Book(ish) Notes

Posted on: August 14, 2011

Like everything else that took place in the Soviet Union, this upsurge of spontaneous fury had been conceived and planned well in advance.

Elections to the Supreme Soviet were planned by Stalin in exactly the same way; information was collected, deputies were chosen — and from then on the spontaneous nomination of these deputies went ahead as planned, as did their election campaigns and eventual victory in national elections.

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. Really good reading, especially for those with an interest in Communism and how life under Stalin ran in Soviet Russia.

A short video made entirely of books to celebrate 4th Estates 25th Anniversary. Lovely.

This Is Where We Live from 4th Estate on Vimeo.

Here is a link to the 30 author-on-author criticisms and insults, with some being very harsh indeed. My favourite:

Mark Twain on Jane Austen (1898)
“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Just for the record: I liked Pride and Prejudice, but that quite made me laugh.

Agnostic Quote

Posted on: June 7, 2011

I came across an interesting quote from Margaret Atwood about her religious beliefs in an article in Narrative Magazine. (I had to register to read the interview, but if you’re an Atwood fan, it’s worth it).

I’m a strict, strict agnostic. It’s very different from a casual, “I don’t know.” It’s that you cannot present as knowledge something that is not knowledge. You can present it as faith, you can present it as belief, but you can’t present it as fact.

Or as my friend Cathy once told me: “If you could have proof, they wouldn’t call it faith anymore.”

Further down, she says:

Even with people who have a proclaimed religion, what you really need to look at is how they live, see how sincere they are about that.

I found these quotes interesting, but the rest of the interview is also good (though long).

The Crimson Petal and the WhiteFor the last two weeks I have been reading this book. The length of the time is not very unusual, but what has been unusual is the fact that this 833-page book has taken over my life. I found myself sneaking glances at its text when cooking; I tried to read as my children played; I would take it with me everywhere just in case there was a few minutes of spare time and I could read one more paragraph or a page or a few (though I usually take a book with me, the fact is that this one was heavy!). I would stay up late at night — or what constitutes late for me — to read one more chapter.

Set in the late 19th Century, the book follows the ambitious Sugar, her benefactor William, his brother Henry, his wife Agnes and a friend of Henry’s, Emmeline Fox. I sunk into a Victorian world, with depictions of its underbelly and crippling poverty as contrasted with the relative well-being of the middle and upper classes. What pulled me in, more than anything, was Sugar and her determination to leave her life as a prostitute. She is desperate to cleave herself to William and never to return to the squalid neighbourhood of her youth.

These chattering women in dresses or licorice-stripe and sandwichboard-men, these winking shop-keepers, these jaunty sailors and dour office workers, these beggars and prostitutes — every one of them lays clain to a share of Destiny every bit as generous as hers. There’s only so much juice to be extracted from the world, and a ravenous multitude is brawling and scuffling to get it.

I felt sorry for William and, as the story went on, felt even more sympathy for his wife who suffered from the ignorance of her time and a lack of understanding of women and their issues. Henry’s frustration with his body and its needs were fascinating as was his relationship with Emmeline Fox, though I did feel like telling him at times to stop dithering and get Emmeline before it’s too late.

All in all, it’s a very good book, drawing the reader in and keeping him wanting to find out more. Does Sugar make her escape from her life as a prostitute? What happens to William and his fortunes? Does someone finally help Agnes? Does Henry find happiness with Emmeline? I’ll leave you to find this out for yourself.

Rating? Ummm…ok, I’ll try rating. 5 stars out of 5. (I should maybe get a diagram of those star thingies, eh?)

so reads the article by Dan Newman in the WSJ.

A book is more than a shell for words: It’s a box whose magic starts at its real-world dimensions. No other common item so lacks a standardized size, and that makes individual books memorable. I could tell with my eyes closed if you’ve handed me a copy of “The Great Gatsby” that isn’t mine.

The whole article is interesting and can be found here (if it won’t let you read it, you’ll need to Google it and then choose the first link that comes up). I don’t own a Kindle and have no interest in one, so I agree with Dan Newman. Maybe one day…but, for now, I’m happy with a physical book in my hands.

To start this blog with a review of a non-fiction book will give a slightly false impression. I don’t read much non-fiction, at least not as much as I’d like to. But if you don’t read much non-fiction either, then you should really think about this book.

Philip Pan was a correspondent for the Washington Post (he now heads their Moscow bureau) in China in the early 00’s. In this book, he talks about China’s struggle to emerge from the shadow and influence of Chairman Mao. You’re thinking “yaaawn, boooring”, aren’t you?

The book is nothing like a dry analysis of the political landscape. Instead, Pan focues on people who’ve been affected by changes in China, people who’ve tried to influence that change into something more positive and those who benefitted from the change.

The stories are real and the people described evoke all kinds of emotions in the reader: hope, sadness, anger and disappointment. The subject could have easily become dull and dry, written in a technical jargon, filled with statistics. But Pan looks at the human side of change in China, with information presented in a much more approachable way.

5/5 stars

Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal – Alan Bennett

Currently Reading

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories by T. Goossen (ed.)