Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book 29: Karl Marx

I picked this up since I'm doing one of my final papers this term on something related to Marx.  It's still a bit hazy - doesn't help that I thought I was in a "special topics" class called "Societal Contract, Wealth and Class" for half the term only to realize it was a great books class ... yes, I realized the great books featured heavily on our reading list and syllabus but I guess I thought they were to provide the historical context rather than the pure focus of the class.  The joys of online programs!
Anyway, this was a very approachable book to Marx's life and to an extent, Friedrich Engels and Jenny Marx.  I definitely appreciated that this wasn't very dry, and that it was a relatively engaging read.  However, I felt like I wanted something deeper.  I think the author did a good job of explaining what Marx was doing and how his life progressed, but I am not sure I always understood the why.  Why did this middle class German who was connected to aristocracy by marriage become the revolutionary he is now known as?  Wheen discusses Marx's interest in the philosopher Hegel in college and how that influenced him, but I can't say I quite understood how that led to his later ideas (apparently, no one really understands Hegel?).  He also mentions that Marx knew little about communism when working as a newspaper editor in Cologne, but sat down to learn more about economic theory while in Paris.  It was after this study that he went from liberal to Communist, and started tracing the root of everything back to economic disparity.  I feel like I got the basic understanding of the man but not a deeper look into what made him tick.
In the first part of the book, I got the idea that Wheen didn't like Marx but by the second half he was listing his accomplishments and achievements that people tend to ignore or not give him credit for.  Early Marx is portrayed as a very volatile and abrasive man, brilliant but uncompromising, leading to several arguments and feuds within communism itself to ensure it was properly defined.  And yet Wheen also showed a man that could draw back when required, so I'm not sure if the author overemphasized Marx's harshness.  Once is a noteable exception; more than that, and I start doubting your argument.  Either way, it is clear that Marx could be very demanding and unforgiving.  I had no idea before this how instrumental Engels was to everything - he wrote articles for Marx when Marx was unable or ill and financially supported him.  Despite the amount of money Engels gave Marx, the Marx family still spent quite a bit of time in dire poverty, and this seems to be less because Engels didn't give them enough, and more because they couldn't manage money that well, having a bit of a "enjoy it while you have it" attitude.  And they of course were also concerned with keeping up appearances.
Marx appears to mellow later in life, and in the book he comes across as a deeply flawed, brilliant but sympathetic man.  However, since the book didn't focus as much on what Marx wrote as who he was and how he lived, I'm not sure what specifically made him brilliant.  He appears to have had a great memory, and great insight even if he didn't always take everything into account.  Wheen basically compares Marx's theories to his chess strategy - he could see brilliant moves, and could see what would happen as long as his enemy didn't do anything.  Basically, Wheen argues Marx was correct in predicting where the working class was headed if the aristocracy and bourgeois did absolutely nothing.  However, the proletariat wasn't acting in a vacuum and the revolutions he foresaw didn't occur because the upper classes adjusted.
This isn't a bad place to start to just learn about the man, but I think there may be other biographies that go more into depth, and place things into a greater historical context.  For example, we get hints of what is going on in Prussia/Germany and Europe throughout but in some ways, I felt like I could have used a bit more background and insight into the political situations of the time.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book 28: What Happened to Anna K.

