Monthly Archives: February 2015

Rory Gilmore Update – Number One

Doing the Rory Gilmore reading challenge means reading works that are almost impossible to read, or works that you may not have a great deal to write about. So here I have three short reviews of my experiences with books from the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge that I read in high school many years ago.

Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
HuckFinnI  had to read this in school so long ago, and while I don’t remember exact plot details, I do remember very clearly that reading this was the first time I became aware of the existence of slavery in the United States and the racial tensions that existed in the South. That was around grade six or seven, and it seems strange to me now that that was the first time I kind of realized that racism was a real tangible thing. I led a pretty sheltered life, and even though the plot of this book is a bit fuzzy in my memory, I remember the realizations I had while reading it. Being so young, I think a lot of the satire and indictments of racist attitudes went over my head, but  I do know this book was kind of a turning point for me. I would go on to be fascinated this period in  American History and would complete a thesis dealing with the Fugitive Slave Laws of the 1850s.

William Golden – Lord of the Flies (1954)
LordoftheFliesYet another book found on every single high school reading list. It’s about a group of schoolboys who end up stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash in some post-apocalyptic era like setting and details their descent into savagery. The two main characters are Ralph, a fair skinned likeable boy and “Piggy,” an overweight unpopular one. Unsurprisingly Ralph becomes somewhat of a leader to the band of survivors. There a loads of allegories about the different characters and what they represent, (Jack as the epitome of the worst characters of human nature, Simon as a Christ-like figure, etc.).  It should be noted that there are no girls on the island, and I do believe that I wrote a pretty convincing report in grade eight about how the outcome would have differed if girls had been stranded on the island as well. Anyways, the main theme is that all humans (although in this case just prepubescent boys) will resort to savagery when it comes to a survival. Its a fair claim, but the image of a pigs head on a stake haunted my nightmares for weeks and was something that I could have lived without.

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
To_Kill_a_MockingbirdProbably my favourite book I had to read in high school. (I considered myself lucky, I had to read it twice). By this time, I had already read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and had made myself aware of the history of racial tensions in the Southern United States. I pretty much knew everything that a white girl living in Toronto could about 1933 Alabama, which prepared me to be a stuck-up know-it-all when it came to discussing this book in class. I got into a lively debate with my grade 10 English teacher about the different characters that were representative of the titular “Mockingbird” and everyone in the class hated me. (I maintained that Mayella Ewell represents a mockingbird but my teacher disagreed). It’s an American classic and is one of the only books that I feel deserve to be kept on high school reading lists.

There is a lot of talk going on right now due to the releasing of the unpublished sequel. I too have my concerns; was Harper Lee tricked into this some way? Does she really want to publish Go See a Watchman? Should everyone just leave the classics alone? Regardless I’m still pretty excited.

Maria Duenas – The Time in Between (2011)

TheTimeinBetweenThis book falls somewhere in between for me. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t dying to pick up and read it either. It wasn’t compelling for me, although some will probably disagree.

The Time in Between follows, Sira a quaint Spanish dressmaker who gets caught up, first with a conman, and then in the word of high espionage, in the years leading up to the Second World War. Sira travels from Madrid, to Spanish Morocco, to Lisbon, and then back again all while never sure of whom she is. Throughout the novel Sira struggles with her own identity, first as a shy seamstress working with her mother in a workshop, then as “fallen women” considered to be a criminal, working a dressmaker to pay off the debts incurred by her conman lover. She amasses some important clientele and fashions herself as a high class courtier catering to the wives of important government officials when the English secret service decides to make use of her talents and insider connections.

Duenas paints beautiful scenes of Spanish Morocco and Tangiers during the 1930s, but I’m afraid that something has been lost in translation. Because the book is originally written in Spanish, I fear that some of it’s magic may have been lost in the English version. Translating a book is a difficult thing to accomplish, and something that it is almost impossible to perfect. Still the book moves at a good pace and was a pleasant read, although not a terribly thrilling one.

I did not realize the book was based on real characters until reading the authors note at the end. It changed the book for me a bit and I wish I had done a bit more research before reading. I still might go back and read it again if I have the time.

#TBR Tuesday – Widow Basquiat

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While Black History Month is almost over, I saw this in Barns and Nobel in New York and had to pick it up. Much like I had been reading Generation X in anticipation of the Douglas Coupland exhibit at the ROM, I’m hoping to read this before I go to see the Basquiat exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Jean Michel Basquiat became one of the best known avant-garde artist and painter part of the 1980s art scene in New York. This book provides insights into the relationship between Basquiat and his lover and muse, Suzanne Mallouk a Canadian runaway. Jennifer Clement is well known for her beautiful prose, and I have no doubt that she has excelled in telling this unorthodox love story.

