Book Notes: Rafael Chirbes’s Mimoun

Mimoun, the first novel of the great Spanish writer Chirbes, has been, in  my opinion, completely misunderstood by critics. In the novel, a depressive Spanish novelist moves to Morocco and dedicates himself to getting drunk, drugged and having sex with every Muslim man and woman, as well as every colleague, neighbor, and crossing sweeper he meets there. He gets drunk and has sex with them individually, collectively, inside, outside, in a car, in a brothel, and everywhere else he can think of. The novel is short because the endless cycle of alcohol, drugs, sex, depression doesn’t make for a very rich plot.

The whole thing is completely hilarious, and I’m convinced it’s a parody on the novels by the ultra-famous Juan Goytisolo. Everybody seems to have taken Chirbes’s first novel very much in earnest when it’s an obvious parody. The problem is that parody has been done so well in Spanish literature by Chirbes’s precursors that it’s best not to venture into this genre unless you can do something entirely amazing. And I’m not even talking about Cervantes’s attempt at parody that gave the world Don Quijote. In the XXth century, Spanish writer Juan Marse produced his brilliant parody The Girl in the Golden Panties. If you can’t top that, it’s better not even to try. And that’s why I’m not that impressed by Mimoun.

Author: Rafael Chirbes

Title: Mimoun

Year: 1988

Language: Spanish

My rating: 2,5 out of 10

Vargas Llosa’s The Civilization of Spectacle

I’m reading Vargas Llosa’s The Civilization of Spectacle and feeling very confused. The central idea of the text is that high culture has been banished to the margins and now only interests a tiny minority of the world’s population.

This is undoubtedly true. The problem I have with the text is that this has been true for as long as high culture existed. Vargas Llosa, however, insists that this is a new development. I don’t know what makes Llosa believe that a greater percentage of the population was interested in reading Ortega y Gasset a hundred years ago than will read Llosa’s essay today. And Ortega y Gasset bemoaned the same advent of the masses incapable of appreciating high culture.

I try to banish the thought that Llosa has passed the threshold to old age and has become a grumpy old man who believes that everything about the past was better than the present for the simple reason that the past coincided with his youth.

P.S. By the way, has anybody here read Vargas Llosa’s most recent novel El héroe discreto and can tell me if it’s worthwhile? It’s set in Peru, which is a great relief after Llosa’s tiresome attempts to write about Ireland, France, and God knows what else.

How do you decide what book to read next?

Joshua Kim’s article in Inside Higher Ed made me consider this question. Here is the answer Kim provides:

I always go first to nytimes.com/books . A good review attached to a subject that I’m interested in, or an author that I like, will almost always result in a purchase (as an Amazon Audible audiobook or a Kindle e-book). A middling or bad review – no sale. Sometimes I’ll do a Google search for “book review (book title)” – and read reviews from other sites – but rarely. If the book is reviewed on IHE, then I’m definitely buying. This book selection process has been seriously disrupted by the NYTimes paywall. Sure, it is easy to get around (just do a Google search with the headline of the article you want to read) – but this is an extra and unpleasant step.

I find this account very curious because it is so different from how I buy books. For me, the main – and I’d say the only – source of reading suggestions is the Amazon. I’ve spent so much time and money there that Amazon really knows me well and always recommends books that will interest me. I’m very familiar with Amazon’s structure and the different ways one can search for reading matter on it. I now try to avoid the site as much as possible because it’s hard for me to leave it without a purchase.

It’s strange to me that Joshua Kim relies on the NYTimes so much for his choice of books to read. I dislike NYTimes and discontinued my Kindle subscription to NYTimes Book Review because, for the most part, the books it reviewed were part of what I refer to as “reading for housewives”: cheesy, overly sentimental fare of the tearjerker variety. The reviews were always dedicated to retelling the plot in as much detail as possible, which is something that even the least bright among the Amazon reviewers know not to do.

In my opinion, Amazon reviews are always going to be more reliable than the ones that appear in print media for the same reason that independent bloggers will eventually destroy traditional newspapers. Amazon reviewers and bloggers can only rely on their own hard work and the reputation they manage to build for themselves among their readers. The NYTimes, however, can manage its affairs right into the ground and then rely upon somebody to bail it out. Besides, there is absolutely no reason to believe that newspaper journalists will offer their honest opinion about books. They don’t seem to offer honest opinions about anything else, so why trust them on this subject?

