Monday, January 26, 2015

The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain

"He had four wives altogether and many lovers as well. It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife. But that was probably vanity, wanting to stand out in a long line of women."

I was introduced to this historical fiction novel from an episode of Books on the Nightstand where Mclain gives a short talk about her book. It intrigued me because she admits that she was not a fan of Hemingway - at the time I wasn't as well - but in her research she comes around: "Getting to know him in this other way, from Hadley's point of view, was a total revelation...that guy, that egomaniac misogynist I-hate-my-mother and drink too much, he didn't exist yet..." Mclain talks about Hemingway in a loving way that really intrigued me. I have definitely fallen in love a little bit myself. If you have only ever seen old bearded too much sunshine and liquor Hemingway, here is a treat for you: 
Who wouldn't want to call him Big Poppa?
After reading The Sun Also Rises, I finally picked up this book and fell instantly and immediately into the story. It is incredibly well researched, and I assume the major plot points are accurate, but it is told from the perspective of Hadley and thus we hear her thoughts and know her in a way that isn't possible - keeping the novel squarely in the category of fiction. 

It begins with a prologue where Hadley introduces her 'memoir.' Even the purest anti-Hemingwayian will know that he was a cheater who had a string of women, so it's no surprise when she says: 
"This isn't a detective story - not hardly. I don't want to say Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she's coming anyway, set on her course..."
Nonetheless, this of course made me keep watch. Every time Hemingway flirted (which is often) and every time a female shows up (Gertrude Stein? Zelda Fitzgerald? Duff who Lady Brett Ashley is very much based on?) I wondered, "Will this be her?" Knowing that it's going to happen doesn't make it any less devastating when it does. 

The strength of the novel is that if every character's name were changed, it would still be a good read. It's a great story - timid 28-year-old girl meets exuberant and gorgeous boy. They fall madly in love, run off to Paris, hang out with beautiful brilliant people, get drunk, throw up together in chamber pots, and run off for the next adventure. Of course, all the brilliant people happen to be ones that you probably already know: Gertrude Stein, Alice, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald with little Scottie, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, etc, etc. (which will probably remind you that this is a book rooted in real events with people who really are that interesting and rich and you're not - sorry).

The other issue that it handles well is the idea of being the Famous Artist's partner. Hadley spends a lot of time set off to the side with other partners while the Great Artists talk about Important Stuff. This can be frustrating for Hadley because she's intrigued by these people, but they're not really interested in her. She even self-reflects on how she didn't really understand what she was agreeing to do in this marriage: 
"Over and over I'd sworn I'd never stand in the way of his work...but more and more I understood that I didn't know what those promises really meant."
In one lovely moment, a friend who is critiquing their marriage says: 
'That's my beef with marriage. You suffer for his career. What do you get in the end?" 
"The satisfaction of knowing he couldn't do it without me."
And he couldn't. Although Hadley is completely absent from The Sun Also Rises (in spite of being there for most of the events which are loosely based on real events and definitely based on real people), the book is and always will bear her name in the dedication. 

I have no idea whether serious Hemingway fans would find this interesting or a bunch of fluffy drivel, but I enjoyed it enough that I am going to keep my Hemingway kick going. I feel like it is only fair to him if I read the other side of the story, so next up is A Moveable Feast. If I've got any space left in my heart for Poppa, it's on to A Farewell To Arms. 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

She thought, An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breath, tighten her belly.  For months its whole life would be all dreams and no waking.  The steps in the road, the thought of the knife, then the dread sinks away for a while, and how is a child to know why?  She could only guess what it was that Doll was afraid of, or ashamed of, but she lived her fear and her shame with her, taking off through the woods with an apple thumping in her lunch bucket and Doll wearing a big straw hat she must have hoped would shade her face enough to hide it a little.  More than once Doll took her hand to hurry her along and wouldn't let her catch her breath and never told her why.  She always stayed back from the firelight even when the night was cold and even when there were no strangers there to see.  Doane and the others saw, of course, but Lila was the only one she ever really trusted to look into her face.  Well, child, Lila thought, I will see you weltering in your blood.  And mine.  Lonely, frightened, my own child.  If the wildness doesn't carry us both away.  And if it does.

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home tell two sides--let's say faces, like a polygon--of a story about a pair of families in rural Iowa in the mid-20th century.  Gilead, a lyrical novel written as a series of letters from the aging Reverend John Ames to the child he knows he will leave behind, is a beautiful but muted reflection on death and the bittersweetness of leaving a life behind you.  Home, about the prodigal son Jack Boughton (son of Ames' best friend), is about trying to create or recover a home that has long been broken, but compared to Gilead, it felt to me relatively stale and saccharine.

Lila tells the story of Ames' wife, a formerly vagrant drifter who finds herself thrust together with the much older Ames, and who asks him to marry her on an impulse.  Soon, she is carrying the child who will become the son who is the recipient of the letters of Gilead.  It's not in the first perspective, but the strength of voice that was missing in Home returns here, modulating Robinson's perfect liturgical prose with Lila's earthier language and mannerisms.  Lila also reaches back to Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, for a sense of wildness and danger that the two other novels, meditative and sedate, largely forego.

The narrative begins when Lila is a child, viciously neglected by her family.  She's stolen away by a boarder named Doll, and they live for years together with a small band of migrant workers who drift throughout the Midwest.  She learns to trust no one except for Doll; she learns how to use a knife for fishing, cleaning, self-defense.  Eventually, Doll is arrested for using her knife--how exactly, and to what extent is never clear, but it seems to be on some member of Lila's family who's come looking for her--and the two part ways forever.  This parting lingers in Lila's spirit; without Doll she seems both lost to the world and vice versa.

In Ames' home, the two pass the time talking about the Bible.  Lila is attracted to a passage from Ezekiel, when God talks about his rescuing the nation of Israel: "And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in the blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live."  She sees God's pity for Israel in Doll's pity for herself, a pity which she struggles to comprehend and honor.  She is smart, though uneducated, and challenges the staid Calvinist Ames in his views.  She chafes against thinking of Doll as unbaptized and lost:

Doll probably didn't know she had an immortal soul.  It was nothing she ever mentioned, if she ever thought about it.  She probably wouldn't even have known the words for it.  All those people out there walking the roads all those ears, hardly a one of them remembering the Sabbath.  Who would work when there was work to be done?  What use was there in calling a day by a certain name, or thinking of it as anything but the weather?  They knew what time of the year it was the timothy bloomed, when the birds were fledging.  They knew it was morning when the sun came up.  What more was there to know?  If Doll was going to be lost forever, Lila wanted to be right there with her, holding to the skirt of her dress.

Ames, and Robinson, come pretty close to answering this question with the idea of universal salvation.  Ames says,

If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I'm sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy.  And probably a little bit surprised.  If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us.  Which is really much harder to accept.  I mean, it doesn't feel right.  There has to be more to it all, I believe.

Lila isn't a theological tract (and not half as close to one as Gilead), but rather an exploration of human uncertainty, and the valuable wisdom of instinct.  Lila's intelligence challenges Ames, and you get the sense that it challenges Robinson, as well, who carves a space for comfort for her characters without simple answers.  Though Lila seems to constantly have one foot out the door, called back by her life of wildness, she ultimately comes to recognize domestic tranquility as a kind of divine grace, a manifestation of the kind of pity that looks on a child weltering in its own blood and cares for it.  And then, with the birth of her son (who, as we know, will eventually be orphaned) she becomes a participant in that grace as well.

