In the interest of full disclosure (or because putting myself on display via book reviews is a more palatable vehicle for my innermost self these daysIn the interest of full disclosure (or because putting myself on display via book reviews is a more palatable vehicle for my innermost self these days than, say, the more self-respectingly private venue of a journal is), I originally wrote this review as a series of letters between 84, Charing Cross Road and me, but it was one of those times when emulating the format just wasn't working (for one thing, I kept writing the book's responses far too snarkily, which I think may have been the result of being rubbed the wrong way by Ms. Hanff early on in the book, probably because she seems far more at ease with busting out the joshing jocularity during the fledgling stages of a friendship than I will ever be).
In that same vein, you probably also need to know it is with a mug of bright red tea on one side and a bottle of even redder wine on the other as Zep serenades me across the decades through my computer speakers (which, at a certain point, will be reduced to me playing my two favorite songs over and over until I'm satisfied enough to let the album end) that I am sitting here trying to formulate something vaguely resembling a proper tribute to a book that is, at its heart, a love letter to the bonds that are born of a shared love of reading.
Is there a more perfect book than 84, Charing Cross Road to discuss on a site that has led so many of us to friendships that began with books? How many casual comments or hesitant pushes of the "add as a friend" or "follow reviews" buttons were disguised as auspicious beginnings to an ever-deepening bond with someone you may never meet face-to-face but consider a close friend? How many countless times have we reaped the real-life benefits -- be it a change of mood for the better over some well-timed kind words or the always welcome surprise of a mailed package of books -- of the digital realm because of the connections we've made on this site?
What begins with a poor writer's quest to feed her lust for antiquated book becomes a volley of letters and exchanging of goods across the pond as Helene Hanff and the staff of a London bookstore forge the kind of close-knit kinship I've never even had with my own family. While Hanff's early letters did not endear her to me at all, I realized the fault was probably my own by the time her first shipment of foodstuffs made its way to her ration-constricted pen-pals at Marks & Co. And that's about when I realized this book was going to tell me a little somethin'-somethin' about how actions have a way of speaking louder than words and that maybe I ought to ignore the little judgmental voice in my head that just loves to run its hypothetical mouth.
Because there is a current of fondness that is just rushing through these letters that transcends distance and time and circumstance and is just impossible to ignore as the epistolary narrative subtly betrays just how much platonic love and friendly admiration exist among Hanff, her primary writing buddy Frank, his wife and the coming-and-going cast of characters who help keep the bookshop running.
The ongoing disappointment of Hanff's many thwarted attempts to visit London and her long-distance friends is what resonated the most poignantly with me, as I am all too familiar of how the best-laid plans seem to fall apart spectacularly at the least opportune times. There is a point when some of Hanff's hometown chums travel abroad and wind up at Marks & Co., only to find themselves "nearly mobbed" once they mentioned their common comrade to the shop's staff. Not too long after that, a letter lobbed to Hanff from the usually reserved Frank contains the line "... one more summer will bring us every American tourist but the one we want to see" and I very nearly dissolved into a puddle. If I hadn't already been charmed by the folks populating this charming testament to how the longevity of friendships is not dictated by proximity but rather by personality, that would have been the line that both swayed and slayed me.
The sweetness of these letters is not tainted by a saccharine sentimentality, and Hanff's earnest pursuit of good reads remains unmarred by pretentious showmanship. It is, actually, not entirely unlike what I imagine what would happen if one were to follow the course of a GR-forged correspondence across two decades, only that I hope you folks are all still around to reap the royalty benefits by then. Because I am half a bottle of wine poorer than I was when I began this "review," I can now safely use this book as an excuse to sloppily profess my love for you guys before passing out as inelegantly as possible. Consider this my drunk-dialed midnight confession of affection to you all, which, I think, is exactly why a book like this exists in the first place. ...more
Reading during one of those godawful endurance tests when works spills well beyond the professional boI am surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.
Reading during one of those godawful endurance tests when works spills well beyond the professional boundaries I've established long ago to keep my job's ruinous hands off the things that make life enjoyable almost always spells disaster for whatever unfortunate book is the victim of bad timing (and often absolutely no free time at all), as late nights and occupational frustration leave little brainpower and less desire to read things I'm not paid to attack with a red pen.
