Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin

Why I chose it: shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize

Podcasts: Guardian Books

Brow: Upper middle if you aren't religious

Summary: As Mary, mother of Jesus, is approaching the end of her life in hiding, two rude strangers appear on her doorstep and demand to interview her about her son, which prompts flashbacks to her few scenes in the bible (Mary is much less prominent than the Catholic church might have you believe) and retells them from her point of view.

What I liked about it: Whether you're religious or not, and whether you believe she was actually a virgin when she got preggers or you think she was duped by a dude claiming to be an angel, Mary is an interesting character. Here she's the fully human mother of a son whose life is in danger due to his dangerous, anti-authoritarian message. She tries to save him and fails, and ends up in danger herself. Now she's alone, secretly anger and bitter towards the world, and exiled in Ephesus and being visited by two of her son's followers who are trying to reshape her memories.

What I didn't like about it: I'm not Toibin's biggest fan. I just don't like his writing as much as some of his contemporaries who are also often nominated for the Booker Prize. Luckily, this book is so short it hardly matters.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Honor, by Elif Shafak

Why I read it: A New Yorker review that I will not link to because for some reason they keep their 1-paragraph 'Books Briefly Noted' section under lock and key.

Podcasts: None

Brow: Very highbrow.

Summary: The story of a family's journey from a small Kurdish village in eastern Turkey in the 1940s to London in the 1970s, to Britain in the 1990s. The tension between east and west, modern and traditional, comes to an explosive end.

What I liked about it: It's a terrific book about the immigrant experience and the culture clashes it brings about. I myself live in the Netherlands, which has a lot of first and second generation immigrants who face the exact kinds of pressures that these characters do: how far to integrate, the problems that how much you've integrated or not causes in your home community and the new community, the roles of men and women. What to do when someone breaks the 'rules' as you understand them.

What I didn't like about it: My one tiny critique is about the character of Esma. Sometimes she is the narrator, sometimes we get a third-person perspective from her point of view. Sometimes it's the 1990s, and sometimes it's the 1970s. It can get confusing.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

Why I read it: New Yorker Review but this guy was everywhere for a few weeks.

Podcasts: CBC Ideas, but it's just one of many.

Brow: If you're reading it for stories about freaky kids, low brow, but if you're trying to understand the experience of their parents, middle.

Summary: Most parents expect to pass on their way of being happy, or their 'vertical identity' to their children. But what happens when it's impossible to do that? Solomon explores what happens when children are drastically different from their parents in a dozen different ways, from deafness to criminality to transgenderism, so those identities become 'horizontal.' He tells us the personal stories of hundreds of families he interviewed over 10 years while researching the book.

What I liked about it: The book is fantastically written and the stories are well told, whether it's the heartbreaking scene of a mother whose child is the product of rape asking Solomon to tell her how to love her child, or the uplifting stories of parents who become advocates for their children. It's also packed with interesting facts, like that schizophrenia is a developmental disorder, not a mental illness.

What I didn't like about it: The text of the book is over 700 pages, and with footnotes it comes out to nearly 1000 pages. The stories are great, but each chapter is at least 50 pages, and some are nearly 90. It felt like this book could have been tightened a lot and not lost any of its power. Furthermore, although Solomon talks about how people who would have been bad parents become awful parents when they are faced with a child they can't identify with, he gives us almost no stories of people in those situations, and doesn't appear to have interviewed any of them. Perhaps he couldn't get anyone to agree to sit down to an interview about what a terrible parent they are, but it's hard to see how anyone having a horrific time with a similar case to one of these wouldn't feel inadequate. Adding to this is the fact that nearly everyone he profiles is middle class and above, when I imagine it would be much harder for a working-class single mother to find the time and energy to advocate for her special-needs child, but we don't get many of their stories.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Love to Love you Bradys, by Ted Nichelson, Susan Olson and Lisa Sutton

Why I read it: Salon Review

Podcasts: Amazingly, yes, there is a podcast for this book, but not for Robertson Davies.

Brow: Low, but like, hipster-cool lowbrow.

Summary: In 1976, television hit its nadir. Not only were variety shows all the rage, it looked like variety shows starring large families were about to take off, since The Donny and Marie Show was a hit. So superproducers Sid and Marty Krofft cast about for another large TV family that might possibly be trained to sing and dance and came up with The Brady Bunch, which had gone off the air a few years before. They reassembled most of the cast and set about turning them into vaudevillians. Somehow, this managed to stay on the air for 10 episodes. Like I said, nadir. Anyway, more than 30 years later, fans were still so curious to know the answers to such questions as 'Why didn't Eve Plumb participate?' that the authors were able to generate a 338-page book stuffed with fun facts and trivia, such as that Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia Marcia Marcia! was too stoned out of her mind to appear in several segments, which of course is never explained.

