Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jitterbug Perfume-Tom Robbins

Structure has been a recent focus of my reading. How a story unfolds is increasingly more important, and when a story is layered with four story lines I feel I’ve got a book that is worth getting excited about.
“Breathe properly, stay curious. And eat your beets.” This is the guiding principal of immortal life according to Alobar. But there is more to living a thousand years: take baths, have a lot of sex, and choose life. Alobar is king, but as soon as his age begins to show he will be killed out of the fear that the weakness of the king will bring weakness to the Slavic community in the year 900. Alobar chooses to not accept death as a part of life and so begins the epic journey of a king that will become a janitor.
Most develop an obsession with beets while reading Jitterbug. Alobar attributes his strength of mind to the bloody vegetable. On his cross-Asian trek to escape death and discover the secrets of immortality, Alobar meets the goat god Pan, the Lamas monks of the Himalaya, and the Bandaloop. Already not aging, he finds Kudra who has chosen to run away from her life and live as a widow instead of dying in the funeral pyre where her husband’s body will be consumed (lovely Hindu tradition). “From the thick parabolas of her eyelids to the pronounced balls of her now bare feet, she was nonstop curve…” Kudra is obsessed with smells, her childhood was spent helping her family sell incense, but her adult life has been as the wife of a rope maker. The only thing these two have in common is the choice of living over dying, but together they become soul mates.
Every 10 pages or so, Robbins mentions sex. The encounters with Pan are especially vivid, but Kudra knows Kama Sutra from her marriage. Sex. It’s exciting, funny, creative, life giving. This book is dirty, absurd, and lovely.
The other three plot lines revolve around perfume in three cities: Seattle, New Orleans, and Paris. Priscilla is a genius waitress/chemist trying to recreate the scent found in a blue bottle. M. Devalier is a perfumer interested in creating a new scent focusing on pungent Jamaican Jasmine flowers (Bingo Pajama is a street flower salesman with bees swarming around his head as accompaniment). And the Lefever family is a fragrance power company in Paris.  The connections are obvious and this may be the weakest part of the book, but it’s told in small pieces between the epic of Alobar and Kudra. I looked forward to the breaks from immortality, but that theme comes back with Priscilla and her love affair with the Irish Dr. Wiggs Dannyboy.
I like the challenge of multiple perspectives (I want a second reading of The Savage Detectives after reading this) and the ultimate unity of all four stories coming together for a complete feeling. Jitterbug feels done when you finish it, but everything isn’t wrapped up. There is no answer to immortality, not everybody gets what they want, but the perfume has settled.
Tom Robbins’ style is not for everybody. He’s crude most of the time, funny all the time, and flirting with deeper philosophical questions throughout. The wild metaphors and puns can touch readers the wrong way. His writing has a sense of magic realism that can be compared to some worlds created by Kelly Link. This is the first I've read by him, I know I’ll read more.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

The entire time I was reading Sag Harbor, I waited for a reason for Benji’s constant judgments. Why was I enduring such a lackluster bildungsroman? Which is what I have to call this book, a coming of age novel, because it tries so hard to be one. For as much as the narrator describes one summer that “changed” his life, not much could be observed as improvement until he gets his braces off 50 pages before the end.
Benji’s family is middle class and black. There are some wonderful references to the accomplishments of black Americans early in the story, “Booker T. came out to Sag Harbor once.” But much of that is forgotten by the time Benji and his 9 month younger brother decide to stop riding their bikes around town; the first day back in Sag Harbor Long Island. 
The premise: middle class black families with summer homes on the north shore. I could step up to my soapbox and wax racial for a minute, but this book doesn’t really deserve a long-winded review. It’s rambling enough. There are redeeming moments of realization: Benji finds a note his mother wrote itemizing the shortcomings of her husband, but these flickers of intrigue are never flushed out. It’s all about Benji trying to figure out his identity. Maybe I don’t get it because I don’t know who I am, or maybe I don’t get it because I’m white.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job's children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory--there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.

Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is revelatory--both in the sense that it was, for me, a revelation to discover a novel of such clear, confident prose, and in the sense that it communicates an apocalyptic vision of the world, one which promises a final unification of all things.

Ruth, the novel's heroine, lives in a life of constant abandonment in the remote far West town of Fingerbone. Her grandfather (in a train) and her mother (in an automobile) plunged into the same lake. Her guardian great-aunts, Lily and Nona, foist Ruth and her sister Lucille off on their aunt Sylvie, who returns from a drifter's life to take care of them.

