Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

It's one small thing I remember noticing in those months of building and making and drafting and plotting, something that seems less small over time: for a player to make progress, he has to pacify or destroy whoever's in his way.  Those people become part of his story: he can't go back and breathe life into them, and whatever gains he gets from the wrecks he leaves behind are permanent in the sense that any other courses open to him beforehand will become closed.  So when I sketched the scene where a player, having been caught by warlord resource-hoarders and imprisoned in an improvised jail, cold just kill his cellmate and get everything he might otherwise have spent six turns gathering, I didn't feel right about it: it was directly reward a player for attacking somebody who hadn't done him any harm, for doing the wrong thing.  It saved the player all the work while giving him all the spoils.  But I saw the bigger picture: that it was true.  That to the player who intended to make it to safety, no one in front of him amounted to more than some stray marks on paper, half-real figures to be tunneled under or blasted through as you headed on east toward the spires.

John Darnielle's song "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," from The Mountain Goats' 2002 album All Hail West Texas, is about a pair of high school students whose friendship is destroyed by well-meaning parents who react with paranoid fear to the music of their band.  Cyrus and Jeff's parents are worried that their sons have become victims of a pernicious cultural force, but can't bring themselves to think about what Cyrus and Jeff need from metal, and what results is a deeply seeded resentment: "When you punish someone for dreaming their dream," Darnielle writes, "don't expect them to than or forgive you."

Darnielle's new novel Wolf in White Van illustrates just how easy it is to go from being perceived as the victim of pernicious culture to its perpetrator.  The narrator, Sean Phillips, is disfigured from a suicide he attempted when he was a teenager.  As an adult, he makes a living by operating a series of role playing games like mail, including his most popular, the Trace Italian, in which players travel through a post-nuclear United States in search of the titular citadel, the last remaining outpost of civilization and of safety.  The narrative vacillates between the present day and Sean's memories of the period just after his disfigurement.  His own parents' persistent need to blame his actions on some exterior force--the music he listens to, the girl he's been dating--becomes tragically reflected in the present, when Sean is sued by the parents of two teenagers who died from exposure while trying to enact the plot of the Trace Italian.

Sean seems monstrous, of course, from a certain perspective.  But his own experiences amplify the sympathy he feels for the parents of the deceased--and for the kids, with whom he had a peculiar but very real relationship, through the correspondence of the game.  To what extent is he responsible for their death?  Is Sean the "wolf in white van" that a Christian television show says can be heard when a certain radio is played backwards?

And I thought, maybe he's real, this wolf, and he's really out there in a white van somewhere, riding around.  Maybe he's in the far back, pacing back and forth, circling, the pads of his huge paws raw and cracking, his thick, sharp claws dully clicking against the raised rusty steel track ridges on the floor.  Maybe he's sound asleep, or maybe he's just pretending.  And then the van stops somewhere, maybe, and somebody gets out and walks around to the side to the back and grabs hold of the handle and flings the doors open wide.  Maybe whoever's kept him wears a mechanic's jumpsuit and some sunglasses, and he hasn't fed the great wolf for weeks, cruising the streets of the city at night, and the wolf's crazy with hunger now; he can't even think.  Maybe he's not locked up in the back at all: he could be riding in the passenger seat, like a dog, just sitting and staring out the open window, looking around, checking everybody out.  Maybe he's over in the other seat behind the steering wheel.  Maybe he's driving.

But there is no wolf--no evil force that tragedy can be safely assigned to.  The Trace Italian games, for Sean, are a way of managing the forces of chance and uncertainty that are associated with such tragedy.  No one has ever reached the Trace, but there is a comfort in knowing that the scenarios have been written and lie in a drawer: the whole plot, constructed and whole, known only to Sean.  The death of the teenage players threatens to disrupt the certainty and structure that Sean has needed since his disfiguration.

As a debut novel, Wolf in White Van is very assured.  But like with Cyrus and Jeff, Darnielle has been thinking about these themes for years, and they're no doubt influenced by his own infamously turbulent childhood.  And while the Satanic paranoia of "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" seems very much a relic of a couple of decades ago, Wolf in White Van shows how the need to identify and root out what we call "evil" remains prevalent and powerful.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Billy's Top Five

This year was one of my lower book totals, but I was pleased to at least get halfway there.  I also, like Chris, had a tough time reviewing books this year (sorry everyone!).  I don't know if it was because I didn't have as much time, or because I ran into some tough books this year (my Kindle is scattered with the corpses of several books that I just didn't like enough to finish, plus there's on one my nightstand that is fascinating, but for some reason is taking me forever to get through).

All that being said, I read some pretty good books this year.  Here are the ones I found particularly noteworthy:

5. A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe: I probably enjoyed this funky book more than most because it was set in Atlanta and I read it right after reading #4 on my list.  I got a kick out of reading about characters driving past 10th and Piedmont (an intersection I cross every day) and dealing with Freaknik, a city wide spring break extravaganza for HBCs in the 90s (that has since been discontinued).  But I also thought the characters were compelling and well drawn, even if the story itself was a little bananas by the end.  It definitely didn't turn out how I expected it would.

4. Atlanta Rising by Frederick Allen: Since moving into Atlanta proper, I have become increasingly interested in Atlanta history.  Much of it is fascinating and it is fun to get a new perspective on my city.  This book (along with Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, another Atlanta history book that I love, but haven't been able to finish yet) do a good job of charting the civil rights movement in Atlanta and how it differed from the debacles in other southern cities, like Little Rock and Birmingham.  In short, Atlanta had a much more peaceful and progressive integration because Atlanta's white business leaders, like Coke President Robert Woodruff (incidentally, an alum of my high school), and politicians, like Bill Hartsfield and Ivan Allen, Jr., realized that racial strife was bad for business (this balance was made possible in no small part by black voting activists like John Wesley Dobbs, who fought for the electoral power and rights for black Atlantans that made the election of men like Hartsfield and Allen achievable).  

3. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card: Much has been said about the irony of Card's works.  This installment in his famous series is another exhortation for empathy above judgment.  It was a good read, and I appreciate his message (even if the author doesn't do so himself).

2. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Gay's collection of essays is fantastic, each one bringing something different to the table.  From hilarious stories about competitive Scrabble tournaments and biting and amusing reviews of pop culture to poignant stories about what it is like to be a black woman in academia and America, Bad Feminist has stories that will make you think and make you laugh.

1. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward: This is one of the two I actually reviewed, so I'll direct you to that summary, but this is still one of the most affecting books I have read in quite some time.  Since I read/reviewed it (after the death of Mike Brown, but before the grand jury announcement in his and Eric Garner's cases, etc.), its lessons have become even more important to me.  It is so hard but so important for white people (like me) to really listen to and learn about POC's lived experiences in this country, because it is becoming more and more clear that we have no idea what their lives are like, and that ignorance can be deadly.  As was suggested in a comment on my original post, it is very sad, but I still recommend it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

  • Exposition:  the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well-known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic.  The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave.  Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction--in short, belief--grows ever "truer."  The actual past is brittle, ever dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
  • The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will.  Power seeks + is the right to "landscape" the virtual past.  (He who pays the historian calls the tune.)
  • Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too.  We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up--a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams.  This virtual future will eclipse our virtual one as surely as tomorrow eclipses today.  Like Utopia, the actual future + the actual past exist only in the hazy distance, where they are no good to anyone.
  • Q: Is there a meaningful distinction between one simulacrum of smoke, mirrors + shadows--the actual past--from another such simulacrum--the actual future?
In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell has the audacity to attempt to write about Justice and Humanity in a universal way.  He realizes this ambition, and presents to the reader a puzzle-box of a novel--six short stories, five split in the middle.  Thus, the first story ends halfway and the second story starts.  It, in turn, ends halfway and the third story starts.  And so on until the sixth story, which runs all the way through.  Then we return to the fifth story, which ends, to the fourth story, etc. etc. etc.

