Friday, December 18, 2009

I Am Legend

I Am Legend was a brilliant story conceived by a serial science fiction writer. I really enjoyed reading it. I think Matheson, like so many other sci-fi writers (including a household favorite, Dick), create and create and sometimes come away with a flash of supremely worthy material.

The story's novella length was perfect. The style was not embellished; Dick did not try to milk his story for more than it was worth. We read just enough about Robert Neville to sympathize and route for him. Whenever he twinked out his pad I cheered for him. And I got tense when he realized his watch no longer worked. Matheson treaded the line between short story (of which he has numerous) and full novel really well. I think he correctly identified that character development was crucial for this story, where as his other stories can rely more on bursts of cleverness and captivating twists.

That said, I think this novel was exceptionally clever - I think Matheson stumbled upon a story that captures the eternal "us and them" struggle that has contributed much to humanity's history. After reading his other stories - which seemed content to not allude to the human narrative - I wonder if Neville's grey struggle to make a place for himself and to create a new personal identity was planned or accidental.

And this leads me to why I appreciated the book so much. Neville became the terror that "we" associate with vampires! All cultures are fraught with lore of supernatural creatures of horror an threat. Europe has long been obsessed with vampires. Matheson drew deeply from that tradition, and brilliantly reversed it in the closing segment. All of the "new society" were terrified of Neville. While they hid from the sun Neville would creep upon them and coldy, methodically murder them. The reader spends the whole book hoping Neville can kill enough of them and keep others at Bay long enough for some salvation. The final scene most wholly offers a salvation, but not so much for Neville. And from then on Neville becomes the legend of the new society. You'd better tidy your room before bed or Robert Neville will come get you!

Monday, October 26, 2009

White Tiger

I really enjoyed The White Tiger. Great suggestion for the book club! It had great action, characters, plot, style, and social commentary. I particularly like how Adiga conveyed the consequences of the stark class differences in India and the drudgery and desperation to which the non-elite masses are subject. Adiga says in his interview at the end of the book that he believes that someone would have to do something of the magnitude of what Balram did to break out of poverty and he is probably right.

The first thing I liked about The White Tiger was the unusual format: a letter to the Chinese prime minister. It was a literary risk that seemed to pay off, allowing Balram to fully express his smugness and callous to someone that he arrogantly assumes would be interested in his opinion. It was also just kind of amusing. Through this and other devices, Adiga succeeds in creating an air of sinister cynicism that was surprisingly engaging.

As Mom said, Balram is a fascinating character. Watching his corruption as he claws and ultimately murders his way up to a higher social class was chilling and thought-provoking, reminding us that power corrupts and that the oppressed can become the oppressors. Further, I think Adiga was suggesting that this transition is a necessary consequence of a society with an extreme wealth gap. Republican tax-cutters and CEOs beware lest Balram comes for you!

Mom brought up an interesting point about the inherent exploitation that can exist when a privileged educated author writes a story about the underprivileged for an audience of similarly privileged readers. This has to be balanced against the societal value of raising awareness. I didn't quite share Mom's concerns in this case and I thought that the characterizations of Balram's acquaintances were an integral part of the main character's personality and yearning to escape the life of an indentured servant. How real these thoughts and feelings are among actual would-be Balrams though I don't know.

Finally, I wanted to comment on the author's craft. At another point in the interview at the end of the book, Adiga said he wanted to make the book not boring and I think he did a great job with this. The plot clipped along and didn't meander into meaninglessness as did Naive Super or plod along with pointless detail as did David Copperfield. This is a rare trait in a novel and I think the last book that did this for me from the book club was A Confederacy of Dunces. I look forward to more like it!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

White Tiger

I read the White Tiger a second time. It was even better the second time, although darker.
I think it is a great book and deserved the prize it won.

But I found myself wondering about the motives of those who praised it. The White Tiger aptly and rightfully exposes and critiques corruption in India, but at the same time it reeks of a snobby middle class delicacy about the filth of the poor. This is an issue of class, not nationality. The author is just as disgusted by the poor as his Oxford peers and those who reviewed the book and loved its honesty.

I began to notice this because the author harped so much on the chewing of betel leaf. It is gross by our standards to be sure, but it is also a respite and relief for those who live lives of unrelieved poverty and work. Naming a character "Vitiligo-Lips" was just mean, and dehumanized him. The author could not stop talking about his pink lips.

I realize these are literary devices, but there comes a moment when the device becomes simply an expression of disgust and nothing more. I wanted the author to be a little less squeamish. But at least he lives in India and is not one of those over-refined expats.

