Monday, April 29, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words -- Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Korede is the older, plain sister who works hard at her job as a nurse.  Ayoola is the younger and stunningly beautiful younger sister who always gets what she wants and has men falling at her feet.  Ayoola also has a worrying habit; every so often she needs Korede to help her clean up and hide the body of a boyfriend.  The first couple of times, it was easy to believe it was self-defense, but it's getting harder for Korede to believe in Ayoola's innocence.  And now Tade, the kind doctor Korede daydreams about, is interested in Ayoola.

This is a gripping story!  It's a pretty fast read, but it's not a simple story at all.  In the end, it's pretty disturbing.  A good, suspenseful novel.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Spy Runner

Spy Runner, by Eugene Yelchin

I like Eugene Yelchin, writer of middle-grade fiction.  Some years ago I read the Newbery Honor book, Breaking Stalin's Nose, which is great.  And I have a nice new copy of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge on my TBR shelf; it's co-authored and illustrated by Yelchin.  So when my mom handed me his new novel, I was happy.

Jake is 12, and living right next to an Air Force base, he knows that being a good American is important.  His dad has been missing for 12 years, since the end of World War II, and Jake is pretty sure the Russians have him imprisoned.  He knows all about Communists from his favorite spy comics, so when his mom welcomes a Russian boarder into their home, Jake goes on high alert.  He just knows that Mr. Shubin is a spy.  But pretty soon his classmates are calling him a Communist, and there's this car following him around, and his best friend's dad is acting really weird.  Jake just has to figure out what's going on.

There is a lot in this story!  Jake and his friends don't really know what the Cold War is about, but they're right in the middle of it.  There's some McCarthyism going on, and there's real spying too, and Mr. Shubin is definitely not who he claims to be.

On the other hand, I was kind of annoyed at Jake's mom, who never seems to stop and listen for a minute.

Action-packed, but you'll cry.  A great middle-grade story that is kind of unusual.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Possessed

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman

This was such a fun book -- at least, if you like Russian literature, or wry stories about oddball academics, or information about Uzbekistan.  I like all of those things.

Elif Batuman writes a sort of memoirish thing about her time in grad school -- some chapters were originally articles, so it's not always a smooth narrative, but it sure is fun.  Instead of writing a novel, she ends up at Stanford studying Russian literature. And then she goes to a conference on Tolstoy, right at Tolstoy's estate!  Eccentric academics abound, Batuman formulates a theory that Tolstoy was murdered, and fun is had by all.  It's finished off by a group dinner so strange and uncomfortable that a faculty member despairingly groans  "It was a dinner from Dostoevsky, that's all."

There is some quite fascinating stuff about Isaac Babel, a library display, King Kong, and Soviet propaganda posters.  I bet you didn't know that King Kong has a connection to Isaac Babel!  I sure didn't.

Much of the book is not about Russian literature, or Russia, at all.  Quite a large chunk is devoted to an intensive language-study stay in Uzbekistan, and the very interesting people there, and Old Uzbek literature. ("Dilorom and I were studying the lesser Old Uzbek scholar-poets.  Most of them were either madmen or saints.")

Then there is some really lunatic stuff about Peter the Great's niece, Anna Ioannovna.  Wow.

Favorite bits:
     “While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?  On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov's "specifically Jewish alienation."
     "Right," I finally said.  "As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew."
     He nodded: "So you see the problem."

...I [was] ambiguously positioned between Turkey and the exasperating twentieth-century discourse of "shoestring travel": the quest for an idyll where, for three U.S. dollars, Mustafa would serve you a home-cooked meal and tell you about his hair collection.  The worst part of this discourse was its specious left-wing rhetoric, as if it were a form of "sticking it to the man" to reject a chain motel in favor of a cold-water pension completely filled with owls.

