1957 Premio Strega winner: Elsa Morante, L’isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island, 1959 English translation)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Quite apart from endearments, I lived entirely without kisses and caresses, and out of pride, I had to approve of this.  But sometimes, especially in the evening, when I was alone in a room and started to miss my mother, mother came to mean precisely caresses.  I longed for her large, her holy body, for her small silken hands, for her breath.  In winter my bed was freezing cold, but to warm me there was only Immacolatella to sleep with, cuddled close.

As I didn’t believe in God or in religion, I didn’t even believe in a future life and in the spirits of the dead.  If I listened to reason, I knew that all that remained of my mother was shut underground in the cemetery.  But reason retreated before her, and without realizing it, I actually believed in heaven, because of her.  What else was that kind of Oriental tent floating on air between the sky and the earth, where she dwelled alone, idly contemplating the sky with upturned eyes like one transfigured?  There, every time I thought of her, my mother came quite naturally to mind.  Later, the day came when I no longer looked for her; she had vanished.  Someone had folded up the rich Oriental tent and taken it away. (p. 41)

Elsa Morante’s 1957 Premio Strega-winning novel, L’isola di Arturo (released in English in 1959 as Arturo’s Island, translated by Isabel Quigly), differs in many regards from her 1974 opus, History, which I reviewed earlier today.  It is a tauter, less sprawling novel, but this relatively slightness in page numbers does not mean that it is a lighter or less substantial novel.  It is a story of a feral youth, left to fend for himself on an island in the Bay of Naples that housed criminals in its old castle complex while his father, a prison official, spent ten months of the year away.  It’s an interesting take on the nurture vs. nature argument, but it is also much more than just simply a tale of an abandoned youth raised without any women in his life.

Arturo’s Island is set sometime during the mid-20th century.  Arturo, the first-person narrator, is a young teen who lost his mother when she died giving birth to him.  His father largely abandoned him to the all-male island staff, only seeing him in brief spells.  These meetings, which fill Arturo with a mixture of hope and dread, typically ended with another abrupt departure, with little sentimentality getting in the way of his father.  Then one day, as Arturo is nearing sixteen, his father brings a girl scarcely older than him to the island, declaring that she, Nunziata, is his new wife.  This event, taking place roughly a quarter into the novel, shifts the focus away from Arturo’s developing personality (in particular the giant holes in his life caused by the absence of women) toward a more typical Oedipus father/lover/son triangle.

This shift, while understandable, does throw Arturo’s narrative out of kilter for several pages, as it takes time for the reader to reconcile the rather naïve Arturo’s worldviews with the more lust-centered youth of the middle sections.  However, Morante does largely manage to integrate this new development and its attendant action (attempted seduction, regretful rejection, proxy seduction to make a larger point) does serve to reinforce Morante’s earlier arguments regarding the deleterious effect Arturo’s neglected upbringing has had on his personality and his ability to relate to women.

But it is in the final sections where the plot turns in a surprising and yet fitting fashion.  Arturo witnesses a clandestine meeting, one that reveals to him for once and for all that things he had felt he had in common with someone close to him were in fact yet another level of subterfuge, one that was designed to keep Arturo in the dark.  This event encapsulates many of the conflicted emotions and bitter cynicism that Arturo had developed and it causes the novel to end on a rather dark yet not completely hopeless concluding note.

Although the paragraphs above might seem to give away much of the novel’s plot, there are many levels to Arturo’s Island for readers to enjoy.  Morante’s prose is wonderful here (I read it first in Italian, but Quigly’s translation captures much of the original’s spirit), as Arturo’s personality is revealed through his introspective, sometimes self-damning monologues.  In the passage quoted above, his conflicted emotions are revealed with such a clarity as to make subsequent passages all the more revealing.  The plotting is well-done, as the love triangle (complicated by the birth of Arturo’s half-brother) develops at a steady pace, never feeling extraneous or tedious.  The themes are also well-developed, especially Morante’s exploration of how nurture and nature both might come to shape a person’s world-views, especially male attitudes toward women.  It is not a perfect novel, as sometimes these themes are not as subtle as they could have been, but on the whole, Arturo’s Island was a deep yet very enjoyable read.

Elsa Morante, La Storia (1974; translated as History in 1977)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

It is known that such a feeling gnaws at its victims with the ferocity of a tireless rodent, and often compensates them with dreams.  Mussolini and Hitler, in their way, were two dreamers; but here is where their inherent difference lies.  The dream-vision of the Italian Duce (corresponding to his physical desire for life) was a histrionic festival, where among banners and triumphs, he, a scheming vassal, would play the part of certain beatified ancient vassals (Caesars, Augustuses, and so on…) before a living crowd humbled to the rank of puppets.  Whereas the other (tainted by a monotonous, vicious necrophilia and horrid terrors) was the half-conscious minion of a still formless dream.  In it, every living creature (including himself) was the object of torment, to be degraded even to putrefaction.  And at the end – in the Grand Finale – all the peoples of the earth (including the Germans) would rot in unseemly piles of corpses.

