Tuesday, June 11, 2013

war, art, and vivisection

Since last posting, I have read:

The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II, by Iris Chang, a non-fiction book about the atrocities committed by the Japanese invading army in the city of Nanking between 1937 and 1945. Both gory and oddly detached, with a lot more detail about Chang's research than about the actual event. It wasn't badly done, but I remained largely unaffected by it. The strange and sad epilogue by Chang's husband, about her mental breakdown and eventual suicide, was more emotional.

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova. I liked Kostova's first book, The Historian, but was well aware at the time that I could easily have disliked it had I been in a different mood. The Historian's problem, though, was only that it was silly; The Swan Thieves' problem is that it is deadly boring. We are given alternating storylines and narrators: a modern story features an artist in a mental institution, and his psychiatrist (whose every action I commented on with a loud, "BAD PRACTICE,") starts interviewing / gets obsessed with the artist's ex-wife and mistress. Then there's a story set in the 19th century featuring a French aspiring artist having an affair with her husband's uncle, and the modern artist has become obsessed with the 19th-century woman. Lots of characters, lots of narrators, and they are all incredibly dull. This is a long book, and three-quarters of it is first-person narration from the ex-wife's and mistress' points of view, detailing how they fell in love with this guy who really has nothing to recommend him. I mean nothing. He's a two-dimensional jerk. There's tons of talk about how his painting is so brilliant and he's a genius, so it ends up being four hundred pages of "he's an artiste, so it doesn't matter that he's a  philandering bore who's selfish to the bone", and this from two supposedly independent grown women, not nineteen-year-olds after their first encounter with a theory boy. (Kostova handles her characters with a seriously misogynistic touch: the women are all also artists who submissively acknowledge their inferior talent while they orbit the man, and who fall in love with much older men in teacher roles; and there is OF COURSE the loathsome accidental pregnancy.) I finished this out of sheer stubbornness and nothing else.

It's not that I just hate the laziness of "x is a genius, and therefore worthy of love," literary trope. It's that I don't understand it. If the one thing a person, like Kostova's character, has in his "good" column is that he can paint (or sing, or write, or argue philosophy) really really well, and in his "bad" column is that he's a brooding humorless selfish-to-the-point-of-destroying-other-people's-lives freeloader, what on earth would make you fall in love with him? The women in the book don't delude themselves about him being nice or useful. They just fall back on banalities about his Incredible Paintings and how he's a Force of Nature, and immediately I have no sympathy for them whatsoever. (I am NOT saying I've never gotten tangled up with brooding selfish dudes. I'm just saying that when I did, I tried to convince myself and my appalled friends that said dude wasn't actually that bad. I didn't try to convince anyone that it was okay for him to be that bad, or that he shouldn't be held to the same standards of bad as other people, because he was good at something artistic. I find that rationalization totally bizarre. Someone's artistic talent is not going to come pick you up when your car breaks down.) 

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece, by Roseanne Montillo. This is an interesting book that uses alternating chapters to discuss the history of corpse robbing / dissection / galvanism, and give a mini-biography of Mary Shelley and her path to writing Frankenstein. I thought the juxtaposition worked really well and gave a strong historical context to the novel's creation, and Montillo is an engaging writer. The Shelley pieces, however, ended up being far less about her than about the men in her life. I learned a lot about William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, but not much about Mary Shelley. This may accurately reflect how she was identified at the time - as the child of two great thinkers and the mistress / wife of a great poet - but it left me wanting in terms of understanding her as an author. Still, I think this book was a good idea and well executed.

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls, by David Sedaris. It was all right. The funnier essays I had already read in The New Yorker, and I skipped entirely the ones that were written from a fictional character's point of view. Not his strongest collection. 

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