PLT 75 Book Challenge
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I'm Peg, a librarian in NYC and new to both the 75 Group and LT. I am loving cataloging our family's books on LT. My reading interests are all over the map. I'm currently reading China in Ten Words a book of essays by Yu Hua. The next book will be The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola
I'm looking forward to seeing what folks are reading and your comments.
Happy New Year!
China in Ten Words
Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information
Belly of Paris
Jan. 10: I've added a review of China in 10 Words and Blur here.
Jan.30: I've added a review of Belly of Paris here. #22
The Question of Hu
People of the Book
Feb. 5: I've added a review of The Question of Hu here.
Feb. 19: I've added a review of American Aria here.
March 2: I've added a review of People of the Book here. #38
The Omnivore's Dilemma
March 28: I've added a review of A Bittersweet Season here.
March 29: Here's my review of The Omnivore's Dilemma. #48
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
The Truth About Getting In
April 16: My review of Ex Libris is here.
The Truth About Getting In No review – need to get smart about this process that is looming ahead for my daughter. I think this was a pretty informative and straightforward book. I guess there are more of these in my future (and my daughter's!).
Molto Agitato: Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera
May 22: My review of Molto Agitato is here.
Season of Migration to the North
An Artist of the Floating World
A Death in the Family
Poems of Paul Celan
June 9: My review of Season of Migration to the North.
June 18: Here is my review of An Artist of the Floating World.
July 2: My review of A Death in the Family.
July 2: My review of Poems of Paul Celan
Murder New York Style
Where Angels Fear to Tread
The Buddha in the Attic
July 3: My review of Murder New York Style.
July 23: Where Angels Fear to Tread review
July 25: Review of The Buddha in the Attic
August 5: Shopgirl review
Thirteen Reasons Why
Nothing to Envy
The Violent Bear It Away
God is Not Great
Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found
Like a Sister
A Season in Hell
Review of Thirteen Reasons Why
Review of Jefferson's Children
Review of The Violent Bear It Away
Review of Like a Sister
Review of Blackbird
Review of Gone Girl
Review of Nothing to Envy
god is Great review
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
Whore's Child and Other Stories
Review of Stoner
Review of Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories
Review of The Jew Store
The Quiet American
The Testament of Mary
The World of Yesterday
Quiet American Review
My review of The Testament of Mary
Review of The World of Yesterday
The Life and Times of Michael K
Review of the Life and Times of Michael K
Farewell Shanghai review
Welcome to LT! I hope you enjoy your time on LT and here with the 75 books challenge!
Welcome, and judging from your "all over the map" interests, and your first book, I think I'll enjoy following your reading. I have starred your thread which means I'll be glancing at it every so often.
I'll try to find your thread as well... (still figuring this all out).
Thank you for your note. Still learning my way around. The wikis should be very helpful. Thank you also for organizing this group. It's wonderful to see the mix of people and places.
Here is a link to my thread. Never worry, you'll get the hang of it.
Peg, in regard to The Belly of Paris, are you by chance a member of the Union Square Reading Group? We are scheduled to read that this spring.
I didn't know about this group and just Googled it. Looks wonderful and the selections look great -- unfortunately not something I can do for the time being though. Maybe in the future.
I'll be very curious to know what you think of the book.
I didn't know about this group and just Googled it. Looks wonderful and the selections look great -- unfortunately not something I can do for the time being though. Maybe in the future.
I'll be very curious to know what you think of the book.
P.S. Just bought The Art of Eating last month. Hope to read that one soon too!
I've "starred" your thread.
Thanks for your kind words and I've starred your thread.
My first attempt at reviews:
China in Ten Words
Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload
China in Ten Words
Yu Hua, is a Chinese fiction and non-fiction author and the winner of the Man Asian Book Award for his novel "Brothers".
Here, he has attempted to distill the character of his country during the 20th century into 10 commonly used Chinese words such as “people”, “revolution”, “leader”, “bamboozle” and “copycat”, In a “the more things change, the more they stay the same” vein, Yu riffs on both contemporary life in China as well as life during the Cultural Revolution. Using each word as a springboard, he links cultural, behoavioral and psychological attributes common to both the Cultural Revolution and the current “economic revolution” and explores how these attributes manifest themselves similarly but with different goals and ends. In each section, he underscores his analysis of the times with (sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking) personal stories often in ways that may surprise the Western reader. He writes, for instance that the Tiananmen Square uprising and subsequent suppression of that movement is largely forgotten and/or ignored by the younger generation.
I found the first 2/3 of the book fascinating but felt that it dragged a bit toward the end.
Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload
by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
In an age where reporting of current events can be found everywhere and anytime, and where “citizen journalists” and 24 hour cable news stations contribute to our understanding of those events, perceptive and thoughtful understanding of issues is both daunting and often dangerously ignored. The authors write that not only does news reporting “blur” the lines of entertainment with the provision of information (inserting a story about a celebrity into a news program for instance), but access to reporting by bloggers and other “citizen journalists” is often more the attempt to affirm our opinion than the effort to seek information.
This relatively short book, written by two veteran journalists, is an effort to explain how to evaluate news stories for authority and accuracy. Though the book is geared toward journalists and consumers of news, it was in fact lent to me by a colleague (a fellow librarian) who uses it to teach a class on Information Literacy – the attempt to teach students how to identify and evaluate credible information sources. The authors write that not only does news reporting “blur” the lines of entertainment and news (inserting a story about a celebrity into a news program for instance), but seeking and reading reporting by bloggers and other “citizen journalists” is often more of an attempt to affirm our opinion than the effort to seek information on a topic. Moreover, the presentation (or omission) of facts in various media, skew the accuracy of the reporting in order to serve up a particular worldview.
The authors present the material in a straightforward manner and provide clear-cut checklists with analysis to be used to verify, evaluate and analyze news sources and stories for accuracy and comprehensiveness. Along the way, they describe the methods used by veteran journalists to gather and assemble information in order to glean the actual facts and report a full story. If you are interested in guidelines to help navigate through the morass of available information, this is a thoughtful treatment of the subject.
17: Blur looks really interesting. I just finished a class on research and am always looking for more information about...information. :) Nice review!
And welcome to the group!
Welcome to the group!
China in Ten Words looks like something I would enjoy. Thank you for the review.
How are you enjoying Zola? He is one of my favorite authors. I've been reading/rereading the Rougon Macquart series in order, and am currently up to Nana. Of course they vary in quality, but most are very good.
Thanks for your note. The China book was very interesting although I thought it was just a bit repetitious at the end. Still an eye-opener done in a unique way and a good read though.
I'm loving the Zola (and almost finished with it)! I've never read any of his books before. He really brings this story and the characters to life for me.
Is there another in the series that you would recommend?
Thanks for your note.
Blur: How to know what's true.. was definitely an interesting read and because it was written from the perspective of journalists and was almost a "how to" kind of book, drove the point home with a little more "general interest" impact than the usual fare I read on the topic. I'll be interested to know what you think of it.
P.S. Just took a look at your thread. Congratulations on your scholarship.
Review: The Belly of Paris
Wow! Where has this book (and author) been all my life? I really enjoyed this wonderful ride through mid 19th century Paris. The author’s writing is almost cinematic and brings vibrancy and life to his story by giving the reader the ability to use every sense - “seeing” the action and characters, smelling, hearing and feeling the setting of the story.
The plot is, in my opinion, somewhat worn and tired and is reminiscent of Victor Hugo, whom the author evidently admired. Florent Quenu, an escaped prisoner of a penal colony, finds his way back to Paris and assumes a new identity with the aid of his brother and sister-in-law, the owners of a successful and burgeoning charcuterie. Florent begins work at Les Halles, a massive central food market where people gather not only to buy and sell food, but where an entire social and political structure has been established. Though he tries to remain inconspicuous, his presence is threatening to the regulars at Les Halles and ignites a series of events intended to re-establish and re-affirm the status quo.