We know that our dream factory often has its foundations in debris of our waking hours or our past.  But in the case of Mussolini, the product was fairly obvious in its superficiality; whereas in the case of Hitler, it was a teeming of infections, clustered around who knows what roots of his disturbed memory.  Searching his biography, that of an envious little philistine, one could unearth some of these roots without much difficulty…But this is enough for now.  Perhaps the Fascist Mussolini didn’t realize at the time of the Ethiopian venture, supported by Hitler the Nazi (and then followed immediately by another common venture in Spain), that he had irrevocably yoked his own carnival chariot to the other’s funeral hearse.  One of the first effects of his servitude was that the national slogan, Romanity, of his own coinage, had to be replaced with a foreign one, of another’s coinage:  race.  And so it was that in the first months of 1938, in Italy too, the newspapers, the local clubs, the radio, began the preparatory campaign against the Jews. (pp. 39-40)

La Storia, the original Italian title for Elsa Morante’s 1974 work, can mean two things.  It can be “The Story,” the singular narration of a tale, or it can be “The History,” which in English connotes something different, something supposedly “more true” than just mere story.  Regrettably, this ambiguity is lost in English translation, yet within this “history” of Rome during the 1940s is buried the “story” of a woman, Ida, and her two sons, Nino and Useppe.

History is a sprawling novel, covering largely the 1941-1947 wartime and immediate post-war years in Rome.  Morante opens each year section with a chronology of that particular year’s notable events.  The litany of death and suffering, of hatreds acted out and little moments of generosity snuffed out, is, as she wrote in the preface to the 1977 Franklin Library “First Edition,” ‘A scandal that has lasted for ten thousand years.’  This “scandal” is key to understanding the novel and how expertly Morante weaves in the universal with the tragic family history that forms the core of this novel.

Ida, a widowed teacher who is left to care for her two young sons, including one (Useppe) who suffers from epilepsy.  Soon we learn that Useppe is the product of rape and that it was a German soldier who performed the rape.  Through much of the novel, Ida struggles to deal with the consequences of these two violent acts, the death of her husband and her continual reminder of her rape when she cares for her son.  Morante presents Ida’s struggles with some sympathy, but her focus is more on the symbolic connections between Ida and her sons’ lives and Italy’s socio-political condition during these years.

As seen in the passage quoted above, Morante often utilizes vivid, dreamlike images to establish atmosphere.  The Italy that Ida experiences is one that is starting to awake from a terrible, horrific dream of violence and hatred spawned by Mussolini’s shackling his Fascist wagon to the back of Hitler’s crazy train.  Throughout the novel, death and madness lurk behind a lot of the scenes, including Useppe’s struggles to survive his bouts of grand mal seizures.  As the war progresses and Mussolini’s government collapses in 1943, the privations Ida and others suffer grows.  We are witnesses to their search for shelter after a bombing, their near-continual hunger and the changes this causes in their relations with others and the world.  It is a somber tale, yet it is effective because of how integrated it is with the other “scandals” of the war.  Tens of thousands of years later, after all, we humans still try to hope against hope, even as we repeat all of our old mistakes of avarice and distrust.

Morante’s story, however, falters a bit toward the end, as we shift away from Ida and more toward her two sons and another character, who like Ida, managed to hide his Jewish ancestry during the last years of German occupation of Rome.  While Morante tries to explore the effects of racism through these new PoVs, there isn’t as strong of a connection between the personal and the historical as there was with Ida’s struggles.  Ultimately, however, History manages to regain much of its lost momentum and while the conclusion is far from what one would call “happy,” it is still a profound one that leaves the reader pondering this momentary wake in the crashing historical wave.

Ludmila Ulitskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter (2006; English translation 2011)

September 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

4.  January 1946, Wroclaw 


Dear Avigdor,

Did you know I managed to find Dieter back in August last year?  He is alive, but stuck in a monastery!  When I heard he had become a monk I could not believe it.  We were in Akiva together, we were Zionists, we were going to go to Israel, and suddenly this!  A monk!  After the war there are not that many of us still around.  He is one of the lucky few, and all just to become a monk?  When someone said he was in Kraków I went straight there.  I was sure, and I still haven’t changed my mind completely, he must have been tricked.  To tell the truth, I took a pistol along just in case.  I captured a good Walther a while back. (p. 36)

Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 2006 novel, translated ably by Arch Tait in 2011 as Daniel Stein, Interpreter, is not a true novel in the sense of a unified narrative.  Instead, it is an epistolary narrative, told through dozens of real and fictitious letters that narrate the life and beliefs of an extraordinary man, Oswald Rufeisen, the model for the titular Daniel Stein.  In these various letters, excerpts of speeches and even brochures, the broad parameters of his life and his conversion from Judaism to becoming a controversial Barefoot Carmelite monk living in Israel after the Holocaust are established.  It is a challenging work, one that can excite and frustrate even the most curious and cautious readers.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter is divided into five parts, yet these are not as much chronological divisions as they are thematic ones.  In them, real and fictitious characters based on actual people narrate in their letters to others (which in turn engender other conversations with still other readers, until each section concludes with a letter written by the author herself) their experiences in the past war, the Holocaust, their issues and crises of faith, and, sometimes in passing, their memories of this Jewish boy, Dieter/Daniel, who became a monk and who tried to re-create the Jewish Christianity of St. James of Jerusalem.  It is a fascinating tale, but one that requires quite a bit of parsing as to determine what is being said and what is being withheld.

