Monday, November 12, 2007
In this book, Shapiro puts forth the idea that 1599 was the year that Shakespeare went from being merely a talented dramaturgue and poet to being the greatest writer the English language has known.
Instead of defending this idea throughout, Shapiro gives an overview of the history of England in 1599, dominated by Essex' failed expedition in Ireland and the threat of attack by Spain, and how it may have affected the Bard in his quotidian life.
When he sticks to recounting history and making reasonable speculations (after all, for someone so important, relatively little is known about Shakespeare's life), Shapiro does an admirable job.
Less so, though, when gets sucked into writing literary criticism, which he does for each play of Shakespeare's first produced that year. It is in literary critic mode when Shapiro discusses Shakespeare's transformation, and that is when he impresses me least.
But maybe I just dislike literary criticism.
Y creo que Alma escribirá más aquí también. Veremos.
Por cierto, lo peor que se puede hacer después de leer el libro es ver la película, como odié que cambiaran detalles de la historia y además, que no se explicaran bien algunas situaciones, ¡oggrr! Mi marido dice que ya soy una auténtica e insoportable harrypotteriana jejeje.
A history of the evolution of the French language. It's light on linguistic detail, and focuses more on the reasons — historical ones, of course — that explain why French speakers are how they collectively are.
Did you know that L'Académie française has had very few linguists as members (immortels)? Or how Anglo Canada reneged on its word various times until the Québécois decided that enough was enough?
Despite, or maybe because of, the rise of English, French remains a relevant international language today. Or so many learners from around the world have decided. And it probably isn't a bad decision; almost wherever you go, you'll find someone who speaks at least a little English. I've never tried speaking French to strangers (except when in francophone countries), but it may well be the case that its diffusion is similar in scope to English's, and as such a good choice for a second (or third, or ...) language if you don't know where your travels may lead you.
This book is called a thriller, and I guess it is. Hard to believe, because it starts off slowly. Not that it is ever boring — Banks has a good lead character whose monologues and rants are fun to read, but certainly he takes his time before getting to the "thriller" part of the book.
It's certainly worth the wait, though. My heart was pounding during most of the last 50 or so pages. How could the lead be so stupid, and would he manage to get out of the jam he got himself into?
Qua thriller, the book could probably be rewritten as a novella and lose little. Maybe. Maybe the long buildup makes the end more exciting; it certainly gives Banks a chance to express (what I assume are) some of his political beliefs, which are reasonable, at least.
Thanks to Paul for leaving this book behind when he visited about two years ago.
A short, enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable book. Seriously. I finished it some weeks or months (22 September, according to my records) ago, and I've forgotten pretty much all of it — the summary serves as a reminder, but you can look that up easily enough yourself.
Monday, November 05, 2007
Borges: A Life, by Edwin Williamson. Viking.
Unsurprisingly, Borges: A Life is a biography of one of my favorite authors, Jorge Luis Borges.
Williamson starts with a background of Argentine history starting with its independence from Spain and the role of Borges’ ancestors in that struggle. Borges continues covering Argentina’s history with respect to Borges himself.
Williamson is at his best when sticking to documented facts. When he takes some liberties and presents his own speculations — unlikely ones, in my opinion — about Borges’ most personal thoughts and attitudes and how they shaped his written works and his public persona he is at his weakest. Also, he repeats himself at times: the same nouns (that is, the same persons, places, and things) are often introduced and reintroduced. Better editing might have helped.
Still, at $verycheap on remainder at the Harvard Book Store, and as a chronicle of an interesting life, it was well worth my time and money.
I have no few books by Borges, and several other favorite authors, sitting on my bookshelves waiting to be read. I like to think of them as reserves — when in doubt, I know I have something good and new (to me) to read.
N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto. Tusquets.
N.P. is the story of a book, aptly named N.P., written by a Japanese expat in English. Its translation into Japanese is stalled because its translators, and, in fact, all of the people who get too involved in the book, find, with tragic results, their life imitating that of its author and some of the stories contained therein.
The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin.
