Monday, October 31, 2011

First Love and Other Sorrows/Harold Brodkey/223 pp.

A MULSA book sale remainder!

Originally published in 1958, this collection of short stories was reissued in 1988, and that's the edition I read and am reviewing. A St. Louis native who attended Harvard, Brodkey writes stories that seem almost autobiographical. His description of St. Louis locations, and of growing up poor (but formerly well-off), remind me of another St. Louis resident, Tennessee Williams.
I especially enjoyed the first story, "State of Grace", and all the stories that dealt with the narrator's sister/Laurie/Laura and her attempts to find a "good man" to "settle down with". Although the people have different names in each story, you can't help feeling that these are all the same people, and that they are somehow personally known by Brodkey himself.

Earth and Ashes/Atiq Rahimi/81 pp.

A very short, but very enjoyable read. (I started it at bedtime last night, and finished it during lunch today.) An Afghani village is destroyed by the Soviet army in retaliation for the (apparent) assassination of some of their troops. Dastaguir and his grandson, Yassin, are the only survivors of his clan; they set out to find Yassin's father (Dastaguir's son), to tell him of the tragedy.
Yassin has lost his hearing from the bombing; the way in which Rahimi describes how Yassin views this is especially well-written. ("The bomb was huge. It brought silence. The tanks took away people's voices and left." Then, "What do they do with all the voices? Why did you let them take away your voice? If you hadn't would they have killed you? Grandmother didn't give them her voice and she's dead." And "Grandfather, do I have a voice? [...] So why am I alive?"
The story is told in the second person, so instead of hearing how some man named Dastaguir is dealing with events, the reader is placed into the situation himself - "you" see this, "you" hear that, "you" tell people the story of your village being destroyed, and it makes the devastation so much more personal; your grandson is deaf, and you're coming to tell his father (your son) that his wife and mother and entire family are dead. So much of what we hear about what's going on in the Middle East is impersonal, statistics about how many died, what town was taken, what new strategies our troops are using to win over the locals. Even though this book was written (in 2000) about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it personalizes the events that happened then, and what's happening now.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Reader/Bernhard Schlink/218 pp.

Rachel already did a review of this book, so I'll try not to duplicate her efforts. A young man in 1960s Germany begins an affair with Hannah, a woman substantially older than himself. In addition to it being his first sexual relationship, the affair is significant because he spends hours reading to Hannah. One day he goes to her apartment and discovers that she has moved out and completely disappeared. Assuming she left without saying anything to him because she didn't love him anymore, the young man retreats into his studies and is unable to have any other close relationships for fear that those he becomes close to will leave him in the same way. As a college student he sees Hannah again, and discovers why she left, and what "the secret" is that caused her to leave.
The book is an easy read, well translated from the original German, with short chapters that allow you to read a few pages here and there, between other tasks. The narrator struggles with forgiving Hannah, and with his conflicting feelings for her.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Shadow Rising/Robert Jordan/1006 pp.

Yes, you read that page total correctly; at 1006 pp., The Shadow Rising, Book Four in Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, is also easily the longest book in the series. After temporarily meeting up in the coast city of Tear, our merry band of adventurers is scattered to various destinations: some to Tanchico to find the Black Ajah (the renegade members of the Aes Sedai), some to the Aiel Wastes, and some back to the Two Rivers, to protect their home village from the dual threats of Trollocs and the Whitecloaks.
The problem with a series like the "Wheel of Time", with (so far) 14 volumes, each volume at least 600 pages (often over 800 pages)- the problem, I say, is that there are so many things going on, so many characters in so many locations, with so many new words to learn and people to remember, that it gets a bit (more than a bit) confusing. Each of the three or four divergent plot-lines in this volume alone would be enough for the average fantasy novel; trying to weave them all together into one overarching story is quite a challenge - for the author and, unfortunately, for the reader as well. Don't get me wrong - Jordan has told a very enjoyable tale here; it just becomes so... overwhelming after a while. And to know that there are still (at least) ten more books (rather large books) to go before the entire plot is resolved, makes me question my ability to finish the series.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

1985/Gyorgy Dalos/120 pp.

