Saturday, September 18, 2010

Kent Nelson - Land that Moves, Land that Stands Still

Apparently your bookslut has only been picking books written by those with a Juris Doctor degree. Kent Nelson graduated from Yale with a degree in Political Science and then went on to Harvard Law where he earned a JD in Environmental Law. To be honest, he strikes me as a bit of a bum; the nomadic sort that is never happy with life. It seems like he’s been trying to “find himself” since 1943 when he first latched on to his mom’s breast. Those types annoy me. Anyway, Land that Moves, Land that Stands Still was published in 2003 and set in the Black Hills of South Dakota on a farm.

The novel opens with Mattie reveling in the sounds and sights of the farm, before assisting her husband in manual labor. Her husband doesn’t last long as a living character as a farming accident quickly takes his life, but his ghost haunts the novel as he remains quite present. After his death, Mattie learns that he was gay and had been having affairs with men for years. He kept all the damning evidence in the car that Mattie refused to get in. At times, Nelson tries too hard to set the scene of how Mattie and her daughter deal with husband/father’s lifestyle. The novel also becomes cluttered with its many subplots and concurrent plots and nearly every horrible thing that can happen happens. There’s an attempted rape, an attempted murder, thievery, a high school English teacher sleeping with this students, murder of pets (including the drowning of a cat), barroom brawls, drugs, and some pretty serious child abuse. Worse? All the women are broken by the men in their lives and they all turn to men to fix them. The only character that didn’t make me want to scream was the Indian runaway, Elton and the Mexican neighbor, Hector, who had to lay low because he wasn’t a legal citizen.

The writing is poetic and the stories are intricately woven, but Nelson could have benefited from some serious cutting down. The dialogue is well done between the mother and daughter, but stilted at other times, especially in the heterosexual relationships where the men and women seem to be playing stereotypical roles from the hard fucking of the drug deal in the trailer park to the sweet, soft love-making of the English teacher who brings her to her first orgasm with his poetry and mouth. For a man who has spent so much time “living life” and “finding himself,” his story seems contrived and his characters fit in boxes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Debra Magpie Earling - Perma Red

I adore Native American literature – Sherman Alexie, James Welch, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko… all have homes on my bookshelf. They recently had to move over to make room for Debra Magpie Earling.

Earling is a member of the Bitterroot Salish tribe in Montana. She currently teaches Native American Studies and Fiction at the University of Montana. Perma Red (2002) is her first (and to date, only) novel, and it took decades (and many drafts) to perfect. It truly is quite the remarkable novel and well-deserving of all the accolades it has received. Earling has affectively joined the ranks of such greats as Alexie and Silko as far as Native American literature goes, but I’m reluctant to pigeon-hole this book as simply “Native American” literature. Perma Red is literature at its finest; it is a damn fine book.

Perma Red is the story of Louise White Elk, a young Indian girl with shockingly red hair who longs to escape the reservation life and the Indian-way. Yet, even in the same breath as she’s seeking to run, she craves belonging to this world. It’s the story of a girl growing up, finding out who she is, what she’s made of, and what matters to her. It’s a coming of age love story full of violence and heartbreak. It’s a story of split cultures and what happens when they collide in ways that forever alter Louise’s life.

Earling subtly weaves in magic and tradition into her words to such extent the reader is just as apt to believe Baptiste Yellow Knife has used love magic as Louise as. In addition to content, the writing is quite lovely.

In discussing how the school girls matured over the summer, Earling writes: “And their silk stockings and panties hung on the bushes with their boyfriends’ sighs.”

But the novel isn’t all sex and sighs – there’s a brutal violence and scars that not even time can heal. The people are all wounded, but Louise and Baptiste (her husband, her curse, and the man who beats the hell out of her) appeal the reader. There is something real in their relationship – something real and something magic. Despite all his flaws, I loved Baptiste.

The novel is divided into chapters. Louise’s chapters are told in third person at a distance. The other chapters are told in first person from the point of view of Charlie Kicking Woman – a tribal officer who seems to often forget his identity. Initially, I liked Charlie quite a bit. He’s a bit too obsessed with Louise, but I could overlook it as I thought he truly had her best interests at heart. But the more he appeared, the more of the story he told, I hated him. I hated everything about him. Perhaps the most violent scene, minus when Baptiste beats Louise and slices her open with the broken beer bottle, is what Charlie witnesses and walks away from without doing nothing. He turns his back on his people and his history repeatedly in the novel - but when he literally turned away, my stomach turned. To me, that hatred signifies excellent writing.

Your bookslut highly recommends Perma Red.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tamar Yellin - The Genizah at the House of Shepher

Religion has always fascinated me. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church and have a pretty decent grasp of the Bible. Biblical stories were my bedtime stories and I prayed to the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. As I grew up, I began to explore other religions - never as faith-altering explorations, just to understand the similarities and differences. I suppose I always have been and always will be hungry for knowledge – maybe that’s why I read.

I’ve read books that center around all sorts of faiths – from Eastern Religions to spirituality of natives from Africa to South Dakota. I respect the beliefs of others. When I saw Tamar Yellin’s The Genizah at the House of Shepher (2005), I had to grab it; it contains all things I know I love in a book – religion, family stories, intrigue, love, and loss.

A genizah is a “hiding place” for old or damaged sacred documents. Jewish faith requires that sacred texts and anything containing God’s name not be destroyed, thus these depositories were established. When Shulamit Shepher returned to her family in Jerusalem, she knew she’d be facing her family’s ghosts and demons, but she never expected what she actually found in the attic, the family’s genizah – a place to store more than just religious artifacts.

