Saturday, February 20, 2010

5 Quick Reviews

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson - Found this book in one of the community bookcases here at the Peace Corps office and decided to check it out because I remember Billy reading it and enjoying it when we were in Europe. I expected it to be a little bland, as I'm not a particularly out-doorsy type person, but I thoroughly enjoy the book. Bryson has a fantastic sense of humor and managed to make me laugh out loud a number of times. After reading this I thought about how awesome it would be to hike the Appalachian Trail one day but then quickly remembered I'd rather just play golf and watch football.

Women by Charles Bukowski - Man... Bukowski is something else. Though the main character has a different name (Henry Chinasky), it seems pretty clear that this book is essentially about Bukowski's own sex life. And man-oh-man is he one repulsive S.O.B. -- That said he is highly readable and makes a lot of clever observations about life and the way people treat each other. While he's a little more pessimistic than I am about human nature, I found myself agreeing with him more often than I would have liked to. I'll also say that I don't find him to be particularly misogynistic, as I've heard some claim, because he seems to have an equal distaste for both genders.

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis - More and more I find myself enthralled with the study of history, particularly early American history. I devoured a biography of Benjamin Franklin and I found Founding Brothers to be just as interesting. Ellis focuses on different aspects of the lives of Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Burr, and Washington and manages to present them in vignettes that read like short stories rather than a textbook. I would very much like to get my hands on Ellis' The American Sphinx about Thomas Jefferson. After that I need to find a good Washington biography. I found it interesting that the American Cincinattus was as revered by his contemporaries as he is by their ancestors.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke - Many thanks to Nathan for sending me this novel from home. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's sort of a harry-potter-with-adults type book. Set in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, magic is a known force in the world but has since faded from use and considered only in historical terms. The novel focuses on the two titular magicians who bring magic back into practical use and the events that befall them after the fact. I particularly enjoyed the structure of the novel. It's written almost like a historical text, complete with footnotes used to elaborate on historical anecdotes merely touched upon in the main text. I think they're adapting this into a film this year.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad - I don't really know how I feel about Heart of Darkness, obviously its the most critically acclaimed of the five books here, but I also found it to be the most disjointed. I will say that it made me appreciate the film Apocalypse Now that much more, as I found it to basically be a more interesting version of a similar story. I guess overall I was just off-put by Conrad's writing style and structure of the narrative as a whole. I will say that I didn't find it to be particularly racist as I've read in some criticisms.


Christopher said...

This post is meticulously formatted.

Josh said...

The American Sphinx is one of the best treatments of Jefferson I've ever read.

Jim said...

Ah fantastic I'm glad to hear its well done. Ellis is a great writer and Jefferson is such an enigmatic character.

Christopher said...

Jim said...

I can only describe that paper as simple-minded. It's clearly written by one of those bleed hearts that equates any intimation of difference between the races with bigotry and I'd be willing to bet anything that this professor of African literature has never set foot on the continent.

Let me tell you something, Africa could not possibly be more different than the West. Couldn't possibly be. And, compared to Conrad, I'm writing this as someone who has experienced an Africa with 120 more years of westernization, be it forced or otherwise.

Argh - There is so much I want to say on this subject but a) I'm too pissed off by that garbage paper b) this isn't really an appropriate forum.

I'll sum it up in this: That paper is a complete overreaction to certain issues, a misinterpretation of others, and comes across as naive and ignorant on the rest.

Jim said...

Additional note - I'm not denying that Conrad says anything racist in the book. Of course he did. It was written a hundred years ago. Everything written about Africans 100 years ago was at least slightly racist. Even abolitionist literature in the antebellum period was racist in its own way.

All I'm saying is that the main ideas of Heart of Darkness: the reaction of a man to his first encounters with Africans in Africa, his descriptions of the Africans, etc. aren't inherently racist.

L said...

I want to read all these but Women. I've had it with these types of books always written by asshole men.

Christopher said...

Whoa, are you serious? That's not any professor of African literature, that's Chinua Achebe, the greatest living African writer.

Christopher said...

Okay, besides that, I think you're not giving it enough credit. When I first read Heart of Darkness and Achebe's paper, I thought he was overreacting, too. But the second time I read it, I decided that he has a point--Heart of Darkness isn't really about Africa; it's about the awfulness and evil of colonial Europe. That in itself is not bad, but the idea that Africa exists only as a foil to Europe robs it of its right to exist independently. I think Achebe is right when he says that Africa, African customs, and Africans in HOD are only useful insofar as they tell us something about Europe.

Where I don't agree with Achebe is when he says that this invalidates HOD as a great book. That's throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I think.

Jim said...

Africa IS a foil of the west. I don't think calling something a foil deprives it of its right to exist independently. It's just a matter of comparison. Shit is sooooooooo different here in just about every way you can image.

Christopher said...


"Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as "the other world," the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully "at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks." But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world."

Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too "has been one of the dark places of the earth." It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings. "

I think Achebe has a really valid point here. Those who would argue that the point of HOD is not to denigrate Africa but to denigrate Europe are correct, but that may be even more insulting. By implying that Europe is a darker, more terrifying place than Africa Conrad suggests that Africa is intrinsically dark and terrifying. The subtext is that while both are horrendous, frightening, uncivilized places Europe is the only one worth talking about. Europe's awfulness is a surprise, but Africa's awfulness--well, that's to be expected!