november 2013 books.

I read a lot of books this month. After it took me so long to finish The Tin Drum, I wanted something short. And then I kept wanting something short.

The Tin Drum
G√ľnter Grass
Phew, this book.

So, the book covers the rise of the Nazis, the war, and then the postwar period. It starts off with the narrator saying that he is in an asylum. I like it when my unreliable narrators just come out and say that maybe their retelling of events can't be trusted. Saves a lot of time. But perhaps I would have figured it out soon enough, just because the stories he tells are not quite believable. The style is called magical realism. The stories start out pretty reasonable, but then mythical or fantastic elements gradually sneak in, and by the end, the whole thing is just impossible. It's a neat way to tell a story, because there is truth buried in there somewhere, and who doesn't like a little magic sometimes?

There isn't really a plot. It's more a series of events in a guy's life, and the backdrop of the war comes into play from time to time. The political happenings are always there, always affecting what is going on, but the stories are on a more personal level. Occasionally, he will be involved in or close to a major historical event, such as when the Nazis attacked the post office and the Normandy invasion. But mostly the war is far away, occasionally breaking through to kill off someone's son or cause a shortage of some household good.

Oskar and his family live in the Free City of Danzig, a city that was on the shore of the Black Sea in Poland, but not a part of Poland (it's now Gdasnk, Poland). Oskar is a dwarf, having decided at age three that he did not want to grow anymore, because then his father would pass on the family grocery store to him. He did not want to be a grocer. To excuse his lack of growth, he throws himself down the stairs. He is clear on this - his growth was not stopped by the fall, but because he decided it. He has a series of red and white drums that he beats incessantly, and he can also cut glass by screaming at high pitch that no one can hear. He is narrating his life story to his keeper in the asylum, and he switches back and forth between referring to himself in the first and the third person.

There are some really vivid episodes, such as a bar where the patrons cut onions to make themselves cry so they can release their pent-up miseries. Oskar uses his glass-cutting skills to cut holes in shop windows in the evenings and tempt people into stealing. There is particularly amazing/gruesome scene where someone is using a horse head to fish for eels. *Shudder*

I think that I tried too hard to get this book. I'd read along and think, that's gotta be a symbol, but WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Sometimes you just gotta enjoy the story, man. But whatever, I still enjoyed it and I still get the street cred for reading it.

Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis
Something a little lighter, then. This is Amis' first novel, he would go on to have a long and illustrious career. It's quite good - very funny and tightly woven. The book follows our hero, Jim Dixon, who is a drunken college lecturer who doesn't actually know very much about his topic and does a lot of shoddy work. And pretty much everyone else is even worse! It doesn't shine a very kind light on academia, which appears to be made up of a bunch of rotten characters scheming and dealing to come to their own ends. Everyone is either outright working against other people or they are using them. As the book progresses, you learn more about each character's plots and ambitions, which all come together nicely in the end. Jim is lucky because even though he is really just as much of a jerk as everyone else, he wins all the petty little contests, while everyone else is thwarted. And perhaps once he is removed from that setting, he turns out to be a good guy, while the others likely continue to be their awful selves. At least, that's what I choose to believe.

The Diary of a Superfluous Man
Ivan Turgenev
The superfluous man is a concept in Russian literature of a person who is unconnected to society. Generally, he is well-off, perhaps due to family money, so there is no need for him to go out and make a living. More importantly, he lacks connection to other people.

In the case of this book, the man was not close to his parents and thus grew up to be withdrawn, unsocialized, and crippled by social anxiety. He says he has lots of examples of the way he has been made unnecessary in the world, but this one story will show you. So he tells about this one time he fell in love with a young woman who eventually rejected him because he acted very badly in the throes of his obsession. Because of this rejection, he withdraws even more and pretty much gives up hope of ever connecting to anyone. And then he dies. Yeehaw, Russian literature.

The narrator is not particularly sympathetic. Lots of people have crummy childhoods, and pretty much everyone does something stupid in dealing with the object of their affection. Yet most people manage to create some sort of connection with someone. I know, that's unfair, particularly since I had a great childhood. I have no doubt that people like this do exist, and it seems a very lonely and boring way to be.

In referring to himself as superfluous, he seems to be saying that society has no need for him, that if he had never happened, nothing would be much different. But I don't think society works that way. Society uses what is there, and if you don't show up, well, it won't make use of you. I guess I mean that if you want to make a connection, you might have to put in some work yourself.

That was my first reaction, anyway: Sorry she didn't love you back, dude, get over it.

However, I thought about it some more. Say there is a certain population who do not feel connected to the people around them (due to dysfunctional childhoods, general shyness, whatever). Some of them will do the work of integrating themselves. But a further group becomes connected by the work of other people reaching out to them. I think that is the call to the rest of us. That's something the preacher talks about sometimes during the children's sermon - reaching out to the kid sitting by himself at lunch. Seems like a good message for adults, too. Maybe it's never too late to become necessary to society.

