Friday, October 19, 2012

all military takeovers, all the time

Since last posting I have only read books about dictators. Good times!

First up was By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño. It's a little novella, narrated by a priest on his deathbed, about Pinochet's rise to power. Short, but intense. It reminded me of Nádas' A Book of Memories or Sebald's Austerlitz, without being as good as either (I used to re-read A Book of Memories all the time in college and have been meaning to return to Austerlitz, but I can't imagine wanting to read By Night in Chile again). There is one astonishing bit where the narrator says, "Let God's will be done, I said. I'm going to reread the Greeks." And then for a two-page run-on sentence he rereads the Greeks, chronologically, while his country falls apart, and I cannot do justice to the writing but when it concluded with, "And then there was silence. I put my finger in the book to mark my place and looked up," I let out my held breath. It's pretty amazing, but the rest of the book wasn't on the same level.  

Then I headed over to WWII Germany, with The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. At first this book totally grabbed me with its weird poetic style and the fact that it is narrated by Death, and then that got annoying, and then I liked it again. Unfortunately, it all stayed on a superficial poetic parable-level for me, so I didn't care about any of the characters, because they weren't developed people. It tells the story of one German town, and for the most part, there are only Good or Bad people in town. There are the people who conceal Jews, and the people who spit at the Jews while they are being marched through town on their way to the camps. There are boys who are evil Hitler Youth leaders and there are boys who idolize Jesse Owens, and nothing in between. And the only characters Zusak goes into detail about are the good ones, for whom hiding Jews in the basement is a matter of course. We never see any struggle, any complicity with the Nazis that comes at a terrible moral price but keeps a family safe. And so the middle part, which is mostly about a family hiding a Jew, bogged exceedingly for me, because there was no struggle on the part of the family, no doubt, no moral haziness. I couldn't retain interest in that level of purity.

The ending successfully punched me in the face, which Zusak (to give him credit) warns the reader it is going to do. I mildly resent the fact of said punch.

Then I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson. I had been warned by others who read this that it's not nearly as interesting as Larson's other books, and I had to agree. I anticipated that the American family in question would be an ordinary family, but it turns out it's the American ambassador and his family, which I suppose meant they had access to far more members of Hitler's inner circle than an ordinary family would have, but also meant they were almost entirely immune to the everyday changes taking place in Berlin. I didn't believe for a second that they were living in "terror". Larson doesn't show that they are, either; it's all parties and who the adult daughter is sleeping with (everybody). The daughter, Martha Dodd, is a huge part of the book, but the amount of page space Larson devotes to her is baffling given that he clearly doesn't like her and doesn't bring her across to the readers as a person of any interest whatsoever. The chapters on the Night of the Long Knives are quite chilling, but they come too late in the book. By then I was just powering through because my library loan was expiring and I didn't want to check it out again.

I think I will read something which is not about dictators next. Possibly a nice light murder mystery, or horror story.


In me-related news, because heaven forbid I write just about reading, the actual purpose of this blog, without banging on about myself (as a Scottish blogger I love puts it): I'm feeling a strange sense of needing a label. This hasn't happened for many years and I think it has to do with dating again, and being introduced to his friends and family and wishing there was a quick way to identify myself for them, or present them with a hobby (excuse me, avocation) more concrete, more immediately useful for discussion or explanation, than "reading".

I flail about for labels when dating, because in the Beatricebrain, there is always some "perfect" match for the man I'm with, for whatever reason, and it isn't me. The Mistress was such an exact embodiment of my paranoid thinking that I still sometimes think I conjured her out of thin air. I'm leery of even mentioning the paranoid thinking I do about Berowne, lest I single-handedly create some healthfully-freckled woman with long beautiful hair who dyes her own yarn, cans her own fruit, and hasn't eaten a processed food item in sixteen years, striding up to his front door saying, "I just moved in on the next working farm over; would you like to harvest kale with me and meet my goats?"

(Nothing against women who do any of these things! I think women who do these things are awesome, frankly. I just don't have any interest in doing those things, and yet there is a voice in my head telling me I should be interested in doing them, and that women who do these things are automatically more appealing than I and if one appeared to my boyfriend he would be like, "Well, honey, there are goats. You can't compete with that.")   

If I was unabashedly urban, that contrast with Berowne's lifestyle at least might be interesting, but I'm not. I hate cities, I hate noise, I keep farmers' hours. I'm not high-powered regarding my career: I cherish being able to stand up from my desk after eight hours and go home and not check my e-mail until I am back at that desk. But I'm not at all crafty or earthy, either. I don't knit or garden or leave the house without product in my hair* and I'm terrified of bees.

Of course some of this (the label-hunting, not the fear of bees) has to do with my reading pace slacking lately. Previously when these thoughts came up I would toss my head and think, "I do so do things. I read and I write and I read and I watch documentaries and I laugh like a hyena over coffee with friends and I read." But of late I haven't been reading that much. So how do I define myself, and what do I have to offer? As if all my smarts and personality fall right out of my head if I don't study the printed word for two days. 

I think the maxim, "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so," also applies to being interesting. I should stop wasting so much mental space and emotional energy on it, and give Berowne enough credit not to believe that he's walking around thinking, "She's almost perfect; if only there were goats."  

(What if there was a tiny goat? And also puppies? This.)

*Female celebrities who say of their pixie cuts that "now I just roll out of bed and go!" are huge liars. You need product, time, an extra mirror to see the back of your head, and the occasional flat iron, or you look like the lovechild of Kevin Bacon in "A Few Good Men" and Tintin.


  1. I'm imagining dog-goat interactions in my head (as opposed to all the other places I imagine things I guess) and it is hysterical. Like I want to invent a slapstick comedy that involves Darcy and the goat who loves him.

    1. Can you imagine if I had a goat that tiny? It would be smaller than Darcy's head! And it would show its love by jumping on him while he was lying down. And then I would no longer be able to leave the house because I just had to watch that all day.

  2. I think it was at "dyes her own yarn" that I decided your paranoid thinking is perfectly Swarthmoron (I mean that in the most UNDERSTANDING way, of course). Also if I watch any more of those videos I will have to get a goat. Have you read The Kindly Ones (and have I asked that already)? I'm reading it for the second attempt (I got about a quarter through the first time, and re-started this time), and find that I both want to just read it straight through for a couple of days and am scared to do that.

    1. There is a woman in my life whom I love very much who dyes her own yarn, and I admire her for it but will never be that person. As I told Berowne, I can hook him up with people who will knit him things, but I will never knit him anything. He says that's okay.

      I have not read The Kindly Ones! It looks terrifying.

    2. IT IS. Partly because it is so well written about such awful thinking that it brings Nazis uncomfortably close.