The Mayor of Casterbridge

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I was assigned to read this book in college, and though I didn’t finish it at the time (I was a bit of a mayorslacker student whenever I could get away with it), I always promised myself I would go back and finish the book. It was one of the few that dragged me in immediately (how often does an English novel begin with a dramatic act like a man getting drunk and selling his wife) and my inability to finish the book had more to do with time constraints than lack of interest.

Since then, I have read another Hardy book, Tess of the D’urbervilles, and known the frustration of Hardy’s emphasis on cruel twists of fate. If only so and so had received the letter in time, everything would be different… So, although I was excited to finally finish the book (one on my list of 1001 books to read before I die), I was a little worried about Hardy’s tendencies. Though there are some “just missed it” moments that drove me crazy, Michael Henchard (the eponymous Mayor), brings most of the problems he has on himself. A basically good man who nevertheless has a temper and acts impulsively, he is constantly trying to make up for his rash acts. The opening scene in which he auctions his wife off to the highest bidder is just the beginning of a lifetime of acting before thinking. Though he swears off alcohol for 21 years after he sells his wife and child, the reader soon discovers that even a sober Henchard can be a dangerous one. A high-spirited man, he is alternately lively and engaging and later moody and jealous.

I do have to say I’m not really a fan of Hardy’s portrayals of women. Tess, a simpering woman who tried to be “good” but was taken advantage of and ruined in the end, was a frustrating character to say the least. The women in this novel range from “good but not that bright” to brash, silly women with tarnished reputations. When Henchard is moved by the women in his life, it is often motivated by pity for the “weaker” sex.

Overall, I empathized with Henchard, even while I seethed as he held grudges and attacked those closest to him. A lonely man who can’t seem to get out of his own way, Henchard does try to do the right thing, when he’s thinking clearly, but it doesn’t quite save him. And, since it’s Hardy, of course fate steps in and deals the final blow.

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1001 Books to Read Before You Die

1001 booksI like lists. More importantly, I like crossing things off of lists. It feels like I’ve accomplished something, a visual representation of a task completed. So, when I discovered the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, I jumped at the challenge.

At first, I just printed the list and manually crossed off the books I had read. Then I bought the book to see why each book was worth reading. Eventually, I realized there were multiple editions of the list/book, with additions and deletions being added every couple of years, which admittedly made my printed list a little unwieldy. Enter the marvels of technology: a spreadsheet which tabulates the number of books you have read, a “master” list which includes all books ever on the list (it currently totals 1305, which is my new goal, making the 1001 book list a misnomer in my case), and a way to rate each book as well as track statistics on your progress.

There is much debate about the usefulness of such a list. It was, after all, compiled by a group of people with their own biases, and the list is admittedly flawed in many ways (no Canterbury Tales?). However, reading books off of the list has been beneficial to me in at least two ways: 1) I get to cross things off lists. 2.) I have been exposed to a number of phenomenal books I might not have picked up otherwise. Due to the nature of this type of list, there will be books you won’t enjoy as much, or even those you will wonder how they got on the list at all. I belong to a group on Goodreads that discusses the merits of the books, as well as strategies for tackling the lists. There are some readers who abandon the list books when they’re not getting anything out of them. I see the logic in this, but I haven’t been able to do that myself (I couldn’t cross it off the list then!). So, sometimes I slog away to finish a book that’s “not my style,” but usually even these books have some value, even if they seem tortuous as I’m reading them.

Some of my favorite books — ones I may never have picked up if not for the list — have included Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, and Unless by Carol Shields. I could have done without Life of Pi and Dashiell Hammett’s The Red Harvest. Reading other people’s reactions, I know many hated the books I loved and adored the books I hated. Obviously, it’s subjective, and one benefit of the list is the broad type of books and authors included, so there are certain to be books that really speak to you personally, even if there are many that miss the mark. Plus, there’s the whole crossing things off a list thing.

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Every Secret Thing

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everysecretthing

I love Laura Lippman, and I was fascinated by the premise of this story, so I expected to love this book.  I did. For a little bit.

