Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Independent People by Halldor Laxness

Thus did he lose his last child as he stood deep in a ditch at that stage in his career when prosperity and full sovereignty were in sight, after the long struggle for independence that had cost him all his other children.  Let those go who wish to go, probably it's all for the best.  The strongest man is he who stands alone.  A man is born alone.  A man dies alone.  Then why shouldn't he live alone?  Is not the ability to stand alone the perfection of life, the goal?

Bjartur of Summerhouses is a crofter, a smallhold farmer on the north coast of Iceland who has finally put a down payment on a plot of his own.  He hates the man he purchased it from, the imperious Bailiff Jon of Myri, and his wife, who insists that the life of the peasant farmer animates the spirit of Iceland, while she lives in the lap of luxury.  But he's determined to pay off the farm as soon as possible, and become an independent man, the only true way to be.  He's so determined that he shakes off the stories of the evil spirit, Kolumkilli, who haunts the place, even as his wives and children die, disappear, and move to America.

Independent People, the masterwork of Iceland's Nobel prize winner, Halldor Laxness, is one of those decently heavy books whose intermingling of melodrama and social commentary puts Dickens and Tolstoy to mind.  But I was also reminded of Thomas Hardy, who also adored the pastoral life and who frequently stocked his books with choruses of simple farming folk who pepper the main narrative with comic interludes or plainspoken political discourse.

But even among such a rarified crowd Laxness' Bjartur stands out.  His stubborness and idealism make him a comic figure.  When his first wife dies in childbirth, he runs to the closest farm for help, only to hem and haw when someone asks him if Rosa is all right: "Hm, whether anything's happened to her is more than I can tell you... It all depends on how you look at it.  But she lives no longer on my earth, whatever follows it."  Or when he composes a poem--in the classic Icelandic style of his forebears, not the newfangled new kind--to send to his estranged daughter because he can't say straightforwardly how much he misses her.  But his drive for independence is also incredibly noble, hard-won and hard-lost.  He's made of finer stuff than the petty Bailiff or the rest of the homespun troop of local crofters.

It's the strength of Bjartur's character--and the finely wrought depictions of his children, too--that wrings so much pathos out of the novel.  His strength in the face of loss is bewildering, but also pitiable, because we sense that Bjartur knows no other way of dealing with loss than putting up an iron jaw.  His estrangement from his eldest daughter is somehow more moving because its toll on him is mostly unseen, moving beneath the surface of his manner like the silhouette of a great Icelandic whale.  And when he finally reunites with her, he gives her this advice, which seems as good as any:

"My opinion has always been this," he said, "that you ought never to give up as long as you live, even though they have stolen everything from you.  If nothing else, you can always call the air you breathe your own, or at any rate you can claim you have it on loan..."

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban

I went down to the kitchen and opened the fridge.  There were three cans of beer, most of a salami, a mouldering of old cheeses, half a tub of margarine, half a pint of milk and the head of Orpheus.

'Loss!' it said.  'That's what she was to me, you know: she was the loss of her even when she was apparently the finding of her, the having of her.  And I was the same to her, I was her the loss of me.  We were the two parts of a complementarity of loss, and that being so the loss was already an actuality in our finding of each other.  From the moment that I first tasted the honey of Eurydice I tasted also the honey of the loss of her.  What am I if not the quintessential, the brute artist?  Is not all art a celebration of loss?  From the very first moment that beauty appears to us it is passing, passing, not to be held.'

Herman Orff makes a living turning classic novels into comic books, and at night he tries to write his third novel.  He has writer's block; he's hung up with the loss of his ex Luise, who left him years ago.  He visits a London shop advertising a solution for his problem, and they give him a brief electrocution, after which he begins to see the severed head of Orpheus in the place of various spherical objects around the city.

Hoban's version of the Orpheus story--if I can try to compress what's so loose and variegated in the novel--is a story of the connection between art and loss.  Orpheus tells the story of his creation of the lyre, which was first made out of a tortoise shell, necessitating the murder of the tortoise:

The tortoise was in my left hand and my knife was in my right; my idea was the tortoise-shell empty and two posts and a yoke and some strings for a kind of little harp with the shell as a soundbox.  The man's eyes were still on me, his wide-open eyes; almost I wanted to use the knife on him to make him stop looking at me.  He let his hands drop to his sides when I cut the plastron loose and dug the body out of the shell, ugh! what a mess and my hands all slippery with blood and gore.  The entrails were mysterious.  I think about it now, how those entrails spilled out so easily when I made an emptiness for my music to sound in.  Impossible to put those entrails back.

The creation of art, then, is inseparable from the experience of loss, the distance we feel from those we have loved.  Not a way of coping, Hoban insists, but very nearly the experience of loss itself.  Into this central conceit Hoban ties a shaggy collection of symbols and motifs--the head of the Medusa, something called the "world child," Vermeer's Lady with a Pearl Earring.  In one memorable sequence, the hero Herman Orff ("her man, Orpheus"--LOL) boards a boat to Holland to see the painting in real life; but it's on loan in America so he's forced to contemplate its absence.  Hoban shares a tendency with Muriel Spark, I think, to overload slim narratives with images and ideas so that you're prevented from really seeing the whole.  But as Hoban writes about writing, "Where was the beginning of anything, how could I draw a line through endless cause and effect and say, 'Here is page one?'"

With all that cramming the fewer than 150 pages of the novel, it's surprising that Hoban is able to make it as funny as it is.  Hoban has a field day with the comic scenarios in which the head of Orpheus appears, in place of a boulder, or a globular street lamp, or half a head on a plate where half a grapefruit ought to be.  (Orff runs home trying to keep in the brains.)  I've been struck by how different Hoban's books are from each other, but here I see common links with the gleeful pantheistic personification of Kleinzeit, and the sad-sack lonely Londoners of Turtle Diary.  (One wonders what Orpheus, the turtle-killer, would think about the couple in that novel releasing their inscrutable turtles into the wild.)  But like those novels, The Medusa Frequency is truly, unforgettably, weirdly unique.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Runaway by Alice Munro

That was another world they had been in, surely.  As much as any world concocted on the stage.  Their flimsy arrangement, their ceremony of kisses, the foolhardy faith enveloping them that everything would sail ahead as planned.  Move an inch this way or that, in such a case, and you're lost.

The last collection of Munro's stories that I read Dear Life, was full of terrific moments but lacked a sense of finish or completeness.  Some of it was strangely experimental, whatever that means for Munro--perhaps suggestive or impressionistic.  But perhaps that's only true in the context of Munro's other work, like the collection Runaway, in which each story is so perfectly realized and self-contained that it seems like a coup against the plainness of the lives about which Munro writes.  Each story in Runaway is like a little novel in itself.

Munro's big theme is the ways that men terrorize women.  Blink and you'll miss it; she writes so calmly about such ordinary people that you might well not notice the parallels.  The first and title story is more explicit than most: Carla, a young woman who rejected her parents in order to marry her Bohemian husband, has slowly discovered that he is monstrously cruel.  A neighbor, an older woman whose poet husband has just died, is determined to help her run away, and sets her up with friends in Toronto.  Carla's story neatly parallels that of her goat Flora, who has gone missing.  (One of my favorite sentences in the whole collection is: "Clark posted a Lost Goat notice on the Web.")  Carla gets cold feet, and her husband shows up at Sylvia's door to shout at her, when Flora appears out of the mist:

She did not sleep, thinking of the little goat, whose appearance out of the fog seemed to her more and more magical.  She even wondered if, possibly, Leon could have had something to do with it.  if she was a poet she would write a poem about something like this.  But in her experience the subjects that she thought a poet could write about did not appeal to Leon.

It seems almost too literary, and it is.  We find out at the end of the story that the neat, poetic ending is not really the ending at all, and what really happened was less coincidental and more shocking.  I won't spoil it, but I was floored by how Munro deftly plays into our expectations of plot and symbolism, and then rebukes them.  Life is not a story, she says, cruelty is not always redeemed by beauty or by art.

