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review 2018-02-13 16:35
Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Purge - Lola Rogers,Sofi Oksanen

Part psychological thriller, part historical fiction, this book was not at all what I expected. You should avoid reading reviews if possible because too many give away too much, but to give a general idea, the novel begins in Estonia in 1992, where an old woman, Aliide Truu, lives alone in the countryside in an atmosphere of fear and decay. She finds a young woman, Zara, lying crumpled in her yard, and the story follows the relationship between these women and the explosive secrets they carry, tracing the history of Estonia back to the 1930s.

It’s an ugly time period: from invasions by the Nazis and Russians, to decades as a repressive Soviet satellite, to lawlessness following the fall of Communism. And I wasn’t expecting the amount of horrific sexual trauma in it. It’s an intense, visceral book that draws the reader into the characters’ world, one where they don’t ever feel safe. The plot is gripping, full of secrets to be unraveled; the characters are morally complex, with believable inner worlds; the settings are vivid and the writing strong.

Actually, my biggest complaint is not about the content, but the deckle edge pages, which publishers continue to inflict upon readers despite the fact that, if we still aren’t using e-readers, one reason is that we like to be able to easily turn pages and flip around, especially in a book like this, where readers will be inclined to re-read earlier sections in light of new information.

I’m glad I read this book. It is an intense, compelling read, and allowed me a window into a place I knew little about, though it isn't a history book and the focus remains tightly on the experiences of the protagonists. It is dark and brutal and so isn’t for everyone, but fans of psychological thrillers will find it well worth their time.

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review 2018-02-11 20:19
Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac
Eugénie Grandet - Christopher Prendergast,Honoré de Balzac,Sylvia Raphael

Classics, we are told, are books that “stand the test of time” – that, even after the society that birthed them has passed away, continue to enthrall readers with their complex and relatable characters, their insight into universals of human nature, their artful command of language. I read Eugenie Grandet in translation, so I won’t attempt to pass judgment on its use of language (Raphael’s 1990 translation is acceptable though not impressive in its own right). But the characters, the conceptions of human nature: these represent the tropes and prejudices of Balzac’s own society, nothing universal or transcendent.

This is a short book with a fairly simple story, though it is detailed and atmospheric enough so as not to require large amounts of plot. Felix Grandet is a miser, who makes large amounts of money through sometimes scurrilous means but refuses to use any of it for the comfort of his wife and daughter, Eugenie. When her city cousin Charles comes to visit for the first time, Eugenie falls immediately in love, but the corrupting influence of money threatens everything meaningful in her life.

Unfortunately, the main characters are not particularly complex or interesting. Felix Grandet is “the miser,” and Balzac takes every opportunity to hold forth on the characteristics of all misers. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met a miser or even heard of a real-life one secondhand, if we define a miser as someone who hoards money for its own sake rather than saving for anything in particular and who refuses to spend even small amounts for their own or their family’s comfort. So this old-fashioned trope and Balzac’s “insights” into the character of misers fell flat for me. Eugenie is defined by another musty trope; she’s the angel in the house, that selfless, innocent, long-suffering 19th century woman. “In her honest simplicity she followed the promptings of her angelic nature,” Balzac tells us at one point. Like her father and the other characters, Eugenie is written as a character in a parable; they exist to fulfill specific roles in the story, and there’s no sense of depth beyond that.

Meanwhile, Balzac’s indictment of misers is strange to my 21st century eyes. We are clearly supposed to feel bad for Eugenie because she’s required to eat simple foods and use footwarmers rather than having a fire in the spring and fall, even when this lifestyle is credited for her robust good health. Wow, how awful? But Eugenie and her mother (who does legitimately suffer from Felix’s behavior) are portrayed as the only people of moral character in the book, which makes it appear that Balzac is speaking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. On the one hand, Felix is morally repugnant for refusing to “live up to his income” (that 19th century virtue) and provide his family the luxuries they can afford, but on the other hand, his refusal to do so is a recipe for producing the ideal woman, an angelic figure absent from the households of the Grandets’ moneyed acquaintances. Admittedly, this is complicated somewhat as [Eugenie grows older and picks up some of her father’s traits, but that only happens after she remains single and at home long past the prescribed age, suggesting that marrying as a young woman should might have allowed her to continue unspoiled. And she continues to live for religion and devote her money to charity, even while she is unhappy. (hide spoiler)]