In What Happened to Anna K., Irina Reyn takes the story of Anna Karenina and sets in modern day New York, in the Russian Jewish immigrant community.  For the most part it works very well, and even though I knew the broad strokes of the story, I was very interested in seeing how she would make everything work together.  After all, would Anna even work as a character in the 21st century?  Given the different times, it doesn't seem like what she did was that scandalous.  However, that's where the fact that Reyn chose such a specific community truly worked in her favor.  Divorce isn't nearly the deal now that it was then, and as a woman, Anna would have had many more options, but if she was still raised with a certain idea in mind and surrounded by a certain type of women, the difficulties would still remain.
Katia, Anna's cousin, and Lev are part of the Bukharian Jewish community, and though I know nothing about their background and traditions, it is obvious that they are very traditional, but must somehow balance the old with the new.  The women are expected to enter into their marriages as virgins and Katia especially is very pure and sweet, though Reyn shows how lies and rumors can destroy a woman's chances.  When Katia falls for an outsider, David, she introduces him to Anna, and from there, the story shows the familiar steps.
While the novel is slim, I still felt like it was dragging just a bit towards the end, much like I felt about Anna Karenina, because there is just a point in the narrative when it becomes impossible to watch Anna's self destruction.  While women have much more freedom now, I thought the translation of Anna into the modern day worked very well, especially since Reyn hints at depression and mental illness. Lev, though also well developed, he felt even more useless in this than the original.  At least in Tolstoy's version he felt like a man trying to figure things out and trying to become a better land owner and leader.  In this one, he really just felt ridiculously self absorbed and clueless about the feelings of those around him.  However, I like how Reyn expanded on Katia, since I feel like there was much more from just her perspective in this.  Though Oleg has no relation to Anna, I also think he worked well as a parallel to Anna's brother Oblensky from the original, though much of his plot line is cut down, instead being reduced to Lev's "cool" friend, that really seems more like a tool or douche to the reader even if Lev doesn't get that.
I never would have expected a modern day adaptation of Anna Karenina to work, but I actually enjoyed this book very much even as I was hoping maybe this time around, Anna would snap out of it and figure out a solution.  As I said, I think I could have done with about ten or twenty pages less of spiralling, but I felt the same way about Tolstoy's novel and the most recent movie adaptation to, so at least it is true to form.

Book 27: Snow White Must Die

Unfortunately, this is actually the fourth novel a mystery series, but it's the first one available in English.  Of course, if it had really bothered me, I could have simply read the first three in German, but let's be honest, this grabbed my attention because of the title, not because of anything I'd heard of the author.
Given that it is part of a series, Neuhaus refers to events from the past, but she does so in an unobtrusive way, quickly giving a new reader enough details to know the circumstances without revealing the plots of earlier novels.  The biggest thing might be that I now know one person who definitely wasn't the killer in a previous case, but since I don't know how much of a suspect he really was, that's not a huge spoiler.  The novel revolves around Pia Kirchhoff and her partner/boss Oliver von Bodenstein.  Oliver is rather distracted as he believes he may be facing some marital problems, and Pia has some minor personal issues of her own.  They are called on the case when a body is found in an old fuel tank in an airhanger.
Tobias has just been released from prison after ten years served for the murder of two girls.  Though their bodies were never found, there was enough circumstantial evidence to convict Tobias.  Though he has no desire to remain in his hometown, once he sees how his conviction and crime have affected his parents, he decides he must stay and somehow help his dad put the pieces back together, as the community's reaction to Tobias' alleged crimes led to the demise of the family restaurant and farm, and the collapse of his parents' marriage.  The village is already predisposed to look unkindly on Tobi's return, blaming him as they do, but when it turns out the dead body found belongs to one of the dead girls, tensions heat up.  Tobias actually can't remember what happened that fateful night, and above all would like answers.  A new girl in town takes a liking to Tobi, and begins ruffling feathers when she investigates the case on her own and asks a few too many questions.
It is obvious throughout that something is rotten in this village, and someone is either covering something up or hiding it.  For the most part, I really liked all the twists and turns throughout, though I think by the end, there may have been one twist too many, taking it from "I didn't see that coming" or "how clever" to "really, what else?"  Still, it was definitely an engaging mystery/crime novel, and I'm sure I'll pick up more by Neuhaus eventually.