Shulamit is a rootless person; after abandoning her faith and her family, she buries herself in her studies and has become a true scholar, lecturing in biblical studies. Twenty years pass and she receives a letter from her uncle telling her that the family house is going to be destroyed and if she wants to see it one last time, she must come. She flies to Jerusalem.

When she arrives, her uncle tells her about the Codex, a religious document found among the family’s belongings. Thought to be worth thousands, the Codex is a keter Torah – a handwritten copy of unknown origins. Shulamit’s uncle has given it to the Institute to authenticate, but the Shepher family has already started bickering and fighting over it. Shulamit is eager to see the document, to study it – what biblical scholar would not want to see the unknown manuscript that has been in her family for years? The Codex could MAKE her career.

With the thread of the Codex holding the story together, Yellin presents a family saga of faith, loss, and exile. Shulamit, going through items in the genizah, begins to learn more about her family, begins to remember the legends she’d been told as a child, and slowly begins to connect with her past – she begins to “heal” when she embraces her family and their combined history. The Codex is a character, but it is a secondary character; do not read this novel if you’re looking for a thrilling suspense novel like The Da Vinci Code.

The writing is simply stunning and the family lore is fantastically dependent on religion and myth. I thought the novel slightly incomplete – it began to fall flat after such an amazing start. This is Yellin’s first novel so there is plenty of time for her talents to improve and her novels to be consistently “tight.” It’s definitely worth a read, even with the problems I have with the last fifty or so pages. If you like family sagas and have a fascination with how faith runs families, read it – you won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Don Coldsmith - Runestone

I love historical sagas, always have. I’m quite fond of the books by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear, and when I saw their glowing words of praise on the cover of paperback sitting on the book cart at work, well, I knew it would make a perfect poolside read.

Don Coldsmith’s Runestone (1995) offers a “theory” about how a Viking made his way to Heavener, Oklahoma in the 11th century. Heavener is the home of an inscribed stone that has been attributed to Norsemen. People don’t really know how it got there and it’s apparently pretty heavily disputed. Personally, I’d never heard of the Heavener Runestone prior to picking up the fictional saga. But I do like how something real spawns one’s imagination the way the Heavener Runestone gave birth to Coldsmith’s historical saga.

Runestone is the story of a Viking explorer, Nils Thorsson, who travels to Vinland with the excitement of adventure running rampant in his body. Two ships make the voyage, but they are attacked by a band of Indians after leaving Vinland for further exploration. The only survivors are Nils, his steersman Svenson, and a one-eyed Indian they call Odin. Odin had escaped from the band of Indians who ultimately destroyed the crew and sought refuge in the settlement. The reason the settlers allowed him in is not really explained. He stows away on Thorsson’s boat in the hopes that they bought will take him back to his people.

The three men survive the attack on wit and intelligence on Odin, a man they originally considered as beneath them – an ignorant savage. Their journey brings the men close together and the two Norsemen realize that Odin is far from a savage. The attacking band of natives pursues the three persistently – they cannot afford to have anyone escape if they want to send a strong message. They surround the three men and all hope appears lost – Nils, Svenson, and Odin have no water and will be killed if they leave the cliff they’ve become pinned in. Nils decides to go “berserk” – a Norseman’s deathsong in battle. He takes off all his clothes and begins chanting and making animal sounds. Instead of responding to his advances, the attacking band is terrified. They are convinced he must be some holy man with lots of magic. Odin jumps on this assumption and plays it to their advantage. The men are not only released, but given provisions for their journey.

The two Norsemen end up assimilating with Odin’s tribe. They take wives and start families. The conflict of wanting to return to their people shows up but it’s never really developed and when they do attempt to return (or Thorsson attempts with his family and Odin), it’s quickly over.

The first half of the novel was well-paced and exciting, but once they reach Odin’s people, the novel loses steam and becomes a bit redundant. I’ve read better historical sagas.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

Any bookslut who has stumbled across these pages knows my love of most Man Booker Prize novels (both short & long listed and the actual winners). (I say most because of the horrible experience with The Accidental.) The White Tiger, published in 2008 and recipient of the prestigious award the same year, has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while now. Quite honestly, I wanted to let the hype die down before I picked it up. It was well worth the wait; Aravind Adiga’s debut novel is bloody fantastic. Thank you, Man Booker Prize, for not letting me down – I just may have to forgive you for short-listing Ali Smith’s crap.

The White Tiger is brilliantly executed – funny, dark, witty, charming, and honest. As a reader, I quickly fell for Balram Halwai, the murdering entrepreneur who is penning his story for “His Excellency, Wen Jiabao,” the Premier of the State Council of China, who is on his way to India because he wants to speak with Indian entrepreneurs. Balram heard of his visit on the radio and has decided to write to him directly as he is in the best position to explain how an Indian becomes an entrepreneur - a true success story. “The story of my upbringing is the story of how a half-baked fellow is produced. But pay attention, Mr. Premier! Fully formed fellows, after twelve years of school and three years of university, wear nice suits, join companies, and take orders from other men for the rest of their lives. Entrepreneurs are made from half-baked clay” (8-9). Balram then goes on to explain how exactly he came to be “half-baked” and how this all contributed to his ultimate success.

Balram, called Munna until he started school and his teacher said he needed a real name and not just be called the Hindi word for “boy,” was a smart kid. So smart that an inspector who visited the school to check conditions called him “the white tiger.” “The inspector pointed his cane right at me. ‘You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?” Balram thought about it and responded, “The white tiger.” As he grows, Balram learns that a white tiger has to work harder to survive in the jungle. He is forced to leave school and work when his brother weds and the dowry must be paid. This half-education is part of what makes him “half-baked.”

