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.