Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

what is yours is not yours

Books and Roses:

A baby girl named Montse, is left at a monastery door.  She has a key around her neck.  Years later, Montse works as a clothes launderer with a woman with a similar key around her neck.  Is there a relationship between the two keys?  Is there a relationship between the two women?

Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea:

A guy named Ched asks his friend to housesit while he goes off to do his military sevice.   The house sitter has a boyfriend with two kids, Dayang, who is serious, and Aisha, who has a crush on a German pop star named Matyas Fust.   Matyas gets involved in a scandal.  Is the scandal true?  Does Aisha stay loyal to Matyas?

Is Your Blood As Red As This?  No

A girl named Radha meets an older woman named Myrna, at a party, and becomes a puppeteer like Myrna is, to impress Myrna.  Does Myrna return Radha’s feelings?  Is Radha’s puppetry career a success?

Drownings:

A man named Arkady lives in a country run by a dictator. To protest the dictator’s rule, and to pay off his growing debt, Arkady and his friend Giancomo plan to kidnap the dictator’s daughter and hold her for ransom.  How does the kidnapping plot go?

Presence:

Jill Ackerman and her husband Jacob experiment with something called the Presence, which is supposed to bring a spiritual presence into the life of the person who tries it.  Jill volunteers, does a presence enter her life?

A Brief History of The Homely Wench Society 

Dayang Sharif is a college student at Cambridge University, and she wants to join a club called the Homely Wench Society.  This club is a counterweight to the all-men’s Bettencourt Society which is seen as chauvinistic, and generally hostile to women. One day Dayang meets Hercules Demetriou, who’s a member of the Bettencourt Society but doesn’t tell her. Does Dayang join the Homely Wench Club, does she find out the truth about Hercules?

Dorninca and the St Martin’s Day Goose:

Dornica goes up to the top of Mount Radhost in the Czech Republic to visit a statue of a wolf.  The wolf statue talks to Dornica and says he wants someone to eat, and despite Dornica’s red hood, he passes on her and says he wants someone younger.  What does Dornica do to satiate the wolf statue’s hunger?

 

Freddy Barrendorf Checks In

Everybody expects Freddy Barrendorf to follow in his father’s footsteps, and become a hotel maintenance man, does Freddy follow in his dad’s footsteps?

If A Book Is Locked, There’s probably a good reason for it, don’t you Think?

New employee Eva sends tongues wagging at her new job, with her New York sense of style and cool manner.  Tongues are wagging for a different reason as rumors circulate about Eva and a married man.  Then, one of the employees finds Eva’s diary, does she open it and confirm the rumors or return it to Eva?

 

What Is Yours Is Not Yours is a collection of short stories.  Ms. Oyeyemi is fond of literary flourishes, large words, symbolism, recurring characters, recurring themes and tangential subplots.  These are all things critics and literary agents adore, but it may alienate the average reader.  For example, she gets so enamored of a tangential portion of the story in  Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten The Tea, that she forgets the main story entirely.

Books And Roses is a pretty good story, but again there is so much of a backstory and so much exposition, that it makes for difficult reading.  Reading a book should not be a chore, and some of this book seems like work and not pleasure.  There are other stories that get so caught up in the technicalities of the task she is describing, that the point of the story is lost.  A story about puppetry might be interesting, but not the way she wrote it.

Sometimes the recurring themes of books and keys and locks seem to be forced into the story, just to keep the thematic consistency going.  And most of the characters show up in different stories, for example Dayang shows up in at least two stories if not more, Aisha shows up in multiple stories, and it’s maddening.  They just seem to make cameos in other stores, for no reason, another frustrating flourish.

There are good stories in this collection, A Brief History of The Homely Wench Society is good story, simple, direct, to the point. And the characters have a definite point of view.  In fact, I’d say more than half of the stories are very good, but even in the stories I liked, the endings are weak or abrupt or don’t match the tone of the story that came before it.  I’ve read her work before, Mr. Fox, and I had the same complaint, it was too metaphorical, too symbolic, almost like a bedtime story with some deeper meaning.

