Saturday, November 28, 2009

Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

That was how Detective Andy Bellefleur's old Buick came to sit in the parking lot at Merlotte's all night and into the next day. The Buick had certainly been empty when Andy had gotten out to enter the bar, he would later swear. He'd also testify that he'd had been so preoccupied by his internal turmoil that he forgot to lock his car.
At some point between eight o'clock, when Andy had arrived at Merlotte's, and ten the next morning, when I arrived to help open the bar, Andy's car acquired a new passenger.
This one would cause considerable embarrassment for the policeman.
This one was dead.

So after reading the first Sookie Stackhouse book and reviewing it on here, I'm pretty sure I decided never to read another one. Well, as explanation for the existance of this post, I can only offer the excuse that these Sookie Stackhouse books have the same compelling pull as that hipster guy thats no good for you. You get some time away, and you start to build the book (or the guy) up in your mind. You start to think maybe it (he) wasn't all bad. You two had some good times together, whether it was laughing at author Charlaine Harris's stilted colloquialisms (book) or trying not to laugh during his dramatic poetry readings (guy). So maybe you give it another try. Maybe you call up the hipster dude, or you pick up Living Dead in Dallas at Costco (on sale!). Both represent a moment of weakness.

I don't know how the hipster dude storyline ends, because I made that up. But I did read Living Dead in Dallas, and I can even more emphatically state that I will never read another Sookie Stackhouse novel again. Or at least until the (deeply awesome television show) TrueBlood comes back on and I decide I'll give the books another try because how bad can they be? Thats another thing that gets me about these books. TrueBlood is awesome - engaging plotlines, likeable characters, witty dialogue, sexy sex. The books the show is based on lack all of that. By the end of LDID I was ready to kill Sookie myself, nevermind a bunch of vampires. Charlaine Harris writes awkward dialogue and even more awkward sex scenes (of which there were more, and more explicit in LDID than in the previous book, so thats a warning).

The book's gratuitous use of sex tended to distract from its otherwise general awfulness, so I can't completely bash it. If Harris could write a titillating erotic scene, she might be able to switch genres, but the stuff in this book falls squarely in the realm of soft-core. Like a Harlequin but trying too hard to stay classy, which in turn is just sad; no "throbbing member" here but close enough.

The book is set just a bit after the last one ends, when Sookie is called to Dallas as part of her agreement with Eric and the vampires of Shreveport. She has been rented out to use her telepathy to find information for a nest of vampires in Dallas. When she finds out that a missing vampire has been kidnapped by a local anti-vampire cult, and she is expected to sneak into the cult to gather information on his predicament, Sookie finds herself in all sorts of trouble with the vampire-haters. The plot is predictable and tired. Actually, I think the TrueBlood writers did a great job adapting it for the screen; I think their screenplay of this book would be infinitely more readable.

There are several lessons to be found in my experience. 1) Do not read this book. 2) Do not buy this book for a friend (even if she, like, tOtAlLy lOvEs vAmPiRe bOyZ!) 3) When you see this book at Costco, know that there's a good reason it's half off cover price.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I think today’s irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."


The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn't do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life's assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level person will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire's flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flame yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You'd have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

I read Infinite Jest mostly because it was a big, long literary novel I'd never read. At the time, I knew nothing about David Foster Wallace at all. His death last year didn't impact me at all. In my mind, I think I'd linked him together with authors like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, great authors who write substantial books that nevertheless tend to eschew genuine emotional impact and human characters for satire, impeccably-structured prose, and witty bon mots just dripping with irony and self-awareness. I'm a fan of this style of writing (Underworld is one of my favorite books of all time), but undertaking a novel the size of Infinite Jest, 100pp of which are taken up with just endnotes, was intimidating.

Now that I've actually finished it, my perspective is different. Infinite Jest isn't really much like Pynchon or DeLillo at all. In spite of its postmodern trappings--the extensive footnotes not being the least of which--IJ isn't a particularly difficult read. The length is intimidating, but it's a truly human book. It is at turns hilarious, heartbreaking, psychologically penetrating. Now, in retrospect, I feel a sense of loss at DFW's death.

The plot is all over the place, winding, taking detours in weird, unexpected places, combining ultra-realistic setpieces with vaguely sci-fi trappings. The time is the near future, where years are named after products, i.e. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and North America has become a unified entity known as O.N.A.N., at least, the sections of North America that weren't made uninhabitable by massive toxic waste dumps in the midwest. The principles of the cast are pretty numerous, but the bulk of the narrative revolves around the following:

- Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy living and breathing the sport at the prestigious Enfield Tennis Academy, athletically-skilled, socially awkward, and confused by his father's inexplicable suicide.

- Don Gately, a hulking, former small-time burglar now working at Ennet House Drug and Recovery House (sic), who barely remembers certain drug-fueled episodes from his past and is ultra-sensitive to be such a big, nearly-indestructible guy.

- Madame Psychosis, a former rado talk show host, now possibly deformed and always wearing a veil, who's time at Ennet House began after a suicide attempt of unknown motivation

- Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulants (The Wheelchair Assassins) - A Quebecois seperatist faction made up of, obviously enough, assassins who are incapacitated.

- Various other drug addicts, cross-dressers, tennis students, Incandenza family members, Enfield staff, etc. Honestly, the cast is large, although it expands and contracts somewhat depending on how you identify some of the more ambiguous characters.

The actual storylines are more divergent than the cast of characters. The unifying object in the narrative is The Entertainment, possibly the eponymous Infinite Jest, a video so fulfilling that anyone who watches it once becomes a drooling moron who only wants to see it again. It serves as a metaphor for the whole novel, which, as you might guess, focuses at least partially on addiction in all of its various forms. Drugs, sex, power, entertainment, athletic pursuits, etc. There are so many weird intersections of the various characters that I won't even attempt to explain them all here, but I will say that nothing comes together the way you'd expect and--fair warning--there's a fairly large coningent of internet critics who absolutely hate Infinite Jest because of its ending, which I won't spoil, but which you should know does not exactly tie up the loose ends.

To be honest, I don't even know how to begin to deconstruct IJ thematically or even narratively, which is probably obvious from this review. Addiction is a major theme, but to say that it's what the book is about is doing it a grave disservice. It could be read as a political or social satire, a high-comedy, a tragedy in the Greek mold, a commentary of sorts on society and the lengths to which it will go to entertain itself. I'd like to postulate though that while all these interpretations (and many, many more) hold water, I don't see how you could read IJ without getting the feeling that all this stuff is peripheral to the characters, the people and their relationships. Wallace himself said “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being, [Good writing should help readers to] become less alone inside.” It is on this count that I think IJ succeeds most brilliantly. In spite of any conflicted feelings I may have about the narrative itself, the characters are so richly drawn, so completely and unironically human, that I couldn't help but get wrapped up in them.

This is an uncharacteristically personal ending to one of my reviews, but Infinite Jest did something for me that maybe no piece of fiction has ever done to me before: It made me feel like I was a better person for having read it, and it accomplished Wallace's stated goal: it made me feel less alone. It's just too bad it couldn't do the same for Wallace himself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Another Brief Roundup

Happy Thanksgiving! This holiday season, I'm thankful for fluffy bestsellers that can be read in snippets and don't require much brainpower. Lets start with my favorite broad, Chelsea Handler. Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea has been out for a bit, but I just recently picked it up for the first time. And can I just say that when I grow up, I want to be nothing like Ms. Handler. However, I do want her for a best friend. We could have slumber parties replete with vodka popsicles and manicures. We could lounge about while I listen, chin in hand, eyes dazzled, to Chelsea describe her latest hookup-gone-awry. I'd guffaw loudly, possibly spitting out my alcoholic beverage, but it would be okay; my bestie Chelsea would understand. She'd be my kids' Crazy Aunt Chelsea! We're probably the same size and she's kinda famous so I could borrow her designer outfits! She's always dragging friends around the world with her on book tours - I'm in, Chelsea! Give me a call! This book is a funny hyperbolic memoir of sorts. Word to the wise: it's kind of awkward to read on the Metro unless you're into laughing out loud, then stopping short to sketchily side-eye your seat mates in case they were looking at you first. Because you were laughing out loud like a crazy person. Chelsea details some funny hookups, trips, and even an arrest in this volume. It is a quick read, and quite hilarious - read it.

