Saturday, July 26, 2014

Snow White and Russian RedSnow White and Russian Red by Dorota Masłowska
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For years my wife has been telling me about this young (born in 1983) Polish writer, Dorota Maslowska, and about her book "Snow White and Russian Red" (2002) (the original Polish title sounds much better: "Wojna polsko-ruska pod flaga bialo-czerwona", which roughly means "A Polish-Russian war, under the white and red flag"). I have been reluctant to read it; after all what can one expect from a nineteen year old author? While it is obvious that at nineteen one can be a great mathematician, poet, chess player, and the like, it seems impossible to write a great novel at that age. At nineteen one can have the knowledge of structures, but not the structure of knowledge, which takes years and years of living to emerge. For example, I myself at nineteen was a total idiot (like almost all of my friends and acquaintances, boys much more than girls, sorry for the sexist stereotyping); of course I knew about music, games, sports, films, TV, etc., but I knew nothing about the matters that count, I knew nothing about life.

Now that I have read the book (in English translation, because someone has borrowed the Polish original from us and never bothered to return it), I am totally blown away by it. There is much depth in the novel, and the writing is utterly magnificent. The entire ending is a literary tour de force; it is poetic, hypnotic, brilliant. Like, wow, man.

The novel, which some critics rightly compare to "Catcher in the Rye", "Trainspotting", "Naked Lunch", is about gray, depressing, small-town life of young people, the author's contemporaries, in the times of systemic change in Poland, from the so-called Communism to free-market economy. The narrator is a young man, called Nails (Silny, in the Polish original), who has just been dumped by his girlfriend. Nails and everybody else in the novel are constantly on speed. They live from day to day, without any aim, in a country where, as they say, there is no future. They look up to the West and down on the "Russkies".

When I was 19, life was so much easier. We knew who the bad guys were: the government, the press, radio, and TV. They were always lying to us, the good Polish people. In 2002 Poland things are not so easy; it is hard to know who the bad people are. Nails claims to be a leftist-anarchist, but he really does not know what it means and is mainly interested in satisfying the needs of this one special part of his body.

"Snow White and Russian Red" is a biting satire on xenophobia and fake patriotism: "Either you are a Pole or you're not a Pole. Either you are Polish or you're Russki. And to put it more bluntly, either you're a person or you're a prick." Patriotism is measured by respect of the flag.

It is a very funny novel as well. I burst out laughing about every other page. The translation by Benjamin Paloff is totally wonderful. I will soon read the original and amend this review, if need be, but I cannot believe the original Polish version could be any better. The quarter of a star that I am taking off is for the author's failed device (in my opinion) of putting herself, "Dorota Masloska", in the final parts of the book.

Here's a passage that reminds me of some of the great works in world literature; it could have been written by William Faulkner or James Joyce, but it was written by 19-year-old Dorota Maslowska, barely out of high school in Wejherowo, Poland:

"Indeed, we're girls talking about death, swinging a leg, eating nuts, though there's no talk of those who are absent. They're scarcely bruises and scratches that we did to ourselves, riding on a bike, but they look like floodwaters on our legs, like purple seas, and we're talking fiercely about death. And we imagine our funeral, at which we're present, we stand there with flowers, eavesdrop on the conversations, and cry more than everybody, we keep our moms at hand, we throw earth at the empty casket, because that way death doesn't really concern us, we are different, we'll die some other day or won't die at all. We're dead serious, we smoke cigarettes, taking drags in such a way that an echo resounds in the whole house, and we flick the ash into an empty watercolor box."

Four and three quarter stars (five stars for the translation).

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Book of Bees...and How to Keep ThemA Book of Bees...and How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorite animal is Apis mellifera and among many, many things in the world that make me sad, very few make me sadder than the danger to the survival of bees. World agriculture may suffer because of decreased pollination, people may have to miss out on honey, and this wonderful and fascinating species may face a risk of near extinction. I have a personal regret as well: over 12 years ago, when my wife and I bought a house with a large garden, we had thousands of bees, living in an ad-hoc hive in the walls of our pool shack, buzzing sweetly all around, working on flowers, and pollinating our avocado tree. Even two or three years ago, we still had some bees and my dream of getting a few beehives to work with when I retire was still alive. Now all bees are gone from our garden. What's worse, bee colonies are disappearing all over the world at much faster pace than in the past because of the so-called Colony Collapse Disorder, probably caused by new-generation pesticides.

