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.