Books in Popular Culture

As I browse discussions on goodreads, I’ve noticed that people are constantly bringing it back to a core set of books – Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, some vampire stuff I’ve never heard off – and while I find the limitation personally frustrating, there is something fascinating here.

In a time when so many are worried about the future of books and literature, when many fear that technology has taken the place of reading and people just don’t have the patience to sit down and read a book, a time when the educational system is accused of failure from all angles – in this time, we are actually getting back to a point of books as popular culture. Some might argue that many of these books are not worthy of this stature. But that doesn’t matter – what matters is that reading has become a culturally unifying activity in a way it hasn’t been since the advent of television and possibly before.

Today, there are some television shows that people share. Downton Abbey and True Blood seem the most dominant with the people I encounter. But television watching is much more scattered now. People don’t watch the same things. Even the more popular shows are not so widely watched. Fewer than half of the people I work with watch the shows mentioned above, and in my wider circle of friends the ratio is even lower. Sherlock is popular among my group of friends, but not as much with people I encounter elsewhere.

 Now, I won’t go so far as to argue that everyone reads the cultish books. However, people who read books are going overwhelmingly in this direction. Even those who are reluctant to jump on the bandwagon will end up engaging eventually. Such as myself. I finally read the Harry Potter books in 2008 (all in one weekend) just to understand what the fuss was all about. I haven’t gotten around to the Hunger Games yet, but as soon as it’s available at the library, I will.

Naturally, I would love for people to branch out more and read a greater variety of books. However, I think it’s marvelous that books are becoming such a part of shared culture because that does encourage people to read more. I also think that many of the books that become popular are harmless and sometimes even have some interesting ideas to get people thinking.

The exception is Twilight. From all I’ve heard about this and the lack of agency of the main character, I refuse to ever read the books or watch the films. 

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Recently Read: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

ImagePerhaps my reading was somewhat impacted by all the praise I’ve heard for this book. It maybe that the book I read right before this was a Hermann Hesse, whose prose always manages to seize my whole being and mesmerize me. Whatever it was, I have to admit The Round House just never grabbed me. 

All the pieces were there and the story was extremely good. The writing was detailed and pleasant at times, though tiring at others. The problem was, I never felt it. I felt like I was looking at the characters through a cloud. I was being told what their emotions were but was never drawn in and made to feel them. I wanted to – as I mentioned, the story underlying the book was very good. But it never happened. Also, tellingly, when took a break from the book I didn’t think about it. The characters never really popped into my head. I never felt the urge to get back and find out more. I dutifully read it and recognized its qualities. But I never felt like staying up just another hour or two to keep reading … 

And so, while it has many qualities of a great book, it just didn’t quite get there for me. I think that I won’t remember it much. It won’t stick with me. It will pass away from memory. The one thing that haunts me about it is that I feel there was something wasted. All the pieces that should have fit together perfectly to form an outstanding, emotionally haunting book – I kind of wish it could be rewritten, put together again to form that whole. If it were a mediocre book in all respects, it wouldn’t bother me so much. It just feels like it should have been the kind of book that you can’t stop thinking about, the kind of book where your heart is exhausted as you experience the emotional pain of the characters, the kind of book where the characters jump out and talk to you … 

Recently Read: The Girl in the Garden

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Sometimes, you read a book and you don’t know why you don’t like it. All the pieces fit, it should be a great book. Well-written, good story, interesting characters. And yet there’s something cold about it, it never manages to engage you. Is it the book, you ask, or is it me? Maybe there’s just something wrong with me. That’s how I felt when I read The Tiger’s Wife. I really felt like I should have loved it but somehow it was a struggle up to the very last page.

The Girl in the Garden is quite the opposite. It’s the kind of book where, while you know why you like it, you don’t know why you like it as much as you do. It hooked me early and kept me hooked. I was so addicted to it that I ended up reading it far too fast, skimming over the lovely writing because the story kept dragging me along. I liked it so much that I will have to read it again, very soon, to make up for what I missed in my hurry to finish it. It’s the kind of book where, although it’s the perfect length, I somehow want more. I want to know more of the characters, particularly Tulasi. Just when you think the book might indulge in a bit of Secret Gardenish empowerment, everything is ripped apart.