I have just read a wonderful book about bees and beekeeping, Sue Hubbell's "A Book of Bees" (1988), one of the many books I had bought because of my retirement apiculture plans. In the 1980s Ms. Hubbell was a commercial beekeeper, with an annual yield of about 6,000 pounds of honey from 300 hives. She clearly knows what she is writing about, despite her protestations "The only time I ever believed that I knew all there was to know about beekeeping was the first year I was keeping them. Every year since I've known less and less and have accepted the humbling truth that bees know more about making honey than I do". (The realization that it takes a lot of learning to know how little we know is, of course, true for most professionals.) In addition to all the stuff about beekeeping, Ms. Hubbell writes about plants and various creatures of the Ozarks, where she had her honey business. Her writing is beautiful: leisurely, assured, quiet, yet engaging. She even quotes large fragments of Virgil's poem about bees that had been written over 2000 years ago.

Of all earth's creatures, bees feature some of the most fascinating social behaviors. I have read several books about bees, including research monographs, so I have some rudimentary understanding of the theory of the subject. Ms. Hubbell provides so many details of the practice. From her book I have learned about joining colonies, uniting hives, preventing swarming, dealing with "supersedure" (which happens when bees themselves "requeen" the colony), and many other topics. Let me quote one humbling tidbit: to make one pound of honey a single bee would have to fly 76 thousand miles (three times around the Earth). I have also learned that, contrary to popular perception, bees spend a lot of time doing nothing at all, which makes me love them even more. Clever creatures!

My fascination with bees probably began in 1962 or 1963, when I read the well-known 1901 book "The Life of the Bee" by Maurice Maeterlinck. I hope that fifty years from now bees will still be around, pollinating flowers, making honey, and making my grand-grand-grandchildren happy.

Four stars.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Death And The Princess (Perry Trethowan, #2)Death And The Princess by Robert Barnard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Robert Barnard's "Death and the Princess", my tenth book of this author, is quite unremarkable. I will make up for it by writing a remarkably short review, compared to my usual overlong and tedious writings. I keep reading Barnard because I love his sardonic writing style, occasional snide remarks, frequent use of high-quality humor, and the fun he has with the English language. Nice examples of all of these qualities can be found in the novel, yet this time I find the plot quite weak.

Princess Helena is a distant cousin of the British royal family. There are indications that she might be in harm's way, and Superintendent Perry Trethowan is chosen to be her personal bodyguard because of his "couthness". When people with whom the Princess has had connections begin to die, the plot gets quite complicated.

The denouement is surprising, but it is revealed during a conversation between the detective and his sidekick - so very cliché. Some funny bits about royal lifestyles and about Mrs. Thatcher are high points of the novel.

Two and a quarter stars.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

The BreastThe Breast by Philip Roth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I loved Philip Roth's "Goodbye, Columbus" when I read it some 45 years ago (note to myself: re-read it, as an adult). Alas, I cannot say the same about "The Breast" (1972), a strange tale of a 38 year-old David Kepesh, a literature professor, who turns into a breast. Yes, "a one-hundred-and-fifty-five-pound mammary gland".

"The Breast" is awfully dated. Dated to the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and the mumbo jumbo of the psychoanalytic frenzy of these times. Professor Kepesh is a dedicated observer of his bodily functions and psychological states. As a breast, he struggles with intense erotic desires and is totally focused on the pleasures of his body. His girlfriend, Claire, sucks at his nipple, but he yearns for "orgasmic finale to [his] excitement". So very Sixties, idiotic stuff.

Mr. Roth gives us a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" when he mentions Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and Gogol's "The Nose". Then we have allusions to Swift, and a wonderful poem by Rilke is quoted. As if mentioning the famous works of literary art that inspired this novella could elevate it to greatness. Professor Kepesh says "I have out-Kafkaed Kafka." No, sir. You definitely have not. This is a mediocre effort.

Two stars.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and MountainsEiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genetic lottery gifted me with an extreme lack of motor coordination and a case of vertigo, thus I have not become a mountain climber. Yet I love hiking in the mountains and reading about extreme climbing. I have just finished Jon Krakauer's "Eiger Dreams" (1990), and one of the stories in this book is particularly moving. In late 1970s and early 1980s I used to be friends with Dobroslawa "Mrowka" Wolf (I worked in the same room of a research institute with her husband, Jan Wolf, also a world-class climber), and my wife and I spent many evenings with them, proud to be their friends. Dobroslawa perished on K2 during the carnage of 1986. The eleventh story in "Eiger Dreams" is about that horrible summer. (Jan Wolf died several years later, also during a climb).

The book is a collection of 12 articles that mostly had been published earlier in various magazines. The first story is about the famous North Face, Nordwand, of the Eiger, and about the author's retreat caused by bad weather. (Incidentally, Jan Wolf was a member of the team that recorded the fastest winter ascent of the face in 1978.) The other stories are about various adventures related to climbing, such as bouldering, frozen waterfall climbing, determining mountain elevation, etc.