Early in the novel, Balram explains that he knows little English but that he has one phrase that best sums up his life and his rise to success: What a fucking joke. The lead-up and delivery of this line is priceless. Kudos to Adiga for making me chuckle with that line. Another chuckle came when Balram was discussing religion and wondering what deity’s arse he should start off by kissing.

“It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power.

I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god’s arse.

Which god’s arse, though? There are so many choices.

See, the Muslims have one god.

The Christians have three gods.

And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods.

Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from…

Bear with me, Mr. Jiabao. This could take a while.

How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?” (6)

How can you dislike Balram with an opening like that?

Balram’s story is amoral, dark, and cut-throat. It is a story of survival and escape – betrayal and abandonment. It’s animalistic and cunning, this journey from “Dark” to “Light.” Balram kills his employer, steals his name and his money, and opens his own taxi service: White Tiger Technology Drivers. In a technological world where America has outsourced its jobs to India, Balram finds his niche, forsakes the caste system, and abandons his family in an effort to save himself. Made from half-baked clay, this white tiger is a self-taught, self-made true entrepreneur, and you will both love and hate him for it. “I’ll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master’s throat. I’ll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant” (276).

Did you like Slumdog Millionaire? Then pick up The White Tiger. Trust your bookslut; you’ll like this book better than that movie. The novel doesn’t come off like a shock-value piece – its darkness and despair is well-tempered with the resiliency of the human-spirit and the charming, dark humor that makes the world go ‘round.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Love in the Ruins - Walker Percy

Walker Percy (1916-1990) was a Faulkner-lovin’, Tarheel cheerin’, good ole Catholic boy from the deep South. His childhood was marred with tragedy – suicides & car accidents – and he was eventually adopted and raised by his bachelor uncle of a poet, William Alexander Percy. He became friends with Shelby Foote and became a born, bred, & dead boy at UNC with his brothers and Shelby before going to medical school at Columbia. His medical background, Southern upbringing, and complicated Catholicism blend together to create the common bonds of his literary work. I read Lancelot (1977) back in undergrad and remember loving it. It’s the story of a Southern lawyer who murders his wife after learning of her affair. Her infidelity becomes clear to Lancelot when he realizes his daughter’s blood type. Genetically speaking, he could not have had a child with her blood type. Lancelot recounts the story from within the confines of an insane asylum; I loved it. When I saw Love in the Ruins (1971) on the $1 dollar table at the flea market, I snagged it. Spending a buck on a Walker Percy novel can never be a waste.

Love in the Ruins is a fantastic example of modern literature. Blurbs on the back compare it to 1984 and Brave New World but say it’s “less preachy” and “funnier.” Having never read either of those (I know, bad, bookslut, bad), I suppose I went into the novel blindly. Having read Lancelot, however, I was not entirely unprepared. Love in the Ruins is the story of Dr. Thomas More, a psychiatrist who also happens to be a patient in the same hospital he works in. Heavy drinking, terrors, intense regrets, insanity, a deep love of the ladies, and a desire to be a well-known scientist have all worked together to create a rather unstable but likable all the same protagonist in an ever-changing but still racially divided and politically charged South.

The novel opens with More explaining that all hell is about to break loose. The second paragraph reads: “Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.” A few pages later, More gives the reader a good idea of his psyche:

“I, for example, am a Roman Catholic, albeit a bad one. I believe in the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church, in God the Father, in the election of the Jews, in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, who founded the Church on Peter his first vicar, which will last until the end of the world. Some years ago, however, I stopped eating Christ in Communion, stopped going to mass, and have since fallen into a disorderly life. I believe in God and the whole business but I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally I do as I please. A man, wrote John, who says he believes in God and does not keep his commandments is a liar. If John is right, then I am a liar. Nevertheless, I still believe.”

More is adrift in a world he can’t get a handle on. It’s immoral, it’s violent, it’s lustful. He blames the whole thing on the “race” issue, though he doesn’t really have a problem with “them.” He also doesn’t have a problem with the political left and right, or the religious sects. He lives in Paradise (please note that he is a “relative” of Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia) but the world is falling into chaos around him. When he isn’t freaking out due to sweats, terrors, and paranoia, he is constantly noting how nature Is encroaching on the land around him. The vines cause him great concern. He is convinced that the United States, God’s gift, has fallen apart and is being destroyed and the root of the problem is the race issue – he says we screwed up when God gave us the land and all we had to do was one thing – not violate the Africans. We violated the Africans, we enslaved them, and the US fell from the grace of God.

His great invention, the lapsometer, can save the world. It reads the human condition, gets to the root of the matter, and all More has to do is figure out how to fix it once he figures out the problem. No one seems to take his invention seriously and he fears it will get in the wrong hands and destruction will be inevitable. But saving the world comes second to his lusty longings, for More is madly in love with three women. His devotion to the women rotates depending on who he is with and what ideas are being presented. Each woman serves a different purpose for him and toward the end he contemplates marrying all three and starting a new world, a better world.