What I think is brilliant about the White Tiger is the complexity of Ashok. He is corrupt, weak, myopic, and disloyal. But at the same time his humanity breaks out occasionally, only to be immediately squelched by India's history and culture. Their sheer weight make it difficult for people to get out from under. I think he may be underappreciated compared to Balram, who is of course, a tour de force character.

The Indians I have talked to verify that corruption is everywhere from low level public servants and service employees to the highest ranks of business and government. This makes me appreciate even more our Wild West traditions of going after the bad guys in our never-ending morality plays, cast as they are in simple, black-and-white terms. Europeans laugh at this simplicity, but I think the notion of clear right and wrong helps keep a check on corruption without the cloying uniformity that Europeans use to effect the same. Americans can be wacky and creative and individualistic (and I think we have something of a corner on the market here) without tipping over too far into the sinkholes of amorality that confront India, as Adiga wrote about.

Great find Christopher. I rarely read a contemporary novel so interesting. I think partly it is because The White Tiger is actually very old-fashioned; it has a real plot, it is not crafted from bored cynicism (like Naive Super), it engages a clear morality, and it is happy to entertain. Perhaps there is a colonial sensibility here; Adiga may be more in touch with 19th and early 20th century literature because of growing up upper class in India where education is more traditional and less likely to be prey to the House on Mango Street mentality here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

the White Tiger

The White Tiger prepared me for it's climax, but I refused to believe it; at the end I was a little horrified but since then have given it my approval.

I read it a long time ago and what I remember most was it's critique of capitalism and looking after one's self. It was in an extreme sense, of course, but the extremity was Aravind Adiga's device. He craftily showed us what is at stake and what it takes to escape from the dregs. (I don't have my copy with me sadly because I gave it to Mom.) The protagonist was demonstrably badly off and the whole novel I sympathized with his situation. But in that atrocious act (killing his employer) I lurched away, taking my sympathy with me.

Stealing the reader's sympathy for the protagonist is what Adiga had in mind - it forced reflection. It's easy to sympathize with one less fortunate, but when push comes to shove I didn't have what it takes to support the protagonist when things got real (as they said in the parlance of the turn of the millenium).

Like a good novel I thought about it a little more after reading it and overtime I began to retrieve my harsh judgements of the main character. I haven't gotten to condoning it yet, but I wouldn't castigate him as much as before.

All this happened with him telling me the entire book he was going to do it! I basically refused to believe it. After it happened I re-read it and thought, "oh yeah, he said that was going to happen..."

The other devise I loved was his analogy with the rooster coup, or whatever it was. I wish I had my copy. He brought it up a lot earlier on and then finished with it really well; every now and again one of the roosters gets out and who knows whether he'll make it or get thrown back in.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A few last words on Naive Super

Reading all the comments at once, Naive Super seems so much a product of its time. We loved the pithy one liners and lists which are reminiscent of the endless cleverness of pop culture -- shows such as The Office, John Stewart et al., New Yorker cartoons, the better advertisements.

At the same time, all of this reflects a kind of emptiness that Jackie noted. I wondered why the narrator had so little self-awarnesss that he never commented on the fact that he had the leisure to mope and ponder the universe. Perhaps it is no accident that this book came from Scandinavia where the welfare state creates a cocoon in which some people can, with no pushback, simply live, unreflectively, off others because of society's great wealth and the agreement that not everyone has to work. I think Holden was a bit more aware of his privilege, as I recall.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Naïve. Super. Fav Quotes

I liked Jeanette's favorite quotes thing. I annotated the book, so I can easily find some of my favorites:

"I'll be feeling a lot of pressure to perform is I buy a ball like that. The time is not ripe for a quality ball."

"If Kent had a part in a Die Hard movie, he would get crushed by a car or an elevator during the opening credits."

"[The Pope] thinks the [Big Bang Theory] is definitely compatible with the idea of a Creation. God was behind the Big Bang. It's ingenious. The Pope must have been happy when he came up with it. It'll be exciting to hear what he has to say when it all starts to contract."

"[My brother] doesn't want to hear a word about the hammer-and-peg, for instance. Not one. He's going to break it if he finds me hammering. I'll have to hammer on the sly. It's humiliating." 