Book 26: Cress

While it took me a long time to actually start this series, I was quickly sucked up in it, and have been looking forward to this third release of The Lunar Chronicles.  While Cinder, the cyborg Cinderella, is definitely the main character of the series, each book introduces or focuses on a new modernized and reimagined fairy tale heroine.  Cress, the story's Rapunzel, had a brief appearance in Cinder as a Lunar hacker that helps Cinder, but this novel develops on the story of the girl in the satellite.
One thing I love about this series is how Meyer is both expanding the story as she goes on, while also tieing back to earlier references and characters and incorporating them as the plot progresses.  Several things we learn in this novel put some previous ideas on their heads, especially the fate of shells, and there is also a bit more from Lunar proper this time, and people of Lunar that aren't just the queen's lackeys.  Meyer had already hinted previously that the evil queen was also an evil stepmother, and I can't wait for the next book which will present the Snow White story and wrap everything up.
I'm trying not to give too much away but I am very impressed with Meyer's plotting skills and how she's keeping everything in her radar.  Even throw away comments end up being important. With that attention to detail, she could easily lose site of the big picture, but she still manages to create a fast paced story, and even the coincedences don't actually work against her as they make sense within the context.  After a rescue mission for Cress goes awry (after all, having her knowledge at the rebel's disposal would be incredibly useful), the team is split into three, all assuming the worst of the others' fate.  Cress is stranded in the desert with Thorne, who is more con man than prince, though she is a bit too naive and innocent to see this, thus forcing out the best in him.
As she introduces new characters, Meyer still makes sure to pay attention to her already established characters, and works to advance the overall story as well.  I'll definitely be adding Winter to my preorders as soon as I can, and can't wait to see what else Meyer may do once she is done with the series.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Book 25: Life of Pi

I bought this book such a long time ago because it seemed like everyone had read it.  However, I was hesitant to read it because all I knew was that it was about a boy named Pi that was very religious and ended up on a life boat with a tiger.  Despite all the hype, I just didn't feel much desire to read 300 pages of religious musings.  Even the movie didn't give me any motivation or desire to actually read this.  However, I've been putting this book off for so long that I finally decided this was going to be the year (actually, I made that choice last year, too, but this year I was going to stick with it).
I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  I think it helps a lot that the reader can interpret the book as they want.  If they want to focus on the religious aspects, that option exists.  However, I was perfectly happy reading it as a survival story about a guy that happens to be religious.  Basically, I didn't have to think of religion as the main point of the story.  Which is why I find it odd that there appear to be so many articles online asking if the novel would make one believe in God.  If one takes Pi at his word, then he simply had the tools and knowledge necessary to "train" a tiger.  The novel also offers a different view in its final pages for those less fantastical minded.
The novel actually begins with an author's note which explains how the author came to meet Pi Patel.  Basically, from the beginning, the novel plays with the idea of reality as this author's note either is just a part of the novel, or an actual foreword.  Kristopher Jansma also plays with this reader expectation in his more recent novel where the author's note is part of the narrative.  The novel is a result of interviews with Pi Patel, an almost middle aged Indian man living in Canada.  A few short chapters present the author's notes, but the majority of the novel are Pi's words, describing his upbringing, growing up on a zoo, and his developing religious views.  I quite enjoyed the snippets about zoo life.  Eventually, the family decides to move in response to political developments in India, selling the animals and arranging for visas to Canada.
Unfortunately, the voyage goes horribly wrong, and the ship carrying Patel's family and all the animals goes down, leaving only Pi Patel, a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker on the life boat.  Obviously, everyone knows at this point that Richard Parker is a tiger - while Martel tries to hide this tidbit until a few days after the wreck, the movie and the book cover have certainly given that away already.  The rest of the book is Pi's story of survival as he must quickly develop the skills to feed himself and a 450 pound Bengal tiger while adrift at sea.
Maybe it was due to my hesitance and low expectations, but I really enjoyed this book.  I think it nicely balanced the adventure/survival aspects of the story with the leisurely, thoughtful moments.  Pi spends over 200 days on the boat, and he must constantly fight not only to survive but against despair, having lost everything.  Perhaps it is that part that makes people bring in the God factor as certainly one can wonder about such a strong will to live and survive rather than giving up.  However, as fascinating as Pi's story is, that type of human spirit and will to survive is perhaps more than ordinary but there are plenty of true survival stories that show it isn't exceptional or extraordinary.  If you are one of the few people that hasn't read this one yet, it actually is worth the read, and I never felt like I was being preached to.