Ms. Oyeyemi is talented, but her writing is too lyrical, she needs to tell a story in more prosaic language, beginning middle and end.  Sometimes, the simplest way to tell a story is the best way.

Short stories, not for short attention spans.

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Eleanor Oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is 30 years old, born and raised in England.  She works in a non-descript office in the accounts receivable department of a graphic design company.  She has no friends, inside or outside work, doesn’t believe in office politics but she does talk to her mother regularly, every Wednesday, like clockwork. Mummy’s been institutionalized. Eleanor has also developed a crush on a local rock singer, Johnny Lomond.  She thinks he is “the one.”

One day, Eleanor’s computer at work gets the dreaded blue screen, so she calls the help desk.  Raymond Gibbons fixes her computer, she asks Raymond if he knows of a good laptop she can buy, but she has an ulterior motive, she wants to do research on her new crush.  She gets the laptop and starts the research right away, she starts learning everything about Johnny through the internet and starts planning where she should meet him.  She tells her mummy about her plan, and mummy encourages it, mummy wants her to meet the right man. Eleanor’s last relationship did not go well.

While leaving work together, Eleanor and Raymond see an old man fall down drunk on the street, and hit his head on the pavement.  Eleanor wants to leave him there with his spilled groceries on the street, to do more research on Johnny, but Raymond encourages her to  keep him talking, which is hard because Eleanor is a social misfit..  She talks to the old drunk, whose name is Sammy, the EMT takes Sammy to the local hospital where he is in a coma, but he comes out of it, and surprise, surprise Eleanor grows fond of Sammy.

The friendship with Sammy also brings her closer to Raymond, who invites Eleanor to meet his mum.  Eleanor and Mrs. Gibbons hit it off too, and she also becomes fast friends with Sammy’s daughter, Laura, who’s a hairdresser and does Eleanor’s hair.  Eleanor’s hair goes from a mousy brown to a trendy blonde.  Eleanor is also dressing better, and giving herself a smoky eye makeover at the Bobbi Brown makeup counter, all with an eye to impressing Johnny, the musician, but the new look also has other benefits, she is suddenly up for a promotion at work and planning the Christmas party.

Does she get up the nerve to meet the musician?

I like this book a lot, some people would derisively call it “chick lit”, that means it’s supposed to be exclusively for women, but that categorization never dissuaded me, one of my favorite books is Jane Eyre, so I plunged right in.  Ms. Honeyman, the author, does a good job of creating a character in Eleanor, who’s an iconoclast, and funny, yet lonely vulnerable and a social neophyte.  If that was the whole book, it would remind me a lot of Bridget Jones.  It does remind me of Bridget Jones for its acerbic humor, but there is much more to this book than an average rom com.

The author does a good job of making Eleanor a sympathetic character, despite the rough edges, so the reader is happy when her social interactions go well, and badly when she stumbles.  Reading this character is like watching a child take its first steps, it’s that visceral a reaction to the character because the author has imbued Eleanor with universal attitudes.  We all feel a bit superior to others at times, even if we don’t admit it to ourselves or others.  We all feel joy when we realize we’ve made a good friend.  We all feel the despair of loneliness.   Eleanor’s mix of confidence and vulnerability make her eminently relatable.

The author sets up three choices for Eleanor, she either doesn’t meet the musician at all, she meets, the musician and it goes well, or she doesn’t meet the musician at all.  It takes Ms. Honeyman a while to get to the more serious issues in this book, but when she gets there, the reader feels the weight of those issues and their effect on Eleanor, it would have been a bit more realistic if those issues were addressed earlier, but it was more dramatic to wait towards the end of the book.

The quibble I have with this book, is that the supporting characters didn’t have enough complexity to them.  While Eleanor had a lot of facets to her personality, Mummy, Raymond, Sammy,  Laura and the musician, are surprisingly one dimensional.  Some of these characters should have had more sides to them.  Humans are complicated beings.

The ending features one more twist, and is surprisingly understated.  I liked the ending.  The book itself a quick read, even when Eleanor’s emotions get complex, the humor makes it an enjoyable read.  Sadly, by the end of her journey, Eleanor loses some of the edge that made her so appealing, and becomes a bit too weepy.

Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine.  Ignore the Oliphant in the room at your own risk.

lincoln in the bardo

Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and Reverend Everly Thomas are trying to coax Little Willie Lincoln to go with them, away from the Bardo. But Little Willie is waiting for another visit from his father, and feels compelled to stay in the Bardo.  Can Vollman, Bevins, and Reverend Thomas convince Willie to leave the Bardo, even if Reverend Thomas is doubtful about leaving?  What is the Bardo?  And why do Bevins and Vollman want to leave it?

Saunders is trying to create a fictional narrative built around the sickness and eventual death of Willie Lincoln, and intersperses the narrative with historical factoids.  The trouble is, there is not enough history to make this bolter the fictional narrative, and the fictional narrative is incoherent. The historical content actually feels like filler It helps to know what the word bardo means, but only slightly, because the goal of the book is always murky.   Lincoln At The Bardo strives to be the Christmas Carol of historical fiction, but it misses the mark.  Dickens’ characters had a unified purpose; Saunders’ characters seem to be flitting around the ether with no other purpose than to amuse Saunders.

The three men trying to compel Willie to leave the Bardo represent some kind of Greek Chorus, but even  the Greek Chorus does not speak with one voice, and there are other voices which I suppose represent a Vox Popouli, but the voices are so discordant, and there are so many of them, that it’s hard to interpret exactly what the Greek Chorus and the Vox Populi are saying.  Is this a treatise on death?  Is it a treatise on grief?  Is It a treatise on the afterlife?  The narrative is so muddled that it is hard to tell exactly what this book aims to be.  There is a mix of religious philosophies posited in this book and that further muddies the waters.  Tenets of Christianity are mixed with Buddhism and Hinduism, what was Saunders trying to say about religion?  Damned if I know.

Slaves, who played a vital role in gaining their own freedom and ending the Civil War, make a belated appearance in this book, almost as an afterthought, and are characters to be pitied, instead of strong bold characters, fighting for their freedom.   This book, while supposedly trying to be historically accurate, does a historical disservice to black men and women who fought for their freedom during the Civil War and before.  There is some kind of a twist ending, but it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to the reader, if he or se is paying attention.  The book limps to an ending, which adds to the malaise I felt for this book.

Lincoln In The Bardo: Don’t belly up to the Bardo for this book.

Over The Cliff

Callie Khouri, from Paducah Kentucky, started her work life waiting tables, by the time she had risen to becoming a music video director in Hollywood, she had been through enough harassment by men and broken relationships to get the initial thoughts about writing her own movie.  She loved movies, but she didn’t like the roles that were written for most women in the 80’s, so she decided to write a movie of her own.  She write it long hand on legal pads, it was a story featuring not one but two female heroines, Thelma and Louise, both on the run from bad relationships of their own and towards a whole lot of adventure.

By the time the script was ready, a fellow video director, Amanda Temple had shopped the script all over Hollywood, and gotten a pretty cool reception.  The sticking point with everyone seemed to be the ending of the movie, which seemed over the top.  Amanda then sought out the advice of a friend, Mimi Polk, who worked for director Ridley Scott, and his production company.  Scott had directed such movies as Alien and Blade Runner.  Mimi Polk was blown away by the script and implored Ridley Scott to read it.  Ridley Scott was similarly impressed, but he didn’t want to direct it, he wanted to produce it, after interviewing many directors, including Phillip Noice, who directed Dead Calm, and considering female directors like Amy Heckerling and Susan Seidelman, Ridley thought maybe his brother Tony would be best to direct it.  Callie wasn’t exactly crazy about Tony’s treatment of Beverly hills Cop II, but her opinion mattered little at this stage of the production. But Tony wasn’t crazy about the script, so the question of who would direct was still an open question.

