Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Book Review: Deviation (2018) by Luce D'Eramo

Book Review:
Deviation (2018)
by Luce D'Eramo

  Deviation, the bat-shit insane World War II memoir by Italian fascist-teen Luce D'Eramo, was published in the original Italian in 1979, but last year it finally got an English translation and made quite the splash in an area (World War II occurring literary fiction) at a time when many critics are professing exhaustion with the genre.

The splash has everything to do with the author Luce D'Eramo.  During World War II she was the teenage daughter of a pair of highly ranked Italian Fascists.   After the Italian Fascist state succumbed to the allies, she fled north where she volunteered (!) to work in a German labor camp, alongside prisoner and internees.  She left her first labor camp after an abortive suicide attempt, was repatriated back to Italy and then fled Italy again(!) winding up as a fugitive hiding inside Dachau (!)   One the eve of Allied victory, she escaped, only to be paralyzed from the waist down in what can only be called a misguided attempt to save civilians in the aftermath of an Allied bombing.

    Misguided is a good word to describe D'Eramo and her behavior. D'Eramo adds a layer of interest to her otherwise unsympathetic behavior by using the book as an opportunity to talk about her own emotions, and what she suppressed in the aftermath of her war time trauma.  As she herself acknowledges, the level of "I told you so" that must inevitably taint any of her relationships that span the war was almost unbearable.  What does it mean to tell your loving parents to f*** off, only to return several years later as a needy, wheelchair-bound invalid.

  Surely, it is enough to drive one insane, and her later years were indeed marred by swaths of institutionalization, even as she tried to raise her son.  Deviation is a deeply disturbing book, and not quite a must read, but certainly of interest to anyone looking for yet another take on the events of World War II from yet a different perspective.

  I listened to the Audiobook version, narrated by Justine Eyre, who is also narrating another Audiobook I'm listening to, Insurrecto by Gina Apostol- after several years of narrating nothing but romance novels.  She was good- performing the many different accents.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another's Misfortune (2018) by Tiffany Watt Smith

Book Review
Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another's Misfortune (2018)
 by Tiffany Watt Smith

  German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously said of schadenfreude, the emotion one experience when you experience pleasure at the misfortune of another, as "diabolical."  The idea that schadenfreude is a shameful emotion has persisted, even as the internet, and particularly the phenomenon of "fail videos," have inundated us with opportunities to experience it.   Smith, a researcher in neuroscience and emotions, has written her book in defense of schadenfreude, and she make it clear from the beginning that in her view, experiencing schadenfreude is nothing to be ashamed of, and indeed, that it helps us in both every day life and in a long-term, survival of the human species/evolution sense.

  Watt-Smith is an English writer, but the Audiobook edition I heard had a narrator with an American accent- which made me wonder if there is another, English version of the Audiobook where the narrator has an English accent.  Schadenfreude, though grounded in the latest scientific findings on the brain and human emotions, is clearly written for a general audience, and Watt-Smith spends the beginning of each chapter giving day-to-day examples of various types of schadenfreude we all experience.

   Reading as someone who doesn't work in a conventional office environment (specifically, with a boss and co-workers) I was surprised on the amount of work-related schadenfreude that Watt-Smith catalogs.   Between bosses, co-workers and family members, it was the intimate forms of schadenfreude that struck me.  The more familiar, public kinds- laughing at fail videos and the public shaming of bad actors in day-to-day life, seem easier to explain.

  Schadenfreude is a good introduction to recent research on the subject, as well as an excellent survey of current knowledge about why we feel good about others misfortune, but Watt-Smith is less succesful at proving her thesis that schadenfruede is an important emotion, and good for you.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Holder of the World (1993) by Bharati Mukherjee

Book Review
The Holder of the World (1993)
 by Bharati Mukherjee

Replaces: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

    Why would the editors of the 1001 Books project insist that readers take in the thousand page plus Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, only to drop it two years later in favor of The Holder of the World by Indian-American writer Bharati Mukherjee.  It makes sense to not include Cryptonomicon in the first place, because it is over a thousand pages, and because Stephenson doesn't surpass Pynchon in his conspiracy-minded re-telling of World War II history, and also because he doesn't surpass other canonical science fiction writers in terms of his world building, but if you are going to put it on your list, keep it there.

