Whew. I did it. I'm ready to run the New York Marathon, climb Mount Everest, swim the Mekong River, and hunt the nefarious arctic narwhale, now that I...moreWhew. I did it. I'm ready to run the New York Marathon, climb Mount Everest, swim the Mekong River, and hunt the nefarious arctic narwhale, now that I've read Don Quixote in its entirety. And I am truly a better person for it.
Until now, I've only read Don Quixote in small doses, reading his battle with the windmills or his mistaking a barber's washbin for the Helmet of Mambrino out of context, either for class or in anthologies. After reading the first book in sequence, I'm ashamed of myself. Grossman's translation certainly adds some accessibility for the the American sensibility, but what struck me most was Cervantes' ironic self-awareness and societal critique, and his playfulness with the novel form that wasn't even technically a form yet. Quixote, whose heroes exist only in his mind at the novel's beginning, eventually meets and argues hilariously with some of them as well as plenty of third parties that stand in disbelief at his lunacy.
It would be impossible to write a comprehensive book review of this book without writing a book myself, so I think I'll just comment randomly:
I laughed and thought hardest when Cervantes brought in the ladies, both real and imagined, to continually check Quixote's romanticization of the female persuasion. His lady Dulcinea of Toboso seems to be a man-like wheat-shocker, but you'd never know it from his visions of her angelic graces. But Quixote seems to be just a worst-case scenario of all the male impulses the other characters display; pretty much all the men objectify women to superhuman levels, and many of the women are either affronted or jilted by the men's fickle imaginations.
I've heard the second book is quite a bit darker and even more self-referential as Quixote waited 10 years between books, and I have agree. Especially in the second book, I wasn’t sure what to think of the "royalty" DQ and Poncho ran into along their merry way. Either the irony was too subtle for my radar, or Cervantes seemed to be in on the arrogant, mean-spirited, sadistic jokes the landed gentry played on the deluded duo. Some of the jokes (the flying horse, for example) were laugh-out-loud funny, but some were just, well, wrong (Altisodora's feigned love for Quixote, practically starving Sancho after giving him his insula governorship). And then some, like the 3000 lashes Sancho had to give his own sweaty buttocks to make Dulcinea pretty again, were both, but mainly because of Sancho's ingenious ways of avoiding delivering the lashes.
The ending really sucked. The episodic nature of the novel I guess prevents any climactic closure, but without giving anything away, Cervantes ends the novel so apologetically that he seems to go ideologically against every previous chapter. I would have stopped reading with ten pages to go if it hadn't been such a long trip to the end.
To my pleasure, the novel was much more violent overall than I expected. If you took out and strung together all the lumps, cuts, bruises, tramplings, beatings, and lashes Quixote and Sancho took it would rival The Passion of the Christ. And be a hundred times more enjoyable. (less)
I read this book mostly because it had the words "John Henry" in the title. Hopefully I've learned my lesson, as this was honestly one of the hardest-...moreI read this book mostly because it had the words "John Henry" in the title. Hopefully I've learned my lesson, as this was honestly one of the hardest-to-finish books I've ever read - unlikeable characters (especially the main character), plenty of mock-literary contrivances, and little in the ways of discernable plot. It seems to be trying to compare the rigors of a greedy, soul-sucking white-collar life with the backbreaking work of an underpaid railroad worker, but The Onion does a much better job, in about 400 less words [http://www.theonion.com/content/news/...]. I really can't un-recommend this book strongly enough. (NOTE: I read the Advance Reading Copy, so maybe there were some final corrections in the published copy. But I doubt it.)(less)
I’ll preface this review by saying that I’ve only read Books I-II of Leviathan (about half), but as a close friend recently told me, “That may be a ne...moreI’ll preface this review by saying that I’ve only read Books I-II of Leviathan (about half), but as a close friend recently told me, “That may be a new record.” Although the title refers to the ideal leader of state, it could easily be attributed to the book itself; it’s a truly exhaustive, and exhausting, development of Hobbes’ theory of political government, and it took me more than 2 months to sort through the first 400-odd pages.
Besides its girth, the first thing that I would say usually dissuades readers from Hobbes’ masterwork is the fact that many of its theories on government have been discarded over the last 300 years. He was not a fan of representative democracy – he held a largely pessimistic view on collective human nature – and viewed absolute rule under one centralized authority as the only form of government capable of controlling large groups of people with conflicting goals and opinions.