The social and political structure of Zola’s Les Halles, I believe, mirrors that of France at the time, under Napoleon III. Napoleon III, who won a popular election for president of the Republic in 1848, seized power in 1851 after the government’s attempt to enforce term limits. Declaring himself Emperor, he advocated “urban renewal”, economic expansion and modernization under his rule. It was during this time that urban planners designed much of what is now modern Paris and created Les Halles. Zola uses the habitués of Les Halles, specifically their almost gluttonous concern with food as well as their corruption, and determination at any price, to cling to their status and position as metaphors for France under Napoleon III. Oh my gosh - might this also be a story of Bloomberg’s New York? Just asking.
Zola’s writing is engrossing and his descriptions of people and events are not only cinematic but in many cases almost painterly. It can’t be accidental that one of the main characters is Claude Lantier, a painter whose ambition is to capture the people and colors of the market. I believe that Claude is also Zola’s spokesperson because it is he who categorizes the people of Paris as either “Fats” or “Thins”. The “Fats” are the grasping, conniving and duplicitous bourgeoisie of Les Halles whose appetite for maintaining their status and power is matched only by their expanding physical girth.
Now that I’ve read this novel, I am eager to read others in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and would welcome recommendations.
That review is making me think I should dig out some Zola to read. Sounds very fine!
Hey Maggie/Karen :)
It was a really terrific book and judging from your Paris "tour" this month, you might enjoy it. Let me know.
OK, but I doubt it will be very soon. There are a number of books waiting for me to read them, right now!
For your next Zola book, I would suggest that you start with one of the books in the series that seem to be accepted as his "masterpieces." Germinal is about the life of coal miners as they undertake a strike. Terre is about the life of peasants and farmers. Nana is about the life of a courtesan. L'Assomoir is about the poor working class of Paris. All of these are great! I just finished rereading Nana as I work my way through the series.
Your reading list and descriptions are playing havoc with all my well-laid plans! The book was terrific.
Review: The Question of Hu by Jonathan D. Spence
Despite my already huge stack of “to be read” books, I was so intrigued by this book when I read Dr. Neutron’s description/review of it last month that I had to read it. It was well worth the detour too!
This slim book is written by China expert Jonathan Spence and although, it is non-fiction and Spence is an academic, it is written like a work of fiction and just as compelling. Spence’s story, told in the present tense is that of Father Jean-Francois Foucquet, a Jesuit missionary who spent decades in China studying Chinese texts and attempting to link those writings to Christian theology.
When he is recalled to Europe, Fouquet convinces John Hu, a literate Chinese convert to accompany him and assist in the transcription of the Chinese texts. Hu’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and erratic on the journey and once in France, his behavior only worsens. Because of the language barrier, Fouquet is Hu’s only link to communicating with the outside world and he becomes increasingly isolated. Unable to manage his Chinese assistant, a very ambitious and determined Fouquet understands that the situation presents a huge distraction and that Hu is actually becoming a liability. Fouquet ultimately arranges to have him committed to an asylum in Paris.
The story is told sparsely but effectively and I was completely drawn in by this story. Spence only relates to the reader what he has discovered of the story through his extensive and meticulous research (he provides a massive bibliography at the back of the book). Only the very last line of the book appears to be conjecture and "poetic license". The title itself seems to be a pun, because the issue the 21st Century reader walks away with is the issue of identity - both personal and cultural - and how one can live completely isolated in world that is both culturally and personally foreign.
Now back to that "to be read" stack! :)
Review: American Aria by Sherrill Milnes
Moving away from classics and more serious books, I finally read the autobiography of Sherrill Milnes - a book I got as a gift several birthdays ago. Milnes was, for decades a leading baritone at the Metropolitan Opera and someone I watched dozens of times as he helped define many, many of the great roles in opera.
As a huge opera fan, I was eager for lots of behind the scenes stories. He does recount many and there are some genuinely “laugh out loud” moments (which is particularly awkward on a bus or subway!). The most personal and moving chapter is the “Decade of Panic” in which he describes the chronic throat ailment that ultimately derailed his Met career.
That said, the book was disappointing. In many ways it’s just a catalog of events in his life and career with no real analysis. He glosses over the major events (both personal and professional), not so much describing them, but listing them. Several of the stories he recounts are done so in a fairly blatantly self-serving way. For example, he clearly has an ax to grind with some of the folks at the Met and those stories and people are presented with a very obvious bias. I also would have liked to read a bit more of his thoughts on music, opera and his roles. Still, it was a fun read.
P.S. If anyone was an "Odd Couple" fan, you might be interested to know that, gleaning from the book, I'm guessing that Milnes was the baritone originally cast for the "Rigoletto" episode - the one in which Richard Fredricks starred.
Thanks! I've been lurking over at your thread too. Very interesting books. I'm learning that the danger with these threads is the temptation to drop what you're reading and pick up some of the books being discussed.
People of the Book
By: Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks is a former journalist, who covered the Bosnian war, before turning fulltime (I think) to the historical fiction that won her a Pulitzer Prize. Several years ago I read Brooks’ book Year of Wonders and loved it, so I was eager to read her book on the Sarajevo Hagaddah - an actual pre-Inquisition illuminated Jewish volume that survived wars, persecutions, and genocides.
I must say that I felt pretty schizophrenic about this book. The semi-fictional survival and travels of the Hagaddah make for a compelling story and the book uses an interesting literary device so I was drawn in, but the writing was actually pretty cheesy and the dialog made me groan out loud at times. Brooks clearly has done extensive research and intertwines facts (the Hagaddah was in fact hidden and saved in Bosnia by Muslim librarians both during WWII and the Bosnian War), with fictional “back stories” of the various players who created or handled the book throughout its history.
The story opens during the 1996 Bosnian War when Hannah Heath, an Australian book conservator is assigned to Bosnia to analyze and repair the book. She finds a series of artifacts within the book that provide clues to its long convoluted history and survival. Each specimen is then explained in individual chapters through stories that take place in Spain during the Inquisition, medieval Venice, 19th century Vienna, and Bosnia during the Second World War. These stories were much more interesting and fun to read than Hannah’s story which actually connects the others. Though many of the characters in all these stories are based upon actual historical individuals, the “short stories” that Brooks writes on each of them are fictional imaginings.
The dialog is often artless, contrived and “preachy” as if Brooks is using the dialog to underscore the points she is trying to make. Of course, this point is survival despite unimaginable obstacles and the humanity and compassion of people despite differences. The interweaving of fact and fiction made for an interesting read, but Hannah’s story and much of the dialog were disappointing.
Very helpful review, plt. Like you, I loved Year of Wonders, so I was wondering about this one.
Thanks Joe. I've been lurking on your wonderful thread(s) and having a great (albeit quiet) time. I became very intrigued with the Ex Libris conversation and have put it on my to be read pile!
I loved 84 Charing Cross Road and it sounds like the two are similar in ways beyond their subject. Looking forward to reading it.
Hi Peg! Welcome to the group! I'm a future librarian (December 2012) and currently work for the largest library association in the U.S. Also, we seem to have somewhat similar taste, so I've starred your thread.
Thanks for your note! I'm guessing you're in Chicago, based on your comment above. Congrats on almost finishing the MLS.
Took a look (and starred!) your thread. Read Disgrace last year and loved it also, so it will be fun to see what you have to say about the other Coetzee books on your list.
It's too bad that what sounds like a good plot in People of the Book was undermined by bad writing.
Eta: too bad it can't be remade by someone else, like with movies!