There is of course a problem with having a ten year old narrator. The story has to be seen from ten year old eyes and I think that necessitates that some characters are underdeveloped. It was well-executed and addictive, but this is probably why it feels like some characters are a bit flat – Sadhana Aunty and Dev, in particular, were the main villains of the story. It’s implied that at least Sadhana Aunty has some depth, but not explored. The grandfather, dead during the time of the story, was actually one of the most intriguing characters.

Basically, it’s a wonderful story that works myth into a pretty logical ten year old’s perception of reality in a very real way. Most of the characters are a blend of likeable and non-likeable traits, and each fairly unique. It’s charming and effective and nicely written – poetic at the moments you expect poetry and straightforward when the story is simply advancing.

Spoilers after cut.

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Recently Read: Bernini: His Life and His Rome by Franco Mormando

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Bernini: His Life and His Rome by Franco Mormando

[amazon]

This is not just a biography of an artist. It is the story of a city and a time – of Rome in the Baroque.  It is the story of Rome and glimpse into the culture and events of the fascinating period that give the book its particular power.

As a biography alone, the book would falter. The author makes it clear that there are frustratingly few sources about the more intimate details of Bernini’s life. Of these, one was a biography sponsored by the family and another written by Bernini’s son Domenico, both of which naturally try to mythologize Bernini and take out all the fascinating and scandalous bits. Mormando puts those parts back in and strives for an honest vision of the artist’s character.

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Recently Read: The Descendants

I first heard of this one while flying on a plane and browsing the film selections. The storyline seemed fascinating, but I chose not to watch it, as it starred George Clooney. I have nothing against George Clooney himself, but the attachment of such a name to a film implied Hollywood, and I don’t often watch Hollywood movies anymore, as I find them dull – overly flashy with no real substance. Still, the plot was tempting. I had no idea it’d been a book first, until I noticed my local library had the ebook.

I recently started reading ebooks through the Kindle Cloud Reader – while I still prefer physical books (mostly to get a reprieve from computers and devices for awhile), I enjoy borrowing ebooks as a way to explore things I wouldn’t otherwise read. Even this one: I wasn’t sure I’d be interested. Borrowing the ebook was immediate and allowed me to sample it without any effort. If I didn’t like it, I could likewise return it immediately and not think of it again. Yes, it is possible to do this by going to the library and browsing, finding a nice corner to read a few pages before deciding. However, sometimes you feel like finding something new to read at 11pm.

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Recently Read: The Inheritance of Loss

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Perhaps the thing that fascinated me most about this book was that it was written the way life is experienced. Too often in novels – especially those dealing with particular historical situations – the author tries to tell too much about how the characters feel and think, tries to sculpt the characters in stone with immutable characteristics and clean narratives. Real life is much more messy. Often, we do not quite know what we think or feel or why and might change from day to day. In this book, two memorable examples of this lack of clarity are the sensation of falling in love and the political leanings of the frustrated youth. The story of the emigrant son is also profound as we are exposed to his sense of being unpinned. The messiness of the characters’ emotions feels real – we drift through life, hardly knowing what we feel or why we act, and it is through society with others that we attempt to give it meaning, interpret and assume. This intuitive realness and the beauty of the prose are enchanting, though the resulting novel is fairly different from what one expects a novel to provide. The characters are not carefully sculpted, as character itself is fluid. The stories are halting and incomplete, as life often feels. Even where the narrative is strung through the book – as in the story of the Judge’s life – there is no explanation in it. Why his cruelty, why his disdain? It seems, always, of the moment, and the character does not much evolve, does not learn, does not regret in the way we would want.  Yet all the love he is capable of is focused on his dog, Mutt. As cruel as he is, he is pitiable. The lack of carefully explicated character and plot is effective – it supports the themes of unmoored identities and post-colonial struggles while creating a world that feels a little too real.