The story of two girls who, through a series of incidents, end up going to juvenile hall for the death of a baby girl, starts out with characters you can relate to and side with. The reader understands what is going through the girls’ minds (confused as they are) as they convince themselves they are doing the right thing when they take an unattended stroller and infant.

Then, the novel fast-forwards to when the girls are released from the detention center upon reaching 18. The girls no longer talk to each other and each is changed by their years of punishment.

From here, the characters devolve quickly. Each becomes unlikeable in her own way, and even the dead baby’s mother is a one-sided narcissist intent on revenge. There are interesting issues at play here: racial tension (the baby was black, the girls who killed her were white), class tension (the baby’s family was rich, while the white girls were poor), maturity and psychopathy, deceit and belief. However, most of these issues are stumbled over, a sentence here or two alluding to the difficulty, without comprehensive analysis or reflection. Finally, the ending sucks away any remaining empathy for any of the characters, and everyone’s lives are worse in so many ways. While I didn’t expect a happy ending, the denouement was so universally bleak it seemed just as unbelievable as the trite fairy tale wrap-ups.

According to Lippman’s Facebook page, the book is being made into a movie starring Frances McDormand. This is one time I’ll be hoping the movie does veer from the book.

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The Exorcist

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exorcistAs a prelude to re-watching the classic 1973 film, my boyfriend Nick suggested I read the book. From what I remember of the movie (admittedly last seen several years ago), it is an extremely faithful adaptation of the book. In fact, I would say this is one of the more gratifying movie/book pairings I have seen/read. The movie complements the book by supplying unforgettable visuals; the book complements the movie with character development and beautiful language.

The book begins with Father Merrin (a character not seen again until the end of the book) in Iraq at an archaeological dig:

The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition. It clung to his back like chill wet leaves.”

So the story continues, with carefully creepy scenes that reveal each character’s complex relationship with religion and humanity. On a side note, I watched this movie when I was a kid and still very wrapped up in Christianity. While I did believe in demons, I didn’t really believe in exorcisms (that was a Catholic thing after all), so I remember being pretty similarly affected by the fascinating, if fictional, story. Of course, now I empathize much more with Regan’s mother, an atheist who nevertheless becomes convinced of her daughter’s demonic possession, while as a child I most definitely related more to Regan (mommy, I didn’t do it, the demon inside me did….). Either way, I think the book and the movie are classics for a rightly deserved reason.

 

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The White Tiger

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I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, but it has taken me a little time to process how I felt about it. I think this is one of those books that I value, but do not necessarily “enjoy.” The story of  Balram Halwai, a poor Indian who manages to take advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities in his country, this book presents an interesting (although often frustrating) contrast of the abject poverty and opulent wealth in India.

I think the reason I didn’t really enjoy the book was that Balram is propelled by greed to be ambitious, and as such he isn’t really that likeable. Of course, I understand there is more to a book than liking the characters, and I did appreciate the economic and political criticisms of the novel. Also, Balram is far from the only unlikeable character; in fact the novel is full of selfishness and deceit, which may be a point about the motivations of capitalism but which ultimately made me feel disappointed in humanity.

The conceit of the book is that Balram is writing letters to a Chinese government official. While this may allow Balram to nod and wink about his own country’s corruption to a presumably understanding foreigner, the gimmick just distracted me, as I wondered who in the political world would have time or interest in reading voluminous letters from an unknown Indian about his claw up the social ladder.

This was another of the 1001 books to read before you die. Again, it’s not necessarily a book I would have chosen to read, but I think it does have value. The rich descriptions of Indian life, both poor and rich, as well as an intimate understanding of the struggles of the caste system, make the book a worthwhile, if not pleasurable, endeavor.

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On choosing to be childless

The loneliest discovery I ever made — much lonelier than the realization that my personal relationship with Jesus was of the imaginary friend variety — was the discovery that I didn’t want children. I had always kept the option open, just in case, but as my childbearing years are winding down, I find one of the few things I have been sure of in an indecisive life is that I have no urge for motherhood.

