years for non-violent drug offenses at $30 000 a pop, the prisons that do nothing to actually rehabilitate or educate people who will, for the most part, be back on the streets with even fewer resources than when they left and the staff, who are incompetent at best and sociopaths at worst. She also richly describes her fellow prisoners, who are mostly poor and minorities, but gives them dignity nonetheless. Finally, she describes the mind-numbing boredom occasionally punctuated by pointless routines as she wastes an entire year of her life behind bars.

What I didn't like about it: As this Salon article points out, both the show and the book assume that every single person Kerman meets in prison is guilty of whatever crime she was accused of. Kerman does acknowledge that charges and sentences are largely at the discretion of the prosecutor, but nowhere does she point out that some, probably a lot, of her fellow inmates were quite possibly innocent, but couldn't afford lawyers who could take them to trial and prove it.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan

Why I read it: Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981

Podcasts: None

Brow: At first, I thought Ian McEwan's novels were all upper middle brow due to his masterful sentence structures. But then as I read more and more of them, I realised he hit his peak from about 1992 with Black Dogs, had a good run until 2007's On Chesil Beach, and then lost it again. So anything from outside that time frame is actually low brow, including this.

Summary: Mary and Colin are on holiday in southern Europe. One evening, trying to find a restaurant, they get lost and meet a mysterious stranger called Robert. Robert takes them to a restaurant and spends the whole night talking to them. They meet him again the next day and he takes them home to his invalid wife Caroline. Colin and Mary are put off by the couple and avoid them for several days, but are eventually drawn back to their house for the book's climax and denouement.

What I liked about it: As I said, Ian McEwan is the master of description and atmosphere. He's also marvelous at building a suspenseful story out of one tiny incident or gesture. He has the sentences down in this book, but unfortunately it isn't enough to make it into one of his better works.

What I didn't like about it: I have to learn not to read early McEwan, when all of his books and stories are about weird sexual proclivities that end badly for the characters. When he does it well, his writing is moving, because we come to care about his characters. Alas, in this book, by the time of the climax, I didn't care enough about the characters to have any emotional reaction. Oddly, neither did the characters themselves, which was even more off-putting. In fact, I'm so put off that I'm considering not even reading his new book.

Florence Nightingale, by Mark Bostridge

Why I read it: Atlantic Review

Podcasts: Blackwell Online Podcasts

Brow: If you're a nursing student, you're probably reading this for a course, which makes it middle brow. If you're reading it out of pure interest, it's upper middle brow.

Summary: The life and times of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing and reformer of the British healthcare system. In exacting detail.

What I liked about it: Of course I had heard of Florence Nightingale, and even went to the museum at St Thomas' hospital the last time I was in London, but I didn't know much about her besides the whole Crimea debacle. For example, I didn't know that her family had made it extremely hard for her to pursue her profession or reforms, believing that her place was at home or with a husband and children. In fact, she moved out on her own because she was so tired of her mother and sister pestering her to sit home and take tea with them. Some of the problems she encounters are highly entertaining as well, for example public resistance to the fact that some of her first group of nurses were Catholic nuns, which caused outcry in the UK that they would try to convert troops. In another episode, one of her rivals suggests that nurses should only be upper middle class ladies, so they shouldn't get a salary, as duty is all the recompense they need. And of course the constant struggle to find nurses who could stay sober for one damned shift. It actually makes you pretty grateful that FN was able to accomplish what she did.

What I didn't like about it: Her collected correspondence is 17 volumes, and it feels like Bostridge is trying to quote each and every letter she ever wrote. Also, especially at the beginning the book feels less like a biography and more like a hagiography. He does get better towards the end and even admits that Ms Nightingale might have had some character flaws and demanded a bit too much of some of her supporters.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Dans le labyrinthe, Alain Robbe-Grillet

Pourquoi je l'ai lu: Canon occidentale

Baladodiffusions: Aucun

Brow: Pretty sure that absurdist literature ticks all the boxes for high brow

Résumé: Après une bataille que son unité militaire a perdu, un soldat entre dans une grande ville pour livrer un paquet pour un camarade mort. Malade, connaissant que l'ennemi va invahir à n'importe quel moment, le soldat se trouve dans un labyrinthe en essayant d'achever sa mission.

Ce que j'ai aimé: Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais j'adore la littérature absurde, comme Ionesco, Dali et Robbe-Grillet. Donc j'ai bien aimé ce livre, où le protagoniste se trouve dans une situation sans objet, et il fait des actions sans signification.

Ce que je n'ai pas aimé: Bien que je préfère la fiction absurdiste, il est aussi vrai que j'aime les histoires où on a un peu de sens de la vie interne d'un personage. Mais ici, on a simplement une description de ses actions, dans les moindres détails.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

What's Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies

Why I chose it: 1986 Booker Prize Nominee

Podcasts: None

Brow: Middle brow if you're Canadian, because come on, you can't spend your whole life watching hockey and this is the other half of your cultural heritage; high brow if you are anything else.

Summary: The life and times of Francis Cornish, who died in the first book of the trilogy and left his considerable art collection for his friends to fight over. Francis was born in the early 20th century in a small town in Ontario and spends his childhood ignored by his parents and bullied by his classmates. As a teen, he moves to Toronto to go to school and eventually ends up in the UK, where he is drafted into the secret service. In the run up to WWII, he's sent to Germany in an elaborate art forgery/spy scheme. He continues his career in the secret service until his mentor dies and leaves him a considerable fortune, at which point he returns to Canada to become a patron of the arts.

What I liked about it: Davies appears to have learned between the first and the second parts of his trilogy that having multiple narrators is confusing and annoying, so he limits himself here to using it during his framing device, which is a conversation between the angel who is deciding the fate of Cornish's soul and the daimon that has been shaping him into a great man throughout his life. As a result, the story is pretty good.

What I didn't like about it: As usual with Robertson Davies, there is nothing to dislike about this book.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri

Why I chose it: Western Canon, numerous other book lists

Podcasts: Sidney Greats Lecture Series, but there are tons of others, especially if you focus only on the Inferno.

