BOOK REVIEW: The Gothamites by Eno Raud

The GothamitesThe Gothamites by Eno Raud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While the English translation of this children’s book just came out this summer, the original book (in Estonian) dates to 1962. I don’t point that out because it’s incomprehensibly dated, but because some readers may find the basis of the story to be misogynistic by today’s standards. There is a nation of people (the Gothamites) that is so known for their great wisdom and erudition that all of its men are hired abroad as counselors and advisers. The women find it untenable to have their men gone all the time, as well as finding their own nation is falling into shambles, and so they call all the men back home for a pow-wow. It’s decided that as long as their reputation for wisdom precedes them, the Gothamite men will always be called away to serve other nations, and so the only solution is to immediately give up their clever ways. Which they do.

The opening chapter lays out the backstory I discuss in the previous paragraph. Each chapter thereafter shows the Gothamites bumbling through a simple problem for which they are now unable to find solutions because they’ve given up being contemplative. It’s a bit like the movie “Idiocracy” but set in an ill-defined past instead of in the future, and geared toward children rather than adults. If it was meant as a jab at the Soviets for the bumbling ineptitude in which their system of governance resulted, it seems to have escaped the wrath of the USSR and – in fact – the author seems have done well for himself.

This is one of those children’s books, where I believe the age of the child matters greatly. Let’s consider just one of the stories from the book. Facing a salt shortage, the foolish Gothamites plant a field with little crystals of salt. When weeds begin to sprout, as will happen in a fallow field, the Gothamites are sure they are on the right track. There is an age at which this story is humorous and / or provides a teachable moment, but an older age at which the recipient of the story finds it boring and cringe-worthy. I think at the sweet-spot, the stories are funny and may offer ways to encourage judicious thinking. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny for an adult reader, but it’s all about finding the right audience.

There are whimsical artworks throughout, depicting scenes from the various misadventures of the Gothamites. As far as how individuals are drawn, it reminded me of the old Popeye cartoons, but most of the plates show a chaotic scene with many silly things going on at once.

As l said, I think one has a limited window for an ideal readership, but within that window I think children will find the stories amusing and playful, and parents will find it to be wholesome humor. For that readership, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler

Dream StoryDream Story by Arthur Schnitzler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Suffering one-two blows to his masculinity, the lead – a doctor named Fridolin – engages in a risky chain of events that culminates in sneaking into the orgiastic masquerade ball of a secret society. The major drivers of this behavior seem to be his wife’s admission of a fantasy she had about another man and Fridolin’s embarrassment over a subdued response upon being run into by another man on the sidewalk. The former is the more important event, but it amplifies the effect of the latter event, and together they result in Fridolin goading himself to do something dangerous. It also drives him to ignore warnings and show undue bravado, which results in his being discovered as an impostor at the masquerade event.

If this sounds familiar in broad brush-strokes (but not necessarily in details,) it’s because the 1999 Kubrick film, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, “Eyes Wide Shut” is loosely-based on this story. The movie was set in modern-day New York, and the novella is set in Vienna contemporary to its composition (i.e. circa 1926.) The book was originally released in German under the title “Traumnovelle.“

I enjoyed this novella. There is excitement and tension throughout the work that varies from a bit of marital friction to life-and-death fear that the protagonist’s desire to redeem himself will get him killed. There’s also a fascinating instance in which Fridolin’s wife, Albertine, recounts a dream she had that has faint echoes of what actually happened to Fridolin in it. This leads the reader to wonder whether she knows more than she lets on, or whether her subconscious just made some lucky guesses based on their earlier interactions. The reader is shown the seedy side of early twentieth century Vienna. Certainly, what was going on there with regards to the fields of psychology and psychiatry play into the story.