I could write similarly about every story in the collection.  Three of them are about a woman, Juliet, who tries to forge a life in the furthest reaches of British Columbia with a man she meets on a train.  The stories might as well be about different people, for the thinness of their connecting threads, but something about linking them together makes each feel more profound.  I particularly liked a Munrovian dash of dark humor in the first, "Chance," in which Juliet is unable to flush her menstrual blood down the train toilet that has just stopped because it hit a suicide on the tracks.  Later, she overhears a conversation:

The woman talking to her said softly, "That's what she said.  Full of blood.  So it must have splashed in when the train went over--"

"Don't say it."

Juliet had rejected the man's advances earlier, before he hopped off the train and killed himself.  The menstrual blood is symbolically complex, suggesting a kind of feminine guilt for not giving into the sad demands of male sexuality.  But beyond that it's really funny--and it's not the first time that Munro has used menstruation for that kind of bleak joke.

Other stories tell about a provincial woman reputed to be psychic; a girl who is stalked by a woman who believes her to be a child she once gave up for adoption; a woman whose brief fling with an alcoholic precedes his death in a car accident.  Each one is really something.

Voss by Patrick White

Every man has a genius, though it is not always discoverable. Least of all when choked by the trivialities of daily existence. But in this disturbing country, it is possible to more easily discard the inessential and attempt the infinite. You will be burnt up most likely, you will have the flesh torn from your bones, you will be tortured probably in many horrible and primitive ways, but you will realize that genius of which you sometimes suspect you are possessed, and of which you are sometimes afraid.

What a book. I can't say Voss was the most moving or powerful book I've read this year (that would probably be the sadly-unreviewed Invisible Man), and I can't say it was an easy read. But what I can say is that it is like nothing I've ever read. The back cover blurb makes it sound like a western set in 1800s Australia, and a longer summary would read like a "love in spite of obstacles" story in the vein of Castaway, but in reality, Voss--named after the protagonist, a fiercely internal and independent man who leads an expedition to fill in the massive blank spot that is the outback--often barely reads like a novel at all, as White chooses words and images that evoke while often barely making logical sense, as he elides over the most desperate and disturbing happenings on Voss' excursion in favor of long passages of obscure poetry and often leaves the expedition entirely to focus on Laura Trevelyan, Voss' once-met love--but I digress.

So the plot is this--Johann Wilhelm Voss is patronized by Laura's uncle to lead the aforementioned expedition to the Outback, at the time a complete mystery. While at the kick-off party for the expedition, Voss meets Laura, an intelligent girl who has recently decided she doesn't believe in God and doesn't understand her family. After one incidental and fairly confrontational conversation about those two topics, Voss and Laura gradually realize that they are connected--in love--even as Voss and his party move further from civilization and toward almost-certain death.

The love story is an interesting construction. Not only do Laura and Voss have only one conversation, but 1/3 of the way through the book they communicate in words for the last time, as their letters start meeting ignominious fates before reaching their targets, but as Voss draws nearer to his ultimate destiny and Laura grows sick in tandem, they begin sharing psychic experiences--awfully disorienting to begin with, since White just starts talking about them as if they're together and never explains--but that's the way Voss is. Even after spending hours with the text, it's easy to slip out of concentration and miss something really important, like a death, a healing, or even a decapitation. Like Cormac McCarthy, White has little interest in the shocking for its own sake--a particularly grisly death is given less time on the page than Laura's shorn head, post-sickness haircut--and more interest in the crushing cruelty of the unloving land.

So there's so much material to unpack here, I can't even begin to do it justice, but I wanted to include a couple more samples of White's writing. As good as the book is narratively, his prose is the biggest draw. At times reminding me of McCarthy, Austen(!) and Dostoevsky, White nevertheless has a singular style that doesn't easily fit into any boxes I own. Here's Laura at a funeral:

But Laura was calm rather than cold, as, all around her, the mourners surrendered up their faces to the fear of anonymity, and above, the clouds were loading lead to aim at men. After the first shock of discovery, it had been exhilarating to know that terrestrial safety was not assured, and they solid earth does eventually swirl beneath the feet. Then, when the wind had cut the last shred of flesh from the girl's bones, and was whistling in the little cage that remained, she began even to experience a shrill happiness, to sing the wounds her flesh would never suffer. Yet, such was their weakness, her bones continued to crave earthly love, to hold his skull against the hollow where her heart had been. It appeared that pure happiness must await the final crumbling, when love would enter into love, becoming an endlessness, blowing at last, indivisible, indistinguishable, over the brown earth.

And here's Voss, facing his fear of death:

He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge of in the eyes of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.

Afraid of the devotion he had received from men, a woman, and dogs. That's a whole character--maybe a whole novel!--right there in one line. Great stuff.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

And she'd search on, all the while afraid that they'd encounter something fantastic--one of those never-to-be-repeated street events that would play out before their eyes just as the film ran out--and then have to wonder.

Fair Play is the third book I've read by Tove Jansson, and the first I've reviewed. All three books put together only totally a little over 300pp, so they're not big time investments, and the writing is often so simple as to seem shallow--I put down the wonderful Summer Book the first time I picked it up because it seemed like a little bit of nothing--but Jansson's seemingly simplistic prose is like the tip of the iceberg. Hemingway would be proud of the amount Jansson is willing to leave submerged.

Fair Play is about two women in their 70s, Mari and Jonna, and their lives together on a small island--similar to the one in The Summer Book, though no connection is ever explicitly stated--and their lives together as they create art and capture life through their stories, drawing, and videos. Like The Summer Book, the stories in Fair Play are clearly related without ever being completely clear on chronology or exposing any strong narrative throughline. The characters and their experiences together are the story, such as it is. In one of the vignettes, Mari is talking to Jonna about a story she's working on, and reads Jonna an excerpt:

Bosse said, "And why should it all fit together? In what way? What did you expect?"

"Some sort of meaning to it all."

"Stop," Jonna said. "You said that earlier. You're going on and on about it,"

Funny, but also a simple but profound truth about how we view our own stories--we want to be the center of some event, some narrative that has a distinct ending. But Fair Play ends without a proper ending--Jonna is given an opportunity to work alone in France for a year, and Mari encourages it, dreaming of what she'll accomplish in her own solitude, and we're never told if they even meet again, certainly not guaranteed given their ages. Such is life. But the last words of the book are quite moving its own simple way, and, I think, true:

Mari was hardly listening. A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.


Note: I wanted to talk a little bit about how this seems like a really lovely portrait of a lesbian relationship, but since Jansson is never explicit, I decided not to be either--the intro didn't mention it but given Jansson's life it's at least an interesting way to approach the work.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.  I was on my way back to the house when I found a very bad omen, one of the worst.  My book nailed to a tree in the pine woods had fallen down.  I decided that the nail had rusted away and the book--it was a little notebook of our fathers, where he used to record the names of people who owed him money, and people who ought, he thought, to do favors for him--was useless now as protection.  I had wrapped it very thoroughly in heavy paper before nailing it to the tree, but the nail had rusted and it had fallen.  I thought I had better destroy it, in case it was now actively bad, and bring something else out to the tree, perhaps a scarf of our mother's, or a glove.  It was really too late, although I did not know it then; he was already on his way to the house.  By the time I found the book he had probably already left his suitcase in the post office and was asking directions.

The Blackwoods are hated in town.  When the youngest, Mary Katherine--Merricat, to her sister Constance and Uncle Julian--descends from their isolated mansion to do the shopping, she's jeered at and threatened.  As it turns out, the townspeoples' antipathy can be traced back to the murder of most of the Blackwood family by arsenic poisoning, a crime that Constance was acquitted for many years ago.  Constance is too afraid of the public eye to go out, and old Uncle Julian is confined to his wheelchair, poring over his memoirs which describe the night of the fateful murders.  Into this hermetic household comes a distant cousin, Charles, whom Merricat distrusts, and rightly so, since he seems to be mostly after the Blackwood riches.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a slim but creepy little book, which succeeds because of the strength of the voice of Merricat's narration.  Merricat is devoted to Constance, and employs a number of different forms of sympathetic magic to protect her from the roiling anger of the townspeople.  Books nailed to trees, silver dollars buried in the field.  She treats her cat Jonas like a mercurial human, and we early begin to suspect that it might not have been the guileless, naive Constance who slipped the arsenic into the food of her family many years ago.

