Reading Update: Big Fat Book and More

Big Fat Book: Done!

I finished David Van Reybrouck’s Congo in just under three weeks–nothing like a library deadline for motivation. The second half, covering 1990 on, was much harder to read emotionally. I had not realized the extent to which the Democratic Republic of Congo was and continues to be caught up in the ethnic violence of Rwanda. Outright war, massacre of refugees, ongoing conflict among various militias, endemic rape, forced servitude in mines–these chapters were very bleak.

Van Reybrouck argues convincingly that the history of the Congo is interwoven with world history rather than being an unimportant byway. Why, then, don’t Westerners know more about it? One reason is provided in this timely (for me) piece by Anjam Sundaram, who worked as an AP stringer in the DRC: “We’re Missing the Story: The Media’s Retreat from Foreign Reporting.” (I added his book, Stringer, to my library wishlist). Continue reading

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A Little Beauty in the Middle of Chaos

There’s been a lot of awful news this week. But in the middle of that, beauty and joy persist. Here are a few things that reminded me of that.

Rabih Alameddine’s Tweet Stream

You may remember that I read and loved Alameddine’s novel An Unnecessary Woman. In that novel, Aliyaa lives in a world of books, art and music, and she also lives in Beirut. Violence is part of her world, just as much as beauty. Ultimately, I think the novel shows that art can’t (or shouldn’t) be an escape from life, but it is a part of life, probably even a necessary part. Beauty is not less real than chaos.

I recently (because of his World Cup tweeting and posts) started following Alameddine on Twitter. This week, his tweets, like his novel, have represented both art and political chaos. He has tweeted about Gaza, and he has tweeted a daily poem and images of artworks. I have been so glad to have those drawings, paintings and mosaics show up in my feed alongside photos of air strikes, tanks, and the wreckage of a downed passenger jet. Continue reading

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Marketing, Social Media, Books and Me

A couple of things I’ve been thinking about, at too much length to leave as comments elsewhere.

Stop With “Not Your Mother’s”

Many readers I know object to the currently popular “not your mother’s romance” marketing slogan. Some were introduced to romance-reading by their mothers; some are mothers who like sex and sexy books; all know newer authors did not invent sexy/dark/whatever they think they invented. The other day, right after reading yet another author tout her book as “not your mother’s erotic romance,” I came across this line in Book Riot’s delightfully diverse summer reading suggestions from The Well-Readheads:

[Tiffany Reisz’s The Saint] is not your mother’s fuzzy handcuffs “bondage” story

I then had a positive Twitter exchange with Rebecca Schinsky about this: I explained politely why it bothered me; she said she agreed and said she had meant it as an ironic poke at 50 Shades’ “mommy porn” rep. So my point here is not to criticize her. (I think this fails as irony because Reisz’s book is exactly the type that romance marketers label as “not your mama’s,” though Schinsky may not have realized this. As I recall, Harlequin and Reisz herself basically sold her first book as “for readers of 50, only better”).

This conversation made me think more about why I object to the “not your mother’s” phrase: it’s wrong about literature (or story-telling, if you prefer). I want my Oldsmobile to be “not my father’s”; I expect technology to have progressed in 30 years (my father’s still around and bought one of the first hybrids on the market–he’s not driving “your father’s” Oldsmobile either). But while what stories we tell and how we tell them change (some) as culture changes, that’s not progress. The novel may be better suited to depicting a modern society than the epic is (may be), but it is not a superior or more advanced literary form.  Continue reading

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Reading Update: World Cup Edition

Big Fat Book readalong

I’ve read a little more than 4 chapters of David Van Reybrouck’s Congo. Van Reybrouck could be called a Renaissance man: PhD, poet, playwright. I think his poetic side shows in this book, which often features vivid description and odd, telling details. It’s the product of extensive research, including oral histories from Van Reybrouck’s 10 trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo–including interviews with a man named Nkasi, who claimed (accurately, as far as the author could determine) to be born in 1882, and thus was 126 when Van Reybrouck met him. I’d say this book is headed for the short list of truly memorable non-fiction I’ve read or listened to in the past few years (the others are Wade Davis’ Into the Silence and Isobel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Sunsthey’re all gripping stories as well as good history).

I’ve watched a lot of World Cup soccer in the last month, and thanks to Twitter I’ve been interested in the ways (post)colonial history is visible in national teams. I follow Duke professor Laurent Dubois (@soccerpolitics), who blogs at Soccer Politics and for The New Republic during the Cup, and who wrote a book, Soccer Empireon French soccer and “the connections between empire and sport.” (And for my romance-reading friends, he’s Katherine Ashe’s husband). He tweeted and RT’d quite a bit about the “Africanness” of many European teams, including Belgium’s.

So with all that in mind, I was especially interested in Van Reybrouck’s discussion of how Belgians imported soccer to the Congo. Here’s a sampling: Continue reading

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Update: Big Fat Book and Other Reading

Lots of my blogging friends have commented lately on troubles with reading–how we are not as good at focusing and challenging ourselves as we once were. And we’re not the only ones: of the recent jeremiads on reading, I especially enjoyed (if that’s the word) “Reading: The Struggle” by Tim Parks. It took the March Big Fat Book readalong instigated by Sunita to get me to read Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch (which, though long, turned out to be zippy and plot-driven). So I was glad when Ros decided to start another readalong in July. Here are early reports from some participating readers.

Although I have some Big Fat Fiction on my shelves (and e-reader), this time I decided to choose non-fiction. I’ve been listening to quite a bit of non-fiction (I blogged about that here), but I find it hard to concentrate on in print, so I figured the #BFB readalong would give me the push I needed.

This week, I read the first three chapters/110 pp. of Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. In fact, I read them twice, at least, because I’d read a couple of pages and find I had taken nothing in. This is not Sperber’s fault; it’s mine. Yes, this is an intellectual biography, so it can be dense (even a simple explanation of Hegelianism makes my brain freeze, and I’ve read some Hegel), but the writing is clear and engaging. I am just out of practice concentrating on something like this. I’m kind of appalled by how dumb I’ve gotten. ;) I am making an effort to carve out reading time earlier in the day, because when I’m tired, it’s hopeless. I need a Reading Fitness regime for the summer. Continue reading

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