Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco

I think my brain is still fizzling from this very intense metaphysical drama/ murder mystery/ theological puzzle/ etc. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and was entrapped in the medieval period for a five days straight, but the fact that Eco wrote it as a novel putting flesh on a rumination of cosmological theories and ideals (which is not how I affirm fiction to act) soured his literary triumph (for me).

The body of the novel is posited as a translation of a manuscript written by a Benedictine monk in the fourteenth century, Adso of Melk. In the manuscript, Adso finally sets to rest what happened in his years as a novice, being the disciple of the famed English logician and monk, Brother William of Baskerville, who was called upon to investigate sinister happenings at a wealthy Italian Benedictine abbey. Brother William, having been an Inquisitor of the Roman Catholic Church (before the Spanish Inquisition, but nevertheless dealing very largely with heresy), comes from Oxford and is a disciple of Roger Bacon. If William is portrayed through his sharp observations and support of reason as the Sherlock Holmes of the ecclesiastical and monastic communities, Adso is his young Watson.

Eco's novel is relentlessly researched and believable. One can only imagine he'd lived such a life, being so thorough in presenting the world of a fourteenth century monk, the hours of prayer and work (Ora et labora) in the scriptorium, the detailed hierarchy of the order, the differences between the Franciscan and Cluniac communities, the political circles of power and corruption in the Holy Roman Empire, the schism between the pope in Avignon and the pope in Rome - but above all, Eco's medieval voice is authentic and consistent. His characters feel the desperation of living in the middle ages. They are learned, but feel the burden of knowledge, the possibility of blasphemy, the seductions of heresy, of pride and of power. In this claustrophobic circle, there is no room for the underprivileged, poverty is potentially heretical, and the Devil lurks everywhere in the guise of a Lilith-like woman.

Authority is absolute, sin requires penance, and heresy demands torture or death by fire. Salvation and illumination rests in literacy, and these Benedectines prize their learning, their precious vellum scrolls and manuscripts above all else. Beyond the schisms, the theological and philosophical banter, beyond the apocalyptic-style murders, the intrigue, and hidden vices of the monks, this novel is about the labyrinthine library at night.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Keep the Aspidistra Flying - George Orwell

I have not sympathized with a protagonist quite so much in a good while.

Gordon Comstock is turning thirty, has no money, works in a bookshop, is a failing poet, and refuses to take a "good" job because of his socialist ideals and his war against the money-god, and it's chief symbol: the aspidistra that sits in the window of every British middle-class home. Kind of like a less talk-the-talk Frank Wheeler.

The hideous grimness of Gordon's soul-destroying poverty, the way he sinks into inevitable decay, the doing without, the saving face - is vaguely familiar. His yet-to-be mistress, Rosemary, is far more understanding and generous than Gordon and his pretensions deserve but all comes to a good end.

This may become one of my favorites; I have sat with Gordon in the drafty, dusty bookshop (only ours is neither, ha ha); have been in his frigid bare room, eating pathetically, going without tobacco (substitute coffee) - Gordon is who I am afraid I will become. And things will get worse for him. But ultimately, there may be hope for Gordon and Rosemary.

Read this if you work in a bookshop. Or your pocket is pinched.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

My weakness for reading books by certain breed of British female author is growing: Iris Murdoch, A.S.Byatt, and now Muriel Spark. In Spark's tidy novella, the drama takes place in a school in Edinburgh in the thirties, during the "prime" of an unorthodox educator. A lover of the Fascisti, the exotic, Pavlova, and Sybil Thorndike, Miss Brodie promises the girls who prove their commitment to their education and their loyalty to her that they will become the "creme de la creme." The elect become known as the "Brodie set."

The aroma of sex prevails. How can it not when the central characters are making their way from age ten to age sixteen? One of them, it is assured at the outset of the novel, will be "famous for sex" amongst their male peers. Spark allows each member of the set to have a "thing" - sex, mathematics, stupidity - and includes the reader as an unseen member of the set with the gnostic knowledge of the intimate distinctiveness of the others.

Spark does not flinch from revealing the end alongside the beginning: we know characters will become nuns, fall in love in Italy, become actresses, die young in a fire, or marry bankers. Miss Brodie herself has a perfect arc of appearing as an untouchable glowing figure during the set's childhood; as they grow, so the reader grows in awareness of Miss Brodie's indulgences, her weaknesses, her weird exploitation of power. The novella's denouement of betrayal is not surprising, and Spark's whispers herald its coming.

Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolano

The Savage Detectives" is a truly lusty novel. Bolano orders us to live and experience; he presents a world in which literature is a vocation, and is taken seriously by an unending stream of characters. This is Literature - that prompts love affairs, causes duels, and drives us to the interstices of "normal" life.

Bolano convinces us. He is the real thing. His passion is infectious. He and Artur Belano are one - a sort of Casanova/ Don Juan/ Ulysses, the suffering poet-lover.

Bolano's strength is his Mary Poppinesque ability to pull characters endlessly out of his bag, that he gives these characters individual voices, that we sympathize with them no matter how sordid their lives. I lost track of the names, the places; they are fluid. What is important is the minutiae, the motivations, the impulses, the words. Bolano sculpts scenes so potent that we can feel the dust, the poverty, and the urgency that drives the characters.

I sunk into this book. Much prefer it to "2666."
"2666" may be hailed as his masterpiece because of its sheer size, but the "Savage Detectives" is his manifesto for a rough poetical existence. Sign me up.

Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is, I think, about enchantment. The book begins with Mole spring-cleaning his earthy home, but lured outside by the sunlight and the aromas and colors of spring, he meets a friend, and does not return to his home for several chapters. Toad is consistently enchanted with himself and his "cleverness" and with various fads - boats, carriages, and motorcars. (Hilarious how a toad donning a washerwoman's dress is seen as a crone by everyone he passes; humans in Grahame's world are very gullible.) Mole and Rat are enchanted by nature, and in the midst of it, come across a divine figure - some combination of Christ and Bacchus.

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.

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.