Category Archives: Books

Tale of Genji: Week 18, Chapter 18 (Wind in the Pines)

Chapter 18 takes place during the same time frame as the previous chapter so Genji is 31 years of age, still trying to juggle “wives” and children. With so many “ladies” to provide for, there seems to be a housing shortage. He’s furiously at work building, expanding and providing. [more]

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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them ~ Elif Batuman

Funny is when I frequently laugh out loud. Smile and laugh, chuckle even. Amusing is when I may smile a bit, nod my head even. I believed that this book was going to be very funny. I was merely amused a few times. I failed to see the great humor.

Then I thought it was going to parlay the humor into a comprehensive look at Russian literature. There really is only one in-depth overview of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. There is some interesting background on Tolstoy and Babel, and a little on Gogol, Pushkin and Chekhov. There is a lot more on some obscure writers of the former Soviet Union, especially Uzbekistan. The author spends a summer in Samarkind, and this time comprises the unifying sections of Elif Batuman’s book. I say “unifying”. But that’s another problem I had with the book. It just didn’t fit together well. The transition for one paragraph to another (not in all cases) is sometimes painfully inept.

Much of the book was very definitely “academic”. I hadn’t expected that.  And the academic discussions seemed to me to  be directed to an inadvertently (I’m sure) very limited audience.

So what did I like?

I liked this, certainly on “the second time” she read Babel:

There are certain books that one remembers together with the material circumstances of reading: how long it took, the time of year, the color of the cover. Often, it’s the material circumstances themselves that make you remember a book that way – but sometimes it’s the other way around. I’m sure that memory of that afternoon – the smell of rain and baking chocolate, the depressing apartment with its inflatable sofa, the sliding glass door that overlooked rainy palm trees and a Safeway parking lot – is due to the precious, almost-lost quality of Babel’s 1920 diary.

In fact it’s those sections of the book that are personal for the author, those that show Elif Batuman’s personality which are the most engaging in the book. More of that, less of the uninteresting (except for the chosen few) academic navel lint pickers. This would have gone a long way.

I’d almost like to take a chance on a possible novel by her, but with her constant trashing of Orhan Pamuk, this would be iffy. Maybe just a few beers.

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Gods Without Men ~ Hari Kunzru

I finished this novel almost two weeks ago now, and I just didn’t know what to say about it. It’s a bit of a mess. It’s surely a huge disappointment. I had found previous Kunzru books just interesting enough to come back for more. Both My Revolutions and The Impressionist put Hari Kunzru on my mental list of authors who deserved another reading as new books appeared. Kunzru is now off that list.

I’m not exactly sure what Kunzru meant to do here. Maybe even he doesn’t know. But I think it safe to say be tried to do too much. An ambitious book? Surely. Overly so in the sense that all of the various elements did not fit into a whole and coherent novel. There’s just too much here, and too much that does not belong. Fans of the book would defend it by saying the parts that ‘do not belong’ (in my opinion) are the whole point of the novel. Really?

There are several threads in the novel. They jump back and forth in various time frames (no problem here): chapters identified by a year. These run from “the time when the animals were men” (cut) to 2008 (and 2009) – the present. The primary focus of the novel is a troubled family consisting of Jaz Matharu, his wife Lisa, and their  4-year old, severely autistic son, Raj. Jaz is from a Baltimore Punjabi Sikh family, and Lisa is from an upper middle-class white family. The cultural differences are explored.   Eventually they find themselves in a rundown motel in the California desert on a “vacation”. The kid goes missing. We don’t know all these things at once, nor do we know the stories of the other  characters, but Kunzru is adept at very comfortable weaving in the back stories of all the major characters. It’s just that I found many of them completely unnecessary. Some of them are more ‘major’ than others. Some themes that the author probably thought were ‘necessary’ to pull it all together, pulled it all apart.

We move back and forth between these stories and time frames – some of them connected directly, some of them only thematically and loosely: 1947, 2008, 2009, 1778, 1958, 1969, 1920, 1970, 1971, 1871, 1942. Topics? Take your pick: cults, Mormonism, the financial crisis, the effects of cultural differences on marriage and especially the generational perspectives, the news media and the public’s voracious appetite for drama and tragedy and the need to alternatelt praise and demonize, alien presences, drug running, shamanism, shape-shifting…..I could go on and on. You get the picture. Pass this one by.

Ok! I got that one out of the way!

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Tale of Genji: Week 17, Chapter 17 (The Picture Contest)

Genji would now be about 31 years of age. When the former Ise Princess (Akikonomu, Genji’s 22-year old ‘ward’ of sorts) returns to Court, she is a smash hit for her painting skills. The Emperor (13-year old Reizei) also loves to paint, so she quickly becomes a favorite of the young Emperor, who you’ll recall is actually Genji’s son by Fujitsubo. You didn’t recall? Well you can hardly be blamed!

Up until this point, the Emperor’s favorite companion had been the 13-year old daughter Genji’s old friend (and rival), To no Chujo. Stay with me  now. The set up is almost done…

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Tale of Genji: Week 16, Chapter 16

A very brief chapter has Genji crossing paths with another old lover (Utsusemi), and that lover getting her self to a nunnery  when her husband dies. This is the effect that Genji has on women. It’s becoming so he can’t turn around without running into another old conquest. Then when their husbands die, the least offensive alternative for them seems to be joining a nunnery. Talk about limited horizons!

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The Gods of Gotham ~ Lindsay Faye

Timothy Wilde is a New York policeman who is writing a report on what occurred before and after a ten-year old girl, covered in blood, ran into him on the street. Her name is later revealed as Aibhilin o Dalaigh (Little Bird). As he writes, we learn about him as well: He was orphaned some 19 years earlier by a house fire, in which only he and his elder brother Valentine had survived. He’s known a Mercy Underhill, the Reverend Thomas Underhill’s daughter, since she was nine-years old, and is secretly in love with her. He’s been saving for ten years and feels he almost has enough now to ask for her to be his wife (if he can get up the courage), when there is a huge fire and it seems the entire city has exploded. His home, his possessions, and all his savings are gone. He has to start over.

As the number of immigrants increases (a huge proportion of whom are Irish), spurred on by the Potato blight in Ireland, there is a an increasing anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment in New York. Timothy resists these prejudices, however. When his brother Valentine secures them both positions in the new police force that is being established he hesitates. He realizes though, that since he has been badly disfigured in the fire that he’ll have to take what he can get. A police force, a “standing army” so called by those against it, is a controversial proposal. The author makes it clear that from the start, the police force was a political entity. The Democrats having just come to power, establish the force:

Harmless citizens were shrieking for a system of constables, and less harmless patriots were bellowing that the freemen of New York would never stomach a standing army. [Legislation creating the police force was engineered by those who] liked danger, power, and bribes in equal measure.

After finding a flat above a bakery, he starts his new job in August of 1845, stationed in the district that houses what quickly comes to be known as “the Tombs”. After Little Bird had runs into him, she is taken to the bakery and cleaned up as he and Mrs. Boehm attempt to find out the truth of what had happened. She’s an “expert liar”, so it’s hard to trust what she says. Little Bird is a fascinating character – the best – along with one other in this fine historical novel

Meanwhile, another child murder in Val’s ward leads Tim to seek the aid of Mercy. Mercy is known for doing charity work for the poor/Irish which is what leads Tim to seek her out. In the New York of 1845, disease was believed to be the result of certain factors:

Disease, the clergy and the scientists agreed is caused by weak living. Rich foods, bad air, rotten earthy, lazy hygiene, liquor, drugs, vice, and sex.

When the victim is identified as having worked as a “nab” (a prostitute) out of a Greene street ‘house’, the connection is made to Little Bird. And, he learns from a priest that the house is connected and protected…by his brother. Tim vows to get the truth out of Little Bird now. Information from Little Bird is hard to come by. At least reliable information. She seems to be a notorious liar. Tim quickly becomes known as quite an investigator. Whereas previously he had be hired on as a “roundman” (a beat cop), his talents for investigation is soon recognized by the chief of police, former Justice George Washington Matsel. Through many twists and turns, Tim pursues the mysteries of what looks to be a serial killer with a dogged determination. It’s a good old fashioned ‘ripping yarn’.

The other fascinating character is the Madam of a house of prostitution, by the name of Silky Marsh. The author’s description of Marsh is worth noting at length – it’s that good:

It’s kind of hard to describe Silkie Marsh when you’re looking right at her. The effect is all wrong. So  instead I’ll say how she looked in one of the massive Venetian mirrors in her front saloon. Surrounded by gilded walnut furniture lines in royal purple velvet, illuminated by a crystal chandeliers that sparkled like glancing views of the inside of a diamond.

She wore a simple but perfect black satin gown the way the playhouse courtesans do, which led me to believe that she’d used to  ply her trade in the third tier of the Bowery Theatre. Plenty of rouge, artfully blended. The scent of violets hovered around her like a patch of spring. She stood with her white fingers draped over the treble end of a rosewood piano, a champagne glass in her other hand. Looking right at her, you’d think her beautiful.  But looking at her reflection, you see that she isn’t…she looked like the theory of beauty and not beauty at all…she’s missing human empathy entirely. That little string tying people to strangers and acquaintances was cut clean through.

Lyndsay Faye’s highly readable historical novel zips right along – it’s a pager turner, with only minor lags in parts. Intricately plotted, but never obtuse or too dense. There’s a nice balance. Highly recommended as an entertaining diversion, and you might just learn a thing or two about New York in the mid 1840’s.

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Tale of Genji: Week 15, Chapter 15

The best chapter so far!

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