In many ways, We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems like an old-school Gothic novel, the kind that passed out of fashion in the 20th century.  Jackson leans into the melodramatic and the sinister, but the novel never seems as silly as it might, because of the careful, attentive detail given to Merricat and her many totems.  The plot avoids heading in the direction you might suspect--Merricat murdering Charles--and instead uses Charles' presence in the house as a kind of spark to ignite the latent tensions between the Blackwoods and the town around them, to great effect.  In fact, the novel reminded me of no one so much as that other master of 20th century Gothic, Daphne du Maurier, and the final chapter of the book borrows one of its most intense dramatic elements from Rebecca, who borrowed it in turn from Jane Eyre.  Except--time for the spoiler alert--when the house burns down, unlike du Maurier and Bronte, Jackson has her two sisters go on living there, happy in the ruins of their former glory, because they only need each other.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville

"Can I be so changed?  Look at me.  Or is it I who am mistaken?--Are you not, sir, Henry Roberts, forwarding merchant of Wheeling, Pennsylvania?  Pray, now, if you use the advertisement of business cards, and happen to have one with you, just look at it, and see whether you are not the man whom I take you for."

"Why," a bit chafed, perhaps, "I hope I know myself."

"And yet self-knowledge is thought by some not so easy.  Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken yourself for somebody else?  Stranger things have happened."

A crippled black man begs for alms on a Mississippi Riverboat.  Among the crowd there are skeptics--those who say not only is the man not crippled, he's not even black!  The man, called the Black Guinea, exclaims that there are a number of men aboard who will vouch for him, each easily identified by their clothing: a gray suit, a hat with a weed.  And sure enough, one by one, these men appear, but are they the same as the man who was pretending to be the Black Guinea?

The Confidence Man's proponents--like our own Brent--like to think of it as a proto-modernist novel.  Are the various huckster figures, who are always trying to get one over on the ship's innocents, several confidence men, or one confidence man in various disguises?  The impenetrability of this question, and the inscrutability of the Confidence Man, or Men's, purposes, make it very modernist indeed.  Certainly he can't only want money, because he's not terribly successful in getting it, either as Black Guinea, or a charity representative, or a man with a once-in-a-lifetime investment, or a quack doctor.  No, there's something about him that wants only the trust, here called confidence, of his fellow men.  I especially liked a very modernist moment where the Confidence Man is abandoned by one companion, and then forces another one to enact the very same dialogue with another companion, using the same "hypothetical" name as the last guy.  It's weird.

It's certainly an interesting premise.  But as a book, The Confidence-Man is almost impossible to read.  It's almost entirely dialogue, and not just dialogue but Melvillean dialogue: stilted, philosophical, interminable.  For a reader with infinite reserves of patience, The Confidence-Man may have something interesting or valuable to say about the nature of trust.  I admit I wanted some of the rollicking sea-adventures of Typee and Moby Dick to temper all that dialogue.  Without it, The Confidence-Man is never as beguiling or seductive as its main character--or characters.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos.  For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin.  We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange.  We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact.  This is another lie.  We are only seeking Man.  We have no need of other worlds.  We need mirrors.

Kris Kelvin arrives at a base orbiting the planet Solaris, home of the living ocean, excited to study the strange life form--if it is that--that has captivated not just his imagination but all of mankind's.  When he arrives, he finds the station in shambles, his contact dead by his own hand, and two other scientists having descended into degrees of insanity.  He's told to be wary; there are strange visitors on the station.  And sure enough, the first night he's there, he's visited by an old girlfriend who committed suicide many years ago--a kind of Ghost of Girlfriends Past.

I never saw the famous Tarkovsky film, but I did see the (surprisingly good) George Clooney remake.  My recollection of the film was that the appearance of Clooney's old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga?) was a mystery.  But in the book, the mystery is tempered by the fact that Solaris has been throwing up strange mysteries for a hundred years.  The planet is covered in ocean, but the ocean exhibits a kind of intelligence, perhaps even sentience.  The liquid shifts, changes, in purposeful ways; it even hardens into facsimiles of the human objects it "sees."  Some say it present models of places and people in their memories, but what happens to Kelvin and the others on the station has never happened before.

Solaris is best when it's diving into the knotty question of whether the ocean-planet is sentient, or even alive.  One school, to which Kelvin belongs, thinks the ultimate goal of Solaristics is contact--to talk to the planet in some meaningful way.  But the major theme of Solaris is the way that our narcissism shadows even our high-minded scientific work.  We can only conceive of extrasolar life that reflects ourselves in some way, but when it comes, if it comes, it will probably be so foreign to us that we won't be able to fit it into our solipsistic categories of "life."  Is the ocean alive?  That's not a scientific question, Lem says, it's an introspective one.  What do we see in ourselves that we think is living?

The manifestation of Kelvin's ex, Rheya, could be Solaris making a kind of contact of its own--witnessing something in Kelvin's pysche that it reproduces as a kind of recognition.  The depiction of Rheya--mysterious, fragile, shadowy--seemed to me to come from the women-sure-are-mysterious genre of masculine writing.  It makes sense, I guess, if Rheya is a kind of manifestation of Kelvin's own inner thoughts, rather than a real flesh-and-blood person.  But something about the way that the mystery of women became a stand-in for the mystery of Solaris made me wary of the book as a whole.  Still, it's another piece of evidence that shows just how underrated Lem is here in America.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take the rear facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss. 
One of my favorite parts of this project has been mining the books I read for my favorite quotes--a practice I never formalized before, and one I've always wanted build. Partly to separate my quote bookmarks from the signposts that mark my progression through a book and partly to distinguish my pages from the ones Christopher has marked in the books of his I borrow, I've started dogearing the bottoms of pages to signal that they hold passages I want to return to. I couldn't go two pages in this book without folding down a corner, and the bottom edge is so fat with dogeared pages that it won't close anymore. Solnit's meditation on loss ranges far and wide: she covers the loss of objects, of places, of people, of cultures. Reflections on her own losses alternate with researched chapters on a massive variety societal losses: European colonizers wandering into the New World and losing themselves, painters developing techniques to show the loss of objects in the distance. Her essays balance a detailed, descriptive eye with beautifully articulated reflections that both sharpen the emotional response she is able to draw out of her reader and reassure us that not all is lost.