Lila is a staggeringly beautiful book.  I was disappointed that Home was such a bore, since Gilead strikes me as one of the best--maybe the best--novel of the 21st century.  But perhaps it was merely a sign that she's a human being.  Lila is almost as good, which is saying quite a lot.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Cheers to a good country song.
To another long work week gone.
And, yeah, I'm raising my glass to those saving our ass overseas.
-"Ain't Worth the Whiskey" by Cole Swindell

After a Fox News embedded reporter captures Billy Lynn's Bravo Squad heroically preventing an ambush, the soldiers are brought home to travel the country on a victory tour, speaking and doing meet and greets in malls, city halls, etc., culminating in an appearance at the halftime show of the Cowboys' game on Thanksgiving (set in about 2004-05). Billy, the book's protagonist who was particularly brave during the battle, is only 19 years old, and struggles to process the stresses of his newfound quasi-celebrity, his family's fear for his safety and general moderate dysfunction, and normal 19 year old stuff, like trying to get the number of the Cowboys' cheerleader who he makes out with after their press conference.  Meanwhile, Bravo Squad also has to deal with the movie producer trying to make their story into a movie and how much they might make from such a venture.

Even though I highlighted a number of passages in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, I went with these Cole Swindell lyrics because they perfectly exemplify Fountain's thesis: that the way Americans think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are detached from reality, and that the way we "support our troops" is by turns insensitive, ridiculous, depressing and hilarious.

Throughout the novel Billy encounters folks who want to "support the troops," by earnestly praising him or awkwardly thanking him or asking him questions that are at times stupid or personal or callous.  Many talk about "nina leven" and "terrRr," most say they're praying for him, some drop in something casually or vaguely racist, but none of them understand what he has gone through, is going through or will have to face when they go back to Iraq for eleven more months after the football game (and probably longer after that, if they survive).  One man tells Billy that seeing him shoot insurgents while tending to his dying friend was one of the proudest moments of his life, not stopping to think for a moment that it was the worst day of Billy's.  At one point during negotiations regarding funding the potential movie about Bravo's exploits, a rich guy, who never served, growls at Billy and his sergeant that he's the only reason that the movie has a chance of being made (not realizing that the only reason the movie has a chance of being made is because Bravo Squad killed people and suffered its own casualties).

No matter their age or station in life, Billy can't help but regard his fellow Americans as children.  They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines.  He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children.  These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants.  Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.

Fountain argues that so much of what we consider "supporting the troops," like the line in Swindell's song, is really just to make ourselves feel good, that we're contributing something, for the five minutes that spend thinking about it, to events that we know nothing about.

I heard this book compared to Catch-22, and while it wasn't nearly as subtle or scathingly hilarious as that classic, it did highlight the absurdities of war in a very familiar way.  Overall I thought it was a good book that definitely made me re-evaluate how I "support the troops."  One thing I feel like I should note is that as far as I can tell, Fountain is not a veteran himself.  While many of his observations made sense to me, I am also not a veteran, so I wonder if those who did serve agree with his point of view.

Ben Fountain went to Carolina

There was lots more to talk about regarding the Bravos and masculinity, but again, I don't know if Fountain portrayed them thus because that's how he thinks young soldiers behave or if they actually behave that way (see above).  Also, I felt I had blathered on long enough.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law by Mark Herrmann

One of the curious aspects of law school is the extreme extent to which it does not provide practical training.  Yeah, you learn the doctrinal stuff, like what a contract is, what murder is, etc.  But, you don't learn things like how to file a law suit.  To be fair...I still don't know how to do that.  I guess some things don't ever change.

Mark Herrmann has done a service by providing practical advice for new lawyers, in the form of a curmudgeonly boss.  For example, he instructs new associates about their written work:  "I will make three assumptions about your work.  First, it will contain no typographical errors.  Second, it will contain no grammatical errors.  Third, all citation forms will be correct.  Please review your written work before you hand it to me to be sure that my assumptions hold true."

Two points about this advice.  It's both obvious and not.  Of course, after someone says it, it's obvious.  Why would you give something to your boss that's not done?  Before someone says it, though, it's to think that you can get away with giving a draft, and then doing the final touches after a supervisor approves it.  But, as the curmudgeon points out, this just creates unnecessary work for the supervisor.

Or another example: detailed instructions on how to leave a voice mail: "If it truly is important that I return the call, state your phone number, not just slowly, but twice.  That way, when your cell phone connection to my voice mail garbles your phone number the first time you uttered it, a chance remains that I actually will hear the phone number the second time around."  Again, obvious, but not (because people don't know how to leave their phone number in voicemails).

Most of the advice in the book is of this sort: it's obvious if you think about it, but if no one has ever told you, you might not ever think about it.

One chapter that was especially helpful was "The Curmudgeonly Secretary," For someone who has never worked with a secretary before, this chapter was pretty helpful.

Other sections were less relevant for my life (like, drumming up business).  Still, I'd recommend the book to any attorney.  I would especially recommend the book to new lawyers, even those of us (ahem) who have been out of law school for almost 4 years.  It's also short and to the point, so it reads well and quickly.  I read it over three nights.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Okay, I think I get George Saunders.  He has a real knack for voice, and an ear for the tortured, slapdash language of everyday life.  For example, here's Saunders in the head of a teenage girl:

Was she special?  Did she consider herself special?  Oh, gosh, she didn't know.  In the history of the world, many had been more special than her.  Helen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual.  She, Alison, could not hope to compete in the category of those ladies.  Not yet, anyway!

The bad grammar ("long before such time as being gay"), the misused vocabulary ("conceptual") and the lowbrow ("amazing," "awesome," "gosh")--this might as well be a guide of how not to write.  But it sounds persuasive as Alison's inner monologue.

His stories are littered with the verbiage of the 21st century.  As a protagonist of one of them, you might take the drugs Darkenfloxx or VeriTalk or KnightLyfe, which, unsurprisingly, makes you think and act like a medieval knight.  You might use a contraption called the SifterBoyDeLux (for cleaning pig pens) or the MiiVOXmax (for God only knows).  Saunders is keenly aware of the particular absurdities that clutter up our lives as consumers and how they affect the way we see and interact with the world. The best story in Tenth of December, "Semplica Girls," imagines a world in which the ultimate status symbol is a line of living girls, usually from Third World countries, strung together in your yard by their heads.

As a symbol of the way consumer culture exploits poorer societies, that ought to be ridiculously literal.  But the story is really about the blindness of the narrator, who desperately wants the "SGs" for his daughter, who is jealous of her wealthier friends and ashamed of her family's relative poverty.  He writes about his family in a diary, constantly stopping to explain to "future generations" what the past was like, but never thinking to stop and explain the purpose of such ugly cruelty:

Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passe?  Will future people know sometimes cats fought in night?  Because by that time some chemical invented to make cats not fight?  Last night dreamed of two demons having sex and found it was only two cats fighting outside window.  Will future people be aware of concept of "demons"?  Will they find our belief in "demons" quaint?  Will "windows" even exist?  Interesting to future generations that even sophisticated college grad like me sometimes woke in cold sweat, thinking of demons, believing one possibly under bed?  Anyway, what the heck, am not planning on writing encyclopedia, if any future person is reading this, if you want to know what a "demon" was, go look it up, in something called an encyclopedia, if you even still have those!

