Saturday, December 19, 2009

Child of My Heart -- Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott is known for crafting her stories in simple but powerful ways. Her novels are void of bells, whistles, and pretty packaging. Her prose is strong, sure and intense in its brevity; literary tricks and fancy poeticism are not necessary to carry her work. She’s a remarkable writer, one America should be quite proud to claim, and one you should give a glance at. While I was not the biggest fan of the novel I just completed, I cannot deny McDermott’s talents.

Child of My Heart (2002) is McDermott’s fifth novel. At less than 250 pages, it seems as if it would be a quick, pleasant read, but don’t let its size fool you. What remains unwritten, what McDermott cleverly places between the lines and in her readers’ heads, makes this novel quite weighty. Taking place over one summer, the novel is told from the point of view of Theresa, a beautiful fifteen year old girl caught in that awkward crevice between childhood and womanhood.

Theresa’s parents, while not wealthy, had moved out to Long Island in the hopes that their beautiful child would mingle with the rich and important, that she would be able to get a toehold in society. They pushed her services as dog-walker and babysitter on the movers and shakers, the doctors and famous artists, and her beauty and saint-like reception by children and animals alike kept her in high demand.

The novels opens, “I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist.” Daisy, the title character, is a quiet child who seems to have been forgotten in the chaos of her many siblings. Theresa has invited her to spend the summer because she understands the need for individual attention. Not long after Daisy arrives, Theresa notices the bruises. Dark and angry, they appear at the slightest touch and never seem to improve. Theresa realizes the serious implications and attempts to heal her cousin through various rituals. She does not alert her parents to the illness – she knows they will only send her home and deep in her heart, she seems to accept that Daisy’s time on earth is precious. She sets out to give her cousin the best summer imaginable.

I didn’t care for Theresa’s character. She seemed too polished, too perfect. The novel touches on her blossoming sexuality; she undresses on the beach, with her charges, and seems unaware of her teenage body until someone comments on it. After that comment, she realizes the power her sexuality grants her. The calculated way in which she loses her virginity, the start of what propels her into adulthood, was heartbreaking. As a reader, I wanted her to hold on to her innocence. (But McDermott wanted her readers to be aware that Theresa’s innocence as already at stake with Daisy’s worsening state.) She sleeps with Flora’s father, an old man, well into his 70s, whose attraction to her was carefully detailed in looks and the slightest of touches. She later finds a piece of canvas, cut from the bed she’d given herself to him on, with just the slightest smear of blood. Someone had cut it out and put it with Flora’s mother’s scarves. (Scarves that had been used to bind Flora at one point.) This scene is only a couple of sentences, but I was amazed at how powerful those sentences were – of what they said without saying.

The novel concludes after Daisy’s death, with Theresa taking three newborn rabbits into her care. These rabbits were mentioned in the first paragraph and the reader already knows their fate, they know how hopeless a cause it is. But there is something of a glimmer of hope in the face of sorrow – something McDermott manages to work into her novel seamlessly. Child of My Heart is a novel of loss, sorrow, and growing up, but it somehow manages to also be a novel of hope, release, and magic.

Child of My Heart is a sharp intake of breath followed by a shaky exhale.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The God of Animals - Aryn Kyle

There are some books that just surprise you. I’m finding more and more that this happens with the novice author and their first novel; when I finish the book, close its pages and stroke the spine, I wonder how the author can possibly top it. Zadie Smith left me with that feeling - as did Jonathan Safran Foer and Arundhati Roy. When I read a book by a first-time novelist and am so wowed, that novel and author immediately find a secure place in my heart and on my shelf. I recently added The God of Animals to my stack of loves.

Published in 2007, this first novel by Aryn Kyle touched me in a way I haven’t been touched in a quite a while. Something in her words struck a chord so deep in me that days later, I’m still reeling. I know that’s crazy talk for most of you, but for the select few true booksluts out there, you know it’s a feeling we crave with every book we open. This book made me cry. Hot tears dripped from my cheeks to the pages as Kyle broke my heart with brutal honesty and beautiful prose. This book’s haunting qualities will linger with me very many a year, impossible to forget.

Kyle’s leading lady is twelve-year-old Alice Winston. A book reviewer called her a cousin to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. I would support that connection. I also found myself thinking of Vada from My Girl. All three works are typical bildungsromans, following the maturation of a girl into a young woman. The life lessons Alice, Scout, and Vada learn about love and loss forever change their worlds and the reader/viewer witnesses a transition so relatable, they feel as if they’re suffering with them.

Alice Winston and her family live on a horse farm in Desert Valley, Colorado. Her mother is “sick” and a shut-in. (There’s a paper begging to be written about the comparisons to be drawn between the women and the horses.) Her father is a salt-of-the-earth sort, struggling to make-ends meet while still dreaming of bigger and better. Nona, her sister, the beautiful golden child, has run away to marry a rodeo star. The family is broken.

The novel opens with “Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy.” Polly was Alice’s classmate and Alice fabricates a friendship between herself and the dead girl. She carries this lie with her throughout the novel, garnering sympathy and creating a relationship with the advanced English teacher Polly had crushed on. She convinces herself they were brought together by Polly and that they are in love. It’s her first crush and Kyle fosters the relationship almost to the point of making the reader uncomfortable.

The horse farm setting is one I am unfamiliar with. I know nothing of showing, breeding, or boarding horses. But I’ll be damned if Kyle didn’t have me mucking those stalls with Alice. The world she creates is captivating. She does not romanticize it; the life is hard and brutal on the Winstons and Kyle doesn’t shy away from the dirty side of the horse world. Alice’s father buys a horse at an auction, a beautiful mare of racing stock. She is wild, untamed. Her name is Darling. He attempts to break her and fails at every turn. Alice’s grandfather insists they breed her, claiming that forcing her to stand pregnant in the hot desert heat will take all the fight out of her. When they take her to be bred, Alice watches. She grew up on the farm and breeding was just a way of life. They hobble the horse’s feet so she won’t kick. When the stud mounts her, she goes crazy, breaking the hobble and bruising the stud’s “muscle.”

“And I wondered, now that it was all over, if he had watched Darling as closely as I had. I wondered if he had seen the same look in her face when the stud climbed on top of her, if he understood what happened with the clear, centered certainty that I did: she never would have kicked if they hadn’t tied her legs” (144).

They eventually break Darling, and how she is broken effectively broke my heart.

I won’t ruin this novel for you because I want you to read it. I want you to love it. I want Aryn Kyle to find a spot in your heart and on your shelf; if she keeps writing like this, I may have found my new favorite American author.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lost on Planet China -- J. Marteen Troost

This may prove difficult for me to write as I have been in love with this author, and I am a little disappointed in him at the moment. He let me down.

I’ve written about J. Maarten Troost’s first two novels with passion and excitement. I urged the masses to run to the nearest bookstore and buy Getting Stoned with Savages (2006) and The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004). I even excitedly ordered his third book, Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Living Squid (2008). I waited to read the book because his other two works had been such a laugh-out loud fantastic read that I wanted to save his third attempt for when I needed a read that would make me smile. Unfortunately, Troost did not do for China what he did for the South Pacific. His words made me angry. I don’t know if it’s the fact he is married with two kids now, in his mid-thirties, or if he really is a culturally blind as this book makes him seem, but the way he talked about China made me want to yell at him.

I suppose my intense reaction could be due to the fact that I have lived in Asia and my experiences in Southeast Asia mirror many of the experiences he had in his 3 months spent in China. But I loved Asia. Yes, Bangkok is very polluted and crowded – driving there is a real bitch – and the modes of transportation and their bathrooms leave much to be desired. Based on his descriptions, China is very similar, though I will admit the pollution and traffic are probably worse. Yes, tonal languages are INSANELY difficult to master; I feel your pain, Troost. And I will say that there are places in Thailand where you can escape the hustle and bustle of a city inundated with western influences and karaoke bars; apparently China is lacking in this. So maybe I’m pissed off because he doesn’t seem to even try to understand China or enjoy his stay. I know people, tall white people, who lived in China and loved every moment of it. They weren’t blind to the obviously glaring concerns, but they also weren’t blind to the wonders of this Asian world. Troost seems to have missed the ball on this one. He should call this novel: “SOS – Lost on Planet China – The Story of One Man Bitching and Moaning his Way Across the World’s Most Mystifying Nation.”

Another issue I took with this work is how he seems to be force feeding a history lesson. History is important and, for a book like this, necessary; however, Troost seems to just want to increase his page count. Additionally, I have read some reviews that claim his facts are inaccurate. (One such a “fact” was his confident assertion that no one alive in China still has bound feet. A quick Google search indicates otherwise. If he meant that no one in China currently practices foot binding, he would be correct, but that is NOT what he writes.) He also constantly reminds the reader of his previous two books, the fact he is a writer, and his time of the South Pacific. I think success has destroyed him; he has lost his touch and become what appears to be a white privileged, conceited old man. Yes, 35 is OLD if you’re going to bitch and moan about every single blasted thing.

He opens the memoir/travelogue with an interesting piece on how Mormons and Chinese businessmen are everywhere. (I can support this argument. Except for the interesting fact that Mormons are not in China – which I don’t believe Troost actually acknowledges at any point. I would think that would be an interesting fact to work into his argument, but alas.)

He does still have a way with telling a story, I just wish he wasn’t so bitter about China. Some of his stories made me chuckle, a bit begrudgingly as I was/am annoyed with the work overall, and some of his descriptions are simply well done. Below is such a description from Lhasa.

“The late-afternoon light was ethereal, a darkening blue, but the mountains flared with sunlight. If Mars had been colonized by Buddhists, it would look like this” (287).

The story that had me chuckling the most was when he went to the pharmacy in an attempt to find lip balm. The high altitude had dried his lips and he was in desperate need of some Chap Stick.

“In the morning, when I awoke, the mountains were dusted with snow. But the air was very dry, dry enough to elicit the need for lip balm. I’d never felt the need for lip balm before. I am not a lip balm man. But here, up here, way up here, I had a need, and so I wandered into a Chinese pharmacy. The attendants were dressed all in white, as if this were a sanatorium, or possibly a lunatic asylum. I mimed what I needed and she understood completely. I was in need of a skin-whitening cream for hands” (288).

Now Troost goes on to complain about the Asian desire for white skin, which I also experienced in Thailand, but that’s not what struck me about his story. One of the few times I went into a pharmacy in Thailand was after a pretty bad motorcycle wreck on the way to Pai. I don’t even know what town we were in, but Budge and I set off to get bandages and medicine for Loren. A Thai pharmacy is apparently very similar to a Chinese one; all the attendants were dressed in white and we mimed what we needed, she pointed us to birth control. Like Troost, we eventually found what we needed. The difference between me and Troost is that I didn’t bitch about the misunderstanding. (And Loren healed up quite nicely.) I will say this novel makes me even more desirous of writing my Thailand story – though I’m not sure that I still want Troost to write my blurb.

Troost finally loves China and longs for her embrace, but only after the motor on the boat dies just 6 feet from North Korea soil and as much as he hates China, he is pretty sure he’ll hate North Korea more. And that is how the novel ends, with Troost begging China to save him from North Korea.

Troost is currently working on a book about India. In a recent interview, he clearly stated he did not like China but loved India, so maybe that book will bring back the writer I enjoy.
On a final note, I did thoroughly enjoy his jabs against Dan Brown’s novels.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Your resident bookslut may not be available in the month of November as she has decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. We shall see if she can stick with it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chang-rae Lee -- ALOFT

Chang-rae Lee is a first generation Korean American. He graduated from Yale and teaches at Princeton. (ohhh fancy pants Ivy Leaguer.) His first novel, Native Speaker (1995) won the PEN/Hemingway award. The publication of A Gesture Life in 1999 seemed to secure his position as an Asian American author whose beautiful prose appropriately painted the disjointed nature, the nervous condition, of split cultures – the struggle for an Asian American identity. I knew of Lee’s work, and I expected Aloft (2004) to have similar themes ESPECIALLY with the title. I know judging a book by its cover and/or title is taboo in a bookslut world, but we’re all guilty of it.

Aloft is Lee’s first novel that does NOT have an Asian American protagonist; Jerry Battle is an Italian American and while the Italian heritage does feature in small snippets (the family’s real name is Battaglia and was changed “for the usual reasons immigrants and others like them” have), it is not a central struggle in the novel. There is nothing wrong with a Korean writing about an Italian American. There is nothing wrong with a woman writing from the POV of a man. But I would be lying if I said the identity of the author does not factor into the reading of the text. A good author can make you forget that she’s a woman writing about a man. Or a Korean writing about an Italian. Unfortunately, I could not resolve Chang-rae Lee with Jerry Battle, especially with Jerry’s take on race. I couldn’t understand what Lee was trying to do – what role he wanted race to play.

There is an Asian American and it doesn’t take a genius to say that Chang-rae Lee is kind of making fun of himself with the character Paul. Paul is the prose poet boyfriend of Jerry’s daughter, Theresa.

“But apparently Paul is somewhat famous, at least in certain rarefied academic/ literary circles, which is great if true but also means that no one I’ve met on a train or plane or in a waiting room has ever heard of him, much less read his books. And I do always ask. I’ve read his books (three novels and a chapbook of poetry), and I can say with great confidence that he’s the sort of writer who can put together a nice-sounding sentence or two and does it with feeling but never quite gets to the point. Not that I’ve figured out what his point might be, though I get the sense that the very fact I’m missing it means I’m sort of in on it, too. I guess if you put a gun to my head I’d say he writes about The Problem with Being Sort of Himself – namely, the terribly conflicted and complicated state of being Asian and American and thoughtful and male, which would be just dandy in a slightly different culture or society but in this one isn’t the hottest ticket.”(74)

Oh. Well, it would seem Lee knows exactly how he is perceived and what I was expecting with this novel. Interesting move. I kind of like it. I will readily admit that Paul was by far my favorite character and ironically, the most alienated and alone by the end of the novel.

Jerry seems too concerned with race. His first wife was Asian and his second long-term, lasting love interest, Rita, is Puerto Rican. The couple he buys the airplane from is biracial. Jerry’s son’s wife, Eunice, is English-German. I find the whole race issue over acknowledged but under developed. It was a bit disappointing and just one of several flaws with the novel.

It’s too ambitious for what it is. There is suicide and attempted suicide. A business fails. There is sexual harassment and a high stakes tennis match. There is a run-away father and a daughter dying of cancer. There’s death and birth and ethnic food. There are honey colored breasts and “fuck me” clothes. There are large diamond rings and Ferraris. There is a plane named Donnie. There is so much in this novel. So very much.

