Book Review: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The Book of Laughter and ForgettingThis morning’s news that Ray Bradbury had passed away put me in something of a contemplative state all day. So rather than taking advantage of an evening home, alone, to try to catch up on my Camp NaNoWriMo effort (already dreadfully behind), I picked up a book that reflected both my melancholy at losing a great author, and, in a strange way, the book I was putting off writing (the second in the Red Slaves series). The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a reflection on the way Communism distorted the lives of the people who lived under that system, though Kundera himself frames it rather more poetically on the back cover of the version of the book that has followed me through any number of moves:

I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.

The novel itself is short enough that I don’t even feel all that guilty about having lost a few hours to it. It is loosely structured in seven parts that really only reflect each other thematically in what read as short stories. The character sketches Kundera constructs for each of these segments are pithy and moving and valuable also for the chance they offer him to digress into recounting his own anecdotes and outlining his own philosophy.

Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.

The way Kundera throws meaning and meaninglessness at each other creates an interesting wave effect in the reader that ultimately makes everything weighty. You feel as though you’re reading a philosophical treatise when you run across passages like:

Laughable laughter is cataclysmic. And even so, the angels have gained something by it. They have tricked us all with their semantic hoax. Their imitation laughter and its original (the Devil’s) have the same name. People nowadays do not even realize that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes. There are two kinds of laughter, and we lack the words to distinguish them.

So I might have to write about laughable laughter in a little bit, as I drag myself back to the real task at hand: Constructing the second novel in my first series. In the meantime, to give you a different perspective on the historical context I’m writing past, go read some Milan Kundera yourself. His words have meat to them and cover everything from history to the relationships men and women struggle with. His cultural references to other works ranging from Madame Bovary to Goethe and the very specific experience he had during the Prague Spring are all worth reviewing, lest we forget (in the manner he describes of the great effort at revising history underway in Czechoslovakia at that time) the lessons available from our own past.

Teaser Tuesday: Water for Elephants

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB @ Should Be Reading (she also hosts some other great memes). (And I found out about it via Cabin Goddess…) Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • • Grab your current read
    • Open to a random page
    • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
    • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
    • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

So. Without further ado:

I spend the night on a crumpled horse blanket against the wall, as far from the cot as I can. The blanket is damp. Whoever covered the slats when they turned this into a room did a lousy job, so the blanket’s been rained on and reeks of mildew.

This one caught my curiosity because the Hollywood machine decided to turn it into a movie: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.

Water for Elephants

The writing is evocative, but nothing like what I was expecting based on the random trailers I’d seen, so it’s been sitting on my desk for a few weeks while I try to finish editing my book to meet my deadlines… So the review is likely to be a few weeks off yet.


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Review: Owning Jolene

Owning Jolene A random, recent Twitter conversation with @ShelMKE about the rarity of the name Shelby reminded me of an author I had met while in college, Shelby Hearon. I had the honor of interviewing her as part of my duties as literary arts magazine editor, but, typically of a college student, had run out of time to actually read any of her books before the interview. I remedied this after the fact and wished I had been in a better position to ask about the genesis of her quirky characters. Her books are eminently readable, and offer a subtle commentary on knowing yourself, growing up, and living successfully within dysfunctional families.

In this particular book, a young woman whose wildly opposing parents kidnapped her back and forth from the time of their separation when she was nine, finally strikes out on her own. She falls in with a painter who uses her as a live, nude model. They have an affair while she sorts out her relationship with the people in her life.

She’s perplexed enough about whom she ought to be “playing” that when the artist’s show opens, and she discovers she’s been literally laid bare for the world to see, she faces a crisis of self that forces her to examine who she is and who she wants to be.

It’s a subtle coming of age story, with more than a few oddities to spice up an otherwise southern manner story. Given some of the adult themes, it might not be appropriate for younger teens, but its conclusion of self-empowerment and the ability of an individual to align even the most misfit parts of themselves into a strong whole make it worth sharing with young women who are looking for a context for their own oddities.

I strongly recommend this book not only for its unique characterizations, but also its ability to put experiences into a framework that allow them to push an individual toward growth.

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