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell
This is a nonfiction account of Orwell's time in Paris and London, when he was flat broke. It's an exploration of poverty. He was living the life of the starving artist, struggling to make any kind of living while also working on writing and using his stark existence as fodder for his work. According to Wiki, it's not known whether he was actually hard up or he was living that life for research purposes.

This is my first nonfiction Orwell. I've read Animal Farm and 1984, but it's been a while and I do not remember much aside from the plots (and even then, I'm not sure how much of that is from my reading and how much is from the ubiquity of his ideas). Dude could write. The sentences were clear, the descriptions vivid, and the arguments logical and persuasive. The book is sort of casual with its ideas. He writes about his jobs in Paris restaurants, then has a chapter at the end where he talks about why we have wage slaves. He is not kind to the rich. It's philosophical, but then at the end, he says these are just thoughts he had from living this life, and he hasn't thought through the larger socioeconomic implications. I thought that was wonderfully honest, and it encouraged me to then continue his thought and find the possible issues in his arguments.

He says that his particular job, as a plongeur (kind of like a dishwasher in a restaurant), is useless work. He works so that rich people can have luxuries which aren't even very good and for the most part, not even wanted by the rich people who buy them. Work in itself is seen as a virtue, and so no one troubles to think whether the work being done is useful or not. His life is pretty awful - seventeen hours in a furnace of cellar kitchen, being treated like dirt by every employee above you, which was all of them. He uses the word slave, because the people in these jobs don't have time for society, for marriage, for thought. He says the rich want the poor to be worked this hard, because they think if the poor had any leisure time, they would become violent.

My understanding is that he would include most service industry jobs as useless work. I suspect he would include a great deal of manufacturing as well, considering how much of the stuff produced is kinda just crap. But is there enough useful work to go around? Even when he was writing, there were hordes of people out of work and starving (partly due to the lack of organized labor, which is how you get those seventeen hour days). If there just isn't enough work, do people take handouts to survive? Go back to farming to feed themselves? He told me that he hadn't thought the implications all the way through, and this is a place I'd like to ask him what comes next.

Then again, it does seem like there is lots of do-gooder work to go around, much of which is done by volunteers or organizations that run on grants and are underfunded. Perhaps there could be more people making art. But as it stands, there is no one paying for those things. They are paying for restaurants. Orwell says people don't even want these luxuries, but they appear to disagree. Not just the rich, but anyone aspiring to be or feel or appear so. They want mozzarella sticks, they want heated seats, they want devices that turn off the lights when you clap your hands. He was really talking about what he thinks would really make people happy (things that can't be purchased), rather than what they want (all the stuff, yay!).

Stamboul Train
Graham Greene
Another good one. This story follows a set of strangers aboard a train to Istanbul. They make friendships and alliances for the brief journey. One passenger is detained by the police en route for being a wanted socialist agitator. Two others are taken with him as accomplices, even though they had just met him on the train. Still another man goes to look for one of the alleged accomplices, because they had formed a brief romantic attachment. Each character must think about what they owe other people. The socialist had successfully been in hiding, but he feels he owes his oppressed countrymen to come back, even if it is just to be arrested and killed. One of the alleged accomplices is completely out for himself, while the other feels responsible enough for the socialist to stay with him when he has been wounded, even though she will surely be caught. She is hoping for a savior in the form of her lover, who does go back to find her in a snowstorm. Each time the lover thinks that he could leave her, because she is just someone he had met on a train. He wonders when he will have done "enough."

A very good and thought-provoking story, which is apparently something Greene is known for. Sort of a thriller, and the train setting makes an interesting setting in terms of being contained and filled with people who don't know each other and are not necessarily in their element.

Bread and Wine
Ignazio Silone
This book was terribly sad and poignant. A socialist revolutionary comes out of exile, and goes back to his home in rural Italy during the lead-up and declaration of war on Abyssinia. He disguises himself as a priest, and is constantly looking over his shoulder, since if the authorities find him, they will kill him dead (but only after torturing him awhile first). Between talking to the peasantry and meeting up with his old buddies, he becomes disillusioned that the revolution will ever happen.

The peasants are poor and have trouble thinking beyond the difficulties of their lives to consider how social systems make their lives so hard. They're too busy trying to survive, and they think the things that happen in Rome have nothing to do with them. The old party has joined up with the larger European organization, including the Stalinists, and they are concerned with purging people who are not ideologically pure enough rather than bringing any sort of relief to those who are struggling. An old friend of his, after a bad time with the police, has given up the cause. His friend says that to believe in the revolution is to believe in progress, which is actually a fear of life as it exists. His friend says he no longer fears life, meaning he has lost hope in it ever being any better than it is. The young revolutionaries he meets think the Abyssinian War is a good thing, because they heard that war leads to revolution. They do not think of the people they are attacking as brothers in the same struggle.

