Review: Kang’s The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian

Han Kang

Creepy. Super creepy. Disturbing. Interlocking stories revolving around an abused and disturbed women who turn to vegetarianism appears to instigate a series of events which destroy both her and her family.

Of course, it isn’t actually her vegetarianism. It’s about the violence directed at her, the mental illness that violence (may?) have caused. The idealizations of her held by the men around her. The expectations of her family. The (misplaced) determination to become some better than her broken self.

An incredible book whose power defies explanation. Not for the faint of her as it is unendingly sad and disturbing but still

Recommended.

Review: Saawadi’s Woman At Point Zero

Woman at Point Zero

Nawal El Saawadi

A novel based on Saadawi’s interviews with a n imprisoned psychiatric patient, Women at Point Zero is important, deeply moving and horrific. I’m not going to lie to you, this one isn’t easy to get through. Saadawi’s protagonist life is an unending series of horrors committed against either by, or ostensibly for, men. She endures female genital mutilation, physical and emotional abuse, rape, and more. Through it all, society provides her with no support, and no way out. It’s a bleak, damning, indictment of the way Egyptian society treats women.*

I read this book in 2002 and I remember how hard it was to get through. It’s a short work, but it is so brutal in its descriptions of the traumas and injustices that the narrator has faced that I often found it too much to bear. Still, not all books are there to pass the time, or educate, some are there to make us feel the things we don’t want to feel and face the things we don’t want to face. This is one of those books.

Recommended.

Nawal El Saawadi

*Or treated, the book was published in the 1970s, some may say things have changed; others will disagree.

Review: Shah’s Pandemics

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond

Sonia Shah

I’m not really a science guy, but I have thing for pandemics. There’s something about their lethal power, and how unaffected they are by the human misery they cause, that terrifies me. When I heard the good reviews of Shah’s social history of pandemics, how they work, and how they’re changing, I knew I had to pick it up. I’m very glad I did. Shah does an excellent job of writing clearly, and humanly, about the way pandemics work, and the way our changing world is changing the

This one’s full of surprises to a science novice like me. The role interactions between humans and wild animals plays in developing viruses. The importance of high speed travel to the rise of pandemics. The surprising culture history of Cholera. The way SARS was spread. The way a virus operates in a city, or a household. Its compelling, and terrifying, reading.

You’ll never look at that guy coughing on the subway the same way again.

Recommended.

Pandemic.indd

Book Review: Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind

The story of John Nash, the brilliant mathematician who solved a number of interesting problems in game theory, descended into madness haunting the corridors of Princeton for years, and then, incredibly, regained a level of sanity and was awarded the goddamn Nobel Prize. It’s a hell of a story. And it raises a number of interesting questions. Was Nash’s mathematical brilliance tied to his madness? Did it bring him into his illness? Did it (as Nash himself thought) help bring him out of it? Must a genius be difficult? When do we excuse a man’s eccentricities and when do we question them as early signs of illness?  Nasar discusses all of this and more (including Nash’s sexuality, his class arrogance, and his mathematical work) in this fascinating biography. But wisely, she doesn’t try to answer the questions.

She couldn’t. None of us, not even Nash could.

I sympathize with Nash’s plight as told here, but I feel even more for the women in his life who he treated so horribly. The mother of his first child, Eleanor Stier,  who he abandoned, with a young child, and his second wife, Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lardé, who stuck by him through very, very difficult times and to whom he was often cruel. Loving a person with these issues must be incredibly hard. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

All in all a fascinating story of a difficult, troubled, brilliant, man. Perhaps not an “important” book, but an interesting one. Added bonus: brief appearance by Von Neumann (who I have a bit of a man crush on).

john_forbes_nash_jr-_by_peter_badge

Nash in Later Life

 

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Smith’s Just Kids

Just Kids
Patti Smith

For the first fifty pages, I wasn’t sure about this one, but then something clicked and I couldn’t put this down. By now you know that this is the story of Smith’s early adulthood and her relationship Robert Mapplethorpe. The books starts with Smith as a child in New Jersey and ends with Mapplethorpe’s death. It’s a stunning ride.