Scott Anderson – Lawrence in Arabia (2013)

17book "Lawrence in Arabia" by Scott Anders.Never doubt Great Britain’s word. She is wise and trustworthy; have no fear.” This ominous quote from King Hussein to his son Faisal runs throughout the whole book.

I’ve yet to see Lawrence of Arabia in it’s entirety. I’ve watched bits and pieces of it often out of order. It is just so incredibly long, and it’s not something I was ever that interested in. After reading this book however, I might just give the movie another shot. The movie is famous for its portrayal of T.E Lawrence’s humane approach to the fighting that took place in the Middle East during the First World War. Lawrence’s reputation and work however, is much more complicated.

Anderson carefully constructs a narrative of T.E Lawrence that is neither redeeming nor condemnatory. Often time Anderson refers to the movie as well as Lawrence’s memoirs, Seven Pillars, when discussing the events that occurred in the Middle East during the First World War. He places Lawrence alongside other notable characters such as Aaron Aaronshon, a Jewish colonist in Palestine; Carl Prufer, a German diplomat in the Middle East conspiring against Britain; and William Yale an American oil man who became the state department’s “special agent” for the Middle East. With this cast of characters, Anderson sets up an interesting narrative of the Middle East during this time. Using this many characters however, makes the story slightly more complicated to follow.

Even though the book is marketed as public history, it is very dense and contains a lot of information. In university I took one or two classes on politics in the Middle East, so some of what was talked about in the book was familiar to me. However, I did find myself lost at times, needing to refer back to events that happened earlier in the book, or wikipedia-ing terms, treaties, and events that I didn’t have full knowledge of. I have no doubt that those who are interested and have previous knowledge of the area and time will find Anderson’s take on Lawrence’s story to be refreshing. Those who don’t however, may find themselves lost trying to muddle through the already complicated history of the Middle East.

For me, Anderson’s book was wonderful, not due to his treatment of T.E Lawrence, but rather due to his unabashed claims about the First World War, especially seeing as how these next four years will be filled will celebrations and ceremonies commemorating the events of WWI.

By the early 1910s, with all the European powers perpetually jockeying for advantage, all of them constantly manufacturing crises in hopes of winning some small claim against their rivals, a unique kind of “fog of war” was setting in, one composed of a thousand petty slights and disputes and misunderstandings. … Amid this din of complain and trivial offence, how to know what really mattered, how to identify the true crisis when it came along?” (61)

The different treatments and views of the War in these coming years will be interesting to explore. Anderson’s view that it was through a series of misunderstandings and petty slights is indeed and interesting one and believable in the context of the Middle East.

Best Of – Books Set in New York

I spent the latter part of this last week in New York City, where I tried to fit in as many cultural institutions as I could. It ended up not being that many as I spent 7.5 hours in the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday. Oh Well, such is life. I did however make it to the New York City Public Library, which caused me to stop and think about all of the amazing books I’ve read that take place in New York. So many of the classics like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher and the Rye, and The Bell Jar, are set in the City of Blinding Lights. Here I’ve compiled a (brief) list of my favourite books that are set in New York, New York.

Welcome to New York (It’s Been Waiting for You)

NewYorkEdward Rutherfurd’s New York is requisite reading for anyone who loves the city (or who loves massive books). It’s a historical epic, and is quite long, but its also easy to read due to the narrative style that Rutherfurd uses. Beginning with the earliest settlement of New Amsterdam Rutherfurd traces the history of the city to just after 9/11 following the lives of different families through the generations. It’s a great book and a great introduction to the City that has become the epicenter of American culture.

The Lower East Side: The American Dream

IceCreamQueenOrchard Street was just one of the streets located in the Lower East Side to where thousands of immigrants flocked. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is story of the “American Dream,” and the immigrant experience similar to Betty Smith’s classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The protagonist, Lillian Dunkle finds herself a member of the wave of Jewish immigrants coming to the city in the 1920s moving into the tenement houses of the Lower East side where she works as a garment maker. Abandoned by her family, Italian immigrants who teach her the art of making ice cream take her in. Smart and shrewd, Lillian uses her keen sense for business to get ahead in life, becoming America’s first “Ice Cream Queen.” While not everything in her life leads to a “happily-ever-after” Lillian still becomes one of the most successful women in American in this rags-to-riches novel.

The Jazz Age in Harlem

Jazz

While some parts of the novel extend back to the mid-19th century American South, the majority of the narrative takes place in Harlem during the 1920s. Each character is a storyteller and Morrison mirrors the stylistic elements of Jazz with the various characters “improvising” solo compositions that fit together to create the whole work. Jazz music is a main theme throughout the book and Morrison recreates the vibrant atmosphere of 1920s Harlem with her narrative.