Daniel’s character is one of the few things that are established solidly.  He is a smart, sensitive soul, yet one who manages to act as a mediator between intransigent groups.  He manages to survive the Holocaust by convincing the local Gestapo leaders that he is a Pole who is fluent in German and Yiddish and he uses this position of trust to shield over 300 refugees who have fled from their local ghetto to the surrounding forest, where they somehow manage to survive.  This ability to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and religious divides serves him well later in life, as he tries to reconcile the various branches of Christianity with Judaic practices.  For this, he becomes a thorn in the side of both the State of Israel, who granted him residency but refused to recognize him as a Jew, and the Catholic Church, whose leadership questioned in the 1980s if this monk preaching a return to Jewish Christianity should be muzzled.  Daniel’s efforts, quixotic as they may seem, are shown to have had a tremendous influence on the lives of several, including those who only came to know of him through the written and oral testimonies of others.

However, the other narrative threads, especially those related to how people choose their faiths or non-beliefs in moments of crisis, are more difficult to follow, as they are often not developed further.  There were several, at least three, sub-narratives that in their own right could have made for intriguing, if not outstanding, novels.  Yet here there are so many disparate elements suborned into the greater narrative of one man’s transforming faith and ability to interpret the various languages of desire spoken by his congregants.  It would have been nice to have seen more of this, as there are spaces of several letters where Daniel largely disappears into the background without much in the way of payoff later.

Yet despite these flaws, Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a powerfully constructed epistolary novel that largely works.  Although some character/letter sets are more poignant than others, for the majority of them, the effects that this largely historical convert/monk had on their lives are palpable.  The result is a story that promises to reveal new facets upon a re-read and is one well-worth visiting regardless of one’s creed or belief system.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

August 27th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.  Characters who don’t follow this code become unlikeable.  Critics who criticize a character’s unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted.  They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.

Why is likability even a question?  Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable?  Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn’t behave in a way the reader finds palatable.  Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that “this ‘liking’ business has two components:  moral approval and affection.”  We need characters to be lovable while they do right. (“Not Here to Make Friends,” p. 70, iPad iBooks e-edition)

I have been following Roxane Gay on Twitter ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, An Untamed State, back in June.  It is a different experience witnessing a writer and cultural critic holding forth on a variety of issues “in real time” before sitting down and reading her debut collection of thirty-eight essays, Bad Feminist.  Many of the issues raised in her essays I first experienced in truncated form on Twitter, but in both media, what immediately becomes apparent is Gay’s wit and honesty.

The essays that appear in Bad Feminist are culled from columns that have appeared in the past few years at places such as The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Salon, among others.  Grouped into five categories (“Me,” “Gender & Sexuality,” “Race & Entertainment,” “Politics, Gender & Race,” and “Back to Me”), Bad Feminist‘s essays explore a variety of topics, ranging from the personal to cultural flash points such as the depiction of blacks in American cinema (“Surviving Django” and “Beyond the Struggle Narrative”).  In these essays, Gay is not a polished, aloof critic.  Instead, she allows her virtues and flaws to be on full display, showing an individual who is deeply engaged with her subject matter, sometimes to the point of self-conscious subjectivity.  This, however, is not a flaw but a feature in her essays, one that makes Bad Feminist an absorbing read.

One shining example can be found in “What We Hunger For.”  Starting as an admission that she cannot critique The Hunger Games effectively due to her fannish attachment to it, Gay proceeds to write a passionate essay that touches upon a traumatic time in her life (a gang rape in middle school) before proceeding to tie this in to the question of “darkness” in contemporary YA fiction:

In June 2011, Meghan Cox wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations.  She wrote,

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.  There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader – or one who seeks out depravity – will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds. 

She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction, but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre and the countless titles that aren’t grounded in damage, brutality, or loss.  More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers. (p. 115)

The remainder of “What We Hunger For” discusses this desire for sanitizing YA literature, making it somehow “safer” for readers and how it is a misleading goal in light of those young readers, much more than what one might presume, who find solace and strength in these accounts of others battling difficulties and horrendous moments in order to come out on the other side.  Gay argues her point persuasively, using personal experience to flesh out her points without ever denigrating those who believe otherwise.  This ties in directly to the next essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” in which Gay explores her unease about the notions that lie behind the usage of the label “Trigger Warning.”  She is compassionate toward those who have suffered traumatic flashbacks, but she nonetheless sees an issue of not feeling protected, not feeling safe, when such warnings are issued.  It is a view with which I have a deep sympathy for, as what she says on it jibes with my experiences:

This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings:  there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done.  A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger.

