23 September 2009

How to Read World Literature, by David Damrosch

This book was added to the syllabus of the intro world literature class I'm teaching this fall by one of the higher-ups, so I read it today so as to figure out what to do with it. To my surprise (I dunno why I'm so cynical, but I guess this should teach me a lesson), it's actually a really great book. Extremely useful, accessible, and even entertaining. It actually deserves to be required reading in any world literature class! Who woulda thunk, eh?

Damrosch provides a clear, well-written overview of the merits and problems of studying "world" literature. The book handily explores questions of definition, translation, cross-cultural interpretation and understanding, and how to think about some of the power dynamics involved in this area. There's a particularly strong chapter on how various texts portray other places, that is particularly well done. Overall, the examples are useful and interesting - he tends towards the slightly profane or lewd ones, I think, which gives the book a nice irreverent feel, and will hopefully keep the students' interest. The text closes with a consideration of globalization and how it has shaped the reading - and writing - of world literature.

Whether you're just beginning literary studies or are, say, a phd student in comparative literature who has spent an awful lot of time thinking about the notion of world literature, the book is not only of interest, but even contains useful and interesting insights. I was really impressed. Much recommended.

PS - If my students turn out to have surprising reactions to the book, I'll report back.

19 September 2009

Chicken with Plums, by Marjane Satrapi

So, I'm probably one of the few people out there who really didn't like Persepolis. This might have something to do with the fact that I had read Maus not that long before, and I just wasn't ready to acknowledge the genius of anyone else's graphic novel autobiography. I dunno. Maybe I'll give it another try. But my friend Kasia and her husband Krzyƛ came to visit me this weekend and brought me Chicken With Plums as a gift. I woke up early the next morning in a flood of sunshine and started reading it, and was instantly absorbed. It's a wonderful, wry story, loving yet dark, really a wonderful book. I finished it in under an hour and felt, just, pleased. It was a pleasing book.

I don't want to give too much away, because I came to the book knowing nothing at all about it and the process of discovery was a large part of the pleasure, so I'll just tell you that the story is of a man named Nasser Ali Khan, a musician whose beloved instrument is broken. Unable to find another that can produce the same quality of sound, he lays down in his bed to die. It sounds grim, and it is, but the book is also curiously lighthearted without flinching away from the depressing sides, which are quite powerful. It ends up being this really kind of wonderful story, opening onto a lot of broader themes and issues, but not in a way that you can really restate without reducing.

The weakest moments are, first, when Satrapi lets you know that the main hero was actually her uncle ('cuz personally, I just don't really care. I suppose this is why I didn't like her autobiography. There's something about the way she describes her own life that I find tremendously off-putting), and second, when she adds a bit o' the ol' homespun wisdom, ie, the anecdote about the blind men touching the elephant. Look, we've all heard that anecdote a bazillion times. It's tired. It may be a wise tale, it may be appropriate to the moment in the text, but it just feels stale. And this coming from me, who loves elephants.

Otherwise, though, it's really just a wonderful book. Nice artwork too. Highly recommended.

15 September 2009

Trouble, by Kate Christensen

Not as good as The Great Man, but decidedly better than The Epicure's Lament. I think Christensen's strong point is smart, sultry, sassy middle aged women. Her books aren't quite chick lit, in that I tend to think of chick lit as involving annoying, whiny, stereotypical women, and hers tend to throw back tequila shots, maybe some some herb, bed attractive (and sometimes just sorta cute) men and curse a lot. Oh, and eat lots of good food. But there's definitely a kind of guilty pleasure aspect. I can't help but cringe a little bit whenever they discuss aging and appearance, because I try to pretend that I will love myself no matter how many wrinkles I have, and I sure as hell don't want to be self-conscious and wondering whether a guy I'm trying to take home is going to find my nekkid body attractice just because I'm over 40.

Uh... anyways. So Trouble is mostly a kind of character study. The center of the novel is Josie, who in the opening pages realizes she wants a divorce. Josie is a therapist, and there's a bit of an interesting dynamic in terms of her talking to her patients, how she interacts with them, how they reflect her life, etc. But soon she's off to Mexico City to spend some recovery time with one of her best friends, a pop star fleeing the gossip columns. The whole pop star bit is kind of over the top. As is the terrible relationship that Josie and her daughter have. The plot, unfortunately, starts to veer towards the overly melodramatic, but nonetheless, the book is an enjoyable read, simply because Christensen is an interesting, engaging and most importantly, intelligent, writer. It's pop fiction for liberal arts college grads. Thus, the main character finds herself reflecting on political activism, colonialism, etc - the kinds of things I think about! But without going into long, boring analyses of them - they're just sort of thoughts that flash through her mind, in a very true to life fashion.