Aloft was too caught up in itself, too lofty and hard to pin down, and too rambling. It really could have been a ploy on the part of Lee, but it didn’t work. And the fact it didn’t work has nothing to do with the protagonist being Italian-American. While beautifully written, the novel just doesn’t fly.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

No hat trick for Coetzee

Sad. But the winner looks like it might be a pleasantly lovely read.

Monday, September 28, 2009

It's official....

your resident bookslut is sick. Could be the piggy flu. *weeps* She feels horrible - too horrible to even read. And she's currently reading a great book by Chang-rae Lee that will prompt a fantastic multicultural response on "the other" writing from the POV of the white man. Be patient... your bookslut has not forsaken you.

Edit: Not the piggy flu. Feeling better. Football is taking up my time though. My apologies.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak

Published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are quickly earned a permanent place in the BEST BOOKS EVER. Maurice Sendak has said that the monsters were originally horses but he couldn't draw horses but that he could draw a "thing" - he even modeled his things after relatives. It is and always has been a book close to my heart - "I'll eat you up I love you so."

When I learned about Spike Jonze's movie, I was a little skeptical. But now I'm just smitten. I can't wait. Add the fact that Dave Eggers help adapt the screen play and Sendak served as one of the producers, and I think it's worth the price of admission. (I'm even interested in Egger's ficitonal novel, The Wild Things - excerpt here:

See the trailer below - couldn't embed for some reason.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Shakespeare's R & J

(The cast of Shakespeare's R & J - the guy in the front is the one I loved.)

This isn’t a book, but sluts get to break the rules. I recently went to see the Raleigh Ensemble Players Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s R & J. The play was adapted in 1999 by Joe Calarco. Calarco is quoted as saying, “This is a play about men. It is about how men interact with other men. Thus it deals with how men view women, sex, sexuality, and violence.” He goes on to say that it is a play about students so the actors are students first and foremost, not Shakespearean characters. This is very important to remember when viewing the play.

Shakespeare’s R&J is about four male students in strict boarding school finding release, comedy, love, realization, and self through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The first act of the play has four very boyish students laughing their way through the text. They’re finding in humor in making sex jokes and portraying women with large breasts; they’re typical teenagers. But something happens between two of the students. The obvious attraction between the two students is ridiculed by the other two boys and they mock it and even try to stop it. At one point, things become violent. The brief violence jars them and they apologize through sonnets and the urging of all to continue. After intermission, the boys are engrossed in playing the parts – it has become real for them.

The stage is bare – four black boxes that start as desks become all the play of them. There’s a tattered copy of Romeo and Juliet that gets read from and tossed around the stage. And there’s a red cloth that was used to hide the text. It makes sense that this red cloth has to serve the purpose of all the props needed to put on the Shakespeare play; the students wouldn’t have swords, costumes, vials, etc. at their disposal. It was easy to accept the cloth in this role – the cloth is also important because it connects, conceals, and violently separates the boys.

At the end of the play, the boys are startled into their routines and hurriedly scramble around to find their socks, shoes, ties, and books. One boy, the one who played mostly Romeo, urges them to continue. They all leave him; the boy who played Juliet looks back, noticeably conflicted, before brushing it off as a game and leaving him. It’s heartbreaking, really.

The cast was made up of Shawn S. Stoner, Jack Benton, L.A. Rogers, and Ryan Brock – these four men did an excellent job. The clear stand-out for me was the student who played the nurse (among others.) The problem with four men playing several characters (and sometimes playing the same character) is that the playbill doesn’t let you know who is who as they are just listed as students 1-4.

I thought it was well done though I do have some issues with the actual script – other parts of Shakespeare get tossed into the reading (other plays & sonnets) and I wish there was a bit more to explain this heavy reliance on all of Shakespeare’s work when it seems that the tragedy is a dirty secret. I also didn’t much care for the boy who played Juliet. His voice annoyed me.

With all that in mind, if a local ensemble group is putting it on near you, go check it out – it’s worth the two hours of your life.

As for the REP - check them out, you Raleighites, at -- it doesn't hurt that their new home is over Foundation (a lovely little bar with amazing drinks - try cucumber on the vine -

J.M. Coetzee - Life & Times of Michael K

J.M. Coetzee is one of my favorite South African writers. I have a special love for the white voices of South Africa and even though Coetzee has since moved his citizenship to Australia, I still consider him a South African novelist. Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940. He moved to London in the early ‘60s and worked as a computer programmer. While in London, he was awarded his Masters of Arts degree based on his work with the novels of Ford Madox Ford. (Sidenote: The Good Solider is one of the best novels ever. Ford’s relationship with Jean Rhys was also pretty awesome for the literary world.) Soon after, he came to the States, where he earned his PhD. He sought citizenship here but was denied due to his role in anti-war protests. He went back to South Africa and started teaching at the University of Cape Town. In 2002, he retired to Australia and in 2006, he became an Australian citizen.

A pretty well lauded novelist, Coetzee is a two-time recipient of the Man Booker Prize [Life &Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999)] and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He’s actually long listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize award. The shortlist comes out on Tuesday and the winner will be announced in October, but sources indicate Coetzee as a strong favorite. (Summertime seems a bit masturbatory in nature – I’ll read it eventually.)

Coetzee has always been a bit political, but his novels do not read with the same political urgency that laces Gordimer’s works. The two are forever placed side-by-side as the white voices in a black fight. It is a very interesting comparison when one looks at Coetzee’s women vs. Gordimer’s women; I’ll save such interesting reading for a later day.

I recently read the Life & Times of Michael K and found it similar to Disgrace in haunting qualities. I don’t know that it’s as fine tuned as Disgrace or even as Slowman, but there’s no denying that Coetzee was and continues to be a very powerful writer.

The novel is relatively short (under 200 pages) and divided into three sections. The first section is the longest. It is written in third person and follows Michael K. The second section is told in first person through the eyes of a doctor who treats and envies Michael K. The final section is back in third person. The writing in all three sections is brilliantly Coetzee.

The title makes it very clear what the novel is about – Life & Times of Michael K is surprisingly about the life of Michael K. Michael is a nonwhite, slightly slow, man in his early 30s. His cleft lip is the reason he doesn’t even have a face a mother could love. His mother, Anna K, is a very unsympathetic character who is disgusted and embarrassed by her son. She sends him away as a child, but readily calls on him when she needs him. Rather sick and dying, she convinces Michael to take her to her childhood home of Prince Albert. She’s very large and cannot walk so he pushes her in a cart. Shouldering the burden of caring for her with filial love, he sets off. When she dies, he continues the journey, carting her ashes with him.

But the novel isn’t about a son’s love; it’s about a man trying to find himself or lose himself. He’s beaten, robbed, arrested, and nearly starves himself. The most annoying scene for me is when he buries money and walks away. Parts of it reminded me of the L’etranger by Camus, but Michael is such a simpleton that it’s a bit more annoying. I felt no connection to Michael, but Coetzee does that on purpose. The writing is brilliant, but the story is unsatisfying. I do think this is one of Coetzee’s blatantly more political works and it is well-deserving of all the awards bestowed upon it, but I found it a bit too depressing. Everyone should read Coetzee, but not everyone should use Life & Times of Michael K as their starter Coetzee novel.

All this said, if any of you lovely people find an autographed Coetzee work, it’s a sure fired way of forever buying my love. That is all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sluts should get paid

Being a bookslut is hard work, methinks payment should be involved. My goal is to read 10,000 pages this year - a sad number in comparison to years past, but considering I didn't read any for pretty much the entire Spring, it'll have to do. Yes, it'll have to do indeed.

When I get the time, you'll have a lovely review of an older Coetzee novel and a play I recently went to see. Please try and contain your excitement.

Booksluts get to be teases too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Gregory Maguire - Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

My love for Gregory Maguire has not gone unnoticed; my little bookslut affection for his work is well documented. But I must admit to being a little wary to venture outside of the Wicked series. Maybe my fascination with him was really with his Oz. I loved Wicked and Son of a Witch, and I trust I may have equal affection for A Lion Among Men, but what of these non-Wicked tales. He successfully tackled The Wizard of Oz, but I never much cared for the original. What would happen when he tackled A Christmas Carol? And such beloved fairy tales as Snow White and Cinderella? I shuddered at the thought. (Okay, so I didn’t really shudder, but such language makes for a more dramatic reading.) Enter used bookstore and used bookstore credit. Lost (where Maguire takes on Dickens with a bit of a serial killer just for fun) and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister now belong on my shelf next to the Wicked books.

Published in 1999, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is Maguire’s second adult novel, the first being Wicked. It has a quite lovely cover as well. Disney made it a TV movie a few years later, but I’ve never seen it. I wonder if Disney managed to fully capture the dark & ugly.

Set in 17th century Holland, the novel revolves around two sisters, Iris & Ruth, and their eventual step-sister, Clara. Other central characters are Margarethe (their mother), the Master (Luykas Schoonmaker – the painter), Casper (the Master’s apprentice), Henrika & Cornelius van den Meer (Clara’s parents), van Stolk (a greedy business associate of van den Meer), the Dowager Queen of France (in Holland to have her “final” portrait painted), and the Prince of Marsillac (in Holland to have the Queen Mother find him a bride.) There are other figures, imps and changelings, gypsies and dwarfs – it is a fairytale after all, is it not?

The novel is divided into five sections, not including the prologue and epilogue, and each section is divided into several chapters. The titles Maguire chooses are beautifully fairy-tale-esque. Fancy that.

Prologue – Stories Painted on Porcelain
The novel opens with a very old lady coming across a group of children acting out the story of Cinderella. She questions the fancy of their story, the magic in it, that the real story is void of. “In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. When we grow up, we learn that it’s far more common for human beings to turn into rats” (x). Clara and Casper are introduced in the prologue, but the reader does not know which “ugly” stepsister tells the tale until the epilogue.

“The Obscure Child”
This first section introduces the reader to all the main players of the novel. It starts with the mystery of Clara, the changeling child, and concludes with Iris, Ruth, and their mother moving into the van den Meer home. Iris also poses for the Master in this first section and the painting horrifies her – her dullness is placed in a beautiful painting. He used her unattractive qualities to bring forth the beauty of the wildflowers, naming the work “Girl with Wildflowers.” Iris is distraught at the painting. She loathes it, but the painting earns him the commission from van den Meer to paint Clara, the golden child. The whole family moves in with the van den Meers as they want a child for Clara to play with and learn English from.

“The Imp-Riddled House”
The second section begins to let readers know that all is indeed not well in the van den Meer household. The children are convinced there is an imp living amongst them, and they half believe Clara’s tales of being a changeling. Clara refuses to leave the house; she is sequestered there by her own will (and that of her mother’s). The Master paints her with the tulips (her father is a tulip merchant and this is their fortune). It’s a beautiful portrait – her beauty lovingly portrayed by the Master’s genius. The portrait is successful – van den Meer becomes wealthy as people buy into the tulip trade. Meanwhile, in the domestic affairs, Margarethe continues to edge her way into the household, demanding payment for her work after the successful tulip portrait venture.

“Girl of the Ashes”
The third section of the novel details the birth of Cinderella – or Clara’s fall into the ashes. A pregnant Henrika dies. Clara leaves the house to go ice skating and her kidnapping story is revealed. Clara and Iris end up at the windmill where Clara had been hidden so many years ago, and a vacant look takes over. Clara becomes more and more distant, refusing to leave the hearth and covering herself in ashes. Margarethe marries van den Meer and becomes a gaudy woman with hideous taste. Iris becomes an apprentice under the Master and begins to fall in love with Casper. Mr. van den Meer becomes quite sick and watches as his fortune trickles away.

“The Gallery of God’s Mistakes”
Enter the Dowager Queen come to arrange a marriage for a distant relative, a godson, Philippe de Marsillac. Iris looks upon what the Master calls “the gallery of God’s mistakes” for the first time and sees the paintings of dwarfs, a child with the face of a parrot, a Girl-Boy, and other such “errors.”

“I think of them as friends,” says the Master, “for aren’t we all bruised?”

Clara retreats even further and the creditors begin to dismantle the house. Fittingly, Margarethe prepares for the ball. She hints that she may have promised Clara’s hand in marriage in order to pay for her gowns. (Well, it isn’t so much a hint.) Iris decides that Clara must go to the ball and must win the prince. She does this because she doesn’t want the prince – she wants Casper. Ruth blinds Margarethe by putting red pepper in her eye balm, which works out perfectly as Margarethe won’t be able to see the pretty stranger at the ball.

There is no pumpkin. No glass slipper. No fairy godmother. Casper gets the gown and while Margarethe tries to make him out to be one, he is a far from a fairy. (Iris’s mother tries to convince her that Casper is a homosexual because she doesn’t want her daughter to end up with him.) Clara adopts the name Clarissa Santiago of Aragon and stands gorgeous in white shoes, a golden gown, and a black lace veil. (Please note which section this occurs in.)

“The Ball”
Iris meets the Prince and has a lovely conversation with him. Clarissa walks in and he is smitten. Iris talks with the Master, dances with Casper, and tries not to be jealous that Casper seems to find Clarissa beautiful. (She fails at the latter.) Ruth burns Clara’s painting.

Later that night, a confession occurs; Margarethe poisoned Henrika and her unborn child. The reader also clearly learns that she was forced out of England for being a witch. Upon hearing this, Clara is transformed. She saves Ruth from being punished for setting the fire and marries the Prince. Casper ends up with Iris. Ruth ends up not quite as dumb as they all thought her to be.

Epilogue “Stories Written in Oils”
And so the reader discovers that Ruth has told them the story of the pretty girl and her not so wicked (or ugly) stepsisters. Iris and Clara are dead. Margarethe is blind and Ruth does not talk to her about that confession or the night of the ball. Ruth lets the reader know that sometimes memory, even when painted out for the world to see, gets retold incorrectly and that her story may not be the whole truth, but it’s a bit more true that the fairytales.

She does not point fingers or fault anyone. She does not pinpoint a villain or a hero in her story. Perhaps that is what makes it a true confession.

“Crows and scavengers at the top of the story, finches at the top of the linden tree. God and Satan snarling at each other like dogs. Imps and fairy godmothers trying to undo each other’s work. You might be born as donkey-jawed Dame Handelaers or as dazzling as Clara van den Meer, Young Woman with Tulips. How we try to pin the world between opposite extremes” (366-7).

Ruth’s words are beautiful and have a haunting quality that peers out at the reader throughout the entire novel, as if an imp really does watch. She was a fitting choice to tell the story and a bit of a trick on Maguire’s part as it is Iris who is described as so ugly and Ruth as so incompetent. Maguire never lets his readers assume anything. It’s pleasant and he tsks tsks the reader in a loving way for making assumptions.

I love Maguire’s writing and this love officially embraces more than just the Wicked series. Perhaps it is the hour, but I love what he does for fairytales. He captures the darkness that was always meant to be there in a way that a happily ever after never can. It’s a brilliant novel – enchanting and heartbreaking with just the right amount of magic.