There is particular focus on the church's place as an advocate for the people against the ruling powers. Dressed as a priest, he has to be careful not to give away his true identity, but he makes more and more bold statements. His fellow priests seem to be good-hearted people, but like the peasants, they are focused on their own struggles. Our hero points out that Jesus did not care about pissing off those in power, that was what he came to do. The priest responds that that's fine for an upstart group like a carpenter and his buddies, but the church now has millions of people counting on it for protection. To go against power would bring persecution and suffering on all of them.

Heavy stuff. Really wonderful, though. Lots of amusing well-drawn characters, and the philosophy is well-integrated with the story. There's some pretty good symbolism in there, and maybe it was heavy-handed, but I totally picked up on it all by myself. There is a beautiful funeral scene for a peasant, where the mourners eat the bread and wine made from the wheat and grapes the dead man grew. You know, bread and wine? GET IT?

The Lost Husband
Katherine Center
Book club book. It was fine. Nothing else to say about it. It did not make me think about poverty or the inherent value of work or symbolism. There was no socialism in it whatsoever. It was a love story on a goat farm.

For our club meetings, the leader usually reads questions that were printed off the web somewhere, frequently provided by the publisher. I guess this book is not aimed at book clubs, because there was no such list. So I wrote my own. I was pretty annoyed and a little nervous when I realized that I would have to do this, but I was surprised to find that it was fairly simple. And then I felt good about myself and my chick lit analysis skillz.

But still, this book did not make me think about much.

A Mathematician's Apology
G.H. Hardy
Ah, this was lovely. It's an apologetic, which is a fancy word meaning it's an argument, in this case, for the study mathematics. Millions of schoolchildren all over the world have asked, "Why do we have to learn this crap, anyway?" and Hardy answers.

Except not really. He is not defending applied math, the kind of math you use to calculate a tip or that a architect uses to design a building. He is talking about pure math, completely abstract math, math with no application whatsoever. His defense is that it is art.

Say what? I KNOW!

He does this by basically breaking down what makes something art, and then breaking those ideas down further again. Then he shows how math meets that criteria. It is very clearly the argument of a logician, and it seems strange to try and define art that way. And yet, I know exactly what he is talking about. I have always felt that there is a creative element to math and to computer science as well. It's nice to see it explained.

The Line of Beauty
Alan Hollinghurst
This book follows the life of Nick, a gay young man living with a ridiculously wealthy family in 1980s London. The book is divided into three parts - the first where he is first beginning to have lovers and still feels very much a fish out of water as a middle-class kid living among opulence. During the second part, he has embraced the decadence of wealth, promiscuity, and drugs. Finally, chickens come home to roost in the final part, where political scandal and AIDS tear down his life.

The author is harsh on the wealthy. The book reminded me of The Great Gatsby - the protagonist was even named Nick! He also points out the hypocrisy of judgment of homosexual promiscuity, when the straight people are sleeping around, too. Some particularly nasty characters indicated that the gays deserved AIDS for being so slutty, yet there was no way at all to have a socially-acceptable homosexual relationship in the 1980s.

I picked up this book because it won a Booker Prize, but I almost abandoned it 100 pages in. There was a fair amount of sex at the beginning. I get that when you follow a young man around, he's going to be thinking about sex quite a lot. Nick's homosexuality is a huge factor in the story. That's fine, sex is an important part of life and thus a fair topic for literature, I just don't enjoy reading about a lot of sex, gay or straight. But I stuck it through, and the actual sex, while always there, was not given so much wordspace in later chapters. The writing was lovely, and while the characters were very different from me, I was able to see their point of view. There were a lot of vivid details mixed in, which provided good characterization.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Richard Bach
This is about an actual seagull. It's a fable, and there were pictures in the version I had. Pictures of seagulls.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull lives with the other seagulls on the shore. The other gulls spend all their time following fishing boats around so that they can eat, but JLS only wants to fly faster and higher, seeing the regular gull life as meaningless. He practices his flying, gets faster, but the other gulls think he is a weirdo. They eventually kick him out of the flock for being such a weirdo. Living alone now, he continues to practice his flying. One day, two white gulls come to him and take him to a place with gulls that practice flying all day long. There he learns other tricks, including telepathy and teleportation. He returns to the regular world and begins teaching other gulls who have been outcast from the flock. Finally, he takes his team of outcasts back to the flock, where they start teaching the flock to find joy and meaning in flight. JLS teaches them that the obstacles they perceive are illusory.

That's pretty much it. It took me about a half hour to read the thing. I get it, it's a fable about rising above the rat race (gull race?), finding yourself, striving for perfection, etc. It seems sorta trite to me, but maybe the ideas were new and fresh when it was written. I do not feel that the addition of pictures of seagulls help give it seriousness.

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