Saturday, January 31, 2009

Girls In Trucks by Katie Crouch

I have been a little bit too busy/high strung lately to take on any kind of reading that does not accompany curling up with Ben and Jerry's well and so several days ago I made it home from the library with a stack of Claire Dane's movies and the novel Girls In Trucks. There's something about southern chick lit with quirky female protagonists that makes the world make sense again. Sometimes I think that studying English has sucked my love out of reading anything "important" or canonical or respectable. Or maybe I'm making excuses.

Spoilers, because I doubt this would appeal much to anyone else here:
Sarah Walters, our main character, is a debutante and a fourth generation Camellia society member brought up in Charleston by a prim and proper mother desperate to marry her daughter off to someone, anyone, but preferably a man from a certain kind of class that knows how to Fox Trot. (I can appreciate this after I have heard the speech about how college is the mall of America for future husbands a couple too many times.) Her older sister goes to Yale and leaves impossible expectations for Sarah to live up to, Sarah moves to New York to work in publishing and spends her time falling for a cruel and abusive man while her best friend from back home spends all of her time drinking and shooting heroin in their dingy living room, and that prim and proper mother of hers comes out of the closet with another Camellia Society member after her husband shoots himself. What I like about Sarah is that she's honest and she has all of those embarrassing, heartbreaking moments that we all more or less deal with--the day you find out that the one person who would always want you suddenly doesn't anymore, the day you try to be inconspicuous while you accidentally run into your ex-boyfriend's new love interest, the day you realize the person you've been seeing is already in a relationship, or worse, a marriage. When Sarah needed a good slap in the face was usually when I found myself rooting for her the most, though. Her struggle for grace and resilience in the worst of situations made her voice feel authentic to me and her strange and obviously faulty ways of trying to bounce back endearing.

The thing that I appreciated about the book was that it had a strange circle of female friends that didn't exactly make sense and weren't compatible except for being raised in the same area, which I think is true of most groups of women. The thing that I liked about them, as catty and self-involved as some of them were, was that regardless of distance in miles between them once they had gone their separate ways and regardless of ideological differences as they bloomed into different people out of watchful eye of the Camellia society, they held one another accountable for their shit. So many women have to walk on eggshells around one another and aren't ballsy enough to serve up brutal honesty when it's needed, but the characters in Crouch's novel weren't that way. I think that the reason I couldn't stop thinking about that throughout reading this book was that my friend is getting married to someone who everyone else (including myself) realizes is not good for her but how do you tell that to someone you love who is glowing when they bring you the news? That also might have a lot to do with the Claire Danes and the Ben and Jerry's.

I think the main reason I ended up reading Girls In Trucks is that it started out with Sarah's years in cotillion, which was something that I was fascinated by as a kid. I went to this middle school in Raleigh where most of the girls in my class were taking cotillion classes and becoming well versed in becoming a lady while I was still chasing my brothers friends around trying to convince them to let me play basketball. I never understood why they were whirling around learning how to do what seemed like outdated dances but ended up asking my mother if I could join in on that, not wanting to be out of the loop. Lucky for me she knew that there was no way that was something that would have been good for me and if I had been accepted at all I never would have fit in. Later on, some of those same girls ended up becoming debutantes, and they seemed like they were from another planet, one that had rules dictated by what side of the beltline you lived on and snobbery. I'm glad that I was never one of them but I guess it was nice to be able to infiltrate that world for a couple hours as a fly on the wall through the pages of this book.

You can see Crouch talk about the novel here.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

David loved listening to his mother read to him. But as she succumbed more and more to cancer, David had to start reading to her. His mother's death was traumatic for him. His father's remarriage only made things worse. David developed OCD and started have "episodes" where he would black out. Often after these blackouts he would have the faint recollection of talking with someone familiar, maybe someone from a book he had read or had read to him. The line between reality and fantasy continues breaking down for David, until he is sucks into a dark fantasy world, inhabited by many of the characters from the tales he is so familar with. Once in this world, he has to find his way back to his family.

Connolly borrows heavily from familar fairytales and mythologies. But in his hands, they become distorted echoes of themselves, helping Connolly to weave a much darker tale. This story is about the hardships we face in life, the journey into adulthood that we all eventually make and the magical power of books.

This was an enjoyable read, albeit quite weird in many spots.

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

Some people enjoy it. That was all Ruth had said. Even now, when she'd had months to come to terms with the fallout from this remark, she still marveled at the power of those four words, which she'd uttered without premeditation and without any sense of treading on forbidden ground.
"Oral sex is disgusting," Theresa declared, apropos of nothing. "You might as well French-kiss a toilet seat. You can get all sorts of nasty diseases right?"
Theresa stared straight at Ruth, as if daring her to challenge this incontrovertible fact. In retrospect, Ruth thought she should have been able to discern the hostile intent in the girl's unwavering gaze...but Ruth wasn't in the habit of thinking of her students as potential adversaries. If anything, she was grateful to the girl for creating what her grad school professors used to call a "teachable moment."
"Well," Ruth began, "from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it."

This was the first Tom Perrotta novel I'd ever read. I've seen Election, but before I really ever cared about the books behind the popular films. So I can't tell you if this is true Perrotta, if all of his books are similar, or if this one was an aberration. So if you are a die-hard Perrott fan, don't hate when when I say I wasn't overly impressed by this book.

In "The Abstinence Teacher," Ruth Ramsay is a popular and well-informed sex ed teacher whose curriculum and professional career are threatened by parents from the new evangelical church in town who object to her frank honesty. After one family threatens suit over the incident above, Ruth finds herself both the target and unwilling ally in the school board's new plan, which includes a revamped abstinence-only curriculum and the hiring of JoAnn, the school's new Virginity Consultant.

Ruth's struggle with her feelings about denying her students the truth about contraception and safe sex, and her stagnant divorced-parent dating life, only make up one half of the book. At the beginning of part two, readers are introduced to Tim Mason, a former addict and born-again Christian who appreciates his new found home in the church while still having doubts about some of its tenets. The two meet on adversarial ground when Tim, who coaches Ruth's daughter's soccer team, initiates a team-wide prayer after one of the games.

Ruth and Tim's lives continue to cross in the book, and Perrotta uses an interesting narrative structure to do it. At first, their stories are completely separate, each getting an entire unit of introduction. As Ruth and Tim meet, talk about the prayer issue, and gradually forge the kind of friendship that is constantly fraught with sexual tension, the space allotted to each alone shrinks. By the end of the book, Perrotta is switching perspectives every paragraph, going back and forth to show Ruth and Tim's feelings about each other and the situation they find themselves in.

I read this book pretty fast. Actually I'm reading most books faster now that I am blogging. A few years ago, if I read a book really fast, it meant I really liked it. Now, I can efficiently get through a yawner book almost as fast as a one that's terrific. While I haven't found a great book that I haven't buzzed through, it doesn't go both ways. (If it did, I'd have to rank all of those Left Behind books pretty high on my list.) So even though this was a quick read, it wasn't a great read.

I was disappointed in the lack of drama. Call me crazy, but in fourth grade we learned that stories should go like this. I think I still judge books by that standard. I couldn't find any one plot point that made this book stand out. It was a creative and prescient premise, having been published at the tail-end of the Bush administration, whose abstinence-only policy was panned by a lot of teachers. But I didn't particularly like either character: Ruth was whiny and Tim was kind of a moron.

[On a side note, do you guys remember sex ed in high school? Ours consisted of our male assistant principal cross-dressing like a grandma and talking in a funny voice about the dangers of premarital sex. Oh, and the pages in our AP Environmental Science book that showed pictures of contraceptive devices were blacked out or removed. Thanks Wake County.]

Perrotta definitely wrote this book from a liberal/blue state position, which I think is fine (but then, I'm a liberal.) I wasn't expecting a balanced view of evangelical Christianity in a novel by an author who wears emo glasses. The Virginity Consultant's steely-but-fake-nice demeanor (which reminded me of Sarah Palin), Tim's homophobic pastor, Tim's own doubts about his new religion all serve as a damning indictment of the highjacking of the public sphere by the Bible Belt crew.

