Monday, March 23, 2009

Books Read - Continued

2666 - Roberto Bolano
My very first Bolano:
Upon hearing that this was possibly the literary event of our time, I thought I'd better read it asap. It's not the sort of book I usually read, but I'm glad I did.

Contrary to my expectations, 2666 was not a meaningless and exhausting sequence of events. True, there is no chartable narrative arc, but one is able to pay attention. It was as if I were a fly on the wall, or looking at a rapid succession of interesting photographs. One maintains a detached but constant interest, not much involved, but curious.

Bookended by a story about a reclusive German writer named Archimboldi and three literary critics looking for him, 2666 by and large centers on the mass killings of women in the Mexican desert city of Santa Teresa, near the US border. The book is divided into five parts: Part about the critics (European critics looking for Archimboldi in Mexico)/ Part about Amalfitano (a man who appears in Part One)/ Part about Fate (an African American reporter sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match)/ Part about the crimes (a tally of the murdered and victimized women)/ Part about Archimboldi (the reader learns more about the reclusive German writer and is able to tie - a few - connections.)

The reader is transported from Germany to France to Spain to England to America to Mexico, and Bolano's landscapes are detailed and utterly believable. His stylistic ability to continue an "and then and then and then and then" narrative is unparalleled (in my limited experience). It is as though his brain can multiply names, characters, places, situations and experiences at an infintessimal pace. I wouldn't be surprised if Bolano was able to continue this book forever (if he hadn't died) and if he held our attentions ad infinitum.

And then, this month, we heard news that someone had unearthed a sixth part of the manuscript and all of us who ran out and bought the book are now looking at it in part horror and curiosity.

Take This Bread - Sarah Miles
Sara Miles was a single mother, a left-wing atheist lesbian activist when she walked into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church and spontaneously participated in communion. Finding herself suddenly and embarrassingly moved by her experience, she decided to return.

Miles writes about the difficulties of conversion when nothing about her newfound religion made any sense to her – not the evangelists, the dogmatisms, the theological concepts, or the inner ecclesiastical rifts. For her, religion was simple: feed others. Being so moved by the sacrament of the Eucharist when all who are called respond and come to the table to share the bread and the wine, she put this into practice by opening a food pantry and extending the warmth, community and responsibility to those are without food or occupy the social interstices: illegal immigrants, drug pushers, transvestites, transsexuals, gays, divorcees, the homeless, those that have been to prison.

Even the church that initially sanctions her food pantry and who gave her the impetus to feed people eventually betrays that while the church’s ideology is welcoming and inclusive, they are protective of their quiet, their “high-art Sundays”. This spiritual memoir is one of contrasts, contrasts Miles herself feels. Those who aren’t religious may find it difficult to understand why she decides to throw in her lot with this uncomfortable group of people; those who are may find it difficult to reconcile themselves with Miles’ sexuality, her open theology, and her imperative to leave her comfort zone and to identify with the estranged.
A thought-provoking read.

Will in the World - Stephen Greenblatt
A brilliant study in hypotheses: Greenblatt writes an imaginative history of William Shakespeare which discusses the scenery in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. He sets the playwright in the context and times he lived in, setting side by side historical facts and Greenblatt's own suppositions in a thoroughly convincing and beguiling manner. I feel like I could read it yearly. Greenblatt's scholarship enhances Shakespeare's mastery, and should be required reading for all who study Elizabethan theatre.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination - Elizabeth McCracken
A thin, beautiful, sad - but defiant - book about the loss of a baby. It begins with the flat warning: "Someone dies in this book. A baby." McCracken married her British husband in her late thirties and was thrilled to be living together in Bordeaux and pregnant with their first child (nicknamed Pudding.) Amidst the knocking on wood, the name games, and the well-wishes of friends and strangers, something goes very wrong and Pudding dies before birth. The book is written with a son finally born one year and five days after Pudding's death. It is a love letter to Edward (McCracken's husband), a card to the general public to explain (the death of a child never truly disappears), and a story for McCracken's living son, Gus.

I have never lost a child; I have never thought of the traumatic removal of future hopes and dreams, the amputated feeling of loss that McCracken felt and still feels being the mother of a ghostly son, Pudding, and his very real successor. McCracken is funny, refuses to be over-sentimental, and consistently withholds artifice from the reader. A great, elegiac read.

Vanity Fair - William Thackeray
[close] I read this at last. It took a long time. I have decided that I like Thackeray much more than Dickens. Subtitled "A novel without a hero," all of Thackeray's characters, no matter how interesting, ambitious, or virtuous, are betrayed by their vices, inadequacies, and petty deceptions. A step forward for the English novel! Hooray for Major Dobbins!

Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson
I had no idea what was being withheld from me by not reading Marilynne Robinson - this is a lovely, haunting, water-and-earth-filled book. Robinson's prose is lucid and at the same time as distracted and lilting and absorbed as her characters are. I will go on to read Gilead, but I think that it simply can't be this perfect. And since "Housekeeping" is set in the Idaho/Washington backwaters, I am more easily able to believe the gloom and sense of weird weightlessness this story conveys.

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