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.

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