Bottom line: read this if you're already a Perrotta fan. Otherwise, I'd say go read "Election" or "Little Children" first. I haven't read those, but from what I hear, Perrotta does a good job of making adulterers, a pedophile, and Tracy Flick seem human and sympathetic. If he can do that, he should have been able to breathe more life into Ruth and Tim in this book.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle

It was during this period--it might have been as late as 1944, now that I come to think of it--that we were finally able to induce the sexual champion I mentioned earlier to sit for an interview. Prok had been courting him for some time now, and the man had been cagey, feeding us portions of his sex diaries by mail, but expressing his reluctance to meet because of the criminal nature of so many of his sexual contacts. Certainly, what he'd sent us--photographs, penis measurements, case histories and written records of various sex acts with every sort of partner, male, female, nonhuman, preadolescents and even infants--was provocative, perhaps even offensive, but invaluable to our understanding of human sexuality. And, as Prok put it so well, we were scientists, not moralists--our duty was to observe and record, not to pass judgment.

Let me start out by saying that T.C. Boyle is clearly an excellent writer, and I have no qualms about the prose itself. That said, I really don't know if this book was a complete success or an utter failure. If Boyle set out to portray Professor Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues as heroic defenders of the sexually marginalized, I think he failed miserably. If Boyle wanted Kinsey to look like a stony, slightly demented old man who used his position of power over his colleagues to manipulate them for his own sexual gratification, then I have to applaud his successful efforts.

Before The Inner Circle, I'd never read a story where I genuinely came to detest each and every character I was introduced to. Even Iris, the narrator's wife and perhaps the only forgivable principle character, has moments where she behaves deplorably. The entire cast, it seems, is morally bankrupt. And if each and every character has fallen to turpitude, the onus falls on Prok, Professor Alfred Kinsey. I must note, this is a novel, not a memoir. Everything I say here is to be attributed to the character of Prok, as described by Boyle through John Milk's narration, not to the late Alfred Kinsey himself. That said, this fictionalization is based on factual research and one can only assume that certain aspects of Prok's character are reflections of Kinsey's actual behavior.

To me, Prok came across as a monster in a lot of ways. I've read that some of Kinsey's detractors claimed that the impetus for his research was his need to validate his own bizarre sexual appetites. That's exactly the impression I got from Prok in The Inner Circle. Prok removes any elements of love and affection from the act of sex. He coerces his colleagues into having sexual affairs with each others wives, with his own wife, with himself. He does so through subtle bullying. "You're not becoming sex shy on me, are you?" he asks a number of times throughout the story. Failing to follow his orders would have meant exclusion from the inner circle, exclusion from the groundbreaking research that was being carried out in Prok's institute.

People who know me will tell you I'm anything but prude. Yet reading this story I found myself genuinely disgusted by the attitude that Prok takes towards sex. And even more disgusted by the way he forces those around them to swallow his beliefs (among other things) and follow them blindly. And they do, they all do. I found it hard to read a book by a narrator that had no moral compass when it came to sex and sex alone. He was a moral man in just about every other facet of his life, but morality and sex had become mutually exclusive. Shortly after a row with his wife after she learned about his sexual research with Prok's wife, Milk has spontaneous sex with another woman in his apartment's hallway, with his wife sleeping only a few feet away. The Chicago Sun-Times says this book "should be read naked!" as if it's some titillating sex romp. At no point during this reading did I find myself so stimulated. If anything, I wanted to get naked after reading a handful of passages so that I could take a shower. It was that kind of book. It turned my stomach.

Specifically, the passages describing Mr. X and his sexual escapades with infants and toddlers. The way that Prok and Milk and all the rest remain scientifically objective while hearing accounts of X masturbating an infant boy. Honestly, am I supposed to find this pursuit of knowledge at all costs heroic... laudable? It's deplorable. The more I think about it, the more unlikely it seems to me that Boyle actually set out trying to make Prok and his cohorts look like good people. But then, who am I rooting for in this story? If Prok and Milk aren't the protagonists, who is?

All in all, this book was difficult to finish. The writing is excellent, really it is. The use of simple sentence structure coupled with the broad vocabulary you'd expect from an academic narrator made it very easy to read... In terms of mechanics, at least. But the subject matter was too unsettling for me. Page after page, characters manipulate each other, break each other's hearts, and make excuses for behaviors that I think can be objectively called malignant.

Professor Kinsey did a lot of great things. His work has given momentum to the sexual empowerment of women, society's acceptance of homosexuality, and review of archaic sodomy laws around the country. That can't (and shouldn't) be taken away from him. But if this fictional account of Kinsey's personal life is even half as accurate as I think it might be... Dude was kinda maladjusted.

Highlights: I like Boyle's style, lots of double entendre like when Prok is teaching Milk how to properly interview their subjects "He wound up drilling me for two hours that night."
Lowlights: It made my skin crawl about a dozen times, and who are we rooting for?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski

When a sufficient number of birds gathered above our heads, Lekh would give me a sign to release the prisoner. It would soar, happy and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds, and then plunge into the waiting brown flock. For an instant the birds were confounded. The painted bird circled from one end of the flock to the other, vainly trying to convince its kin that it was one of them. But, dazzled by its brilliant colors, they flew around it unconvinced. The painted bird would be forced farther and farther away as it zealously tried to enter the ranks of the flock. We s aw soon afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. Shortly the many-hued shape lost its aplce in the sky and dropped to the ground. When we finally found the painted bird it was usually dead.

Here is a rare book: a book about the Holocaust that does not take place in a concentration camp or on the field of battle, and in fact contains very few German characters. The Painted Bird is a parable, rather, of human cruelty, mean to contextualize what we know about the practices of the Nazi regime.

There are two ways to read it, I think: One is a wholly negative view, which states that the sadistic peasants who people the Polish countryside are the foundations of a European culture that allows Nazism to happen. The narrator, a young and unnamed boy has been abandoned by his parents, not out of malice but, we infer, in order to save him from the Nazis who have marked his parents as agitators. Somehow, the boy has ended up in the care of a superstitious peasant woman who regards his dark complexion and eyes as the harbingers of a great curse, and the cruelty that follows the boy around seem to validate this view. The old woman dies early in the book, and the boy wanders from one peasant home to another, witnessing a Bosch-like panorama of evil: savage beatings, men devoured in rat-filled bunkers, Russian mercenaries who castrate husbands and rape their wives, a peasant man who watches as his son and daughter couple with goats. In one protracted stay he is daily made to hang from a pair of hooks for hours on end while a ravenous dog nips at his feet below.

For a moment he stays with a bird-catcher who has a nasty habit of painted a captured bird bright colors and then releasing it to its flock. Unrecognized, the flock always tears the painted bird to pieces--a not-so-subtle metaphor for the severity and ubiquity of bigotry.

The other way to read it is more charitable: Europe, under the control of the Nazis, has become a cruel place. The fish, as they say, rots from the head. But I think Kosinski, who is Polish, includes few German characters for a reason. Instead of pointing his finger at the Third Reich, he turns his criticism on the primitive culture that lets such evil arise. Cruelty is not the domain of Germany here, and maybe not even Europe--perhaps it is a human trait.

Brooke asked me if I was enjoying this book; I told her that I do not think it means to be enjoyed. It gave me a lot to think about, and it made a strong impression on me, but it won't show up on my list of favorite books any time soon and I doubt that there are many people who would truly say they liked it. It was a chore.

Note: In reading about the book, I found some of the controversies surrounding it interesting: For one, Kosinski seems to have maintained privately for some time that it was autobiographical, but his foreword claims that it isn't and was never meant to be. Another, stranger, controversy is that some have claimed that Kosinski didn't write it; and barely knew English at the time. I really wouldn't know, but I think that that would make him a bit like the bird who paints himself.

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

In his suicide note, Kurt Cobain wrote, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." He was quoting a Neil Young song about Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. When I was twenty-four, I interviewed John Lennon. I asked him about this sentiment, one that pervades rock and roll. He took strong, outraged exception to it. "It's better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out," he said. "I worship the people who survive. I'll take the living and the healthy."

The living and the healthy.

I do not know if my son can be one of them.

The full title of David Sheff's memoir is "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction." It's a pretty awesome book, and unusual because I haven't read a book about addiction from the view of a parent before this. There are a lot of former-addict memoirs out there (James Frey, Anthony Kiedis, the anonymous author of "Go Ask Alice") and while poignant and touching, the genre is starting to feel a bit tired. I think my disillusionment started with the whole "A Million Little Pieces" debacle (Oprah said she felt "really duped." Me too Oprah. Me too.)

