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review 2019-11-06 21:53
The People of Paris by Daniel Roche
The People of Paris: An Essay In Popular Culture In The 18th Century - Daniel Roche

Certainly an informative book, but claiming a “highly readable style” is taking it too far. This is an academic text about the material and social conditions of Parisians in the 18th century. Parts of it (the first chapter or two in particular) consist of wordy academic language that doesn’t say very much, but other parts are extremely specific – what items of clothing were owned by what percentage of the population upon their death; what percentage of people picked up for crimes were capable of signing their names, etc. The author is very explicit about what sources he’s using and seems careful not to overstate his data. He’s also very interested in distinctions among “the people” rather than treating them as a monolith – servants lived differently from wage earners, for instance, even at the same income level, and were generally the means of transmission of culture between the rich and the poor. Also just some really interesting stuff in here: apparently everything was for sale on the streets of Paris, from songs (apparently people would actually buy the sheet music after hearing them sung, which is rather sweet) to secondhand food (leftovers from their employers’ tables being sold off by servants).

I should also add that despite the title, this is more than an essay – at 277 pages of text (there are no endnotes or reference pages though there are occasional footnotes – the sources are discussed in the text itself and most of the content appears to come from the author's original research), it’s a pretty standard-sized book.

My criticisms of the book are perhaps beside the point since I’m not sure it was ever intended for a general audience anyway, but here they are: first, it assumes knowledge of French history and society on the reader’s part. Even without having much I generally understood it, but there were some weird bits, like where the author refuted the notion that the Parisian poor didn’t have children because they either abandoned them or the kids ran away…. by giving statistics on the class from which abandoned children came, to prove that a large percentage came from higher up the social hierarchy. I was so confused by this – why were all of these people abandoning their kids? How do we know who was responsible? What did abandonment mean in this context (apparently some parents later returned)? At what age were children actually running away, and what happened to all these solo kids? Relatedly, the translator – despite translating the book from French to English presumably for those who, you know, don’t read French – left a number of words in French, including occasional key concepts and the titles of all of the books mentioned that were owned by Parisians.

Overall, I think this book will be quite useful for those doing research on eighteenth century Parisian society, less so for anybody else. Interesting stuff though and the author certainly seems to have reached his conclusions as a result of careful study.

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review 2019-10-23 22:49
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories - Anna Summers,Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

This is a really interesting, distinctive short story collection, focusing on domestic life in late Soviet/post-Soviet Russia; most of the stories take place in and around cramped Moscow apartments. Several generations often live together with too little space and too little money, parents often suspect that their adult children are scheming to take ownership of the precious apartment, and when love appears it's imperfect, marked by the characters' own deficiencies, and can't be relied upon to last.

The stories are very short, ranging from 4-18 pages in length, and with generous font and spacing. And the writing style is pared-down and matter-of-fact. I found the stories interesting and enjoyable though, and they certainly give a strong sense of what life was like for regular people in this particular place and time. This is apparently a compilation of stories the author wrote over several decades, but they're remarkably consistent in tone and quality. My favorite was "Like Penelope," and other stand-outs for me were "Ali-Baba" and "Eros's Way," but it doesn't surprise me a bit to see different readers preferring different stories. The translator also did a fantastic job of rendering the stories in common, sometimes biting English, so that it's hard to believe they were translated at all.

I can see why this collection doesn't work for everyone, given that the stories are relatively brief and often bleak. But I think it is worth a read. If for no other reason than that Petrushevskaya's work was banned in Russia even longer than some well-known political works (apparently for portraying too gritty a picture of everyday life)!

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review 2019-05-27 19:31
The Zelmenyaners by Moyshe Kulbak
The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga - Hillel Halkin,Moyshe Kulbak,Sasha Senderovich

This is an entertaining satire, an episodic novel featuring a Jewish extended family living in Minsk in the early 1930s, and published contemporaneously as a serial, though not translated to English until long after the fact. Four brothers, their wives, adult children, and various other relatives all live together around a central courtyard, from which they watch rapid changes in their world, from the arrival of electricity to Soviet doctrines that distance the younger generation from their Jewish roots. Interestingly, although written in Belarus under Communist rule, the book seems to neither support nor oppose the regime; the young people’s enthusiasm is tempered by an imperfect reality, but the disorientation of the older generation is portrayed humorously. Perhaps, in a rare example for Communist-era literature still read today, the author intended to take no political position, and just poke fun at a traditional family with the political reality as a backdrop.