Finally, I think Jeanette was brilliant to discover the protagonists name from the email!!!!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Great discussion! I agree with much of what has been said. I especially agree with Dad who says that the first half of the book was better than the second. I think it's right on also to say that Loe almost pulled off what he was trying to do but not quite. I also agree with Jeanette that there were lots of fun quotes throughout the book! In general, it made me laugh. I should have marked them down so I could share them too! But here are some of the parts I liked, list form:

- the list of things he had and did not have
- all the faxing. Who faxes things?!
- the loop fax
- the relationship with the author's brother
- his "bad" friend
- Borre ruining their word association game by always answering "poo"
- the story about the police officers helping the lady who got robbed
- "perspective"
- letter to Paul Davies
- Davies' reply!
- the ending, because it seemed hopeful

I think I liked the faxing because it was a reminder of a funny blip in technological history that barely snuck in between telephones and the internet. I especially liked the opening scene when he gets unreasonably mad at his brother for beating him in croquet. I've felt that way when Chris pwns us in Settlers of Kattan!

In general I liked the lists because I thought they were creative. They were also fun for the reader because they were so easy to breeze through, unless you wanted to dwell on them, which you could. The lists got a little repetitive and less interesting at the end. On the other hand, all the random printed materials were pretty out there! I guess you gotta be pretty original to publish fiction these days and maybe Loe thought the weird images would give him a leg up! There were also some parts of the book that didn't work as well for me. They didn't ruin or anything, but let's just say they would have gotten really annoying if the book weren't super short. The length was a good call by the author.

- the repetition of the crazy physics stuff
- the random images at the end
- the meandering focus of the story
- no name for narrator!!
- hammer thing and ball thing
- discussions about brand name products
- too many lists at the end and not as interesting as original lists in the book

I know that the meandering focus was probably part of the statement the author was trying to make, but I felt like if it kept more to the feel of the first half, before he goes to New York, I would have liked it better. I wouldn't rule out contempt for the reader as someone suggested--a literary Damien Hirst. It did almost seem like that with some of that junk at the end! I was hoping for a little more narrative punch toward the end where things came together and hit you and made sense.

Loe certainly succeeded in creating an unusual protagonist which was fun. I just wish he had a name so we could refer to him and compare real peoples' thoughts and actions and moods to his. Anyway, fun book, and thanks to Marissa and Hunter for recommending it to us. Led to some great discussion. I'm sure we'll have more to say about it when we all get a chance to chat together.

Oh, one last thing. Anyone know why it is called Naive Super?!!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Life, the Universe, and Everything

I didn't finish the book. Like everyone else, I was charmed by the author's wit and writing style in the beginning, but by the time the narrator got to New York, I was bored and somewhat irritated. I didn't find the character and his existential crisis compelling enough to keep reading.

It was hard for me to sympathize with the main character and what I read as his refusal to grow up and get on with life regardless of its uncertainties. This statement makes it sound as though I take a much more pragmatic approach to life than I actually do. It's just that I have little patience for people (including fictional characters) who are completely paralyzed by abstract, unresolvable matters. I felt about this character much the same way I feel about the New Age navel-gazers here in Boulder: meditate all you like, but please realize that it's your relative comfort and privilege that enables you to spend so much time dwelling on these things.

That sounds harsher than I intended. I get that life, the universe, and everything can be scary. But if you spend all of your time worrying about it, the really meaningful part - life - will pass you by.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Professor Paul Davies

Oh, and just because I looked him up awhile ago, but I'm not sure others are aware of this guy:

Full speed, forever. And sunshiny days.

I enjoyed "Naive. Super", and enjoyed reading the family's posts about it even more. It seems there was more going on in the novel than I gave it credit for.

The Catcher in the Rye feel of the novel was one of the first things I noticed about the book, but as time went on, I regarded Loe's unnamed narrator as being less and less like Holden than I had thought. I liked Erlend (I'll call him Erlend because the e-mails to the physicists were from "Erlend Loe" and since it was first person, I guess the author's name is my best guess) much more than Holden simply because he was less depressing. Holden seemed extremely depressed and almost unbearably angsty. Erlend is angsty too, but more charmingly so. Maybe because his concerns are more out-there. They're about time, not morals and loss of innocence. At least to me, that made me appreciate his concerns a lot more.

I loved the lists. I thought it was interesting that Dad felt there was "little return for careful perusing of the stuff on his lists", because I found them kind of fresh and interesting. Maybe I spend too much time reading my friend's endless lists of "If you were an animal, what you be and why? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe in love? What song will you play at your wedding"-type notes on Facebook, but I found myself writing my own lists in my head. I thought many of them were pretty funny, especially how completely disjointed they were. That list of stuff he has and doesn't have in the beginning was especially funny. Writing a list as random as those is a careful art that the narrator became very good at. 

