BOOK REVIEW: Eastbound Maylis de Kerangal

EastboundEastbound by Maylis de Kerangal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release of Paperback Edition: February 7, 2023

This novella is translated from French but set in Russia. The story is short and simple, yet evocative. It’s about the attempt of its two main characters to conduct very different plans of escape. Aliocha is a soldier who’s traveling by train to a remote assignment in the East when he decides to desert. Aliocha’s desertion plan ends up hinging on the assistance of a foreign woman, Hélène, a French woman who – as it happens – is fleeing a failed relationship. For whatever reason, but perhaps because she knows the intense need to break free, Hélène decides to shelter Aliocha in her cabin until he can make clean getaway.

This is a quick but intense read. The lack of common language between the two escapees makes for an austere telling, one that adds to the emotional tone of the story. I recommend it for readers of literature in translation.


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BOOK REVIEW: The American Sonnet ed. by Dora Malech & Laura Smith

The American Sonnet: An Anthology of Poems and EssaysThe American Sonnet: An Anthology of Poems and Essays by Dora Malech
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release date: January 12, 2023

The first one-third of this book is an anthology of sonnets by American poets that highlight some of the characteristics of form and content that evolved in America. Therefore, one shouldn’t expect these to all be fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. America is the land of Whitman, and discomfort with strict rules and constraining requirements along with a desire to etch one’s individuality and voice into all activities is part of what makes a thing American. It’s an enchanting and suitably diverse (also an inherently American requirement) selection of poems, and I think all poetry readers would enjoy reading it. Included among the almost 100 poets are: Walt Whitman, Phillis Wheatley, Natasha Trethewey, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Agha Shahid Ali, Claude McKay, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, Countee Cullen, Natalie Diaz, Emma Lazarus, Terrance Hayes, Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, Gertrude Stein, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lucille Clifton. The poets run the gamut from the Colonial Era to present-day heavyweights, and their works approach the sonnet from perfectly conventionally to wildly experimentally.

The remainder of the book is a collection of short essays that discuss various aspects of the sonnet in America. While the editors don’t explicitly group the essays, I would put them in three baskets. First, there are those essays that examine the work of a particular poet and discuss that artist’s influence on the sonnet. Second, some of the essays examine sonnets through the lens of a particular demographic and investigate how poets of that demographic have influenced, been influenced by, or modified the sonnet, be it those of a particular race, sexual identity, place on the autistic spectrum, etc. Third, most of the other essays explore technical aspects such as line length, rhyme schemes, metering, etc.

As I mentioned, I believe poetry readers will enjoy the selection of poems anthologized, herein. The essays are another matter. They are much more of a mixed bag for poets and poetry readers and are more geared toward other scholars. That is to say, some of them are both interesting and useful for poets and poetry readers, but others will probably not be of much interest to the non-academic reader. While the essays are brief and most are quite readable, a number of them either delve into arcane matters or tumble so deeply down the rabbit hole of wokeness that it’s hard to grasp what the author’s point is (or whether he or she has one.)

If you enjoy poetry and are interested in the American influence on the sonnet, this book is well worth reading – at least the poems and a selection of the essays.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book will be familiar to most Americans as high school required reading. It’s about a teenager, Holden Caulfield, who’s just been expelled from a boarding school and who goes on the adolescent version of a bender – which involves some drinking but is more a mix of attempted escape and soul-searching. At first, it seems that Holden just wants to put off having to see his parents (this not being the first school at which he’s failed,) but then it seems like he might try to escape the transition to adult life altogether.

The core premise is that Caulfield can’t adapt to adult life. This is interesting in that, in some ways, he’s preternaturally mature. The character has an unusually accurate perception of his own nature, even when that nature is petty, childish, or lazy. He doesn’t rationalize his failures but recognizes them. Ultimately, Caulfield can’t cope with the false masks required of adult living and the ever-changing nature of adult life.

Like many, I did a shoddy (at best) job of reading this book in high school. It’s not exactly an action-packed romp, and the major happenings (e.g. a fight at school, being shaken down by a pimp on behalf of prostitute whom Caulfield had paid but hadn’t had sex with, and an unwelcomed [possibly sexual] advance from a former teacher) are few, far between, and somewhat anticlimactic. That said, as literary fiction the book is readable, makes bold choices with language, builds a fascinating character, and offers plenty of interesting psychology to ponder.

