Review | The NYRB Book Club January 2017


One of the bookish subscription boxes I’ll be reviewing this year doesn’t actually involve a box, so I guess it’s just a bookish subscription. I’m talking about the New York Review Books Book Club.

nyrb

You know, like this?

The deal I signed up for included 12 books (one each month, you know) as well as a yearly subscription to The Paris Review (four copies in total). I’ll be reviewing my first issue of said magazine / periodical in a later post, but today we’re going to talk about the two books I’ve received so far.

First up was The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky with a forward by Joanne Turnbull.

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Despite the fact that this book wasn’t even 120 pages long, and one reviewer called it “playful and erudite,” I had a really tough time getting through it. If you’re not familiar, Munchausen was a real-life baron who fought off the Turks (with the help of the Russians) but became a sort of folk hero as time went on. This book imagines that it’s the 1920s in Europe (the story travels from Berlin to London and finally on to Moscow) and Munchausen has agreed to come spy on Lenin’s Russia.

The guy reminded me a lot of the stories surrounding Paul Bunyan in that all the stories about him were seriously tall and not all that interesting. Like the time he and his horse were drowning and a swamp so Munchausen grabbed his own pigtail and pulled them out of said swamp.

I like reading about the countries in which this book is set, and I’m well versed on Lenin and thought this would be a sort of fun, silly book but I ended up finding it tedious and dull. Do not recommend.

Rating: 3/10 (I had to give it a few points because I did finish it and it wasn’t actively angrifying).

Recommended for: Absurdity; surrealism; folklore-ish tales

Does it pass the Bechdel–Wallace testNope.

Author of color / main character of color / female author / female main character: Nope, nope, nope, nope.

The second book I received was Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man written by U. R. Ananthamurthy and translated by A.K. Ramanujan.

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It took me a while to get into this book, in part because the names were a challenge for me to wrap my brain tongue about (Praneshacharya and Subbannacharya are just two of the mouthfuls) and in part because it is a story about a Brahmin and I had never heard of a Brahmin. This book was definitely written for its intended audience – native Indians – and not for this American who knows nothing about the caste system or Hinduism.

Thankfully, I didn’t let any of that put me off and I kept on, looking up terms when I needed to, and I’m glad I did. This is the kind of book that it would be strange to say, “I really liked it!” about. I mean, the entire plot revolves around a rotting body with bugs and rats living inside it, you know?

Essentially, the dead body in question, when he was still a living human, strayed from the Brahmin tradition but the head-spiritual-guy in their village didn’t excommunicate said dead body (who wasn’t dead yet) because said dead body (who wasn’t dead yet) said that he’d convert to Islam if he did.

The book takes place after the body’s death and details the complications of trying to ensure no one broke any Brahmin rules: No one in the village could eat until the body was cremated, but the body couldn’t be cremated until it had received its last rites, but no one would do them because the body in question had strayed from the Brahmin tradition. This went on for days and the folks living in this village did increasingly dramatic things to try and end the standoff, mostly because they were hungry but also because of the unsubtle reek of rotting flesh.

It was a complicated situation! It was also interesting, funny at times, and taught me things about the world that I didn’t know I didn’t know. All in all, I’d call that a win.

Rating: 8/10

Recommended for:  Authentic perspective on Hinduism; complicated moral questions; rotting bodies

Does it pass the Bechdel–Wallace testNo. There were many women in the book but the story focused primarily on the narrator, who was male.

Author of color / main character of color / female author / female main character: Yes, yes, nope, nope.

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