Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry-Fairy Tales and the Reading Life

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is a beautiful book written in a simple elegant style. It was the Newberry Award winner in 1990 and is a young adult book that all ages will love. The plot centers on one families efforts to save a Jewish family from the nazis during their Occupation of Denmark in WWII. I do not like to say a huge amount about the plots of the books I write about as I hate spoilers in reviews. Amazon has a plot summery: "The evacuation of Jews from Nazi-held Denmark is one of the great untold stories of World War II. On September 29, 1943, word got out in Denmark that Jews were to be detained and then sent to the death camps. Within hours the Danish resistance, population and police arranged a small flotilla to take 7,000 Jews to Sweden. Lois Lowry fictionalizes a true-story account to bring this courageous tale to life. She brings the experience to life through the eyes of 10-year-old Annemarie Johannesen, whose family harbors her best friend, Ellen Rosen, on the eve of the round-up and helps smuggles Ellen's family out of the country."

I just want to talk about two things about the book that are related to The Reading Life. The ten year old lead character is not portrayed as a super reader or brilliant. She is just a regular kid living in some very tough times.

Here is a quote that to me tells us a lot about The Reading Life:
"The whole world changed. Only the fairy tales remained the same."

The stability in AnnaMarie's life comes from internalizing fairy tales. There is very much a very tale like quality in the book's treatment of King Christian X, The Danish king during WWII. This fairy tale like belief in the King gives the whole country strength to endure the horrors of the Nazi regime. We should not forget that Hans Christian Anderson came from Denmark.

The only book mentioned in "Number the Stars" is " Gone with the Wind" published in 1936, the movie came out in 1939 (a great year for movies). The book and movie are mythic accounts of a world of glory lost and regained in a period of great distress. It is a fairy tale like historical treatment of the the Civil War and the Antebellum period which shows a culture rising from the ashes. Not a real depiction of the Antebellum American south but a fairy tale version of it. This seems to reverberate in the minds of the books Danish Characters as reflecting their own hopes of a post war Denmark. Fairy tales can give us power. You only have to believe in a few.

I invite people to Google Einstein and fairy tales before they dismiss the internalization of fairy tale like stories as central to the Reading Life.
Number the Stars is tale of courage and a depiction of human kindness in the face of evil. I learned some very interesting things about the Danish's people efforts to help their Jewish citizens in WWII. This is very uplifting book.
I think this book might make a good family read along . It is exciting and kept my attention throughout.

I am looking forward to reading "The Giver" also by Lois Lowry. Both books are out in very well produced paperbacks. I have no reservations about endorsing this book to anyone who loves a good story.

Mel u
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery-Reading Through The Hedge

Yes Renee does somehow reduce the people she sees in the building to stereotypes just as she reduces herself to one. I think a reader needs to see through this as part of the effects of the limits of Renee’s mind and education. The Irony is in her mind she mocks the occupants of the building for not seeing her as a whole person whereas she does the same thing to them without knowing it. As to the worship of Japanese culture-I think this is also to be taken in a kind of ironic mode. I did find the character of the 12 year old girl not really convincing in terms of her profound utterances-But then again Anne Frank was 13.
What I liked best about the book was its depiction of how a life of reading can shape a person. Anyone who is into the reading life and has worked with or worse for those that seem way inferior culturally will love Madame Renee!

Renee’s self respect and self image comes from her ability to see those she works for and must be subservient to as stereotypes-cartoon characters or characters in a soap opera almost, not real persons with a rich interior life such as she has built for herself over the years of reading serious books. She carefully hides her reading and intelligence as she knows it may make her rich employers uncomfortable (Renee and Barbery know of Hegel’s master/slave reading of history and knows why slaves were not allowed to learn to read in most cultures.) Also, if Renee does somehow open up the carefully hidden aspects of her personality she may find those she looks down on are not the shallow fools she sees them to be. Renee needs, in part, to hide in order to protect herself image, maybe. As to her initial bonding with the Japanese man over Tolstoy, this is very interesting. The Japanese man does not fit easily into her stereotypes nor she into his. He may well be the richest person in the building thus, in her projected ethos of the building dwellers, above her employers in status. Tolstoy is an interesting choice here as he creates a whole world, he is hardly pro French. Whenever he writes in French in War and Peace it seems the speakers are banal, at best. Husserl, her philosopher of choice (ok here
I am leaning on reading I did 40 years ago) is saying everything is perception. To me one of the big points of Elegance of the Hedgehog is that we are all in part trapped by the stereotypes we project on others and those we let them project on us. Madame Renee sees her employers as half educated materialists and they see her as what she likes to pretend she is. Another big point to me is that reading enlarged the world of Madame Renee-she can see farther into the ironies and pleasures of life. Notice she never thinks of her cleaning lady friend in condescending terms. I need also to rethink my reactions to the child character. Super bright children are into math, science, gadgets etc not profundity but maybe I am missing something here with the example of Anne Frank in my mind now as I just read her diary for the first time. Any way, I really like Hedgehog a lot and wish I could read it in French.