I’d highly recommend this book for readers of literary fiction (or a re-read for those who half-assed it in school.)


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BOOK REVIEW: Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek

Rivers of Babylon (Rivers of Babylon, #1)Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a Horatio Alger story (rags-to-riches) done Slovak style, which is to say it’s decidedly more edgy and gritty than the typical American version would be. The protagonist’s success is not solely the result of hard work and determination, but also a nasty temper, a capacity for brutality, and an unstudied skill for reading and manipulating people (despite a lack of education or intellectual acumen.)

Rácz (the story’s lead) returns home to his village from military service believing that he has a modest inheritance coming his way, only to discover that some members of his extended family absconded with his deceased parent’s savings. The father of Rácz’s sweetheart recommends that Rácz go to the big city [Bratislava] to earn some quick cash because the father can’t very well marry his daughter off to a destitute young farmer. Rácz does go to Bratislava and happens to sit down in a dinner next to an old man who is looking for his own replacement to run the central heating system for a block that is dominated by a high-end hotel catering to foreign visitors as well as some mostly luxury shops and businesses. It’s not a prestigious job, essentially a furnace stoker, but the pay is not bad and most people treat the stoker pretty well because they’re scared of having their heat go out in the winter – except the hotel manager, who is a bully. Rácz has his “Falling Down” moment after being tormented by the Manager, and his burst of anger — and the realization that he can control the hotel and all that’s around it by blackmailing everyone to keep the heat working — starts him down a path that will result in his rise to gangster-king status.

The book is humorous throughout, though it’s largely black humor. As for trigger warnings: the book includes acts of rape and kidnapping. Rácz does have a kind of moral compass, and one does see where his limits lie and the ethical rules he applies, but that moral compass is wildly off-kilter in comparison to most of society. I found the psychology of Rácz and other main characters (e.g. Video Urban, a character who is far more street smart than Rácz, but not as capable of brutality) to be intriguing, and the book offers a vision of what made the Soviet leader’s tick. [The era seems to straddle the fall of Communism as a shift to privatization takes place in the book’s latter half.]

If you’re interested in Slovak literature or gangster literature or both, I’d highly recommend this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Last Chairlift by John Irving

The Last ChairliftThe Last Chairlift by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The latest (and quite possibly last) novel of John Irving is a fine work of literary fiction. It’s not “A Prayer for Owen Meany” good, but it’s alright. Whereas “Owen Meany” was masterfully plotted with continuous points of tension and well-timed reveals, Irving’s new book meanders through the latter half of the twentieth century, presenting fascinating characters and the occasional powerful and poignant event.

In varied outlets, I’ve seen this referred to as a book about skiing and a book about ghosts. It’s neither of those things, though they both figure in the book. I would say it’s mostly about sexual identity and sexual politics in America. The story follows the life of Adam Brewster and his unconventional extended family of a lesbian mother who marries Adam’s father figure (Elliot Barlow, a man at the time who subsequently transitions to female) and has a simultaneous long-term committed relationship with another woman. Other major characters include his lesbian cousin and her committed partner, the partner, Em, being Adam’s lifelong crush.) At some point in reading, it occurred to me that this group was thick as thieves and there was really no ingroup dissent or conflict among them, and I wondered why that worked [instead of being painfully boring,] and I think it’s because they’re faced with so much outgroup [or edge of group, e.g. Adam’s aunts and – later – wife / ex-wife] pressure that it forces them to be closer in all ways.

Earlier I said that the book meanders through the second half of the twentieth century, but it actually continues through almost to the present-day. The biggest criticism I would offer is that the last twenty-ish years are rushed through and the author frequently seems to forget that there are characters that should have interesting life events. Instead, the book engages in long strings of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition on American politics, and when it’s not ranting about politics, the end reads a bit like a family Christmas letter. After what is the novel’s undisputed most moving moment, an event masterfully imagined and articulated, it’s kind of a slog to the end. [Which is, unfortunately, the last twenty percent of the book or so (at least it feels that way.)] Putting it another way, Elliot Barlow (aka. “the snowshoer” / “the pretty English teacher” / “the little wrestling coach”) is arguably the most likeable and compelling character in the book, and very little of interest occurs after she is out of the picture.