Her experiences of loss and losing are tied to geography, so the book is anchored in a sense of place: the desert, the Bay Area, the American Southwest. Each is beautifully and poignantly described as is the bittersweet feeling of losing and gaining new homes. Even if your geographical touchstones are elsewhere, her reflections feel universal:
Perhaps it's that you can't go back in time, but you can return to the scenes of a love, of a crime, of a happiness, and of a fatal decision; the places are what remain, are what you can possess, are what is immortal. 
There isn't much of a narrative arc here--Solnit covers a truly massive amount of seemingly unrelated ground--but there is a narrative spiral. The essays are all tightly wound around this idea of loss and they circle back to it's role in the human experience. Each enumeration of loss--whether it's an explorer losing his way in the wild or the loss of a beloved friend--is paired with (sometimes rambly sometimes concise) reflections on what we learn from them:
That the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger, that the world is larger than your imagination?
As I said before, this review easily could have just been dozens and dozens of quotes. My reflections pale in comparison to hers, and there were entire pages that I underlined and filled with exclamation marks and stars. I don't think I've felt this intertwined with a book in a long time, and I spread out reading its 200 odd pages over weeks because I didn't want it to end (but then couldn't pick anything else up because nothing was as good). It reminded me how much I enjoy essays, and gave me a renewed patience for a kind of rambly, introspective writing, jumping from thought to thought and metaphor to metaphor, that I usually roll my eyes at. I'll leave you with my favorite metaphor--a two page long passage that I underlined in its entirety and re-read over and over and over:
There isn't a story to tell, because a relationship is a story you construct together and take up residence in, a story as sheltering as a house. You invent this story of how your destinies were made to entwine like porch vines, you adjust to a big view in this direction and no view in that, the doorway that you have to duck through and the window that is jammed, how who you think you are becomes a factor of who you think he is and who he thinks you are, a castle in the clouds made out of the moist air exhaled by dreamers. It's a shock to find yourself outdoors and alone again, hard to image that you could ever live in another house, big where this one was small, small where it was big, hard when your body has learned all the twists and turns of the staircase so that you could walk it in your sleep, hard when you built it from scratch and called it home, hard to imagine building again. But you lit the fire that burned it down yourself.
[...]The people close to you become mirrors and journals in which you record your history, the instruments that help you know yourself and remember yourself, and you do the same for them. When they vanish so does the use, the appreciation, the understanding of those small anecdotes, catchphrases, jokes: they become a book slammed shut or burnt. Though I came out of this house transformed, stronger and surer than I had been, and carrying with me more knowledge of myself, of men, of love, of deserts and wildernesses.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

American Jesus by Stephen Prothero

The subject of this particular story of American religion is Jesus, more precisely Jesus as Americans have understood him.  So on its face, this book would appear to fall in the Christian nation camp.  Yet many of the most interesting appraisals of Jesus have emerged outside the churches: in music, film, and literature, and among Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of no religion at all.  To explore the American Jesus, therefore, is not to confine oneself to Christianity.  It is to examine how American Christianity has been formed by Christians and non-Christians alike, and how the varieties of American religious experience have been shaped by the public power of the Christian message.  Finally, to see how Americans of all stripes have cast the man from Nazareth in their own image is to examine, through the looking glass, the kaleidoscopic character of American culture.

It's easy to imagine that the story of American devotion to Jesus has been singular, steady, and monolithic.  I see it when my students transpose their own perceptions about modern Christianity onto older books, a way of flattening and disengaging not only from the text but from modern religious life.  But did you know that the America of the 17th and 18th centuries wasn't very religious at all?  And that Christianity as it did exist was not very interested in Jesus as a figure, much preferring the stern but guiding God-the-father?

Prothero traces the blossoming of a "Jesus culture" in the United States to the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century.  It transformed American Christianity by emphasizing the importance of Christ, but in doing so it unleashed the figure of Jesus onto the American landscape where it could be reimagined and reconceived.  Prothero covers a number of the various incarnations of Jesus in American culture, beginning by contrasting the loving, feminized Jesus of the 19th century with the masculine Jesus of the Teddy Roosevelt era.  He talks about the friendly, hippie-ish Jesus of the Jesus Movement of the mid-20th century, and connects it to our modern megachurches, which he describes, quite accurately, as "mimicking malls, with their large, open spaces, filled with light."

But some of the most interesting chapters cover the versions of Jesus that come from outside of what we might call the mainstream.  There's black Jesus--bringing to mind an argument I had, baffled, with a friend in youth group decades ago who insisted Jesus was black--but also the "elder brother" of Mormonism, as well as Jewish and Hindu versions of Jesus.  I was surprised to see just how important Jesus is in these communities: the first Hindu evangelists in the United States claimed Jesus as one of their own, and the proper Jewish attitude toward Jesus was apparently a huge controversy in the mid-20th century.  This goy had no idea.

Some familiar patterns recur.  From the moment when Thomas Jefferson took his scissors and snipped all the miracles and mysticism out of his Bible, Americans have gone to great pains to distinguish Jesus the figure from the religion he inspired.  Christianity sucks, the familiar line goes, but Jesus himself was the tops.  Prothero argues that this idea shows us just how attached American culture is to Jesus; even when it seeks to reject the Christian religion, America thinks Jesus is pretty much tops.  But the sheer variety and vitality of the different Jesus traditions is perhaps what makes the book so interesting, and eye-opening.  It's easy to get blinkered by one's own tradition, religious or not, and forget what a multitude of perspectives there are.  And there's something admirable, perhaps quintessentially American, about the diversity of Jesuses in our midst.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry by William Gass

The privacy which a book makes public is nevertheless made public very privately--not like the billboard which shouts at the street, or the movie whose image is so open we need darkness to cover the clad-ass and naked face that's settled in our seat.  A fictional text enters consciousness so discreetly it is never seen outdoors... from house to house it travels like a whore... so even on a common carrier I can quite safely fill my thoughts with obscene adjectives and dirty verbs although the place I occupy is thigh-sided by a parson.

William Gass' single-essay book, On Being Blue, isn't quite about the color blue.  Well, it is, I guess, but not quite in the way I expected when I got it as a Christmas present.  (From my mother no less-sorry, Mom; I'm not sure either of us knew what was really in here.)  In fact, On Being Blue vacillates between two poles: one, a meditation on the proliferation of the color blue in all its forms and habitations, and the other an investigation into one particular shade of the word "blue"--that is, the blue of blue films and working blue.  That is, obscenity and sex.

Gass' essay is diffident, without a clear purpose or center.  But his style, fluid and exuberant, is worth the price of admission in and of itself, as illustrated by his facility with repetition that ought to make the book's opening a dull sentence indeed:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep hole in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit--dumps, mopes, Mondays--all that's dismal--low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter,which is our signal for getting underway; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasingly absentness of heaven (ins Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that's empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for insurance, or, when the sky's turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese... the pedantic, indecent and censorious... watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it's stood for fidelity.

Whew!  That was a beast to type.  But it's an incredible thing to see--Gass clearly takes his cues on how to deal with the repeated word from D. H. Lawrence, who gets special recognition in the essay for his failure to write about sex convincingly.

It's not just Lawrence, though his case is the most tragic--Gass thinks that no one can really write about sex sufficiently.  It's one of the few cogent points that emerge now and then from the essay.  We retreat from sex, literarily speaking, because our efforts to treat it directly are doomed to failure.  So we embrace terms that are emptied of signification because they are the best we can do.  ("When, with an expression so ill-bred as to be fatherless," Gass writes, "I enjoin a small offensive fellow to 'fuck a duck,' I don't mean he should.")  Blue, a color Gass conceives of as taking an especially wide range of meanings and connotations, easily takes on the ineffable connotation of the sexual act.  That's what links the two poles together.

Around this idea, the essay meanders with only a modicum of purpose or organization.  Were Gass' prose itself not so captivating, it would hardly be tolerable.  In contrast, read Michael Gorra's laudatory introduction, which apes, or falls despite itself into an imitation of, Gass' style, but far less effectively.  And the central connection of the book suffers today because, forty years after the essay's writing, we don't really use the word in the same way.  Who calls porn "blue movies" now anyway?  I didn't close On Being Blue feeling especially enlightened, either on sex or the color wheel, but I enjoyed reading it anyhow.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Girl Code by Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser

A week later, I checked their website to make sure they had processed everything correctly.  They had... but they put my name under the "Parents" information and my father's under "Camper."  It was incredible--I must have sounded so grown-up they thought I was the parent.

...They were all boy, huddled around computers and talking to each other, playing video games on their DSs.  The room seemed like a totally different universe.  Anxiously, I scanned the room for people without a Y chromosome.  There were two... but they were staff members.  I had heard there weren't a lot of girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but I didn't understand how bad it was.  That's why they put my dad's name down as the camper--because he's the guy.  I sat down, a bit regretful about my decision to come here.  I felt out of place.