Sylvie is peculiar. Like a transient, she sleeps on the top of her sheets, in her shoes. She seems not to care that Ruth and Lucille do not attend school. She keeps the light off in the parlor to hide the mounting collections of tin cans and old newspapers. Lucille, understandably, does not like her. But Sylvie acts the prophet for Ruth, communicating through her actions the possibility that time will bring all things back together:

Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobwebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers--things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.

It seems to me that Housekeeping is the kind of book that could only be written in America, where we struggle with the consequences of fierce individualism and expansionism, and even then only in the West, which is the frontier also of that struggle. Isolated and "chastened... by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere," the town of Fingerbone longs to be knit back into that whole. Not only with the rest of the world, but with the lake it surrounds, which Ruth frequently imagines as a parallel world where the dead live, inaccessible. Even the name "Fingerbone" suggests the limitations of flesh and bone, which prevent us from joining the spiritual realm.

Sylvie's haphazard care threatens to have Ruth taken away, because like all prophets, she is misunderstood:

Imagine that Noah knocked his house apart and used the planks to build an ark, while his neighbors looked on, full of doubt. A house, he must have told them, should be daubed with pitch and built to float cloud high, if need be. A lettuce patch was of no use at all, and a good foundation was worse than useless. A house should have a compass and a keel. The neighbors would have put their hands in their pockets and chewed their lips and strolled home to houses they now found wanting in ways they could not understand.

This really striking parable becomes truth twice--once literally, when the town floods, and once figuratively, when Sylvie finally impresses Ruth into a life of drifting. Houses and homes, perhaps, are doomed attempts to connect with one's environment. I also love the bold, sharply American way that Robinson rewrites these Biblical tales, which she does even with the Gospel:

And when He did die it was sad--such a young man, so full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was. There is so little to remember of anyone--an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the hear in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not meant to keep us waiting so long.

I find that piece of prose incredibly difficult to respond to in writing. Beyond its simple beauty, it is incredibly, outrageously bold, and yet, its spirit seems to me to be in keeping with the Gospel. And its hope is boundless! As Robinson tells us, "That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different." Life can be such a patched-up, threadbare affair, but fear not:

For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are a sleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?

Monday, April 16, 2012

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Rawlins sucked on the cigarette.  They sat for a long time.  Finally he pitched the stub of the cigarette into the fire.  I'm goin to bed, he said.

Yeah, said John Grady.  I guess that's a good idea.

They spread their soogans and he pulled off his boots and stood them beside him and stretched out in his blankets.  The fire had burned to coals and he lay looking up at the stars in their places and the hot belt of matter that ran the chord of the dark vault overhead and he put his hands on the ground at either side of him and pressed them against the earth and in that coldly burning canopy of black he slowly turned dead center to the world, all of it taut and trembling and moving enormous and alive under his hands.

Well damn.  I didn't know what to think when I started this, and I'm forever grateful to the friends who gave it to me.  I'd read The Road, and knew how lyrical and cold and beautiful Cormac McCarthy's writing can be, but damn.  He loves something about bleak landscapes, or they bring out the best in his style, which is so spare most of the time that it just knocks you dead in passages like this.  John Grady's just fallen for the daughter of the hacendado who owns the ranch he's started working on in nowhere, Mexico, but instead of lovestruck ramblings he feels the earth 'taut and trembling and moving enormous and alive under his hands.'

It's like Cormac McCarthy uses his protagonists to express something about the ideal of real manhood, and this time the ideal involves stoicism, extreme self-reliance, and riding horseback into Mexico with a rifle and no absolutely no plan.  This may be my new favorite book (I think I say that too often), just because of the lyrical, dark beauty that comes out of an empty, scrub-desert landscape and follows a man and his horse.  If you need me I'll be in Mexico.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Baudolino by Umberto Eco

"Baudolino," he would say to him, "you are a born liar."

"Why do you say such a thing, master?"

"Because it's true. But you mustn't think I'm reproaching you. If you want to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales, otherwise your History would become monotonous. But you must act with restraint. The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things."