As often happens with really good books, this book seemed more like a gift from its author and editor and less like something I paid my own money to get. This book was so good that I was able to finish it while on a plane, something I’m rarely able to do.
The Lord of the Rings was told from the point of view of the smallest character in a given chapter: usually one of the hobbits. Children, by contrast, is told from the perspective of great men, and in a more impersonal, more summarizing style.
The only disappointment is that this story is only a small part of a much longer history, which is summarized in The Silmarillion. I hope there are more books in this vein to come; certainly Tolkien left enough unfinished material to provide for several such books in the future.
Defensa apasionada del idioma español, by Álex Grijelmo. Punto de Lectura.
The book’s title translates to “[A] Passionate Defense of the Spanish Language”. It started on a high note. People write badly, use words unnecessarily borrowed from other languages, and generally disrespect their linguistic heritage. “Right on!”, I said, and kept on saying during a non-contiguous third of the book.
The rest was not so good.
Those non-contiguous two thirds of the book cover the many things Grijelmo knows little about: English (from which modern Spanish borrows many words), computers, international trade, history, and more and how they relate to modern Spanish usage.
Taking English, Grijelmo rails against Anglicisms in large part because he thinks that they fragment the language, with the ultimate effect of causing unintelligibility among speakers: a debatable conclusion.
It’s true that many Spanish speakers today use words borrowed from the English that are strictly unnecessary.
Some do it thinking it makes them sound sophisticated, which I find rather obnoxious, not least because those words are all too often misused (and mispronounced!). “Esto es para tax purposes” is as
good bad an example as any.
It’s also true that a number of false cognates have been made true cognates through misuse. The word “evento”, for example, didn’t always mean something planned such as a show, but rather something unplanned. English retains this meaning: “in the event of an emergency…”
And then there are Latinos who live in the US and other English-speaking countries who have adapted English words into Spanish: “parquear el carro a la marqueta”, for example. Here, the unintelligibility argument holds no water, and in fact is rather insulting to Spanish speakers. Does he think that they’re all so stupid that after a short period of exposure they couldn’t understand a dialect where less than 1% (my estimate; I’d be interested in seeing real figures) of the words are different?
I happen to find the first two cases of Anglicisms unnecessary and, indeed, rather tasteless. I try to avoid them. Sometimes my incomplete vocabulary makes this difficult, although I do my best: “Vamos a un … ¿cómo se dice? En inglés la palabra es «show».” I don’t use the Anglicisms used by Latinos in English-speaking countries, but nor do I denigrate them — in fact, I think they enrich the language as a whole.
For the most part, I wrote off Grilejmo as a grumpy old fart. There’s nothing wrong with that, really. But his downright absurd statements about English (and other things, of course, but this book is really too insignificant for it to be worth it to criticize everything) are what really got to me. He calls it a frigid language, less expressive, blah blah.
It ends on a positive, and almost inspiring note. But by then it was too late, and the damage was done. A waste of time and paper. Too bad, considering its potential.
(Oh, occasionally he put in a little parting shot at the ends of chapters in an attempt to be funny, much like The Economist often does, except The Economist’s quips are generally humorous. Grijelmo’s are not.)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. Bloomsbury.
I’m not sure what I can say about this book that other people haven’t already said, at least not without revealing spoilers. I went to some effort to not expose myself to any spoilers, and I’ll try not to inflict them on anyone else, either. But in case I screw up and reveal something I shouldn’t, you can read the rest of what I have to say about it offsite.
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. Joaquín Mortiz / Emecé.
Ficciones was originally published in two volumes: El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan and Artificios. Subsequent republishings have combined them into this single volume. El jardín is definitely the stronger of the two. “Pierre Menard”, especially, is awesome.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin.
I reread the Lord of the Rings recently. I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. Having seen the movies certainly makes it less good, though. Because it’s hard to get the theme music and Elijah Wood’s obnoxious face out of your mind. Also, I was dreading some parts — the battle at Helm’s Deep, in particular — because it was so badly done (and BORING!) in the film adaptation. Turns out it’s pretty good in the book.
If you’ve never seen the movie or read the book, just read the book. If you’ve seen the movie, I’m sorry. You should still read the book.
