Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

I first read this book about 15 years ago, and was blown away. I rushed to finish it the day before the movie came out, and thus ruined my enjoyment of a highly acclaimed film.

My disappointment stemmed from the filmmakers choosing what I considered to be the secondary love story as their main theme. Otherwise, I remember it as beautiful and moving. What can I say, the book is always better...

Rereads are so satisfying. I love to see how I'll react to a book once I've moved into a different phase of life. And then, of course, I already know the ending. When I read this the first time, I was closer in age to Kip and Hana; now I'd call Caravaggio and the English patient my contemporaries. I feel more nostalgia for the younger pair, and having been disappointed and having disappointed in turn, I have more sympathy for those characters who fail to act honorably, or who suffer lapses in judgment.

The story takes place in 1945, in a bombed out Italian villa. A young Canadian nurse takes care of a badly burned man, known only as the English patient. Her wounded surrogate uncle stumbles them, and joins the household. Which coincidence somehow seems reasonable. A young Indian sapper, a bomb-defuser, lives in the garden while he clears mines from the countryside. The story relies on flashbacks and internal dialogue, as the four of them limp through the physical and emotional aftermath of the war. There is a mystery to solved, which takes pressure off the rest of the story; the relationships among those present and missing is the real meat of the novel.

The writing in this book is gorgeous. Ondaatje evokes landscape vividly, and is one of those authors who says a lot with just a few words. Each character is given a lot of attention, and all are fascinating. Despite being a wartime novel, this is less about the horrors of war then about the profound solitude they engender. The two older men embody loads of moral ambiguity, while Kip and Hana are mostly reacting to the unrelenting sorrow they've been exposed to, and do so with strength and grace. This may be a comment on the complexities that arise from age and experience; it's hard to stay untarnished over the course of a lifetime.

There's an undercurrent throughout of disaffection, isolation, people intentionally turning their backs on familiarity and tradition, and the damaging aspects of obsession. This is a terrific book, worthy of rereading, and definitely deserves to be called a classic.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Oh, it was super sad. Absolutely. Although the saddest part of this satire was the disintegration of American society. The love story was sad, too, though more in a disturbing, pathetic train-wreck-of-a-relationship kind of way than a star-crossed-lovers sort of way.

Lenny loves Eunice. Lenny does not know Eunice, but loves her desperately nonetheless. Eunice loves Lenny, but does not find him particularly attractive or compelling. Doomed to failure, you say? Oh, let me count the ways. So here we have the love story, which is tragic because each of the partners is so obviously damaged, so clearly unable to even attempt a healthy, satisfying relationship. But this is only a small part of the story. The really interesting thing is the background, the falling-apart America they inhabit.

This book is set in that sort of sci-fi present/future, different from our own time but eerily close. The next iteration of personal electronic device has become even more ubiquitous than the iPhone. Americans not only do all of their communicating via text, they are constantly and publicly rated (on personality, attractiveness, wealth, etc.) and tracked. New York, the setting of most of the novel's action, sports neighborhoods even more ethnically segmented than the present. Interestingly, the economically disadvantaged still retain the trappings of community while the rich have become isolated through their use of technology. Sound familiar?

Lenny works for Post Human Services, the branch of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation devoted to keeping people alive forever. At a price, of course. His boss, the charismatic Joshie, is like a second father to him, while his real parents, Russian immigrants who live in the suburbs, are as unreal as the characters of his beloved collection of anachronistic books. Wanting one thing while pursuing another is a central subject of this book, as is the inability to want what is right in front of you. A chorus of Crosby, Stills and Nash, anyone?

Eunice embodies the self-hatred of many young women. A childhood spent at the mercy of an abusive father has done nothing to help either her self-image or her ability to form meaningful relationships with the many men who court her. She spends most of her time shopping via mobile device, all the time wishing she were smarter, thinner, more successful. Both Lenny and Eunice are the children of immigrants; her parents came from Korea during its decline, and are now experiencing the rapid demise of their new country. This second-generation identity crisis just intensifies each one's inability to connect with one another or the world around them.

These shifting and combining themes of alienation, along with the beautifully realized dystopia of the almost-now, are deeply affecting, and at times very funny. Lenny, at 39, is an unwilling denizen of the 21st century, while Eunice, at 24, is the embodiment of her times. Watching them try to negotiate one another and their own demons is, indeed, super sad.

Check this out - a collection of Shteyngart's book blurbs. Great idea, especially from a satirist.

Here's the book's youtube 'trailer', which features several other literary luminaries.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Chang and Eng, by Darin Strauss

Yesterday I told my friend Tessa that life is too short to read anything you don't thoroughly enjoy. Then I went back to slogging my way through this book, which I have been failing to enjoy lo these many months.