Baudolino's story begins with a lie: Pretending, and half-believing, that he has seen a vision his namesake Saint Baudolino, predicting a German victory in his Italian community, he is adopted by a grateful German knight who turns out to be the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. As a liar, Baudolino's services are indispensable to the Empire, which feeds off of them. For example, what can be done when neither the Empire nor a besieged city can hold out any longer, but neither wants to endure the ignominy of defeat? Baudolino knows: you stuff a skinny horse with the last wheat remaining in the village, so when the besieging soldiers cut it apart, they see its insides bursting with the stuff and report that the city has enough food to endure a siege of a thousand years. What do you do when your love cannot be returned, because you love the Empress, your adoptive mother? Baudolino knows: you write both sides of the love letter. Baudolino's lies are far from deceit; in fact, Frederick trusts him absolutely, knowing that if Baudolino lies, it is in his best interests.

Eventually, one of Baudolino's tricks becomes more potent than the others. He writes a letter from the mythical Prester John, the Christian monarch of a mythical kingdom far in the East to Frederick, thinking that it would give the Emperor legitimacy and freedom from the Pope. Baudolino and his friends labor at the letter, filling it with descriptions of brilliant, jeweled palaces and scraps from various legends. The letter is never "sent," but it begins to take a life of its own, and soon Baudolino and his friends embark on a journey to find Prester John, whom they say must exist because they believe in him. This is Baudolino's commanding idea, that imagination has generative power, that lies--or myths, or stories, or poems--can become powerful truths:

"There is nothing better than imagining other worlds," he said, "to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn't yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one."

To emphasize this, Baudolino takes with him a cup that belonged to his dying father, which he will present as the Grasal, or Holy Grail. As a symbol of dignified simplicity, and the esteem a man holds for his father, the lie transforms the cup. It becomes, if not the Grasal itself, something at least as significant and powerful.

The second half of the book, which contains the company's trip into the East, is stronger than its first. The fantastic creatures and places of the forged letter turn out to be real, though because the entire book is framed as a story told by Baudolino to the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates, it is never clear what details are "true" and which are "lies." Eco discounts this question as neither useful nor interesting, and of course, as a fictional narrative, they are all lies in a sense. In the town of Pndapetzim, which may or may not lie on the border of Prester John's lands, the ruler recounts the wonderful stories that he has heard of the West, where Baudolino and his company have come from:

...he said he was eager to learn from them, who had visited the fabled West, if truly there existed in that land all the wonders of which he had read in so many books that had passed through his hands. He asked if there were truly a country known as Enotria, where the tree grew which drips the beverage that Jesus had transformed into his own blood. If in that land the bread was not pressed flat, half-a-finger thick, but swelled miraculously every morning, at the cock's crow, in the form of a fruit, soft and light beneath a golden crust. If it was true the churches there were to be seen built free of the cliffs, if the palace of the great priest of Rome had ceilings and beams of perfumed wood from the legendary island of Cyprus. If this palace had doors of blue stone mixed with the horns of the cerastes, which prevented anyone from bringing poison inside, and windows of a stone that allowed the passing of light.

There is fact mixed in among this fiction: It is true, for example, that wine grapes grow in the west though they do not in Pndapetzim, but it is only the imaginary power of the legend that imbues that with the significance of Eucharist. Lies, Baudolino contends, have the ability to transfigure the commonplace.

There is much more to Baudolino--in fact, too much more. Eco tosses in so many bits and pieces from medieval history and legend that the result has a tendency to overwhelm, and some things get lost in the shuffle. This might be overlooked in the book's adventurous second half, but the first is both overstuffed and slow. The Name of the Rose, despite being thematically complex, was structured around a simple mystery: Who is killing the monks? Baudolino, by contrast, lacks a driving force, and though it too contains a mystery (the Emperor Frederick is killed in a locked room), the solution is so late coming, so convoluted, and so unnecessary to the progress of the novel that it is far more difficult to care.

But despite its flaws, Baudolino is ultimately too imaginative and too exuberant about its source material to fail. It falls short of its ambitions--how could it not, when its topic is the imaginative power that creates mythology and scripture!--but it is, at the very least, a lot of fun.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke

I almost feel uncomfortable writing a review for this because of how personally I responded to it.  It's stunningly beautiful.  Rilke wrote three smaller books to make up this one: The Book of a Monastic Life, The Book of Pilgrimage, and The Book of Poverty and Death.  He wrote each in one sitting, in a sort of mystic, spiritual outpouring.  I think the first and the last are separated by about 12 years.

