Saturday, June 23, 2012

And it's Ragnarok!

By a hefty margin, the Slaves have selected Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, A. S. Byatt's contribution to the Canongate myths series. The discussion will begin on Tuesday, July 31.

We are always delighted to have newcomers join us, so if you haven't participated in one of our group reads before, please leave a message in comments, and we'll get things set up so that you can leave a post.

Looking forward to the discussion!

Edited: New Invites have been sent out--please check your emails!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

It's Book Selection Time!

With an eye toward how busy and distracted many of us are this summer, I've attempted to base selections this time around on the brevity of the text itself, or whether i'ts likely to be a fast read. All of these are from my personal tbr shelves.

The choices:

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt. (192 pages) From Amazon: Ragnarok retells the finale of Norse mythology. A story of the destruction of life on this planet and the end of the gods themselves: what more relevant myth could any modern writer choose? Just as Wagner used this dramatic and catastrophic struggle for the climax of his Ring Cycle, so AS Byatt now reinvents it in all its intensity and glory. As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on Britain, one young girl is evacuated to the countryside. She is struggling to make sense of her new wartime life. Then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods - a book of ancient Norse myths - and her inner and outer worlds are transformed.

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns. (152 pages) From Amazon: The Vet's Daughter combines shocking realism with a visionary edge. The vet lives with his bedridden wife and shy daughter Alice in a sinister London suburb. He works constantly, captive to a strange private fury, and treats his family with brutality and contempt. After his wife's death, the vet takes up with a crass, needling woman who tries to refashion Alice in her own image. And yet as Alice retreats ever deeper into a dream world, she discovers an extraordinary secret power of her own. Harrowing and haunting, like an unexpected cross between Flannery O'Connor and Stephen King, The Vet's Daughter is a story of outraged innocence that culminates in a scene of appalling triumph.

 In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke. (336 pages) From Amazon: This is the way the world ends... It was a fairy tale come true when Mark Dorn—handsome pilot, widower, tragic father of three—chose Jiselle to be his wife. The other flight attendants were jealous: She could quit now, leaving behind the million daily irritations of the job. (Since the outbreak of the Phoenix flu, passengers had become even more difficult and nervous, and a life of constant travel had grown harder.) She could move into Mark Dorn's precious log cabin and help him raise his three beautiful children. But fairy tales aren't like marriage. Or motherhood. With Mark almost always gone, Jiselle finds herself alone, and lonely. She suspects that Mark's daughters hate her. And the Phoenix flu, which Jiselle had thought of as a passing hysteria (when she had thought of it at all), well . . . it turns out that the Phoenix flu will change everything for Jiselle, for her new family, and for the life she thought she had chosen.

 Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. (640 pages) From Amazon: Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to none—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory. Isaac has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before fathomed. Though the Garuda's request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger.While Isaac's experiments for the Garuda turn into an obsession, one of his lab specimens demands attention: a brilliantly colored caterpillar that feeds on nothing but a hallucinatory drug and grows larger—and more consuming—by the day. What finally emerges from the silken cocoon will permeate every fiber of New Crobuzon—and not even the Ambassador of Hell will challenge the malignant terror it invokes . . .

 Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman. (353 pages) From Amazon: In 1899 Jeremy, a young engineer, leaves a small town in Maine to oversee the construction of a railroad across East Africa. In charge of hundreds of Indian laborers, he soon finds himself the reluctant hunter of two lions that are killing his men in almost nightly attacks on their camp. Plagued by fear, wracked with malaria and alienated by a secret he can tell no one, he takes increasing solace in the company of the African who helps him hunt. In 2000 Max, an American ethnobotonist, travels to Rwanda in search of an obscure vine that could become a lifesaving pharmaceutical. Stationed in the mountains, she closely shadows a family of gorillas, the last of their group to survive the encroachment of local poachers. Max bears a striking gift for understanding the ape's non-verbal communication, but their precarious solidarity is threatened as a violent rebel group from the nearby Congo draws close.

I'll tally up and announce the winner on June 23.