I did not like the ending as a novelistic device and I did not like it as a way of closing the story. Of course we are curious what might become of Paloma. My guess is she slowly develops into another Rich Person in the apartment but will always be somehow detached. I think there is a lot in this book on the reading life and I think one of the points is that it can detach you somehow. Sometimes the detachment allows you to rise above the banalities of life and sometimes it leaves you out. I think Paloma will be able to be honest with herself as she ages. Do you think as she ages she will be caught up in the “reading life”? As an adult will she end not seeing beyond stereotypes or is she already totally caught up in them? Or is that all there is?

To me, Hedgehog does not really idealize Japanese culture itself, it uses Madame Renee and Paloma’s adoration for Japanese culture as part of its treatment of the effects of stereotypes. Renee and Paloma know next to nothing about Japanese culture and it is this lack of knowledge that allows them to project reading induced stereotypes on the Japanese character in the novel. I really like “The Elegance of Hedgehogs” (ok I love it) for its account of the reading life. It also tells us a lot about the effects of stereotypes.
has a great review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog-my post here is partially based on comments I made there. Most of the negative remarks on the book have to do with the notion that the book some how stereo types Japanese culture. To me this misses one of the biggest themes of the book.

Hedgehogs (I love the title) tells us a really lot about the reading life. One of the things it shows us is how it leads to stereo typical perceptions of others and ourselves.

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"The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova-Vampires and The Reading Life

Vampires are often portrayed in films and novels as creatures of great erudition. Deep readers
lurking in musty collections of obscure lore in which dark secrets can be found. Carefully
selected new
acolytes can be admitted to their kabbalistic realm, the cost only being their soul.

These are some of the themes mined in The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005-909 pages). Why do readers evolve into vampires? Does reading drain our life force?

The Historian is a very long book. I love long books as long as the content helps the book. Some of the historical aspects of the book are interesting and shows the author has watched some History channel programs on the Baltic and the Biography Channel show on Vlad the Impaler. The descriptions of Istanbul and other cities are also interesting enough. The conflation of Dracula and Vlad the Impaler was also dealt with on The History Channel. To me there is a good bit of duplication in the historical narratives and travel log parts of the book. The characters are not that well developed. A lot of the conversation seems stilted. The central love story is not real convincing.
The book does get better as you go on and I really enjoyed the last fifty or so pages.

The book does show us somethings about the reading life. it show how reading can lead to obsessions that can drain other aspects of our lives from us. It also show how a shared love of common reading interests can create immediate bonds.

I think maybe the book is set in preinternet post world war two Europe in order for scholars and academics will be required to do all their research in books and special libraries rather than on line. The lore of the Vampire seems much more recondite when it is in a private library in Romania than when it is on The Guttenburg Project

The Historian to me seems worth reading as a suspenseful vampire mystery (it did take a while for something exciting to happen) I still do not know why we accept the notion that Vampires are deeply read but it makes us thing about some Reading Life issues. The central characters are nearly all book centered persons. I enjoyed The Historian. It is a clever take on the Dracula story. This was the author's first novel. I will look forward to her next one.

Mel u

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Monday, July 20, 2009

I AmThe Messenger by Marcus Zusak-a warning tale about the reading life

I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak

After loving "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak I was very happy to find another of his books, I Am The Messenger, in a local book store. The books central character and narrator is a nineteen year old cab driver named Ed who lives in a shack with an old dog named Doorman.