Rilke's spirituality seems so modern for when he wrote this (around 1899).  One of the running threads between all three books is a lament that we try to capture God in paintings and grand sculptures and gold robes and sceptres, when, for Rilke, he lives more in dark woods and mist, and is better portrayed "not with lapis or gold, but with colors made of apple bark."  At other times Rilke is almost mourning humanity's waning love for God, crying for him and to him, still ecstatic that he's kept alive by the devoted few.  The rest is peppered with environmentalist manifestos, a sort of reverence for poverty, and just damn beautiful, quiet, eloquent love letters of his personal experience with the divine.
You come and go. The doors swing closed ever more gently, almost without a shudder. Of all those who move through the quiet houses, you are the quietest. 
We become so accustomed to you, we no longer look up when your shadow falls over the book we are reading and makes it glow. For all things sing you: at times we just hear them more clearly.  
Often when I imagine you your wholeness cascades into many shapes. You run like a herd of luminous deer and I am dark, I am forest.  
You are a wheel at which I stand, whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up, revolve me nearer to the center. Then all the work I put my hand to widens from turn to turn. 
He also borrows extensively from Buddhist imagery, with references to wheels and nets, and the circular, impermanent nature of existence, and I don't know if it was intentional or not.  It fits beautiful and seamlessly with the nature ethos that runs through all of his poems.  He also acknowledges and celebrates the darkness and terror of God, of the 'staring into the abyss' that comes with self-examination.

I found myself getting annoyed with the translators during: the German text is printed opposite the English translation, and I don't have to read German to know when entire lines have been omitted, or line breaks rearranged.  They did a good job of justifying their edits in the footnotes and introduction, saying that they had work within the confines of English to get Rilke's original intent across.  But it seems a little presumptuous to me to claim to know Rilke's intention, and to edit his work for clarity like a high school English teacher (lookin' at you, Chris...).

I want to put every poem from this book in this review, but I won't.  I dog-eared so many pages that the book won't close properly anymore.  
Sometimes a man rises from the supper table and goes outside. And he keeps going because somewhere to the east there's a church. His children bless his name as if he were dead. 
Another man stays at home until he dies, stays with plates and glasses. So then it is his children who go out into the world, seeking the church that he forgot.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I went into this thinking it was about Hungry, Hungry Hippos, so, a little disappointed but not bad overall.  This is like Harry Potter in exactly the way you'd expect it to be in that its really easily-digestible writing and a fun read all the way through, but different in that you can probably go see the movie and get a better experience, even if the book was only $6.00 on your way to get cereal in the grocery store.

Also found out they filmed parts of the movie in North Carolina!  Couldn't be more proud that parts of my home state look like an impoverished backwater in a dystopian future.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Charlie and Eli Sisters are notorious hired guns from Oregon Territory.  In 1851 they're sent to San Francisco for a job and end up involved in a sort of alchemical get-rich-quick scheme.  The book charts their trip from Oregon to complete the job from the perspective of Eli Sisters, the larger and kinder of the two.  Once they set out the story turns into this sort of series of vignettes of all the bizarre people and situations they encounter on the way.  The only continuous thread is this final job and the rising tension between the two brothers now that Charlie has been put in charge of operations.

I was a little disappointed by this book.  It was way too episodic for my taste, bouncing around from very vivid mini-plots with almost no segue between them.  Charlie and Eli encounter 'the crying man' twice, randomly, in Oregon and again in California, without every discovering why he's sobbing uncontrollably.  They may or may not have been cursed by an old woman who may or may not have been a witch.  Then Eli's horse gets attacked by a bear.  I think the intention was to have these be smaller pictures of a bigger, magical West with a capital W during the Gold Rush, but it ended up just making the whole book seem disjointed.