I enjoyed how proud the narrator was of himself when he wrote some of those lists, and how he complimented Kim's list of stuff that excited him when he was a kid. I enjoyed how proud of himself he was when he accomplished many small feats, in fact, like seeing more animals than Borre (if his father wasn't included), and realizing that tigers didn't live in Africa, and his simple pleasures of catching the ball every time it bounced off the wall, and of hammering his peg.

And finally, I too found the book hilariously witty (or sometimes just thoughtful). I have written a list of some of my favorite quotes:
- "I put the vacuum jar on the windowsill. It can stand there and let the lucky photons that hit it get a surprise. I feel good. Similar to the feeling I get when I feed the little birds, or give money to someone who has less than I do."
- "11. Do you disapprove of television commercials that feature animated food, for instance biscuits that dance and jump into the cheese?"
- "And if there is any mail, I open it and fax it to my brother. It is an amazingly long fax number. I feel increasingly sure he is in Africa."
- "Seeing as I'm not a dog owner in New York, that also means everybody else could be something other than what they seem to be. That means it is impossible to know anything at all."
- "He came close to buying a Japanese car once, but abandoned the idea. The car didn't really have anything going for it. Volvo, however. Now there's a car. Safety. It's like a good friend. No nonsense, ever. And he puts down his coffee cup to make a hand gesture that seems to mean: full speed forever. And sunshiny days."

Oh, and just for fun, here's that Alanis video he watched on MTV:

I wandered aimlessly as a cloud

Loe's greatest gift was creating such an genuinely directionless and disoriented character. The fact that nothing really happened in the book reinforced this authenticity, but it left the book's only value being in relating to the protagonist. 

I think Mom and Dad really hit the peg with the hammer with some of their analysis. I think I fall in another part of the unit circle of admiration, curiosity, and the general sense of being nonplussed as to where the book was going. I would say it was truncated, but it hardly started itself in the first place.

I did not realize I felt like this until Dad said it, but I think it's great: "I had the sensation our author was making fun of us for finishing his book, for expecting something --- or else I missed a whole lot!

This is the way I felt overall: "I found myself feeling a grudging admiration for the author, Erlend Loe. He relinquished plot, restricted himself to a few characters, and had *little* by way of setting."

Nonetheless I derived much satisfaction from reading it. It found it very funny, and fantastically witty. I annotated while I read this time. Here's a quote I like. My reaction is illustrative of how I felt about the book. 

"I fell all who cycle are my friends. One big family. When I meet others who are cycling, I sometimes say hi." When I read this I just burst out laughing. Loe's ability to create a character that thought this statement of supreme triviality might be interesting to a reader is remarkable. Especially the "sometimes I say hi" part. It just caught Loe's state of arrested development (to borrow from Dad) so perfectly.

The style of the book was unique. This is undoubtedly it's core appeal. I think it would be difficult to replicate. I think Loe almost accidently got it just right. 


I found myself feeling a grudging admiration for the author, Erlend Loe. He relinquished plot, restricted himself to a few characters, and had only the hero's myopic view of New York by way of setting. Hence "slick." The book sustained interest despite being about a depressed person's lack of engagement with life. I could imagine clinical psychologists using this book to explain what it's like to be clinically depressed.

A question for me is why we seem to need books like this every so often. The Catcher in the Rye is the obvious comparison but I suspect there have been similar books that come out once a generation. I expect this one will sink as the others have and Catcher will remain the gold standard, but Naive Super has a contemporary sensibility that makes it accessible in a way Catcher perhaps is not.

I admired the brevity of the book and the way the author used repetition. This is working without a net -- Loe wanted to convey the main character's boredom and inability to be charmed by life, but risked boring the reader. Nicely done.

However, I was bored with the what-is-the-meaning-of-it-all parts of the book although the emails to the physicist were funny. I thought Loe handled the relationship with the brother well - it's clear they were always on the verge of alienation but strong family ties saw them through. The brother did not really understand what was happening, but his sheer determination to help seemed to give some energy to our hero (and gosh it's hard to write about him with no name -- take a cue from Holden Caulfield next time Loe!).

So I liked the book. My appreciation is perhaps more for the artisanlike way the book was constructed than the themes since by now of course I've been there and done that.

I am still wondering about one of the blurbs on the back cover -- "I devoured Erlend Loe with giggling enchantment." From some European magazine. Maybe it's a bad translation but "giggling enchantment" cannot be a means of devouring, and in any case, if you didn't understand how sad this book is, you didn't really read it. Giggling enchantment indeed.