Recently, I also read Pat Conroy's much-anticipated new book, South of Broad. The plot developed painfully slowly, in signature Conroy style, with all the action crammed into the second half of the novel. If you don't have the patience for pages of Low Country description, or you don't like South Carolina, this book is not for you. This was only the second Conroy I have read; I loved Lords of Discipline but can never seem to get past the first few chapters of The Prince of Tides (which many of my friends claim is his best book by far). I may have to go back and give it another try. South of Broad is about a group of friends, and the book's plot focuses on both their senior year in 1969 and also on a period twenty years later, when they all come together to rescue one of their own who is dying alone from AIDS. With murders and murderers and a plot that follows the friends from Charleston to San Francisco and back, the book is pretty good. Honestly, my favorite part of the novel was towards the end, when Hurricane Hugo decimates Charleston, bringing the friends together and healing old rifts. I remember Hugo a teeny bit (we were evacuated from a beach vacation in NC for it), and I never realized how much damage the hurricane caused the old city. Charleston is just as prominent a character in Conroy's book as any of the people in it, so the hurricane's destruction is especially poignant.

I also just finished the new Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol. Another quick read, but after The Da Vinci Code (which I gobbled up, haters) this one left something to be desired. I don't think the "twist" was as compelling or written as believably as in The Da Vinci Code. I also thought the ending relied on a rather tired literary construct - the idea that everything you seek, you have already. Spoiler alert: the Ancient Wisdom referenced in book (several characters are hunting for it) turns out to be contained in the Bible. It speaks to man's ability to bend nature and reality to his will. When I got to the end of the book and found out that the goal all along was actually a Bible, I gotta say I felt a little let down. For this reason, I couldn't decide if Brown was throwing a bone to the critics of Da Vinci Code who protested that the book was vehemently anti-Christian, or if he was espousing a broader multi-religion world view (technically, Brown explains that the Ancient Wisdom is in every religious text world-wide - a kind of archetype. I live in the Washington DC area, so it was neat to read the novel and learn about landmarks and monuments in my town, especially their Masonic ties. I sit right next to a former president (is that the term?) of the DC-area Masons, and whenever RG saw me reading the book, he always asked what Masonic rituals were being described, but never commented on whether the book was true to life or not. Brown certainly took long enough between books to have researched and fact-checked diligently in anticipation of this novel's release so maybe parts of the book are based on fact.

Black Culture and Black Consciousness by Lawrence Levine

Black Culture and Black Consciousness is a study of black folk culture from slavery to emancipation. In it, Lawrence Levine attacks the idea that blacks in 19th century America were devoid of culture. He argues that despite the lack of a common language or a common place of origin, blacks were able to create a culture of their own, even while suffering under the oppressive hand of slavery. Levine shows the ways in which this black culture was created and sustained, not only during the period when blacks were enslaved, but also after they were freed and began to face different challenges.

In 1977, Levine was writing about blacks in a way that few other historians were. Historians had long written about what whites thought of blacks. And, while some historians had given voice to the educated or elite members of black society, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass, none had attempted to write about blacks from a lower-class, black perspective. There are reasons for this beyond the deleterious effects of racism. The blacks of the 19th century simply did not leave behind many written records. While there are very few sources written by blacks, there is no shortage of sources written by whites about blacks. Plantation owners often wrote about their slaves, although often nothing more than a general description in a list of their property.

In early 20th century, folklorists who had been documenting white folktales turned their attention to black folktales. Their intent was to show the “otherness” of blacks, to highlight the difference between whites and blacks. Levine describes how these folklorists would unnecessarily accentuate the differences between white and black vernacular. For instance, they would use wite instead of “white,” or wuz would be used for “was.” According to Levine, these misspellings were not necessarily a conscious effort to portray blacks as illiterate. They simply reflected the way that these observers felt about blacks.

The study of folk culture demands the use of certain types of sources. In order to discuss trickster tales, call-and-response songs, gospel music, jokes, proverbs, and the oral tradition that allowed these forms of communication to survive, Levine had to use sources that were complex and difficult to work with. They cannot necessarily be taken at face value, but must be mined for hidden meaning.

While showing that blacks had a culture of their own despite their being enslaved, Levine’s book describes two other significant aspects of black culture: its dependence on an oral tradition and its adaptability. Levine correctly places importance on the oral tradition in black culture, finding that most elements of black culture of the 19th century relied heavily on this tradition. Since the majority of blacks during this time were illiterate, most could only communicate verbally. For this reason, call-and-response songs, jokes, and trickster tales took on added meaning. While 19th century whites sang songs and told jokes and stories, they did not occupy the same level of importance as they did in black culture. Elements that were merely peripheral in white culture were essential to the emergence of a unified black culture during the 19th century, and the subsequent survival of that culture.

Levine under represents an essential part of black culture that followed it from the 19th century through the present: black religious sermons. Although he does discuss the role of black preachers, it is very limited. Levine misses the opportunity to place these preachers and their sermons into the overarching theme of Black Culture and Black Consciousness. These sermons are not only an example of black culture’s reliance on an oral tradition, but also are an example of the adaptability of the culture. Levine could have shown how black sermons changed with the times, in the same way that he detailed the changes that black songs underwent. Black preachers and their sermons played a vital role in the Civil Rights movement that took place in the decade prior to the publication of this book.

With Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Levine dispels the idea that blacks were deprived of their culture, that they emerged from slavery without any sort of group identity.

The West as America edited by William H. Truettner

The West as America is a collaborative project, a collection of essays on the American West. More specifically, the contributors to this collection analyze images, both popular and obscure, in an attempt to reshape the way in which westward expansion in America has been perceived.

The mid to late 19th century was a period of westward expansion in the America. It was also a time when America was reshaping its identity. Up to this time it had been largely perceived as a frontier nation, an area characterized by vast tracts of wilderness and open land. This availability of land is what attracted settlers to the New World in the 1600s. Two hundred years later, and most of America remained wilderness, but this was about to change. The idea of progress began to be used to define America. Tangible changes were taking place to the landscape, but this idea of progress was also something that was meticulously cultivated on many levels.

The idea of the West was something that had to be sold. According William H. Truettner, who is a senior curator at the National Museum of American Art and the editor of this book, guidebook writers played a large role in this selling of the West. Other writers contributed to this process of marketing the West, such as biographers, newspaper contributors, and government officials. In a guide published in 1857, the author poses the question, “If we boast of our own works of improvement in the West have we not on hand a thousand proofs to sustain us?” He then proceeds to list some of these proofs. This idea of progress becomes part of the definition of America during the 19th century.

The contributors to this collection challenge their readers to look past the composition and color of paintings and pictures, and find the deeper historical meaning in pieces of art. Elizabeth Broun, the Director of the National Museum of American Art, argues that 19th century artists portrayed westward expansion as the manifest destiny of America. The beauty of the West—its landscapes and animals—were regularly depicted by artists, but other aspects of frontier life were not as commonly used. The hardships of frontier life, the bleakness of the winters, and the almost complete destruction of Native American cultures, and severely underrepresented in the painting and pictures of the American West.

An image can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and it is one of the jobs of the historian to make sure that images do not present an inaccurate representation of the past. As William H. Truettner states that the point of this collection of essays was “to dispel traditional ideas about images of the West, to place them in a new context designed to question past interpretations.” Images can be extremely powerful tools for learning, but the proper interpretation is paramount to a correct understanding of the past.