Sometimes I'm just sure I'm going to love a book, either because I've heard good things about it or, as in this case, I have really liked other books by the same author. But of course tastes vary, and liking an author doesn't mean liking all of his work. Still, this was so hard to give up on! The premise is pretty fascinating; it's the fictional memoir of one of the original Siamese twins. The writing is good, the story is promising, but I just didn't like it.

Chang, the narrator, is a complete misanthrope. And the person he dislikes the most? His conjoined twin, Eng. I can relate to his desire to be alone; I am pretty reclusive myself. His total disconnection from every other human being, however, became oppressive. That and his sense of utter superiority. Could one really spend every single moment inches away from another human and feel nothing but contempt for him? This seems unlikely to me. If true, I can  not bear to read about it, and would much prefer to sweep it under the rug of ignorance.

As long as I'm complaining, I will note one other problem I had with this book. The twins were connected by some sort of ligament, referred to here as a band. Although many other details of scenery and physical countenance in the novel conjured up vivid images, I just can't manage to picture this bond. Or band. Or ligament. Or... something. Google returns nothing useful; there were a few pictures taken of the twins, but none that show how they were attached. The band is mentioned often, and this lack of a visual representation drove me crazy.

I loved Darin Strauss' memoir, Half a Life, and look forward to reading his other books. And I'm glad I didn't spend another minute trying to like this one. Life is, after all, too short to spend reading anything you don't thoroughly enjoy.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Classics: well, some of them, at least

I'm joining the Classics Club, hosted by Jillian at A Room of One's Own, and participating in this challenge: I'll read 50 classics, chosen by me, in no particular order, within 5 years, and blog about each one here.

The ones listed in purple are books I've read before, but not for 20 to 30 years. The exceptions are The English Patient and The Bell Jar, both of which I read about 15 years ago. I've tried to mix eras and genders. Some books are not technically classic in and of themselves, such as The Portable Dorothy Parker, but are collections of work by an author I consider part of the canon. I also wanted to get plenty of poetry in there, as I tend not to read much poetry unless nudged. So here is my list, to be completed by March 10, 2017. I'll reward myself with a trip to Hawaii! Well, maybe not. I think I'll choose to visit a literary monument of some sort, but I haven't yet decided. Maybe City Lights Bookstore? The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum? Time will tell.

  1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  2. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  3. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  4. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  5. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  6. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
  7. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
  8. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  9. Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathaniel West
  10. Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
  11. The Good Earth, Pearl Buck
  12. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  13. Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence
  14. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  15. Women In Love, D.H. Lawrence
  16. Out of Africa, Isak Dineson
  17. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  18. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
  19. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
  20. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
  21. Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
  22. Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
  23. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  24. The Hours, Michael Cunningham
  25. The March, E.L. Doctorow
  26. The Enormous Room, E.E. Cummings
  27. The Good Soldier, Ford Maddox Ford
  28. Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
  29. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
  30. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
  31. The Doctor Stories, William Carlos Williams
  32. Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens
  33. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
  34. The Complete Poems, Elizabeth Bishop
  35. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  36. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot
  37. Howl, Alan Ginsberg
  38. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
  39. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
  40. Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
  41. The Wapshot Chronicles, John Cheever
  42. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  43. Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  44. My Antonia, Willa Cather
  45. O, Pioneers!, Willa Cather
  46. The Poems of Emily Dickinson
  47. Ship of Fools, Katherine Anne Porter
  48. The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories, Eudora Welty
  49. Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
  50. The Portable Dorothy Parker

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See

For some reason I expected to really like this book. Let's just say I won't be running out to get the sequel.

I like novels that are set in other countries, other cultures. Fiction is the perfect place to learn about different worlds; if it's well done, you just ease into the past, or the Amazon, or an Amish town, and the author reveals the details as part of the plot. This book, however, seemed to beat me over the head with its cultural commentary. The opening chapters were full of descriptions of food and clothing; and I found myself mentally swatting them away, wanting to get to the plot.

The story starts in Shanghai in the 1930's. It recounts the saga of a pair of sisters as they are forced to flee their beloved city after the Japanese invasion. They end up in Los Angeles, negotiating in-laws and racism. Pearl, the eldest and the narrator, suffers the most, and never lets you forget it. As she is forced to see the world through the lens of adulthood, she begins to take on the words and attitude of her mother, to whom she naturally acted in a condescending and disobedient manner as a child. Unfortunately, the quirky independence that made the young Pearl a likely heroine are buried in the bitter adult. She ends up sounding cranky and put-upon.

I didn't hate the book, it just didn't meet my expectations. It did remind me of how happy I am to have been born where I was, and how glad I am that my own girls were welcomed with joy rather than disappointment. Despite the many incredible things Chinese culture has to offer, its historical denigration of women is something I will never be able to read about without feeling appalled.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy, by Susan Ray Schmidt

Honestly, how could I not read this book?

