Books March 2008

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Recently, I haven’t had much time to write about books, so I thought I would briefly list the books that I read during the month of March:

Here are my observations:

After reading The Orientalist, I was very interested in reading Nabokov’s Mary (originally written in Russian) because it was about a White émigré in Berlin after World War I (similar to the Orientalist himself). Of course, I had read Lolita 20 years ago, but I also wanted to read another one of Nabokov’s novels written in English. That’s how I decided to read Pnin as well. While both Mary and Pnin are about immigrants, I found Mary to be much less enjoyable than PninMary was interesting to me only in its historical context.

On the other hand, I found Pnin more interesting in a cross-cultural sense. Pnin’s protagonist (like the protagonist in Lolita) suffered from cultural shock in the United States as his Russian/European values and etiquette clashed with the Americans. Living in Europe, I am constantly reminded that the great majority of American culture is derived from European culture, thus lacking in uniqueness. What is interesting about Pnin is to see, in retrospect, how much European cultural values, modalities, and etiquette have changed to become influenced and altered by the United States’ culture. You could even make the argument that over the last century European culture has become much more of a product of American culture than vice versa.

Next, I read Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a fast pased and entertaining thriller. Larsson attempted to make this novel (and I suppose the other two in the trilogy as well) highly stylized and with more of an intellectual twist than you get from your average political/murder/psyhological thriller. The novel doesn’t deserve to win any major literary prizes but it definitely did keep my attention. I suppose that to some extent it was also intended to open up discussion in Sweden about three themes: (i) corporate corruption, (ii) the media’s silence towards corruption, and (iii) discrimination against women, particularly physical and sexual abuse.

One of the ways Larsson goes about making his story such a page turner and his themes compelling is by creating interesting and eccentric female characters. While reading the novel, I kept getting the feeling that maybe he was imitating someone, and although it may sound a little far fetched, I kept thinking about Haruki Murakami. Murakami, probably one of my favorite contemporary novelists, almost alwasy turns his novels into mysteries — mysteries of the most unexpected sorts (ie, trying to find a sheep with a star on its side), but mystries nonetheless.

In any event, there was something about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that reminded me very much of any a number of Murakami novels. Possibly more than reminding me of Murakami, Larsson’s novel made me nostalgic for Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, with its mysterious search for a lost cat and a host of eccentric and strange female characters who greatly affect the course taken by the male protagonist.

Finally, I am just now finishing the Travels of Ibn Battutah. This classic travel journal from the 1300s traces Ibn Battutah’s famous 25 year journey from the Magreb to China and back. Reading Battutah is no party — he writes in Midieval prose. Nevertheless, seeing the world through his 14th Century lens is fascinating. You see how much has changed and stayed the same, and also witness the author’s own prejudices and are confronted with some of our own. It is also extremely interesting to see how Muslims, Christians and Jews interacted at the time, the breadth and expansiveness of Islam in the world, and to see how visitors were treated in different parts of the world.

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