It is lonesome to feel different from everyone you know, to feel you lack a normal part of being human. By definition, one’s parents can’t commiserate with a childless child; in my peer group, almost everyone I know has either procreated or is planning to do so soon.

As a non-parent, I can’t help but feel I haven’t accomplished anything. Parents, after all, have created life. They have little versions of themselves to preserve their legacy, family members to care for them as they age, and automatic camaraderie with every other parent. Playdates provide instant socialization groups, and swapping stories of childrearing techniques is an ever-ready fallback conversation. Recent news of a high school reunion sent me into a funk, not because anyone in my class is the next Steve Jobs or Hillary Clinton, but because career and accomplishments in general will be an unimportant topic among my former classmates. They will be parading their children, which is the only accomplishment required. I, on the other hand, have not been consumed with raising children, have been able to ignore the mommy blogs and the current opinions on breastfeeding and circumcision, have theoretically had all of this extra time, and I haven’t done anything. If I had been a high-powered attorney or CEO, my decision to remain childless would be seen as a sacrifice, a conscious trade for a corporate ladder climb. If I were to finish the novel I started, I would at least have created something. It’s not the miracle of human life, but it would be something.

There are many people who don’t have kids, either due to infertility issues or because the right opportunity never arose, but to choose not to have children? What kind of monster am I?  I am uncomfortable around most children and am inherently not maternal. Does that make me inherently unfeminine?

“You would feel different if the child were your own,” I often hear, and I don’t doubt the veracity of the adage. After all, I adore my friends’ children and value my role as “Auntie Glo” in their lives. But just because I could adapt to motherhood doesn’t mean I crave it. And therein lies the problem. I don’t share one of the most basic primal instincts. I am defective, contrary to every biological imperative, and the knowledge is isolating.

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Society’s Child

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Layout 1I have been wanting to read this book for nearly five years, since I first heard an interview on NPR with Janis Ian. I didn’t know Ian’s music, but I was fascinated with her story, the trailblazing teenager who wrote a song about interracial relationships at a time when the topic was still controversial. When they played a clip of “At Seventeen,” I realized I did know Janis Ian, and she had penned a heartbreaking song I had fallen in love with when I first heard it:

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth…

Right after I heard the NPR interview, I ordered a hardback copy of Society’s Child. However, I am usually perpetually busy and never got around to reading it. I finally decided to buy the e-book, reasoning that I was more likely to read a digital version. I actually did start to read the e-book, but almost immediately there were song lyrics quoted, and I realized I wanted to hear the songs, since I wasn’t familiar with most of Ian’s music. So I set the e-book aside. When the audiobook was released, I snatched it up. I’m glad it was my first real experience with the book. Ian is an amazing narrator for her work, picking up a guitar and singing lyrics intermittently; her entire demeanor is conspiratorial, as if the listener and she are in a room alone telling secrets. I’m not the only one who found the audiobook fantastic — it deservedly won the 2013 Grammy for “Best Spoken Word Album.”

The book shocks from the beginning, with Ian facing chants of “nigger lover” when performing Society’s Child at fifteen years old. It was not just stage fright; she was legitimately worried for her life: “I was singing for people who wanted me dead.” Ian perfectly captures the fear and insecurity of the girl on stage, as well as the courage it took to finish her set after a tearful breakdown. This kind of openness, the intense view of vulnerability, continues throughout the book. Readers feel as if they know Ian intimately by the end of the book, a rarity in celebrity autobiographies.

Since I was born some time after Ian’s heyday, I was surprised to hear of her many bestselling songs and flirtations with fame. She includes stories of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Barbra Streissand and Bruce Springsteen,  yet it never feels like she’s name-dropping. Her self-deprecating humor is part of the book’s charm and relatability. It helps that Ian had some really hard times, so that she doesn’t seem a charmed figure blessed by the gods. Her travails include coming to terms with her sexuality (while she now identifies as lesbian, she was married to an eventually abusive man, Tino, for some years: “The gay-straight question didn’t bother me at all…To me, love was love; the rest was immaterial”), being molested by her dentist when she was a child, her Jewish heritage, her repeated rise and fall in the music scene and battles with major labels, a cancer scare, and even a battle with the IRS when she discovers her “accountant” (he was later found to be unlicensed) had been stealing from her and had not paid her taxes for years despite statements to the contrary.

