Monday, April 27, 2009

The Kindly Ones

a novel by Jonathan Littell; translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

Quickie Recap: Max Aue is an SS soldier not particularly interested in killing, but involved in the mess anyhow.

Quickie Review: First, let me tell you that though this was a translation, it never felt like one. Kudos to both Littell and Mandell for such beautiful language. This book took me months to get through, no kidding, and not just because it's nearly 1000 pages long (and probably doesn't need to be, if I'm being honest). It's just painful, repellent, sickening. And not just for the brutality, but also for the lack of it, the deliberateness, the cold pursuit. Yes, there are blood thirsty soldiers who enjoy, relish the killing. And there are people who are following orders, people who want job security, people who are just along for the ride. But they all do it. And maybe at the end of the day, apathy is just as bad as evil. There are scenes of blood and piss and shit, but the enormity is more bureaucratic which is even more maddening. You watch the decisions being made, the ones that could either make or break a genocide, and so little consideration for the actual people. Politically, it's very interesting, those who believed that the "Jewish question" should be made the first priority, and those who felt that winning the war should come first. And indeed, you do see how using the Jews as labour may have contributed to success, but how they kept taking off work in order to be exterminated...and how that need to wipe out a people pretty much led to the nazi downfall.

Quickie Recommendation: It's not for everyone, but it's a great piece of historical fiction that put a lot of thoughts into my head. If you were German, if you were in those shoes, what would you have done? Aue insists that he is like us, and we have to ask ourselves how much of that is true. It's fucking hard to read, but it's meant to be. This is not fun stuff. Gird your loins, but I think it does exactly what it's supposed to.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Children's Book

Quickie Recap: Olive Wellwood is a writer of children's fairy tales who is surrounded by a large family and an entourage of friend. Everyone has a story. Not all of them end happily ever after.

Quickie Review: I like what I read from the get go. There are so many characters to follow that at moments I felt it difficult to sort out who was who, but a little bit of persistence paid off. We follow them over a number of years, through an idyllic childhood, troubled times, the wisdom of children and the ignorance of their parents, all culminating in the one thing the reader knows is coming better than the characters do: WWI. And boy does it come.

Quickie Recommendation: Absorbing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Our Days Are Numbered

How Mathematics Orders Our Lives, by Jason I. Brown

Quickie Recap: Brown explains the hidden maths behind everyday things, from simple games like rock, paper, scissors, to redecorating, to Beatles' songs.

Quickie Review: Yes, I read this willingly. It was better than I feared, and not quite as good as I'd hoped. I have a hard time explaining what exactly I anticipated from this title, but I was craving one of those aha moments that other great books have given me. This book didn't give me the tingles. I think it's failing that it was trying to cover too much too simply. The things that I understood - like how to calculate a tip and how to interpret a political poll in the papers - are things that I already knew and didn't need a book to tell me. Topics that I was less (or not) familiar with, like logarithms, I still have no grasp on whatsoever. But there were some clever moments, and Brown's cornball sense of humour helped me keep going.

Quickie Recommendation: Not entirely.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Blackstrap Hawco

Said to be about a Newfoundland family, by Kenneth J Harvey.

Quickie Recap: It takes 800+ pages to tell us who Blackstrap Hawco is, so I'm probably not going to summarize him very well here. He's a hero and a criminal, and has a family tree full of the same. Mostly, though, he's a Newfoundlander. He's proud of where he's from, and what that means. It's in his bones, and in his blood, and we see plenty of both.

Quickie Review: Does this book reward the careful reader? Yes. Does it also frustrate the careful reader? Yes. Does it at times alienate even the carefullest of readers? Yes, yes, yes. Between the pheonetically-spelled Newfoundlander dialect, the constant, frenetic shifting between narrators, characters, and time periods, and the portion at the end that is written by an illiterate, this book is not for those who are looking for a light read. Or an easy read. Or a non-headache-inducing read. It's tough. There are some very good parts, and some parts that I still can't say what the fuck they were about. There are entire characters who remain mysterious to me because I could never quite place them in between the time they appeared and disappeared again. This is definitely an ambitious and far-reaching novel, not exactly a song for Newfoundland, it's too gritty for that, but a tribute that a true Newfoundlander would probably have a terse nod of approval for. I can't say my heart was entirely in it, it was too convoluted and tried to be too many things for that, but I do have some fondness for it.

Quickie Recommendation: Tell me what you thought of it, if you've read it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Diary of Interrupted Days

by Dragan Todorovic

Quickie Recap: This is about the Serbian-Croatian war in the early 90s, about the young people living there at the time, their reaction, thoughts and feelings towards not just the war, but about the ideas and the politics of the time, and how they feel they have to leave their home in order to live the life they want. It goes on to tell about resettling in Canada, and what happens to those who didn't get out, and how hard it is to go back.

Quickie Review: I've noticed that the harder it is for me to recap a book, the better it is. I didn't expect to like this one as much as I did. I was reading another book about another war concurrently, and I was barely muddling through it. This one, however, really earned its right to be read. Maybe it's because the characters were young, and though not idealistic, they had ideas. They are relatable.

Quickie Recommendation: I can't keep the surprise out of myself when I say that I really did enjoy this one. It was a haunting tribute to Yugoslavia, with a real feeling of longing and regret.

Friday, April 3, 2009

You Are Here

A Portable History of the Universe, by Christopher Potter.

Quickie Recap: How to recap what is basically a recap of all the highlights of the universe, from its conception to its hypothetical death? Well, I can't. It just is.

Quickie Review: This book is so brilliant even Jesus uses it to refresh his memory. Every day I'd read a little on the bus ride to work and come in challenging my poor coworkers to give me their ideas on the craziness I'd just read - everything from the bizarre standards of measurement we use, to what the world will look like when it's ending, whether we're all alone here, and if anything is significant when we're all so clearly insignificant. There are some really good ideas in here, and it's everything a good book should be: informative, entertaining, stimulating.

Quickie Recommendation: Absolutely.