Such stylistic flourish is necessary because Mitchell is telling one story, with six different iterations.  The different iterations show the universality of this one story, which repeats over and over, through time, like an endless cycle that is the story of humanity.  Thus, our first story is in the 1800s, and the last story is in some post-apocalyptic future.  

What is the one story?  It is a story of two dueling narratives about humanity.  This passage encompasses both:
What precipitates outcomes?  Vicious acts & virtuous acts.
 What precipitates acts?  Belief.
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world.  If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being . . . . You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds.  What if it consciences itch?  Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy?  Why fight the "natural" (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?
Why?  Because of this:--one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.  Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost.  In an individual selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
So, insofar as Cloud Atlas is a theory of humanity, the theory is a dichotomy: altruism v. self-interest.  If we, as a species, choose self-interest, humanity is doomed to failure.  If we, as a species, choose altruism, humanity will flourish.  One might call Cloud Atlas the anti-Rand.

The altruism/self-interest debate is age-old, of course.  What makes Cloud Atlas special, though, is its genuine interest in approaching this topic from the perspective of humanity, rather than from an individual point of view.  Of course, Mitchell tells this story through individuals, but the individuals are presented as mere examples of a universal phenomenon.

This was a second reading for me.  Like Winter's Tale, I re-read this novel because I recommended it to someone and he did not like it as much as I thought he would.  (Evidently, I'm 0-2 on recommendations this year.)  Like Winter's Tale, this book re-read even better than my original reading.  Interestingly, both books were recommended to me by one person around the same time in my life (around when law school ended).  And both books have a thematic similarity: an attempt to present Justice from a literary perspective.  I can't help wondering if timing had something to do with my interest in both novels.

With all that said, I loved this book.  My friend faulted it because it lacked the "greatness" I've discussed in reviews earlier this year.  I'm not sure I agree.  Specifically, my friend felt that the writing is not beautiful in the way the Great Writers write beautifully.  I would agree on this point.  I remember reading somewhere that Nabokov never trusted any writer with an ulterior motive in his writing--Cloud Atlas certainly reads as though it has an ulterior motive.  Namely, spelling out a theory of humanity.  The writing itself may not be as great as Nabokov's, but the novel has much to offer.  I'm going to let it sit in the back of my mind a couple more years before deciding what I think about it.

With all that said, if nothing else, it is a really good novel.  Thus, I recommend it to anyone.

But for the love of God, do not go see the movie (only the movie adaptation of Winter's Tale was worse).

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christopher's Top Ten 2014

This is the eighth year of existence for the Fifty Books Project, and each year it gets a little easier for me to reach fifty books, I think, because I've been able to settle into a kind of rhythm that makes it automatic for me.  But every year it gets a little harder to review the books I've read on time.  This year, I left 11 books unreviewed!  And though I still plan on writing about each of them, I feel bad that three of those eleven appear on my year-end list without any review to link to.  Womp womp.  In any case, here are my favorites from 2014:

10.) Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White -- White's story of four outsiders in suburban Australia who share a vision of the divine helped cement my opinion that he's one of the most underrated and under-recognized English-language writers in the 20th century, unless you're in Australia.  White's fulsome, kitchen-sink prose illuminates the way that the divine lives just beyond the edge of what c an be expressed in words.

9.) A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark -- Slots nine through seven are all books I read late in the year and haven't gotten around to reviewing.  A Far Cry from Kensington was the best of the three Muriel Spark books I read this year because it has a warmth and depth of character that many of her books lack.  That's partly because it, like The Mandelbaum Gate, is partially autobiographical: the heroine, like Spark, writes about her experiences in the absurd world of post-war publishing.  Like Memento Mori, the plot is driven by a series of threatening phone calls, this time to a fragile Polish seamstress living in the protagonist's boarding house.  But even when she repeats herself, Spark is always original, and this is one of her very best.

8.) To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- I love lighthouses.  But this book really isn't about lighthouses, unless by "about lighthouses," you mean "about the deep and inexpressible needs of human expression."  It takes place over two of the Ramsay family's holidays in the Hebrides, years apart, and the only real plot point--Mrs. Ramsay's death--happens "off screen," between the two sections.  Instead, what Woolf provides is the most detailed and layered expression of what goes on in the brains of people that I've ever read.

7.) The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty -- Last year I was surprised by the emotional depth and complexity of Welty's The Optimist's Daughter.  The Ponder Heart amplifies the comedic elements that happen at the fringes of that novel and reconfigures them into something that is both hilarious and humane.  The story revolves around Daniel Ponder, a generous and perhaps half-witted man who is put on trial for killing his younger second wife.  It lacks some of the gravitas of The Optimist's Daughter, but its humor captures the essence of the small-town South more successfully, for me.

6.) At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald -- I've been trying to get Brent to read Penelope Fitzgerald for a while now, and apparently all I needed to do was to mail a book to his house.  I think At Freddie's, which depicts the lives of the students and teachers at a child's acting school in London, is my second favorite of her novels after The Blue Flower.  It didn't hurt that it reminded me of a lot of my own students.

5.) Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban -- Randy says this novel isn't "great."  I don't know that that concerns me.  I value its idiosyncrasy, and its sheer weirdness.  Hoban's choice to anthropomorphize everything in Kleinzeit's universe, like the hospital that thinks of Kleinzeit as a tasty meal, is a bizarre choice perfectly executed.  It isn't until late in the book that you realize that it's not merely a stylistic choice, but a thematic one; Kleinzeit is about the relationship between human beings and the forces in the world that seem cruel and impersonal.  Randy: Now you have to read Hoban's best book, Riddley Walker.

4.) Possession by A. S. Byatt -- I don't know if the prose of Possession can match anything that's on this list, but I guess it's the poetry that matters: Byatt's pitch-perfect, thoughtful imitations of Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti (as poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte) are the foundation of a moving meditation on what it means to write, and write about, literature.

3.) Paradise Lost by John Milton -- I didn't really know where to put this.  Is it too low?  Too high?  I'm not sure that I can gauge the extent to which I enjoyed Paradise Lost--in fact, I think Milton would agree that enjoying it is beside the point.  Milton wanted his epic of the fall of Adam and Eve to inspire people to be more obedient to God.  I tried to read it in that spirit, and though I wasn't always--or often--successful, recognizing the great intellectual achievement that creates that effect is extremely rewarding.

2.) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro -- I'm a sucker for unreliable narrators: Nick Carraway, John Dowell, etc.  Ishiguro's butler Stevens is one of the absolute best, and the least reliable.  He's so wrapped up in his idea of a butler's devotion to dignity, that he cannot recognize that his employer, Lord Darlington, is a Nazi sympathizer, nor that his father is dying, nor that the maid Miss Kenton is in love with him--not even that he is in love with her!  The Remains of the Day is a deeply sad story of self-denial and self-defeat, even as it leaves a space open for redemption and new life.

1.) Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- Man, what a book.  Race relations in the United States have always been a mix of the terrifying and the absurd, and it takes a terrifying and absurd book to really depict them.  Ellison's unnamed narrator moves from the South to New York City, a first hand witness to the weird and sad experience of being black in America.  Ellison wrote only one other book, and from what I've heard, it never reaches the same heights as Invisible Man, as if after writing that one (nearly) perfect novel, Ellison didn't have anything left.  I get to teach this book this year, and I'm pretty excited about it.

