I'm a GoodReads user testing new waters after the serious website changes. I mostly read fiction, usually Anglophone classics/ modern classics; I like nonfiction (mostly social and cultural history), good fantasy and graphic novels. For guilty pleasure, I read advice and how-to books. I made at least two reading resolutions recently; 1. read less, live more; 2. read books which give me more pleasure. I have poor filters, and books I find stylistically pleasing tend to be depressing, so I need to do something about that; if you think you know a book that is very well written, but won't make me weep, please drop me a line.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates First, a backdrop, or rather one of the backdrops to this book, an abstract, literary one - not the context of daily institutionalised violence, minor hostilities, the need to be - in Coates' words - "twice as good".

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. Toni Morrison

Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? ... I'd be glad to read him. Saul Bellow

Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus--unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership. - Ralph Wiley

These voices are a part of the debate on, among others, universal vs. exclusive nature of human experience. Coates, who claims to be in Wiley's camp, writes for blacks and whites alike - unlike Morrison, if I understand her words following the quotation cited correctly - yet he communicates something a white person in America is neither brought up nor educated to understand:
They were utterly fearless. I did not understand it until I looked out on the street. That was where I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.
And now, Tolstoy himself:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It transpires that Tolstoy, after all, does not capture the universal properties of mankind; there is a particular kind of unhappiness, a burden, that black families and black people seem to share. The fear that someone will think you misstepped against the authority and you will end up shot. The fear your child will speak too loud, talk back to a police officer, refuse to turn down their music, mix with the wrong crowd - and will end up shot. The fear that you yourself will crack under the strain and will end up shot, raped, with your skull cracked against the wall.

This is the mother of a student who was killed in a shady police operation:
She alluded to 12 Years a Slave. “There he was,” she said, speaking of Solomon Northup. “He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.
Coates describes the wearisome experience of growing up black in the States. The redlining and the daily expenditure of energy on navigating the streets of the redlined districts; the imperative need to walk in single file, work quietly, pack an extra number 2 pencil, make no mistake at school; be always on guard, be twice as good, twice as patient as the whites are, to get the half of what they are getting.
It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments. ... It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us.
Coates' relief at escaping this for a while by a temporary move to Paris - a place where he was not a part of the equation, a place where, as he writes to his son, “[we] are not their niggers”, where he was not identified as black, but an American - was enormous, and reminded me of the relief felt by Helga Crane, the tragic mulatto heroine of [b:Quicksand|78257|Quicksand|Nella Larsen||27633], when she exchanged yet another locality within the U.S. for Copenhagen – a place which didn’t know “the dreaded race question” because it did not know black race. (And yet, very soon, Helga discovers she is being paraded by her uncle and aunt in an attempt to move into the coveted artistic circles, an exotic human trophy.)

All in all, a very memorable read.

Quicksand (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)

Quicksand (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) - Thadious M. Davis, Nella Larsen I wish I could believe anything that transpires after chapter 21.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge - Ambrose Bierce (I forgot how short it was; it turns out half of my text was the full Project Gutenberg license, which took me by surprise).

I liked it, probably because Bierce didn't try to stretch it out (cough-[b:Oblomov|254308|Oblomov|Ivan Goncharov||1192093]-cough). Parts of it, especially detailed descriptions of the soldiers' placement in the beginning, felt laborious, some parts, like the one below, were ominous, atmospheric, and beautiful.
By nightfall ... he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great garden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which--once, twice, and again--he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue--he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
What a way to signal/ foreshadow death by hanging!Still, once read, this story does not pack a punch - I remember terrifying [b:Chickamauga|6516855|Chickamauga|Ambrose Bierce||6708684] impressed me much more on first reading, and I think it stands the test of second reading far better that this one.


Oblomov - Ivan Goncharov, Stephen Pearl, Galya Diment There are some very good reviews here explaining the importance of Oblomov and its message: this is Russia on the eve of modernity, and Goncharov presents the evil of the old ways: inertia, reluctance to change, or learn from travel, or – perhaps the most difficult – spend in order to prosper. In the world in which the minimal requirement for respectability is to read a lot, Oblomov struggles to read more than a few pages of a yellowed travel book on Africa, whereas his friends travel, significantly, to England and France.

