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Rebeccanyc Reads in 2012, Part 1

This topic was continued by Rebeccanyc Reads in 2012, Part 2.

Club Read 2012

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Edited: May 6, 2012, 9:41am Top

Read in April
29. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
28. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
27. Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia by Thant Myint-U
26. The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abé
Read in March
25. Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge
24. The Jokers by Albert Cossery
23. The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō
22. Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman*
21. The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan
20. Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki
19. The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson with Sharon Begley
18. The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić
17. Vesuvius by Gillian Darley
Read in February
16. Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son by Sholem Aleichem
15. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner*
14. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš
13. GB84 by David Peace*
12. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
11. Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki*
10. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff*
Read in January
9. The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
8. The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier*
7. An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori*
6. This Body of Death by Elizabeth George
5. Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse by Jay Rubinstein
4. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson*
3. The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery*
2. The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis
1. Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery*

Edited: Jan 1, 2012, 5:25pm Top

My 2011 reading, and my last Club Read 2011 thread.

97. God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène
96. Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono*
95. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman*
94. The Leviathan by Joseph Roth*
93. Three Novellas by Joseph Roth
92. Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
91. Mr. Fortune's Maggot and The Salutation by Sylvia Townsend Warner
90. Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura
89. In Red by Magdalena Tulli*
88. Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M. R. James
87. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy*
86. Red Shift by Alan Garner*
85. Parzival and Titurel by Wolfram von Eschenbach
84. Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o*
83. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
82. Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes*
81. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann* (reread)
80. Yalta: The Price of Peace by S. M. Plokhy
79. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons* (reread)
78. I Was an Elephant Salesman: Adventures between Dakar, Paris, and Milan by Pap Khouma
77. What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes*
76. The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay*
75. Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin*
74. The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Challenged Planet by Heidi Cullen
73. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson*
72. The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge
71. They Were Divided by Miklós Bánffy*
70. They Were Found Wanting by Miklós Bánffy*
69. The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante*
68. The Bride from Odessa by Edgardo Cozarinsky
67. The Mangan Inheritance by Brian Moore
66. They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy*
65. Classic Crimes by William Roughead*
64. An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel
63. A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel*
62. Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics edited by Lawrence Block
61. The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns*
60. The Moldavian Pimp by Edgardo Cozarinsky*
59. The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
58. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes*
57. Manhattan Noir edited by Lawrence Block
56. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante*
55. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
54. Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns*
53. The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto by Mario Vargas Llosa
52. In Praise of the Stepmother by Mario Vargas Llosa
51. The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns*
50. The Prospector by J.M.G. Le Clézio*
49. Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole*
48. Once upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell*
47. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o*
46. The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov*
45. Favourite Sherlock Holmes Stories: Selected by the Authorby Arthur Conan Doyle*
44. Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo
43. Five Bells by Gail Jones
42. The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer*
41. Gulag by Anne Applebaum*

40. Faith by Jennifer Haigh
39. Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette
38. The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak
37. A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
36. The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt
35. Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi
34. Ice Road by Gillian Slovo
33. The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago*
32. The Looking Glass War by John le Carré
31. A Murder of Quality by John le Carré
30. Call for the Dead by John le Carré
29. Soul and Other Stories by Andrey Platonov*
28. Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser
27. The Fierce and Beautiful World by Andrei Platonov
26. Nineteen Eighty-Three by David Peace*
25. Nineteen Eighty by David Peace*
24. Nineteen Seventy-Seven by David Peace*
23. Nineteen Seventy-Fourby David Peace*
22. Iphigenia in Forest Hills by Janet Malcolm
21. Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane
20. Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich
19. Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa
18. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns*
17. The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns*
16. Open City by Teju Cole
15. The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier*
14. Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon
13. Matagiri by Ngugi wa Thiong'o*
12. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns*
11. Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem*
10. Conquered City by Victor Serge*
9. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak*
8. Just Kids by Patti Smith*
7. She Drove without Stopping by Jaimy Gordon*
6. The Maias by José Maria Eça de Queirós
5. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
4. Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel*
3. Every Day Is Mother's Day by Hilary Mantel
2. Tun-huang by Yasushi Inoue
1. Bait: Four Stories by Mahasweta Devi

Edited: Jan 1, 2012, 4:15pm Top

Well, I think I may finish one more book tomorrow, but it won't be a favorite, so I can now post my best of 2011 list. In the next post, I'll include that book in my analysis.

These are more or less in reverse order of when I read them.

Best of the Best (fiction)

In Red by Magdalena Tulli
Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
A Change of Climate and Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel
The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov
The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago
The Red Riding Quartet: Nineteen Seventy-Four/Nineteen Seventy-Seven/Nineteen Eighty/Nineteen Eighty-Three by David Peace
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, The Vet's Daughter, and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier
Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

The Best of the Rest (fiction)
God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène
Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono
Once upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Devil on the Cross, A Grain of Wheat, Weep Not, Child, and Matigari by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
They Were Counted/They Were Found Wanting/They Were Divided by Miklós Bánffy
The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
The Moldavian Pimp by Edgardo Cozarinsky
The Skin Chairs, Sisters by a River, and The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns
The Prospector by J.M.G. LeClezio
Soul and Other Stories by Andrey Platonov
Favourite Sherlock Holmes Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle
She Drove without Stopping by Jaimy Gordon
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
Conquered City by Victor Serge

Favorite Non-Fiction
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
Classic Crimes by William Roughead
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante
Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole
The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt
Gulag by Anne Applebaum
Just Kids by Patti Smith

Edited: Dec 30, 2011, 6:09pm Top

Now, the analysis.

Out of 97 books read:

84 fiction (87%)/13 nonfiction (13%)
32 female authors (33%)/65 male authors (67%)
42 by authors not from the USA or the UK (43%)

Countries represented (19)

Russia 6
Hungary 4
Germany 3
France 3
Portugal 2
Austria 2
Eastern Europe (Yiddish) 1
Denmark 1
Poland 1

Kenya 4
Senegal 2
Cameroon 1
Congo 1

Japan 2
India 1

Australia 1

South America
Peru 4
Argentina 2
Cuba 1

46 authors were new to me this year (i.e., I had never read anything by them, not that I'd never heard of them) (can't calculate percentage because I didn't add up the number of different authors)

Authors I read multiple books by (13)
Hilary Mantel
Jaimy Gordon
Barbara Comyns
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
David Peace
Andrey Platonov
Luc Sante
Miklós Bánffy
Mario Vargas Llosa
John le Carré
Edgardo Cozarinsky
Karl Marlantes
Joseph Roth

So, what do I make of all this?

I would have read fewer female authors if I hadn't become enamored of Barbara Comyns and continued my love of Hilary Mantel; I read multiple books by both of them. In 2012, I probably need to make an effort to read more books by women -- Belletrista, here I come!

My global reading was focused mostly on Europe, especially Russia, and the higher numbers from Kenya and Peru reflect individual authors (Ngũgĩ and Vargas Llosa). With the Reading Globally group focusing on China, the Balkans, and the Middle East in 2012, and the Author Theme Reads group concentrating on Japan, I should be able to expand my reach, but would like to make an effort to read more from different parts of Africa.

I am very excited about some of my new discoveries of 2011, especially Barbara Comyns, José Saramago, Alejo Carpentier,and Edgardo Cozarinsky, all of whom I learned about through LT. I hope to read more books by them, but also to discover more new exciting writers through LT.

More thoughts may come later.

Jan 3, 2012, 7:23am Top

1. Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery

In the teeming slums of Cairo, three men enjoy a friendship -- and life. One is a former college professor who, for reasons unknown, has chosen a life of extreme poverty, leavened by hashish. One is his sort-of dealer, a poet who was born into "respectable" poverty and has sunk lower. And the third is a low-level civil servant who pays his colleagues to do his work and considers himself a revolutionary, although one who is always on the lookout for women. For a while the book explores their lives as, mostly cheerfully, they interact with other characters, including the denizens of a local brothel and people who are even poorer than they are, until (not much of a spoiler alert) one of them commits a mostly meaningless murder. Then the fascinating character of the police inspector enters the novel, and the three friends, in the most kindly way, toy with him.

Although the plot, such as it is, revolves around whether the inspector will solve the case, the novel is really about the meaning of life, the vast gap between the rich and the poor and between the powerful and the powerless, and above all, the importance of dignity. Cossery is a wonderful writer, and much of the book is very funny even as it portrays people whose poverty is horrifying and almost unimaginable. I will be looking for his other work.

Jan 3, 2012, 10:40am Top

Good start to the year rebecca

Jan 3, 2012, 3:33pm Top

Hi Rebecca – I'm embarrassed to say I had never heard of Cossery but Proud Beggars sound interesting. I'm adding it to my growing list of books to investigate when I finish my current reading plan! Right?

Jan 3, 2012, 5:46pm Top

I had never heard of him either, Suzanne, until I saw this book in Book Culture when I was there for their 20% off New Year's Day sale. It is an NYRB edition, and I see they also publish another book by Cossery, The Jokers, so I'm going to be looking for that.

Jan 4, 2012, 5:51pm Top

Just in case anyone might miss me, I'm going to be away until early next week with only my iPhone, so probably won't be posting much. See you all when I get back.

Jan 5, 2012, 6:49pm Top

Nice review of Proud Beggars, Rebecca. I bought The Jokers last year, and I'll probably read it later this year.

Jan 10, 2012, 10:13am Top

Thanks, Darryl.

I'm back, but have to spend today catching up at work, so I probably won't get around to catching up on everyone's threads and posting my own reading until at least tomorrow.

Edited: Jan 10, 2012, 6:53pm Top

2. The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis

At the beginning of this intense novella, Hadoula, a 60-ish woman living on a small Greek island in what appears to be the late 19th century, is watching her ailing infant granddaughter while her daughter sleeps. As she watches, she mentally reviews her life, and that of her parents and family, a life of hardship, especially for girls and women. Life has improved in some respects, in that the brigands and the Turks are gone and peace reigns on the island, but the men and women still have to scratch out a living from the rocky earth and the ever-present sea. Many of the young men have left for America, and parents are left to somehow find husbands and dowries for their daughters. Sons disappear, some go to jail, and daughters are a burden. And, as she muses and dozes, Hadoula unconsciously makes a fateful decision that sets into motion the rest of the book.

What stands out for me in this story is the vivid depiction of a time and a place in which the residents know every inch of ground, every risky path across the rocks, and every hidden cave on their remote island, and in which the past is still present in ruined castles and chapels, family is central, and nature is always at hand. As the translator notes in his introduction to the edition I read, at the time Papadiamatis was writing, in the 1890s, the Greek islands were 50 times further behind Athens than Athens was behind Paris and London. Despite some qualms about dialect the translator sometimes uses the somewhat melodramatic nature of the story, I couldn't put this book down, especially as it builds to its not unexpected conclusion.

Jan 10, 2012, 7:32pm Top

>11 rebeccanyc: With my work schedule the way it is, I probably won't catch up on all of the threads that I'm following for another two weeks or more.

>12 rebeccanyc: Nice review of The Murderess, although I suspect that you liked it better than I did.

Jan 11, 2012, 4:38am Top

You're such a good source of interesting books, Rebecca. I'm planning to give Albert Cossery a try, starting with The Jokers.

Jan 12, 2012, 10:15am Top

#13 I'd forgotten that you'd read The Murderess, Darryl. I enjoyed it more for the world it recreated than for the story itself.

#14 Thanks, Pam, and nice to see you here. I picked up The Jokers and another Cossery novel, The Colors of Infamy, last week because I enjoyed Proud Beggars so much.

Jan 16, 2012, 12:19pm Top

3. The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery

I became an Albert Cossery fan after reading Proud Beggars. While this novella, his last book, written in his late 80s, treads some of the same ground as that earlier novel, it was still a delight to read because of Cossery's wonderfully vivid satiric writing and his engaging portraits of people who live far outside the bourgeois life style. In The Colors of Infamy, Ossama, a professional thief plying the upper class regions of Cairo unexpectedly finds a letter detailing the corruption of a government official in a wallet he lifts. He then consults with his "professor," a master thief who is disguising himself to evade the police, and they in turn consult a journalist, recently released from jail and living in a mausoleum in the Cairo City of the Dead, to determine how to make best use of this letter. That's the plot.

But what this novella is really about, like the earlier work, is how the poor can live with dignity in a horrifically corrupt and brutal world. As Cossery writes at the beginning of the book, "Ossama was a thief; not a legitimate thief, such as minister, banker, wheeler-dealer, speculator, or real estate developer; he was a modest thief with a variable income, but one whose activities -- no doubt because their return was limited -- have, always and everywhere, been considered an affront to the moral rules by which the affluent live." The response of Cossery's characters to this world, perhaps romanticized and impractical, is to live a simpler life and find delight and amusement wherever they can.

I found it interesting to read this book, with its definition of who the real thieves are, after recently reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Devil on the Cross which also characterizes business owners and government officials as the biggest thieves and robbers. While both works are satiric and pointed, Ngũgĩ 's is more bitter and political, while Cossery's is more light-hearted and ironic.

Jan 16, 2012, 3:00pm Top

Okay, The Colors of Infamy is now on my wishlist. I probably wouldn't have done that if it weren't a novella. On the other hand its size brings it close to 10¢ a page.

I am not anti-capitalist; I am anti-thief -- to include thievery in the name of some sacred economic order. I believe, without ever systematically justifying it, that there is much to be learned about concrete specifics in the real world from fiction, and that those specifics are not limited to the subjects of didactic novels or the contents of the human heart. I'm going on too long, but I want to say that if I read this, it will be to learn something about the workings of class in America.


Jan 16, 2012, 3:32pm Top

Enjoyed your reviews of the Cosserys. I don't need much convincing to add NYRB books to the list. For some reason, though, I have an amorphous negative opinion of The Jokers (I thought maybe someone on LT gave it a bad review or something) so I'll be interested to see what everyone thinks of that one.

Jan 17, 2012, 1:16pm Top

#17 Thanks for your comments, Robert. I am not sure how far you can compare the abject poverty of the streets of Cairo (more detailed in Proud Beggars than in The Colors of Infamy) to what is happening in the US; I don't believe we've sunk that far yet.

#18, Thanks, DieFledermaus! I bought The Jokers after reading Proud Beggars, but haven't read it yet. I think Cossery is one of those writers who readers will either really like or really dislike!

Jan 22, 2012, 10:07am Top

4. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson

This fascinating study, both broad and detailed, of the ideas and actions that led to the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, is almost as interesting for its flaws at its successes. At once intellectual history and biography, literary criticism and economics, it examines the lives and thoughts not only of people who are famous, if not notorious, such as Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but also of those who are lesser known (at least to me), such as Michelet, Babeuf, and Lasalle. In essence, Wilson traces the revolutionary tradition from the ashes of the French revolution through the Paris Commune to the dawn of the Russian revolution.

Subtitled "a study in the writing and acting of history," the book starts in 1824 when Michelet, a young French historian, discovers the work of Vico, an Italian who wrote a century earlier, and was inspired by his vision of examining history through the lives and social culture of ordinary people and the interplay between people and their society. Michelet is most famous for writing a comprehensive history of France in which all the important people through the ages come to life, and also for being so caught up in his work, especially when he came to the sections on the French revolution, that he became engaged in contemporary issues including the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune. Wilson goes on to discuss the decline of the revolutionary tradition in France and the beginnings of socialism, ranging from France to Britain to the US.

But the heart of the book is the material on Marx and Engels, especially on Karl Marx who seems to both fascinate and repel Wilson. He provides a detailed personal and intellectual biography over the course of many chapters; we see Marx developing his ideas as a young man, collaborating with Engels, forcing his wife and children to live in squalor while he begs for enough money from Engels to keep writing, excoriating his political enemies, struggling in his life as an exile, and thinking and writing, always thinking and writing. A chapter, in the middle of all this, on Hegel and "the myth of the dialectic" is as complex and confusing as the dialectic itself.