I suggest that we read White Tigers next -- I think the two would be an interesting comparison. It is the opposite of Naive Super -- full of local color, plot, characters, detail.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Does any body really know what time it is?

Like everyone, I whisked through Naive.Super, enjoying it, mostly, or sort of, less as I went along cause I felt like it did not really go anywhere or get much further with its initial premises. No development. nothing happened, few hermeneutical arcs cast, few circles finished out. In fact, by the end I was a l bit miffed and wonder how tongue-in-check we were supposed to take those pages of useless forms and the email reply... I had the sensation our author was making fun of us for finishing his book, for expecting something --- or else I missed a whole lot!

Meanwhile, I enjoyed the front end a good deal. The minimalist style was neatly sustained, at least through the first two lists, which reminded me of Frog and Toad... :), as perhaps it was intended to do. But again, by the later lists, they were getting progressively more useless, more taking up of page space with little return for careful perusing of the stuff on his lists.

I particularly liked the early going motif of sending something off getting a return, culminating in the chimney ball-like scenes of throwing a ball against the wall and getting a ready return one could naturally handle, without all kinds of calculations -- such a natural thing -- like the give and take of conversation, etc. and the story of the man who collected the money from the errant boys but returned it to them. etc.

I liked the story in the story of Time, of the satire on astro-physics and the author of the physics textbook, Paul. I liked the touch of his having this simple, first name, which includes a sense of Paul the apostle, who was btw, the know-it-all of the apostles for not even being one of the chosen 12.

On the serious note, if there was one, we have this story of a person-ality who finds these issues about the universe, of time, times, relativity, but especially the theories of the end of the universe, etc, soooooo problematic, so stop-you-in-your-tracks. This aspect of our hero's life --- his taking this stuff at its real value, saying, in effect, wake up folks, if what these gurus say is so, we are already screwed -- if it is his superior awareness that we are supposed to recognize, then the book is surely in the mold of Salinger --- not only Catcher in the Rye but also Salinger's hyper-existentialist family, whose names I forget but include Frannie and Zoey and the "hero" of Perfect Day for Banana Fish -- who one day, out of a toxic mixture of happiness and this sense of all time being no time and everything going to end this way of the universe anyway, takes his life... the ultimate existentialist project. I thought something like that might be in store for our hero in Naive.Super, like a descent from the Empire State building to test out that theory of time being different at the top and bottom and all that. But, as noted, nothing really happens, even on his trip to New York.

I figure that there are at least four main classes of folks responding to the news of the universe and the era of 'the death of god' we've been in now for the last 150 years or so. One group is the scientist/atheists who say, come on folks this is the goods, the truth, let's deal with it, we're just now starting to get the hang of it -- put away all that transcendentalist, religious stuff. For them the story of the universe is the price we pay for science and realism. It is a story that we can expect to change or not, depending on how we play out the paradoxes of "structures of scientific revolution." bottom line: they are not so bummed out or concerned in everyday life by this story of Time and the Universe. The second group are the Anglican/Universalist scientifically minded religionists -- I suppose I caucus with them myself -- finding a glory in the universe and not sure what to make of this long story of Time and the Ultimate -- but like our hero says: we just say, hey, the world is gonna hold together for the next duration of thousands or millions of years, thats good enough for me, for us now, all we can handle, no or little use for Cosmic Worry --- that is what Hope and Faith are about -- and let's turn to Charity. Then there are the more orthodox folks who really are uncomfortable with this and most any other modernist, natural philosophy story of our existence. They are worried and want their old God-centric cosmos back. Finally, there are the folks who don't make it through the adolescent stage of recognizing all these perplexities as just that, who have trouble getting over the duplicity of their being no Santa Claus, no god. I won't say most but many people, regardless of where they come out the other end in formal allegiance to science or religion, develop a philosophical-pragmatic maturity about these matters. But almost everyone in our times at least goes through this angst-ridden phase. Naive.Super is in arrested development here, which can look like he's the only one with authentic consciousness the way adolescents often too, which was the point of Catcher in the Rye and similar stories of growing up. I did like the take on the Pope preferring the big-bang theory cause it jives with the Creation myth --- whereas Buddhists tend to prefer the creation/destruction cycle story... :)

Still, I felt that the author here started out well but did not know what to do with his premise, character or plot. Other themes that he started out with he did not develop well, such as the sibling stuff about his older brother. Nothing came of the potential girl-friend, though in that case, it was clear that he could not take it far: The script for the hero was pretty meager. He could not take him too far in many directions without violating his premise or turning into another kind of quasi-serious book. But I enjoyed the book nonetheless. It had some great moments and lines.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wild And Crazy East // Lev, Kurban, Assad, we hardly knew ya

My overall take is between Chris and Anthony's: I really enjoyed the history and the story of Lev -- though not quite so much Lev as an individual, for it is hard to separate out fact from fiction here, as Bon points out.