Memoirs can be tricky, not least because they are often written by people who don't do all that much writing. This one was a pleasant surprise, being very well-structured, and overall pretty well-written. Susan Schmidt does a particularly good job of capturing the emotional intensity of adolescence, as well as its moment-to-moment extremes and contradictions. All of which is a great reminder of why it's not such a good idea to choose your husband at age fifteen.

This is a memoir jam-packed with drama: fratricide, warring sister wives, international manhunts, child brides, wild parties; you name it. If it were a novel, you really wouldn't buy the story, but somehow as non-fiction it seems believable. Needless to say, I was riveted.

Susan Ray was raised as a member of a break-away Mormon sect in a Mexican colony in the 50's and 60's. Polygamy was considered a necessary practice for men who wanted to achieve the full rewards of heaven. At the story's opening, many men had plural wives, though most didn't have very many. One of the interesting things that happens during the decade the novel covers is that the men in the community get more and more caught up in courting and marrying young women. (You can watch Susan's own husband Verlan falling prey to the notion that the more young women he marries, the better off he'll be in the afterlife. Not to mention having a pretty good time during his earthly one.) This is what I liked so much about this book: her disillusionment with her religion and community seems to parallel the sect becoming more and more fundamentalist, and straying from its original mission.

I am no fan of religious fanaticism, especially when the women and children seem to suffer disproportionately. This book, however, portrays the church leaders as righteous men and women who are getting it wrong. The author doesn't describe them as blatantly selfish or egomaniacal (with the exception of a few bad seeds), but as true believers who are blind to the error of their ways. Which is sort of a refreshing take on the whole thing. At the same time, she is pretty unflinching in her opinion that the women and children in the community suffer mightily from the institutionalization of polygamy. Her husband ultimately fathered over fifty children, and had a total of ten wives (Susan was his sixth). He worked construction in the US while his wives and children lived in various towns and colonies in Mexico, and took extended breaks to do missionary work. His families made do on next to nothing, and rarely saw him.

The other thing that struck me about this book was the apparently unflagging energy of just about every person in it. Susan had five children by the time she was twenty-three, and lived in pretty primitive conditions. Yet she always seems to have had time for visiting friends and relatives, hosting get-togethers, making adobe bricks and building a house, stuff like that. The church elders supported many families while settling multiple towns, converting dozens of new members, writing treatises on their faith and spending endless time driving the hudreds of miles between their multiple homes. Made me tired just to read about it!

The one subject I would like to have heard more about is the fate of the young men of the colonies. Near the beginning of the book, an elder tells a teenage boy that the young women of the colony are for the older men; young men are expected to convert their first wives. Which might work for a while. The fate of young men in polygamist communities is generally pretty grim; it's not clear whether this one eventually adopted the practice of driving them out.

Several of Susan Schmidt's relatives have also written books about life with the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times. Which name in itself might give you pause... I would love to read them, but I doubt they will be as thoroughly entertaining as this one.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

I have discovered the key to David Foster Wallace's work, and it lies solely with the reader. Give it the time it deserves. His writing is so deeply layered, with ranging perspectives and a raft of information, many of which seem to bear little connection to the plot. Time and patience, however, reveal the tapestry. I truly didn't want the book ever to end, because this novel about the IRS, of all things, became the exploration of so many conundrums of modern life that it seemed that it might in the end explain everything.

This is a posthumous work, painstakingly stitched together from the papers Wallace left upon his untimely death. The editor, Michael Pietsch, describes it as a labor of love, but it must have been Herculean. One can only imagine how great the novel would have been if finished; as it is, we are lucky to have it in this form, and it is fantastic despite its lack of polish.

Think IRS: I immediately conjure gray walls, tens of thousands of smudged, tear-stained pages, pen protectors, ashen complexions. Monotony piled upon boredom. Step into the halls of the Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, and you'll find all of that, plus interminable lines, endless, incomprehensible regulations, crushing bureaucracy, and Machiavellian office politics, for starters.

The minutiae of tedium - sounds like a great subject for a novel, no? And yet... it is endlessly fascinating. Sitting cramped in my airplane seat, hours from either departure or destination, I read about characters caught in a perpetual traffic jam, and felt remarkably unconstricted. There was that sense of familiarity, the sorrow at the futility of hours spent wasted on mundane chores, combined with relief at knowing that my life (your life) could never be this banal. Though, described in exhaustive detail to the outside world, who knows?

What is the book about? Lots and lots of people working at the IRS. It could be subtitled: A Human Anthill. Depictions of childhoods both traumatic and run-of-the-mill are echoed in descriptions of adult lives both mundane and poignant. There's an awful lot in this book; really you just have to read it to begin to see its depth and breadth and yes, I'll say it, genius.