Happy new year!  If you'd like to join us at the Fifty Books Project, you can email me at misterchilton-at-gmail-dot-com.  We'd love to have you!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

The universe is still and complete.  Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is--and so on, in all possible combinations.  Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful.  In the end, or, rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others.  All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

Brittany hated this book, writing it off, it apparently, because the descriptions of women were too perfect and she didn't like the writing.  Because it was so long (making me feel bad for subjecting her to 750 pages of...well...of novel she didn't like) and because her review so dismissive, I felt an obligation to revisit the novel to make sure it was what I remembered it to be.

Turns out, it was even better than I remember.

As Brittany noted, this novel has multiple inter-related storylines, which I'll describe in turn.

The apparently most important is that of Peter Lake, Pearly Soames, and Beverly Penn.  Peter Lake and Pearly Soames are enemies, in a kind of exaggerated super-hero, super-villain way.  For example, this is the description of Soames:
In all the universe there was only one photograph of Pearly Soames, and it showed Pearly with five police officers around him, one apiece for each of his legs and arms, and one for his head.  They held him spread-eagled on a chair to which his waist and chest were firmly strapped.  His face was clenched around tightly shut eyes and it was possible to hear, even in black and white, the bellow that emerged from his throat.  The enormous officer behind him had obvious trouble keeping the subject's face toward the camera, and he grasped Pearly's hair and beard as if he were holding an agitated poisonous snake . . . . Pearly Soames had not desired to be photographed.
It's the last line, in particular, that I love.  After spending an entire paragraph showing, Helprin tells the reader the point, in an apparent redundancy.  However, because Helprin's writing is consistently clever, his concluding sentence reads like a clever understatement (for me, anyway).  Pearly is the bad guy; Peter Lake is the good guy.  The first 200 or so pages are about Pearly attempting to kill Peter Lake while Peter Lake tries to avoid him.  Meanwhile, Peter Lake takes up with a magical white horse and meets Beverly, who he falls in love with.  After Beverly dies, we shift focus.

The other story lines occur a couple of generations later, just before the turn of the millenium; they inter-relate more closely and are harder to distinguish.  In one, Hardesty seeks the meaning of a line on a mystical salver: "For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone."  He meets Virginia, gets a job at a newspaper run by Beverly's younger brother.  Hardesty and Virgina fall in love and have a child.

The newspaper run by Beverly's brother is another story line, and serves as a focal point for a number of the characters (some of whom I'm leaving out).  This newspaper, The Sun, is in competition with another newspaper, The Ghost.  Where The Sun is a paragon of journalistic integrity and wisdom, The Ghost feeds the hedonistic mob its superficial news.

Finally there's a plot line involving Jackson Meade, a bridge maker, the Reverend Mootfowl, and their assistant Cecil Mature.  They are trying to build a bridge to the perfectly just city, which, ostensibly, is some form of Heaven or utopia.

I go through all these plot lines because it's the complexity of the novel, it's large number of plots, that makes the novel special.  This is not a novel about characters, necessarily; it is a novel about the human condition, that seeks to describe that condition on the scale of an entire city.  That is, Helprin attempts to portray a theory of humanity--that humans are capable of great acts, but only through cooperation so sophisticated it is nearly impossible for a single person to understand it.  Thus, most of the characters have their individual plot lines without any awareness of how their plot lines are contributing to the humanity meta-narrative.

This meta-narrative is that each person contributes to the life of a city.  This life involves small and large battles between good and evil (although, Helprin does not use the words "good" and "evil," as far as I can remember).  As the city gets closer and closer to being more good than evil, the more the city becomes a hospitable place for it to bridge the gap between our human reality and the perfectly just city.  Jackson Meade, who is an immortal, is constantly trying to build the bridge that will bring about the perfectly just city, but this bridge is dependent on a city reaching a certain level of goodness.

The other characters in the novel serve as examples of the battle between good and evil.  And, with the victory of good comes the possibility of miracles, both big and small.  So it is that children are brought back from the dead.  So, too, it is that Helprin does not explicitly tell us whether Peter Lake is reunited with Beverly.  But, I don't believe the ending is meant to be ambiguous--because the novel conveys a theory of humanity and miracles, Helprin is telling the reader to decide for himself because readers who buy into his theory of humanity/miracles know whether Peter Lake is reunited with Beverly.

This is not to say I understand the logic of miracles and life that dictates Winter's Tale.  I think I'd have to read it about eight more times to feel like I really understood.  However, for me, understanding is not a prerequisite for enjoyment.  And I enjoyed this book thoroughly.  I enjoyed the writing and I enjoyed the plot and I enjoyed the act of thinking about what's going on and being puzzled.

Brittany's problem with the descriptions (particularly of the women), seems to me to be a stylistic choice Helprin employs: hyperbole.  Yes, all the women are described as excessively beautiful; however, every description in the entire novel is excessive.  For me, Helprin's excessive descriptions showed off his writing talent.  I found them to be clever and consistent with the book's title, which self-diagnoses as a tale.  The hyperbolic descriptions help to give this novel a sense of it being a tale, as though it could be told in pieces around a fire as well as it could be read.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes magical-realism, "puzzle" books.  I'd also add, on a personal note, I liked reading a novel wrestling with the concept of Justice as a metaphysical ideal.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings by Thomas de Quincey

Here was a panacea -- a pharmakon nepenthes -- for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoast pocket: portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.

De Quincey's memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is separated into sections called "The Pleasures of Opium" and "The Pains of Opium," interwoven with biographical passages that describe the poverty and homelessness that led him to seek comfort in opium.  But it's hard to shake the impression that the pleasures outweigh the pains--often de Quincey's description of the opium experience seems to foretell the pro-hallucinatory rhetoric of the 1960's.  "I sometimes seemed to have live for 70 or 100 years in one night," he writes, "nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millenium passed in that time, or however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience."  But when shit gets bad, shit gets bad:

But now that which I call the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself.  Perhaps some part of my London might be answerable for this.  Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear: the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, upturned to the heavens: faces, imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by the thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: -- my agitations was infinite, -- my mind tossed -- and surged with the ocean.

De Quincey's descriptions of his opium dreams are intricate, harrowing, and often grotesque.  I wanted more of them.  I think I hadn't expected the extensive autobiographical stuff that dominates the first section--mostly about de Quincey's endless drifting through London--and so it was difficult to adjust that expectation.  I really just wanted to the get to the opium.

I think I enjoyed the appended writings a little more for that reason.  One is a collection of essays and scraps of memoir called Suspiria Profundis, and one a short meditation on the English Mail-Coach, which apparently doubled as a kind of hired long-distance transportation.  I especially liked a brief piece from Suspiria Profundis called "Savannah-la-Mar," which uses the image of a drowned Jamaican city to meditate on the passage of time and its relationship to God.

Apparently The Confessions lead a bunch of people to actually become addicted to opium.  It didn't have that effect on me, but maybe I didn't read it closely enough.  How about you, Liz?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

The incline was the same down which d'Urberville had driven her so wildly on that day in June.  Tess went up the remainder of its length without stopping, and on reaching the edge of the escarpment gazed over the familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist.  It was always beautiful from here; it was terrible beautiful to Tess to-day, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.  Verily another girl than the simple one she had been at home was she who, bowed by thought, stood still here, and turned to look behind her.