Monday, November 23, 2009

PopMatters Seeks Reviewers

Pop Matters, a pretty decent cultural review site, is seeking book bloggers and reviewers. They are looking for non-fiction reviewers in particularly, so I probably wouldn't find my niche here, but I thought that I might pass it a long to the rest of you.


Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

I find that suspense is a thing difficult to find done well. All too often suspense, whether it be on books, in film, or worst of all on television, seems formulaic and hollow. In how many episodes of Monk or CSI are you able to guess the killer within the episode's first fifteen minutes? If you assumed that House's patients all had a rare parasite, wouldn't you be right, like, ninety percent of the time? Are you ever really shocked or surprised?

All of which makes Rebecca all the more awesome--it actually has its "holy shit" moments, including one that takes everything you thought about the novel and flips it on its head. Everything you thought you knew about Rebecca, after its first two acts, turns out to be wrong, and yet everything leading up to the reveal makes perfect sense--like The Sixth Sense. You know, where Bruce Willis turns out to be a man. I might be thinking of The Crying Game, come to think of it. And then, Rebecca flips everything again, and then a third time. None of these big reveals are expected, and yet all of them make perfect sense.

The story begins with an young, unnamed girl working as a companion--a sort of half-friend half-secretary--for an older American woman in Monte Carlo, where they meet Maxim de Winter, a handsome aristocrat who has recently lost his wife in a drowning accident. Maxim and the girl fall quickly in love, and are as quickly married, and the girl becomes the mistress of Maxim's famous family mansion, Manderley. But she finds that, as she feared, she is unprepared to preside over such a household, and finds that she cannot fill the shoes of Maxim's late wife.

The wife, of course, is Rebecca--a brilliant touch, of course, refusing to even give the girl the title of her own book. There was no one like Rebecca: accomplished, independent, in control, and beautiful--"the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life"--one character remarks. The girl, by contrast, is kind-hearted but meek and eternally out of place; she resides not at Manderley but in her own mind. She is constantly imagining would-be encounters or the unheard conversations of others, in all of which she is compared unfavorably to Rebecca. Of course, she has justification, particularly from Mrs. Danvers, the chief house servant who was devoted to Rebecca and, despite her outward deference, the girl suspects of plotting against her out of fealty to her former mistress. Even Maxim's senile grandmother seems to want Rebecca back, driving the girl to abject misery:

He did not belong to me at all, he belonged to Rebecca. He still thought about Rebecca. She was in the hosue s till, as Mrs Danvers had said; she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning-room, in the gallery above the hall. Even in the little flower-room, where her mackintosh still hung... Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley. Rebecca was still Mrs de Winter. I had no business here at all. I had come blundering like a poor fool on ground that was preserved. "Where is Rebecca?" Maxim's grandmother had cried. "I want Rebecca. What have you done with Rebecca?"

If the girl struggling with the expectations of Rebecca's legacy comprised the entire book, it would have been good, an excellent character study or psychological novel. But I'm happy to say it's actually much better than that.

In many ways, Rebecca is something of a potboiler--or perhaps that's too negative? It has a pulp quality, a sensationalism that made it a bestseller when it was published in 1938. It's plot-heavy, and teasing larger thematic observations from it isn't fruitless, but neither is it the best way to appreciate it. But it's surprisingly intense and suspenseful, and well-plotted. There is a reason that most bestsellers are quickly forgotten--they suck--but Rebecca is still fairly popular, and deservedly so.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez

Sloth is an original graphic novel by Gilbert Hernandez, one of the Hernandez Brothers behind Love and Rockets, possibly the longest running and most influential indie comic going. I haven't been able to track down a collection of L&R yet, but wanted to sample some of the Hernandez's work.

Sloth is short, easily the shortest book I've read this year, but what it lacks in size, it makes up in sheer bizarreness. The story follows three Hispanic teens, Miguel, Lita, and Romeo. When the story opens, Miguel has just awoken from a year long coma and is trying to restart his life. The coma itself is a mystery, mostly because no medical reason for it can be found. To all appearances, Miguel willed himself into the coma out of boredom and a general malaise. He returns to Lita, his girlfriend who may or may not have developed an attraction to Romeo during his year MIA. He also can't help but notice that trying to move at any speed besides "slow" causes his joints to burn.

To this point, the story is quirky but not exactly surreal. The strangeness starts when the three go to an orchard where a mysterious goatman is said to reside, coming out only at night. According to legend, the goatman offers those who see it a chance to change places. If they agree, they become the goatman and have to find someone to switch with.

The story only gets stranger from there, as the three encounter the goatman, Miguel finds that he may or may not be able to fly, and a major and completely unexpected twist at the 2/3rds point when (spoiler) Miguel actually becomes Lita in some alternate universe featuring all the same characters (except Miguel) in drastically different roles.

As far as conclusions, that's tough. The primary theme seems to be identity, but the specific applications Hernandez is making are unclear, as is the narrative arc. Is the implication that one of the three switched places with the goatman changing the fabric of reality? Is it all a dream inside of a still comatose teen's head? By the end of the story, all three teens have switched identities and willed themselves into comas, although not simultaneously. There's something beautifully tragic about the dreamworlds of the protgaonists, if that's what they are: the worlds aren't perfect, but they are realities where things happen, where there are rockstars, goatmen, and adventures.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Oedipus the King by Sophocles

The story of Oedipus is well-worn: Boy meets girl. Boy saves girl's city from riddle-obsessed monster. Boy discovers that he's actually girl's son, and that he killed his own dad years ago without knowing but it's too late because they've already boned. It's almost cliche.

To be more specific, Oedipus is the king of Thebes, a position he inherited when, wandering from his home in Corinth, he encountered the Sphinx, who was eating any Theban who could not answer his riddle. Oedipus answered it, and saved the city, and now has married its queen Jocasta, the former king being recently murdered. A plague has struck the city, and the oracle of Apollo says that it will only pass when the former king's murderer is put to justice. With the help of the prophet Teiresias, Oedipus discovers that he is the murderer, recalling a fight in which he killed an unknown man years ago, and that he is really Jocasta's son, expelled from Thebes as an infant because of a prophecy that said he would do exactly what he ends up doing.

But it is, of course, the essential work of ancient Greek tragedy. It is the most oft-used example Aristotle gives when he outlines tragedy for us in the Poetics, suggesting that shows remarkable purity of genre. All the elements are there: a hero is neither a great man nor a villain, but the bearer of a fatal flaw that eventually leads to his downfall. There is a startling revelation (peripeteia), a sudden reversal of fortune (anagnorisis), and an ending so bleak and ruinous that you might call it a catastrophe (catastrophe).

Of course, it is also the basis for Freud's theory of the Oedipal complex, making it one of the most essential texts in the development of Freudian criticism and literary criticism as a whole. In this way, its relevance spans a vast stretch of time, and it is an excellent illustration of the way that we regard literature differently than our predecessors.

Unlike The Odyssey, I find Oedipus the King wanting for emotional heft to complement its academic fecundity. All tragedies are meant to act as funhouse mirrors in which we see ourselves, but Oedipus' basic humanity is less apparent to me than Odysseus', whose longing for his home and his wife is truly affecting. One issue may be the translation, which I feel is a little banal. See the way that this translator, Benard Knox, renders Oedipus' opening address to the priests who are gathered in supplication to the gods:

My sons! Newest generation of this ancient city of Thebes! Why are you here? Why are you seated there at the altar, with these branches of supplication? The city is filled with the smoke of burning incense, with hymns to the healing god, with laments for the dead.

Contrast Sir George Young:

Children, you modern brood of Cadmus old,
What mean you, sitting in your sessions here,
High-coronalled with votive olive-boughs,
While the whole city teems with incense-smoke,
And paean hymns, and sounds of woe the while?