Mobility – around town, country, continent - becomes in Oblomov a prerequisite for development, personal, social, and economical; Oblomov himself is sedentary to the extreme, a man who literally lives, dozes, and daydreams in his nightgown, always choosing the course of action that requires none of it. (His friend characterizes him, at some point, saying: “[when] one is with him he is ready to take any steps desired; but directly one's back is turned he relapses into slumber.”)

Despite the psychological truth the novel conveys, my response to it was rather negative, for a variety of reasons:

1. Length. It was, initially, a short story, which grew into a short novel, and I think it would be more successful if it remained short. There are moments which could be quite subtle, if the author refrained from hammering his point home – instead, nearly everything is conveyed thrice when once would suffice (the chapter tracing the origins of Oblomov's passivity, "laziness, … simplicity of morals, … inertia, and ... immobility" to his chidhood was almost unbearable in this respect).

2. Language. Maybe it's the translation (an old one by C. J. Hogarth), but I think the author is to blame here. This is a progressive husband speaking to his mildly depressed wife:
Yes; such is the payment exacted for the Promethean fire. You must not only endure, you must even love and respect, the sorrow and the doubts and the self-questionings of which you have spoken: for they constitute the excess, the luxury, of life, and show themselves most when happiness is at its zenith, and has alloyed with it no gross desires.
3. Formulaic structure. In the beginning, three or four different characters come to Oblomov’s flat, trying to lure him out of his bedroom and into the world of social interactions; these characters seem to represent different ways of life only, all of them repulsive to Oblomov, and at least two of them never reappear.

4. Capital D didacticism. I really dislike the doom-gloom idea of a ‘curse’, hereditary sloth passed from generation to generation; Oblomov’s energetic friend, Schtolz, is a son of a discipline-loving German educator; Oblomov’s ruin seems to have been brought about by his being a son of an impoverished landed gentry.
"Why has everything thus come to rack and ruin?" she cried. "Who has put a curse upon you, Ilya? Why have you done this? You are clever and kind and good and noble; yet you can wreck our lives in this way! What nameless evil has undone you?"
"It has a name," he said almost inaudibly. She looked at him questioningly with tearfilled eyes. "That name," he added, "is 'The Disease of Oblomovka."
The only moment I found myself touched was when Olga, the female protagonist and Oblomov’s one-time fiancée, starts to fear depression, probably because I could relate to her fear of unhappiness amidst happiness. On the whole, this is The Sorrows of Young Werther for more or less functional adults. Meh.

Operacja alfabet

Operacja alfabet - Al MacCuish Tak jak Agnieszka - której uprzejmości zawdzęczam to, że tytuł polskiej wersji "Alfabetu" na GR nie zawiera szalonego ciągu cyfr wstukanego przez moją córkę - jestem mocno zdziwiona faktem, ze nigdy o tej książce nie słyszałam. Fakt, wydano ją w 2011, jeszcze zanim się "ubranżowiłam", ale jest naprawdę o niebo lepsza od większości aktualnie modnych ilustrowanych książek dla młodszych dzieci, gdzie często widać przerost formy nad treścią ("Narodziny księżniczki" - kupiłam ze względu na nagrody, żałuję), a do tego często przerost oryginalności nad estetyką ([b:Pięciu nieudanych|28239765|Pięciu nieudanych|Beatrice Alemagna||43981763], [b:Ignatek szuka przyjaciela|28245948|Ignatek szuka przyjaciela|Paweł Pawlak||48280654]).

Tu nie. Ilustracje są przyjemnie oldschoolowe, z Anglią z lat 60. w tle; historia jest długa i wciągająca, w sam raz dla dziecka, które weszło na etap zastanawiania się, o co właściwie chodzi z literkami i dlaczego mama ciągle się w nie patrzy (ok. 3 i pół roku), lub starszego.

Co za szycie!