A few years ago, my student Annie made a video game for a project on The Odyssey.  It was a rudimentary side-scrolling game like I used to play on Nintendo, and you played as Odysseus, fending off the dangerous sexuality of wily seductresses.  (It was a statement about the gender politics of the epic, which are, like the book itself, three thousand years out of date.)  Years later, with a friend at a coding camp, she repurposed that game into one about the taboo against menstruation, called Tampon Run.  It went, as the kids say, "viral"--suddenly she and her partner were fielding interview requests from radio stations, blogs, Time Magazine, you name it.

Stoic yes, curt maybe--but howling?

Girl Code is the story of the game's creation, and the pair's subsequent fame.  It's part lighthearted memoir, with Annie and Sophie trading chapters about the bewildering experience of becoming famous.  Tampon Run brought invitations to hackathons and Silicon Valley startups, but also at least one sexist radio interview.  That's the other part: a treatise about the low visibility of women in tech fields, experienced through the eyes of two young coders experiencing it for the first time.  Annie talks about her desire to use coding to bring awareness to women's issues like the menstrual taboo, but how can that be possible in a world that doesn't yet know how to take women seriously?  The tone wavers between humorous (Annie's one of the funniest kids I've known, and it shows) and inspirational, but the stark realities of the tech worlds just that lurk at the edges of the book's perception are serious and real.  But more than humor and inspiration, the book provides practical assistance to attack the problems it identifies: an appendix about basic coding for young readers.

If Annie reads this review (if I wrote a book, I'm pretty sure I'd be googling it daily) I express, once again, my pride and admiration.  Girl Code is a testament to her and Sophie's intelligence, chutzpah, and character.  Can't wait to see what she does next.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Augustus by John Williams

The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality.  The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal.  But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy.  For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them.  Like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.

Augustus Caesar is one of those figures, like Alexander or Genghis Khan or Napoleon, whose life seems to defy the idea of interiority.  How can one really know someone whose effect on the world was so outsized?  Even Julius Caesar, the man who brought the Roman world under his heel, is humanized by the tragedy of his death, and the simple betrayal of his beloved Brutus.  Augustus, on the other hand, lived to be an old man, and put in the long, hard political work of solidifying the Roman state that Julius never had a chance to.  He created a lasting peace and an empire that lasted a thousand years; what could be said about him as a human being?

John Williams' Augustus has an interesting strategy for dealing with this problem.  His fictional life of Augustus is written as an epistolary novel, so that it seems that everyone in Rome is talking to or about Augustus--but, until the last fifty pages or so of the novel, Augustus himself is silent.

The first section of the novel deals with the aftermath of Julius' death and the long civil war that ended with the young Octavian's defeat of Mark Antony and the assumption of the title Augustus Caesar.  Antony, as most depictions do, borrows from Shakespeare's image of a vain, proud, and bungling fool who can't even get his own suicide right, yet who somehow retains a measure of shrewdness with dealing with the Roman people.  Octavian is young, and frequently dismissed, but his calm intelligence is more than a match for Antony.

The second section deals with Augustus' years in power, and focus on his conflict with his beloved daughter Julia, who was caught up in a plot against her father's life with her lovers and banished under the very anti-fornication laws that Augustus himself had passed decades earlier.  This section is interspersed with Julia's diary entries from her exile on the tiny island of Pandetaria, where she lived out teh rest of her life, never speaking to her father again.  Julia's letters show a sad and quiet resignation for her fate; others write exultantly in their political triumph. 

But the last section, a long letter written by Augustus as he knows he is dying, is what makes Augustus a terrific book.  Is the real Augustus ruthless, shrewd, loving, foolish, lucky, adulterous, loyal?  As an old man (like his adoptive father never got to be) Augustus has come to understand that all these things are true, and that at the end of his life the certitude of his ego has begun to fall away.  Williams paints a picture of a man who has given his life, his identity, even his daughter to the service of Rome even as he understands that his achievements will only be temporary.  He wonders if these sacrifices were worth it, and then zen-like waves the question away with the gesture of his hand--worth it or not, they were.  The elegiac quality of this final section--interspersed with the dry, guarded words of Augustus' actual Res Gestae, his own account of his achievements--pushes the novel beyond the self-prepossessing political intrigue of a book like I, Claudius.

All the famous characters of the early Empire are here: Julius, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Maecenas, Agrippa, Cleopatra, Antony, Lepidus, Tiberius.  But it's the voice of Augustus himself, kept hidden until the very end, that makes Augustus feel as if it has some real insight into the past, and into the riddle of the human self.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

"He is very good at chess," the girl snapped, and glared at Akhmed. Grammar was the only place the girl could keep her father alive, and after amending Akhmed's statement, she leaned back against the the wall and with small, certain breaths, said is is is. Her father was the face of her morning and night, he was everything, so saturating Havaa's world that she could no more describe him than she could the air. 

My first ever review for this blog was Anthony Marra's The Tsar of Love and Techno; given how much I loved it, it's shocking it took me over a year to pick up his first novel. This one is more pervasively dark, but no less emotionally engaging. The novel spans the First and Second Chechen Wars and follows the lives of residents of a small village in the mountains of Chechnya. The narrative spirals through time, with objects (a pebble in a father's palm, a suitcase, a nutcracker) acting as threads to string chapters together and anchor vignettes in time. One of the consequences of this spiraling structure is that we know, almost from the start, who survives and who doesn't. Even minor characters' life spans are often casually laid out when we first meet them, like one woman's father:"He would be wearing that sweater two and a half years later, just north of the border, when a stolen cement mixer would slam into his lorry cabin." This gives the reader the luxury of certainty in stark contrast to the characters who not only are unsure of their own fate, but never know for sure whether a missing loved one is dead or just being tortured somewhere. It eliminates some of the normal suspense of a war novel, allowing you to focus instead on the internality of the characters. It also turns some characters into ghosts, and pushes your energy into hoping that they won't actually meet the fate already laid out for them.

Marra has a knack for haunting visual details: portraits of villagers "disappeared" by the rebels painted on wooden planks and mounted around town; a bombed out maternity ward covered in a painstaking mural of the buildings that used to surround the hospital. Art--as literature, portraiture, murals, and impressively sewn sutures--is the only repository of memory, and the only source of hope in an unbelievably bleak landscape punctuated with horrific violence.

The cadence of Marra's sentences is hypnotic, and he's the only writer I've encountered so far who is able to pull off page-long sentences without sounding pretentious or self indulgent. His writing is studded with visual and aural details that drive each scene home, and his descriptions of people and scenery crawl into your brain and stick there. He uses dialogue sparingly, but when he does he is able to capture tragicomic moments and pin them to the page expertly:
The girl held the stethoscope bell like a microphone and, while kicking a dropping tail of bedsheet, began interviewing Sonja. "What's it like being a surgeon?" she asked.
"Wonderful. Next question."
"Why don't you have kids?"
"They ask too many questions."
"Who did you bribe to get into medical school?"
"Surprisingly, no one at all."
"And are you the only woman surgeon in the world?"
"It feels like it"
"What's your favorite disease?"
"Chlamydia."
"If they let you become a surgeon instead of a wife, would they let me become an arborist instead of a wife?"
"Who's 'they'?"
"You know."
In Chechnya, the "they" is hard to pinpoint. Russian soldiers and kontrakniki, muslim rebels trying to take back their land. There are complex webs of violent corruption connecting and splitting apart each side, and everyone seems hell bent on destroying the country while taking it over. The lives of the characters in this novel are constantly being wrenched back and forth by these various forces, and no one seems to have any control over their day to day life. That being said, Marra manages to find moments of peace and hopes amidst the chaos (while still describing the chaos in vivid detail).

I think I may have enjoyed this even more than The Tsar of Love and Techno. The scope is smaller, so you invest more in the characters, and as a result each victory and defeat is that much more impactful. I also really loved Havaa, the girl in the dialogue above. She's driven and layered in ways that secondary, young, female characters rarely get to be in adult novels.

