Posts Tagged With: books

June Books

June Books

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (2008)

This book was Barry’s second book to be shortlisted for the Mann Booker Award; the previous one was A Long, Long Way, which I haven’t yet read.

This book is a weaving of two, secret diaries. One is written by an old woman living in an Irish insane asylum, and the other by the head doctor of that asylum. When the asylum is going to be torn down and the patients moved, the doctor must assess Roseanne to see if she can live on her own, or even if she might have been committed wrongly. Her story is the heart of the book and is a critique of the repressed, Church-dominated society of early 20th Century Ireland. Knowledge of that period would have added a layer of richness to my understanding, but the book is written so that it is understandable, even without a lot of historical background.

The book also contemplates truth, memory and history, as well as identity, and even psychiatry.

The book has a few structural problems, such as the too coincidental coming together of a few strong characters, circumstances and letters, but overall, I enjoyed it and recommend it.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, first published serially in The Russian Messenger 1868-69)

This has been the Dostoyevsky book I have wanted to read since I was in high school and it was on my mother’s head of the bed book shelf. I believe it was the title that intrigued me. I wish I liked it more than I do.

I’m not a philosophy sort of reader, I like plot and character development and learning about interesting places and cultures. And facts. (O.K., some facts, not the boring ones, such as dates of World War I battles.) Basically, a well-educated, shallow person.

Basic plot – simple, straightforward, nice Prince Muishkin is too good for the world and ends up insane. In the process, he meets lots of people who help him get to that end. In lots of pages. The characters are interesting, but except for Prince Muishkin, unsympathetic. The women are particularly selfish, unaware, neurotics and the many of the men share those same traits

It sounds like I hated this book. I didn’t. I just disliked portions of it. If you are into plot, this may not be the book for you. If you enjoy long, philosophical treatises by complicated (albeit rarely nice) characters, then it will be a treat. I’m glad I read it. I won’t need to reread it. Crime and Punishment was better. I will tell you how I feel about The Brothers Karamazov next month.


Valerie Perrine as Billy Pilgrim’s mate in the zoo on Tralfamadore.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

Cat’s Cradle was my first Vonnegut book back in college, I believe this was my second. Many more followed, up to Breakfast of Champions. We picked this one up cheap in Tashkent and I decided to give it another go.  Still not my favorite Vonnegut – but not great Vonnegut is still a better read than many other authors.

Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing at the end of World War II. His experiences, told through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, are the underlying theme of this book. Billy Pilgrim, however, time travels through his own life and was a zoo exhibit on planet the planet of Tralfamadore, and so it is not an actual memoir. Thoroughly anti-war and surreal. I will watch the movie again in the near future.

Devil on the Cross by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1980) (translated from Gikuyu by the author)

I first read this Kenyan author while in Senegal in the late 70s, his most famous work, A Grain of Wheat. When I was in grad school in the 80s, Third World literature was the rage (at least for those of us studying Third World development), and he was listed on the “must read” lists. However, I didn’t get to him again until just a couple of weeks ago.

This book is about thieves – not the common garden variety, but capitalists – with an emphasis on neo-imperialism and independence. It is a sledge hammer of a book, no subtlety. Still it interested me, possibly because I agree with his basic premise. I would like to talk with a Kenyan who has read this to see what her or his perspective would be more than 30 years later.

Parts of the book are difficult to read because the men and the culture are so sexist and so many of the characters say and do such disgusting things. Clearly, Ngugi does not agree with those characters. The hero of his story is a young woman who goes from being a victim of men’s lusts and society’s narrow alternatives for women to being a self-supporting car mechanic and revenge-getter.

 Godan by Premchand (1956)

A classic about Indian peasants and the rich class takes place in a village near Lucknow. The main character is Hori, who, although already heavily in debt, yearns for a cow. (The title refers to some sort of Indian traditional donation for buying cows.) Premchand describes well rural life and the differences there between the rich and poor. Class relations, caste relations, gender relations are all part of the mix, as well as the role of moneylenders, their exorbitant interest rates, and why the rich and poor characters borrowed so much to maintain their prestige. Everyone is trying to get the better of the next person, including the sweet and likable Hori. It is all a complicated game, with good stories interwoven.