If you’re looking for a short work of intrigue, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

SurfacingSurfacing by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young woman takes a double-date to her childhood home in rural Canada after her father goes missing. [OK, “double-date” sounds a bit trivial for the tone of the novel, but it’s the quickest way to say that she goes with her boyfriend, Joe, and a married couple, David and Anna.] At first all is well, and the four are enjoying time away from the city, living in a cabin on an island in beautiful lake country. In fact, the group decides to extend their stay, and — intriguingly — this decision isn’t advanced by the protagonist, who’s father remains missing, but one of the others who is enjoying the novelty of back-country living. During this extension, tensions rise within the group, both within each couple and between the couples.

In the third part of this three-part book, the protagonist descends into a feral madness. Her father’s disappearance, which the protagonist addresses with the stoicism of one accustomed to living in remote territory, is only one of several triggers. We discover that she was divorced, she’d been on the outs with her parents in relation to that marriage, and that her current relationship is falling apart because Joe wants to get serious but the protagonist wants to keep things casual – presumably because of the trauma of her last marriage.

As the novel progresses, we get little indications of what might have been responsible for her father’s disappearance, though the reader doesn’t have a good grasp on whether there is merit to the speculated motives, or whether they are just indication that the protagonist is beginning to lose a grip. We discover that there are parties interested in purchasing the property. Some vitriol is spoken over the fact that the prospective buyers are American, but we don’t know whether that reflects a reasonable curiosity about why foreigners would be interested in such a remote property or whether it’s the madness or whether it’s just a visceral dislike of Americans. It also seems like the protagonist may be on the trail of some sort of artifact and that her father may have left her clues about it. However, again, we don’t know whether this is all the crazed imagings of a person descending into madness.

This is a short, quiet novel, but it was nevertheless engrossing. A lot of the intrigue is packed into the very end of the novel, but as it’s a short novel that doesn’t mean that there’s and excessively long build. The protagonist’s madness offers nice opportunities for strategic ambiguity – i.e. the reader has some freedom to determine what is true and what is paranoia.

I read this as part of a personal project to read a piece of literature that offers insight into a country for every country that I’ve visited. I think it fits the bill nicely. The reader sees a little bit of what life in rural Canada is like. The reader also witnesses some of the conflict over language and nationalism as this takes place in predominantly French-speaking territory, and the protagonist has been living away long enough that her language marks her as an outsider — even though this is where she’s from. We also see how Canadians can feel an intense difference between themselves and people from the United States, even though much of the world sees Canadians as “the polite Americans.”

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thirteen Steps Towards the Fare of Erika Klaus by Kazat Akmatov

Thirteen steps towards the fate of Erika KlausThirteen steps towards the fate of Erika Klaus by Kazat Akmatov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is set in Kyrgyzstan shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union in a border region that has become the fiefdom of the head of the border patrol force, Colonel Bronza. This condition exists because Bronza had always reported to Moscow, which is no longer concerned with borders beyond those of Russia, and because the Kyrgyz government has been so busy getting its feet under it that it neglected its far reaches.

Into this fiefdom, comes a Norwegian volunteer, Erika Klaus, to teach English. Klaus’s naivete keeps her from grasping the dire nature of the situation and so her fate becomes worse and worse. She fails to realize that she isn’t in democratic and progressive Scandinavia anymore, but rather is in a place that is governed in part by the old Soviet KGB playbooks and in part by a man who is essentially a warlord. Even the reason she is in Kyrgyzstan shows her lack of sophistication. A childhood ailment resulting from lack of sun exposure (a not uncommon factor in Scandinavia) had a profound effect on her psyche and she chooses this location because she read that the locals were “sun-worshipers.” What she didn’t realize is that the reason they have so much affinity for the sun is that they live in a valley where they, at most, get two hours of non-shadow existence per day. But, worse, her naive ways keep her from playing the game that the locals are playing to get along. The story is supposedly based on a true story. However, I don’t know how much dramatic license Akmatov took with the narrative.