John Durbeyfield, town drunk, happens to discover one day that he is actually the descendant of a once-great family, the d'Urbervilles, of whom a few still-genteel relations remain.  Hoping for monetary advancement, Durbeyfield sends his young daughter Tess to make the acquaintance of their cousin, Alec d'Urberville.  Alec's interest in Tess is not entirely that of a friendly relative, and Tess must repeatedly deflect his crass come-ons.  Then, one evening, while she is captive in his carriage, he rapes her.  Hardy, with his usual circuitousness, never quite says this--but the second chapter is called "Maiden No More." 

Tess of the d'Urbervilles is the story of the consequences of rape.  It would be nice to think that it's a record from the foreign nation of the past, and that Tess' experience would be different today, and maybe it would, but in degree and not in kind.  Like many rape victims today, Tess is thrown together again and again with her violator, unable to break free. Like many rape victims today, she is blamed--explicitly and otherwise--for her rape, including by the love of her life, Angel Clare, whose rigid humanist morals are unable to tolerate what he perceives as Tess' indiscretion.  Tortured by male attention, she mutilates her own face:

As soon as she got out of the village she entered a thicket and took from her basket one of the oldest field-gowns, which she had never put on even at the dairy... She also, by a felicitous thought, took a handkerchief from her bundle and tied it round her face under her bonnet, covering her chin and half her cheeks and temples, as if she were suffering from toothache.  Then with her little scissors, by the aid of a pocket looking-glass, she mercilessly nipped her eyebrows off, and thus insured against aggressive admiration she went on her uneven way.

D'Urberville is one of the slimiest villains I think I've ever read about.  His constant wheedling of Tess, his feigned care, contrasted with his claims to be so inflamed with passion that he can't resist himself, are both reprehensible and recognizable.  True, Hardy leaves some space for the reader to interpret Alec's actions as a seduction, but it seems to me that Hardy's structuring of the power differential between the two figures--he is wealthy and powerful, she neither, and of course if she resists he may abandon her in the woods.  But Angel, the good man whose moral code is so inflexible, is more frustrating and maybe more repulsive.  Angel takes a voyage to South America to get rid of the sticky moral situation that is Tess, only belatedly realizing his error:

During this time of absence he had mentally aged a dozen years.  What arrested him now as of value in life was less its beauty than its pathos.  Having long discredited the old systems of mysticism, he now began to discredit the old appraisements of morality.  He thought they wanted readjusting.  Who was the moral man?  Still more pertinently, who was the moral woman?  The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.

Moral realizations in Hardy's novels are always a step too late, sometimes comically so--it seems like lovers are always a moment too late or early to reunite with each other--but I guess we should take Angel at his word and judge him by this intentions and not his achievements.  But his obtuseness is pretty angering.

What about Tess?  She's not as interesting as the male principals--smart, pretty, humble, etc.--but much of her identity is tragically consumed by her victimhood.  She's a sister in spirit to Jude the Obscure: neither can seem to catch a break, and both are so dogged by systemic unfairness and outright cruelty that they begin to internalize it. Hardy clearly loves her, sometimes to a fault, and subtitles the novel "A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented."  Like Angel Clare, he's more arrested by pathos--pity--than beauty, and Tess is certainly a figure of pity.  There's no place for Tess, partly because of the backward moral climate of her surroundings.  But the pathos comes not only from the cruelty of a rotten society but from a cosmic unfairness:

Care had been harsh toward her; there is no doubt of it.  Men are too often harsh with women they love or have loved; women with men.  And yet these harshnesses are tenderness itself when compared with the universal harshness out of which they grow; the harshness of the posititon towards the temperament, the means toward the aims, of to-day towards yesterday, of hereafter towards to-day.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick

What a tragic realm this is, he reflected.  Those down here are prisoners, and the ultimate tragedy is that they don't know it; they think they are free because they have never been free, and do not understand what it means.  This is a prison, and few men have guessed.  But I know, he said to himself.  Because that is why I am here.  To burst the walls, to tear down the metal gates, to break each chain.  Thou shall not muzzle the ox as he treadeth out the corn, he thought, remembering the Torah.  You will not imprison a free creature; you will not bind it.  Thus say the Lord your God.  Thus I say.

The working title for The Divine Invasion was VALIS Regained.  I would have liked that.  As a sequel to VALIS, it's somewhat unsatisfying; it shares no characters, no plot lines.  But the strange central idea of Dick's fictional-universe-cum-actual-philosophy is here: that God was exiled to outer space millennia ago, and that we've been living in an imaginary universe ever since.  The Divine Invasion stages God's return to Earth--something attempted, but not achieved, in VALIS--as a young boy, Emmanuel.

Emmanuel, like Christ, is the product of a virgin birth, this time on a remote planet where people live in pods isolated from one another and separated by an inhospitable wasteland.  The protagonist Herb Asher helps Emmanuel and his mother, Rybys, return to Earth, but malicious government forces attack the incoming ship, forcing the injured Herb into suspended animation.  The crash also inflicts brain damage and amnesia on Emmanuel, who must slowly remember that he is God and recover the true extent of his power.  Like all of Dick's books, there are strange tangents that intersect with the main plot at oblique angles, including a popular diva who sings 16th century English folk ballads.  Also, the prophet Elijah's there, and he's like three thousand years old.

The Divine Invasion is not as satisfyingly bonkers as VALIS, mostly because it lacks the layered biographical irony of that book.  But I did really love the ending, which dramatizes the choice Herb has to make between the God-child Emmanuel and a seductive goat-creature identified with Belial, or Satan:

Gray truth, the goat-creature continued, is better than what you have imagined.  You wanted to wake up.  Now you are awake; I show you things as they are, pitilessly; but that is how it should be.  How do you suppose I defeated Yahwah in times past?  By revealing his creation for what it is, a wretched thing to be despised.  This is his defeat, what you see -- see through my mind and eyes, my vision of the world: my correct vision.

Did I mention the goat communicates by telepathy?  It's weird.  But it also provides an insight into what Dick was trying to do by writing science fiction, and why he so frequently layers his work with false, imagined worlds (like the post-WWII world of The Man in the High Castle, for example).  Belial presents a choice between the "gray truth" and the hopeful ideal world that Emmanuel, damaged and immature, offers instead.  At the end of the book--spoilers here--the goat-creature is killed when someone loves and pities it.  To pity the world of "gray truth" is to imagine a better one, and to kill it by imagining.  I like that.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Paris Review Review

Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I'd been promised had liberal credentials.  He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future.  We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately, I had to leave before we arrived at the subject.  He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.  --Outline, by Rachel Cusk

I wasn't going to write a review of The Paris Review on this hallowed blog, but after reading some comments made by the editor about The Goldfinch, I felt compelled to address the magazine.  Specifically, Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, stated, "A book like The Goldfinch doesn't undo cliches--it deals in them . . . . It coats everything in a cozy patina of 'literary' gentility' . . . . Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap."

I felt compelled to write this review because, with a few notable exceptions, The Paris Review has become a bastion of pretentious "literary" work that is crap.  A perfect example is Cusk's Outline, a serialized novel that, by coincidence, started at the same time as my subscription.

Outline is a novel about a writer who travels to Greece to teach a creative writing course.  First, I'll note that in general I hate stories about writers.  There is something unusual about writers that makes me distrustful of them as protagonists.  Writer-protagonists reflect the lack of diversity in their authors' life/creativity.  Outline is no different.    The novel is about the protagonist having conversations with various people opening up about their lives.  The common thread is all of them feel somehow robbed by the promise of life.  The opening lines are a potent symbol for this thread--the protagonist is promised something, but when the time comes, that thing does not materialize.