I don’t know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary.  When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe.  I don’t feel protected.  Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (p. 122)

An interesting feature of Gay’s essays is that while she sets up interesting discussion matters, she rarely, if ever, concludes them with strong, assertive stances.  Instead, these pieces feel like conversation starters, presenting a topic through a deeply personal lens (albeit one that is informed with critical theory as well as knowledge of pop kitsch), but leaving enough “space” for the reader to leave his or her comment as an appendix.  Several times, I felt like I wanted to write a response, to ask a question or inquire about the source material, and this sucked me further into Gay’s essays than if they had been polished, academic affairs.  Their structure betrays their original purpose as columns, many of which would have been online and have featured a Comments section.  Some might not like this, but for myself, this works wonderfully because it allows the reader space to draw her own conclusions about the topics raised.

The breezy nature of these essays might not appeal to everyone, but for the most part, Gay displays a sharp, introspective mind that is constantly asking questions about the world and its peoples.  The topics are engaging and while there might be a perceived dearth of firm conclusions, this actually ties into her opening and concluding sections, in which Gay explains why she has labeled herself as a “bad feminist.”  If Montaigne’s Essais were the foundation for the essay genre, Bad Feminist is an excellent example of the early 21st permutation of that form.

Lily King, Euphoria (2014)

August 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

She rolled a pencil beneath her palm on the table and then she looked up at me.  ‘Helen and I were lovers,’ she said.

‘Ah.’  This explained a few things.

She laughed at my ‘ah’ and told me they had met during Nell’s first anthropology class with Boas.  Helen, a decade older, was his graduate assistant.  Their connection was instant and though Helen was married with a house in White Plains, she stayed in the city many nights a week.  She had encouraged Nell to go and study the Kirakira, but wrote her angry letters accusing Nell of abandoning her.  They she surprised her by meeting the boat in Marseille with the news that she had left her husband.

‘But you had met Fen.’

‘I had met Men.  And it was awful.  Before Helen, I would have said that the desire to possess others is more male than female in our culture, but I think temperament comes into it.’  She tapped the pencil on our Grid.

‘Was she bread to you?’

She shook her head slowly.  ‘People are always wine to me, never bread.’

‘Maybe that’s why you don’t want to possess them.’ (pp. 159-160, iPad iBooks e-edition)

When I began classes at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I had the vague notion that I might complete a minor in Anthropology.  Although I lacked a couple of classes of completing that by the time I graduated in 1996, I did enjoy the three classes that I did take in the field, especially the Cultural Anthropology class.  Of particular interest to me as a cultural historian trainee was the value and perils of ethnologies, or the studies of particular cultural groups.  One name that was repeatedly brought up was Margaret Mead and her pioneering work in New Guinea.  Even then, she was a very controversial character.  Her monographs on sexuality in New Guinea caused a firestorm of debate in early 20th century Anglo-American culture, where birth control could not be sent in the mail and the Comstock Laws were in full effect.  What is known of her own life, her loves and passions, were also equally the stuff of legend and disdain, even into the present time.

In her first historical novel, acclaimed novelist Lily King takes a pivotal time in Mead’s personal and professional lives, an expedition in early 1930s New Guinea with her second and future third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson (Fen and Bankson in the novel), and she fictionalizes accounts of that fateful expedition in order to highlight not just the tensions between the characters, but also between the three’s Western perspectives and the cultural practices of the villagers they have been observing.  Mead/Nell’s interactions are the driving force of King’s narrative and the convoluted dynamics of their relationships makes for an intriguing, sometimes fascinating read, even for those who are somewhat familiar with Mead’s personal life.

Euphoria is told via Bankson’s PoV, punctuated with entries from Nell’s journals.  It is an effective storytelling mode, as it allows for a contrast of the deeply personal with the more antiseptic, clinical approach associated with observation journals.  As the story shifts between these two poles, the reader manages to get a clearer impression of what is truly transpiring than if either one of the two narrative modes had dominated.  Yet there are times where there is a bit of a bleed-over, as Bankson’s account of Nell’s initial pregnancy during the expedition takes on an odd mixture of theoretical views of sex with personal disappointment of the lack of fruitfulness in his own relations with her:

I walked down the men’s road.  A cluster of pigs were muscling each other for a scrap of food beneath one of the houses and making a racket.  There was very little light in the sky, but whether it was sunrise or dusk, I wasn’t sure anymore.  I had been spun around by them.  I was seven hours away from my work, and had been for who knew how many days.  Nell was pregnant.  She and Fen had made a baby.  When I was with them it was easy to convince myself that she hadn’t fully made her choice yet.  She played her part in that.  Her eyes burned into mine when I had an idea she liked.  She followed every word I said; she referred back.  When I had written down Martin’s name on the graph she’d passed her finger over the letters.  I felt in some ways we’d had some sort of sex, sex of the mind, sex of ideas, sex of words, hundreds and thousands of words, while Fen slept or shat or disappeared.  But his kind of sex with her produced a baby.  Mine was useless. (p. 161)

