Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gatsby’s Oxford: Scott, Zelda, and the Jazz Age Invasion of Britain: 1904-1929, by Christopher A. Snyder. Pegasus Books, 2019

This book loosely- very loosely- ties the fictional Jay Gatsby to Oxford. The author posits that being an ‘Oxford man’ is very important to Gatsby’s image and ability to enter high society; he would not be able to pursue Daisy without this in his background. The author then carries this to show that, were Gatsby a real person (and if the character had really gone to Oxford, which is dubious given some clues in the story) he would have seen certain places, met certain people, and examined certain ideas. Given that, the author then tells us about those people, places, and ideas in detail.

He tells us about the various castes that inhabit Oxford: the athletes, idealists, poets, and enlisted men. He tells us about the medievalism and romanticism of Oxford of the time. And he tells us about Tolkein, Waugh, C.S. Lewis, Woolf, Yeats, Eliot, Huxley, and Churchill, among many others.

The text wanders and goes into great detail. The author seemed intent on showing us every single influence that might have touched Fitzgerald (who was at Oxford with his wife, Zelda, for a few months) and Gatsby, the history of that influence, and possibly the influences brother-in-law. We get how Princeton was set up to be like Oxford, how race was dealt with, the Jazz Age, and even what businesses were run later by Oxford men. It really seemed like he was carrying things a bit far at times.

Because of this, I found some parts of the book very interesting and some, well, less so. The chapter on Tolkein & Lewis I loved, as well as the one on the Jazz age. The one on American Rhodes scholars really lost me a few times, as did the one on Princeton. I suspect many people will wish to pick and choose which chapters to read- although there is so much wandering even inside chapters one risks either missing something really interesting or being bored to tears. Four stars.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Devil’s Slave, by Tracy Borman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2019

This book continues the story of Frances Gorges, a real person, which was started in The King’s Witch. Now, in 1606, Frances finds herself pregnant by Thomas Wintour, who has been executed. She retreats to the estate she grew up on, which is now being run by her greedy brother, hoping to hide her pregnancy. Then Thomas Tyringham, Wintour’s best friend, asks her to marry him. He will raise the child as his own. He’s a decent man, and treats her very well, but as the ‘Master of the Buckhounds’ he is tied to the king and this requires Frances to be in the king’s presence frequently. The king has not forgotten her being accused of witchcraft because of her herbalism, and she can’t seem to stop herself from utilizing her talent, putting herself in danger again.

I had mixed feelings about this book. Frances acts na├»ve and selfish at times. At one point, she sends her supposedly beloved attendant to gather herbs for her, so that she herself won’t be caught doing it. The aging attendant goes into the swamp, putting her health at risk, as well as risking being accused of witchcraft. This does not fit into the image of her as a caring healer. She takes chances that could have nasty consequences for not just her, but her husband and child. On the other hand, the author’s ability with pacing, description, and plot tension holds just as well as it did in the first novel. Another four star read.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism, by Chavisa Woods. Seven Stories Press, 2019

This book is laid out with a very simple format: Woods has put down on paper 100 different instances of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, ranging from discrimination, to verbal abuse to groping to out and out assault. These instances are laid out chronologically, from age 5 to her mid-30s. These have happened everywhere; in school (by a teacher), in places of employment, in bars, and even in her own apartment – by her male roommate who refused to wear pants. And they are not by any means *all* the problems she has had with sexist men. She writes plainly and simply, just laying out what happened with no melodrama attached.

Most women reading this will be horrified, but will also recognize their own lives. Most of us have endured these kinds of discrimination, harassment and assault. I cringed, because I certainly have, from the mildest to the worst. And despite the fact that these things happen to almost all of us, a huge segment of men- even men who are feminists- do not believe that sexual harassment happens. It is so ingrained in our society that it’s become invisible. We mostly shrug it off.

I wish this book were given to each and every middle school student in some kind of health or even civics class. These problems need to become visible, before the kids get out there navigating adult life. Five stars, and kudos to the author.

Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland, by Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus with Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan. Viking, 2015

In the spring of 2003, 17 year old Amanda Berry, walking home from work, was lured into a van by the father of a schoolmate. She was then taken to his house (still believing he was taking her to see her friend), where she was grabbed, brutally raped, and then chained up in the basement. She, and later Gina DeJesus, would remain in this house until 2013. Also there was Michelle Knight, who decided to tell her story on her own, so she is largely absent from these pages.

For ten long years, they were held inside without even a window to look out of. They were chained up, repeatedly raped, not fed nearly enough, terrified the whole time. Amanda had a baby girl while captive. Her rapist, Ariel Castro, was very proud to be a father and doted on the baby- while still keeping Amanda chained up. Amanda tried to raise the little girl with some sense of normalcy, teaching her to read, write, and do arithmetic. Castro enjoyed allowing the girls to watch the TV news when their families were on, begging for the return of their loved ones- an extra little bit of sadism.

The story is nothing short of horrifying. Castro and his treatment of the young women was viscerally revolting to me. The families and the police searched for them for years without finding anything. They despaired that they would never be found, never get out. Castro lied to each of them, telling them how he liked each one better than the others and that the other girls were saying bad things about them, driving a wedge between them so they could only look to him and not have warm feelings for the others. Now, Amanda and Gina are best friends- who else could understand what they have been through?-and have the support of their families again. I’m amazed at how well they have settled back into normal lives. They are very strong people to have survived as they did- I know I could never have survived in their situation.