Anyway, back to Beautiful Boy. Call me voyeuristic, but I enjoy memoirs and biographies (even fake ones; see my review of "American Wife") above all other forms of literature. I also really like the A&E show "Intervention." Put those two things together and you have this book. I knew I was going to like it and I did. What surprised me was the quality of the writing. This wasn't some random parent struggling to give his son's disease justice. This was a writer struggling to give his son's disease justice. Sheff was distinguished for his writing career before this best-seller's release. He had the privilege of writing one of the last interviews with John Lennon, when he asked the musician the question above.

Beautiful Boy is a story about addiction, but Sheff didn't want that to be his son's entire story. So he starts at the beginning of Nic's life, and spins a tale of a precocious, creative, adorable child growing up in Northern California amid the chaos of his parents' divorce and an imperfect joint custody agreement that spans several hundred miles. Nic seems like a pretty terrific kid all the way up through high school. He shares a special relationship with his dad, and welcomes a new stepmom and, in time, baby siblings. All the while, Sheff paints a portrait of an extraordinarily sensitive and caring child.

Nic is a friend to everyone. He experiments with alcohol and pot at an early age but after some initial concern, his dad dismisses the incidents as normal teenage experimentation. Sheff himself had a colorful adolescence with regard to drugs, so he is inclined to be forgiving. Later, his openness with Nic about his past will be one of the many things Sheff blames himself for.

It is not until Nic's senior year of high that his behavior and experimentation turn seriously harmful. While he does manage to graduate, Nic spends most of the year in a haze of smoke, and tries hard drugs for the first time the night of graduation. In college, Nic discovers meth, which he says is like finding something he's been looking for his whole life. "When I tried it for the first time, that was that," he says.

Nic's battle with drug and alcohol addiction, particularly to the pernicious methamphetamine, takes over the second half of Sheff's book. In and out of rehab, homeless on the streets, stealing from his own parents and grandparents, Nic is constantly attended by his addiction and his father's love. In the second half of Beautiful Boy, Sheff takes on a more introspective tone, as he turns inward to deal with what he calls his addiction to his son's addiction. Sheff realizes that he is so preoccupied with his son's disease that he's neglecting his wife, his other children and his own mental health. After a lot of family therapy, Al-Anon and his own life-threatening illness, Sheff ends the book on a cautiously optimistic note: Nic, despite several relapses, is sober for the time being.

I really appreciated the author's interesting writing style when reading this book. It kind of made me feel like I was drinking in this family's saga, rather than just reading words off a page. I'd confidently recommend this book to lit snobs just as often as story lovers like myself. Interestingly, Nic has written a YA memoir too, called "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines." I haven't decided if I'm going to read Nic's memoir yet, but if I do, you'll see it on here.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot by Tanizaki

It is said, for example, that part of the Hori mansion in Anafu, where Emperor Godaigo once stayed, is still standing, occupied even now by descendants of the family. Also thriving are the progeny of Takehara Hachirō, who appears in "The Prince of the Great Pagoda Flees to Kumano" in the "Taiheiki." The prince stayed with this family for a time and had a son by their daughter. An even older tradition survives in the hamlet of Gokitsugu, on Mount Ōdaigahara. Asserting that the people of Gokitsugu are descended from ogres, residents of the surrounding villages never marry them... This being the nature of the region, there are a number of old families, called "people of descent" who claim to be descended form the local warriors who served the Southern Court. Even now they honor "The Lord of the Southern Court" every year... at the Kongō temple near Kashiwagi, the site of the Shōgun-prince's palance in Kono Valley.

First things first: I want to assure you, the reader, that I won't resort to Chris' antics of inflating my numbers with reviews of Garfield comic strip compilations. You deserve more than that. So, as the Ken Griffey Jr. to Christopher's Barry Bonds, I post the reviews of these two novellas together as one, in the way they were presented to me.

Now onto the stories. And wow... What crap they turned out to be. I was just thinking after finishing A House of Sand and Fog that I hadn't read a book this month that I haven't liked on one level or another. Along comes The Secret History... and Arrowroot. Let me start off with The Secret History... the first novella in the collection and the only one that had any semblance of pacing and story structure.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is, essentially, exactly what it claims to be. Imagine a book about General George S. Patton. This book has nothing to do with Patton's brilliance on the battlefield. In fact, it often starts to describe his wartime heroics, but stops short, citing the multitude of literature available on the subject and deeming it unnecessary to rehash that which is already well known. Instead, the book in question is about Patton's dark, masochistic sex life based almost entirely on conjecture. Patton wore fur coats right? He probably liked putting cigars out on his balls. That's basically how I can best describe The Secret History. The story's sexuality is distinctly Japanese, dealing with erotic fixation on severed heads, romantic rendezvous in a latrine teeming with dung, and torture of underlings as foreplay. I got a few laughs from the overall absurdity of it all, but really the story itself was a bore. There is no consistency amongst the characters, there's no real conflict to live and die with, and you walk away from the whole thing scratching your head wondering what the hell did I just read about?

Highlights: It was only 140 pages, the part where the sadomasochistic warlord spends an afternoon chasing fireflies.
Lowlights: It sucked.

Now onto Arrowroot, and forgive me if I don't give this much attention. 4 pages into Arrowroot and I knew that finishing it was going to be an exercise in asceticism. I chose the passage above to illustrate just how cumbersome this story was. Hell, I use the word "story" here loosely. It's more or less an author's description of his efforts to tell a story. And the writing is very similar to other classical Japanese works I've read. It's all about how The Warrior of The Red Lotus used his Katana of Impending Nightfall to disembowel The Warlord of Three Blossom Petals on the Hill of Gokikongotsuguharasanachiro to win the hand of The Princess of Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon in the Year of Surprisingly Light Rainfall. No story actually gets told. It's just anecdote after lineage after landscape description. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe if I was Japanese and I was raised with this type of storytelling I wouldn't find it so plodding and galumphing. Maybe I'm just a simpleton and Edmund White of The New York Times is right to call Tanizaki "the outstanding Japanese novelist of the century." Or maybe he's just pretentious as you'd expect a book reviewer named Edmund to be and it's really as bad as it seems to be. Maybe there's a reason the first edition hardcover of these two stories is going for $1.39 on Amazon marketplace. I don't know. I'm not a professional.

Highlights: It's only 57 pages. Also I got to use the word galumphing.
Lowlights: It was like 53 pages too long.

Do yourself a favor and don't read either of these stories. You can get a better taste of Japanese storytelling by playing Final Fantasy 7.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

He would drive to San Bruno and look for Kathy there. it was practically their entire geographical frame of reference. If she wasn't at the storage shed or the truck-stop bar or the El Rancho Motel, then he would try Carl's Jr. on the other side of the freeway. And if that didn't pan out he'd drive south to Millbrae to the Cineplex, where she could possibly be at the movies. Ahead of him in the fog, Corona's main street ended at the base of the hills and the intersection for the turn to Hillside Boulevard and San Bruno. The blinking yellow traffic light above was so obscured it looked to Lester more like a silent pulse. Kathy would not be at her stolen house up in the hills but the colonel would, and there was no crime in cruising slowly by; he was off-duty and out of uniform.

House of Sand and Fog
by Andre Dubus III is the story of Kathy Nicolo, Sheriff Lester Burdon, Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani and their tragic crossing of paths. Kathy wakes one morning to find Sheriff Burdon at her door, informing her that she has been evicted by the county for failing to pay back taxes. Ms. Nicolo informs the Sheriff that there must have been a clerical error, that she owes no taxes. Her pleas prove ineffectual, and her home is auctioned off to Colonel Behrani, a Persian immigrant set on reselling the house for a profit to provide for his family. Behrani is determined to see his family returned to the dignified position they once held in Iran. Kathy's home was all she had left after her husband suddenly left her and she is not willing to let it go easily. Lester find himself falling in love with Kathy and refuses to sit idly by while she suffers a grave injustice. The collosion of these three forces of will leaves families destroyed, lives ruined, and blood spilt.

Dubus' writing is smooth and has its own flow to it. His style is really a pleasure to read. But I have a hard time saying I enjoyed this book. There's really not much to come away from feeling good about. Simply put, House of Sand and Fog is a tragedy. More Shakespearean than Greek, I think. While Kathy and Behrani have their flaws, Lester reminded me of Paris in Romeo and Juliet in the sense that he was merely a victim of circumstance. More or less a simple man, Lester is driven to the edge by his love for a woman he barely knows. Like Paris, he strikes me as the most tragic character in the story, for his life (and that of his family) are ruined because of his involvement in the clash between Behrani and Nicolo.