Brow: The highest of high. The only way you could get higher-brow than this is if you read it in 14th-century Tuscan.

Summary: Dante gets lost in the woods the night before Good Friday. While he's wandering, he's assailed by beasts and unable to find the trail back to Florence. Eventually he's rescued by the poet Virgil, who takes him through the underworld, starting at the top, where people who didn't do anything in life are stuck in hell's waiting room, to the very bottom, where Satan is torturing Judas Iscariot. Along the way, he happens to notice quite a few of his and his clan's enemies also being punished for their various transgressions. After climbing down Satan's fur, our heroes emerge in Purgatory, which the Catholic church had to invent so that little babies who never had a chance to be baptised wouldn't be roasting alive in hellfire and brimstone for all eternity. Here he finds excommunicated people and those who committed the seven deadly sins, a surprising number of whom are still his enemies. Finally, he's handed over to his ex, Beatrice, who died young. She escorts him into heaven, where he finds exemplars of the seven virtues, oddly including many of his friends. At the very end, he sees god and finally works out how Jesus can be human and divine, and learns to align his soul with god's love. Then on the Wednesday after Easter he gets sent back to earth to write his poem.

What I liked about it: The Inferno is fun, with lots of imagery of the punishments various sinners, including a pope who was involved in an incident in which various nobles couldn't decide who the next pope should be and ended up appointing three, each of whom immediately excommunicated the others. In the Inferno, he's face-down in a hole with his feet being burnt. But just like the bible, it's much more fun to dream up tortures for people than it is to think about how awesome paradise would be. Also, after a few cantos of torture, you've kind of got it. It's hard to imagine anyone who isn't a serious book nerd or a literary historian getting much pleasure out of Purgatory or Paradiso.

What I didn't like about it: I had been led to believe that this is one of THE great works of western literature and if you're serious about reading, you must put this on your list. As a consequence, I expected it to be good, like Faust. Instead, it's a mostly boring list of what happens to Dante's friends and enemies in the afterlife. Unless you're up to date about 14th century Florentine politics or you have a superhuman ability to remember who is a Guelph and who is a Ghibelline and which one Dante is, it's very hard to see why anyone would be interested in vast sections of this book.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Why I read it: Possibly this Slate article

Podcasts: None

Brow: If you are a woman, educating yourself about your menses is a very middle-brow thing to do. If you're a man and you read this, it's automatically upper-middle brow, raised to high brow if you peruse any part of it in public.

Summary: Every month, most non-pregnant women between the ages of about 12 and 45 bleed for 5-7 days. This has been the situation for at least the past 100 000 years and we still haven't learned to deal with it as a culture.

What I liked about it: I can't really say I liked the history of sanitary products, which was basically non-existent until the late 19th century and inadequate until about the 1960s, but it did give me yet another reason to be eternally grateful for being born in the late 20th century, where we have contraceptive devices that mean you never have to have a period you don't want and tampons for women who haven't jumped on the bandwagon. I'm only sorry I'll most likely miss the era when women who want to have a baby will be able to order one from a touch menu and won't have to deal with the messy stupidity that 'means you're a woman' every month. It was also fun to read the personal anecdotes from women about their first periods and about when they realised they were in menopause.

What I didn't like about it: Unfortunately, this book does not help fill my nerdiness quotient very well. I already knew most of the facts: why women menstruate, how they deal with it, why the period you get on birth control pills isn't really a period, ways of dealing with the side-effects, whether those side effects are real or cultural constructs, and so on. What I was really hoping for was more of the gruesome details of  pre-modern sanitary solutions (rubber underskirts, because women wearing underpants was sinful), or at least more personal experience stories.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The East, the West and Sex, by Richard Bernstein

Why I read it: Slate Review

Podcasts: None

Brow: It's the history of sex tourism. Very low brow, even if you put a Japanese print on the cover.

Summary: When the first Portuguese traders went abroad in search of spices, they immediately started sending letters home reading, 'Dude, the chicks here are craaazy!' I may be paraphrasing, but that's basically what happened, and is still happening today. Men from the west (which Bernstein defines as Europe and North America) go east (which he defines as everything between Turkey and Japan) and find a whole new sexual culture, which they may be appalled or enthralled by. One seldom hears about eastern men coming west and starting up blogs about all the chicks they've bagged, as one westerner did, to the great outrage in some quarters of China, and although western women do find partners in the east, the numbers are significantly lower than the opposite pairing.

What I liked about it: I lived in Japan for 3 years as an English teacher, and spent most of my vacation days in the rest of Asia, and from my own observation, a lot of this book still rings true. A lot of the men ended up with Japanese girlfriends, and quite a few with Japanese wives. Others preferred the smorgasbord approach, bragging about all the women in our prefecture they'd slept with, whether paid or volunteers. I won't say that no women found local boyfriends or even husbands, but the numbers were significantly lower. Things are changing, though, as I did spend a couple of weeks mostly shacked up with a Thai man who basically supplemented his income by romancing western women.

What I didn't like about it: Bernstein nearly completely neglects the perspective of the women involved in these encounters. Yes, in a rich country like Japan at the beginning of the 21st century, where the women are educated and mostly free to make their own choices, they are clearly not coerced into their relationships with western men. But that has not been true for the past 5 centuries, nor is it true everywhere today, and the vast majority of the women have been exploited, either sold by their families, or lured into relationships that can never be equal due to the income, and therefore power, imbalance. Yet even in telling his modern stories, Bernstein never interviews an eastern woman in any kind of relationship with a western man to find out her side of the story.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Faithful Executioner, by Joel Harrington

Why I chose it: Slate excerpt

Podcasts: Mysterypod

Brow: Granted, this is a true crime book about 16th century Germany, but it remains true crime, which makes it middle-brow.

Summary: Meister Frantz Schmidt was chief executioner of the German city of Nuremburg for over three decades. Several things were remarkable about him: first, he was literate, which was unusual for anyone at the time, let alone a social outcast like an executioner. Second, he put his literacy to good ends, leaving a journal that recorded most of the torture and executions he carried out on behalf of the state in his long career. Third, the main reason his career was as long as it was is that he was a sober, religious man at a time when most people in his profession were unreliable, mostly due to alcoholism. This also allowed him to change his social position from outcast, as a person who worked in the criminal justice system at the time would have been, to a respectable, married citizen. Joel Harrington discovered the original journal and used it as the basis of his biography of Schmidt.