The Neocon Reader by Irwin Stelzer (ed) et al. Grove Press.
I was writing a review when, meaning to open a new tab in my browser, I hit C-r instead of C-t. Everything lost.
So much for that. It’s sufficient to say that Irwin Stelzer is an intellectual lightweight, and whoever the pseudointellectual who wrote the piece about pr0n was is even worse, and few of the people whose writings are included are much better.
Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read the book.
Fantasyland by Sam Walker. Penguin.
This book sucks; don’t read it.
If you’re in a rush, those six words should be enough.
So this is a book about a sportswriter who manages to talk his way into an expert fantasy baseball competition, Tout Wars. He uses his sportswriter-insider access to talk to actual ball players and baseball execs, and learns nothing. He hires two guys, an idiot and a smart guy, and proceeds to ignore the smart guy and actually pay attention to the idiot. He doesn’t win.
A hint for authors and editors: if you want to look sophisticated by including accents in foreign names, do so consistently. And if you want to transcribe quotes by people with bad English, do so consistently, and not using some half assed ad-hoc system. It’d be worth it.
Told by a flake, full of useless words and phony emotions, signifying nothing.
Update: What I really meant to write was that when I saw this book, I was hoping it would be Moneyball II, which it definitely was not. Otherwise I doubt I’d have even picked it up.
god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve.
If Richard Dawkins is “Darwin’s rottweiler”, then who is Christopher Hitchens? He is certainly more vicious than Dawkins.
In any case, buying their books is a public service; best-selling books about controversial topics (and the more I think about it, the harder I find it to believe that anything said in this book is really controversial) get their authors on television and on the radio and on speaking circuits. That much is a good thing.
No real surprises: it discusses the harm that religion has done and continues to do, and has lengthy sections on the absurdities of various religions.
French Made Simple by Pamela Rose Haze. Made Simple Books.
French Made Simple is a textbook that I bought in a bookstore in Montréal when I was there last summer.
The first chapter lists some statistics about French and its speakers and some reasons why you might want to learn it. The second provides detailed pronunciation information (which I would do well to revisit) — as detailed as I think you can get in a book without using overly technical vocabulary that only people trained in linguistics would understand.
Each chapter from the third on starts off with a short reading. At first, the readings are divided into two columns; the left has French text and the right has an English translation. Later chapters’ readings are French-only. After the readings come vocabulary related to and grammar introduced in the text. Then an exercise or two, some more grammatical information, and then a few more exercises. After every few chapters, there’s a review-only section which lists vocabulary and has more exercises and a reading for practice.
The readings are based on an ongoing story. Monsieur Brown, a New York based importer of French objets d’art, plans to visit France to meet his representative in Paris and, time permitting, check out the French countryside. He doesn’t speak French and his agent doesn’t speak English (how they’ve managed to do business is never explained), so M. Brown decides to learn French. He is taught by Monsieur Picard, a Frenchman who lives in New York. M. Brown eventually travels to France and gets on and along fine.
I can’t remember exactly when I started this book; it was after I started working from home; I generally read it and did the exercises while eating lunch. I did all the exercises except for those that were translations into English. That’s because I was writing out the exercises in a notebook. Writing in French is, for now, slow enough that I can keep up with myself. When I write in English, my hand can’t keep up with my mind, and it’s frustrating. I did usually speak what I would have written, sotto voce, however.
I was pleased with this book; its descriptions and explanations were generally clear and, as far as I can tell, correct. If I didn’t already know Spanish (and if I hadn’t already gone through some other, incredibly crappy, and poorly and inaccurately translated into Spanish books about French), my impression might be different. Certainly knowing English and another Romance language helps with learning French immensely.
There are other books in the same series that appear to be equally good, although without having read them nor done their exercises I can’t be sure.
Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon. Bantam.
Slow Learner is a collection of short stories written early in Pynchon’s career. All were written before the publication of V. except the last, which was written between V. and The Crying of Lot 49. Some characters, such as Pig Bodine and Victoria Wren, who show up elsewhere in Pynchon’s œuvre, make appearances in these stories.