Paperback: 372 pages

Publisher: Harper Collins (1999)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sara Gruen - Water for Elephants

English literature major turned technical writer (and Canadian turned American) Sara Gruen was given “two years or two books” by her husband upon being laid off in 2001. He suggested she take the time to do what she’d always wanted to do and write. Her first two published novels, Riding Lessons (Harper Collins 2004) and Flying Changes (Harper Collins 2005), were well-received but not earth-shattering. The novels with their equestrian focus had reviewers dropping Nicolas Evans’s name; this isn’t an unpleasant comparison if you’re looking for book sales, but it didn’t really send the masses out to buy her works.

Gruen’s third attempt finally rocked the literary world (and by literary world, I mean the reading public; it put her on the NY Times Bestseller list.) After the success of Water for Elephants, reprints were run on Gruen’s earlier attempts with huge stickers alerting the browser/reader that the author of Flying Changes and Riding Lessons is the exact same as Water for Elephants. Not only did book sales increase, Gruen’s worth as a writer more than tripled. [Water for Elephants was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (this is the division of Workman that I interned with briefly) after Harpers passed on it. They purchased the manuscript for only $55,000 (according to some sources). The success of the novel has resulted in movie talks and Gruen selling the rights to her next novel, Ape House, (based on a mere 12 page summary) and contracting for a fifth novel for five million dollars. Unfortunately, Gruen did not stay with Algonquin (or Harpers); her fame has pushed her to companies with deeper pockets.]

I picked up Water for Elephants quite a bit ago. I will admit I bought into the hype surrounding it just a bit; both Borders and B&N had it plastered in Staff Picks and Awesome Reads, as well as providing it with prominent placements to push sales (including the irresistible “buy 2 get 1” table). The cover is pleasantly appealing – a man’s sequined back walking into a circus tent with the title in the most perfect of fonts in the center. When I saw Algonquin put it out, I was even more interested. A blurb by King sealed the deal.

The novel opens with a quote from Dr. Seuss: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant… An elephant’s faithful – one hundred per cent.” This is followed by a prologue that introduces Jacob and sets up his love for Marlena (a woman) and Rosie (an elephant) and describes the stampede and murder. This scene actually appears again, later in the book, and provides more detail. The prologue hints that Marlena murdered a man; chapter twenty-two clearly states that Rosie committed the crime. Some critics have argued that Marlena actually commits the crime but that memory, which frames the novel, is unreliable and Jacob retells the story the way he wants to remember it. I think Gruen sets up the prologue and then retells it with more details to trick the reader; as you’re reading the novel, you are rooting for Marlena and you hope she killed her abusive husband – it’s a surprising twist when you read how the mischievous elephant commits murder. There’s no doubt in my mind Gruen really intends for Rosie to be the murderer; the opening quote and information from Gruen about how Rosie is modeled after an elephant who actually killed her trainer combined with Marlena’s size and general inability to commit the murder are all supporting evidence. Authors employ tricks like this all the time and I wasn’t bothered so much by it. I was bothered, however, by the memory frame. I generally do not like novels that are told as memories. I find the narrators unreliable, the current time period parts annoying, and generally think it’s an attempt on the author to extend the plot by adding “filler.” I do not like filler.

The novel is set when Jacob Jankowski is ninety or ninety-three – he can’t remember. He’s in an assisted living facility and he’s a bit of an ornery old man. These chapters feed far too seamlessly into his recollections of his 3 months with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth when he was twenty three. There is no clear audience for his story-telling – sometimes it appears as if he is speaking directly to the reader, other times to a nurse that is not always present during these sessions (a nurse whose name and eyes remind him of his beloved elephant), and sometimes the recollections are just dreams. I loathe this framework and typically associate it with a puff piece author (Nicholas Sparks anyone?) At the end of the novel, he tells the manager of the circus that has set up near the assisted living facility everything that happened in those 3 months – that would have been a much better frame to construct the entire novel around and it would highlight Gruen’s strengths as a writer, which are most obvious in the circus scenes and with her meticulous research.

A quick summary – It is 1931, when at the age of 23, during his final year at Cornell’s vet school, Jacob’s parents are killed in a car wreck. When the estate is settled, Jacob learned his parents took out a mortgage to pay for his education and that his father had been accepting beans and eggs as payment for his services (he was a vet); the bank claimed everything. Jacob attempts to take his final exams, but he is emotionally unable. He starts walking and ends up jumping on a train just to escape. Fortunately (or unfortunately), fate lands him on the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth train and he is hired as the vet. The circus goes from location to location, occasionally cannibalizing shows that have fallen on hard times, getting run out of town because of the cooch tent, and avoiding raids. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, wife of the crazy equestrian director, Augustus. He makes friends with Kinko – Walter – the redheaded dwarf he has to bunk with. (There are some great scenes between the two.) He is nearly raped by two whores but vomits on them. It’s unclear if they were successful in taking his virginity, but since this is such a romantic novel, I’m going to say Marlena was his first and only. Speaking of sex, the actual sex scene is unbelievable as described; Gruen describes it as a woman would, not as a 23 year old virgin man/boy would. Marlena’s husband, Augustus, is a paranoid schizophrenic and violent. The perceived relationship between Marlena and Jacob sends him over the edge. There are fights, animal abuse, sex, strippers, alcohol, toothless lions, and a lemonade & gin loving elephant that only speaks Polish.

Gruen shows real talent as a writer in her descriptions of the circus life, of the freaks, and of the hierarchy between workers and performers. But it’s hard to buy some of what she’s selling; I had difficulty accepting the love/passion between Marlena and Jacob – a passion that essentially is the ruination of the circus and of several lives. Other issues include awkward dialogue, Jacob’s Catholicism (Gruen can’t seem to decide if she wants him to be serious about it or not), Augustus’s paranoid schizophrenia, the sudden unexplained shift in Jacob’s affection for the menagerie, and the previously mentioned framework and difficult to believe minor plots. I don’t mean to be so hard on Gruen, but she shows brilliant potential to be more than a puff piece writer. And I shouldn’t knock puff piece, easy reads; I’m just disappointed. If you want a book that you can swallow in one sitting while hanging out by the beach or the pool, or if you love Sparks and Evans (and lately Kingsolver), pick it up. I won’t judge you – I just hate to see what could have been a fantastic literary work fall short. (I’d love to see it on screen, however.)

I will leave you with what I find to be a fantastic description of the stampede:

“The concession stand in the center of the tent had been flattened, and in its place was a roiling mess of spots and stripes – of haunches, heels, tails, and claws, all of it roaring, screeching, bellowing, or whinnying. A polar bear towered above it all, slashing blindly with skillet-sized paws. It made contact with a llama and knocked it flat – BOOM. The llama hit the ground, its neck and legs splayed like the five points of a star. Chimps screamed and chattered, swinging on ropes to stay above the cats. A wild-eyed zebra zigzagged too close to a crouching lion, who swiped, missed, and darted away, his belly close to the ground.” (3)

Paperback: 350 pages
Publisher: Algonquin (2006)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith -- Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

I’ve never been the biggest Jane Austen fan. The Austen finger-puppet on my fridge isn’t there because I’m madly in love with Darcy or any other of Austen’s manly creations. I read Pride and Prejudice ages ago and simply remember not being all that impressed. I guess in the Austen/Bronte battle, I picked Charlotte.

P&P was originally published in 1813 and it was well-received. Most critics still consider it Austen’s best work and I can understand why, I suppose. I will concede that it is not a bad novel, and Austen is not a bad writer; it’s just not my favorite and I think it may be lauded a bit more than it deserves. But enough about my history with Austen – this is about my reading of a parody novel. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, published by Quirk books in April of this year, is a genius idea (and a freaking fantastic title). I’m not sure that I will read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (due out in September), but this was a novel idea that broke away from my normal reading material. Part of me wants to reread P&P to see if the humor I found this time around is due solely to Seth Grahame-Smith and the zombies or if I’ve developed an appreciation for Austen in my old age.

The novel is pretty self-explanatory; it is the original story with zombies added in. Elizabeth Bennet, the beloved Lizzie, is a fantastic zombie slayer. She is quite content to be the “bride of death” and has no need of a man. All the sisters are well trained in the art of killing, but the desire to be wed still penetrates through. Mrs. Bennet is just as annoying as before. Darcy pushes Bingley away from Jane because he fears Jane has caught the “disease.” Charlotte becomes stricken with the “disease” and some of the best scenes in the novel detail her fall before her husband beheads her and hangs himself. There are ninjas and fighting for honor. There are zombie captives and blood, pus, and oozing brains. There’s sexual innuendo and wink, wink, nudge, nudge language. There are scenes of mass destruction and the smell of burning zombies. There are fancy dresses and balls and banquets. It was a fantastic, fun read. I suggest that schools actually teach it with the original; students will love it. It will make a fantastic movie a la Shaun of the Dead.

I realize this isn’t much of a bookslut review, but there really isn’t much I can say. It is a fun read and it breathes new life in the form of zombies (no pun intended) into Austen’s work. I’ll leave you with the closing lines:

“The dead continued to claw their way through crypt and coffin alike, feasting on the British brains. Victories were celebrated, defeats lamented. And the sisters Bennet – servants of His Majesty, protectors of Hertfordshire, beholders of the secrets of Shaolin, and brides of death – were now, three of them, brides of man, their swords quieted by the only force more powerful than any warrior.”

Paperback: 317 pages

Publisher: Quirk Books (2009)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Jeffrey Eugenides - Middlesex

“From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed.” (401)

Published in 2002, Middlesex is different from any bildungsroman I’ve ever read; it’s a fantastic journey, and it is no wonder Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer for it in 2003. While the novel focuses on Calliope Stephanides, the narrator (first-person), it’s a family saga. Much emphasis is placed on the sins of the father; the role of incest and family genetics is fully developed as a living, breathing character that needs to be acknowledged for its role in the Stephanides’s family. God and religion are also faceless but important characters in the story that spans decades and takes it readers from Asia Minor to New York to Detroit to Germany.

The novel opens with, “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Calliope (later Cal) quickly tells the reader that he has 5-Alpha-Reductase deficiency – this only affects genetic males and while these males are born with male gonads, they often exhibit female sexual characteristics. (In the case of Cal, the testicles did not drop and the smaller penis was thought to be a larger clitoris by those who noticed it – Cal’s family doctor didn’t exactly examine Cal.) This introduction also tells readers, “A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me, too.) An army tank let me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into a myth; I’ve left my body in order to occupy others – and all this happened before I turned sixteen.” The novel then explains the most interesting story of growing up as Calliope and finding Cal, with pertinent familial information and a present-day Cal plot included.

In 1922, Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, an Asia Minor Greek, fled her home with her brother, Lefty. As the city burned around them, they pretended to be French citizens and were awarded passage on a boat to America. On this boat, they began an elaborate charade that would continue their entire lives; they pretended to not know each other, and then to fall in love. The brother and the sister married and began life in America as husband and wife. Later in life, as age began to tear down his defenses, Lefty began going back in time; however, whenever he began to refer to Desdemona as his sister, everyone but Desdemona thought he was simply going senile.

Lefty and Desdemona went to Detroit to live with a cousin, Sourmelina, and her husband, Jimmy. Lina was the only one in America other than the good doctor the pair brough with them who knew the truth about the couple. Lina was no stranger to skeletons in the closet – she’d been forced to essentially become a mail-order bride after she’d been discovered in a compromising situation with another female. Lefty and Desdemona had two kids – Milton and Zoe. Desdemona knew she was playing with fire by continuing a sexual relationship with Lefty and, since she was unable to cut him loose, she had her tubes tied, a rather advanced procedure for the time.

Milton ends up marrying Lina and Jimmy’s daughter, Theodora - Tessie. The seduction started when he would play his clarinet against her skin. Personally, I can think of several more seductive instruments, but it worked. Tessie and Milton are Cal’s and Chapter Eleven’s parents. (Chapter Eleven is obviously a nickname – an interview with the author makes it clear that he uses it to allude to Cal’s brother’s future bankruptcy problems.)

Callie has an interesting life growing up in Detroit. When the city gets a little too “dark” for Milton, he moves his family to a very bizarrely constructed house called Middlesex. She notices that she is not developing as other girls and, upon fear of having to see a gynecologist, begins to fake her period. At fourteen, she falls in love with a girl known only as “The Obscure Object.” While it all seems innocent – young girls practicing kissing on each other, exploring their sexuality together – Callie becomes a bit obsessed. She’s invited to spend the summer with the object of her obsession/affection. Much to her dismay, the Object has an Object of her own and his family has a place near them. Callie, the Object, Jerome (the Object’s brother), and Rex Reese (the Object’s crush) take some beer and head out to the woods to find a hunter’s cabin. Callie decides that if the Object is going to make her jealous by flirting with Rex, then she will ignore the Object and flirt with Jerome. The foursome splits once in the cabin and they drink, smoke pot, flirt, and begin to the somewhat quiet journey of exploring bodies. Callie watches the Object with Rex and finds herself wishing Rex’s hands were her hands, his mouth, hers. Jerome touches her while she watches and she lets him and before she realizes it, he is inside of her and it hurts. She panics when he removes himself from her that he knows something is wrong with her, but he is busy gloating about going “all the way.” Callie will later learn that the pain she felt was his penis against her testicles. He hadn’t noticed her “crocus” – thought to be a larger clit, but in reality a small penis. After that night, she begins a sexual relationship with the Object. Jerome uncovers this and struggles with many different emotions. Callie’s testosterone skyrockets and she has every intention of beating the hell out of him for making the Object cry. Long story short, Callie flees from him and has an accident with some farm equipment. The car ride to the hospital is the last time she sees the Object.

At the hospital, her true self is discovered; she is fourteen. Milton and Tessie do not believe the doctors and take her for a second opinion; the diagnosis remains the same. The family goes to New York to meet with Dr. Peter Luce, an expert on sexual disorders and gender identity. Her meetings with him include physical exams, Q&A sessions, and watching porn to determine her sexual attractions. She answers the questions as a straight female would because she thinks that is wanted of her. After two weeks, he tells the family that Callie really is female and a small operation and hormone therapy will assist her in living life that way. He tells them she will never be able to have children, but that she can live a happy life as a female. The novel probably would have ended there, but Dr. Luce makes the mistake of leaving Callie’sfolder with her when he has to leave the room; she reads it and discovers that she is genetically a male. At that point, she decides she was meant to be a boy and a boy she will be. She runs away, cuts her hair, and begins to live as Cal.