"Semplica Girls" isn't really an indictment of consumer culture, per se, but rather the lack of imagination that makes us so uninterested in it.  At his best, Saunders is concerned with the moral fabric of everyday life.  His protagonists are almost always "ordinary" suburban folks, lingering on the edges of the lower middle class.  Another of the strongest stories, "Al Roosten," centers around the fantasies of its title character, intensely jealous of another middle-aged middle-class man who turns out to be more popular at the bachelor auction.  "Al Roosten" takes its cues from Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," but the fantasies, like those of the narrator of "Semplica Girls," are sweetly pathetic: wanting to be loved, respected, admired.  The kind of fantasies, unlike Walter Mitty's fighter pilot, we actually have but find it hard to admit we have.

Sometimes the stories become overly gimmicky: the cuteness of the made-up words, the frenetic intensity of voice, the transparent ignorance of the protagonists.  But ultimately Saunders seems to have found a way of writing about the time we live in that's both fresh and truthful.  Plus, a cute girl on the train told me how much she loved it.  If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

"Please God," she whispered into the palm of her hand.  "Please make me disappear."  She squeezed her eyes shut.  Little parts of her body faded away.   Now slowly, now with a rush.  Slowly again.  Her fingers  went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow.  Her feet now.  Yes, that was good.  The legs all at once.  It was hardest above the thighs.  She had to be real still and pull.  Her stomach would not go.  But finally it, too, went away.  Then her chest, her neck.  The face was hard, too.  Almost done, almost.  Only her tight, tight eyes were left.  They were always left.

Pecola Breedlove wants blue eyes.  Baby dolls all have blue eyes, and so does the girl on the candy wrapper.  Pecola, like her mother and father, is ugly, in the eyes of most people, and she has always been teased.  But Pecola's desire is a desire for self-destruction, the want not only to become something else, but to disappear and be replaced.  What Pecola wants, essentially, wants to achieve white standards of beauty, even if it means being annihilated in the process.

Despite being the protagonist of the novel, Morrison rarely gives us Pecola's perspective.  Morrison, always sensitive to the complex histories and stories that make up a person's identity, lingers on the back story of every single character, no matter how vile they seem at first: Pecola's hateful, bitter father; her resentful mother; the prostitutes who live nearby; the scam artist Soaphead Church; the narrator Claudia, a girl whose family takes Pecola in.  These narratives help create sympathy where most novels wouldn't bother, but more importantly, they make us aware of how Pecola has been pushed to the margins, and make the novel's climax--a moment of tragic violence committed against Pecola I won't describe--even more difficult because of the narrative distance we feel from Pecola.  Morrison won't allow us to establish the sympathy we want to have; but how often do we deny sympathy to those who are less visible in real life?

The Bluest Eye is Morrison's first novel, and it shows.  Even as thorough as the various narratives are, they lack the depth and pathos of the characters of Beloved or Song of Solomon.  The truncated, postmodern snippets of a "Dick and Jane" story that begin each chapter are a distraction, rather than a necessary counterpoint to Pecola's story.  (Much better is the moment when Pecola accidentally frightens a young white girl whose family employs her mother by showing up suddenly, only to see her mother console the white girl while chasing Pecola out the door--Pecola's lack of a place in the "white picket fence" suburbs is sufficiently established.)

But that's only true by comparison.  Even at its weakest, Morrison's stuff is extraordinary.  Occasionally The Bluest Eye offers moments that rival her maturest work.  I thought the novel was strongest when Pecola visits fraudulent psychic Soaphead Church, who promises her blue eyes in exchange for a little black magic.  When she leaves, he writes a letter to God, crowing that his fooling of Pecola is more than God has ever done:

I, I have caused a miracle.  I gave here the eyes. I gave her the blue, blue, two blue eyes.  Cobalt blue.  A streak of it right out of your own blue heaven.  No one else will see her blue eyes.  But she will.  And she will live happily ever after.  I, I have found it meet and right so to do.

Now you are jealous. You are jealous of me.

This is Morrison at her best.  Soaphead, far from being a mere malicious force inserted into the novel to provide resolution to the conflict, is clearly operating from his own deep wounds.  He's right: she believes in her blue eyes.  But "happily ever after" doesn't quite describe it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Billy's Books 2020

1. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
by John Berendt

2. Lot
by Bryan Washington

3. Citizen: An American Lyric
by Claudia Rankine

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

He was fairly happy, except that, like many people living in Europe, he would rather have been in America, and he had discovered writing. 

Brett was damned good looking. 

"I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it." "Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. 

As revealed in my review of Zen and the Art of Marlin Fishing, I have not read much Hemingway. I am definitely in the 50 Bookers minority as both Kelly in 2007 and Brent in 2009 preferred The Old Man and the Sea. I vehemently disagree - even though you can't teach The Sun Also Rises and do a Marlin Week with students, The Sun Also Rises is definitely my favorite by far. I probably actively dislike TOMATS. 

Reading this so closely after Ceremony, where the returned vet spends a lot of time crying, it was interesting to see Jake - a WWI vet - crying as often as he does. (It was also weird to see Brett bathe as often as she does - she is constantly going back to the hotel to bathe. Is she trying to wash off the stain of sin or smell of sex? Who knows). 

My few encounters with big Papa really made me believe that I just didn't like Hemingway, so this book was a lovely surprise. Expat narrator Jake is living in Paris, hopelessly in love with Brett, and hanging out with his mostly rich mostly bored expat friends. Boxing, bullfighting, fishing, getting tight (drunk), and being ironic and sad and poignant and honest at all the wrong times. I don't know that this novel is the right one for high school students either because I think the sadness of growing older and feeling unaccomplished is a special kind of sadness reserved for those out of their teens and twenties (I, therefore, don't actually understand it, but Randy explained it pretty well). 
Don't you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you're not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you've lived nearly half the time you have to live already?
It's Hemingway, who is not known for his happy endings, but for me, the greatest tragedy of the novel is the change in the relationship between Jake and the Pamplona hotel manager Montoya. They have a special closeness that was built on years of Jake staying at the Hotel Montoya and discussing bullfights, proving that he - in spite of being an American - has an aficion for the fights and is a true afficiando of the bullfights. Their friendship is described at length
He always smiled as though bull-fighting were a very special secret between the two of us...We often talked about bulls and bull-fighters...We never talked for very long at a time...For one who had aficion (passion for bullfighting) he could forgive anything. At once he forgave me all my friends. (this description goes on for two pages)
As Jake and his friends continue to behave poorly - drinking, causing a ruckus, distracting a very young very handsome bullfighter - Montoya's friendliness becomes more closed and quieter until, when Jake leaves, 
Montoya did not come near us.
Losing friendships happens often enough in life, losing love happens in almost every great novel, but to lose the respect of someone truly respected...that's a tragedy. Jake brought his friends into his own special world and they shat all over it until his place in it was completely ruined. So, actually, maybe it is a fine book for students who probably all have a moment of trying to share something special with friends who didn't deserve the specialness in the first place. 