By this time, buzz about this film was circling Hollywood, right away A-list actresses like Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer expressed immediate interest, so did Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn.  Pfeiffer eventually starred in Love Field, Foster starred in Silence of the Lambs. But Any number of actresses were interested Cybil Sheppard, Daryl Hannah, Meg Ryan, Rebecca DeMornay, and many others, who would get those pivotal roles that would make the movie a memorable one and possibly change the trajectory of their careers.

As important as who would produce direct, and star in the movie was which studio would back it.  As with the screenplay, the major studios balked at getting involved in making this movie.  Then a small studio named  Pathe, headed by former actor Alan Ladd, expressed great interest in making the movie. As soon as the other studios saw Pathe’s interest, they also became interested.  The question was could a small studio finance the demands of the actors, director, and screenwriter and promote the film properly?  Conversely, would a big studio try to change the film to make it more commercially viable?

This book was a natural read for me, this is a movie blog, so what better book to read than a behind the scenes book about the making of a truly revolutionary film.  Knowing who the film stars, and who directed it, it’s fun to see all the stars and directors mentioned in connection with the film.  It’s also fun to note the emergence of Brad Pitt as a major star, he had a small scene, as a love interest for the Thelma character, another major star auditioned for the role and lost out on it.  It’s interesting to know how intimately involved the director was in every facet of the movie, the visuals the story, almost every aspect of what the viewer hears and sees.  And most of all the story of Callie Khouri  is an amazing one.  She came up with a great idea for a screenplay wrote it, and despite being from Paducah Kentucky, and having no Hollywood connections, she had her story made into a Hollywood film.

But this movie was a struggle, the director would fight with the actors over certain scenes, there was tension over the love scenes over a largely male crew shooting females in such delicate scenes.  There was even one scene where the director asked one of the stars to go topless, she demurred and the other female star stepped in and flatly said no for the both of them.

Underlying all the tension was an undertone of harassment.  Many women on the cast and crew mention stories of sexual harassment on other movie productions.  But here’s where the author backs down a little, she never mentions any of the male crew members names, and other than one notable star, who is dead, Charlton Heston, no one is mentioned as anything untoward, for fear of a libel suit, I’m sure. Ironically, Harvey Weinstein is mentioned in passing, once as rejecting the script for Thelma and Louise, and once identified as “showman producer” Harvey Weinstein.  I don’t think women ever wanted to see what he was showing.  The point of this is to illustrate that harassment and the casting couch is not a new story, and it continues.

The book ends on a high note, after some depressing statistics. This is a good book, and well worth the read, entertaining and enlightening.

Off The  Cliff:  Easy to fall for.

never caught

Ona Judge was born in June 1773.  Her mother Betty was a seamstress and a spinner.  She was also a dower slave who belonged to the Custis family, Daniel Parker Custis was Martha Washington’s first husband.  When Martha married George Washington, Betty and the other slaves moved to Mount Vernon in Virginia.  Ona’s father was a white Englishman, Andrew Judge.  Andrew was an indentured servant who eventually worked through his contract and gained freedom for himself.  He could have bought freedom for Betty and Ona but did not.

Ona was a bondwoman, much like her mother, learning the same skills as Betty, becoming a seamstress and spinner, also waiting on Martha Washington, to fulfill her needs. Neither the family or the slaves could stay in Virginia could stay very long, George Washington was unanimously elected the first President of the United States in 1789, so the family and  the slaves had to move to New York, the first capital of the U.S.  Even as the Washingtons and Ona Judge moved to New York, discussions were taking place to move the capital to Washington DC, Philadelphia would serve as the capital in the interim, starting in 1790.

The move to Philadelphia had a dramatic effect on Ona Judge’s life.  The Washingtons Judge and the other slaves moved into The Predsident’s House in Philadelphia in November of 1790. Philadelphia was a hotbed for abolition.  Ona was able to see and talk to free black men and women for probably the first time in her life. In addition Pennsylvania had a law which required the emancipation of any adult slave brought into the state for longer than six months.  George Washington routinely avoided complying with this law by shifting his slaves back and forth between Virginia and Philadelphia.