Cal hitchhikes to California where he eventually finds work in a burlesque show as “The God, HERmaphRODitus.” The show is eventually busted up; its owner and feature attractions arrested. Cal is handed over to the custody of Chapter Eleven. He returns home in time for his father’s funeral. Milton is killed in a car accident after being duped by the priest Tessie turned down (who ended up marrying Aunt Zoe) into giving over money for the safe return of Callie. Cal goes to visit Desdemona and, at first, she doesn’t know who he/she is and Cal doesn’t want to upset her, but finally it sinks in. She blames herself and tells him that Lefty was her brother. She tells him that when she dies, he can tell everyone. And he does.

Published nearly a decade after The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex seems to secure Eugenides’s position as a gifted, though not prolific, writer. I haven’t read (or seen) The Virgin Suicides, so I am unable to compare his sophomore attempt to his much loved first novel. I will say that the intertwining plots of the Greek immigrant in America and an intersexed child growing up were woven as complex and beautiful as a strand of DNA.

Paperback: 529 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2002)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I have another blog floating around out there that has a few of these bookwhorish reviews, and I've decided to bring most of them over to this blog as I quite often reference recent books I've read. The date listed by the author is NOT the publication date of the novel; it is the date I originally blogged about the novel. This is a mere copy and paste on my part and this post will be lengthy. You may want to pack a sandwich and bring a bottle of beer if you intend to make your way through it in its entirity.

*I'll probably continue to add to this particular post as I go back to past reviews - I will refrain from providing my take on the first two Twilight novels and only provide the ones that I may find myself referencing.*

Son of a Witch - Gregory Maguire (2/23/2009)

A decade after Gregory Maguire rocked the world (and the stage) with Wicked, he published the rousing sequel with quite the catchy title: Son of a Witch. I can’t much say I fault him for riding this Oz train as long as he can; I’m quite interested to read A Lion Among Men (2008) and to see how many books will eventually complete the Wicked Years series. Some preliminary research into Maguire’s latest Oz tale assures me that more books are to come as ALAM steers clear of Liir & Candle and focuses on some of the unanswered questions from Wicked that remain unanswered in Son of a Witch. I greedily await the novel that tackles the unanswered from SOAW. Maguire has a way of making you hunger for more. I will agree that he toys with his readers, but withholding information until the right moment (and that moment may not come for several books) is the sign of a true storyteller. I enjoy being toyed with by someone who knows what they are doing. Maguire knows what he is doing; after many years of searching, he found his holy grail of talents. This is his world and I ADORE it.

Due to the major differences in Wicked: a Musical and Maguire’s novel, there’s slim chance Son of a Witch will find its way on stage. As much as I love the musical, I’m okay with them not massacring Maguire’s story any further; Son of a Witch does not need to be bastardized on the stage.

As the title might indicate, this novel is all about Liir and his search for identity, self, love, belonging, and things of that nature. It’s a typical bildungsroman, but Maguire makes it more than a coming of age story. So much of this novel revolves around Liir trying to discover who he really is. Is he the son of Elphaba? Is he really the Wicked Witch’s son? Is he a witch? Of course he is; we all know that, but he needs proof. She never treated him like a son , and they never spoke of his parentage. Once she asked him what he would ask the Wizard for if he could have anything he wanted. “A father,” he told her. Elphaba could have given him that. She could have told him Fiyero, the love of her life, was his father. She could have given him an identity, but she doesn’t; she makes him carve one out for himself. Various things occur that make him realize and slowly accept that he is Elphaba’s son; that the green witch lives in him. He has her cape and broom. The broom will allow only him to ride and it’s started budding with new growth, a new era. He has flashbacks and sees Elphaba with a basket at her feet that she keeps rocking. He doesn’t realize at the time that it’s a baby basket and HIS basket, but there’s a moment at the end of the novel when it clicks

The novel begins with Oatsie Manglehand (you may remember her from Wicked) leading a group of travelers across Disappointments, a stretch of land that is appropriately named. There have been several attacks, scrapings, where travelers have been attacked and their faces scraped off. The party has encountered some of the dead and buried their faceless bodies. [Later in the novel, Liir recovers the scraped faces, which had been preserved to prove a point. He takes them from Oz and hangs them in trees while Candle plays so the Elephant can die. The faces speak. It’s a beautiful moment and their memories are heartbreaking. The section ends with the following: “Forget us, forget us all, it makes no difference now, but don’t forget that we loved it when we were alive” (394). The bodies are at peace. The Elephant is at peace. Liir has saved himself so he can begin saving others.] They soon stumble across the unmoving figure of a young boy/man who is not dead but not quite alive either. His face is intact. And so, dear readers, you see Liir for the first time since Dorothy killed Elphaba.

Oatsie takes the half-dead Liir to the maunts, who begin to nurse him back to health. They are not hopeful for his recovery. Mother Yackle, a bit crazy and somewhat of a witch in her own right, locks a young girl, Candle, in his room, telling her that she’s the only one who can do what needs to be done. Candle is a Quadling and doesn’t speak their language. She plays to him on a domingon after being gifted with a Pfenix feather, which is the heart and soul of the instrument. So, cheesy as it is, Candle is sent to be the light that leads Liir home. She keeps saying that she doesn’t know where he is, but she must play him to her – to guide him back with her music. After Mother Yackle locks her in the room, she sleeps with his unconscious form to keep his blood flowing and his heart beating; she plays his skin like it’s the instrument. This results in a pregnancy that Liir is reluctant to claim a part in. (It makes sense though; he is following in the steps of his mother.) Candle delivers while Liir is out keeping decade’s old promises. She has fled by the time he returns and he sees what he imagines to be a dead baby wrapped in his cloak. The baby is not dead and he holds her up in a rain storm to wash the dried blood from her skin as she comes writhing to life. The novel ends with the following line: “She cleaned up green” (407). There has been some speculation as to why Candle fled and what exactly was Mother Yackle’s involvement in Elphaba’s life, Liir’s life, and Candle’s life. Mother Yackle is a fortune teller and she knew how Elphaba’s line needed to be continued. Candle fled because she’s a present reader – she realized long before Liir did that he was a witch. I think she was frightened by his blood and by her green baby and that is why she ran. Others stay she was repulsed by his relationship with Trism. (I don’t buy this; Quadlings are known for being sexually open.) Still others say she was leading an army away from the baby. Whatever her reasons, I’m quite certain we haven’t seen the last of Candle.

But what of the other questions the novel brings up—the political, religious, and moral questions? This is where Maguire excels. His political commentary is genius. An example of such would be when Liir is talking to the Scarecrow about who will take over Oz after Glinda. Rumor has it, it will be the Scarecrow. “Lady Glinda doesn’t confide in me. I’ve heard she intends to rule for six months or so, and then abdicate in favor of a straw man. Who? – well, as I’ve admitted, one scarecrow is as good as another. Do you think anyone would notice the difference? When a scarecrow blows apart in a gale wind, the farmer just props up another one” (81). What does that say about rulers in general? A scarecrow does replace Glinda, briefly, and Liir sees that he is an imposter. He goes up in an accidental blaze and Shell, Elphaba’s half-brother (a horrible excuse for a man – Liir’s first memory of him involves Southstairs, Oz’s prison, and the realization that he was drugging and fucking all the locked up women), has taken the throne. His rise to glory was well-planned and years in the making. The scarecrow & Glinda had been but pawns: a shiny girl and a man of straw. Realizing this is a turning point in Liir’s life.

Much is also done with religion and the Unnamed God. There’s a lovely scene where a couple of maunts encounter a Water Buffalo. (In the Oz books, animals that are spelled as Animals have reason, intelligence, and the power of speech – they were pushed out of Oz during Wicked and many attempted to assimilate into the wild with the animals. Their role remains quite vital to the telling of this story.) The Water Buffalo sees the women and thinks they are coming to convert him. They go in pairs, like Mormons.

“Scarcely see a soul coming from your direction who doesn’t have designs on my immortal soul,” said the Water Buffalo. “It used to be I was worried about my hide. I always thought a soul was private, but it appears it can be colonized against your will if you don’t watch out.” (88)

There are dragons nurtured as weapons of mass destruction; Liir falls in love with Trism, the Dragon Master, and together they kill the monsters. Liir loves Trism and is confused by this love when comparing it to his affection toward Candle. The affair is short-lived, but the memories of the sex & passion will be with the young boy for the rest of his days. They have such a sweet parting:

After a while, Trism managed to say, “Are you sure you can fly in this condition?”
“What condition is that? I’ve been in this condition my whole life,” Liir answered. “It’s the only condition I know. Bitter love, loneliness, contempt for corruption, blind hope. It’s where I live. A permanent state of bereavement. This is nothing new.” (361)

These are the last words Liir says to Trism before flying off without looking back. (There’s a witty line about how he might be able to fly, but he isn’t good enough to look back and he doesn’t want to break his neck.)

There is much more to Liir’s journey. He joins the army and burns an innocent village. The flames will forever haunt him and he flees that life. He reaches out for Candle because it was a Quadling village he burned; he wants her to be the little girl he saw being tossed by her parents to safety. He needs for that little girl to be alive; he needs for that little girl to be Candle. It’s not and those are just some of his demons. Liir is a very broken boy trying to make himself whole. He searches for Nor, his half-sister, throughout the entire book; he doesn’t find her but he finds evidence of her life, which urges him on. I imagine Nor will have her own story in the Wicked Years series.

“Memory is part of the present. It builds us up inside; it knits our bones to our muscles and keeps our heart pumping. It is memory that reminds our bodies to work, and memory that reminds our spirits to work, too; it keeps us who we are.” (262) Candle’s words are wise – she uses memory to bring Liir back to the present. Through her playing, he remembers everything that happened from the time Dorothy killed Elphaba to when the dragons attacked him. It’s the past the helps Liir find his present and his future.

There are mixed reviews of this second novel in the Wicked Years, but I found it more appealing than Wicked. It’s brilliant, dark, crafty, bright, heartbreaking, and positively lovely.

Amsterdam - Ian McEwan (2/20/2009)
My obsession with Man Booker Prize winners is a well-known fact. (By well-known, I mean a select few individuals who know me and of couple of scary creepy stalkers who want to know me would be able to report that I tend to gravitate toward Booker Prize winners and nominees.) A used book having “Winner of the Booker Prize” stamped on its cover will typically result in me making a purchase (granted no one wrote on the pages, cracked the spine, or did something weird to it). Long story short, I picked up Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam at a used bookstore a few weeks ago.

Amsterdam was published in 1998 and awarded the Booker Prize that year. I’m quite surprised that it’s taken me this long to read the book as Disgrace and The God of Small Things, two books very high on my “ohmigod youhavetoreadthesetheyarebrilliantandlifechangingandperfect” list, flank it on the list of recipients. I’ve never read anything by McEwan. I’ve seen Atonement and I own the book, but I haven’t read it yet so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Amsterdam is a chilling dark comedy that is both wickedly brilliant and devastatingly cruel at the same time. Shakespeare would have eaten this book up; I kid you not. (Actually, Shakespeare would have stolen the concept, rewritten it as a play, given McEwan no credit, and still leave his second best bed to his wife.) The plot is interesting, the language playful & dark, and the characters far too self-absorbed and shallow for the reader to grow attached to them. The reader does not read this book hoping to find some “great answer” to ethical issues; they read to discover who will kill who first in this friendship - pact gone array. The reader does not care who dies; they merely want to know the details.

When Molly Lane (lovely photographer and food critic) dies of a disease that eats at her brain and makes her insane and unable to make decisions for herself, two of her dearest friends (and former lovers) make a pact: if ever either of them finds themselves in a similar situation, the other will take them to Amsterdam where assisted suicide is legal. Readers are not dimwitted, for the most part, and realize as soon as this agreement is made that someone will die. But will it be Clive Linley, the composer, or Vernon Halliday, the newspaper editor, who loses his sensibilities and requires the help of his dearest friend to end his suffering?

Julian Garmony, conservative Foreign Secretary vying for PM, and Molly’s stuffy but rich widow George Lane also play prominent roles in this novel. In fact, it appears that Garmony is the one who may reach his demise. You see, Molly took compromising photos of Garmony dressed as a woman, a rather seductive woman. After she dies, her husband finds them and sells them to Halliday to publish in his newspaper in order to ruin Garmony’s chances at PM. Halliday is excited, aroused even, at the prospect of his paper having such political power and plans this huge spectacle. He wants to destroy Garmony’s career and personal life. Linley is horrified that his friend would publish the photos. He argues that doing so is dishonoring Molly’s memory. Halliday pretty much tells him to fuck off.

Linley is not an upstanding citizen ruled by morality either. While walking and composing what he thinks to be his finest masterpiece, he witnesses a serial rapist attacking a girl. Instead of stopping the attack or trying to help her, he retreats and finds a rock on which to write out the melody that was playing in his head. The attack was background noise that he blocked out before he lost “the moment.” Halliday finds this morally repulsing and threatens to have him arrested. Linley pretty much tells him to fuck off.

The two friends become fast enemies, each questioning the others sense of rational. During this time, Halliday’s big day at the paper is ruined when Garmony and his lovely family have a press conference and release the photos prior to publication in the newspaper. Halliday is robbed of his big moment and looks like a douche. He loses his job. Linley’s composition is horrible and a rip-off of Beethoven. After Halliday’s involvement, the police question Linley about the attack and he is relatively useless to the investigation , but he feels he has done a good deed.

The two men have fallen and fallen hard. Their friendship is more than rocky; it has become dangerous. They meet in Amsterdam, both supposedly there for other purposes, and trick each other into the same fate. As they are dying, both men have visions of fame and glory and see Molly.

Garmony survives the ordeal, and George is smugly content that three of his wife’s past lovers have received their proper punishment - Garmony with the embarrassing photos, and Halliday and Linley with their own murder/suicides. The novel ends with Lane thinking about when the appropriate time would be to ask Halliday’s widow out and planning the guest list for Molly’s memorial service. He’s cold, calculating, and redeemed by his silent revenge – a brilliantly crafted character.