I suppose if I had one problem with this story, it was the unbalanced portrayal of the plights of Kathy and Behrani. I don't know if Dubus intended to make Behrani seem more at fault than Kathy, but I think it's more likely that he simply failed at making Behrani's motives as justifiable as Kathy's. A young woman has her house stolen out from her because of an improperly addressed envelope. She finds herself homeless with nothing in the bank. She calmly explains this to the man who has bought her home from the county, and yet he refuses to help her rectify the situation by complying with the county when they try to rescind the sale. Now, I understand that Behrani is simply trying to enter the real estate market and provide for his wife and son. I understand that Behrani feels he has committed no wrongdoing in legally purchasing the house from the county. I understand that he has suffered greatly since the fall of the Shah's regime and his flight from Iran. But even with all that, I can't help but look at him as a stubborn, greedy man who knowingly held on to stolen property even after the situation was laid out in front of him. To me, this weakened the story a bit. It wasn't what Dubus (probably) intended, the story of two people with equal stake and righteousness battling for stability. It was an unlucky woman struggling to take back what's hers from a man who refuses to do whats right.

That said, there are enough mitigating factors to make the reader at least somewhat sympathetic to Behrani. And in the end, I suppose this imbalance is rectified as he is the one to lose everything, whereas Lester and Kathy lose only most everything.

Check this out if you like Steinbeck, as Dubus' writing style reminds of his, or if you're a fan of tragedies in general. It's really quite moving and you'll be surprised at how quickly you find yourself swept up in the rise and fall of the principle characters.

Highlights: Lester's mustache, the surprisingly action-packed final act, picturing Jennifer Connelly during all of Kathy's sex scenes.
Lowlights: Behrani's recalcitrance, The inevitably depressing ending

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

"Wizards still have not found a way of reuniting body and soul once death has occurred. As the eminent Wizarding philosopher Bertrand de Pensees-Profondes writes in his celebrated work A Study into the Possibility of Reversing the Actual and Metaphysical Effects of Natural Death, with Particular Regard to the Reintegration of Essence and Matter: 'Give it up. It's never going to happen.'"

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is the quintessential enjoyable children's book. It's very different from J.K. Rowling's other books, which were firmly within the realm of Young Adult literature at least. The first and most noticeable difference with Beedle is the font size, which is this big, the better for little eyes to decipher I suppose. This font has the added bonus of turning Beedle into a chapterbook that (barely) exceeds 100 pages. All in all, it took me about an hour to read.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard was first introduced in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in Rowling's series. Hermione is gifted an original copy of the book from the estate of Albus Dumbledore after his death. In it, the story of "The Three Brothers" introduced Harry, Hermione and Ron to the Elder Wand, with which [SPOILER ALERT] Harry eventually kills Voldemort.

Like "The Three Brothers," all of the stories in Beedle are morally edifying, and teach the kind of lessons that young witches and wizards should take to heart. Thus, they don't resemble Muggle fairytales so much as Aesop's fables. In this edition, readers get the added bonus of Dumbledore's own footnotes following each story. The footnotes give additional information about wizarding lore, facts about the magical world and humorous asides.

It is this humor, this intentional naughtiness that you find in the very best children's books that I most enjoyed in Beedle. Like my other favorite children's book, J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy, Beedle was clearly written to be enjoyed by both the adult and child reader, for different reasons. Funny asides reveal themselves in the footnotes, and I can imagine that many of them would go right over a young child (or young wizard's!) head.

So there you have it. A short review for a short book. You can get this one at the bookstore for about ten dollars and if you are any kind of Harry Potter fan at all, I'd say buy it. All the proceeds go to a European children's charity, so you can pat yourself on the back for that too.

Miracleman by Alan Moore

I avoided reading Watchmen for a long time, skeptical of its reputation as a thinking man's comic book, which is something like the "jumbo shrimp" of literature. I'm glad I did, in the end, because it pleased me with its serious treatment of what superheroism might actually mean for the world. In particular I was fascinated by Dr. Manhattan, once a mild-mannered everyman but who, after his origin-accident, found himself increasingly alienated from human society.

I decided to read Miracleman for these reasons: First, Brent recommended it, and second, it's a comic book so it didn't take that long and I'm not going to let Jim beat me. But mostly, it seemed as if it would take the story of Dr. Manhattan and reimagine it; as Brent says, "Miracleman can... be seen as a parallel to Watchmen." Like Dr. Manhattan, Michael Moran is a pretty ordinary guy who discovers one day--or rather, rediscovers--that he has powers beyond even the most powerful of comic book heroes.

In comparison to Watchmen, I'll admit Miracleman suffers greatly. It lacks the same unity of vision, and Moore's penchant for simultaneous narratives, used to such great effect in Watchman, only muddies the water here. The later issues, penned by Neil Gaiman, are fascinating vignettes that seek to flesh out a world dominated by Miracleman, and yet they represent a full-stop to the overall plot and contain too little of Miracleman himself to be engaging. Brent asks for a proper ending to Miracleman, I suggest that the series as a whole might be more successful if Moore had never handed it over to Gaiman and simply let it end with Miracleman's dominion over Earth.

And yet, despite its flaws, there is something present in Miracleman that piques my curiosity more than Watchmen, which, despite its novelty and inventiveness, never quite hits a personal note. This is essentially the Citizen Kane story, but Kane's power seems irrelevant compared to Miracleman's. This tale has been told time and time again, but never on a scale this large with the possible exception of the story of Lucifer in the Bible. I like that about comic books; the suspense of disbelief required means that you can get away with things that simply couldn't work in novels; they possess an immensity that written fiction doesn't and, even if it could, would hardly be well-respected.

I found myself wishing that Moore and Gaiman give us a little more insight into what the psyche of Miracleman must be thinking as he molds the world into his image, but then I reversed position--how much really, can we understand of God? He exists on a higher plane, and cannot be comprehended by us, neither his abilities nor his feelings.

There is a moment, however, in Gaiman's chapter Carnival which gives us some glimpse into Miracleman's inner workings: After a cataclysmic battle in which Miracleman defeats another super-being (I'm being as vague as I can because, Jim, you ought to read this), he is basically free to remodel the entire social structure of the world and one result is that what we would call insane junkies are revered as "spacemen" who present the universe's wisdom. At the yearly Carnival to celebrate Miracleman's victory, all the disparate characters whom Gaiman has created approach a spaceman to ask them about their problems. Toward the end, a man in a cap and white t-shirt approaches and asks, "Am I... am I doing the right thing? Have I done right?"

The crowd cannot tell, but we can: It's Miracleman, mingling unnoticed. The spaceman's advice, crouched in gobbledygook, can be reduced to "just be"--perhaps responding, "What else could you have done? This is your destiny." But it isn't the answer that is interesting so much as the question.

How Fiction Works by James Wood

No, not James Woods, acclaimed actor--this book was written by James Wood, acclaimed literary critic. If it had been written by James Woods, I would have enjoyed it a lot more, but as it is, I enjoyed it pretty well, so I guess it's hard to complain.

How Fiction Works is basically a fundamental treatment of what Wood feels are the essentials of the modern novel: dialogue, character, and detail among others, and what makes them work in some books and not in others. It is inspired by similar books, like E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, but those books belong to the last century and James seems to have cannily realized that it's time for an update. Also, those books are by novelists; Wood's book is unique in that it comes from a critic's outside--dare I say less biased--perspective.

Outside of Brent and Helen, I have trouble imagining that this book would interest anyone here, though I found it pretty engaging; Wood does an excellent job dissecting the genre and explaining the guts. The book starts, oddly enough, with a discussion of free indirect style, which can be perfunctorily described as the attribution to the narrator words or statements that really belong to a character:

Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: "Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears." In my example, the word "stupid" marks t he sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: "Ted watched the orchestra through tears." The addition of the word "stupid" raises the question: Whose word is this? It's unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvelous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted. He is listening to the music and crying, and is embarrassed--we can imagine him furiously rubbing his eyes--that he has allowed these "stupid" tears to fall. Convert it back into first-person speech, and we have this: "'Stupid to be crying at this silly piece of Brahms,' he thought." But this example is several words longer; and we have lost the complicated presence of the author.

