Best Book of the Week!

29 Jul

Cover for StonerThis week’s Best Book is Stoner by John Williams!

Day 560: Shah of Shahs

28 Jul

Cover for Shah of ShahsI remember the Iranian revolution very well, so when my book club selected any book by Ryszard Kapuściński, I chose Shah of Shahs.

Before the revolution, I dated an Iranian student who called himself a revolutionary. Since I never knew him to work toward a revolution in any way, I always figured that he thought he was doing something fashionable or expected by espousing the cause. (I’m not saying that many weren’t sincere or that they didn’t have reason to want a change in government.) Still, I never believed that the Iran those students got was the one they wanted.

Shah of Shahs is an odd book, not exactly journalism, not as incisive and fact-based as, say, an essay by Hitchens, full of opinion and supposition. The book jacket refers to Kapuściński as a mythographer and to the book as a combination of journalism and literature. Perhaps it is this combination that I have trouble with.

What the book does provide is plenty of information about the roots of the people’s discontent—and they were truly a mistreated and abused nation. Kapuściński starts by describing his room in a Teheran hotel, where in 1985 he is the only remaining occupant. His room is cluttered with photographs and scraps of notes from interviews. He puts them in order, describes the photos—beginning with one of the Shah’s grandfather—and relates bits of the history of Iran. Later, he describes his interviews with intellectuals who returned from abroad, people whose relatives were tortured by the Savak, people who were afraid to speak or act for fear of torture, people who took part in protests at the risk of their lives, and so on. In one case, he tells the story about an old man who complains about the heat at a bus stop, calling it “oppressive.” He is hauled off by the Savak for using the word “oppressive,” and he probably wasn’t seen again.

The book is sparely written. It also contains fascinating material that brought me to a better understanding of the dilemmas of Iran. But especially toward the end of the book, it indulges itself in flights of philosophical rumination about the causes of revolutions, which I did not find as interesting.

Day 559: Snow Country

25 Jul

Cover for Snow CountryPerhaps I did not spend enough time considering Snow Country, because I kept feeling as if I was missing something. I couldn’t figure out if this problem was cultural or more an issue with the misogyny of the 1950’s, when it was written.

The novel follows the affair of Shimamura, an effete and sophisticated intellectual, with Komako, a simple country girl who during the novel becomes a geisha. Part of my initial problem had to do with understanding the implications of being a geisha. After all my prior reading lead me to believe that a geisha is different and in fact higher in status than a prostitute, I had to read the introduction to understand that in these hot springs villages, at least in the time the novel is set, a geisha was essentially a prostitute.

Nevertheless, when Shimamura meets Komako, she is a geisha in training, so clearly not a prostitute. Shimamura has come down from traveling in the mountains and immediately asks the hotel clerk for a geisha. None are available, so she sends him Komako. Shimamura spends the night talking to Komako but then asks her to send him a geisha. It is clear what he wants, but he seems to think he deserves some kind of credit for “behaving well” with her, whereas I, and Komako as well, understood his request as insulting. I do not think we’re supposed to like Shimamura, and I didn’t.

We know far more about Shimamura than we do about Komako. We first encounter him on a train on the way back to Komako’s village after the affair is already started. He is struck by Yoko, a girl who is tending to a sick man. Throughout, though, he is far more interested in his fantasies around Yoko than in actually getting to know her. The essence of Shimamura’s personality comes clear when we learn that he is an expert on occidental ballet even though he has never seen a ballet performed—and prefers not to.

For her part, Komako throws herself into the affair with Shimamura even though it is clearly doomed. Although Shimamura’s behavior remains consistent and it is clear that he is incapable of love, Komako is erratic. Toward the end of the relationship she says one thing and does another, she arrives roaring drunk, and she seems to have an inexplicable love/hate relationship with Yoko, as Yoko does with her.

Of course, the future for Komako is not bright, and she becomes more dissipated as the novel progresses. Although I feel we are supposed to sympathize with her, I found her exasperating. The love affair seems sterile, and I don’t see the point of it.

But this novel is set in the cold and gray snow country. Although part of the affair takes place in other seasons, the most important scenes are in the beginning of winter, and the affair ends in the fall. A sense of isolation permeates the novel.

The writing is beautifully spare, as Kawabata is a poet. I feel it is dense in meaning, but if so, I probably missed a lot of it.

Day 558: La Reine Margot

24 Jul

Cover for La Reine MargotIf you’ve been following my reviews of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series about medieval France, you’ve probably seen me use the phrase “nest of vipers.” La Reine Margot, set a couple of centuries later, is just as full of intrigues, infidelities, betrayals, and even poisonings.

It is 1572, and the French court is celebrating the inexplicable marriage of Marguerite of Valois (Margot) to Henry of Navarre. France is at the height of the wars between Catholic and Huguenot, and Charles IX has proposed the union between his sister and the leader of the Huguenots purportedly to further peace.

Soon, though, we find out that the wedding is a trap for the leading Huguenots planned by Charles and his evil mother Catherine de Medicis. (Note that throughout I spell names as they were in the book.) For that evening of St. Bartholomew’s Day, troops are sent out all over Paris to massacre the Huguenots, who are in town for the wedding.

Thinking to rid himself of an enemy in Henry of Navarre, Charles has not considered his sister. Even though she and Henry are not romantically attached, the two have sworn to support each other. When Henry is trapped in the Louvre with the royal family, a combination of Margot’s support and his recanting saves his life. Margot has also rescued a young wounded Huguenot, La Mole, from the slaughter, providing a romantic subplot for the novel.