Some have called this book shallow and not worthy of the Booker Prize. While admittedly a good read, they argue it is not McEwan’s finest work. There is some speculation that he was awarded the Booker Prize because the committee felt guilty for ignoring his previous work, which is undoubtedly (according to most) brilliant. Having not read anything else by McEwan, I cannot weigh in on that debate. I found the novel well-written, pleasantly sugar-free, and satisfying. McEwan doesn’t ruin his work by filling the pages with unnecessary drivel and space-filling sub-plots. He is a talented author who understands the power of words and when to use them sparingly. At under 200 pages, Amsterdam makes for a good afternoon read with a cup of coffee
The Wild Girl - Jim Fergus (2/14/2009)
I’ve always been fascinated with Native American cultures; this is my father’s doing. This fascination prompted me to read Jim Fergus’s first novel, One Thousand White Women: The Journals of Mary Dodd, published in 1998, back when I was in high school. The book is but a foggy memory at this point as many a novel has been read over this near decade, but I remember being unable to put it down. The novel revolves around a fictional government program that sent 1,000 white women out to wed and civilize the Cheyenne. The program was suggested by the tribe as a means to help them assimilate. It was presented to Ulysses Grant – 1,000 white women for 1,000 horses. The government didn’t exactly accept the program, but some women opted to go out west and save the savages anyway. Mary Dodd, a beautiful & intelligent woman who had been institutionalized for bearing children out of wedlock to a man beneath to her status, decided savages were better than the insanity that awaited her. So the city girl from Chicago joined the group of women who headed out west to increase the Cheyenne population and assist the tribe(s) in assimilating into the white man’s world. Mary Dodd becomes the wife of Little Wolf, a Cheyenne chief, and finds herself torn between two worlds, two cultures, and two loves. It’s a fantastic novel that, oddly enough, has received more attention in France than the US.

Fergus’s second novel, The Wild Girl, published in 2005, is based on factual events. In the late 1920s –early 1930s, Francisco Fimbres organized what was called Fimbres Apache Expedition. Billed as a safari, it appealed to wealthy Americans. They were to hunt Apaches in an effort to retrieve Fimbres’s son who had been kidnapped. The Mexican government intervened and canceled the expedition before Americans even made it over to Mexico. Fimbres launched his own campaign and went after the renegade Apaches. He not only never recovered the boy alive, who, by most accounts, had forgotten his Mexican life and had assimilated perfectly with the wild Apaches in the Sierra Madre Mountains , he was the one who reportedly found the dead boy hanging from a tree branch. Fergus uses the concept of the expedition and purpose to frame his novel; the Great Apache Expedition, with American and Mexican armies combined in purpose, issued invitations to members of all the white prestigious clubs across America. For $30 a day, they could join the expedition and kill Apaches. The purpose of the expedition is to recover the stolen child of a very wealthy man. Fergus’s fictional kidnapped boy meets the same fate as Frimbres’s son.

The story of the wild girl is also based on truth; Fergus was told the story by a very old Mexican in the late ‘90s. According to the story, a wild Apache girl had been treed by a lion hunter and his dogs in 1932. Uncertain what to do with her, he took her in to town where she was imprisoned and the townsfolk paid admission fees to see her. Her fate remains unknown or unspoken. This nameless wild girl was the basis for Chideh, the title character.

The plot of the story is relatively simple: Ned Giles, a city boy from Chicago, finds himself orphaned before he is 17. He works at a local club, serving the wealthy, and it is there he encounters the invitation to join the Great Apache Expedition. Because he is not rich, he is not invited, but he hopes to join the expedition as a paid photographer. He begins his journey to Douglas, Arizona where the expedition is forming. By sheer dumb luck, he gets the gig. He also encounters Tolley, a young homosexual Princeton man whose father is constantly trying to turn him into a man. Ned had met Tolley previously and the meeting resulted in Ned losing a job. (Ned took pictures of hunters and their prey – Tolley insisted on being photographed holding the bull’s penis – his father was outraged and demanded that Ned be fired.) The two establish an unlikely friendship. Margaret Hawkins, the young anthropologist also joining the expedition, is quickly embraced in their circle of friendship. A young boy, Jesus, aligns himself with Ned and joins him as a helper. Joseph and his grandson Albert, Apaches, are hired on as scouts. The rest of the expedition is made up of rich white boys, whores, and army men. It’s nothing more than a big safari with all the comforts of home. The expedition was a PR stunt to boast the failing economy.

As the expedition is forming, Billy Flowers, a crazy fanatic contract game hunter has treed the young girl and brought the “heathen” into town. (Flowers is described as looking like something straight out of the Old Testament. He believes that God told him to leave his wife and children and become a contract hunter. There is a horrible scene where he holds a trial for his dog, Tom, who lost the desire to hunt. The end result is a dead dog.) The girl is about 14 and dressed for her womanhood ceremony. Menstrual blood stains her legs and her beautiful dress is in shreds. Her village has been destroyed; her mother and aunt raped repeatedly and murdered before her eyes as she hid in the bushes. There is a bounty on Apache scalps and she watches as her loved ones are scalped. She is a fighter and a bit of a biter; she manages to sink her teeth in a young boy and the priest before she’s tossed in the jail cell and left to die. Ned comes to photograph her and is appalled at the stench and her obviously deteriorating state. The officials urge him not to enter her cell as she will bite him; Jesus is terrified of her. Ned not only enters the cell, he pays the jailer for more time with her and bathes her. It’s a very intimate moment. Ned describes it as taking care of a wounded animal.

Margaret hatches the scheme of trading the wild girl for the stolen boy; an even exchange. Tolley and his valet, Margaret, Ned, Jesus, Albert, and Joseph set off with the wild girl to find the renegade Apache camp and present the offer. They are attacked by the leader of the renegades, a crazy man named Indian Juan. They are all taken as captives. The renegades make it clear that Jesus and Margaret are safe. The men will be killed. It’s Apache tradition that male captives dance all night and are killed by the women and children in the morning. During the dance, the wild girl does a special dance with Ned – the marriage dance – thus sparing his life. He has sex with her later that night before escaping with Tolley and Albert to go back to the expedition for reinforcements. It is a frenzied sexual moment; she is breeding, the desire to build the numbers of the dwindling group is an ever present concern of the band.

The band’s main leader, Charley, is a white man – he is constantly disagreeing with Indian Juan. He had been captured as a 6 year old boy and remembers little of the white world. This character is also based on a real man. Rumors of the fate of that real Charley spread – some say he was killed, some say he lived out his days with the Apache and became quite a powerful figure; Fergus makes him a revered man of unquestionable power. Oddly enough, Charley was kidnapped by none other than Joseph. As a young man, Joseph’s tribe was attacked while he was away and he never knew what happened to his wife, his children, and the adopted white boy named Charley. There’s a small reunion. Margaret is given to Charley as a servant. This is at the wild girl’s request; Chideh knows the white woman who helped her will be safer with Charley than with Juan, who wants her something fierce.

The expedition falls apart and the rich little white boys scramble to get back home when people start dying and getting scalped. After escaping while the Apaches are drunk, Tolley tells Ned he’s going back to New York. Ned yells at him for abandoning his valet (who, unknown to Ned and Tolley, has already died by now) and their friends. Ned returns to the camp. (Well, he tries. He gets lost along the way but Chideh finds him and returns with him.) Tolley ends up not leaving and shows up to be a great source of comic relief and friendship. Charley nearly kills him, but Margaret knocks the gun out of his hands and the mismatched group of friends take over the camp and urge them to accept the white man’s offer.

Deals with the governments have never gone over well for the natives, and this deal is no different. There is a lot of bloodshed. The kidnapped boy is hung. Several of the expedition members are killed and scalped. Ned ends up killing Juan and scalping the bastard. The Apaches flee into the hills where the Mexicans & Americans cannot and will not go. Margaret chooses to stay with Charley and the band as the anthropologist in her cannot refuse the opportunity to live with the last renegade Apache group. Tolley returns to Princeton. Ned leaves. He knows he couldn’t have a life with Chideh and she couldn’t have a life with him. An epilogue tells us that she bore him a son and told this young boy about his amazing father and the amazing world he would return to them from one day. Ned began visiting the Apache reservation, telling them that he was married to an Apache girl and one day he would return to her. Fergus leaves it up to the reader to decide if he ever did.

Tolley is a bit of a caricature and a stereotypical “poufter” as he’s called by his valet. The women characters are not nearly as developed as they could be and at times, his efforts to characterize them seem forced (such as Margaret’s being raped repeatedly by her father—not that it happened, but how Fergus works the details into the story is forced). Nearly all the characters could have more substance to them, a bit more flesh to help them breathe.
(The character of Jesus is one well worth exploring in more detail, as is Billy Flowers. A study into the use of Christianity would also be quite interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or resources for such scholarship.)

The framework of the novel as a journal, told mostly by Ned Giles with a few entries by the young & pretty anthropologist, Margaret Hawkins, is undesirable. Ned is 17 during the novel and at times the entries seem amateurish and other times a bit too flowery and unrealistic. I question the framework because it seems to limit Fergus and paints Ned as a bit of an unreliable narrator; how much can you trust the words of a 17 year old? On the flip-side of the argument- Ned’s naivety and fresh-faced youth combined with his photographer’s eye might possibly be the best way to tell the story of the wild Apaches – I just wish it hadn’t been framed by the journal entries, seems too much of a cheap trick. I think it’s unfortunate that Fergus relies on the technique of telling his story thru journal entries; as a freelance journalist, I think he uses this writing technique because it’s “safe” territory for him. Regardless of what I view as an unfavorable framework, Fergus still manages to capture most of his characters with such ease and his writing is easy to digest. He avoids unnecessary descriptions and lets his story thrive on well-developed characters and their humanity or inhumanity, as the case sometimes is. The Wild Girl, published in the UK as The Last Apache Girl, does not disappoint though it may leave its readers with a feeling of emptiness.
Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero - William Makepeace Thackeray (2/12/2009)
William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero intrigued me at first; the novel was like a new lover – interesting, at first, and well worth the time invested. But the love grew boring and tedious; reading this novel became a chore for me. I didn’t want to take Thackeray to bed anymore. Since I don’t not finish novels, I begrudgingly read it on and off for the past month – it’s absurd that it’s taken me this long, and my other novels are weeping. (In Thackeray’s defense, it wasn’t just my unwillingness to read his work; I was a bit preoccupied with pretty boys and college basketball.)

The novel was published from 1847-48 and its original serialization explains all the filler; Dickens did the same thing but Dickens did it better. This book made me want to scream. I hated Becky Smart. It’s an understandable response; Thackeray creates her to be hated, but he initially lures the reader into being on her side so it stings a bit more when you realize what a callous little wench she is. Becky uses and abuses every person who comes into her life who may serve as a rung on the ladder to riches & societal recognition. She tricks Rawdon into marrying her, fools around with everyone and anyone. She has a kid she hates and pushes away but will call on his name in a heartbeat to appeal to the softies for money/love/attention. She’s a bitch and, when push comes to shove, she’s no more than a common whore. Mid-way through the novel, I found myself hoping Thackeray would off her. With only 25 pages left, I was all but pleading that she be found floating face down in some river. But no, death’s too good for her; Becky ends up
selling trinkets at the fair (after murdering Jos and running out of his money).

Amelia Sedly is nauseatingly sweet & prim & proper. I loathed her. I didn’t even care when her husband starting screwing around with Becky. (Yes, Becky is her BFF – talk about your early GOSSIP GIRL episode…) She gets pregnant, her husband dies (thank goodness), she has a son who is the spitting image of his father, they have no money anymore, blahblahblahblah, poorsadexcuseforalifeandaplot. Her in-laws hated her and the marriage because her family fell from societal grace prior to the wedding and they did not want their son to marry her anymore because the Sedlys were nothing. He disobeyed his family and his father dropped him cold. (Same thing happened to Rawdon, interestingly enough) Woe. Sad. Gnashing of teeth. The paternal grandfather falls in love with his grandson; he uses the boy as a means to atone for the way he treated his son. Amelia, Emmy, ends up giving the boy to him to raise so that little Georgy can have everything the world has to offer. *Gag.* There’s other domestic drama with her parents. A horrible scene where she buys her son books and her mother goes nuts because they don’t have any food to eat. Blahblahblah. The best part of the book is when Becky tells her that her dead husband, the guy Emmy’s been deifying, had cheated on her less than a week after marrying her. Or when Dobbins finally realizes that Emmy isn’t worth that love he’s been harboring for her for over a decade. “No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too, bartering away my all of truth and ardour against your little feeble remnant of love. I will bargain no more: I withdraw.” Thank you, Dobbin, for finding your balls after 15 years.

So Becky does do a good deed and get Emmy and Dobbs back together, but Dobbs never loves her the same. (Thackeray wasn’t a fan of the happy ending.)

There are other characters – none of them too pleasant or likeable, to be quite honest. Jos is a fat joke who Becky plays like the piano she uses to charm so many. Rawdon is not that impressive at first, but he actually becomes a pretty decent guy toward the end; his treatment of his son is his redeeming quality (or it was until he gives his son up to take an assignment overseas where he dies).

There are war and death and sex and plays and lots of alcohol. There are cards and duels and ponies and religious sermons. There are pretty dresses, French phrases, and dogs. There are jewels and French-maids who make off with them. There are flowers and dancing and tears and funerals. There are lies and half-truths and tainted love.

It only took 680 pages… (Yawn.)

I shouldn’t bash it so much; it really wasn’t THAT bad. It’s late and I’m in a bad mood. (Speaking of which, I also apologize for any ramblings/errors/etc that could occur under such conditions.) I understand why Thackeray wanted such a lengthy novel (more installments = more money), but one could easily condense this novel down, scale back on some of minor plots, and flesh out a killer story on the parallels between Emmy and Becky – I wouldn’t read it, but someone could totally do it.

That said, there’s no way this novel was not on Mitchell’s mind when she wrote Gone with the Wind in 1936. She swears she didn’t read it until after her novel was published, but the similarities between Becky & Scarlett and Melanie & Emmy are not coincidental. Mitchell’s book is FAR better and not nearly as vain, however.
I Know this Much is True - Wally Lamb (12/06/2008)

Wally Lamb leapt into the literary scene in 1992 with the publication of She’s Come Undone. Oprah featured the novel in her book club in 1997, and, for a brief period of time, Lamb became somewhat of a household name. Though critically acclaimed, Lamb’s first novel has not made it on my list of “must-reads.” I did, however, pick up his sophomore attempt at a used bookstore a couple of years ago. My copy of I Know This Much is True is in excellent condition - a nice hardback with an intact dust jacket and pages that look like they have never been turned and all for $4. (I love used bookstores when I can find books no one has read - hehe.)

Published in 1998 and featured in Oprah’s book club that same year, I Know This Much is True is a bit different from She’s Come Undone, which was praised for its in-depth representation of a woman’s journey to self-discovery. I Know This Much is True is the story of Dominick Birdsey and the demons that nearly destroy him. He learns that he must overcome his demons to change his life, that until he does, he will suffocate and destroy those around him.

The first “demon” introduced to the reader is Dominick’s schizophrenic identical twin, Thomas. Thomas cuts his hand off to protest the first US invasion of Iraq, which results in a more permanent stay at the crazy-house. (The book is set in the early ‘90s and has many political references to the time period – the Rodney King beating factors in quite a bit, but mostly the story is framed by Iraq and the first Bush.) Being the identical twin of a crazy brother has nearly driven Dominick crazy. He is riddled with guilt that he came out normal; is terrified that he really is just as crazy and the insanity is just a bit slower in manifesting itself; is jealous of the attention and love their mother lavished on Thomas; is frustrated and so angry at having to always be his protector; and is heartbroken with the fear that he failed both Thomas and their mother.