A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents--and Ourselves
By: Jane Gross
I haven’t been online in a bit and I’ve missed LT! A host of situations kept me away not the least of which was my mother’s fall and subsequent recooperation. Specifically because of my mom’s situation, a book entitled “A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents --and Ourselves” that appeared on my LT homepage during this period caught my eye. The book is part memoir, part informational and describes the author’s experiences as she and her brother help navigate their increasingly ailing, aging mother through a healthcare maze that frustrates patient, family and healthcare professionals alike.
I found the informational aspects of the book really helpful, useful and very detailed. Gross also includes an appendix at the back of the book that lists geriatric organizations and agencies. She initially approaches her mother’s situation with attempts at the professional efficiency that has allowed her to become a successful journalist only to become frustrated as she finds that she has neither the needed information (which itself is not clear-cut or straightforward) nor the understanding of the intricacies of a system that often functions in shades of gray. Her story was also at times interesting and heartbreaking. Her mother had been a tough and independent person throughout her life and becomes understandably angry and resentful when confronted with the necessity of relying on others. Gross discusses her own feelings and frustrations as she becomes her mother’s primary caregiver, advocate and navigator of the system and in taking on these roles, loses her own independent lifestyle as well. She does have a tendency, sadly typical of my baby boomer generation, to make the story “all about her” and often resorts to an almost whiny self-pity that becomes tiresome. Mother and daughter forge through the process together and in doing so, build a strong relationship (the “bittersweet” aspect of the title). In the end, I found that this was a very useful, informative and illuminating book that gave me a better understanding of this confusing, frustrating yet critical system.
The Omnivore's Dilemma
By: Michael Pollan
Much like my other March read, this book traces the personal journey of an investigative journalist and packs the narrative of that journey with information. The result is a revealing, thoughtful and thought-provoking book.
The subject in this case is the omnivore’s dilemma - given the types of foods humans can eat, how do we decide what (and how) we consume. Pollan writes that this decision has historically been culturally based – what our parents and before them, their parents put on the table. However, Pollan demonstrates that given our technological and logistical advances, culture, geography and history no longer play a role in that decision. A huge disconnect exists in our relationship to the food we eat and how the food that we eat actually comes to our table.
Pollan divides his book into four parts based on food delivery systems: Industrial farming, Big Organic, Small-scale Farming and Hunting and Gathering.
The section on industrial farming reminded me of the line in the movie “The Graduate": “Ben, I just want to say one word to you - plastics”; only for Pollan, that one word is “corn”! He details the perversion in our use of corn. We learn that food producers are given incentives to over-produce corn and that this product has found its way into everything we consume – from the animals we eat (because that is what they are fed), to the additives in processed foods, to our sweeteners and much more. This has a direct effect on our eating habits, on our health and on our economy.
The Big Organic section was the biggest surprise for me. Its springboard is a shopping trip to Whole Foods and Pollan traces the food from this store to the food’s producers. It turns out that the production techniques of large organic food companies (many of whom are subsidiaries of large industrial food producers), are not all that different from the industrial companies.
The small-scale farming section is actually the most moving and beautifully written. Here he visits a small farm and details the cyclical, interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship among the barnyard animals, the grass and the sun, culminating in a meal (that includes corn!) he prepares from that farm.
In an attempt to close the relationship between us and our food, Pollan ultimately hunts and forages in the “wild” (the wild is actually in and near San Francisco). His experiences vividly reveal the origins of the packaged meat we toss into our shopping carts.
Pollan’s book is provocative and gets you thinking about our relationship to our food, from an economic, health and ethical standpoint. There’s nothing preachy in his style - he presents his experiences and findings in a straightforward, often humorous manner.
P.S. And I finally learned WHY egg yolks in this country are so pale compared with those I've seen in other countries! Never found a good explanation for that before.
Great review. A good summary and it helps me think about moving this book closer to the top of my TBR piles. Thanks.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
By: Anne Fadiman
One of the joys of joining LT was the opportunity (excuse?) to handle each of our books in order to add it to the LT catalog. The process has been a bit like a happy reunion with each of our books – memories of acquiring the book, remembering where and when I read the book – a flood of memories (some happy and some not so happy) – and remembering the contents of the book itself.
It was, of course, no wonder that I learned about this small book of essays from lurking here on LT. Joe wrote about it on his really wonderful thread/cafe and also wrote a bit about it on mine. As I am discovering, LT, and specifically the “75 Challengers” have made certain books an irresistible lure for me.
So much has been written about this book already, I will only say that it is a wonderful, humorous and joyful celebration of books, reading and language. I found myself chuckling and nodding over so many of the wonderful essays – the discussion about proofreading restaurant menus was absolutely priceless! Thank you 75ers and thanks Joe!
Ah, my pleasure, Peg. Glad you liked it! I just sent it to one of my sisters as a birthday present. What a gem it is.
Who would you all choose to be the fiction Pulitzer Prize winner?
And the Winner of the Pulitzer Isn’t - NYT 4/18 Ann Patchett
#51: One of my favorite books of all-time. I am glad to see that you enjoyed it, Peg!
Hi Stasia. I really loved that book - I actually owe this happy discovery to both you and Joe, so thank you both!
Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera
By: Johanna Fiedler
I'm baaack! So very sorry to have been away and I look forward to catching up with the threads (seems a bit daunting, but fun). Only one book read since I've been away, but a fun one! Looking forward to summer when I typically get in a lot of reading time. In the meantime, my review.
Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera
What a delicious read this was! This behind-the-scenes history of the Metropolitan Opera was written by the late Johanna Fiedler, a former Metropolitan Opera press liaison and a member of American music “royalty” - she was the daughter of Boston Pops conductor, Arthur Fielder – and it is both interesting and fun.
We learn about the beginnings of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met was created by robber barons and their wives in an attempt to outdo the old-money blue-blood New Yorkers who denied them entrée into the world of culture, arts and high society at New York’s Academy of Music. As Fiedler herself writes, these new money folks basically constructed “tiers of boxes with an opera house built to surround them”. It soon became the place to see and be seen. Lavish dinners were held in the boxes, which were actually inherited seats, and status was determined through social activity at the Opera. Ironically, Fielder’s descriptions of this early social activity at the Metropolitan mirror her descriptions of social activity (and climbing?) in the 1980’s with the rise of dot.com wealth and flamboyance.
The early years are fascinating indeed, but Fiedler saves the best dish for the “modern era” of the Met – The Rudolf Bing years and beyond. Here are the stories of over-the-top egos and personalities. A backstage shoving match between a slightly injured Luciano Pavarotti and an under-the-weather guest conductor to vie for the attention of a doctor is hysterically funny. There are marvelous quotes. A musician’s union attorney attempts to defuse tensions during negotiations by saying apologetically to Rudolf Bing “I guess I’m sometimes my own worst enemy”. Fiedler quotes Bing as tersely replying “Not while I’m still alive!”
Fiedler goes into detail describing the sometimes appalling behavior of divas, -not just the singers, but several of the other artists as well- and the Met’s attempts to deal with them. The political machinations of the opera house are also described. And of course, the Met’s constant friction with its unions is a running theme. Some folks come off well in this book, others, not so well. It does appear that Fiedler did not want to ruffle too many feathers of current personalities. Though one could wish for even more digging into the workings and personalities of the Met, to quote Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike: “Not much meat on her, but what there is, is cherce (choice)
The description of Peter Gelb, the Met’s current General Manager is quite interesting (even the General Manager title has undergone changes to reflect responsibilities and Fiedler chronicles those changes). Gelb was not yet the General Manager when she wrote the book. She notes that Gelb, the son of the NYT Managing Editor, Arthur Gelb, proved his chops under the notorious Ronald Wilford as an artists’ manager and then, in Columbia Artist Management Video division. He comes off as a somewhat mercenary character. Fiedler quotes Joseph Volpe the previous Met GM as saying that he would like to “throw Gelb across Lincoln Center”. The background information unwittingly provides context for the current policy and artistic changes at the Met under Gelb.
