Thursday, July 29, 2021

Book 295: Forest Dark


"All day long people busy themselves with understanding every manner of thing under the sun—themselves, other people, the causes of cancer, the symphonies of Mahler, ancient catastrophes. But I was going in another direction now. Swimming against the forceful current of understanding, the other way. Later there would be other, larger failures to understand—so many that one can only see a deliberateness in it: a stubbornness that lay at the bottom like the granite floor of a lake, so that the more clear and transparent things became, the more my refusal showed through. I didn’t want to see things as they were. I had grown tired of that."

Dates read: February 10-15, 2019

Rating: 5/10

When I was a kid, I frequently complained that something that was happening wasn't fair. And I was right! Life isn't fair. Nor is it really logical. We tend to impose narrative on our experiences once they're safely in the rearview. We shave off the parts that don't quite make sense, that don't fit. But how much good do we really do ourselves with this kind of approach? What if some things are just beyond understanding?

Nicole Krauss' Forest Dark tells two stories, that maybe intersect in the smallest, most casual way at the end but then again maybe don't. Both concern American Jewish people making trips to Israel, but their purposes could not be more different. Jules Epstein is a retired lawyer, who after a lifetime of doing the things he was supposed to do (be successful in business, get married and start a family) starts to come apart in the wake of his own parents' death. He divorces his wife, starts to give away his money...and then one day he goes to an event where a charismatic rabbi speaks. He goes to Israel, determined to do something to honor the memory of his mother and father, and encounters the rabbi again. Nicole, on the other hand, is a writer and the mother of two young children. She feels uncertain, of her life choices and marriage, and so decides to return to a favorite familiar place: the Hilton in Tel Aviv, where she spent happy hours as a child, ostensibly to work on her next book.

Both become involved in quests, of sorts. Jules becomes involved a movie that the rabbi, and more specifically, the rabbi's young and attractive daughter, is trying to make about the life of the biblical David. Nicole, for her part, is introduced to a man that wants her to work on a book about the life of Franz Kafka...who he contends didn't die under the circumstances generally accepted, but lived on for several decades in Israel. Both stories take unexpected twists and turns...and only one character returns to the United States.

This book is as much, maybe more, a writing exercise as an actual book. She subverts the expectations we bring in to picking up a novel: she herself is a character in the book, the narratives we expect to join or at least parallel never do, and she refuses to tell a story with any structure in the traditional sense. Instead, we get two stories that, to be perfectly frank, make no real sense and have nothing to do with each other besides the broadest of descriptions. But she's clearly making a point: as people, in the stories we tell to others and and want to have told to us, we create a narrative. There's a set-up, build-up, climax, and denouement. But actual life, as it's being lived? Has precious little of that. We sand away the rough edges, omit details, inflate the importance of events to make it fit into the package we expect it to conform to.

The problem is that this becomes obvious not too far into the book, and then I felt stuck just finishing the book for the sake of finishing it without any actual investment in the people depicted or the events related. Which isn't to say that Krauss isn't a good writer...despite the fact that this book did not do it for me, her actual prose quality is high, and at moments the book seems like it might take off. There's a sub-story about a doorman who loses a painting he was supposed to sell that's told with skill and stuck in my memory even several weeks after I turned the last page. I'd be open to reading other work by Krauss, I've heard good things about her writing, but this book fell flat for me. If you're looking for something to give you material to noodle over about the ultimate chaos of life and the futility of our efforts to impose meaning on it, this might be for you. If not, though, skip it.

One year ago, I was reading: Pope Joan

Two years ago, I was reading: Money Rock

Three years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

Four years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Five years ago, I was reading: Masha Regina

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Want With Me While Stranded On a Deserted Island

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the books we'd want with us if we were to find ourselves stranded on a deserted island. For me, a desert island book has two main requirements: being decently long so it's not just something you can get through in a few hours, and having high re-read value. Here are the ten I came up with!


War and Peace: This book is super duper long and very layered, so every read-through will reveal more.

Lolita: One of my all-time favorites that I have read at least a half-dozen times and I never fail to find it an interesting reading experience. It's so brilliant there's always something new to appreciate.

A Suitable Boy: Another one that brings the pages. It's on my list to re-read one of these days but the time investment required means that a deserted island would be perfect for it!

The Secret History: Another one I've gone back to several times since I first read it as a high-school senior. The characters and story get me every time!