The “unknown” father is a bit of demon, but Ray, the stepfather and the man who helped raised the boys, is very much a monster in Dominick’s eyes. Ray was a bit of a bully who occasionally beat both his wife and the twins. A veteran, Ray had anger issues and could not tolerate the “sissification” of the twins. Dominick knew how to play Ray; he was into sports and was the typical jock. But he sacrificed his sweeter brother to Ray time after time to protect himself – he called it “playing defense,” something his brother did not know how to do. His mother babied Thomas and they would play tea parties upstairs when Ray was not home. Dominique was not invited and his mother bribed him into silence with sweet treats because she knew how Ray would respond to such “play.” One day, riddled with jealousy over what he saw as his mother loving his brother more, Dominique destroyed the kitchen and was padding through spilt flour and sugar when Ray walked in. He told Ray what was happening upstairs. This tattling resulted in his mother’s broken arm and Thomas being locked in the closet for hours. This, among others, is part of the guilt that gnaws at Dominique the adult. He wonders if such treatment of his brother caused the chemical imbalance. After Thomas’s death, Dominique attacks Ray and accuses them both of being the cause. But Ray is not really a bad man, even when the twins were growing up. He did have anger issues, but he also tried the best he could. Dominique’s biggest problem with Ray is that Ray is not his real father and Dominique’s anger at the unnamed man is redirected at the man who stepped in to take his place.

Other demons include his ex-wife, their dead baby, the divorce, and her new relationship; his new girlfriend, Joy, who cheats on him with her bisexual half-uncle, tries to convince Dominick that she’s pregnant with his baby (impossible – after Angela died of SID, he’d gotten a vasectomy out of fear and anger), and admits to letting her bisexual half-uncle hide in the closet and watch them have sex on more than one occasion; Ralph Drinkwater, the Native American half-breed who eventually establishes some sort of friendship with Dominique only to be sold to the cops so Dom can save his own ass one summer while home from college; also a twin, Ralph Drinkwater has a very prominent role in Dom’s life and in Dom’s healing process; Dom’s grandfather, a man who dies before the twins are born, who writes his legacy and life-story out as his penance – Dom’s mother gives him the Italian manuscript that Dom eventually gets translated, loses, and then rediscovers—the last half of the book is Dom’s life intermixed with the story he’s reading about what he learns is a very horrible man; and the manuscript also becomes a demon.

So obvious are Dom’s demons and the ways in which he clings to them, his shrink, Dr. Patel, calls him out about them. After Dom plays the tape Joy left him regarding how she betrayed him, Dr. Patel says, “So, you are not so much interested in exploring your feelings about Joy’s betrayal. Or the failure of your relationship. You are merely giving me a tour of the museum… Your museum of pain. Your sanctuary of justifiable indignation… We all superintend such a place, I suppose… although some of us are more painstaking curators than others. That is the category in which I would certainly place you, Dominick. You are a meticulous steward of the pain and injustices people have visited upon you. Of, if you prefer, we could call you a scrupulous coroner” (578-579). Dominick becomes very angry and confused at her honesty, but Dr. Patel does not stop serving her tough love: “There’s the monument to your having suffered a shared childhood with Thomas. And the frequently visited exhibit of your stepfather’s many injustices. And, of course, the piece de resistance: your shrine to your ex-wife… The Dominick Birdsey Museum of Injustice and Misery, open year-round” (579).

After Dr. Patel’s harsh assessment, Dom eventually gets his shit together and lets go of the demons that have controlled his life. He forgives Ray, Thomas, and their mother; he finishes the manuscript; he finds out the identity of his father (a Drinkwater); he strengthens his relationship with Ralph and actively seeks to understand the tribal beliefs that make up one-half of who is he; he wins back Dessa, his ex-wife; he forgives Joy and adopts her child after she dies of AIDS; everything comes full circle and he heals.

I must confess to some initial discomfort to how Lamb neatly ties everything up. It seems a bit like a cheap plot device, but then I focused on the continued emphasis on things be circular and round. The first lesson Ralph gives Dom concerning how to be a Wequonnoc concerns this very thing: “Wequonnocs pray to roundness… Wholeness. The cycles of the moon, the seasons. We thank the Great Creator for the new life and for the life it sprang from. The past and the future, cinched together. The roundness of things” (883). It is a beautiful idea and one I can accept as a reason for making the plot so round in nature.

Maybe it is a bit of cheap trick to conclude a very intense novel, but I am beginning to find it fitting. After all, “I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family’s, and my country’s past, holding in my hands these truths: that love grows from the rich loam of forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things… This much, at least, I’ve figured out. I know this much is true” (897).
The Virgin of Flames - Chris Abani (9/21/2008)
Chris Abani was born in Nigeria in 1966 and imprisoned several times by the government, often tortured and once sentenced to death, for political treason. The reason? His first novel, written when he was just an adolescent. After escaping prison and thwarting assassins, he made his way to London (a rite of passage for those once colonized by the Mother Country), New York and California. He currently teaches at the University of California, Riverside. He is in exile – a man who can really never go home again – and yet another example of a writer who has molded a phenomenal talent out of his tragedies.
I haven’t read
Masters of the Board, the novel that resulted in Abani having to leave Nigeria for good, but I have read Graceland (2004) and The Virgin of Flames (2007). Graceland is a modern Things Fall Apart. The story of Elvis, a Nigerian Elvis-impersonator, and his struggles with Nigerian culture and the torrent of the western world in his country is heartbreakingly funny – a true black comedy. The Virgin of Flames contains many of the same elements – tragically funny with characters torn between cultures.

The novel’s protagonist is Black – the son of Igbo man and a Salvadorian mother who never felt much like he belonged ANYWHERE. He was not always Black – before Vietnam, before his father left and never came back, before his mother grew crazy with religion, before the tumor destroyed her goodness and light, he was Obinna. Obinna means “Father’s heart” in Igbo. His mother changed his name when his father went missing in Vietnam. Black’s memories of his father are fragmented and uncertain. His father was a scientist, still in school, but working for NASA. He was never home and when he was, he was fighting with Black’s mother. But there were brief moments of unity between father and son – a night under the stars, a letter written from a dead man – these are memories Black clings to and he wears the letter from his father around his neck like a talisman. Black, then Obinna, was dressed as a girl to ward off bad spirits (this is what his father explains in the letter). This was not uncommon in Africa, but in the culturally disjointed childhood Obinna had, it had consequences. As an adult, he took to wearing female clothes because they made him feel safe and protected.

Black is an
overweight, self-conscious, typical artist. He questions his sexuality, seeks meaning in his life, and wants the ultimate release. He constantly threatens suicide, but has no intentions of killing himself. His landlord/friend, Iggy, confronts him near the end of the novel when he is begging for her attention: “I don’t mean to be harsh, Black, but you’re not suicidal. If you were, you would have killed yourself by now. No, I think you’re too much of a coward to kill yourself, but what’s worse is that you’re also too much of a coward to live.” Another friend, Bomboy, (a man with serious demons – as a child, he was part of the civil war in Rwanda and was forced to chop people up or be killed. He resides in the states illegally and has an amazingly successful butcher shop) gets in an argument with Black: “But you have nothing,” Bomboy said, spitting at Black’s feet. “You don’t even have shame. Without your shame, you have no people, without people you have no lineage, without a lineage you have no ancestors, without ancestors you have no dead and without the dead you can never know anything about life. All you have is ash. And you know what happens to ash when the wind blows. It is I who pity you. I may be many things that can be despised, but I am still better than you because I know my shame.”

Black is a tragic character, lost between worlds he never knew, who is unable to find himself because he does not know where he came from. He dresses as a woman, paints his face white and puts on a blonde wig. He stands on his “spaceship” and is spotted – the faithful believe him to be the Virgin and begin to camp out, hoping he’ll bless them and make them whole. He continues the charade even though he knows it is wrong. He is raped at gunpoint; forced to give head before being pushed to the ground and being taken from behind. He finds the experience somewhat sexually exciting and exhilarating and his reaction terrifies him. He is so afraid of being “gay.” He falls for a transsexual stripper, Sweet Girl, and he is fine with her being a guy until he has to deal with her penis. It actually isn’t seeing her penis that angers him; it is when she shows him how to tuck and tape his penis, how to suck his balls up and away, how to create a “vagina.” Iggy’s wedding dress, which Black ganked, is slipped over his head and Sweet Girl makes up his face. Standing there with his manhood put away, Sweet Girl, her penis dangling, laughs at him and calls him “gay” and her “bitch.” Black responds like a man and punches her. Sweet Girl commenting on his tiny dick probably didn’t do much for his self-esteem. (She argues that God gives big men tiny dicks so women won’t feel like they’re being fucked by a bull.) They fight. She ends up stabbing him with his sewing scissors after throwing turpentine at him. He escapes to the top of the “spaceship” and the faithful below believe it to be another sighting of the Virgin. Black drops his cigarette and the turpentine-soaked dress goes up in flames: “a woman on fire.” A Virgin on fire – this is obviously important to the release of Black. As a child, he set a Virgin statue on fire to free her. Going up in flames, does he find freedom? Meaning? Release? Or is he just another lost victim?

Abani creates other memorable characters: Iggy, she hangs from metal hooks on her back and tattoos physic readings into her guests, and Bomboy are just as developed and interesting as Black. Ray-Ray, the black dwarf who works at Iggy’s store, appears briefly as some comic relief (seriously –how funny is a black dwarf who quotes Raymond Chandler while serving coffee on stilts?), but his death and Black’s response to Iggy’s reaction is a turning point in the novel. (Ray-Ray dies of an addiction to “wet” – formaldehyde-soaked joints.) Sweet Girl and Black’s dead mother are also carefully developed and work to define Black for the reader in powerful but not constrictive ways. Perhaps the most vibrant character is LA – the sights, sounds, and colors used are bursting with life – bleak despair with brilliant hope create an excellent canvas to paint this novel about a “lost” artist.

Like Graceland, The Virgin of Flames leaves its reader emotionally spent. It’s not as good as Graceland, but it packs a powerful punch.
Getting Stoned with Savages - J. Maarten Troost (7/28/2008)

J. Maarten Troost is by far my favorite travel writer. I picked up The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific (2004) on a whim a couple of years ago. Borders was doing their “buy 2 get 1 free,” a sale invented for addicts like me, and I caved and purchased six from their selection. Lucky for me, Troost’s first book ended up in my grubby (well not really grubby as I am a touch anal about my books and what touches them) hands. It was genius; I simply could not put it down and I laughed so hard milk (or beer, memory fails me) came out of my nose. Troost is that kind of writer; he’s like that drunk friend of yours who always has the best stories to tell. You cannot help but love him. Hell, I want to go drinking with him.

About a year ago, I saw Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (2006) and I had to make it mine. After finishing Paton off the other night, I knew I needed something that would make me lol all over myself and there you were, sweet Troost. Getting Stoned exhibits the same brilliance as his first work and I’m hoping that Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid (2008), recently purchased and not yet arrived, continues this trend of genius. (When I publish my book – either Kiss my Lotus: One White Girl Lost in the City that makes Hard Men Humble or Me & My Motorcyclin’ Mormons: Adventures in the Land of Smiles – it is Troost I want to write my blurb.)

In The Sex Lives, Troost follows his then-girlfriend, Sylvia, to the atoll of Kiribati. They pretend they are married so he can join her for her job. In Getting Stoned, he has been itching to get out of the business world of DC Hell and, having married Sylvia (he figured they did such a good job at pretending, why not), he urges his wife to find another job in the South Pacific.

Just before the start of the book, the reader finds a disclaimer that reads:

“The author acknowledges that he is not Bob Woodward. Mr. Woodward is scrupulous with names and dates. This author is not. Mr. Woodward would never suggest that something happened in October, when, in fact, it occurred in April. This author would. Mr. Woodward recounts conversations as they actually occurred. This author would like to do that, but alas, he does not excel at penmanship and he cannot read his notes. However, the author has an excellent memory. You can trust him.”

This is indicative of Troost’s writing style; it is full of biting humor and has a wink-wink-nudge-nudge personality that makes it the perfect book to take to bed with you.

Troost opens the work by admitting that he is an “unapologetic escapist.” After returning to DC from Kiribati, he finds himself missing life in the South Pacific and even thoughts of swimming in the same water the natives shat in cannot sway him. He wants to go back. Working in DC, he is forced to take a long, hard look at himself and comes to the realization that he does not want to be there, that he has no desire to be yet another monkey in a suit.

“…when I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed my gray suit, my Brooks Brothers shirt, my silk tie, and my soft leather Italian shoes, I realized that I was not such a person. I felt like a tourist, dreamily walking through a life that was not meant to be mine. Some people are attracted to power. I would rather be plucking a ukulele on a faraway beach. I was not a soft-leather-Italian-shoe kind of man. I was a flip-flop man.”

When the company decides not to renew his contract (he is a consultant and bringing in nice $$$), it is very clear that Sylvia is going to have to take them on a new adventure. They planned on Fiji. They had passed through there on their way back to the States after living in Kiribati and they had enjoyed it. It sounded like a paradise and a place for Troost to work on his book about their time on the atoll. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the political climate in Fiji took a turn for the worse. The couple headed to Vanuatu instead.

On Vanuatu, they learn about cannibals (the last recorded incident was in 1969, which, as Troost points out, indicates that there should be people alive who dined on human flesh for fun), kava (this is how Troost gets stoned – kava roots are chewed by young boys, mixed with water, passed through a sock, and served in a shell. A man’s man takes it one whole shell at a time. A sissy boy or a woman takes it in half-shells. The first time Troost enjoys Vanuatu kava, he does not come back down for two days. It is some powerful shit and he becomes a fast fan once he learns how to consume it in moderation), they stand on the rim of an active volcano (they also haul ass back down with the thing blubbers and spits at them), and they find out Sylvia is pregnant. It is an odd place for the pair, who reside as expats whom the natives call “master,” which is quite disturbing to the foot-loose and fancy-free, equality for all, Troost.

Vanuatu is not the best place to deliver a child and when Sylvia reaches the point where she looks like she has swallowed a volleyball, they decide that Fiji has calmed down enough for them. Fiji starts off on an interesting note; Troost goes in a week ahead of Sylvia and, in less than 24 hours, is accosted by cross-dressing prostitutes. The fear of being sodomized results in the flee scenario. Luckily for Troost, his would-be attackers are not willing to remove their heels to chase him.

