7.05.2014

My Promised Land

Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is an influential Israeli columnist. His book takes its readers through the history of Israel, beginning in 1897 through the current day. But this is not just your typical history book, in the slightest. Shavit "draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well as his own family's story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is large than the sum of its parts: both personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension." Each chapter is a glimpse into Israel's history, but I never felt like there were significant gaps. And within each of the chapters, all entitled with a phrase and a year (like "Into the Valley, 1921," "Lydda, 1948" or "J'Accuse, 1999"), Shavit focuses on the stories that make up each chapter in Israel's life. "It is a Zionist book unblinkered by Zionism," writes the New York Times Book Review, "It is about the entirety of the Israeli experience." He does not shy from critiquing Israel, commenting on current political realities that were shaped by historical situations. What I found interesting is that My Promised Land was written in English. It was not meant for Israelis. Instead, it was meant for American Jews. As Jerusalem Post (critically) writes, "Shavit's book gives the American Jewish community the ability to feel comfortable refusing to be inconvenienced for Israel." I viewed My Promised Land differently. Yes, it is the tale of the morally ambiguous Israel, and does give the American Jewish community ability to distance itself from Israel. But I read it as a wonderfully written account of a country that American Jews don't necessarily fully grasp and a book that everyone should read if they have the chance to understand Israel today. To end with a quote from the "Peace, 1993" chapter, describing the Valley of Hulda (currently, a kibbutz; previously, an Arab village)
Hulda is here to stay. And Hulda has no solution. Hulda says peace shall not be. I descend the hill to the well, the vineyard. It's so beautiful and calm here. But the soil is hard. The land is cursed. For it is here, in the Valley of Hulda, that history's door creaked open on April 6, 1948. It is precisely here, at the end of the Herzl forest, that the Jews crossed the threshold between the commune's oil grove and Jamal Munheir's fields and entered the forbidden....Here, by the old well of Hulda, we moved from one phase of our history to another, from one sphere of morality to another. So all that has haunted us ever since is right here. All that will go on haunting us is right here. Generation after generation. War after war.  
I highly recommend it. Rating: ★★★★★

6.22.2014

Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer

As the 2014 World Cup captures the excitement of people around the world, I decided I should learn a little about the history of Brazil. The opportunity presented itself through David Goldblatt's book, which gives a glimpse into Brazilian history through the lens of soccer. Having read Goldblatt's famous The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer in the fall for one of my classes, I should have known what I was getting into. Goldblatt's style of writing is dense; I found the beginning of the book quite difficult to get through. However, once he got into the 1950s, things got a lot more interesting. He began to focus on the intersection of soccer and politics, leading up to the Copa das Manifestações (the Demonstrations Cup, the name giving to the mass protests sweeping Brazil). With the excitement that inevitably arises from the World Cup, it is hard to focus on the costs of such an event (I highly recommend watching John Oliver's takedown of FIFA + The World Cup, a quick overview of the corruption, scandal etc. - watch here!). Goldblatt does a fantastic job of focusing on the underlying sociopolitical backdrop. As one review writes, "Along with the feats of Pelé, the tortured genius of Garrincha and the recent promise of Neymar, we are confronted with a tale of bigotry, misconduct, megalomania, deceit, murder and charlatanism." It's hard to understand how Brazil, a country once united by soccer, could be so torn apart. Pelé, hailed as the greatest soccer player of all time, is a hero in his native Brazil. With the onset of protests, he said (qtd. in Goldblatt):
Let's forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests, and let's remember how the Seleção is our country and our blood.
 Futebol Nation highlights how Brazil is so intertwined with the national sport, but also provides a "reality check" in terms of the current World Cup. If you are at all interested in this subject matter, I recommend reading it before the tournament ends to provide another perspective on what is happening in Brazil. Also a quick google search of "Brazil Protests" provides insight on something SportsCenter doesn't necessarily cover in their coverage. Rating: ★★★★