I plan on reading one more Hemingway novel this year before reading the Paris Wife (I really enjoyed her talk and reading on Books on the Nighstand) - so I am curious for everyone's suggestions. I dislike TOMATS and am very fond of TSAR - what should my next Hemingway be?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The only reason you say race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it's a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

Americanah was marvelous. I loved it.  The novel tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze as they grow up in Lagos, Nigeria, each try to succeed abroad (Ifemelu in America and Obinze in England), and eventually return to Nigeria.  As Brittany put it in her review, it is every kind of story: a love story, an immigrant story, and more.

Adichie's prose is mesmerizing and she is so perceptive. I constantly found myself seeing things in a totally different way and thinking that her way of looking at the matter was so obvious. An important part of Ifemelu's time in America was the blog she ran about race and observations of American life from the perspective of a non-American black, parts of which were excerpted in the novel.

In a similar vein, Adichie was so insightful in her character descriptions:
Ifemelu watched them, so alike in their looks, and both unhappy people. But Kimberly's unhappiness was inward, unacknowledged, shielded by her desire for things to be as they should, and also by hope: she believed in other people's happiness because it meant that she, too, might one day have it. Laura's unhappiness was different, spiky, she wished that everyone around here were unhappy because she had convinced herself that she would always be.
He believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films, a trouble-free belief, because he had not considered them deeply before choosing to believe; he just simply believed.

I often felt like I could easily imagine people like those she described and sometimes even saw some of myself in her characters (for better or worse).  It was also so fascinating to see the world through such different perspectives than mine. From the travails of being an undocumented immigrant and learning to deal with race-based prejudice to dealing with your hair as a black woman, I learned a great deal.

My only complaint with Americanah is that I kind of wish it didn't have to end.  Not that I wanted to read it forever (I thought its length was pretty appropriate), but that I felt like she must have felt pressured to wrap up her story, and in doing so fell back on cliches that undermined her otherwise outstanding character development.  However, that is a minor complaint.  I recommend this novel for everyone and can't wait to read more of her work.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

How then did it work out, all this?  How did one judge people, think of them?  How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking?  And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?  Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one's pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity.

The Ramsay family, along with various hangers on, is visiting their beach home in the north of Scotland.  Their youngest son, James, wants to visit the lighthouse on the island off shore the next day, but his father is convinced it will rain.  This is pretty much the entirety of the plot of the first half of To the Lighthouse, which peers more deeply into the psychology of individual characters than any book I've ever read.  Woolf's style involves jumping from the perspective of one character to another, sometimes flitting through the minds of ten people over the course of a paragraph, sometimes settling down for fifteen or twenty pages of uninterrupted thought which turns out to have taken place in a matter of seconds.  In this way Woolf illuminates the mystery of what goes on in our minds; we barely recognize, much less understand, what lies at the bottom of our psyches.

If what we think and feel is so contradictory, so prone to change, what hope is there for any kind of constancy or permanency, since everything material will pass away as well?  The lighthouse, standing unmoving amid the churning waves, becomes a symbol of this hoped-for constancy.  Perhaps the answer can be found in art, Mrs. Ramsay's guest Lily Briscoe thinks as she labors over her painting of the Ramsay's house:

She looked at her picture.  That would have been the answer, presumably -- how 'you' and 'I' and 'she' pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint  Yet it would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be rolled up and flung under a sofa; yet even so, even of a picture like that, it was true.  One might say, even of this scrawl, not of that actual picture, perhaps, but of what it attempted, that it 'remained for ever,' she was going to say, or, for the words spoken sounded even to herself, too boastful, to hint, wordlessly; when, looking at the picture, she was surprised to find she could not see it.

Art is a stab at permanence; though Lily knows that her painting will be tossed away in the attic, there is something in the attempt that unites it the kind of permanence Mrs. Ramsay describes while handing out slices of beef for dinner:

It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby...

No wonder Lily is so upset when another guest, the priggish Charles Tansley, tells her flatly that women can't paint.  But Woolf has sympathy for Tansley, too, and allows the reader to dwell in his perspective for a while.  If nothing else, To the Lighthouse shows that all human feeling has intrinsic value.

The narrative takes a strange turn in the middle with a long section that describes the empty and abandoned house for years--years!--with some of Woolf's most poetic, but inscrutable language.  When the narrative resumes, Mr. Ramsay, Lily, and the children have returned to the house at long last, but without Mrs. Ramsay, who has died.  The loss of her clearly shakes the other characters deeply, as she was beloved by all of them and served as the center of their universe.  Without her, Mr. Ramsay and the children, who are now much older and don't give a rat's ass about the lighthouse, head out on the journey they never made.  Does it matter that they reach the lighthouse, now that Mrs. Ramsay is gone?  It's hard to say.  To the Lighthouse often plays its cards close to its chest.  But, as with Lily's painting, Woolf suggests that it's not the result that matters, but the attempt.

Paper Towns by John Green

My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Margo always loved mysteries. And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one.

And thus the reader begins the journey in John Green's third (but, at least in my school, his least popular) novel. Now that I've read all of John Green's non-collaborative works, there are some definite patterns that appear throughout, and I want to start by looking at these. 

Looking for Alaska - average dude leaves ordinary life for boarding school life, meets a damaged and intriguing girl named Alaska Young, falls in love, shenanigans happen

An Abundance of Katherines - child prodigy who has 'dated' and 'been broken up with' 19 Katherines leaves ordinary life behind, goes on a road trip, attempts to figure out a mathematical formula to dictate to predict breakups, he meets an intriguing girl named Lindsey Lee Wells, shenanigans happen (I object to his definition of 'dated')

Paper Towns - above average dude leaves ordinary life to go on a nighttime adventure with the intriguing girl he's in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman, shenanigans ensue, Margo disappears, more shenanigans ensue, road trip, shenanigans ensue

The Fault in Our Stars - an ordinary teenager dying of cancer meets an intriguing guy named Augustus Waters at a teen cancer support group, love and shenanigans ensue


  • John Green sure knows how to name a love interest. These names remind me of Amelia Pond and fairy tale names: Margo Roth Spiegelman, Augustus Waters, Alaska Young, Lindsey Lee Wells - who wouldn't fall in love with these people on their names alone? 
  • John Green sure knows how to get rid of parents. Between road trips and boarding schools and cancer perks, we don't really have to worry about parents interrupting narratives, but they are mostly ridiculously cool and supportive of shenanigans because their kids are good middle class or upper class kids who don't ever get into serious trouble.
  • John Green sure knows how people like to create mental narratives for other people that don't live up to reality. These guys - whether ordinary or prodigy - know how to pick a girl with a fairy tale name and turn them (in their minds) into the most intriguing and amazing women of all time. To John Green's credit, these images fall flat eventually, and this idea is actually addressed in Paper Towns (in a way that feels like a response to Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines) when BenFriend tells QProtagonist
"Just - just remember that sometimes, the way you think about a person isn't the way they actually are. Like, I always thought Lacey was so hot and so awesome and so cool, but now when it comes to being with her, it's not the exact same. . . It's easy to like someone from a distance. But when she stopped being this amazing unattainable thing or whatever, and started being like, just a regular girl with a weird relationship with food and frequent crankiness who's kinda bossy - then I had to basically start liking a whole different person"
So, my question about this whole people-don't-live-up-to-reality idea. I realize that high school lends itself to that kind of situation (being able to see someone a lot and yet not know them at all and yet totally feel like you're in love with them), but I just don't remember feeling that way when I was in high school about anyone and I don't feel like I see that happening with my students. Calling these books popular is an undestatement, so obviously these books speak to teens, but I wonder if this particular pattern in plot is the part that is reaching teens' insides? And what would John Green do without this pattern? (Answer: TFIOS - good luck following that one Green!)