The weakest part of the book is the third and last section, on Lenin and Trotsky. The biographical information about their early lives is fascinating (although, as noted below, it comes from Soviet-supplied material), but the discussion of their ideas and especially of their actions is not nearly as clear, detailed, or compelling as the earlier sections. Perhaps they were too close to Wilson, both in time and in the political issues of the day.

And so I come to the flaws. Some were noted by Wilson himself in an introduction to a later edition of the book (the original was published in 1940 just after, as noted in a foreword to my NYRB edition, the assassination of Trotsky and the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact). Wilson concedes that his portrait of Lenin is "too amiable" and is based on Soviet-censored family memoirs and other materials (and that he should have written more about the ongoing development of socialism in France). As the foreword author also notes, if this book were written today, the arc of history would end not, in hope, at the Finland Station, but instead in the gulag of Siberia. The other flaws, words and passages that took me aback, are probably due to the time Wilson wrote: the use, twice, of the word "nigger," and the occasional discussions of ideas or actions that are "typical" of Jews. I recognize standards were not the same in 1940 as they are today, but I thought they would be more advanced than that for one of the leading critics of the day and a leading publisher; I found them shocking and disturbing.

All in all, I was swept along by this book: by its scope, by its depth, by the new people and new ideas it introduced me to, by the breadth of Wilson's research and interpretation, and even by the complexity of his writing. History -- how we look at it and how that determines how we look at the possibilities of the future -- is the real subject of To the Finland Station; it is indeed "a study in the writing and acting of history."

Jan 22, 2012, 11:55am Top

Great review, Rebecca -- I've had that book on my shelf for over 30 years -- I must get to it soon.

Jan 22, 2012, 1:46pm Top

An excellent review, Rebecca. Even with the book's faults, your enthusiasm is contagious and has me adding it to my wishlist. Thank you for introducing me to so many wonderful books and authors that I otherwise would not encounter!

Jan 22, 2012, 1:52pm Top

Excellent and very useful review. This is another one I need to read. I bought it a few years ago when doing a lot of reading on Russia but never got around to it.

Jan 22, 2012, 2:04pm Top

Thank you all. I did find it fascinating, and I really do have to get around to reading Citizens, about the French revolution, which I've had on my TBR since reading A Place of Greater Safety. It's such a tome, though, I can't take it on the subway, and that really limits my reading time.

Jan 22, 2012, 5:47pm Top

Excellent stuff rebecca on To the Finland Station thumbed

Jan 23, 2012, 12:32pm Top

Excellent review of To The Finland Station!

Jan 24, 2012, 7:39pm Top

I don't think I knew what To The Finland Station was about though I had seen it mentioned since it's an NYRB. I did want to read more about the revolution before starting some Gulag books so I'll look for this one.

Jan 24, 2012, 10:00pm Top

I have to add To the Finland Station to my TBR list. I read Citizens a number of years- it was thorough!

Jan 25, 2012, 9:13am Top

I'd like to reread Citizens.

Excellent review on To the Finland Station. I'll be keeping my eye out for a copy. I was browsing amazon for it and was entirely distracted by a poster of Lenin at Finland Station which, sadly, I don't really have a good place for.

Jan 25, 2012, 9:20am Top

Thanks, everyone.

#27 I wouldn't look to To the Finland Station to tell you that much about the Russian revolution; it is more about the ideas and people that led up to it and in fact ends with Lenin at the Finland Station. I would be interested to find a good nonfiction book about the revolution, but I can recommend several works of fiction that deal with the revolution and its immediate aftermath, including Doctor Zhivago and Conquered City by Victor Serge.

Jan 26, 2012, 12:06am Top

I would be interested to find a good nonfiction book about the revolution

I would recommend Sheila Fitzpatrick's The Russian Revolution 1917-1932 for a short introduction. It's dated (published in 1982), but was well received at the time it was written. My favorite though is Three Who Made a Revolution by Bertram Wolfe. It's more narrative nonfiction and tells the story of the Revolution through the lives, philosophies, and interactions of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. It's a bit of a chunkster, but I thought it was worth it, twice.

Jan 26, 2012, 8:06am Top

Thanks, Lisa. There's actually a copy of Three Who Made a Revolution at my family's house in the mountains; I'll have to see whether it's completely fallen apart. I would actually like to read something written after the collapse of the Soviet Union once researchers had access to at least some of the Soviet archives (that's one of the things that made Gulag and Yalta: The Price of Peace so interesting). I seem to be working backwards in my reading about Soviet Russia!

Jan 26, 2012, 1:48pm Top

Unfortunately my reading in this area is dated. ;-) I will be watching eagerly to see which new books you find. Certainly Gulag was a breath of fresh air into the study of gulags.

Jan 26, 2012, 3:37pm Top

I had to read Three Who Made A Revolution when I took Russian history in college in the 60's. Needless to say, my perspective and background has changed very much since then, so I think I might try it again.

Jan 27, 2012, 3:51am Top

I think I have read The Russian Revolution 1917-1932 - the one I read was short, informative but dry, with a photo cover/red title and this one fits. Something in the narrative nonfiction mode sounds good so I made a note of Three Who Made a Revolution. (Recently had to make a new Excel file for books recommended by people in Club Read.)

Edited: Jan 27, 2012, 9:13am Top

5. Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse by Jay Rubenstein

I was intrigued when I read a good review of this book, since I had started reading some medieval literature last year, so I decided to get it. And it does indeed present a fascinating chronicle of a period and series of events I knew next to nothing about. Rubinstein, who received a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, tells the tale in a narrative fashion, supporting it with quotes I never imagined existed from contemporary writers, people who were actually on the crusade.

The story begins in the early 11th century. Vague millennial and apocalyptic ideas were circulating in Europe after 1000 years of Christianity, the caliph of Egypt ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in 1009, pilgrims increasingly started traveling to Jerusalem, and a priest named Peter the Hermit began preaching about the need to recapture Jerusalem, not only so that Christians could freely worship there but also because it would bring on the "Last Days" and the Apocalypse. The pope, Urban II, took up the cry, seeing a large military campaign as a good way to solve some of his political problems at home, and it was further enhanced by other preachers who roused crowds around Europe, but mostly in France. Various princes responded, each for his own reasons, and soon there were several nobles raising their own armies to make the trek to Jerusalem. Needless to say, before setting off to fight the unbelievers in the east, many took the time to turn on the unbelievers closer to home, namely the Jews, and the pre-crusade period saw a large increase in pogroms (not yet called that) and massacres.

So the armies, along with large groups of ordinary people, set off, on several routes across Europe, planning to meet up at Constantinople, where the story really takes off. Rubinstein describes the intricate politics once they got there, with some of the leaders seeking to make deals with Alexius, the Byzantine emperor, for his protection, and indeed they helped retake Nicea from the Turks for Alexius, although it is unclear whether the Niceans wanted to be retaken. Then it was on to the country of the "Saracens" and brutal battles and sieges ensued as the crusaders slogged their way over many months to Jerusalem. While it was interesting to learn about siege technology, the cruelty, and joy in cruelty, of both sides, but particularly the crusaders, was horrifying, and some of their behavior shocking. The 20th and 21st centuries have no monopoly on the disgusting actions of warriors in battle.

Mixed in with all this is the idea of holy war, that the Christian god is supporting the Crusaders, and that therefore they must behave in "Christian" ways (which doesn't seem to preclude cutting off the heads of the Saracens, or worse), so that their god will show them miracles. Surprisingly some miracles do seem to happen, while others are clearly faked. In addition, lots of people, priests and others, had all sorts of visions in which they were visited by various saints and even Jesus, and they believed these literally and used them to influence the leaders; some of the visionary visitors even suggested war tactics! Rubinstein takes a lot of time to discuss what he considers to be apocalyptic beliefs among some of the priests and other clerics accompanying the armies, and the political maneuverings among the different nobles leading the armies, both with each other and with the holy war contingent. He often discusses different versions of the events, as told by various contemporary writers, and tries to tease out the truth. This, along with the narrative of the crusade itself, is the crux of the book, and I found it remarkable how Rubinstein was able to pull all these threads together into a compelling story while also providing an explanatory framework.

As I finished the book, I realized I would have gotten more out of it if I hadn't read it over the course of a month, interrupting it with other books. There were a lot of people to keep track of, and I had to keep checking to remember who they were. It is interesting to look back at this period, now nearly a thousand years ago, from the perspective of today, particularly to see that political maneuvering has a very long history. And while it is easy, and perhaps unfair, to make direct connections, the kind of holy war the crusaders were undertaking, their hatred (and fear?) of the Saracens, has both echoes and repercussions today, and it is my understanding that there are some strands of the evangelical movement in the US that still believe the Apocalypse is coming. It hasn't, so far!

Jan 27, 2012, 8:21am Top

Starting tomorrow, I'm going to be away for a week, during which I hope to do a lot of reading. So I'll be away from LT, and then will have to catch up with all of you, but I hope to have some good books to report on when I get back. I haven't completely decided what to take with me, but some of the ones I'm considering are An Ermine in Czernopol, The Letter Killers Club, Kokoro (for the Author Theme Reads group), The Galley Slave (for the Reading Globally Balkans theme read, The Prague Cemetery, Cleopatra, and The Kingdom of This World (which I've had on the TBR since I read Carpentier's The Lost Steps last year).

Jan 27, 2012, 8:46am Top

>36 rebeccanyc: Great review of Armies of Heaven! I am extremely interested in this era of history, so this sounds like a must-read. Could you elaborate on the miracles that supposedly did happen? Those reports always fascinate me.

Oh, and I hope you enjoy your time away, and read lots of good things.

Jan 27, 2012, 9:03am Top

Rebecca - back on Jan 3 or so when I read your review of Proud Beggars, I didn't think it would take me 3 and half weeks to catch up with your thread. I've long forgotten what I wanted to say about it. Anyway, I'm now caught up, and as usual, enjoyed all your reviews - although it seems I've enjoyed these more than usual. Fascinating review of Armies of Heaven, but also each of the other books review here. As a side note, my Jewish side gets feels a jolt every time I read something about the crusades and learn of yet another oddball medieval violent anti-Jewish activity.

Edited: Jan 27, 2012, 9:10am Top

#38, Thanks. Without looking back, a lot of them were weather- or astronomy-related, like the sky appearing red in the east (representing fighting with the Saracens) and a comet that went from west to east (like the crusaders). The fake ones were "the Holy Lance" which supposedly had been used to stab Jesus and a piece of the "True Cross." I forgot to mention in my review that lots of people had all sorts of visions in which they were visited by various saints and even Jesus, and that they believed these literally, so I think I'll go back and add that in, because they were actually very important to the story.

#39, Yes, isn't it amazing? It seems like whenever anyone did anything they considered anti-Christian, they took it out on the local Jews even if it happened thousands of miles away and the culprits weren't Jewish at all.

Jan 27, 2012, 9:28am Top

Excellent review of Armies of Heaven, Rebecca! Wow, you've already received 5 thumbs up for it.

Similar to you, I'm also in the process of deciding which books I'll bring with me to Madison on Saturday. Have a great trip, and I look forward to your comments and reviews when you return.

Jan 27, 2012, 9:45am Top

#37 Delurking to say I selfishly hope you manage to read An Ermine in Czernopol during your trip, as it's one I have my eye on and I'd be interested to know what you think of it.

Jan 27, 2012, 11:21am Top

Excellent review of Armies of Heaven. A must read for me and another thumb.

Jan 27, 2012, 2:43pm Top

Your last two books look very tempting! In The Armies of Heaven, does the author also talk about how this epic enterprise was viewed from the Arab side?

Jan 27, 2012, 5:06pm Top

Yes, he talks a little about the Byzantine, Turkish, and Arab (called Saracen) perspectives, but I don't recall his using any of their documents as sources. The focus is really on the apocalyptic vision of some of the crusaders.

Jan 28, 2012, 7:47am Top

>37 rebeccanyc: - I'll be waiting to see which ones you pick - there are a number of books on the list that I'd be interested in hearing about (The Letter Killers Club is pretty high on the to-read-next list but feel a bit guilty since it was a very recent purchase.)

Jan 28, 2012, 4:39pm Top

Great review of The Armies of Heaven -- though I'm not sure it's really up my alley. I think I'd just get too angry reading it.

Jan 28, 2012, 7:44pm Top

Great review of To the Finland Station. I have added that to my wish list, despite its flaws.

Also a fine review of Armies of Heaven. I listened to a Teaching Company course on the Crusades some years ago and have been intrigued ever since. This book sounds very good. Thanks!

Feb 3, 2012, 1:59am Top

Good review of Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. Great to bring such recent books to our attention here. Thanks.

Feb 6, 2012, 8:28am Top

Well, I'm back, and of course overwhelmed by work and things at home. I hope to post reviews of the books I read while I was away in the next few days: This Body of Death by Elizabeth George, An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori, The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier, and The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I'm reading Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff and am about to start, for my subway read, Kokoro by Natsume Soseki. I also hope later this week to catch up with everyone's threads.

Feb 6, 2012, 10:21am Top

To the Finland Station looks very interesting Rebecca, I might put that on my list of possibilities.

Edited: Feb 9, 2012, 7:09am Top

6. This Body of Death by Elizabeth George

Although I've been reading, and obviously enjoying, Elizabeth George's Lynley/Havers mystery novels since she started writing them in the late 1980s, I hadn't read any in a few years. And, while I'll probably continue to read them, I had several serious reservations about this one, her latest to appear in paperback.

First of all, it is way, way, way too long. And I don't just mean pages, all 953 of them. Too many characters, too many subplots, too much description and digression, and a strange plot device to boot. It could easily have been half to two-thirds the length if George's editors had the nerve, after some 15 bestsellers, to take her in hand, and it would have been a much tighter, better book. It may be admirable when a genre writer strives for greater scope, but it has to to work. Second, after a series writer has introduced beloved characters, it behooves that writer to give his or her readers a sufficient dose of those characters in each novel. This too could have been solved by tightening up the book. Finally, I could smell some of the plot conclusions a mile away -- I mean towards the beginning of those 953 pages. I won't introduce spoilers to give them away, but that's disappointing in a writer as talented as George can be, with the proper editing (self- or outside), that is.

Edited: Feb 7, 2012, 7:48am Top

7. An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori

Czernopol is really Czernowitz, a town at the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire that was famed as a crossroads where Romanians, Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and Jews mixed and lived in relative harmony until it became part of Romania after the first world war and gradually began coming apart under the stresses of the interwar period. (It is now Chernivtsi, in Ukraine.) It is during this interwar period that this novel takes place, told by a boy/young man, writing mainly as "we" to represent all the children his family, but written as an older man looking back at those vanished years.

The ermine in the title is Major Tildy, a one-time hussar in the Austro-Hungarian army now attached to the Romanian army in Czernopol. The story begins with his entrance into the town on horseback, completely enthralling the children who look upon him as the perfect romantic knight and become fascinated with him and his family. including his wife who is one of two daughters (one by his wife, one by his mistress) of the mysterious richest man in town. He swiftly gets into serious trouble, challenging several people including, ultimately, his superior officer, to duels to defend the long-lost honor of his sister-in-law, and winds up in the local insane asylum for most of the book, until his dramatic reappearance at the end.

Thus, the novel becomes an examination of the character and characters of Czernopol, and von Rezzori's brilliant an witty writing introduces the readers to people as varied as the gleefully gossipy old widow who looks after Major Tildy's wife, who has become a drug addict; the urbane and sophisticated prefect of the town who woos one of the children's aunts and who eventually is instrumental in getting them enrolled in a school run by the delightfully freewheeling Madame Antonovitch; a drunken professor and his massively and happily unfaithful wife, the aforementioned sister-in-law; a classmate who vividly mimics his hard-working father, a storekeeper, and his man-about-town older brother; a resident of the insane asylum who may or may not be writing lovely German poems; and too many more to mention. Von Rezzori interweaves their stories with the growing awareness of the children, and occasionally of the young man individually, of the realities of life and what is going on around them.

