Archive for June, 2012

16 June, 2012

Book Review Dump

Alright, so compared to last semester’s meager showings, this semester I read a lot. I apologize for the general silence on this blog over the past several months– I think you can get a sense of what was keeping me occupied, however. With no further ado:

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – Great
I may have been tempted to give this novel a higher score before writing on it. In a lot of ways I find it spectacular, insightful, and beautiful. Housekeeping follows a family of women living in a small town in Idaho, their family legacy (or curse), and the way anything abnormal causes small town America to collectively lose its lunch (albeit, with some good reason). I love Robinson’s style of writing– poetic without being purple, elegant without being overwrought. I wrote on it, hence my now vaguely listless feeling about it. I’m kind of tapped out on Housekeeping, and Robinson in general. On a critical note, I think the gendered aspects get over-emphasized at the expense of some really striking and interesting themes, such as psychological aspects of mind and memory and identity. It’s hard to talk about this book without trying to make it about any one things– and it’s not. One of the things that makes it great is its complexity. I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in meditative, lyrical examinations of the self and its place in society, or if you’re looking for a novel that deals either with rural or Northwestern America. It also has my favorite boat-stealing scene of all time. Seriously.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Great
One thing about Marilynne Robinson that’s almost unavoidable is her intellectual fascination with religion. She is a devout, practicing Christian, and that comes through in a lot of her works (take, as one example, her essay collection Death of Adam). In Gilead, her narrator/protagonist is an elderly pastor. It’s a beautiful work (same notes on style I made for Housekeeping hold true here, too, of course). While this novel doesn’t have boat stealing, it does come with a rather delightfully morbid horse-in-a-hole story. A lot of my interest in this novel comes from the way it unravels and unpacks family and community secrets, and deals with prejudice. Honestly, if you’ve ever lived in a small town in America, there will be a lot that feels and sounds familiar to you. Very beautiful writing.

Taming Wild Thoughts by Wilfred R. Bion – Good
Obscure psychoanalysts for 500, Alex. Bion is really interesting, as a historical figure in psychoanalysis– he deals mostly with trauma, the unknown known (something you know, but cannot express or realize is there, essentially– in Bion’s work, these are called Beta bits). Taming Wild Thoughts is itself a pretty interesting book. It is essentially two things: an explanation of Bion’s grid, which describes different mental capacities, functions, and activities, and transcriptions of two audio recordings he made. The back half of this volume is him spouting interesting thoughts, unedited, as they occurred to him. It’s pretty cool.

Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag – Fantastic
I have a little bit of a scholarly crush on Sontag after this monograph. Illness as Metaphor came packaged with AIDS and Its Metaphors, which wasn’t relevant to my research, so I haven’t read it yet. Illness deals with some pretty interesting ideas about the characterizations, historically, of both cancer and tuberculosis. Her dichotomy is a little bit forced at times, but very useful if you’re talking about disease and literature. Highly recommended if you’re interested in diseases, contagion, the social characterization of disease, or historical interests in disease.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – Good
Though occasionally guilty of trying too hard, History of Love is a pretty interesting book. It plays with space and does strange things with timelines and narrators, which means there’s a pretty good chance I’ll like it, or at least find it interesting. It’s probably the most shatalogical novel I’ve ever read– you’re always completely aware of Leo’s bowel movements, and there are parts of the narrative that I just don’t buy. I personally don’t buy into Bruno: not because I didn’t see it coming and I feel hoodwinked (I enjoy clever turns in books), but because it solidly didn’t compute. The signs and space were diverse enough that Bruno’s “reality” causes a lot of other “events” to become questionable to me, and I don’t think that’s what Krauss was going for. I apologize for being cryptic, I’m trying to complain without spoiling. It’s a solidly interesting book. Recommended for people who are interested in meta-books (books about books), Holocaust literature, Jewish literature, American immigrant narratives, and books with multiple narrators.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – Fantastic
This collection of short stories is a really great primer, in a lot of ways, for the genre of science fiction. If you’re looking to jump in, here’s a good one to do it with. Stories vary in length, and each deals, very cleverly, with what it means to be human. It has everything from ancient Babylon to future evolutionary advances. It deals with homunculi, angels, automatons, and a whole mess of other things. I highly recommend it.