The writing, though ostensibly literary, is boring.  The characters' dissatisfaction with their lives rings hollow.  And this theme flows throughout stories in The Paris Review, as though the target audience of the magazine is people, just past their prime and coming to terms with the fact that they haven't lived up to their potential.

This is terribly boring.

The interviews are no better.  They focus on writers (who, for the most part, I haven't heard of; though, I won't hold the magazine liable for my own ignorance) discussing their craft.  Usually, these interviews are self-indulgent, boring, and patronizing towards other writers.

So, if Lorin Stein wants to fault The Goldfinch for being crap, I would fault The Paris Review for being pretentious and self-indulgent.

That said, I did renew my subscription of the magazine because, when the magazine shines, it shines.  On average, there's at least one good story in each issue (see infra I'll list the stories I enjoyed).  This makes the subscription worth it, in my opinion.  And the Review's interview of Chris Ware was really good, motivating me to buy at least one of his books.

In conclusion, this: The Paris Review is worth reading, but not so good it should feel entitled to talk shit about other writers, popular or not.

Randy Fiedler-approved short stories:

A Dark and Winding Road by Ottessa Moshfegh
Magic and Dread by Jenny Offill
Empathy by J.D. Daniels

To the Lake by Luke Mogelson
Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets by Zadie Smith
The Window Lion by Bill Cotter

No Place for Good People by Ottessa Moshfegh
Big Week by Zadie Smith

Locals by David Gates
The Art of Comics #2 with Chris Ware (an interview)

I won't address the poetry because I continue to have no taste for it (and, admittedly, one of the reasons for me to subscribe was to force myself to read and think about poetry).  Those of you who only want to read one or two stories, I'd recommend both of the Zadie Smith stories which stand out as (far and above the others) good.  And, again, the Chris Ware interview was really good.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Clarie Prentice

America is full of forgotten places. Some were never known to more than a few people to begin with; others spent considerable time in the zeitgeist before that fickle friend moved on to another place, another thing. Coney Island falls into the latter category. America’s first amusement park--though that description doesn’t really cover its breadth in its heyday--served as a social center for the States at the turn of the century, only to be overshadowed by the Walt Disneys and Universals of the world. Chris tells me Coney Island isn’t what it used to be, but for a glimpse of its halcyon days, read The Lost Tribe of Coney Island.

Not that the book is only--or even primarily--about the titular island, but Coney Island looms tall in the semi-tragic story of the small group of Igorrotes, a native tribe from the Philippines. It looms not only because the middle section of the book takes place there, but because the attitudes and national sentiment that made Coney Island what it was--the willingness to try anything, the passionate pursuit of novelty--are necessary ingredients in the tale of Truman Hunt--lieutenant governor, showman, shyster, fugitive--and his quest to make a bunch of money by displaying the Igorrotes for a curious and vouyeristic public.

Selling the exhibit with the sensationalism of dog-eating and headhunting, Truman wasn’t about to let little things like a new wife and child, the Igorrotes’ sacred customs, or basic human decency get in the way of making some money and giving the people what they wanted. As with most debacles, it didn’t start out this way. Thoug he was always controlling, Truman starts the story with what seems like a genuine, if somewhat patronizing, regard for the natives. As time goes on, however, his treatment of them grows worse and worse, until the entire group ends up on the run from the law. Tribe ends up in a pair of courtroom battles; unfortunately, since this is a true story, they don’t end with the Igorrotes mounting a passionate defense while Truman looks on agape. Instead (SPOILERS FOR A TRUE STORY), they win their first trial only to be pulled back into a second, which they lose when Truman’s attorney appeals to the racism and bigotry of the jury.

There’s a bittersweet coda to the book, but ultimately, it paints a vivid picture of an America that no longer exists, for better or for worse. It would be nice to think that we’re above the sort of “strange culture as entertainment” in our enlightened age; unfortunately, one look at TLC tells us that some things never change.

Because of family events, I’m writing this review well after I’ve finished the book. In case it’s not clear, this is a great book. Well-written and one of the most entertaining nonfiction books I’ve ever read, if the premise interests you at all, do pick it up.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Demian by Herman Hesse

Emil Sinclair is on a search to find himself. Starting the story as an innocent kid who nevertheless senses there is a darker part of the world to which he is not yet privy, he falls into bad company, has his facade of innocence ripped away, and is eventually brought to self-awareness by art, a few acquaintances, and the titular Demian, an enigmatic embodiment of aloof perfection.

I'm perfectly willing to admit that, as premises go, this isn't a bad one. Of Human Bondage is very similar structurally, for instance, and it's one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. And Demian starts out with a lot of promise--and it's worth noting that the writing is quite good clear through--but fizzles out in a mess of self-important, unengaging crap.

The opening vignette in the novel would have made a great standalone story: Emil, hoping to impress an older boy, tells an elaborate lie about how he and some other boys regularly steal apples from a nearby orchard. After extracting an oath from Emil that the story is true, the older boy blackmails him, telling him there is a reward for the person who turns in whoever has been stealing the apples, and agreeing not to rat on Emil only if he is paid an equivalent amount. Fearing the reprisal of his parents and the police, Emil engages in petty crime--stealing from said parents, mostly--to pay his debt, all while feeling as though he has left the world of good and stepped inextricably into the world of evil.

The problem with extracting even this section of the novel, which drums up a real sense of dread over a dilemma that the adult reader knows isn't really serious, is that it's resolved by bringing in the book's walking, talking Deus Ex Machina, Demian. He talks to the bully and the bully backs off, never to speak to Emil again. If you're hoping to learn what was said, keep hoping. It cheapens the whole episode and makes it feel like the scene in a bad action movie where the villain kills his right hand man just to show how evil he is.

And what can I say about Demian? He's never given much of a personality or, really, much to do besides dispense cryptic wisdom and look pretty. The most interesting thing about his character is the homoerotic subtext that run through the novel, which is never mentioned or alluded to, which makes me wonder if Hesse was aware and choosing this as the one place to inject subtlety into his story, or if he was so in love with the character himself that he was unaware of how it came across. The subtext, alas, is just another area where Demian refuses to pay off.

The story ends SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER with Emil living in some sort of commune with Demian, Demian's mother--who Emil really wants to (and maybe does?) sleep with--and a few other seekers who, Emil realizes, are just too caught up in their own beliefs to recognize the essential oneness of the universe, or whatever. Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but there's no evidence of why here--this book blows. It's a novel of ideas with no novel ideas, a character study with no real characters, a story without any stakes.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

A Contract with God is Will Eisner's first graphic novel, and, in fact, is commonly considered to be the first "graphic novel" ever written. The introduction in my copy made it sound like Eisner or his agent coined the term to gain some respectability, since Eisner was coming from a long career in comic books, with his iconic superhero, The Spirit.

Reading Contract now, decades after its publication and the sea change it helped usher in regarding how the literary establishment views sequential art, it's hard to believe that it was ever necessary to dress it up in special phrases. A Contract with God holds up beautifully both as a work of visual art and concise, thematically-heavy storytelling.

So with that out of the way, what's it all about? There's a little irony in the label "graphic novel" as applied here, since the volume is really a short story collection, comprised of four narratives related primarily, maybe only, by their protagonists' shared neighborhood, the fictional Dropsie Ave. in New York City in the 20s and 30s. Eisner based the stories on people he had known--he claims in the introduction that all four stories are true, even though he has heavily fictionalized them--and you can feel the grit coming through, although the artwork isn't exactly Frank Miller... but more on that in a moment.