[on her surprise at finding that Uzbek actually is related to Turkish, as an eccentric uncle had always asserted] my experience, Turkish people thought that every language was close to our Turkish language.  Many times I had been told that Hungarian was related to Turkish, that the Hungarians and Turks descended from the same Altaic peoples, that Attila the Hun was Turkish, and so on.  When I went to Hungary, however, I discovered that Hungarians do not share these beliefs at all.  "Of course we have some Turkish words in our language," they would say.  "For example, handcuffs.  But that's because you occupied our country for four hundred years."
I enjoyed this one a lot; it's just so much fun.  You don't even have to be terribly interested in Russian literature, just willing to put up with a lot of mentions of Pushkin.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Spin number is...


That's a number I don't think we've had before.

When I first looked at my list to see what 19 was, I read Banana Yoshimoto's Amrita.  So I checked it out of the library and read some pages.  So far so good.

This morning I looked again at my list, and behold, Amrita was #18!  I'm actually supposed to read Walter de la Mare's short stories -- the first volume, anyway.  It's huge.  We'll see how far I get -- it's over 500 pages long!  Amrita looked a lot more doable.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Black Earth

Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder

This is a truly great work of history, one I would highly recommend.  It's also quite a dense and difficult read, which is why it took me something like 3 months to get through.  It took some concentration to read -- something I don't always have in large supply! -- and it was one of those books where it's very easy to read two pages and then realize you have no idea what those pages said.  It was very worth it, though; this is an important work.

An interesting thing about this book is that it barely touches on the usual focus of the Holocaust: Auschwitz and other famous concentration camps.  Most of this book is about the political background and development of the Holocaust, the beginnings, who cooperated and how.  There is much more about death squads in Eastern Europe.

Snyder gives the most lucid and practical explication of Hitler's philosophy -- if such it can be called -- that I have seen.  Hitler said a lot of things, depending on who he was talking to and trying to persuade, so it's important to pin down what he actually thought, which is there to find.  He wasn't quiet about it or anything, he just also said whatever would help him get what he wanted.

The main claim of the book is that the really important element in killing Jews was to take away the state somehow.  If the structure of the state could be destroyed, Jews were extremely vulnerable.  Being a persecuted minority in a state was a good deal better than being stateless.  Thus it was easiest to kill people in Eastern European states where Soviet Russia had already come in and destroyed or changed much of the government; all they had to do was to destroy what was left.  And the killing was first mostly not done by camps, but by squads of men assigned to the job.  Camps came later. 

What made it possible to get squads of men -- who were often not Germans or Nazis, but members of the invaded lands -- to do this job?  Or for area residents to betray their neighbors to the squads?   That's a large part of Snyder's analysis.  An awful lot of them just thought they would profit or benefit somehow.  Many were people who had cooperated with the Soviets; the Nazis made it clear that killing Jews would get them immunity from punishment, and their neighbors' property.  They were promised benefits to their country if they killed Jews.  And there was always the fear of famine and not enough food to go around.

One lesson of this analysis -- and also of Say Nothing, which I was partly reading at the same time -- is one that I can't seem to put into clever words.  It sounds utterly banal.  But so many of these people did terrible things -- because they thought they would get what they wanted if they did.  A lot of the time they wanted something that sounded good, like freedom for their people.  (Or, quite often, a house or apartment, or some property.)  It never worked, though.  Don't commit bad actions in order to get what you want.   You can't build on a terrible foundation.
The idea of rescue seems close to us; the ideology of murder seems distant. Ecological panic, state destruction, colonial racism, and global antisemitism might seem exotic.  Most people in Europe and North America live in functional states, taking for granted the basic elements of sovereignty that preserved the lives of Jews and others during the war; foreign policy, citizenship, and bureaucracy.  After two generations, the Green Revolution has removed the fear of hunger from the emotions of electorates and the vocabulary of politicians.  The open expression of antisemitic ideas is a taboo in much of the West, if perhaps a receding one. Separated from national Socialism by time and luck, we find it easy to dismiss Nazi ideas without contemplating how they functioned.  Our forgetfulness convinces us that we are different from Nazis by shrouding the ways that we are the same.
A very important book; read it if you can manage to do so.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Essential Encounters

Essential Encounters, by Therese Kuoh-Moukoury

I have read hardly anything for my Around the World project lately, even though I have something like 15 books sitting here waiting to be read.  (I am thinking of making my 20 Books of Summer list completely out of African novels, doesn't that sound good?  I absolutely could, but in that case I'd have to put that one I just chose back on the pile, which doesn't seem like that great a  So I picked this one up to get me back in the groove.  This is a Cameroonian novel, written in 1959 but not published until 10 years later, and it is "the first novel by a woman of sub-Saharan francophone Africa."  In fact it was pretty influential so I thought it would make a good selection.