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Yacoubian, an Art Deco-styled apartment building constructed in the 1930s in downtown Cairo, originally served as apartments for Egypt's elite. Since that time, the Yacoubian's tenants have taken a decidedly down-scale turn: storage units on the roof have been converted into slum apartments and the silver showroom on the ground floor has devolved into a mere clothing store. Alaa Al Aswany, who operated his own dental practice from the Yacoubian, recognized its potential as a setting for his international best-selling The Yacoubian Building, a novel that highlights the corruption that permeates contemporary Egyptian society by focusing on the lives of a disparate group of Yacoubian tenants.

Zaki Bey, a Paris-educated aristocrat whose family lost most of its wealth during the Revolution, and the Hagg, the immigrant shoeshine boy turned drug dealer who's now wealthy enough to bribe his way into the government, have offices there. The elderly Zaki uses his to romance an unending string of women, enduring vitamin injections in the buttocks and consuming coffee, opium, whisky and salad before every sexual encounter. Outwardly-religious Hagg marries a second wife, one kept secret from the first, and hides Souad away in an apartment in the Yacoubian. Newspaper editor Hatim Rasheed patronizes the gay bar below street level in the Yacoubian, then quietly brings his current lover upstairs to his opulent, Bohemian artist-inspired rooms. On the roof, Taha, the doorkeeper's son, pines for childhood sweetheart Busayna and a position on the police force. Busayna, forced to support her family after her father's death, dreams of escaping Egypt altogether, or at least the sexual advances of her employers. Malak, a shirtmaker who upsets the rooftop inhabitants by daring to open a shop among their homes, connives to expand his holdings into the actual apartments below.

But it's nigh impossible to get what you want in contemporary Egypt unless you're rich enough to pay the necessary bribes or know the right people. After being turned down by the police interview, a humiliated Taha falls in with the poor Islamic fundamentalists at the college, among whom he regains his self-respect. Beaten and raped by soldiers following student protests of the Gulf War, Taha moves to a jihad training camp, thereby sealing his fate. In an effort to regain her own self-respect and improve her status, Souad defies the rules of her marriage and becomes pregnant. When she cannot be convinced to willingly have an abortion and remain nothing more than a sex toy, the Hagg sends in thugs in the middle of the night to overpower her, drug her, and take her to the hospital for the procedure. Afterwards, the Hagg sends a son by his first marriage to tell Souad she's been divorced and dismissed.

I was slow to warm to The Yacoubian Building. I find books that start with a discussion of a character's sex life off-putting even when I'm not trying to find my bearings in a tale placed in a culture I'm pretty ignorant of. I had to keep returning to the Cast of Characters at the front of the book to keep everyone straight. I hated reading about Souad, who seemed so fake. Why hadn't the author bothered to make her the least bit believable? Taha and Busayna were the only characters I cared about.

Then I gradually lost the need to flip to the Cast of Characters. I realized itt wasn't the author who'd failed with Souad, but the Hagg himself, who was oblivious to the fact that the situation he'd placed her in required all her dealings with him to be faked. And Souad was hardly the only one needing to pretend and bluff her way through; that's what it took for anyone to survive.

Zaki, who I'd hated at first, then sort of came to love because of his basic kindness, cannot understand Busayna's intense desire to leave Egypt.

"If you can't find good in your own country, you won't find it anywhere else."

The words slipped out from Zaki Bey, but he felt that they were ungracious so he smiled to lessen their impact on Busayna, who had stoood up and was saying bitterly, "You don't understand because you're well-off. When you've stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses and had to go through hell every day just to get home, when your house has collapsed and the government has left you sitting with your children in a tent on the street, when the police officer has insulted you and beaten you just because you're on a minibus at night, when you've spent the whole day going around the shops looking for work and there isn't any, when you're a fine sturdy young man with an education and all you have in your pockets is a pound, or sometimes nothing at all, then you'll know why we hate Egypt."

Zaki recognizes that "Egypt's curse is dictatorship and dictatorship inevitably leads to poverty, corruption, and failure in all fields." He puts the blame on Abd el Nasser, "the worst ruler in the whole history of Egypt," who "taught the Eqyptians to be cowards, opportunists, and hypocrites."

I'm intrigued enough by Al Aswany's characters to have placed the movie version at the top of our Netflix list.