I'll understand if you could care less about free indirect style, but I'm pretty fascinated by what Wood has to say here--especially that an aspect of literature could be so small and indiscernible, but so powerful. Keep an eye out for free indirect style when you read; I think you'll be surprised how omnipresent it really is.

Ultimately, this is a book for book nerds--but it's also quite a bestseller. I had been wondering what makes a piece of literary criticism--not exactly on par with The Da Vinci Code--so popular. I think part of it has to do with the breadth of Wood's topic; which could possibly attract any reasonably curious book-reader (unlike a treatise on gender imagery in the latter works of Poe, or something). Another part is Wood's style, which is smoothly readable and without waste. Wood isn't a novelist, but you wouldn't know it by reading How Fiction Works, which is remarkably uncluttered for a work of non-fiction.

Bonus points: That retro-simple cover is totally sweet and you'll never convince me otherwise.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

"And I knew in that spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat."

She's quite blunt, that Esther Greenwood.

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's thinly veiled autobiographical account of her first nervous breakdown and the events leading up to it. Looking back, it is easy to imagine that Esther Greenwood's views on marriage were unconventional for a 1950s college girl. And that was probably somewhat true.

The Bell Jar begins during Esther Greenwood's summer as a Junior Editor to a women's magazine in New York City, before her senior year of college. Esther has been told her whole life what a brilliant and talented writer she is. She, perhaps rightly, feels that all doors are open to her until she meets with an influential female editor at the magazine, who paints a picture of the difficulty young women have breaking into the literary world. Despite this, Esther mostly still feels secure that she will be able to make her career as a writer.

Throughout the summer, Esther maintains a superficial countenance of interest in her job and the other girls. Her mental break is only mildly foreshadowed by Esther's growing sense of hopelessness about her future. She is "practically engaged" to a boring and unfaithful medical student, but any pessimism is still tempered by the plans for her writing career. It is only when she returns home from New York to find that she has been rejected from a writing class due to the quality of her work that the darker parts of her mind begin to best her.

After returning home, Esther does not wash or change her clothes for weeks. She suffers insomnia and cannot eat, think or write clearly. She has not slept for two weeks straight when her mother brings her to a psychiatrist for shock treatments, which hurt and terrify Esther. She plots to kill herself, imagining a variety of ways and discarding them one by one: too bloody, too uncertain, too difficult. Finally, Esther disappears, only to be found huddled in a crawlspace in her mother's basement, barely alive after an overdose of sleeping pills. Only when checked into an asylum, the setting for the book's final chapters, does Esther begin to heal. She finds that the electroshock therapy, administered correctly by the gentle Dr. Nolan, delivers an antidepressant effect, lifting the mental "bell jar" she feels trapped inside.

The Bell Jar is mostly autobiographical. Plath attended Smith College on scholarship, graduating in 1954. The summer before, she served as a junior editor to Mademoiselle magazine. That same summer, Plath was rejected from Frank O'Connor's Harvard writing class, an event which is thought to have precipitated her first suicide attempt.

This book's immediate success likely had a lot to do with the fact that it was first published over a decade after the book's events took place, in January 1963. The early 1960s had a very different feel than the early 1950s, a difference felt acutely by British and American women. 1963 was a watershed year for the feminist movement. The publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique that year is popularly credited with ushering in the "Second Wave" of feminism. 1963 was also the year that Plath committed suicide, one month after the novel's publication.

It was in this historical context that Plath's only novel was first read by a generation of women, who applauded it and fought for it's U.S. release. In reading it for the first time now, in 2009 at the age of 24, I can relate to many of Esther/Sylvia's fears. Esther imagines her life as a fig tree, with dozens of figs, each representing a different life choice: marriage and children, becoming a poet or an editor, traveling; as Esther frets about which fig to choose, they begin to blacken and die and fall off the tree, one by one, her choices narrowing as she struggles to decide. I know that I've felt overwhelmed at times imagining the way my life might unfold. I would probably regard anyone my age that didn't feel that way as suspect.

I really enjoyed this book. If my perception weren't clouded by the fact that Sylvia Plath did eventually succeed in taking her life, I'd probably see the ending as hopeful and the period covered in the book as an anomaly in an otherwise charmed life. I think that Esther's feelings of confusion as she confronts her future are felt today by both men and women. I don't see The Bell Jar as a purely feminist treatise, although it is sometimes lumped in that genre.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

"Ziggedy zendoodah," I said aloud. My erection dimmed, energy venting elsewhere. "Pierogi Monster Zen master zealous neighbor. Zazen zaftig Zsa Zsa go-bare." I rapped the scalp of the sitter in front of me. "Zippity go figure."

The roomful of gurus and acolytes came to agitated life but not one of them spoke a word, so my burst of verbiage sang in the silence. The lecturing monk glared at me and shook his head. Another of his posse rose from his cushion and lifted a wooden paddle I hadn't previously notice from a hook in the wall...

"Pierogi kumquat sushiphone! Domestic marshmallow ghost! Insatiable Mallomar!
Smothered pierogiphone!" The flood came with such force, I twisted my neck and nearly barked the words.

Lionel Essrog is an orphan, raised practically from youth by a low-level mobster named Frank Minna in the Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens neighborhoods of Brooklyn, and along with three other orphans forms the nucleus of Minna's detective-service-cum-crime-operation-cum-fake-car-service. As you can see from the passage above, he also has Tourette's.

Which, when your line of work revolves around subtly discovering and keeping information, can be quite the drawback. Lionel is a sort of anti-Philip Marlowe, a detective who exudes anything but cool and goes undercover very poorly. But in the opening chapters of the novel Minna is murdered, and since one of the other orphans is incarcerated and the other two locked in a battle for supremacy of Minna's mini-empire, the lot of finding Minna's killer falls to Lionel.

The mystery here is slight--it involves Minna's long lost brother and a cadre of Zen Buddhist monks operating out of the Upper East Side. The revelations that aren't telegraphed to the reader early on remain murky at the story's end, and the whole goofiness barely elevates the novel above the level of a Monk episode.

But Lionel is an intriguing character to follow; a captive of his own tics who doesn't seem capable of connecting with any other human being except his dead boss. The Zen angle seems inspired by a lot of silly prime-time detective dramas, but at the same time it provides an interesting balance to Lionel's troubled psyche--the Zen monks have what Lionel can only dream of possessing: control over the tumultous waters of the spirit. In fact, Lionel--endlessly complicated, and tangled up within his own mind--matches the mystery genre a lot better than the orderly, logic-driven detectives that seem to dominate it.

As an aside, I have to say I enjoyed this a lot more than The Brooklyn Follies--among other things, The Brooklyn Follies seemed to have a big hard-on for the Park Slope life but never really provides the reader with local color to sink his or her teeth into. It could have been any reasonably sized blue city. But Motherless Brooklyn's Court Street is unmistakable, and to my delight includes a few locales well-known to me. It even makes a stop in my neighborhood, Greenpoint, where Minna is murdered and stuffed in a dumpster. I feel certified.

P.S: I think that Brent, Carlton, Nathan and Jim would all enjoy this--plus, Edward Norton is supposed to be directing/starring in a film adaptation released next year.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Our worst enemies here are not the ignorant and simple, however cruel; our worst enemies are the intelligent and corrupt.

For some reason, I had it in my head that The Human Factor was one of Greene's quartet of Catholic novels. The edition I read didn't have a summary on the back, so I was surprised when I started it and found that it was a spy story, a genre Greene touched on every so often throughout his long and varied career.

The Human Factor is the story of Maurice Castle, an MI5 agent married to a black South African woman. When information leaks are discovered in Castle's department, suspicion falls on his coworker, a young man named Arthur Davis. The bureau arranges Arthur's death, although they have no definite proof of his double-agency. It turns out that Castle is the double agent, turned during his time in Africa because of a desire to help his wife's people escape the scourge of apartheid.

The Human Factor's MI5 department is the anti-Bond. Castle and his coworkers feel about their jobs the same way a salesman or a hatmaker might feel about theirs: it's money and it keeps the lights on. No one, not even the high ranking officials who eventually seal Castle's fate, see their job as a great national responsibility. They all function as their own tiny piece of the whole, comparing their positions to “boxes” which they need never leave and no one else need enter.