The stories within aren't lighthearted romps. More often tan not, they deal with pitch black thematic material and pitiful, desperate people. The eponymous story opens the collection, and by page three, Frimme Hirsh is walking home from his preteen daughter's funeral in the pouring rain. The story concerns the titular contract, made by the saintly Fremmie when he was young, and plays out like the story of Job if Job had turned on God during his trials. Screaming, "We had a contract!' you can almost see Fremmie's faith collapse, as he goes from saint to shyster to successfully exploitative businessman in a few evocative panels. Eisner was working out his rage at God on the page--his own seventeen year old daughter had recently died when he wrote the story--and every ounce of it is there on the page, from Fremmie's slumped shoulders to the dead rage in his eyes.

The story ends, as do the other three, with a Twilight Zone-like twist, albeit nothing supernatural, but unlike many stories of this nature, the power in the stories isn't from the sudden veer--it's from the finely sketched characters who are being put through the ringer and, more than often, emerging badly damaged.

A quick word on the art: Eisner let the story dictate the art, so, as that approach might indicate, page layouts vary from a dozen panels to pages with one central image and a lot of text. But the text is good, and those images... I am not qualified to critique the visual arts, but Eisner's drawing are some of the best I've seen. Not photorealistic, but real, loose but disciplined, and, most importantly, communicative. There's no confusing Eisner's character with each other--from their faces to their clothes to their posture and body language, the man was a master of the form and it shows on every page.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Ten boys sat before him, their hands folded, their eyes bright with expectation.

"Good morning, sir," said the one nearest him.

"Good morning," said Paul.

"Good morning, sir," said the next.

"Good morning," said Paul.

"Good morning, sir," said the next.

"Oh shut up," said Paul.

At this the boy took out a handkerchief and began to cry quietly.

Decline and Fall made an interesting comparison to At Freddie's, which I read over the summer.  Both are books about school, more from the angle of teaching it than being a student, and the schools in books are awfully strange places.  But where the actors' school of At Freddie's felt thoroughly realized, if outsized and absurd, the Llanabba School in Decline and Fall exists mostly as the set-up to mordant jokes like the one above.  The students are all opaque troublemakers, the teachers, inept drunks.  Nuance is not on the class schedule.  Don't get me wrong, the jokes are good.  Brent is fond, and I am too, of a running gag throughout the novel in which a young boy shot by a starter's pistol at the school games slowly succumbs to his injury and dies.  That's not particularly funny, but the non-reaction from the characters in the novel is; Waugh's characters all boast a kind of satiric self-absorption that drives the comedy of the novel.

Of course, I'm wrong: Decline and Fall is only half a school novel, but that's the part that stood out to me most.  It's really the story of Paul Pennyfeather, who is de-pantsed in a college prank at Oxford--turns out it's a case of mistaken identity based on the width of the stripes on Paul's tie--and "sent down," or expelled.  He becomes a schoolteacher because that's what you do when your life is ruined.  His luck seems to be on its way up when he becomes engaged to the mother of one of his pupils, but it turns out that she's using him as a patsy in a criminal scheme and he's sent to jail.

Though it hints at social criticism--Paul is "sent down" basically because he doesn't belong to one of the tony Oxford clubs--Decline and Fall asks little more than to be thought of as funny.  In that respect, it's a mild success, about on par with Waugh's The Loved One but not as funny as Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, which seems to me to tread similar ground.  One of my favorite characters is actually a pretty decent parody of mid-20th century architectural theory, the Professor Otto Silenus, who believes that man "is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces":

"I suppose there ought to be a staircase," he said gloomily.  "Why can't the creatures stay in one place?  Up and down, in and out, round and round!  Why can't they sit still and work!  Do dynamos require staircases?  Do monkeys require houses?  What an immature, self-destructive, antiquated mischief is man!  How obscure and gross his prancing and c hattering on his little stage of evolution!  How loathsome and beyond words boring all the thoughts and self-approval of this biological by-product! this half-formed, ill-conditioned bod! this erratic, maladjusted mechanism of his soul: on one side the harmonious instincts and balanced responses of the animal, on the other the inflexible purpose of the engine, and between them man, equally alien from the being of Nature onf the doing of the machine, the vile becoming!"

Finally, the best joke--spoiler alert--is that Paul, released from prison, re-matriculates at Oxford.  He doesn't even change his name; still, no one recognizes him.  In the end, the linear "decline" narrative suggested by the title turns out to be nothing more than a toothless cycle with no consequences.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"Why?" he asked. He taught ideas of nuance and complexity in his classes and yet he was asking her for a single reason, the cause

But she had not had a bold epiphany and there was no cause; it was simply that layer after layer of discontent had settled in her, and formed a mass that now propelled her. 

She did not tell him this, because it would hurt him to know she had felt that way for a while, that her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out. 

How was it possible to miss something you no longer needed? Blaine needed what she was unable to give and she needed what he was unable to give, and she grieved this, the loss of what could have been. 

It is here, on page 8, that Adichie has absolutely won me over again. I was first introduced to her in a 400-level grammar class that was hated by all. My professor would occasionally bring in what she considered to be perfect sentences - from newspapers or novels or wherever - and read them aloud. One sentence from Purple Hibiscus was enough to make me pick up the novel and begin a short obsession with Nigerian writers. 

I'm very pleased that Adichie's work continues to be absolutely lovely (and more popular - I have a chalkboard where I note what book I'm reading so my kids know I'm an active reader which is how I discovered that a TEDx talk by Adichie has been incorporated into a Beyonce song). This novel is so good I offered it as an outside reading option for my community college kids before I had even finished reading it. 

The novel starts in the present showing the break up of Ifemelu and Blaine as she plans on leaving America to go home to Nigeria. She is preparing to go back home (getting her hair done in twists, ending her blog "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black," reconnecting with people back home - including her exboyfriend Obinze). The novel then shows Obinze in the present in Nigeria with his wife Kosi, their child, and their role in the affluent part of Lagos. 

It then goes back in time to the start of Obinze and Ifemelu's relationship in high school and follows her as she immigrates to America. Finally we go back to Obinze and it follows him as he immigrates to England before he returns to Nigeria. The novel ends with the two characters in the present. Of course, as I've mentioned repeatedly, I love novels with shifting perspectives. This is slightly different because we finish Ifemelu's story line before we go back in time to get Obinze's story over the same period - but it is more effective that way because it shows their absolute disconnectedness as they have their respective immigrant dreams stomped on in their new countries. 

The most remarkable thing about the novel is how it is every kind of story. It is a young adult love story, but also an immigrant story (with both the American and British perspectives - America being much more focused on race while England being much more focused on legal status). It is also a story about college students protesting the government. It covers the pretentious ridiculousness of American academia and the pretentious ridiculousness of the Nigerian 1%ers. Throughout it all, Adichie has so many utterly perfect sentences. 

