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.