And how do you decide what book to read next?

P.S. If this passionate diatribe on what might seem like a pretty trivial subject surprised you, I have to confess that I’m one of Amazon’s popular reviewers.

>Living Oprah by Robyn Okrant: A Review

>A review from an anonymous guest blogger:

I must admit I was excited when I downloaded Living Oprah on Kindle. I was anticipating one of two things: either a very easy unpretentious read with humorous anecdotes (along the lines of Confessions of a Shopaholic) or more of an investigative account analyzing the Oprah phenomenon from a critical standpoint (along the lines of Selling Sickness).

Well, a few pages in I realized that the book was neither. It was just a big yawn of predictable jokes and the author failing to explain what the point of her project actually was. Is she a crazy Oprah fan? Apparently not (at least she says she isn’t, despite her countless recounts of how admirable, wonderful and inspiring Oprah is). Is she a critic ready to discuss openly the negative impact an Oprah-type show can have on its audience? Once again, hardly. Rather, the author positions herself as an intellectual who is above dressing up (sports bras and granny panties being her underwear of choice), an avid feminist (despite feeling a sense of trepidation before asking her husband’s permission to embark on the project and going as far as doubting that her marriage will last through the endeavor. Umm, dramatic much?) and certainly not a fame seeker (after an extremely long explanation of why she wanted to remain anonymous, the author concedes to revealing her name for the sake of being interviewed). I was confused! But worst of all, certainly not entertained.

I will give you a couple of examples. Even though I could go on and on, I do not want you to experience the same sense of boredom to which I subjected myself.

The author makes fun of Oprah’s suggestion that she purchase a pair of leopard-print flats. By making fun of it, all I mean to say is that she tells us she laughed at the suggestion hysterically. Ok, funny. Yet, further on in the book she falls in love with the shoes. Umm, I kept wondering: what was the point of that story?

The author makes fun of Oprah’s fans who nearly worship her and go into a frenzy at her shows. She attends one of the tapings and stresses and underlines endlessly how different she is from all those other fans. Yet, she describes the overwhelming feeling of excitement she, too, succumbed to at the show. Ok, what was the point of this story?

She seems to criticize Oprah’s suggestions to renovate, remodel and engage in other home-improvement projects. Yet, when she follows all these suggestions, she seems happy with the result.

She seems to criticize Oprah’s constant dieting projects. Yet is really excited to have lost weight and shares several pictures of herself in a bikini to prove the point.

The author tries to show that watching every single episode of Oprah alienated her from her friends and loved ones. In order to prove the point, she tells us about her family’s Thanksgiving dinner where she had to go upstairs to watch a taped episode of Oprah while her family was downstairs laughing and enjoying the holiday. Ok, again I am confused. What was the rush of watching the episode at that particular time? It was taped anyway. Well no, I do get it. It was a far-fetched attempt at creating drama and showing how hard the project was.

I forced myself to read the book to the end. I was curious to read the author’s conclusion. After all, she spent 365 days following Oprah’s every word of advice. So, is Oprah’s show a god-send or an evil creation? Is following Oprah’s suggestions detrimental or a great idea? But no, the conclusion is not about that. Actually, it’s not about anything. It goes on and on to tell us how happy the author is living her own life and not following someone else’s advice (again, despite the author’s countless examples of her million-and-one insecurities listed throughout the book). I have one word to summarize my impression of Living Oprah: blah.

From Clarissa:

I have to confess that I was the one to recommend this book to the reviewer (without having read it.) I’m interested in this type of books (although not enough to read them myself :-)) because they represent a curious social phenomenon. One of the prime examples of this phenomenon is Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. A blogger decided to follow Julia Child’s recipes within a year and blogged about it. The experiment was so successful that it turned into an inane book and an equally inane film based on it. Robyn Okrant decided to do something even easier and simply attached herself to the image of wildly popular Oprah Winfrey.

Many people decided to do something similar and start some kind of project that would later morph into a book over even a movie. This is the book equivalent of reality TV shows. For the most part, even when the original idea is not bad (like in Living Oprah), the authors lack even the most basic sense of humor and intelligence that are needed to make the project a success.

Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts.

People readily turn away from the unhospitable reality, where achieving fame and fortune requires hard work, dedication, and sacrifice, and plunge themsmelves into the world of make-believe, where they are entitled to everything just because. As a result, the publishing market will keep saturated with insipi books like Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk.