I've been told that there is a history of Jewish Middle Easterners identifying with Muslims or Islam, with their Orientalist roots in ways similar to Lev, though his is an extreme case. We think of Jewish folk so much as "European" but of course the original Jewish tribes are Semites as are the ancestors of the Arabs .... although who is really who biologically as opposed to culturally is getting more interesting every year, with DNA and new historical research.

Along these lines: there is a well known anthropologist named Talal Assad whose father lived a similar life as Lev (without the money and flamboyance) Born to Jewish parents, he wondered and lived many places became Muhammad Assad.

here's an article on Talal Assad's father, the comparisons are striking.

Reiss's history is unreliable, I agree, and with details that are fantasy pieces. --- But hey, it's better than, and more about, a part of the world than I've ever read. That area has been a huge blank to me all these decades.

I also really found the parts set in Germany between the Wars riveting. As well as the side story on the Russian Revolution — You've got to give Lev or Kurban credit: he nailed Stalin as a Total Murderous Thug early on and fully; as uncanny as it seems, it is apparently true that Stalin was living in his father's house for a while there.

Agreed, the intro was obtuse. Not very well done. That long section on the very old woman who was claiming to have written Ali and Nino was a distraction. The intro give away the basics, taking away mystery of the who Lev really was --- but trying to substitute the mystery of Reiss tracking the story down. "We know that he probably did or thought X at that time by later at Y he does or writes..." Here we are again with a writer-in-charge of a life of someone who reinvents himself, like Timonthy Treadwell, in Grizzly Man and our friend Werner Herzog. Anthony remarks on this too.

The theme of 'The Orient' itself is at the heart of the book, making it so relevant today. Like Chris, I was mesmerized by all of those historical matters going on in and around The Way West, then The Escape, Constantinople etc.

(Incidentally, if you want to see how much of this was portrayed in and around the edges of it you have only to watch Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago — the two David Lean movies. I figure I can get a plug into these with most of my posts...:)

But the richness and complexity of things — the unknown and now largely unknowable history of that vast region: that reality which we know was there but have no solid details and traces: that fascinates me. That town built by Immigrants with all those fine houses... then their having to leave it... The history the book introduces is marvelous: what other book are you going to read that reports on an interview with the last Caliph of the Ottoman Empire, the dude in the apartment in New York?

The story of his marriage was not as interesting except in its bizarre way of showing how celebrity statuses as we know them today were in high gear back then too, even without the net. The tabloids, newspapers, and Radio were the Net in those days.

It was also fun to read the history of Baku the first big Oil City — That the Zoroastrians' original God was related to these Fires that lit up vast areas, fires coming out of the earth... was interesting for the anthropology of religion. The story of how oil has been around these many centuries but until the combustion engine came along, not so valuable. That's just 150 years, a blip in history and it may be running down... :) but think of all that it has fueled!

Agreed, the biography part is not quite so satisfying fun unless you read it as cultural history of class, and the tie with upbringing, money and status. It would be great as Anthony says to know much more about Lev psychologically ... but that is just not there enoug in the book and Reiss is not the one to try it. The snippets Chris recalls of how his father would bail them out of trouble with money sowed into his suits, or get them into first class. Class was so much more openly played in those decades. It was really dampened down in the US after the depression of the 30s and WWII ... now, it's back, with the Oligarchs and all, the Banksters. Many Upper Class folks truly believe they are the superiors of the rest of humanity. They have many middle-class people believing them! That was the big simple theme in the movie the Titanic.

By the books end, I thought the story got serious and moving...the story of Lev holding up in Positano, the Italian village, as a Muslim... I found those parts in the last chapter moving because they were reflecting the story told in a more realistic light. Lev still has and depends on his Muslim identity...but the flutter of fantastic tales is now gone from him. Now, he needed that Muslim identity to stay alive. He was a writer to the end, with not much else to do; writing 10+ hours a day...until the authorities took his typewriter away, and he started writing in longhand. He did write about 30 books, with several of them read by many thousands of people

The book ends solemnly with the last lines Nev appears to have written: "I feel I have nothing to add to these lines — Kurban Said." As Reiss says, he reverts to his deepest disguise, that of Kurban Said, author of Ali and Nino, the Romantic novel that probably was for its reader's a story that precurses what we have today in stories such as Slumdog Millionaire.