I don’t know why I choose to read this, given how much I disliked Gravity’s Rainbow. It was an improvement, although that really isn’t saying much.
The maddening thing about Pynchon is that he can write well when he wants to. He is capable of writing enjoyable and readable passages and even complete books, but has more than once chosen not to. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, why someone outside of academia would choose to do that.
If you come across a copy, I suggest reading “Low-lands” and “The Secret Integration” — those two were well written and entertaining. The others you might as well skip.
La hija de Kheops by Alberto Laiseca. Tusquets.
If I were somehow sent back two thousand years in time to, say, Classical Rome, I think I’d probably manage to get along reasonably well. Sure, language would be a problem initially. Hygiene standards weren’t what they are today. And many -isms and -phobias that are today in the process of being wiped out were at that point still alive and well. However, I think that people then and people now are fundamentally similar. I don’t think I’d come to the conclusion that everyone around me was completely nuts. Products of their time and in many ways bass-ackward, probably. But not crazy.
But the thought of being sent a few thousand years before that, to Ancient Egypt, really makes me wonder. If La hija de Kheops is anything to go by, people then were weird. Superstitious, incestuous, and downright strange.
Full of grossness (read: incest, and try not to think too much about it), odd anachronisms, and some amusing wordplay. Possibly quite inaccurate. Generally entertaining.
(It looks like this book was never translated into English.)
Trafalgar by Angélica Grodoscher. Emecé.
Trafalgar reminded me somewhat of Wells’ The Time Machine. Even more so of Asimov’s Foundation, and, to a lesser extent, several of his short stories about robots. Written, of course, in Rioplatense Spanish, which contains not a few words that neither Alma nor I understand.
Introducción a la literatura inglesa by Jorge Luis Borges, with María Esther Vázquez. Alianza.
A review of British literature from the time of the Anglo Saxons until the middle of the twentieth century. The title is somewhat misleading, as the book covers more than just English literature: several Irish and Scottish authors merit a mention.
This book is very similar in intent and presentation to Introducción a la literatura norteamericana, but with far fewer misspellings.
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M.) by Catherine Millet. Grove Press.
JB tells me that the word for a pretentious person is “prick”. If the author is a she, “twat”.
Isn’t that appropriate?
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is two hundred pages of lousy output by a twat. A twat with a very active twat, as it turns out.
That someone can manage to write ten score pages all about sex and nothing else without being interesting or titillating is nothing short of amazing. In a bad way. I was dying for the book to finish. It was a quick read, but not quick enough.
But the book isn’t merely boring. There’s also the fact that Millet is basically not credible, and not just because her day job is art criticism. A shy person with all sorts of diverse friendships? Right. Once she tried her hand at prostitution when she needed the money, but that didn’t work out. Nobody ever paid her for sex. And she really didn’t receive many gifts from her paramours — it only took a mere two thirds of a page to list them all. And so on. But then, critics are the lowest of the low (hello, world!), and I think she basically knows it, and thus wants to pass off as an artist. So why not stretch the truth a whole lot and claim to be a prurient James Joyce?
To put it succinctly, Millet is full of both shit and dick, and has a written a book with less literary merit or interest as a story than that sad work of internet fan fiction where, when Harry Potter and Hermione Granger unexpectedly meet Xena, crazy hijinks ensue.
(Note: I have not read said fan fiction. It might not even exist.)
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. William Morrow.
About ten years ago I went to the worst concert I’ve ever seen. The opening band was Self, a one hit wonder, and one whose one hit (”So Low”) wasn’t very good. The headlining band was Cracker. They opened with a song I liked, “I Hate my Generation”. Then they played
country rockabilly music? crap for about nineteen hours. Then they closed with “Low”.
(I think they came out for an encore, but I’d had enough. It was the first and last concert I’ve left before it was really over.)
Fragile Things is just like Cracker’s concert, but without an opening band. And it’s made up of short stories and poems, not songs. And it is pretty good, certainly not the worst book I’ve ever read.