I enjoyed reading this book, but – as I say – it can be a slog compared to many of Irving’s earlier works. It’s worth noting that this book features multiple writer characters and an editor character, and still would have benefited from a heavy-handed editor. It does have a couple chapters that read as screenplays, and they are intriguing and make for a nice pace change. If you’re an Irving fan, you need to read this book. If you’re not yet familiar with his work, start elsewhere.


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BOOK REVIEW: Twain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark Twain by Mark Twain [Ed. by Jerome Tiller]

Twain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark TwainTwain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark Twain by Mark Twain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers three pieces of Twain’s short fiction and presents them in an edited and illustrated volume. The stories are edited from the original published editions. My understanding is that the editing was confined to making the volume more readable to a present-day audience (and probably to younger readers, specifically.) As far as I can tell, that’s the case.

The three stories have in common that Twain, himself, features as a character. [This is less explicit for the second story than for the first and third, it being merely written in first person while the others reference Twain by name.] The first story, “Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow,” is essentially a roast of those three important 19th century American poets. The story is written as though Twain is traveling on walkabout and happens upon a miner’s household where, as luck would have it, the three titular poets had stopped in previously. Supposedly, this was first a speech given in Boston at a celebration for another poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, and it went down like a lead balloon.

The middle story, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” is about a mysterious visitor who comes calling who seems to know about all the narrator’s misdeeds. It turns out that said visitor is the narrator’s conscience. This personification of conscience is a clever plot device and makes for a hilarious story.

The final story is entitled “Running for Governor,” and it shows that fake news is far from a new phenomenon in American politics. It imagines Twain running for governor of New York and the one news story after the next presenting outlandish, contrived claims that begin to stick as Twain ignores them. This reminded me of the Twain essay that disabused me of the popular notion that we are [at any given time] in uniquely contentiously partisan times for American politics.

I enjoyed this collection. I would probably have preferred an unedited text, but it’s readable, engaging, and humorous as is. The illustrations are line-drawn, and many are cartoonishly jocular while others are more realistic caricatures. It’s certainly an entertaining read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Opium and Other Stories by Géza Csáth

Opium and Other StoriesOpium and Other Stories by Géza Csáth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 13, 2022 [For the reviewed edition by Europa and translated by Kessler and Rogers]

Csáth was a Freudian who, in 1919 at the age of 31, murdered his wife before committing suicide. He was a brilliantly imaginative [if macabre-oriented] writer, and — as one might expect — this collection’s two dozen stories are dark, dreamy, and often detached from reality. The collection is full of hazy surreality and bleak obsessions, but it’s an intriguing and engaging read.

The book presents several recurring themes: mothers, murder, the murder of mothers, etc.; as well as repetition of surreal settings involving dreams, drugs, and demented minds. Therefore, I’ll only discuss a handful of my favorite stories in the hope they are a reasonable representation. In “Murder,” a man meets an acquaintance on the train and is told of the murder said acquaintance committed, told in a matter-of-fact tone. This prosaic approach to murder is a recurring element of Csáth’s stories as well, and it lends to both the surreal and eerie nature of the stories. “Little Emma” is about a “play hanging” committed by a group of kids. In “Young Lady,” a patient in an insane asylum tells his friend about his obsession with a young woman. “A Joseph in Egypt” is the story of a dream in which the dreamer engages in a tête-à-tête with a married woman. In “Toad” a man imagines he wakes up to find a monstrous toad in his bedroom, or so he believes. In “Matricide,” brothers attempting to rob their mother end up murdering her when she awakes during the crime. “Father, Son” is the story of a young man going to retrieve his father’s remains from the medical school that had come into possession of the body because his mother didn’t have the funds to afford a proper burial while the son was away overseas.

If you enjoy macabre and surreal stories, this collection is well worth reading. However, it will not be everyone’s cup of tea, owing to the dark tone and themes of the stories.