I agree with Bon, it might be interesting to read Ali and Nino -- the sketch of the story reminds me of Slumdog Millionaire.

The edition of the paperback I have contains the a number of interesting pictures of Lev.

My entry here is rambling as can be. Like Chris I read it first time over a year ago. I went back over parts of it before Christmas. It is a book that holds up well in re-reading, if you are willing to skim past the bio parts that are less interesting. It points toward so many other things that are still so vital in our world today.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Naive Super for May 1st? And some responses.

Overall I think I agree with many of Mom's complaints - at least about him fabricating some of the material, but because I enjoyed the book more I gave more of a liberty allowance. However, I didn't get the sense that he did not put his time into the research. To me it sounded like he tracked down all sorts of people to draw from when compiling Lev's story.

If nothing else it has provided good discussion. I think Jeanette didn't read it at all and Dad's comments were a bit limited from how much he enjoyed the book, so Dad write more!

And moving on, let's set a date for Naive Super. I wrote in an email or something that I like the idea of just setting a date to begin discussion and those who get to it can write and others can submit comments late or give the book a miss if they cannot get to it for some reason. How about May 1st? It looks pretty short.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

good but slow

The history in this book was interesting and valuable but I found it hard to stay with - it a little didactic.

My main problem with the book was that it seemed speculative rather than a carefully researched account. The background history seemed solid, but clearly there were many liberties taken in describing Lev's life - just made up details no one could possibly have remembered. It seemed a kind of Truman Capote style fictionalized "truth," without admitting as much.

For example, early the book the author describes visiting a small apartment with "12 cats." Did he count them? A small apartment with 12 cats would have been unbearably smelly. I think he just made that detail up.

So it made me wonder what else he was making up. The story of Lev's mother -- which he first identified as speculative, but then slipped in as fact, really annoyed me. The author needed something colorful, so he fabricated a colorful figure, drawing stories he heard, but I began to even wonder about the stories.

I didn't find Lev all that fascinating. He looked like a spoiled self-satisfed man, a bit too pleased with himself. I could not relate to him.

The real mystery is why we are reading this book instead of Lev's. If it was that great, we should go to the source. I didn't understand what the author was adding (apart from the speculations which I did not believe).

When the author writes something like "Lev glanced around nervously" was he paraphrasing what Lev wrote or just doing the Capote thing? The whole book is that kind of material.

I think the history is very valuable in this book. I probably would have preferred a straight history without the hindrance of Lev. And I never understood why a European Jew would want to be an "Orientalist," imagining himself a Muslim.

Friday, March 20, 2009

the Orientalist, Keep the History Coming

I read the Orientalist some time ago now. I'll start with just a couple words about how I remember it a few months on. The thing I took most from the Orientalist was an interest in the history it covered, and also a broader sense of how truly rich and vast human history is.

And here are my comments from shortly after finishing (apparently the last draft was saved on December 17th):

Overall, I enjoyed it a lot. A very rich, thorough, and at times confusing history of Eurasia. In fact there was so much in there I feel like I missed half of the book thanks to my poor knowledge of the region's history. But a clever device intertwining Lev's life with the history of the region.

When I first started reading I had trouble getting into it. In retrospect I think he went too into the detailed and hard-to-follow family history of Lev. I know it was important - actually more than important. I think the author felt it a central point to his book, but I could not follow those names only a couple pages in. I think a shorter version of that or getting into the nitty-gritty later would have been better. A reader only partially interested could have felt overwhelmed quickly if not paying careful attention.

The next part of the book I remember a lot was the chapter "the escape", which was fascinating. Hearing about their travels left me feeling mesmerized for the Orient, let alone Lev who was there. The crazy messenger who expected a bribe but came up without the lightest hint of venal inflection to his voice (in Lev's view) was great. Then Lev worrying he'd turn into a pleasure boy! But of all the craziness I think my favorite part was when Lev and the Armenian's truck broke down leaving them riding on horses with fake business papers claiming they were fishing expects out collecting fishing supplies by horse. And, of course, the unlikelihood of Lev running into his father in that village to escape possible death was straight out of hollywood.