What I liked about it: In addition to being a biography of a fascinating historical character, the book also explains the changing social mores of 16th century Germany, where many of the old punishments like burning at the stake were phased out as too gruesome, so new methods like death by the sword were introduced. Each new punishment meant that executioners had to learn how to perform them properly, otherwise they risked being punished in their victim's place.

What I didn't like about it: As the enduring popularity of 'Medieval Dungeon' Museums attests, we're enthralled by stories of human bloodlust, so I can't really fault Harrington for occasionally going into great detail about the types of executions or specific incidents in Schmidt's repertoire. But if you're not a fan of them, you might want to stay away from this one.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, by Robert Gottlieb

Why I read it: Salon review

Podcasts: New York Review of Books

Brow: Tawdry tell-alls about the rich and powerful screwing up their kids, even written by distinguished former editors who publish in the New York Review of Books feels lower-middle brow at best.

Summary: Charles Dickens was prolific in more ways than his writing. All told, he and his wife Catherine produced ten babies from at least 12 pregnancies. Nine of them, two daughters and seven sons, survived into a adulthood, which was long enough for most of them, particularly the boys, to disappoint their father. The book is divided into two halves: their lives before Dickens' death in 1870, and what happened to them afterwards.

What I liked about it: I like a good take-down piece just as much as anyone else, and Dickens had much to be taken down. His main disappointment with his sons appears to be the thing that caused his own father's downfall and his resultant work in a boot-blacking factory: poor money management. Once sent away, they and their creditors wrote him constantly, asking for more money to pay gambling debts, or for the 25 pairs of kid-leather gloves they desperately needed. One is sent off to India with the military, returns to England after seven years, squanders his inheritance, and dies ignobly in Canada after a failed career in the Northwest Mounted Police. The youngest and perhaps most fragile son, Plorn, is sent off to Australia at just 16 and refuses to help pay to re-purchase the garden house his father wrote most of his works in after another son has to auction it off when he can't pay for the upkeep. One of the daughters can't get past being Miss Dickens and ends up living with a minister and his wife and possibly dies an alcoholic. Several others die young of one of the many diseases that took people in the days before food and water were safe and antibiotics had been discovered. Only three children can be said to be real successes: Katie, who was a moderately successful painter with a wide social network, Charley, who was eventually allowed to take over his father's literary magazine, and Henry, who was sent to Cambridge and became a judge.

What I didn't like about it: I can't really fault the author for this, as he certainly seems to have done his research, but there are very few details, especially about the less successful kids. For example, it's never clear if the constant begging letters are a result of gambling or of extravagant purchases. Nor is it clear what the situation was with the wayward daughter. But that is mostly a result of Victorian morals: nobody wanted to say it out loud.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

How to Create the Perfect Wife, by Wendy Moore

Why I read it: Slate review

Podcasts: WGN Radio

Brow: The hook might seem low-brow, but the book is about a mostly-forgotten 18th century intellectual and his bizarre quest to find the perfect woman, making it upper-middle brow.

Summary: Thomas Day, 18th century intellectual, rich guy, and all-around weirdo, picked up Rousseau's Emile and became obsessed with it. Emile is the story of a fictional little boy who is raised completely in a child-centred learning environment: if he wants to learn something, he asks someone to teach him, otherwise he is left alone. He walks around outside in winter with no shoes on. He is fearless, having never learned to fear, and intellectual, having never been constrained by a classroom. He is, in short, the perfect citizen, fully self-governing. A lot of wealthy eccentrics read the book and decided to apply Rousseau's philosophy to their own children, which mostly ended in disaster. Rousseau also published a companion book about Sophie, the perfect woman, who is raised to be governed by her husband. Not a lot of people tried out this experiment, because it so obviously sucks, but Day, as I said, was obsessed by Rousseau's philosophy. He also wanted to live deep in the countryside and devote all of his time to doing good works. He wanted to have as few servants as possible, meaning that any Mrs Day would have to be prepared to give up any hopes of spending the Day wealth on pretty frocks and spend her time cooking, cleaning, sewing, and accepting her husband's criticism. His wealth managed to attract a few women who agreed to get engaged to him, but as the reality of what he expected of them dawned on them, they all backed out, only to be dismissed as 'bitches.' So eventually Day realised that he would need to make his perfect wife from scratch. Pretending he was procuring servant girls for a married friend, Day managed to convince a foundling home to apprentice two pretty young girls to him. He then absconded with the girls to France, where they would be completely dependent on him, and spent the next year educating them and trying to figure out which was his Sophie. At the end of twelve months, he chose one, Sabrina, and sent the other off to a milliner's shop. He then brought Sabrina back to the English countryside, where he set about toughening her up, dripping hot wax on her and ordering her not to scream, and shooting a gun at her skirts and with the command not to flinch. But there were two things he could not conquer: her fears of water and horses. So eventually Sabrina, too, was sent off to boarding school and the search for the perfect wife continued.

What I liked about it: This is another treasure, a well-told, rollicking tale of a rich twit who becomes enamoured of an idea and refuses to let go of it even when it becomes apparent that it isn't working. But I suppose that was a function of Day's odious personality. Did I mention that a part of his eccentricity was that he rejected all social graces, preferring instead to embark on long monologues about his theories, and that he refused to dress fashionably in a wig, but also didn't wash his hair? He wasn't all bad, he was an early abolitionist and supported American independence. And he had influential friends who never renounced him. Still it is satisfactory when Day gets his comeuppance when one of the many women he attempts to woo throws his ideas back on him. How can he reject society, she reasons, if he has never become a proper member of it? So he spends a year learning to dance and fence and dress like a gentleman, only to end up looking more ridiculous than when he started.