Knox's translation, besides committing the terrible sin of being in prose, is awfully clumsy and plain, isn't it? Not only that, but you get the impression a lot of the syntax is lost here--see how Oedipus' statement about the incnese is subordinated in Young's translation, suggesting that Oedipus is asking about that as well as the priests' presence, and in Knox's it is presented as a flat statement unconnected to anything. Stupid.

But whatever. One benefit of Oedipus is that it's literally one-tenth the size of The Odyssey, so in my class we can really pick it apart and deconstruct it. I wish it were made of better stuff, but what can you do?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley

I read Little Scarlet after reading This Year You Write Your Novel. Thought it might give the book some context to see what sort of fiction Mosley turns out. After finishing Little Scarlett, I think he produces work I'd probably enjoy. On the other hand, I had some issues with this book, although they're mostly my fault.

I didn't realize when I bought Little Scarlet that it was book 6 in the Easy Rawlins series, for one thing. With a lot of mystery or crime novels, chronology isn't particularly important, but Little Scarlet picks up immediately following a huge race riot and told me virtually nothing about Rawlins himself. It wasn't until I was nearly 1/3rd of the way through that I realized it was set in the 60's, which made Rawlin's extreme racial sensitivity and (well-rendered) impotent rage more understandable, as well as explaining why most of the white characters in the book exhibit behavior that would be considered inappropriate publicly now, but which, in the 60's, was hardly uncommon.

The story itself is a pretty hard-boiled detective story, as Rawlins investigates the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of Little Scarlet, a young girl murdered during the riot. The twists are there, and the character of Rawlins seems like an interesting one. Ultimately though, it was hard for me to get a good read on Mosley from this book. His themes of racial identity are well-integrated into the plot, and the characters are strong. It's just a case of too little information, a situation I'll try to remedy soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I Like It Better When You're Funny by Charles Grodin

If you've ever wanted to spend several hours listening to Charles Grodin, of The Heartbreak Kid, Beethoven and MSNBC fame, share anecdotes about various people--mostly unnamed--that he's worked with throughout his 30-odd years in show business, this is the book for you. Of course, if you read I Like It Better When You're Funny and find that it isn't exactly the book on Charles Grodin you want to read, you can always pick up one of his other four memoirs. Just for comparison's sake, Grodin's various memoirs combined are approximately the size of Lord of the Rings. Spy, author, philosopher, and all-around awesome guy Graham Greene got only a two volume set.

I don't know why I picked this up, but I'm sort of glad I did. Grodin is approximately as grouchy as you might expect, and is alternately self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating. Once you've read ILYBWYF, you'll come to understand that Grodin's instincts are always correct, but that he sometimes goes against them and makes embarrassing mistakes. You'll also learn that he has a great deal of respect for pretty much everyone he's ever worked with, and that most of them loved him too, and found him much nicer and easier to work with than expected. If you don't really know who Charles Grodin is, big deal. Once you finish this book, you'll know more.

You wanted it, you got it.

If you look to the right, just under the 50 Bookers 2009 list, you'll see that 50B now has a search box. Use it wisely.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Box by Richard Matheson

This is a collection of short stories. They are rather cerebral in cerebral. Most could be described as psychological dramas. For example, in "Button, Button" a man and his wife are given a button mounted on a box (think Deal or No Deal) and told that if they push it they we be given a large sum of money if they push it, but also that somewhere in the world, someone that they don't know will die. Matheson originally published this story in Playboy in 1970. It was used as a storyline for an episode of The Twilight Zone (1985) and has been made into a recently-released feature-length movie. Another essay involves on a psychic who is with a man who exploits her abilities, making people pay them for what she knows.

Many of the essays involve technology in some way, often highlighting the darker side of innovations. They put me in mind of some of the work of Philip K. Dick.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I'll be completely honest, I had no clue that Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's until I saw the movie Capote. I have intended to read In Cold Blood for a while now, so when I saw this book in a little coffee shop/bookstore combo in Chattanooga, I picked it up.

I love the way Capote frames this story. It is told from the perspective of Paul Varjak, a struggling writer living in Manhattan's Upper East Side. The book is made up of Paul's recollections of his encounters with Holly Golightly, a woman who lives in the same brownstone that Paul does on the Upper East Side of New York City. I forget where I heard it, but the best description I have heard of Holly Golightly is "a grown-up Lolita." She is sexual but innocent, coy but boisterous. She is described in the book as a "bad little good girl adrift in New York."

After reading and enjoying the book, I watch the movie, which I hadn't seen in a long time. Oh god, it was dumb. It took a story replete with complex emotions and human desires and reduced it to a kitschy love story. Lost in Translation bears more resemblance to Capote's book than the Hepburn/Peppard movie does. This is a great story, and the version that I bought came with a few other short stories that were good as well.

Robinson by Muriel Spark

If you ask me how I remember the island, what it was like to be stranded there by misadventure for nearly three months, I would answer that it was a time and landscape of the mind if I did not have the visible signs to summon its materiality: my journal, the cat, the newspaper cuttings, the curiosity of my friends; and my sisters--how they always look at me, I think, as one returned from the dead.

There is no more appropriate island on which to be shipwrecked, I suppos, than one named Robinson. There was Robinson Crusoe, for one, and the Swiss Family Robinson, who weren't actually named Robinson (come on, they were Swiss) but instead were meant to be a Swiss version of Crusoe, and I guess a family version too. Muriel Spark's Robinson cuts through all that nomenclature and presents himself only as "Robinson," and calls the island on which he lives the same. Like the streamlining and concision of all of Spark's novels, here's the island-dwelling icon whittled to his essence.

Robinson lives all alone on his island with his young helper Miguel, and is not exactly pleased when a plane crashes on it. The only survivors are Jimmie Waterford, a Scandinavian (not his real name) who happens to be Robinson's cousin, an oily, disagreeable New Age huckster named Tom Wells, and the protagonist, a young woman named January Marlow. As put out as Robinson is, his guests are even more put out to discover that the next boat out doesn't arrive at Robinson for another three months.

During their time on the island, Robinson cares well for the three survivors, if with a characteristically annoyed detachment. January begins to manifest feelings toward Jimmie, and as it turns out nobody likes Tom Wells. Spark juggles this dynamic for half the book, before suddenly, strangely, Robinson disappears, though his torn, bloody clothes have been left behind en route to a man-sized volcanic fissure in the island's surface. What follows is a tense standoff between the three survivors, while January tries to figure out who the murderer is and if she might be next. It wouldn't be in Spark's style to have this tension descend into violence, but the island is riddled with secret tunnels and provides a good setting for a pretty rousing, if low-key, mystery-adventure tale.

In many ways, Robinson struck me as a "beach read"--fraught with suspense, but light and mildly forgettable. Of course, the writing is a thousand times better than your average Patricia Cornwell book ("the mustard field staring at me with a yellow eye, the blue and green lake seeing in me a hard turquoise stone") and, as in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark does marvelous work making her characters seem full and alive in a minimum of brush strokes.

The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams

Watership Down is one of my all-time favorite novels. So I was excited to read something else by Richard Adams. I can't remember why I chose this book or why I decided to order it from, but I did not really see the cover or anything until I had already paid for the book. You can't see from the picture, but on the front cover right above the title is this phrase from the New York Times Book Review, "Beautiful haunting erotic love and an absolutely terrifying ghost story." I turned the book over and on the back, "Stunning. . . a novel of love and beauty, mystery and horror." Right above that blurb from Vogue, the main female character is described as "a seductress of erotic mystery and exquisite sexual genius." I remember thinking, Geez, what have I gotten myself into?