The Missionary by Sydney Owenson – Great
What does an Romantic-era Irishwoman writing about colonial Portuguese and Spanish figures in India have to say? A whole lot. Some of the most interesting themes in this book are religious. For instance, what does it mean to be converted, and what lengths should a person go to in order to achieve conversion? Hybridity and syncretism are really interesting issues in this novel, as well. It’s a really interesting, really unusual book, and you’re not expecting it. Especially if you have the Broadview edition, which features the wonderful Father Fabulous (naming credits to a Certain Fellow). Also, I’ll admit it freely: I did not expect the Spanish Inquisition. Highly recommended for people interested in European depictions of India (Owenson’s geography actually makes sense– no small accomplishment in the Romantic era), powerful female heroines, and post-colonialism– particularly if you’re interested in religious contact zones (to borrow from Pratt’s vocab.)

The Wild Irish Girl by Sydney Owenson Good, at times Great
Spoiler: Glorvina is not wild at all. She runs around like a giant little kid, but don’t get too excited– she’s still pretty much the Romantic heroine. This novel totally wins the award for worst courtship ideas (climbing the side of a mouldering old castle to peep in on someone and then falling to your almost-death is NOT the way most successful relationships begin). Great book for looking at early Romantic historical novels, women, Ireland as part of the internal empire, and religion as part of a philosophical/cultural debate.

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth – Good
I started thinking about this one as a geneology of failure after a while. Edgeworth is a Romantic writer who loves herself a good Protestant work ethic and moral system. Therefore, anticipate that. If you’re into narratology, however, you can have a lot of fun with the narrator and his son. The son is definitely a shyster, and you can (if so inclined) entertain yourself by reading his father, the narrator, as similarly deceitful. It’s a pretty straightforward family tale, but it deals with property, ownership, and inheritance in some interesting ways.

Early Black British Writing edited by Alan Richardson and Debbie Lee – Great
Not a lot of scholarship is done with early black British writers, which is kind of a shame, because they’re very interesting. I read pretty much everything in this volume, and it covers a lot of really interesting personalities– everything from Ignatius Sancho writing letters to Lawrence Sterne in the style of Tristam Shandy to Robert Wedderburn (whose ultra-radical pseudo-religious crazy is pretty awesome.) Really interesting for post-colonialists, but also interesting for people who like immigrant narratives, African writing, travelogues, and nineteenth century religious oddities. The volume includes Sancho, Gronniosaw, Cugoano, Equiano, Jea, Wedderburn, Mary Prince, Phyllis Wheatley, and Juan Francisco Manzano. Fair warning: Equiano’s narrative is fascinating. His poetry is awful.

The Giaour by George Gordon, Lord Byron – Fantastic
Alright, so I totally have a love affair with Lord Byron going, but really, it’s a match made in whimsy heaven. The man loved turbans and menageries. I love turbans and menageries. Seriously, who couldn’t love a man who wears hair curling papers at night and travels with badgers and crocodiles? Sartorial and lifestyle love affairs aside, The Giaour is also basically tailor made for me– multiple perspectives, trauma, narrative gaps, jumps in time… and it’s fancy. It’s such a weird, wonderful piece. If I’d had the chutzpah, I’d have written on this one this semester.

Waverly by Sir Walter Scott – Good
Scott is long. We need to get that out of the way. Scott feels long. That is also true. However, Scott is also funny, and his characters are interesting. If you’re into English civil wars, Scotland, or historical fiction, I recommend it. On the note of historical fiction, this novel sort of started that frenzy. Also, kilts being cool outside of the high lands? You can thank him for that, too.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Good, at times Great
MfP suffers from the same long and feeling long problem that Waverly does– it isn’t the length that gets me. I’m fine, often thrilled, with long books. However, you have to realize with these novels that it takes a hundred pages or so for something resembling a plot, direction, or point of interest to arrive. However, I did really enjoy MfP, despite the fact that Edmund and his grooming process is creepy. I’ve also added Fanny to list of Austen characters who I’m convinced is secretly autistic. It’s interesting for postcolonialists, as well. Class, geography, and hegemony are all extremely interesting in this work.

Lyrical Ballads (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth – Great
I wrote on this, this semester, hence its appearance on the list. Yes, I’d read it before. I recommend it. It’s so full of disaster and doom and gloom and other interesting things. Personal favorites: Goody Blake,  Female Vagrant, Ancyent Marinere. Plus, basically all of Coleridge’s other contributions (there aren’t that many.) Plus, if you get the Broadview edition, you get MAPS. I love maps.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – Great, at times Fantastic
I really enjoyed this book– hated most of the women in it, but Diaz is a talented writer, and he creates fascinating, multi-faceted, rich worlds for his characters. One of its stronger selling points, I think, is the sense of alienation it gives you– jumping back and forth between different frames of reference, settings, and themes, it’s a rare person who can’t learn something from this book. It’s fluid, tragic, raw, and weird– all great things for a book to be. The ending is frustrating, but understandable… even if it participates in my least favorite trend in contemporary American literature (for the sake of spoilers, I won’t tell you what it is, though the title basically gives it away).