The book was written in 2001 and contains a 2004 afterword but sadly we now have even more context for events. Ms. Fiedler died in a year ago after a long illness. Much of the afterword foreshadows events that include the untimely deaths of Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti as well as James Levine’s severe health problems. Given what she writes about Gelb, the book provides interesting context for the various policy changes at the Met under Gelb.
Review: Season of Migration to the North
by Tayeb Salih
Though a translation, this is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time - It’s also one of the most violent and disturbing. Written in 1966 soon after Sudan’s independence from Great Britain, it is a searing critique of the impact of colonialism and the re-assertion of power (and revenge) by the conquered over the conqueror. Even more stunning is that the author depicts this power struggle not just between nations but between cultures, races and (most surprisingly) gender. The struggle for power is symbolized by the relationships between the main character and the various women in his life and during the novel’s denouement, the struggle is depicted as a rape with horrible consequences for all involved.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who returns to his Sudanese village along the Nile after having studied poetry in England. His description of his return is heartbreakingly beautiful and as he assures the curious villagers that the English are much like them, he also tells the reader how comforting it is to be home and how alien life in England was for him. He describes his homecoming as being like “a palm tree, a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose.”
Among the villagers is a stranger to the narrator. The stranger, Mustafa Sa’eed and the narrator develop a kind of conflicted relationship when Sa’eed admits that he too, had spent many years “in the North”, studying in England. It is Mustafa and his life both in the Sudanese village and in England that drive the story and that characterize the relationship between “North and South” – Empire and colony.
Though the narrator acknowledges progress made in his village due to British influence, the bond between the two countries is poisoned by the unequal nature of the relationship. This is extended to and symbolized by Sa’eed. For example, Sa’eed’s home in England is described in detail and is decorated with relics from his homeland. Conversely, his Sudanese home has a locked annex which the narrator ultimately enters to find a typically English reading room with not “a single Arab book”. By locking and hiding the this room from the villagers, Mustafa is making a statement about the influence his British time has on him.
Events in the village confirm for the narrator that he too, cannot reconcile North and South. This internal and external conflict reaches a breaking point and the narrator does ultimately come to terms with it. Whether or not he can go forward with his new understanding is left open to the reader’s interpretation.
This is a beautifully written, disturbing book that, though short, takes time to fully digest.
Review: An Artist of the Floating World
by Kazuo Ishiguro
I hadn’t read any of Ishiguro’s works before, though I loved the film “Remains of the Day” (based on his work of the same name). Several of the themes I remember from that film can be found in this novel – acknowledging and coming to grips with misdirected national loyalties and actions and the related consequences. In this case, the misdirected national loyalties are to the militaristic and expansionist goals that led Japan into a disastrous war. This is a really wonderful little book, beautifully written and so thought-provoking. I thought the book was so powerful in no small part because its style is so understated. The wonderful writing drew me in immediately, but the impact of the story is gradual.
The story is told as personal reminiscences, by Ono - who, he tells us, was at one time a highly respected and prominent artist. Now retired and living in postwar Japan, Ono and his family struggle to come to grips with a society that is at once in ruins and also rapidly progressing toward a new future. Ono is forced to confront his past as he and his family attempt to arrange a traditional marriage for his younger daughter. Because the story is told in the first person as a kind of meandering reminiscence and chronicle, our awareness and understanding of Ono’s actions and their repercussions unfold as slowly as his own understanding of those events.
I felt that Ishiguro uses the character’s artwork as a symbol for 20th century Japan. Initially, Ono works in an almost assembly-like setting for an organization that produces stereotypically Japanese artwork geared to foreigners. This “opening of Japan” provides outsiders with a reflection of their own perceptions of the culture and history of the country. Ono then moves to another group that paints in the style of Utamoro an 18th century artist considered to be one of Japan’s greatest artists/printmakers. The group, under the leadership of their master-teacher, emulates this traditional style but modifies Utamoro’s color palette toward a more European color scheme. The change at once engenders resentment of the movement toward Western style as well as a capitulation toward Western ideals of empire building. This change ultimately acts as a springboard for Ono to embrace ultra-nationalism as a painter of war-time propaganda posters.
As an aside, I found the description of Ono’s work environment in the artist colonies interesting especially when compared with his sons-in-law’s corporate work environment in the 1950’s. Both environments are headed up by patriarchal authorities to whom employees defer and seek to emulate. Because of his subtle and elegant style, Ishiguro only infers this similarity and any meaning it might have. As he does with the entire story, he allows his reader to tease out this point and any broader significance it may have.
A Death in the Family
by James Agee
As the title suggests, this is an account of the reaction by family members to the sudden death of Jay Follett. The semi-autobiographical novel - Agee’s father died when the author was a young boy - takes place over a period of a few days and the story weaves back and forth, both in time (directly before and after the event) and from the perspective of each family member. I loved the style of the writing which is evocative and almost dreamlike. Though very understated and quiet, the book delves most poignantly, into the thoughts and confusion of Jay’s young son, Rufus. The story is book-ended by walks Rufus takes, first with his father and finally with his uncle. More than anywhere else in the book, it is in these walks that the reader is able to see Rufus’ past and present relationship to both his family and to the world around him. The walks he takes appear to augur his development as a person in his own right, always connected though, to the protection and love of his family.
Poems of Paul Celan
Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel (Ancel) in 1920 in Romania. His parents were murdered in concentration camps and his mother’s grisly death informed many of his most well-known poems. After the war, Celan changed his name, using an anagram, moved to Paris, wrote poetry and today is considered one of the greatest post-war European poets. Like several of his generation of Jewish writers who survived the Holocaust (including Jean Amery, whose name, by the way, was also an anagram of his birth name, Hans Maier), Celan ultimately committed suicide. Several of his most famous poems can be found in this anthology.
Celan’s poetry, which centers around the Holocaust, is difficult and frightening. The language is dense, rich in metaphor, musical symbols and allusions to both Biblical and mythical imagery. One of the most haunting poems is Todesfuge or Death Fugue. This poem is at once mournful and caustic. Without explication, it evokes the death of innocence, the crematoria and the genocide of a people. Another great poem is Shibboleth, whose title is, in itself, symbolic of the classification and destruction of a people. Celan’s poetry isn’t easy to read or interpret but is heartbreaking and really powerful. I only wish I could find a recording of his poems because I suspect hearing his poems would be even more powerful and affecting.
I love James Agee! Have you read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? It is wonderful, IMHO.
This was my first Agee. I loved the book.
I tried getting Let Us Now Praise... on my Nook. Seems it's not available. I will definitely follow up with a trip to the bookstore/library! Thank you so much for the recommendation.
Murder New York Style
Such a fun idea. Such a terrible book. I was looking for a really quick and fun read. This book, an anthology of short murder stories organized by borough (and, in some cases, localities near NYC) is quick but not fun. With one or two exceptions, the stories are embarrassingly poorly written and just kind of dumb. By all means, don't bother.
>69 Hi Kerri. Thanks for visiting! A Death in the Family was wonderful and based on Karen's recommendation, I hope to read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men later this year. Good luck with the new job and with your last?? semester at Library School. Based on my experience attending and teaching in (for a long time) library schools, I can tell you it's a great feeling to be done.
#70 - Hi Peg - Yes! I'll be done in December - two more classes. It will be an amazing feeling!
#71 - Kerri,
That amazing feeling is well deserved. A lot of time and hard work goes into that accomplishment (especially because you are working at the same time)!. It's like a gift to get your life back.
What interesting reading you've been doing, Peg. Your Artist of the Floating World review has tipped the balance for me, and onto the tbr it goes.