Like most of Greene's books, the plot is of secondary importance to the themes he chooses to examine. However, unlike The End of the Affair, there's still much enjoyment to be gleaned from the plot. Greene does an excellent job of presenting Castle, a man ill-suited for his chosen lifestyle as informant. There is a palpable air of paranoia during even the most mundane domestic moments of Castle's life. A less capable author might have spelled out too explicitly, but which Greene lets linger and grow until the inevitable explosion.

The novel is also an examination of loyalty and integrity, and it never points a finger at Castle for his traitorous actions. The villains of the piece, such as they are, are simply doing their jobs, plugging the leaks the best way they know how. It is Castle, with his willingness to betray his natural-born country for the country of his wife, who seems most heroic, even while his character lacks most of the characteristics we've come to associate with that title.

While I wouldn't say The Human Factor is the best book I've read of Greene's, it is one of the best spy novels I've read, and there's a lot going on underneath. It was entertaining (Greene himself considered it an “entertainment”, not a novel) and worth reading if you enjoy Greene's other books or spy stories.

Fake edit: While doign some reasearch, I learned that Greene actually worked for MI5 for a while, and part of this book is based on his own experiences, although, I'd speculate, a very small part. Still, cool.

Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson

Outside the city's west wall, close to the shoreline's broken, jagged edge, a lazy swirl of dust rose from the ground, took form. Tool slowly settled the flint sword into its shoulder hook, his depthless gaze ignoring the abandoned shacks to either side and fixing on the massive stone barrier before him.

Dust on the wind could rise and sweep high over this wall. Dust could run in the streams through the rubble fill beneath the foundation stones. The T'lan Imass could make his arrival unknown.

But the Pannion Seer had taken Aral Fayle. Toc the Younger. A mortal man... who had called Tool
friend. He strode forward, hide-wrapped feet kicking through scattered bones.

The time had come for the First Sword of the T'lan Imass to announce himself.

Holy crap, this book was awesome. One of the most exciting, action packed stories I've ever come across. This is the third tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen and each story has been better than the last. It hasn't yet knocked "A Song of Ice and Fire" off its perch as my favorite series, but with 7 stories left, it's got a chance.

A bare-bones summary: A Malazan army, commanded by Dujek Onearm (guess how many arms he has), has been outlawed by the Empress herself for sedition. Finding themselves outside the imperial embrace, Onearm's host joins forces with former foes to face a new evil, the Pannion Domin. The Pannion Domin is a newly formed regime rebelling against the Malazan's imperial yoke. Ruled by a man known simply as the Seer, the Domin is essentially a band of religious zealots. Each citizen of the Domin worships the Seer above all else and would give their life to exercise his will. The Seer has an elite army comprised of professional soldiers and skilled mages, much like any other army in the Malazan universe. However, the Seer holds an ace up his sleeve... the Tenescowri.

Let me say now that I think the story of the Tenescowri is one of the most novel and horrific I've ever read. Novel because I've never before seen its like, horrific because of its cold practicality. The Tenescowri is a huge, unarmed peasant army. The Seer and his forces are a swarm, sieging one city after the next. At each city, all inhabitants are forced to convert to the Pannion faith or be executed. Men, women, or children... it makes no matter. From this tactic, the Tenescowri ranks have swollen to the hundreds of thousands. The Seer uses this huge force in the initial attacks on his targets, throwing wave after wave of Tenescowri to break the ranks of defending armies. Such a huge, peasant army is a great asset, but it should also be a great burden to supply. Therein lies the genius of the Tenescowri. The Seer doesn't supply his peasant forces. They receive no rations whatsover, besides the flesh of all those they conquer. The Seer has produced a seemingly endless supply of soldiers who fight ravenously at every turn... to feed themselves.

Oh yeah, did I mention the Tenescowri are led by a small band of elites known as Children of the Dead Seed? These "children" come to be when the female Pannions rape those defending soldiers they find dying or dead on the battlefield.

I love this book.

Okay, so aside from the unbelievable badassery that is the Tenescowri, just about everything in this book was well executed. The role of the Gods and the turmoil in their pantheon reaches a fever pitch, further complicating events of the mortal realm. The new characters are masterfully developed, sometimes heartbreakingly so. In fact, Memories of Ice, managed to form a bond between its characters and the reader that Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates did not. This was my main criticism about the first two books. I really enjoyed what I was reading... But I never really cared about any of the players as I do about the principals of "A Song of Ice and Fire," for example. This book changed that. There are 2-3 deaths in Memories that really struck home with me, as I'd finally come to feel a connection with Erikson's characters.

I could write about 10 more pages on how much I love this book, but I'll leave it at that. This series is god-damned excellent and I think if you like this genre in the slightest you need to check it out. Memories of Ice was enthralling, ensuring that I will be finishing the journey and the remaining seven books.

Oh yeah! - I've completely forgotten to mention a character from Memories of Ice and Gardens of the Moon who needs to be noted. Anomander Rake, aside from a laughable name, is one bad mother &*%$er. He's a couple thousand years old, essentially immortal, can shapeshift into a huge dragon, and he carries a sword called Dragnipur. Not only does this sword kill you so dead, but it then traps your soul inside itself, where you spend the rest of eternity in chains, dragging an inconceivably huge wagon burdened with Chaos itself. So yeah, that sucks.

Highlights: The Tenescowri, Toc the Younger, The Mortal Swords, The Sword Anvil, Quick Ben, the Crippled God.
Lowlights: Overuse of the following words: Countenance, preternatural, bells. Also this book used the tiniest typeface I've ever seen. Miniscule.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

"I meant what I said, and I said what I meant...
An elephant's faithful -- one hundred percent!"
--Theodore Seuss Geisel, Horton Hatches the Egg

In this book, an elephant kills the bad guy. On purpose. Sound far-fetched? I thought so too, even after I was done reading.

Water for Elephants begins with a prologue that tells the story of a murder. Readers don't know the who or the why, but have a pretty good idea of whodunnit. And they're wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. After the enticing prologue, the book slows down considerably as we are introduced to Jacob, the narrator who is "either ninety, or ninety-three" and lives in a rest home. The arrival of a circus in town stirs Jacob's memories, and the story progresses as a series of flashbacks.

The year is 1931, and young Jacob is just finishing up his veterinary degree at Cornell when he receives word both that his parents have been killed in a car accident and that he is now without home, money or prospects for the future. So he does what any logical twenty-two year old would do and runs away, leaving in the middle of finals and neglecting to collect his degree. He hops a train (is it bad that all I could think of while reading this part was John Hodgman's account of the hobo wars?) that happens to be carrying none other than The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

As the story progresses, young Jacob is welcomed to the circus world, if a little begrudgingly, as the veterinarian. He busies himself with the menagerie of exotic animals and steals looks at the pretty circus performer Marlena, who works with the horses on stage. Marlena is married to a real class act, the moody and abusive August, who also happens to be head of the equestrian program for the circus.

The story picks up when the circus acquires an elephant who appears clever but won't listen to a word her trainer says. The elephant, named Rosie, and Jacob share a special bond from their earliest meeting, and Jacob is the only one at the circus that recognizes Rosie's sensitivity and intelligence. The poor creature undergoes quite a bit of abuse at the hands of the apoplectic August before Jacob realizes that she only understands Polish commands.

The plot thickens when August picks a fight with Jacob and Marlena over their friendship, and commences to give them both a beating. Marlena decides to leave August once and for all, and she and Jacob begin to have an affair. August tries to win his wife back by force, and Jacob begins to craft a getaway plan for them both. It comes too late for his unlucky friends, who are murdered in a plot meant for Jacob himself. The very next day, as Jacob plans his and Marlena's escape, a stampede breaks out in the big top. In the ensuing chaos (which was the focus of the prologue and is repeated at the end of the book, but more clearly) we finally learn that it was not Marlena who kills August after all. The maniacal trainer had a much larger enemy to contend with.

Jacob and Marlena live happily ever (and so does Rosie the elephant). At book's end, Jacob, now ninety, or ninety-three, finds himself the focus of a modern-day circus manager's attention. This ending is at once fitting and heartwarming.

