31 August 2012

Havy bin Yaqzan and Robinson Crusoe: A Study of An Early Arabic Impact on English Literature, by Nawal Muhammad Hassan

This is definitely not your everyday read, but I feel compelled to post about it because the material it covers is just fascinating. The book does not quite do its subject justice, by which I mean, it is a pretty basic academic treatment of the matter, and refrains from milking its content for excitement - or from indulging in reflection on broader implications.

I should perhaps first explain that this book came to my hands after I stumbled across a reference to it in Srinivas Aramadun's Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel (also an interesting book, worth reading for anyone in 18th century studies, or working on the development of the novel, I think). Aramadun essentially summarizes the critical study in in two pages, explaining that there exists a 12th century Arabic text called Havy bin Yaqzan that was translated, first into Hebrew, then Latin, then English. It achieved some measure of popularity among 17th and 18th century Brits, and may have been an influence on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. A footnote then cites this study. For whatever reason, I decided I needed to read it. Or at least look it over. Thanks to interlibrary loan, one of the world's best services, I was able to read the University of Pennsylvania's copy. The book itself appears to be a typewritten manuscript - a dissertation perhaps? - that was published in Baghdad (by the Al_Raschid House of Publication) in 1980. Which was just kind of awesome. If that intrigues you, read on - I'm gonna put in a jump, because I think this post is gonna get long.

30 August 2012

he Guide, by R.K. Narayan

A few years ago, I was in a friend's apartment for the first time, perusing his bookshelves (as I am wont to do) and discovered a whole row of Narayan's books. I had vaguely heard of the author before, but not in details, so the quantity of his texts on display piqued my interest. Of all of them, for some reason this is the one that especially called to me. As the back of the book described it, "Mistaken for a holy man, [the protagonist] plays the part and succeeds so well that God himself intervenes to put Raju's newfound sanctity to the test."As far as one sentence summaries go, that one seems about right. As I read, I kept being reminded of Tadeusz Konwicki's Minor Apocalypse, which is also a kind of reluctant holy man tale. I guess it's been done many a time (We Have a Pope, which I watched awhile ago and LOVED, also comes to mind), but there's something about the trope that appeals to me. Unlike those other two, in this one the devoted followers play a more crucial role, which makes the book a somewhat more interesting variant (who is the more holy, the pretender or the one who can muster faith? Have you been tricked if your faith is so strong as to make someone else holy? Is divinity an essence or a function of the relationship between people?).

What I also found sort of intriguing about this book was the narrative style, which combined the first and the third person voices, interspersed - a narrator telling the story, and then the memories of the main character, interwoven. I guess it's not so uncommon a device, but for some reason I found it somewhat jarring in this work, the way it blithely moved between the two all like "I can tell this story however I want, so there!" But I may have been oversensitive as a result of reading all these various texts hunting for things to teach (see previous entry).

Anyhow, overall, an interesting and enjoyable book - somewhat on the dry side, and not a must-read, but I definitely enjoyed it.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver

I'm planning the syllabus for an introductory lit class I'm teaching that will include a unit on short stories, so I'm reading around trying to find some good ones. "Give 'em some Raymond Carver," says my friend Jonathan. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, everyone will love that book. It's amazing." I have to admit, I was kind of dubious, but I checked it out of the library - and devoured it. My god. It really is incredible. Absolutely riveting. I've read some Carver here and there in my life, but this collection hit me like a freight train. It's taut, melodic, and quietly devastating in a strangely pleasurable way. Highly recommended.

PS - If you're wondering, I will be including the two version he wrote of one story, "Popular Mechanics," in the syllabus of that class - it's only two pages, and the subtle differences between the two versions are a good discussion point. I also decided to include the title story in my other class as an accompaniment to Plato's Symposium. I think it'll work well. I generally love pairing ancient texts with modern works (we're doing Beowulf and Grendel in the other class, for instance) and trying to think through their different modes of representation, I think it's a great exercise. 