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BOOK REVIEW: Identity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas

Identity: A Very Short IntroductionIdentity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book explores the slippery metaphysical concept of identity — not only as it’s presented in philosophy, but also in psychology, law, politics, anthropology, and literature. It begins with individual identity and expands outward to encompass gender, political, socio-economic, and linguistic identities. The aforementioned slipperiness of identity stems from the fact that we all have an intuitive grasp of identity that could be leading us astray. It tends to make us believe that aspects of identity are inherent features of the universe, when – in fact – they may be arbitrary designations – in which case, a given criterion or classification of identity may be chopped up in different ways than a given culture happened to glom onto.

I learned a great deal from this Introduction, and feel it was well organized and presented. How we see various dimensions of group identity (as well as how we weight them) has a lot to do with our social tensions and strife, and the issues around identity are worth dissecting — despite the fact that it might seem like a dry academic topic at first blush.

If you’re interested in learning more about identity, selfhood, and how various group identities feature in an individual’s overall identity, this book is worth investigating.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk

Nights of PlagueNights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Too soon? I’m interested to see how this brilliant novel does, not because anyone will question that it’s a well-crafted story but because it’s definitely less escapist in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Ordinarily, it would have all the emotional distance of historical fiction. However, here we have a novel set around the turn of the twentieth century, and it features the conspiracy theorists, the science deniers, the pandemic opportunists, and those prone to whistle through the graveyard as a disease eats their community alive – i.e. characters with whom we are now all too familiar.

The novel takes place on the fictional island of Mingheria in the Aegean (Mediterranean) Sea between Turkey and Greece during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Given its geography, Mingheria is a potential powder keg under the best of circumstances, being about half Greek Christian and half Turkish Muslim, both of whom overwhelm a group who identify primarily as Mingherian and who want to establish their own state, reflecting a primacy of Mingherian identity. (Not unlike those Kashmiris who want an independent Kashmir because they see their problem not as being a Muslim – Hindu one, but rather an India – Pakistan one.) While the story is full of both Mingherian domestic and international politics, it’s the plague that drives everything, or – more accurately – fearful (and often ill-advised) responses to the plague.

At the heart of the story are Princess Pakize and her husband, Doctor Nuri. The couple is diverted to Mingheria while sailing to China. The reason the Sultan changes their itinerary is two-fold: first, to fight a worsening outbreak of bubonic plague, and, second, to learn who killed the last doctor sent to lead the quarantine response, Dr. Bonkowski. (Bonkowski was a well-regarded medical expert who is killed by unknown perpetrators in the early chapters of the book.) As Nuri is engaged in public health matters and the Princess is occupied by writing letters to her sister and contemplating Bonkowski’s demise, they are swept up in events that will ultimately lead to a revolution and coup d’état. When those who oppose the public health measures (e.g. prohibition of Muslim funerary bath rituals) gain control, the epidemic swells to horrific proportions. As in Pamuk’s excellent novel, Snow, the tension between modern / progressive forces and religious traditionalists is ever present (not unexpected given Turkey’s long history of conflict between reformers and fundamentalists.)

This book is compelling and, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, makes a profound commentary on how far we haven’t come.


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BOOK REVIEW: Comedy: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Bevis

Comedy: A Very Short IntroductionComedy: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Bevis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This introductory guide examines comedy in a broad fashion, covering literary, historical, philosophical, and – to a limited degree – its psychological dimensions. The book investigates the shifting meaning of the word “comedy” and the changes in media and mechanisms through which it’s been conveyed. So, if you’re concerned (or hoping) that this book is simply an accounting of comedy as the literary genre counter to tragedy, that’s not the case. It discusses not only literature and drama, but also standup comedy and other devices by which humor is conveyed, and it uses “The Simpsons” as well as “Candide” and “Don Quixote” as examples to get points across.

This VSI guide does have a little bit of overlap with the “Humour: VSI,” but where that book focuses heavily on the theory of what makes something humorous, this book addresses that subject in a much more superficial way. On the other hand, this book spends more time looking at comedy from ancient times onward and how its ways have changed since the age of the classics. This guide also peers more beyond the cognitive and philosophical aspects of humor to how elements such as physicality, persona, and even death play into comedy.

It is a scholarly introduction, so one shouldn’t expect a laugh riot, but it is a more entertaining read than if it only looked at comedy as the literary mode opposed to tragedy. If you wish to develop further insight into the many facets of comedy, it’s worth checking out.


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