Book club pick #10

It has been a while since the last online vote after Dave Eggers recommendation and the Nijmegen book club combined voting. However for our tenth edition in July, which will be the final book club before our one month summer break, the vote is all yours again!

You can pick between the two following books:

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux combines science-fiction with Dostoevsky when Nicky Slopen returns from the dead. He has been dead for months. So when a man claiming to be Nicholas turns up to visit an old girlfriend, deception seems the only possible motive. From the secure unit of a notorious psychiatric hospital, he begins to tell his tale: an account of attempted forgery that draws the reader towards an extraordinary truth – a metaphysical conspiracy that lies on the other side of madness and death.

The second book is Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World written by Donald Antrim. It’s a short novel, spanning not even 200 pages.  In Pete Robinson’s seaside suburban town, things have, well, fallen into disrepair. The voters have de-funded schools, the mayor has been drawn and quartered by an angry mob of townsmen, and Turtle Pond Park is stocked with claymore mines. Pete Robinson, third grade teacher with a 1:32 scale model of an Inquisition dungeon in his basement, wants to open a new school, and in his effort to do so he stumbles upon another idea: he needs to run for mayor.

So vote for your favorite book to read before the summer ends.  We would also love to hear what books you would want to read over the summer to discuss with us in September. Any recommendations are welcome!

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our seventh book is Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw and the review is written by Michelle Carmody.

The life-advice section in any bookstore is usually the shiniest, the brightest, with the glossiest covers and the snappiest titles. When I lived in Argentina I was seduced by the prospect of an organized life that the books in this section offered me, the promise of pulling me out of my rut and helping me make good use of my time, to seize the day and to make the most of the great opportunity that living in a foreign country offered. While these books appeal to, and are aimed at, any and every sector of the population, perhaps they hold a special appeal to migrants, to transitory populations seeking a path, in lieu of a fixed place.

The migrants in Five Star Billionaire are all floating in foreign space, looking for a path forward. No one sees Shanghai as a permanent option. The five stars of Five Star Billionaire are Yinghui, Phoebe, Gary, Justin and Walter; all Malaysian emigrants of varying social status, making it work in Shanghai. The most interesting of these characters is Phoebe, who really seems to be the personification of new South East Asia. Phoebe arrives in Shanghai by way of Shenzhen, the factory floor of the world. She comes to Shanghai because it offers her somewhere to sleep, the floor of the tiny apartment of a friend from her Malaysian village. But it also offers her the prospect of making it big, of moving up in the world beyond the factory floor to the upper levels of life.

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Phoebe follows various self-improvement manuals, absorbing the advice of gurus on how to get rich and how to get a man – the latter being the key to the former – until she completely transforms herself and becomes a creation of these books. Phoebe sets out to exploit the possibilities that the new China offers rural women like her. She steals an ID card, which allows her to literally stumble into a job, and from there she sets about finding the perfect mate while managing a workforce of fellow migrants who, having come from the countryside to the city, have not made the transition to city girl Phoebe has.

She masters the ability to chat online with multiple men, filtering out the useless ones. Through this she meets both Walter and Gary. Gary is a disgraced pop megastar; Walter is an uber-tycoon who, when not writing self-improvement manuals, is busy completing the acquisition and destruction of both Justin and Yinghui’s successful business empires. The connection between the five migrants is Jackie Collins-esque: there is deception so obvious to everyone except the deceived, there is revenge for something that happened long before the avenger even opened his first bank account; there is a fall from grace that Britney herself could be proud of. There is no sex.

In many ways this book fails to really capture the energy of five lives open to potential and being thrown around by the city of Shanghai and its mixture of possibilities and limitations. The story arcs, and especially the connections, are far-fetched and some characters are under-developed. But in other ways this book gives a glimpse into the contradictions of emerging China. Yinghui has made it big as a businesswoman, but is ultimately brought down by social conventions and traditions that lead her to submit to Walter and lead Walter to extract revenge on her for the humiliation of his father by hers. Phoebe suffers from increasing existential angst brought on through her masquerading as a successful businesswoman. Heritage buildings in the heart of Shanghai and KL are being torn down and used as the foundation for new fortunes.