There are some exulted highs and devastating lows; no matter what, throughout the book, you are rooting for Janis Ian. Best of all, this book introduces a whole new generation to her music. I know I’ve downloaded several of her songs, curious after hearing snippets as well as the stories behind each song’s creation, and I am sure I am not the only one. So Janis Ian, a self-proclaimed has-been by seventeen, and again by forty-one, may be getting one final dance in the sun, and I can think of few people who deserve it more.

 

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Cause for Alarm

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booksI will admit it. I have Holocaust exhaustion. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s important we acknowledge and remember the atrocities of concentration camps, but eventually it seems akin to the gruesome Passion-of-the-Christ obsession with bloody torture.

I am happy to say, this book has nothing to do with the Holocaust. In fact, it takes place just before the war, an accidental spy novel exploring relations between England and Italy, with Yugoslavia thrown into the mix. It was the first time in a while I’ve enjoyed a “World War II” novel. It may have been just another plot-driven spy novel except for the context, but context is everything. Nicky Marlow is an English engineer who ends up taking a job in Italy. Marlow gets caught up in international intrigue and hijinx ensue. There is spying and bribery and even life on the lam. What was most interesting to me was the feel for what it was like to live in Europe just before the war. Italy’s secret police and nationwide paranoia influence every aspect of Marlow’s stay in the country, and the building tension among the European countries is palpable. Eric Ambler first published the book in 1938, so it is an honest portrayal of the naivete of the time instead of an ominous look back after knowing the final consequences of the war.

This book is on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, which is why I picked it up in the first place. I’m trying to get through the list, but since they keep updating it and adding new titles, my progress is slow. Still, the list has been invaluable for introducing me to books I might not otherwise have picked up and revealing fresh perspectives. I haven’t liked every book, but I appreciate each one.

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J.D. Salinger: A Life

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salingerI still remember the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye.  I had bought a used copy years before, knowing nothing about the book except the fact that it was a “classic” I should read.

I intended to read a few pages to get a feel for the novel. But from the first line, I was hooked:

IF YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

I finished the book the next day, and a lifelong love of the novel was born. I have reread the book several times. I wrote papers about the book in college, and I even wrote a psychological analysis of the work after I had received my Masters; I could not stop thinking about Holden Caulfield.

Naturally, my love of the book translated to an interest in the famously reclusive author himself. Unfortunately, “famously reclusive” means there isn’t much information to glean, even in this age of an overabundance of information at one’s fingertips.

Slawenski does a good job of working with what he has; the problem is, he doesn’t have much. In the absence of personal information, the author dissects each and every story and novella separately, indicating the steps Salinger took to get each published as well as providing a summary of each story and its meaning. But this is not what the reader wants. We can read Salinger’s stories, but what we cannot do is know the man himself. Salinger even contributed to the erasure of his literary footprint when he asked friends and business associates to burn letters he had written, destroying an invaluable source of information for those seeking to understand the author.

Salinger’s fierce control of his work and his privacy bring up interesting questions about art and ownership, many of which were litigated in court. This also means that the few glimpses we have of Salinger after he last published (45 years before his death) are those of a cantankerous man. This is likely unfair, but the only events powerful enough to draw Salinger from his exile were battles he felt he had to fight. Norm MacDonald even skewered Salinger on SNL’s Weekend Update:

In literary news, the ever-reclusive J.D. Salinger will publish his first book in 34 years. Asked what inspired him to finally write again, Salinger said, “Get the hell off my lawn!”