Book 24: A Discourse on Inequality

Yet another selection from class.  I wasn't exactly looking forward to this one though the length was going to be a nice break compared to the rest of the reading list so I was actually pleasantly surprised when I read this.  I think what little previous interactions I have had with Rousseau have involved his later work in which he comes off as a sexist, misogynistic ass that romanticizes nature and "man's natural state" way too much.  Imagine my surprise when in this, he states that men and women would have been the same in their natural state, and it was as early groups and societies formed that women took on their care giver roles.  In fact, I know his later stuff is sexist so I'm not even sure how you can believe that naturally women are no different from men and yet view them as inferior and super feminine creatures later?  I mean, yes, culture may have turned them into that, but the question is more how can you endorse that they should be that in your later writings?
Rousseau absolutely romaniticizes the idea of natural man, but he doesn't try to make an argument to return to that state; he realizes that is impossible.  However, since this was written in the 18th century, it is very clear how he either wasn't reading the correct things for his research or how unfamiliar most people were with nature at this point.  He basically compares early man to a lone wolf, believing that humans would have been on their own, only coming together for mating purposes.  Considering that even wolves live in packs and that it might make more sense to use primates or chimpanzees to determine early man's behavior, this whole view seems helplessly naive and clueless.
Even though Rousseau had rich patrons, and ended up relatively well off, he argues that society as we know it is the result of the rich convincing the poor that they needed it for protection when really it was the rich trying to protect themselves and their property from the masses.  He argues that society basically led to the increase of natural inequality.  That was also a change from previous authors in the class - Hobbes, for example, believed that people were born equal and then develop skills based on education and application.  I'm somewhere in the middle.  I would say we are generally born equal, that education and upbringing play a huge role, but regardless some people are just going to be better at running or spatial/math type things or artistic endeavors.
From what I gather, Rousseau's biography does not make him a very likable or pleasant man - he had several children with a mistress but left them all in a home.  He lived off the rich but resented them as can be seen in his opinions here.  Apparently, Voltaire did not like this book very much, and my edition actually had some of the notes Voltaire made in the margins of his copy as end notes.  I think it can also be difficult reading philosophers from older days because in some cases we know so much more, about anthropology, evolution etc. so in some cases, his comments sound ignorant.  However, this isn't entirely a matter of superior knowledge in the future and is also a case of lack of research or cherry picking on his part.  After all, he at one point talks about the Americas because they alwyas seems to get brought up when talking about natural man, and states they didn't have cities.  Voltaire's comment was basically, wrong, central America totally did.  Though for the most part, Europe hadn't taken the time to truly understand the cultures they were invading, I don't think it would have been obscure knowledge that the conquistadors came upon cities and communities rather than random people wandering around the woods. 
However, given the relative brevity of the book and the ease of Rousseau's writing, I definitley would say this isn't a bad place to start for reading past thoughts.  As far as finding insight?  Probably not, though as I said, I was positively surprised by some of his thoughts.  It's just a lot of that stuff has since either been proven wrong or would be seen as common sense.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Book 23: The House of Lost Souls

This is the second ghost story I've read by F.G. Cottam though this one was an earlier effort.  In some ways the stories have similarities since both deal with things that are haunted as a result of certain satanic rituals in the '20s.  Dark Echo was very good, and displays his maturation as an author, but he didn't have very far to go from The House of Lost Souls which  was also rather good. 
Cottam's novels aren't necessarily super scary but they are creepy, and he is a master at building atmosphere.  The other thing is that they involve following protagonists that have to do a fair amount of research.  I like ghost stories that have a back story, especially when that backstory isn't just hand delivered but requires a bit of work and digging to find, and is slowly parceled out as the story progresses.  In this case, we both do and don't get the answers quickly due to someone telling their history with the house, but fortunately, he doesn't rush that history at all.
Nick Mason, a special operations soldier, has returned home to take care of his younger sister after her breakdown.  She and three fellow students entered Fischer House, and one has killed herself, while the rest seem to be on the verge of imitating her.  After this introduction, the novel shifts to Paul Seaton, an Irish man living a rather spartan life in London.  As it turns out, he too once visited Fischer House, and lived to tell the tale, so he is enlisted by a man from his past to help Nick save his sister and put an old evil to rest.
Once Paul makes contact with Nick, both reveal their previous experiences with the supernatural - Nick had an unexplainable moment in Africa, and Paul tells him the history of Fischer House.  Paul was originally drawn to Fischer House when trying to help his girlfriend finish her thesis on photographer Pandora.  As a journalist, Paul felt he might have luck finding some leads, and though he hits a wall early on, he soon makes headway, though he'll regret that soon enough.
The two men know they must return to the house to end this power, and it is here that the book goes a little crazy.  I think Cottam does a great job developing the story, and setting the atmosphere, and even adding some twists and turns that throw Paul's previous ideas for a loop, but the ending is certainly a bit off the rails.  Of course, I think that is the case in most ghost/horror stories as often things start going all over the place to justify the climax and in that way this one is no different.  I can't entirely say I quite remember or know everything that happened at the end since it was a bit of a blur, but overall I really enjoyed the book.