Into this world of tradition and controlled chaos, wit and cynicism, comes a shadow, the beginnings of the Nazi era. But even before the swastika scrawlers slink into the book, there have been hints of antisemitism. And the antisemitism portrayed in this book is varied. Not only is it the vile, overt antisemitism of Feuer, a local German, and some of the newspapers, that leads ultimately to a minipogrom, but it is also the everyday kind, which even "respectable" people breathe in with the air, discussing whether people they know are really Jews, viewing them stereotypically as peddlers and cheaters, and creating an environment in which a Jewish child knows that she would not be welcome in the narrator's family's house. But there is still a third kind of antisemitism, expressed by the narrator (and perhaps by the author who, disturbingly, was a radio announcer in Berlin during the second world war, surely a job that must have required the permission of the Nazis, if not party membership), and that is the unconscious, and almost admiring, kind, in which the narrator speaks of "the preformed characteristics of an ancient race" and reports that they discovered (his italics) "that people are sometimes also Jews" not that "Jews are also people". Perhaps this is the best that could be hoped for from someone of his time and place.

In the end, this is a story of a lost and largely beautiful world that coincides with the narrator's lose of childhood and thew world's shock at the horrors of the Nazi era, still yet to come. As the narrator looks back, he seems to agree with the prefect, Herr Tarangolian, that it is better to be "witty" than "just." This is an extremely witty, sometimes funny, beautifully characterized, and deeply insightful novel, both psychologically and sociologically, and yet it rarely loses its love, apparently typical of Czernopol, of a joke. And what of Major Tildy, that the representative of the past, of the rigor and honor of the Austro-Hungarian army? Released from the insane asylum, he reaches a tragic and almost farcial end.

Edited: Feb 6, 2012, 9:30pm Top

8. The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier

I read this deceptively simple novel about the Haitian revolution, the first and only time enslaved Africans liberated themselves in the Americas, and its aftermath in almost one setting. Through the eyes of Ti Noël, who is a young slave at the beginning and an old free man at the end, and with lush but spare prose, Carpentier portrays a period of great harshness and turmoil, from the period of slavery through revolution and upheaval to the reign of Henri Christophe who effectively re-enslaved the people and to his overthrow and beyond.

The reader first meets Ti Noël as he picks a new stallion for a his master, a horse bought for breeding, and then accompanies his master to a barber, staying outside and observing wax heads with wigs in the barber's windows and skinned calves' heads in a neighboring shop. What a preview of some of the themes of this novel in just the first two pages: sex and violence, and the interactions of animals with humans. Needless to say, although Ti Noël's master, a French plantation owner, respects hi skill in selecting horses, he considers him a work animal, just like the horses.

Soon, Ti Noël is working with Macandal, a slave who remembers and tells others about the wonders of former African kingdoms (the Africans enslaved in Haiti come from a variety of places and a variety of tribes) and the powerful gods there. After a horrific accident in which he loses an arm, Macandal flees to the mountains where the plot is set in motion: he gathers plants, both healing and poisonous, studies with a witch, and secretly plots with slaves on plantations around the country. And so the revolution begins.

For the most part, there are few historical characters in this novel, with the exception of Henri Christophe, who later crowns himself the first king in the western hemisphere, forces Haitians with cudgels and whips and overseers to build his palaces and his supposedly impregnable citadel high in the mountain clouds, and emulates Europeans until he recognizes the powers of the African gods, transmuted into voodoo, just before his death. Nevertheless, Carpentier's research into Haiti, his imagination, and above all his gorgeous writing bring to life Ti Noël, Macandal, and the other fictional characters, the often harsh but nevertheless beautiful landscape of Haiti, the vivid reality of the the African gods, the barbaric treatment of the slaves and attitudes of their owners, the sexual sleaziness of some of the French, and the thrill and horror of the revolt. Not all is "real" in this book: one of the characters, when burned at the stake, transforms himself into a variety of animal forms and lives on in the Kingdom of This World, for example. But this is so interwoven int the novel that the reader, at least this one, accepts it.

To cover a span of probably 40 years in less then 200 pages in a way that seems full and complete is remarkable enough. To do so in such a vivid, entrancing, compelling, and complex way is Carpentier's gift.

Feb 6, 2012, 7:34pm Top

Excellent reviews. Both The Ermine of Czernopol and The Kingdom of This World sound fascinating, and I added the first to my TBR list (I thought it was already there, but I guess not).

Feb 6, 2012, 7:35pm Top

9. The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

I've spent several days trying to figure out what to say about this novel, which has been hailed as a modernist masterpiece. Perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood to read it, because it left me baffled and somewhat cold. On the surface, it is the the story of a club of writers who have given up owning books or writing on paper, and who give themselves names that are nonsense syllables and meet once a week to tell each other stories, but stories based on concepts, not character or plot, or anything we think of as being necessary for a story. And the stories they tell range from science fiction about the creation of a world of automatons, to a riff on Hamlet with the Role becoming a reality, to a medieval tale told in a variety of ways about the Feast of the Ass and people not being who they seem, and more. Clearly, Krzhizhanovsky is commenting, both in the stories and in the concept of the club, on the soul-deadening and brutal Soviet world, but I just never warmed up to the book.

Feb 7, 2012, 6:35am Top

I know what you mean when you say that Elizabeth George novel's are too long. After all they are mostly murder mysteries and the overwriting can make them compete with some of the blockbuster fantasy novel out there. I am hesitant to pick up another one.

For me Czernopol has always seemed like a mysterious place a melting pot somewhere in Eastern Europe. I really enjoyed your review of The Ermine of Czernopol. I would cheerfully read it if only I had time.

Feb 7, 2012, 7:45am Top

>7 Poquette: - As Von Rezzori moved to Berlin in 1938 and not only worked as a radio announcer but published his first novels during the war you would think that he would tarnished by association but that doesn't seem to be the case.
I do like his answer to the question - "How would you like to die?" - "Surprised."

Edited: Feb 7, 2012, 6:33pm Top

#58 Yes, it's hard to know what to make of von Rezzori's relationship to the Nazis. He certainly picked the wrong time to move to Berlin, and yet it doesn't seem to have done him any harm, which certainly begs the question. And yet, having read two of his novels, both with elements of childhood autobiography in them, he doesn't seem to exude any Nazi-like attitudes. It does make me wonder. However, in An Ermine in Czernopol, he is quite scathing about Germans.

#57 Thanks, Barry. I know what you mean about wanting to read things if you only had time! As for Czernowitz, the idea of it fascinates me although it was less of a melting pot and more of a stew, if I can characterize it that way, in that the different national and religious groups didn't take on much of a common identity but did seem to coexist reasonably well. It's interesting that this was true during the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but fell apart as nationalism reared its head. Of course, it was partly nationalism that helped destroy the AH empire, so it's hard to know which came first.

#55 Thanks, Lisa.

Feb 7, 2012, 10:46am Top

Lovely review of The Ermine in Czernopol. I find that part of the world at that point in time fascinating anyway, so you've really made me want to read this one - thanks for making me aware of it!

Feb 8, 2012, 12:40am Top

Wonderful reviews. I was planning to read Memoirs of an Anti-Semite before picking up more von Rezzoris, but The Ermine in Czernopol sounds like something I'd want to read anyway. I have The Letter Killers Club and am hoping to read it soon. Have you read Memories of the Future yet? The plot sounds a bit like one of the stories in that book. The story consisted mostly of various fantastic plots and was somewhat disjointed, but I thought the ideas, prose and imagery were very memorable and imaginative.

Your thoughts on anti-semitism in The Ermine of Czernopol reminded me of Meyrink's The Golem, which had both very good and very bad Jewish characters. The "good" characteristics seemed to be an increased spirituality as well as ancient stock and awareness of the past, as you mention. Even though these are seen as positive qualities, they still demarcate the Jews as "others", put them into categories and bring up ideas of "credit to the race". (The good and bad stereotypes would probably be applicable to any minority/religious group.)

Feb 8, 2012, 9:53am Top

Nice review of The Ermine in Czernopol. It strengthens my resolve to read it soon, and would also wet my appetite for a biography of Rezzori, is one were available.

What's available on Wikipedia is very sketchy, and should not be relied on. I do not believe Von Rezzori collaborated with the Nazis during the war, although until a definitive biography has been published, unexpected surprises may always surface (as with Günter Grass). Working for a radio broadcast and other media was part of daily life, and many people working in such branches later went on to set up radio and TV stations in Germany after the war.

Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy, Ukraine), Bukovina, was a very multi-cultural city during the 1920s - 30s, comparable to Prag around the same time, and home to several German-speaking intellectuals and authors, among whom the later Nobel Prize winning poet Paul Celan. Like areas such as Bohemia and Moravia, Germans claimed and resettled the German population back into the Reich ("Heim ins Reich), while Bukovina was split up, with the southern part ceded to Romania and the northern part ceded to the Soviet Union (now Ukraine), while the Jewish population, at that time disproportionally large, was deported.

After graduation from university in Vienna, Von Rezzori served in the Romanian army and lived in Bucharest for four years. Going back to Czernowitz was not really an option. Aged 24, he moved to Berlin in 1938, the year of the Anschluss of Austria. From 1938 - 1942 he fully enjoyed life in Berlin, and is quoted: "When living on the volcano, one might as well dance on it, as the proverb goes." (Quoted in Spiegel, 1959.

Living without money in a Pension on Berlin's Kurfürstendamm, he turned to writing to make a living, and wrote his first novel, then under the name Gregor von Rezori (one "z" missing), Flamme, die sich verzehrt (1938), which was first serialized in a women's magazine, and appeared in book form in 1942.

It was also around this time that he volunteered for the German army, but on bureaucratic grounds was refused, an action he later ascribed as having taken place earlier, while still in Czernowitz and included in the novel The Ermine in Czernopol.

Although Von Rezzori claims his strongly autobiographical works are fictional, he was successfully sued during the 1950s by a former Czernowitz neighbour, who recognized too much of herself and her family in The Ermine in Czernopol, and had the novel banned and confiscated in Austria.

The New York Review of Books makes Introductions to two of Rezzoris books available for free download, containing some very interesting information, especially the introduction to Memoirs of an Anti-Semite -- no less than 29 pages! They provide answers to questions some may wonder about, such as why did Rezzori settle in Berlin in 1938? How could people say such things about Jewish people? "though the
abyss yawns conspicuously in their path" (..) "why on earth don’t they watch where they’re going?

Gregor von Rezzori on the cover of Der Spiegel, January 1959.

Feb 8, 2012, 10:21am Top

Thanks for the info, Edwin. I'm curious where you got it, because I know from having read An Ermine in Czernopol that it does not include anything about the narrator trying to enlist in the army. However, I can well believe that he could have been sued for his portrayal of some of the characters in the book.

I find the comment that he enjoyed living in Berlin during the war and the Nazi era horrifying. And while being a radio announcer may have been "part of daily life," it is extremely difficult for me to believe that this kind of job, which involved providing information to the general population, was not at the very least highly monitored by the Nazis. I don't want to damn von Rezzori without knowing the facts, and I recognize that people had to make accommodations in order to survive, but it sure was remarkably bad timing to choose 1938 to move to Berlin, whatever jokes he might want to make about it afterwards.

I have Memoirs of an Anti-Semite somewhere on my TBR shelves, so I may read the introduction and report back.

Edited: Feb 8, 2012, 11:13am Top

Zwar hatte sich Gregor - trotz der Erkenntnisse über die gesichterlöschende Gleichmacherei beim deutschen Militär, die er später ins Knabenalter seines "Hermelin"-Erzählers zurückprojizierte - bei der großdeutschen Wehrmacht freiwillig gemeldet; ein Entschluß, der zwiespältigsten Erwägungen und nicht nur dem "Kampf ums Dabeisein" entsprungen sein mag.
Aber irgendwelche bürokratischen Schwierigkeiten hinderten die zuständigen Kommandostellen der großdeutschen Wehrmacht, von diesem Angebot eines "Volksdeutschen" rumänischer Staatsangehörigkeit Gebrauch zu machen, so daß Rezzori - der 1942 Priska von Tiedemann geheiratet hatte - bis Kriegsende unbehelligt blieb.
Source: Der Spiegel, January 1959, page 46.

After the war, Germany went through a process of denazification (Entnazifizierung). This process was extended into close scrutiny of anyone who appeared in the public spot light, well into the 21st century. Gregor von Rezzori was one of the authors who was invited to attend the proceedings of the Nuremberg War Tribunal. In 1959, he received the literary award Theodor-Fontane-Preis. Der Spiegel, known as the most critical German monthly magazine, would surely have reported on Von Rezzori if he was considered to or even apparently would have collaborated with the Nazis. Right up till the end of the 1990s Von Rezzori enjoyed a career as a playwright, novelist, and appeared both on TV and in films. I have not found any link or suggestion that his behaviour during the period of the Third Reich was not above board.

Feb 9, 2012, 7:00am Top

Thanks for additional info. I put the German into Google Translate, but the result was quite garbled. In any case, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I understand that von Rezzori was "apolitical," but being "apolitical" is a choice too. Of course, I don't know what I would have done if I had lived in Germany during the Nazi period and hadn't been Jewish, and I know that everyone struggles to survive, but I hope I would have taken a more principled stand (or at least not moved there by choice at that time).

Feb 9, 2012, 7:05am Top

Excellent reading and reviewing, though the books are less my kind of thing (although I did have a 'Russian period' in the 90s - but it was mostly fiction and poetry).

>52 rebeccanyc:, 57 I agree that Elizabeth George suffers from lack of editing (omg, 953!). This seems to happen when writers become successful and their editors clearly step back and let them run wild. Do they assume we will buy and read anything they write at that point?

Feb 9, 2012, 8:13pm Top

I'm glad you're back Rebecca--I've missed your always fascinating reviews!

I agree with you about Elizabeth George. I'm up to date in reading the series (other than the newly published one), and I've debated dropping the series for the last couple of books. In the end I read them, and I suspect at some point I will read her new one.

I'll be reading Memoirs of an Anti-Semite before I look for An Ermine in Czernopol, although your review makes the book sound irresistible.

I have The Lost Steps on my shelf, so again I'll have to read that before I can get the the Carpentier you've reviewed above.

Feb 10, 2012, 7:38am Top

Thanks, Deborah. I've read a lot of books because you recommend them, so I'm glad you're enjoying my reviews. I haven't read Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, although I will -- just have to find it somewhere on my TBR shelves. I loved The Lost Steps when I read it last year; it's quite different from The Kingdom of This World, although equally beautifully written.

By the way, I saw the latest Elizabeth George (still in hard cover) in the bookstore yesterday and it looked like even more of a door stopper than the one I just finished (although it's hard to compare paperback and hardcover).

Feb 11, 2012, 5:59am Top

It's so long since I read Memoirs of an Anti-Semite that I've forgotten it, so The Ermine in Czernopol sounds like a good re-introduction to von Rezzori.

I have given up on Elizabeth George because her books have become so bloated and the characters so self-indulgent. Snap out of it, Debra! Another crime writer who suffered from bloat was Reginald Hill. Too little editing and too much filler.

Feb 11, 2012, 7:12am Top

>65 rebeccanyc:

I don't know what I would have done if I had lived in Germany during the Nazi period and hadn't been Jewish

to me that's exactly what makes reading these books so fascinating. Many people will assert that they would choose "the right side", but what's right is often decided by the winners, and only retrospectively. While people can surely refrain from committing atrocities, there is a vast sliding scale / slippery slope from just staying there to going there and making a career. Perhaps especially artists, writers, painters, singers, etc usually can only get bye on patronage by "the people in power." Not everyone had the financial means, or realized on time, to emigrate. There have been cases of other artists moving to Germany to benefit from the economic boom that came before the bust.