"no real career.
No respect in the community.
Like The Book Thief there is a lot in I AmThe Messenger". The book shows us, among other things, how a reading centered life can lead us away from the world. We can decide for ourselves if this is a rationale for lack of worldly success or a rising above it. This may well seem strange to most readers but Ed kind of brought to my mind Ishmael of Moby Dick. In the opening pages of Moby Dick Ishmael talks about why his lack of worldly success means nothing in the grander scheme of things. He speaks like a man who has read deeply into lots of deep books. Way more than a whaler should have. His reading has left him fixed on a deeper reality and he can retreat at any time into his books. He is also a man who has no possessions, no family, no life on shore. Did the reading life protect Ishmael or elevate him or did it in part lead him to have nothing? In "I Am The Messenger" we can see the same thing starting to happen to Ed.

"I was reading when I should have been doing math and the rest of it"
"Have you ever noticed that idiots have a lot of friends"
"I have read Ulysses and half of Shakespeare. But I am still hopeless, useless and practically pointless"
"A man like me thinks too much"
"I think his real name is Henry Dickens. No relation to Charles"
"I have read Joyce and Dickens and Conrad"
"Only in today's sick society can a man be persecuted for reading too many books"
"I didn't know words could be so heavy".

As the book progresses we see Ed Receiving a series of message in the form of playing cards. These cards give him instructions to intervene in the lives of those around him. Some he knows some he does not. The story develops as Ed tries to carry out these mysterious instructions. I do not want to give away to much of the plot as it is very inventive and a fun read. As the book ends we begin to wonder if Ed will one day be an old man in a shack surrounded by his books, maybe the only real constant in his life. We wonder if the books will keep him in the shack
or will they show him a shack is as good as a palace in the end. Like Ishmael floating on a coffin will Ed float through life in his cab? The reading life helps Ed see through the vanity of life (just like my own brings up to me the echo of Samuel Johnson) and at the same time gives him his excuse to live out his life in a shack.

I Am The Messenger is also a neat love story and a buddy book and has a lot of action scenes. I learned some Aussie slang from it. The book can tell us a lot about the reading life and it is also a bit of a warning.

I totally liked "I Am The Messenger" (2002-357 pages). It is a lot of fun and makes me hope Markus Zusak will write a lot more books. I have his first two books on my Amazon wish list.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What I read in the First Half of 2009

Books I Read-Jan to June 2009

The first half of 2009 was one of the very best reading periods of my life.
I have always been careful or picky as to what I read. I do not want to fill my mind with junk books. Until very recently I had read little or no 21th century fiction. Thanks to having the time to read a lot of book blogs I now know how to find quality new writers to read and follow. Among these 21th century books are now some of my all time favorite novels. I still read the classics, literary biographies, royal histories and books on the 18th century. There was a time when I read most of the great philosophers. I like Yeats and Whitman among poets. Any way I wanted to allow any one reading this blog to get to know a bit more about my interests and such. The Main drift of my blog will be on novelistic treatments of the effects of reading with a special interest in books devoted to the reading centered life. What follows is a list of my readings for January to June 2009.

  1. Emma by Jane Austin 1816
  2. Old Goriot by Honore De Balzac 1836
  3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville 1851 (Ishmael has read a whole lot of books)
  4. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert-1857-trans by Margaret Maulden 2004
  5. Stories of Herman Melville (Oxford Classic) 1853 to 1859
  6. The Europeans by Henry James 1878
  7. War and Peace by Leo Tolystoy-trans by Peaver and Volokhon-1869 -trans ed. 2007
  8. Daisy Miller by Henry James 1879
  9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 1884
  10. The Bostonians by Henry James 1886
  11. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy 1899
  12. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald 1925
  13. Waltzing the Dictator: The Marcos and the Making of American Policy by Raymond Bonner-1987-brilliant
  14. Queen Victoria by Christopher Hibbert 2000
  15. Alexandra: The Last Tsarina by Carolyn Erickson 2001
  16. Leaving Mother Lake: Girlhood at the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu 2004
  17. Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano 2006
  18. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano 2004
  19. One Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano 2003
  20. 2666 by Roberto Bolano 2008
  21. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 2005
  22. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry 2006
  23. Flaubert: A Biography by Frederick Brown-2006-
  24. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon 2006
  25. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffengger 2004
  26. England's Mistress: The infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams 2006
  27. Martha Washington by Patrica Brady 2005-wonderful book
  28. A Royal Affair: George III and his Scandalous Siblings by Stella Tillyard 2006
  29. Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered by Peter Wells 2008
  30. The Last Mughal: The fall of a Dynasty-Delhi-1857 by William Dalrymple 2006
  31. Americo: The Man who Gave His Name to America by Felipe Fernandez 2007
32 King Kaiser Tsar: Three Royal Cousins who Lead the World to War
33. Lovely Bones by Anna Sebold

