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.
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