What I liked about it: As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, I watched The Brady Bunch pretty much every day between 3:30 and dinner time, as there was always an episode on at least one channel. I even took Barry Williams' book Growing Up Brady out of the library and made my dad photocopy the episode-by-episode trivia out of the back of it so I could note all the ridiculous moments as I was watching. I also watched the TV movies and the commercial films, but in the days before the internet, I never saw this show. I wasn't totally obsessed, but I was interested enough to buy this book and find all the episodes on YouTube.

What I didn't like about it: As I said, I'm not totally obsessed, so an entire chapter on the women who played the dancers/synchronised swimmers and where they are today wasn't exactly scintillating. I was much more interested in reading about Florence Henderson's hissy fits or the ways the producers would try to keep the underage actors working overtime without getting fined by the California Labor Board.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Complete Plays of Aristophanes

Why I chose it: Western Canon, A Lifetime's Reading

Podcasts: La Trobe University's course on Ancient Greece

Brow: In Ancient Greece, most of this was pretty low brow, but nowadays it's high brow.

Summary: Aristophanes was the Adam Sandler of Ancient Greece, writing slapstick comedy plays for the masses. Yes, most of them are on serious themes, like Athenian politics and intellectuals, and yes, The Clouds may have been responsible for getting Socrates executed, but it's also about a popular, athletic teenager who's into fast horses and refuses to go to 'nerd school.' His dad goes instead, and gets kicked out for masturbating when he's supposed to be lying there meditating.

What I liked about it: The Birds, which is about two friends who get sick of living in Athens and convince a former king who now lives as a bird to build a whole bird city in the sky for them, is pretty good because it's not about arcane political machinations and you can imagine people today feeling the same. Lysistrata, which is about the women of Greece staging a sex strike in order to force an end to the Pelopennesian war, is also pretty funny, especially the scene where some of the ladies get horny and keep trying to make all these excuses for why they need to go home. Finally, Thesmophoriazusae or more easily pronounced The Parliament of Women, where the women go off to a festival by themselves. The playwright Euripides, worried they're talking about them behind his back, sends a friend in disguised as a woman to spy on them. Inside, he discovers a democracy, complete with voting, committees and action plans, debating how to punish Euripides for his negative portrayals of women in his plays. Of course the women quickly discover the cross-dresser and arrest him, only agreeing to release him when Euripides promises to stop treating them so horribly in his works.

What I didn't like about it: I read the Bantam Classics edition, which not only uses anachronistic words like hamburger, it also translates all the parts for foreigners into a weird form of Scots English. Not only that, it completely lacks footnotes, so when someone or something unfamiliar is mentioned, not that surprising in a 2000 year old book of plays, you either have to turn to Wikipedia to figure it out or just skip over that bit.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen

Why I read it: Carl Hiaasen is my one nod to genre fiction.

Podcasts: Surprisingly, there were no podcasts about this book.

Brow: The 'a bunch of wackos go on a crime spree in South Florida' genre cannot possibly rank above low brow by its very nature.

Summary: Well, there are wackos. And they go on a crime spree. Specifically, a tourist on a fishing expedition reels in a severed arm, setting off a chain of events that will eventually involve murder, Medicare fraud, and a monkey that starred in the Pirates of the Caribbean.

What I liked about it: I first discovered Carl Hiaasen's works in Thailand, where the worst thing that could ever happen to me happened: I ran out of reading material. This is also how I ended up reading all the Harry Potter books in four sleepless days. The first of his books that I picked up was Striptease, which is probably also the best of his books. Either that or I liked it best because I was new to the genre. Nonetheless, I kept reading his books because they're the one form of printed material that I can pick up and consume without thinking too hard.

What I didn't like about it: Alas, even though Hiassen has been writing books about the destruction of Florida by corrupt politicians and rich people and the few brave souls who try to stand up for them since 1986, his books are not nearly as good as Dave Barry's on the subject. Unfortunately, Barry has only written 3, and there was a 10 year gap in between two of them.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

Why I read it: This brief Fresh Air review made the trilogy sound so haunting I asked for it for Christmas.

Podcasts: Fresh Air, New Yorker Out Loud

Brow: Upper middle

Summary: The first in a trilogy about a friendship between two Neapolitan women, this book covers the time from when they meet as 8 year old schoolgirls growing up in a violent working-class neighbourhood in the late 1950s until one of them gets married at 16. Their lives take very different courses early on when a teacher recognises how intelligent they both are and recommends that they be allowed to progress to middle school. Elena, the narrator, is allowed to continue in school and possibly get the chance to escape the restricted life of her mother, but Lila is forbidden. The two remain friends despite their very different life trajectories and the tensions they cause.

What I liked about it: Everything. This book is amazing. As the reviewers say, this is the best novelist you've never heard of. But to be more specific: Like perhaps everyone who has read this book, I too am in love with the character of Lila, a precocious, perceptive, combative girl who seems determined to get out of her dismal situation by any means necessary. Unfortunately, most of her schemes: education, writing a novel, designing shoes that will set the world on fire, fail to pan out and she's left with marrying her way out of misery at 16.

What I didn't like about it: Nothing. You should read this book.