Vanity Fair: This one would be particularly interesting to read right before (or after) War and Peace, as they're both set during the Napoleonic Wars but in very different contexts. Also it's very lengthy!

Sabriel: This is by FAR the shortest of the books on this list, but it makes it because the re-read value is so high. I've definitely re-read this one over and over and it still entertains me.

A Game of Thrones: If it wasn't cheating to put the whole Song of Ice and Fire series up here I would, I love these books so much even if the last season of the show was a huge letdown.

The Queen of the Night: This book was so much fun to read that it would be a great diversion if I was just stuck alone on an island with my thoughts.

Americanah: This book is decently long and has a lot of depth to it so there's a lot to get out of returning to it!

A Tale for the Time Being: This one is kind of a wild guess but this book has definitely stuck with me since I read it a few years ago and it's different enough from everything else on this list to keep me from getting too bored!

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book 294: The Buried Giant



"She began to make her way towards the cairn, and something about the way she did so, her shoulders hunched against the wind, caused a fragment of recollection to stir on the edges of Axl's mind. The emotion it provoked, even before he could hold it down, surprised and shocked him, for mingled with the overwhelming desire to go to her now and shelter her, were distinct shadows of anger and bitterness. She had talked of a long night spent alone, tormented by his absence, but could it be he too had known such a night, or several, of similar anguish? Then, as Beatrice stopped before the cairn and bowed her head to the stones as if in apology, he felt both memory and anger growing firmer, and a fear made him turn away from her."

Dates read: February 5-10, 2019

Rating: 5/10

When I was in middle school, I was on the swim team. I wasn't very fast, but I enjoyed being on the team and going to meets. So when I went to high school, I joined the team at that level. It was a whole different game: our local pool was closed for renovations most of the year, so getting to practices (an hour before school and two hours after) took a long time and I was perfectly miserable. I told my mom I wanted to quit. She insisted that I stay on the team, and I swore that if she didn't let me drop it, I would never seriously swim again. She thought I was bluffing. I wasn't. That was over 20 years ago and I haven't swum a lap since.

I don't especially regret this, I do still work out regularly and the way that chlorine dried out my hair and skin is something I don't miss at all. But more than a disinclination to swim for exercise, what keeps me away from the pool is remembering how angry I was when I had to keep swimming for months after I no longer wanted to. In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, remembering is a struggle for the residents of an immediately post-Arthurian era Britain. Axl and Beatrice are an older couple, Britons, who have been relegated to a restricted existence in the warren-like community they live in, but they don't know quite why. They're sure that they would get better treatment with their son, who lives in a neighboring community, so they take the highly unusual step of leaving to go to him.

Their journey takes an unexpected turn almost immediately. At their first stop, a Saxon village where Beatrice often goes to trade, there's a commotion. A young man named Edwin has been abducted by ogres, and though he's rescued by traveling warrior Wistan, the villagers are suspicious of a bite he's sustained during his captivity. Wistan and Edwin flee, taking Axl and Beatrice with them. They encounter, among others, an elderly Sir Gawain. Both of the fighting men claim to be on a quest to kill the dragon Querig, whose breath turns out to be the reason for the mist of forgetfulness that lays over the land...which could have surprisingly significant consequences if it were to go away.

Ishiguro loves a slow-paced, dreamy sort of narrative that reveals its secrets slowly, but there's an unfocused quality to this book that undermines the effectiveness of that approach. The story threads: Axl and Beatrice's marriage and journey towards their son, the Arthurian past, the simmering tensions between the Britons and the Saxons, and a quest to slay a literal dragon...they're not interwoven as tightly and neatly as they need to be to make the whole thing work. The characters have the level of complexity typical of myth and legend, which is to say that they're all quite shallow, more symbolic than realistic. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in them, despite the fact that Axl and Beatrice's love seems like it should be what roots the story in genuine feeling.

Although the story itself doesn't quite come off, Ishiguro does do solid work on hitting deep themes. The power of remembering (or alternately, of forgetting) on human relationships, both on the personal level, as between Axl and Beatrice, or the group level, as between the Saxons and Britons, is powerfully rendered. The prose is lovely and elegant. I get what Ishiguro was going for here, but the reality is that it just didn't really work. The idea of a fantasy-set novel from an author I love for his ability to evoke strong emotions turned out better than the actual execution. Unless you're really just determined to read everything Ishiguro has written, or you're really looking for a book that's all theme and not much else, I'd skip this one. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: Cat's Eye
 
Two years ago, I was reading: How To Be Good

Three years ago, I was reading: The Romanov Empress
 
Four years ago, I was reading: Me Talk Pretty One Day
 
Five years ago, I was reading: The White Queen

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Shortest Books I've Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is technically books we've read in one sitting, but I don't tend to read that way...I pick up books and put them down pretty frequently throughout the day. So I'm focusing instead on short books that really grabbed my attention, even if they took me more than one sitting to finish. 


