Archive for July, 2010

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

July 31, 2010

Marital distress, cricket, New York, and misinterpreting the American dream are the major organizing themes of this book, in that order. The plot revolves around a yuppie, Dutch-born Brit named Hans who makes far too much money working in Manhattan and suffers from an inability to act as he watches his marriage fall apart. As his wife tries out a separation, taking his young son with her back to London, Hans turns to cricket for solace and quickly becomes embroiled in an interesting relationship with an unconventional Trinidadian business man trying to make it big. Various developments ensue, and the ending of the book is not really the happy ending for which one might hope.

I found Joseph O’Neill’s prose to be nicely lyrical and his characters quite thought-provoking. I’ll admit that I dislike Hans intensely, but the mark of a good book isn’t necessarily that one enjoys it superficially but rather that the story gets into your head and makes those wheels turn. I found the deeper commentary of the novel most intriguing when O’Neill explores Hans’s reticence to actually do anything. The emphasis on cricket spoke to me less, although learning a bit about the history of cricket in New York was fascinating.

I’ve heard many reviewers say that this book lacks substance. If that’s the case, then it’s O’Neill’s point. How deep a meditation can one get on modernity, at least on the yuppie, city-focused, high-powered career version of it? Read Netherland for O’Neill’s answer.

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The Human Stain by Philip Roth

July 18, 2010

In short, a fabulous book that offers a substantial commentary on political correctness and society expectations through a fascinating set of characters and a truly compelling narrative. It contains everything from one of the best looks at Vietnam vets I’ve ever read to a hilarious snapshot of small-town academia to a deep look at sex and love to a serious exploration of American race relations over the past several decades. At times Roth’s wide-range of topics makes the novel seem a bit hodge-podge, but he ties it all together into an interesting, at times even gripping, story.

The main narrative follows Coleman Silk, a professor at a small college who is forced into retirement in his old age due to a seemingly false accusation of racism. Another professor, the narrator of the book, then decides to chronicle Silk’s life, which takes us back into the Coleman’s childhood, his days as a young soldier, a series of loves, and in the end through the misunderstanding at the college that led into a couple of interesting choices of how to spend his retirement. The narrator also tells us about a variety of other characters whose lives intersect with Coleman’s (an undereducated janitor, a PTS Vietnam-vet, and a very French young professor), focusing more on these secondary story lines as the book progresses. I won’t tell more of the plot for fear of spoiling it, but it’s quite good.

The book left me wondering at the end—what is the human stain, precisely? The phrase is only used once in the novel that I found and then in reference to a bird raised by humans. I’m not sure if Roth intended irony in naming a bird as the one with the human stain. But it’s a question I’m still thinking about—is the human stain race, love, sex, war, dishonesty, being judgmental… read the book and see if you can tell.

Hall of a Thousand Columns by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

July 2, 2010

Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah is a travel narrative in which Tim attempts to follow the path of Ibn Battutah, a 14th century traveler, around India. Ibn Battutah spent time in Delhi, traveled throughout the interior of Hindustan, and ended up down in Kerala along the Malabar coast, and so does Tim accordingly. So far as travel narratives go, this one is well-written and often hilarious. I particularly enjoyed his description of Delhi and surrounding areas. For those interested in India or who had visited some of these places, the book often strikes the right cord.

I hesitate to fully endorse the book in part because travel narratives overall are often too vague, personal, and unguided for me to truly appreciate the genre as a whole. Hall of a Thousand Columns does a better job than most overcoming these obstacles, but I still remain unclear after having read the book—why did Tim Mackintosh-Smith decide to try and follow in Ibn Battutah’s footsteps in the 21st century? What did he think such a quest would bring him? Was it just to write and sell a book or is there an exploration of some deeper issues? Certainly part of Tim’s quest is to bring a historical figure to life for modern readers. Still, I wonder if he should have spent a bit more time explicating precisely why he was following Ibn Battutah’s footsteps. I would have liked to have seen him address the questions: why am I doing this and, more importantly, why should anybody else care that I’m doing this?