I finished this book standing in line at the market, thankful for the woman three customers ahead of me who was making a complicated beer purchase tha...more I finished this book standing in line at the market, thankful for the woman three customers ahead of me who was making a complicated beer purchase that gave me time to read. And of course standing in line in a stinky discount food market reminded me of a whole phase of my stinky childhood, and the woman reminded me of a close relative who passed her love affair with alcohol down the family line. But unlike Knausgaard, I’m not going to go there right now.
When the narrator is sitting in the kitchen, does it matter to anyone that his brother Yngve’s disposable lighter was “semi-transparent green?” Is it symbolic? Is it tied to other green things in the book? When the lighter flames, should I feel the sun on leafy Norwegian trees?
Or what? The book is full of specific, sometimes jarringly ordinary detail. It’s a meticulous inventory of the writer’s/character’s past. It is not a brilliant book. It is not particularly insightful, nor is the prose remarkable. It’s an examination of how childhood and youth are alive all around us, crowding in unbidden in memories triggered by associations, and sight, sound, touch and smell. And how the sensitive personality remembers mostly the ambiguous and negative, and remains forever vulnerable to those.
Given time, decent recall and good grammar, lots of people could write a similar book about their own lives. But they don’t. And Knausgaard did. And that’s the remarkable thing. (less)
Beginning this book was like being upgraded to business class on an airplane. I'd just finished a so-so book, and suddenly I opened this to find lush...moreBeginning this book was like being upgraded to business class on an airplane. I'd just finished a so-so book, and suddenly I opened this to find lush prose, historical scope and a great vocabulary. Thank you.
The reader can tell how close this story is to the writer’s heart - tracing his paternal genealogy through the turbulence of Europe in the 1900s, in which his ancestors gained and lost a fortune. De Waal choses to track a collection of netsuke, small Japanese ceramics, from the time his great great uncle Charles begins collecting them to the time he inherits them. At times the story is touching and even exciting, not for the netsuke, but for the tumult they survive.
Personally, however, I found there wasn’t always enough overlap. The netsuke provide a story peg but no great revelation. I felt the writer, too, was aware of that, and tried to over-explain them back into the saga. I didn’t feel that really succeeded. The pages spent on Uncle Iggie, born Austrian turned American turned expatriate in Japan, offered more explanation than emotional depth, and lost my interest, for example.
And, as a genealogy, many of the ancestors are hard to get close to. Sure great great uncle Charles is a dandy who mixes with enormously great French artists and offers a picture of an era. That should be interesting, but somehow it isn’t. Again, it’s because it feels like an explication - with particular details - but with little emotional investment on the part of the reader.
It’s not until the Nazis arrive and you feel there’s something at stake that the story achieves something more than showing cardboard figures spending money on art or clothes or summer homes. It’s not until the writer himself has some personal knowledge of the people he’s talking about that they gain shape. I’m glad I read the book and the family story was a rich one, but it needed more life. (less)
After 150 pages I decided if this book didn’t end by smashing the patriarchy, I didn’t want to read anymore. And since it would end in 1642, I gave up...moreAfter 150 pages I decided if this book didn’t end by smashing the patriarchy, I didn’t want to read anymore. And since it would end in 1642, I gave up. Say what you will about ‘the times,’ it’s impossible to buy the idea that a well-off, well-educated, intelligent and self-respecting public figure can’t know he’s participating in screwing over half of humanity.
Back in the days of Galileo, the author tells us, it was atypical for (male) academics to marry. And so it was with Galileo and his contemporaries, who didn’t marry but nevertheless enjoyed living in conjugal union with someone from the grateful lower classes, and begetting bastard children with them, despite being “devout” Catholics and, in Galileo’s case, personal friends with the freaking Pope.
Now if one of your children is a boy, you might, like Galileo, go to the trouble of getting him legitimatized through your political and clerical (hypocritical) relationships, even though he is a sullen and not terribly sharp child. If the other children are girls, bright and dutiful as they may be, put those inconvenient lesser beings in a convent, which operates like an adult orphanage, a workhouse made up of cast-off daughters who live in poverty, as they would in any poorhouse, where they can labor for the church without further ado and through no choice of their own. What is it but a form of white slavery?
There aren’t too many books that push my feminist button so bad, but I found it all reprehensible. And to top it off the daughter in question was a fawning and overly loving person with apparently a big forgiving heart that made me want to puke. The other daughter spent her days depressed and in the convent infirmary for want of a sharp object. Quite rightly, in my book. There should be another “Galileo’s Daughter” devoted to the one who was right in the head.
