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review 2017-07-01 17:45
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Glenny 
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov,Michael Glenny

inspired "Sympathy for the Devil"

Finally getting to it now that Veronica is spending the summer learning Russian.

***

 

Ban the book; build the buzz.

 

Had it not been suppressed for forty years it wouldn't have become internationally famous. It's a bit of a mess. There's the love story of the Master, a writer, and Margarita. They're both inconveniently and unhappily married to other people, as apparently everyone was in the twenties. Don't worry, the useless-except-as-plot-devices spouses aren't in the book. The Master has written a moving novel about Pontius Pilate which no one will publish, a theme introduced early in the book: it is unacceptable to even consider that Jesus might have been a real person. This novel within the novel presents Pilate as being forced by law and politics to sentence Jesus to death, but far from washing his hands of the job, he strives to save him, to reduce his suffering, and to respect him after the crucifixion. I liked the Master's book and wouldn't have minded more of it.

 

Eventually the book settles down and concentrates on the suffering of the Master, but the first third of the book is devoted to satirizing Moscow's literary and theatrical (think vaudeville) world of the 20s. Not since Dante has a writer so indulged a desire to mock and punish. If these characters aren't real people I hope they're only thinly veiled ones, because otherwise they are too shallow to bother with. Their sins are mostly about getting a better apartment, which in an overcrowded urban environment is no sin at all. 

 

Knowing that this was the inspiration for "Sympathy for the Devil" I had high hopes going in for that character. Jagged and Richards did more and did it better than Bulgakov. He doesn't get to do much, he's just a man who is too old for in unpleasant job, but too decent to leave the hard work to someone else. His staff are all less powerful and less competent, but they seem to derive some pleasure from the business of pointing out folly in humans. Not much fun, really, considering what one might do, but a bit in the end.

 

There is some real fun when we finally get to Margarita: girlfriend gives it all over to being a witch, but it turns out that being a witch is also not as much fun as you might think. Bulgakov 's damned are a parade even he finds to tedious to recount.

 

The book does have a happy ending, for some bleak Russian notion of "happy". No doubt it was fun to write, but the titular characters don't have much agency, and the structure deprives the book of any real momentum until half way through, so even though I did become familiar with Russian names, overall it wasn't very rewarding. I wanted to love it: it features an oversized talking black cat, but even those bits were joyless until the last sixty pages.

 

Maybe the Soviets only suppressed it for being slow, and dull, neither instructive nor entertaining. Or maybe I should quit trying to read Russian fiction, since I never end up liking it. Or both.

 

Library copy

 

Edited to correct typo 

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review 2017-06-04 20:39
Three Wishes - Liane Moriarty
Three Wishes - Liane Moriarty

Moriarty reminds me of Binchy and Pilcher and Susan Isaacs. It's got some drama, but there's more humor: the wry voice chuckling over family foibles, meals, affairs, pregnancy, all over bottles of wine and good meals, and upper middle class luxury. Like Austen, there's a recognition that one person's drama is a spectator's comedy, a theme reinforced with interstitial vignettes as told by a spectator to some important moment.

I love a book that reminds me we all screw up, and we aren't bad people because we do.

Library copy

Three Wishes - Liane Moriarty 

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review 2017-05-31 14:26
Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World - Sarah Vowell  
Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World - Sarah Vowell

I can already tell I'm going to want to read this again. Essays, I love them. Plus, in my mind, I can hear Vowell as she must have sounded on This American Life, which is where most of these began. There's a few bits of growing-up interspersed throughout, a lot of history, the blackest of humor. Great stuff, perhaps especially on the Trail of Tears and how many different emotions that trip spawned.

So much humor, though.

On the one hand, I think Vowell would be an awesome friend to hang with, laughing at Choo-Choo and working it into every comment because of the way it sounds ("spleen" is a personal fave) on the other, she would someday drag me along on the least appealing road trip ever. Hotspots of the Teapot Dome scandal? Tippecanoe? Some other phrase I only dimly recall from American history, but can't actually place in time or space? She's already done The Hall of Presidents, so I'd be clear of that one. Yet no matter how little the idea would appeal to me, she'd make it fascinating: full of humor and humanity. Maybe we can just get her and Kate Beaton and Bill Bryson to filter all of history for us?

Library copy

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review 2017-05-25 19:22
The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting - Anne Trubek  
The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting - Anne Trubek

After a slow couple of months my reading has picked up again: I'm finishing more, and I'm enjoying what I'm reading. The sad aspect of this is that I keep finishing books that I want everyone else to pick up, and mostly no one does.

This is an exception. It belongs on the odd shelf I don't have specifically, but can't resist reading from, called "History of a Thing". While it isn't funny exactly, there is a lightness of tone that makes this a pleasant break from heavier reading, like say, about Nixon and Mao, to pick a topic out of thin air and not off the cover of another book lying around the house. It's fascinating to learn at some depth about a very narrow topic. Not surprisingly, this book is a distillation of a topic Trubek has been teaching in college for years. Specialization is awesome: I've never thought about all the different kinds of writing together until now.

I love this post-book feeling of erudition. Two days after I finished the book I can't recall anything specific that I learned, which isn't really the point. I've grasped the gestalt. I've placed my own flirtation with calligraphy (highly recommended as a means to achieving a legible handwriting) into the appropriate context.

There are a number of people worried about the fact that schools aren't teaching cursive. I'm not bothered. I've done my share of handwriting and it hurts and it's slow, and I'm one of only two people I know who can write a cursive others can read. Admittedly, the time spent learning keyboarding will no doubt also become wasted time at some point in the Offspring's lives, in favor of something newer and easier for more people. That's fine.

Favorite bit: seeing all the different types of clerks/scribes/copyists there were a fairly short time ago. Poor Bartleby and Bob Cratchit!

Library copy

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review 2017-05-15 00:25
Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books - Nick Hornby 
Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books - Nick Hornby

It took me forever to read because I had to stop at least once per page to add something to The List, or to move something else higher, or to request something from the library. Hornby is a much bigger fan of literary fiction than I and he isn't a fan of genre (I know, right?) But I love his reviews like no one else's. It's ten years in the life of someone who loves to read, so it's all familiar, but written by a humorous pro. It's funny that I've read all of these three books before at least once and there were still so many I not only hadn't read, but also so many I hadn't already put on The List.

Library copy

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