Zizek has talked about the rise of China as evidence of a kind of ‘capitalism with Asian values’. While in many respects this book is unsuccessful as a story, it plays with this idea of unrestrained capitalism and its promise of self-improvement and entrepreneurial (re)invention, and the clash with tradition, convention and the past. The self-improvement that Phoebe undergoes allows her to find a path in a foreign city, allows her to exploit opportunities and Shanghai itself to the fullest possible extent. She reaches a limit, though, and eventually accepts that return to her village is inevitable. As her roommate puts it, ‘where else am I supposed to go?’. The anything-goes, get-rich-quick environment of Shanghai offers endless possibilities, but those who are floating in its space are still restrained by their past, by the traditions and conventions that follow them into their new lives and pull them back into the old. While this book fails to capture the energy of contemporary China, it does point to many of the contradictions in the model of uber-development through replication, the paint-by-numbers approach to moving up in the world and what the personal and social implications of that might be.

Written by Michelle Carmody

Book club pick #8 Nijmegen Book Club Meet Up

In June we are teaming up with The Nijmegen Book Club for a two-city read! Their book club is filled with like-minded, English books loving people who we can’t not meet. According to the Nijmegen Book Club Way we have a theme for the June book picks and the voting will happen through a poll on Facebook. To highlight the options and to urge you to vote before the 24th of March after which the decision will be made final, we decided to outline the books and choices for you.

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The first option is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. This book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize of 2013, but lost to The Luminaries. However, we all know that the losing books are often the better ones, so don’t judge it just yet. The book is about sixteen-year old Nao, living in Tokyo, who is contemplating suicide to protect herself from her bullying classmates and the aching loneliness that follows. Before this, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a centenarian Buddhist nun, in her diary. This diary finds its way across the Pacific into the hands of Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island. Buried in a Hello Kitty Lunchbox, Ruth finds the debris of Nao’s life and starts to unfold it.

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Our second option is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. This book was also nominated for the Man Booker Prize which we apparently adore and it Bulawayo debut novel. In We Need New Names a young girl named Darling tries to escape the perils from her life in Zimbabwe and find her way to America. Her old life in Zimbabwe is violent and dangerous, but arriving in America shows that life as an immigrant doesn’t give her the abundance and ease she hoped for.

13073519Panopticon by Jenni Fagan is option number three and a book we have been contemplating for our book club for a while now. A panopticon is a circular prison, constructed in such a way that prisoners can view each other at all times. At the start of the book Anais finds herself arrested and on her way to the panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. Here she forms a strong bond with the other inmates, who are all part of the same experiment. Anais is forced to find out about the strange circumstances about her life, which has been lived mostly among unloving foster parents and the alleged ‘crime’ she committed to get to Panopticon.

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Your final option is the classic All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. This book, part novel part philosophy, tells the romantic tale of Count Raymond Fosca who is cursed to live forever. He falls in love with the young actress Regine, who is quite theatrical and obsessed with being eternal herself. Fosca confesses to her his condition, retelling the acts of his previous lives and how futile these have become once there is no definite end.

Now all of you are informed enough to vote on the book you like the most! Unlike our usual voting system, there will be no voting during the book club meeting itself, so make sure you tell us what to read. Voting is done easily by clicking on this link and then choosing your favorite. We hope you like the books we picked and would love to hear about books written by women you would like to read in the future!

Heft – Liz Moore

For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Our sixth book is Heft by Liz Moore and the review is written by Reka Paul.

There are many different kinds of loneliness in this world, but in truth they all feel the same. Arthur Opp, who weighs 550 pounds and never leaves his house is as lonely as the high school senior Kel Keller who has many friends but no one to turn to when in trouble. These are the two main characters of Liz Moore’s “Heft” (2012), a heartrending novel which shows us that being satisfied with your life is not quite the same as being happy.

The heavily overweight Arthur and the sporty high school heartthrob Kel do not have much more in common apart from their loneliness.  Except perhaps for Charlene, Kel’s mother and Arthur’s former sweetheart who is very dear to both of them. A letter from Charlene reconnects Arthur, her past, with Kel, her present, and uncovers many problems that have been lingering in their lives. The former literature professor Opp retreats into his family’s house, surrounded by painful as well as pleasant memories, does not allow anyone into his small world besides the deliverymen but keeps telling himself that this is the life he wants and needs. Kel is being pushed by his sick mother to seek for a better life, a life that she always wanted but never found, a life of education and well-being, away from their old neighborhood, maybe in the brighter parts of New York. In accordance with her wishes he attends the high school in a far better off area and makes friends with the rich kids but never forgets where he comes from, the darker dirtier streets of Yonkers.