It's an entertaining read but don't expect to be blown away by an epic gunslinging tale.  I also don't think I buy Patrick DeWitt's assumption that everyone out west in that 1800s talked like a polite robot that doesn't understand contractions:
'What are you doing?' he asked me.
'You are giving me this?' said the boy.
'What do you think you are doing?' Charlie asked. 
Which isn't to say that it's without its high points.  It reminded me of The Yiddish Policeman's Union in that they're both reasonably captivating and good, easy reads, but lacking real substance, or connective meaning.
My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless.  My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished.  I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?  I began exhaling hotly through my nostrils, whereas Charlie was quiet and calm, and he made a gesture that I should also be quiet.  He was used to corralling me like this, winding me up and corralling me into battle.  Shame, I thought.  Shame and blood and degradation. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

In a way, Never Let Me Go was written to be read twice. It maps the transition from childhood to adulthood--in particular, the childhoods of friends Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy at Hailsham, a kind of English boarding school--and if reading it once is like living through one's youth, compulsively guessing at what comes next, reading it a second time is like the process of memory, which recognizes the great ironies and sadnesses of such naivete. Ishiguro chooses to write in this second mode, as a series of reflections by a Kathy in her late twenties. Though it may seem silly, my sympathy for her increased since we were both, in a sense, going through the events of the book for the second time. And while knowing its "big secrets" deprived me of the satisfying shock of learning them, it rendered the characters' limited understanding of their own fate even more tragic.

For that reason, I think it's impossible to talk about this book without revealing its central mystery, so consider your self alerted for spoilers. At the time of her writing, Kathy is a "carer" who looks after "donors," and at first all we know is that she will become one herself, as Ruth and Tommy have. It's possible to unknot the scenario from that sentence alone, I think, but not its full limitations, and Ishiguro brilliantly metes out details in coffee spoons. At Hailsham, one teacher, Ms. Lucy, eventually drops the bombshell:

"If you're going to have a decent lives, then you've got to know and know properly. None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You'll become adults, then before you're old, before you're even middle-aged, you'll star to donate your vital organs. That's what each of you was created to do..."

But, as Ms. Lucy says, the students have been "told and not told." We, too, have been "told and not told," and by the time Ms. Lucy spells it out, we're not sure whether we knew it all along or not. This uncertainty is, on the level of pure craftsmanship, Ishiguro's greatest achievement.

But this realization only brings more questions: What, for instance, is the purpose of the "Gallery," where Hailsham's mysterious director "Madame" takes the best of the students' artwork? Later, when Kathy cares for Tommy during his donation period, bringing out a long-gestating romance, they decide to act on rumors that former Hailsham students can receive a deferral from their donations if they can prove they're in love. The Gallery, they posit, allows the powers-that-be to look into their souls and determine if their love is genuine.

But, as the old headmaster tells them, the purpose of the Gallery was to prove that they "had souls at all." They were proof that, like "normal" people, the donors could be creative, and served in a long publicity war to establish humane homes--like Hailsham--for future donors. This floors Kathy and Tommy, and us, for whom the uncertainty seems absurd. They do what other humans do: They fall in love; they have squabbles petty and serious; they have sex; they desire independence; they create; they sell; they buy; they betray each other; they try vainly to make sense of the order of their own lives--how could they be less than human, and not have souls? I said in my previous review that Never Let Me Go asks what it means to be human, but now I see that simply to ask the question is devastatingly offensive. Kathy and Tommy are put somewhat in Shylock's position. Though they want desperately to establish human rights to love and independence, they find themselves having to earn the simple right to be human at all.

I think now that Never Let Me Go asks other questions. One is, Is it better to know or to not know? Part of Hailsham's "humane" task is to shield its students from the essential bleakness of their futures, and to give them a childhood. Ishiguro strongly suggests that denying the students' full knowledge of their own lives is a contradiction, in that it denies them also the human right to face life with their own faculties. But there is also the campfire story of the girl whose ghost roams the Hailsham woods, yearning to get back in, as Kathy yearns to recapture a more idyllic childhood.

Another is What is the proper response to injustice? In the hands of a hack writer, Kathy and Tommy would be Katniss Everdeens, raging against the machine that confines them. The sequel (Still Never Letting Go) would be all about the rebellion they lead. But they choose instead to live quiet lives, making the best of the raw deal they have been given, and confirm their humanity once again by doing so. Kathy's lack of a sense of injustice is frustrating, but it is also familiar: who among us expends any real effort to correct the (admittedly slighter) cruelties of our own social order, when it takes so much effort simply to be human?

And, in turn, does that reticence support the mission of Hailsham, which says that if we cannot eliminate injustice, we should at least approach it in comfort and dignity? Though I am still unsure if the ministers of Hailsham take the right task, at least they engage in the right questions.

Okay. I'm tired of re-reading books. Half of them I've read this year have been re-reads--mostly because of teaching them in class--but I'm done with all that. The next review, I promise, will be something new.