As it turns out, almost none of what is written all over the cover of this book is true. The book occasionally deals with sex, there is some mystery surround the female lead Kathe, and there is technically a ghost. However, the ghost plays such a small role in the story that I would never refer to this as a ghost story, definitely not haunting. There were a few parts that were a little spooky, but not "terrifying," "chilling," or "terrible" as the hyperbolic cover suggests. However, this is not to say that the book was bad. It was a good, slow-moving story of a man who falls in love with a woman he knows little about. I wonder if I would have enjoyed the book better had the cover not set me completely on the wrong path. I know that I would have enjoyed the ending much more than I did.

So, I didn't really like The Girl in A Swing, but it was not so bad that I won't give Adams another shot.

**Update: I gave Adams another shot.

The Rainmaker by John Grisham

I took a little over a year off from John Grisham (Skipping Grisham?). No reason, in fact, The Chamber--last book of his that I read--was really quite good, and I had heard that The Rainmaker was good as well. I believe that it is Brent's favorite Grisham novel. So I was happy to come back to him (Grisham...not Brent).

I started reading this during the height of the health care "debate." You know: screaming about death panels; calling Obama a communist, fascist, baby-killing, euthanizer, and incorrectly stating that we have the best healthcare system in the world...and that was all just on Sarah Palin's Facebook page. I was surprised to see that the problems with our current healthcare system have were pretty much exactly the same back in 1995, when The Rainmaker was published.

The story is told from the perspective of Rudy Baylor, a law student on the verge of graduating and in desperate search of employment. He is managing only two clients, one of which is the older woman from whom he rents. She is trying to get her estate in order, largely at the behest of her greedy children. Rudy's other client is the Black family. Their adult son, Donnie Ray, was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Medical intervention could have spared his life, but the Great Benefit Insurance Company denied their claim, preventing Donny Ray from getting a life-saving bone marrow transplant. Rudy and the Blacks decide to take Great Benefit to court and make public what they did.

What really comes across when reading this book is Grisham's disdain for insurance companies. Here is part of an exchange between Rudy and another lawyer regarding the way Great Benefit makes money:

"How many policies are out there?"
"Just under a hundred thousand. If you figure a claim rate of ten percent, that's ten thousand claims a year, about the average for the industry. Let's say they deny, just for the hell of it, half of the claims. Down to five thousand. The average claim is ten thousand dollars. Five thousand times ten thousand is fifty million bucks. And let's say they spend ten million, just a figure from the air, to settle the few lawsuits that pop up. They clear forty million with their little plot, then maybe the next year they start paying the legitimate claims again. Skip a year, go back to the denial routine. Cook up another scheme. They make so damned much money they can afford to screw anybody."

Grisham hinted at this with his Jake Brigance character in A Time to Kill, but it is nowhere close to the utter contempt he shows with The Rainmaker.

While this book is fiction, the story at is core is about as real as it can get. There is something horribly wrong about people making money off of people's illnesses, diseases, or lack thereof. It is worth noting that the dedication of this book reads "To American trial lawyers" not "To tort reform."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

I wish I were popular and beautiful and wealthy and talented.
My mind possessed the wisdoms of the ages, and there were no words adequate to describe them.

Go Ask Alice purports to be the honest-to-goodness real diary of a poor girl who starts off as a sterling, if somewhat shy, student and is gradually drawn deep into a web of drugs, alcohol, illicit sex, and suspiciously aggressive potheads. Of course, once the book became a hit, Beatrice Sparks, a Mormon psychologist and youth counselor, came forward, claiming to be the book's compiler and editor, though not it's actual author who was, of course, Alice. or, well, not really. Actually, Alice is in the book for about 3 sentences, but for simplicity's sake, I'm going to assume the anonymous diarist is named Alice as well.

Anyone who actually reads the book, however, will start suspecting early on that either Alice or Beatrice is making things up as they go along. I could buy that Alice started drinking out of peer pressure and a desire to be cool. I could buy that she started smoking pot for the same reason. I found it harder to believe that she became a voracious addict to LSD after being secretly given a spiked glass of beer. Credulity is stretched to the breaking point, however, after the second time Alice's addict friends break into her house to plant drugs then, later, inject the candy bowl at the neighbor's house with cocaine and call the police. Alice, of course, winds up on the street, alternately transcribing her pathetic sexual escapes and waxing philosophical in ways that your average teenager doesn't. In the last several entries, Alice kicks the habit but then mysteriously dies in a postscript that, presumably, was not part of the original diary.

Later, Dr. Sparks published a series of books, all with the "real-life diary" angle, dealing with a boy who falls into Satanism, a homeless teen, and a knocked-up teen. These, fittingly enough, were shelved under fiction, ensuring that their terribly contrived, retarded, didactic stories will never be taken as seriously as Alice's. Sparks's most recent book? Open and Say Ah: The Story of a Lying Psychologist.

The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

"Alma? I wonder if you could help me..."

Yes, Mr. Siegl.

"Some pages seem to be lost. This writing I've been doing in the dining room. I've looked everywhere, I can't understand how these pages could be lost..."

Desperate he was sounding. Pathetic. Why didn't he summon the Blumenthal woman, needing help?

Alma murmured Yes, she would look.

In her heart laughing at the grown man so stricken by the loss of his precious
pages! Like he'd shit his pants when he couldn't find them. Graven images. Those that boast themselves of idols.

It was the Tattooed Girl who had stolen away the pages. Torn them into shreds. Poetry some of it was. And all of it bullshit. Who gave a fuck for what the Jew was scribbling hour after hour, sweating like a pig in a fever? Printed pages in books, who gives a damn for them? If the books added up to anything there would not be so many of them but only a few. The Tattooed Girl had come to think that since becoming Joshua Siegl's assistant that those who practiced such bullshit knew what its true meaning was. Yet the hypocrites prevailed.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote one of my absolute favorite stories of all time, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" but I had never had the occasion to read one of her novels. I ignored the advice of others (I've heard Rape: A Love Story is good but I find it difficult to pick up because of its melodramatic, Lifetime-y premise) and bought this one, because the blurb--Jewish author hires a pretty young assistant, not knowing that she is a virulent anti-Semite--sounded interesting.

It isn't. Or perhaps I'm being too harsh--the problem isn't that it's uninteresting, but rather that it is deeply unappealing. The two main characters are difficult to follow for vastly different reasons: The protagonist, Joshua Siegl, is a writer in his thirties who has recently been diagnosed with a severe neurological disease, and has decided to hire an assistant. He is melancholy, self-loathing, and prone to pretension; with his disease and his glum indolence it is jarring to be reminded that not only is Siegl young, he is widely thought to be handsome. He also enjoys some sort of local celebrity in Rochester, where the novel is set, and is frequently recognized at his favorite restaurant--a fact that recalls to me the way that people used to recognize Kelsey Grammar on Frasier because he was that guy from the radio show. Oates is an author; shouldn't she know that minor writers don't get recognized in restaurants?

In any case, Siegl lacks anything that might approximate a likable characteristic, but worse is the girl he eventually hires to be his assistant, Alma. He passes over many well-educated male candidates because none seems perfect enough, but he is taken by Alma for some reason, and seeing her working at a local bookstore hires her on the spot.

It may be because she is beautiful, but though many men lust after Alma, Oates' physical descriptions of her tend to be vaguely nauseating, her "big beautiful white breasts like bags of warm milk," her "white mollusc-body heaving and bucking." And it isn't because of her intelligence, either, because Oates takes pains to point out that Alma is as dumb as aforementioned mollusc:

Though words sometimes puzzled Alma, she never looked up any word in any dictionary; a word was like a pebble to be turned briefly in the hand, and tossed away, with no expectation that it would be encountered again.

What Siegl does not realize is that Alma comes to him from the care of a waiter named Dmitri Meatte, a crude exploitation artist who pimps Alma and feeds her anti-Semitic nonsense. This anti-Semitism reacts badly with the suspicion that Alma already has of the bankers and finance-men who drove her western Pennsylvania hometown to ruin, and expands with resentment toward the inordinately wealthy Siegl. After a while, she begins to sabotage Siegl in his home, from stealing petty items to--wait for it--contaminating his food with menstrual blood.