One of my favorite aspects of the novel are the inclusion of blog posts. Her blog is in the vein of Racialicious or Native Appropriations and includes articles such as

  • Is Obama Anything but Black? 
  • What Academics mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to  Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White
  • Understanding America for the Non-American black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend
  • Traveling While Black
  • Why Dark-Skinned Black Women - Both American and Non-American - Love Barack Obama

From "Is Obama Anything but Black?"
So lots of folks - mostly non-black - say Obama's not black, he's biracial, multiracial, black-and-white, anything but just black. Because his mother was white...Booker T Washington and Frederick Douglass had white fathers. Imagine them saying they were not black...Many American Blacks have a white person in their ancestry, because white slave owners liked to go a-raping in the slave quarters at night. But if you come out looking dark, that's it...In America, you don't get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you. Barack Obama, looking as he does, would have had to sit in the back of the bus fifty years ago. If a random black guy commits a crime today, Barack Obama could be stopped and questioned for fitting the profile. And what would that profile be? "Black Man."
If the idea of racism or sexism or privilege are boring to you (or...non-existent...I myself know people who don't believe in these things), then I wouldn't recommend this book for you. If you're intrigued by the idea of how race is perceived by someone who grew up without that particular construct* or getting to know Nigeria in a new way or just want some writing that will make you swoon - then I would definitely recommend this book.

*My next quest is to find non-Igbo Nigerian authors if anyone has any recommendations. I realized through a conversation with a student who is Nigerian that I have only read Igbo authors, but that particular ethnic group only makes up 18% of Nigerians. Igbo is only the third biggest population behind Yoruba and Hausa - so I'm looking for titles in English or translated into it if anyone has any!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Well, after that she would do her best.  That was the only way.  You did not want things for yourself.  That made you small.  That kept you safe.  That meant you could move smoothly through the world without upsetting every applecart you came across.  And if you were careful, if you were a proper part of things, then you could help.  You mended what was cracked.  You tended to the things you found askew.  And you trusted that the world in turn would brush you up against the chance to eat.  It was the only graceful way to move.  All else was vanity and pride.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is novella from the perspective of one of the secondary characters' in Rothfuss's series The Kingkiller Chronicle.  I devoured the first two books in the series last year over my honeymoon and was excited when I saw Rothfuss was giving his readers a little morsel to tide us over while we wait for the final installment in the series (which, unlike ASOIAF, I'm pretty sure will be completed eventually).  This story gives us an insight into Auri, the mysterious girl that Kvothe (the protagonist of the series) occasionally encounters.

We don't learn much about Auri's backstory in this selection, save for a quick allusion to a possibly violent and traumatic experience, but we do get immersed into how her mind works, which is what made the novella stand out to me.  We knew Auri was a little off in the first two books, but here we see how strange and beautiful the way she experiences the world is.  Auri lives in the tunnels and caverns underneath the school of magic that Kvothe attends and seems to have a little bit of magical ability herself, and to her, every room and object is alive, with moods and personalities that she must encounter and react to.  A bottle might be lonely on a shelf, so Auri must find the perfect leaf to put next to it to keep it company, or she sense that a room is angry and full of screaming, so she must avoid it for the day.  Her life's work is to tend to all of the items and spaces of her world and make sure they are all settled, and most of the novella describes her efforts.  She alludes to preparing for "his" visit several days hence (I assume this means Kvothe, but I'm not sure, and he has not arrived by the end of the story), but for the most part there isn't much plot.  It seems like this would be weird or boring or just too strange, but what I liked about the story was that by the end I was reading along thinking "Of course she can't use the laurel berries in the soap, they have too much anger in them," totally bought into her mindset.  It's one thing to create a world, which Rothfuss does admirably in The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, but it's another to create a worldview that is unfamiliar but then still make it seem so natural.

This wasn't what I expected, but it was a nice interlude, and I anxiously await the last of the series.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Revolution Continues: New Art from China by The Saatchi Gallery, with an introduction by Jiang Jiehong

Saatchi Gallery, with an introduction by Jiang Jiehong

Mao evaluated himself in his late years and pointed out only two significant achievements in his lifetime: the conquest over Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and the Kuomintang, and the Cultural Revolution.  After more than three decades since Mao's death it is widely agreed that the Cultural Revolution was a national tragedy.  Most of its visual elements were no more than political instruments offering little of further cultural value.  The Cultural Revolution is in fact frequently referred to as a 'cultural desert'.  Mao's legacy has been deeply embedded by virtue of the sheer scale of the mass movement.  The unlikely consequence is that it has equipped a new generation of artists with the audacity, if required, to be subversive. It has provided a young generation of artists with layers of visual complexity derived from reflection, reinterpretation and redefinition, and with a hunger for radical change.  The revolution indeed continues in China's new art, through a spirit of rebellion.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, I visited an art museum that was having a crazy sale on art books.  I bought this and a book on street art (review inevitable) at shockingly low prices.  This book focuses on art that, according to introducer Jiang Jiehong, belongs to a lineage starting from the cultural revolution.  That is, this is art responding to something that started with the cultural revolution and is continuing through to today.  Thus, Chinese contemporary art is a mix of subversive, historically pointed, and critical of both the opening of the Chinese economy and the failure to open civil rights.


A poster, reminiscent of the cultural revolution posters but given a sense of commodity by streaming the word "MATERIALIST'S" on the top and printing the numbers all over it.  Or the following piece:

The juxtaposition of Mao onto the Quaker Oats logo parodies the cult of personality surrounding Mao while also showing the commodification of that image in China's new capitalized economy.

In another work, Yang Zhenzhong takes a speech by Deng Xiaoping, and has 1,500 factory workers each recite a single word or phrase:

Tragically, I couldn't find a copy of the video on the internets.

Lately, and I should note this is based on my extremely limited knowledge of the "art world,"  it seems like everyone is obsessed with contemporary art from China.  After going through this book, I can see why.  The works within all are beautiful, pointed, and political pieces of art.  I'm sad to say, I have not seen anything this compelling from a U.S. artist (whether due to my own ignorance or due to the lack thereof).  This makes me wonder why.  Why do we lack important, political art?

One possible reason, it seems to me, is that, unlike the Chinese, we don't have a "unified" political experience around which to create art.  As this book makes clear, the Cultural Revolution had a profound impact on art, culture, and society in China.  Another good example is the plethora of amazing movies about the Cultural Revolution. See, e.g.,  Farewell My ConcubineTo Live.

In contrast, we don't necessarily have a single political experience to unite around.  The nearest analogue is the general unrest during the 60s and 70s, but that feels like a distant era.  And, our political climate today is not informed by that time period the way that China is today.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny, meanwhile, speaking only when she could not help it, was very earnestly trying to understand what Mr. and Miss Crawford were at.  There was everything in the world against their being serious but his words and manner.  Everything natural, probably, reasonable, was against it; all their habits and ways of thinking, and all their own demerits.  How could she have excited serious attachment in a man who had seen so many, and been admired by so many, and flirted with so many, infinitely her superiors; who seemed so little open to serious impressions, even where pains had been taken to please him; who thought so slightly, so carelessly, so unfeelingly on all such points; who was everything to everybody, and seemed to find no one essential to him?  And farther, how could it be supposed that his sister, with all her high and worldly notions of matrimony, would be forwarding anything of a serious nature in such a quarter?  Nothing could be more unnatural in either.  Fanny was ashamed of her own doubts.  Everything might be possible rather than serious attachment, or serious approbation of it toward her.

Well, I did it: Excepting the unfinished Sanditon and her juvenilia, I have read all of Jane Austen's books.  There are only six of them, of course, so it's not that tremendous a feat, but it's pleasing to me all the same--except in the realization that there are no fully developed Austen novels left to read.  That's a little sad.

Why did I read Mansfield Park last?  Like its heroine, Fanny Price, Mansfield Park seems to fade into the background when talking about Austen's stuff; it quietly exists, not really demanding to be noticed.  It isn't as dramatic as Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, or Sense and Sensibility; nor is it as mature or complex, I think, as Emma or Persuasion.  But like all those novels, it is a detailed and insightful depiction of human relations, an investigation of character all the more remarkable for the narrowness of the social mores that circumscribe those who inhabit it.