Note: I knew a superficial amount about Chechnya going into this book, and I had to read a lot more to figure out what was going on (it's enjoyable as a work of fiction without that background, but the all the various aggressors are hard to keep straight without some research). I relied mostly on Wikipedia, so I imagine those with a deeper understanding of the context would get even more out of the book.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Spider's House by Paul Bowles

Under his breath he began to invent a long prayer to Allah, asking Him to see to it that every Frenchman, before he was dragged down to Hell, which was a foregone conclusion in any case, might suffer, at the hands of the Moslems, the most exquisite torture ever devised by man.  He prayed that Allah might help them discover new refinements in the matter of causing pain and despair, might show them the way to the imposing of hitherto undreamed-of humiliation, degradation and agony.  "And drop by drop their blood will be licked by dogs, and ants and beetles will crawl in and out of their shameful parts, and each day we will cut away one more centimeter from each Frenchman's entrails.  Only they must not die, ya rabi, ya rabi.  Never let them die.  At the corner of the street let us have one hung up in a little cage, so when the lepers come by they can use them as latrines.  And we will make soap of them, but only for washing the sheets of the brothels.  And one month before a woman is to give birth we will pull the child out and make a paste of it and mix it with the flesh of pigs and the excrement from the bellies of the Nazarenes' own dead, and feed their virgins with it."

Bowles' novel takes its title from a line of the Quran: "The likeness of those who choose other patrons than Allah is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! the frailest of all houses is the spider's house, if they but knew."  The mid-century Morocco he writes about is certainly fragile, as decades of French rule are beginning to boil over into violence.  Bowles follows a young Muslim man and an older, American ex-pat in the city of Fez as both are caught up in this violence and thrust together.

Like in The Sheltering Sky, Bowles makes the reader wait a long time for what you might call "the good stuff."  Like that book, it takes a long time for the promised clash between white foreigner and Muslim native to come.  Bowles follows Amar, the Muslim, and Stenham, the ex-pat in parallel stories for almost 200 pages until they come upon each other in a cafe outside the city walls of Fez, where a sudden outpouring of violence means they are shut out of the city together.  Amar and Stenham like each other--on the one side, a kind of respect, and the other a paternalistic compassion--but Bowles shows how difficult it is for white colonials and Muslims to really speak to each other, so different are their worldviews:

"Do you hate them?" the man asked; he was leaning forward, looking at Amar with intensity.  There was no one there but the two of them; if the man turned out to be a spy he would at least have no witnesses.  But that was an extreme consideration: Amar was positive he was only an onlooker.  "Yes, I hate them," he said simply.  "That's written, too."

"You have to hate them, you mean?  You can't decide: I will or I won't hate them?"

Amar did not completely understand.  "But I hate them now," he explained.  "The day Allah wants me to stop hating them, He'll change my heart."

The man was smiling, as if to himself.  "If the world's really like that, it's very easy to be in it," he said.

"It will never be easy to be in the world," Amar said firmly.  "Er rabi mabrhach.  God doesn't want it easy."

Moments later, Amar thinks:

The Nazarene had understood nothing at all; Amar's spirits sank as he perceived the gap that lay between them.  If a Nazarene with so much good will and such a knowledge of Arabic was unable to grasp even the basic facts of such a simple state of affairs, then was there any hope that any Nazarene would ever aid any Moslem?

These conversations seem especially relevant today; I feel like I only have to scroll through Facebook for a few minutes to find someone coming to fundamentally backwards conclusions about Muslims or Islam.  Bowles understands how the image we have of the Other in our minds often says more about us than it does about them; even Stenham, who likes Morocco, is inerrantly condescending and racist toward Moroccans.  He laments the slow loss of the medieval quality of the city of Fez, even as he blames the locals for being trapped in the regressive attitudes of the past.  The principal female character, a woman named Lee, holds the opposite view: anti-colonial revolution will bring the people of Morocco into an idealistic, and specifically Communist, future.  These attitudes, Bowles shows us, have much to do with the private moral and ethical codes of whites and little to do with the people in Morocco whose future is actually in question

The third act of The Spider's House doesn't have the shocking or propulsive quality of The Sheltering Sky; it sort of peters out.  In the end, Amar and Stenham's lives intertwine only briefly, touching in oblique ways, without much consequence.  Probably that's the way that Bowles meant it to be.

Every Day by David Levithan

This is what love does: It makes you want to rewrite the world. It makes you want to choose the characters, build the scenery, guide the plot. The person you love sits across from you, and you want to do everything in your power to make it possible, endlessly possible. And when it's just the two of you, alone in a room, you can pretend that this is how it is, this is how it will be. 
It's hard to imagine the premise of David Levithan's Every Day working over the course of an entire novel. A, the main character, wakes up in a new body each morning. This has been happening every day since A was born, and the only continuity seems to be age and geographical location: the host bodies are roughly the same age as A, and are scattered in roughly the same area. Over the course of the forty days covered in the novel, A runs the gamut of genders, sexual identities, races, ethnicities, and every other variation possible. A doesn't seem to associate with a particular gender or sexuality (which is one of the more interesting undercurrents of the novel), so I'll refer to A as "they" throughout this review for lack of a better pronoun.

This is, on the surface, your average YA love story. On day one of the book (and day 5994 of A's life), A falls in love with Rhiannon, and the novel tracks their efforts to find her again and win her over (while each day inhabiting a newly problematic body). There is teenage angst (in more iterations than normal), loneliness (made sharper by A's daily abandonment of families and friends), and improbable connection. Levithan is able to touch on more layers of each of these components by incorporating a huge range of characters as hosts. He touches on transgender identity, drug addiction, poverty, mourning, LGBTQ sexuality, friendships, loving siblings, abusive siblings, present and absent parents, but each get only a chapter. Within those individual chapters, the hosts' identities and issues are a backdrop for A's own identity and issues, so even serious complications are given only a nod. While this obviously leans towards heavily towards the "breadth" end of the breadth vs. depth spectrum, the sheer volume of characters Levithan is able to move through do give a new feel of universality to the teenage experience, one that could feel forced but somehow doesn't. It's peppered with typical YA ruminations that seem to have more depth because they come from A's massive breadth of experience:
If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: We all want everything to be okay. We don't even wish so much for fantastic or marvelous or outstanding. We will happily settle for okay, because most of the time, okay is enough.
One of the more interesting components was which parts of the hosts' brains A had easy access to, and which were buried more deeply. A brings with them knowledge and information (the plot of Romeo and Juliet, an impressive ability to read other people, how to play soccer), but is missing others (how to speak or understand fluent Spanish, how to ski...). A is able to reach pieces of his hosts' lives like how to drive to school, or the names of friends and siblings, but often can't access information about relationships or actions that aren't deeply embedded as routines. It made me wish I knew more about the brain and where various memories and skills are stored.

There were a couple of creepy moments, particularly when things started to get steamy. It's a little bit unclear how consent works in this alternate universe, and while A tries to respect their hosts' bodies, things get a little questionable once A is pursuing Rhiannon. Is it okay for A to kiss Rhiannon in another person's body (Rhiannon gives consent, but the host isn't able to...)? For them to go further? The issue of what is and isn't appropriate is somewhat glazed over, and as A falls deeper in love, they become more willing to disrupt the hosts' routines to get closer to Rhiannon. While I appreciated the romance here, I was distracted by the ethics of forcing a person to cut school (not to mention get physical with a stranger) without their consent.