So it really wasn’t much like that Cracker concert at all… except that the first story and the last story are by far the best in the book. The first is based on “A Study in Scarlet”, with a Lovecraftian twist. The last is a short sequel to American Gods.
And, really, the stuff in the middle is pretty respectable too. Recommended.
Un viejo que leía novelas de amor (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories) by Luis Sepúlveda. Tusquets.
A short (137pp) story. It reminded me Cien años de soledad and especially El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, both books by Gabriel García Márquez that take place in isolated towns in South America plagued by corrupt local government. (Gabo turned 80 today, by the way). The last third also reminded me of The Old Man and the Sea.
As with all books in Tusquets’ “colección andanzas” line, the edition itself is a thing of physical beauty.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Vintage.
The Plot Against America is a historical fiction novel set during the time leading up to and the first several years of the second World War. The twist is that, instead of being reelected in 1940, Roosevelt loses to Charles Lindbergh, an isolationist, and probably antisemetic.
It is narrated by Philip Roth himself as a boy of about nine, who (at least in the book) lived at that time in a Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. (I don’t know much about Roth’s life, and as such don’t know what liberties he took. The book is in written in the first person, though, and the main character is named Philip Roth. So there.) With Lindbergh in power and antisemitism on the rise, the life of the Roth family, hitherto relatively stable if not especially prosperous, undergoes several profound changes.
My first impression, several pages in, was along the lines of “oh boy, here comes a massive apologia for Israel”. Not so - Israel isn’t even mentioned. Roth’s father, an admirable character, believed very much in America, which, as a secular democracy, was the right thing to believe in. For all the people trying to make it so, the US isn’t a country based on religion or race. Israel is, and that’s my root problem with it. It should be yours, too.
The style of writing is odd. Mostly it sounds like a nine year old’s writing, with simple language and simple ideas. It reminded me of “young adult” literature, stuff I read when I was about that age. But every now and then Roth breaks out these long sentences with words no nine year old would know. Which isn’t a bad thing, but a bit strange nonetheless.
Worth reading, as it helps explain some of the motivations of today’s Jews, a people who collectively have a serious, yet largely self-inflicted, PR problem, especially outside the US, yet isn’t too heavy-handed about it.
Fervor de Buenos Aires by Jorge Luis Borges. Emecé.
A short (~80pp) book of poetry written early in Borges’ career, shortly after first returning to Argentina after having lived in Europe for several years.
I’ve sometimes said “I don’t believe in poetry”, half in jest. Really, I’m undecided as to whether poetry in general is good art or a waste of paper. Fervor did not alter my agnosticism towards metaphor and obliqueness.
Lo bello y lo triste (title in Japanese: 美しさと哀しみと, title in English: Beauty and Sadness) by Yasunari Kawabata. Emecé. Translated by Nélida M. de Machain.
I bought Lo bello at a book fair in the Zócalo several months ago. I like Emecé’s format, and since they publish books by Borges, I figured it was worth a look to see what else they publish. Emecé did not let me down. (¿”¡Emecé PLV!”?) Interestingly, on the page that has the copyright notice, edition info, etc. (is there a name for that page? If so, what is it?), the title of the English translation is also given. I doubt the book was translated from Japanese to English to Spanish, but it’s possible.
The book itself is about an author of some fifty years, Oki, who goes to look up an old flame, Otoko, whom he does find. He also meets her protégée, Keiko, a character of some ambiguity. Lo bello y lo triste chronicles their adventures, past and present.
I’ve only read books (as an adult) by one other Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. I guess it’s inevitable, if a bit provincial, that I make comparisons between the two. (I found myself making similar comparisons between Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, and I’ve only read one book by each, although both Foucault’s Pendulum and If on a winter’s night a traveller talk quite a lot about books qua books.) So, given a very small sample of Kawabata’s œuvre, here are some comparisons.
Kawabata is more descriptive than Murakami, and describes colors and sensations more vividly. On the other hand, Murakami’s books tend to get to the point, and seem more believable; they’re generally (always? I can’t remember now) written in the first person, and as such he doesn’t try to get inside the heads of all of his characters. He only needs to understand one of them. When Kawabata recounts conversations between two women, I have to wonder how realistic - and thus believable - they really are.