Fiji is not all bad and their son Lukas is born in a Fijian hospital. He becomes Troost’s little ratu, little chief – which, as Troost learns the hard way, is not what he should call the baby in front of real ratus.

At the end of the novel, the escapist longs for his roots. He realizes that there is no real paradise and they will forever spend their days looking for it. They decide to create their own paradise by settling in and making a home for their little boy; they decide to return to America.
Cry, the Beloved Country - Alan Paton (7/27/2008)
Published in 1948, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country has been called “the most famous and important novel in South Africa’s History.” My experience with South African literature pre-apartheid, aside from Sarah Gertrude Millin’s God’s Stepchildren (1924), is quite limited. Paton’s novel was published just prior to apartheid becoming law and the development of this horrendous law is carefully detailed in unobtrusive yet still chaotic ways. The book was banned in South Africa; the South African government has always detested literature that shines too bright a light on the dirty underbelly of such a beautiful country.

A white man, Paton picked up the cause for equality and founded the South African Liberal Party, which the National Party eventually disbanded because it had both white & black members. (Apartheid was a bitch of legislation.) However, Cry, the Beloved Country was published and making its way across the world before apartheid officially reared her ugly head.

The novel is about a black pastor, Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu, who lives and preaches to his people in the tiny village of Ndotshéni. Ndotshéni is typical of most South African native villages in that the people are poor, the food is scarce, and the youth flee into a city that swallows them. Stephen Kumalo’s son and sister have both vanished into Johannesburg with not so much as a letter in months. The novel opens with Stephen learning that his sister is ill and that he must go to her. He and his wife pool their scant resources to prepare for a trip he does not know how long will take. The money they had been saving for a stove and new parson’s robes all go to getting him to the city. There, he knows he will also seek out his son, Absalom. He is worry-filled, as he knows not what he will find.

When he gets to Johannesburg, after a long awe-filled train ride, he is robbed in a clever way; a young man tells him he will buy the bus ticket for him at the ticket office if he will hold their place in line. Stephen, trusting of strangers, agrees and hands over some money. The young man never returns; Stephen later learns there is not ticket office and that tickets are purchased on the bus. The journey does not improve for the man: he discovers his sister’s illness is that she is a whore who has been arrested for making &
selling liquor. Her son lives in squalor with her and other women of the same tainted occupation. Stephen, though a pastor, is also human and is mortified at the shame his sister has placed on him. He pulls them both from the “home” and they move in where he is staying with Mrs. Lithébe, a generous lady and friend of the Church. He also seeks out his brother John because he learns that Absalom remained friends with his cousin, John’s son. John is a changed man; he has abandoned the Church and God and taken on a very political role in Johannesburg. He can move masses with his voice and the power is slowly corrupting him. The government is biding its time before rushing in and arresting him. Stephen is amazed at the changes in both his brother and sister, changes that he blames on the city. He learns about his son, learns that he is running with bad company, has been sent to a reformatory, and has impregnated a woman not his wife.

The novel details the steps Stephen has to take in finding Absalom. He eventually does; his son is arrested for killing a white man, the worse crime imaginable. He did not intend to kill the man, but was startled and fired. The young man he killed was a huge advocate for equal rights and well known the world over for his writings on the subject. (This young man had an obsession with Abraham Lincoln and his library is filled with book after book – I am sure I do not have to explain the importance of this.) It was friendly fire – Absalom took the life of someone who was fighting for him, not against him. To make it worse (or better), the young man grew up on a farm just outside of Ndotshéni and his father, Jarvis, is well known to both Absalom and Stephen.

Stephen and Jarvis, the murderer’s father and the deceased’s father, develop a tentative relationship when Stephen returns home with his sister’s son (his sister has left, back to her old her life) and his son’s pregnant wife (they had someone marry them while he was in jail). He also creates a relationship with the dead man’s son, a young boy whose father had been teaching Zulu. Jarvis, a man who had never shook hands with a black man until his son’s funeral, picks up his son’s legacy. He provides Ndotshéni with milk to keep the young healthy. He promises to build a better church. He establishes a dam and brings in educators to teach the youth how to farm so that they will not leave for the city. As for Absalom, he is sentenced to death by hanging.

The novel is written in a slightly chaotic style, with dashes to indicate dialogue. This gives the novel a rushed pace, a sense of spiraling uncontrollably into something that cannot be stopped.

I will leave you with a quote, one of the few that title was born of:

“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”
Cellophane - Marie Arana (3/27/2008)

Last night, I completed Cellophane, an excellent example of South American fiction and a debut novel for Marie Arana. Arana is best known for her memoir American Chica, which I have not read. Rumor has it, her first novel takes the vibrant details and life of American Chica and exaggerates them, breathes new life in them, casts in them in new shades, and successfully crosses over into the realm of fiction.

It’s an intoxicating read. Set in Peru, the novel has an exotic life to it. How much do I love novels that breathe? It’s a playful read – a teasing novel that winks at you over its shoulder and beckons you to join the darker side. It’s a perfect example of what makes South American literature so irresistible. Her jungle is full of Natives, shamans, witchdoctors, poison darts, crocodiles, monkeys, parrots, sex, gringos, rebellion, debauchery, the virgin, and paper. Lots of paper.

Cellophane centers around Victor Sobrevilla, who as a young engineer seeks out his fortune by making a paper factory in the jungle, and his family. Issues with race come up early and Victor’s younger sister is born with slant eyes and yellow skin; his mother can no longer hide her Chinese heritage and the family is shunned. His father gets shot while visiting the local whore for her talents in the bearded oyster, a scandalous sex act. He is buried a hero. Victor’s young sister is killed when the carnival comes to town. But the secret of his ancestry is exposed when the “evil eye” descends upon his hacienda. It’s not the only secret exposed; no one can stop themselves from telling the truth. Husbands admit to not loving their wives. Priests admit to scandalous love affairs in the woods. Privileged light skinned men admit to “coolie” grandparents. There is something appealing about the truth-telling, but it results in the destruction of the factory. (There is an excellent conversation where Victor’s son, Jaime, is expressing love for a native – from the headshrinkers tribe – who has sought refuge with the local shaman. He thinks his father is against it because of her skin color. Victor explains that flesh can lie; he is part Chinese yet his flesh doesn’t reveal it. He maintains that flesh is nothing. It’s a beautiful sentiment. His refusal to accept Jaime’s love is due to the fact Jaime is married already and it’s a sin against God.)The sex in this novel is brilliant. There is a scene where Victor's daughter, Graciella, is preparing to have sex withe Luis, the American cartographer. She is married and unknown to her, her bastard of a husband (who has been MIA for five years) is lurking in bushes. Also in the bushes is a tribesman with his poison darts. He sees the American, tan and blonde, and thinks he is a god. Then he sees Graciella, wearing nothing but cellophane. The moon winks against the cellophane, her womanhood is described as being the color of a mango. The native thinks he is watching the coupling of gods and begins to slip away. He then sees Nestor and realizes Nestor intends to kill the golden god. He silently darts him. Later, Nestor's shrunken head appears as a necklace. Great stuff. The relationships are cleverly detailed, created, and maintained. The use of animals is genius and something else I adore about South American literature. The laughing mastiff cracks me up.

There is a fantastic scene where Victor is explaining why he decided to start making cellophane (all the problems started the day he created the first perfect piece). It’s the ability to see through it that appeals to him; cellophane doesn’t conceal anything and neither do the people in his life anymore. But what you learn is that cellophane distorts what it holds, the true truth is not revealed. And so the honesty of the hacienda begins to cause problems as the truths become twisted, distorted, and misplaced.

I loved the life of this book. Arana is an excellent story teller. Reading her novel is like spiraling through the jungle on the back of a wild animal. You just hold on and wait, breathless, for what’s going to happen at the end.
The Last Samurai - Helen DeWitt (3/30/2008)

Published in 2000, Helen DeWitt’s first novel is intelligently intriguing. The Last Samurai is a chaotic masterpiece that is often a bit of a brilliant mess. I’m a compulsive book-buyer; I choose the books that fill my shelves by several methods, some of which are quite shallow and sometimes it is all about the connection I have with the author or with the authors who have contributed blurbs. In the case of TLS, the cover initially captivated me; set on a black background, a samurai sword runs its length. The font is large and in white, except for the word “samurai,” which stands out in a blood red. Simple and stunning. I have always loved white on black print. I flipped the book over and read the back:

“An exhilaratingly literate and playful first novel. Ms. DeWitt joins Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, and Michael Chabon in going to the head of this year’s class of flamboyantly ambitious novelists whose adventurousness spins out on an epic scale.” - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Hrrmm… I love Zadie Smith. And Eggers is quite remarkable. (Who doesn’t love a memoir with fictional elements?!?!?) And, if we’re being honest, the book was in the bargain bin at Borders. I’ll drop a buck fifty for a book that calls on the names of Smith & Eggers.

TLS revolves around Sibylla, an American who flees to England to escape her family and motels. Too smart for her own good, she’s tragically funny. She sleeps with a guy because it would be “rude not to” and gets pregnant. The son she calls Ludo (though she can’t remember if his birth certificate says Stephen, Steve, David, or Dave) is a genius. When the novel begins, her five-year old son is begging her to teach him Japanese.

The first part of the novel is told in a rather jarring style as the prose is broken up with Ludo’s interruptions. Usually he is pleading to learn something – five more Greek words, a few more Japanese characters, etc. Eventually, Ludo takes over the telling of his story and the reader learns that he is on the search to find out his father. We know his father even though she does not call him by name. We know that she was drunk and that she slept with him to keep from being rude. We know she spent hours composing a letter that ended with “must dash! S~~~” She didn’t want to sign her name because she thought there was an excellent chance he’d never caught it. She left while he was asleep and that was that.

Ludo eventually learns the identity of his father and decides to go meet the man. Surrounded by his father’s things, his father’s life, Ludo realizes this cannot be his father – he is too mediocre and a HORRIBLE writer. He wants another one. He holds no respect for this man and wishes he’d listened to Sib when she’d told him it didn’t matter who his father was. After he met with his father, he hunted down famous men, smart men, and introduced himself as their son. It was a game for him, something he centered on a scene from the Seven Samurai. (The whole novel revolves around this movie as the single mother uses it to provide her son with male role models.) These last sections are the best of the entire novel as these men and Ludo’s interactions with them is so skillfully told. DeWitt seems at her best in these sections.

The novel is extremely intellectually stimulating and is not for every one. Many would be alienated by the use of several different languages, math jargon, and other such information the genius boy provides his readers with. If you have time and patience (and want to know how to teach a boy how to read Greek), this book is for you. If Nicholas Sparks is your favorite author ever, do not pick up this book.
Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart (6/7/2008)
Shteyngart’s novel is brilliantly absurd and unruly; I adored it. A blurb on the back from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls it “a Monster Truck Rally of a satire, sort of Jonathan Swift does South Park…” The story is about Misha, a porky Russian Jew, and his strong desire to leave Russia and return to the states. He ends up in the fictional land of Absurdistan and becomes involved in a civil war that is fabricated to get US attention. (Unfortunately, US attention goes to countries whose names can be used for children: Rwanda, Bosnia – Absurdistan does not make a good name for a child.) The novel is written as his love letter and plea to be allowed back in the US.

The author, Gary Shteyngart, (author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook) puts himself in Absurdistan as an unseen but very present professor who is one of the main villains in Misha’s life. Jerry Shteynfarb, the author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job, is a professor at the college where Misha sends his ghetto-fab girlfriend Rouenna. Rouenna eventually leaves Misha for her professor and ends up pregnant and begging Misha to take her back as Jerry has taken a teaching job in France. One of the best lines is Misha’s response to the email from Rouenna:

“I don’t usually feel revulsion (everything in my world is kind of revolting in its own way), but Rouenna’s message brought me to the brink. A lifetime on the streets of the Bronx, and after all that pain and horseshit, she gets pregnant by Jerry fucking Shteynfarb. Who the hell had sex with a Russian writer without using a condom?”

I chuckled aloud when I read that, serious lol-ing. I love when authors can laugh at themselves, can makes themselves part of the fictional world they have successfully created.

Misha is an obese Russian who came to the States to get his multicultural degree from Accidental College. This education strongly instilled in him the opinion that everyone should strive to be western in their actions, looks, arts, etc. He constantly pulls on this education throughout the novel in the most absurd of ways.

His relationship with his father is really the root of his problems. The reader eventually learns that his father has sexually abused him but that Misha never saw it as sexual abuse; in fact, Misha is heartbroken when his father stops touching him. He feels like he can never live up to his father’s expectations, but he hates his father, hates what his father has done to him. (He has mixed feelings about his Papi - it was never a black & white relationship.) His father is the reason his penis is massacred and a “purple little insect.” (His father insisted he be circumcised upon arriving in the states and his khui had been scarred.)

“It would seem to the untrained eye that the khui’s knob had been unscrewed from its proper position and then screwed back into place by incompetents so that now it listed at an angle of about thirty degrees to the right, while the knob and the khui proper were apparently held in place by nothing more than patches of skin and thread. Purple and red scars had created an entire system of mountain-ridge highways running from the scrotum to the tip, while the bottom had been so eviscerated by post-op infection that instead of being smooth, taut skin, it looked like a series of empty garbage bags fluttering in the wind.”

Misha’s sad little penis is very much a character in the book and his heaven is often described as the feeling he got the first time Rouenna kissed the underside. It gets a lot of action: touching, petting, kissing, licking. And Misha is always playing with it, much like his father had done when it was still big and beautiful.

The reader soon learns that Misha is not allowed back in the US because his father had killed a man. His father’s motivation had been to keep Misha with him, but his father is murdered and Misha is abandoned in the Russia he abhors. Misha fucks his stepmother (which everyone seems to know about) and then flees to Absurdistan with his manservant where he has been promised a Belgium passport, which will open the world up for him again.

While in Absurdistan, civil war breaks out between the Sevo and Svani. Initially, Misha isn’t really affected; he finds Nana, a dark skinned Sevo tour guide who studies at NYU. Her dark skin and love of NY are the only things he needs to fall in love with her. Nana’s father is huge in Absurdistan and Misha is pulled into the politics, the very absurd politics, in a land where oil (or no oil) is king. Nana’s father convinces him to appeal to the American Jews for monetary support. They decide that a Holocaust museum would make the Jews more willing to give money. The proposal of this museum is freakin’ hilarious. It concludes with the following:

Outcomes – First Year of Operation

1) Two hundred thousand Jews will sow an additional one hundred thousand Jews on the Caspian Sea.
2) Two to four thousand lackluster Jews will become born-again Mormons (or whatever the hell) and will stop pulling the rest of us down.
3) Twenty thousand Jewish children will learn that it’s somehow their fault.