Smith’s brutal honesty, the directness of her language, the incredible nature of her early life all made for a incredible, tragic read. To think that two of the great shining lights of 1970-80s New York met at random on a Brooklyn street corner, starved together, met everyone worth meeting together and got famous together only to have one of them die far too young … its almost too cinematic. If you care about New York, or art, or music, or the strange ways love works, you really need to read this.

Recommended.

Review: Offill’s Dept of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation
Jennifer Offill

Beautifully written little gem of a book about marriage, kids, and betrayal. This is basically a book about a privileged Brooklyn intellectuals and their domestic problems. i.e. it is about me and my friends. Generally, I avoid this kind of stuff. As a rule, Brooklyn writers writing about Brooklyn writers gives me the bores, but this one came so well recommended, I had to check it out. Very glad I did. Offill is a wonderful writer and her tale of love or betrayal feels so real, and raw, I had to double check to make this wasn’t a memoir. Good stuff.

 

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Beard’s Confronting the Classics

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations
Mary Beard

This is a collection of Beard’s reviews and essays from a number of publications, including many from the New York Review of Books. Organized in rough chronological order from Greece to the present, it is a bit of a hodgepodge. But what a wonderful hodgepodge it is.

Beard is my favorite classicist (if I can be so bold as to name someone my favorite classicist). She is a delightful writer, brilliant, and unafraid to bring call it like she sees it (Circeo, perhaps not the hero you thought?). She’s also excellent at bringing progressive political ideas to the study of the ancient world without having it come off as hackneyed or forced. If you care about classics in the contemporary world, you should care about the works of Mary Beard. This isn’t a major work by Beard, but it is a great way to dip her thoughts many aspects of Greek and Roman life and thought while also discovery scores of other books that are worth your time. If, like me, you’re early in your journey into understanding classic thought and history, this is well worth your time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Colt’s Martial Bliss

Martial Bliss.: The Story of The Military Bookman.
Margaretta Barton Colt

A self-published memoir by the woman who co-ran the Miltiary Bookman, one of the legendary specialty bookshops that used to dot Manhattan in the pre-amazon days. Competently written, it tells the story of a now disappearing world of small used bookstores, staffed and frequented by passionate bibliophiles. If you’re a fan of books about books, then the stories here of the Military Bookman’s book scouting trips, and eccentric customers are wonderful. I’m fascinated by those who take their hobbies seriously, and many of the characters in this book took the study of military history very, very seriously. You’ve got the creepy proto-fascist war lovers here, of course, but most of the customers come across as curious, bookish, types excited about the prospect of a rare volume on a forgotten war or battle. It makes for fun reading.

The sections on Colt’s travels with her husband, and her work on a book about the civil war do, however, drag on a bit. If this hadn’t been self-published an editor would have cut these sections down. Still, worth the price of admission for the stories of some of the eccentrics who frequented this only in New York bookstore.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Buekes’s Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters (Reading Group Guide)
Lauren Buekes

Super well-done mystery novel set turned super-natural what-the-fuck. Wonderful characters including sketchy wanna-be youtube stars, troubled ex-cons, teens in over their heads, overworked cops and mentally ill artists all face unknowable something or other in post-industrial Detroit. Good fun.
I picked this up not knowing what to expect and was really pleasantly surprised when what I got was a page turner that felt new and vibrant. The writing here isn’t always flawless, and some of the scenes especially those involving the wanna-be youtube star, felt forced, but all in all an enjoyable novel. I’ll be checking out Beukes’ other works.

Recommended.

Review: Morrison’s God Help the Child

God Help the Child: A novel
Toni Morrison

A minor work by a major author, this slim book by one of the greatest American novelists  is beautiful and haunting. It moves back and forth from the allegorical to the realistic tracing the story of Bride, a wounded child who grows into a celebrated, but wounded women. Morrison deals here with race, and gender, and the unique horrors our society metes out to black women. She address child abuse, and dysfunctional relationships, and love. All of it in a way that feels real and devoid of the hectoring tone some political works can have. Beautifully written, you shouldn’t pass this one up.

Recommended.