There are aspects to Lo bello that are recognizable in books by Murakami, particularly South of the Border, West of the Sun and Tokio Blues (Norwegian Wood) - which isn’t to say that I’d call Murakami derivative; he is anything but.
Some Japanese critics have apparently criticized Murakami for being too Westernized; I’m not aware of any such charge leveled against Kawabata. As such, and even if the language weren’t beautiful and the plot weren’t interesting, new insight into a very different culture is worth the admission price alone.
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. Harvest Books. Translated by William Weaver.
A book about books, or is it about their readers? The protagonist - that’d be me (or would that be you? The book is written mostly in the second person) - starts reading a book only to find that not too far into it, due to an apparent publishing error, the action is suddenly cut off and replaced with a totally different book. He gets a new copy, and it’s yet another book, and one which is soon to be cut off as well! …And so on.
Recommended, although slightly frustrating as the book-within-the-book keeps rebooting itself, and none of the sub-stories has a proper resolution. Or an improper one. The prose is fluid, which compensates for the frustration of starting almost anew so many times: starting anew may be annoying, but at least it’s easy to do.
Hat tip to JB for lending me this book; maybe some day I’ll have a chance to return it to him.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Penguin.
Gravity’s Rainbow has 100 to 150 enjoyable, contiguous pages. The rest of its 760 pages are boring, tedious, and full of nonsense: pseudopsychology and gratuitous drug use and sex. [*] It digresses, it makes your eyeballs itch, and it contains language that is deliberately hard to parse (or was it just never edited?). Finally, it doesn’t have any real point; the story qua story sucks, and there is no message.
It’s been described as unreadable. That’s not quite true, because I’ve basically read it (I skimmed towards the end). It is, however, not worth reading.
I admit that there were some cute moments here and there. Like ten or so. Out of more than six hundred pages of otherwise garbage.
Crap. As I said above, I skimmed the last 200 pages or so. That wasn’t fast enough. I should have just flipped them. I could still claim to have read it. And I would have, I suspect, read more than most self-professed Pynchon fans and the people who couldn’t finish it but were too ashamed - professionally or personally - to admit it.
[*] I am not against drug use or sex in books, or out of them, for that matter. But when they’re pointless they’re pointless. In Gravity’s Rainbow they usually are.
Update: Go read this comic. Read its tool tip. Point well made.
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Picador.
The Satanic Verses is easily Rushdie’s most famous work. I found it to be of mixed quality. Some parts are really good, beautifully written and interesting to follow. Overall, the story is good, even if the ending left me rather unsatisfied.
But sometimes the poetic language and “novel” use of punctuation went too far, annoying me. Parts of the book - lots of the book - end up reading something close to Moleskine’s propaganda, the writing of pretentious kids dilettantes course takers. There is a fine line between art and annoyance. Rushdie crossed it too often.
But I can overlook all that. Because in the grand scheme of things, I’m totally on Rushdie’s side.
Introducción a la literatura norteamericana by Jorge Luis Borges. Emecé.
A review of Northamerican literature, up to 1970 or so. Borges mentions several authors that I haven’t read and probably should.
I wonder if this book was ever translated into English.
The book has lots of errors; many English words and placenames are misspelt. I like to think the errors are due to the editor or publisher, not Borges, who learned English in his childhood and presumably wouldn’t have made such mistakes. I made a list of all the errors I noticed, and plan to send Emecé mail. Pedantic mail.
The chapter on Native American literature seems a bit forced. Political correctness in Borges - who’d have guessed? But then again, I usually take a dim view towards poetry. And it’s not all political correctness; Borges calls the Indians los pieles rojas (redskins).
Not the greatest of Borges’ works by any stretch, but it was quite cheap at the Gandhi in Querétaro. And more Borges of course looks good on the bookshelf.
El libro de los seres imaginarios, by Jorge Luis Borges. Emecé.
A list, in alphabetical order, of imaginary beings found in mythology and literature. One of the least practical books imaginable, and probably not comprehensive enough to serve as a real reference, but enjoyable.