Co za szycie! - Maksymiuk-Szymanska Anna Dzieło. Po prostu dzieło. Zbiorowe. Zacznijmy jednak od tego, co dobre:
a) książka zawiera sporo informacji (o przydatnych funkcjach maszyn, stopkach, itd.), których musiałabym szukać po sieci, a po prostu nie chce mi się dłubać i przesiewać, do tego zostaję bez nieprzyjemnego wrażenia, że jest jeszcze coś ważnego, do czego nie dotarłam.
b) sam proces szycia (nie mowię tu o mechanice, tylko o etapach mierzenie-obliczanie-krojenie-szastprast-gotowy ciuch) został przedstawiony w naprawdę mało przerażający sposób.
c) autorka dość przejrzyście przedstawia, jak zdjąć miarę i skonstruować proste ubranie na swoje wymiary.
a) treść – o dziwo, dość mało dowiadujemy się o technikach szycia, ściegach itp. Czytając, odnosimy wrażenie, że autorce brakuje umiejętności przekazania tego, jak szyć, słowami: „Gotowy rękaw wpinamy do sukienki. Jak? Spójrzcie na filmik, bo ciężko jest to opisać słowami, łatwiej pokazać." Podobnych odwołań do „filmików, na których wszystko widać” jest dużo, dużo więcej.
b) zdjęcia – jest ich bardzo dużo, ale nie pomagają. Tam, gdzie przedstawiają sekwencje czynności (np. nawijanie nici na szpulkę, nawlekanie igły), nie są ponumerowane, nie ma zbliżeń ani strzałek (mój szyjący mąż, przeglądając tę książkę, stwierdził, że gdyby miał się z niej uczyć szycia, cisnąłby nią o podłogę). Ale tu przynajmniej da się pojąć, o co chodzi. Natomiast liczne zdjęcia ilustrujące tutoriale krawieckie nie składają się na spójną „historię”; dostajemy raczej zestaw przypadkowych fotografii, z których dość ciężko wyciągnąć wnioski (za to na większości zdjęć doskonale widać logo na maszynie). Może DVD jest tu bardziej pomocne – nie wiem.
c) niechlujność edytorska – brak zgrania tekst-ilustracje: np. przy opisie budowy maszyny opis do ilustracji przedstawiających elementy 14-23 znajduje sie na stronie 38, a ilustracje na stronie 34. Czytając instrukcję szycia sukienki łamiemy głowę nad tym, czym, u licha, jest prostokąt wygięty w rogal (strona 145), żeby znaleźć odpowiednie zdjęcie po przewróceniu strony. Brak zgrania nagłówki- tekst (patrz „tkaniny" i „podszewki", strony 84-85). Zdjęcia tkanin zaczerpnięte ze strony jakiegoś sklepu internetowego są do luftu i często nie dają zupełnie pojęcia o cechach tkanin (co da się zrobić – sama widziałam).
d) język – autorka jest absolwentką dziennikarstwa (nielubiącą czytać, o czym w książce wspomina) i specjalistką ds. PR, ale polska język trudna język. „Wykreować" bluzę czy torbę na zakupy, naprawdę? „Nitka musi być skierowana w przeciwnym kierunku do wskazówek zegara" (a o której godzinie mówimy)? „Ci z Was... dla których szycie nie jest obce"? To (oraz literówki) mógłby jednak wyłapać redaktor – gdyby ta książka miała redaktora, bo spis sprawców zamieszania takowego nie wykazuje.
e) wady wynikłe z „przełożenia” vloga na książkę – pominąwszy widoczną w niej nieumiejętność pisania i opisywania, książka jest bardzo mocno osadzona w chwili obecnej, a typowe cechy bloga/ vloga wyglądają mocno niezręcznie w wersji książkowej – np. tu bardziej razi, że przedstawiono wyłącznie maszyny Janome, o polecanych miejscach też przyjemniej i naturalniej czyta się w Internecie, w książce wygląda to bardziej jak krypto- (choć w zasadzie czy krypto?) reklama. Skrótowo: wg mnie to jedna z tych książek typu blog-to-book, które spokojnie mogłyby nigdy nie powstać.
f) I ostatnia kwestia: zanim kupisz, spójrz, czy chcesz uczyć się szyć wg wzorów proponowanych przez Rudą. W moim odczuciu nie są to rzeczy, które sprawdziłyby się na mnie, prędzej na mojej szparagowatej córce; to bardzo proste ubrania (wiem, taki był cel ćwiczenia), ale nie na każdej sylwetce będą dobrze wyglądać, nawet uszyte z dzianiny. I to by było na tyle.