I picked up this book in Bishkek as part of my continuing effort to read a work indigenous literature from each country to which I travel – particularly a work that sheds some insight into the culture of that particular country. As I couldn’t find any translated books by Chingiz Aitmatov, I ended up with this book because – for some reason – a few books by this author, Kazat Akmatov, were all that were available in English translation. (This is a little surprising as Chingiz Aitmatov is a much more globally recognized Kyrgyz author.) All that being said, I think this was a good book for my purposes. The fact that it features a Westerner trying to get by in a rural region puts culture and history front and center. The reader learns both about life in Kyrgyz village household as well as how the locals got through this sad time as the protagonist is exposed to these lessons.

I should point out that this isn’t a happy tale. The story has a grim feel throughout, and gets progressively more so. It does have some happy moments in which we see how kind and hospitable the Kyrgyz people are, but they are sparse contrast to the tale of woe playing out. The story is particularly dark when one considers that some version of these events actually happened. That said, it’s a very readable book. The story is engaging and it’s hard to put down.

The book is factually confusing at times. In places it suggests this is the border with Afghanistan (which is relevant to the story because of the past history – i.e. the Soviet-Afghan War), but Tajikistan lies between Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan and the two post-Soviet countries gained independence within a few days of each other. In other places it reads like the border is with China (which Kyrgyzstan does border.)

The book has a few plates of black-and-white artwork to accentuate certain scenes.

If you’re looking for a book to offer you some insight into Kyrgyzstan, I’d recommend this book. It’s also an interesting, if sad, story for more general readership.

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BOOK REVIEW: Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer

Under the FrogUnder the Frog by Tibor Fischer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s strange title derives from an old Hungarian saying of “under a frog’s arse [and down a coal mine.]” That’s the position the protagonist, Gyuri Fischer, feels himself to be in during the course of the book, running from end of the Second World War through the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Not many can see, let alone convey, the great absurdist comedy of life under a totalitarian regime, but Tibor Fischer manages to do so. Of course, no tale of life under a Communist regime is without a share of tragedy as well, and that plays out to make a gripping finale.

The book is a mostly chronological telling of the life story of a blue-collar worker who plays basketball well enough to be on the team of the factory he works for (and then, when he switches jobs, the railway.) Throughout the book, Gyuri wants nothing more than to leave Hungary behind. His lonely bachelor’s life and the grim nature of life in a Soviet satellite is too much to bear. One sees his fraying sanity as well as that of some of the other key characters. The sole bright-spot in Gyuri’s life is a love affair that plays out during the second half of the book.

I researched the events of the 1956 Uprising for my Master’s thesis, and Fischer’s book was quite accurate in the portion of the book that covers that time period. In places, I suspect the author favors exaggeration for comedic effect (such as in a hilarious segment that explains the origins of Budapest’s “White House” – a hideous piece of Stalinist architecture if ever there was one,) but he weaves real-world happenings into the stories of his book’s characters.

I’d highly recommend this book. If you’re interested in life under a Communist regime, but can’t take the grim and dreary way these stories are usually conveyed, you’ll find this book a refreshing change. (It’s not that the dreariness is absent, but the absurdity blunts the demoralization.) Alternatively, if you just like humor in your novels, this book will serve one well.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

The Merry Wives of WindsorThe Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This Shakespearean comedy shows the cheery and chubby womanizer, Sir John Falstaff, getting his comeuppance when he tries to bed a couple of married ladies of Windsor. The wives, Mistresses Ford and Page, play along with Falstaff, allowing him to think he will get lucky in order to put him in dicey and comedic situations. It is, like “Othello,” a cautionary tale about letting one’s jealousy impair one’s judgment. But, unlike “Othello,” there is no tragic outcome. One of the husbands, Ford, is made a minor butt of the story when he grows suspicious and mistrusting of his wife. He is contrasted to the more trusting husband, Page. Though Page doesn’t escape being pranked by the play’s subplot.