The seventh story, "Chamonix", brings another memory. Krakauer writes "The Czechs and the Poles, for instance, who tend to be both short of hard currency and hard as nails, eschew the hotels and pensions in favor of farmers' fields on the outskirts of town, where they pay four or five francs per night for the privilege of shitting in the woods and pitching their ragged tents amid the mud and cow pies." In 1981, my wife and I spent two days on such a camping in Argentiere, few miles up the valley from Chamonix. We looked at Aiguille du Midi, listened to the cows mooing, and drank large quantities of cheap French red wine, while the rain pounded our tent.

Mr. Krakauer, in addition to being an outstanding climber, is a gifted writer. The book is extremely readable, very informative, and occasionally quite funny ("Dangling fifty feet below the surface in the blue twilight of the crevasse, Conrad first made a quick examination of his trousers to see if his sphincter had let go..."). I also enjoyed learning about various sources of theodolite measurement errors (gravitational pull, refraction) and the ways of compensating for them.

I like the last story the best; it is about the author's attempt to climb the Devils Thumb, Alaska. It contains the following gem: "at the age of twenty-three personal mortality - the idea of my own death - was still largely outside my conceptual grasp; it was as abstract a notion as non-Euclidian geometry or marriage." Even if one has no personal connections to the stories, "Eiger Dreams" is a very good book.

Four stars.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

James JoyceJames Joyce by Chester G. Anderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A little over 40 years ago I read James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and the book made an extremely strong impression on me, then a young man but alas no artist. Since then, I have read substantial fragments of "Ulysses", many passages from "Finnegans Wake", and several stories from "The Dubliners" (quite recently the magnificent novella "The Dead", which I review here ). I have also read long excerpts of Richard Ellman's famous biography of Joyce, which I now want to read in its entirety.

Chester G. Anderson's biography "James Joyce" is much, much smaller in scope than the Ellman's work. Instead of over 800 pages, we have some 140 pages, almost half of which are used for wonderful photographs and illustrations (124 of them). Although this book may feel like a teaser for the real thing, I find it quite interesting and not at all shallow. For instance, Mr. Anderson writes about Joyce: "Looking intently at world through words and at words through his experience of the world, he needed to name everything in his experience". While having no literary talent whatsoever, I also look at the world through words rather than images, and I often find that one word is worth a thousand images.

Among other pearls of wisdom, the author twice mentions the quote "the past assuredly implies a fluid succession of presents" (from Joyce's 1904 essay). Then, towards the end, Mr. Anderson puts an exclamation mark on his work stating that Joyce could say to Samuel Beckett "I can do anything with language."

James Joyce was born only nine years before my grandmother. Had he been of better health, he could have been still alive when I was reading "A Portrait" in the early 1970s. But then, would he have anything left to write after "Finnegans Wake", which he finished in 1939 after dedicating to it 16 years of his life?

Three and a half stars.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

The Case Of The Missing Brontë (Perry Trethowan, #3)The Case Of The Missing Brontë by Robert Barnard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Works by the Brontë sisters were mandatory reading in my high school in the 1960s yet I was never able to finish any of the books. I found the novels boring and I preferred reading various "counterculture" items and watching Monty Python's skit showing a semaphore version of "Wuthering Heights". Maybe that's why I do not particularly like Robert Barnard's "The Case of the Missing Brontë" (1983). It is a well written, and occasionally very funny mystery, but I find it the least interesting of the nine novels by Mr. Barnard that I have read so far.

Superintendent Perry Trethowan is on vacations with Jan and Daniel in Northumberland, when their car breaks down. Staying overnight in a small Yorkshire town they meet Miss Edith Wing, who tells them that she has found a manuscript, probably an unknown Brontë's draft. Few days later, Miss Wing is heavily assaulted and put in a hospital, where she fights for her life. Perry is assigned the case and tries to unravel the mystery of the missing manuscript.

The plot is rather pedestrian, and it is the occasional brilliant writing that somewhat redeems the novel. I laughed at the characterizations of some people from the U.S. - "all wind, or all fraud". The Yorkshire phrase "I said you didn't ought to have" is quite funny. What I enjoyed the most is the following clever wordplay: "[...] he just looked ahead with that bullish expression on his unintelligent policeman's face (I mean, of course, his unintelligent-policeman's face)". What a difference a dash makes! Superb writing! But not a superb book, by any means.

Two stars.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Little Local MurderA Little Local Murder by Robert Barnard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Up to almost the very end of Robert Barnard's "A Little Local Murder" I was thinking it was the weakest of his eight novels that I have read. Then the denouement came, and I do not think so any more. One of the most surprising, yet not implausible endings that I remember, and one that adds some gravity to the light satirical tone of the rest of the novel (quite unlike in the same author's "Bodies" reviewed here, where the grim ending is completely incongruous with the tone of the book).

The story happens in mid-1970s in Twytching, a small town in eastern England. Radio Broadwich is planning a documentary on the town to be broadcast in the twin town of Twytching, Wisconsin, U.S. All local personalities are jockeying to be on the show, which allows Mr. Barnard to offer a broad satire on small-town mentality and politics and lampoon the power games that people play. When a murder happens, Inspector Parrish and the tiny Twytching police force eventually manage to solve the case.

Robert Barnard has a unique gift of portraying people at their worst. We are vain, selfish, pompous, scheming, controlling, conceited, duplicitous, pretentious, full of envy, and just plain stupid, and Mr. Barnard illustrates it using his wonderfully acerbic wit and sardonic writing style. Allow me a quote: "[...] asked Jean, idly thinking it would be difficult to select a more thoroughly uninteresting specimen of the local population than Miss Potts, strong though the competition was." Later in the novel, we are told about the joyful anticipation of a husband to have his beloved wife arrested. Fun read! I am looking forward to more Robert Barnard to fill spaces between more serious literary works.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Puttermesser PapersThe Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another great recommendation from "The Complete Review" website. It rates Cynthia Ozick's "The Puttermesser Papers" (1997) with an A+ and while I am not sure about the plus, this book is certainly a first-class piece of literature: quite strange, a little crazy, deeply intelligent, and overall delightful.

The novel is composed of five parts or episodes that portray various periods of Ruth Puttermesser's life and afterlife. In the first story, Puttermesser (her first name is seldom used) is a 34-year-old Jewish lawyer, fired from a Wall Street firm, working for the Department of Receipts and Disbursements in the New York City. The mechanisms of bureaucracy are shown with clinical precision and wit. Puttermesser comes "to understand the recondite, dim, and secret journey of the City's money".

Puttermesser, who is 46 in the second part, has an opportunity to follow the example of the 16th-century Great Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. Somewhat accidentally she creates a golem, a teenager girl, who wants to be called Xanthippe, and who becomes Puttermesser's daughter and is quite instrumental in furthering her creator's political career. This part is solely responsible for my rating not being the perfect five stars.

The third episode is a magnificent literary construct. Puttermesser, now fifty-plus, meets Rupert, who reproduces (reenacts, he wants to call it) famous paintings. Puttermesser introduces Rupert to 19th-century works of George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans). They read aloud her biographies, particularly interested in her friendship with George Lewes. After Lewes' death George Eliot marries Johnny Cross, and the couple reenacts George Eliot's and George Lewes' trip to Venice. Puttermesser and Rupert reenact that reenactment, with all its natural consequences. Brilliant!

Puttermesser is in her sixties in the fourth part. These are the times of perestroika in the Soviet Union. Puttermesser cousin comes from Moscow, as a refugee, and a funny culture clash occurs when the capitalist Americans are interested in ideas while the socialist-raised Lidia is only interested in money. The Shekhina fundraiser story is hilarious. Alas, in the exquisitely written fifth part, we learn that Paradise, the place where we go after we die, is not really quite what we expect.

Wonderful book about life, death, philosophy, and literature, touching so many important topics. I am particularly interested in the "wrong generation, after your time" issue. Puttermesser does not believe in generations. Culture is obviously generational, yet human nature is not. The anger of an ancient Greek does not differ from the anger expressed on Twitter today.

Four and a half star, rounded up.

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Death Of A Mystery WriterDeath Of A Mystery Writer by Robert Barnard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After finishing the outstanding "A Scandal in Belgravia" (see review) I had an appetite for some more Robert Barnard. "Death of a Mystery Writer", although - typically for this author - an interesting, funny, and fast read, is not on the level of the other novel. It is just a solid, very traditional whodunit, set in England in mid-1970s.

Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs is a popular writer, author of bestselling but not particularly good mystery novels. He is quite a character; while being a "formidable upholder of Victorian attitudes", he is also an utterly obnoxious and unbearable person. The family and a couple of neighbors convene for his birthday party, which unfortunately for Sir Oliver ends in an event of the contrary kind. Inspector Meredith, quite a clever chap, commences the investigation.

The characterizations in the novel, both physical and psychological, are excellent. The writing is delightful, but I wish there were more of those eminently quotable passages like, for instance, "He had heaved himself into his club at St James's, where old men who had sodomized each other at school shook their heads over the younger generation." I find the mystery component adequate, fortunately there are no spurious plot twists, and the denouement is somewhat unexpected. Nice, pleasant read, but like Sir Oliver's novels, not a great literary achievement.

Two and a half stars.

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