For me, the characters that Green creates are really what make these solid novels. [This is most successful in TFIOS where August is just perfect enough to launch the love of millions of teenagers, but also not so perfect as to be unbelievable - there could be an August Waters waiting to sweep people off their feet. There could be a Hazel Grace that we totally want to be our best friend. In the other novels, the friend groups are portrayed really well while the Girl Infatuation Interest is less believable (Margo Roth Spiegleman ran off with the circus, rejected the bassist from the Mallionaires, ran off to Missisippi and lived with an old dude who didn't hurt her and just taught her to play guitar, etc)] His characters are believable in the sense that some high schoolers are this cool - and don't we as readers like pretending we were part of the groups that were that cool? But they're still just teenagers:
Honestly, she's hot, but she's not that hot. You know who's seriously hot? ...your mom. Bro, I saw your  mom kiss you on the cheek this morning, and forgive me, but I swear to God I was like, man, I wish I was Q. And also, I wish my cheeks had penises.
This same group of  friends later plays I Spy:

"I spy with my little eye something tragically hip." 
"Is it the way Ben smiles mostly with the right side of his mouth?" 
"Is it the idea of wearing nothing under your graduation gown and then having to drive to New York while all the people in passing cars assume you're wearing a dress?" 
"A 24-hour-road trip in a minivan? Hip because road trips always are; tragic because the gas we're guzzling will destroy the planet." 
The tragically hip thing turns out to be failing to turn in your rented graduation robes on time. 

Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" plays a really important role throughout the novel which will please any teachers in the crowd, but there's still drinking and sexing that will piss of the conservative parents. If you're a fan of John Green, I think this novel is worth a read. It's different from the other three because it's a mystery, so this won't feel like you're just reading the same story with new characters. However, it doesn't stand up to the emotional depth of TFIOS and LFA. You only have until June 5 to read this before the movie comes out and you'll lose your opportunity to smugly announce "The book was better." 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Curriculum Vitae by Muriel Spark

It was in Africa that I learned to cope with life.  It was there that I learned to keep in mind -- in the front of my mind -- the essentials of our human destiny, our responsibilities, and to put in a peripheral place the personal sorrows, frights, and horrors that came my way.   I knew my troubles to by temporary if I decided so.  There was an element of primitive truth and wisdom, in that existence in a great tropical zone of the earth, that gave me strength.

Muriel Spark's life contained quite a lot of interesting stories.  She worked at Bletchley Park, the famous English intelligence station during World War II (you may have seen Alan Turing in The Imitation Game).  She lived in colonial Africa, at a time when tensions between Africans and their colonizers were high.  Half-crazed by diet pills, she once thought that T. S. Eliot was sending her cryptic messages through his plays.

But if you're looking for in-depth treatment of those years in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, you'll be disappointed.  Spark is as eager to get out of the Africa section of the novel as she was to get out of Africa; the Eliot mania gets a sentence or two.  The Bletchley Park stuff is well served enough, but it pales in length and detail compared to the sections on her childhood in Edinburgh, which are wistful and overlong, lingering on every teacher and school chum that Spark can remember.

In other words, as a biography, Curriculum Vitae isn't much.  How did Spark feel about choosing to separate from her young son, who went to live with her parents during the war, and with whom she had a famously tense relationship through his adult years?  Either not much, or whatever she did feel hasn't made it in here.  Curriculum Vitae isn't the kind of memoir that spends its time hand-wringing over past actions; I suspect that Spark wasn't that kind of person, either.

The most interesting parts, to a reader of Spark's novels, are the brief insights to the origins of her novels: The Helena Club becomes the May of Teck Club in Girls of Slender Means; her experience battling literary fogeys at the Poetry Society becomes the plot of Loitering with IntentSpark gives credit for her terse and "managerial" prose to the technical instruction she had in college, though her peers thought her choice of school was strange.  And best of all, Spark goes on at length about her grade school teacher Miss Kay, who would later become the basis of her most famous character, Jean Brodie.  Miss Kay has all her charisma, but there's no hint of Jean Brodie's malevolent or controlling tendencies.  It makes me wonder if Miss Kay ever knew what Spark, who speaks so warmly about her class, had made of her.

The narrative ends as soon as Spark publishes her first novel.  This suggests we are meant to read Curriculum as a memoir about her formation as an artist--there's a long German word for this I forget--and dissatisfying as it is, since the hallmarks of her art are terseness, disinterest, and reticence, I guess it's hard to imagine it being any other way.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty

The funeral was what you'd expect if you've ever seen Polk--crowded.  It was hot as fluzions in that little front room.  A lot of Jacob's-Ladder tops and althea blooms sewed on cardboard crosses, and a salvia wreath with a bee in it.  A lot of ferns hauled out of creek bottoms and drooping by the time they got ready for them.  People, people, people, flowers, flowers, flowers, and the shades hauled down and the electricity burning itself up, and two preachers both red-headed; but mainly I felt there were Peacocks.  Mrs. Peacock was big and fat as a row of pigs, and wore tennis shoes to her daughter's funeral--I guess she couldn't help it.  I saw right there at the funeral that Bonnie Dee had been the pick.

Do you ever notice how some authors, for whatever reason, obsessively repeat the same plot?  Edith Wharton loved having men fall in love with her wives' cousins.  Carson McCullers can't stop writing about pre-teen girls isolated by the process of getting older.  Eudora Welty, I guess, loves writing about older men who fall marry younger women.  These infant brides are never as good as their husbands, and they come with a boatload of unsavory family members to boot.  In the case of The Optimist's Daughter, the bride is a greedy harpy intent on snatching every bit of property she can away from her husband's family.  Bonnie Dee Peacock, who marries the titular Daniel Ponder of The Ponder Heart is merely a pretty dullard, who has "not a whit of human curiosity," like an overgrown kewpie doll.  The Optimist's Daughter mined this set-up for unexpected, lyric depth; The Ponder Heart is in full-on satirical mode.

And it's really funny.  The story is narrated by Edna Earle Ponder, whose duties consist in keeping her Uncle Daniel in check.  His childlike--not childish--need to be loved produces a runaway generosity, and Edna Earle has to keep him from giving away every single thing he and everybody else has.  I decided that I loved this book as soon as I read about Uncle Daniel leaving Edna Earle on a Ferris Wheel so he could pass out ice cream to the dancing girls at the fair:

He'd belted me into the Ferris Wheel, then vanished, instead of climbing into the next car.  And the first thing I made out from the middle of the air was Uncle Daniel's big round hat up on the platform of the Escapades side-show, right in the middle of those ostrich plumes.  There he was--passing down the line of those girls doing their come-on dance out front, and handing them out ice cream cones, right while they were shaking their heels to the music, not in very good time.  He'd got the cream from the Baptist ladies' tent--banana, and melting fast.  And I couldn't get off the Ferris Wheel till I'd been around my nine times, no matter how often I told them who I was.  When I finally got loose, I flew up to Uncle Daniel and he stood there and hardly knew me, licking away and beside himself with pride and joy.  And his sixty cents was gone, too.  Well, he would have followed the fair to Silver City when it left, if I'd turned around for good.

