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.

Blood and Politics, by Leonard Zeskind

Why I read it: Salon review

Podcasts: None

Brow: Off the charts

Summary: An extremely thorough account of modern-day white nationalism since the end of WWII and the birth of the civil rights movement to post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiments. We meet all kinds of colourful characters from the granddaddy of 20th century racism, Willis Carto, to David Duke, who tried to bring the crusade into the mainstream with some success, to the movement's current, fractured leaders. We also hear about incidents ranging from the amusing - a survivor suing Carto after he refused to pay him for proving the holocaust really did happen - to the terrifying - an Arkansas man who shot a black state trooper for pulling him over, then spent the next several months being sheltered in a campground with the police surrounding them.

What I liked about it: This is a great book for nerds who like to know literally everything about a subject. Fortunately I'm a nerd and now I know, for example, about the connection between neo-nazis, the Christian Identity movement, and the killing of abortion doctors.

What I didn't like about it: At 645 pages, if all you're looking for is a short introduction and summary, this is definitely not the book for you.

King James Study Bible

Reasons for Reading: Harold Bloom's Western Canon. Philip Ward's A Lifetime's Reading Also, if you're a serious reader and you want to understand all the biblical references in anything from contemporary magazine articles to Dante's Inferno, you can only get away with not reading it for so long. I chose the KJV because it has had the most impact on English language and literature.

Podcasts: There are thousands available for any sort of bible reader. I recommend the ones from Yale Divinity School if you're a secular reader.

Brow: Low to high, depending on your method and reasons for reading it.

Summary: How do you even summarise the bible? Well, it's a mishmash of genres and styles, from origin myth to sex poems to apocalyptic prophecy. Most of it is pretty dull and repetitive and it's true that you could probably get away with just reading Genesis, Matthew, and the first few chapters of Luke and you'd probably get 90% of the references.

What I liked about it: The Song of Solomon is pretty good, what with it being a book of sex poems that somehow got into the mix. I also liked some of the bits about the crazy prophets and their bizarro tactics for getting people to believe that god was seriously mad again.

What I didn't like about it: It turns out that there are no annotated versions of the KJV published by mainstream publishing houses. There are annotated bibles put out by Oxford University Press, for example, but they use the New International Version, where the language is easier to understand but less majestic. I thought this one would be fine, but it was put out by Jerry Falwell's Liberty University Press and so his annotations are useless unless you're an evangelical Christian uninterested in thinking about the historical and literary context.

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

Reason for reading: Salon review

Podcasts: None

Brow: Low to middle in Europe, middle to high outside Europe

Summary: Paul Lohman and his wife Claire have met for dinner with his brother Serge, a politician likely to be elected Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and his wife Babette. The ostensible reason for the dinner is to discuss the heinous crime their sons have committed and how to deal with the potential aftermath if it is discovered.

What I liked about it: I love a good unreliable narrator, and Paul is a shining exemplar. When we first meet him, he appears to be a normal, middle-class Dutchman, which is to say very normal indeed. But as the evening progresses and we're privy to his cynical thoughts and revelations about the restaurant his brother has chosen, Dutch people who love rural France, his own past, and what he discovered on his son's phone just before he left that evening, we find out just how far he's prepared to go to keep his family's secrets hidden.

Also, because I live in the Netherlands and therefore among the Dutch, it's always fun to hear them being self-critical.

What I didn't like about it: There is very little to dislike about this book if you're a fan of dark parodies like me.