Said subplot revolves around competing men vying for the hand of Page’s daughter, Anne Page. While not crucial to the main story line, this subplot does add to the comedic circumstance at the play’s climax when Falstaff’s lecherous pursuits are being revealed. It also includes Page in the buffoonery when the confusing circumstances are used to play a shell game to match his daughter with the man she loves rather than the one that her father favors for her.

Needless to say, I highly recommend this work.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin, et. al.

Batman: A Death in the FamilyBatman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers comic books first published in the late 80’s, telling the story of the demise of Jason Todd (the second Robin) and the rise of the third Robin, Tim Drake. There is an intriguing interactive element to the story of Todd’s death as readers were allowed to vote on whether the character would be killed off or not by way of a phone hotline. The challenge for DC was that when readers did decide to ax Todd the publisher couldn’t tell whether the decision reflected a preference for a lone-wolf Batman, or whether they just didn’t like Todd.

The reason it might have been the latter is that Jason Todd was written as a much more sassy, impudent, and disobedient Robin than his predecessor, Dick Grayson (i.e. who’d shed sidekick status to become Nightwing.) Todd’s teenage insolence can be seen in this story when Batman puts him on probation after some rash action while crime-fighting. Having found a clue that puts him on the trail of his birth mother, Todd goes on a global walkabout searching for her. With comic book convenience, Todd’s pursuit of meeting his mother brings him back across the path of a Batman who is out to stop the Joker. When Robin is asked to maintain surveillance on the Joker while Batman sets off to interrupt a convoy of poisonous gas, the seeds of self-destruction are sown.

This isn’t a Gotham-centric Batman story, but reflects the geopolitics of the 1980’s. Batman and Robin reunite in the Middle East, and the story proceeds to the United Nations as the Dark Knight attempts to end the Joker’s reign of madness. When the Iranians make the Joker their Ambassador to the United Nations, Superman is brought in to make sure an enraged Batman doesn’t do something that will cause an international incident. Superman’s role is neither extensive nor, given his vast powers, particularly interesting.

When DC was putting together this collection, they apparently thought that leaving the story with a bitter, despondent, and angry Batman wasn’t the way forward, and so they include the story of how Tim Drake becomes the third Robin. (Even though it makes for an odd narrative kink and tone shift.) Drake is a boy Sherlock Holmes. Having deduced that Batman is Bruce Wayne and noticing that Batman has become more reckless in the wake of Todd’s / Robin’s death, Drake stalks Dick Grayson in an attempt to get him to return to being Batman’s sidekick. Grayson isn’t interested in the demotion, and the guilt-ridden Batman has no desire to partner up again, feeling that he got the last one killed.

I enjoyed this collection. The fact that it includes powerful consequences gives it some emotional resonance and narrative tension. (Of course, in comic book fashion, Todd doesn’t stay dead, but that doesn’t happen until long after this run.) I found the shift to the “Teen Titans” books (i.e. the part involving Drake and Dick Grayson) makes for an odd turn-about in the story. But it’s understandable as it’s a dark story line otherwise. (I would have preferred more on the front end to show why I should care that a rash and disrespectful twit got killed doing what he was told not to. Long time readers will have some sympathies for Todd [his execution by readers was of a narrow margin, after all], but just based on this book one may feel Todd got what was coming.)

This book presents a crucial moment in the Batman canon, and should be read by any one interested in the Dark Knight’s story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One might think that a book narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War would be bleak from cover to cover. But one would be wrong. “The Book Thief” heaps hope and humor upon the reader, saving tragedy for the final course – besides a few sprinkles throughout. It’s not that the story lacks a tension born of many close calls and morally compromised situations, but it’s a very human story – with the appropriate mix of blemishes and beauty.