#73 - Kerri, can we get autographed copies?
#74 - Joe – thanks for stopping by and welcome back from what sounds (and looks) like an amazing trip. I loved the Ishiguro book and look forward to hearing what you think of it. I actually was just about to post on your thread. I spoke to an old friend of mine from Chicago whose husband has spent a lot of time working in both New Zealand and Australia. We were talking about Librarything (she’s a librarian too) and I mentioned your quest for Big Head beer in Chicago. She says that the brand isn’t available in the U.S. but recommended this site for Aussie beers available in Chicago. There is a tab to search for beers by country on the top of the page.
Thanks, Peg. Yes, it was a terrific trip to the land down under. Seems like your friend's right, darn it - can't track down the Aussie Bighead beer here. Maybe that'll change. We found, and drank over the weekend, Cooper's at a nearby store, so that helped.
Joe - Based on what my friend tells me, you all are suffering with the same heat wave as us, so I'm glad you found someplace for a cool beverage!
Where Angels Fear to Tread
by E.M. Forster
Where Angels Fear to Tread is a short novel that I think might have been an even better short story. It really is a wonderful story, but I felt that the author often got bogged down in exposition and could have cut to the chase with as much and maybe even more impact. As he does in other novels, Forster skewers the conventional, oh-so-proper, early 20th century middle-class British by exposing them (and us) to the spontaneous vitality of Italy. His British characters literally and figuratively embark on journeys from one extreme to the other and come out a little wiser for it.
The story basically centers around two trips to Italy made by members of the Herriton family. In the first journey, Philip Herriton comes to Italy at the behest of his mother in order to dissuade his widowed sister-in-law from marrying Gino, a much younger local man and – horrors – the son of a provincial dentist. He discovers that he is too late and that his sister-in-law’s British travelling companion, Caroline Abbott, not only abbetted the marriage but was deceptive when writing to the family about its status and that of the groom.
The second part of the book revolves around the second trip Philip makes to adopt and/or purchase the baby who is the product of the doomed marriage. A guilt-ridden Caroline Abbott has returned to the Italian town to retrieve the baby as well - and to save it from both the Herritons and from Gino. It is in this section that the conflict between right and wrong, love and moralistic self-righteousness as well as impulse and calculation is played out. It seems to me that the turning point for Caroline and Philip occurs during their attendance of a provincial performance of the opera, Lucia di Lammermoor. It can be no coincidence that Forster chooses this opera, written by the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti and based on Sir Walter Scott’s story of a family’s disastrous attempt to intervene in a marriage that would have dire consequences for their prosperity, reputation and standing in the community.
Both Caroline’s and Philip’s transformation and growth come when British middle class rectitude and Italian passion literally and figuratively collide. The two (especially Philip) are at first charmed in an arrogant, morally superior and disdainful way by the Italian lifestyle. This attitude is then replaced by horror and ultimately, the two main characters are transformed by their exposure to Italy and come to understand, accept and embrace what it represents – both the beautiful and the ugly. In the end, they come to a much broader understanding and acceptance of the fullness of a life that includes mercy and cruelty, love and hate and good and evil.
#78 - Nice review, even if it was a tad disappointing. E. M. Forster is on my list of author's to read, but I'll probably start with A Passage to India.
The Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka
The Buddha in the Attic is the story of a generation of Japanese women immigrants who came to California as picture brides – essentially arranged mail correspondence brides whose husbands had only exchanged a photo and brief description of themselves from across the ocean. The book follows the lives of these women from their journey from Japan to California in around 1918 through their deportation to internment camps during WWII. In between, we come to understand their disillusionment, struggles, and strength.
At first I thought the unusual literary device the author employs would not sustain my interest but as I read the first few pages I found myself completely mesmerized. The main character in the book is this group of picture brides. The book is written in the first person plural and often consists mainly of lists:
Some of us worked quickly to impress them. Some of us worked quickly just to show that we could pick plums and top beets and sack onions and crate berries just as quickly if not more quickly than the men. Some of us worked quickly because we had spent our entire childhoods bent over barefoot in the rice paddies and already knew what to do. Some of us worked quickly because our husbands had warned us that if we did not they would send us home on the very next boat.
By employing this device the author gives voice to these women in a way that wouldn’t be nearly as impactful if this story recounted the experience of one or two named individuals. “We” makes it at once universal and personal. The technique creates a lyrical, haunting and poetic chant that I found driving. The story gives us the collective experience, but also underscores the individual impact. To reinforce that the group comprises individuals, Otsuka interjects one sentence quotes by individuals in italics. This technique reinforces for the reader that this is not a faceless group but a collective made of individuals.
If I have one bone to pick, it would be in the acknowledgments. Otsuka writes that she drew from various sources though "there is not room here to mention them all." Excuse me, really???? I have problems with that on many levels and, I believe, so should any author.
That said, this is one of the most unusual books I’ve read and is a compelling and haunting story that personalizes a too overlooked and shameful episode in American history.
#81 - Excellent review and interesting discussion of the first person plural thing. I've read that mentioned somewhere else, but wasn't sure if I could take it throughout the entire novel. Your review makes me more likely to give it a try.
by Steve Martin
My interest in this book was sparked this past winter when reading about it in a 75 thread. I’d enjoyed some of Steve Martin’s short stories in the New Yorker, but never realized he’d written novels. His voice certainly comes through in this novella about isolation, communication and relationships. The story concerns a young woman who has moved from Vermont to LA (where else) and works at the glove counter at Nieman Marcus while half-heartedly pursuing an art career. She is sad and lonely figure who tends to observe life just as she observes store activity from behind her forlorn glove counter. She is wooed (rather implausibly) by an older businessman and the two begin a relationship. Each misconstrues the desires of the other and the story revolves around the consequences of these misinterpretations. I thought the characters were not particularly well developed and the story is wrapped up a little too neatly. Secondary characters are kind of one dimensional and in fact their stories are not credible at all, but it’s a sweet story nonetheless.
Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher
My 16 year old daughter Becca and I have been weeding her bookcases. I got her this book several years ago and thought she might like it. When she told me it was poorly written and clichéd (she’s an avid reader and something of a writer herself), I was surprised.
So now that we’re about to get rid of the book, I cracked it open and read it. Becca was 100% right.
The story is Hannah’s re-telling and explanation in 13 cassette tapes of why she ultimately takes her own life. Each cassette explains why her interactions with the 13 particular individuals named in the tapes led to her sense of betrayal and her decision to commit suicide. The tapes are sent posthumously with instructions to listen and to pass the tapes on to the next named person. What might have been a really good YA book and a great springboard for discussion instead becomes overly angsty and hackneyed.
The theme - the impact of minor and not-so-minor actions and words on people is an important one, but the execution of the story was, in my opinion, weak.
Hi Peg - Sorry your last two were a bit disappointing. I hope you read something fantastic next!
Checking in, Peg. It has been a while.
I hope your next read is better for you!
This is from a while ago, but I think Where Angels Fear to Tread is kind of a shadow of A Room with a View. The former is more serious, but they have similar themes and settings, and A Room with a View has a liveliness that Where Angels Fear to Tread lacks. I would recommend Howards End over A Passage to India, too.
>86 Hey Kerri. Yeah, these last 2 books weren't superb, but I'm glad I read them.
We're leaving for our annual 2 week stay on the beach. No (or anyway, little) electronic access and tons of time for reading, so there should be some good books in the batch I've packed. (In the last minute, I added Gone Girl to my Nook based on the conversations over on Joe's Cafe.)
>87 Hi Stasia - thanks for dropping by! I've been lurking over on your thread. Interesting stuff going on over there.
I absolutely loved your stepping up on the soapbox and couldn't agree more with you! Our whole group couldn't exist if we were all expected to have the same opinion of each book. Bravo to you for stepping up!