I quite enjoyed reading this book, all the way up until the ending, which I found a little beyond the realm of my imagination. For a work of historical fiction, the details of August's violent end seem a bit sketchy. It was a quick read, and for the most part I could sympathize with Jacob, the book's clear protagonist. It was only at the end, when the elderly Jacob frets more about his lie of omission (never telling Marlena that her first husband was killed by their pet elephant) than about the fact that his two best friends essentially died in his place. Walter, a circus dwarf, befriends Jacob when the two are forced to share living quarters on the train. Camel is a roustabout, a hobo working for the circus who falls ill and is cared for by Walter and Jacob. Both suffer the wrath of the general manager's henchmen, who raid their living quarters while Jacob is out.

It bothered me that beyond a paragraph or two when it happens, Jacob-as-narrator never returns to the subject of his friends. That he feels guiltier about keeping an elephant's secret was off-putting to me and made me like him a bit less.

I'm aware that this review has degenerated to the point of a middle school book report (but possibly worse, since Mrs. Oldham frowned on summarization). My only excuse is that it's getting late and while I enjoyed this book, it didn't really move me.

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten. Thirty years after leaving his suburban existence to live in the wild, he's still there.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man is the biography of Eustace Conway, a North Carolina native, and possibly the last frontiersman in America. Gilbert links American masculinity to the wildness of the American frontier, citing descriptions of the American man by foreign visitors in the 18th and 19th centuries as a strong, noble, pure specimen. In contrast to the European tradition, where a young man moves from the country to the city to become a refined gentleman, the American man would strike out into the unknown from his comfortable city life, and come back a real, if less refined, man.

Conway is an entirely self-made man, sort of the American dream in reverse, since he goes from the suburbs to a teepee in the woods. As a child, he managed to teach himself to hunt, make fire, identify almost any plant, and tan hides all from library books. Having built a wilderness stronghold for himself using the skills he’s acquired, he believes that by introducing anyone to his way of life at Turtle Island (if you know where this comes from, I’ll give you the cookie that Jim never gave to me), his 1,200-acre, undisturbed valley west of Boone, North Carolina, he can give them the skills and drive necessary to create their own utopia. Unfortunately, his uncompromising demands for perfection out of others cause him to have flawed relationships with others that haunt him his entire life.

Eustace Conway is living a life that has become a metaphor for most of America. How many times have modern businessmen or politicians been compared to pioneers or trailblazers? But the problem in trying to convert modern Americans to archetypal, frontier Americans is that they don’t want to live the way Eustace does, they want him to exist as proof that it’s still possible, that they could if they wanted to. The biggest impediment to Conway’s plan to save humanity is his own pride and stubbornness. He swears that he’ll never treat anyone as horribly as his father treated him, but only ends up repeating the cycle, demanding of others the same level of inhuman perfection and commitment that he demands of himself, alienating his own disciples in the process. Over time, he’s forced to compromise his pure wilderness ideals at the cost of further spreading his message, which doesn’t take hold in nearly the tidal wave fashion he’d expected. In the end it’s hard to be sympathetic to someone who’s willing to sacrifice the happiness and comfort of so many to achieve his ultimate goal, even if that goal is to cure societal ills and prevent environmental degradation.

This was a very interesting biography of a fascinating, committed, wild life. Having entertained thoughts of living in the wild, this book is sort of a primer on the dedication it actually demands of you, and maybe a warning against what it can make of you. Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing is very casual and personal, but because of the depth of material and her proximity to the subject, it doesn’t come off as contrived, but rather very appealing. With this book as an introduction to Gilbert, I’m looking forward to reading her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. This was a great book, but if you were bothered by the headstrong, independent nature of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, you’ll probably be annoyed with Eustace Conway in the same way, though his setting out isn’t nearly as severing of all ties as McCandless’s. Great book, but I don’t plan on setting out with a tepee and two bandannas as a loincloth any time soon, just gonna keep practicing nailing chipmunks to trees with throwing knives.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

When Nathan Glass returns from the suburbs of New York City to the neighborhood of his birth in Brooklyn, he tells us that he's doing it to die quietly--his lung cancer is in remission but his life is in shambles, having been isolated by both his ex-wife and his daughter. Of course, any member of Oprah's Book Club will understand that this is only setup, and men like Nathan--weary, and ready to call it quits--are inevitably going to perk up through the rousing medicine of a good woman, a strong community, a loyal family, or a small child.

In the case of The Brooklyn Follies, it's pretty much all four. Nathan's renaissance begins when he discovers his once-promising nephew Tom slaving away miserably in a Park Slope bookstore. Tom's academic career has been derailed and his love life stalled indefinitely, and on top of that he hasn't heard from his sister Aurora since she asked him to walk her down the aisle months and months ago. Eventually, these two talkative sad sacks have their lives kickstarted by the appearance of Lucy, Aurora's daughter, who for some reason has decided to stop speaking.

And wouldn't you know it, the lovable scamp gives them a reason to survive? Nathan turns out to be a capable surrogate parent; no wonder, he seems to do very little wrong in this book which is ostensibly titled for his failures. Nathan is writing a book, in fact, that details his own follies as well as stories he has heard from life and history; yet Auster makes his character so sympathetic that surely his ex-wife and daughter must be terrible monsters for hating him.

What bothers me most about The Brooklyn Follies is its un-reflectiveness--it's a paean, a bucolic to a certain white-collar liberal lifestyle that treasures tolerance, diversity, and thoughtfulness. Of course, those are strong values, but I am not sure that Auster is aware of how self-congratulating his book seems. Take for instance, Aurora, whom Nathan eventually tracks down living with her husband in Winston-Salem, a religious fanatic and Christian cultist who has trapped her in her own room for months. It is impossible to receive Park Slope as the ur-Eden that Auster intends it without recognizing North Carolina its antithesis: As Nathan and Tom love their homosexual friends and jab incessantly at the religious right, so Aurora's husband and his community personify intolerance and oppression; Nathan prides himself in having "rescued her from North Carolina," but Auster makes it clear that North Carolina is a surrogate for particular worldviews and attitudes.

I am reminded of Noah Baumbach's movie The Squid and the Whale, which takes place in the same neighborhood as The Brooklyn Follies. I couldn't help but remember Jeff Daniels' character, a man who loves his family very much but can't help his own egotism and pomposity. Their attitudes and styles--even their addresses--are near identical, but only one of them seems to understand what it is to deal with folly. No, Nathan Glass is a white knight, and Park Slope is his kingdom.

It isn't that particular worldview I take objection to. It's that a novel that uses the same tactics with the area codes reversed--a novel about the preservation of simple country living, loving your neighbor, and Southern faithfulness at the expense of cosmopolitanism and liberalism--might make a best-seller but would be rightfully denounced by critics as smug and self-satisfied. (And let's admit, there are hundreds of those novels in print.) As a Brooklyner, I love Park Slope as much as the next man, but I'm not sure I've ever been to the idylls of Auster's novel.

And then there's the matter of the end:

It was eight o'clock when I stepped out onto the street, eight o'clock on the morning of September 11, 2001--just forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Just two hours after that, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies would drift over toward Brooklyn and come pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death.

But for now it was still eight o'clock, and as I walked along the avenue under that brilliant blue sky, I was happy, my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived.

What's the point? That Nathan's hard-earned happiness, his revitalization, is all about to come crashing down with the World Trade Center? That's too grim for such a saccharine novel, and without suggesting that Nathan knows someone in the tower, out of proportion. No, I think that Auster is suggesting here that September 11th dealt a serious blow to the Park Slope worldview he champions. After all, the book's backdrop is the contested election of 2000, and Auster and his characters frequently stop to note their grim displeasure with George W. Bush and the Republican machine. The Brooklyn Follies posits Nathan and his community as antithetical to ideas which Bush and the Christian cult in Winston-Salem embody; it seems likely that this puzzling ending is meant to represent an impending victory for the forces of intolerance.

But that's just my guess. The truth is, the ending defies anything but the slightest interpretation, and as a result actually seems more gratuitous. What right does this man have, whose idea of folly is so comic and self-assurance so unflinching, to stitch his own story to that one?

Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin

"Okay. Use your head. You need to get healthy if you want to get skinny. Healthy = skinny. Unhealthy = fat. The first thing you need to do is give up your gross vices. Don't act surprised! You cannot keep eating the same shit and expect to get skinny."

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll start this review by saying that I really disliked this book. From the gratuitous and vulgar use of profanity to the condescending attitudes of the authors towards their readers, this book was not an enjoyable read and gives, at best, dubiously accurate information. Although one of the authors is a "holistic nutritionist" and the text is very carefully footnoted, I still read it with an air of disbelief.