   I guess this would be Bharati Mukherjee's hit, about a woman from Puritan Massachusets who relocates to India with her piratical husband and falls into the long running conflict between the English, the Mughal Empire and various Hindu led polities.  This was India in the time before it became the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire.   Here, the English are just one among many groups vying for power.  The Holder of the World is a quick read- maybe just over 300 pages long.  If you understand the temporal back drop of the events, all the other events fall into place with a minimum of complications.  A conventional narrative outside of the exotic setting, as it were. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Zuckerman Unbound (1981) by Philip Roth

Book Review
Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
 by Philip Roth

  Zuckerman Unbound was the second of three books in the initial Nathan Zuckerman trilogy.  Roth has been an ideal target for Audiobook listening, since it appears that his entire oeuvre was given the belated Audiobook treatment in 2008.  The library has plenty of copies and Roth is not in favor, so the copies are always freely available.  That is very, very, unusual for a library Audiobook- waiting times of a month or longer are standard, even for catalog titles.

 Many of the Zuckerman books prominently feature a third party telling his or her life story  and some reflections by Zuckerman himself on the impact of his chosen career (succesful author) and his relationships with friends and loved ones.   Like The Ghost Writer, the major personal concerns are the ways in which his writing, and the success from his writing, have negatively impacted personal relationships, here it's his ex wife and his father.   The non self reflective part of Zuckernman Unbound is about his chance encounter with a man named Alivn Pepler- one of the main people in the Quiz Show scandal that rocked America in the 1950's.

   Pepler is based on Herb Stempel- the Jewish contestant who was supplanted by waspy Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes in Quiz Show, the movie.)  Much of Zuckerman Unbound concerns the impact of sudden fame on the life of a serious author, so if you go in for that sort of thing, as I do, Zuckerman Unbound is fun- but probably less so for readers less inclined to read about the perils of success.

Meek Heritage (1938)by Frans Eemil Sillanpää

Frans Eemil Sillanpää: Finland's obscure Nobel Prize in Literature winner

Book Review
Meek Heritage (1938)
by Frans Eemil Sillanpää

   Frans Eemil Sillanpää ranks among the more obscure Nobel Prize in Literature winners, a Finnish author, little known outside Scandinavia.  It is possible that Meek Heritage is the only book translated from Finnish into English, and the copy I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library was the original print of the 1948 English translation.   

  Those looking to support a hypothesis that the Nobel Prize in Literature committee favors dour, humorless prose (me, for one) will find great support in Meek Heritage, which is just about as dour as dour gets- the life story of a Finnish peasant, he goes by many names, but we can call him Jussi.  Jussi is a sad loner, orphaned by the early death of his older, alcoholic father and the later death of his servant-girl mother.

  He becomes crofter- this in late 19th century Finland- which should be familiar to Nobel Prize completists and tourists to Iceland who have read Halldor Laxness- he made a career out of writing about crofter culture- basically sharecroppers in the American context, men who work for a wealthier landlord by donating their time doing work for the landlord in exchange for land to farm.  Jussi has a miserable domestic existence, burdened with a wife best described as "slack," and a child who becomes disabled after he is attacked by his older brother.

   The action picks up after Jussi loses his wife and his children have left the house:

And so it goes on for years. Until the sleepless night comes when he discovers that not even this burden is left to him. Death has been liberal with its mercies But now ease becomes a burden. Around him is emptiness, a drear emptiness left after his deliverance from his burden, a vacuum attracting thoughts over which he has no control; and for an untrained mind that is misery.
  Jussi falls in with the local "temocracts" and gets involved in the Finnish Civil War- a little known post World War I fight between Russian supported Finnish leftists and German/Swedish supported rightists- the German/Swedish side won.

 The action, such as it is, reaches a brief crescendo as Jussi becomes a fighter on the side of the Reds.  He is filled, for the first time, with a sense of self importance, brief as it may be.  Here, the revolution stands in for Jussi:

And the Revolution goes on, swelling with a sense of its own importance. Every morning the mail brings newspapers which tell of the growth of the movement throughout the country, from Helsinki upward. The fairest summer of the Finnish proletariat is dawning Weeks come when not a Hutter is to be seen anywhere of the capitalist newspapers which always lie and distort the facts in their attempts to combat the truth of the workers' movement. On the harvest-field nobody takes any notice when the master tries to set an example and in a fury erects the shocks on three whole plots unaided. It is almost a pleasure to watch his helpless rage while the men sit around for hours whetting and testing their sickles. The former competitions between man and man to see who reached the end of a plot first are forgotten. The summer of the proletariat in Finland 1917. Free, head proudly erect, the young laborer sauntered along the summery lanes; the crofter felt a new affection for his fields, from which breathed an inspiring promise.

  Alas, it all ends in sorrow, with Jussi captured by the victorious Swedish led army, Jussi executed for treason and shot inside his grave, presumably to cut down on the work load.


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