The protagonist is a girl named Liesel who is sent to live with foster parents during the first year of World War II. Traveling to meet her new family, her brother dies, leaving her alone with new parents in a new city on the doorstep of the most lethal war in human history. In the cemetery, after her brother’s impromptu funeral, Liesel finds a fallen book and keeps it. It’s the first of several books she will “steal,” acts that will define her but which are comic sins in the shadow of the mass murder in progress. Fortunately, Liesel’s foster parents are salt of the earth folk. They aren’t wealthy or erudite, but they offer Liesel a loving home. It’s a little harder to see this affection in her foster-mother, who has a stern and gruff exterior — in contrast to her papa who is endearingly sympathetic.

The story is about this family, and others in the neighborhood, trying to get through life under a regime they recognize as tragically absurd, but which is terrifying none-the-less. Besides surviving, characters like Liesel’s papa try to do the right thing whenever they can, in whatever way won’t get them killed. Life gets harder as the war wears on. Liesel’s papa is a house painter, an occupation that is not a year-round occupation in Germany. Liesel’s mother does laundry, a luxury that most can’t afford as the war rages. On the other hand, this doesn’t make them worse off than most of the others on Himmel Street, which is – figuratively speaking – on the wrong side of the tracks.

While this is an engaging story, Death as narrator is the feature that really makes this book exceptional to me. Much of the lightness and humor comes from the fact that the narrator is not grim, but rather has humor and a stilted form of humanity about him. From a narrative perspective, Death offers a unique point of view, but it’s the circumvention of expectations that comes from the fact that Death can recognize the tragedy of what is unfolding before him. He’s not emotional about it in the way a human would be, but neither does he ignore the brutality and absurdity of it. The other factor that catapults this book beyond the realm of run-of-mill war story, is how the desire for literature and learning — which would usually be lost in a war story’s struggle for survival – is given a prominent role.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s an intensely human story, neither saturated in sorrow nor ignoring the horrors of war and genocide. I highly recommend it for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

FlightsFlights by Olga Tokarczuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s unifying theme is broader than the title would suggest. I would argue that it’s even broader than “travel,” which is a common topic throughout. Given what might seem like a disparate, secondary (but recurring) theme of anatomy, I’d say “movement” is the book’s true theme. (The body, arguably, existing to make us mobile.)

Theme is important in this book, because otherwise it would appear to be a wild pile of written scraps with a few coherent (but only thematically-linked) short stories thrown in. The pieces included range from short paragraphs to long-ish short stories, and include what I would call stories, snippets, essays, observations, and even what could easily enough be called prose poems. Some of the work feels clearly fictional, but other parts feel like memoir bits or essays.

At this point, one might incorrectly believe that I’m trashing the book, given use of words like “disparate” and “scraps.” On the contrary, I enjoyed reading it immensely. The writing is skillful and thought-provoking, and the stories such as the eponymous short story “Flights” and the serially-presented “Kunicki” are evocative and well-crafted. Those stories deal with cases in which there is an urge to abandon the family and live like a vagabond, and that specific dimension of movement (or response to the urge to move) is seen throughout.

That said, those who see the word “novel” in the blurb and believe this is a novel in the usual sense of that literary term may be in for a surprise. I can accept that story is regarded in some circles of literary fiction in the same way that meter and rhyme are thought among some of the poetry elite (i.e. a cheap gimmick used by those ungifted in expressing themselves?) However, I have difficulty thinking of a novel as a written work that discards not only an overarching story, but also dismisses character development. Don’t get me wrong, the stories mentioned (and others) feature both narrative arcs and character development, but not in a cohesive way that undergirds the entire work. I suppose one counterargument is that the unstated narrator (presumed to be the author) is the character that is developed, and into whose mind the reader gains insight. Fair enough. Seems like a stretch, but fair enough.

Long story short: It’s a very readable, artful, and insightful. But I might refer to it in a dozen different ways, and none of them would be “novel — ” except, perhaps, as an adjective. That said, I’m not so concerned about labels as quality, and it’s a quality work.

I would highly recommend the book, particularly for travelers (versus tourists) – you know who you are.

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