Saturday, September 8, 2012

Book nine: Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Dear NPR Books Podcast; Thank you for some of your more obscure book recommendations. They regularly make my literary life more enjoyable. A perfect example is Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov.  This strange little novel is delightful if you can use such a word to describe a Russian novel.  And it is a Russian novel with its bleak scenes and freezing cold winters.

The delight is largely provided by Misha the penguin.  Yes an actual penguin is a central character in the book.  During the fall of the Soviet Union, as zoos could no longer maintain operations, many just gave away their animals to anyone who would take them.  Such is the case with Misha who was adopted by Viktor, a struggling writer living in Kiev.

Viktor takes a job preparing advance obituaries for a local paper.  But as time goes by, Viktor realizes that something isn’t right.  Most of the people for whom he’s written obituaries end up getting murdered. If that’s not strange enough, Viktor is left taking care of Sonya, a friend’s young daughter who instantly befriends Misha.

As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Viktor’s life might be in danger.  His best hope may be the fact that a shady character has taken to requesting Misha’s presence at events and funerals.  As the depressed penguin’s health declines, the book twists to a melancholy end filled with events that get stranger and stranger.

With a dark sense of humor, Death and the Penguin is one of the strangest, most rewarding books I’ve read in a long time. And the images of Misha enjoying a cold bath or sadly plip-plopping through the kitchen are delightful.  This book easily qualifies for four Jeffies. And if it weren’t for a few outlandish moments at the end, it probably would have gotten five.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Book eight: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Maybe I’m stuck in a rut reading books about troubled historical figures who struggled with (or at least may have struggled with) homosexuality.  Because immediately after reading about Alan Turing’s troubled gay life, I moved on to Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

Let me start by saying this is an epic biography of an artist that has always intrigued me.  Graham-Dixon’s attention to historical detail and careful annotation is mind blowing.  It’s obvious this is an author who is intent on getting it right. And while my knowledge of art is far superior to my knowledge of mathematics (which made reading the book about Turing a challenge), it's still easy to feel uninformed up against Graham-Dixon's brilliance.

Even with the immense effort taken to document the details of Caravaggio’s life, this book just wasn’t all that interesting. But it may not be Graham-Dixon’s fault.  It might be that no one knows that much about Caravaggio.  Sure we know he got into a lot of trouble brawling with other cantankerous artists.  Yes we know he probably killed a man.  Of course we know he wasn’t the best at managing his business affairs.  We even know that his relationship with the Catholic Church was something akin to bipolar.  But generally, I pretty much knew most of what is covered in this book, certainly not to the detail provided here, but nonetheless I didn’t feel like the book really introduced me to anything new.  And that’s OK, except Graham-Dixon seems to make up for this fact by adding lots of filler.

Most of the book features the lives of people who lived at the same time and in the same places as Caravaggio.  And a lot of their lives aren’t as interesting as I’d like them to be.  Graham-Dixon suggests that many of these relationships are the reason Caravaggio may have acted the way he did later in life.  I frequently found those assertions to be a stretch.

Which brings me to the one assertion that other art historians have suggested, but that Graham-Dixon suggests is a stretch; Caravaggio was gay (or at least had meaningful homosexual relationships).   Graham-Dixon strikes me as an old white guy who probably is a little uncomfortable with the whole gay thing.  He goes out of his way to confirm that while we have historical documents that confirm Caravaggio had sex with women, there are no historical documents confirming Caravaggio had sex with men.  But in a book that jumps to several historical conclusions (or at least theories), Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane chooses to gloss over a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that the artist and his assistant may have been one of art history’s great gay couples.  And wouldn’t that make a great book.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book seven: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin.

I first learned about troubled mathematician Alan Turing from a RadioLab Shorts podcast.  I knew nothing about the man who basically invented binary code and was instrumental in helping defeat Germany in WWII by developing a machine that broke the German code.  Turing was also gay.  In fact, he was convicted of homosexuality in 1952 and rather than go to prison, he chose treatment with female hormones (chemical castration).  That situation left him less than happy and in 1954 he committed suicide just before his 42nd birthday.

The RadioLab Shorts program was a fantastic look at the genius of Turing and it recommended A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines as a fictionalized look at the mathematician's life.  The novel written by Janna Levin (a mathematician herself) brings together the theories and ideas of Turing and Kurt Godel, a mathematician/logician/philosopher and contemporary of Turing.  While the two never physically met, their ideas seem to play well against each other.  I say seem because I’m definitely not smart enough to read this book with any real understanding of the mathematical principles discussed.  From incompleteness theorems to mechanical decision theories to whatever the hell Wittgenstein was philosophically worried about, this book was sometimes a complicated read. While Levin doesn’t overindulge in the mathematics, it was still enough to confound a novice like me.

The narrator of the book delivers the story in a dreamy, almost surreal style that sometimes feels overwritten.  In fact the language often gets in the way of the story leaving the reader unsure of what he or she just consumed.  And even the story, while somewhat dark, has a fanciful attitude that was confusing.  While the book is far from awful, it had lengthy passages that were tedious.  For my money, if you’re looking to find out more about a very interesting historical figure, I’d download the Radio Lab Shorts episode, The Turing Problem