Either way, Balzac brings a boatload of gender-based generalizations to the table, which he is eager to share with the reader. For instance:

“All women, even the most stupid, can use wiles to attain their ends.” (60)

“Is it not the noble destiny of women to be more touched by the trappings of poverty than by the splendours of wealth?” (63)

“Pity is one of the qualities in which women are sublimely superior; it is the only one that they are willing to reveal, the only one they will forgive men for allowing them a greater share of.” (90)

“Women have in common with angels the special care of suffering beings.” (93)

“A woman’s mistakes nearly always stem for her belief in good news or from her confidence in truth.” (109)

“In every situation, women have more cause for grief than men and suffer more.” (134)

To my amusement, the writer of the scholarly introduction (which, as usual, you shouldn’t read before the book unless you want to be spoiled) shares many of these complaints. “Much of the contrast [between Eugenie and her father] is best skated over – Eugenie is written in the imagery of the ‘angelic’ and the painfully embarrassing analogies with Raphael’s madonnas and so on,” he writes. And, “There is much tiresome rhetoric about it being in the nature of women to show ‘angelic patience’ in the face of misfortune.” And, “This is the dimension of Balzac’s manner which tends to turn his novels into machines for spewing out generalizations, maxims, quasi-proverbial utterances on virtually every conceivable subject . . . many of them are false or just inadequate to the complexity of experience.” Indeed.

The introduction writer then attempts to defend Balzac by pointing out his use of chiasmus and antithesis, and perhaps if you are the sort of literary reader more interested in techniques and symbolism than characterization, insight or wisdom, you might find much to enjoy in this book. As for me, I found little to appreciate and much cause to question its status as a classic, though I did learn a bit about Balzac’s society from it.

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review 2018-02-09 02:16
My Crazy Century by Ivan Klima
My Crazy Century - Ivan Klíma

There are two kinds of memoirs. The first is literary memoirs, which you read because the story they tell is interesting or because they’re renowned as good books. You usually don’t know anything about the author beforehand, and don’t need to. The other kind is celebrity memoirs, which you read because you are already interested in the author. Because these books have a built-in audience rather than having to contend for readership with all other books on a literary footing, and because their appeal has more to do with learning facts about a celebrity than getting a great story, their quality often suffers.

This book reads like a celebrity memoir, with the added disadvantage that I’d never heard of Ivan Klima before picking it up. Klima is a Czech writer who has had some interesting life experiences: he and his family were in an internment camp during World War II due to their Jewish heritage, and he went on to become first a Communist party member and later a banned writer under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, a country he refused to abandon despite petty harassment from the government. But the concentration camp portion only takes up 15 pages of this 534-page book, which turned out to be a dryly-written tome. Klima spends a lot of pages talking about his career: name-dropping writers he edited or was friends with, providing long plot summaries of stories and plays he wrote, and describing trips he took abroad and conferences he attended and who said what in their speeches. This is the part that felt most like a celebrity memoir, because it would be interesting mostly to dedicated fans of Klima who have a Who’s Who of 20th century Czech writers in their heads. If you don't, there's nothing in Klima's descriptions of them to distinguish his friends from one another.