The plot depends more upon character interactions than upon external events to drive the narrative.  The tension between the three anthropologists simmers before threatening to explode, making for a quick read for the majority of the time.  Yet there is more than just character tension developing within the narrative.  Nell’s journals, focused more on the people through which the three move, refers back to the historical Mead’s accounts of her time in New Guinea, replete with the then-shocking revelations about sexual relations and family-kinship connections.  Those brief entries serve as a counterpoint to Bankson’s narrative, creating a multi-layered tale that works equally as a fictionalization of a key moment in a historical figure’s life and as a social commentary on how Mead’s views themselves perhaps have been superseded by subsequent ethnological research.  Although there are a few places where Euphoria perhaps plays up the romantic tensions a bit too much, weakening the overall narrative in the process, on the whole it is a very solid effort, one that will encourage its readers to learn just a little bit more about the extraordinary anthropologist who inspired it.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Niall Williams, History of the Rain

August 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I know what that’s like too, when the last thing you feel is the pinch in your arm and this might hurt just a little and you’re off into the wherever depending on the length and breadth of your imagination.  My father has a whole section of his library just for this.  Here’s Thomas Traherne (1637-74), poet, mystic, entering Paradise (Book 1,569, The Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey, Faber & Faber, London):  “The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped nor was ever sown…the dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold.  The Gates were at first the end of the world.  The green trees, when I saw them first through the gates, transported and ravished me… The men!  O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem!  Immortal Cherubims!  And the young men glittering and sparkling angels; and maids, strange and seraphic pieces of life and beauty!  Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were moving jewels.’

Paradise has actual gates? (pp. 31-32)

Forget Marx’s observation that religion was the opiate of the masses.  For bibliophiles, the act of reading serves as a pallative, giving voice to our pains and providing, sometimes, a numbing agent for those pinpricks of the soul.  In Niall Williams’ 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, History of the Rain, he explores the ways in which literature, both composed and collected, can communicate those awful little family secrets that mere conversations fail to do.  It is an interesting approach to the staid family history genre, albeit one that depends in part upon the reader’s familiarity with the books referenced.

Nineteen-year-old Ruthie Swain is an invalid, confined now to her family’s County Clare home, replete with thatched roof and lack of certain modern amenities.  Desperate to understand her family’s history, especially that of her late father, a poet, Ruthie turns to his vast library of books in a search to understand not just the man her father was, but just how these thousands of volumes shaped him.  As she reads and narrates her thoughts on her family and their literary influences, the diary-like tone of certain passages gives way to amusing anecdotes grounded in the literature she is perusing:

That’s how I see it anyway.  That’s how I see it when I ask Mam ‘How did you first meet Dad?’ and each time she tells me the story of Not Meeting, of Passing by, and how it seems to me God was giving them every chance not to meet, and the singular nature of their characters will mean their stories will run parallel and never do a Flannery O’Connor.  Never converge. (p. 180)

Over the course of a few hundred pages, Ruthie discusses the known facts of her parents’ lives, of her father’s existence as a failed poet and even worse farmer; of her mother’s exasperation in dealing with him; of the impossibly high standards that her father, Virgil, holds himself to; of how her twin brother Aeney drowns and how that affected her father and his attempts to write publishable poetry.  But most importantly, there is within the family notes and the scribbled margins of her father’s books a reference to a poem, “History of the Rain,” that might hold clues to understanding just how Ruthie’s father came to be the enigma that he was for her.

Williams rarely tells the Swain family’s history in linear fashion.  Instead, he favors a more elliptical approach, in which the volumes that Ruthie mentions contains clues to not just what happened in her parents’ lives and why they were reluctant to share those moments with her, but also why her father tried his level best to become a poet.  This quest to understand familial past is not original, far from it, but Williams’ use of literary references to a wide range of authors spanning the globe imbues the narrative with a secondary layer that enlivens it, making it feel fresher for its more universal approach to discussing the personal.

However, there are times where the dependence upon the literary perhaps goes too deep into the well.  Ruthie’s copious references to literary works at times felt a bit too much, as though she were not a fully-fleshed human but instead a literary quote generator that could spout a phrase suitable for any and all emotional moods.  However, these moments thankfully are few in number and on the whole, Williams manages to integrate well the personal family history narrative with the use of literary references as a means of exploring the human condition.  As the narrative unfolds, Ruthie arrives at the conclusion that there is a price to becoming different from others, a toll exacted for those poetic souls who seek to go so deep into this earth that they are transformed by this search for understanding.  It is perhaps a little trite, but in light of the journey that Ruthie has narrated, it is a fitting one.  History of the Rain works best if viewed as a bibliophile’s relation of human thought to the real world, connecting our sorrows with those narrated by others.  It may not be a perfect novel, but it is a very human tale, one that I enjoyed reading.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

August 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Something was happening inside Dorrigo Evans as he watched.  Here were three hundred men watching three men destroying a man whom they knew, and yet they did nothing.  And they would continue to watch and they would continue to do nothing.  Somehow, they had assented to what was happening, they were keeping time with the drumming, and Dorrigo was first among them, the one who had arrived too late and done too little and now somehow agreed with what was happening.  He did not understand how this had come to be, only that it had.