24 August 2012

Shortcomings, by Adriane Tomine

I picked this up after seeing it on a list of Best Graphic Novels.* I don't think it'd make my top 10 list, but it was a quick, enjoyable read. it vaguely reminded me of I'm Through With White Girls (which I liked, though maybe not as much as this post seems to suggest), Love Jones, and Medicine for Melancholy (which apparently I never wrote about? But really liked.) - mainly because of the way it deals with relationships, but also race and distance. And it's partly set in San Francisco. The plot isn't especially gripping, but Tomine really succeeds at capturing interactions between people in an amazing way. In four sparse frames, you get a fully realized fight between a couple that is so apt that it's kind of painful. Or there's a scene of the main guy having lunch with his lesbian best friend, who is hitting on the server, and it's like, yes! That is EXACTLY what hanging out with your single friend who's making on the server is like! Not that these scenes are especially earth-shattering, or reveal some profound truths about human nature, but there is a distinct pleasure to seeing them so accurately rendered. It really makes you appreciate the graphic novel as a genre. I wasn't blown away by the art, or so I thought, because it wasn't all that visually appealing, but in retrospect, it's pretty fantastic as far as representation goes.

Also, it's one of those rare works that has a protagonist who is unsympathetic in many ways, and basically gets what he deserves (in my opinion), yet you have a kind of sympathy for him. He's human. I think it helps that so many other characters in the novel are noticeably annoyed by him, and that he has a best friend who loves him despite his faults. Actually, the friend - and the other characters - aren't exactly angels either. It's a cast of flawed, somewhat irritating people, but it manages to convey its awareness of their flaws without judging them. Impressive stuff.

The racial commentary is nothing new really, but I'm generally appreciative any time a relatively light, fun work manages to smuggle in some intelligent awareness of racial issues without being preachy. In this case, it's just this side of too much, but it manages to find other things to talk about without getting completely stuck on the issue.

All in all, a pleasant book, but not a must-read.

*I like explaining how I discovered a book/movie, partly to remind myself, and partly because I'm always interested to hear how other people hear about new stuff. Also, I guess, because it gives you a sense of the kinds of expectations I brought to the work in question.

21 August 2012

Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal

Go to the store, buy a bottle of decent or even good red wine (not too good, otherwise it will command all of your attention), then find a balcony, or seat near an open window at least, and read this book.* You'll finish it before the wine is gone. It's a lovely book, strange, funny, contemplative and touching, but in a light and playful sort of way. It almost reads like a prose poem, with certain phrases and ideas recurring periodically, sometimes with slight variations. It's basically a monologue about a guy who works as a trash compactor, pulping books, but as is often the case with excellent works of literature, that summary tells you very little about it. It's a beautifully realized mind that you spend time in, one could say. A wonderful read.

*You could perhaps swap the wine for tea or coffee or hot chocolate, and the balcony for your bed, or a comfy armchair, or a park bench. What is essential though, is that you find a 2 hour window of time in which you can read the entire book in one go - I think it simply wouldn't work as well without complete immersion.

19 August 2012

Killer Joe

I didn't realize that this movie was NC-17 before I saw it, but this is one of the few films that I think legitimately deserves the rating. It's adult. Not because it has lots of nudity, not even because of the gore, really, but because there are some pretty dark, twisted, and messed up segments. I'm somewhat sensitive to scenes of cruelty/humiliation and it was just this side of tolerable for me at times.* That said - I really, really enjoyed it. It reminded me of Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Black humor, violence that teeters between cartoonish and horrifying, gorgeous landscapes, quirky characters and best of all, plenty of good old fashioned storytelling. It's a wonderful thing, the way cinema can occasionally capture the simple art of a lone individual spinning a good yarn.

Astonishingly, everyone in the movie manages to be sympathetic and interesting despite being arguably rather vile. What is even more impressive, they are quirky yet believable, recognizable types without being cliches. The acting is wonderful, the dialogue is a delight, and it's a fantastic, atmospheric film. Much recommended.

*I think its important to warn people of that before they see it (I was not warned about the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I walked out of the theatre, and resented everyone who had recommended it to me without mentioning how brutal it was).

