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writing of readerly reviews of writings

Month: May, 2013

Review: Daphne du Maurier‘s “Rebecca”

daphne du maurier rebeccaThe new Mrs de Winter, nameless and sapless, young and painfully naïve, is married by romantic lead Maxim and taken to live at his splendid manor Manderley. But what is the truth of the eponymous Rebecca? And will their relationship survive?

Rebecca was quite gripping for the most part, and I enjoyed the wry little insights the gormless heroine had as she imagined others’ lives. But she, my god, was painfully inexperienced, and oh-so-willing to be moulded by those richer and more powerful than her; if one complies so eagerly, does it still count as manipulation? I’d like to say that I think it’s a novel of its time in that the (spoiler alert) murder of Rebecca by her husband because she slept around was absolutely justified, sanctioned and wilfully concealed by his new wife, the law, the upstanding agent on his property — the upper classes have their supporters, of course — but a “crime of passion” was until recently *still* a legitimate defence to murder in France and certain US states. And don’t even get me started on how empty the heroine is, bereft of name, personality and desires — urgh. Still, I was pretty embedded and I would read others by du Maurier if I thought she’d gotten some feminist spunk into her.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading:
Three days of fragmentary but mostly absorbed reads
Where it went: Farm bookshelf
Reminds me of/that: Femicide ain’t gone nowhere, kids
Who I
d recommend it to: Readers after a not-too-badly written, patriarchal classic
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley

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Review: Timothy Leary‘s “The Politics of Ecstasy”

timothy leary politics of ecstasyThis collection of essays and diatribes was first published in 1970, and it includes a decade’s worth of Leary’s writings and speeches as the ideologue of the “tune in, turn on, drop out” school of drugs. Initially a medical pioneer — he took his first trip in 1960 in a Mexican town I used to live in, then began working on hallucinogenics as psychiatrist at MIT — Leary soon became the guru for the psychadelic movement. This book is damned impressive, in that a) anyone who has taken as many trips as he had can still be this articulate, but more so b) in addition to being a master orator and deviser of soundbytes, Leary’s political and social analysis is comprehensive and largely sound. His predictions for the future — e.g., 40 acre forest properties where trippers can go turn on in their lunch-hour — haven’t quite come true, but then whose have? And endearingly, he’s so tongue in cheek, and clearly doesn’t take himself or his drug movement too seriously. His wife gives her plug for him on the back of the book, and the foundation he and his tripper med buddies founded, chose as its name a “wry double conditional” (IFIF) for the International Foundation for Internal Freedom. Enjoyable but ranty, which is why I gave up about half-way; still recommended, though.

Where it came from: DC’s bookshelf
Time and manner of reading: One ? Two ? Months of kaleidoscopic samples, alternately amused, bored or impressed
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of/that: Fifty years is a hell of a long time in drug culture, but it really isn’t in terms of political growth
Who I’d recommend it to: Readers seeking a historical reference on drugs, authoritarianism, etc.
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Review: Alice Hoffman’s “The Dovekeepers”

alice hoffman the dovekeepersI admit that I had my doubts. I’m definitely not a fan of the “woe is me, I’m Jewish” school of culture, so I only took this book home because of Toni Morrison’s rave review on the cover. And thank heaven, they paid off. This mighty book is the story of the (historical) siege of the mountain fortress of Masada in 74 AD, when the Romans took out the last remaining Jewish stronghold in Judea. The hidden 900 rebel warriors and their families chose mass suicide rather than capture, with only two women and five children surviving. Hoffman beautifully unfolds the lives of four women in the fortress, with a great wealth of historical and cultural information embedded in the telling. Nearly unputdownable, this is just an excellent novel. Its only flaw was that the voices of the four narrators were indistinguishable from each other, a (gorgeous) chorus of survival and sorrow only separated by diverse life histories. Nonetheless, a great book and highly recommended.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading: One bed-read, then two evenings of utterly gripped armchair reads
Where it went: ???
Reminds me of/that:
Who I’d recommend it to: Readers after a good fatty, particularly those seeking the Strong Women in Antiquity genre
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Review: Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”

michael chabon amazing adventures kavalier & clayA ginormous, excellently written, highly imagined novel. Chabon relates the stories of Brooklyn Jew Sammy Clay and his Czech cousin Josef Kavalier’s rip-roaring ride through comic book stardom, beginning and ending with an escape from early-Nazi Prague with the city’s Golem. It explores loss, isolation, hope, pre-McCarthy homosexuality, Jewry under Nazism and the history of the comic book – too many things to attempt to do credit to in this review. My summary would be that it was a fine novel that was just too long – I’d be absorbed for periods, then spend weeks not able to read more than a few pages. It’s too much of an ask for a book to be this huge and fabulous all the way through, but it was indeed impressive.