And it’s an enjoyable book, humorous and easy to read, with short chapters and a fair bit of dialogue. After reading the first half I would have given 4 stars, but the second half muddles the timeline and doesn’t add much in the way of new ideas or plot elements. It’s an ensemble cast, but many of the characters stand out clearly and I soon came to feel some affection for them. I was a little uncomfortable with the way the female characters are overall portrayed unsympathetically, but then I’m not sure this was always intended; Tonke, for instance, the most dogmatic of the family, is apparently an outright villain in the eyes of many reviewers, but a Soviet audience may have viewed her quite differently. I’m sure plenty of the satire went over my head; the introduction provides some interesting insight, though as usual, is best saved until after finishing the book if you’d rather avoid spoilers.

At any rate, this is overall an enjoyable and accessible book; you don’t need a lot of background to see much of the humor in it or to enjoy reading about the Zelmenyaners’ lives and foibles. The translation is also well-done, with the helpful inclusion of the occasional explanatory footnote.

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review 2019-05-12 23:49
The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag
By Galsan Tschinag The Blue Sky (First Trade Paper Edition) [Paperback] - Galsan Tschinag

This is an interesting, evocatively-written short book about the life of a young shepherd boy belonging to a nomadic people in Mongolia. Set in the 1940s, the book is based on the author’s own life – the boy has his name, and in the author’s note (which puts the book in context) he refers to the character as himself; reading this alongside a memoir with numerous fictionalized elements highlighted the existence of that grey intermediate zone between fiction and nonfiction. The author – who grew up in a yurt, was educated in Europe, then returned to Mongolia and became a tribal leader and shaman – has certainly had a fascinating life, though this book focuses on the narrow world of a child, consisting of his family, the sheep and his dog. The boy faces a number of losses in his young life that leave him questioning the divinity of the sky, which his people worship.

It’s an interesting book, and while there’s no overarching plot, its relatively short length and the variety of its episodes carry it along fine. The translation is fluid and readable, and the glossary, author’s note and translator’s note at the end are all helpful. The book didn’t strike any deep chord with me, but it did expand my mental map a little bit further, which is exactly what my world books challenge is intended to do. The author himself discusses this in the afterword:

“Humankind, which for me in the beginning meant my small tribe of Tuvan people, has grown larger and richer in my heart with the addition of other peoples. Now, the publication of The Blue Sky extends it for me even further by including the peoples of North America. I am mightily pleased, not least for these peoples themselves, whose world, in turn, will now include the mountain steppe of Central Asia, and whose awareness of humankind will embrace the nomadic people from that corner.”


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review 2019-04-22 04:33
Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo
Beyond the Rice Fields - Naivo,Allison M. Charette

This book is celebrated for being the first novel from Madagascar translated into English (though it was written in French originally, not a large or unusual gap to jump). It is also the author’s first novel, and I would be interested to see what he does next, though I wasn’t thrilled with this one.

Beyond the Rice Fields is, ultimately, a novel about the mass purges and killings carried out by the Imerina queen in Madagascar in the mid-19th century, though it takes a long time to get there. First we follow our two protagonists – Tsito, a boy who is sold as a slave at a young age, and Fara, a girl whose family buys him for household help – through their childhoods and much of their adult lives. We read about their childhood games, their schooling, Tsito’s career as a craftsman, Fara’s triumph as a dancer and anticlimactic life afterwards, their local lord and his downfall, and their interactions with various other people around them, all of which goes on without much plot for more than half the book. It’s only in the last third – a point at which many readers are likely to have given up – that it becomes intense. And suddenly it’s a page-turner, albeit a dark and tragic one. If it had handled all the setup more quickly, my rating would be a solid 4 stars.

But then, plotting issues often aren’t entirely about plot, and here I suspect someone from the culture would have a much better experience with the book. Tsito’s and Fara’s personalities don’t quite seem compelling to me, but I don’t know the cultural background behind them. And their narrative voices actually are somewhat distinct, which is impressive, especially in translation. The book certainly feels textured and authentic in a way that an outsider can’t entirely appreciate. You can tell it was written for a native audience, though it’s still comprehensible to an outsider (and I love the Malagasy names and words sprinkled throughout. Speaking of which, the translator and publishers did a fantastic job with not only a glossary of both words and names, but a quick chronology of relevant monarchs). And looking back, I can see how some things were set up, but I also no doubt missed a lot by not knowing how this history was treated before.

At any rate, this is a decent book, a great choice if you are interested in Madagascar, but not one I’m likely to recommend to a casual reader.

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