Book 22: The Romance of Tristan

Tristan and Yseut rank up there with Lancelot and Guinevere for notorious/famous adulterous lovers.  In fact, King Arthur even appears in this story, and in some versions, Tristan is an Arthurian knight.  Despite this fame or infamy, I had never actually gone back to the beginning and read the original story, instead relying on references to the couple or reimaginings, or not so good James Franco movies.
A literature professor at one point was able to trace back all adaptions and versions of Tristan and Yseut to five different independent sources which appear to themselves trace back to one original lost version.  They don't appear to take from each other but refer to many of the same stories, thus the lost originator idea.  Of these, Beroul's version is commonly believed to be the oldest, and parts of it are missing so that the story here begins with summaries inspired from the other texts before taking up where the remaining text begins, and also ending with summaries as the conclusion of the story is also lost.
The story itself is simple, but I had a hard time wrapping my head around some of the specifics - what exactly is Berould trying to accomplish?  Does he want us to see Tristan and Yseut as tragic figures, or is he mocking our ideas of love?  For example, he constantly refers to a group of barons as evil and wicked when all they are doing is telling King Mark that his nephew is sleeping with his wife Yseut.  In other words, they are telling the truth.  There are other things they do in the text that clearly mark them as cowards, but are they evil?  One critic suggests taking Beroul's declarations as truth since conventions of writing were different then, while others suggests viewing this with irony.  When he talks about how virtuous Yseut is while she is in the middle of a tryst with Tristan, we aren't supposed to see them as unfortunate lovers, but instead use the distance Beroul's use of irony provides the reader to make independent judgments.
King Mark is clearly incompetent as he is much too trusting of his nephew and wife, constanly giving them the benefit of the doubt.  When he finally is convinced of their guilt and called to action, he once again messes up, delivering judgment without trial.
Beroul's writing is dated to mid 12th century Norman France, meaning he would have fallen under the rule of King Henry II.  While generally, the terms courtly love and chivalry refer to traditions developed around this time, Tristan and Yseut's relationship doesn't actually meet those conventions.  Technically neither does that of Lancelot and Guinevere even though the term was first based on them since they actually consummate their relationship.  Strictly speaking, courtly love, a term coined in the 19th century, refers unconsummated relationships where a knight worships a higher lady who looks at him with disdain, thus inspiring him to engage in various acts and quests.  I actually saw one theory that discussed the Celtic origins of this story - though the poem was written in Norman France, and set in Cornwall, there may be a tie to the Picts of present day Scotland, which appears to have been matrilineal, and may have had less strict ideas of marriage.  This argument suggests that the conflict in the text is between the patrilineal barons who want to deprive Tristan of his matrilineal inheritance as Mark's nephew when they convince Mark to marry.
Anyway, while the story itself is short and straightforward, it is greatly enhanced by what it may represent culturally and historically, and certainly leaves up lots of things to debate such as the nature of love, and whether Tristan and Yseut are actually good people.  Can you tell that I have to write my final paper on this piece?