Klima’s other major topic is the political climate at the time, but in a narrow sense: he was intensely interested in those regulations affecting writers and art, as well as the speeches and articles exchanged between the regime and its critics. He quotes portions of proclamations, opinion pieces, and speeches at length, including his own. But it would be hard to put together a picture of the times from this book, and given that he originally wrote it for a Czech audience, I’m not sure that was his intent. When the Velvet Revolution overthrowing Communism happens within the last few pages, he doesn’t name it and it was unclear to me exactly what was happening and why. Try Street Without a Name for a far more vivid picture of life under Communism in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, while some of the details of life at the time are interesting, the book contains little in the way of feelings, insight into those around him, and reflections on the author’s personal life beyond the bare facts. He mentions cheating on his wife, without any reflection on what other than the other woman’s attractiveness caused him to do so, and informs the reader that he and his wife then confessed affairs to each other, at which point, “We put aside our infidelities, at least from our conversations” – and that’s all he has to say about the subject. Later there’s another affair, equally opaque to the reader, after which he again confesses and concludes with “But I do not intend to compose a chronicle of my love life and my infidelities. My wish is not to draw my loved ones into my tale; it’s enough that I drew them into real life.” It’s a bare memoir that doesn’t draw in the writer’s loved ones, like it or not. But beyond that, if he doesn’t want to write about the subject, why bring it up at all? So I’m back to the celebrity memoir explanation: he appears to feel a need to include the facts of situations in his life, even without corresponding examination of feelings or relationships. But, not being an Ivan Klima fan, I don’t care about the bare facts. I was looking for a story, and didn’t find it.

Then there are the essays. The book ends with 118 pages comprising 18 pieces on various geopolitical topics. These read like the opinion papers of an undergraduate political science student, speaking in broad generalities and without fresh insight. For instance, he writes an entire essay on the fact that youth are more susceptible to extremism because they are less invested in the existing system and more naïve, idealistic and excitable than older adults. (Genius!) He leans heavily on broad generalities about extremism, attempting to apply his experience with Nazism and Communism to modern-day terrorism at every opportunity. This creates the impression that he believes he needs to offer insight into terrorism to keep his book “relevant” for modern readers. But he’s never encountered terrorism and has no insights that any other commentator couldn’t offer.

Overall, I found this work dry, impersonal, unnecessarily long, and a slog to read, despite its promising subject matter. Somehow, although it’s roughly twice the length of the average American memoir, it is abridged from the two-volume Czech version; I can only assume that Klima’s fans are dedicated, at least in his home country, and be thankful that the English-language publisher chose to abridge it.

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review 2018-01-27 11:00
War and Peace in Classical Japan: The Heiké Story by Yoshikawa Eiji
The Heike Story: A Modern Translation of the Classic Tale of Love and War (Tuttle Classics) - Fuki Wooyenaka Uramatsu,Kenkichi Sugimoto,Kenichi Sugimoto,Eiji Yoshikawa

Japanese literature has a lot to offer although little is available in English translation. One of the great writers known also in the western hemisphere is Yoshikawa Eiji.

 

The Heiké Story is an epic story of war and peace with sentimental sidesteps – set in Classical Japan and based on true events as well as characters! Well, not as epic and colourful as the Japanese original must be because the translator took it upon himself to decide which plotlines and details might be interesting for western readers. Despite all, the life story of Heita Kiyomori is an intriguing novel that makes the classical "Tale of the Heike" accessible to modern readers.

 

Please click here to read my long review on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany!

 

Source: edith-lagraziana.blogspot.com
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review 2018-01-15 18:14
Gut by Giulia Enders
Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ - Giulia Enders

A book about the digestive system for laypeople. It’s written in a strong voice and is both informative and accessible, explaining current research in terms understandable to the non-scientist and including helpful tips for everyday life. Enders advises readers on everything from cleanliness (wring out kitchen sponges; bacteria love them because they’re warm and damp, but drying can keep them somewhat cleaner) to diet (cold cooked rice, potato salad, asparagus, leeks, garlic and onions are all nutritious offerings for the good bacteria in our digestive system) to combating nausea (ginger has proven effects, as does the acupuncture point P6).

But I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy reading this as much as I expected based on the reviews. Maybe because this just isn’t my favorite subject, and I read it from start to finish, pushing through sections such as the one on laxatives that didn’t particularly interest me in order to reach the more interesting material, like the influence of the gut on the brain. Maybe because I’m used to books with an overarching thesis to pull it all together, where this felt more like a series of disparate topics and a lot of (often intriguing or useful) factoids than a coherent whole. Maybe because so many topics are breezed through so quickly, often in metaphorical language that can help readers picture what’s going on, but that doesn’t provide a full understanding. Still, it’s a useful book with plenty of practical application in daily life, so although it wasn’t my favorite reading experience, I am glad I read it and would recommend.

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