6.19.2014

xo Orpheus

Continuing my summer reading 2014, I read this collection of short stories of fifty new myths, edited by Kate Bernheimer. "If “xo” signals a goodbye, then xo Orpheus is a goodbye to an old way of mythmaking." I liked reading xo Orpheus because each author had an extremely distinct style with a creative interpretation of their chosen myth. Sometimes it was a myth I knew; like the tale of Persephone, which is retold many times. My favorite retelling of the Persephone/Demeter myth
was "Lost Lake" by Emma Straub and Peter Straub, where Persephone is transformed into 14-year-old Eudora Hale who travels back and forth between her divorced parents. Other stories, the original myth was unknown and foreign to me, like the West African myth of the trickster Anansi. This story was beautifully re-imagined by Edith Pearlman in "Wait and See", which was the story of a human pentachromat (could see more than the normal spectrum) who was overwhelmed seeing too much. Pearlman was inspired by Anansi's proclamation, "blindness is a man's highest good." Bernheimer writes in the introduction to the collection that "classical myths are worldly tales, generally involving some contact between the mortal and immortal realms, between humans and the gods." What makes the collection so great to read is that even though myths are these fantastical tales, they don't necessarily have a fantastical interpretation. Some definitely do; there are many that focus on nonhuman characters, like the ogres in Aimee Bender's "Devourings." My favorites were the ones that placed the otherworldly in a real world (á la Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series) or ones that made the stories themselves realist, like making Persephone the tale of divorce and custody. There were definitely a few stories in here that I didn't like, as expected in a large collection, but on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the collection. I highly recommend this collection. Rating: ★★★★(★)

6.15.2014

Salvage the Bones

Deviating a little from my planned Summer Reading 2014 due to my grandma's recommendation, Salvage the Bones is a fantastic look at Hurricane Katrina. Author Jesmyn Ward is herself a victim of Katrina; the story definitely has the touch of someone who has lived through such a horrific situation.
"On the day before a hurricane hits, the phone rings. When Mama was living, she picked it up; it is a phone call from the state government that goes out to everyone in the area who will be hit by a storm....I picked it up for the first time yesterday. A man's voice speaks; he sounds like a computer, like he has an iron throat. I cannot remember exactly what he says, but I remember it in general. Mandatory evacuation. Hurricane making landfall tomorrow...There is a list. And I do not know if he says this, but this is what it feels like: You can die." 
The protagonist, Esch, a 15-year old with an affinity for mythology, is in a very rough situation. Her mother died in childbirth to her youngest brother, her father is an alcoholic, and she is pregnant. As the New York Times Book Review writes, "is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale. Think of Noah or Gilgamesh or any soggy group of humans and dogs huddled together, waiting out an apocalyptic act of God or weather. It’s an old story — of family honor, revenge, disaster — and it’s a good one." I wholly agree. I could not put the novel down. The story begins 10 days before Hurricane Katrina makes landfall, continues during the day of the hurricane and the day after. Esch's family lives right in Katrina's path: the poor bayou town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. In the Q&A with Ward at the end of the novel, she says she wanted to write about Hurricane Katrina because she lived through it, and she was "angry at the people who blamed survivors for staying and for choosing to return...after the storm." The book is raw and real and has a "narrative ruthlessness." It was undoubtedly a fantastic read. You feel as if you are in Esch's world. The novel isn't simply about Katrina; it is a story of survival, of love, and of family. Highly recommend, if you haven't had the chance to read this yet. Rating: ★★★★★

6.12.2014

Deathless

A book I know I will read again and again, Deathless is Catherynne M. Valente's stunning homage to Russian folklore. Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, is an antagonistic figure in Russian folklore. I cannot do an adequate job expressing the plot of this tour de force. Essentially, the story of Koschei (which you do not need to know in order to read this novel) is set against twentieth century Russia. The protagonist is Marya Morevna, who "transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei's beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing." Deathless combines magical history with actual history. Not only did I learn these century-old stories (or Valente's interpretation of this folklore), you understand Russian history as you read. As one review writes, "Yes, the book is about a Russian folklore, but it’s also greatly in juxtaposition with Stalinist-era Russia and essentially- war. It is grounded deeply in both its principle worlds, and those double back on each other all the time, so it can get a bit confusing. Marya moves between these worlds, fighting in a war between Koschei and Viy, (a war they’ve been waging since time began), and surviving during the siege of Leningrad in 20th century Russia." Sounds confusing, I know. I was lost for the first few chapters, and definitely confused at the start of each section (they correlate to different parts of Marya's life; time jumps are always confusing). All sections begin with a poem of Anna Akhmatova, a Russian modernist poet who experienced the Russia Marya lives in. This book was so intriguing and rich that I simply could not put it down. Even though it was folklore retold, it felt new and exciting. To end with a quote from the novel:
That's how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you'd have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.
Happy Summer Reading! Rating: ★★★★★