Overall, this was a really fun read. It touches, however briefly, on issues that I don't see much of in YA novels (although they're starting to appear more): gender identity, sexuality, the immigrant experience, etc. The premise made an old story new again, and even the more cliche aspects of the plot felt fresh. I picked this up because my seniors were reading it in Psychology, and I could see this being a great book to read in a book club (with kids or adults!) because each chapter raised a whole new subset of questions about identity and experience. Those questions aren't explored in much depth, but they're a good starting point for further thought and discussion.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Oh, Anna Aemelin, the only thing you care about is your own conscience.  That's what you cherish.  You're a charming little liar.  A child writes, "I love you, I'm saving my money to come and live with you and the bunnies," and you answer, "How lovely.  You'll be very welcome.  And it's a lie.  The promises made by a guilty conscience acknowledge and settle no debts... You can't hide.  In the long run, you can't even try to make it easier for yourself by not daring to say no, by kidding yourself that everyone in the final analysis is nice and can be kept at a distance with promises or money... You know nothing about fair play!  You're a difficult opponent.  The truth needs to be hammered in with spikes, but no one can drive nails into a mattress!

Tove Jansson's claim to fame was the Moominland series of children's books, which must have gotten her no end of fanmail from young kids.  (I imagine them mostly as blonde European children, wearing lederhosen.)  How much of her own experience did she draw on in creating Anna Aemelin, the sensitive, aloof, guarded children's book artist of The True Deceiver?  Anna lives in her big house on the edge of town, eating tinned peas and being a hermit.  In the summer, she draws fine portraits of the forest floor, which she debases with the bunny figures her young fans adore.  The rabbits pay the bills, but it's the forest floor she really sees.

Katri Kling lives in the same town as Anna with her simple-minded brother Mats.  Whereas Anna is all politesse, devoted to the small niceties that protect--or perhaps insulate her from--human discourse, Katri is honest to a fault.  She has no regard for what she calls "the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want."  But she wants something from Anna--namely her money, which she wants to use to buy Mats his own boat.

Katri slowly begins to look after Anna, starting by taking small packages and mail up to what the locals call the "rabbit house."  She ingratiates herself to Anna, becoming slowly indispensable, eventually moving in (with Mats in tow) and managing Anna's business affairs.  She's scrupulously honest, but still she thinks of her relationship with Anna as a kind of game.  Meanwhile, it's Anna, the gentle illustrator, who lies and cheats, but in a way that accords with her shyness and fear of conflict.

The question is in the title: who is the true deceiver?  Anna is the one who runs from the truth, but it's the high-minded Katri, no doubt, who uses Anna for her own needs.  These paradoxes are the terrific achievement of The True Deceiver, which wears its darkness and cynicism on its sleeve, unlike the oblique monstrosities of The Summer BookI liked that book a little bit better; ironically, it has the levity and light irony of a children's book whereas Anna Aemelin seems to occupy a vastly different universe from her rabbits with their flower-covered fur.

But I loved the way Jansson imagines these two slowly turning the screws into teach other, sometimes intentionally, sometimes because they are such vastly different people.  It's not just Katri torturing Anna--more often, it's the other way around.  At one point in the novel, Katri takes it upon herself to drag all of Anna's extraneous possessions out onto the winter ice where, when spring comes, they'll finally be disposed of.  Is it a favor or an insult?  And what happens when the bottom finally drops out?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

Dawn at sea, a grey void emerging out of a vaster black one. "The earth was without form and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Whoever wrote that knew the sea--knew the pale emergence of the world every morning, a world that contained absolutely nothing, not one thing. 
I bought The Perfect Storm from a tiny bookstore on an island on the Outer Banks. I wanted a story about the sea, but also something that was going to be engaging. It was the perfect vacation read: immersive (no pun intended), fast paced, and more much more informative than anticipated. Junger puts his war reporting chops to good use and sets up The Perfect Storm as a battle. Each side is described in compelling detail; the crew of the Andrea Gail is captured with novelistic nuance, and the sea and storms are given a balance of sweeping description and scientific explanation.

I especially enjoyed the asides explaining the minutiae of how storms work. It felt reminiscent of the rambly digressions in Moby Dick about whale skeletons, but way more to the point and accessibly written. There is a massive amount of technical vocabulary around fishing and boating, so much of it that I had trouble visualizing some of the passages describing routines on the long-liners, but I actually enjoyed that struggle; I was engaged enough that I looked up the words I didn't know, and I learned a lot (do you know what a gangion is? a whaleback?). That being said, while Junger makes an effort to explain the meteorology and make it palatable to the average reader, a lot of his nautical descriptions, especially long, technical lists of boat parts, can be disorienting.

Junger does a decent job with a difficult task: recreating the final moments of a crew of people who clearly haven't left word about what they experienced. I often struggle with narrative nonfiction that recreates the inner life of historical figures--I get distracted by the fact that the author could not possibly know what anyone was actually thinking at any given moment--but Junger makes clear over and over that he is making educated guesses as to what happened and uses interviews and accounts from people who have been in similar situations to sketch out what the crew would have been experiencing. I had goosebumps throughout their final moments and was impressed with how convincingly Junger was able to portray what may have happened.

Having seen the movie, I had expected the story to end with the demise of the Andrea Gail (spoiler alert: everyone dies), but there are another 100 pages or so outlining the various other catastrophes brought on by the storm. Junger balances the hypothesizing he had to do with the Andrea Gail crew with accounts from other men and women who were out on the water--fishermen, rescue crews, and family members.

I really enjoyed this book. It wasn't particularly intellectual or lofty, but it was totally riveting in a way I don't usually expect nonfiction to be. It was emotionally engaging, had new and interesting science for me to sink my teeth into, and transported me somewhere else. Even basically knowing how everything turns out, I was totally hooked.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Loving by Henry Green

'Oho so that's the old game,' he laughed.  'Keeping me on a string is it, to leave me to picture this and that and the other to do with you and him?'

'If you can bring your imagination to such a level you're to be pitied,' she answered tart.

'All I did was to ask,' he objected.

'You're free to picture what you please,' she replied.  I've got no hold on your old imagination, not yet I haven't.'

'What d'you mean not yet?'

'I mean after we're married,' she whispered, her voice gone husky.  'After we're married I'll see to it that you don't have no imagination.  I'll make everything you want of me now so much more than you ever dreamed that you'll be quit imaginin' for the rest of your life.'

The natural comparison point for Loving is obviously Downton Abbey: like the show, Green's novel is about the contrast in the lives of the residents of an old castle and the lives of their servants.  But whereas Downton Abbey is all melodrama, made for people with the attention spans of lizards, Green's novel demands the utmost patience, and its drama is wrought from the finer details of human life.  It's set during the war, but the war is distant, threatening--the servants at the Irish castle fretfully wonder whether they should return to their homes in England, to their loved ones, before the "Jerries" use the island as a stepping stone.  (Not like on Downton Abbey, where they have to show the pressures of war by turning the castle into a flipping soldiers' hospital.)

The novel begins with the death of the longtime head butler, Eldon.  His replacement, Charley Raunce, is by turns irascible and jovial, but the other servants (and his employer, Mrs Tennant) can see how green he is.  He's anxious to assert his new authority, but also to skim a little off the top of what he charges the household for supplies, something his predecessor did expertly for decades but which he hasn't yet learned to handle with tact or grace.  Meanwhile, he falls in love with a younger maid named Edith.  The romance between Charley and Edith proceeds sweetly but prosaically, with the happy fatalism of two people who realize, seemingly simultaneously, that they are meant to be together.  It's convincing, and somehow more affecting than it would have been with what you might call more fireworks.

Fireworks aren't Green's style.  The drama in Loving involves a missing ring, a pet peacock strangled by a bitter child, a glove full of eggs, a mouse caught in the wheels of a mechanical weathervane, a finely captured game of Blind Man's Bluff.  The house is full of characters who Green refuses to introduce with any fullness; if most people are unknowable, especially when we meet them, why should he bother?  As if to underscore this point, he names two separate young men Albert.

The result is a masterpiece of minimalism.  It seems like hardly a word is spared in Loving, nothing is extraneous.  And yet Green's sentences, often shorn of punctuation, take you on surprising, miniature journeys:

Albert laid himself under a hedge all over which red fuchsia bells swung without a noise in the wind the sure travelling sea brought with its low heavy swell.  He could watch the light blue heave between their donkey Peter's legs and his ears were crowded with the thunder of the ocean.