This is as inexplicable as it is revolting. What Oates offers as simple explanations for their hatred--Dmitri is sadistic; Alma is a moron--appear bluntly unrealistic. If Alma is made to hate Jews by Dmitri, where does his bigotry originate? Why, in modern America, where race and class conflict are ripe for literary depiction, does Oates choose to chronicle a hatred that rarely seems manifest anymore, at least not in the particularly vicious manner of Dmitri and Alma? The book abounds in lazy parallels to the Holocaust, and Siegl recounts a scene from a book by Primo Levi in which a concentration camp prisoner asks a guard, "warum?"--Why? The guard replies, "Hier ist kein warum"--Here is no why. There is no reason, no because. This is reflected in the tattoos that Alma bears, violet scribbles without purpose or form that seem to have been inflicted upon her unwilling.

Fair enough. Perhaps Oates is telling us that that hatred needs no reasoning, that it merely is. Perhaps Dmitri hates Jews simply because he does. That doesn't stop the book from being deeply unsatisfying or bizarrely unnecessary.

Nor does it make Alma's change of heart any less nonsensical. She begins to have sympathy for the Jews and for Siegl in particular after reading a section about the Holocaust from his only novel, only to become angered when he tells her that the novel is fiction--a concept she does not understand and equates with lies.

Which begs the question, how stupid are we supposed to believe this girl is? Oates not only seems wholly unsympathetic to her characters here, but is making a tactical mistake. That idiots can hold idiotic ideas needs not be explained to us; what we must grapple with when we think of history is why the brilliant and the gifted turn to violent ideologies. The novel, like Alma herself, is bitter, dull, and off-putting, and by the time her heart softens the damage has been done.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

"Love is ridiculous."

The Tale of Despereaux is a modern-day fairy tale. In fact, one might even suspect Kate DiCamillo of attempting to add her tale to the children' canon. After all, all the ingredients are here: an anthropomorphic rodent protagonist, an antagonist who eventually sees the light, a second antagonist who gets what's coming to him, the magic of courage/love, soup, and, of course, a beautiful princess.

The thing is, the truth of the tale is in the telling. If DiCamillo didn't write so openly and so enthusiastically, it would be easy to feel cynical. But honestly, this tale of the one brave mouse and how he eventually saves everyone didn't feel contrived to me at all. It almost feels like a love letter to the classics, albeit a letter without horrible recompense as a postscript.

The movie is pretty good too, unless you're Chris and have a crippling fear of computer-generated rodents.

Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

I had never heard of this book or the trilogy that it is a part of (often referred to as the Ransom Trilogy) before I saw this at Joseph-Beth. Lewis is a little hit-or-miss for me, but I thought I would give this a try.

The main character of Out of the Silent Planet is Dr. Ransom. He is kidnapped by two rouge scientists, one of which he knew nominally when at Cambridge, and taken by spaceship to a planet called Malacandra. Ransom is unsure of their purposes, completely in the dark about what they plan to do with him. Shortly after landing on Malacandra, Ransom is able to elude his captors and escape into the wilds of the unknown planet. It is not long, however, before he befriends Hyoi. Hyoi is a hrossa, one of the many sentient species that inhabit Malacandra. The hrossa are very in tune with the natural world that surrounds them. Unlike Ransom's captors, Westin and Devine, who are driven by their desire for a valuable mineral that they found on Malacandra. Ransom lives with the hrossa for quite a long time, learning their language and much about the Malacandrian world, and visiting with Oyarsa, the diety that looks over the Malacandria. A chance encounter with Westin and Devine results in utter chaos, and in their hasty return to Earth. With the passage of time, Ransom begins to doubt his experience, chalking it up to some delusion or vivid fever dream. Then he receives a letter from a colleague (who we find out is the narrator of the book) that inadvertently restores his faith in his Malacandrian adventure.

This was not at all what I expected from this book. I can't imagine that it was received well by Christians in 1943, when it was first published. There is more than a tinge of animism in the book and while Oyarsa is like Christ for another world-- the protector god who steps in when the people of his world need him. The intriguing storyline of Out of the Silent Planet was full of big-picture ideas. I highly recommend this book.

Ant Farm by Simon Rich

This is Simon Rich's first book. I picked it up after reading his second book, Free-Range Chickens, and laughing myself sick. The style of Ant Farm is the same as Chickens: short, off-the-wall, comedic essays. The topics in Ant Farm range from pen pals to Jesus to time traveling.

From the essay "When Small Talk Goes Wrong"
- Do you have the time?
- Shh! It's 4:26 P.M.!
- Huh?
- (whispering) April twenty-sixth, 4:26 P.M., is an official minute of silence. Congress created it to honor the 426 men who died in the Great Boise Fire. My Father was among those men.
- Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I'll stop talking.
- It doesn't matter. The minute has already passed.

Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen

This book is a collection of humorous essays. It is hilarious. I love how seamlessly Allen is able to weave together high culture and the profound with the absur: Faulkner and Dostoyevsky and Flanders Mealworm, a fledgling writer selling his soul to Hollywood; the private dick who helps a rich socialite track down a priceless truffle; the scriptwriter who takes a job for an online company that sells prayers. (A prayer for a man wanting his wife to bear him a son: "May the broad lie down in green pastures and drop foals abundantly.")

The ideas for many of these essays came from actual events and items. One of my favorite essays begins with an excerpt from the New York Times Magazine about technologically enabled clothing (shirts that can charge cell phones, pants that can trap offensive scents and release appealing smells, etc.). As someone who is allergic to most of the stuff they treat dress shirts with to make them idiot proof, I found this essay especially funny.

Mere Anarchy was pure entertaining absurdity.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

On F. Scott Fitzgerald:

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred.
Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.

A Moveable Feast is a minor work by Hemingway, a travelogue/memoir of his years in Paris as a young writer. Apparently Hemingway hung around the cream of the literary crop, even before he changed from a writer of manly fiction to the towering literary figure he eventually became, because A Moveable Feast is full of amusing anecdotes about various writers Hemingway knew and associated with. Among the highlights:

- Gertrude Stein was insecure to the point of rudeness, and was virtually unwilling to compliment any work but her own, which she held in very high regards.

- Ford Maddox Ford stunk and was annoying.

- James Joyce was friendly but reclusive. Also, apparently, Irish.

The first half of the book, from which most of these stories come, is enjoyable but light, a list of the things Hem's doing and the people he's spent time with. The second half takes a darker turn, and spends most of its time delving into Hemingway's relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby. Like virtually all the writers in A Moveable Feast, Fitzgerald was insecure, even, at one point, asking Hemingway to check his prostate to ensure that all was well. Hemingway obliged, which finally gives credence to my theory that real men administer prostate exams. For all interested parties: the prostate was fine, and I think Fitzgerald was just showing off.

Once the humorous stories end, though, Fitzgerald's tale takes a sad turn, as pressure to follow up Gatsby and even greater pressure at home keeping Zelda, his psychologically-disturbed and insanely-jealous wife, happy, drove him further and further into drinking, leading to his premature death at the age of 44. Throughout Fitzgerald's decline, Hemingway's descriptions are matter-of-fact and all the more heartbreaking for that.

Interestingly, A Moveable Feast was published posthumously, and Fitzgerald's surviving family recently collaborated with the publishers to release a new edition of Feast with some Fitzgerald's less flattering biographical bits excised. I say they're making a mistake. Nothing humanizes a man like his weaknesses, and A Moveable Feast is a tribute to Paris, to writing, to love, and to friendship.