 

An Institution: The New Yorker

DorothyParker

The New Yorker has been a New York institution since 1925 and has given rise to many acclaimed literary figures, including Dorothy Parker. Best known for her satire and quick wit, this collection of Parker’s stories, poems, and short pieces published in the New Yorker provide readers with a glimpse inside her life as well as the life of the magazine. Because the pieces are small, it’s easy to pick up and put down her stories, although I devoured them all at once. She’s a fantastic writer and her sharpness and wit has endured to today.

A Fairytale of New York: The East Village

just-kids-patt-smith-200x330While already featured on this blog, I can’t speak highly enough about Patti Smith’s memoir which not only provides insights into the art and music scene of the East Village but is also fairytale New York love story. Smith writes openly, candidly and quite frankly, beautifully about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Even though the relationship ended, the two remained so deeply in love and shared a special bond that not even his death could break. A heartbreaking and poignant read, set against the backdrop of New York City’s East Village.

Manhattan’s Elite: The Upper East Side

HowtoLoseFriendsNew York has provided a setting for an ample amount movies and T.V shows like Sex and the City of the Devil Wears Prada, where the characters are involved in publishing in some way. In his memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young writes candidly about what it was like working at Vanity Fair, in the 1990s and his experiences with Manahattan’s Elite. One major theme in Young’s book is the differences between London and Manhattan society, as Young is an Englishman employed by Condé Nast. While not as overly critical of Manhattan’s Elite as The Devil Wear’s Prada, Young is still merciless in his writing about the women of the Upper East Side who refused to sleep with him. Insightful and honest, although sometimes crude and offensive, I still love this memoir about working at Condé Nast in the 1990s.

If You can Make it Here You’ll Make it Anywhere

Kitchen_ConfidentialFinally to round out this list I have Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which has also already been featured on this blog. This behind the scenes look at the “Culinary Underbelly” of American as well Bourdain’s rise to fame takes the reader into the kitchens of some of New York’s most famous restaurants. New York has one of the most vibrant and thriving dining scenes in the world and chefs will often do whatever it takes to land at one of the city’s 5-star joints. After all, if you can make it here you’ll make it anywhere!

So what are your favourite books that are set in New York?

Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex (2002)

Middlesex

Fictional Memoirs are an interesting genre. The writer must immerse him/herself in his/her character to literally feel and experience everything that that person is going through. For his novel, Eugenides’ character is Cal (Calliope), an intersex man of Greek descent. The novel is a family history, and Eugenides is able to draw on his own Greek heritage to create this spellbinding story.

Eugenides accomplishes an interesting thing. This is not only a story about Calliope’s journey of self-discovery, nor is it strictly a family history: It is in some ways a history of the United States and the “American Dream.” The novel begins with Cal’s grandparents in their village in Greece and recounts their escape from the invading Turkish army. We then travel to Detroit in the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s. Cal’s father serves in the Pacific during the Second World War and returns to marry his cousin. The family is caught in the middle of the race riots of the 1950s and relocates to the suburbs before Cal’s brother leave for College and gets swept up in the spirit of the 1960s. This is when Cal’s story takes off as Calliope begins to realize she is not meant to be a girl. We learn about medical attitudes of the 1970s and experiences San Francisco as a place where “deviants” were hidden and comforted by the fog.

The story is told from Cal’s point of view and Eugenides uses interesting narrative devices to make this believable. Often times Cal will refer to “Calliope” in the third-person, making sure the reader knows he does not identify as being her any more. Eugenides however, also treats Cal and Calliope as the same person in terms of narrative device. Throughout the novel Eugenides also alludes to aspects of Greek mythology adding a sense of whimsy to the story. Middlesex is not only a beautiful read but also a social commentary. I devoured this book and highly recommend it.

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Special Post – Douglas Coupland

I finished reading Generation X just in time to visit the Douglas Coupland exhibit at the ROM. (Part of the exhibit is also at MOCCA, but I haven’t gotten the chance to head down there yet). I loved Generation X, it so so surreal and absurd, and while it is written about those born in the 1950s-60, the sentiments and themes apply all the same to our generation. As strange as it sounds, I saw some similarities between Generation X and Girls, especially in some of the dialogue that had between the characters. The vague sense of perpetual dissatisfaction with one’s life is a theme in both Generation X, and current writing about “Millennials.”

I was also blown away by the exhibit. His art, shows such a deep understanding of human nature and the problems that plague us. Coupled has managed to stay relevant, being inspired now by what he calls the “21st Century Condition.” I took a bunch of photos and you can see them here, as well as read more of the thoughts I had about this exhibit.