The Inheritance of Loss is a novel set in the Darjeeling area of India in the 1980s, as the lives of the inhabitants of a small town are affected by the Gorkhaland uprising. The story shows the post-colonial upheaval, the effect of colonialism on identity and culture, and offers up a society of uncertain relationships. The story is fascinating, sad, and frustrating – there are no easy answers, if there are answers at all. Yet the beauty of the prose and the now-ness of the experiences create something vivid and breathtaking. It is simply so very human, as beautiful and horrific as that can be.

This one is definitely worth a read, though it takes some dedication. The prose is lovely but intense – it deserves true attention and appreciation, as does the story with its array of characters and stunning detail. It is not a book to fly through, but one to savor.

Rome’s Palm Trees

The palm trees of Rome are dying.

Dead Palm Trees

Villa Pamphili, September 2012

This is, somehow, very sad to me, though my sadness is perhaps a bit illogical. They are not native. They’ve only been there two hundred years or so and were brought in to line the gardens of the Roman rich. It is not as though some native plant that grows nowhere else is being driven from the earth for all time. In fact, according to PRI, the cause of the recent affliction is the import in the last ten years of older, taller (already infested) trees to make coastal towns attractive to tourists.

Yet palm trees have become in the last centuries such a part of the Roman landscape that it is hard to imagine the city without them. And yet, of course, the signs are everywhere. The dead trees with the tops lopped off. The afflicted trees with the holes and the droopy heads.

Image by Didier Descouens

The culprit, by the way, is a nasty creature known as the red palm weevil. A rather large insect that I don’t wish to encounter which burrows into the tree. I’ve heard  that Rome’s trees will be killed off by 2015. The creature first hit Sicily in 2004 and has been ravaging the palms of Italy every since.

Still, this is a city whose mystery lies in all the transformations it has endured. A city that lives and breathes through so many incarnations –

What is truly sad to me, I suppose, is that I am no longer there and the city that I knew is changing without me. Like returning to your hometown and seeing all the new businesses in place of the old, there is something jarring about places that exist so perfectly still in memory living on without you. Egocentrism, I suppose. Rather funny and a bit humbling to think how silly that is when it comes to the Eternal City …


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Recently Read: Skylark by Dezso Kosztolányi

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Throughout the book, you are hoping fervishly for something – you have no idea what. With each page the hope increases in fervor and becomes more desperate and empty – at first, it is perhaps just a gentle wish for a nice calm ending for the three characters, nothing too spectacular, but something sunny and warm, there need not be a grand conclusion or miraculous change of circumstance. Later, as you are stumbling through the streets with Akos at three a.m., you know there is no hope yet you desperately yearn for something, anything to change. For it not all to be pointless and empty, for some final redemption. There is none – but the characters and the scenes stick with you, and somehow, in retrospect, it doesn’t all seem so bad – it is simply the lovely melancholy of life itself, it is the colour that life assumes in the twilight distortions of an autumn rain, when everything is dying and yet there is something so okay about that, even beautiful.

Skylark tells of the Vajkay family of three – the meek father and mother and the unmarried daughter Skylark, who has gone away for a week to visit relatives. We follow the mother and father as they venture out of their patterned and bleak home life and re-engage with society. The novel carries vibrant and entertaining imagery as we watch the everyday goings on of the town of Sarszeg, but it is the inner turmoil of the Vajkays that carries us along, culminating in a late night scene which finally words what has been hidden the whole time. But this is not the end. Life goes on and Skylark returns. The seemingly dramatic scene means nothing in the light of day, and suddenly, finally, we take a look at Skylark herself in a haunting and human moment.

Beautifully written, this is a book worth reading again for its portrayals of small town life in Hungary in the early 20th Century. The side characters are fascinating and I imagine this book will continue to reveal itself over many reads.