>Tana French’s The Likeness: A Review

>I just fnished reading http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=00FF0F&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=0143115626. What an absolutely delightful book, my friends! I enjoyed every one of its 480 pages profoundly. Tana French is a young Irish writer. The Likeness is one of those really good books that its female author tries to masquerade as a mystery novel. The mystery itself is not bad, especially if you manage to get over a few of the initial premises that border on the fantastic.

Cassie Maddox, a young Irish policewoman, goes undercover among a group of PhD students who live in an old house they are attempting to restore. This premise is, of course, highly unrealistic. Graduate students in literature have a certain way of talking and acting that cannot be faked. In reality, un undercover police officer would have blown her cover during the very first discussion on why Lacan is wrong about everything and Eagleton’s new-found essentialism is annoying. Nobody can fake writing a doctoral dissertation convincingly. You have either lived through that process or not.

Having said that, however, I have to confess that French’s writing is so good that soon enough you forget about these inconsistencies and even forget to care about the identity of the killer. The Likeness is a beautifully written story about today’s Ireland. It offers incisive criticism of modern consumer society without falling into the trap of bemoaning the good old days:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their decor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on.

What makes this novel so enjoyable is that, in places, it reaches the level of insightfulness that is normally completely our of reach for the mystery genre writers. In The Likeness, the main conflict arises – and eventually leads to murder – because of a profound dissatisfaction that the characters of the novel feel with the very structure of society:

Part of the debtor mentality is a constant, frantically suppressed undercurrent of terror. We have one of the highest debt-to-income ratios in the world, and apparently most of us are two paychecks from the street. Those in power—governments, employers—exploit this, to great effect. Frightened people are obedient—not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. If your employer tells you to work overtime, and you know that refusing could jeopardize everything you have, then not only do you work the overtime, but you convince yourself that you’re doing it voluntarily, out of loyalty to the company; because the alternative is to acknowledge that you are living in terror. Before you know it, you’ve persuaded yourself that you have a profound emotional attachment to some vast multinational corporation: you’ve indentured not just your working hours, but your entire thought process. The only people who are capable of either unfettered action or unfettered thought are those who—either because they’re heroically brave, or because they’re insane, or because they know themselves to be safe—are free from fear.

Just this one paragraph makes the novel absolutely worth reading for me.

The Likeness is only Tana French’s second novel and an obvious improvement on her first one, In the Woods. I can’t wait to see how far this growing author will go. Her talent is undeniable and her command of the language is unique. Maybe one day she will feel strong enough to stop hiding behind the protective screen of the mystery genre and will write actual literature. I have no doubt that French has enough talent to achieve that.

>Ayn Rand

>The last M/MLA conference where I spoke the day after getting married was good in all respects except one: the book-fair. Normally, I love book-fairs at conferences, but this one looked more like a parody of a regular fair. It was held in the same room where banquets were served to the participants. The abundance of food presented a disturbing contrast to the paucity of actual books available for purchase. It were as if the conference organizers were trying to suggest that food for our stomachs is way more important than food for our minds. The only book there that attracted my attention was Anne C. Heller’s biography of Ayn Rand titled Ayn Rand and the World She Made. I couldn’t have afforded to buy this book (especially in the light of the threats by the governor of Illinois to stop paying our salaries) if it weren’t for a much cheaper Kindle version. I have only just begun reading this dense 600-page book and I will write a detailed review of it when I finish it. For now, however, I just wanted to write about Ayn Rand and the reasons why I find her work fascinating.

Ayn Rand, the author of the immensely popular The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is the inspiration of Libertarians (whom I dislike profoundly) and is often grouped together with people like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan (whom I despise and consider to be disgusting individuals.) I hate Ayn Rand’s deep-seated mysoginy and her profound self-hatred as a woman and as a Jew. I find her gushing descriptions of enormous dollar signs made of gold to be vulgar and pathetic. I consider her admiration of “progressive capitalists” to be childish and silly. I find many of the things she wrote to be deeply offensive. But still I believe that she is a great writer and I love her books.

I know it is hard to get past all the offensive stuff in Rand’s writing. Once you do, however, you might encounter a veritable treasure, just the way I did and continue doing every time I reread her two most famous novels**.