To mention one more incredible situation was when Abraham and Lev got into Constantinople because the British were in charge and waived the first class passengers through citing they were "above political suspicion" just because they were rich. This chapter also introduced me to the important history of the Young Turks and their disastrous effort to modernize Turkey and then scapegoating the Armenians.

Lev's arrival in Berlin is where I became more interested in the history than in Lev's life. Reading about the Russian's huge influence in Germany was news to me! I had no idea the gravity of the Russian emigres presence had in Berlin. And Lev being caught in the middle of multiple revolutions must have been an unreal time period to be alive. It impressed on me how far behind Germany and most of the european countries were even in the 20th century. Reiss also selected some really choice individuals to follow in a few chapters about this topic. I thought Walther Ratheneu was a particularly interesting one. Being into the assimilation of Jews into Germany and holding such a high post after being an amazing businessman. At the time he must have been just about the most obvious target alive in Germany. I remember reading the sentence about him musing over his own assassination and just nodding. But what truly got me about this man was that after crying when Germany instigated WWI he then proceeded to be one of the most clever logistical organizers to the German's offensive. Setting up the Imperial Raw Materials Office after being laughed at for suggesting the war might last up to and over a year. Reiss said this may have prolonged Germany's war effort for 1-2 years!

It was the carefully selected history and the way it affected people and was perceived by people that really made the book for me. When Reiss went to the Italian village and the villagers refused to believe him regarding the grave is a great example of how much perception rules. Maybe someone else can retell this story for me, I've forgotten exactly what happened.

This is a perfect book for me to re-read, even soon, because even re-reading what I wrote in December I found I'd forgotten some of it.

The Orientalist: A story of a remarkable life among the Bolsheviks, Ottomans, and Nazis

I won't forget having to drag myself through some of the slower sections of The Orientalist, but in the end it's a great story set at a pivotal time in history. I'm glad to have read it. To me, the best part of the book is how the author Tom Reiss uncovers the story of Lev Nussimbaum. I was interested to read about Lev's bizarre and tragic life and I loved hearing about all the people that the author tracked down in pursuing Lev's story.

It amazed me that the confusion created by the historical events of the first half of the twentieth century was so great that, even in modern times, many people did not know that Lev was in fact the author of a classic work of literature that has come to help define a large city. This was a great mystery that really set the stage for Lev's story. His reinventions of himself clearly led to the confusion and it was cool to see how those reinventions were in part a response to the historical events that dominated his life.

I got a little bogged down in some of the wide historical digressions. I kept thinking: get back to Lev! Clearly Lev lived in an interesting time and place, and furthermore, he was really part of the action, not just a bystander. In light of his participation as a writer (especially as a biographer) in events of massive historic magnitude, it made sense to set the historical stage. However, there is such a thing as too much information and there were definitely some parts of the book for which I knew I was going to forget the details almost immediately after I read them.

One historical aspect I did enjoy reading about was the feuding political parties of the era. Hearing about the epic struggles for power between communists, Nazis, and monarchists of all varieties makes our current debates between democrats and republicans look like pretty tame. It was truly remarkable (and quite unfortunate) that Lev's life brushed so closely with both the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of the Nazis. Obviously Lev payed dearly for these brushes with evil regimes, his father losing his livelihood to the Bolsheviks and Lev to the Nazis.

My general impression of Lev was that he was a pretty weird guy. His bizarre personality, especially his fetishizing of Muslim culture, left me to wonder whether he was naturally a wannabe/poser or whether the extraordinary circumstances of his life somehow brought on an identity crisis. I think his chosen identity is not so different from a suburban white kid who fetishizes gangster rap. I was interested to learn that the dagger-wearing Muslim shieks were in those days considered symbols of virile masculinity, much the way rappers are today. I think we may have discussed this theme of self reinvention in other books, but I can't remember the context now. Maybe someone else remembers.

At some points in the book, I found myself wanting to know a little bit more about Lev's personality. For example, I was left curious about how his divorce unfolded. On the one hand, it sounded like Lev was being cheated on; on the other hand, it sounds like Lev was being abusive with his morbid rants, but I couldn't quite tell if those morbid rants were factual or invented. What was he really like to hang out with? Would he really act that way?

All in all I enjoyed the book. I think what I most took away from it is the powerlessness that can befall anyone who is caught in the wrong historical moment. Thanks to Chris for recommending this book and getting us copies!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Welcome to the Club!

Welcome to the Darrouzet-Nardi Book Club blog! Our current selection is The Orientalist by Tom Reiss and the discussion will start sometime within the next month.

To read some of our older discussions, see our homepage:

Thanks for reading!