The authors, Freedman and Barnouin, begin the book by easing the reader into their idea of a healthy diet, which starts with, duh, giving up junk food. Most doctors will tell you that fast food, refined white sugar and flour, and anything containing trans fats are not the way to a slender physique or healthy insides. Fine, fine, Skinny Bitches, you've got me there. I'll even give the authors props for their in-your-face writing style, though like I said before, I found the use of profanity and general bathroom language to be off-putting. I really think it discredits their argument too, but somehow I don't think that the hordes of women buying this book mind all that much.

No, what really burns me up is that this book is a treatise on animal welfare and the horrors of the meat, commercial fishing, livestock farming and dairy industries disguised as a diet book. The authors are trying to do two things at once: present a healthier lifestyle for their readers (commendable) but also guilt their readers into a meat- and dairy- free diet through the graphic description of slaugterhouse practices and the supposed ill health effects caused by a non-vegan diet. If I wanted to read about that, I'd take one of the brochures the PETA protestors hand out in front of Chick-Fil-A.

When Freedman and Barnouin run out of studies to back up their arguments, they resort to grossing out their readers, like in this excerpt from their cookbook follow-up, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch:
"We're also the only species on the planet that drinks the milk as adults. It's not only gross, it's creepy. We've been totally duped by the dairy industry and their hundreds of millions of advertising dollars. And now we're totally addicted to their disease-causing products."
I'm not trying to argue against a vegan diet. I'm sure it works wonderfully for many people. And I'm not anti-animal rights. I just don't think that the kind of rhetoric these authors use to promote their agenda is appropriate in a diet and nutrition book. I know I was completely surprised when I started reading. You really can't judge a book by it's cover, but in this case, I wish you could. I was looking for a fun, fluffy weekend read and instead got a vitriolic tract that was more concerned with shocking the reader than presenting healthful alternatives.

Freedman and Barnouin don't even do a good job of refuting the main arguments against their philosophy. While they acknowledge that eating only organic fruits, vegetables and prepackaged goods is a prohibitively expensive choice for many, their response is an unsympathetic variation of "suck it up."

In case you were wondering, in addition to promoting a vegan, all-organic lifestyle, they rail against: the use of medicine ("taking medicine will make you feel better for the moment, but will fuck up something else in your body"); drinking alcohol (which they say causes "bloated, fat-pig syndrome"); diet soda ("perhaps you have a lumpy ass because you are preserving your fat cells with diet soda"); caffeine ("Coffee is for pussies"); and diet snacks ("whenever you see the words 'fat-free' or 'low-fat,' think of the words 'chemical shit-storm'").

The main thing I take umbrage with is the fact that these authors present their argument in such a patronizing, confrontational fashion. But you know what? I read a book called "Skinny Bitch," so I guess I should have known what I was getting myself into.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

"For unto everyone that hath shall be givine, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." - Matthew 25:29

And thus starts Chapter One of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, the thesis of which debunks that most democratic of myths, the idea of the self-made man, and instead proposes the idea that even in America, privilege and chance count far more than talent in the making of geniuses, professional athletes, and star businessmen. Gladwell examines this idea from two different angles in the two parts of his book.

Part I deals with Gladwell's assertion that it is not the most brilliant or talented people that ultimately succeed; it is those who have been given the most opportunities to do so. He illustrates this fact by examining cases like why most professional hockey players in Canada are born in January (a simple collusion of the junior leagues' cutoff date and the rate at which young boys grow); why some geniuses succeed but not others (contrasting the very different lives of Robert Oppenheimer and an unfortunate but brilliant man named Chris Langan); and why it is a boon to be a Jewish lawyer born in 1935.

In Part II, Gladwell argues that cultural differences are not only very real, they must be taken into account in order to succeed. He looks at the success of the KIPP charter school program, which places poor urban children in school 9 hours per day, 6 days a week, 11 months of the year in an attempt to close the achievement gap; he studies why the airlines of certain countries have had to enforce communication training between captains and first officers to overcome cultural boundaries that threaten aviation safety.

In the end, Gladwell argues that in a truly democratic society, people would not be left to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, allowing those given the most to rise to the top. It would be recognized that those who do succeed do so not only on their own talents but on the enormous opportunities bestowed upon them by society, and there would be sufficient checks in place to ensure that everyone was given those same opportunities.

I've read Malcolm Gladwell's two other books, Blink and The Tipping Point, and I believe that his thesis comes through most clearly in this latest volume. I've found some of his other works difficult to follow, as he tends to jump from example to example without bringing each back to his main argument. In all of his books, Gladwell's talent lies in telling a story. He provides a wealth of interesting and entertaining examples and tries to loosely tie each of them to an overarching thesis. In Outliers, he succeeds.

Gladwell's examples of hockey players, geniuses, Bill Gates, Korean Air, Appalachian feuds, KIPP's success, Jewish attorneys, and his own family's history may not seem to have much in common besides all being interesting stories in their own rights. That Gladwell can weave between them and tie each back to his master argument, that it is not talent but opportunity that determines success, is a testament to his growth as a writer since The Tipping Point.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books in the same vein as Steven Levitt's Freakonomics (read) or Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan (on my list). It is highly entertaining and interesting, and poses some great food for thought for those of us who have enjoyed many of the opportunities Gladwell describes.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

"Did I jeopardize my husband's presidency today? Did I do something I should have done years ago? Or perhaps I did both, and that's the problem -- that I lead a life in opposition to itself."

American Wife is a novel that reads like an autobiography of a fictional First Lady - a woman whose life mirrors that of our own (for one more day) First Lady. Alice Lindgren is an only child growing up in the 1950s in small-town Wisconsin, the child of a middle-class upbringing. Her family includes an eccentric grandmother whose lesbian relationship with a family friend both drives a temporary wedge between her and Alice early on and plays a pivotal role in the book's final chapters. Alice's idyllic childhood ends when she kills her classmate and teenage crush in a car accident her senior year. The ramifications of that event and what happens after resonate throughout the book as Alice often imagines the dead boy to have been the love of her life.

Years later, while working as an elementary school librarian in Madison, Alice meets the charming and mischievous Charlie Blackwell at a friend's barbecue. The two begin a whirlwind courtship, which culminates in their engagement announcement at the end of a weekend visiting Charlie's privileged family, heirs to a meat-packing fortune and a Wisconsin political dynasty. Along the way, Alice finds herself promising to her fiance that though she, a registered Democrat and political progressive, may disagree with him privately at times, no one would ever know. Later on, Alice finds marriage to an overgrown frat boy to be trying, and leaves Charlie for a time when their daughter is young. It is during this separation that the future President stops drinking, finds Jesus, and starts the transformation into a serious political player.

The book skips from the middling years of the Blackwells' marriage and life in Wisconsin straight over Charlie's years as governor and president. The final section of the novel takes place in the waning years of President Blackwell's second term, when a series of events brings Alice's personal struggle with her husband's choices into sharper focus.

I've been a fan of all of Sittenfeld's books, but I found it refreshing that she departed from her usual introspective view in this latest novel. Unlike Prep and Man of My Dreams, any pieces of the author to be found in the character of Alice are largely overshadowed by Alice's resemblance to First Lady Laura Bush and her own life story. Although most of the book is probably fiction, anyone remotely familiar with the basics of Mrs. Bush's life story will recognize her in this character. The car accident, the job as a librarian, the political party affiliation early on in her life and the marriage into a political family all come directly from the facts of the First Lady's life.

Interestingly, Sittenfeld cites Ann Gerhart's The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush as a major influence on her novel. I've read that book too, and the bones that make up Sittenfeld's story are all taken directly from actual biographical events. It is easy to imagine this book springing from a character development exercise undertaken by Sittenfeld on a bored winter afternoon. Enough imaginative fluff is added to make the reader sympathize with the character of Alice, who like our own First Lady enjoys a popularity well surpassing that of her husband. Those of you who don't care to imagine the gory details of a First Lady's sex life should probably skip this book. So too should those who want to continue to direct their anger with the current administration at the entire Bush family. Sittenfeld does an excellent job of creating a character with whom readers can sympathize, and she deftly manages to do so without creating a victim. This book makes me eager to read Mrs. Bush's forthcoming memoirs.