Just as George Washington was trying to shield his slaves from emancipation, Martha Washington introduced another life changing event into Ona Judge’s life.  Martha Washington pledged Ona’s services to her step-granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, who was about to get married.  Betsy was known to have a quick temper with violent outburst.  This was the last straw for Ona Judge, she knew she couldn’t count on loyalty from Martha Washington.  So she ran away,  where did she go?  Was she ever found?

I’m not a fan of the mythology that is routinely taught about U.S. Presidents, the mythology around  George Washington is ridiculous.  He chopped down a cherry tree, and told his parents the truth about it, saying ‘I cannot tell a lie.’  This book successfully cuts through the mythology,  and gets to the heart of a very contentious issue slavery in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

It was surprising how doggedly George Washington pursued Ona Judge and that he didn’t stop pursuing her.  I had always assumed that Washington, while not an abolitionist, was not actively involved in extending the life of the slave trade.  This book changed my mind, completely on that issue.  He signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, to make it easier for slaveholders to go after runaway slaves, and also to placate Southern slave holders. Washington could have easily not pursued Ona Judge, but he never stopped, so his sterling reputation is tarnished a lot in this book and rightly so. He finally emancipates his slaves in 1802 after his death, but the book de-emphasizes this fact.

The book humanizes Martha Washington a bit more, talking about the death of her children from her first marriage and how that affected her emotionally.  Martha is still portrayed as a moody taskmistress who ultimately treated her slaves like property.

More surprising was the story of Ona Judge herself, an illiterate slave when she ran away, used her wits and a network of friends and strangers alike to stay free, it is a harrowing and exciting story, one that deserves to be told, and one that should have been told many years ago.  Freedom was not an abstract philosophical or political concept or ideal for Ona Judge.  She would rather live free, or die trying.  She knew what slavery was like and she did not want to go back to that life.

This book is not flawless, the biographical details of Judge’s life in the last chapter become broader over a longer time period, and then ends abruptly.  My guess is that the author, Mrs. Dunbar ran out of documentation on Judge and couldn’t extend the book any farther than she did.  The book was done at 53% of its Kindle capacity, the rest were author’s notes and an extensive glossary.  Documentation on fugitive slaves must be hard to come by, but the last chapter and abrupt ending is disappointing for a book that is absolutely riveting before that last chapter.

Never Caught: A good book, Judge for yourself.

between the world and me

The Atlantic magazine columnist Ta Nehesi Coates writes a heartfelt and urgent letter to his son, Samori about the state of race in post-Civil Rights America.  Coates talks about his own journey, from the streets of Baltimore, to the Mecca of African American learning, Howard University, to marriage and fatherhood, which makes the wish to protect his son from harm even more urgent.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but I have to be honest, (why else would I have a blog if I can’t be honest?)  I did not like this book at all.  Coates conveys the feelings of growing up African American very well.  He conveys the fear that he has for his son, who also has to grow up black in a society that in Coates’ estimation doesn’t care for black people.  But Coates view is too narrow, by focusing like a laser beam on police shootings of black men, he negates all the progress that black people have made in this country.  He is good at stating a problem, a pernicious problem, that affects all minorities disproportionately, but he is short on answers.  The real answer is that there may not be an easy answer to police shootings of minorities in America.  If we as a society are willing to place the power of life and death in the hands of a few, some of those few might abuse that power.  But Coates is guilty of political and social myopia, he only sees the one problem, and doesn’t address the larger systemic issues that result in the problem.

He dismisses the power of faith, Coates is an atheist, he dismisses Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, he dismisses Malcolm X and Black Nationalism, because he found it too violent.  He descends into intellectualism, as if there is a way to quantify hate, but that seems to be a dead end too. Coates does seem to prefer a certain solution, but that too is frustrating to me.  It seems like he’s given up on America, and I think it’s a little late for anyone to give up on America, we’re all stuck here, with people we don’t like, facing circumstances we don’t like.  I would have preferred if Coates had focused on why we are still so segregated as a country, fifty years after the end of de jure segregation. If we live in the same neighborhoods, and go to the same school, and pray in the same churches, (assuming you’re religious) it’s hard to hate a person if you see an assortment of nationalities, races and genders every day.  How do we get there?  There’s the rub, but we have to keep trying.  This book, as powerfully as it lays out a serious problem is a book for nihilists, and I’m not a nihilist. There have to be ways to de-escalate there confrontations, here are a few suggestions, police should live in the communities they police, community policing, police should walk a beat get to know the people in the neighborhood, civilian complaint review boards, body cams, dash cams. None of this might work.  But it’s incumbent on cities and towns who pay civil awards to victims of police violence to find a solution, or they will go broke. Coates doesn’t offer solutions, save one, and that is not feasible to most people.

