Book Review: The Joke by Milan Kundera

For the first time, my Around the World for a Good Book selection is for a country that no longer exists.  The Joke: A Novel of Czechoslovakia Today (1967, English translation 1969) is an fact a story of 50 years ago.  Since the author Milan Kundera is Czech and the novel is set in Prague, Moravia, and Bohemia, this book will represent the Czech Republic.  Slovakia will wait for another novel.

The Joke takes place in the 1950’s when the Communist Party ruled behind the Iron Curtain.  The extent of Totalitarianism was that writing a bad joke about Trotsky on a postcard could land one in serious trouble with the dour authorities.  This is what happens to Ludvik Jahn, who as a result of this joke loses his Party membership, is forced out of the university, and ends up serving in a military division for subversives and working in mines.

Talk about an unsympathetic protagonist!  Ludvik meets and falls in love with the innocent young Lucie while he’s in the military camp.  When she wont sleep with him he treats her in a beastly manner, but continues to claim his love for her is deep and to not understand why she leaves him.  Later, Ludvik tries to exact revenge on the Party member who humiliated him by having an affair with this man’s wife in the most vulgar manner.  Towards the end of the novel Ludvik has some small realizations of the errors of his ways, but for the most part this is a story of a downward spiral of selfishness.

A subplot tells of Ludvik’s childhood friend Jaroslav whose goal in life is to preserve the traditional folk ways and music of his Moravian village.  The culminating pages of the novel take place during the Ride of the King festival which tragically has lost it’s original meaning and is now an orchestrated affair for the purposes of the Party.  I liked the parts with Jaroslav and the folk music the most interesting parts of this book.

Favorite Passages

The young can’t help acting; they’re immature but they’re placed in a mature world and have to act as if they were mature.  So they put on whatever masks and disguises appeal to them and can be made to fit — and they act.  – p. 88

We listened to Ludvik, and our surprise was mingled with irritation — irritation at his certainty.  He was behaving the way all Communists behaved at the time.  As if he’d made a secret pact with the future and had the right to act in its name. – p. 134

Drunkards are the most loyal supporters of revivalist folk ventures.  The last supporters.  After all, they provide a noble pretext for getting drunk.  – p. 247

Author Kundera, Milan.
Title The joke. Translated by David Hamblyn and Oliver Stallybrass.
Publication Info. New York, Coward-McCann [1969]
Edition [1st American ed.].
Description 288 p. 22 cm.

Book Review: “Bonanza” by Neal Stephenson (Book 4 of the Baroque Cycle)

I’m continuing the Baroque Cycle with “Book 4: Bonanza” which is paired with “Book 5: Juncto” in The Confusion (2004) by Neal Stephenson. This shows how stubborn I am to read one book at a time since Bonanza is “confused” together with Juncto making for a lot of page flipping.

Bonanza is all Jack Shaftoe as he connives to escape slavery and make a fortune in gold in an around the world adventure.  Jack and his polyglot cabal of escaped galley slaves travel through Algiers, Egypt, India, the Phillipines, China, Mexico, and the mysterious land of Qwghlm over a dozen years.  Topics covered include global commerce, colonialism, religious conflict, the Inquisition, Jesuits, alchemy, piracy, shipbuilding, metallurgy, numismatics, vulgarity, and slapstick humor.

Despite the adventure, I didn’t feel as engaged with this book as the earlier ones.  It all seems to be leading somewhere –  with tangents – but I’m not enjoying the ride as much.  I should have read it mixed-up with Eliza’s book Juncto.  I’ll find out soon when I read that book in the coming weeks.

By the way, I have to give credit to Vermeer’s Hat for covering the Manilla trade which involved Chinese merchants living in the outskirts of that city and an annual sailing of a galleon from New Spain bearing silver bullion.  This was a good background for many of the events in Bonanza.

The confusion / Neal Stephenson.
New York : Morrow, c2004.
815 p.: maps ; 25 cm.

Book Review: Crosstown by Helen Levitt

The opening of episode 7 of New York: A Documentary Film featured clips from a 1948 film entitled In the Street. This movie captured images of ordinary people in the streets of upper Manhattan and was quite moving in capturing the place and time. I looked for the film without success but did find this book by the cinematographer, Crosstown (2001) by Helen Levitt.

The oversize book features Levitt’s photos of street scenes in New York from the 1930’s & 40’s as well as from 1959 to the present.  The photos are evocative in their ordinariness.  They are also often funny.  The later photos remind me of the New York City of my childhood while the earlier photos give a peek at the New York of my parents’ generation.  Great stuff.

The work of Helen Levitt is online at:

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns

New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.