But Edna Earle can't stop Uncle Daniel from marrying Bonnie Dee Peacock (the names!), who does nothing of interest except when she runs away and when she comes home again.  When Bonnie Dee dies of fright during a storm, Uncle Daniel is charged with her murder by her backwoods family.  During the trial--a hilarious prototype of the kind of Southern courtroom scene that you see in To Kill a Mockingbird or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or A Time to Kill or, obviously, My Cousin Vinny--the Peacocks talk over the lawyers, and get up for water every couple of minutes, and one of the boys spends the whole time playing the harmonica.  It's great.

Welty has an ear for the particular music of Southern language and life like no author I've ever read; including McCullers and Flannery O'Connor.  Maybe this book wouldn't strike the same chord with someone from another part of the country, but to me it was both hilariously strange and persuasively real.  I put it 7th on my top ten list this past year, but looking back at it now, that seems ridiculously low.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

I'm beginning to regret this book.  Not that it bores me, I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me from eternity a little.  But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of this book is you, reader.  You're in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly.  You  love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall...

And they do fall!  Miserable leaves of my cypress of death, you shall fall like any others, beautiful and brilliant as you are.  And, if I had eyes, I would shed a nostalgic tear for you.  This is the great advantage of death, which if it leaves no mouth which which to laugh, neither does it leave eyes with which to weep... You shall fall.

My 11th grade students have to read a book of their own choosing and write a term paper on it.  Most of them picked from a list I gave them, but a few chose books of their own.  Most of those were things I'd heard of, but one student chose The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, apparently a classic of 19th century Brazilian fiction.

Bras Cubas is a fictional memoir, with the strange distinction that its narrator has died before the beginning of the narrative.  Bras Cubas looks back over his life, which was not particularly notable, marked by a series of love affairs and failed attempts at obtaining political office, and a brief flirtation with an absurd philosophical system and its charismatic leader.  But it has the diffidence of a narrator who is no longer invested in what he's talking about; he's dead, after all, and nothing here quite matters as much as it once did.

The dead memoirist is just one of several proto-modernist aspects of Bras Cubas.  The novel is made up of 160 very short chapters, some only a few lines long.  One chapter, entitled "How I Didn't Get to Be a Minister of State," is composed of three lines of ellipses and nothing else.  In the following chapter--helpfully titled "Which Explains the Previous One"--Cubas writes:

There are things that are better said in silence.  Such is the material of the previous chapter.  Unsuccessful ambitious people will understand it.

And we do; the ellipses invite the reader to substitute the uneasy failures they've experienced into the blank space Cubas leaves.  Bras Cubas' manner makes it frequently funny, and often simultaneously profound.  Cubas vacillates between episodes of Tristram Shandy-like satirical absurdism and wistful poetry:

Take a look now at the neutrality of this globe that carries us through space like a lifeboat heading for the shore: today a virtuous couple sleeps on the same plot of ground that once held a sinning couple.  Tomorrow a churchman may sleep there, then a murderer, then a blacksmith, then a poet, and they will all bless that corner of the earth that gave them a few illusions.

Dead now, Bras Cubas sees the "few illusions" he had, dismisses some, cherishes others.  His chief achievement, which is only alluded to, is the invention of a new and popular kind of poultice.  Measuring things, he decides that he made it out of life with "a small balance" because he never had children and therefore never "transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature."  But that final bit of cynicism seems hard to square with the frequent lightheartedness of the narrative, which milks both laughter and sympathy out of a very ordinary life.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

You don't write off all the white people, just like you don't trust all the Indians. 

I was chatting with a colleague about the lack of contemporary novels by minority authors in the American Lit curriculum, and he strongly strongly strongly recommended Ceremony for its beauty, accessibility, and - let's be honest - shortness. Silko began this project as a series of short stories about one character, then became more and more interested in a minor character, Tayo, and then it evolved into this book about Tayo. 

[Sidenote: One of the interesting conversations my freshmen and I have been having is what makes a member of a genre a member of that genre? We read "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid which is considered a short story by most but a poem by many. Randy just read Building Stories, a novel of 14 pieces that comes in a box like a game board. We  listened to/watched To This Day - is it a slam poem, a poem, a story? So we have been talking about what makes a story a story and a poem a poem and a novel a novel and the point is: Silko is genre-bending in this novel, and I love it.]

The novel is comprised of short vignettes that are intermixed with free verse poems - the poems are usually someone speaking which reinforces the idea of the oral tradition of the Laguna Pueblo people. The vignettes go back and forth in time without any indication of where the reader is located in chronological order - a trick that I always enjoy because it forces me to really try to find where the main character, Tayo, and I are located in his time line. Tayo is half Laguna half white - a topic that is made much of by his family, friends, and other tribe members. 
You drink like an Indian, and you're crazy like one too - but you aren't shit, white trash. You love Japs the way your mother loved to screw white men. 
The same character who says the above will later brag in detail all the white women he was finally 'able' to screw when he was in military uniform, often hiding his race and pretending to be Italian or something else.

Tayo signed up to serve in WWII with his cousin Rocky. They are both captured and put on the Bataan Death March (which I didn't know anything about until I fell into a wikipedia hole after reading). Tayo returns home suffering from PTSD, survivor's guilt, and depression, which all contribute to his alcoholism and inability to live or do anything. He is constantly crying, drinking, vomiting, fighting, and never doing anything productive. His family finally forces him to sees medicine men who try to help him. 

Silko skillfully creates a novel that is full of incredible beauty: 
That was the responsibility that went with being human, old Ku'oosh said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love. 
while at the same time being so full of anger and bitterness: 
All of it seemed suddenly so pitiful and small compared to the world he know the white people had - a world of comfort in the sprawling houses he'd seen in California, a world of plenty in the food h head carried from the offers' mess to dump into garbage cans. The old man's clothes were dirty and old...the leftover things the whites didn't want..This was where the white people and their promises had left the Indians. All the promises they made to you, Rocky, they weren't any different than the other promises they made. 
For anyone who is looking where to start with American Indian literature, I don't think that you can find a better novel to start with than here. For anyone who has read other American Indian lit but hasn't read this, I think that this is a vital part of the canon that needs to be read. It covers so many topics in such a small space and is so well done.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

As Doc approached downtown L.A., the smog grew thicker til he couldn't see to the end of the block.  Everybody had their headlights on, and he recalled that somewhere behind him, back at the beach, it was still another classic day of California sunshine.  Being on the way to visit Adrian Prussia, he'd decided not to smoke too much, so he was at a lost to account for the sudden appearance, rising ahead, of a dark metallic gray promontory about the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.  Traffic crept along, nobody else seemed to see it.  He thought about Sortilege's sunken continent, returning, surfacing this way in the lost heart of L.A., and wondered who'd notice if it did.  People in this own saw only what they'd all agreed to see, they believed what was on the tube or in the morning papers half of them read while they were driving to work on the freeway, and it was all their dream about being wised up, about the truth setting them free.  What good would Lemuria do them?  Especially when it turned out to be a place they'd been exiled from too long ago to remember.