>88 Thanks for visiting Carly. And thank you for your thoughtful Forster recommendations. I've put Howards End on the tbr list.
Off to the beach! *See* you all in two weeks!
#89: Thanks, Peg. Feel free to lurk any time :)
Have a great time at the beach!
I don't know how I came to miss another Peg (I'm Peggy) among the 75ers! Looks like you have moved in and made a home!
I see some familiar books here and some that are going to stretch my reading habits. I'm pretty sure now that I need to read Zola, and all that remains is to keep him in mind and carve out a time!
A much-belated welcome to you!! And Happy Beach Vacation!
I'm back. We had a lovely 2 weeks on Fire Island, a barrier beach off of Long Island where we go every year and came back super relaxed and happy. Lots of swimming, biking, staring out at nothing in particular and of course, lots of reading (see the top of the threadpage for the list. The reviews will follow soon, I hope). Now it's time to gear up for Fall, work, daughter's school and to catch up on my 75 thread reading.
>90: Stasia - thanks for your nice wishes. Great vacation, but also great to be back in the loop.
>91: Wow Peggy - Thank you so much for your visit! Fun to see another Peggy around. I'm still finding my way around this wonderful group and have now browsed and starred your very active and interesting thread. I'm looking forward to keeping up.
Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture
by Leon Botstein
Leon Botstein is the longtime president of Bard College (at 23 he was the youngest college president in American history), he is the director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and is an iconoclastic educator. In many ways, he is a true Renaissance man.
I guess I should have read this book several years ago – my daughter attends Bard High School Early College – the school Botstein founded and that is based on the ideas in this book. Nevertheless, the book was compelling and Botstein is clearly brilliant.
Botstein maintains that high school, or at least the high school curriculum has been reduced to rote learning reinforced by standardized tests. He basically makes a case that, by and large, teens are warehoused until college. He states that this is not only a huge disservice to teens who are eager and wired to learn, and are bored in the current system, but warehousing kids in high school for four years is an unnecessary expense. Essentially, he advocates abolishing much of high school, taking advantage of the teenage mind and treating that mind with more respect by challenging teens to analyze, explore ideas and to learn how to think critically. In other words, he is advocating for a more substantive education. He argues that teenagers are ready and wired to start thinking critically and that advancing them supports this readiness and motivates them. He argues against those who hold that the American educational system has decayed and that we need to examine and replicate the past. He posits that this is a kind of backward thinking based in nostalgia and not necessarily on past success.
In order to accomplish the abolition of high school and the advancement of younger teens to college level education, Botstein encourages an evolution in both a parental and educator approach to teens. He advocates for a cross between teacher and college professor for kids. He wants kids to be exposed to people trained in subject specialties rather than teaching/education; people who are both passionate about and immersed in particular subject specialties. He also makes the case that in general, teachers need to emulate sports coaches in that there needs to be constant and immediate response to kids in to maximize effectiveness. For parents, Botstein provides twenty-four maxims (one for every hour of the day) by which to live and raise intellectually curious kids.
I was impressed by the book. Botstein is ground breaker and since the writing of this book many early college high schools based on my daughter’s school have opened throughout the country. Though the workload is huge and she has had to sacrifice some out of school interests, my daughter is thriving at the school, loves it and wouldn’t think of going anywhere else.
The Violent Bear It Away
by Flannery O'Connor
No character comes off well in this book, my first foray into the works of Flannery O’Connor, and I believe this is her point.
Mason Tarwater (Old Tarwater) lives in the Southern backcountry and considers himself a religious prophet. He kidnapped his orphaned great-nephew Francis Tarwater as a baby from the child’s uncle Rayber in an effort to bring the child up with his fanatical brand of religion and to save Francis (who prefers being called Tarwater) from Rayber. Rayber, a teacher lives in town and is rearing his mentally disabled son named Bishop. Francis is 14 when his great-uncle dies and he must fulfill Old Tarwater’s final two wishes – to be given a Christian burial and to ensure that Bishop is baptized. The story revolves around Tarwater’s brutal struggles to reconcile the fanaticism of Old Tarwater with the strident rationalism of Uncle Rayber and culminates in a brutal reckoning.
Though the book is unwaveringly dark, the writing is engrossing, and the characters are vibrantly written. The story presents us with questions about the nature of good and evil, right and wrong and faith and reason and upon finishing the novel we are no closer to answers than when we started. I couldn’t help but think about today’s environment where strident and self righteous views too often obstruct and frustrate any attempts at exchange of ideas.
Like a Sister
by Janice Daugharty
Sister, whose actual name is never learned, is a 13 year old girl growing up in abject poverty in the rural South during the 1950’s. Her unreliable mother Marnie essentially abandons her much of the time, leaving Sister to try her best to take care of her younger siblings. Sadly though, because of her youth and isolation, her best is barely enough for all the children to survive. At the same time, Sister is forced to grapple with the adults in her the community some of whom create a menacing and dangerous presence in the vulnerable girl’s life. One neighbor sees the helplessness of the girl and attempts to come to her aid. Sister’s ambivalent love for her mother though creates conflict. She is determined to bring up the 3 younger children as she waits for her mother, yet is unable to succeed at the task and understands that she needs both help and love that she lacks from her mother. I thought the novel was well-written, and evokes both time and place beautifully.
Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found
by Jennifer Lauck
This heartrending memoir reads like a novel and is told from the perspective of a child. Five year old Jenny grapples singlehandedly with the illness and death of her mother, her father’s remarriage to a woman who has no use for her and is the definition of an evil stepmother. After her father’s sudden death, Jenny literally has to make it on her own. Her experiences, helplessness and survival read like a novel and this novelistic re-telling through a child’s eyes, results in a riveting story that transcends the melodrama it could otherwise have been.
Whoa, baby, you've been reading some dark materials. Was that a choice on your part, do you prefer dark writing? I think I could enjoy reading a couple of these books but maybe not one right after the other.
>97: Ha! Karen, I honestly didn't notice the pattern until I read your message.
But as they say on late night TV, wait there's more! I haven't finished writing all my reviews (including A Season in Hell and Nothing to Envy - the book about life in North Korea). Despite these choices, we really did have a wonderful and happy vacation.
Well, I guess I would say that it is a very good thing that RL is going well, cuz your reading life is definitely visiting some sad and dark corners of human life. Not that I don't go there, occasionally, myself. Interesting! Enjoy the rest of your review writing. Looking forward to the next ones.
by Gillian Flynn
What a fun summer read! Got the idea to bring this one along on our vacation after reading Joe’s review of the book.
Amy and Nick are both young writers who meet, fall in love and marry. They move into an apartment in Brooklyn and begin what seems to be a perfect life together. Before long, both lose their jobs and they reluctantly decide to move to Nick’s hometown in Missouri where he and his sister open a bar and where he can take care of his ailing parents. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing. Though he proclaims his innocence, all indications point to Nick's guilt. Then, midway through the book – a twist! Just as we are adjusting to the twist – another twist! So many twists, I half expected to hear Chubby Checkers start singing!
I generally don’t like mysteries, thrillers, suspense stories. The book does drag a bit and once we are introduced to the twist(s), I felt a bit impatient to cut to the chase already. Several parts of the story seemed just a bit too pat not especially well written and frankly, a bit silly. But if you suspend belief, roll your eyes a bit, and dig in, it really is a fun read.
Nothing to Envy
by: Barbara Demick
Here is another book so compellingly reviewed by a 75er that I set aside a number of TBR books to read it.