That said, what kept me reading the first two books was how rigorously and completely he develops his theories of government from very basic anatomic principles and universal truths. It goes something like this:
In Book I, entitled “Of Man,” Hobbes uses the scientific principles of his time to show how the human body operates in the world, gaining knowledge and competing with other human bodies for supremacy; this is, in the parlance of Locke, Rousseau, Hume and other 16th and 17th Century philosophers, the State of Nature, which in Hobbes words makes every human life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
(I suspect that Hobbes, while using biblical references and terminology, was a closet atheist, as his view of human nature and survival was Darwinist well before Darwin. I’ve found at least one religious zealot in my book inventory who agrees with me, a missionary named Paul Hutchinson who wrote a book called “The New Leviathan” directly after WWII comparing the communist governments of Russia and China the ideal all-powerful state power Hobbes set forth in Leviathan. Of course, Hutchinson doesn’t mind playing both sides of the coin, also referring to the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler in Hobbesian terms in one chapter entitled “The Worship of the ‘Mortal God’.”)
It’s interesting and ironic that Hobbes in Book I derides educators and philosophers such as Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Thomas of Aquinas for your use of metaphors, which are to his empirical understanding not absolute and thus not reliable (“For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them: but they are the mony of fooles” – Chapter 4), since Book II of Leviathan, “Of Commonwealth,” relies entirely upon the metaphor of government functioning as a human body. To his mind, every functional nation of the world is in the state of nature (in other words, the state of war) with every other nation. This, to his mind, is why nations are formed – [CUT] to protect the citizens, i.e., the parts of the body, from harm by other nations, i.e., political bodies.
The only way Hobbes saw to do this – and this is where Hobbes has aged worst – was through enforced dictatorial rule, as the only way to keep people from breaking civil and natural laws was through fear of retribution (to be fair, Hobbes wrote Leviathan while in exile during one of England’s bloodiest civil wars, so his primary political motive was ending internal conflict). I think the reason this opinion is universally decried is that most ideologies from either end of the political spectrum have something not to like – free-market advocates see the competition Hobbes wanted to eliminate as the ideal ruling power; his centralized oligarchical rule is exactly what liberal constitutionalists created social contracts against; religious fundamentalists are continually up in arms when the government conflicts with their own tenets.
Jane Jacobs in the introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities rails against urban planners of the time she wrote it (it was first published in 1961) as “earnest and learned men, dealing with complex phenomena they do not understand at all and trying to make do with a pseudoscience.” I probably wouldn’t use such strong language about Hobbes’ political philosophy, but the principle is similar – Hobbes may have gotten it all wrong, but he got it wrong better than most of us have gotten it right. (less)
Last year I got a new obsession, crabbing. And when I say “obsession,” it’s not hyperbole – after I went on the docks in Long Island and New Jersey fo...moreLast year I got a new obsession, crabbing. And when I say “obsession,” it’s not hyperbole – after I went on the docks in Long Island and New Jersey for the first time in July I was in crab overdrive for the next 3 months, only foiled when I wrecked my car on Southern State Parkway in October on my way out to the Captree docks. I then went into withdrawal and finally remission by Christmas, helped along by my current obsession – reading about crabs.
That said, I must say that most of the joy of crabbing is simply pulling up a trap and seeing what’s in it (besides blue crabs, I caught spider crabs, leopard crabs, hermit crabs, puffers, croakers, baby bluefish and one summer fluke), so there’s not much an instructional book can tell you. I’d even venture to say the subtitle “Catch ‘Em, Cook ‘Em, Eat ‘Em” conveys the necessary instructions sufficiently.
But the book did tell me a few things I didn’t know from 3 months of crabbing, like some alternate methods of crabbing, like scapping (a fancy term for catching them with a net), trotlining, handlining (basically, throw a chicken leg out in a piece of string and pull it back when you feel a crab eating it) and seining. There a re also some recipes that sound worth a try, and some scientific information that was moderately fascinating – did you know, for example, that crabs are the marine equivalent of spiders, and the only reason they’re bigger is that the water helps support the weight of their shell? Maybe you did, but I didn’t. Hey, I was an English major. (less)
Pretty amazing novel of about 60 years between the Dominican Republic and Washington Heights, with plenty of Trujillo travesties and a surprisingly po...morePretty amazing novel of about 60 years between the Dominican Republic and Washington Heights, with plenty of Trujillo travesties and a surprisingly poignant ending. Word of warning - I was put off by the somewhat smug tone of the narrator, until I realized about halfway through the novel that he was in fact a first-person character and unreliable narrator. I don't think it's giving anything away by saying that, is it? Also, I noticed another reviewer said he understood the Spanish slang but thought the Tolkien/science fiction references confused the narrative - I came at it from the exact opposite angle. I understood maybe 25% of the Spanish (and there is quite a bit) and was frustrated by the rest, while the Tolkien references gave me a frame of reference for the Trujillo reign (Trujillo being, of course, the dark lord Sauron). I loved it as much as the other reviewer though, which is as good a tribute as any to the novel's universal power.
I have to admit I’m divided on this book. As a 4-5 block slice of New York City history, it’s thoroughly researched and reported and many times engagi...moreI have to admit I’m divided on this book. As a 4-5 block slice of New York City history, it’s thoroughly researched and reported and many times engaging, with some real characters from a decidedly off-center cache. And as an insider’s look at a burgeoning book trade with more book shelves per square block than we’re ever likely to see again (sadly), I found it in turn wistfully nostalgic in both the descriptions of dead booksellers and quotes from the ones still alive, and elegiac in its ruminations on the sad state of our post-Book Row culture.