For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god.  It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal.  For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. (pp. 352-353 iPad iBooks e-edition)

As a young child, I was fascinated with the two World Wars.  I have two distinct memories related to this.  My father, a Vietnam War veteran, very occasionally would talk about what he experienced in that latter war, namely witnessing the torturing of a Viet Cong prisoner by Korean soldiers.  The other thing he would recollect was how a history professor of his had been in the Bataan Death March and how his harrowing stories of slave labor and brutal mistreatment by the Japanese affected him decades later.  These stories have shaped my images of warfare, especially in relation to PoWs, as being an excruciating series of terrors punctuated with witnesses (if not direct experience) of torture and depraved behavior.

In his 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Australian writer Richard Flanagan follows the lives of a group of Australian PoWs and their Japanese captors as they are charged with building the infamous Burma Railway.  This railroad, known also as the Death Railway for the tens of thousands of forced laborers’ deaths during its construction, and its construction has been described in many novels and movies, mostly famously in Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Boulle’s account of the PoWs’ experiences during the building of the infamous Bridge 277, however, does not accurately describe the sufferings experienced by the PoWs.  In contrast, Flanagan’s novel devotes much of its space to covering these depravities in substantial detail.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, named after a haiku by a 17th century Japanese poet, is divided into five parts that chronicle the lives of several soldiers, most especially that of Dorrigo Evans, over the course of the twentieth century to the dawn of the twenty-first.  At first, the action is slow in developing, as the prewar lives of Evans and other PoV characters only barely hints at the transformations to occur after their capture and forced labor on the Burma Railway.  It is in the final three parts of the novel where the gradually building tension in the soldiers’ lives blows up in spectacular ways.  As Evans, a medical doctor, is placed in charge of a thousand man detail, he daily has to confront the awful decisions of survival and death that he is forced to make.  He witnesses several brutal beatings, such as that quoted above, and these dehumanizing experiences change him and others around him, including some of his captors.

Flanagan asks a lot of his readers.  Not only are these sufferings outlined in sometimes graphic detail (the discovery of a man who had just died from amoebic dysentery being but one example), but just when it would seem that the Japanese and Korean soldiers had been built up to be cruel, inhuman monsters, he turns around and has several chapters in the crucial middle section told from their perspectives.  This, however, serves to create a larger dynamic here, that of how violence shapes lives.  In the final two sections, following the end of fighting, Flanagan shows these now ex-soldiers and how they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings.  The results are not always pretty, as denials and self-exculpations for what has transpired abound.  Violence continues to haunt these men, even as some struggle to justify their actions in order to prevent themselves from being condemned.

As noted above, The Narrow Road to the Deep North starts very slowly.  Although the character development established there eventually pays dividends, it was a very sluggish first couple of sections and it was not until nearly 200 pages into the novel that the story truly comes into its own.  However, the second half of the novel is so powerful in its treatment of violence and how these soldiers try to cope with what is happening to and around them that it more than makes up for the slow pace of the beginning sections.  Flanagan’s prose is chilling at times, especially in his depictions of the punishments inflicted on the soldiers.  Even more than this, it is how he turns these graphic portrayals around and makes of them a commentary on the human condition that makes The Narrow Road to the Deep North a worthy nominee for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013 US release)

August 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Those weeks I spent with our grandparents in Indianapolis still serve as the most extreme demarcation in my life, my personal Rubicon.  Before, I had a sister.  After, none.

Before, the more I talked the happier our parents seemed.  After, they joined the rest of the world in asking me to be quiet.  I finally became so.  (But not for quite some time and not because I was asked.)

Before, my brother was part of the family.  After, he was just killing time until he could be shed of us.

Before, many things that happened are missing in my memory or else stripped down, condensed to their essentials like fairy tales.  Once upon a time there was a house with an apple tree in the yard and a creek and a moon-eyed cat.  After, for a period of several months, I seem to remember a lot and much of it with a suspiciously well-lit clarity.  Take any memory from my early childhood and I can tell you instantly whether it happened while we still had Fern or after she’d gone.  I can do this because I remember which me was there.  The me with Fern or the me without?  Two entirely different people. (p. 56)

What constitutes a family?  Is it a grouping of genetically-related persons who lodge together in a common dwelling?  Does the adoption of others into the home create family bonds?  If so, what happens to a family’s bonds when the adopted member is removed suddenly?  These questions are just a few of the ones raised and addressed in Karen Joy Fowler’s 2013 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, recently selected for the 2014 Man Booker Prize longlist.