Barbara Demick, a foreign correspondent covering Asia for the Los Angeles Times has written a devastating account of life in North Korea during the last 20 or so years. The title is taken from the lyrics of a popular North Korean song, whose words are *We have nothing to envy in the world*. Demick interviewed numerous defectors now living in South Korea and the book revolves around their personal stories while also giving context to those stories through a history and examination of the country. She selected defectors who came from the same town – Chongjin – a fairly remote but once semi-prosperous factory town. When the former Soviet Union collapsed and China stopped trading with North Korea mainly for economic reasons, the country became completely isolated and despite protestations from its government to the contrary, its people suffered endless famine and deprivation.
Demick begins her book by describing a country without electricity and this account of a people in the dark in every sense of that word, is at once horrifying and tragic.
As electricity becomes scarcer and scarcer, factories in Chongjin stop operating, workers are no longer paid and even the factory managers advise workers that they are on their own. Because they live in a city, resources dwindle until they vanish. Demick provides accounts of people who are forced to literally scavenge for food. She recounts for example, how people attempt to make a kind of gruel from tree bark. Because of their complete isolation from the rest of the world and because of the totalitarian nature of the regime, these defectors realize very slowly that their lives are endangered in their country and that it won’t get better for them. One of the people Demick follows, Mrs. Song, who had been a true believer throughout her life, (though not in a zealous way), desperately watches as her mother-in-law, her husband and finally, her son, die of starvation. Another, a doctor who also grew up fully believing in the regime, goes to China in search of her recently deceased father’s family. Only when she sees a bowl of rice set out by a house there, does she come to understand that “even a dog in China eats better than a North Korean”.
Through these stories, we come to understand that this nation operates through a combination of repression, enforced reverence of the leaders and utter seclusion.
Demick also writes about the lives of the defectors in South Korea. The transition is not easy and their stories don’t always end happily. However, it is her description of life in North Korea that is both chilling and makes for gripping reading.
by: John Williams
Without any question, the best book I’ve read this year and one of the best books I’ve ever read.
The story itself is prosaic – a poor farm boy, William Stoner, from a small town in the Midwest at the beginning of the 20th century attends college to study agronomy and falls in love with literature. He studies and then teaches literature at the same school and along the way marries, encounters personal and professional disappointments and frustrations and soldiers on.
That’s the story, but that’s not what makes this an exquisitely crafted, profoundly moving and I believe, fundamentally American novel. As the protagonist himself discovers, this book allows the reader to experience “epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words”.
Stoner lives quiet but driven life. He has two passions: his quest for love and his devotion to literature. His pursuit of these passions is constantly thwarted in both small and large ways, but he never loses his determination. In fact, a college friend early on in the book says to Stoner:
“You are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own Midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky….You think there’s something here, something to find….Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. … You couldn’t face them and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak and you’re too strong.”
It is in fact Stoner’s quiet inner strength and stubborn pursuit of his quest that allow him ultimately to know personal and professional fulfillment against all odds. These traits and not the trappings of success and achievement allow Stoner fulfillment in the end.
god is not Great
by: Christopher Hitchens
I’ve been meaning to read this for some time and put it on my TBR shelf last year when Hitchens died. Though I didn’t always agree with him, I admired him for his eloquence and wit. I also admired him for thinking critically through issues and arriving his own conclusions which were not always in step with his peers or even his own - he went so far as to change his own opinion on certain issues.
God is not great did not disappoint me. Hitchen's arguments against religion (and he is definitely an equal opportunity critic and opponent of all religions) contain much of the usual criticisms including community consequences of dissent, wars and bloodshed in the name of religion, the tribal nature of religion and the acceptance of unverifiable religious stories which he finds childlike. While these arguments have been leveled many times by many people, few have been as clever, funny or eloquent. He is worth reading.
I'm pretty stunned at all your reading and good reviewing, Peg. Ten years ago I would have jumped on the *Jefferson's Children*, but now I am out of it. I am, however, off to investigate *Stoner*, and I don't really see how I could have missed it. Thanks for introducing me!
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by: Mary Ann Shaffer
This is a lovely, if flawed, little book about an episode during World War II about which I was not aware – the German occupation of the Channel Islands.
The book is written in epistolary format (think 84 Charing Cross Road – and clearly the author did too), that is, the book is comprised of a series of letters. Juliette is a young London author who achieved some renown and notoriety writing about London during the war and particularly during the Blitz. Now that the war is over, she and her publisher are struggling to find a subject for her next book when a letter arrives from Guernsey. The letter’s author has found a used book formerly owned by Juliette (with her name and address) about Charles Lamb and because the island’s bookstores were destroyed by the Germans, requests not only that she recommend other books by the author, but to put him in touch with a London bookseller to order the recommended books.
A correspondence between Juliette and the Guernsey resident ensues and Juliette learns about the Literary Society, and its origins. Soon, she’s corresponding with many of the members – all of whom are rather eccentric - and she becomes enchanted with and drawn to their individual and group stories of struggle and survival during the German occupation. The group itself seems to have at its center one individual, Elizabeth McKenna, who has been missing since her arrest during the occupation. Juliette becomes intrigued enough with the various society members in general and with Elizabeth in particular that she ultimately journeys to Guernsey. Once there, she decides to center her book around Elizabeth and her story.
Despite the fact that many of the characters lack any depth and are kind of stock characters (quirky. charming and lovable folks, each with his/her own eccentricity), the heroine, Elizabeth is completely one-dimensional and the editing of the novel itself is a little sloppy (in one section, Juliette talks about weight and having lost 6 pounds - pounds really?) - I found myself immersed in the book, thoroughly enjoying the story, learning about a chapter in World War II that I never knew about and rooting for these Literary Society members and for Juliette.
>#104 Hi Peggy. Stoner was a really, really great book. I hadn't heard of it either until recently and can't imagine why this isn't up there with the classics. It should be.
The Whore's Child and Other Stories
By: Richard Russo
Unlike my last book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, all of Richard Russo’s characters in this short story collection are flawed, complex and richly drawn. I’ve read and loved many of Russo’s novels and his short stories did not disappoint. Most of the stories in this collection were the seeds for the novel Straight Man – a poignant, hilarious and caustic look at life in academia. Russo is a gifted writer and observer of people and their foibles. What I also love about Russo’s stories (short or otherwise) is his refusal to wrap his stories with a neat bow. The endings leave their somewhat deceived and foolish, but always very human characters a little wiser.
The protagonists in these stories are psychically and (in most cases, physically) wounded as they reflect on and respond to the intimacy and alienation they experience with those closest to them – wives, parents, children and friends. Russo’s writing is razor-sharp and he manages to elicit compassion for his characters despite their obvious and often unsympathetic faults. Each compact story recounts an episode in the protagonist’s life (a boy whose mother impulsively leaves her husband and takes her son on a cross-country journey, an older nun-the title story-who mysteriously enrolls in a college creative writing class and a man who seeks out the lover of his now deceased wife). In each story, the protagonist grapples with his understanding of himself and the meaning of his relationships to those closest to him.
Russo is a terrific and incisive writer who uniquely combines poignancy and often heartbreak with sharp humor. He doesn’t spell out his points, but his rich portrayal of his characters allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of contemporary life.
Hi Peggy! I'm really enjoying your excellent reviews! I'm particularly interested in Stoner, which I've never heard of. It will go directly to my wishlist.
Have a lovely weekend!
Kerri, hi! Thanks for stopping by -- I haven't been on in a while and just now read your lovely post. Have to catch up on the threads.
Stoner was such a beautifully written book. I'd never heard of it either until recently. I can't recommend it enough.
by Stella Suberman
A book recommended by a fellow Librarythinger. Suberman has written a memoir of her childhood as a child of Russian Jewish immigrants who opened a "Jew store" (a dry goods) store in a remote, small southern town in the 1920's. The book recounts their lives as outsiders and their slow but sure adjustment - and the adjustment of the townspeople - to life in the town. A sweet story.
