Sunday, September 1, 2013

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, August 2013

Reviews of books read last month, all fiction: a collection of short
stories, a novel and a novella.

1. "This is How You Lose Her" by Junot Díaz

This is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of love,
in particular how passion fades. Most of the male characters are
objectionable, especially in the way they mistreat women. The
stories centre on a handful of Dominican Americans living in New York
from the 1970s to recent times. I was intrigued by the theme of this
collection, and that the stories look at the lives of immigrants.
Unfortunately, I found many of the stories a bit disappointing. A few
years ago I read the author's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The
Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". While I could relate to some of
the cultural references, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
It seems other people consider the author's work is over-hyped:

2. "The Prague Cemetery" by Umberto Eco

The latest novel by Italian essayist, semiologist and author, Umberto
Eco, is a fictional account of the origins of the Protocols of Zion.
It's a sweeping story set in 19th Century Europe, mixing real-life
events and historical figures. The chief protagonist, though, is a
purely fictional character. Simonini is an Italian emigré living in
Paris, who has a long-standing grudge against Jews. His pettiness
prompts him to foster a conspiracy involving Jews, Masons, Jesuits,
mystics and devil-worshippers. The origin story for the Protocols of
Zion is a meeting of rabbis in the Prague cemetery many years earlier
that his grandfather witnessed. Despite his general incompetence, he
manages to get support from government officials and other political
groups. He finds other misfits to do his dirty work, often with
unintended consequences. It seems many reviewers missed the irony in
the book, superficially criticising it as anti-Semitic. Much like in
his earlier novel, "Foucault's Pendulum", Eco explores how easily
conspiracies can spread. Overall, I found the novel a bit challenging
at times, but I enjoyed it. A better knowledge of European history
would've made it even more enjoyable.

3. "Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville

This is a novella set in the late 19th Century in the offices of a
small legal firm on Wall Street. The narrator is the lawyer who
runs the firm, and he has some interesting employees. The strangest
of all is his newest copyist, or scrivener, Bartleby. In the days
before photocopiers, legal documents had to be copied by hand, so
lawyers hired scriveners. Bartleby starts out rather promisingly,
but eventually his quirks come to the fore. He starts become very
particular about what work he is willing to do, often answering
requests with "I would prefer not to". Despite the  problems this
causes, his rather timid boss can't manage to let him go. The
hard-up Bartleby even begins treating the law offices as his home.
The situation soon becomes untenable. I found this less heavy-going
and more enjoyable than the author's epic novel, "Moby Dick". I also
appreciated the dark humour.