Of course, part of my interest in Rand has to do with the fact that I identify with her on many levels. She emigrated from a Russian-speaking country to North America almost at the same age as I did. She was Jewish by ethnic origin but not by virtue of religious belief. From what little I have been able to read from Heller’s biography, it has already become clear to me that Rand must have had an exceptionally strong form of Asperger’s. (Many of the things that seem to baffle her biographers become perfectly understandable once you think of them in terms of Asperger’s.)

If you think about it, Ayn Rand’s achievement as a writer is truly unique. She only started to learn English at the age of 21 and managed to achieve the level of language skill that allowed her to write extremely long, complex, and beautiful novels. I cannot think of any other writer who achieved a similar linguistic feat. (Please do not bring up Nabokov. He spoke English from his early chilldhood and spent a lot of time in England and surrounded by English-speaking people starting from infancy.) I started learning Spanish more or less at the same age Ayn Rand started learning English, and even though today, when I’m 33, my Spanish is really great, I could never hope to write a work of fiction in this language. And my complete lack of literary talent is not the only reason. The amount of effort it would require to achieve such a level is simply beyond me.

I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes by Ayn Rand, which hopefully will make it clearer why I enjoy her work.

This quote, for example, sounds like a veritable Aspie manifesto: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” If you don’t find this beautiful, Asperger’s is probably not a part of your existence. 🙂

In spite of Ayn Rand’s declared homophobia, the following quote can be addressed to the idiots who keep voting against gay marriage rights: “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”

Today, I find the following to be especially relevant. The state is threatening us with withholding our salaries and we are fed the constant exhortations to service and sacrifice: “It only stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.”
 
As a teacher and a researcher, I absolutely have to agree with the following: “The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had decided not to see.”
 
This is so profoundly true: “The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt.”
 
If only the Democrats in general and our current President in particular remembered this, how different would this country be: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”
 
Come on, don’t tell me you don’t like the following: “To say “I love you” one must first be able to say the “I.””
 
I wish the people in charge of the US foreign policy for the last century and a half thought about this: “An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”
 
Nothing could be truer than this: “People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked.”
 
And this: “No one’s happiness but my own is in my power to achieve or destroy.”
And this is just simply beautiful: “The only man never to be redeemed is the man without passion.”
 
** I want to reiterate that my praise is solely for Rand’s novels. Her essays and treatises are nothing other than silly and outdated, in my view.

>Zoe Heller’s The Believers: A Review

>Zoe Heller keeps producing books that could have been great if she had only managed to stick to her original purpose without getting distracted. Her novel What Was She Thinking? : Notes on a Scandal: A Novel was not bad at all, and if you think otherwise, it is probably because you were put off by the pretty weak film version http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=00FFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B000NIVJFY. I have just finished Heller’s new novel http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=DDDD00&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B002SB8P5G and at first I really liked it. The beginning of The Believers is simply hilarious, and it’s no wonder that the book made the Best Books of 2009 list by Publishers Weekly. Heller ridicules – often in a pretty vicious way – a certain type of self-righteous leftists whose holier-than-thou attitude sometimes conceals pettiness and unenviable nastiness. You can get a pretty good idea about the first part of the novel from the following quote: “Karla always spoke of Mike’s job as a union organizer with the reverence of a missionary wife describing her husband’s evangelical work in Borneo.

Unfortunately, somewhere after the first third of the novel, Heller decided to abandon this line of her story and turned to creating a trite, boring, and repetitive melodrama. The children of the above-mentioned self-righteous leftists are understandably disillusioned by their parents’ political agenda and start looking for the meaning of life in drugs, affairs and Orthodox Judaism. Among these three solutions as they are described by Heller, the drug addiction is presented as pretty much the most innocuous one.

In one of my previous reviews, I wrote about the lamentable tendency of female writers to feel scared of writing an actual work of literature. These talented authors escape from the task of writing good novels by turning to secondary genres. Gillian Flynn retreats into the realm of the mystery genre, while Heller falls into the cheap tear-jerking melodrama. The same as with Flynn, we see in The Believers a gifted writer who is somehow too afraid of her own gift to let it flourish. In our patriarchal society, even very talented women obviously have a very hard time believing that they can dedicate their lives to anything other than trivialities. Trivial literature, trivial lives, trivial occupations; women still often see themselves as secondary human beings, secondary writers, and secondary artists.