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Where Arthur leads us to reflect about the boundaries between comfortableness and laziness and the temptation of having no obligations in life, Kel on the other hand shows us how it feels to be accepted and liked by everyone, which seems so desirable until his mother gets worse and he cannot confide in any of his so called friends.

Moore tells their stories separately, Arthur’s on the one side, his every day’s struggle to walk from the living room to the kitchen and his ideas for meals. Kel’s story on the other, his plans for the future, his worries for his mother, his yearning for a father he never had. The stories start to intertwine when Charlene catches up with her pen pal Opp and asks him for help with her son’s future.

Slowly both characters develop, firstly by admitting their problems, famously the most important step towards facing them and gain new friends or recover old friendships. Both find out in their own way, that even though they had insisted for a long time that they were satisfied with their lives, they had not been happy. For though many things can bring us satisfaction, but only few can bring us true happiness.

Apart from the deep insights into their worlds and thoughts, which brings us Arthur and Kel close enough to forgive them almost anything, but just almost, we still cannot get through to all the supporting characters. In a sense Arthur’s new friend Yolanda and Kel’s high school friends stay shallow acquaintances to the reader, shadows in the background whose impact we feel but whose driving stays hidden to us, even though one cannot but desire to get to know them better.

What Moore wants to tell is surely that people need people, that loneliness can be overcome and that two people as different as Arthur and Kel can have things in common. Enough to be a spark of hope, in form of a letter, a picture and a call. The two stories are not told with great drama but rather gently with much concern for the characters’ personal desires and struggles. We follow them both close up and for a long time leading up to their encounter. For though as little as we know the other characters, as much we do know about Arthur and Kel and throughout the story one cannot help but feel and struggle along with them and keep up the hope for them to overcome their loneliness and to transform a just quite satisfying life little by little into a happier one.

Written by Reka Paul

Book Club Pick #8: Dave Eggers Recommends

This Monday the founding members of Bored to Death book club skipped work to go to a book signing by Dave Eggers at De Nieuwe Boekhandel in Amsterdam. If it wasn’t clear yet how dedicated we are to books and our book club, we believe this outing will state it as a fact. Together with about twenty other book lovers we dutifully waited in line for our turn to meet Dave Eggers and to have our books signed. This took a while. Quite a while even, as we stood in line for almost two hours. Dave (we can call him Dave after those two hours) is one of those authors who takes his time signing books. With every reader he slowly shook his or her hand, gracefully taking their books and started signing away while chit-chatting about whatever came up. We hear him have conversations about Her, about Los Angeles, about other books and authors and about how slow he was. He apologized to us many times, but continued to take his time with every reader and no one wanted him to do otherwise.

When it was our turn we had had plenty of time to think of what we wanted to talk about with Dave and we are happy to say that we spend our one question on our book club. We asked Dave if he could recommend us a book for our next meeting and of course he was full of them! His immediate response was for us to read Tenth of December by George Saunders, a short story collection by one of the funniest authors of our time. We had been wanting to do a book of short stories so this was perfect! Besides this book he also recommended us anything by Junot Diaz and Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, but we were set with his first book club pick.

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He even underlined it. How can we resist?!

So all of this is a really long way of saying that for the month of May Bored to Death book Club has gone from a democracy into a dictatorship and there will be no voting for the book club pick of May. When Dave Eggers tells you to read a book, you read it and by God, all of you will. If riots ensue after our small coup, we will strike down with an iron fist and promise you all you will get to vote on a book again for June. Also we will bribe you with beer and tasties if it’s really necessary.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Voor elk boek dat tijdens de book club wordt gelezen vragen we aan een van onze leden om een review te schrijven van het boek. Zo kan iedereen die niet aanwezig was toch een beetje meegenieten! Voor onze vijfde boekenclub lazen we een klassieker, A Tale of Two Cities van Charles Dickes. Milou van Oene vertelt je over het boek.