What I didn't like about it: This is another flawless book, a fascinating story that's well-told. No complaints from me.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Life After Death, by Damien Echols

Why I read it: Salon review

Podcasts: Live from the NYPL

Brow: Post-prison memoirs, even if the accused was innocent and has literary ambitions, are never going to rank higher than middle brow, if not lower-middle brow.

Summary: In 1993, Damien Echols, his best friend, and an acquaintance were convicted of killing 3 little boys in what the prosecutors called a Satanic ritual. Echols was 18 and sentenced to death, after a shoddy trial with no evidence and coerced witnesses. The three spent the next 18 years in prison, despite three HBO documentaries investigating the case and demonstrating their innocence, and numerous singers and artists contributing funds to a new defense. They were finally freed in 2011 by entering an Alford plea, in which they are able to maintain their innocence while admitting that the state has enough evidence to convict them.

What I liked about it: 3 minutes of Googling is enough for anyone to conclude that the American justice system is entirely broken, with millions of poor black people locked up for years on plea bargains for non-violent drug offenses so that poor white people can have jobs incarcerating them. I read an article a few months ago about another wrongful murder conviction in which a judge said that he had no interest in re-opening old cases for wrongful conviction, and would only be willing to reconsider convictions if the defendant could demonstrate a procedural error. The West Memphis Three may not have been black, but they certainly were poor, and there certainly were procedural errors in their convictions. This book is a welcome addition to the railroaded by the justice system that just needed a body to convict genre.

What I didn't like about it: This may not be fair on my part, as an educated middle-class person who is not the target of any justice system and who grew up in a country which is hopefully more just than the US, but at several points in the book, Echols comes across as maddeningly passive in the face of his own destiny. For example, he writes that he was stunned throughout most of the trial and wasn't paying much attention. Most of us at least like to think we'd be fighting like mad dogs in that situation, but of course we'll never be in it.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Direct Red, by Gabriel Weston

Why I read it: Economist review

Podcasts: None

Brow: Upper middle

Summary: In her mid-20s, Gabriel Weston walked away from a decent office job and enrolled in medical school, going on to become an Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon. This is her memoir of her training. Each chapter illustrates a lesson she has learned about the medical establishment or the human condition.

What I liked about it: Everything. This might be the perfect book. But if I have to name a standout reason for loving it, it would have to be her ruthless takedown of the medical establishment, from the rigid hierarchy of the daily surgical meetings, in which residents are lined up according to seniority behind their department heads and routinely criticised for admitting too many patients, to her first night in general surgical residency, when a woman who was shot in a nightclub bleeds out in the operating room because the consultant surgeon is too haughty to admit that he doesn't know how to treat her. She is as hard on herself as she is on her fellow doctors: writing about a time when she failed to offer comfort to a very sick little boy because she was annoyed at being awakened in the middle of the night. Weston also draws positive lessons about compassion and dignity from her experiences.

What I didn't like about it: If I have to make a complaint about this book, it's that it isn't long enough. I could easily have read another 200 pages by her.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz

Why I chose it: Possibly this Wall Street Journal review. I need to keep better track of these things.

Podcasts: We The People Stories

Brow: Given the enduring fascination with the US Civil War, this one ranks as solidly middle-brow.

Summary: On witnessing a slave being beaten as a child, John Brown felt a calling from god to end the reprehensible practice by any means necessary. And he wasn't just an abolitionist, he believed that blacks and whites were fully equal. After several failed businesses and 21 children by 2 wives, he tried his hand at educating freed blacks. He also participated in the Underground Railroad and lived in a colony of ex-slaves. But things weren't moving quickly enough and, inspired by slave rebellions in Haiti and Jamaica, he decided the best way to end the institution was to raid slave farms, free the slaves, retreat into the mountains, and repeat. He thought this would terrify the slave owners and foment resistance amongst the slaves. His first target was Kansas, which at the time was locked in a fierce political struggle over whether to be a slave state or a free state. His men raided homes along the Pottawatomie Creek and killed a number of pro-slavery settlers. When that only entrenched the pro-slavery forces, he went to another state on the fence, Missouri, and liberated 11 slaves, who he then escorted to Canada. But still, that persnickety situation refused to change, so he came up with an even more daring plan: he and his band of freedom fighters would set up housekeeping in Maryland, then raid Harper's Ferry, Virginia, which had a federal armory. They'd steal the arms, give them to slaves, and gradually work their way south, creating a snowball effect of freed slaves and defeated owners. The plan worked right up to invading the armory. Brown and his men took a number of slave owners hostage, including a grand-nephew of George Washington, and held them in the armory. But then they stalled too long and a skirmish broke out. It went on long enough to allow federal marines led by Robert E. Lee to arrive and end the battle. He promptly tried Brown & Co. and hanged them. As a result of the raid, southern slave owners felt even more insecure and quickly seceded from the Union, starting the Civil War, which eventually ended slavery.

What I liked about it: As a non-American, I had barely heard of John Brown before reading this book, though I had heard of Harper's Ferry. I had no idea of his and its significance, and now I have new cocktail party chatter.

What I didn't like about it: Actually, there is nothing to dislike about this book.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Because I said so! By Ken Jennings

Why I chose it: I've got no idea which of my many sources for good books told me about this one, and Googling reviews is no help.

Podcasts: Authors on Tour Live

Brow: reading a book that dispels all the old wives' tales your mother told you as a child is lower-middle brow. Calling your mother to tell her about all the ways she was wrong is low brow.

Summary: Jennings takes some of the old chestnuts your mother, and possibly others, told you as a child, like, 'No swimming for 30 minutes after eating!' and 'Never run with scissors!' and puts them to the test to find out if they're really true or not. Some, such as 'If you swallow gum, it will stay in your guts for 7 years!' are patently false, no matter how often you step in gum belonging to people who believe it. Others, like 'Shut the door! You're letting out all the heat!' are most decidedly true.

What I liked about it: I happened to read this while staying at my parents' house, and every time I read one of my mother's favourite childhood admonishments, I shouted upstairs to tell her whether she'd been wrong this whole time, or, in some rare cases, 100% correct. Among my triumphs: 'If you cross your eyes, they'll stay that way!' (they won't) and among the things I'd always believed to be true, but really aren't: 'Never wear someone else's glasses or your eyes will get confused!' (they won't). I missed out unnecessarily on one of the few joys of being a four-eyes in childhood because of my firm belief in that one.

