Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Reading The Most Dangerous Book is probably the closest I'll ever get to reading Ulysses, and that's fine with me.
I've never really been interested in reading Ulysses or Joyce generally, although I have read some shorter works in college. The people I know who've read it seemed to have done it as a kind of dare or means of showing off; I can't think of anyone who's read it just for enjoyment. Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe one of you has? But to me novels are to be enjoyed first and foremost, not studied or pondered over or carried around like an adult-sized merit badge. So.
That said, I'd heard good things about The Most Dangerous Book and it appealed to me because I'm interested in the history of censorship. As it turns out it's a pretty great read.
Because the story of Ulysses isn't just about the story of its publication; that's only the middle of this story. First it had to be written, and that means Joyce needed the time, space and support to write it, not to mention the prospect of publication. The Most Dangerous Book is about 1/3 Joyce biography, 1/3 social history of early 20th century bohemian culture and 1/3 censorship law and the growth of the First Amendment into what we understand it as being today. These elements combine to tell the story of how one book was published, distributed and sold, and what all that meant to literature, law and society.
So there's a lot to learn and Kevin Birmingham tells the story in prose that's passionate, articulate and gripping; it reads like a thriller sometimes, like an invective at others, and sometimes just entertaining social history. At the beginning of the book, talking about late 19th and early 20th century bohemians and their relationship with the establishment his prose has a kind of prissiness about it; he describes Anthony Comstock and other censors as tight laced villains and Joyce's early publishers as brave and daring ladies-about-town. At other times employs dry wit to describe how a conservative judge came to be one of the architects of modern First Amendment jurisprudence. The changes in tone keep the reader engaged and listening; this could be boring stuff in the hands of a less skilled writer. Throughout he engages in a robust defense of freedom for artists and readers alike.
But it's the characterizations of Joyce and his circle that kept the book interesting to me. Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and Ernest Hemingway all had crucial roles to play, as well as the magazine publishers, booksellers, publishers, printers and smugglers who worked to get the book written, printed, distributed and brought into the United States. Because before Joyce could publish Ulysses he had to write it, and he was writing it almost till the last minute. We learn about the foes, which included judges, inspectors, and even the post office. It's an amazing drama above all, and Birmingham's prose will have you pinned to the pages. At times it almost seems like Joyce's own role was less significant than that of the varied and diverse team of booklovers who worked tirelessly to see his work come to light.
Along with all this drama Birmingham offers us plentiful excerpts from Ulysses and a mini course on the structure of the book, so readers can get a taste of just what was causing such a fuss. He includes personal papers of Joyce's too, letters and such, and papers from many of the other players in this drama. I learned things about Ezra Pound I never knew, and a lot about the literary scene that supported Joyce even as Joyce sometimes drove his supporters to distraction. And Birmingham tells us about the man himself, his relationship with this wife and children, his impecuniousness and his failing health and eyesight.
I highly recommend The Most Dangerous Book to readers of many stripes. History buffs, bibliophiles, Joyce fans and more will find time spent with this book to be rewarding, fascinating and fun. It's really terrific.
FTC Disclosure: I received a galley from the publisher.
Monday, January 23, 2017
I'm leaving comments turned off for a while but I hope you're having a great week with lots of great books.
Friday, January 20, 2017
I'm a fan of Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," but I would have read this book in any case. Born A Crime is a memoir of his childhood in South Africa and a very particular story it is. His mother is African and Xhosa, and his father is European and Swiss; he was raised by his mother and later a stepfather and has straddled three worlds racially and culturally- the black South African world, the white one, and the "colored" one, which is the world of mixed-race people. And he was "born a crime" because sexual relations between races was illegal and his mother did in fact go to jail for a time.
Overall the book is a delight. You can hear Noah's voice as you read and that voice is frank, intelligent and no-nonsense. He's also very funny and tells stories both dark and humorous with a light touch. I really enjoyed it cover to cover.
So that said, Born A Crime can be choppy and somewhat difficult to follow in terms of a clear timeline but what is very clear is his sense of joy, confusion, his struggle to find a place for himself, and above all his love for his mother Patricia, an independent and nonconformist woman who taught Noah that anything is possible. But you do have to read between the lines to get a full sense of what it was like to grow up Trevor Noah; we only learn about his stepfather towards the end of the book but the experience of living with a man who was constantly trying to push him out and dominate the family must have colored his entire childhood. He doesn't tell us that, but if you look for it I bet you can find it.