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Dat de titel van Charles Dickens’ boek letterlijk van toepassing is op mijn eigen situatie, was nog niet eerder tot me doorgedrongen. A Tale of Two Cities. Pas nu realiseer ik me dat niet alleen de schrijver het verhaal opgedeeld heeft in twee steden, maar ik ook. Een klein Deens dorpje vormde het toneel voor de eerste hoofdstukken en Rotterdam, metropool aan de Maas, deed dat voor de rest van het boek.

Een nachtelijke postkoets, briesende paarden en bange uren. Op het Deense platteland wilde het lezen maar niet vlotten. Het was kerst en de decadentie spatte af van alledag. De vileine Franse markies doodde achteloos een kind, wij een eend en een hele trits cacaobomen. Het leed van de armen? Nu even niet. Zonder veel gewetensbezwaar zwoor ik de nobele kunst van het aandachtig klassieker-lezen voor een paar dagen af, als was ik zelfzuchtig Frans bourgeois.

Eenmaal terug in de stad van de harde werkers en de doordouwers hernam ik mezelf. Discipline! Onderwerping! En zowaar: ik werd gegrepen. Dickens laat de lezer bijna dagelijks kennismaken met nieuwe, markante personages. Dokter Manette en zijn lieflijke en toegewijde dochter Lucy. Hoe kan het ook anders dat zowel de meelijwekkende Engelse advocaat Mr. Carton als de charmante Fransoos-in-disguise Mr. Charles Darnay dingen naar haar hand? Ach, vrouwen vallen al sinds jaar en dag voor de charmes van de Franse man. Als een kirrende Jane Birkin die zich overgeeft aan de versierkunsten van Serge Gainsbourg plooit Lucy zich naar de wil van Charles. Haar vader knijpt ondertussen een oogje toe. Dat had hij beter niet kunnen doen, want wij weten allemaal dat er alleen maar ellende van is gekomen. Dood en verderf in Parijs bepalen de tweede helft van het boek, waarbij La Guillotine zo vaak ten tonele verschijnt dat zij van de weeromstuit een persoonlijkheid cadeau krijgt. Zij spaart ook ons gezelschapje niet.

Dickens schreef A Tale of Two Cities in 1859; de verfilming verschijnt in 1935. Hoewel het boek wel gezien wordt als het meest serieuze uit Dickens’ oeuvre, kan ik niet anders dan grinniken wanneer ik me de uitgewerkte filmkarakters voorstel. De lijzige Lucy, slijmerig blond ding. Darnay, met een wuft Frans accent. Madame Lefarge, met haar eeuwig pinnige gezicht en al even puntige breinaalden. ‘The Vengeance’ (‘De Vergelding’), die heeft vast een horrelvoet. Miss Pross, de dienstbare huishoudster van de Manettes, met haar onmiskenbare mannelijke trekjes. En zo, wellicht onbedoeld, heeft Dickens me aan het lachen gemaakt. Ik wil de film niet zien; dat zou mijn fantasie maar bederven. Voor nu blijf ik maar wat graag in de veronderstelling dat het decor van de geschiedenis, hoe bloederig ook, altijd maar de achtergrond is voor het toneelstuk van de mens.

Milou van Oene
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Book club Pick #7 Five Star Billionaire vs. Foreign Gods, Inc.

It’s that time again, the time to pick a new book for our book club in April. You as a reader of this blog can vote on one of the books and the winner online will get an extra vote during out book club night. So work your influence and help us decide.

Our first option is Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. It’s one of those books which follows many characters which are all set on a path to meet each other later on in the story only this one is set in Shanghai! The story is about old traditions clashing with young ambitions in a busy city. The main characters, a factory-girl-turned-golddigger, property magnate, pop star, entrepreneur and guru are all newcomers in the city lured there by the promise of riches and make-overs.

The second pick is Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe and this book takes place in another big city, New York. Ike is a Nigerian taxi driver with a degree in economics. Everyone is being hit by the recession, but Ike’s strong accent doesn’t provide him a way into the board room. Forced to make his money in the car-jungle of New York he’s unable to financially support the people who depend on him, he turns to gambling and stealing. Specifically stealing a Nigerian statue of an ancient war deity from his home village to sell it to a New York gallery. Going back home brings back more trouble than the statue might be worth.

So please pick one of the books and let us know any other suggestions in the comments!