Almost all European writers who continued publishing during that period in Germany or occupied territories were later screened for collaboration.

I was quite shocked reading about (authentic), very strongly-voiced negative attitudes towards Jewish people in the American novel Young Lonigan, which I read in January.

I will read The Ermine in Czernopol later, and would also like to find a copy of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. As I said before, it would be very interesting to read a biography of Von Rezzori, but I think there isn't one, as yet.

Feb 11, 2012, 10:13am Top

#69, Thanks for stopping by, Pam.

#70, edwinbcn I think what irks me most about von Rezzori is that he voluntarily moved to Berlin in 1938, when many artists, etc., and not Jewish ones, were fleeing or had fled. He basically put his head in the sand, and it could be argued that silence is a form of collaboration.

Although I haven't read Young Lonigan, I can't say I'm surprised. There has been vicious antisemitism in the US over the years, as I imagine there has everywhere. The Nazis certainly had no monopoly on it, although they carried it to an unspeakable extreme. I think the varied kinds of antisemitism von Rezzori portrays in An Ermine in Czernopol have been around in various proportions in various locations for centuries, and still are, and are extrapolatable to other forms of prejudice including racism, homophobia, etc. I like to think we've made progress, but the pessimist in me believes things could get very ugly again.

Edited: May 6, 2012, 3:33pm Top

10. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

The turbulent times of the last century BC and the varied cultures, wars, and characters of the period spring to life in Stacy Schiff's fascinating biography, making Cleopatra, as compelling and remarkable a woman as she was (and not in the ways you may imagine), almost a hook for a book about the classical world at a time of dramatic change. Schiff is a wonderful writer who packs a lot of detail and research into a very readable writing style; while there are, alas, no contemporary sources for Cleopatra's life, she has delved into both the classical authors who wrote within a few centuries of the period as well as modern scholarly works, and is careful to discuss differences among these close-to-primary sources and how she believes politics may have influenced what they wrote.

The outlines of Cleopatra's life are well known, that she inherited the throne of Egypt as a teenager but had to outsmart her brother to claim it, met and became lovers with Julius Caesar and subsequently Mark Antony, and ultimately killed herself. In the course of the book, Schiff makes the claim that Cleopatra has been misinterpreted all these centuries, maligned as "the wickedest woman in the world" and the seductress who caused men to throw away their kingdoms, because it is easier and more comfortable for people (read: men, mostly) to think of powerful men being undone by a woman's sexual power than by her intellectual and political power. And she provides strong evidence for this.

In the last century BC, Alexandria, where Cleopatra reigned, was a cosmopolitan city, a center of intellectual life (the famed library was there and people knew that the earth was round, that the moon controlled tides, and much more that was lost to the west for centuries), art and the decorative arts, music and entertainment, great wealth and excesses of hospitality, and people who appreciated and expected all of these. As Schiff writes, "it was a scholarly paradise with a quick business pulse and a languorous resort culture, where the Greek penchant for commerce met the Egyptian mania for hospitality, a city of cool raspberry dawns and pearly late afternoons, with the hustle of heterodoxy and the aroma of opportunity thick in the air. Even the people watching was best there." As a side note, some of the most interesting aspects of this book for me were the differences between the Roman system and culture and the Alexandrian system and culture, and the turbulence of the times, with civil wars in Rome and shifting loyalties among the varied rulers who were part of the far-flung Roman empire

Furthermore, women had for centuries had rights in Egypt that were unheard of in the west, among them the right to make their own marriages, to be supported after divorcing, and to inherit and hold property. And Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, descended from Macedonian aristocrats who had ruled Egypt for centuries by the time she was born and the inheritor of a strong tradition of Ptolemaic queens: she was educated and groomed to rule. All evidence suggests that she was an extremely competent, politically savvy, and ultimately beloved queen, who as ruler of Egypt had powers almost unimaginable today: not only did she determine military strategy, oversee all commerce, issue currency, receive petitioners of all sorts, put on fabulous entertainments, travel among and gain the support of the Egyptian population who, through a bureaucratic taxing system of immense proportions, essentially worked for her, but she also aligned herself with goddess Isis and was worshiped almost as a goddess herself.

Schiff portrays Cleopatra as an extremely intelligent and politically accomplished woman, yet writes: "The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all. We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty."

Feb 11, 2012, 12:14pm Top

An excellent review, Rebecca. One more for the wishlist. Fortunately, I think I can get this as an e-book through the library.

Feb 11, 2012, 2:00pm Top

Rebecca, that is an outstanding review of Cleopatra: A Life! I hope you posted it because I'm going to give it a thumbs up if you did. I have been hearing about this book for months over in the Ancient History group and yours is the best review I've seen. Really want to read this one. Thanks!

Feb 11, 2012, 6:04pm Top

Thank you, Linda and Suzanne. It was both a fun and extremely informative read.

Feb 11, 2012, 7:04pm Top

Great review of Cleopatra: A life I have been thinking of getting this ever since it was published. I might just do so now.

Edited: Feb 18, 2012, 10:16am Top

11. Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki

I thought I posted this yesterday, but I guess I only imagined that I did . . .

This is a deceptively simple, yet haunting, novel that I've found myself thinking about since finishing it yesterday. On the surface, it is the tale of three students, one narrating his story in a present of around 1912, and another reflecting in 1912 on his days as a student, and his friendship with another student, some decades earlier. The helpful introduction, in my edition, by the translator describes the Meiji period in Japan, from 1868 to 1912, as a time of turmoil in which western ideas were being introduced, transforming the Japanese culture and way of life.

It is a story of deception, betrayal, friendship, family conflict, alienation, illness, and death told in a way that illustrates these without for the most part overtly calling attention to them. From the beginning, there is a sense of foreboding, as the 1912 student meets an older man, whom he calls Sensei, or teacher, who regularly visits the grave of his friend, known as K, but will not share with the student, or even his wife, why this is so important to him. The two get closer, and then the student leaves Tokyo to spend time with his family and dying father. While he is away he gets a long letter from Sensei, which forms the last part of the book, in which he tells the story of his student years, his friendship with K, and how he became the man the student met after K's death.

The reader is filled with apprehension as the story develops, knowing, in a way the student is too immature to realize, that Sensei's secret is grim and that the ending will not be good. The writing is extremely subtle, so that the reader, at least this one, almost has the feeling of experiencing the development of the characters the way they themselves do, yet is propelled through the almost monotony of everyday life to find out what happens. At the same time that the story is in some ways quite modern, it seems very rooted in a particular time and place, and I found it interesting to learn about some of the older Japanese customs and beliefs, some of which feel quite alien, like the practice of letting children (not babies) be adopted by other families who can provide them with greater financial and educational resources, the significance of suicide, and some Confucian (or Buddhist???) ideals.

According to the translator, "kokoro" means "heart," but in a broader sense than we understand it. She explains it means "the thinking and feeling heart" as opposed to "pure intellect," and indeed that is a theme of the book, something the characters struggle with. I read this book for the Author Theme Reads group's Japanese year, and it makes me eager not only to read more by Sōseki but also more by other Japanese authors so I have more of a context for what I'm reading.

Feb 18, 2012, 3:39pm Top

12. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

There was a lot I really liked in this first novel. Ivey vividly depicts both the beauty and the harshness of the 1920s Alaska wilderness, from the ice on the river to the wildflowers to the snow-covered mountains to the leaves, the snowflakes, and the animals that inhabit the land. She also captures the sadness and isolation of Jack and Mabel, a couple who have left their home and family in Pennsylvania to homestead in Alaska because of their heartbreak over a stillborn child. And she provides a compelling picture of what it was like to try to farm in that hard land, and how neighbors can be a necessity and a lifesaver, although her characterization of some of those other people lacks depth.

I even was captured by the reworking of the old Russian fairy tale of the snow child; like the couple in that tale, Jack and Mabel build a snowgirl who is transformed into a real girl. Or is she? Is the girl, Faina, who gradually allows herself to come into their house a magical sprite, who goes away each summer and returns each winter, or is she a real flesh-and-blood girl whose parents died and who can live off the Alaskan land? And that is why I ended up being disappointed in the story, even as I was impressed by Ivey's writing skills. It seems to me that Ivey was trying to have it both ways. Now, maybe that was her intention, and I should appreciate the ambiguity, but I found it frustrating. Even though something is magical, I feel that the magic should be "believable," or maybe I mean consistent, in the context of the story. And, for me, this wasn't.

Edited: Feb 18, 2012, 6:11pm Top

Rebecca, I also much prefer that apparently magical events should have a plausible, rational explanation. One of the wonderful things about LT is the tagging. There is now no need to read magical realism by mistake.

Feb 18, 2012, 6:20pm Top

Loved your review of Kokoro rebecca and it was interesting to learn of the older traditions, especially the one of letting children be adopted by families that can provide children with better educational and financial resources. That would appear to be essential knowledge for reading a book set in Japan at the turn of the 19th century.

Some of the older traditions still make a lot of sense.

Feb 18, 2012, 6:50pm Top

It was very hard on and confusing for the children, though.

Feb 18, 2012, 7:06pm Top

lovely and enticing reviews, Rebecca.

Feb 18, 2012, 10:41pm Top

Very good review of Kokoro - I also enjoyed that one. I think I'm still interested in reading The Snow Child but it was a helpful review. I generally enjoy magic realism, but there have been several books I've read where I thought the authors did not do a good job of mixing the magic and realism.

Feb 19, 2012, 10:36am Top

I sometimes enjoy magical realism (and sometimes don't), but I agree with you about sometimes the author doesn't "do a good job of mixing the magic and the realism." That was true for me with this book. The realism was fantastic, and the magic was fun but the combination of the magic and the realism left too much of a question mark.

Feb 19, 2012, 3:28pm Top

I was about to be attracted to The Snow Child until you pointed out inconsistencies in the tone. Otherwise, it sounds interesting.

Feb 22, 2012, 12:02pm Top

13. GB84 by David Peace

I didn't know anything about the British coal miner's strike in 1984-85 when I started this novel, but I read up on it a little and was extremely impressed by how Peace was able to integrate the key events of this bitter, destructive, bloody, and significant strike into a work of fiction. As with his Red Riding Quartet, which I also read on the recommendation of arubabookwoman, Peace writes from many points of view, with little explanation, so it is often difficult to know what is going on. In the case of both the Quartet and this novel, I believe that to be intentional, because the people involved often had little idea of what is going on.

In the main part of the text, Peace delves into the lives and actions of high union officials, secret police operatives, people formerly involved in putting down the rebellions in Northern Ireland, rich people with influence and seeking influence within the Thatcher government (including one unpleasantly referred to as "the Jew" throughout), scabs (aka "working miners"), and many more. We see plots within plots, and intransigence on both sides. Thatcher was trying to make an example by breaking the powerful coal union, and the president of the union, "King" Arthur Scargill, was equally ideologically determined on the left (the union officials in this book refer to each other as "comrade"). The book makes clear the amount of money the government put into breaking the strike (paying thousands of policemen to confront thousands of pickets) and that for those on the frontlines, the level of violence and secret activity made it feel like civil war.

What truly gives the book humanity is the running narrative, at the beginning of each chapter, by two miners telling their day-by-day stories of what was happening to them, on the picket line, in their families, with the union chapter, in their communities, as less and less money came in and more and more people were beaten up by the cops. The contrast between life as it was lived by the miners, and the scheming and politics at the highest levels of the government and the union vividly demonstrates the horrifying lack of concern both of these organizations had for the people involved.

As with the Red Riding Quartet, some of the violence in this book is shocking, and Peace's style of writing is probably not for everyone. But this was a stunning book.

Feb 22, 2012, 5:06pm Top

Great review rebecca, but I could not read this book, it would just make me very angry.

Feb 22, 2012, 5:59pm Top

I can understand that, Barry. Thanks.

Feb 22, 2012, 7:19pm Top

Another excellent review, Rebecca. I have the Red Riding Quartet high on my wishlist as the result of your reviews and plan to start with them as my introduction to David Peace.

Feb 23, 2012, 3:54am Top

Great review of a book that sounds well worth reading.

Feb 23, 2012, 8:48am Top

The miners strike times were awful. We lived at the Southern end of the mines block in the Midlands at that time. I have several friends whose families were under the most horrendous strain during the 80's. Even my dad, a naice village GP, was once stopped by the police and detained as they thought he was a flying picket (he had been working at a friends garage on a old car so was dressed in overalls/ donkey jacket and was commiting the crime of just driving home late at night through country lanes). It won't be exaggerating the amount of police efforts that were going on.

Feb 23, 2012, 9:16am Top

That's so interesting, C4RO, and so confirming of the impression that I got from the book, which is that it was unbelievably terrible for the miners and that the people with power (on both sides) cared only about their beliefs and nothing about the miners themselves.

Feb 23, 2012, 10:14am Top

Excellent review of GB84, Rebecca. I've had my eye on it for awhile, so I'll add it to my wish list.

Feb 23, 2012, 2:35pm Top

Terrific review. Although I'm vaguely aware of the poverty of the out-of-work miners (my view has been manipulated by movies like "Brassed Off", "The Full Monty") I was somehow unaware of this whole episode.

Feb 23, 2012, 3:11pm Top

I don't know why I had no recollection of it either, as I definitely kept up to date on the news in the 80s.

Feb 23, 2012, 4:07pm Top

It was big news at the time here in Australia. We'd just voted out Malcolm Fraser's Liberal (conservative, really) government and elected Bob Hawke's Labor government. Most of the people I knew were staunch trade unionists, some of whom called one another comrade (ironically) so our sympathy was all with the miners. The union may even have sent financial support.

Feb 25, 2012, 9:09am Top

Pam, the coal miners union did receive financial support from other places, so it's quite possible the Australian union did so.

Feb 25, 2012, 9:35am Top

14. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš

I've had this book since the 1980s, when I bough a series edited by Philip Roth called Writers from the Other Europe, and I decided to read it now for the Reading Globally theme read on Turkey and the Balkans, since the author (at the time he wrote the book) was a Yugoslav; now I suppose he would be considered a Serbian. On the surface, the book, billed as a short novel but really a series of stories connected by theme and occasionally by characters, is not about Yugoslavia, as all but one of the stories take place in revolutionary Russia and in its aftermath of the 1930s Stalinist show trials, but it obliquely sheds light on the kind of darkness that has fallen on all too many people and places, not only in the 20th century but also, as the chapter/story "Dogs and Books" makes clear, in medieval and other times.

The chapters/stories are essentially condensed biographies of fictional characters portrayed so vividly they could be real historical characters. Each is involved in some way in the revolution, and each ultimately falls victim of the 1930s purges. The fascination of the book lies in Kiš's writing,both classically descriptive and modern, his ability to characterize these people, portray the insanity of the Stalinist system, and occasionally make the reader laugh. (The medieval story deals with the inquisition and pogroms against Jews.) In the introduction to my edition, Joseph Brodsky writes, "Only the names here are fictitious. The story, unfortunately, is absolutely true; one would wish it were the other way around." I will be looking for more of Kiš's work.

Feb 25, 2012, 10:00am Top

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich sounds fascinating, Rebecca, as does the Writers from the Other Europe series. Definitely one for the wishlist. Thanks for the review.

Feb 25, 2012, 5:03pm Top

Writers from the Other Europe was an excellent series. The fact that the books are almost impossible to find used attests to that. I only have a few, so I envy you having them all.

Feb 25, 2012, 6:14pm Top

I don't think I have the complete series; I have a boxed set of four titles. In addition to A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, it includes Sanatorium under the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz, Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera, and This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Taudeusz Borowski. Were there others in the series?

Edited: Feb 26, 2012, 12:35pm Top

Here is a list of books included in Writers from the Other Europe. The list is from WorldCat.

Konrád, G. (1987). The case worker. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books.