How can something made of such simple parts demand such attention to be understood?  That first sentence is so simple, but I swear I had to read it three times to follow it.  Not because it's a sloppy sentence, but because of its impeccable design.  Green doesn't break into these prose moments often, but often enough to seem like showing off, as if saying, I can do this, if I choose to.  Mostly the book is in dialogue, which is Green's most renowned skill.  James Wood, in How Fiction Works, praises Green for refusing to stuff his dialogue with adverbs to tell us how the characters are feeling; as with real people, our words are not as clear as we would want them to be.  In Loving, characters speak to each other like people, which is rare.

This is one of those books that I feel I haven't done justice.  Not just in this review, but in reading it; I feel like I wasn't up to its demands.  (I read this book on vacation in North Carolina; last year on the same trip I zipped through all 700 pages of Argall in the same time it took me to plod through the 200 pages of Loving.)  It's not complex, but it is exacting, and often surprising--blink and you'll miss something valuable, or extraordinary.  It's a book that ends just when you feel like you're learning how to read it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Othello by William Shakespeare

IAGO: Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

Reading my review of Othello from years ago, I'm amazed at some of the things I said: I failed to see, for instance, that Iago's many rationalizations for his hatred of Othello are far less than the sum of their parts.  Or how highly I thought of Othello himself, who now seems, though noble and capable, short-sighted and overconfident in not just his powers but the very stability of his nature.  Like Julius Caesar who calls himself the "North Star" because he doesn't change, Othello's belief in his own stability (and Iago's) becomes dangerous.  It's Iago who doesn't change, because what he is is a nullity, a living paradox: "I am not what I am."  He's so theatrical that I begin to wonder if there is anything beneath his playacting, if even his hatred for Othello is not another kind of act.

I admit that Othello is not my favorite of the tragedies.  It doesn't have the scope of Hamlet or King Lear, or the sheer poetry of Macbeth.  For that reason, I'm really excited to teach it, which I never have before--I think it'll force me to find new things to admire about it.  It's got a few really nice moments: Iago's salesman-like manipulation of Roderigo with the simple phrase, "put money in your purse"; Desdemona's mind-boggling shock at the idea that Iago's wife Emilia considers herself to be sometimes motivated by lust, like men are.  I have always felt that the best lines are Othello's final speech, which seem like a desperate attempt to manage his own legacy, or perhaps his conception of himself:

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

"Speak of me as I am," says Othello--but what is that?  Iago has reduced him to almost nothing; and these last words give the impression of a man who knows that his words are all that is left of him.  He is reduced, at last, to this final speech.  He tells a story about killing a Turk, but he's really talking about himself.  Is he the noble Venetian or the traitorous foreigner?  When nothing's left of him but these words, in a way, he can be both.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

He said, "It's savage and superstitious to accept the world as it is.  Fiddle around and find a use for it!"  God had left the world incomplete, he said.  It was man's job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it and finish it.  I think that was why he hated missionaries so much: because they taught people to put up with their earthly burdens.  For Father, there were no burdens that couldn't be fitted with a set of wheels, or runners, or a system of pulleys.

But instead of improving the world, he said, most people just tried to improve God.  "God--the deceased God--was a hasty inventor of the sort you find in any patent office.  Yes, He had a great idea in making the world, but He started it and moved on before He got it working properly.  God is like the boy who gets his top spinning and then leaves the room and lets it wobble.  How can you worship that?  God got bored," Father said.  "I know that kind of boredom, but I fight it."

Charlie Fox's father--that's what he's called, Father, by everyone, not just his children--is a brilliant but arrogant man.  He keeps his kids out of school, not wanting them to be corrupted by consumerist ideals.  He is a gifted inventor, working as a kind of handyman for a wealthy asparagus farmer in Massachusetts.  But he believes that he is the only one who sees America, and the world, for what they are, a man more capable than God himself, because God's inventions never seem to work properly.  It's the kind of arrogance that can only be sustained by brilliance, because it often seems like he might actually be able to back up the things he says about himself.

Increasingly disgusted by the commercialism of the developed world, Father decides to take his family to the wilderness of Honduras.  He's something like Sam Pollit of The Man Who Loved Children, in that his all-enveloping narcissism acts like a black hole for his family to fall in, but whereas Pollit is all progressive fantasy and high-mindedness, Father is closest to the kind of doomsday preppers you see stocking their bunkers with creamed corn and assault rifles.  In Honduras, he tells his children that America has fallen into war and been destroyed:

"Right now," Father said dreamily, "someone over there in America is painting yellow lines on a road, and someone else is wrapping half an onion in a blister of supermarket cellophane, or putting an electric squeezer down the garbage disposal and saying, 'It's busted.'  Someone's just opened a can of chocolate-flavored soup in a beautiful kitchen, because he can't get his car started, to eat out.  He really wanted a cheeseburger.  Someone just poisoned himself with a sausage of red nitrate, and he's smiling because it tasted so good.  And they're all cursing the president.  They want him re-tooled."

For a while, Father's project is a smashing success.  Deep in the Honduran jungle, he makes a functioning village with scraps and raw materials, bringing comfortable housing and irrigation.  His crowning achievement is a giant refrigerator that uses heat power, which he calls "Fat Boy."  But the resonance with the names given to the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan--Little Boy and Fat Man--foreshadows not only the fate of the refrigerator but Father's entire project.

The narrator, Charlie, is thinly written.  As the oldest, he's both suspicious of his Father's abilities, but also captivated by them, but swings between these two extremes according to Theroux's needs.  And yet, it's hard to imagine another character as vivid or powerful as Charlie's father, who sucks in every available breath of air.  (The fact that Sam Pollit wasn't the only strong character in Christina Stead's novel is one of the things that makes it so incredible.)  The novel is exactly as compelling as the character is, and it's hard to look away as both hurtle toward disaster.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

"I like Los Angeles." In Los Angeles she was always a child. She swam the length of Marjorie's mother's pool, skimming its blue bottom in her two-piece bathing suit. The shadow of Caroline, half-asleep on her inflatable raft, was a rectangular cloud above her. Their father was just at the water's edge in a lounge chair reading The Godfather. 
Commonwealth intertwines the story of two families, split apart and merged together when the mother of one and the father of the other fall in love, leave their spouses, and marry. The children (four from one marriage, two from the other) are thrust together in a darker, modern day Brady Bunch scenario, and the novel tracks them from infancy to adulthood.

The family saga layer of this novel is fantastic. There is mystery and intrigue, the characters are sufficiently fleshed out (none of them is too saccharine or awful), and the narration weaves through time effortlessly without losing the reader. But because it's Ann Patchett, there is a layer of darkness running under that narrative that makes it that much more compelling. There were subtle moments--the casual mistreatment of a sibling--and overarching tragedies that hold the book together and make it pack a serious emotional punch.

The sibling and step-sibling relationships in this novel are simultaneously perfect and heart-breaking. They're brutal and loving within the space of a paragraph, and the every day cruelties and kindnesses that come with those relationships are perfectly captured. Those ties become especially valuable and fraught in divorced families, and Patchett nails that tension. There is a central betrayal (revealed on the back of the book, but I won't describe here because I wish I hadn't known going in) which is artfully described in all of its guilty splendor and ripple effects. One of my favorite moments, late in the novel, came when two of the sisters are navigating the inevitable and painful aging of a parent. One of them has spent the day bossing everyone around and subtly sniping at every turn, but after a particularly painful moment, her sister gives us this:
Franny gave her sister a tired smile. "Oh, my love," she said. "What do the only children do?"
"We'll never have to know," Caroline said.
The torturous unconditional love of sisters (and brothers and step-siblings) is woven throughout and is just brutal enough that it manages not to be cliche.

I loved this one. The story was fabulous and dark and emotionally engaging, and the many, many lives impacted by the divorce and other assorted tragedies are beautifully captured. I was especially impressed by how nuanced all the various family relationships were able to be.