Drown by Junot Diaz – Great
Both this book and Diaz’s other, Oscar Wao, are curious experiments in genre, falling somewhere between vingette, novel, and short story. Yunior narrates both, and it’s interesting to see the overlaps and parallels– the faceless man, youth in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, and struggles with self image– and it’s also a fascinating set of stories in its own right. Highly recommended.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuchelli – Fantastic
This was a really thoughtfully, beautifully executed graphic novel– full color. And by full color, I mean everything but black. The “key” on most pages is a dark purple. Mazzuchelli does a masterful job delineating difference and compromise and personality and conflict and all sorts of other things through the graphic medium. It’s a nuanced, smart, grown up look at relationships and growth, it’s a beautiful piece of art, and I highly recommend it.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud – Fantastic
This is one of those books that, given my background and my reading tastes, and my almost blanket-love of theory, I should have picked up a long time ago. I really think McCloud’s book begins to approach the medium of comics from a critical, clever, and insightful view. He manages to illustrate and explain complex concepts in a really interesting, approachable manner. His sections on gutters, time, and transition are fascinating, especially to me, as an artist who works with a lot of multiple register / frame pieces.

The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun – Great, frequently Fantastic
I really enjoyed this book, and honestly, I need to revisit it– it got read in awkward chunks, and I feel like it was deep, meaningful, interesting, and stranger than I can give it credit for at the time being. There’s so much in this book, in terms of gender, family responsibility, postcolonialism, storytelling (a narratologist could have sooooooooooo much fun with its ending sequence), etc. Recommended, especially if you have an interest in gender.

Homeboy by H. M. Naqvi – Good
This one came to me via my class on terrorism and nationalism last fall– it was a very interesting take on the popular neurosis: what happens when the wrong person gets taken in on terrorism charges? The cast is large, and sometimes difficult to keep track of, but ultimately very interesting, and very relevant. In a lot of ways, it’s a grown up version of Guantanamo Boy (see my earlier review of that title for more details).

Weep Not, Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – Great
A key text in African postcolonial lit, Weep Not deals with two brothers growing up in colonial Kenya– one a craftsman, one a scholar. Like some of the other African fiction I’ve read, it deals prominently with culture clash, British imperialism, family responsibility and structure, and civil rights. It’s a short, but very meaningful read, and I recommend it, especially to anyone interested in education, colonial schools, or East Africa.

Bring on the Books for Everybody by Jim Collins – Okay
A pretty interesting look at the state of literature and genre fiction in the United States today. Collins has some fascinating points about the types of reading and writing that are being conducted in the United States, and why. It’s not an earth shattering read, and given another few years it’ll be too dated to feel relevant, but it is a nice documentary on the types and styles of reading being encouraged in our country.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Great
McCarthy’s language is lovely. Even in a dystopian, pared down universe, he still has a prose style that pulls you along effortlessly. Even when babies are being eaten, and there are sixteen-wheelers and basements full of gore and horror, I was still like, “What a lovely sentence… ew.” A lot of people read this a dystopian future, I think you can also read it as an alternative history– a Cold War gone differently. Nuclear winter, plus cannibals. It doesn’t get much bleaker, but it still managed to be a really compelling, moving read. Not for everyone, but if you’ve got the stomach, I highly recommend it. You’ll be surprised how quickly it reads.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead – Good
It was fine. If you like zombies, you’ll think it’s really neat. I do like them, but honestly, Whitehead’s central metaphor in this one was just kind of like, “Yes. We’re zombies. I get it. We’re drones, okay. Yes.” His writing is lovely, if occasionally over the top. Mediocrity and survivor’s guilt play really interesting roles in this book. In terms of apocalypses, Whitehead does manage to give you a pretty interesting one– the only things that survive are the mediocre…and bureaucracy. Where there’s a pulse, there’s paper work, apparently.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri – Good
While I liked each of Lahiri’s short stories, individually, as a collection they were sort of exhaustingly uniform– rich people from the Indian subcontinent with advanced degrees, struggling with relationships. Her writing was precise and pleasant, but I wasn’t enthralled, really. Living in Boston, I do enjoy her use of specific names, streets, and places, and the general sense of “hey I’ve been there!” (However, I’m pretty sure I’d have to pay someone off to get past the absurd security in Widener library to be able to use the bathroom…) Also: the Tsunami ending is awful and melodramatic– if you read, you’ll know what I mean.