Hrabal, B. (1981). Closely watched trains. New York: Penguin Books.

Konrád, G. (1987). The city builder. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books.

Vaculík, L. (1975). The guinea pigs: a novel. New York: Penguin Books.

Gombrowicz, W. (1986). Ferdydurke. New York: Viking Penguin.

Borowski, T. (1976). This way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen: And other stories. New York: Penguin Books.

Csáth, G., & Birnbaum, M. D. (1983). Opium and other stories. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books.

Konwicki, T. (1984). The Polish complex. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books.

Schulz, B. (1979). Sanatorium under the sign of the hourglass. New York: Penguin Books.

Andrzejewski, J. (1980). Ashes and diamonds. Harmondsworth, Eng: Penguin Books.

Roth, P., Borowski, T., Kiš, D., Kundera, M., & Schulz, B. (1979). Writers from the other Europe. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Kundera, M. (1981). The book of laughter and forgetting. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Kiš, D. (1980). A tomb for Boris Davidovich: A novel. New York: Penguin Books.

Kundera, M., Rappaport, S., & Roth, P. (1975). Laughable loves. New York: Penguin Books.

Konwicki, T., Welsh, D., & Kołakowski, L. (1976). A dreambook for our time. New York: Penguin.

Schulz, B. (1977). The street of crocodiles. New York: Penguin Books.

Kundera, M. (1977). The farewell party. New York: Penguin Books.

Kundera, M. (1983). The joke. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books.

ETA: I realized that the list included some reprints of the same title so I took them out.

Feb 26, 2012, 1:20pm Top

Thanks for the list. I only have the four Rebecca has, but they were found one by one in used book stores. Now at least I know what I'm looking for and not just taking a chance on spotting one of the spines. Maybe there were no Canadian rights to the others.

Feb 26, 2012, 1:56pm Top

I just clicked through Lisa's list (thanks!) and Amazon.com has most of them in reasonably priced paperback editions.

Feb 26, 2012, 2:03pm Top

Yes, thanks, Lisa. Interestingly, I have some of these in other editions. Of course Kundera has been widely published (his friendship with Roth was, I understand, the impetus for the creation of the series), and I have several of them. I also have The City Builder (Dalkey Archive) and Ferdydurke (Yale U. Press), although I haven't read them yet. Some of the others sound very interesting too, although a lot seem to be completely out of print.

Feb 26, 2012, 5:31pm Top

>98 rebeccanyc: - Wonderful review of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. I have this somewhere but haven't been able to find it the last couple of times I checked. I would highly recommend some of Kis' other works - The Encyclopedia of the Dead which sounds a bit like Boris in that it is short stories, some of which are based on real or mythological characters, Garden Ashes - semi-autobiographical story with gorgeous prose (somewhat odd, fragmented, with hints of magic realism, but I would definitely recommend it) and Early Sorrows - stories that also seem semi-autobiographical, less depressing than the other two.

Feb 26, 2012, 5:53pm Top

It looks like The Case Worker and A Dreambook for our Time are out of print though perhaps Dalkey Archive will republish them since they put out other works by Konrad and Konwicki (I have his Polish Complex and A Minor Apocalypse that they released).

Also couldn't find another edition of Opium and other stories by Csath.

Closely Watched Trains and Ashes and Diamonds are available from Northwestern University Press, though their books can be expensive.

Open Letter recently put out The Guinea Pigs.

I've seen used copies of A Dreambook for our Time and The Case Worker - do the Writers from the Other Europe books have good intros or notes?

Feb 26, 2012, 7:47pm Top

On iPhone so more later, but there are brief intros but no notes in the four original Penguins I have. I don't think Dalkey Archive or Open Letter generally have intros or notes, but I don't have any in front of me right now.

Feb 27, 2012, 9:02am Top

Readers International is another great company which publishes many writers from Eastern Europe in English translations, as well as writers from the rest of the world. They used to have a subscription service but it looks now as if you can order them individually on line.

Feb 27, 2012, 12:38pm Top

Thanks for the info about Readers International.

Feb 27, 2012, 1:07pm Top

I am deliberately not yet reading your review on The Snow Child Rebecca, as I had just dropped it into my Amazon basket this morning. I will revisit once I have read the book.

I don't like to know too much about a book before reading it, if I've already decided to buy it. When grazing review mags I tend to read the second and penultimate paras to get a sense if it is for me, then if I order it, clip the review to read later (if I remember!).

Feb 29, 2012, 12:31pm Top

15. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

It's hard for me to know what I liked best about this delightful and absorbing novel: the wonderful characters, both important and minor, the setting of a 14th century British nunnery, the sly, biting wit, or Warner's subtly brilliant writing. Perhaps it is that Warner creates a world that is both very different from ours today and a lot the same. The nuns worry about money, and how to pay the bills; people have petty jealousies and violent dislikes and secrets and resentments; after disasters, workers charge more; contractors do shabby work and then come back and fix it, and so on. The fact that this is happening in the community of the Oby convent in the 14th century, in a rural area, dependent on farming, that has some contact with larger towns, including one that is the seat of the bishop who oversees the convents, does not seem surprising in the least. Warner also beautifully depicts the natural world that was so much a part of 14th century life, without the kind of nature descriptions that seem over the top.

Not much happens plotwise in this novel: prioresses die and new ones are elected; relationships within the convent change; in the time of the plague, they acquire a priest who isn't a priest who remains with them for most of the rest of the novel; visitors come and go; nature rules over all; the local people who support the convent sometimes support it more and sometimes less; a prioress goes to visit her relatives for a christening; a boy grows up in the convent, the child of one of the nuns; a clerk appointed by a bishop to keep an eye on the convent discovers a new style of music and is entranced by it; the priest, when dying, becomes obsessed with a poem a woman had entrusted to him many years earlier; the bishops come and go. Basically life happens and the reader is immersed in it.

Most of all, Warner has a deep insight into people and their motivations and a wonderful ability to convey ideas in a completely natural way. There are so many wonderful moments that I can't begin to describe them all, but here is an example of Warner's writing: "But no summer is so long, so wide, as the summer before it. Time, a river, hollows out its bed, and every year the river flows in a narrower channel and flows faster." p. 49

As a side note, I found it interesting to think about the role of convents in the lives of these women. It was certainly a step up for many of them; although they had to give up sex, and life wasn't easy for anyone, they didn't have to deal with the demands of men and children, which could be particularly harsh in those times. They were both in the world and out of it.

Feb 29, 2012, 1:54pm Top

The Corner that Held them Enjoyed your review of this one rebecca. I will add it to my wish list. Historical fiction writers have been criticised for overlaying 2ist century views onto their medieval characters. I was wondering how much of this happens with Sylvia Townsend Warner's book.

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 2:58pm Top

I didn't feel she lay, in her case, 20th century views on the medieval characters; it all seemed perfectly plausible to me, and I usually get put off by things that seem too modern in historical fiction. But then, I tend to the belief that human nature doesn't change much. Before she became a writer, she was a scholar of Tudor church music and her father was a historian, so I think she had a knowledge of and respect for history.

ETA I don't really think of this as historical fiction, although it is fiction that takes place in the past. It is a novel about relationships and ideas that is set in a 14th century convent and its environs, and a world is created, but how much the fiction is based on fact is not necessarily significant in this story (although it seems realistic to my unknowledgeable eye).

Feb 29, 2012, 3:33pm Top

Wonderful review with a superb quote. I will have to add this book too to my list. I like your comments in >114 rebeccanyc: about human nature and fiction set in other eras.

Mar 1, 2012, 8:42pm Top

I'm intrigued. I keep putting off reading Warner (I don't know why), and I've never heard of this one. But as a medievalist of sorts, I should grab it.

Mar 2, 2012, 8:08am Top

Jane, I put off Warner for years, and finally a few years ago pulled Lolly Willowes off the TBR and really loved it. I was less enthusiastic about Mr. Fortune's Maggot, which I read last year, although I still loved Warner's writing. But I jumped right on the Warner bandwagon with The Corner That Held Them, although perhaps it may not hold up for a medievalist like you!

Mar 2, 2012, 8:26am Top

Just catching up! GB84 sounds like a great book.... (I would not have thought you would read a book like The Snow Child so your comments on it are interesting...)

Edited: Mar 2, 2012, 8:32am Top

I read The Snow Child because Lisa/labfs39 highly recommended it and we very often agree about books. I'm not sorry I read it, and parts of it were lovely. I'm curious as to why you think I wouldn't read a book like it.

As for GB84, it is a great book, but I'm not sure whether you would like it. It is quite graphically violent in places.

Mar 2, 2012, 9:20am Top

As most of you probably know by now, I tend to read opportunistically and without a plan, although I often have some idea in my head of what I'd like to read or a general area of interest. So I thought I'd take a look at what I've read so far this year.

Fiction: 12 Nonfiction: 3
Books by women: 4 By men: 11
Global (non-US/UK) authors: 8 US/UK authors: 7
Countries represented: Egypt (2 by same author), Greece (1), Austria (1), Cuba (1), Japan (1), Yugoslavia/Serbia (1), Russia (1)
Recent (last 6 months) purchases: 11 Older TBR: 4
Read for LT theme read: 3
Authors new to me: 8

I'm not sure what this all says, but it was fun to think about!

Mar 2, 2012, 2:26pm Top

I tend to read opportunistically and without a plan

This is the first year I have ever made a list of 50 or so books I would like to read. In the past I've pretty much read the next thing that sounded interesting. But my book buying proclivities are definitely opportunistic — which explains how the old TBR gets so out of hand.

I am struck, Rebecca, by the international emphasis of your reading. It is quite remarkable.

Mar 2, 2012, 3:22pm Top

As for the international aspect, part of it is because of theme reads here on LT (Greece and Yugoslavia for the Reading Globally first quarter theme read on Turkey and the Balkans) and Japan for the Author Theme Reads yearlong focus on Japan. Egypt came about by my discovery of Albert Cossery through NYRB, Austria and Cuba involved reading books by authors I had read and enjoyed previously, and I read a lot of Russian literature. I get a lot of great ideas from the Reading Globally group.

Mar 2, 2012, 5:31pm Top

Maybe next year I'll look into Reading Globally when I'm not so preprogrammed!

Mar 3, 2012, 9:14am Top

>119 rebeccanyc: While I have not read the book, I have, of course,read Lisa's Belletrista review and I suppose I would have thought it too ethereal for you, mostly for the reasons you state in your review.

The chances of me getting to GB84 is quite slim, but I can live vicariously through you!

>120 rebeccanyc: I always enjoy your literary self-reflection, because I do it also. It's not like I'm trying to keep myself on any kind of straight and narrow path, but, as you say, it's fun to think about. I suppose we have similar approaches to reading and read without the goals and lists that so many set for themselves, so that it's interesting to see where our free-range interests have taken us. I liken my approach to reading as more of less the equivalent of hopping from one stone to another, enjoying the journey, with no great plan to get across the river.

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 11:25am Top

16. Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son by Sholem Aleichem

I read this charming and yet subtly pointed tale, which I bought in 1974 when I was taking a Yiddish literature in translation course, for the Club Read challenge to read a book published (in this case in English translation) in the year I was born. Mottel, who is about 8 or 9 years old, tells the story, starting in the Russian village of Kasrilovka and ending up on the lower east side of New York, with much wandering through Europe in between. He is a mischievous boy who loves to draw and who above all is an extremely astute observer of the people around him, not only his mother who is always crying (after his father dies at the beginning of the book), his brother Eli who is always scheming and never smiling, and his sister-in-law Brocha who has huge feet and is always talking, but his extended "family" (especially the wonderful young man known as "our friend Pinney") and everyone else he encounters. This is not a happy time for Jews in Russia, as pogroms are frequent; getting to America is harder than anyone expects; Ellis Island is a prison for a time; and life in New York is full of opportunity but takes some getting used to; but Mottel is full of life and eager to live it to the fullest. He is a delightful creation.

Having really loved Aleichem's Wandering Stars, which I read last year, I approached this book with anticipation, an was somewhat turned off by the translator's note. Tamara Kahane, who translated the edition I have, was Aleichem's granddaughter and notes in her introduction that "my primary task was to make him (Mottel) human and real to the English reader . . . I have therefore ruthlessly sacrificed strange rhythms and exotic expressions . . . To those who know Yiddish and the works of Sholom Aleichem in that language, I proffer my apologies for I know that they will be dissatisfied." Although I don't know Yiddish, the Wandering Stars translation seemed to capture what I think of as the feeling of Yiddish, and at first I was disappointed with the translation of Mottel as it seemed a little flat, not lively enough. But gradually, and especially as the family set off for America, I became captivated by Mottel and was no longer annoyed by the translation.

Mar 6, 2012, 12:51am Top

The Corner that Held Them sounds very interesting though I'm somewhat held up on Summer Will Show right now. I also loved your review of Wandering Stars - I'll look for that one.

Mar 7, 2012, 12:20am Top

I was finally able to get back to your thread (I think my ears were burning), and loved your reviews of The Corner that Held Them and Adventures of Mottel. I must get to Wandering Stars, which I keep putting off for some reason.

P.S. I'm sorry you found the Snow Child too ambiguous. I found the lack of firm explanations to be part of the charm. Guess we missed on that one!

Mar 7, 2012, 6:52am Top

Thanks for stopping by, Lisa. I am glad I read The Snow Child and loved a lot of it, but I guess we can't agree about every book. Wandering Stars is definitely a winner!

Edited: Mar 7, 2012, 8:29am Top

17. Vesuvius by Gillian Darley

I picked up this intriguing-looking little book from the counter of my favorite bookstore when I was buying something else, and I am glad it was little because it wasn't as intriguing as I had hoped. Darley looks at how others have looked at Vesuvius, from the classical era to the Renaissance to the romantics to the budding scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries to today, from artists and writers to diplomats and impressarios and tourists. While this is mildly interesting, although more than I wanted to know, I would have preferred a different book, one that talked about the geology and the impact on the people who lived and live near Vesuvius, including the ones who even today are building their houses further and further up the slope of a still active volcano. So I can't really criticize the book; it just wasn't completely to my taste. Fun pictures, though.

Edited: Mar 7, 2012, 10:20am Top

Rebecca- that was such a lovely and enchanting review of The Corner That Held Them. If I ever read this, certainly your review will be part of the experience.

Too bad about Vesuvius. For a geologic take, Fortey has a nice chapter on Pompey in Earth: An Intimate History, but I would hesitate to recommend the entire book to you. (If you really wanted a generally geology book, check out John Mcphee's geology books - there are four, later combined into the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner Annals of the Former World. But, McPhee's book stays in the US, along I-80, actually).

Awhile back I picked up a book on the Stonehenge which had the same problem - if focused entirely on the English study and response to Stonehenge, instead of on the structure itself. However, that book happened to be absolutely fascinating.

Mar 7, 2012, 6:16pm Top

Thanks, Dan, and thanks for the geology info. I read a lot of John McPhee years ago, including the geology books; a lot of his writing had been in the New Yorker and that's what got me into reading him.

Mar 11, 2012, 12:26pm Top

18. The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić

In this thought-provoking novel, Ugrešić explores what it means not only to be an exile and not only to be an exile from a country that no longer exists, but also to be an exile from a country that has been shattered, by war and what we learned to call "ethnic cleansing," into multiple smaller nations. The protagonist, a native of Zagreb now living in Amsterdam, has been hired to teach a two-semester course in the literature of the former Yugoslavia at the University; her students come from all over the former Yugoslavia and have enrolled in the university largely because of the advantage of having a student visa. The title of the book comes from the nickname the students give the factory at which many of them work, a factory that makes S&M clothing and paraphernalia and which in turn is named after an S&M club. However, the "ministry of pain" is really a metaphor for the various kinds of pain the protagonist and the students experience, from "Yugonostalgia" to much deeper traumas.