The story centers on the relationship that Rosemary Cooke, now in her early 20s in the narrative present of 1996-1997, formed in the late 1970s with Fern, who later was removed from the family in 1979 when Rosemary was five.  Theirs was an unusual relationship, one that was in equal parts grand social experiment and extended familial bonding, and for the first section of the novel, the reader only learns just a tiny bit about what made this experiment special and how their separation affected the entire Cooke family.  Fowler’s story is built around a slow unraveling of the central mystery surrounding Rosemary and Fern’s too-brief siblinghood and a direct discussion of that might ruin for some potential readers the magic of this tale.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is largely told from Rosemary’s point-of-view.  We see flashbacks to various key points in her young life, to how she struggled to conform to social expectations for kindergarteners and how her various social relationships reflected a lack in her life.  Her parents, but especially her father, are shown in a negative light, as the experiment conducted by them has had a deleterious effect on all four remaining members of the Cooke family.  But it is Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, who is the most readily damaged by the sundering of the Rosemary-Fern relationship.  He turns against his parents, against his society, and becomes what might be described as an eco-terrorist, one who is on the run from the FBI during part of the 1990s narrative sections.  Fowler does an excellent job in fleshing out the other family characters with short, sharp observations that give each family member a backstory without the need for much description.

Fowler has carefully constructed the narrative, as Rosemary’s reminisces combine with her current social interactions to create a contrasting before-after effect that leads to a gripping tale of loss and recovery.  Fowler subtly shows these gradual changes in Rosemary after her separation from Fern and how over the intervening 17 years she has come to terms with the changes caused by that loss.  Rosemary, like her parents and brother, is not the same as she was “before,” but the “after” Rosemary, despite her closer relationship to Fern than what the rest of her family experienced, is somehow more resilient, less prone to the self-destructive behavioral changes that have afflicted the others.  These less damaging changes enable Rosemary to deal well with Fern when she re-encounters her nearly two decades later in a very different social milieu.  Their brief meeting is poignant without ever slipping into maudlin melodrama.

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves was my seventh-favorite 2013 US release and it is not surprising to see that it was nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize after its UK release.  It is a touching story that displays a keen level of insight into what makes us social beings.  Fowler’s prose is carefully crafted to fit the characters and plot.  The characterization, as I noted above, is top-notch and the plot moves steadily, with very few hiccups, towards its emotional denouement.  It is a fitting nominee for this award, one that I would highly recommend to readers of a wide variety of literary genres.

Paula Bomer, Inside Madeleine (2014)

August 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I don’t want to jump out any window.  I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living.  They pump the air in here out of machines.  It stinks like Play-Doh.  Open a window, please – I won’t jump – I’m not a suicide patient.  I just don’t eat.

My neighbors don’t eat either.  Eye socket girls.  Nurses drag them with their IVs to the scale.  Some girls get weighed once a day, others, two or three times.  Liquids pump into our bodies through plastic tubing, adding pounds to our emaciated frames.  We don’t like the pounds.  We look voraciously at one another.  We envy the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all.

You may think that I don’t know I’m emaciated.  I know every curve and angle of my rib cage.  I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest.  I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face.  This girl’s body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself.  I know about these things.  I’m aware of the effects of my disease. (“Eye Socket Girls,” p. 10 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paula Bomer’s third book, the collection Inside Madeleine, is one of the more direct books on women’s issues, particularly body image, that I have read.  The eight stories are raw, sometimes visceral stories of women fighting, often failing, to maintain their sense of identity despite the plethora of pitfalls that await them.  These were not easy stories to read, but Bomer manages for the majority of them to make them compelling reads, leaving me feeling like I was rubbernecking, looking at the carnage of her characters’ lives.

The opening story, “Eye Socket Girls,” sets the tone for the tales that follow.  Set in a hospital ward for anorexic girls, the first-person narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing how she and others like her ended up in treatment.  The passage quoted above, taken from the introductory paragraphs, makes it quite clear that this will not be a pitiable character, but instead a more vindictive one who is convinced by that starving herself, she is defying a system that judges young women by impossible standards.  As she continues her narration, the topic switches to a rather uncomfortable topic:

That’s why people fight us.  No one likes to see a young girl win.  We’re supposed to be nice, well-behaved things.  Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods.  I don’t get my period anymore.  I haven’t bled since I was fourteen. (p. 12)

This is not the standard cautionary tale and in the next story, “Breasts,” the third-person protagonist, Lola, also confounds reader expectations by her uses of her “assets” ending not in trouble, but instead in something more ambiguous.  This is a motif that Bomer returns to several times in the stories that follow, that of a young woman defying social conventions and often, albeit sometimes with visible and metaphorical bruises, making her way through a society that seems bound and determined to see them fail.