He recounts stories from school, from outside of school with his friends and "entrepreneurial associates" (my term) one might say- the people with whom he established quasi-criminal off-the-books businesses pirating music and doing DJ gigs. He tells us about the time he was arrested and the truly terrifying prospects of landing in a South African prison. He tells us about his relationship with his father, a distant but loving man who accepted Noah without question but played his cards close to the vest. To this day Noah says he hasn't been to Switzerland or met his Swiss extended family, although I wonder with the publication of this book if that's still the case.
The best parts of the book, both the easiest and the most difficult to read, are those about his relationship with Patricia, who brought him up hard and awash in love and support. He couldn't, and didn't, get away with anything, even when he thought he did. Finally we meet his abusive stepfather Abel, who alternately charmed and terrorized the two of them as well as Noah's young half-brother. This abuse climaxes when Abel shoots Patricia in the head; she survives, but something died that day, even if it wasn't she herself.
Like I said I would have read Born A Crime whether or not I was a fan of Noah's, just to read a first-hand memoir of growing up in South Africa at the tail end of apartheid and the beginning of the democratic era. There's a lot of information here; I learned a lot but like other books I've read about South Africa I'm left with plenty more questions and the realization that there is still so much I don't know. So that makes Born A Crime a terrific read on several levels. It's funny and entertaining; it's heartbreaking; it's educative, and it leaves you wanting more.
FTC Disclosure: I received a galley copy from the bookstore where I work.
Thursday, January 19, 2017
Beautiful Ruins is a book that straddles the line between commercial and literary fiction, and between soapy and romantic. It took me a long time to get around to reading it; I had it in galley and met author Jess Walter at a prepublication event sponsored by the publisher, but it languished on my shelf and eventually I gave away my copy, even after lots of friends raved about it. It just seemed too... I don't know... commercial for my taste. But curiosity won out, and I picked a copy up after Christmas and devoured it.
For me it started off a little slow, with a disaffected producer's assistant dreaming of making "films" while stuck in the mire of Hollywood schlock. She's considering switching careers, to librarianship of all things, when an aspiring writer walks through the door and changes her life, though not in any way you might think.
The narrative moves around in time and next thing we're in Italy in the early 1960s as a young actress named Dee is taking refuge in a tiny hotel in a hole-in-the-wall town, whose owner, Pasquale, is fascinated and troubled by her presence. Then we meet a frustrated writer, an elderly producer, a troubled young man, and more. When the narrative shifts definitively to the present these characters intersect and their stories take final shape. What comes next will either having you rolling your eyes or wiping the tears away from them.
For me it was the latter. I wasn't expecting this but I was totally swept up in these characters' lives, the many lives each one leads, especially Dee and Pasquale. I know the story is kind of cheesy but Walters totally won me over with these two. The other characters were less interesting to me but I loved Dee and Pasquale's friendship, their journey, and the beautiful ending that Walter gives them both.
I would definitely recommend Beautiful Ruins as a literary beach book, or just a wonderful escapist read to help you forget about the winter weather. You will feel like you're wandering the coast of Italy with Dee and Pasquale, and the other characters too, rooting for their beautiful stories all the way.
FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of Beautiful Ruins from the publisher.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
My friend Dave, knowing I'm interested in studying Japanese, was sweet enough to get me a book on Japanese writing, entitled simply Japanese Kanji and Kana. I can't wait to dive in!
The second of the three bookish gifts I received is Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, by Jón Gnarr, who is also the author of The Pirate, one of my favorite novels of last year. My husband got me Gnarr!
Finally my aunt got me a book on modern quilting, The Modern Quilt Workshop. I got this to start stretching my wings in the direction of less traditional piecing. I'll let you know how I do!
That's it for gifts! Now, what did I pick up for myself?
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
The Madonna of Notre Dame, by Alexis Ragougneau
Smoke, by Dan Vyleta,
His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet,
Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay,
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, by Kristin Dombek
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani
I've already read Beautiful Ruins and I'm enjoying Bad Feminist. And I have lots of great reading ahead of me!
What did you get for holiday gifts? I'd love to know. P.s. I've been getting spammed a lot lately so I've disabled comments for a while. So I guess you can't tell me. :-(
Monday, January 16, 2017
I'd say my reading year is off to a good start. And yours?
Monday, January 2, 2017
What am I reading now?
Since it took me all week to finish The Patriots, I never got around to starting the other books I brought. Oh well! What are your first reads of 2017?