What I didn't like about it: What could one possibly find negative about a book that confirms or denies the 'Five Second Rule?' (False). I guess my one complaint is that it never addresses whether something will 'Put hair on your chest,' which was my own mother's personal way of cajoling me (her daughter, btw) to try unfamiliar foods.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Axe and the Oath, by Robert Fossier

Why I read it: Atlantic Review

Podcasts: None

Brow: Sorbonne Professor? Check. Editor of The Cambridge History of the Middle Ages? Check. Yup, this is highbrow fare.

Summary: Clearly I didn't read the review very well, because I was expecting a regular history book, one that introduced a few characters and led us through their everyday lives during the Middle Ages. Instead we get a 400-page essay mostly about the French experience. There are no characters and the work is largely impressionistic rather than drawing on concrete examples.

What I liked about it: As I've said before, I'm a nerd and a lot of my non-fiction reading choices are made like this: I read a review and think, 'Wow. I don't know much about that subject. And if the Economist/New Yorker/Slate etc. finds this book good enough to give it a positive review, maybe I should give it a try.' I'm also a dilettante: I want to know a few facts about a subject, but it's comparatively rare that I want to dig down deep into a subject. So books that offer a survey of a topic while giving me a few good tidbits to bring up at dinner parties are great. And this one delivers: for example, did you know that people with blood type B are more resistant to the bubonic plague? And for some reason a lot of Hungarians are blood type B? And therefore Hungary escaped the plague relatively unscathed? Also, it is strongly suspected that many medieval female 'authors' such as Heloise of Abelard and Heloise, and Marguerite de Navarre, probably did not write their books, because female literacy rates were appalling, and probably no women were actually taught to write.

What I didn't like about it: This is just a personal preference, but I find it a lot easier to get into a subject, even dilettantishly, if I have a plot line and characters to follow, and this book lacks both.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans


Why I chose it: Harold Bloom's Western Canon

Podcasts: None.

Brow: High. But not the highest.

Summary: In 1936, Walker Evans and James Agee accepted a commission from Fortune magazine to write a story about the plight of white sharecroppers in the southern US. They lived with 3 families for a month, photographing them and documenting their day-to-day existence. When the article was not published, they re-wrote it as a book.

What I liked about it: The photographs are amazing, of course, as are the descriptions of the families' homes, possessions, meals, work, clothing and schools.

What I didn't like about it: First, the photographs are presented with no descriptions, so you have only a rough idea of which person is which. Second, while the authors spend dozens of pages exhaustively cataloging the contents of one family's living room, they devote almost no time to the families themselves. There is almost nothing in the way of character development or plot. We get no sense of how family dynamics work or how the families relate to their community or society at large. I definitely would have preferred to have some psychology and sociology mixed in with the static snapshot of their lives.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies

Why I chose it: It's the first in a trilogy, the second of which was nominated for the Booker Prize.

Podcasts: None, which is disappointing, since I thought the CBC would have at least a few episodes about one of the great men of Canadian letters.

Brow: Even if you're Canadian, reading Robertson Davies makes you upper middle brow. Non-Canadians can call themselves high brow for this one.

Summary: Rich art collector Francis Cornish dies. His will reads that three university professors: Clement Hollier, Urqhart McVarish and Simon Darcourt are to catalogue his collection for the various beneficiaries. While this work is going on, John Parbalane, a mischief-making ex-monk shows up in Hollier's office and finds his graduate student, Maria Theotky. All four men and Cornish's nephew Arthur are intrigued by the beautiful Maria.

What I liked about it: Any scenes between Parbalane and Maria. Normally Maria is a very buttoned-up serious type who just wants to get on with her work on Rabelais, but when she meets an actual character straight out of Gargantua and Pantagruel, her reserve crumbles and she finds herself screaming racist drinking songs at the top of her lungs. We should all have such a friend.

What I didn't like about it: The novel switches between several narrators and it's often impossible to tell for a few pages whose head we're inside, which I find confusing.

Complete Short Stories, Mark Twain

Why I read it: Western Canon

Podcasts: None

Brow: Although Twain is a supremely witty writer, the subject matter of these stories leaves them exactly in the middle.

Summary: 700 pages of Mark Twain's short stories. Some are very short, just a couple of pages, others are more like novellas and are nearly 100 pages. The earlier stories are light and funny, like 'The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County', but as Twain got older and more cynical, so do his stories, like 'The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg.'

What I liked about it: Much like myself, Twain was a natural skeptic with a sense of humour so dry it cracked in several places (cynical people might call us 'sarcastic'), and that comes out in his stories. It's also pretty clear that he was disgusted by the morality tales of his day, in which good little children are rewarded by the universe and bad little children are punished, as evidenced by 'The Story of the Bad Little Boy' and 'The Story of the Good Little Boy' in which the opposite happens. He also has the measure of human nature, with several tales of people and even entire towns corrupted by wealth or the promise thereof.

What I didn't like about it: Much as Twain might have disliked the sentimental morality tales of children, he wasn't above telling them about animals. 'A Horse's Tale' is a fable about a noble but abused horse and is the same sappy claptrap he was skewering in his stories about good children being punished.

La Retraite Sentimentale, Colette

 Pourquoi je l'ai lu: Canon Occidental

Baladodiffusions: Aucun

Brow: Solid middle

Résumé: Claudine et Annie se retirent au paysage pour échapper les commérages de Paris. Les deux sont épuisées: Annie est revenue de sa vie vagabonde, et le mari de Claudine se trouve dans un sanitorium. Le beau-fils de Claudine les rejoindre et leurs conversations créent beauceoup de réflexions pour elle.

Ce que j'ai aimé: Colette est le maître des signalements et de la métaphore. Elle amine les sentiments, le cadre, et les pensées de ses personnages merveilleusement.