The problem is, each of the things I liked about it work against it as well. Its narrow scope is problematic, at least within the framework Meador and Mondlin use, with many of the chapters seeming a lot like the ones before them with the names changed and a lot of factual repetition. And the nostalgia can get a little overbearing, with a pretty strong Neo-Luddite bias toward internet book dealers (“Those who had the books and the know-how might buy and sell books on the Net, but we’d like to hear Peter Stammer’s, Sam Dauber’s, and Jack Biblo’s views of them as secondhand book dealers”). You could also say that as estate book buyer for the Strand Meador’s neutrality might come into question, and you wouldn’t be disproved with chapter titles like “The Strand Lives On” and almost a third of the glossy pictures devoted to the Bass family that runs the Strand.
In sum I’d say this is a book for book-industry specialists (especially the older ones who might recognize more of the names the authors drop without much historical grounding) and book buffs with enough interest to sift through 400 pages that could have easily been 200. I fall more into the latter than the former, but even then would recommend Chapters One, Two, Five, Nine, Eleven, Fourteen, Fifteen, the Appendix (a cool little pre-Book Row history of books in NYC), and the foreword by legendary book collector Madeleine B. Stern. (less)
A colleague of mine taught this book to a class of new immigrants. As a daily denizen of the NYC subway system, I wondered if they really would want t...moreA colleague of mine taught this book to a class of new immigrants. As a daily denizen of the NYC subway system, I wondered if they really would want to read about the very thing they had to grudgingly trudge through to get to class (or read on it on the way).
"It's fun," she said. "Read it, you'll see!"
Two years after I quit that teaching job, I finally read the book. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. For one, it would have been more timely, as the book is essentially a collection of NYTimes columns from 2000-2004. But more importantly, my colleague was right – it is a lot of fun. Kennedy catches the character (and characters) of the subway with flair, pathos, and a strong reporter’s eye (to the point of that stodgily self-referential first-person “the reporter” when he finds himself in his stories).
In Kennedy’s hands, the subway is a 500-mile-long Coney Island, with a strange (but all too recognizable to any New Yorker) assortment of heroes, bums, workers, entertainers and representatives of both sides of the law. As could be guessed by its time period, it ends with a section of pieces from the aftermath of 9/11, but even then things never get too heavy; at its heart the book is 225 pages of a transplant’s love of the city under the City (Kennedy’s from Texas), a fun, elucidating read for any immigrant, whether from Korea or Kansas. (less)
I have to admit I picked this book out of a collection I bought simply because it had crabs on the cover, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a mod...moreI have to admit I picked this book out of a collection I bought simply because it had crabs on the cover, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a moderately affecting call to arms for the hungry Brazilian working class wrapped in a pastoral account of a young boy's life and death. The crab metaphor is a nice one, with the people surviving, like the crabs they chase, by turning the waste of their environment into sustenance - plenty of characters abound, including a paralytic leader who observes the world through a mirror from his room, a leper who only goes out at night scavenging his only friend the river, and an old lady who obsessively feeds her pig day and night in hopes of selling it to pay for her grandson's confirmation jacket. (less)
"I am in favour of jokes. They have political value. Jokes are a release for the cowardly and the impotent."
This was my first Graham Greene novel, an...more"I am in favour of jokes. They have political value. Jokes are a release for the cowardly and the impotent."
This was my first Graham Greene novel, and still my favorite. The preceding quote comes from a leader of the Haitian Tontons Macoute during the brutal reign of Papa Doc during which the novel takes place. I love that quote not because I agree with it, but because it sums up how little value the most brutal among us place on subtlety or joy. All of Greene's central themes are here - socialism vs catholicism, death as reward for virtue, and of course us American simpletons and the havoc we bumblingly sow across the globe. That last part was sarcastic, at least mildly. (less)
This is the fifth Graham Greene novel I've read, and the first with an even moderately happy ending. A pseudo-spy novel with a pseudo-spy named Wormol...moreThis is the fifth Graham Greene novel I've read, and the first with an even moderately happy ending. A pseudo-spy novel with a pseudo-spy named Wormold, the book is more a meditation on where human allegiance should really be when government and family seem at odds with each other. It's also a fairly quick read (for Greene) that's funny as hell.(less)
I was a little disappointed after reading the title that it wasn't easy potshots at the world's most worthy target, but rather a fact-based, rather dr...moreI was a little disappointed after reading the title that it wasn't easy potshots at the world's most worthy target, but rather a fact-based, rather dry account of the last century's rise of dynasty, military-industrial complex, and of course 4 generations of Bushes' feeding frenzy on said trends. But call me lazy.(less)