Monday, March 23, 2009

Stealing from Goodreads

The problem with Goodreads, and I knew this would happen when I signed up, is that I no longer post on here anymore. Then I become lazy, intimidated, and never post. This must and will change! So, I'm going to start by posting some old reviews from Goodreads and slowly wean myself off.

Nothing to Be Frightened Of - Julian Barnes
I haven't read any of Mr. Barnes's fiction, but this work of prose (an "elegant memoir") has been a joy to read. Barnes muses on death by integrating ideas of mortality, memory, family history, questions about religion and the after-life, literature and philosophy (mostly French philosophers). "Nothing to be Frightened of" is not nearly as earthy as Thomas Lynch's "The Undertaking." Lynch is fully aware that mortality rate of humans is always 100% and he seems unfrightened to confront that final strugge. Barnes is (understandably) nervous about the concept of no longer existing, especially as he realises that as a writer, his works will someday fall from remembrance, just as his personal memory is forgotten.

A customer asked me if purchasing this would cause them to slash their wrists while reading, and I assured them that I did not think so. Though my opinions might differ from Barnes's in certain parts of the text, I enjoyed hearing his voice in my head, and felt that he consistently raised points of view other than his own, and engaged them fairly.

We Have Always Lived In the Castle - Shirley Jackson
By the author of the story we all read in school "The Lottery," "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" is Shirley Jackson's eerie tale of reclusive and agoraphobic sisters (one possibly autistic, one presumed a murderess) holing themselves up in their large family home six years after the murder of the other members of their once-large family (arsenic in the sugar bowl). One is torn between sympathy and horror at the plight of the Blackwood sisters. Oh, and all the villagers are mean-spirited and stupid. Wonderfully written and deliciously creepy. I think it would be interesting to contrast this story with "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith - sisters, castles, isolation, strange men coming around. But very different atmospheres.

Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
This book sparked a controversy around the bookstore, and for a while there were reviews being written, comments inserted, whispered conversations in the backroom, to say nothing of the discussions that followed Junot Diaz's appearance at the Seattle Arts & Lectures.

What a gut-punching authentic narrative voice – the rambling, foot-noted, all-knowing talk of a man. I’m convinced that men are idiots – some men (Yunior) more than others – but interesting idiots. At least in print.
I feel strangely moved by this book and wonder if I’m being a bad female to not be riled up by its constant machismo and casual off-handedness, especially in terms of the violence conducted towards women. It seemed to me to be separated from the author’s prescriptive intent – not “this is how it should be,” but a “show, don’t tell” approach which paints a vivid picture of the way life is conducted in certain cultures, climates, or regimes. A terrible way to live to be sure, especially for a woman, but authentic. This is valuable in any novel – is the audience convinced? Do we empathize? Do we feel? Do we react? If yes, it has succeeded. And that’s why it won the Pulitzer.

Diaz’s Spanglish flavors the text (despite my inability to understand anything but “puta”), and his constant nerd-geek references make my heart sing. In this work, Diaz shows himself to be our generation’s Salinger. I predict this book will (and has) become available in many high school classes, despite the reaction from parents who disapprove of the graphic sex, language, or treatment of women or individuals of other races (eg. constant use of the words “nigger”, “negro” and the challenges of being considered too dark a Dominican etc.)

Like dictatorship and genocide, we hope that this poor conceptualization and subsequent treatment of women doesn’t exist, but we know it does. It is not how it should be, but this casual understanding forms the background, the setting for the story that we can buy into. I believe John Gardner calls this “verisimilitude,” the suspension of reality to wholly buy into a world other than our own. Somehow, in this crazy globalized world we live in, there exists an overweight, virginal Dominican who loves Dr. Who and Lovecraft and makes references to Mordor, and who teaches his dysfunctional family something about the nature and beauty of love and life.

But let’s step back a bit – Oscar is not the incarnation of Tiny Tim who inspires us to dig deeper into our hearts. He’s a part of a circle of flawed humans: Lola (tough, loyal), Yunior (cheating bastard), his mother (cruel), his grandmother (selectively chooses what truths to tell), his uncle Tio (too many things to mention), and Oscar’s own inability to listen to the women he “loves.”
The reason for us to celebrate this novel and celebrate Oscar is not for his goodness, but for his arrival: the arrival of a new protagonist, a new anti-hero. It is my hope that a book will be written in the future which heralds a new kind of a female protagonist, and both men and women (and awards committees) will recognize it for its vitality.

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