But who am I to pan this book?  People like Maya Angelou have said that Coates is the next James Baldwin, and she certainly knows more about the African American experience than I do.  I still have hope that we can rise above most of our problems as a country.  Sometimes progress may actually be one step forward two steps back, but that doesn’t mean that progress stops.

Coates doesn’t sugarcoat the problem.

the-vegetarian

Yeong Hye is a housewife in South Korea, who, terrorized by nightmares, decides to become a vegetarian.  Her husband Mr. Cheong, a businessman in an unnamed South Korean company doesn’t understand the sudden change of attitude.  She was a good cook and a woman who enjoyed eating meat, so what has come over her?  Cheong just wants Yeong Hye not to cause a scene at a company dinner, but of course she does, when the meat dishes are brought out and served.  The other guests at the company dinner are bewildered by Yeong Hye’s attitude, and don’t understand her vegetarianism. Her husband almost gets used to the fact that she has dumped all the meat from the refrigerator and doesn’t cook meat for him.

Yeong Hye and Mr. Cheong go to a family barbeque where Mr. Cheong lusts after her sister-in-law, In-Hye.  Events take a dramatic turn for the worst when Yeong Hye and In-Hye’s father tries to force feed Yeong  Hye meat at the barbeque.  She spits out the meat and proceeds to slit her wrists.  After being hospitalized, Yeong Hye goes home to live with her sister In-Hye and her husband, an artist.  Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law becomes obsessed with painting Yeong Hye with flowers all over  her body and then filming her having sex with him.  Does the artist act on his fantasies?  What would this do to his marriage to In-Hye?

The Vegetarian started off very interestingly, but then loses itself in symbolism and moroseness. This is a dark book, everything seems overly dramatized.  Why the people around her react so angrily to a simple change of diet is beyond me, if she wants to abstain from meat-eating, let her, so what?  The book is rife with symbolism, is Yeong Hye’s bleeding a symbol of purification or is it a symptom of violence?  Are the trees majestic symbols of what everyone should strive for, living at peace with nature?  Is the forest a symbol of refuge from modern society?   Or is this just a book about rebellion?  Is Yeong Hye rebelling against a society that prizes conformity above all?  Or is Yeong Hye rebelling against her husband who wants nothing more from a wife than a well-cooked meal and some clean shirts?  Is she rebelling against her domineering father who may have beaten her as a child?  Or is Yeong Hye a symbol herself in allegory about yearning for simplicity in a modern culture?  I do not know, the language was too vague.  Maybe something was lost in the translation, Kang wrote this in Korean, and it was translated into English, maybe some deeper meaning is lost in the translation to English.

The book is written from three perspectives, the first from Yeong-Hye’s husband, the second from Yeong Hye’s brother in-law, and the third from In-Hye, her sister, and each section gets exponentially darker and more depressing.  I was trying to find a character to root for in this story, but there isn’t one. In-Hye is the closest to a sympathetic character as there is in this book, but sympathetic does not always  equate to likability.

Also if this is a book about serious issues, and I gather it is, why intersperse the symbolism of the blood and the dreams , with thoughts of an affair?  The author Kang seems at times obsessed with the fact that Yeong Hye doesn’t wear a bra.  Why does she keep repeating that fact?  The book is very inconsistent.  It tries to titillate, than it tries to be serious, and it’s not enough of either to make the book interesting.  And then Kang just ends the book, it just ends, and that is the most frustrating aspect of all. It felt like a long difficult, difficult journey to nowhere in particular.

The Vegetarian:  A book with no meat on its bones.