If you are really have to know everything about Galileo, you’d probably like this book, which was not uninteresting. As for me, enough was enough and thank God it’s over. (less)
This is not an amazing story; it is the telling of it that is. Michael Hainey lost his father, a copy editor at a Chicago newspaper, when he was six,...moreThis is not an amazing story; it is the telling of it that is. Michael Hainey lost his father, a copy editor at a Chicago newspaper, when he was six, and, like a lot of families, his didn't discuss it further. They took the official version at face value and got on with it. But a boy who loses his father can never really just get on with it. Using his skills a journalist, Hainey goes on to find out the story of who is father was and how he died. While Hainey doggedly follows his need to know, he is also very sensitive and loyal to his mother, and that is the beauty of this book. I was glad to finish this book in the privacy of my room, where I could cry all over it.(less)
Juan Ramón Jimenéz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1956 for "his lyrical poetry, which in Spanish language constitutes an example of high spirit...moreJuan Ramón Jimenéz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1956 for "his lyrical poetry, which in Spanish language constitutes an example of high spirit and artistical purity,” two years before he died. Jimenéz taught a generation of Spanish poets, and set out quite consciously with the goal of making Spanish poetry the most beautiful in the world. He spent six full decades writing.
His aphorisms exhibit a great striving and devotion to art, but can be dry, making Jimenéz sometimes seem like a poetic bureaucrat. And perhaps that’s what makes his poems so distilled and exquisite - the endless pursuit of perfection. It also makes him seem like a difficult character.
This book is broken into sections surrounding the topics Self, Rhythm, Silence, The Present, Memory, Ideals, Nature, Instinct, Dream, Death, Writing, Revision, Perfection. Each section includes an informative, short introduction by the book's editor with details on Jimenéz's life and work habits.
Jimenéz would not be one who believes “first draft, best draft.” He sought a balance between the free imagination (instinct) and the drive to revise (intelligence).
His best points are about silence and memory, silence being a wellspring in which to form your thoughts and develop your work undisturbed, and memory being rather ambiguous, that is, sometimes more a constraint than an inspiration. His best aphorism is - “To forget is to be reborn.”
Here are a few other favorites:
“When you’re working on one thing and start to yearn for another, imagine that this thing you’re working on would be the one you would yearn for if you were working on the other. (The Present)
“For remorse, there is no consolation.” (Memory)
“There are no better draftsmen than dust and shadows.” (Ideals)
And the one that seems to define his life:
“What does death matter if, in life and in work, we have conquered it day after day: if we have gone beyond it our thoughts and hearts?” (Death)(less)
We all know history is written and it’s no use wishing for some other outcome when reading a biography or history book. Yet reading this book I felt a...moreWe all know history is written and it’s no use wishing for some other outcome when reading a biography or history book. Yet reading this book I felt a terrible suspense. I knew Bonhoeffer was a goner - still I bit my nails, I dreaded, I cried, I hoped, and for a while I even engaged in magical thinking, imagining if I boycotted the last 20 pages Bonhoeffer would not die!
The sense of tragedy is heightened because the end of the war almost let Bonhoeffer escape his stupid fate, death coming just two weeks before the Third Reich was brought to its knees. I had to force myself through the last pages. Ugh, what a waste.
Just to note: I’m an atheist. And I’m no student of church history but I really enjoyed the theological insights of this book. For as much as Bonhoeffer sometimes seemed an arrogant fussbudget, at least when he was younger, I’m glad he existed, with his confidence in the Christian god, and his dedication to following his sense of what is right (doing what he felt was God’s will, for example, despite its being a ‘sin’). The world needs more like him.
How can you not admire someone who in 1935 said, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”
Bonhoeffer really wins you over. But for all my admiration and respect, I couldn’t help but be frustrated with him and all of noble, high-bred and fine-feeling aristocratic Germany, which couldn’t get off its collective Arsch and assassinate Hitler, despite their outrage and chagrin. Being on the side of the right was surely a way to feel good about yourself, but accomplished zilch.
And just like I hoped against all reason and reality that Bonhoeffer wouldn’t die, I hoped to be reassured that there were good Germans out and about in the ’40’s. But the conclusion is there were hardly enough, and certainly not enough willing to sacrifice themselves for the country they’d been proud of.
As one conspirator says, “God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany.”
But history makes it seem you could count the good-when-it-mattered-most men on two hands. And the war not only destroyed Germany’s future but also obliterated its past. That is, it will never be remembered for its poets and thinkers; whoever thinks of Germany now thinks first of the maniac with the little mustache and genocide. And while those who think of Sodom might think about Lot, no one thinks about Bonhoeffer or von Stauffenberg.
Biography is a good way to understand history, and I found this book illuminating in its picture of an age. Living in Germany, it’s an era I hear about day-in day-out. You can’t live here without reading something about WWII every day, and guaranteed there is a documentary on some channel or other every evening, too. But it’s often big-picture stuff, or some military campaign, or just fleeting reference, and this biography was right there with its details of a particular life in a particular place. It was heartening to read about Germans who protested against the Nazis, who found the Gestapo and the SS reprehensible, even if they failed to bring change. (less)
I remember this as being THE book that brought the graphic novel to prominence and I've wanted to read it forever, but was always too stingy (like Mr....moreI remember this as being THE book that brought the graphic novel to prominence and I've wanted to read it forever, but was always too stingy (like Mr. Spiegelman senior) to cough up the dough for "a comic book."
This was a terrific book in many ways: 1) the story 2) the drawings 3) the mice vs cats among pigs among rats 4) the interspersing of past and present 5) the emphasis on the importance of oral history, even though the story is told through written words and pictures.