Book 21: In Falling Snow

In many ways, this novel reminded me of Kate Morton, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Both authors are from Australia, and both use the dual narrative set up for their novels, focusing on relationships between women and mothers and daughters.  Technically, Iris is Grace's grandmother but since Rose died during childbirth, she raised her as her own.  The biggest difference is that to me, MacColl's novel didn't have the same page turner quality to it as Morton's novel.  That doesn't mean this wasn't a fairly readable novel, but I didn't have that same need to find out what happened and how it all fit together.  Morton's novels come with a mystery or a twist, and usually the catalyst is someone from a younger generation discovering something odd or mysterious about the past and deciding to dig into it - as a result, it's easy to get invested as a reader and keep reading till everything is revealed.  In comparison, this felt more like Atwood's The Blind Assassin, revolving around an elderly woman's memories as she faces her death.
The novel shifts between the novel's present day, 1978, and World War I in France, and the two women, Iris and Grace.  Grace is obstetrician, and is very much still surrounded by sexism in the medical profession as well as other antiquated views.  Her grandfather was a doctor, her mother had been a med student, and Iris made sure Grace had all the right opportunities to follow them.  Though Grace was more drawn to surgery, given the patriarchal views, gynecology made more sense.  Grace's chapters deal with her struggles to balance work, an investigation into a possible mistake, her children, one of whom may have a medical problem, while also facing the fact that her grandmother will not be around much longer.  The chapters focusing on Iris address both the present day, and her time in France during World War I.  Trained as a nurse, Iris went to France to find her 15 year old brother who had lied about his age and enlisted, but she is quickly diverted by Dr. Frances Ivens, a surgeon in charge of a woman run hospital that enlists Iris as her administrator.  The hospital, Royaumont, is what originally inspired the MacColl to write this story, and I enjoyed reading about this.  However, in many ways Iris was rather naive and it is only later in the war, when the hospital starts getting victims that she realizes how awful the war truly is, rather than thinking of it as a noble endeavour.  She tracks down her brother who is part of a postal unit, a comparatively safe assignment, and makes some friends along the way.
However, it is obvious that something must have happened, and that Iris is still plagued by regret and guilt.  As it turns out, she has not shared much of her past with Grace at all, so Grace is surprised to discover Iris's role in World War I and Royaumont when Iris receives the reunion invitation.  Additionally, she begins seeing her brother everywhere and confusing people with him.  While it is not quite clear what happened, or why she cut ties with all the people from this period of her life, it soon becomes obvious that Iris did not bring her brother back home.  However, given that it was World War I and the massive amounts of casualties during that war, I can't say I felt like there was too much mystery regarding his fate.
I think it was a very good call for MacColl to have Grace also be a doctor so that the reader could see how things at both become easier and stayed the same for women in the medical profession over the years.  While Dr. Ivens had high hopes that their actions would help pave the way, it did not quite work that way as Grace still faced many of the same struggles.  Iris was a very competent character, but I actually found her war time persona a bit too proper and boring, and enjoyed reading about Grace's struggles more than the parts about the war.  I know I made comparisons to both Atwood and Morton but that really had more to do with structure and type of writing than the actual caliber of the writing.  Overall, I liked the book well enough but think it will be ultimately forgettable - a pleasant past time but not more than that.  I could see myself reading more about Royaumont but I already have way too much nonfiction I'm behind on.

Book 20: Beowulf

Despite being an English major, I had somehow never read Beowulf.  I knew about Grendel and Grendel's mother but managed to mix their stories with the dragon part of the story.  It was nice to finally catch up with this classic piece, and I'm glad I didn't have to read it in Old English, instead getting this well done translation by Seamus Heaney.  I can't speak as to whether it truly captures the spirit of the poem, but it definitely makes it accessible for a newcomer.
Beowulf is a surprisingly straightforward story as it deals with Beowulf, a Geat warrior, and his men coming to assist the Danes with the monster Grendel that has overtaken their land.  There are a few side tales, much like in The Odyssey, and there is also a lot of historical context built in as the story contains genealogy lists, but it moves along very quickly.  Beowulf impresses the Danish king but also shows himself a humble man, refusing to take more reward than he deems fair for ridding the kingdom of its monsters.
After the Grendel/Grendel's mother incident, the hero returns home, and the narrative quickly summarizes the next fifty years before Beowulf faces a dragon who sits on the golden treasure of a people long forgotten (gee, I wonder if Tolkien ever read this ... actually, I think his translation may be one of the most famous).  I actually enjoyed the epic poem, and even as it celebrates Beowulf's victories, I feel that there was a certain amount of nostalgia or melancholy.  The story makes reference to all sorts of past days, ancients that have died out, giants of times past - some remembered, some forgotten by time - and shows a great awareness of the future of the Geats without the leadership of Beowulf, predicting the decline of his people.  As a result, this serves just as much as instruction on what makes a warrior and good man as it serves as a remembrance of a leader and his people.