Final Crisis by Grant Morrison

I'm not sure if anyone here besides me reads comics on a monthly basis, but anyone who does knows that every summer, both Marvel and DC have a major event, a storyline that crosses through nearly all their titles and, theoretically at least, has a lasting impact on their comics universe. Generally, these events don't interest me much, partially because they require constant vigilance and the purchase of many titles I'm not interested in, and also because they generally require a deeper knowledge of the universe than I actually have. There's also the minor detail that these events rarely have the long-term effects they promise. Anything the writers or fans dislike is retconned at the first opportunity, so if the story isn't good, what's the point?

Final Crisis was a little different though, because DC (rather bravely) handed the reigns of their summer event over to Grant Morrison, a writer second only to Alan Moore for "idea comics." Oh, yeah, and it was pretty common knowledge that Batman was going to die (more information than you ever wanted about Batman's death, in the comments).

So did the story live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, the story was strange and compelling, and, as usual, Morrison pulled some obscure characters out of the DC backpages for some big-screen heroics. On the other hand, the collection I purchased didn't have all the comics in the storyline, so there were a lot of blanks I had to fill in myself. Overall, it was well worth the read for me, but probably a hard sell for non-superhero fans.

And I know this review isn't very informative, but a) I have a lot of reviews to write and b) did anyone really want to read 5,000 words about the DC Multiverse?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

When he was alone Wormold unscrewed the cleaner into its various parts. Then he sat down at his desk and began to make a series of careful drawings. As he sat back and contemplated his sketches of the sprayer detached from the hose-handle of the cleaner, the needle-jet, the nozzle and the telescopic tube, he wondered: Am I perhaps going too far? He realised that he had forgotten to indicate the scale. He ruled a line and numbered it off: one inch representing three feet. Then for better measure he drew a little man two inches high below the nozzle. He dressed him neatly in a dark suit, and gave him a bowler hat and an umbrella.

Graham Greene notoriously split his oeuvre into "novels"--literary and philosophical works like The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter--and pulpier "entertainments." Our Man in Havana is decidedly an entertainment twice removed: a convoluted, jokey spy thriller that isn't really a spy thriller at all.

The protagonist is an English vacuum salesman living in Cuba named Wormold, who is recruited (perhaps only because of his Englishness) by British officials to provide intelligence on the political climate in Cuba, at this time under the dominion of Fulgencio Batista. The process of spying has its natural barriers, and Wormold rarely meets with his directors, instead communicating by book code and substituting numbers for names. Wormold quickly realizes that it is far easier to submit invented intelligence than real intelligence, and even goes so far as to recruit fake "sub-agents" so that he might pocket their salary. Scandalous, it might seem, but Greene keeps the tone light and Wormold naturally meek, casting the blame on the government buffoons.

What Wormold gives them is a diagram of a dissembled vacuum cleaner, claiming that his intelligence has sighted a massive mechanical operation deep in the Cuban jungle. British intelligence, predictably, buys this hook, line, and sinker. But there are other agents in Havana, and eventually the real people "recruited" by Wormold to be his sub-agents find themselves in grave danger, and Wormold himself is the target of assassination attempts.

Our Man in Havana is, despite the persistent threat of death, deceptively sunny and makes for an absurd, almost Coenesque farce. Compared to many of Greene's other novels which have so much more philosophical and social heft, it is also almost completely forgettable. The satire isn't toothless, but neither is it toothsome. As I understand it, Castro disliked the novel because it didn't go far enough in describing the horror of Batista's Cuba, and Greene responded that the novel was really about the British, and yet that didn't stop The Heart of the Matter from vividly expressing the reality of life in sub-Saharan Africa. And neither is there much religious content: Though Wormold is an atheist and his daughter Milly is a devout Catholic, this tension comes to almost nil and is let drop like the irrelevancy that it is. Greene may have called these books "entertainments," but for this reader, they are not nearly as entertaining as those "novels," in which the suspense came from the deeply crafted pathos of their protagonists.

Wolves of the Crescent Moon by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's works are banned in his home country of Saudi Arabia, but he has found an international audience with the help of skillful translators. In Wolves of the Crescent Moon, Al-Mohaimeed gives us a taste of the underclass in Riyadh. The book is told from the perspective of three outcasts. Turad is a former Bedouin tribesman who has recently quit his humiliating government job, and now finds himself at the bus station in the middle of the night, longing to flee, but with nowhere to go. Tawfiq, once a Sudanese slave, worked with Turad as a ministry servant. Nasir is an orphan who is denied his dream of becoming a soldier.

In actuality, all the narratives are funneled through Turad's mind, which is sleep-addled at best. While in the bus station he thinks back on his past, recalling Tawfiq. Soon after comes a chapter from the perspective of Tawfiq. Turad finds a file folder lying on a bench in the station. In the file are documents pertaining to Nasir Abdulilah. This is followed by a chapter from Nasir's perspective. As the night progresses, the boundaries between the three narratives begin to breakdown. A paragraph from the perspective of Nasir finds its way into a selection otherwise from Turad's point of view. In this way, we find out some similarities among these men. Turad is missing and ear, Tawfiq is a eunuch, and the orphan Nasir is missing an eye. These men have experienced physical and familial loss as they struggle to survive in a rapidly-changing country. As traditional Saudi Arabian society bangs up against Western culture, these men are the ones getting bruised from the collision.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I am a bit of a culture-vore and, as such, intended to read at least the first book in the Twilight series. As it turns out, one of my friends had all the books, and offered to loan them to me upon hearing that I was interested in reading them. She did warn me that I probably wouldn't like them. I decided to at least read the first.

Michelle was right, I was disappointed with Twilight. I really expected it to be better. While the idea of a someone falling in love with a vampire is interesting (albeit not necessarily original) I found most of the book rather boring. Almost nothing really happens.

wasn't awful, by any means. I can see how it would appeal to younger--mainly female--readers. However, I am not sure that I want to read the other three books.

Murder on the Orient Express

A number of years back, I read And Then There Were None. I really enjoyed the book and, seeing how it was my first Christie novel, I figured I should probably read some of her other books. Murder on the Orient Express was my introduction to M. Hercule Poirot, an eccentric Belgian detective. The quirky detective character made an otherwise average mystery into something more. While I didn't like it nearly as well as And Then There Were None, I found this book well paced, with interesting characters.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I like to use a story from this collection called "Geraldo No Last Name" at the beginning of the school year. It is about a girl named Marin who dances with a boy she doesn't know at a club right before he is hit by a car. Though Marin doesn't even know his last name, she waits at the hospital for hours while he is in surgery, perhaps because the little that she knows is greater than most of the people he encounters, who dismiss him out of hand as a "wetback" or "brazer," and because those he's closest to live thousands of miles away, in Mexico. I use it because it sets up a conversation about the power of names--a sneaky way to help me learn the names of my students--and because it's short enough to be read, digested, and picked apart in a single class period.

But I had never read the whole book. For better or worse, the stories collected here never deviate far from the pattern of "Geraldo No Last Name"--they are all short, some no more than a page, and they all concern a cluster of Hispanic immigrant families in Chicago, drawn from Cisneros' own childhood. The central figure is Esperanza, a young Mexican girl whom Cisneros follows from youth to young adulthood, mapping her journey of self-discovery, so to speak. To providethe full effect, I reproduce a story called "Laughter" in full:


There is a lot to like here--for instance, I think Cisneros aptly captures that deja vu feeling that haunts all of us, the way we are reminded of things without knowing why. Her spare, domestic metaphors ("ice cream bells' giggle") are inventive but seem to originate wholly from Esperanza's world. And the whole thing is wonderfully succinct.

The problem is, there are about thirty of these. Cisneros' style, with its unattributed quotation, is exhaustingly detached, and her subject matter is repetitive. If you were to pare down some of the vignettes of "quirky" neighbors (who cares?) and the litany of stories in which Esperanza and her friends discover their budding sexuality and changing physiques, you might be left with a very powerful fifty-page collection. Instead, even at 110 pages, The House on Mango Street feels long and padded, without a center to revolve around.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

"Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress--since I can't be your wife?" she asked.