The book alternates points of view, not just of the two girls, but also third person sections that show what their families, the police, and Castro himself were doing at the time. Amanda kept a diary of sorts; she intended to remember every detail and wrote in notebooks Castro bought her; when she filled those, she wrote on pizza boxes, receipts, and any other piece of paper she could find. The book was riveting; like a bad auto accident, I wanted to look away but couldn’t. Five stars, but very, very hard to read.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World, by Jeff Gordinier. Tim Duggin Books, 2019

Author Gordinier, Esquire food and drink editor, was having a bit of a mid-life crisis. His marriage had just ended, and he was restless and depressed. Then Rene Redzepi, owner of world famous (but I’m not enough of a foodie-or at least, not a rich enough foodie, to have heard of it) Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. It was 2014 and Redzepi was burnt out, looking for new inspirations, and scared of losing his status as the world’s greatest chef. He decided it was time for a road trip, and Gordinier was invited. The multi-year road trip was hectic, strange, and it pulled him out of his slump.

There were three main stops on the tour: Sydney, arctic Norway, and Mexico. Redzepi wanted to get into what the natives of these places ate, to try and bring something new to the elite world’s palates. He went with the natives of the areas to dig deep into their cuisines, dining on blood sausage, chicken hearts, prickly pears, avocado leaves, tropical fruits, chiles, nuts, palm sugar, tamarind paste, kelp, seawort, ant eggs, and grasshoppers. Then he planned a popup, and gathered his crew of fellow chefs. They tried the things the people brought them, they made new combinations, and they tried cooking them in various ways. Redzepi seems to have a hyperactive energy that he transmits to his crew. The popup runs into troubles, of course, and it ends up costing the select clientele $600 a plate. Which they happily pay, because they revere Redzepi in almost a cult like state.

I found it interesting, but choppy to read. The saga takes place over a couple of years, so Gordinier necessarily jumps in and out of Redzepi’s adventures and his own life. I loved the parts about the food itself. I’m enough of a foodie that it made me hungry to try new foods and make up new combinations, to taste all these great things- minus the ant eggs. I’m not *that* much of a food adventurer. Four stars.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Paris, 7 a.m., by Liza Wieland. Simon & Schuster, 2019

In 1937, two years after graduating from Vassar, Elizabeth Bishop went with some college friends to France. During this time, there was a three week stretch in time where she did not write in her life-long journal. Wieland has taken a look back and imagined what might have happened in that time. She and her friends move around and end up in Paris. Bishop tries to write. An artist friend has a tragic accident. She meets other artists and writers, including Natalie Barney. She falls for a woman who is not available to her. An older woman takes her on as a replacement for her deceased daughter- and as an aide in saving Jews from the invading Nazis.

Even though I realize this is a well written book, it really didn’t draw me in. It’s written in the third person present tense, which I found a bit off putting. Besides that, I was never pulled into the story, and never took to any of the characters. Wieland’s writing has a dreamy quality, like watching the story through a veil of chiffon. I can only give it three stars.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield. Hachette Book Group, 2019.

The plump and oddly coiffed dictator Kim Jong Un seems to make the world laugh. This book will change the mind of anyone who reads it. Fifield, who was a correspondent in North Korea for over a decade, is uniquely placed to reveal the horror of North Korean totalitarianism and un-comic a person Un really is.  She talked to sources as varied as his aunt and uncle who raised him while he went to school in Switzerland, the man who was sushi chef for the Kims, who befriended Un when he was a child, and various people who have escaped the country or who do business there. It’s dangerous to speak to reporters if they have any relatives in the country.

It wasn’t easy to learn about Un. He was brought up out of the public eye, entitled amidst vast, showy wealth but lonely. Obsessed with basketball and weapons, a bizarre cult of personality was created around him- that he was an expert marksman at age 3, that at age 8 he drove a truck 80 mph. He wasn’t the obvious choice for heir to the Kim dynasty; he wasn’t the oldest son and he wasn’t son of the first wife. But his mother was ambitious and pushed him to the, well, throne. Family members who might challenge his right to the throne wind up dead- one uncle was quite publically assassinated. Importantly, he understands the modern world of computers and cyber spying.

He supposedly knows everything about everything and runs every aspect of the country, from the minutia of the economy to how nuclear weapons should be built. Despite being raised in insane luxury and having access to whatever he wants, he plays man of the people, meeting the crowds and hugging people. But he is scrupulous about having hotel rooms and other places totally wiped down when he leaves, removing any stray DNA that might give a clue to his health.

Under Un’s rule, there has been a rise in entrepreneurism and markets. Cell phones, bikinis, and plastic surgery are becoming common, and there is a private transport industry to make the markets possible. Businesses are run for profit, and the owners can hire or fire employees, rather than having them assigned by the government. But before this openness took place, he had sealed the borders and cracked down on the internet and TV to terrorize the nation. Freer markets are allowed because, in the end, it boosts Uns income- there are kickbacks and bribery at all levels. With the more open markets has come a drug problem; in a country where most people are still hungry, meth, with its appetite suppressing quality, is hugely popular.

The freeness and prosperity of North Korea is, in many ways, illusory. While huge high rise apartment buildings are being built, they are already falling apart. No one wants to live on any floor above the third or fourth, because the elevators are probably turned off or broken. There are self-criticism sessions every week (shades of Maoism) and huge concentration camps in the areas of North Korea with the worst climates.

But this man stroked Trump’s ego so that Korea got good concessions and Un got to keep all his nukes. The man is not a raving madman- well, not *just* a raving madman- he’s a smart, coldly calculating despot who knows exactly what he’s doing as he builds up his ability to nuke anyone, anywhere. A very interesting book with good research, that I think everyone should read, but it is choppy and jumps around. Four stars.