Despite the mostly-excellent stories of the first seven tales, it is the novella-length eponymous concluding story that makes Inside Madeleine a memorable read.  It is a tale of a young woman some might call a slut, Madeleine, and how she utilizes her body to get what she wants.  A slightly chubby (this is emphasized at several points early in the story to set up the conclusion) middle school girl, she tries to befriend some high school boys at a local skating rink by going down on them.  As word of her “talents” spreads, her demeanor changes to an outwardly haughty yet vulnerable young woman.  It is her interactions with a socially nondescript boy her age, Mark, and their tumultuous relationship over the intervening years that makes this story a fascinating read.  Bomer pulls no punches, as both Madeleine and Mark have their own issues with manipulation until finally the story spirals down to a conclusion that connects Madeleine’s tale, albeit thematically, with others in the collection.  It is a powerful denouement, one that the reader will not forget anytime soon.

Bomer’s prose sparkles in most of these tales, as her characters feel alive and defiant thanks to her ability to string emotion and setting together with monologues that seethe with frustration and the desire to spite those who presume to keep them down.  The characterizations are top-notch and the plots surprise without feeling illogical or disjointed.  While the middle tales are not as memorable as the ones discussed above, the novella “Inside Madeleine” alone would make this collection one worth reading.  Inside Madeleine is destined to be one of those rare collections that I’ll revisit several times in the years to come.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

August 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I encouraged my patients to floss.  It was hard to do some days.  They should have flossed.  Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years.  It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass.  That’s not the dentist talking.  That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point?  In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide.  But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain – rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve – and what I called hope, what I called courage, about all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, “You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference.”

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be.  That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.  The ailing bits he tries to turn healthy again.  The dead bits he just tries to make presentable.  He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch.  He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match.  Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and lone molars stand erect as tombstones. (pp. 3-4)

If you had told me before reading Joshua Ferris’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour that a story centered around a depressed dentist whose love for Red Sox baseball was only matched by his failure to maintain any relationship would be one of the funniest novels released this year, I would have looked askance at you.  But it is true, this novel tackles some potentially drab situations (in addition to the above, add the search of an atheist for some sort of meaning) and manages to find brightness within them.  It is an impressive accomplishment.

Paul O’Rourke on the surface has an ideal life.  He is a very successful New York dentist, having a large practice located in a posh Park Avenue office complex.  However, the rest of his life is a shambles, much of it due solely to his self-destructive behavior.  His obsession over religion and meaning, trying on religious customs as though they were thrift store clothing despite his constant declarations that he is an atheist, his repetitive and borderline creepy conversations with former and current employees, his rapid cycling through of hobbies, all of these show a person on the edge of a complete and total breakdown.  Yet as he keeps circling around his core problems, reluctant to tackle what truly is the cause of his insomnia and mild depression, his observations are genuinely funny.  Yet Ferris’s humor, like much great comedy, does not detract from the root pain and suffering.  Instead, Paul’s humorous observations (including an insane tying in of a dental patient to Ross and Rachel from Friends) about what he experiences happening around him serves to accentuate his inner ennui, his desire to fit in and to find some meaning, any meaning in his life.

Paul’s world, jumbled and rudderless as it is, is turned upside-down when it turns out that someone has created Facebook, Twitter, and a webpage using his dental practice name.  Furthermore, these pages contain religious tracts of an obscure group known as the Ulms, who claim ancestry from the few survivors of the first biblical genocide, that of the Amalekites.  As this “other Paul” makes status updates and tweets despite Paul’s protests, Paul finds himself more and more drawn into what is unfolding.  People relatively close to him, from family to former lovers, find this “new” Paul fascinating in ways that the maladroit Paul just cannot be.  Paul himself begins to find, if not answers, then at least possibilities, to some of the issues, particularly faith-related ones, that have troubled him for years.

For most of the narrative, the story balances precariously between being intense and tedious.  It is a testimony to Ferris’s ability to turn a phrase that moments devoted to the minutiae of matters such as the 2011 Red Sox September collapse end up being wry, attention-grabbing moments that sustain the story through a middle part that is less well-developed than the introduction and conclusion.  There is nothing actively bad about this middle section, but in Ferris’s showing the reader precisely how Paul’s depression and self-defeating actions have constrained his life, the narrative at times too closely resembles this repetitive downward spiral.  However, even in these less interesting moments, there are still moments of profound silliness that break up the monotony of these scenes, making them more bearable for readers.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour succeeds primarily because Ferris’s prose is outstanding.  It isn’t just his clever wit and juxtaposing Paul’s foibles with his monologues, but it is seen in how he mixes in controversial elements like non-faith and religious sentiment to create sparks that kindle a reader’s interest rather than burning away any further desire to read.  The revelations toward the end about who is behind the “other Paul” online identity is handled well and the implications of that revelation tie in nicely with the novel’s thematic explorations of non-faith and the desire to create meaning out of life.  This is not to say that the ending is predictable.  If anything, it is a conclusion that, while fitting for Paul’s character and situation, does not follow standard conventions and yet, somehow, it all works.  To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is sharp, smart, and yet has a compassionate take that makes the humorous elements feel more humane and less biting than they could be, considering the serious topics that are the targets here.  It certainly is a fitting nominee for the Booker Prize and is one of the better humorous novels that I have read in years.