You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thin Threads: Real Stories of Life Changing Moments

Thin Threads: Real Stories of Life Changing Moments, a book I received from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program, is a collection of stories about events in people's lives that were turning points. Some are chance meetings of spouses when it seemed the least likely. There are people whose careers changed because of a single incident. My favorite story is the man who won a soccer pool and thought about buying a bar, but found out his wife hadn't sent in the card. He ended up with a much more fulfilling career after that.

The stories are sweet though short. After several "How I met my spouse" stories it starts to get a little stale, a little formulaic. Each one is a touching personal story in its own right. The idea of a single moment that changes one's life is an intriguing one, and this book is full of such moments. B-

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, by Allison Hoover Bartlett, is the second book I've received from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. It tells the true story of John Gilkey, a book thief who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of rare and antique books. Bartlett also tells about Ken Sanders, a bookseller who dedicates himself to finding the thief and getting him in prison.

Bartlett's book is part mystery, part ode to books and book lovers. She admits that while she loves books she is not obsessed with them enough to spend a fortune on a rare book, much less steal one. Yet she offers insights into the history and character of rare book collectors. There is also some psychological analysis of Gilkey, who rationalizes his thefts by using fraud and blaming his victims for being guilty. He is the classic criminal case who believes he is the true victim, and if he is caught it only makes him more justified in pursuing his desires. I found him chilling, for he has little conscience. His stated desire for stealing books is to amass a collection that would raise his esteem in the eyes of others. Yet he hasn't a clue about how others would really see him: as a cold-hearted thief.

Bartlett interviews Sanders and other booksellers, tracking the story of how Gilkey was finally caught. She provides some views and anecdotes about the bookselling business, but the center of the story is Gilkey, his crimes, and his personality that drives him to collect nice things to create an illusory image of himself. The writing is clear and interesting, mixing history and current events, action and analysis. Though a bit short and lacking a big ending, it was enjoyable to read. B+

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Jade Cat

I received Suzanne Brøgger's The Jade Cat as a review copy from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. It is a novel translated from Danish, concerning the lives of three generations of the Løvin family. Katze and Tobias are a Danish couple who get married after World War I when Katze becomes pregnant with their son Balder. They go on to have two daughters, Liane and Rebekka, despite Tobias's philandering. They live in Riga for a while before World War II breaks out, and despite Tobias's attempts to keep his business going they are forced to return to Denmark without many business prospects. Due to Tobias being nominally a Jew, he and two of their children spend much of the war in Sweden, while Katze and Liane stay in Denmark to watch over their home and their meager business affairs.

Here is the first of a series of role reversals in the novel. While Tobias fritters away his inheritance in Sweden, Katze keeps the family's affairs going in Denmark while always under the threat of the Nazis. Liane marries a young man to prevent her half-Jewish heritage from becoming a problem with the Nazis. When the war is over Tobias and all the other relatives return and must rebuild their lives. But his and Katze's relationship continues to worsen as he cannot stay away from other women.

Liane's relationships also sour. After having two daughters, she and her husband divorce and she marries a more exciting man. Li and Rejn have a passionate marriage, but it is based on sex and can't withstand hardship. Rejn's career takes them to Ceylon, Thailand, and Afghanistan. Li regresses into a sort of childhood and madness, going through suicide attempts and stays at an asylum. In another role reversal, her daughters Zeste and Myren take over the management of the household and help raise their brothers Orm and Tor.

Neither of the boys flourish growing up in Ceylon and Thailand. Their strange situation leaves them empty of any schooling or any direction in life. Orm's diary shows him descending into madness, drug abuse, and depression. From the wealthy high-class Løvin family of the early Twentieth century, through Li's regression into childhood, the family has withered away into low-class irrelevance.

There is a strong sense of class throughout the novel. Katze and the others of her generation are always aware of their circumstances and maintaining respectability. The story is broad, reaching from the family's ancestors in the mid-1800's through the early 1990's. Yet the narration is distant, and we rarely get a solid visual scene or hear the characters own voices. Sometimes I got the feeling that the plot was being summarized. Still, the story of the family does stay interesting.

This is a novel of characters; the force of Katze's hardness and misanthropy (she declares, "Men are riff, women are raff. Human beings are riffraff.") echoes around the family. Though the Løvin family survives the war and its hardships, it never quite comes to its previous wealth and status. B

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Savage Detectives

I last encountered the Mexican author Roberto Bolano when I read his Last Evenings on Earth, an intriguing collection of short stories. Like many of the stories in that book, his novel The Savage Detectives deals with the lives of writers. Writers and poetry form the backdrop of the story; they are the medium through which the story is built. In a sense there are many stories that come together to create a sort of mosaic of the main characters. In this way Bolano builds on the strengths of his short story writing.