I highly recommend this book for its insights into a particular place and time, especially if you can suspend your anger at wife beating, caste discrimination, etc., long enough to get a glimpse of a different world.

Great American Short Stories, edited by Paul Negri (2002)

The 19 stories are from 1835-1927, and appear to have been selected for overseas libraries or English-language learners (although they have not been edited to simplify their language.) Everyone of them was good.

Some of my old favorites were Melville’s Bartleby (1856), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and Jack London’s To Build a Fire (1908).  New favorites are Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s A New England Nun (1891), Kate Chopin’s A Pair of Silk Stockings (1896), Theodor Dreiser’s The Lost Phoebe (1920), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1920).

 101 Great American Poems, edited by The American Poetry and Literacy Project (1998)

I picked this book up at the American Corner library in Khujand as well as the short story book. It is a good collection. I got to read some old favorites, poems I did not know from familiar authors, and good poems from poets I had not heard of. Many of the poems were by women and African Americans.

Some of the gems that were new to me or I had forgotten were The Snow Storm by Ralph Waldo Emerson; A Noiseless, Patient Spider by Walt Whitman; Sympathy by Paul Dunbar; Birches by Robert Frost; Euclid by Vachel Lindsay; Little Old Letter by Langston Hughes; and The Unknown Citizen by W.H. Auden. Notice that they are all written by men. The poems by women, especially those by Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, were old, familiar friends.


Old Euclid drew a circle

On a sand-beach long ago.

He bounded and enclosed it

With angles thus and so.

His set of solemn greybeards

Nodded and argued much

Of arc and circumference,

Diameter and such.

A silent child stood by them

From morning until noon

Because they drew such charming

Round pictures of the moon.

By Vachel Lindsay

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February books

February books

Our hiatus in Dushanbe and the slow start to a life with routine in Khujand gave me lots of time to read this month. Several of the books were on my sabbatical reading list and two of them were big – both in their size and in my interest to have them read.

Don Quixote by Honore Daumier

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes (Vol. 1, 1605; Vol. 2, 1615)

         It took me two months and three versions of the book before it was completed. At home in Bowling Green, I started the book with a book on tape with a version in modern English and, at the same time, had a book written in old, dense English to keep by my chair table and be able to read when the tape was bad. I had finished the first volume before we left, and started reading the version I have on the iPad, also a modern English translation, although not the same one, in Istanbul.

The book is picaresque, essentially just a string of stories, (much like the Chinese classic Journey to the West) so it was easy to set aside and then pick up again without losing the general plot. The book is in two volumes, and the first volume is much better than the first. The first volume has most of the familiar tales, plus there are stories embedded in stories embedded in stories – and the stories are more compelling. If you want to read Don Quixote, but don’t have time for a huge book, just read the first volume.

I thought that when I finally got around to reading the book, I would find the musical Man of La Mancha less satisfying. However, I am pleased to report that I still like the musical (although the movie with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren is pretty dreadful). In fact, finding the writers of the musical had used phrases and stories from the book made the book seem like an old friend.

Crime and Punishment with Peter Lorre and Marian Marsh in the 1935 movie directed by Josef von Sternberg.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

         First published in 12 installments in 1866, this book has been on my must read list for decades, really. I decided that living in the former USSR might be a good time to read some big Russian literature books. It is, and this book is wonderful. It is a perfect “dark night of the soul,” and should have been read for the first time when I was a teenager. Compelling writing and emotionally wringing. Peter Lorre, however, was not a good choice to play Raskolnikov – Ralph Fiennes when younger would have been perfect.

Dr. Thorpe by Anthony Trollope, first published in 1858.

This is a sweet, but contrived story. While the plot could have been handled in a short story, the characters, the vocabulary and the depiction of middle class, small town village life in the 1800s delights. I also like how the author comments on his own writing – sort of post-modern, eh? This is the third of the Barchester series, I’ve already read the first two and I plan on reading more.

Candide by Voltaire, first published in 1759.

Another classic I should have read long ago. This novella is a satire about the philosophy that says that if God is good, then everything that happens must be for the good. It got on my “must read” list when one of my freshman students told me it was his favorite book. Thank you Alex, it is good.

Celtic Twilight by W.B. Yeats, mostly written in 1902.

         Yeats is on my Nobel prize list, which I am trying to work through. He is best known for his poetry, but I was tempted by the title and that it was essays about Irish folk beliefs. It was a quick read, but not very satisfying. It did include a few stories and some short poems, but the essays didn’t really enlighten me much about Irish peasants. I am looking forward to reading his collection of Irish fairy tales, which I believe, are the actual fairy tales rather than his commentary on bits and pieces of them.

Rock the Casbah by Robin Wright (2011)

         My friend Catherine gave this book to me as a Christmas gift, and it was well worth reading. I recommend it to everyone who is interested in how 9/11 has affected Muslims and what they are doing to combat extremism in their religion. Wright, a journalist, has been covering the Middle East (and elsewhere) since the 1970s. She reports on the counter-jihad, including hip-hop music, stand up comedians, plays, cultural and political activists, and reformed supporters of terrorism. I will use this as one of the books I recommend for the required book report assignment in my fall class, and probably for both journalism and international studies classes for several years. It is eye-opening.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey (originally published in 1821-22 in a London magazine in three installments.)

A short book that has been sitting on my shelves for years and which I could download onto the iPad for free, so it came with us.  I only recommend it if you want to read all of the British classics. Taken at face value, de Quincey was a long time user of opium. For eight years he took it every three or four weeks for pleasure, and then, he began to take it as a remedy for pain and became a daily user. Because of the emotional turmoil it caused him (lack of sleep and when he did, hideous dreams), he eventually weaned himself. Because he thought that what he had read about opium being used casually was wrong, and because he wanted to show that it was possible to wean yourself off if you did become addicted, he wrote the book. Frankly, it made me want to try a little opium.

Eva Luna by Isabelle Allende, published in Spanish in 1987.

The title character is a story teller who lives in an unnamed South American country during the middle of the 20th century. She tells us the about her life and the lives of several other characters, with whom she eventually meets. It is full of rich characters, and the protagonist is interesting in herself. But, even though the book is fiction, you wonder about the stories that Eva tells you. Even within the parameters of the story, are her stories true?

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson, published in Swedish in 2006.

After seeing the three Swedish movies based on this wildly popular trilogy, I decided to give one of the books a try. The idea was to read the first one (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but this, the second book, showed up on the US Embassy library shelf, and so I read it to see if the books were that much better, as I had been told. Here’s the verdict. If you have not yet seen the Swedish movies, and you like murder mysteries with sex and violence, read the Dragon Tattoo book and check it out. If it is what you like, then read the rest. Yes the books are better than the movies, because they are richer in detail and you get more of the psychology behind the characters – as well as some extra scenes. But the book wasn’t so much better that I have to read the others. I wish I had read the books rather than seen the movies. I find sex and violence entwined is easier for me to take in a book than on a screen. I will likely skip the new English language version of the movie, unless it is in easy reach on a day that I am bored.

A Long Way Home by Ishmael Beah. Published in 2007, 10 years after he was a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

Another free book on the embassy library shelf. So glad I picked it up. I will add this to my book report assignment list for the international studies class. It’s an incredible story written by a young man who at 12, found himself harshly affected by the Sierra Leone civil war and was eventually pressed into being a child soldier. He was lucky enough to be rescued through UNICEF and he includes in his narrative the process of being emotionally and physically healed from that trauma. The book was written about 10 years after the time that the book covers, and I don’t think it could have been written any sooner, Beah writes with clarity. I highly recommend this book.


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