Books I Read In October and November 2016

It’s play reading season for me, so I didn’t get to read as many published books as usual. Here’s what I read in October and November, including Hagseed, the Night Manager, and the Language Hoax.

The Night Manager by John Le Carré

Yes, I read the Night Manager because I watched the mini series on AMC. Since the novel was written in the early 1990s and the TV series was set in present day, I was curious to see what had been updated or changed from the book.

I can’t really say I enjoyed reading The Night Manager and there were a lot of  times when I considered abandoning the book. Le Carre’s language is … let’s just say it’s pretty flowery. Despite the fact that the novel was a thriller, it had a really slow pace.

Was it different from the TV show? Yeah, it was, a lot. The night manager of the title was the same, and the main bad guy was the same. But the chief spy, who’s a woman on TV, was a dude in the book. A sign of the times, I guess? The ending was a lot different too, and after seeing the televised version, I felt that the book’s ending was a let down.

Would I feel the same had I not seen the mini series? Maybe. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book if I hadn’t seen the show, so there’s that.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

After the mild disappointment of the Night Manager, I enjoyed The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo more than I thought I would. I have a few problems with Amy Schumer’s comedy –mainly her approach to race issues and her insistance on describing herself as fat. But her memoir goes beyond her comedic persona, offering a glimpse at who she is as a person.

It’s also fairly funny while it discusses some pretty dark stuff. In one part, she describes her tendancy to black out when drinking. As part of the chapter, she recounts a relatively recent event, during which she took Ambien after drinking. She ended up eating butter “like it was guacamole” while her horrified boyfriend looked on.

I think people have a tendancy to conflate who Schumer is as a person with the characters she creates for TV and her movie. The book is a reminder that they are not one and the same, and that there’s more to Amy Schumer than her comedy.

Hagseed

Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

Hagseed is Margaret Atwood’s re-telling of the Tempest. Instead of simply adapting the story of Shakespeare’s play, Atwood creates a sort of story within the play. After being ousted from his role as artistic director at a theater festival, Felix finds himself living in exile in some hovel somewhere in Canada and teaching drama at a local prison. A highlight of the prisoner’s lives in the annual Shakespearean production they put on. In an interesting twist, the same people who fired Felix now have plans to shutter his prison literacy program. Felix comes up with a plan to get his revenge and convince the men to keep the program going.

Before he was fired, Felix had plans for a great production of the Tempest at the festival. Those plans were shelved, but not forgotten. Now, at the prison, he sees a chance to bring his plan for the Tempest to life, while seeking revenge on the people who fired him.

The fact that Felix is producing the Tempest while the plot of the play also parallels his life makes Hagseed a particularly fun read. It’s much more than just a straight-up adaptation or retelling. It presents the original work while also imitating and riffing on that work. There’s a lot of room for failure in that premise (I initially thought it would be very cheesy). But, Atwood pulls it off. She makes Felix a character you both feel for and feel annoyed by. Instead of simply rehashing the plot, she turns it into something else entirely.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

The Language Hoax by John McWhorter

I took a linguistics course on Coursera recently and McWhorter’s The Language Hoax was one of the recommended, but not required readings. I’ve read other books by McWhorter and find him to be a fun read. The Language Hoax was no different.

It’s an argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that people’s language shapes their culture. Although it’s a problematic hypothesis that leads to people occasionally making broad and inaccurate statements such as “_____ language has no color for green, thus ____ people don’t see green!” or “____ has simple grammar. Thus, ____ people are simple!,” the hypothesis has lived on. It’s often mentioned in the media (they mentioned in the movie Arrival) in a way that’s overly simplified.

McWhorter argues that it’s not language that shapes culture but rather, if anything culture that shapes language. Or more likely, a series a random of events that form language and have nothing to do with cultural preferences or the intellectual abilities of one people over another.

Take, for example, the use of the definite article. Not every language uses “the.” Does that mean languages without “the” have no sense of definiteness? Or that people who speak those languages can’t pick out one specific object from a group? No, probably not.

At the end of the book, McWhorter stresses that despite our cultural differences, we can look at language to find out what makes people more the same than different.