The best parts of the book come early, as the protagonist engages with the students and delves into the meaning of exile, her feelings about "home," and the complexity of language. As she notes about Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian, which apparently differ mostly in a few words, the students "knew that "our" languages were backed by actual troops, that "our" languages were used to curse, humiliate, kill, rape, and expel. They were languages that had gone to war in the belief that they were incompatible, precisely because they were inseparable." In the second part, she goes home for a visit to her mother and her former parents-in-law, and that visit too is interesting. After she returns to Amsterdam, she begins to spiral downwards, changes the way she teaches the students, visits the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, loses her job, and moves into a new apartment. For me the book then became less compelling. I admire what Ugrešić is trying to do, but in an intellectual way, rather than being truly absorbed in the story. I do think this book makes brilliant use of language, and paints a stunning portrait of dislocation.

Mar 11, 2012, 12:53pm Top

Ugrešić explores an interesting point, how language was politicized during the breakup of Yugoslavia. The languages are all from the same dialect, I believe, but have slight regional differences. The main difference is that Serbian is usually written in Cyrillic and Croatian in the Roman alphabet. I wonder though if Ugrešić discusses any of the other aspects of the war, especially the role of religion and regional nationalism. Or because she is a literature teacher, does the main character address the problem from a linguistic POV only?

Mar 11, 2012, 1:08pm Top

19. The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson with Sharon Begley

I heard the author of this book interviewed on my local public radio station and thought it sounded intriguing enough to buy. Although written in a relatively chatty style, it includes considerable scientific data and information about experimental work.

Davidson is a psychology professor who has focused his research on learning how the brain is involved in emotion. This was not a popular idea when he started work as a graduate student in the 1970s, as most leading scientists though of emotions as "neurological fluff" when compared to memory, problem-solving, perception, and other attributes studied by cognitive psychologists; there were also few tools to look at what was happening inside the brain. Although Davidson conducted experiments for decades that began to show how emotion is indeed something that happens in our brains, the emergence of MRIs has enabled scientists to pinpoint the parts of our brains that become active when we are experiencing different kinds of emotions.

In this book, Davidson identifies six dimensions of "emotional styles" that can be mapped to particular areas in our brains and the communications among them; everyone falls somewhere on a continuum for each of these dimensions. The six dimensions are resilience (from fast to recover to slow to recover), outlook (from positive to negative), social intuition (from intuitive to puzzled), self-awareness (from self-aware to self-opaque), sensitivity to context (from tuned in to tuned out), and attention (from focused to unfocused). He is careful to note that there are benefits at both ends of each spectrum, that society benefits from having people with varied emotional styles, and that the issue is not where someone falls on each continuum, but whether some aspect of emotional style is creating problems in his or her life. To give an example, one's degree of resilience (recovering quickly from a setback) depends on the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Davidson goes on to stress that the brain is plastic; not only does it change in response to how we use it and what is going on in our lives, but we can also consciously work to change where we fall along the continuum of each emotional style.

Another aspect of this book involves Davidson's lifelong commitment to meditation, and his interest is studying the brains of people who meditate, including those who meditate a lot, like Buddhist monks, and those who are novices to meditation, like volunteers he involved in studies, to see how the brains change in response to meditation. He is in the early stages of this research, but does believe that meditation changes the strength of different pathways in the brain.

I find neuroscience fascinating, and although I shy away from self-help books, there was enough science in this book to make me take the quizzes to determine my emotional styles and consider the idea of trying meditation once again, although I've never quite taken to it in the past. The book is a relatively quick read, but there's a lot of interesting information in it, not just about emotional styles and meditation, but also about how scientists figure out how to structure and interpret experiments.

Mar 11, 2012, 1:22pm Top

Lisa, Ugrešić doesn't talk much about the war itself at all. The book itself is very much about language, and the protagonist is very absorbed in, one might say obsessed by, language and memory, but she alludes a little to the role of regional nationalism and religion because the students come from all over and there are minefields they have to avoid in the class. And, of course, she and one of the students visit the war crimes tribunal, so the war is not completely absent. I believe Ugrešić is more interested in the effect the war has had on the people of the former Yugoslavia than in the war itself.

Mar 11, 2012, 8:28pm Top

The Emotional Life of Your Brain sounds intriguing. Excellent review, Rebecca.

Mar 12, 2012, 11:11am Top

The Ministry of Pain sounds very interesting. We tend to think of religion as being the overriding cause of hostilities in the former Yugoslavia. Yet I believe language was also the principal reason for the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Mar 12, 2012, 12:17pm Top

Apparently the languages in the former Yugoslavia are not all that different, but are of interest to the protagonist/author and to me as the reader. I should add that memory is perhaps much more the theme than language. I don't know enough about the causes of the war that broke up Yugoslavia (shamefully, since I was a news-reading adult during it) to know how much was religion, how much ethnic divisions, how much something else. Interesting about Czechoslovakia, but there were also ethnic divisions.

Mar 12, 2012, 6:13pm Top

I don't need much convincing to read anything by Ugresic but good review for The Ministry of Pain. The Emotional Life of Your Brain also sounds interesting. Did Davidson mention if the six dimensions are a concept that is commonly used in neuroscience or is it more something he used to help organize the book? That does seem a bit more difficult to quantify compared to something like reaction time or enzyme inhibition.

Mar 13, 2012, 7:18am Top

The six dimensions are something he developed through his research on finding locations in the brain that are active or less active when emotions are felt. One of the things that led him to study this was existing research that showed that people who were depressed had more activity in the right hemisphere of their brains than in their left (this was as far as science could pinpoint brain activity at the time). He says that each of the six dimensions reflects "activity in specific, identifiable brain circuits." I don't know the degree to which they are commonly used; either he didn't mention it or I don't remember! One of the interesting things about the book is how this kind of scientist thinks about organizing experiments to make them as objective as possible; certainly being able to observe and measure brain activity is a step up from seeing if people's eyes flick right or left in response to various stimuli, which is what they were doing back in the 1970s.

Mar 13, 2012, 9:16am Top

Rebecca, If you don't already follow Charlie Rose, you may want to check out his website. He interviewed the authors of The Emotional Life of Your Brain on his show last night. I didn't see it, but will watch once it is available on his website. He has quite a few interviews on topics related to the brain. I also find neuroscience fascinating - one of those areas of study that if I had it to do all over, I would seriously consider. Ahhh, the wonders of hindsight...

I also greatly enjoyed your review of The Ministry of Pain.

Mar 13, 2012, 9:30am Top

Thanks, Linda. I heard the authors interviewed on my local public radio station (WNYC) so I guess they're making the rounds. I'm usually asleep by the time Charlie Rose comes on, so I'll check out the web site.

Mar 15, 2012, 8:59am Top

20. Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki

Sanshirō is a young man, about 22 years old, who travels from his country village to Tokyo to enroll in the prestigious university there in about 1909. The novel opens on the train carrying him to Tokyo, on which he has two encounters, one with a woman, one with an older man, that foreshadow much of the rest of the book. Sanshirō is obviously both intelligent and ambitious, but he has a lot to learn about both people, especially women, and the comparative sophistication of Meiji era Tokyo, the period when, as in Kokoro, the other book by Natsume that I've read, Japan was absorbing western ideas.

Very soon after his arrival in Tokyo, Sanshirō meets several people who will be part of his life for the rest of the book: his gregarious fellow student Yojirō, who is always plotting something; a scientist known to his family, Nonomiya; a professor, Hirota, who is somewhat detached from the world; and especially Mineko, an entrancing and yet mysterious young woman. Sanshirō, who is otherwise largely an observer, of people, of the streets and streetcars of Tokyo, of the sky and the clouds moving across it, becomes obsessed with Mineko, although I have to stress I do not mean "obsessed" in the way we think of the word today. He thinks about her, thinks about how he can get to see her -- but when he does see her, he is unable to do the right thing, to say what she would like to hear, to interact with her in a way that could move things forward. He is intimidated by her modernity at the same time that he is fascinated by it.

In addition to the Mineko thread, Sanshirō also becomes involved in an attempt to get a Japanese professor of western literature at the university, receives letters and instructions from his mother, along with information about a girl back home who doesn't interest him, and finds his way around Tokyo and the university.

As in Kokoro, Natsume's writing is very subtle. Just as Sanshirō observes the world, the reader observes Sanshirō and experiences what he is experiencing, even if at times the reader, or this one anyway, just wants to slap him and say "talk to her, already." It would be difficult to call this a coming of age novel, because Sanshirō still has a long way to go at the end of it, but he definitely is learning. I enjoyed this book and found it an excellent tale of a young provincial man gradually getting to know the wider world, as well as an intriguing portrait of a particular time and place.

As an aside, my edition had a lovely and informative introduction by Haruki Murakami.

Mar 15, 2012, 8:01pm Top

Good review of Sanshiro

Mar 18, 2012, 10:51am Top

#'s 132, 134, 143 - catching up, three terrific reviews. Your comments on The Ministry of Pain captured my imagination.

Mar 18, 2012, 6:30pm Top

Glad to read your review of Sanshirō. I've been looking for more Soseki but was somewhat deterred by kidzdoc's review of Botchan and a friend's middling review of The Gate. I'll add that one to the list of potential next Sosekis.

Mar 18, 2012, 7:16pm Top

Thanks, Dan, Barry, and DieF.

Mar 22, 2012, 9:48am Top

21. The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan

I would not have bought or read this book if I hadn't read Jay Rubenstein's Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse earlier this year. And I have to confess that I more or less skimmed through it. Frankopan is a scholar of and fan of Alexios, the Byzantine emperor at the time of the first crusade, and in this book he argues that it was Alexios's plea to Pope Urban II that led the pope to call for the crusade and that Alexios oversaw at least the staggered scheduling of the arrival of different armies in Constantinople, their provisioning, and some of their initial targets once they reached Asia Minor. He gives short shrift to much of what happened during the crusade itself. I don't know enough (nor do I care to know enough) about the politics of the era to know if Frankopan has placed the emphasis properly. It is clear to me that Rubenstein's focus on the apocalyptic thinking behind some of the crusaders' actions doesn't conflict with Frankopan's focus on Alexios, and I found that earlier read much more interesting, thoughtful, and thought-provoking.

Mar 22, 2012, 8:44pm Top

Well done for posting a review Rebecca. Not many people admit to owning this book.

Mar 23, 2012, 6:13am Top

Just catching up as well. Interesting what you say about Ugrešić and language. I was in Croatia not that long ago and the museums were full of texts and souvenirs that related to the Croatian language. Judging by what you say it seems that they were attempting to individualise the language, making it purely Croatian and not a shared tongue.

Mar 23, 2012, 7:30am Top

Interesting comment about Croatia, Jargoneer.

Barry, not sure what you mean by that. Not only is it a very new book that I saw on the new book table in my favorite bookstore and was just published earlier this year, but it is also published by Harvard University Press so probably isn't widely distributed. It didn't strike me as odd that few people here own it for those two reasons.

Mar 23, 2012, 12:30pm Top

22. Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman

Wow! Like, I presume, many of you, I had never heard of Edith Pearlman until this collection won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction this year. As Ann Patchett says in her introduction, this "should be the book with which Edith Pearlman casts off her secret handshake status and takes up her rightful position as a national treasure."

Pearlman's writing is deceptive. It isn't showy; nothing too dramatic happens. People live their lives, confront problems, struggle with moral dilemmas, find love, learn about themselves, learn about others. learn to live with or leave their families. They have flaws and frustrations; sometimes there is something a little off, a little unconventional about them; sometimes they're just the people other people don't notice much; sometimes their families can't see their true nature. They can be in a fictional suburb of Boston, postwar Europe, Israel, South America. They are, above all, human, and Pearlman is brilliant at bringing out their humanity, their individuality, unobtrusively revealing their character, quietly but unbelievably insightfully moving their stories along.

Many of these stories are stunning -- "Allog," "Chance," "Home Schooling," "Granski," "On Junius Bridge," "Relic and Type," "Jan Term," and "Self-Reliance" among them. Others are merely wonderful. And some, of course, as with any collection, don't quite live up to the others. But all in all, I am amazed that I never knew about this wonderful writer before and delighted that, with the NBCC award, she may finally get the recognition and readership she richly deserves.

Mar 23, 2012, 1:15pm Top

Enticing review of Pearlman.

Mar 24, 2012, 9:28am Top

Definitely on the wish list -- thanks Rebecca.

Mar 25, 2012, 10:57am Top

23. The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō

I am very impressed that Shūsaku Endō wrote this book, not only because it deals with the horrifying vivisection of US prisoners of war by Japanese doctors at the end of World War II, but primarily because he is a Japanese author tackling what must have been, and probably still is, an extremely fraught subject. What he is really addressing is the moral question: how could anyone, but especially doctors who have sworn an oath to protect life, agree to participate in this?

Endo tells the story through the eyes of several of the doctors and nurses who end up participating in the vivisection, but the principal character is Dr. Sugaro, a young intern at the time who, despite reservations, was involved in the "operations," and who, when the book opens, is practicing almost in seclusion in a shabby home office outside Tokyo. Then, through flashbacks, we get a picture of the time and motivations of the other characters, primarily the principal doctors, "the Old Man," Dr. Hashimoto, and his assistant Dr. Shibata; a sickening sycophant, Dr. Asai; another more sophisticated intern, Dr. Toda; and two nurses, the chief nurse Oba and a younger nurse with a difficult past, Ueda.

The end of the war is near and the Americans are bombing the city of Fukuoka day in and day out. It has been reduced nearly to rubble, and the doctors and nurses at the nearby medical school have become numbed to the death and destruction. Most of them are also numb to the suffering of their patients, many of whom have advanced cases of tuberculosis, especially those in the welfare ward, although, despite teasing, Sugaro feels compassion for an elderly woman who is scheduled to undergo unnecessary and probably fatal surgery because the doctors feel she is expendable. At the same time, the internal politics of the hospital lead "the Old Man" to focus his efforts on becoming to become Dean of Medicine and Asai and Toda are scheming with him. Even before the military proposes the vivisection "experiment," the patients are not at the forefront of the doctors' or nurses' minds. Nobody seems that enthused about the war, either.

Through flashbacks to the earlier lives of some of the participants, especially Toda and Ueda, Endō explores their psychological inability to refuse to join in. Toda lacks a conscience and cares only what society thinks and what he can get away with; Ueda has experienced her own traumas (through which we see the Japanese treatment of the Chinese in areas they occupied prior to the war) and has a hard time thinking about the point of view of other people. Throughout, Endō focuses on the idea of what is morality and how we will be judged, as well as some Buddhist perspectives on suffering. He also introduces the idea of the other; Hashimoto has a white (German) wife, who does things the Japanese find unusual for a woman in her position, and the whiteness of the US bomber pilots who are the POWs is also noted.

I have only scratched the surface of this brief but chilling and complex book. The sea is ever-present, a force beyond human control, and the poison of going along with the group is insidious.

Edited: Mar 25, 2012, 7:27pm Top

Excellent review of The Sea and Poison, Rebecca. I thought that Endo did a superb job portraying the external pressures and internal failings that could lead physicians to perform acts such as these. The doctors in the novel generally treated their patients in a most condescending and dismissive manner compared to modern day physicians (at least I hope that is the case; I couldn't treat a child or parent like that now, nor would I ever think od doing so). Endo was a medical student in Japan before he decided to study French Catholic literature, so he does have a unique insight into the practice of medicine in mid 20th century Japan.

After lilisin's review of When I Whistle I'm tempted to read it soon. (BTW, I bought my copy at the Strand on Boxing Day for $6.95.) I'm also very interested to read other fictional and nonfictional books about physicians who committed acts which could be construed as war crimes, or who strayed from the standard of medical care at the time.

Mar 25, 2012, 6:30pm Top

Great reivew, reminds me how much I want to read this presumably very disturbing book.

Mar 25, 2012, 6:52pm Top

Excellent review of The Sea and Poison I cease to be amazed at what humans can do to each other, especially when they see people as "different" from themselves in some way.