1985: What Happens after Big Brother Dies is meant as a sort-of follow-up to George Orwell's classic 1949 novel 1984. While the original was a warning about the dangers of unchecked government control and historic revisionism, and a prescient look at the Soviet Union of the mid- to late-20th century, the sequel by Dalos, written in Hungary in 1983, is a look at what might happen when such a totalitarian regime begins to crumble. A good knowledge of Orwell's book is absolutely necessary, as Dalos makes reference to "past events" and characters from the book constantly. There is also a series of rather unfortunate footnotes that start out adding information useful to the reader, but end up becoming rants by the narrator against his superiors. listing
deviantART review of the book

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich/Danilo Kis/135 pp.

A collection of seven loosely-connected short stories, each of which is a brief "biography" of a fictional figure in the creation of the Soviet Union and the Comintern. The stories, all set outside Yugoslavia (most in the Soviet Union, but one in Ireland and Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and one in Inquisition-era France), on the surface appear to be a statement on the violent excesses of the Soviet leadership in the Stalinist (and pre-Stalin) era; however, the book was published in 1976, and it is easy to understand that Kis was using the historic example of the Soviets to call attention to the activities of the secret police and government in Yugoslavia in the second half of the 20th century.
As mentioned above, one (seemingly) incongruous story takes place during the Inquisition in France in 1330. In the city of Toulouse (and all across France). Jews are being killed or forcibly converted to Christianity. Kis uses the story of Baruch David Neumann to show the ways in which those in power ignored (and often conspired with) the rabble's violent attacks on Jews.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Homely Girl, A Life and Other Stories/Arthur Miller/115 pp.

This short compilation of Miller short works includes just three stories: "Homely Girl, A Life", "Fame", and Fitter's Night". The shortest of the three, "Fame", is a possibly autobiographical look at how a popular playwright deals with his new-found celebrity. Random strangers approach him on the street, offering their unsolicited opinions of his work or gushing as if they were old friends. Rich people in restaurants think nothing of interrupting his meal to make him meet their friends. The key point of the story is when an old schoolmate recognizes him in a bar. The schoolmate, unaware of the playwright's celebrity, brags about his own success in life, but when the playwright is approached by a stranger asking for his autograph, the schoolmate completely changes his behavior, becoming shy and taking back an invitation for the playwright to join him for dinner. Success changes not only the celebrity, but also his relationships with those around him.

Oddly, the story I enjoyed least was the title story. A woman, treated badly in life because of her lack of physical good looks, comes to the realization that she doesn't need affirmation from others to feel good about herself.

The third story in the volume, "Fitter's Night", was the one I found most enjoyable. A pipefitter, working in the New York shipyards during World War II, spends most of his time (at work and at home) trying to land the easy jobs and find a way to avoid responsibility. But when he's forced into a repair job on a ship heading out to war, he realizes how important it is for him (and all his coworkers) to do the best job they can, because all these sailors' lives depend on the quality of his work.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Team Totals, January-September 2011

Total Books Read:  120 
Total Pages Read:   36658
Average pages per book:  305

Nice job, everyone, and apologies for letting the prize-giving slip after my late July-early August vacation!

Prizes for July:  Book AND page totals to Kris Anstine, Random Prize to Wayne Sanders
Prizes for August:  Kris Anstine, for all three prizes
No prizes for September because no reviews submitted.

For the January-September period, Kris Anstine read the most books (32) and Jessi Menold read the most pages (8447).

I go to the MLA tomorrow and will find out there if the statewide contest is over now or if it will run through December.  There WILL be prizes for October-December at the MU Libraries, either way, and Kris and Wayne will be awarded their summertime prizes retroactively at the next opportunity!

The Reader / Bernhard Schlink / 218 p.

I didn't see the movie, but I guessed the "deep dark secret" that drives many of the otherwise mysterious actions of one of the major characters a few dozen pages into the book.  No, I won't share it here.  You will have to read the book or force yourself to stare at Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes for hours on screen...tough, I find out.  Maybe author Bernhard Schlink intended the reader to guess long before the narrator does; in a way it is beside the point as he drags his narrator (the reader of the book's title) as well as the book's readers, into an emotional contemplation on relationships, individual choices, history and collective judgment and guilt.  Put that way, the book sounds terribly depressing, but believe me; it is not.  The beauty is in the details.  I read it in two sittings, and now I hope to find a copy in the original German.