The novel is a good representative of modern Southern literature; Percy is very adept at capturing the insanity of a fallen Catholic in a world gone mad. The novel isn’t preachy (yay for blurbs being accurate), and the moral dilemmas are well developed and just as chaotic as they should be. Dr. More is attempting to find the meaning of life – he looks toward God, science, music, women, and nature and is unable to find a clear answer, yet he is happiest when he is at peace with all five and happier still when he can reconcile them all together in a neat package. But maybe it’s the attempt to reconcile them that drives him the maddest?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Doris Lessing - The Golden Notebook

Doris Lessing (b. 1919) is one of what I call my white voices in Africa, but that’s not how she was first introduced to me. My introduction to Lessing was with Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), which had nothing to do with Africa and everything to do with a man’s mental breakdown. The novel has different settings: the fantasy realm created by the crazy and the real world of the mental hospital. It was most certainly an interesting and odd read. When my studies turned to African literature, I found myself with Lessing’s first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950). Set in Rhodesia, this novel is a far cry from Briefing for a Descent into Hell and deals with a failed marriage, racial tensions, white & black sexuality, and the dynamics of a master/servant relationship in an evolving world. More recently, I was informed that as “a woman” and a supposedly well-read one at that, I needed to read The Golden Notebook (1962). I knew it was Lessing’s most famous work, so it wasn’t a hard sale. Its 635 page count made it even more appealing as I do like big books and I cannot lie. In short, The Golden Notebook is Briefing for a Descent into Hell intermingled with The Grass is Singing. (Yes, I know it was published in between the two, but for my purposes it seems to be a mix of the first two Lessing novels I encountered.)

There are two introductions in my edition – one from 1993 and one from 1971. Unlike most people, I actually read the introductions. The introduction from 1993 is Lessing discussing the impact the novel has had on women (and men) worldwide – as of the 1993 introduction, a short run had been printed in China. This instantly turned me off. The introduction from 1971 turned me off even more. In that introduction, she essentially bashes reviewers and readers for not understanding the novel and attempts to explain her process to them. For once, the introduction (in this case, introductions) did not enhance the reading experience; however, she does make one statement that I both agree and disagree with.

“There is only one way to read, which is to browse the libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag – and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty – and vice versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you…”

The passage went on to bash scholars who spend too much time on one novel or one author, but I’ll ignore that for now. (Remember that your bookslut has also dabbled in the scholarly.) The funny thing is I read Lessing’s novel because I felt obligated, because I was made to feel obligated. Obligations and the fact that I may have read it when it wasn’t the right time for me aside, I can see why The Golden Notebook is considered Lessing’s greatest work. The themes and forms used to weave the story are daring, chaotic, and perfect.

The novel focuses on Anna Wulf, a writer quickly elevated to fame with the publication of her first novel (a novel about Africa) and dealing with writer’s block. (Sound familiar? I think this novel is a little masturbatory in nature – a lot of Lessing in Anna. But Lessing is doing it on purpose – she actually mocks the process by having Anna clearly put herself in the story of she’s writing about Ella.) Anna keeps four notebooks: a black one in which she records the African experiences of her younger years; a red one in which she keeps track of her political life – Anna is/was a Communist; a yellow one in which she develops story ideas; and a blue one that serves as her diary. She believes that to keep her life from spiraling into a chaotic mess, she needs to keep the parts of her life separate. She soon realizes that by fragmenting herself off, she is succeeding in driving herself crazy. She attempts to join all these pieces of her existence in one book – the golden notebook.

Everyone keeps telling Anna that she needs to write again, that she needs to do another novel. Mother Sugar, her shrink/witch doctor tells her she needs to write her experiences. The parts of The Golden Notebook called “Free Women” make up the novel that Anna actually writes. It’s an interesting form because the reader gets all the background, all the journal entries, that served as the foundation of “Free Women.” Throughout the process, the reader gets to watch Anna completely unravel and rise, finally free. She becomes sane through insanity. It’s a bildungsroman for a middle-aged woman.

The novel opens with: “The two women were alone in the London flat.” The reader later learns that these are the lines Anna’s final lover in the novel tells her that she must use to start the novel. The two women are Anna and Molly, her former Communist/actress/loud and overbearing friend. Anna and Molly are different yet the same, and their friendship seems to be defined by their role as “free women” – women belonging to no man. When their friendship suffers, things are quickly corrected by discussing men and/or sex or politics (though political thought oft leads to arguments). While both women are “free,” they both seemingly want to be “kept.”

Anna seems to be the perpetual mistress – men seem to love to fuck her, love her independence, and love the fact that they can return to their wives with nearly no drama. This eats at Anna – it’s not a role she wants to play. One of her married men, Paul, left her after many years of continuing the affair and this abandonment and rejection hurt her far worse than her prior divorce. She realizes nearly a year after he leaves that her entire personality has changed because of him.

“My deep emotions, my real ones, are to do with my relationship with a man. One man. But I don’t live that kind of life, and I know few women who do. So what I feel is irrelevant and silly… I am always coming to the conclusion that my real emotions are foolish, I am always having, as it were, to cancel myself out” (300).

Paul destroys Anna and he is a very clear catalyst into her spiral into insanity.

Anna puts a lot of her feelings into her story with Ella. At one point, she writes about Ella going to visit her father. Her father tells her that her mother had been horrible in bed and that he’d sought satisfaction in the beds of others. He then tells her that she is obviously not like her mother, that she is a “modern woman.” He also tells her that people need to be left in solitude so as not to destroy each other. “People are just cannibals unless they leave each other alone… And good luck to you. We can’t help each other. People don’t help each other, they are better apart,” he tells her (444-445). With a father figure like that, even for Anna’s fictional Ella, one can’t help but wonder the effect of the father on the daughter. To complicate matters further, Anna’s daughter has an absentee father as well. Does the father figure (or lack of a good father figure) contribute to the “modern woman” phenomenon?

Near the end of her relationship with Saul Green, the crazy American that finally drives her to madness and gets her to write again, Anna’s entire life revolves around the man. She becomes a crazy, jealous, angry, bitter woman and can feel the old Anna, the real Anna, struggling to get out and back in control. This portion of the book was very painful for me to read. I feel like most women I know have fallen in love at the expense of their own identities and to watch it happen, to watch him tear her down to build her up and love her, make love to her, and see how happy just that simple act makes her and then watch the sick carousel start again… It made me nauseous because I’ve been there, maybe I’m there now. I said earlier that I thought I read this book before I was ready – and I say that because of how the last portion of the novel made me feel.