History of Nourjahad by Frances Sheridan – Great
Romantic era orientalism at its most entertaining. Like many other orientalist pieces, part of the appeal of this short novel is its exotic local and its take on morality. It dichotomizes eastern and western moral systems through decadence and frugality, and through rational and superstitious understandings of reality. She does it through the introduction of a king and his best friend / adviser (Nourjahad). In a ridiculously entertaining and elaborate version of Punk’d, Nourjahad experiences immortality and immeasurable wealth, and a life on fast forward. It’s really fun. Recommended.

Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka – Good
The single most interesting thing about this book is the point of view it is told from. The entire book is told in first person plural– it is always the group of Japanese immigrant brides telling their stories, never an individual. Though names are given, characters are never developed. In this way, it reads more like a testimony than a novel, which itself is rather interesting. Highly recommended for those interested in Japanese immigration and WWII on the home front, as it covers the Japanese relocation and internment that went on during the war.

The Symposium by Plato – Fantastic
So, this was the first thing I read this summer. Nerd, party of one. I missed my Greeks. I missed my Plato. I needed to know all about the rotary octopods (Aristophanes) and I needed my dosage of Alcibiades. Who doesn’t, really? What I like about this dialogue is that it’s whimsical, silly, and thoughful, while still representing a lot of different, totally understandable (or absurd) views on love, its nature, and its meaning. Also, some of the descriptions of Socrates cracked me up.

Madness: Invention of an Idea by Foucault – Fantastic (mostly)
This little text is an interesting, relatively early work of Foucault’s, and some of the chapters are more noteworthy than others. I particularly liked his idea of madness as several levels of civilization being stripped away from a person, reducing him, as the madness increased, to more and more basic, primal instincts. That was cool, and I’m not really doing it justice here. He includes a long chapter that’s essentially Freudian, which is the nadir of the work, but otherwise, it’s a fascinating read.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Good
I love me some dysfunction and dystopia. That’s no secret. There were things I liked, and things I was suspicious of in theHunger Games. I liked the angle of reality TV, and the weirdness of the hybrid animals. I didn’t so much like some of the more ambiguous bits, like the geography, which was driving me insane (I need maps to be happy). I was also some what frustrated with Katniss (which I think is actually pretty normal). Part of my frustration with her was what feels like a burgeoning love triangle. Why can’t girls just be friends with their guy friends? Why, always, must things lead to a coupling up? I hate that impulse in fiction. Over all, it was a very fun read, and when I get the chance I’ll certainly read the next one in the series.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – Fantastic
I thought this graphic novel was brilliant. Simple, elegant, funny, and really interesting. Bechdel manages to simultaneously tell the story of her own sexuality, her family’s childhood home, and her father’s personal struggles, which is no small feat. It’s a thoughtfully, honestly rendered memoir. I also had a charmed reading experience with a library copy of the book. It came with 5 Euros tucked in it and a post-it on one of the pages that earnestly attested to the impact the book had made on a previous reader’s life. Nothing but love. Highly recommended, especially if you’re keen on David Sedaris (which I am. Any day of the week.)

Habibi by Craig Thompson – Great (with reservations)
Jury’s still out on this one, really. Objectively, the art was beautiful, the treatment of religion was fascinating and respectful, the philosophical discussion of shape and calligraphy at the end was extremely moving, and the narrative was interesting. I have some reservations about the depiction of gender in the book, mostly with the female protagonist, Dodola. She’s obviously intelligent, compassionate, frugal, clever, and fiercely loyal, but the only skill she can capitalize on is her body. Honestly, this is just depressing, more than anything else– I understand why it is that way. It doesn’t stop me from wanting to shake her. The other thing that bugs me is time. It totally falls into the orientalist trap of placing “Arabia” outside of time. I found the realization that we’ve been in modern day the whole time really abrupt and unpalatable, and I wish there had been subtle but consistent indications throughout of time period. I also couldn’t divorce myself from a Freudian reading, which meant that their relationship at the end of the novel was way, way, way too creepy for me to get behind.

The Unwritten vols. 1-4 by Mike Carey – Fantastic
This series is gorgeous. Its art is really interesting, its constant literary allusions keep my inner nerd happy, and I really enjoy the magic door knob and the scraggly flying cat. Honestly, if you love Fables or Sandman, I’d recommend this series in a heart beat. It manages to be both funny and sophisticated, thoughtful and glib, by turns. Another similar title is the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde.