Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Monday, December 25, 2006
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Friday, December 08, 2006
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost. This was a total riot - I actually had to hide it for a week so I'd study. It's four separate narrations of the same events, with, of course, each teller reaching different conclusions and in their own ways unreliable. But it's not one of those annoying post-modern non-mystery novels that you are supposed to make your own conclusions on and are frustratingly inconclusive; it's an old fashioned mystery that ties up quite nicely at the end. Set in Restoration England, and with a few Natural Philosophers as characters spouting great debate and experimenting away, it might remind you of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, although it reminded me more of the historical thriller The Name of the Rose (by Umberto Eco), or maybe Possession: A Romance (by A. S. Byatt). A nice fat book, the kind of book you wish was longer, not shorter, with tons of detail about Oxford in 1663 - even some experiments in Robert Boyle's elaboratory as well as boundless political intrigue. Of course, I wished there was more of the deciphering and experiments, but we do have the above mentioned trilogy for that. The story has an odd heretical conclusion that is really pretty interesting; I also might have liked even more on the religious sects. I suppose that's the advantage of using in-character narration, you're limited on how many discursive asides you can make without breaking role, or the temptation would definitely be to show off the research and you'd end up with several thousand pages instead of merely 685.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Atul Gawande, Complications: a surgeon's notes on an imperfect science. Another book for class, but I greatly enjoyed it. It's very straightforward, almost simplistic in delivery, but truly thoughtful and interesting. Good thought on medical decision making, mistakes, complications, balance between judgement and science, and the limits of knowledge. The perspective of a surgical resident is unique. The pieces on surgery and diagnosis were frightening and reassuring at the same time. Gawande's most original thinking was his honest analysis of medical training and the evasion that surrounds it. 1) training leads to mistakes, 2) training and practice are necessary to make good doctors, 3) The choices about who is practiced upon are partly chance, but mostly the disadvantaged are used for practice.
It's a hard book to categorize - it's similar to Oliver Sacks's, in that it's a series of case studies expanded and digressed upon, but without the intellectual and literary pretension (also perhaps not quite as nice to read; sacks writes like a novelist). It's better than most medically oriented nonfiction - more humble and chatty - think Stephen Jay Gould rather than the new england journal of medicine.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Friday, October 20, 2006
I thought Carrie was bizarre - I didn't buy the whole "wants to design clothes" thing - she didn't seem passionate enough. Not to mention the descriptions of clothes were vague and antiquated. I was also dissatisfied with her final decision. And she has this completely unrealistic sojourn in New York City where she lives for months and months off a few hundred dollars. Just details, really, that didn't ring true. But I enjoyed the story, and sympathized with her sometimes; the narrative was great, and I liked her mother, I grew to like the boyfriend, her lover was interesting even if a stereotype. Madison seemed truer (although simplified) than the portrait of New York City. It was as if New York was included more for what it represents as "the big city", as anonymity, as culture, as escape, than for any portrait of the true city. LA or London would have done nearly as well. But it is true that New York occupies a special place in the American myth. So a good read, but faintly dissatisfying.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Saturday, October 07, 2006
Anna Karenina. I've been reading this forever. Partly because I have a mountain of readings for school, and partly since I've been unable to feel any deep sympathy with any of the characters. Anna - her passivity drives me crazy, the same with her husband. Vronsky is just a vaguely likable slacker, and I have no patience for slackers. Kitty is just a child, and Levin, who is actually interesting, is annoying in his infatuation with nothing more than an ideal of romance and a young girl. I feel their relationship is so lopsided in many ways that I really don't feel empathy for them. Levin seemed to have a deeper relationship with his housekeeper and hired hands than he does with his wife. I love Tolstoy, for all that, and the book still manage to be gripping, but I don't really like any of the people in it. It's sad when I'm more interested in the discursive asides and arguments of bit players than in the central drama.
I hate to rant on about Anna, but come on! If you're going to sin, you'd damn well better enjoy it. At the very least get around to self hatred and despair a lot quicker, there's no need to drag on in a sickening muddle for years on end. Hamlet couldn't make up his mind either, but at least he made some great speeches. Rip that scab off or decide to tough it out and be a good girl. Take up knitting, or get to know your husband, or become a closet drinker or something. Jeez. And Vronsky sounds like a fun guy - if you're living in sin, why be so damn respectable and boring about it? Rob some banks, gamble, something - you run away with your lover and all you can do is go to museums? I realize Anna didn't have a whole lot of choices, and was circumscribed by her role in society - but she is a total wet noodle. That train arrived about 400 pages too late.
And Levin, although an admirable man, is just too condescending to be believed. Let me try to show why- here's a scene from Levn and Kitty's honeymoon: "He was supposed, as he understood it, to do his work and to rest from it in the happiness of love. She was supposed to be lovely and only that. But, like all men he had forgotten that she also needed to work. And he was surprised at how she, the poetic, lovely Kitty, in the very first, not weeks, but days of married life could think, remember and fuss about furniture, mattresses for guests, about a tray, the cook, the dinner, and so on. ... And loving her as he did, though he chuckled at those cares, he could not help admiring them. He chuckled at her arranging the furniture ...." Blech. He should have married a peasant, and at least they could have farmed together.
Saturday, September 16, 2006
I got sucked into this story. About a third of the way through I was hiding it under the covers with a flashlight, staying up past my bedtime. And for once the discussion about authorship and possible oral composition didn't kill the story, but added to my admiration. This swashbuckling story and sublime language was most likely composed orally over several centuries and only later written down? I can't read in Greek, but the intricate narrative structure, composed of flashbacks and tales within the tale was definitely a unified construct - whoever finally wrote it down must have had a hand in the final presentation. I loved Fitzgerald's translation, as well - it is beautiful in itself, and much less wooden than Lattimore's (although I understand that Lattimore's is much closer to the Greek).
I loved Helen and Penelope - they had such powerful roles within their own household, and yet in the larger sphere were strangely powerless. Helen was witchy, godlike, and foreign. Penelope was crafty, and faithful, and distrustful - the female counterpart to Odysseus. The traditional double standard for men and women's behavior was infuriating as usual. I actually sympathize with Clymmenestra who is held up as the vilest of women - If my husband sacrificed our daughter for favorable winds to go to war, I'd kill him too.
I also enjoyed the gods in the story - and the contrast between say, Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon is hostile towards humans in general - and would prefer to stop all sea voyages; while Athena is the god of civilization, of craft, and is far more sympathetic towards humans in general. The gods are so human. I like how they aren't greatly involved, almost rooting from the sidelines for their favorites. I was reminded a little of the episode in Job, where God and the Devil make a bet on poor Job; only here, the god's don't struggle for allegiance, but for the success or failure of their favorites. Athena, in particular is interesting, for she has strict limits on how far she will intervene, even for her favorites. She will weight the dice, or help plan a ruse, but refuses to take actual part in the fray. The heroes in the story are independent actors and not merely pawns. The ending was pretty ruthless - but it actually stopped short of total carnage. I never realized how much Dante borrowed from Homer - and even Shakespeare's plots echo Homer's with improbable disguises and sleep potions (did he have access to Homer, or was this just the narrative tradition?)
Thursday, September 07, 2006
Monday, September 04, 2006
Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philidelphia in 1793. You know, I've always been fascinated by plagues since my Sunday school days, when I pronounced the word like it's spelled and asked questions like: what kind of boils did the Egyptians get, anyway? So when I was assigned this book for my medical history class I jumped into it. Anyway, Powell alternates between a dry, factual tone and sensationalism, relying heavily on contemporary newspaper articles and correspondence. The background of the epidemic is fascinating, especially because in 1793 Philidelphia was the nation's capital, and therefore a political and social center. The small details included about civic life, commerce, newspapers, the Quaker church, and household routine are riveting.
Powell's "hero" or at least major protagonist, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is a problematic figure. There was a feud between medical practitioners about proper treatment for yellow fever victims - the "French method" consisting of wine, baths, and gentle purges against Dr. Rush's discovery of drastic bleeding and mercury purges. Rush was popularly regarded as a hero for his devotion, courage, and confidence in treatment; although some physicians at that time rightly regarded his treatments as dangerous. He gave great hope to his patients: telling them "You have nothing but a yellow fever," and did much to quell the panic in Philidelphia. However, it is amazing that his patients survived his "heroic" bloodlettings, because he and his contemporaries thought humans had twice their actual blood volume, and sometimes prescribed bleeding of more blood than the patient could actually contain. He was so enchanted by his theory, that "it never occurred to him that he might be wrong," even more, he considered physicians that did not follow his treatment guilty of murder.
Yellow fever is itself very interesting, a viral disease transmitted by a mosquito vector. Outbreaks continue in Africa, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. In non-immune populations outbreaks are very severe. There is now a vaccine, but there is still no cure, and only supportive treatment. It causes jaundice, bloody vomit, headaches, and seizures as well as fever.
(We also read excerpts from John Kelly's The Great Mortality about the black plague which was both infuriatingly and interestingly voiced, and as soon as I can rustle up a copy I'm going to read it and write about all of Kelly's mistakes.)
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Saul Bellow,Henderson the Rain King. Henderson is a striving man, a failure, a bully. A millionaire strong man with broken crowns. He is "A bungled lump of humanity." A mythical Africa is the backdrop for a decaying giant and the explication of his failure.This is a book about suffering and perhaps even more the struggle - Henderson refers again and again to his capacity for striving: "It was a question of spirit, too, for when it comes to struggling I am in a special class. From earliest times I have struggled without rest."
Once again Bellow is obsessed with the decay of the flesh, with its betrayals. It's the comic tone of Vonnegut with the same vision of the absurdity of the human body. At the same time he recalls Hesse and the search to stop desire, to get off the wheel. "Only to repeat fear and desire without a change? ... Any good man will try to break the cycle. There is no issue from that cycle for a man who does not take things into his own hands."
Anyway - I identify with Henderson strongly. I feel so many of his same yearnings - at the same time grandiose and pathetic - wanting to do good while screwing up royally. I also liked what he said about reading:
"I am a nervous and emotional reader. I hold a book up to my face and it takes only one good sentence to turn my brain into a volcano; I begin thinking of everything at once and a regular lava of thoughts pours down my sides."
"When I started to read something about France, I realized I didn't know anything about Rome, which came first, and then Greece, and then Egypt, going backward all the time to the primitive abyss. As a matter of fact, I didn't know enough to read one single book."
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Monday, July 17, 2006
Friday, July 14, 2006
This is a book about a disgraced east-coast professor of classical literature, Coleman Silk. It's narrated by an author who is largely an observer and interpreter (a la Nick Carraway), a neighbor who befriends the professor. The story's set in 1998 at the height of the big blow job scandal (repeatedly mentioned throughout) and is something like an end of the century Scarlet Letter. Professor Silk is having a passionate and secretive affair with an illiterate and abused younger woman. That's all the plot rehash I'm going into.
Anyway, Roth knows how to hit all the hot buttons: race, Vietnam, abuse, anal sex.... If it's a touchy subject, he hit it (although oddly, only an oblique reference to homosexuality). Therefore, I do not recommend this book to my mother! The only thing I found hard to read were the false accusations - for some reason I find those excruciating even in children's cartoons. I have to say that Roth is a master, and he writes about ideas without preaching. Even though I felt this book was a little dated in its focus I'm going to read the rest of his books to get a more solid feel for his writing.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Saturday, July 01, 2006
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
The good parts in the story are the descriptions of Abe Ravelstein - a big man who spent wildly, lived wildly - a man of both passion and intellect. I think the point of the book was in Ravelstein's preoccupation with great love, or searching for it. Completeness, not only desire. Living with a grand passion is more important than good and evil. Reading this makes me want to reread Plato.
There were a few odd things about the book: read as if written in the early nineties when AIDs was an inexorable scourge,and largely untreatable (Ravelstein was on AZT monotherapy) because it was published in 2000. On second thought, the speaker is writing a memoir of a deceased friend, and so the time-frame of the book is earlier. This book doesn't dwell though, on the reasons for and physical process of death, but on the mental and 'spiritual' journey toward it.
At any rate, you are meant to consider mortality. The finality of death. For those of us who don't believe in an afterlife this is simultaneously terrifying and wondrous.
Monday, June 19, 2006
Friday, June 16, 2006
Saturday, June 10, 2006
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. Hyperverbal, polylinguic. Intensely reminiscent of Carlos Fuentes. Metafiction, multiple historical time periods, interwoven/repeating characters, obsession with cinema.He's a new author for me, and I am entranced. I'll read everything he's ever written (don't disappoint me!) The way to my heart is too much information - woo me with a superfluity of words.
more to come on this book!
Two other writers with Indian themes I've been reading lately -
The most depressing book in the world: A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. (I chanced on it at Goodwill: again, it was in Oprah's book club, so there were about six copies.) It was very good; I got deeply attached to the people. One of those books that can make you triumph over small achievements - a good meal, a new shirt, a shared glass of tea...I love books that make you entirely enter their world (best example of this, by far, is Solzenitzen's A Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich.) I loved reading about their initial wary tolerance and eventual family of choice between the four strangers and their daily life doing piecework against the clock. The widow Dina Dalal was my favorite. She quietly made her own small space for herself - her uprightness and inflexibility were monstrously frustrating but she was revolutionary and absolutely admirable as well. However, the book had the most completely horrible ending ever. Think of the worst possible ending and multiply it by four. I was so gloomy after this book; the ending was so excruciatingly awful because you could envision in such detail the possibility for a happier one. Sometimes I hate and detest realism. I never knew or learned much about the post-independence government of India. This book was a great primer on the worst of its corruptions. I had to do quite a bit of background reading in encyclopedias to ground myself. I learned about the partition and way too much about corrupt bureaucracies and usurpation of power (I actually snuck this book in last semester, so I read it over a long period rather than in one gluttonous binge) I recommend this book; but don't read it if you are depressed with the state of the world and human nature in general.
A throwaway chick-lit book: Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee, by Meera Syal. Actually set in the Indian community in London. Not bad if you like the genre. Lots of funny parts about relationships and mother-daughter bonds. Pretty bland and almost formulaic - you could insert any culture and write a ready-made book - although that may be unfair. However, still funny and enjoyable even with wildly improbable plot twists. It's well-written and smart, so I recommend it as a bathtub indulgence read for when you're feeling girly.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Thursday, May 25, 2006
trying to study for the mcat while watching 3-4 little boys is frazzling me. I have a newfound respect for my mother. i find it difficult to finish ANY task
oh yeah- i'm double posting here and on my xanga blog because I'm experimenting here http://www.xanga.com/gwendyphx but I'm eventually going to delete that one
Thursday, May 18, 2006
( about the title, it's from "To the Countess of Bedford")
well - i'm farther into the book, and it is getting better. but I REALLY hate it when authors stick half baked poetry and songs into their books. (I could even live without Tolkein's.)
(I also posted this on myspace- http://blog.myspace.com/gwendyphx - I think I am going to make this site just for books)
"Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime. "
"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."
Frederick Douglass (1817 - 1895), Speech, April 1886