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster - Dana Thomas 4.5 stars, rounded up because this is a must-read: for those who believe in the transformative power of shopping and those who don't; for people who consider themselves unaffected by advertising and for those who notice the dramatic decrease in the quality of clothing they buy.

A quotation I found (which didn't make it into the book, but encapsulates the message of at least a large portion of it) comes from Jean-Louis Dumas, the late chairman of the Hermès group from 1978 until 2006: "We don't have a policy of image, we have a policy of product." (Source: a Vanity Fair article - )

The book is about masstige vs. old-school luxury, changing self-perception of social classes, cynical creation of needs by companies such as LVMH, the behemoth of the luxury industry. Dana Thomas taught me to see past the advertising used by luxury brands, cured me of the remainders of my perfume snobbery, gave me numbers proving that buying fakes of any kind means supporting organised crime and terrrorism. Also, I will never shop at Sephora again.

Thomas contrasts LVMH, too strongly at times, with representatives of the last big fashion houses - those independent ones and those with a significant degree of independence - and 'fashion refugees": designers and perfumers who refused to play the game and deliver perfectly crafted, unique products. A great book to set your consumer priorities right.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps - John Buchan 3.5 stars. A short, old-fashioned spy thriller with a touch of humour, which reminded me of a video game or role playing game; the protagonist is very resourceful, the ending scene merits four stars, descriptions of characters and nature are really pleasing. I might actually want to see one of the movie versions.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue - Maajid Nawaz, Sam Harris I've been wanting to read an informative book about the politics of Islam for a while now, and I'm ready to assume (perhaps somewhat lazily) that this slim volume was the thing. It does not offer an analysis of Islam as such, it does not present the religion; instead, it gives a view of its place in today's world, and a more-than-basic explanation of why Islam, in its traditional form, does not agree with many aspects of modern Western culture. It also discusses some of the more (indirectly) problematic responses to Islam on the part of Western liberals.

1. I really appreciated the explanation of the breakdowns and divisions Maajid Nawaz gave - I think it is really hard for Christians to envisage the complex divisions among Muslims, especially as the ratios of what we perceive as 'radical' to 'liberal' are very different in the two faiths (the term used here in the widest meaning possible); also, more importantly, the very understanding of 'liberal' and 'radical' is different (this is also discussed).

2. Coming from one of the major Antemurales Christianitatis ( ), I find it refreshing to see a text on Islam which isn't written from a Christian perspective or with an implied Christian context. Instead, the focus is on Islam versus human right values, or, which I find more patronizing, but nevertheless real, 'progress'.

3. Harris makes a few major points; that Islam is, in its traditional (is this a proper word?) form, a religion of conquest, to a greater degree than Christianity (I still wouldn't like to meet Cortez, though). That reformers of Islam - and, to be politically correct, other religions - are essentially unfaithful to their primary messages (but he also claims it's better to live with this dilemma than to not attempt reform). Longish quote ahead, hidden under spoiler tags:
In the twenty-first century, the moderate’s commitment to scientific rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value—values that, as you say, are potentially universal for human beings—comes from the past thousand years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern, ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception. The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where we do find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there. Moderates seem unwilling to grapple with the fact that all scriptures contain an extraordinary amount of stupidity and barbarism that can always be rediscovered and made holy anew by fundamentalists—and there’s no principle of moderation internal to the faith that prevents this. These fundamentalist readings are, almost by definition, more complete and consistent—and, therefore, more honest.

4. Harris makes an interesting point about Western liberals trying to justify Islam as 'oriental' (I'm using this word to signal postcolonial, yet still patronizing perception/ white guilt; I don't remember whether Harris used it), and being tolerant of the worst aspects of the unreformed Islam. According to him,
[while] they rightly question every aspect of their “own” Western culture in the name of progress, they censure liberal Muslims who attempt to do so within Islam, and they choose to side instead with every regressive reactionary in the name of “cultural authenticity” and anticolonialism.
He also says that worringly, radical Muslims are more likely to be represented in the media than the 'reformed' ones also due to the fact that in the West, it is felt that the former are somewhat more genuine, and thus - representative of the faith. (This is scary; I can imagine my reaction to being 'represented' by a traditionalist Catholic - which is quite easy, since my country is currently ruled by people who represent such views. And, as Harris implies, the distance between reformed and traditionalist Muslims is greater than between liberal and traditionalist Catholics.)