I'm a big fan of P. T. Anderson, and I loved the only other Pynchon novel I've read, The Crying of Lot 49, so I wanted to read Pynchon's latest, Inherent Vice, before Anderson's film came out.  I've read the book and I've seen the film, which axes about a third of the novel's intricate plot.  Normally, such a drastic cutting might hinder the intelligibility of an adaptation, but the movie makes as much sense as the book does.  That is, it makes no sense at all.

Of course, Pynchon's not really in the business of making sense.  In fact, here and in Lot 49 he seems to be after a kind of anti-sense, or the impeccably cultivated impression of sense, created by an overwhelming accumulation of details.  Most thrillers and mystery stories are no different these days, but Pynchon's skill is in the careful parody and deconstruction of those books and movies.  Like Lot 49, Inherent Vice is a conspiracy story, but it never quite becomes clear who's behind the conspiracy, or why, or even what it is they want.

The story centers around Doc Sportello, a private investigator looking into the disappearance of a Los Angeles real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann.  Wolfmann happens to be the lover of Sportello's ex, Shasta, who warns Doc of a plot by Wolfmann's wife to extort Mickey and have him committed, and then promptly disappears herself.  Behind this lies a mysterious organization called The Golden Fang, which is the name of both a 19th century schooner currently docked just off the Port of Los Angeles and a consortium of dentists set up by tax purposes, and who are probably mixed up with both the FBI, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the LAPD.  The powers that be, as best as I can tell, want Wolfmann to disappear because he feels bad about his life of capitalist exploit and wants to build a community called Arrepentimiento in the Nevada desert where people can live rent free.  This is a threat to the white-collar, straight-arrow interests that Pynchon thrusts together by sinister suggestion.

Sportello, by contrast, is a hippie who is perpetually high on grass, acid, or cocaine, who doesn't seem to ever ask to be paid for his services, and whom Pynchon sets up as a moral foil to the forces of evil.  Inherent Vice is set at the tail end of the 1960's, when the Manson murders seem to have discredited the hippie philosophy, and Sportello is presented to us as one of the last of an increasingly endangered species.  This is the worst thing about Inherent Vice.  The bitter end of the 1960's "era of good feelings" became a tired trope as early as Gimme Shelter, and it's currently being done in a more interesting way on Mad Men than Pynchon's callow depiction of it, which seems rely mostly on bad jokes about drug use and the overuse of the word "groovy."  The conspiracy paranoia of The Crying of Lot 49 is effective because it's so closely tied to our paranoia about the future, and a capitalist and technocratic society that becomes increasingly inhuman and difficult to understand.  Inherent Vice sacrifices that dread for shallow nostalgia, like being forced to listen to the oldies station in the car with your Dad.

The lost continent Lemuria (like a Pacific Atlantis) in the passage I quoted above stands in for the inexorable feeling that there is a world just past our understanding, something ancient and lost to us that defies our attempts to investigate it.  The problem with Inherent Vice is not that it merely is nonsensical, but it wants to have it both ways: Pynchon wants both to insist that the values of 1960's hippie culture embody that lost world, and to slyly suggest that when you investigate closely enough, there's nothing there.  If the conspiracy at the heart of Inherent Vice is nothing but a postmodern heap of silly jokes and red herrings, what is Sportello supposed to be opposing?

Both the novel and the film struck me as the work of innovative artists who are capable of a whole lot more.  That's Pynchon's fault, I think, and not necessarily Anderson's.  Inherent Vice is too loose, too diffident, too tired, and somehow at the same time too sincere to work.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren't the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.

My first book for 2015 (and this blog!) is The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. The story begins in 1960’s Calcutta and follows the lives of the two Mitra brothers who are quite different in ways that siblings often are. Subhash Mitra is the older brother by 15-months – academically gifted, cautious, yet ambitious in his own right. Udayan Mitra, the younger brother, is intelligent and extremely passionate – fiery and driven by his political and social ideology to change India. Though different in personality, each brother understands himself better in the company of the other, and as a result, they are inseparable.

As the brothers mature, their futures diverge – Subhash pursues a PhD program in Rhode Island leading him into a career of scientific research in the U.S. Udayan becomes increasingly involved with the Naxalite movement, a radical leftist Communist uprising in support of Maoist politics and thinking in India. During their time apart, Subhash would receive an occasional letter from Udayan with updates on their parents, neighborhood, and the woman he has chosen to marry in a private ceremony without the approval of their parents. Subhash continues to remain in the U.S. pursuing his education until he’s forced to return to India upon the news of Udayan’s death.

Shot by the police in front of his family, Udayan’s death leaves the Mitra family overwhelmed with grief and the depth of his involvement in the controversial guerilla movements of the day is in question. Also in question is the future of Gauri, Udayan’s relatively new wife, now widow, who is ignored by the in-laws who continue to disapprove of their deceased son’s decision to marry her. Things become complicated as Gauri discovers she is pregnant, Udayan unaware of this at the time of his death.

During Subhash’s homecoming, it is his ongoing dutiful nature to his brother and his commitment to his career and life in the U.S. that leads him to marry Gauri. In doing so, he believes he is providing Gauri with an escape from her oppressive living arrangement and the memories affiliated with Calcutta while also taking care of her and the child on the way.

I found that up until this point, the novel’s pace was a bit slow (though I thoroughly enjoyed taking a Wiki Walk starting with the Naxalite movement). The first quarter of the novel was begging for more details and emotions in order to move beyond historical fiction and really bring the story to life. It is not until Gauri is living with Subhash in the U.S. that the characters and story truly take off, urging the reader to empathize with varying levels of frustration, hope and disappointment from several different perspectives.

Though it takes some getting used to, Lahiri’s decision to forgo quotes and conventional dialogue enhances the story. The more we get to know the characters, the more freely the uninterrupted narrative flows. This tactic also lends itself well to the reemergence of the past throughout the novel, illustrating familiar personality traits, decisions, and youthful impulsiveness from the story’s beginnings.

I enjoyed the book for this unique storytelling, but in a strange way it is the incredible connected sadness from one generation of the Mitra family to the next that I found so compelling.  My one critique is that I wish Gauri had been fleshed out more - she is such a seemingly complex character, yet so much about her is still unclear, as if the omnipresent narrator is unable to get through to her any better than Subhash can.  This is not the feel good novel of the year (and it is also not the most depressing), but I found it well-worth the read.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story.  I forget which of the French symbolist writers of the late nineteenth century denounced a hack writer as a urinator of journalistic copy in the phrase 'pisseur de copie', but the description remained in my mind, and I attached it to a great many of the writers who hung around or wanted to meet Martin York; and finally I attached it for life to one man alone, Hector Bartlett...  Pisseur de copie!  Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.

Mrs. Hawkins used to be looked to for advice from everyone; that was before she lost all the weight and no one looked at her that way anymore.  It was back in Kensington, when she was working for a series of small publishers, each their own kind of insane: one a very bad blackmailer, another obsessed with a pseudo-scientific program called "radionics" which involves turning the knobs of a mysterious box (perhaps inspired by the Scientologists and their e-meter?  Writing in England in 1988, it's hard to say).  One day, Mrs. Hawkins is pressed for an introduction to her boss by Hector Bartlett, a terrible but vain writer, and she calls him a "pisseur de copie"--a French term meaning, basically, prose-pisser.  But Hector is friends with a powerful novelist, and Mrs. Hawkins loses her job for the outburst.  Then she loses another, because she refuses to apologize for it.  It's not hard to read that kind of proud irascibility as something Spark saw in herself.