The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic. He noticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had a recognised place in her vocabulary, and he wondered if it had been used familiarly in her presence in the horrible life she had fled from. Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.

"I want--I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that--categories like that--won't exist. Where we shall be simply two beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter."

She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. "Oh, my dear--where is that country? Have you ever been there?" she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: "I know so many who've tried to find it, and ,believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo--and it wasn't at all different from the old world they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous."

When I began The Age of Innocence, I was surprised by how different it seemed than Ethan Frome, a book which I loved (and is reviewed here by Brent, Liz, and Carlton). That book was set among the working classes of Starkfield, Massachussetts, and I recalled it as rustic and plain, while this is a quintessential "novel of manners", set among the socialites of nineteenth-century New York City. As different as New York must seem from Starkfield, so the prevailing tone of The Age of Innocence seems as if it belongs to a different place completely.

And so I had to laugh a little when I realized that Wharton had essentially recycled the plot for Ethan Frome--just as Ethan Frome falls in love with his wife's cousin, so Newland Archer, the protagonist of The Age of Innocence, falls in love with the Countess Olenska, the cousin of his fiancee/wife May.

But Olenska is not like the young and naive Mattie, and May is nothing like Frome's domineering wife Zeena. May is a beautiful and genial, and above all else she is highly regarded by New York society, a tightly knit cabal of the independently wealthy who live by a rigid and unspoken set of rules. It is this social code that provides the conflict for the novel; when the Countess Olenska returns to New York to escape an abusive relationship with her husband, a Polish nobleman, the luridness of her situation and her ignorance of society's intricate directives cause something of a scandal. Archer begins the book as aghast as anyone, but as he befriends Olenska at May's behest, her idiosyncrasies--like her fondness for artists and writers, and others who exist outside of society's boundaries--begin to endear her to him, and the two fall deeply in love.

There is no way for me to judge the accuracy of Wharton's depiction of New York society, but I've read that it reflects the realities of the time intricately. Beneath her carefully mannered prose is a subtle but effective satire--for instance, note the way that the socialites name their children after other "great families." Archer is named after the Newlands, but has a cousin named Vandie Newland; there are Thorley Chiverses and Rushworth Thorleys and Sillerton Jacksons and Emerson Sillertons, and more, ad nauseam. All these families are intermarried, and the combined effect is of something strangely incestual, a context reaffirmed by the bond between Archer and Olenska, who upon Archer's marriage becomes his cousin.

All this shows how pathetically small New York society is, and how isolated; when a doubly-named socialite chastises another for visiting the home of a figure on society's fringe, this cabal shows itself to be tightly, laughably isolated. The social strictures provide a sort of insulation, a comforting straitjacket, and turn human interaction into something of a perverse show:

In reality they all lived in a kind of heiroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs...

Though Countess Olenska is in many ways characterized by her naivete with regards to society, she expresses a paradoxical incisiveness that provides a strong contrast:

"The van der Luydens," said Archer, feeling himself pompous as he spoke, "are the most powerful influence in New York society. Unfortunately--owing to their health--they receive very seldom."

She unclasped her hand from behind her head, and looked at him meditatively.

"Isn't that perhaps the reason?"

"The reason--?"

"For their great influence; that they make themselves so rare."

He coloured a little, stared at her--and suddenly felt the penetration of the remark. At a stroke she had pricked the van der Luydens and they collapsed. He laughed, and sacrificed them.

Wharton's writing is highly constructed, subordinate, and ornate, and when she stops to write a sentence simply, it often has tremendous power, as it does here: "He laughed, and sacrificed them." Reading it over, I think perhaps this is the moment when Archer, though he fails to realize its significance, falls in love with the Countess Olenska. In a single fell swoop, she has analyzed the van der Luydens, chieftains of the social rigeur, and deflated them. This is the sort of insight that only an outside observer can bring, and Olenska remains eternally on the outside. With a laugh, as if it were nothing but a trifle, Archer follows her beyond society's boundaries.

And yet we see what she says in the first passage about that country where they can love without labeling: It is a fiction, and those who seek to find it end up only at--what a beautiful turn of phrase--"wayside stations." New York, she seems to say, is one preposterous social apparatus in a world of them, and though she and Archer love each other profoundly, where can they find freedom?

As with Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence is a novel of frustrated love. Archer proceeds to marry May in the middle of the book, and though he continues to see Olenska every now and then, the consummation of their relationship never seems to be any more possible. In this way, The Age of Innocence is heartbreakingly cynical, as it seems to suggest that society, no matter how pointlessly constructed or cruelly arbitrary it is, remains an eternal victor over one man or woman's heart. There is a scene toward the book's end, where Archer and Olenska escape for a moment's respite into the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

His mind, as always when they first met ,was wholly absorbed in the delicious details that made her herself and no other. Presently he rose and approached the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects--hardly recognisable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles--made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.

"It seems cruel," she said, "that after a while nothing matters... any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guess at under a magnifying glass and labelled: 'Use unknown'."

"Yes; but meanwhile--"

"Ah, meanwhile--"

Even in the way that it affirms the here-and-now as precious, this absolutely broke my heart. In fifty years, what will it matter that you wore the right dress at the right party thrown by the right host, when the woman you love remains forever inaccessible?

As strangely similar as this plot is to that of Ethan Frome, it seems that the parallels end there. Frome is a hen-pecked weakling with the heart of a child who falls in love with a child; we pity him from a distance. Archer and Olenska are adults who love with great foresight and consciousness; it is easy to put ourselves in their place and despair. For that, I think, it is the better novel.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

As he had been healed of his sickness of heart when he came from the southern city and comforted by the bitterness he had endured there, so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrows he turned for the wheat. He ordered his laborers hither and thither and they did a mighty day of labor, ploughing here and ploughing there, and Wang Lung stood first behind the oxen and cracked the ship over their backs and saw the deep curl of earth turning as the plow went into the soil, and then he called to Ching and gave him the ropes, and he himself took a hoe and broke up the soil into fine loamy stuff , soft as black sugar, and still dark with the wetness of the land upon it. This he did for the sheer joy he had in it and not for any necessity and when he was weary he lay down upon his land and he slept and the health of the earth spread into his flesh and he was healed of his sickness.

Next up after Tears of a Tiger is The Good Earth, a book with much more substance, but unfortunately, as dull as the dirt that gives it its title. Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize in 1938 in part because of this book, which details the life of a Chinese farmer around the turn of the century and his steady rise into the ranks of the wealthy by his devotion to the land which he tills. Perhaps as a result of that, the back of the book is replete with critical interpretations suggesting that it is a shame that Buck was never accepted by the academic world into the cadre of great writers of the early twentieth century.

But you would have to be quite the revisionist, I think, to accept the premise that The Good Earth is in any way comparable to the work of Joyce or Fitzgerald, or even earlier stuff like Mark Twain, with which its realism has much more in common. Buck's book is just too straightforward, too dogmatic in its sensibilities--the farmer, Wang Lung, begins as a simple and honest man, and though he never abandons his simplicity and goodness, his moral compass slips only when he is separated from the "good earth" that nurtures him and his family. When he brings a prostitute named Lotus to live in his household (much to the chagrin of his homely but loyal wife) we cannot help but recognize it as the actions of a man who has been corrupted, if slightly, by material wealth. The book opens with Wang Lung traveling to the wealthy and arrogant House of Hwang to purchase a slave of theirs to become his wife; when at the end Wang Lung literally purchases and moves into the Hwang's abandoned palace it seems as if Buck is leaving little room for the reader to infer the parallels that exist. The Good Earth, no matter whether Buck won the Nobel Prize or not, is morally and thematically one-dimensional.

All this, of course, makes it a great text for freshmen, whose minds have difficulty handling ambiguity as it is.