06 August 2012

A good blog

I just stumbled across this blog somewhat randomly: A Course of Steady Reading. If you enjoy my blog, you might like this one as well; it's focused on somewhat more obscure works from the seventeenth century onwards. The posts are much, much longer and more detailed than mine, I'm ashamed to say, and much more interesting. 

05 August 2012

Marriage, by Susan Ferrier

I mainly read this because I'm working on a paper about cross-cultural marriage in some early 19th century Irish fiction, so I was curious how this somewhat well-known Scottish novel handled the issue. It was an entertaining read, though rather too long, with chunks that were pretty unnecessary. The pacing is weird, suddenly rocketing ahead in time, or briskly dispensing with plot segments you'd expect it to linger over. But it's an entertaining enough read, if you like 19th century novels.

The book surprised me in several ways. As far as cross-cultural relationships go, it's actually kind of fudging the issue, because there are no clear-cut cases of a Scottish person marrying a British person. Or rather, the differences between the nationalities are not as explicitly marked as in the Irish fiction of the time, where they really are seen as being wildly different and highly incompatible. Here, you have some extreme cases of whack-a-doodle Scottish relatives, or random eccentrics, but at one point a character explicitly tells another one that these weirdos shouldn't be seen as representative. In fact, thinking back on it, there's a lot of material in there on the question of representation; with people having varying preconceived notions about what Scotland is like, and the nation itself turning about to be (surprise surprise) pretty diverse. Though there was a lot of emphasis on the landscape in certain parts being breathtakingly gorgeous, there wasn't a strong unified message in regards to other factors, nor were there lengthy disquisitions on the history or culture.

What really surprised me though, was that there were so many characters in the book who were extremely unlikeable. I would even venture to say - most of them. It's been awhile, I think, since I read a novel in which so many people were portrayed as vile without being villainous. Petty, selfish, unpleasant - but without that having much effect, really, on the story. One of the main characters in particular is pretty thoroughly despicable, and everyone basically seems in agreement on how awful she is - but it really doesn't matter that much. Despite being in many ways central, she is also kind of irrelevant. It's sort of fascinating. Likewise, the eccentric Scottish family, who would, in Irish novels of this kind, generally be portrayed as weird yet lovable, are here rather explicitly depicted as kind of lovable but also actually pretty unbearable - even as they're milked for comic effect. At one point, a character is forced to acknowledge that it's nostalgia that makes her think of them with fondness, because in person they're almost intolerable. Quite surprising, and seemed rather harsh.

I don't know how interesting this book would be to someone who isn't reading it for academic reasons, but if you're a fan of 18/19th century lit, you could certainly do worse.

Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman

I'd been sort of intrigued by Ayelet Waldman ever since I heard about the whole kerfuffle over her saying that she loved her husband more than her kids. I thought it was a bold thing to say, and one I totally agreed with, and I was curious to read more of her stuff. I ended up buying this book along with her husband's essays on fatherhood (which I liked, but did not love, not that it really seems appropriate/fair to compare them). Maybe because I was not so blown away by Chabon's book, I didn't really expect to appreciate this one. To my surprise, I actually kind of was.

The opening salvo, about how most women feel like bad mothers, and take it out on other women by policing their mothering, struck me as true but not that compelling, but as the book went on, I got more and more into it. Waldman wrestles with a lot of things that I've spent a lot of time thinking about - and I generally agree with most of what she says about it, and appreciated her perspective in helping me think about it. It's actually somewhat unfortunate that the book is framed as being primarily about motherhood, because I think it's more broadly about being a woman and trying to figure out what feminism means to you, and how to live your life, balance work, love and family, etc. Sure, it's a little trite or sappy at moments, but at others - like the essay about learning that the child she was pregnant with was likely to have birth defects, and deciding what to do next - were incredibly moving and poignant. And brave. Waldman really bares her soul at a lot of moments moments in this book, but manages to find that sweet spot (that she explicitly describes searching for) where it comes across as intimate and open but not narcissistic or exhibitionist.

It's an excellent book. Definitely makes for a good gift for that woman in her late 20s/early 30s in your life. I'm actually quite glad I read it now, not having gone through pregnancy/motherhood myself - I kind of feel like I got more out of it now than I might later.