The novel has an unusual structure. The first part, "Mexicans Lost in Mexico", is told from the point of view of Juan Garcia Madero, a teenage Mexican who desires to be a poet. The section is written like his journal, so we get his point of view exclusively. He tells how he stops going to class at university and starts hanging with the visceral realists, a small group of ragtag local poets. While he is excited to be a part of the group, he doesn't really comprehend what visceral realism means, and at times it seems to mean only what its creators want. At the center of the group are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.

Garcia Madero tells how he loses his virginity and starts a relationship with Maria Font, whose middle class family he becomes close to. He has a strange relationship with Maria's father, Quim Font, who becomes a quasi-father figure to him. Quim welcomes him into the family and gives him money, though he obviously suspects that he and Maria are sleeping together. It becomes stranger when Garcia Madero encounters Quim with Lupe, a prostitute who is a friend of Maria's. Trouble arrives when Lupe gets on the wrong side of her pimp, and Quim and Garcia Madero hide her in a hotel room. Then for a while they stay at the Font family's house, but the pimp sits in his Camaro across the street. Finally, on New Year's Eve of 1975, the other two poets make a getaway with Lupe in Quim's car, with Garcia Madero coming along at the last minute.

The middle section, which encompasses two thirds of the novel, are a series of narratives from many different characters over the following two decades. Though we never hear the words of Belano and Lima, it becomes clear that the stories are all about them. They travel across Europe and back to Mexico. In many of the narratives it takes a while to realize which character is which, as when an English student traveling through France and Spain tells her story about a watchman at a camp who is revealed towards the end of the story to be one of the poets. Through these bits of story collage an image forms of the two poets. They seem to be wandering around aimlessly, haunted by something in their past. Lima will be found to be crying in the middle of the night. Belano is seen in Africa as a correspondent, trying to get himself killed. There is no mention of what happened after they left the Font's house or what caused them to be so despondent. They continue to write poetry with middling success, all while working odd jobs and living with the benefit of friends. There is a strong impression of two lost souls.

The third section is called "The Sonora Desert", and it describes the events in the beginning of 1976, again from Juan Garcia Madero's diary. It is here that answers are given to the questions raised in the second section. Lima and Belano are obsessed with a woman named Cesarea Tinajero who wrote a few poems in the 1930's. There seem to be parallels between her and Laura Damian, a girl who had recently died and had a poetry award named after her. The two poets travel with Garcia Madero and Lupe through Sonora, all the time worried about whether Lupe's pimp is following them. The flight from the pimp is mixed up with the search for the woman poet.

Bolano's style of writing is simple but he can build elaborate metaphors or pictures of the characters' impressions. He is very effective in this novel in the way he creates character out of a variety of different pieces. The tension at the end of the first part is held through the book until the final section. At times the narratives in part two are confusing, but the picture slowly starts to build. We experience the sadness of the poets and the distance they feel from the world around them. Throughout their lives they seem to be running away from something, but we only see glimpses of it. The structure of the middle section, with its many little pieces, seems to reflect the shattered lives of the characters, as if their lives could never be whole again. A-

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Way with Words II: Approaches to Literature

Way with Words II: Approaches to Literature is another Modern Scholar course by Professor Michael Drout, the creator of courses on the history of the English language and Chaucer. Professor Drout starts by covering the elements of literature and how the work together: language, author, text, and reader. He points out that since language is constantly evolving, the interpretation of texts are always changing. He discusses author theory and the question of whether a text is better because we know it's by a particular author. There's also the question of how the knowledge we have of an author affects our interpretation.

Drout talks about the forms of poetry and how to break down a poem into its elements: feet, lines, stanzas. Then he talks about literature and the mind before transitioning into postmodernism. Even though he talks about several different elements of postmodernism, I'm not sure I came away with any more understanding than I started with.

After talking about cultural, political, and gender approaches to understanding literature, Drout launches a great analysis of the literary canon and and the meaning of literature. He does a good balancing act between the greats of literature and the lesser known works that may have been overlooked but are still worthy of out attention. Just because a text was not as popular in the past doesn't mean that we should ignore it now. There is however a strong argument for reading well-known works, since they influenced authors of their time and later in literature. In the last lecture Drout does a great job tying everything together, showing how literature builds our character and ties us to the rest of humanity. Drout also discusses his theory of how memes of culture blend and evolve over time. I found this theory interesting if not as revolutionary as he indicated.

I really enjoyed this course. Professor Drout covers many facets of reading literature and how it works to create impressions in our mind. Poetry, fiction and drama create entire worlds full of characters. That these characters sometimes seem more real to us that people we know is a testament to how much literature means to us. B+