Civilization and Its Discontents: Breaking the rules here almost immediately, as this isn't really a "one-sitting" kind of book despite being very short. If you've heard of Freud and have an opinion on his theories but have never actually read his work, this is a totally fascinating exploration of the tension between society and the individual.

Men Explain Things to Me: The concept behind the title essay in this collection has become widely recognizable as "mansplaining", but that doesn't mean the essay itself isn't worth reading, along with the others that touch on various aspects of the experience of being a woman in the world.

Number the Stars: A childhood favorite, I recently revisited this story about a Danish girl and the Jewish friend whose family her family helps to escape on audio and honestly I think it holds up.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: The "life-changing teacher" is a stock character in media, but this book explores a much darker side of a charismatic educator influencing young minds. 

Lord of the Flies: A lot of people have hated this since they read it in school and had to analyze the obvious symbolism, and while there is certainly room to disagree with its premise, I found it a really interesting examination of the evolution of power dynamics. 

The Sense of an Ending: The story in this novel is the kind that some authors would have indulged themselves padding out to 350 pages, but the sparseness really makes it work.

A Clockwork Orange: Deliberately meant to be hard to get into because of the use of words from its own invented language but once you do get into it, it's great!

Exit West: This one I did come very close to reading in one sitting. The story of immigrants Nadia and Saeed just flew by.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: I love the movie, it's wonderful. The original novella is different...darker, and sadder, and just an incredible piece of writing.

The Awakening: This is one that has hung with me since high school...short, but elegant and powerful.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Book 293: The Mind's Eye

 

"Reading, of course, does not end with the recognition of visual word forms -it would be more accurate to say that it begins with this. Written language is meant to convey not only the sound of words but their meaning, and the visual word form area has intimate connections to the auditory and speech areas of the brain as well as to the intellectual and executive areas, and to the areas subserving memory and emotion.The visual word form area is a crucial node in a complex cerebral network of reciprocal connections—a network particular, it seems, to the human brain."

Dates read: February 1-5, 2019

Rating: 6/10

I was one of those rare kids that needed neither glasses nor braces. I have plenty of issues on the tooth front (so many crowns!), but they grew in straight. And while my vision has declined some over the years, I still can see when I wake up in the morning without having to do anything besides open my eyes. If I'm anything like my dad, I'll probably eventually need reading glasses, but I'm not there yet. It's not until I spend time with people who do need glasses/contacts do I think about being fortunate that I don't have to rely on something else to be able to be able to comprehend my visual environment.

But of course, not being able to see isn't the only thing that can go wrong with the process of vision. Getting input is just one part of it. Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye takes his usual case study format and applies it specifically to disorders of visual processing...some of which deal with the actual mechanical part of seeing, but others about the part where we transform that information into something that makes sense. There's a pianist who can no longer interpret the squiggles on a page of music as notes, but whose ability to memorize and play back what she's heard allows her to continue to enjoy and be successful in her field, a writer whose ability to read deteriorates even as he continues to be able to write, and people for whom faces remain untied to the ones they know and love.

What's a bit unusual for this series of case studies is how prominent Sacks himself is among them. Not as a doctor, which is his usual role, but as a subject. In discussing prosopagnosia (face blindness), he uses his own experiences to describe the condition and the challenges it can create. But where this self-insertion becomes somewhat problematic is in his description of stereo-blindness. This disorder is at first described using a patient who has had the condition for most of her life, but who learns to train herself to see with depth and her wonder and delight at the new world that opens up before her is enjoyable. But then he goes into an extended discussion of his own health crisis, with eye cancer, that led to a loss of his much-cherished stereo vision. It's self-pitying and grating in a way that's not typical of his work, even that which recounts personal struggles.