The Quiet American
by Graham Greene
The Quiet American is at once infuriating and compelling. Greene’s story of America's early intervention in South East Asia clearly foreshadows not only our misguided and disastrous war there, but our recent attempts at “democratization” and “nation building” in the Mid-East. At the same time, Greene (unwittingly?) shows us the European exploitation of their colonies and colonists.
The story itself is an allegory, its characters are metaphors. Alden Pyle, a young, naïve and very straight-laced American has been sent to Vietnam as an agent to establish a “third force”, that is, an alternative to European colonialism and Asian communism. He meets Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist who has been stationed in Vietnam for some time and who has been having an affair with a young Vietnamese girl named Phuong. Phuong is depicted as quiet and acquiescent but her sister is eager to see her married and settled. Pyle falls in love with her and becomes determined to marry her. He also declares his intentions to Fowler believing that this is the right and honorable thing to do.
The book begins with Pyle’s murder and the bulk of the story is flashback. The mystery of Pyle’s death is only revealed toward the end of the book. As we follow the relationship between Pyle and Fowler, we also are exposed to Greene’s attitude toward the United States. Fowler clearly believes that the United States’ attempt to intervene in Southeast Asian politics is at once arrogant and self-serving. Early on, Fowler (speaking for Greene) states about Pyle:
He was absorbed already in the Dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined … to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve.
What was most interesting to me is the way in which the three characters are portrayed. Pyle, representing the archetypal American, wants to do the right thing by Phuong, that is, he wants a conventional American marriage with the prospect of children. Just as he bases his beliefs, activities and goals in Vietnam on foreign policy books he’s read, so too, he envisions a by-the-book marriage. He plans to create in Phuong the typical American wife, living the typical American dream. He doesn’t see this as forcing a cultural change; it’s the only option – in his mind, he’s doing the right and good thing and his plans will allow Phuong to live the best life possible . It mirrors exactly his (and by extension, the U.S.) goals in Indochina.
Fowler is depicted as cynical, detached, selfish and arrogant. Married to a devout Catholic woman who won’t grant him a divorce, he is content to use Phuong for drugs and sex. He admires her in a condescending way. His way is the colonial way.
Finally, Phuong is the metaphor for European colonies – silent, exotic and compliant. She is a subject who is exploited by Fowler.
In this age of “nation building”, leading from behind and democratization, the book serves as a cautionary tale. On the other hand, whether Greene intended to show us or not, he demonstrates how European smugness, cynicism, exploitation and arrogance can also lead to a dangerous, fragmented and resentful world.
The book's portrayal of people (and by extension, nations) who are oblivious to other's perception of them and to the genuine desires and needs of others made me think of the Robert Burns quote:
*O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.*
I hope you will put your review on the book's page so that I may give it a thumbs up. Very nice review.
The Testament of Mary
by Colm Toibin
I read Toibin’s The Master some years ago and enjoyed the imagining of the inner life of Henry James. This fictional account of James’ relationship with his family succeeded in humanizing the man who grew up in one of America’s most successful and accomplished families. In the novella, The Testament of Mary, Toibin explores the relationship of a much more storied and celebrated family – Jesus and Mary – through a fictionalized first-hand telling of the story by Mary. The result is both poetic and iconoclastic.
The book takes place years after the crucifixion and consists of Mary’s reflections on her life, Jesus’ life and their relationship. Instead of depicting Mary as she is in art, (the Pieta), or in the Gospels of the New Testament, Toibin doesn’t portray her as silent and sorrowful. Instead, he gives her a strong and at times, angry voice as he explores the relationship of mother and son (as opposed to Mother and Son). Mary expresses the profound concern she had about the people with whom he chose to associate, their influence on him and most of all, she worried about his public behavior and his safety. Her concerns are those of all mothers throughout the ages. Toibin allows her to discuss her frantic, futile attempts to protect and save him.
Toibin’s writing is absolutely mesmerizing and his imagery, particularly the description of the crucifixion, is vivid and horrifying. No word in this book is a wasted one and together they create a lyrical, frightening, reflective and unique interpretation and exploration of a human life and a mother's love for her son.
115> Same Kerri. Enjoy
116> Glad you stopped by Lori! (think you celebrated yours several weeks ago!?!)
You are correct - Our Thanksgiving was 6 weeks ago..... just far enough back in the year for my other half to expect Turkey next month during the holdiay season!
>118 Thanks Joe. Hope your Thanksgiving was great.
>119 Lori, sounds like perfect spacing between celebrations!
World of Yesterday
by Stefan Zweig
I was reminded that I had this book when I read a New Yorker article about Zweig several months ago. I’ve read a number of Zweig’s fictional works (short stories, novels ) and I’m also fascinated by early twentieth century Vienna, so I was eager to read the book.
Stefan Zweig came of age at the turn of the 19th century in Imperial Vienna during a golden period that helped to define twentieth century art, music, literature and science -- in fact, that defined twentieth century cultural life. Though this book is an autobiography, it is also his elegy for this lost era. Zweig was born into a solidly middle class Jewish, Viennese family and describes a time full of stability, intellectual curiosity and promise. Though deeply attached to Vienna and Viennese life, Zweig also considered himself a citizen of Europe and describes his time traveling and living throughout the continent and the UK. Along the way, he encounters many of the great and creative minds of the time.
He witnesses the first chink in his solid and promising world with the events leading up to and then the outbreak of the First World War. The slaughter that takes place during WWI cannot but help to influence Zweig's attitude toward conflict, national pride and continental unity. He becomes an active pacifist though despite his pacifism and horror of the war, he writes mournfully about the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire and describes that break-up as an amputation. Nevertheless, he clings to his hope that this post-war world can be mended. Indeed, despite hints as to what is to come, he finds success renown and stability durng the 1920’s.
Sadly, with the rise of Nazism in Germany and the annexation of Austria, he becomes a firsthand witness to the death of this hope and the loss of his place in the world.
I found this book fascinating because it provided an insider's view of a time and place that were both molded by great minds and that molded them.
It was great Karen. I'm trying to catch up with threads, but wanted to let you know that I love the photo.
The Life and Times of Michael K
I’ve read Coetzee’s Disgrace and absolutely loved the book. The Life and Times of Michael K is a small but equally powerful book.
There are three chapters or sections of this book. The first and third is the story of Michael K told in third person. These sections bookend a middle one which tells Michael’s story from the perspective of an unnamed doctor under whose care Michael finds himself. This double-telling, helps to paint a fuller portrait of a baffling and strangely innocent individual caught in a no-win situation in a society that has completely broken down. Michael K is portrayed as a complete innocent who tries unsuccessfully to stay above the fray. He encounters obstacles with which he is completely unequipped to deal or understand. Though Coetzee writes about K’s encounters with South African bureaucrats that even the most logical and articulate person couldn’t handle, he clearly is writing about a universal existence in an irrational and brutal world devoid of any social order. As the book progresses, K. abandons what little language he has, much to the frustration of those who want to help him as well as to those who want to harm him. I found this lack of language a moving literary device.
Coetzee tips his hat to Kafka both through the name of the main character as well as to references to “The Castle” and it seems to me that his subject matter, though specific to South Africa is similar to that of Kafka’s books. Both authors grapple with the concept of freedom and the individual's attempt to make sense of a world devoid of sense.
by Angel Wagenstein
Yuck -- Really kitchy fictional account of European Jewish refugees in Shanghai during WWII. Maybe it's the translation, maybe it's the author, but it was ripped straight out of a bad 1940's film somewhere. There are some decent non-fictional accounts of refugees in Shanghai that I would recommend instead of this.
Hi Peg! Happy holidays! I hope to see you next year in the group!
Excellent review of The Life and Times of Michael K.
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