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.