This book, despite being the kind of case study collection where he usually shines, is not Sacks' best. There's the issue I described above, and there's just a lack of coherence and breadth. Even when describing diseases that lead to significant neurological deficits, there's usually a sense of curiosity about what's wrong and cheerful surprise at the adaptations that people are able to make, that's infectious and engaging. While the book starts off that way, by the time it wanders into Sacks' experiences it gets heavy and clunky, and I found myself much less invested in it than I had been previously. If you're intrigued by the ways that perception can go wrong, or you (like me) are an incurable Sacks completist, there's some good stuff here. But if you're not otherwise interested, I don't think the good outweighs the bad significantly enough to recommend.

One year ago, I was reading: A Perfect Explanation

Two years ago, I was reading: The Man In The High Castle

Three years ago, I was reading: My Own Words

Four years ago, I was reading: Crazy Rich Asians

Five years ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles That are Questions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're highlighting books that ask a question right in their titles! I've picked exclusively from my to-be-read list, so here are ten books I am planning to read with questions-as-titles!

 

What Do We Need Men For?

Who is Maud Dixon?

What is a Girl Worth?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Who's That Girl?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

How Should a Person Be?

Who Killed These Girls?

But What If We're Wrong?

Why Not Me?

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Book 292: Hausfrau


 
"The five most frequently used German verbs are all irregular. Their conjugations don’t follow a pattern: To have. To have to. To want. To go. To be. Possession. Obligation. Yearning. Flight. Existence. Concepts all. And irregular. These verbs are the culmination of insufficiency. Life is loss. Frequent, usual loss. Loss doesn’t follow a pattern either. You survive it only by memorizing how."
 
Dates read: January 28- February 1, 2019
 
Rating: 5/10
 
I know this probably makes me sound like a raging egotist, but when two people in my vicinity are communicating in a language I don't understand, I find myself thinking that they're talking about me. I realize that they're almost certainly not. I'm not that interesting. But when you can't comprehend it, it's so easy to assume the worst. This is something I try to work on when I find myself thinking like this, because it's not fair to either me or other people.

In Jill Alexander Essbaum's Haufrau, American Anna Benz has been living in Zurich with her Swiss husband, Bruno, for nearly a decade. He's a banker, so he brings in enough income that she doesn't need to work outside the home, and they have three adorable children, two sons and a baby daughter. But despite her long-time residence in Switzerland, Anna speaks only basic German and virtually none of the Swiss German dialect that most people around her use to talk to each other. She's finally decided to take lessons, and it's here she meets Archie, with whom she begins a torrid affair. And it's not the first time she's done something like this.

In fact, Anna seems hardly able to resist a man who wants to sleep with her, as we quickly find out that her daughter was not fathered by her husband. Unlike the joyless, compulsive sex she has with other men, her relationship with her daughter's father was one where she had genuine feelings for her lover. Over the course of the therapy sessions Anna engages in over the course of the book, she reflects back on her upbringing, her marriage, her motherhood, and the profound emptiness she seems to feel at her core. When Anna makes a mistake and the delicate balance she has made of her life seems about to topple, it's only a matter of time before she finds herself at a tragic precipice.

Obviously, an unfaithful wife is rich literary territory, and the name of her heroine is just the beginning of Essbaum's allusions to perhaps the most famous of fictional cheaters: Anna Karenina. Indeed, although the book is relatively short, I found myself frequently wondering what new territory exactly was trying to be explored here. There's so little that's subtle: the fragments of therapy sessions we get are right on the nose, as are the flashes we get of Anna's language classes. The conclusion seems inevitable within the first few pages, so it's not plot tension that drives the narrative forward. And Anna herself, though perhaps meant to be a reflection of the despair that could come from lifelong untreated depression (which seems most likely to be at the root of Anna's disconnect from her own feelings), is just unpleasant to spend time with.

That's not to say there isn't anything worthwhile here. Essbaum's prose is witty and clever, and enjoyable to read. And her choice to make Anna so profoundly flawed, particularly as a wife and mother, the roles which we put a tremendous amount of pressure on women to perform highly in, makes her an unusual heroine. Male characters are allowed to shirk their responsibilities to their partners and children and still be redeemable. It was challenging to think about how much of the antipathy I felt for Anna was wrapped up in the expectations I brought to the table about the kind of female character I root for or get invested in. But at the end of the day, even recognizing that bias, Anna's joylessness was just exhausting. This book got a lot of buzz when it came out, but fell very flat for me. I enjoyed it so little that I can't recommend it. 
 
One year ago, I was reading: The Residue Years
 
Two years ago, I was reading: Washington Black

Three years ago, I was reading: The Looming Tower
 
Four years ago, I was reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
 
Five years ago, I was reading: Under the Tuscan Sun