Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ghost-Watching American Modernity: Haunting, Landscape, and the Hemispheric Imagination by Maria del Pilar Blanco

This monograph argues that we should be more attentive to the ways in which modernity haunts American literature; not with outright ghosts, but with two landscapes that uncannily exist simultaneously. Blanco makes a point of noting that her argument is not a generic one: often these hauntings transcend the genres of the gothic (in US literature) and the magically real (in Latin American literature). Blanco starts with a chapter on the hemispheric imaginary of haunting, before moving into three chapters that read specific scenarios: desert hauntings, urban hauntings, and transnational hauntings. She stakes a position as a close reader of texts (and thus, less interested in placing them in their historical contexts). The readings were not bad, but I found the theory of haunting more useful.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History by Ian Baucom

This monograph creates an archive out of absence, specifically the absence of a response to Granville Sharp's letter to the Lords Commissioners protesting the court decision to treat the events on the Zong (that is, the captain's decision to throw 133 slaves overboard in order to conserve water supplies) as an insurance case rather than murder. Baucom looks at the way the Zong case has echoed through history (in politics, art, literature, and philosophy), how it reflects the growth of a system of finance capital that not only treats people as objects, but as objects whose loss can always already be theoretically present insofar as they can be insured, and how it shows us the intersections between a trans-Atlantic slave economy and modern systems of capital. The book is theoretical and dense. It draws connections between Benjamin's Arcades project and Arrighi's models of cycles in addition to drawing on theorists as diverse as Adam Smith and Slavoj Zizek. The contents of Granville Sharp's letter (and indeed, a straightforward account of the Zong case) are delayed and secondary to meditations on the ethical implications of how we understand history and of the connections between the trans-Atlantic slave trade and finance capitalism. While there are parts of the book that seemed opaque to me, its overall argument was eloquent and persuasive.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Novel and the Sea by Margaret Cohen

This monograph contends that fictions of the sea constitute a traveling, adventure genre that begins in the modern era with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. This genre challenges our dominant accounts of the formation of the novel: Cohen insists that we account for the sea adventure narratives of writers such as Defoe and Smollett, even though the adventure genre has been critically neglected. After Smollett, the number of sea fictions wane until the subject is adopted by James Fenimore Cooper. In part this decline may be the result of the incredible, but true, tales that were happening on the world's oceans. Like the previously mentioned authors, though, Cooper is not famous for his sea fictions (The Pilot and Red Rover) but his Leatherstocking Tales. These American sea stories became popular just at the moment that the craft of seafaring became obsolete, replaced by mechanical inventions (such as accurate clocks to measure longitude). Thus Herman Melville, Victor Hugo, and Joseph Conrad had the opportunity to use their sea stories to focus on other kinds of craft at the margins. Jules Verne, on the other hand, took the exploration of frontiers beyond what people were actually experiencing to what they could only imagine. Thus, Cohen contends, sea fictions are the root of today's science fiction. I found this book to be ambitious, but thoroughly researched, and I was ultimately persuaded by Cohen's readings and her contextualizations, that we ought to pay more attention to sea fictions as a genre. I thought her description of the mariner's craft in the first chapter was particularly useful.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink

I read this book in German. It starts as a conventional bildungsroman--a teenager falls in love with an older woman, but the affair ends and the boy moves on. Later, the young man, now a law student, comes across his former lover again--as one of the defendants in a trial which is trying to determine the guilt of former concentration camp guards. The novel explores the question of secrets--what secrets are most important, what actions should we be ashamed of--and the question of fitting in--what skills are necessary to live in our world, what might those who lack these skills be forced to do to make up for that lack. There's no moral high ground here, and no absolution in the end. But if we cannot forgive, we can still understand, and mourn the losses and broken lives all around.

La Vita Nuova (Poems of Youth) by Dante Alighieri and translated by Barbara Reynolds

This collection of poetry and commentary serves two purposes: it documents Dante's love for Beatrice, from their first meeting to beyond her death, and it allows Dante to offer his theory of poetic composition. Dante justifies writing poetry in the vernacular, rhyming lines of verse, and using figurative language by its subject: if the poet aspires to convey a deeper meaning, these techniques are legitimate. He forces readers to look beyond the mechanics of the sonnet form--often his notes about the division of the poem appear in different places than the traditional octet/sestet split; thus, he demonstrates the tension inherent in sonnets between prescribed form and inspired content. The poetry after Beatrice's death is particularly moving: news of her death forces him to break off a canzone, and then he offers less guidance on how to read the sonnets (one of which even starts in two different ways). He demonstrates a transition in his love: while at the start of the work, he loves Beatrice as a woman on earth, by the end of the sequence he realizes that she can become a heavenly guide to divine love (in fact, she becomes the Beatrice of the Divine Comedy). A lovely and thought-provoking collection of poetry.