PS And how could forget: this book had the BEST first kiss scene ever, and it was an especial pleasure that it was a good gayboy snog.

Where it came from: Birthday gift from MM
Time and manner of reading:
Months of longer or shorter kaleidoscopic segments, wrapped up in an absorbed two-day dig in
Where it went: Loan to BH, and then?
Reminds me of/that: —
Who I’d recommend it to:
Comic book readers and those seeking a fat, complex, generally fun novel
Also reading: Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Review: Vladimir Sorokin’s “Day of the Oprichnik”

vladimir sorokin day of the oprichnikAndrei Danilovich Komiaga is one of the oprichnina, the priveleged fists of Russia’s reigning monarch in the pseudo-futuristic world of 2028. Bound by religion and brotherhood to enforce His Majesty’s law, Komiaga is immensely fortunate in that he delights in the responsibilities assigned to the oprichnik: the deceipt, arson, rape, pillaging, murder, bribery, drugs, capital punishment and ritual group sex uniformly delight the man whose job is also his hobby. The disconcertingly chirpy tone of the day in the oprichnik’s life, the razor-shape political accusations against modern Russia, the sleek and inventive plotting: an impressive and absorbing novel, well recommended. (The only exception was the terrible poetry, but I can only surmise that it was deliberately awful in the original Russian, and the poor translator had to suck it up.)

Where it came from: CP’s Bookshelf
Time and manner of reading:
Gripped afternoon and evening armchair reads
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of/that: —
Who I’d recommend it to:
Again, most thinky readers
Also reading:The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Review: Jamil Ahmad’s “The Wandering Falcon”

jamil ahmad wandering falconThe publishers at Penguin USA must have nearly wet themselves when they came across this manuscript: a well-written, cultural exploration of the tribal lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as told in the first book by an 81-year-old Pakistani former international aid worker. What a gift! Well done Penguin and Jamil Ahmad, for it is a good book and I’m most glad I read it. A set of interlinked short stories, united by the enigmatic Wandering Falcon himself, the book provides cultural snapshots of various among the tribal communities in the most contentious part of Central Asia. (Time to revise my definition of “tribe”: one in the book is stated as having over one million members.) The Falcon’s connections are sometimes a little tenuous, but I enjoyed the insight into cultures utterly unknown to me. Recommended.

Where it came from: CP’s Bookshelf
Time and manner of reading:
Armchair thoroughness and library waiting
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of/that: Great personal backstory + political relevance + good art = publisher’s coup
Who I’d recommend it to:
Culturally curious readers
Also reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Review: Arto Paasilinna’s “The Year of the Hare”

arto paasilinna year of the harePossibly the first Finnish novel I’ve ever read, and quite a gripping introduction – I even had dreams I was learning to speak some Finnish-type language afterwards! Paasilinna relates the escapades of un-hero Vatanen (quite different from an anti-hero, in my book) as he drops out of an unsatisfactory midlife in Helsinki. Instead, he saves a wounded wild hare, and the two roam Finland in increasingly erratic and bewildering adventures with bears, WWII materiel, forest fires and Soviet gaol cells. AP’s writing is Hemingway-sparse, Vatanen’s adventures unexpected and oddly exciting, and the incidental exposition of Finnish life good for the curious. Enjoyable and recommended.

Where it came from: CP’s Bookshelf
Time and manner of reading:
Armchair and bed reads over the course of one evening
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of/that: Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five – madcap, slightly military, increasingly surrealistic
Who I’d recommend it to: Most thinky readers
Also reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Being Alive edited by Neil Astley; The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier