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Short and charming autobiography centering around Dahl's childhood and adolescence; it follows his usual pattern of covering quite appalling events in entertaining and ironic ways.

Dahl came from a large and loving family of Norwegians living in England, which suffered a serious shock very early in his life when his older sister died of appendicitis, followed a month later by his father dying of pneumonia. His mother, upon his father's death, had two children to raise by her husband's first wife, three surviving of her own, and a baby due in six weeks. Looking back on it, Dahl is justifiably surprised that she didn't sell the house, take the children, and flee to her family in Norway, but she seems to have stuck it out in England with an iron will and a tenacious good humor. His talk about her is admiring and endearing, and she comes across as competent beyond belief, practical, wise, and a master of organizational tactics (she got all of them, and the nanny, to the coastal islands of Norway on summer holidays every year, an undertaking slightly more logistically complicated than siege warfare).

School, however, seems to have been the major problem in his life. His mother took him out of one school because they caned him, and sent him to a highly reputable boarding school-- where they not only caned him more often, but stood over the students writing letters to make sure no one said anything undesirable about the educational environment. His sense of injustice is deep-seated, desperate, and accurate; he happened to be a very good athlete and mentions that he must have been the only team captain at Repton never to be made into a house official, because the faculty knew perfectly well he wouldn't beat the junior students. This goes a fair way for me in explaining the two kinds of adults who appear in Dahl's fiction for children: the good ones, loving, imperfect, and usually economically or otherwise not capable of achieving much, especially in defense of children; and the bad ones, who are rotten clear through and in power and abuse it. This does appear to have been the way adults were to him as a child, and the wounds of school in the 1920s are visible in him writing sixty years later. (And more than visible-- he mentions never having been able to sit on a hard bench for any length of time in later life.)

So this book is an odd combination of terrible things that happened to the author, terrible things he did to other people by way of revenge (a dead mouse in a jar in the sweetshop owned by a woman who hated him; goat droppings in his sister's annoying fiance's pipe), and the usual anecdotes one gets from a happy cheerful large family who all want to be around each other and have gotten very good at it. All told in the same tone of voice, which you wouldn't think would work but does, because the content itself makes the voice ironic or humorous or bitter as the case may be.

I would say, then, that it's enjoyable, and interesting if you like the author; but it is not indispensable as an autobiography, though it is well done, because I have read many books with similar content. The unusual thing is that this time they are all the same book.
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Read today. I am caught up! I refuse to fall behind again!

This is a memoir of growing up in the late 1960s in Malaysia. Apparently it is a sequel to the author's Kampung Boy, which the library did not have, but it stands by itself. Lat draws in a very fluid, loose, expressive, intentionally 'cartoony' style, and this is sort of a cross between a comic and an illustrated novel in which there's an illustration for every paragraph.

There's not much in the way of plot, but there's a great deal of detail and atmosphere. Street scenes are popping with background market transactions, traffic, construction work; interiors are cluttered and homey and lived-in, changing over time but retaining an essential sameness that gives the feel of spaces evolving naturally during the eight or so years the comic covers.

Lat and his family move into town when he is ten. They live in the first low-cost housing project in Malaysia-- there is a panel of his recollection of his father accepting their new house keys from a Very Official Person, everyone grinning for the cameras, and then they all troop off to look for the house, not entirely certain where it is. Town, to Lat, means connection to the wider universe: Lawrence of Arabia in Arabic, Bill Haley and the Comets on the record-player his friend from school has in the little room over his family's Chinese tea room (and the pure, perfect joy evoked by thirteen-year-olds meeting rock and roll for the first time leaps off the page). It means learning to draw, becoming the guy who knows about drawing, magically managing to use that to snag a date with the girl he's been eying for years-- but not two dates. Town means excitement, and the excitement of it never fades.

This is an art style I can take or leave, and as I've said there's not really much plot, or much structure. It's a series of entertaining incidents lovingly described. It does well for that, though I don't think it would do much for me on reread. However, there is one thing I wish the publisher had done: notes. There are about six languages used in the text, and they are mostly not translated into English. This is fine, except that a) the protagonist understands them, and b) the author expects the audience to understand them. Leave things in the original language, yes, do, please, that's the best way to make sure your English readers know what language they're in; but could we have some notes, at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the book? I felt as though I was getting about half the text, and I don't think that's the experience that was actually artistically intended.
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Read August 4th.

After being pleasantly surprised by Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, a book which has been fundamentally misrepresented by the forces which made it into a bestseller and a bad Julia Roberts movie, I decided it was worth seeing if her second would also be better than one expects of A Bestselling Memoir, Subtype: Vaguely Inspirational.

And it is. Gilbert and her lover, who had both gone through nasty divorces, were cohabiting cheerfully enough in a bi-continental relationship sustained by her lover's ninety-day work visas. The U.S. government does not like people to do this indefinitely, and deported him. (She says that the legal word is not deportation, but that no one has ever been able to tell her a different word that would cover it.) This meant they needed to get married if he ever wanted to be able to go back to the U.S., a country in which he had substantial business interests, and out of which she did not want to move permanently.

So, facing what registered emotionally as a governmentally-sponsored shotgun wedding, she decided to do a whole bunch of research about marriage, past, present, and future, and see if she could shake her persistent divorce-caused phobia.

The thing I appreciate about Gilbert's writing here is that it has the same strength her last book had: she admits cheerfully that she is not qualified. She is not a historian, she is specifically not a historian specializing in matrimony, she will give you the names of the books she read and you have her permission to fault her research methods all you like, because this is not an academic text. This is the author, specifically, as a private person, trying to cope with marriage, the public institution, and using anything she can find to help herself do it. She also cheerfully admits that the things that frighten her and interest her about marriage, and the method she finally found to reconcile herself to it, are totally individual and almost certainly do not apply to anyone else. And when she stumbles across giant questions, as, of course, she does every other second, she does not claim to answer them for anyone but her, and sometimes she doesn't have answers for herself either.

So if you're looking for answers to those questions-- you know, the ones like 'why should I, personally, get married?' or 'what role does the patriarchy play in how I view the involvement of the state in marriage?' or 'why in the name of Margaret Sanger do people try so hard to defend something called 'traditional marriage' as an institution when as far as anyone can tell it is less than a century old?', well, this book is specifically not about answering that. It does, however, bring up those questions, and it's a pretty comprehensive list of questions, especially for female-gendered persons who have significant qualms about financial and personal autonomy (qualms which are statistically totally justified and worth consideration).

Gilbert ranges over her own past, the lives of women she knows, and the lives of her extended family in her attempt at reconciliation. Marriage for her is not only undesirable at the start of this book, but a force intruding where it doesn't belong, a symbol of people telling her and her partner that they have to do xyz or they cannot be socially acceptable. She always knows she will do it: she really doesn't want her lover to lose his business, she really doesn't want to move to Australia. What she needs to figure out is how to do it and maintain her self-respect, so that she doesn't feel like they've sold out, and so the whole thing doesn't damage their relationship.

And I have a lot of sympathy for that. That's a real problem, because it does sometimes feel as though when you get married they send you a list of Things People Assume About You Now in the mail (actually, they do, if you are female it begins with the shape of your name on the envelopes) -- and I'm in a same-sex marriage, where theoretically one would think it might be harder for people to make that list. I mean, I'm all for marriage, I desperately want my rights about it and I got married at eighteen and I'm delighted, but I look at the state of marriage as a civil contract every so often and boggle, you know? She is right to fear the things she fears.

So this book doesn't have much in the way of structure, in some ways, because she's wandering from theme to theme and coping strategy to coping strategy (and physically all over Southeast Asia doing miles and miles of paperwork), but I don't see that as a flaw, because this is not a tidy narrative she's in, here. The point is that she doesn't want it to be a tidy little narrative. And there's a fair bit that's funny in it, and a fair bit I sympathize with (I completely understand her total inability, after having gone through said mountains of paperwork, to be okay with the concept of having to organize anything at all by way of a wedding ceremony). The problems with the book are, of course, that she isn't a historian. There are always those moments where, if this is a field one reads in, it could have gone a little deeper. There is the urge to send her a list of further secondary sources. And there is the urge to suggest that she not try to make mental models of the state of marriage in, say, Vietnam, even if she is standing in Vietnam, because she doesn't speak the language and is there for like a month and is operating from a position of very well-meaning and privileged ignorance. Fortunately there is not very much of that. Also, there is a turn of phrase once which annoys me somewhat, in which she says that she thinks that just about everybody attempts some kind of deeply intimate monogamous bonding at some point whether it is sexual or not, and I'm like, no, I have never ever tried to be monogamous and neither have lots of people I know and it does not affect the intimacy of my bonding; you don't know very many poly people, do you, O Author.

But overall, this continues the theme: Elizabeth Gilbert, Better Books Than I Expected. Which is a good thing, and I'll take it.
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Links to the reviews I posted during the recent LJ outage. I am not reposting, but anonymous and open ID commenting are open over there (though I would appreciate some kind of name signed to anonymous comments so as to be able to maintain continuity of conversation).

Day 325: Trilogy, H.D.. Poetry, unfairly overlooked lesbian author.

Day 326: Paying For It, Chester Brown. Graphic novel. Interesting but highly problematic memoir about prostitution from the perspective of a customer.

Day 327: Faerie Winter, Janni Lee Simner. Good YA fantasy by a friend of mine.

Day 328: The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Unfairly obscure Argentinian science fiction indirectly responsible for the movie Last Year at Marienbad.

Day 329: Earth X, Alex Ross and Jim Krueger. Graphic novel. Dark Marvel Comics AU with a very interesting take on Captain America.

Day 330: Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As Ghosts, Ursula Vernon. Fifth in Vernon's fun series of illustrated kids' books; not a strong entry.

And the two since made it through crossposting.
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Review of the book I read on Thursday, July 21st.

I've read quite a few memoirs by prostitutes over the years, because I am interested in memoir and I am interested in feminism and I am interested in economics. Also in sex. This leads to reading memoirs and essays by sex workers.

However, I had not previously read any memoirs by customers of prostitutes, because, well, they don't seem to turn up as often. Chester Brown's willingness to discuss his interactions with prostitutes is very unusual. His unemotional, flatly biographical, non-sensationalist but definitely ideological approach is even more peculiar. The style of his comic is very stripped-down: panels are all the same size, word balloons take up a lot of space, pictures of people walking along streets are pretty much the same picture repeated with different words. The lines are heavy blackwork and there isn't a lot in the way of facial expression. This means that when there is sex, and there is, it is extremely obvious that it is not intended as anything other than careful documentary.

After breaking up with his girlfriend, the actress and radio personality Sook-Yin Lee (who can be seen in the delightful film Shortbus), Brown decided that he was against romantic love as an institution, and began to see prostitutes regularly. It seems to have been a fairly amicable breakup, although his friends took the whole ideology shift as an expression of some kind of inner pain; I wasn't there, I don't know. Brown doesn't think so. He's a pretty libertarian type and believes that prostitution should be legal because people have the right to make whatever paying contracts they want with their own bodies. Eventually he comes down on the side that it's not necessarily love he's against, but possessive monogamy, with jealousy and everything that goes with that; he also admits flat-out that he is not up for the work of maintaining a relationship and is using money to take the place of putting in that work. At the end of the book he is engaged in a monogamous contract with a particular woman: neither of them sleep with anybody else, he loves her, and he always pays. He claims not to know of a word for this arrangement. (She is a kept woman, and in the French court would have been his maîtresse déclarée. It is not as though this is a new setup he has thought of.)

Unsurprisingly, this memoir is a fascinating mishmash of the interesting and the problematic. He (very politely) chooses not to give identifying details of the women he patronized, leaving out their working names, actual hair and skin colors, and anything any of them said that might be used to trace them. This is probably a good idea, given that some of them are engaged in variants of the work that I think are illegal in Canada (I can't remember whether it's illegal to have the prostitute come to one's home or to have them work out of a brothel, but one of the two is). However, it means that he can't depict them as people. He says he's had a lot of interesting conversations with them about their lives and the philosophy of the business and that he thinks they're mostly happy people who chose their jobs freely and like their work: well, okay, he can say that, but the burden of proof is on him, and he does not give enough detail for me to really believe him. In addition, the no-identifying-details thing has the effect of making the women feel interchangeable and adds to the aura that is traditionally associated with prostitution, that customers treat prostitutes as inhuman and interchangeable commodities. I think there must have been a line between giving information that could identify these women and paring down what they had to say quite this thoroughly.

Also, he gives some very good reasons for wanting prostitution to be both legal and unregulated (legal because then prostitutes will be able to get better health care and call law enforcement more easily; unregulated so that the kind of punitive licensing one gets in Nevada doesn't come into play and produce a black market). But he is operating from a position of privilege, serious privilege: he is the consumer, he is a white male with the money in this equation, and he simply does not seem to understand the kind of societal pressure that can drive women into prostitution when it is not the work they want to be doing. He does not understand the relentless pressure put on women by society to be beautiful and desirable; he does not understand the dynamics of the abusive relationship that can develop between a woman and her pimp (just because she may think of him as a boyfriend doesn't mean he can't be exploiting her; I get the impression that Brown is the sort of person who does not understand why people do not instantly leave any relationship that has become abusive, and the reasons why not of course begin with the physical problems of violence); he literally denies the existence of trafficking. Which just. I don't even. Trafficking? Is a major, serious issue, has been forever, isn't going away any time soon.

This is the most interesting mixture of the sex-positive and the wrongheaded. I mean he goes through and tries to analyze whether any of the women he slept with might have been trafficked: well and good, that's a reasonable thing to do, and he concludes that he doesn't think any of them were. Fair enough. He's buying fairly expensive prostitutes in Canada. The odds of them being were low. Cheaper, on the other hand, or in some other places-- What I am saying here is that the author has the flaw of generalizing from his personal experience to universals. He also does not, I think, understand quite how much these women have invested in keeping him happy and in saying what he wants to hear. (Their physical safety is riding on it, as is the economics of the current transaction and the chance of a repeat customer. One thing a lot of the memoirs I have read by prostitutes agree on is that you never tell a customer you don't like the life, because it never goes well, the very best thing that can happen is that they get rescue fantasies and the worst doesn't bear thinking about.)

As a result, I think this is actually a very good memoir, because it demonstrates the mindset-- the things that one needs to think about, the things that one needs to be in denial about-- of a person who is a regular john. And as I said that isn't a kind of book that crops up, much. It's very interesting to get a chance to look into the head of somebody who does this.

Just be aware, it's quite a dense set of things to wade through and consider; I want to yell at him about at least half of it and throw various other books at him. Which of course also makes it a successful book.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Why yes, I am going through all the Tove Jansson the university library has, why do you ask?

This is described on the cover as Jansson's memoir of her early youth, but that's far too conventional a description for what's actually going on here. I mean, that blurb implies context, the kind of memoir where one says my parents were thus, and we lived here, and I did this. That is not this book.

This book is a series of episodes, each of which is a perfectly acceptable short story by itself, which when assembled produce a picture of what it was like to be Tove Jansson at a very early age. Of a necessity, of course, this includes a lot of description of her parents, her mother the illustrator, her father the sculptor, but a lot of people just drift through. They are there, the way that people are there or not there to small children. Some of the people she talks to and with are not physically real people, because Jansson was of course the sort of intelligent and articulate small child who had conversations with anyone she could call into being or elaborate upon as if they were present, as well as the people who actually happened to be present. There are phases when you are young when all that sort of thing, consensus reality, is irrelevant to the way things are and the question is whether it is an interesting conversation. This may be the best writing I have ever seen from the perspective of that age, the age where with a peculiar double vision one knows both that a certain place is blessed or cursed and that one is by others' definitions being silly. One of Jansson's greatest gifts as a writer is that she doesn't give a damn what other people think and didn't as a kid either.

And the picture we get from her of Helsinki between the wars, and of her family, is consequently highly colored, vivid, individual, indelible. There is the cousin who claims to have the favor of God because a bird perched on her wall hanging of Christ and nodded its head three times. She is insufferable about it to the point of organizing the young cousins into a Bible class. "It was then," says Jansson, "I began to build the golden calf." There is the summer they have guests at the summer place, who keep poking their heads into her father's studio and suggesting motifs, and he becomes quieter and quieter until there is a giant storm and two feet of water come into the studio and he dashes into the house to explain with cheerful gusto that all his clay and plaster are ruined and he will, so sorry, not be able to keep any of the past month's work. There is the time she sees an iceberg and throws a flashlight onto it, watches it ride glowing glasslike out to sea. The parties at her parents' apartment, where the goal is for everyone to stay up as late as possible, and then they all fall asleep sitting up and have to rouse very gently in the morning, opening the curtains an inch at a time and pondering for half an hour over whether it is really pickled herring that everyone wants for breakfast and, if so, whether there is any, because it is unquestionably and undoubtably too far to the pantry from the table.

The whole is illustrated by photographs, many by Jansson's brother, some familial in other ways, black and white, technically stunning, usually focused on things like water on rock. They feel oddly relevant despite having nothing in particular to do with most of the text.

As one would expect, then, this is a brilliant book, not in the slightest like books by any other writers, and full of elements which would crop up in her later work but not in the same way. It is not a book that teaches you to know her (I expect she does not want us to), but it is profoundly lovable.
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A book about how the simple goal of trying to go to Tuva with Richard Feynman inexorably leads to organizing the largest museum exhibit to travel between the USSR and the United States. No, really.

In the late 1970s, Leighton, a longtime friend of Feynman's, was at his house for dinner; the conversation worked around to the question of what happened to Tannu Tuva, a nation at that time mostly known to stamp collectors because of the beautiful and unique stamps it put out in the 1930s. The answer is that it became part of the USSR and is currently still kind of part of Russia, although China and Mongolia also have claims and it would rather like to be independent again. It is known nowadays primarily for Tuvian throatsinging, a technique in which a single person is able to sing more than one note at the same time. (If I could find it, I'd upload you a Tuvian throatsinging cover of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Maybe it's better for everyone that I appear to have mislaid it.)

Of course, nowadays one can find out a great deal about Tuva simply by Googling, and I suspect it is difficult but not ridiculously hard to get there. But Leighton and Feynman, who were intrigued by the entire question of where the stamps came from, were working before the internet and before cell phones and in the days of Soviet bureaucracy, specifically Intourist, whose job was basically to keep tourists from going off the beaten path. Finding anything about Tuva at all involved trawling research libraries, spending large amounts of time with Tuvan-Russian and Russian-English dictionaries, and writing letters to a staggering number of scholars. Actually trying to go to Tuva involved trying to figure out an excuse: since Tuva did not have an Intourist office, going as a tourist was not possible. Thus the museum; Leighton figured that after bringing to the US a massive display of Tuvan and Scythian and Kazakh artifacts, which had already toured Sweden, they could get into Tuva as associates of whatever museum agreed to host the exhibit.

Which is how you get a high school geography teacher and a Nobel laureate in physics as the beginning liaisons between, among other institutions, the Smithsonian, and the Soviets. In the middle 1980s.

As a book qua book, this is not amazing; Leighton's prose is rather lackluster, his organizational schema is peculiar, and he has an attitude towards life that can best be summarized as 'enthusiastically endorsing those Esalen people', which should tell you. He also hero-worships Feynman amazingly, which is probably fair, but does not make for nuanced descriptions of the man. However, as a story about what can happen to a person, given careful research, incredible stubbornness, and a willingness to network and ask for what one wants, it is amazing and continuously unpredictable. As a snapshot of how much the world has changed in the last couple of decades, it's also quite impressive. I remember trying to research some geography questions that were very much less obscure for a contest when I was about eleven, pre-internet. A helpful librarian and I spent quite a while ransacking the three floors of the largest library near me, and got precisely nothing. I would have had to go to a larger city and repeat the whole process. Nowadays-- well, I'm not joking, I used to have a copy of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' as covered by Tuvian throatsingers, and there's a Mongolian rock band I occasionally pay attention to on Myspace.

This is a book that I can see handing to kids in the future and explaining about how there used to be this thing called the Soviet Union, and you used to have to string wire from place to place to make a phone call, and this is the kind of story that you get out of the coinciding of those historical facts.

It's also pretty damn entertaining, but then I like obsessive people.
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Yes, this is that Agatha Christie.

A memoir of several years spent with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, excavating in Syria entre deux guerres. It's not meant to be about archaeology, really, although they did some very important work; it's about trying to wrangle several hundred people and massive quantities of supplies into some semblance of a dig while dependent on sparse train lines, no roads, and communications by letter. (I particularly enjoy the way that whenever they go to the post office the postmaster, who is literate in Arabic but not other languages, has a bin for letters addressed in languages he does not speak and keeps trying to give the entire bin to anyone who comes in and asks for something that ought to be in it. They keep speculating about who all these people are whose mail they are declining, and hoping said people do the same for them.)

This is one of those books that is a fast, funny, intelligent read marred drastically by having been published in 1946 by a person who has not thought at all about the race and class issues built into the way she expects things in Syria to go for her as an English gentlewoman. Which is to say it has not, in some aspects, aged remotely pleasantly. If one uses the rubric of good for its time, normal for its time, bad for its time, I am afraid it is on the normal-trending-to-bad part of that spectrum.

Still, I think I now know where Elizabeth Peters got her model for the Amelia Peabody books. Agatha Christie was a person of great aplomb and a way of laughing at herself (and other people, when called for: there is the friend of hers who had pajamas specially designed to cover every inch of his body but his eyes, nose, and mouth, to keep off the mosquitoes, and kept saying he was going to be the only one not to get malaria, and of course the second he got them buckled and zipped on for the first time he realized there was a mouse inside his waistband; apparently no one could get anywhere near him to assist, since everyone had collapsed in fits of hysterical giggling). She appears to have been able to write mystery novels in a room actually containing people reconstructing pottery, a feat of concentration beyond my ability to comprehend.

So, the bits that do not have one gritting one's teeth are very pleasant, and as a record of a mindset and a way of doing things and of how archaeology used to work, it is continuously interesting. But there is a lot of teeth-gritting.

She did write a very nice poem for the front of the book, which I am going to include here in full as it is too enjoyable not to, and certainly is not the sort of thing that would be excerpted anywhere. Also, it's a fun example of the geek love poem, a genre that has a long history.

with apologies to Lewis Carroll )
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I read this for three reasons:

-- I was in an airport bookstore
-- I occasionally have an inexplicable sudden urge to read best-sellers
-- Ursula Vernon, who is a sensible person, rather liked it.

... I also rather liked it.

I think a lot of the hate about this book has been based on the concept that it is, in some way, travel writing. If it were a travel book, it would be really inexcusable, because yeah, the author is going off to Italy and India and Indonesia and does not know that much about the cultures involved and the issues and the histories; yeah, she has a lot of money and privilege and the ability to go off for a year and travel and write about it and sell the book in advance, even. If this were a travel book, it would be aggravating spiritual tourism.

It's not. It's an introspective memoir about the aftermath of a really terrible set of life crises and the way the author pulled herself out of a nasty bout of clinical depression. One way she does it is meditation, and she freely admits that she knows nothing about the history of meditation as a spiritual practice. I do under most circumstances find myself annoyed at people who go off and do yoga for a week and then something ayurvedic for another week and then go off to Bali to study traditional Balinese medicine, because it seems kind of dilettantish.

Except that we are talking here about someone who was trying to save her own life, literally, who was at the 'call my friends and get them to take away my sharp implements' phase. I do not blame people for a buffet-style approach to spirituality if that is what they need to do to keep on breathing-- and she does seem to have tackled her depression with anything and everything she could think of. Meds? Yes. Exercise? Yes. Positive self-talk? Yes. Therapy? Yes. And what worked for her was taking a year and going off and doing exactly what she wanted to do, which, since a lot of her problem was that she'd been defining herself by the men in her life for decades, was a major and difficult thing.

Most people do not have the resources to go do this in continents they don't live in. But the overall arc of this book actually is a woman learning that she can make it on her own, and she can devote herself to things that matter to her even if they seem fruitcake-y to other people (and yes, going to an ashram is A Bit Much in my personal opinion, but at least she decided for herself to do it, and worked hard at it). And I have this suspicion that that arc is one reason this book gets looked down on so much, because I think that arc scares people. Notice how much one hears about her Meeting A Guy at the end, for example, and how little one hears about how adamant she was to maintain a life of her own, how careful she was to try to preserve the autonomy she'd gained while keeping the freedom to go into a relationship. And one hears almost nothing about one of the principal reasons behind her first marriage breaking up being that she desperately, violently did not want children.

So yeah. I could wish this were more complex and nuanced about class and race and religion, I could wish it were an actual look at the places she goes to, I could wish it weren't privileged as fuck. But it's intelligently written, it's sincerely intended, and she never claims she knows anything at all about those places and issues; in fact she repeatedly states the exact opposite. As a book about the inside of its author's head, this totally does not suck.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
There's always something of a gamble in picking up a biography because you want to read a biography of the person it is about, and not because you have heard anything good about the author or book for itself. This book is blurbed by Anita Desai and Guy Davenport and lives up to that; I am glad, because I wanted to read a biography of Cummings after The Enormous Room made me curious about what happened next.

The author was, I gather, the first writer to have complete access to Cummings' papers, diaries, notes to himself, etc., and full permission to publish them. He therefore wisely lets Cummings speak for himself a lot of the time, and uses selections from the poetry when it is relevant. But, as a good biographer should, he also presents information and analysis-- not unbiasedly, because no one does that, but in a fashion that lets you see the biases and that he is aware of them.

And Sawyer-Lauçanno's major bias is also the one which is an additional mark of a good biographer: he loves his subject. He says so straight out. He loves Cummings' work, and it has had great impact on his life. Knowing and admitting this, he can get out of his own way enough to give us the man's flaws.

Which were significant. Edward Estlin Cummings was an incredibly complicated man who changed complexities on a fairly regular basis. He was learned, kind, funny, charming, charitable, loyal to a fault, devoted to his work, devoted to an appreciation of the world, in love with the city of Paris par amours, and absolutely unwilling to be fettered by convention. He was also terrible at relationships in some truly amazing directions, never forgot a perceived slight, could not understand financial anything on either personal or larger scales, almost certainly drank too much, and--

well.

cut for a long and sordid story )
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I have read more than a few books about World War I, long, short, assigned, unassigned, good, bad, indifferent, poetical, historical, fictional, factional, truthful or less as the case may be; in fact I once for work proofread the entire poetry of Wilfred Owen, absolutely all of it, juvenilia and drafts included, which means I am in position to tell you that his estate if any ought to sue Disney for copyright over The Little Mermaid as ninety percent of that movie including names of evil eel sidekicks is from an absolutely terrible poem Owen perpetrated at about the age of thirteen. And of course I have read a lot of memoirs about the War, Robert Graves certainly and whatever else I have gotten my hands on. It is not an unfamiliar genre to me, the WWI memoir.

This one, though. This one is different in several directions, beyond the basic fact of being a masterpiece, which would not by itself distinguish it from the rest of its genre as it is a field in which masterpieces flourished somewhat. It is by e.e. cummings, for one thing, the first book he ever wrote, and it is a very truthful and exact memoir which communicates very well what he went through when, as an ambulance-driver for the Red Cross, he was arrested by the French government as a possible spy, put into indefinite detention, and shuffled into a Kafka-esque maze of dizzying bureaucratic passages, all alike. It is a book of great power and honesty.

It is also, and this is where everything I thought I knew about the WWI memoir screeches to a halt, turns about-face, and vanishes into the distance, it is also screamingly hilarious.

I mean it. Portions of this are the funniest book I have read this year.

I have been going through and trying to find an excerpt that will explain why it is so funny, but this is not excerptable humor. It is instead the kind that flows gently and naturally from the endless piling of situation on situation. It also has a great good gift of timing. I mean, this is the sort of book in which we learn, from watching him go through various prison examinations, that the author graduated from Harvard. Two hundred pages later he is attempting to translate and transcribe the various things one of the guards is calling him, most of which are untranslatable and/or unprintable, and among the long list of epithets you get "which is gendarme for 'fuck Yale'" and it is such a completely perfectly unexpected sense-making non sequitur that I laughed for ten minutes.

Part of it is that you will never find a man so happy to be in prison. The reason that cummings and his friend wound up under suspicion was that they did not get on with the leader of their ambulance squadron, and the friend wrote several letters home saying that they did not get on with said leader, and the leader brought this to the attention of the letters censor, and the next thing was of course accusations of treason and espionage. cummings' sole purpose in life, after finding out what was going on, was to stay with his friend, to which purpose he cheerfully manipulated several panels of questioners. When the two of them reach La Ferté-Macé, the camp where people are held until the authorities decide whether they are dangerous, they both decide heartily that it is, and this is a quote, "the best place in the world". Or at any rate better than the ambulance squadron.

A lot of this is irony, of course, though it is also all real. You do not come to a World War I book for comfort reading, not even this one. Most of the humor is not black at all, but some is very black, and some of the sunniest is directly intertwined with the vicious and helpless rage and frustration that build and build and build, when the writer sees what this prison does to people and what the government can get away with. One of the things that makes this book such a masterpiece is that the horror of the prison is that the atrocities of it are carried out in a place where the narrator is happy, much of the time, really honestly happy. The medieval brutality and total chaotic confusion of the prison feel that much more real and honest and sense-making to him than the entire rest of the war. Another of the things that makes this so good is that, of course, the prison doors open and the narrator and his friend go home and the rage goes nowhere, because it can never end; the life before it is over and goodbye to all that. I have a great deal more respect for e.e. cummings after reading this, and I had a fair amount already.

Of course the language is ridiculously amazing, too. He's in his late twenties and still finding his feet, so I cannot blame you if you find this over-written, because sometimes he has no idea where in hell he's going to put the verb among those adjectives. But you get sentences like "He had no nose, properly speaking, but a large beak of preposterous widthlessness, which gave his whole face the expression of falling gravely downstairs, and quite obliterated the unimportant chin." I mean that is the sort of sentence I get the urge to write out and frame and put up on the wall, for seven or eight different reasons.

There is only one thing which prevents me from heartily pressing this into the hands of all and sundry, and that is, well, honestly it is damn close to bilingual. I am lucky enough to read French, and apparently know more of the scabrous kind than I had thought. If you are not a French-reader you will need a dictionary, because there are entire paragraphs in here that were transcribed as their original speakers said them, which is to say in French, and not translated at all. Also all the prison vocabulary is in French, and anything the author felt he couldn't print in English in 1922. But you could get by with a dictionary, I think, or Google Translate or something, or pick up the important bits as one does with a well-world-built novel. I think. The thing is since I do read French I cannot know for certain. I suspect this bilinguality of being the reason no class that assigned WWI lit ever threw this at me, although I guess it may also be obscure? I never know how well known things are, really.

Anyway, this is one of the bona fide great memoirs. I need to find a good bio of cummings, and look more thoroughly into his bibliography, because years ago at the Boston Antiquarian Book Show I saw one of his paintings, and I have seen a collection of the porn he drew, and I think he was just one of those people who couldn't do anything badly. And on his own evidence a good man, and a loving one.
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There has been a lot of controversy over this book, which is fair, because it is tangled up with very complex issues about race, class, gender, power, parenting, immigration and assimilation... there is a great deal going on below the surface of a text which also has a great deal going on on the surface, and it's also a deceptively quick and easy read.

On the surface, it's infuriating. This is a memoir, though possibly not a manifesto, describing Amy Chua's methods of parenting her two daughters. She describes her parenting as typical Chinese parenting, and continually contrasts it with a style of parenting she tags as typically Western. One thing that I have not seen many reviews mention is that within the first three pages of the book she states that she has seen parents of extremely diverse ethnic backgrounds following both models, but I for one am leery at the tagging of, well, anything as typical, most of the time. Especially when the things being described as typical are identical to the stereotypes about the subject.

Because Chua was incredibly strict. An A- was not an acceptable grade. Three hours of daily music practice was barely considered sufficient. Her daughters chose none of their own activities, did not do slumber parties, were called worthless and lazy and stupid when they didn't obey. Chua tells stories here about wrestling with her younger daughter at the piano, not letting her up for hours until the piece was perfect; she excerpts her notes for her daughters in which she tells them measure-by-measure what they are doing wrong in each piece of music and insists that the errors be gone the next time she hears it. This is very, very stereotypical stuff.

And yet, what is infuriating to me is not, entirely, the literal content of this book, the way Chua parents, though I am mad as hell about the language she considers acceptable to use to her children. What is infuriating to me is that she clings to the insistence that there is something uniquely Chinese about her parenting style every time she thinks she's gone too far. Because she knows perfectly well there are times she goes too far. She describes the feeling of sitting there, knowing her daughters at occasional moments outright hate her despite a usually loving relationship, and not knowing if that will continue, and knowing it is justified. But every time she thinks that sort of thing, she literally accuses herself of betraying her culture, of letting the side down. At one point she thinks something along the lines of 'my daughters disobeying me makes a mockery of four thousand years of civilization'. However, it is European composers she insists her girls study. She says outright that she thinks that Chinese culture has produced nothing to equal Beethoven's Ninth. The Chinese she insists her daughters learn is Mandarin, which is not what her family speaks.

This is an example of what stereotypes can do, when mixed with the dilemma of degree of assimilation. Because Chua has, obviously, a standard of success, and a clear and distinct definition of what success is. Success is, for example, playing at Carnegie Hall. Success is being successful at American things (there is a thing she says about gamelan players that is fucking insulting to the entire Indonesian concept of music, when she's trying to explain why she picked violin and piano for her girls). But she has to make them successful in a way she sees as Chinese. So whenever she's going too far, and things aren't working, and relationships are fraying, and it's obvious that she's wrong about something somewhere because they got a dog even though she could see no utilitarian value in it whatsoever and now not only does she love it but they have a second and are considering a third-- then she tells herself, this set of things is what Chinese parents do, and so it is what I am supposed to be doing. The stereotype is part of her own justification for the way she parents.

As she says outright, because this is an intelligent and occasionally introspective woman, she is the most stubborn at defending the things she knows to be most problematic.

That's why this book is called the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It's not meant to call anyone else to battle. It's a reassurance to herself, an attempt to answer the eternal question: did I do the right thing by my children? It is her own anthem.

And the thing is, the question of whether she did the right thing by her children is incredibly complex. Those measure-by-measure criticism notes? Are funny as hell. Loving, charming, and sweet. Her girls are by current standards incredibly high achievers, and in interviews state that they are happy, that they love her. She learned some flexibility with her younger daughter, when it was do so or break the relationship. And I remember, myself, very clearly how difficult it was for me when I hit college and no one had ever taught me how to do work I did not enjoy doing but that needed to be done. I still have trouble with that. I can't say that isn't a life skill you should teach your children.

But I am saddened and distressed that she sets up and uses this Chinese/Western dichotomy to help her maintain her confidence, because what kind of fucking world do we live in where that is a defense mechanism people reach for? Let alone a useful one? And the media and reviewers have run with it, absolutely run with it, a lot of them unquestioningly.

So that's my surface level of infuriated. There are others under that, but I don't feel like writing a screed about the entire concept of success and achievement as defined in popular culture, or one about the relations of class and gender, at this precise moment.

I highly recommend actually reading the book, because it will make you think about all those things, and because apart from [personal profile] sanguinity over at 50books_poc I have not read a single review of this yet that bore much relationship to the book I read. Also, as I said, it is occasionally funny, well-composed on a sentence-by-sentence level, and deceptively, simply, readable.
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The disadvantage to writing a book review every day is that it means that I do not get much processing time. If I schedule things carefully, and read my book early, I can get a few hours to think about it, but often life intervenes (it's amazing how people want one to do things during daylight). I cannot always predict in advance what is going to need a particular sort of time and thought and care, when a book will require some turning over in my brain before I can even start to get my thoughts in order and make sentences. Some books one can review by starting to type, and some not.

It is five-thirty in the morning. I have been reading Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes since half-past midnight. I would love to go away and think about this book for a week. Then I might begin to be able to tell you how good this is, and why.

On the other hand, I suppose the resultant review might lose something in immediacy. I do not think that is sufficient, but I guess it is something.

So: my apologies. I cannot live up to this book. It is too good for me to know how to write about right now. I will try. It will not be right. I'm sorry.

Edmund de Waal is a potter by profession, and, I have heard, a good one, with work in museums. He has inherited, from his great-uncle by way of his great-uncle's husband, a collection of two hundred and sixty-four Japanese netsuke pieces that has been in his family since the 1870s. This book is a history, a story of the collection in his family, or his family around the collection, and the world around that.

I can tell you in his own words what he is trying not to do, and what sort of book he is trying to make:

... I really don't want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss...

It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Époque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.

And I'm not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago. And I am not interested in thin. I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers-- hard and tricky and Japanese-- and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and what they thought about it-- if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.

Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return.


And that is exactly what he does, he builds that exactitude and he succeeds in every way. Because in order to make those rooms come alive, and to make the people come alive who lived in them, so that he can guess at the relationship those people had to these objects, he goes and does the kind of exacting, thorough, loving research that most historians wish they could live up to, and then he gives you his insanely wealthy, intelligent, Jewish, multi-lingual generations-back family and they walk off the page. This is the only work of its kind I can think of that is equally good on every time period and place it covers, which is two continents and more than a century.

And because of who his family were, and where they were, and the amount of money they had, this is also a very particular kind of history, one of the world of people one has heard of, the world of high society and the artists and thinkers around the edges of that. They knew the wealthy and the great: they were the wealthy and the great, and interested in the arts, and they knew everybody.

They were also, as I mentioned, Jewish. This is a book that engages fully with the anti-Semitism that was going on, in all its time periods, as it must.

It also, and this is rare and wondrous, engages with the orientalism, the various crazes for Japanese art, the ways that the sculptures and the sculptors and the country of Japan have been represented and misrepresented over the years. Because that needs to be thought about, too, when you're holding one of these objects.

It is a joyous book, a joy to read, and it made me cry for two separate reasons within the same paragraph, because it also has in it all the pain that was, of course, there. This is a book that can make you rage against history as you already know it to have happened, against what you already know is inevitable.

I need to stop writing about this. I am not doing well enough at it. This is one of those reviews that makes me so frustrated with myself, because this is not right, I am not saying this well enough, I am not making it sound like the incomparable, the specific and exact and weighted book it is, the real place it takes up in my brain, the way it widens out the world. This review should be giving you this precise book, because the author of it demanded no less of himself. I am not doing that, and I do not know how to do that. I should be silent where I cannot say the right thing. Read the book. It is a masterpiece. It is the best thing I have read this year.
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A book on Botticelli produced in conjunction with an exhibition, but still of general interest and relevance.

Botticelli is probably currently the most famous painter from Renaissance Florence-- I mean the most famous who did not also do other things, such as sculpting or goldsmithing-- but it's amazing how little is generally known about him. He lived between 1445 and 1510, and painted several things which are ridiculously famous such as the Birth of Venus, the Primavera, etc., and several things which aren't (I had not known he illustrated an edition of Dante).

The essays included provide a very good biographical overview of Botticelli: what we do know (that he apprenticed with Fra Lippo Lippi, that his father was a tanner), what we don't know (why he is called Botticelli, a nickname which means 'little pot' and which was apparently originally his brother's nickname and spread or something else confusing like that), and what has been debunked (Vasari's biography, which as most contemporary was taken as gospel for generations, is apparently factually inaccurate about the last years of Botticelli's life).

It also gives a good overview of Florentine politics of the time, the reign of Lorenzo de Medici and his attempts to make Florence into the next Athens or Rome fading into the brief reign of the monk Savonarola, who held the famous Bonfire of the Vanities and wished to make Florence the New Jerusalem. Many famous artists and scholars, including Botticelli, followed Savonarola, which has confused later academics; this book argues convincingly that there is not that much difference, in some ways, between one scheme to reform humanity along utopian ideals and another. It also argues convincingly that many of Botticelli's later-period works, due to the changes in his style because of his association with Savonarola, have been inaccurately seen as lesser, and that it's quite possible many of them have not even been properly attributed to him yet.

The plates give a good overview of early Botticelli, with his master Lippi's influence clearly visible; mid-period, the ones everyone has memorized; the few that are known to be late-period, which certainly do look different and are clearly full of even more obscure academic and theological symbolism than the previous (if you think the Primavera is confusing, try the Mystical Crucifixion, yeesh); and the drawings from Dante, which fascinate me by conforming almost perfectly to the not-yet-evolved narrative conventions of the comic strip.

In short, ignore that this is exhibit-related, and find it if you can, if you need a good resource about this painter, his milieu, and how they related to each other, because there is a lot of very useful data packed into a very brief space here, including even rankings of the relative usefulness and accuracy of other books on the subject. This is one of the periods in history I know something about, both from natural inclination and from research for setting fiction in it, and there were things here I had not heard, which was not something I really expected.
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Via Nineweaving.

This is Penelope Fitzgerald's loving and hilarious biography of her father and uncles: Edmund (Evoe) Knox, longtime editor of Punch magazine; Dillwyn Knox, classical scholar, famously of Bletchley Park during the era of the breaking of Enigma; Ronald Knox, mystery writer, Catholic priest, and translator of the entire Bible all by himself; and Wilfred Knox, best described as a uniquely Anglican sort of ascetic. The eldest and longest-lived, Edmund, was born in 1881 and died in 1971. The book goes into some light family history before the 1880s and is then comprehensive through the middle 1950s, when the younger three died.

And by comprehensive I mean comprehensive. The Knox brothers, by virtue of genius, wide-ranging interests, and quantities of luck, knew just about everyone famous in their generations and were also familiar with large swathes of the not-so-famous. This book serves very well as a history of its times, though it is perhaps best at the period just before World War I, a time it looks at with relief, interest, fury and regret-- the 'All That' Robert Graves was saying goodbye to.

But the reason to read this is its tender portrait of four very different, very opinionated, very brilliant men. Also, it is consistently hysterically funny, in that way that only happens when things are drawn directly from life. The young Edmund Knox, for instance, on first getting a house of his own, piled all his receipts and tailor's bills into two hatboxes on the floor of the closet. When he had to write a business letter, he would overturn the hatboxes, and then begin 'Dear Sir, on consulting my files...'

Or there is the inimitable diary entry their stepmother, a scholar of Greek, made and was never after let to live down: "Finished the Antigone. Married Bip."

Or this excerpt, which is longer, but worth it. )

I am not going to try to attempt to excerpt the description of Wilfred at Christmas, except to say that I laughed until I hurt myself, and no favorite uncle ever had a better epitaph. There is also an utterly priceless description of Lytton Strachey, at Cambridge, falling into and out of love with Dillwyn in the space of about twenty minutes. (Dillwyn, though the book does not go into it, was seeing someone at that point-- Maynard Keynes.)

And yet it's a book that does handle the dark as well as the light, the losses and disappointments and the terrible rift that formed between Ronald and the rest of his family when he became a Roman Catholic. Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic: it is not, remotely, the same thing. And their father was an Anglican bishop. And Dillwyn was an atheist. Unlike many families in such circumstances, they continued to speak, continued to see each other, continued to love; but they inflicted deep wounds. This is part of what makes this such a good history, the details of these doctrinal conflicts that mattered so terribly much, and which now I only know because I read a lot about this time period. Fitzgerald makes you care about them here.

I have left out so much that is good about this, from Ronald's scheme for writing bestselling mystery novels to support himself while Chaplain at Oxford (it worked) to Dillwyn's plans for writing poetry according to a schema based on cryptography (the poems, surprising everyone, aren't half bad). This is a lush book, an embarrassment of riches, the kind of thing I am always hoping to run into among the histories of various people's favorite Victorian and Edwardian relatives. This is a treasure.
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Day before yesterday's review. Via Gallian.

I wanted to like this more than I did. Mooney, having spent most of his childhood and adolescence in various forms of special-ed due to diagnoses including dyslexia and possible ADD, bought a used short school bus of the kind commonly used by special-ed programs and spent a summer driving around the U.S. meeting and interviewing people with various conditions commonly considered disabilities. He originally met most of his contacts through speaking gigs in which he discusses his dyslexia and having gone to Brown; one of the things I liked most about this book is the not-quite-humor with which he states in the first sentence that one of his life goals used to be being an after-school special. Over the course of the summer he proposes to his girlfriend, goes to Burning Man, looks at conceptual art, hits a lot of major and minor cities briefly, travels with various family members and others, and of course talks with a great many people, some with clear-cut diagnoses and some not.

If you know nothing whatsoever about the political issues surrounding disability, disability education, community integration etc., this might not be a terrible place to start, because he meets people from a lot of different communities who have a lot of different things going on, and he gives reasonable summary. He treats other people as human beings, consistently, and he admits when he has trouble doing it, which is more than many writers do, and he doesn't seem to want cookies for it. But-- hm. One of the people he spends some time with is an outsider artist in Maine, who has the label of 'town eccentric' but who also went through school being called retarded, slow, and so on in a way where there were no actual diagnoses involved but a lot of terrible bullying. And one of the things that becomes obvious is that she's a trans woman, which is orthogonal to the various mental health labels but sure as hell had something to do with the bullying. And, well. The author means well. He really does. But this is kind of the epitome of the sort of piece written by a well-meaning person who does not know much about the issues he is writing about, and the main thing I have to say to him about that entire chapter is: use the right fucking pronouns.

So this set of issues concerning the part of the book that involves something I know something about does not inspire me with confidence in the parts of the book that involve things I don't know as much about, you know? I have confidence in everything about his personal life and his issues, that he knows the truth he speaks there, because duh. But the rest of it-- given the format of this, it's inevitably going to be a quick skim over the top of a great many separate sets of things, he's traveling, he's always moving on. But it is so damn important that that skim be as accurately representative as humanly possible, and I just don't have that faith.

He also spends a lot of time talking about how the trip changed him, how much he changed and found himself, but this is a very clear-cut case of telling and not showing, because I didn't see much evidence of it. But that is what you have to say about trips like this, isn't it. I don't know, maybe he did profoundly change, but just didn't manage to communicate it?

Anyway, I might, with those very heavy caveats very clearly explained, hand this to someone as the beginning of a discussion about disability and politics. Assuming I can't find something better. There really has to be something better out there. Doesn't there? Recs accepted.
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This is a very frank memoir about the experience of long-term childhood sexual abuse. It is also quite a good book, and one I have not seen before.

Cut for possible triggery/disturbing content. )
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After yesterday I wanted something I knew I would like.

This is the least of the Jarman I've read so far, since a lot of it is collected interviews, which means that some of the material repeats itself and some of the interviewers ask really stupid questions. (e.g.: Interviewer: You were telling me why you don't regret no longer being promiscuous-- Jarman: No, you were telling me why I shouldn't regret no longer being promiscuous.)

Also, more than his diaries this is a set of meditations on the films he was making at the time of writing, as opposed to about his personal life, and I have not yet seen the films of this period, post-Caravaggio and pre-Edward II. The principal one of these films is The Last of England, and it is clear that a) Jarman considered it his masterpiece and b) it tongue-tied him, he couldn't talk about it, he said what he had to say in it and when trying to explain it he goes into sentence fragments and heaps of broken images and bricolage of Ezra Pound and William Blake in a blender. It's very entertaining and ludicrously erudite but I have no idea what he means. Maybe after seeing it those chunks of book will make more sense, but I am not betting on that.

But around the edges there are some lovely things, descriptions of things he likes and doesn't about other directors, of a trip to Moscow and south to the Caspian Sea, of the experience of the couple of times he acted in films instead of directing them (both times playing real people, a painter he knew and a director he admires: I may have to hunt down the film in which he plays Pier Paolo Pasolini, being buried in a muddy desert at four in the morning).

So. Not a book for people unfamiliar with Jarman as a director, or possibly even as a writer. But I liked it. It has all his facets, rage and irony and humor and endless benevolence and brilliance.
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This is from Sunday. I am hoping to catch up presently and not fall behind again, but let us just say that for the next couple of weeks things may be erratic-- if you don't see a review on a particular day, it doesn't mean I've stopped reading, I just feel like I've been hit by a car. That's not an exaggeration. I was hit by a car in college once, and I remember it quite distinctly. However, writing these reviews seems to have become enough of a habit that I get a little twitchy if I don't, and people seem to like even the reviews I've written when not technically really awake or mentally present, so I may as well do what I can.

Anyway. On our mantelpiece there are two sets of books: one side has things people in the house have written or contributed to (Thrud's dissertation, [personal profile] gaudior's dissertation, my poetry etc.) and the other has things people in the house have been helpful with in some way (the anime publications we've provided research data for, Cloud & Ashes, etc.). I noticed a while ago there was this book on the mantelpiece which I'd never heard of, and I had no idea what it was, so I asked Thrud. It turns out to be by her grandfather, George Higgins, and is a self-published biography of a doctor who helped found the hospital Higgins worked at as a surgeon for many years.

I decided to read it because I was curious about Thrud's grandfather, but also because I don't read much that's self-published, and I wanted to know what the differences would be between this and a book which sold to a conventional small press. Clearly it mattered to Higgins very much, or he wouldn't have chosen to do it, but I wasn't sure whether this would be a case of something which has too limited a readership to sell or whether it wouldn't be done well enough.

A little of both, I think. It's a biography of Dr. Richard J. Hall (1856-1897), the first American surgeon to successfully perform an operation for appendicitis. As a brilliant young doctor in New York City, Hall published several papers on abdominal operations and seemed ready to become one of the most famous and prominent physicians in the country; unfortunately, his research interests led him to the then-new study of cocaine solutions for use in local and general anesthesia, and self-experimentation quickly addicted him. After repeated physical and mental breakdowns, he relocated his family to Santa Barbara, California, where the drug would be less accessible, and became the founding surgeon of Cottage Hospital there (still in existence today). In a piece of painful irony, he developed appendicitis himself at the age of thirty-nine, and, as there was no other surgeon on the West Coast able to perform the operation, died before he could successfully teach anyone how to save him.

I can understand why a writer would be attracted to this story-- its multiple reversals, obvious might-have-beens, and ability to shed light on the state of American medical practice at the time make it a great centerpiece for historical work in a variety of directions. However, the lack of primary source material is a major hindrance-- Higgins has as far as I can tell unearthed everything possible, including Hall's published papers and his few surviving pieces of correspondence, and there's just not much there. If it were all put in order, carefully organized, and explained fully, I think a good writer could get a fifty-page pamphlet out of it, but not a book twice that length. It needs to be a centerpiece and jumping-off point for a look at the history of abdominal surgery, or the history of the early medical studies of cocaine and the way it became obvious the drug was dangerous (somebody do this! the bits of it around the edges here are fascinating and tragic!), or even the history of Santa Barbara. Higgins, however, is not an historian, and his book restates every fact twice, has everything in a jumbled and non-chronological order, goes into great detail on the biography of peripherally involved persons in order to take up space (while neglecting the biography of some people who were more involved and more interesting-- we find out in one tossed-off sentence that Hall's wife was the first female professional saxophone player in the country), and in general needs a good line edit.

So I can't fault Higgins' instincts. But no, this was not publishable. Fascinating, but frustrating. And hey, if you're doing this sort of history, here, some of the legwork has been done for you. Please, somebody take this material and go work with it as it ought to be. I'm not qualified in this field myself, but this could be so amazing.
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This is a fruit of my new method for trying to pick out reasonable Hollywood biographies in cases where I have not been recommended any, which is to say I took it off the shelf, looked at the bibliography for length and plausibility of sources, looked at the copyright date to ensure it was after the year 2000, and then based on that decided it would probably be okay.

Eliot's is not a terrible book, but I am considering raising that date to 2005 out of self-defense, as I have been noticing that dates after 2000 seem to indicate that the biographer is willing to talk about a subject's bisexuality/homosexuality but is still sometimes annoyingly judgmental and defensive about it (see my earlier complaints re: Donald Soto about Laurence Olivier; my complaints about that aspect of this book are identical but stronger). What I'd like is a bio that presents substantiated facts without elision and is, at least, value-neutral. Books after 2000 seem to get me the non-elided versions, but value-neutral is harder to come by.

At any rate, Cary Grant led a fascinating if clearly extremely unhappy life, and this book digs into aspects of it I had never thought to consider, such as what Grant did about the questions about immigration status and patriotism that dogged British expatriates in Hollywood during World War II, and the ways in which the friends and contacts Grant made during that period to help avoid problems shielded him during the HUAC era. (He became an American citizen shortly before the end of the war, and seems to have managed the ridiculous feat of being an avowed leftist whom J. Edgar Hoover liked enough to keep out of trouble.) It's a good book for facts and dates and quotations and that sort of detail, and therefore makes a good story if you are the sort of person for whom facts and dates and detail make a sentence, for whom these things come alive without the necessity of assisting description.

Because let me tell you, the description there is in this book is actively detractive. Eliot can write a clear, grammatical, lucid and informative English sentence, and does so frequently. What he cannot do is write a clear, grammatical, lucid and informative English sentence when he is trying to give his own opinion in any way at all. As long as he is laying out and delivering facts the man can write. Otherwise, he falls into a sort of anti-writing, where he seems to be actively working against the overall quality of his book by producing similes that have the effect of horrific little land-mines of pretentiousness. You could probably enjoy this really thoroughly if you skip any sentence containing an adjective.

It did remind me of how much I like Bringing Up Baby, and that there are a couple of things by Hitchcock I really ought to go and watch already. And it did, in the portions without adjectives, provide an interesting portrait of a very complicated, obsessive, and not entirely sympathetic man with great gifts and a talent for marketing. I had not known that Cary Grant was the first Hollywood star to manage to break free of the studio system, exist as a contract player, and still have a career; that's the move which broke Valentino shortly before his death, and which Charlie Chaplin had to found his own studio to get away with. That increases my respect for Grant tremendously.

Mind you, there are levels in which I wonder why I ever read Hollywood biographies. One could, after all, be watching the movies instead, and they don't usually work that well as film criticism or as movie recommendations. I suppose it's worth keeping on until I figure out why I do it. Or until I find one good enough that it is, in itself, worthwhile.

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