6.11.2014

Absurdistan

To start off my Summer Reading 2014, I began with Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan. After loving Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, I figured I would also love Absurdistan. But I was not as taken with it as I hoped. The main character, Misha, was completely unlikeable. I realize that the point of some novels is to have an "anti-hero" but Misha had practically no redeemable qualities. However, story itself was interesting. The novel told the tale of Misha who is stuck in St. Petersburg, Russia after his father murders an American, then Misha journeys to Absurdistan to obtain an illegal passport so he can get back to America. The New York Times ranked Absurdistan as one of the best books of 2006, writing in a book review, "Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself." When Misha is in Absurdistan, the story picks up and becomes a wonderful political satire on countries torn apart by civil war, oil, and western influence. Even though the book references oil companies like Halliburton & Bechtel, this book is definitely not one of "social issues or geopolitical controversies." The reader experiences the story through Misha's viewpoint, and he is more focused on himself than what is happening around him. For example, when he is learning the history of the Sevo people, he can only focus on the body of his tour guide. Overall, this novel was an engrossing, if at times dragging, story of one man's journey to try to return to America and confront his identity. Rating: ★★★

6.09.2014

Summer Reading 2014

Happy Summer! 
As I've done summers past (see 2013 & 2012 lists), here are 15 books I'm planning on reading this summer!! As always, I will be working on Modern Library's Choices (why Modern Library? explanation here). Posts with a (100) represent books on this list.
This post will update and most likely change as the summer goes on. 
Any suggestions, feel free to comment...
  1. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart: The novel is the story of Misha, an obscenely fat, rich, Russian antihero who desires to return to the States. The story follows his attempt to secure a bogus passport in the tiny post-Soviet country of Absurdistan, a country descending into civil war. POST (3★) 
  2. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (100): a collection of short stories set in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio. The stories themselves can stand independently, but they all weave together for a stunning portrait of this small town. READ! (4★)
  3. Deathless by Catherynne Valente: "Twentieth-century Russian history provides a background for Valente's lush reimagining of folkloric villain Koschei the Deathless and his dalliance with Marya Morevna, a clever but troubled young woman" POST (5★) 
  4. Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward (added late) POST (5★)
  5. xo Orpheus ed. Kate Bernheimer: "a collection of fifty short stories that reinterpret classic myths from ancient Greek, Indian, and other traditions" POST (4 or 5★)
  6. Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer by David Goldblatt: "illuminates both Brazilian soccer and Brazil itself; its brilliance, its magic, its style, and the fabulous myths that have been constructed around it; as well as its tragedies, its miseries, and its economic and political injustices. It is the story of Brazil told through its chosen national game." POST (4★)
  7. Gods and Beasts by Denise Mina: a mystery novel about a bank robbery in Glasgow where the detective uncovers a "sinister political network" (3★)
  8. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (100): "Clyde Griffiths finds his social-climbing aspirations and love for a rich and beautiful debutante threatened when his lower-class pregnant girlfriend gives him an ultimatum."
  9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Angelou's autobiography of her childhood in Arkansas
  10. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: "Classic novel of consuming passions, played out against the lonely moors of northern England, recounts the turbulent and tempestuous love story of Cathy and Heathcliff."  
  11. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (100): story of a tragic love affair of a soldier's marriage. 
  12. Even Silence Has An End by Ingrid Betancourt: a memoir telling the tale of Betancourt's capture by the FARC, a Colombian terrorist organization. 
  13. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra: " A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime," thanks to my Grandma for this recommendation
  14. Ulysses by James Joyce (100): inspired by the Odyssey, written as a stream of conscious; Joyce's most famous work.
  15. The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman: the final book in the Magicians trilogy. 
  16. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl: "Boston, 1865. A series of murders, all of them inspired by scenes in Dante’s Inferno. Only an elite group of America’s first Dante scholars can solve the mystery. With the police baffled, more lives endangered, and Dante’s literary future at stake, the Dante Club must shed its sheltered literary existence and find the killer."
Have a wonderful summer & happy reading! 

6.07.2014

I'm Back

Hi!! Sorry I have not updated since December, school has been crazy busy. I just finished my freshman year at Dartmouth College! Wow. I sadly did not have time for any reading, besides my course books. However, some of these books were actually interesting (surprise!) that I would definitely recommend.
Here's one from each term....