Flo tells her life story entirely in the present tense, so that everything is happening right now.  As a young woman, she enters a cosmopolitan social circle that includes both black and white, and becomes best friends with Doris, who is French.  They are inseparable and study in France together, but Flo is a dreamy romantic, while Doris has career goals and scorns romance.

Flo eventually meets Joel, a budding doctor, and falls deeply in love.  They marry and all is well, for a time, but Flo loses the baby she wanted so much and cannot seem to conceive again.  This doesn't bother Joel, but Flo feels her womanhood is at stake.  Then she realized that Joel is losing interest in her, and so she hatches a plan.  She'll bring Joel and Doris together, and then at least she'll have a sort of sister-wife, as in the old polygamous days.

The novel is focused on how old Cameroonian mores are changing into an entirely new system, and the two are completely incompatible.  Flo's attempts at bringing back old practices only backfire, but there are not a lot of good options for her in the new system either; Doris just tells her that she should have tried harder to hold on to her husband, as if she hadn't.

What we don't see in this story is much about racial issues.  Kuoh-Moukoury didn't want to go over that ground; she wanted to focus entirely on intimate personal relationships.  It's also an amazingly short novel, less than 100 pages, and every sentence counts.  It doesn't feel rushed or too short, and yet a tremendous amount is packed into those few pages.

This would be a very good selection for somebody wanting to get into African literature; it's not a difficult read, and it touches on so many important themes.  It would make a very good companion read to Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter.

As a side note, I keep thinking the title is a series title about important authors.  It sounds like an academic series, doesn't it?  "Essential Encounters: Buchi Emecheta"  "Essential Encounters: Chinua Achebe"   Essential Encounters: Therese Kuoh-Moukoury"  I keep looking for the novel's actual title elsewhere on the cover.  But no, the title was originally in French and it's about interpersonal relationships, and was probably not supposed to sound like an academic series of author profiles.

Monday, April 15, 2019

It's the Classics Spin #20!

Well, this is just what I need to get back in the groove!  Life kind of took over there for a couple of weeks, and I just haven't seemed to find time for blogging.  Even reading hasn't been doing so hot, though I did finish a very dense history book.  On the other hand, we're having a spectacular (and long!) spring and work has been hopping, so things are fine.  And I love me a Spin!

This is the 20th CC Spin, and I have done every single one, which I believe is something only Brona and I can say.  She can even list all her links, which I have never found the time to collect.  Anyway, the rules are simple: list 20 books from your CC list, and commit to reading the one that comes up on the CC's roulette wheel.  The prize is the reading experience -- admittedly, once in a while you get the booby prize!
Guess I'd better put something good into that 7 slot

1 has been my unlucky number a few times, so I'm going to put something really easy in that slot.  That number has something against me!  The winning number will be announced next week on April 22.

  1. The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope 
  2. The Plague, by Albert Camus
  3. The Burning Plain, by Juan Rulfo
  4. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens 
  5. Sketches From a Hunter's Album, by Turgenev
  6. Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore
  7. Madwoman on the Bridge, by Su Tong 
  8. Four Stories, by Selma Lagerlöf 
  9. Oblomov, by Goncharov
  10. Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong
  11. The Well at the End of the World, by William Morris
  12. Amerika, by Kafka
  13. The Road From Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
  14. Subtly Worded, by Teffi  
  15. Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Tutuola
  16. Lais of Marie de France
  17. The Bride-Price, by Buchi Emecheta
  18. Amrita, Banana Yoshimoto
  19. Stories by Walter de la Mare (vol. 1)
  20. Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim
Looking at my list, I see it's out of date.  I have a whole pile of African and Latin American literature that I haven't yet put on there.  I'd better do something about that.