Ce que je n'ai pas aimé: L'héroïne est frustrante, car elle se manque des emotions. Elle est completement calme en face d'un avenir incertain.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Bank Notes, Ken Habarta


Why I read it: Slate Review

Podcasts: None

Brow: While the actual bank robbery notes are about as lowbrow as you can get - one example reads 'no die,' and presumably means 'no dye' as in the indelible ink that foils many an attempt - reading a book of notes used in bank heists puts you into middle-brow territory. On the other hand, you can read this entire book from introduction to appendices in about 30 minutes, so I'm going to split this one down the middle and call it lower-middle brow.

Summary: The subtitle says it all. This is a compilation of notes used in bank robberies, both successful and unsuccessful. Habarta also includes surveillance photos of the robbers, whether they were successful or not, and any available details of the case. At the end he provides some statistics about bank robberies in the US.

What I liked about it: Although the notes are invariably short - the longest one is about 7 lines - they are surprisingly revealing, from the woman who writes 'I went through the Sept. 11 attack, and I'm very angry today. Don't make a sound or everyone is going to die,' to the man who says 'I worked in banks before, so I know there's at least 10 to 15K in each register.' The accompanying photos are also interesting. A surprising number of people make no attempt to disguise themselves beyond a hat, although you wonder how someone wearing a balaclava and sunglasses was allowed into a bank. It's also surprising how low the take is in a bank robbery, considering the penalties. The average is apparently $2000 to $3000, and the lowest in the book is $260, while the highest is a shade over $9000. Finally, we learn that the average robbery takes less than 2 minutes, which is the average police response time for a 'robbery in progress' alarm button.

What I didn't like about it: The book delivers lots of factoids, but it also would have been nice to have the details of each crime beyond when and where it was committed and whether the robber was every caught.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo

Why I read it: Western Canon A Lifetime's Reading

Podcasts: None

Brow: While Zeno himself may be quite lowbrow, reading this book sets you apart as one of the highbrow set. Reading it in the original Italian just makes you smug.

Summary: Zeno enters into psychoanalysis to cure his smoking habit, and his therapist recommends keeping a diary. The long chapters are not linear. The first documents his attempts to quit smoking. The next part is about his father's death many years later. The third part recounts how he met his wife and her three sisters. He immediately falls in love with the most beautiful sister Ada, but is rejected in favour of a handsome businessman named Guido who speaks Tuscan. Zeno himself is bald and only speaks the dialect of Trieste. He then proposes marriage to a second sister, who rejects him because she's only 17 and has intellectual plans. The third sister is only 9, so he skips over her in favour of the 4th sister Augusta, who he considers boring and plain, but who loves him. Zeno surprises himself in the next part by actually falling in love with his wife. However when a poor but pretty singer moves in downstairs he quickly acquires a mistress who demands to meet his wife. He leads her to believe that Ada is his wife, and on seeing her, the mistress breaks off the affair because of how lovely yet sad Ada is. In the fifth part, Zeno has gone into business with Guido. He quickly realises that Guido's obsession with profits combined with his affair with one of the employees is driving the company, and Ada, to ruin. Ada asks Zeno for help and Zeno takes Guido on a fishing trip, where Guido starts asking him about various suicide methods. Soon after, Guido dies. Zeno misses his funeral because he's busy gambling on the stock market and winning back most of Guido's losses. The final section is set in WWI Italy. Zeno is still seeking a cure to his imagined sickness and finally concludes that the problem is natural selection has been subverted, causing more weaknesses in humans. He envisions a time when weapons of mass destruction will wipe out illness.

What I liked about it: Zeno is actually hilarious, as are the situations he keeps getting himself into. For example, the scene where he is running around the house of his in-laws proposing to their various daughters and being rejected on all fronts is a classic farce.

What I didn't like about it: After 300-odd pages of comic relief, the last part of the book suddenly takes a turn for the serious and Zeno find himself contemplating the serious questions facing people early in the 20th century: war, illness, scientific advancement. It's a jarring shift and the build-up doesn't fit the payoff.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, by Christopher Snowdon

Why I read it: Economist Review

Podcasts: None.

Brow: Upper Middle

Summary: Ever since Columbus discovered it on his first voyage to the Americas, smoking has had its critics. Some were mild, like King James I, who called it 'loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs.' Others, like a Persian despot cut out smokers' tongues or poured lead down their throats. Today's anti-smoking activists fall somewhere in between, though they're getting closer to the Persian, with talk of 'third-hand smoke,' which means nicotine molecules that are transferred from a smoker's body to say, a sofa, then lie there for years until a child sits down and develops lung cancer, and banning smokers from adopting children. Snowdon picks the anti-smoking movement apart, showing us that no study has ever proven a link between second-hand smoke and increased risk of disease of any sort, not that that stops the activists. He then informs us what is in store for us when the zealots move on to their next targets: fatty foods, alcohol and fossil fuels.

What I liked about it: If you had asked me before I read this book, I probably would have been able to tell you that the persecution of smokers has got to the point of insanity. For example, in Ontario, where I'm from, you can no longer smoke in your car if there are children under 16 present. I was once outside a grocery store there and saw signs warning smokes to stay 9 metres from the doors. I also probably would have agreed that the actual risk of exposure for non-smokers is pretty minimal. But I had never really thought about it, or considered how the kind of thinking that led to these kinds of policies will never stop, even after we have all given up eating meat, drinking wine and driving. Then they'll move on to our other vices like using diapers, or having children at all, for that matter, and pretty much anything else that makes your life easier or more enjoyable.

What I didn't like about it: When he gets to the end of his smoking argument and gets into defending people's right to buy fatty foods, Snowdon gets a bit lost in the woods. I agree with him that no one holds a gun to your head and forces you to buy the child sized 512-ounce soda from Paunch Burger. I also agree with him that there is no demonstrated harm to being overweight, at least, not until you become morbidly obese. But I disagree with him when he argues that all that is needed is for the government to encourage people to make sensible choices and moderate their intake of fatty foods and sugary drinks. Just look at this map to see how, in 1985, no state had an obesity rate of more than 15%. In 2010, no state had a rate less than 20%. It's quite clear that anti-smoking-style information campaigns are not having an effect on waistlines.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Koran

Why I read it: Western Canon, Philip Ward's A Lifetime's Reading

Podcasts: Minnesota Atheists Koran Curious I didn't actually mean to listen to an atheist podcast about the Koran, but there was very little available.

