Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Dinner
By: Herman Koch
Hogarth, 2013

Buy on Amazon              Buy on B&N.com

One evening in Amsterdam, two couples meet at an extravagant restaurant for a seemingly banal dinner.   Narrated by the husband of one of the couples, the novel progresses through the various courses of dinner.  As the courses are brought to the table and then whisked away by attentive servers, the tension between the two couples builds.

This novel is great because of its slow burn.  You can feel an underlying tension from page one, which slowly mounts.  This underlying, but yet-to-be-ascertained source of tension kept me turning pages well past my bedtime!

Another key element of this tension is a narrator who is revealed as increasingly unreliable.  Koch's ability to gain and then destroy your trust makes this book such an interesting read.

Recommend to: Anyone up for questioning morality.  Those people who get excited about unlikable characters and a novel with a slow buildup.

Food for thought (see what I did there, I'm punny): What actions are excusable based on parental love?  What are the boundaries for parents seeking to protect their children?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance
By: Carla Kaplan
HarperCollins, 2015

Buy on B&N.com               Buy on Amazon.com

Miss Anne in Harlem tells of the experiences of white women who attempted to pass as black during the Harlem Renaissance.  These women, for various reasons, were drawn to the culture and opportunities in Harlem and sought to align themselves with the area's primarily black population.

Coincidentally I read this book at a time that appears to have greater significance than I had ever expected.  Shortly after finishing the book, the scandal over NAACP chapter president, Rachel Dolezal, erupted.  Harlem's Miss Anne personaes and Rachel both shared a notion that race is fluid, a social construction.  Kaplan refers to one of Harlem's famous Miss Anne's belief that race was a social idea by saying: "Her insistence that race is a constructed idea, but one we cannot afford to ignore is an important double insight."   Decades after Miss Anne, Dolezal makes the same claim.  The question, currently, is: is it a constructed idea?

Today, just before I sat down to right this post, the news of the arrest of the man who perpetrated the Charleston shootings circulated through the news.  This added a whole new level of gravity to this post about the complexities of race.  As opposed to writing a traditional book review, I think that this is an appropriate time to lament the current state of race relations in our country.  On the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, racism still runs rampant through our country.  As President Obama pointed out in his address after the shootings, other civilized nations don't have these problems. This past year should be a wake-up call to America that we have a systemic problem, engrained for centuries, that we collectively need to work to change.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern
By: Joshua Zeitz
Crown Publishers, 2006

Buy on Amazon                                        Buy on B&N.com

Flapper is an interesting history of the Jazz Age.  Zeitz breaks the book into three parts covering culture, fashion, and the Hollywood scene.  Within each of those parts, he presents the reader with the factual history of the flapper through examples of famous flappers: Zelda Fitzgerald, Lois Long ("Lipstick") of the New Yorker, Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Coco Chanel.  Through the madcap antics of these women, Zeitz explains the cultural shift that occurred during the period, the women threw off the conventions of the Victorian era and embraced a newfound liberation.  The books last line sums it up perfectly: "The flapper was, in effect, the first thoroughly modern American."

I really enjoyed this history by Zeitz.  I found his thesis, that flappers were liberating themselves from traditional gender expectations and advancing their own form of feminism, particularly interesting.  I am always a fan of books where women bend/break the rules and assert their individual rights and freedoms.  By calling attention to specific women who helped to shape the quintessential image of the flapper, Zeitz makes the book more relatable (we all know Zelda and Coco).  He also encouraged me to add many of the biographies of these women to my TBR pile.  And Flapper sold me on its premise that flappers were among the first modern women.   In short, the book is engaging and informative.

This book would be a great for those with any interest in women's history (those with a  background in history or arm-chair historians) and also those who are just looking to flesh out their Fitzgerald obsession.

And now I'd like to leave you with this question: How do seemingly frivolous cultural phenomena influence greater societal understandings of gender?   Are any current trends/movements achieving a similar end today?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Children Act
By: Ian McEwan
Doubleday, 2014

Buy on Amazon                 Buy on B&N.com

Fiona Maye is a judge on the Family Court in London. It is her responsibility to rule on situations regarding the welfare of children.

Beneath the pragmatic exterior, Fiona is battling some marital strife with her husband of many years, Jack.

On the night that Jack leaves home, Fiona is asked to preside over the case of a seventeen year old Jehovah's Witness who is denying a blood transfusion. The beliefs of the young boy and her struggle with her husband will keep readers engaged in Fiona's story.

The plot of the McEwan's book is gripping.  While Fiona's marital troubles elicit empathy, they didn't capture my attention the way the case unfolding in her courtroom did.  This book encompasses several moral dilemmas that I found particularly fascinating: is a boy, a year away from legal adulthood, capable of making mature decisions regarding his well-being (can he decide as an adult); what is the role of religion in life-saving treatment; what are the influences of a parent's religion on a child?  The gray nature of the legality of this book is what kept me turning the pages.

Once the case was resolved, I found myself gripped by the characterization of the key players.  I could relate to all of McEwan's main characters and found that closeness was driving me to the end of the book at a quick pace.

I'd like to try a new thing with these posts and that is to leave you (if anyone is actually reading these!!) with a question to ponder.  I would love to hear any responses you may have to the book/what I view as the meta-question of the work!  That being said, my question is how should we treat the religious concerns of minors in a court of law - where do we need to draw the line for both religion and the state?