Fanny comes to live at her uncle's house when she's ten; coming from a squalid lower-class urban household, she finds Mansfield Park to be daunting and her uncle to be intimidating.  Her older cousin, Edmund, is the only one who goes out of his way to welcome her--in a charming scene in which he helps her post a letter to her beloved brother, out at sea--cementing a lifelong crush that Fanny broods over throughout the novel.  But Fanny is too demure to ever declare her love for Edmund, and too interminably shy.  Though she becomes increasingly comfortable at Mansfield Park, she prefers not to be noticed, and is obliged in this until she becomes a beautiful young woman.

The stasis at Mansfield Park is interrupted by Henry and Mary Crawford, who move in to the Regency version of "across the street."  Mary is vivacious but selfish, and becomes attached to Edmund.  Worse, Henry, who nearly destroys the marriage of one of Edmund's sisters with his flirting, decides he wants to make a contest of Fanny, to, as he puts it, "put a hole in Fanny Price's heart."  Henry is a classic male predator: he refuses to relent when Fanny says no, always hanging around, ingratiating himself not only with her but with her uncle as well.  Ultimately he falls in love with her--like Freddie Prinze Jr. in She's All That, you know--but Fanny is smarter than Rachel Leigh Cook, and a better judge of character.  She knows that Henry is bad news, and yet he's superficially such a good match for that her uncle becomes angry at her for rejecting him.

Fanny is easy to like: quiet, self-effacing, but also determined and principled enough to stand up against Henry's repeated attempts to woo her.  Yet Austen actually suggests that she may capitulate, not because her regard for Henry changes, but because of her love and regard for her uncle and cousin.  Until the very end, I wasn't actually sure which way Austen was going to go.  Fanny is a true believer in custom and deference to one's family--that's what makes her such a good match for the conscientious Edmund, but also threatens to force her into a miserable marriage.

I suspect that quality is one of the reasons Mansfield Park lacks the cultural cache of Austen's other works.  Fanny is a strong heroine, but fails to meet the independent woman trope we look for when we talk about "strong heroines" today.  Appreciating her strength as a character requires an ability to think in a way our culture finds strange.  Such an ability is also necessary to appreciate the novel's greatest episode: while Fanny's uncle is away overseas, Henry, Mary, and some of the other young people at Mansfield Park decide to stage a play to pass the time.  Yet, as both Fanny and Edmund see it, the play is inappropriate: it requires Henry and Edmund's sister to play lovers, for example, and her uncle would not approve.  This episode, as it gets all of the various characters in one room, scheming variously to get the best part, is the best in the novel because it exhibits Austen's understanding of how people interact.  It's incredibly realized, and frequently funny.  But it asks the reader to accept that Fanny's judgment is ultimately right, and this anti-theatrical prejudice is foreign to us and can seem silly.  It is silly, but it shows how Fanny is always deferential to those she loves, while the Crawfords are unthinking and--as much as any Austen character can be--crass.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

This book is out of print,
but I managed to get a first edition,
which is kind of cool.
When Kleinzeit opened the door of his flat Death was there, black and hairy and ugly, no bigger than a medium-sized chimpanzee with dirty fingernails.

Not all that big, are you, said Kleinzeit.

Not one of my big days, said Death.  Sometimes I'm tremendous.

As soon as I read Chris's review, I knew this was a book I had to read.  I love the idea of everything tangible thing in a universe being a talking character.

Hoban did not disappoint.

As noted in Chris's review, everything in this novel can talk to Kleinzeit.  Thus, throughout the novel he has conversations with Death, Hospital, Action, the yellow paper, which beckons him to write upon it.  What I particularly liked about this stylistic quirk was that Hoban was able to give objects motives and desires.  Consider this passage from the beginning:
He put his face in front of the bathroom mirror.
I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit?
Not my problem, said the mirror. 
I love that the mirror has an interest in its own existence but then cavalierly disregards Kleinzeit's interest in the same question.  The attribution of motive plays out in o
ther interesting ways later, as Kleinzeit tries to escape an apparent inevitable death in Hospital.  As the novel progresses, Kleinzeit and Hospital have a number of exchanges in which Hospital seems to toy with Kleinzeit.  This happens with Death, too; in both cases I found it hilarious.

Given my recent interest in "great" novels, I couldn't help noticing that this is a good novel but not a great one.  Why?  One reason is that I kept reading passages to Brittany, who was consistently not amused.  I think this reflects the fact that there's a universality that this novel lacks.  Absurdity is amusing, but only to people already interested in absurdity. Thus, this novel reads more for a specific audience than a general one.

Although Hoban accomplishes everything he seems to want to accomplish in this novel, I'm quite curious about the potential of this form--the form of anthropomorphizing everything within a universe.  It seems to me that properly worked out, it could lend itself to a great novel.  By anthropomorphizing everything and allowing Kleinzeit to converse with these things, Hoban was able to expose a great deal of conflict and character in his writing.  I think a more ambitious novel could use this flexibility to do interesting things.

But then, what do I know about good writing?  I'm a lawyer (sob, sob, sob).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The New Men by John Enfield

"You have money, Mrs. Abramoff. Enough for better, and I'm afraid I must know where it has gone. Me Ford wishes everyone to share in the profits, but he will not five profits where they will disappear into nothing." He held his hands up to forestall protest. "Now, if you have a sick mother in Vladivostok, or a starving nephew in St Petersburg, or a drunken brother-in-law in Hamtramck who needs care in a sanatorium..."

Set at the turn of the century, Job Enfield's The New Men explores a little known cubby of American history, that of Henry Ford's profit-sharing program and his Educational department. In a nutshell, Ford was looking for a way to retain employees and so decided to institute a $5.00/week salary for his employees, on the condition that they would allow their bank accounts, their lodgings, their recreation--everything, really--to be regularly inspected and critqued by Educational, a group of largely idealistic employees who saw their job as a way to help create the titular "new men", men who would be productive, relatively well-off members of society.

This historical aside is paralleled by the life of Antonio Grams, an Italian immigrant who comes to America with his family after the death of his father. Initially (mostly) optimistic and idealistic, his decline mirrors the decline of Ford's Educational, as changing social mores and economic necessity turn the profit-sharing program from a well-intentioned social welfare program into an invasive organization which roots out Commies and slowly pushes out minorities.

This information is mostly place-setting though, as the story itself follows Tony through said changes in the country. With his friend, Ross, a slightly-shady newspaper reporter and his lover/ice queen Thia, he struggles to keep his head above water during the seismic shift of the industrial revolution. The well-researched and interesting setting make The New Men a good choice for fans of historical fiction, if Grams, ultimately sympathetic but frequently pretty awful, doesn't put them off.

My only real complaint about The New Men was its tendency at points to overexplain its symbolism.  can't find the exact passage, but there's one point where Tony is sitting at a table, a picture of his dead father hanging at one end, and a picture of his dead sister at the other, and he thinks, "I guess in some sense, the dead are always watching us. I just don't like it be so literal." If it makes him feel any better, neither do I.

There are some particularly strong points as well: Thia herself is an interesting character--initially coming off as an unusually uninhibited Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Enfield slowly turns the tables, revealing a tragic past and ruthless behavior that would be badly out of place in Garden State. It's also worth noting that Enfield sticks the landing, tying all the story threads up in a satisfactory way and managing to draw significant pathos from even some minor characters--something that's not necessarily a given in literary fiction. Or book reviews.