The conclusion of the novel is Anna’s conclusion to “Free Women” – the relationship with Saul is inconsequential in her novel – even his name has changed and he personifies many of Anna’s other failed relationships. This male, named Milt in Anna’s novel, tells her that he can only make love with someone he doesn’t love, with someone he doesn’t have to stay with. Anna starts to cry.

“Anna let herself fall back on the pillows, and lay silent. He sat hunched up, near her, plucking at his lips, rueful, intelligent, determined.
‘What makes you think that on the morning of the second day I won’t say: I want you to stay with me.’
He said carefully, ‘You’re too intelligent.’
Anna said, resenting the carefulness: ‘That will be my epitaph. Here lies Anna Wulf, who was always too intelligent. She let them go.’ (628)

And Anna does let them go. And somehow she finds herself. She is able to write again and Saul is a huge part of that. I suppose one could argue that what broke her is what fixes her in the end. I’m sure that will anger feminists who would rather say she fixes herself, but the role of men in her entire existence is one that cannot be denied. In the end, the perpetual mistress gets a job working with other peoples’ marriages and Molly gets married. The novel, both Anna’s and Lessing’s, ends with “The two women kissed and separated” (635).

I realize this is a chaotic and not well-developed review, but it some ways it seems fitting. Did this novel change my life? Maybe. I am prone to getting disgruntled when a book seems to hold a mirror up to my life, but that is a good sign for a good writer.

Is it the great feminist tome? No. And I can see why Lessing gets annoyed when it gets pegged as such. I would recommend it to a select few – but I’d suggest The Grass is Singing over it and I suggest Gordimer over all Lessing.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela - A Human Being Died that Night

Apartheid is the Afrikaans word meaning “apartness” that defined South African existence from the late 1940s until the early 1990s. This racial divide was implemented and enforced by the National Party to keep the white man in charge and the black man under his thumb. My thesis work centered around three of Nadine Gordimer’s novels spanning the time period and my research forced me into a bloody, heartbreaking world where destiny was decided by race. There were times when I had to put my research away, to walk away from the truth of South African existence, for fear of become so affected that my work become biased due to my personal beliefs of wrong and right. I am still very interested in South African literature, and while my interests continue to lean toward the white voice in the racially divided world, I do not limit my scope.

I picked up Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness as a research source. I never used it and just now got around to reading it. Gobodo-Madikizela is a clinical psychologist, not a writer, but at times, the passion of what she is discussing gives way to a poetic voice that is not scientific in nature. It was those glimpses that captivated me most. The work is about the author’s study into the mind of one of the worst killers known to apartheid: Eugene de Kock; a man currently serving a 212 year sentence for crimes against humanity.

Gobodo-Madikizela is a black woman, born and raised in South Africa, whose life was shaped by the atrocities implemented by the National Party. She has served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and worked closely with victims of apartheid’s bloody underbelly. She wondered prior to her meetings with de Kock how she would handle being face to face with a demon, especially being of the race that was so oft at the business end of his sword. She was set to be disgusted by this man brought in bound by chains – to hate every bone in his body – but something strange happened during her many interviews; the black woman who had personally faced the horrors inflicted on her people began to see the white man who had ordered and executed so many of the deaths and beatings not as a monster, but as a human. Her case study became a personal journey to forgiveness.

She is very quick to depict the humanness in de Kock – to capture his uncertainty after being punished for what he calls “lost ideologies.” When she asked him what his lost ideologies felt like, he replied: “I think that I lost – it’s a feeling of loss. Well, the first thing that goes is innocence. I mean, there’s no more fairy tales and Bambi. That is gone. We killed a lot of people, they killed some of ours. We fought for nothing, we fought each other basically eventually for nothing. We could have all been alive having a beer. And the politicians? If we could put all politicians in the front lines with their families, and grandparents, and grandchildren – if they are in the front lines, I don’t think we will ever have a war again. I think it’s educated people, very educated people, who sit in parliament and decide about war. So I am confused. I am very confused. I am just very tired” (78). Gobodo-Madikizela has set up her reader for this moment by explaining how the very government that had ordered de Kock’s actions, had required his allegiance to their mission, turned on him and let all the blame, all the blood, rest in his hands. It was at this point in the study that I also began to empathize with the man who became a scapegoat in punishing an entire country’s regime for crimes against humanity.

There are a couple of great scenes where she reaches out and touches him to provide solace, and where she calls him "Eugene" and makes the distinction between the person and the monster.

This is an important turning point because the ability to empathize, to forgive those that wrong you, is a very human trait. Gobodo-Madikizela saw in de Kock a man who thought he was doing the right thing, who was following his orders, and who had battled his own demons while doing so. She saw a man who was sorry for what he had a done. A man who saw his victims as people and she saw what that did to him. She realized he wasn’t a monster and she realized she had to forgive him if any healing was to occur. And that’s her message – she recognizes the importance of admitting when you’re wrong and being granted forgiveness in the healing process.

“There are many people who find it hard to embrace the idea of forgiveness. And it is easy to see why. In order to maintain some sort of moral compass, to hold on to some sort of clear distinction between what is depraved but conceivable and what is simply off the scale of human acceptability, we feel an inward emotional and mental pressure not to forgive, since forgiveness can signal acceptability, and acceptability signals some amount, however small, of condoning. There is a desire to draw a line and say, ‘Where you have been, I cannot follow you. Your actions can never be regarded as part of what it means to be human.’ Yet not to forgive means closing the door to the possibility of transformation” (103).