Brow: Like all religious books, your brow rating for reading the Koran depends on why exactly you're doing it: if you use it like some bible readers do, opening it to a random page to either solve a problem or find out what's going to happen to you today, that's pretty lowbrow, but if you're reading it out of a genuine curiosity to figure out what your Muslim friends are always going on about, it's very highbrow. 

Summary: Allah doesn't fuck around:  if you follow him and obey his rules (in sum: believe in Allah), he'll reward you in heaven with virgins, or possibly grapes. The translation isn't clear. Failure to believe in Allah will result in an eternity of torture in hell. There's also some stuff in there about how Muslims should be Unitarians because Jesus, although a prophet, was not divine, when you can have sex with your slaves, and what you can and cannot eat, but 85 percent of it consists of admonishments to believe in Allah or else.

What I liked about it: Surah 109 is nice and tolerant:

Say: Unbelievers, I do not serve what you worship, nor do you serve what I worship. I shall never serve what you worship, nor will you ever serve what I worship. You have your own religion and I have mine.

But then right there on the same page of my translation, The Penguin Classics version, is this:

There are some who in their ignorance dispute about Allah and serve rebellious devils, though these are doomed to seduce their followers and lead them to the scourge of the Fire.

What I didn't like about it: It feels like every religious book is a dumber version of whatever it's based on. So the New Testament is a simplified version of the Old Testament, and the Koran is a simplified mishmash of the New Testament with a few nods to Leviticus and Exodus and a couple of the prophets thrown in. By the time it was written, the message was reduced to 450-odd pages hammering you over the head with the punishments for disobedience. By the end, I was just shell-shocked. Maybe that's the point. Thank goodness the Book of Mormon doesn't appear on any of my reading lists, as I understand it's a dumbed-down version of the bible written in pseudo-King Jamesese.

Friday, 31 May 2013

The Dark Room, Rachel Seiffert

Why I chose it: Shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize

Podcasts: None

Brow: with the probable exception of the Amises, I'd say that just about every book that makes it onto a Booker list is in the Upper Middle range at the least.

Summary: Three novellas all set in Germany, all dealing with World War II. In the first story, Helmut is a young patriot photographer in Berlin in the 1930s. He uses his art to document the city up to the end of the war. In the second story, Lore is a 14 year old girl living in Bavaria. Her Nazi parents have been arrested and placed in internment camps and it is up to her to get her four younger siblings all the way across Germany to her grandmother's house in Hamburg. Along the way the children are assisted by Thomas, a mysterious stranger. In the final story, set in the 1990s, Micha becomes obsessed with finding out about his grandfather's role in the war, to the detriment of his family life.


What I liked about it: I quite like this exploration of political and economic upheaval on ordinary lives and its lasting effects even unto the third generation. I was particularly affected by the story of young Lore and her desperate quest to find food and shelter as she moves her siblings through occupied Germany.

What I didn't like about it: The main character in the final story, Micha, is incredibly, hopefully deliberately frustrating. As he dithers about asking a Belorussian collaborator about the extent of his grandfather's role in the country's devastation during the war, you just want to reach onto the page and strangle him.

Les Fleurs du Mal, Charles Baudelaire

Pourquoi je l'ai lu: Canon occidental

Baladodiffusions: Aucun

Brow: middle if you have to read this for a second-year Intro to French poetry class, upper if you read it for fun, astronomical if you read it in the original French.

Critique: En fait, je n'avait aucune idée sur comment d'écrire une critique d'un livre de poésie. Grâce à l'internet, j'ai trouvé cet article sur ehow.
Alors: 1) L'introduction: Dans son oeuvre le plus connu, Baudelaire tente d'explorer les relations entre le mal et le beauté, le bonheur et l'inaccessible, l'horreur et la mélancolie. Son style de poème en prose a influencé une nouvelle génération des poètes, incluant Rimbaud et Verlaine.
2) Style global: les relations sexuelles et la mort, bien sur. Le livre est divisé en six parties, représentant sa quête: Au lecteur (prologue), Spleen et idéal, qui représent le monde de l'autuer, Tableaux parisiens, Le vin, et  Fleurs du Mal, qui représentent des essais différents pour achever l'idéal Révolte contre l'existence et La Mort, le résultat.
3) Le style du poète: le poème en prose est un hybride qui s'agit un texte en prose bref, qui ne transmet pas l'information ni raconte pas une histoire et qui cherche un effet poétique. Le poème en prose est une forme libre qui n'utilise pas de vers.
4) Ce que j'ai aimé: Le Crépescule du Soir, qui évoque la nuit de Paris du 19e siècle: dangereux, excitant et sexy. Le Chat I et II, qui décrit la voix, le corps et les griffes de son chat - ou son femme? De plus, je suis une grande amateur des chats et donc j'admire toute poème sur le sujet.
5) Ce que je n'ai pas aimé: une ligne dans A une malabaraise: ta hanche / est large à faire envie à la plus belle blanche. Quelle femme veut avoir son cul immortalisé pour l'éternité comme gros et pâle? Je suis certaine qu'il a dû coucher sur le divan pendant quelques nuits pour cela.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Going Clear, Lawrence Wright

Why I read it: This amazing New Yorker article

Podcasts: Slate Book Club, NPR Fresh Air

Summary: Lawrence Wright gives us the complete history of Scientology, from L. Ron Hubbard's manic days as a pulp science fiction writer, which inspired some of the religion's weirder beliefs (galactic battles 43 trillion years ago anyone?), to the present day. He tries to give us a full perspective, from ordinary members to the current leadership, but is stymied by the fact that few practicing Scientologists - and none of the celebrities or executives would give him an interview.

Brow: quite solidly Middle, with a healthy dose of celebrity gossip mixed in with an exhaustively-researched history of a cult.