Fall: On the Beach by Nevil Shute
(Class: Cold War & American Life)
Published in 1956, this is an apocalyptic novel focused on the fallout of a nuclear war. The epigraph of the novel reads "This is way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper" by T.S. Elliot (from his "The Hollow Men" poem). This is "not with a bang but a whimper" is the overarching theme of the novel: how the characters deal with their imminent deaths. On the Beach is a chilling read that touches on the deepest fear of those living during the Cold War era: catastrophic consequences of nuclear war. Rating: ★★★★★

Winter: Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by U. R. Anatha Murthy
(Class: Patterns of Religious Tradition)
Tells the tale of a village of Brahmins in India. After one dies, the town spirals into chaos because death is viewed as extremely polluting in strict Hinduism. Amazon describes the novel as "examining the caste system, culture, religious rules, and traditions, as well as the ambivalent relationship between handed-down cultural values and the new values of a changing world, Samskara looks at deeper moral and philosophical issues like how to lead a righteous life, the validity of customs, and the concept of brahminism in a contemporary world." It is a religious novel, but it also focuses ons how the old traditions interact with a modernizing world. Rating: ★★★★

Spring: Dubliners by James Joyce
(Class: Short Fiction: Russia & The West)
A collection of 15 short stories about life in Dublin, Ireland. The class where I read this collection was on short stories, and it was taught by the Russian Department. Therefore, we mainly focused on Gogol, Pushkin, Chekov and the like. So when we read Dubliners, I absolutely fell in love. Maybe it was because we had been reading so much Russian fiction, but the stories were so wonderfully crafted and such an intimate look into the lives of these characters. Highly highly recommend. Rating: ★★★★★

Summer reading coming soon...

12.31.2013

2013 Books

Books I Read in 2013

To understand the list: 
G = Horace Greeley High School English [AP English Literature and Literature of Childhood]
100 = Modern Library's Choices (why Modern Library? explanation here!!!!)
SR = Summer Reading
D = Dartmouth [The Global Politics of Soccer, the Cold War & American Life, and Spanish Culture & Conversation]
WR = Winter Reading

Hyperlinked titles go to my blog post on the book

Happy New Year!!
List after the break (it's sort of long...)

12.25.2013

Americanah

Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie is a fantastic Nigerian writer whose third novel, Americanah, is one of the best books I've read this year. Adiechie has been talked about lately, because her TED talk, "We Should All Be Feminists," was excerpted by Beyoncé on one of the tracks on her self-titled album, "***Flawless" (a full paragraph of her speech is inserted into the female-empowerment song). Coinciding with Adiechie's new fame (the hundreds of thousands of albums Beyoncé has sold has surely introduced Achiechie to people who have never heard of her), her novel Americanah appeared on the NYTimes best books of 2013 (as did the last book I read, The Goldfinch). I am a fan of Beyoncé and avidly read the Times: therefore, when looking for something to read, Adichie was on my mind, and rightfully so. Americanah is deserving of the attention. It is a beautifully written, a novel that one can emotionally connect with, even if the experiences of the narrator, a young Nigerian women, Ifemelu, are foreign to the reader. Adichie focuses on a discussion of race, the experience of, as she phrases it, a Non-American Black in America (focusing on the difference between African-Americans and American-Africans). The moments I found particularly poignant were the commentary on American-isms:
When you tripped and fell, when you choked, when misfortune befell you, they did not say "Sorry." They said "Are you okay?" when it was obvious that you were not. And when you said "Sorry" to them when they choked or tripped or encountered misfortune, they replied, eyes wide with surprise, "Oh, it's not your fault." 
Through Ifemelu, it is clear that Adiechie realizes the "fine-grained differentiations don’t penetrate the minds of many Americans... Many of Adichie’s best observations regard nuances of language" (source). The foreigner-coming-to-America is not an uncommon trope, however Adichie doesn't focus on the differences between Nigeria and America, or Nigeria and Britain, but on how race is viewed in these countries. As one reviewer succinctly writes, "Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite." (I encourage you to read that review after reading the novel). Americanah offers commentary on the intricacies American race relations and the capitalist Nigerian life, where "Third Worlders are forward looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past." Ifemelu also bluntly offers advice to Americans on her blog (this is just an excerpt, the whole section is fantastic [location 5443 in my kindle if that means anything]):
Don't say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America's assets and America's debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don't say it's just like antisemitism. It's not. In the hatred of Jews, there is also the possibility of envy-they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews- and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American blacks, there is no possibility of envy- they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.
I don't know if you can truly get a grasp of the greatness of this novel: it is a "novel that holds the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us." If you're looking for one book to read on your winter break, this is a fantastic choice. Or, if not this winter break, I encourage read this novel when you can (I realize I'm ending most posts like this nowadays, oh well). Rating: ★★★★★