At the same time, Mrs. Hawkins neighbor at the boarding house, Wanda Podolak, has begun to receive threatening letters:

Mrs Podolak,

We, the  Organisers, have our eyes on you.  You are conducting a dressmaking business but you are not declaring your income to the Authorities.

Take care.

An Organiser.

(Spark loves secret, cryptic messages--like the unexplained phone calls in Memento Mori.)  Mrs. Hawkins knows the threat is hollow, but Wanda doesn't, and eventually worry causes her to commit suicide.  I found this passage to be one of the most elegiac and touching things Spark's ever written, describing the process of cleaning out Wanda's apartment:

The sadness of these last gatherings of personal effects, the siftings and sortings and parcelling-up, is more inexpressible than the funeral, where at least there is a fixed rite, there are words, the coffin has a shape and the grave a certain depth, and even the sorrow of the mourners has some silent eloquence if only conveyed and formally interpreted by their standing still.  But the grief which is latent in relics like Wanda's pair of worn shoes has no equivalent at all.

I've read quite a few Spark books, and I expected these disparate storylines to stay disparate.  But to my surprise, I was wrong; Spark ties the different threads--the publishing houses, Bartlett, Wanda--rather neatly at the end.  That, and the uncharacteristic strength of Mrs. Hawkins as a character and a narrator, make this one of the more innately satisfying of Spark's novels.  Her protagonists are often enigmatic ciphers or sociopaths, or sometimes both.  The exceptions, like The Mandelbaum Gate's Barbara Vaughan and Loitering with Intent's Fleur Talbot, all seem to be self-portraits to some extent, and that's the case here, too.  I'm not totally sure, but I think this is one of only two Spark novels I've read with a first-person narrator, which gives it a sense of intimacy that undercuts her more savage tendencies.  (The other is Robinson.)  All in all, this is easily one of my favorites.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

This was a book unlike any I'd read before.  The Divorce Papers tells the story of a young associate at a law firm handling her first divorce case while also dealing with some of her own personal issues.  However, The gimmick is that it is entirely told through emails, inter-office memoranda, letters, statutes and cases.

Set in 1999 (so back when people used email, but inter-office memoranda and hand written letters were still common), The Divorce Papers follows Sophie Diehl, a young criminal lawyer at a small firm in Narraganset, a fictional state in New England.  Because of scheduling conflicts of her firms' more experienced divorce attorneys, Sophie is called upon to do the intake interview for Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim, the daughter of one of the firm's biggest clients whose marriage is falling apart.  Sophie desperately does not want to get involved with a divorce case, but she has a rapport with Mia, and Mia specifically requests that Sophie be the primary attorney on her case.  Sophie must deal with office drama, a sleazy, bully opposing counsel, and her relative inexperience to settle the separation while juggling boyfriends and issues lingering from her parents' divorce (seen through emails with her best friend).

I'm not sure if I enjoyed this book more or less because I'm an attorney.  On one hand, I loved that portions of the book were invented cases about relevant law and excerpts of Narraganset state statutes.  The negotiations were interesting and the effects of the divorce on the couple's 11 year old daughter were heart wrenching.  On the other hand, having worked in a small firm, a lot of the office drama didn't rang false, and the way the associate interacted with the partners was bizarre (like the one partner who ended his letters "Love, Joe").  Also, there wasn't a ton of drama or character development.  The stakes were pretty low because the couple has millions in investments and the wife, who the reader is supposed to root for, is an heiress.  Several times Sophie used interesting arguments to bolster Mia's side during negotiations, and while I thought they were interesting academically, it was hard not to think, "Who cares? You're both still going to be rich either way and this is making your daughter miserable. Stop squabbling over the extra few hundred grand."

Still, though there wasn't much drama, the procedural aspects were very well done and I enjoyed the novel.

Side note: I heard about this book after reading a Jezebel article about how the cover (the paperback version is above and the hardback version is just as PINK!) had gotten the chick lit treatment.  The article argued that it was a sign that the publisher was pigeonholing a serious book into the fluffy, women's section because it was written by a woman who, though she is a legal scholar and former Yale dean, hadn't written fiction before.  On one hand, I object to the idea that because something is marketed to women, it isn't serious or worthy of respect.  On the other, I understand that what they were saying is that the decision makers at the publisher (who, most likely, are old white men) consider "chick lit" to be less than, not that it actually is.  But in general, it's interesting to think about how we actually do judge books by their covers and how publisher's intend us to.

Randy's Top Books: 2014

I like Brittany's stats, so I'm doing the same here:

Twenty-seven books; five re-reads; six non-fiction, fourteen fiction, four lit-reviews, two art, one philosophy.

Also, oddly a big year for me and Pulitzers (four).

And, in my amorphous "law" category (i.e., the books I read, regardless of genre, that I read because it has some conceivable relationship to the law): seven books.

I'm going with the top 20% again, so here are my top five for the year:

Honorable mention: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America: I felt I couldn't do my end-year review without mentioning this book because it was one of the best non-fiction I read...other than The New Jim Crow.  Still, this book is one I'd say anyone should read because of how it shows the relationship between the death penalty and race.

(5)  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander:  the best contemporary book about criminal justice I've ever read.  Alexander describes the racial overtones of our criminal justice system.  As the year unfolded, Alexander's book proved to be more and more relevant.  Of course, the media and pop-culture reactions to Brown and Garner only superficially reflected the complexity of the issues involved.  I think Alexander's book will continue to be relevant over the coming years as we, hopefully, decide to confront what needs to be fixed.

(4)  On Revolution by Hannah Arendt:  As always, Arendt blows my mind with her insight.  It's only a matter of time before I decide lawyering isn't for me and that I need to hole away in a basement to become an unrecognized Arendt scholar.  Watch out, world.

(3)  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt:  A Pulitzer prize much deserved.  I am still wavering on whether this was a "great" novel v. a merely really, really good book.  I realize the distinction shouldn't matter, but I've got this ongoing debate permeating one of my friendships, so it's on the mind.  Nonetheless, a great novel, editors of The Paris Review notwithstanding.

(2)  Building Stories by Chris Ware:  If I was only ranking new books, this would easily be the best book I read this year.  In fact, it might be the best (new-to-me) novel I've read over the last couple of years.  I can't recommend this novel enough to anyone.  This will certainly be a novel I re-visit in the future.  I'll add, too, that this novel helps to justify my subscription to The Paris Review--if every year The Paris Review introduces me to a novel I love this much, I'll be extremely happy.

(1)  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: it's not an accident that this novel is a classic.  It deserves all the accolades it receives.  Nothing else to say about it, I guess.

Some things to look forward to in 2015.  Allegedly, we'll be getting a new J.D. Salinger novel.  We're also going to get new novels from Ishiguro and Danielewski.  The Danielewski, in particular, I've been looking forward to for a while (I want to say years, but I can't remember when he first announced this project).  It's supposed to be the first volume of a 27 volume series.  Given that, according to Amazon, it's clocking in at 880 pages, I hope that all 27 volumes are in there.  I suppose we'll have to wait and see.  Here's looking at you, 2015.