Oh and the Edith Pearlman book sounds good and much more to my taste.

Mar 25, 2012, 9:14pm Top

Darryl, that's especially interesting coming from your perspective as a doctor. I didn't realize that Endo had studied medicine, but that adds to my appreciation of the details of the novel. I will look for When I Whistle too. And thanks, Dan and Barry. Barry, I would add that I think a lot of it had to do with the idea of "difference" but also with the pressures of war (and losing a war) and the "need" to succeed. You can't go wrong with Edith Pearlman.

Mar 26, 2012, 1:51am Top

Very informative review of The Sea and Poison though clearly a hard book to read. All the reviews of Shusaku Endo have inspired me to bump up his Silence. Hoping to read it in the next month or so.

Mar 26, 2012, 7:34am Top

DieF, You should come over to the Author Theme Reads group. This year we're reading Japanese authors and Endo is our year-long author. (There are also four quarterly authors.) Your comments would be very welcome in that group.

Mar 26, 2012, 10:02am Top

Hi Rebecca. Just delurking to say I really enjoy your reviews and your book choices.

Mar 26, 2012, 10:03am Top

Joining the chorus for your review of The Sea and Poison. I have read very little Japanese fiction but this author sounds like one I should try.

>156 kidzdoc: Kidzdoc: One fictional account you might be interested in is The Last King of Scotland about a young doctor who became Idi Amin's personal physician. This was actually one of the more bizarre titles Amin gave himself. The book won several awards, although the LT reviews seem to prefer the film over the book. It is a first novel and I thought the author did a good job portraying a weak character. After all, who else would take such a position?

Mar 27, 2012, 5:49pm Top

Thanks, akeela and SassyLassy!

Mar 27, 2012, 6:03pm Top

24. The Jokers by Albert Cossery

Can it be I'm getting tired of Albert Cossery? There is no reason why I should like this book less than the two I read earlier this year, Proud Beggars and The Colors of Infamy: Cossery's wit is just as satiric and ironic, his writing just as good, his portrayal of character and place just as sharp. But it's starting to seem like he's writing the same book, even though the plot is different. In this case, the group of male friends who eschew seriousness and like to find humor in everything are scheming to bring down the governor of an unnamed Egyptian city (that seems to be Alexandria, not Cairo) through a campaign to praise him excessively. As one of the characters muses about a revolutionary who does not share the protagonists' perspective, "He didn't want the police to take him for a joker -- that was all he cared about. . . . He needed those criminals to respect him. How pathetic for a rebel! Even he couldn't break out of the vicious cycle of power. . . . He was more of a prisoner than a prisoner in his cell because he shared the same myths of his adversary . . ." Had I read this novel first, I am sure I would have been as enthusiastic about it as I was about the others, and I did enjoy it, but just not with the same thrill of discovery.

By the way, the literal translation of the French title is "violence and derision," which has a much sharper tone than the one given it in English.

Edited: Mar 31, 2012, 3:54pm Top

25. Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge

Those looking for the drama in the sinking of the Titanic should look elsewhere, but those who love good writing and are interested in a modest coming-of-age story paired with a portrait of the self-centered, selfish, idle rich will enjoy this subtle and ironic novel. The ending -- which of course we all know -- is both understated and impossible to put down. Bainbridge tells the story through the eyes of Morgan, a young man who was raised since childhood as a nephew of J.P. Morgan but whose birth and earliest life were not quite as glittering, as his father vanished before his birth and his mother died.

At the very beginning of the book, despite the unsettling experience of having a stranger collapse with a heart attack into his arms, Morgan seems to be a typical rich young man with nothing to do but get drunk with his pals and go to dinner parties with their parents. Gradually, after he boards the Titanic for its maiden voyage, the reader sees that he has a more troubling past and even something of a mind of his own and a conscience to boot. He has had to work, despite the wealth that is his to spend, and has played a small role in the design of the ship (steerage bathroom fixtures) (J.P. Morgan was a part owner of the White Star line, which owned the Titanic), and he has even explored some socialist ideas in the past. On the ship, he hangs around with his pals, meets and learns from some interesting characters that he would not ordinarily meet (e.g., an ambitious Jewish dress designer, a mysterious and cynical man of the world, a singer apparently scorned by her lover), pines over an apparently cold woman who later turns out to have another side (Morgan is cautioned by the man of the world that he knows nothing about women), and takes an interest in continuing to work and be productive.

Very little happens in this novel until the iceberg intervenes, but Bainbridge brilliantly illustrates the self-indulgent lack of awareness of the upper classes as they idle away their time, their careless attitudes towards the people who serve them, and their complete disinterest in, if not distaste for, the passengers in steerage. The lackadaisical, if not criminal, attitude that resulted in the lack of enough lifeboats, the lack of attention to iceberg warnings and to a fire in the coal stores, and the emphasis on maintaining enough speed to achieve a maiden voyage record, is clear as well. Bainbridge's writing sparkles. Well before the ship starts sinking, it is a world of every man for himself.

Without fanfare, but completely compellingly, Bainbridge depicts the hours between the hitting of the iceberg and the disappearance of the Titanic below the waters of the North Atlantic. It is the high point of the book.

Mar 31, 2012, 2:56pm Top

What a story, Rebecca. Nice review. Bainbridge is in my sights for 2013 and this will be a book to look out for.

Mar 31, 2012, 3:08pm Top

>165 rebeccanyc: Uh oh. I have The Jokers, and was looking forward to reading it this year or next. I hope that you're right, and that I'll like it as much as the first Cossery book that you read.

>166 rebeccanyc: Nice review of Every Man for Himself. Have you read anything else by Beryl Bainbridge. She appeared on my radar screen after The Man Booker Best of Beryl poll was conducted last year; five of her novels were shortlisted for the Booker, but none of them won the prize.

Mar 31, 2012, 3:59pm Top

Thanks, Suzanne and Darryl. The only other Bainbridge I've read is The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress which, like Every Man for Himself, is published by Europa. I found it puzzling, but was struck by Bainbridge's spare writing and her ability to let characters act and speak as they would in real life, without explanation to the reader.

And Darryl, I'm not sure if Cossery is the kind of writer you'd like, but I don't think The Jokers is a less good book than the ones I read first; I just think they're all a lot alike and I was suffering from too much of a good thing.

Mar 31, 2012, 7:04pm Top

I agree with you rebecca Beryl Bainbridge is a fine writer. I loved her book about Dr Johnson According to Queeney. Another excellent review and I will add Everyman for himself to my to buy list

Mar 31, 2012, 8:32pm Top

Your review of Every Man for Himself makes me want to read the book right-away. Glad to discover that according to LT I have a copy, if only I knew where it is...

Mar 31, 2012, 8:47pm Top

Oh, Edwin, I know that feeling of wondering where a book is!

Apr 1, 2012, 12:34pm Top

Updating my list of what I've read so far this year, through the end of March.

Fiction: 20 Nonfiction: 25
Books by women: 8 By men: 17
Global (non-US/UK authors): 13 US/UK: 12
Countries represented: Japan (3), Egypt (3, all the same author), Yugoslavia/Serbia/Croatia (2), Russia (1), Greece (1), Yiddish Eastern Europe (1), Austria (1), Cuba (1)
Authors new to me: 14
Recent (last 6 months) purchases: 19 Older TBR: 6
Books read for LT theme reads/challenges: 7
Books read primarily because I liked something else by the author or got interested in a subject because of a book I read: 7

As I've noted before, I tend to read opportunistically, so I'm not sure what all this says, except that I think I should broaden my global reading and possibly my reading by women.

Apr 4, 2012, 6:33pm Top

26. The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abé

I found this Japanese classic extremely difficult to read: so disturbing, so claustrophobic, so infuriating. And yet, I suspect all this is as the author intended. Literally, it is the story of a man unwillingly trapped in a disintegrating house in a sand pit with a woman who has been living there for some time, condemned to continually remove sand so it doesn't overpower the house and then the neighboring village. He struggles, attempts to escape, feels alternately anger at and compassion for the woman, and philosophizes about sand, sex and love, and the meaning of life. Metaphorically, it is an existential look at the lives we all live.

I also found it intriguing to think about why it is called "the woman in the dunes" when the woman is never fully developed as a character, and the male protagonist is the focus of the story. To me the woman was almost symbolic, as it is in a way the woman/the pit/the hole in the ground that traps the man, even though it was the male villagers who put him there. A little Freudian, no?

Finally, I found myself struggling to appreciate this book, and on some levels I could. The world the author creates is believable if bizarre, as are the changing moods, attitudes, and actions of the protagonist. The author's depiction of sand and its movement is fascinating and mind-stretching. The way he develops the plot and makes the reader feel as trapped as the protagonist is masterful. The line illustrations, by his wife, are charming and add to the tale. But overall it is so grim and, as I said, so claustrophobic, that reading it was, for me, an unpleasant experience.

Apr 4, 2012, 7:13pm Top

I love poetic titles, and this one has always made me think of a French Lieutenant's Woman kind of scenario. But I see that the truth is somewhat different. There goes another illusion . . . ;-)

Apr 4, 2012, 7:21pm Top

Great reviews and thanks for posting them back in the Author Theme Reads group. I've been loving seeing your reaction to all the authors from the group. Keep it up and I'll definitely be back to see what's next on your reading list.

Apr 4, 2012, 11:19pm Top

Way back in the early 1970s, the Cleveland PlayHouse did a dramatization of Woman in the Dunes -- as a stage production, it was mesmerizing. And there were tons of sand as a stage set....

Apr 5, 2012, 7:28am Top

#176, Thanks, Lilisin. I wouldn't be reading all this Japanese literature if it weren't for you and the Author Theme Reads group, and I'm still feeling I lack the context for fully understanding the novels I'm reading. I'm going to take a little break now to read some other books, but I'll be back.

#177, Hard to imagine how they could create the pit effect on a stage -- that must have been remarkable.

Apr 5, 2012, 6:21pm Top

The Woman in the Dunes sounds fascinating, but if I get round to reading it I will make sure I am outside in the garden.

Apr 7, 2012, 5:11am Top

I've heard The Box Man is a somewhat less depressing book so I've been looking for that one. I'd like to eventually read The Woman in the Dunes but the summary did sound quite unpleasant and your very good review confirmed that.

Apr 7, 2012, 7:58am Top

Good plan, Barry! DieF, I have The Box Man too, as I'm reading Abe as part of this quarter's focus in the Author Theme Reads group, which is spending the year on Japanese authors. I need a break though, before I start it!

Apr 7, 2012, 10:16am Top

I read The Woman in the Dunes a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It's theme of rejecting freedom seemed to reinforce one of the ideas in Mann's The Magic Mountain which I happened to have read just before it.

Interesting question about why "The Woman..." and not "The Man..." If it were here and now I'd say that was a marketing decision by the publisher, but this was a different time and culture.

I'm planning on reading The Box Man as soon as I can finish some other stuff (and if I can find it--LT says I have a copy, but it's not on the shelf with the rest of the A's).

Apr 7, 2012, 10:40am Top

182 it's not on the shelf with the rest of the A's

It's always fascinating to me how people organize their books! I couldn't even begin to alphabetize mine!

Apr 7, 2012, 11:43am Top

an unpleasant experience

And yet a thought-provoking review. Sounds worth the effort.

Apr 7, 2012, 12:21pm Top

It's always fascinating to me how people organize their books! I couldn't even begin to alphabetize mine!

How do you find anything, then? I've tried organizing by appearance (Penguins together, etc), and by nationality, but it never works well. Plus, I have so many more books than shelf room that dozens of books have to be shelved behind others and out of sight, so I have to have some way of knowing where they might be.

(I found The Box Man, by the way. My copy is a mass market-sized paperback, and those are just stacked out of sight in the corners where two shelves come together.)

Apr 7, 2012, 12:59pm Top

Very interesting review of The Woman in the Dunes, Rebecca. I absolutely loved it when I read it, and I'm eager to give it another go this quarter. I'll have to think about it, but I'm pretty sure it's my favorite Japanese novel.

Apr 7, 2012, 2:54pm Top

Thanks, Dan and Darryl. Darryl, why did you love The Woman in the Dunes so much? I admired it, but I certainly didn't love it, so I'm wondering if that's just me or if I missed something.

Steven, I organize my books in an idiosyncratic way that works for me. I have different sections for different kinds of books, but I don't alphabetize within them. For example, for fiction, I organize by country or region, so I have a Russian literature section, a French literature shelf, and so on. For groups like English and US literature, where I have lots of books, I suborganize by time period, so I'll have, for example, 19th century US literature together, 20th century US literature together, and contemporary US literature together. I do keep work by the same author together. Poetry has its own section, as do plays and essays. For nonfiction, I group by topic. For example, US history would be together, European history, anthropology, psychology, and so on. Because I have a lot of science books, they are somewhat subdivided by topic too. This works for me, although since I reorganized everything after packing up all my books while we were doing some renovation, I can't always find everything as quickly as I used to.

Having said that, my TBR section is a mess. By this I mean newly acquired books (over the past several years) that I hope to read "soon." I've kept these separate, and have made some attempt to organize them by country/region or topic, but it's really a disaster and definitely needs some work! This area is not only double booked (with some books behind others0

Apr 8, 2012, 9:24am Top

>187 rebeccanyc: It's been awhile since I read The Woman in the Dunes, but I could identify with the plight of both characters, and I loved Abe's evocative writing and the sense of claustrophobia and perpetual danger. The woman was annoying to me at first, as she could not explain to the man why she simply accepted her fate and did not try to seek a way out. Later, though, I realized that she is so much like many people I've encountered who are in similar real life situations, who passively settle for a miserable existence without trying to better themselves, which made her character one I could appreciate to a greater degree. I can't remember the details of the story as well as the sense of being in the sand pit with them, and the emotions it brought out in me were as vivid as any book I can remember reading recently. I'll definitely re-read it this quarter, as it's been at least five years since I read it the first time, and see if it has the same impact on me now as it did then.

Apr 8, 2012, 10:28am Top

I appreciate your thoughts about this. I think I found the combination of the claustrophobia of the sand pit and the passivity of the woman unnervingly creepy. It's true there are many people who just accept their fate, but I was hoping the man wouldn't sink into that too. It is a depressing comment on human nature.

Apr 20, 2012, 10:10am Top

27. Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia by Thant Myint-U

This was a fascinating book, although it was not the book I expected based on the title. Burma is the center of the story, but Thant Myint-U takes the reader on a tour, geographic, historical, economic, and cultural, of the surrounding regions in China and India, regions that are very far from the political centers of their respective countries and that in various ways have functioned as frontiers. At the beginning and end of the book, he talks about the potential role of Burma as the gateway for China to the Indian Ocean (without going through the narrow Malaccan straits) and as the pathway for India to Southeast Asia.

But the heart of the book is his travels through Burma, the Chinese southwest, and the Indian northeast. In these sections he delves into the history and culture of ancient kingdoms and contemporary ethnic groups, the long and partially continuing isolation of these border areas from the mainstream of their country's culture and economic development the formidable geography, the vital importance of the major rivers coursing down from the Himalayas, politics, military events and strategy, the Chinese need for oil, religious and linguistic diversity and similarity, and much more. For me, this provided insight into areas and history I knew nothing about and broadened my awareness of the complexity of the region.

Thant was born and grew up in the US and did his graduate work in England, but his family returned to Burma to visit during his childhood summers (he is the grandson of former UN Secretary General U Thant). One of the parts of the book that interested me was his awareness of people's appearances: whether they look "Burmese" or "Southeast Asian" versus looking "Chinese" or "Indian." There was a long history of Indian presence in Burma, and he finds people and communities in India's Northeast (a region, connected to the main part of India by what's called the "chicken neck," that still is largely under military control because its various ethnic groups, who formerly had their own kingdoms there, don't feel they are Indian) similar in many ways to the Burmese.