What I liked about it: Even though I am not a member of any religion, cult or mainstream, and haven't been since the age of 8, for some reason I still love reading about them, especially the weirder ones like Scientology, with its billion-year contracts and fanatical belief in the power of two tin cans hooked up to a heart monitor. Not that their belief that we are all inhabited by trillion-year-old aliens is any stranger than a virgin birth. And those who like weirdness will not be disappointed. For example, did you know that L. Ron Hubbard spent 8 years in the late 60s and early 70s sailing around the Mediterranean, trying to find a country they could occupy and establish as a permanent base for Scientology? And that it was mainly about avoiding the IRS? Well, you'll find all the details and more in this book. But it's not all fun and games. There are a lot of sad parts, too, like the kids who sign the billion-year contracts that they can't read because a Scientology education mostly consists of cleaning, or the people who are 'punished' for years in the desert and eating table scraps. This book will not help the cult find many converts.

What I didn't like about it: Although Wright is fair to Scientology, he is extremely unfair to the city of London, Ontario, which happens to be my home town. It is most decidedly not the humid, dying hole that Wright makes it out to be.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Nightmare Abbey, Thomas Love Peacock

Why I read it: Western Canon

Podcasts: None

Brow: Middle to Upper, depending how many of the references you get.

Summary: This is the book about nothing. If Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George had been a bunch of unlikeable narcissistic Romantic poets instead of unlikeable narcissistic New Yorkers, they would have fit right in. Sir Christopher Glowry and his son Scythorpe spend most of the plot either sitting in their dining room or sitting in their living room having absurd conversations with their friends about various Gothic tropes: suicide, ghosts, regeneration and secret societies. There's also a subplot about Scythorpe being in love with two women and having to hide one in the closet, then getting dumped by both. Your basic-cable sitcom, but written in the 19th century.

What I liked about it: I'm a sucker for satire and the Romantics are ripe for it. It's also really fun to see how many of the references you get, à la The Simpsons.

What I didn't like about it: Alas, it's an epic failure of the Bechdel Test.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Some Girls, Jillian Lauren

Why I read it: Salon reference

Podcasts: Blog Talk Radio

Brow: Feels pretty low to me.

Summary: Jillian Lauren drops out of college after 6 weeks to pursue her acting dream. When her parents cut her off, she turns to stripping and working as an escort to make ends meet. One day, one of her colleagues mentions a new, more lucrative opportunity: going to the far-away land of Brunei as one of the 'party girls' in Prince Jefri's harem. Lauren takes off on a whim and with the promise of $20 000 in cash for two weeks' work. Once there, she discovers that life as a caged bird is not all that it's cracked up to be, no matter how gilded the cage: when you put 40 women into a room and force them to compete for one man's attentions, things get pretty competitive, pretty fast. Nonetheless, our heroine prevails, eventually clawing her way up to number 2 girlfriend and winning fabulous shopping trips and jewellery for her pains. She returns after a year and a half and finds a nice husband and a happy life with dozens of gossipy stories to share.

What I like about it: I can't say I'm deeply read in the 'autobiography of a sex worker' genre, but most of them seem to be about girls who were sexually abused in their youth and eventually sold into virtual slavery, only to escape years later and write a memoir of survival despite the odds. Jillian Lauren is not that type of sex worker. She had a rocky relationship with her parents, yes, but she was not abused, nor was she coerced into her lifestyle. She also enjoys her time in Brunei and manages to use at least part of it productively to figure out what she wants to do next in life.

What I didn't like about it: Not enough details about Brunei! Lauren only describes one sexual encounter with the prince and one insane shopping trip to Singapore as a reward. C'mon girl! You spend a year and a half there, what else happened?

Le rouge et le noir, George Stendhal

Pourquoi je l'ai lu: Harold Bloom's Western Canon, Philip Ward's A Lifetime's Reading

Baladodiffusions: Collège de France

Brow: High. Smug if you read it in French. High-brow and low-brow don't translate, which is why this is in English.

Résumé: Julien est un jeune homme pauvre qui veut réussir pendant la Restauration. Contrairement à l'époque napoléonien, il ne peut pas trouver le succès dans l'armée, donc il essaie l'eglise catholique, malgré son manque de religiosité. Donc le titre: le rouge pour la guerre, le noir pour la robe d'un prêtre. Partout, Julien découvre l'hypocrisie de la bourgeoisie: qu'ils mentent pour gagner l'approbation des autres. Julien adopte leurs moyens progressivement. Enfin, il séduit une jeune femme, Mathilde de la Mole, la fille d'un marquis. Mais son première amour, Mme de Renal, la seul femme qu'il adore, écrit une lettre qui détruit sa vie. Il tire sur Mme de Renal dans une eglise et il est imprisonné, où il retrouve le bonheur.

Ce que j'ai aimé: Julien est un personnage sympathique: un jeune homme qui ne peut pas réussir avec son talent et travail, mais seulement par s'adopter à sa culture.

Ce que je n'ai pas aimé: Même que la prose de Stendhal est assez claire pour un locuteur non-natif, comprendre le contexte française est difficile.

Carry Me Down, MJ Hyland

Why I read it: It was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2006


Podcasts: None

Brow: Upper middle

Summary: John is an 11 year old Irish boy living in some unspecified time before the advent of the internet or mobile phones in the 20th century. When the book starts, he's happily reading in the kitchen with his mum and dad during Christmas break. As the daylight wanes, his father stands up to drown some kittens and we learn that John and his parents are living tensely with John's grandmother, who is returning from the horse races later that day. As John watches his father kill the kittens, he comes to the striking realisation that he is psychic and can tell when people are lying. He spends the rest of the book trying to demonstrate his powers to the people around them and to contact the Guiness Book of World Records to get himself included. Meanwhile, the world around him collapses, which may be partially his fault.

What I liked about it: It's a very tense family drama about an odd 11 year old who doesn't quite understand what's going on around him, but whose actions nevertheless have an enormous impact on those around him.

What I didn't like about it: I was frustrated by the lack of information about the characters' motivations. For example, is John actually an 11 year old sociopath? The book doesn't answer the question. Maybe I'm too literal-minded, but I prefer my books to end unambiguously.