I liked all these books. Some are towering world class master pieces. Some are works of genius. Some you can read while you watch TV. I could see several of the 21th century books entering the canon. I will look forward very much to new books by the 21th century novelists and historians I was lucky enough to read in the first half of 2009. I will eventually I hope read all the six Austin novels-some I read 40 years ago, the other three Fitzgerald novels more Henry James Novels. I will for sure read in the second half of 2009 the new Pynchon novel. Any way I hope others will share some of their 2009 readings and in time I will write a bit about some of these books from the perspective of the blog- The Reading Life.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak-a wonderful account of a reading life

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is a wonderful book. It has won a host of prizes and been praised in the print media and in numerous book blogs. It is classified as a young adult book but please do not be put off by this. It is written in a way that will for sure appeal to age 10 or so up readers. Over all the vocabulary and sentence structure are not difficult. You will learn a few new German words along the way but that is ok. The production quality of the book is great, easy to read with at times changing type face. There is even a book within a book.

"The Book Thief" shows us a lot about the reading life, how a love and obsession with reading effects the main Character Leisel and those around her. There is an old saying about deep books-"The book reads you at the same time you read it". The narrator of the book is Death. This is a daring conceit pulled off perfectly. I even came to Like Death and felt in sympathy with him at times. The book is told in a time and place of great evil. You know it is there, you cant forget it but it does not get in the way. Leisel gets her first book, "The Grave Digger's Handbook" by stealing it, hence the book title. Leisel and her step father bond from reading the books she steals. One of the seemingly very unsympathetic characters in the book is the Mayor's wife. Not wanting to add any spoilers, Leisel and the Mayor's wife end up bonding over books in a very unexpected way. We see Leisel begin to see the humanity in other people through her reading of the books she steals. As you would guess, some very sad things occur in this book but some wonderful things also.

Least we think the effects of the reading life are all wonderful we can see in "The Book Thief" that it is not. One can be into the reading life-seeing life via the prism of the effect of the books we read on us by reading 1000s of books or by reading one book as the supreme clue to all things. In the world of "The Book Thief" for far too many people that meant "Mein Kampf", not flat out evil people but people who might have read only one book in their life are guided by it. Even if they cant read it, they carry it around and pretend to read it. So there maybe another idea at work here, maybe the book thief is really Mein Kampf and the millions of lives stolen by the ideas in it, lives of those loved the book as much or more than anyone else. Maybe reading 100s of books stops the power of one book.

Mel u

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why I Started this Blog

The Core Theme of my blog is "Books about people who love reading and live, at least in part, a reading centered life"       I have been a constant reader all my life.   Many things have changed in my life over the years but that has a constant.    One of  the purposes of my blog is to try to share with those I can what reading means to me.    I expect a lot of the books I read.   

In 1973 I read Gravity's Rainbow and I became convinced that I would never read another novel I liked this much. I stopped reading new fiction at that point and began to read history, literary and royal biographies, and the great poets. I embarked on some large scale reading projects. I read all the novels of Charles Dickens, the complete Boswell Journals, the Diary of Samuel Pepy's, most of the Russian classics, and a good bit of Samuel Johnson. Thirty five years went by and almost the only nonclassic literature I read were subsequent books by Thomas Pynchon. Somehow about a three years  ago I got a news alert suggesting Roberto Bolano's Savage Detectives was a great book about people whose life has centered on reading, people that don't quite fit into life in an easy way.   I read the book and I loved it.   I then read 2666 and two other shorter works by Roberto Bolano. I had already began to follow a number of blogs on topics that interested me.   I was asked to become a contributor to Vegetarian Wednesday.   I subscribed to a growing number of book blogs. I learned from them to find 21th Century novels I would probably like.   So far two of those 21th century books read in 2009 are among my very favorite books, The Elegance of Hedgehogs and The Book Thief.      Both of these books dealt with how what I have come to call in my mind "The Reading Life" shapes a person and more largely the world we see.   So I decided to make the focus of my blog books that show people whose life is centered around reading. This has been a powerful theme in novels from Don Quixote, to Madame Bovary right up to the Elegance of Hedgehogs and The Book Thief.

 Mel u

Monday, July 6, 2009

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