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

This book begins when a troubled young boy, Simon, breaks into Kerewin Holmes's tower. Kerewin, a loner, gradually becomes closer to Simon and his adoptive father Joe. But as Kerewin learns more about the family, including Simon's traumatic past, she begins to realize that there are still real troubles plaguing this family. There are no simple or easy answers here. Simon's past is something of a mystery--and it always remains mysterious. All of the characters are damaged, and engage in morally questionable behaviors. While the majority of the book is written in English, it's littered with Maori phrases (translated in the back) and it eschews conventions--inner monologues are set off almost as if they are block quotations, for example. These stylistic differences required attention, but were easy to get used to. In the end this book is lyrical and haunting. Winner of the 1985 Booker Prize.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

This book was an engaging fantasy that brought in a variety of historical references in intriguing and new ways. There's conflict all over the Union: the northerners are trying to take back Angland (and the Shanka are pressing in as well), and there's pressure from the Empire in the south as well. The book follows four unlikely protagonists: Logen Ninefingers, who's only just lucky enough to stay alive, who has come from the North in search of a great Magus, Captain Jezal dan Luther, a fop with a lot of luck who realizes that there may be some things worth fighting for, Inquisitor Glotka, who lost everything as a prisoner of war, and now suffers through every day--and makes everyone else around him suffer as well, and Bayaz, a wizard who may just be the first among many and who may have returned from myth (he last appeared as himself during the reign of Herod the Great) just in the nick of time. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

This book presents life behind the lines at a hospital during World War I. In particular, it focuses on the friendship between Doctor Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon, who has published a letter insisting that the war is no longer morally justified. It really helped me understand what was happening (and the background behind) the third book in the trilogy. Next time I will try to read things in order!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Romance of Tristan by Beroul and translated by Alan S. Frederick

This book combines prose translations of The Romance of Tristan by Beroul and Tristan's Madness. The story is not one that a modern reader would expect: there's little continuity (for example, one character dies twice), and the author tells the reader what to think (and then the characters' actions may not match the author's descriptions of their morality). But this version does give a clear version of the romance of Tristan and Yseut with the best episodes preserved (the sword between the sleeping lovers, the piggy-back ride in disguise, Yseut's double-speak, the sail confusion). Of interest to those who want a more complete view of the Matter of Britain and those interested in medieval romance (in a modern translation).

Requiem by Lauren Oliver

This book was a little bit of a slow starter for me, mostly because I couldn't remember what had happened in the first two books. Once I figured that out, things went much better. As Lena copes with the aches, pains, and irrationality of love, she and the rest of her small group find that the Regulators have started patrolling the Wilds. They move towards Portland. Interspersed with Lena's story, Hana's story gets its own sections: Hana is about to marry the mayor of Portland, but everything's not domestic bliss (despite her procedure). I enjoyed the book, but it wouldn't be at the top of my YA recommendations.

Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost by Karen L. Edwards

This monograph contends that Milton was fully attuned to the new scientific possibilities of the seventeenth century. Edwards debunks theories that Milton was stuck, backwards-looking, in old science, and instead contends that the very moments that seem the most to show that Milton was using an old system of knowledge actually indicate Milton's prowess: he's wryly commenting on the old way of understanding things. In Paradise Lost, he presents a world that needs to be read experimentally (as God's other book), the way that the Bible itself should be read. I found this argument persuasive: Edwards gives clear readings of Milton's masterpiece (and its use of plants and animals) and lucid descriptions of how science was changing at that time. The monograph is beautifully illustrated.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

This book introduces Tiffany Aching, a nine-year-old witch in training, who must save her inconvenient, sticky brother Wentworth when he is abducted by a fairy queen. Fortunately she has help--in the form of the Wee Free Men, tiny blue pictsies with amazing strength and little patience to help anyone who isn't a hag. This book was funny and heartwarming. I think I prefer the adult Discworld novels, but this one does have charms and an internal logic that works.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

This book is much more than the biography of General Alex Dumas (today best known as the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, among many other novels). It provides a lot of context for General Dumas's life and times--including the French colony of St. Domingue, the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon. The book makes two arguments: that General Alex Dumas achieved remarkable success, especially given the prejudices and hardships he had to overcome--and so should be more widely remembered; and that Alexandre Dumas, the novelist, based several of his literary works, including The Count of Monte Cristo, on his father's life. I found both claims well substantiated in the biography. I enjoyed the tone, which not only detailed the general's life and helped readers with the history surrounding that time and place, but also gave a personal account of researching the biography and teasing out the relevant details (including an incident of sanctioned safe breaking!). The narrator of the audiobook had a clear and enjoyable voice. All in all, a great book to listen to.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beaumont

This novel is exactly the sort of novel I love to read: it's witty, self-referential, aware of its own status as a novel, and a lot of fun. Egon Loeser is the painfully self-absorbed anti-hero whose world is crumbling around him (he's an artist in Berlin in the 1920s)--but he doesn't see the political dangers because of his personal problems (an inability to get his show produced or to win over the charming Adele Hitler [no relation to Adolf]). He serendipitously leaves Berlin for Los Angeles (via Paris) chasing Adele, but he doesn't have any better luck in either place either with Adele or with his show. Yet, as the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Loeser's obsession with Adriano Lavinci, an Italian set designer who died in what is known as the Teleportation Accident (one of Lavinci's sets destroyed a theater in Paris). The novel teases readers: was Lavinci a theatrical genius, or a scientist centuries ahead of his time, or a magician? I definitely want to re-read this book; it may have been my favorite entry on the 2012 Booker Long List.

The Puzzled Heart by Amanda Cross

This mystery puts Kate Fansler in an uncomfortable position: her husband Reed has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers have threatened to kill him if Kate doesn't publicly renounce her feminist viewpoints. Instead of calling the police, or taking a particularly active role in the investigations herself, Kate starts with a friend from her last case who has since become a private eye. But Kate quickly realizes that she'll be happier and more successful if she takes a stronger hand in the case. I really enjoyed the introduction of a dog into the Fansler-Amhearst household, and I thought Kate's reaction, while frustrating, was also reasonable as this case was so much more personal than her previous cases. I'm conflicted about the full plot though: it may have been a bit overcomplicated. Still, another fine entry in this series.