This is a fantastic case study and I think anyone who has studied apartheid and the scars left in its wake, need to read it. It’s not a fun, light read. It won’t make you laugh, but perhaps it will make you consider your actions, your humanity, and what makes one deserving of forgiveness.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I am Charlotte Simmons - Tom Wolfe

When the Duke Lacrosse case (2006) rocked the world, and most certainly North Carolina, many people remarked at the similarities between what was revealed as life on Duke and the life at the fictional Dupont University in Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons (2004). For those who argued that Wolfe had sensationalized a culture of white privilege, sexual degradation and racism, the true story of the Duke Lacrosse team and the accusations that flew their way was an eye-opener. Wolfe maintains that Duke wasn’t the sole model for Dupont, but the similarities between the campuses (prestige, power, basketball, beautiful campus, gothic elements, etc.) are enough to say “hey, Tom. It’s okay. Let it be Duke.” In all honesty, Dupont is a combination of several prestigious private universities and some of the public ivys, such as UNC.

I found myself very interested in the Duke Lacrosse case and the allegations surrounding the affluent team members. When I heard the parallels with themes from Wolfe’s novel, I picked the hefty work up – the publicity was enough to tickle my fancy, especially after I’d already formed a decent relationship with Wolfe after reading A Man in Full. I couldn’t have been more surprised; this novel astounded me in unexpected ways. I’m apt to declare that ALL incoming college freshmen should be required to read it. I realize the novel makes college sound positively horrid, but bare with me - through his over-the-top portrayals, Wolfe manages to reveal a truth that is universal; we all just want to belong and sometimes belonging means losing yourself.

The novel focuses on Charlotte Simmons, a naïve yet insanely smart good ole southern gal from Sparta, North Carolina. When we first see Charlotte, she is delivering her valedictorian’s speech and swelling with pride and accomplishment as all eyes turn her way. “I am Charlotte Simmons,” she repeats to herself triumphantly in a “the world is my oyster” kind of way as she basks in the adoration of the adults – the students, her classmates, are below her and not really worth impressing. The reader gets a little insight into Charlotte at this point – her need to belong, to connect with her classmates juxtaposed against the alienation of her intelligence and the better life that awaits her. Charlotte’s genius had earned her a full-scholarship to Dupont University, a fictional institution in Pennsylvania, and while the adults worshipped her for it, her classmates envied her. Wolfe doesn’t hesitate to present Charlotte’s flaws and inner conflicts to the reader; he doesn’t want her to be viewed as some virginal concept of innocence, though that is how she appears to many of the people she encounters. Wolfe doesn’t want you to be fooled; Charlotte is no different from you.

When Charlotte’s parents move her into Dupont, the reader is embarrassed for her. Her mother’s hideous outfit and her father’s horrible mermaid tattoo combined with their awww shucks, salt-of-the-earth, good-country-people presentation is enough to make you cringe when her filthy rich, white as white can be, boarding school educated, nothing but the best for daddy’s little girl roommate and her family stroll into the room. You know right away that Charlotte will not be connecting with Beverly. Beverly is another stereotype for Wolfe and he plays her well.

Other stereotypes include Jojo Johanssen, a white basketball player on the verge of losing his starting position to a black freshman; Vernon Congers, the black freshman on the verge of greatness who is about as dumb as a bag of bricks; Hoyt Thorpe, a fratastic pretty-boy who thinks the world is “fucking” his and it doesn’t matter who or what he destroys; Adam Gellin, the virgin-senior resident dork, working two jobs just to survive at Dupont, including tutoring the athletes and resenting the white & athletic privilege of the “cool” with every fiber of his being; Camille, the insanely smart but militantly angry feminist; Randy, the fresh out of the closet, overly-sensitive gay guy; Bettina, the overly “plump” girl who tries too hard to fit in and fails miserably; and a large cast of characters including your average sorostitutes, drunken homophobic frat boys, violent lacrosse players, sluts, playas, dorks, jocks, nerds – it’s like the Breakfast Club on a cocaine and Aristocrat cocktail.

The stereotypes are well carried out; the basketball stars are treated like gods – the athletic department “surprises” them with fantastic SUVs to draw even more attention to themselves on campus, the athletic tutors are required to take any step necessary to ensure the student-athletes don’t fall behind (this includes actually doing the assignments for them), there is a list of classes that are “jock-approved” and taught by “athlete-friendly” professors, the females are constantly throwing their panties at them and the players get a lot of action on AND off the court, the stars are not intelligent and are well below the average for getting into the school but the white players (called swimmies) on the team are there to ensure the team’s combined GPA meets the requirements, the starters who ARE smart hide their intelligence under a mask of “cool,” etc. The frat boys are overgrown, sex-craved, alcoholic druggies who just like to get “fucked” - in more ways than one – and ooze white privilege. The nerds are so desperate to belong and be cool but smart enough to resist and fight the definition of “cool.”

The language Wolfe seems to overuse may be crass and crude, but if you’ve ever stepped foot in a university dining hall, a quad, a brickyard, a pit, etc., you’ll know he’s not really exaggerating. Below is a quote that explains the native language of college kids:

“Without even realizing what it was, Jojo spoke in this year’s prevailing college creole: Fuck Patois. In Fuck Patois, the word fuck was used as an interjection (“What the fuck” or plain “Fuck,” with or without the exclamation point) expressing unhappy surprise; as a participial adjective (“fucking gay,” “fucking tree,” “fucking elbows”) expressing disparagement or discontent; as an adverb modifying and intensifying an adjective (“pretty fucking obvious”) or a verb (“I’m going to fucking kick his ass”); as a noun (“That stupid fuck,” “don’t give a good fuck”); as a verb meaning Go away (“Fuck off”), beat – physically, financially, or politically (“really fucked him over”) or beaten (“I’m fucked”), botch (“really fucked that up”), drunk (You are so fucked up”); as an imperative expressing contempt (“Fuck you,” “Fuck that”). Rarely – the usage had become somewhat archaic – but every now and then it referred to sexual intercourse (“He fucked on the carpet in front of the TV”).”