There are tiny revelations in the book. The trauma of war on Salinger’s emotional state is explored, and the little that is known about his wives and kids is included. Ultimately, Salinger is less enigmatic than the mystery surrounding him would suggest. He is complicated and flawed, and his written works provide his legacy even if his biography is largely blank. Salinger frequently said he continued writing after 1965, although nothing was published, and there is still a question mark concerning whether those lost works exist and when/if they will be published.

Salinger’s characters, open and honest as they are, may have increased the author’s perceived vulnerability and led to his ultimate seclusion. Holden himself predicted this at the end of Catcher:

it’s funny. don’t ever tell anybody anything. if you do, you start missing everybody.

As a fan of Salinger, upon his death I felt a sadness for the loss of a man I did not know. After reading this, I feel like I understand Salinger slightly better, but still not enough. I guess it’s never enough. Which may be why the author withdrew in the first place.

 

 

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People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up

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I am a sucker for crime stories. Clearly, I’m not the only one, judging by the explosion of forensic television shows, books, and video games. So, even though I had never heard of Lucie Blackman, the story of a British woman’s disappearance in Japan intrigued me.

The author of the book, Richard Lloyd Parry, worked as a journalist in Japan when the story broke in 2000, so he is intimately familiar with the details of the case. Throughout the years, Parry spent a lot of time talking to Lucie’s family and friends to gauge their reactions. Lucie, we are told early on, is dead, vanished after a phone call saying she would be home in a few hours. A red-herring phone call comes in stating that she has joined a cult, which is not the only bizarre turn the investigation takes. Lucie’s family goes to Tokyo to find out what happened to her, in the hopes of finding her alive.

First, the good: it is interesting to see the culture clash between the British and the Japanese. Parry is himself British, so his explanations of Japanese customs and culture come from a Western viewpoint. From Lucie’s job as a “hostess,” basically feeding the egos of businessmen for money, to her alienation as an “other” in an otherwise homogenous land, the exotic and the familiar are constantly at war. This clash becomes increasingly apparent during the trial, when the Japanese legal system is compared to the Western legal system. Japanese courts, Parry points out, have a 99.5% conviction rate, compared with about 73% in the United States and Europe. There is no jury, just a panel of judges, and the drama of a case comes when the arrest occurs — after that, conviction is almost a certainty.

The not-so-good: The title of this book drives me crazy. I likely missed a reference that would clarify the “people who eat darkness” phrase, but that is not what bothers me. In 2011, this book was released as People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman. lucie blackman

That makes sense. Short and to the point, the title clearly indicates what the book is about.

However, for some reason in 2012, Parry decided to re-release the book as People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up.

Perhaps I’m a little sensitive from the “axis of evil” Bush years, and likely also because I have shed my religious beliefs and their attendant good/evil dichotomies, but I just don’t understand why enigmatic terms like “evil” are personified. Evil did not swallow Lucie up. She was murdered, yes, by a human being, and the fictional war between good angels and evil demons seems distant from the tangible reality of her death.lucie blackman2 The focus, in fact,on the second release seems to be more on the killer, as his face graces the book now instead of Lucie’s.

Also, Parry may have gotten too close to this story to be objective. While he certainly tries to be even-handed, he also spends time defending Lucie’s father, Tim Blackman, whom he clearly came to like. Tim was accused by many of exploiting the situation, especially after he accepted a payment of 1 million yen from the killer, but Parry is constantly countering criticisms instead of reporting reactions and letting the reader come to his or her own conclusions. Finally, while it is a bizarre story with unforeseen twists, it is too long. Much of it doesn’t pertain to the story at hand, and it seems like Parry finally could not decide what would interest an outside reader. He threw all of his research in, and the book meanders and winds through unimportant side information such as the careers of the killer’s brothers.

Still, there is something to be said for the careful, methodical approach. I feel like I know, at least a little bit, this woman who went to Tokyo to make money and pay off her debts. I know her relationship with her mother, father, siblings, and friends, all of whom saw a different side of Lucie, and I am thankful that Parry could document this girl’s life as it ended far too soon.

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