Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In Turkey I Am Beautiful-Brendan Shanahan

In Turkey I Am Beautiful-Brendan Shanahan

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 356
gender: M
nationality: Australia
year: 2014
travel memoir

Shanahan describes himself as a queer giant in a paranoid land.



Shanahan is not a first time traveler to Turkey nor is he 'finding himself' or any of the other narratives you often find in travelogues to obscure Eastern areas (in fact, I'd say Shanahan stays exactly himself), instead he is a travel-savvy man who tries his hardest to meet locals and makes friends with them. He doesn't present a sunny Turkey here and focuses on the often melancholy or paranoid but ultimately very warm aspects of Turkish culture which is so close to my own experiences (especially the conspiracy theories!!) that I immediately liked reading this book ten times more. He spends his time either in Istanbul working in a carpet shop or visiting the dangerous, untouristed Eastern reaches of the country where I'd never venture but find interesting nevertheless. He describes his travels with great humor, a crude buffoon with a good heart type of humor and thus will entertain you as he trods on many people's toes. He clearly delights in idiosyncrasies, finds something interesting/to enjoy everywhere he goes, and this makes this book sound like he's sitting there, telling you his stories over a drink. Maybe you won't choose to travel along with him and maybe you shouldn't meet some of his friends but for your drink together, this was fun while informative.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Slavery's Exiles-Sylviane Diouf

Slavery's Exiles: The Story of American Maroons- Sylviane A. Diouf

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 403
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2014
non fiction, history

An academic text about American Maroons-runaway slaves who made communities near the plantations from which they ran away.


I have to confess, I had no idea what maroonage was before I read this book. Since I went to school in the North, according to my textbooks when slaves ran away they either did the underground railroad (and thus our triumph as Northerners), were killed (often by dogs specially trained to hunt them), went to Canada (against all odds), or were punished and taken back to their plantations (most common, those owners were ruthless). No one really told us about maroonage or the survival of former slaves in anarchic self-made communities in the wilderness, the forests and swamps. Diouf fills in any hole left by my education (and I presume yours too)-she goes into great detail defining maroonage, the types of maroonage and how the communities were formed and sustained. Obviously records are difficult to obtain but Diouf draws together seemingly any kind of record to pay justice to the variety of the ways that human beings can survive. Diouf suffers a bit in places with too much detail making the narrative hard to hold in your mind amidst the dense writing which can make this hard going in places but with a dearth of other books on maroonage, Diouf has done something really good here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Price of Paradise-David Dante Troutt

Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America-David Dante Troutt


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 275
gender: M
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2014
non fiction, urban studies

An exploration of suburbia and the middle class and how they underpin the poverty and inequality of American society.


Troutt focuses upon Detroit and the NJ suburban sprawl and as such I continually thought back to NJ and confirmed his statistics with my own anecdotal experience so I found this to be an utterly fascinating book (and retained mostly information about NJ-sorry Detroiters, I'm biased towards the Oranges). Troutt takes the debate of poverty back down to the middle scale view, he's focusing upon county distribution of resources and how those patterns transfer to the broader regions/urban centers (spoiler alert: it all follows similar patterns). He dedicates each chapter to a common argument that props up the middle class who live in mostly white suburbs and dismantles them-one chapter for instance is on the myth that the middle class got to be middle class without any help from the government, the usual argument against the welfare state, while another examines how politicians can manipulate federal money at the county level to make the poorer towns poorer while making the richer ones richer, i.e. the argument that people in Africa are doing worse than those at home argument. The picture is bleak and Troutt makes it clear that this model is completely unsustainable, not just in terms of human suffering but also as a resource to keep the rich so rich. And yet if you are interested in community models of planning and governance, Troutt has some excellent suggestions to round off the book. A well argued book that treats inequality intersectionally discussing class, race and history as well as the future on manageable scales of analysis. I really enjoyed his point about the interdependency of our lives.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hanns and Rudolf-Thomas Harding

Hanns and Rudolf- Thomas Harding

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 368
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 2014
non fiction, biography

The true story of the German Jew turned English Nazi Hunter, Hanns Alexander, and his hunt for Rudolph Hoss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz.


Packed with constant references to primary sources, this is an exhaustively researched telling of Hoss's rise to Kommandant and Alexander's somewhat surprising role as a Nazi hunter. Both men change dramatically throughout the book. Hoss starts out as a farmer and his dedication to efficiency and reputation morphs him into the ruthless planner of Auschwitz and its extermination programme and then finally into a man escaping. Hanns changes from a fearful refugee who strives for assimilation into a hunter using all his resources into the aftermath of facing the face of Nazi atrocities in the face. Both men are steadfastly true to themselves and the primary sources make this a very engrossing read-almost like a spy thriller but true. I can't say that the prose was the best but Harding balances fact and storytelling with a good pace as well as presenting both the good and bad sides of both men (which made Hoss's actions all the more worse).

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Little Life-Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life- Hanya Yanagihara


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 720
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2015
novel

A biography of a very traumatized man and the people who love him as the adult.


Well, at first, you hear from the viewpoints of the three main friends of Jude, his college roommates (in a tiny room) and it establishes the lines and loyalties. The well-off versus the poorer, the race lines, and the future careers they will follow. Then you hear from Jude, who you quickly realize is a very damaged individual. That's what this book is, the life of Jude, a shockingly damaged individual as the scars of a very abusive childhood linger on into deepest adulthood. Here are some trigger warnings: pedophilia, trafficking, self-cutting, eating disorder because Jude is fundamentally convinced that he is unlovable-his body a minefield of scars and disabled legs and his mind a minefield of memories and self-destructive defense strategies. This is a very intense world view and Yanagihara shys away from nothing. Yet she also inhabits his world with such good people who genuinely care for him and so there are so many more tragedies here. Your heart is not breaking just for Jude, but also for his friends, his adoptive parents, his lover who are watching this strong character destroy himself with isolation. The novel is so well crafted that I can't really point to just one thing that Yanagihara is doing to wreak havoc on your emotional state-the pacing is well done, the situations realistic, the triumphs are triumphs and the drawbacks are wearying. The prose morphs along the way as the characters mature and grow older and wiser. Masterful novel.
My only critique is just how Yanagihara tries to make it a bit of a timeless story (and it is) by stripping out the usual markers of time (she sets NYC as the setting quite well) but despite that, it feels like a novel about people in the 1980s-90s based on the trajectory of their lives which yes, includes rags to riches and a geography of NYC that real estate prices would block modern individuals from following a similar trajectory. Also, too many artists with European residencies and the like.There's also a little bit of a sense of unreality at just how much abuse Yanagihara throws at Jude while making him super successful in all other aspects of his adulthood which sometimes felt a bit gratuitous.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

This Life-Karel Schoeman

This Life-Karel Schoeman

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 210
gender: M
nationality: South Africa
year: 1993
novel in translation

On her deathbed, she talks about her life.



Ok, I get it. The almost-never-named narrator lived a life in which she was a passive vessel and she did nothing. Are you ready for 200 something odd pages of her talking to herself on her deathbed? She's not telling her story, her life, to an audience; she has no idea how to talk to people and as such I found it interminable. She didn't really do anything with her life, her sole piece of autonomy was to not marry (but also, she lived in a way as to never be noticed so...how intentional was it is hard to say). Like that was the whole point of everything she did, to not be noticed. She wasn't a bad person, she was just background, which is sad and lonely and god I wanted to provoke her to do something other than cringe and run away. I mean, not a single woman in this novel is happy-most of the others are slavishly attending to males whether husbands, fathers, or sons-but at least there was happiness in some moments for them unlike our narrator whose only joy seemed muted. Her narrative is disjointed and ever so slow-such slow pacing.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Black Eyed Susans-Julia Heaberlin

Black Eyed Susans-Julia Heaberlin

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 354
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2015
novel

Decades after she was left to die as the sole surviving victim of a serial killer, Tessa is forced to confront her past and consider that she may have sent the wrong man to prison.

I've read a lot of serial killer fiction as well as the true crime biographies of many serial killers (yes, I was an angry morbid adolescent) and so nowadays most of the genre really feels dull to me, the same tropes run out and stretched over and over. Not this one. This is serial killer done right. The usual gimmicks are missing and instead of an unconvincing viewpoint from the killer's head, you get an accessible human protagonist (the only surviving victim of the killer) instead. She misses some truly obvious things but for the most part, I found myself rooting for her. She was realistic you know, and complexly developed with recognizable defense strategies. There are also no real red herrings, no extraneous characters, and no unnecessary information given to you as part of a misguided attempt keep the reader guessing like in many serial killer books (and also, it's not too minimalistic like many others). It does finish itself up quite quickly with a resolution that moves at like twice the speed as the rest of the book and the switching between timelines can be a bit abrupt but overall engrossing nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rendezvous in Venice-Philippe Beaussant

Rendezvous in Venice-Philippe Beaussant

the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 128
gender: M
nationality: France
year: 2003
novel(la) in translation

Pierre learns, to his utter shock, that his uncle, with whom he'd had an emotionless, art historical mentorship relationship, had a love affair.


Okay, let me take this off my chest. The hero worship was THE WORST. Charles is such a pompous ass and his nephew struck me as an emotionally stunted groupie. I don't know if I'm just more realistic but I never assume that the people I know don't have private passions so Pierre's shock that his uncle had a lover was just baffling to me. Like, why would I care baffling. There was so much melancholy that I spent the entire novel kind of vacillating between feeling the chill of a lack of emotion and being annoyed by the frequent invitations to the self-pity party. It's not even like the love story was a great romance, in fact, in keeping with my estimation of the male narrators in the story, I thought they acted like pompous asses while 'in love'. (I'd argue against calling it love in a way because the set up...really wasn't convincing in the least.) The publisher's blurb makes this seem like it's going to be a much more cheery and eventful story than it was. Instead you get a lot of detailed art history (many with which I disagree but that's besides the point) and shallow, superficial characterization with a prose and plot approach that left me really cold and dissatisfied.