It is a brilliantly insane novel and has made a very short list of favorites. (Okay, maybe not so short…) I loved this porky Russian Jew and was sorely disappointed when I reached the end of the novel. Shteyngart is, well – I can see why one shouldn’t fuck a Russian writer without a condom.
Accidental - Ali Smith (6/8/2008)
I’m usually a sucker for novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – some of my favorite authors are reoccurring figures on the shortlist: Gordimer, Lessing, Coetze, etc. I’m seldom disappointed by a book that gets on that list. Maybe it was the hype surrounding Ali Smith’s Accidental that made it impossible for me to embrace what has been called a “devilishly lovely” novel. Smith’s novel is littered with good reviews and everyone who knows anything seems to be singing her praises.

I didn’t like it. I wasn’t floored by her “wit” and “mastery” of language. I wasn’t “seduced” or “captivated” by what The New York Observer described as “beautifully executed.” I’ve had better, much better. Smith’s story had me yawning. And I’ve read enough and studied enough to stand behind my dislike for this novel. One rookie reviewer (i.e. University student) compared it to Beloved. Seriously? Have you read Beloved? I’ll grant the middle section of the novel with its fragmented style has similar results on the reader as the middle passage section of Morrison’s great work, but this is no Beloved. It doesn’t even deserve to reside on the same shelf. Maybe I’m being harsh, but it pissed me off that I didn’t like it. I wanted to like it, maybe that’s the problem.

The novel is about the Smart family who are on holiday in Norfolk. They’re all fucked up people and entirely disconnected from each other. On the outside, it’s all roses. Two beautiful, smart children (Astrid & Magnus), the mother, Eve, is an author and the father (or stepfather), Michael, is a literature professor.

Astrid is losing herself in an attempt to find her father. She feels like a piece of her very existence is absent because of the role, or lack of role, Adam (her father) has played in her life. She finds love letters between her parents and attempts to make them real. One such example is her father’s desire to capture every sunrise on tape and give it to her mother to show his love and how much she means to him. Astrid attempts to capture all this on film. She is constantly filming because of the desire for proof; to know she was.

Magnus, the golden child, has become sullen and withdrawn after a classmate’s suicide. He plays a joke on a girl he does not know to gain the attention of the older, more popular boys. The joke results in her killing herself. He is plagued with such guilt that he stops eating, bathing, living. He wants to die. He is ready to die. He feels the dying is his punishment for the sins he has committed.

Michael has been fucking his students for years, thinking his wife doesn’t know (she does). He picks them, sometimes not wisely, and fucks them. At the beginning of the novel, he is preparing how he will seduce this particular student. But she comes in, disrobes, and leaves him wondering if he fucked her or if she fucked him. He wonders if he is losing his touch.

Eve is broken. Her children are broken. Her husband is broken. Her writing career is broken. She’s a second-rate author dealing with writer’s block. She spends her days sleeping on the floor of the shed, pretending to be writing. She doesn’t want to deal with her children. Her children remind her of Adam and that makes her want to destroy them, especially Astrid. She can’t stand her little girl most days.

So the broken Smarts take their fragmented lives and pathetic existences on holiday, where they have an accidental (or maybe not so much) encounter with the beautiful, devilish, barefoot angel who changes their lives and attempts to thread them back together. This angel, Amber, is thought by Eve to be one of Michael’s little whores. Michael thinks she is one of Eve’s friends. Magnus just thinks she’s a sign from the heavens that he is supposed to live. And Astrid is captivated by the attention she’s shown by this mysterious stranger.

The entire family falls all over itself for this stranger. Michael wants to fuck her so bad he writes hideous sonnets about it. She seduces Magnus and they make love in the church as if his life depends on it. (In a way, it does. Amber saved him from suicide. He probably wouldn’t have been successful in his attempts, but her soft hands and eyes are what talked him down and made him want to live.) Eve is also seduced and longs for this woman’s approval. Astrid follows her around like a little puppy dog.

Amber breaks them even more, but in a way that the pieces can be fit together. That all the Smarts can start to rise, more whole than they’ve been in ages. She also robs them blind, right down to the carpets and the knobs on the heater. She forces them together, to connect. Eve finally breaks the spell and forces her to leave and the novel comes to an enigmatic conclusion with Eve becoming Amber in the States.

Yawn. I’m sure Smith is a talented writer but a mediocre novel is like mediocre sex, easily forgotten.
Saving Fish from Drowning - Amy Tan (5/25/2008)
I have always had sort of a love/hate relationship with Amy Tan. I refused to read the Joy Luck Club but stumbled across The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Bonesetter’s Daughter while waiting for an aircon bus in Khao San. I remember the latter as being brilliant. More recently, I read The Opposite of Fate, a collection of some of her nonfiction essays. These were also hit or miss; some of the essays about her mother were stunning. Mother/daughter relationships have always factored heavily in her work and seeing the connection with her mother in her nonfiction added a stronger maternal element to her fiction for me as a reader.

I picked up Saving Fish from Drowning not because it was Tan; the main pull of this novel for me was its setting of Burma. The novel was clichéd, its characters too archetypal and underdeveloped, and the narrating style was inconsistent and annoying at times. There was a lot that Tan could have done with the story and with the characters that just never happened in the 472 pg. novel.

The novel is narrated by a dead woman. Wow. Shocker. That’s never happened before. There’s an interview with Tan where she’s asked if she’d been influenced by The Lovely Bones. That question makes her a bit rowdy and she quickly responds that her work had been started well before the publication of Sebold’s novel. (Sebold’s novel is fantastic if you rip out the last forty pages.) The main problem with the narration is that it is inconsistent and at times is too much Tan.

At times it seems like Tan is attempting satire, but her attempts make the reader wince. In the New York Times Book Review, the work is called patronizing to both the readers and the Karen people. That’s a pretty accurate assessment.

I’ve been to Burma. I visited a border town and had a day pass. We were not allowed to stay overnight and we were not allowed to leave the town. We did not know about the boundaries until we were stopped by several uniformed men holding guns. They did not speak English, but gestured with their weapons that we should turn around. And turn around we did. It was interesting to stay on the banks of a river that ran between the two countries. It was interesting to eat our dinner and drink our Singha while looking out over a poverty-stricken Burma.

Tan also talks about the drug laws in Burma. She’s not kidding. When we crossed over, we saw the signs that made clear in many languages that drug trafficking and use results in death. When I was at the Golden Triangle, I could see the armed Burmese guards protecting their shores. We were told that they would shoot anyone without question who ventured on land.

Enough about my Burma…

Tan is a good writer and her mastery is in creating and exploring relationships, especially those between mother and daughter. There are some excellent passages in the novel that make you, as a reader, just go “yes!” I especially loved Wendy and Wyatt.

“Wyatt had not answered her question, she noticed. He did that a lot lately, giving non sequiturs in lieu of answers. Was he falling out of love? Or had he never been in love? Lately, what she felt when she was around him were twinges, pangs, aches, cracks, rips, and sudden hollows. His every response, or lack of one, hurt her. Maybe she was feeling this way because she was hot, sticky, and cranky.”

Several pages later…

“Wendy had not yet recovered from her perceived rejection by Wyatt, but she pretended that all was fine. She chatted and flirted, yet she had a sick pang of fear in her chest. She was looking for proof that he felt equally warm toward her, which was – well, it was hard to say exactly, except that she knew he felt none of the uncertainty that she did. He was perfectly at ease with their being together, as he had been, she imagined, with every woman. Why was he not concerned whether he felt more for her than she for him. Why didn’t he worry over whether he had given more than she had? Did he feel no risk of emotion? When her eyes began to sting with tears, she pretended a lash had caught under the lid, and she rubbed at her eye. He, in turn, raised her face to his, to see if he could help extract the offender. To see such concern from him filled her with even more desperation, and she wrapped her arms around him. He instinctively did what she craved. He kissed her, clutching her buttocks. And in joy, she blurted the forbidden words: ‘I love you.’

To his credit, Wyatt continued to kiss Wendy, covering her mouth so that she did not utter anything more along these lines. He had been expecting her to say this, afraid she would. He liked Wendy a lot. She was fun most of the time, except when she was analyzing everything he said with those searching eyes. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”

I sympathized with Wendy; I think I am Wendy. Of course, Wendy and Wyatt don’t stay together and, of course, that’s exactly how Tan concludes their little relationship. Fun stopped, he left, found out he had a kid 11 years ago, Wendy moved on, stopped being superficial, and found something more akin to real love and not desperation. All’s well that ends well.

I think I’m done with Tan for a while again.
Towns without Rivers - Michael Parker (7/7/2008)
Michael Parker, a creative-writing professor at UNC-Greensboro, is one boyishly good-looking author. We featured him in the North Carolina Literary Review and I remember being very impressed with his good looks and general charm. I would love to take a class under him. I finally got around to reading one of his novels (he does not have many). Published in 2001, Towns without Rivers revisits the fictional town of Trent, the setting of an earlier Parker novel.

Trent is a Gates County. Trent is every poverty-stricken farming community in rural northeastern North Carolina. Parker captures the people of this type of environment so well and in his characters, I saw so clearly the people I grew up around. Towns like this breed two sorts: the type who settle and starts a family and the type who dream of escaping and either succeed or go crazy. In escaping, they often learn they have to go home again; that the town is a part of them that is ever so hard to shake.

Towns without Rivers is the story of Reka Speight and her brother Randall. Chapters flip-flop between the two as they seek each other, love, happiness, purpose, and everything else we want out of life.

The novel starts with Reka at ECU listening to Bob Smart, a representative from a publishing company, offering college girls the opportunity to go out west and sell books for the summer. She has been out of jail for two years and has been plotting her escape from Trent. Even though she is not a college girl, she sees Bob Smart as the ticket she can use to escape the town where she will always be the white trash bitch who killed her rich boyfriend. Five years in jail and the forgiveness of Edwin’s mother will not erase that stigma. (She did not kill him on purpose. It was his father’s doing – Edwin was addicted to morphine and his father was peddling it to him in the hopes the addiction would run her off. Edwin begged her for another injection and, not knowing how much he had already had, she gave the love of her life what he had wanted.) Bob calls on her to speak and she panics and flees – she does not belong on that campus with the rest of those girls. He finds her later, gets her to admit that she is not a student, promises to take her onboard anyway, and fucks her.

“Eureka took Bob Smart’s hand when he offered it to her. She took a drink of his whiskey and she took her clothes off in the air-conditionless hotel room and she took what she could from him only because she’d reached that point where she could no longer punish herself by staying in a place she’d hated so much she’d killed a man to leave it.”

He comes close to not taking her. He had promised her the job just to sleep with her. But Reka’s a hard-ass and threatens to tell his wife and boss about how he generates business. He agrees to hire her, fucks her again, and sends her on her way. She ends up in Red Fork, Montana – a town without a river, a town with only one escape route.

Meanwhile, her younger brother Randall is in Norfolk living with his brother Hal and working at the shipyard. Hal gets drunk and leaves one night without a word, leaving Randall with Delores, Hal’s girl. Of course, Randall ends up in bed with Delores and of course, she closes her eyes and pretends he’s Hal. After they have sex, they have a conversation that changes the course of his life forever.

“‘ You’re like me, you know. You’re not like Hal at all.’
‘What do you mean?’
She put her chin on his chest and stroked his cheek. ‘Poor baby. You don’t know, do you?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I’m talking about love. You ain’t got it to give away. Can’t dish it out or take, either one.’

…Y’all’ll do anything. You don’t care about other people so much as you care about yourselves. I take it back, I’m not like you. I want to be sometimes, I’ve wanted to be since Hal left, but now that I think about it, I’m just like him.’
Randall didn’t argue with her. He wasn’t interested in what she was like, or what she thought she was like.”

He moves out and away from Delores. Later, his dad comes to visit and see the ocean. He’s also there to tell Randall where Reka went. He drowns while Randall reads the letter Reka had left for him. Randall goes back to Trent for the funeral, where his siblings blame him for their father’s death. He and Reka had always been the “different” ones – the ones who didn’t belong. He starts on his journey to find Reka, decides to take it slow, and spends some time in Chicago posing nude for art students for money. He sleeps with the students, men & women alike, and each time he is reminded of Delores’s comment – she’d been right.

Meanwhile, back in Red Fork, Reka has befriended Maggie - a sad, lonely woman who pushed her son away and blames her husband for it. When Maggie leaves town to visit a newborn nephew, Reka ends up sleeping with her husband, Jake. But it isn’t just sex – Reka has fallen in love with this silent man, so unlike her Edwin. Their love affair is short-lived. In his effort to locate Reka, Randall told Bob Smart about her criminal past (not maliciously – he was thanking him for giving her a chance) and Smart fires her. She leaves without a goodbye and heads to Seattle, hoping to find the son who’d run away. Before he’d left, Bob Smart had told her that her father died.

“Since learning of his death she had seen him everywhere. He’d never traveled west of Rocky Mount in his life, yet on the bus to Seattle she’d seen him walking through a sopping field outside of Spokane, the morning sun in his eyes, his pantlegs muddy to the knees. Here in Seattle homeless Indians slept in wads of blankets in the shallow shelter of storefronts, and several times she’d seen her father among them, his gray-black hair and sharp bones peeking from tattered covers. He walked by her once right there in the market, while she was watching a ferry churn slowly through the water beneath a galaxy of gulls. And when she ignored the water for land, he appeared beneath her on the docks, toting the end of some piece of equipment, disappearing just as she recognized him into the hold of a ship. Your father? He’s dead.”

That is perhaps my favorite passage of the entire novel, which at 354 pages has many passages.

Reka finds Heath, tells him who she is, what she was to his father, and befriends him. She loves everything about Seattle and feels as if she has finally found a home, a place she belongs. Jake leaves Maggie and seeks out Reka and Heath. Reka finds herself faced with the prospect of a real family and knows she has to find Randall before she can let herself embrace it.

Randall, with his nude pictures in tow, heads to Red Fork. He lost the photograph he had of Reka and only has art students’ portraits to use as a likeness. “She looks like this, only not a man.” He ends up showing the pictures to Maggie who calls the cops and has him arrested for being a pervert. Jake bails him out, but before Jack can get up with him to tell him about Reka, he’s vanished. He finds his way back to Trent and goes crazy in the swamp.

Reka eventually ends up pregnant and back in Trent, where Randall has gone batshit crazy, and Reka has to save him – save them all.

Parker does for North Carolina & his fictional Trent was Faulkner did for
Yoknapatawpha County and Southern Gothic literature is all the better for it. Some people scoffed at this book – claiming that Parker can’t carry a novel and he should stick to poetry and short stories; I disagree. While I do think the novel could have used a bit more tweaking, Parker is a master with words and with locations. Towns without Rivers is a satisfying read that somehow manages to make me both hate and miss my home.