Probably it is a simplification - but a more intelligent one than the ones I've encountered so far. I cannot help being worried by the fact that all top positive reviews seem to be written by Americans (American atheists?)

2015 on Goodreads

2015 on Goodreads - Various 2015 started with for me with joining, enthusiastically, my first group - 2015: The Year of Reading Women; this helped me encounter many fantastic people and read many books ranging from mesmerising to disappointing.

It ended with a huge crisis, major culling of to-read and considering lists, elimination of my too-depressing-to-consider shelf (the very presence of which was the first sign that books I gravitate towards don't agree with me), and an intention to read less and more discriminatingly next year. More contentment, less 'all intelligent people seem to be reading that!' compulsion.

Favourite fiction of 2015:
A Month in the Country
The Custom of the Country
Memoirs of Hadrian

Favourite non fiction of 2015:
The Songlines
Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays
The Quest for Corvo

There also were some inevitable disappointments (Nightwood being the greatest), and books I was really conflicted about (primarily Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal), which produced some good reviews.

(Inserting links doesn't work for some reason; I'll come back to add these later).

The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography (New York Review Books Classics)

The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography (New York Review Books Classics) - A.J.A. Symons, A.S. Byatt Stranger, and better, than fiction: The Quest... might appear to be casually conceived (man reads book, man falls in love; man reads book's author's letters, man gets both fascinated and appalled; man decides to write author's biography) and casually written, but at least the latter is not true. Symons, who only takes shape as a character-writer at the very beginning and end of his book, ensures the pacing, timing, findings, sources, and even a mysterious benefactor appear at just the right moments in this seemingly nonchalantly crafted story to keep us interested. He also makes discreet, but masterly use of the fashionable modernist techniques; the amateur-detective fiction frame known from The Great Gatsby, for instance; fragmented and conflicting point of view; variety of voices.

The books works so fantastically well, in spite of its rather simple premise (find out as much as possible about author; write letters letters letters; reprint received letters letters letters), because of its peculiar subject. The tormented, multitalented, paranoid Frederick Rolfe, a man with an infallible and elaborate self-sabotage mechanism, makes my pet miserable author - [a:Jean Rhys|25022|Jean Rhys|] - look like a fully functional, successful person. Highly recommended.

The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction

The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction - Nick Groom I was torn between giving it 2 and 3 stars - I liked the overall idea, but was frustrated by its whirlwind execution.

Discontent and Its Civilizations

Discontent and Its Civilizations - Mohsin Hamid I'm quite happy to have had the opportunity to read that, but out of eight essays I found best/ useful and was ready to scan, six were easily available online. Frustrating.

Becoming Queen

Becoming Queen - Kate Williams I imagine this might be tedious to some, but I did enjoy the subject matter and the research. a) I was quite surprised the very, very public washing of dirty linen by the then Prince Regent and his wife. b) The descriptions - and effects - of bloodletting were rather shocking; no wonder the 19th century was the time of vampirophobia.

Matka. Feministka

Matka. Feministka - Agnieszka Graff Dwie rzeczy, jakie wyniosłam z lektury tej książki: a) zasiłki dla rodziców (matek!) dzieci niepełnosprawnych są dramatycznie niskie, b) Graff jest lepszą matką niż ja (i prawdopodobnie lepszą niż Ty).

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf, Maureen Howard This book confirms my suspicions that I should best read Woolf on holidays - just because I need pretty unlimited mental bandwidth for her writing. This is superb; I did not have the opportunity to fully enjoy it, since I was reading it at a moment I felt largely overwhelmed with work; I plan to reread it.

Quick notes: I absolutely need to reread it when I'm older. I think I'll understand this novel better. The youth is mysterious; aging is describe as something that never happens fully, since at some plane people always remain their youthful selves. To me, this novel is largely about what it meant to be a man or a woman after the WWI, when the British Empire was folding down - it seems that most of the available models of masculinity or femininity were pretty dreary.

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