I found the contrast of the father in the past and present most interesting. He really is hard to tolerate in his old age, a true pain in the ass, and yet the story he tells exposes so many positive, even heroic, characteristics. Like the son, the reader has to reconcile these, wants to be 'understanding,' wants even to explain his quirks away. I found all that juggling very lively and human, and it made the story, already enthralling, even more involving.
So this doesn't get my "mind-blowing" 5 stars, but I am looking forward to taking Maus II out of the library.
I don't know anything about Mary Karr's other writing, but this was a great memoir. Great characters and settings - sad, tragic, rambunctious and humo...moreI don't know anything about Mary Karr's other writing, but this was a great memoir. Great characters and settings - sad, tragic, rambunctious and humorous.(less)
It wasn't really that much of a surprise that Bob Dylan's music is more interesting than Bob Dylan. While this book had its good moments, a lot of the...moreIt wasn't really that much of a surprise that Bob Dylan's music is more interesting than Bob Dylan. While this book had its good moments, a lot of the time its anecdotes went nowhere and I was left wondering what the point was. He did seem to use the word "reality" a lot. No offence, I'm a huge fan, but Bob Dylan is not a great writer and even though he's telling you about his influences, you don't learn much about him or his inspirations. He doesn't even name his wife - she's just "my wife." I can understand this might hold more interest for the readers among us who are musicians and know how studios work and albums are put together. A weak 3. (less)
This is quite well written and engaging but, as a memoir disguised as a novel, it follows the I grew-I developed-I changed formula without much of a c...moreThis is quite well written and engaging but, as a memoir disguised as a novel, it follows the I grew-I developed-I changed formula without much of a compelling hook. A reader goes for a book like this mostly if s/he has some inherent interest in the subject but I didn't know Janet Hobhouse from shinola. Sure, now I do, but maybe I should have read her biography of Gertrude Stein instead.(less)
Sped through this sitting in the bookstore waiting for my daughter to finish browsing and choosing. I don't know this writer, or if she's in some way...moreSped through this sitting in the bookstore waiting for my daughter to finish browsing and choosing. I don't know this writer, or if she's in some way a celebrity, but all I want to know is who cares? Who really cares about this story of a wife who finds out her husband was a philanderer after he dies? Does this person bring some new perspective to the experience? No. Is she a terrific writer? Not especially. So how did this book make it to a publisher? My sympathies to all the really talented and worthwhile writers who are told there's no market for them. Write a banal memoir about a sad romance, and you might have more success. (less)
(Disclosure: I was requested to read and review this biography)
Say you’re a college student studying philosophy and you spend hours trawling through K...more(Disclosure: I was requested to read and review this biography)
Say you’re a college student studying philosophy and you spend hours trawling through Kant and Heidegger and Plato and even Sartre and maybe a female philosopher now and then and then you hit upon Camus with his melty good looks, his melancholy expression and his cute out-of-proportion ear. You are going to sit up and pay attention. He looks approachable, modern, if a bit retro. There’s no denying Albert Camus was an attractive man, a writer who was also a philosopher and moralist and who was fated to be an intellectual sex symbol. If he’d been American, Marilyn Monroe would have eaten him whole.
Elizabeth Hawes was writing her thesis on Camus when he died in a car crash. In college, she developed an obsession for him that lapsed, but never died out. Later in life, her passion was rekindled when she read the posthumous “The First Man.” She resolved to write a biography, one that would allow her to actually befriend him, even find intimacy with him. Her own motives figure in the book, and I couldn’t help but ask– is Hawes a stalker? It is a bit off-kilter how she goes off in search of Camus “the man,” how she sometimes feels they’re walking along together, or she remembers one of his jokes and laughs. It’s only her professed admiration for Camus that makes sleuthing seem occasionally like stalking. Many biographers are motivated by a desire to get closer to their subject, they just don’t come out and say it.
Despite her confessed idolization, she’s not a gusher. She gives the reader enough distance, and a number of times when she entered the book I was HAPPY to see her. I admired her devotion and scholarship and it was interesting to learn more about Camus. Still, Hawes’ obsession wasn’t contagious. I didn’t feel smitten. I thought Camus’ philandering, for example, was a huge weakness. I didn’t want to mother him through his tubercular suffering. When the big blowout between Sartre and Camus went down, I don’t think he handled it well, even though I sided with him. (Sartre, what an asshole! And with time Camus is vindicated, a major part of the conflict having centered on Sartre’s support of Stalin(ism). As it’s revealed what a monster Stalin is, Sartre defends himself by saying he was “right to be wrong.” Gawd, as my 10-grade English teacher would say: ship him off to 1950’s Russia and we’ll see how he feels about it then!)
I enjoyed this book. I learned a lot. I never knew Camus was a bosom buddy of the poet René Char, and I never really knew the fallout with Sartre had so much to do with communism. For all the warmth Hawes’ book brings to Camus, however, nothing brings him to life like his work. Two-thirds through this I picked up “The Stranger” and remembered what made Camus marvelous. Not his ear or his tuberculosis or the sultry cigarette dangling from his mug, but his writings. (less)