The Chinese are building roads, railways, and pipelines through Burma, and Burma is poised to become the crossroads between China and India, as the title states. But as the author writes, "Burma would not be connecting the parts of India and China most familiar in the West, the maritime Asia that runs from Bombay to Shanghai and Tokyo, via the beaches of Thailand and Bali, Singapore and Hong Kong -- the Asia that is developing fast, the Asia of high-tech manufacturing, glittering fashion shows and luxury tourism. Instead, Burma would be connecting the vast hinterlands of India and China, much less visible, poor and with a spine of violent conflict running right through." Furthermore, it is not clear how the Burmese themselves would benefit from this.

I have one quibble. I love maps, and enjoyed looking at the maps at the beginning of the book. But the contemporary map was printed so the spine of the book goes right through Burma, making it impossible to see some of the most important locations in the book.

Apr 20, 2012, 11:17am Top

Nice review, and interesting thoughts on Burma and its people. Have you been following the latest developments?

Apr 20, 2012, 11:20am Top

Fascinating review, Rebecca. Tennyson's great niece, F. Tennyson Jesse wrote a historical novel about the downfall of the Burmese monarchy in the 1880s, The Lacquer Lady if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Apr 20, 2012, 4:40pm Top

Thanks! I have been reading about Burma. One of the interesting points Thant makes is that western, especially US, sanctions on Burma because of its repressive military regime have created a vacuum, which has been filled by China, which doesn't care about how democratic a government is if it perceives an advantage to getting involved with economic development (true in Africa too). He sees Aung Sang Suu Kyi as more or less a figurehead, and thinks the sanctions are not helping the Burmese people. And Jane, that sounds interesting -- I'll take a look.

Edited: Apr 20, 2012, 11:20pm Top

>193 rebeccanyc:

Western aid to Africa has been largely unsuccessful, see e.g. Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is Another Way for Africa.

Western comment on China's involvement in Africa is, really, out of place. Peoples of Africa seem to be happy with it. From within China, I can tell you that the effort and involvement is massive, something which is probably under-reported in Western media. China's aid to all African countries has been very constructive and consistent for more than 30 years, see e.g. The Dragon's Gift. The Real Story of China in Africa.

According to the Chinese government, the massive effort in Africa, now that China can afford it, is the reward for Africa, for voting China back into the United Nations in 1971.

If it is not clear how the Myanma benefit from the Chinese co-operation, that that is a serious flaw of the book. The "Sino-Myanmar entente is uneven, asymmetrical, but nevertheless
reciprocal and mutually beneficial." (2002) (source can be found on the Internet). Any Chinese ruler would develop or try to dominate relations with Myanmar.

In fact, American foreign policy is much more self-centred and much less consistent. How come U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided, apparently out-of-the-blue, to make a visit to Myanmar in December last year, "the first visit to Myanmar by a U.S. secretary of state in over 50 years."

Apr 21, 2012, 4:12am Top

Burma is one of those countries that we in the West know so little about. Excellent review Rebecca and if I had time I would read the book. Fascinating stuff about the development of the transport links between China and India, which make a lot of sense when you look at a map.

Apr 21, 2012, 8:07am Top

>194 edwinbcn: Edwin, I agree that Western comments on China's involvement can be unfair, even paternalistic. Not having read the The Dragon's Gift, I cannot really comment on that. But from what I've read in (African) newspapers and from (African) commentators, many people are worried that China, with its massive need for commodities, will end up exploiting Africa in the way that many Western countries did. This is not because China is necessarily acting in bad faith, or that it is an 'evil' regime. It's just that many Africans actually prefer the strings-attached approach of Western governments - well, maybe prefer is the wrong word, but they understand that unconditional aid can bring its own problems, like dependency.

But, yes, many Africans dislike the idea that Africa is viewed as incapable of its own rise. Africa is a big place, with many varied people and practices, so the idea that we all have to behave in order to receive developmental aid can seem patronising. There is, however, a strong pragmatic strain in most African countries, who realise that both the West and the East are at times playing a political game in Africa. I personally think that a democratic approach is better for Africa, and therefore also tend to prefer Western aid, but I know that this view is not shared by all Africans.

On the Burmese front, I think that we'll only really know the intentions of the regime as they gear up in preparation for the next general election, which is only in 2015. Hopefully, president Thein Sein will be able to keep the military under some kind of control over the next few years.

Apr 21, 2012, 8:38am Top

Very interesting comments, and I appreciate the perspectives of all of you from outside the US.

Edwin, I read Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa several years ago, along with Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, and found them complementary. (I haven't read The Dragon's Gift, but will take a look for it.) Both damn the status quo in Africa, and both express the opinion that Africans will be better of if they are able to develop their own economies instead of relying on aid. Of course, Dead Aid, in addition to describing China's massive investments in Africa, also touts free market techniques for developing Africa, and it does seem to me, as Dewald points out, that both the west and China are playing their own political games in Africa. Also, I do not think it is inappropriate for people outside other countries to comment on their actions; perhaps we should fix our own house first, but that shouldn't stop us from reading, thinking, and talking about other countries. How else will we learn?

Barry, the roads being built, if I read the book correctly, don't go from China to India but from China to the Burmese coast, as China is interested in having ports on the Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal. At one point in the book, some Indian (a military man? I don't have the book in front of me) expresses concerns about roads from China to India, saying that the Chinese could march down to attack India. To which another Indian replies, "why do Indians never think we could march up the roads?" Given the recent rocket test by India, and the implication that its rockets could reach Chinese cities, I think Thant's focus on this area is important, even if the rockets would fly over, not through, Burma.

I have assumed that Myanmar is the name given by the current regime, and that Burma is not just the older name but the name by people opposed to the regime, but if any of you has any insight into this, I'd love to know.

Apr 21, 2012, 11:52am Top

#190 - I haven't yet read past 190 here, but I have added this to my wishlist. Very Interested. I read The River of Lost Footsteps : Histories of Burma by the same author and was fascinated. What a complex and interesting history, and surprisingly worldly history Burma has.

Apr 21, 2012, 12:04pm Top

I've had that on the TBR for a few years, Dan, and have to look for it. Not sure where I put it when I reorganized my bookshelves

Apr 21, 2012, 8:45pm Top

>197 rebeccanyc:

Wikipedia has a long and clear explanation: Names of Burma

I use Myanmar because the Chinese name is Miǎndian; I thought "Burma" was the British, colonial name.

But, as you can see on the Wikipedia page, it is all a bit more complex (and more interesting).

Apr 22, 2012, 7:20am Top

Thanks, Edwin, for the link. I'll read it more carefully later (getting ready for family event right now), but I note the discussion of different languages in the region, and one of the more interesting ongoing topics in the Thant book was a discussion of the relationships among different Southeast Asian languages.

Edited: Apr 22, 2012, 10:59am Top

28. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

In this poetic novel, which I bought after I heard the author interviewed on NPR, Jeet Thayil tries to do two things: immerse the reader in the feeling of Bombay opium den, and in opium intoxication itself, and at the same time depict the changes in Bombay from the 1970s to the present. He has achieved the first goal admirably, conveying the attraction, the culture, the people, the hallucinatory dreams, the seediness, the atmosphere, all in hypnotically beautiful prose (Thayil is a published poet who was, in fact, an opium smoker in Bombay in the 70s and later). He introduces compelling characters, from the lovely and smart prostitute Dimple who prepares the opium pipes, works in a brothel, and is emphatically not what she appears to be, to a Chinese refugee from the travails of Maoism in the 50s, to the complex Rashid who runs the opium den, to a customer of Rashid's who also works for a gangster, to artists and writers,and many more. Thayil paints a picture of a world that could have existed in much the same way for centuries.

He is less successful, in my opinion, in developing a plot that takes Bombay into the modern hurried, international, business-focused era (he rejects the transformation into Mumbai), as first young foreign travelers descend on Rashid's and them political unrest and most importantly heroin disrupt and ultimately destroy the opium culture, sending some of the characters into a caricature of rehab. He clearly means the culture of opium use to symbolize the old Bombay, slow and based on personal relationships and cooperation, and heroin to symbolize the transition to harshness and individualism. It doesn't quite work, at least for me.

The strength of the novel is in its portrayal of the opium world, starting with a one-sentence, six-page, prologue; its portraits of people who have, each in their own way, lost a great deal; its meditations on death and reincarnation, responsibilities to parents and children, religion, sex, and loss; and its poetic language. I found the book difficult to put down, even as I became dissatisfied as it moved on to its conclusion.

The novel frequently uses Hindi words/slang. Most can be figured out from the context, but some remain obscure.

Apr 22, 2012, 2:36pm Top

Excellent review of Narcopolis, Rebecca. It seems as though Thayll romanticizes and mourns the opium culture, which is, um, interesting. Does he talk about the presumably negative effects the drug has had on individuals and the local community?

Apr 22, 2012, 3:26pm Top

Darryl, I wouldn't say he romanticizes opium, but rather that he shows why it appeals to people, and how it makes life easier for some people in some ways, although of course more difficult in other ways. After all, he no longer smokes it himself. This, of course, is true of all intoxicants, legal and illegal.

Apr 22, 2012, 6:05pm Top

The Romance of the Opium Den. Oh it sounds so tempting. Excellent review Rebecca

Apr 22, 2012, 6:49pm Top

A great review of Narcopolis, Rebecca. I'd be interested in reading his poetry.

Apr 23, 2012, 10:02am Top

Still back with Where China Meets India and China building roads. During the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, India and China fought a war over a road China had built through land India claimed. I don't expect this conflict received much attention in the US due to all the attention on Cuba, but it was a fascinating conflict.

The background very briefly was that India claimed an area of north east Kashmir (whether it should claim Kashmir or not is another question) known as the Aksai Chin. This spear of land effectively separated Tibet and the Chinese province of Xinjiang. China had decent legal claims to the land based on an 1899 treaty when they had been an ally of Britain. Britain had felt that if the Chinese had control of the area, it might help to impede a Russian advance into Central Asia.

By the late 1950s, India wasn't doing anything with the region. The Chinese did not want to travel thousands of kilometres around the point to get from one area to another. The Chinese saw an opportunity and built a road across the Aksai Chin, connecting Tibet and Xinjiang. The Indians did not find out right away, but when they did, they went to war with China and lost. This was a huge blow for the Indian military, resulting in much soul searching and hindsight. Pakistan took notice and peacefully settled its own border with China.

Rebecca's review had me dredging all this up and I tried going to an excellent book on all this, India's China War, by Neville Maxwell. I used to have it, but when I went looking last night, it seems to have disappeared. I will certainly have to follow up with Rebecca's book, though.

Apr 23, 2012, 1:06pm Top

Thanks, Barry and Linda. Linda, I thought I'd take a look at his poetry too.

SassyLassy, there was some mention of the war in Where China Meets India; thanks for calling attention to it. As I was all of 9 years old at the time, I wouldn't have been aware of it even if it did receive coverage here. Thant also discusses the lack of clarity about borders in the region, mostly due to varying British attempts to define them during the colonial era.

Apr 24, 2012, 10:34am Top

Re 193 : Just thinking - it seems that a military presence in Burma would have a much better chance invading India than China. (It's worth noting that Burma was never conquered by India or China (and China tried hard at points). The British were the first to take down Burma. )

Enjoyed your review of Narcopolis.

Edited: Apr 27, 2012, 12:01pm Top

29. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

I hesitate to even list this book here, as I can't say I read it; I really only skimmed it because it annoyed me so, although I kept hoping it would get better. Fish, a professor of both English and law who describes himself as a connoisseur of sentences, has a tone I don't like, but more importantly he compares his methods for learning to write to musicians practicing scales. He believes that if budding writers copy the form of various kinds of sentences, which he enumerates, they can later start to add in content. Maybe if I read the book more carefully I would have appreciated Fish's argument more, but the best parts of the book were the quotes from writers who are far, far better than he is. (Note that I'm 'm partially copying the last sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, one of the lines Fish recommends as an example.)

Apr 27, 2012, 6:20pm Top

Fish's book has accrued more than one adverse review. I still have it on my waiting-for-the-paperback wishlist; I can't justify it.


Apr 28, 2012, 5:32am Top

rebecca. Mr Fish's method sounds like a recipe for mediocrity or worse. Thanks for the warning.

Edited: Apr 28, 2012, 5:47pm Top

Oh, dear. I have this book, and was looking forward to reading it in the near future. Thanks for that useful review and for taking one for the team, Rebecca.

Apr 28, 2012, 5:45pm Top

There are definitely mixed reviews of this book, so maybe you should read some by people who liked it before giving up on it!

Apr 28, 2012, 5:48pm Top

Will do. I have this book on my Kindle, so I'm still planning to read it at some point.

Apr 28, 2012, 11:10pm Top

I disagree with some of the disagreement towards the man's methods. Personally I don't think it's an inherently flawed method as it's one very commonly used in skill acquisition; which is basically imitation.

When it comes to improving anything I find that I'm a huge "imitator". Whether that is in soccer or languages, when I want to graduate to a higher level I will start to mimic those higher levels.

For soccer, for example. I'll watch a professional game and tell myself "That's neat. I can do that. I'll do it next week during my game." and I'll do it. Then with every game after that I'll continue working on that same skill until I'm doing it at full speed. Then I repeat the process with a new skill.

In terms of writing, in high school I noticed all my friends were writing better essays than me and had better style and I wondered how. I read their papers and looked at what it was that made theirs better than mine. At first I noticed they used more adverbs and connecting words. So I started implementing those in my essays.

With languages you can do the same thing. I'll learn new vocabulary or grammar and then seek out good sentences with those words/grammar. The best sentences will have two or three of the new grammar structures in the exact same sentence. And then I'll use the exact same sentence myself in the conversation. When I talk to my friends in those languages, I'll notice them using a particular phrasing or structure in their casual speech and I'll tell myself talking like that will make me sound more natural. So I'll use that sentence myself. At first, you will be doing a lot of imitating and mimicking but like the soccer game, once you become comfortable with that move, that sentence, that way of speaking, you can then bring it to full speed and put your own style with it.

It's the same thing, even, with accents. I would focus on how certain words were being said and then slowly bring those into my accent until I got to the point that I could apply the accent to all my words and to where my phrasing had all the right moments of stress.

So I don't think the author's idea of copying the form of another author's sentences is all off base. The point of the exercise is to get your mind to try another form of a particular skill you want. From there, creativity should flow.

But at the end, this certainly should be purely an exercise as one shouldn't blatantly mimic another author's style in an actual work. The question is just, can you bring enough content, enough originality to create your own path after and form your own style.

Apr 29, 2012, 8:44am Top

Lilisin, your post is much more convincing about the benefits of learning from others by imitating outstanding examples of their work as a way of training your mind than all of the Fish book. Perhaps I would have warmed to his argument more if I hadn't been so turned off by his voice and style. Thank you for broadening his perspective to other types of learning, especially of languages, which I know you are very skilled at (didn't know about the soccer!).

I think one of the problems with Fish's book (although, as I say, I skimmed it, and I'm not at home to check), is that he goes on and on about sentences (padding the book, one might say, uncharitably), and doesn't stress enough the challenge of bringing originality to what you write after you've mastered sentence forms. He mentions the necessity, to be sure, but it seems to me that that's the harder part, and many people will feel satisfied with just learning how to imitate the structure of complex sentences, rather than forging ahead with their own creative (or professional) work.

Apr 30, 2012, 2:38pm Top

Very interesting discussion of Fish's book. As someone who has done a lot of ghost writing for other people, one thing I learned early on is that my writing should not draw attention to itself. Complexity of sentences or dramatic flourishes were not much appreciated. Of course, I was not writing fiction, and most didactic writing is better served by clarity than style or originality. But still, I really appreciate reading the work of a great stylist, so no doubt the book serves a purpose despite its faults.

This topic was continued by Rebeccanyc Reads in 2012, Part 2.

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