I also really appreciated the way that she was a slightly neurotic character, as so many of us are, but she wasn't totally defined by her neuroses. And at one particularly interesting point, she realizes that she's read way too much into a certain interaction with someone and totally misunderstood. So there's this nice moment where she's talking to this guy and telling him about various impressions about people, and he sets her straight on a number of things. She then feels like an ass, and tells him so, and he gently tells her that no, she's actually quite perceptive, she just misinterprets some things. It's not a big deal. I found this immensely soothing, because misinterpreting things is something I am both prone to and despise myself for, and it was very calming to be told that it's really not a big deal.

Uh... Yeah. So that's the thing. It's not a great book - again, if you're gonna read anything of hers, I DO recommend The Great Man, which I thought was a lot of fun (though the one male I recommended it to didn't like it at all, so it might be more chick lit-y than I realize). But this one is really not that great, though it is a fairly engaging and enjoyable page turner.

10 September 2009

The Dream Life of Balso Snell, and A Cool Million, by Nathanael West

I picked this one up randomly at a bookstore (it has a very eye-catching cover) and I'm so glad I did. The novels are a sort of bizarre, satiric, quasi-surreal romp that's an absolute delight to read. Lewd, funny, clever, and generally entertaining. I liked Balso Snell more than A Cool Million, but both were amusing.

Balso Snell features a protagonist who enters a Trojan Horse, wanders around inside and meets a host of strange characters. That's pretty much it in the way of plot - a surreal picaresque, if you will. Cool Million is the story of a country boy trying to make it in the big city, except with all the violence, gore and plaintive misery included. His sweetheart fares especially poorly, and I suppose some might be offended by how often she gets raped, and how humorous those moments generally are, but, you know, the moments where the hero loses various limbs are also quite funny, so hey. Style-wise, it's the sort of dry absurdist humor that I adore - very reminiscent of Flann O'Brien, except with Americana instead of Irish folklore.

What fun!

08 September 2009

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Mindful of the wrath I incurred when I panned Elliot Perlman's 7 Types of Ambiguity, I will try to be a bit more, um, restrained in describing this book - because basically, my impressions of it were rather similar. Entertaining enough to read - quite absorbing initially, in fact - it sort of failed to really wow me. Which is unfortunate, because the first 150 pages or so, I was totally enthralled and excited about it. Then it just sort of petered out.

The book is a series of nested stories, spanning over time and space. I don't want to say too much about it, because most of the pleasure of the text is in the discovery, but basically, they stories are all sort of connected, but the author can't seem to settle on what kind of connection that really is. Meanwhile, the stories themselves are all fairly interesting, a bit o' the old excitement. Mitchell is to be commended for writing in so many different voices, most of which are quite successful and compelling.

Reviewers on goodreads.com are crazy about it, praising its cleverness and saying it's really a life-changing sort of book. Well, I disagree. It didn't seem all that brilliant or profound to me, just sort of interesting. For a 500 page book, it certainly goes quickly, and like I said, it's a pleasant read, but the thing is, it just didn't seem all that profound, nor did it really have much to say in terms of broader reflections on humanity, society, etc. Or so it seemed to me.

So as mentioned above, the overall effect was similar to the Perlman novel, to me, though Cloud Atlas at least was less ostentatious about its own supposed cleverness. Ultimately, I don't particularly recommend either book, but they're not altogether terrible either.

03 September 2009

District B13

Honestly, I'm speechless. This movie was so fucking sweet that there's not much for me to say, other than go rent it right now. It's on Watch Instantly on the Netflix. It's awesome from start to finish.

02 September 2009

Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is an absolutely incredible prosaist. I mean, it's really amazing the way he can just conjure up this terrifically vivid scene is the most perfect words in a way that comes across as completely effortless. And then can flip it and show you how he does it, and say something like no no no, let's do it like this instead, and pull out another one, simultaneously pulling you into this fictional universe and then taunting you with a reminder that he's the one running the show. It's incredible, but unfortunately, after awhile you find yourself less impressed with his artistry, and more irritated with the way he jerks you around. He's a little too pleased with himself, particularly in this novel. I still maintain that his autobiography, Speak, Memory, is a dazzling, poignant piece of artistry, but honestly, his novels - well, this one and Lolita anyhow - are just not as good.

Despair is particularly irritating because it feels like such a rip off of Dostoevsky. It's like Crime and Punishment, Notes from the Underground, and The Double all rolled into one. Although you're initially sort of intrigued (and impressed by the prose), it rapidly becomes sort of predictable and ho-hum. Not to mention, the main character becomes more and more irritating as the novel progresses. Actually, it reads like something that an adolescent who loved Crime and Punishment but largely missed the point of it would write. Or maybe I just have less patience with mind-of-a-murderer stories than I used to. In any case, it was unconvincing, and just not that compelling. Next!