So begins the novel about how Henry of Navarre, aided by Margot, survives the machinations of the Valois family. The rumor is that Catherine recently murdered Henry’s mother by poisoning her, and Catherine also works in charms and horoscopes. Charles IX is unstable, first mistrusting Henry and then treating him like a brother. Henry d’Anjou, Charles’ brother, detests Henry of Navarre and thinks he is a threat to d’Anjou’s own right to the throne after his brother. François d’Alençon, the other brother, wavers in his decision to ally with Navarre.

Dumas was a writer of the Romantic movement, which de-emphasized rationality and emphasized emotion. The romantic plot involves the love affair between Margot and the naive and gallant La Mole, who is drawn into danger because of his love and religion.

My Oxford World Classics edition was fortified with copious notes, including information about which events were true and which were invented. Dumas is prone to using real people in his historical romances, and it was just a little off-putting to discover, for example, that the real La Mole was not a gallant Huguenot but a fundamentalist Catholic who was responsible for many murders during the massacre. Still, I found the real stories as fascinating as the novel.

If you like a fast-moving adventure that also involves political maneuvering, this is a good book for you. I was more interested in the nerve and political agility of Navarre than I was in the romance, but I still enjoyed the novel.

One caution—an abbreviated version of this novel is available as Marguerite of Valois. I have not read it, but if you want the more complete novel, look for La Reine Margot. (Yes, it is in English but also in French, so be careful if you order it online.)

Just a side note. I have written much about Dorothy Dunnett’s excellent historical novels. One of her Crawford of Lymond novels, Queen’s Play, is also partially concerned with the massacre.

Day 557: The Year of the Flood

22 Jul

Cover for The Year of the FloodThe Year of the Flood covers much the same time period as does the first novel of the Maddaddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, only from the points of view of different characters. What the two main characters of this novel have in common is the Gardeners, an ecological religious cult.

Years ago, Toby was a pleeblander attending a mediocre college until one of the Corporations wanted her father’s land. After her father’s questionable suicide, Toby destroyed her identity and got along as best she could in the margins of society. When she found herself captive in an abusive relationship with a thug named Blanco, her friend Rebecca and the Gardeners came to her rescue. At the beginning of the novel, though, Toby is living alone in the Anoo Yoo spa after the Waterless Flood, long predicted by the Gardeners.

Ren lived in the elite Compounds where her father was a drug industry worker until her mother ran off with Zeb, a Gardener, taking Ren with her. She spent most of her childhood with the Gardeners until her mother split from Zeb and moved back to the Compounds, claiming to be a kidnapping victim. Ren is in isolation at the sex club where she works when the Waterless Flood occurs. Being locked away from others saves her from the plague.

Both women find they must leave their sanctuaries and venture out into a deadly world, the unintended consequence of the madness of Crake.

The Year of the Flood provides more insight about the events leading up to the Flood and the identities of the group calling themselves Maddaddam. The novel is ironically punctuated by the homilies of Adam One, leader of the Gardeners, and by Gardener hymns.

This novel is fascinating, full of sly humor and an incredible inventiveness. I can’t wait to read Maddaddam.

Day 556: Stoner

21 Jul

Cover for StonerWhen I first began reading Stoner, I was afraid it was going to be a bleak modernist novel. But it is the opposite of bleak. It is a novel about a shy, awkward man who loves. Williams called it “an escape into reality.”

Williams begins the novel by describing William Stoner’s career at the University of Missouri:

“He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.”

It seems that Williams will be writing about a nonentity, but this is not the case.

On the surface, Stoner does not have a happy life. He is the son of a dirt-poor farmer who decides that William should attend college to learn new agricultural techniques. So, Stoner arrives at the University of Missouri a gawky, unsophisticated boy who has only a mild interest in his courses and begins an undistinguished career.

Then in his sophomore year, he takes a required English literature survey course. Although he is speechless in class, he realizes he has found the thing he loves and so changes his major. He eventually earns a doctorate and begins a teaching career at the university.

He makes an unfortunate choice for a wife, marrying a girl whose training makes her more suitable for a society wife than that of an impoverished instructor. It is not clear why Edith marries him except possibly to get away from home. She makes very clear how distasteful she finds sex, and he is too inexperienced to know what to do about it.

Edith’s sexuality changes briefly when she decides she wants a child. After their daughter Grace is born, though, Edith takes little interest in her or in him. Stoner, on the other hand, falls madly for Grace. He takes on almost all the care for her in her first five or six years of life. Then Edith does everything she can to separate them and mold Grace into the type of girl Edith thinks she should be.

Stoner’s solace is in his work, for which he eventually finds a talent for teaching Medieval literature. His progress in his career is hindered, though, by university politics. He finds himself in a dispute over the fitness of a student to enter the doctoral program. Although Stoner’s position is completely justified and his actions misrepresented, he earns himself the enmity of the student’s mentor, Hollis Lomax, who eventually becomes department chair.

Stoner falls in love and finds for awhile some tenderness, but he knows his relationship will be short-lived. It is also ended by university politics.

What Williams accomplishes in this novel is to turn that first assessment of Stoner on its head. Stoner is a flawed man who owes many of the difficulties of his life to inaction, but he is doing work he loves, he is completely conscientious in his efforts, and he even manages a minor victory over his enemy after years of patience. The introduction to the novel states that although readers think Williams is depicting a sad life, he sees it as a novel about love, all the forms it takes, and the forces against it.

You may think this novel sounds dreary. It is not, and it is not often that you feel as if you know and love a character so thoroughly.


Best Book of the Week!

18 Jul

Cover for White OleanderThis week’s Best Book is White Oleander by Janet Fitch. Special mention goes to Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen.


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