When Charlotte falls from grace, as she must, the reader is there with her. When Hoyt gets her drunk and takes her virginity, the reader sees it coming and longs to step into the pages and say “honey… no,” but we can’t stop her and her desire to be wanted results in her letting him go too far. And like the typical self-absorbed frat boy, Hoyt ruins her. As a reader, I became beyond annoyed with how soundly she lets him break her; he destroys her and she rolls over and lets it happen. Not only does she wallow in self-pity, she blames her self. She turns to Adam, oh knight in shining virgin armor, to stand in and rescue her. (He really just wants to get laid.) He picks her up, brushes her off, and eventually helps her get back on track. One of my favorite lines is when she’s having a breakdown. “Adam, essentially a literary intellectual, didn’t realize he was listening to the typical depressed girl who has made the appalling discovery that she is worthless.” Truly, what girl/woman HASN’T been there before? Of course, even as Adam is doing everything in his power to win her love, she’s embarrassed to be seen with him, to be connected to him. (Oh Charlotte – are you really much better than dear Beverly?)

One of the other story lines involves Hoyt and the governor from California. The novel opens with Hoyt and another brother drunkenly stumbling across the governor, in town to speak at commencement, getting head from an underclassman. The governor’s bodyguard approaches the boys; the boys swell up with drunken bravado and actually win the fight. The incident becomes known as the “Night of the Skull Fuck.” Hoyt uses this incident to deify himself on campus; he is so proud of himself, so assured in his right to fucking own the world. Word spreads and Adam hears about the story and wants to cover it for the paper. The brother who’d been with Hoyt that night is afraid of what actions the governor might take; Hoyt, however, is invincible. As Hoyt nears graduation, and Adam’s editor continues to be too afraid to publish the story, he begins to wonder about his future – his grades are god-awful. A surprise comes when Hoyt gets a job offer based on the governor’s recommendation. The job would be the gift for his silence. Adam, bent on destroying the powerful and the man who broke his innocent Charlotte, gets his story published. The job offer is pulled, the governor and his run for presidency is destroy, and Hoyt is screwed. It’s a sweet revenge, but it doesn’t win Charlotte. Of course, at this point, Adam doesn’t care; he thought he needed Charlotte but becoming a local celebratory, a name on everyone’s lips, erased the need for her and she happily moved on.

What does she move on to? Jojo. What else? Charlotte Simmons only wants to belong and being Jojo’s “girl” brings her more attention and stardom than she could have ever imagined. That’s the irony of the title and Charlotte’s oft expressed thought: I am Charlotte Simmons. The reader is left with the realization that Charlotte didn’t find herself and the question: WHO is Charlotte Simmons? The answer, Jojo’s girl, is not satisfying but it’s realistic.

I thought that Duke and the lacrosse case would be constantly on my mind while I was reading the novel, but those thoughts faded away when I realized that MY college experience mirrored that of Charlotte Simmons; I could have been a student at Dupont. I Am Charlotte Simmons furrowed my brow, made me bite my lip, had me chuckling, brought tears to my eyes, and resulted in the gritting of teeth. It’s harsh, violent and revealing; three things a journalist like Wolfe has more than mastered. I couldn’t sleep until I finished it. I couldn’t sleep AFTER I finished it. The book was under my skin and in my head; I think there may be a little bit of Charlotte in all us fresh-faced freshmen.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

your bookslut wishes she'd thought of this

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tall Houses in Winter - Doris Betts

(No copy of the cover for this one - so a picture of the author will have to do.)

I have a small affection for North Carolina authors – especially when their stories are set in my backyard. There’s something about reading a work of fiction and fully understanding the small town dynamics, the connections between people, and the mutual love of place that heightens the literary sensation. As a bookslut, I’m all about heightened sensations.

When I was in undergrad, I often heard talk of Doris Betts. Going to UNC and being involved in the creative writing program made it impossible to not know the woman’s name and influence. I picked up The Sharp Teeth of Love (1997) one day when the Bulls Head was having a sale in the pit. (I loved those sales -tables and tables of books, discounted to the point of thievery. I missed many a class due to those sales.) I fell head over heels in love with the novel, mainly because of the role UNC’s campus played. There was something special about sitting on a bench by the Old Well reading about Luna’s feelings of leaving the campus and the Old Well behind.

“They drove the loaded van on one last ceremonial sweep through the green and blooming Carolina campus, up the hill behind Kenan Stadium between gaudy azaleas, past the functional ugly new library and the handsome old one, then slowly by the Old Well-university trademark-surrounded now by pink crab apples. The scene filled up her passenger window to its edges like a colored slide, and then clicked out. Luna, who had sketched several views of this scene for U.N.C. stationery, said, "Did you know they built the Old Well to look like the Temple of Love in the Garden of Versailles?"
"Nope," said Steven. But he was in a good mood and yanked her toward him to demonstrate. "Good-bye South Building," he said with false gaiety as he braked lightly for every stop sign along Cameron Avenue. "Good-bye Memorial Hall and Peabody and Swain." Across the flourishes of his too-white hand he gave Luna a speculative look to see if she was still indulging in advance homesickness.
"Good-bye Franklin Street," he said more softly.”

It was an excellent opening that hooked this Carolina girl.

I recently acquired through library sales Betts’s first novel, Tall Houses in Winter (1957). While UNC does not factor into the novel, the setting of Stoneville instantly captivated me. What captivated me most, however, was the character of Ryan Godwin – a Stoneville native who made good and escaped to the North. An academic, Ryan teaches at an all girls college in Massachusetts. He returns home, the prodigal, because he’s dying of cancer – a secret he keeps to himself. The opening of the novel reminds me of how I feel sometimes about Gates County:
“He had always said the only he would ever come back to Stoneville would be in a pine box, one of the plain rough-hewn frontiers kind, so that people seeing it unloaded at the train station might just once, just briefly, wonder if there were other more vigorous lives being lived in other places than this one.”

The story itself is simple in plot. Ryan is the youngest of three – Asa is his spinster older sister - she’s in love with the reverend, but she’s spent so much of her life molding herself into being the business-minded son their father wanted and hiding sentiment, that she is simply an angry old lady. Avery, the slightly dim-witted brother spoke nearly entirely in clichés, played the organ at church, and managed to marry Jessica, the only love of Ryan’s life. Asa was pleased with the marriage – her life is controlled by the acceptance of others and the appearance of the Godwin family is of the upmost importance to her. Ryan and Jessica begin an affair that is mostly done through letter writing and brief moments of passion when he comes home for the holidays. The only one in the beautiful Godwin house who is aware is Lady Malveena, the black house keeper who pretty much raised Ryan. She’s very Mammy-like in nature and she’s the only one who understands what exactly is happening in that house.

A son is born, Fen, and not knowing if Fen is his eats away at Ryan. Jessica angrily tells him that Fen is not his. She will not leave Avery; she will not put that stain on the family name or the boy. She says he may biologically belong to Ryan, but Avery is the child’s father. Ryan is enraged. This woman loves him, may have carried his child, but she is too concerned with the thoughts of those in Stoneville, with what Asa and Avery would say, to act on her love and ensure a happiness. Avery and Jessica are killed in a car accident when Fen is two and the boy is left with Asa. Ryan runs from them all, which is fine with Asa who realizes what had been going on in her house and thinks it a skeleton best left to collect dust in the closet. The prospect of death, a decade later, brings him home.

Mixing the past with the present, Betts details a heartbreaking story of life and love in a small town. There are no easy answers, no truly happy endings. It’s life realized – a true peek behind those picket fences of the respectable. One of the themes that is carried throughout the novel is the homecoming – the reasons we leave, the reasons we have to come back. Thomas Wolfe would be proud.

Doris Betts is a very fine example of a North Carolina author we should be ever so proud to embrace. Born in 1932, this former UNC creative writing professor has been lauded for many more years than I’ve been alive. Her list of awards and fellowships is extensive, but one should not base the quality of her work on these alone – I suggest picking up a book by Betts and allowing yourself to fall face first into small town North Carolina.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

How is it that I had not heard of one of America’s most bestselling female authors in the literary genre and only stumbled across her first novel by accident when perusing the bargain bin at Borders? I suppose I was too deeply entrenched in my thesis in 2005 to do much outside reading. Whatever the reason for my delayed discovery, I am very pleased Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian found its way in my hands.

A little research into the novel and Kostova reveals the impact this novel had on the publishing world. It took Kostova a decade to finish the 642 page novel and she received an offer from a company a mere two months after submitting the manuscript. She refused the offer and a bidding war ensued. The result? She sold the manuscript for two million dollars. In the publishing world, this is simply unheard of -she was an unknown author. But the powers that be in the industry saw exactly what I saw – this could be the next The Da Vinci Code. As of 2005, it was the fastest-selling hardback debut in US history – I haven’t checked to see if it still holds this remarkable title. It’s made Kostova filthy rich and secured her a pretty sweet place in the literary world. Sony purchased the movie rights for 1.7 million and Kostova’s baby should be on the big screen at some point. I am quite pleased with this as the entire time I was reading the novel, I was thinking about what an awesome movie it could be. Kostova has urged those in charge to make sure an unknown face plays Dracula – I think this would be wise.

In short, The Historian is The Da Vinci Code with better writing, amazing descriptions, and vampires. The novel focuses around the idea that Dracula is still very much alive and that he actually follows (and urges) scholars to investigate him - when they get too close or they have exhausted their usefulness, they’re done away with. The unnamed female narrator has picked up the story from her father, who had gleaned several bits from his advisor and colleague at Oxford. Dracula chooses his scholarly victims by planting a book in their possession. The book is void of words and contains a die-cut dragon that awakens the natural curiosity of a scholar. The narrator finds her father’s copy and some other documentation and convinces him to tell her about it.

In the search to unravel her father’s past and find Dracula, the story also becomes a search for the maternal figure and a sense of individual identity. The novel also focuses and emphasizes the importance of story-telling and maintaining history through writing – it brings to life the idea that the pen truly is mightier than the sword. As a scholar and bookslut, I adored that theme and actually may have developed a bit of a crush on Dracula.

The novel is, at times, long and drawn out. Kostova combines the father’s story with present time and occasionally the novel teeters on boring as the process of discovery is slow. I can see why some readers abandon the book because it’s not as action packed as some of the other thrillers out there. But Kostova has a lot going for her in this novel, and The Historian is not just another thriller – it’s actually a pretty strong literary work that has the appeal of a summer thriller read. Genius. I love finding a novel with mass appeal that is more than mere fluff and formula.

I consider The Historian an amazing accomplishment and applaud the work and research that went into making this novel nearly flawless.