Furthermore, this book smelled of what I suspected to be, despite Jennifer Egan's decidedly admirable reputation, the much-maligned chick lit, a genre in which I have little interest and with which I have virtually no experience. A former model meets with a fiery car accident, with the resulting surgery transforming her into a still-beautiful but unrecognizable creature? A teenage girl is staring down the very experience that will finally propel her from childhood's idyllic innocence into the harsh realities of introductory adulthood? The onetime high-school football star who has embraced his natural place on the fringes of academia? A charmingly damaged private detective? The perennial exotic, mysterious stranger? I was prepared for the marathon eye-rolling sure to follow along with whatever parade of self-fulfilling fantasies was poised to shuffle across more than 400 pages of predictability and pageantry.
And then the book began with a quote from Ulysses, which threw me off entirely (spoiler alert: yeah, pretty sure it's not chick lit). And these characters almost immediately emerged as richly imagined, intricately complex and cautiously likable personalities illustrating a panoply of well-executed themes and generously supported messages that, as demonstrated by this cast embodying a dizzying range of temperaments and impulses, prove the commonality of the human condition, right on down to how closely we guard the private motivations that, were we to give voice to them, would draw us closer to one another in an understanding of recognition. This book, it turns out, has things to say. That are worth saying. And are said well.
It is often the case with nonexistent reading time, which means long lags between putting a book down and picking it up again, that I lose both details and interest that would otherwise be present in a more ideal reading pace, ultimately casting an unearned fog of forgetful disinterest over a story that sputteringly emerges in fits and irregular bursts. While this book is rather chock-full of tiny details that merge to form multidimensional characters at oddly familiar crossroads that result in even more recognizable moments of clarity, they're so well connected that it was difficult to lose track of who did what, what happened to whom, and how some subtle detail presented pages and weeks ago had propelled the story along its only logical trajectory. What's more, each long-overdue return to this book felt less like a desperate flurry of forced refamiliarization and more like being welcomed by patient acquaintances who knew exactly where we left off and resumed their narrative threads without either the confusion or faltering steps of gap-marked memory that so often happen when a book can start to feel abandoned.
There are times when characters seem to exist merely as vehicles for the plot, and there are times when plot exists simply to give the characters a reason to be written: This is the perfect middle ground between such off-putting extremes. Each of the main characters (and most of the supporting ones) continue to be fleshed out as the novel forges ahead, and each of their stories gradually interlock or refasten after being pulled apart long ago or make their way to a crescendo of connection. The parallels of growth and discovery in both the players and their plays create a not unpleasant sense of being overwhelmed by the places life takes us and the ups and downs of getting there, serving as a keen reminder that the destination is not a full stop but rather a shift in existence that needs to be taken into account and calls for an adjustment if it is to be allowed the awesome force of realization it is intended to be. Personal evolution doesn't just happen: It is the correct response to those predetermined moments that can either bring the needed change to thrive or swallow a person whole because they'd rather stand in place than take a chance on self-discovery.
It's not like change is easy, especially when it's a necessity of circumstance rather than a luxury of choice. Like bucking up and moving on from a tragedy, be it a self-contained one demanding physical recovery or the universally understood ache of young love (or soul-baring infatuation, as it so often truly is) that flees just as quickly as it descends, leaving behind a newly guarded heart sore with the implicit realization that things will never be the same again. The changes this novel's characters undergo highlight the ongoing battle of minimizing the divide between the Old Self and New Self, how every newly shed identity must find its place among all the outdated incarnations of the self to comprise a single ghost, how difficult it can be to honor the past without living in it so as not to stunt the growth of the present, and eventually future, self. The present is destined to join the composite of the past, which exists alongside every new self, and it is a thing we can never truly shed or hide because it is apparent in the memories that shape our resolute cores of being, regardless of whether we choose to embrace or deny the selves that were.
Most of all, as suggested by such an imploringly imperative title, this is a book about recognition. Whether a character's metamorphosis is sudden, violent, inevitable, an acceptance of maturity or a refusal to exist within the confines of one identity for too long, validation through another's affirmation is the only real measurement of a transformation's success. We can always recognize ourselves, even though we are the only ones aware of our most infinitesimal changes: It is through others that we see where and how well we fit, if at all, into the cogs of greater existence. ...more
As Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-tweAs Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twentieth-century musings and poring over sweetly triumphant images of same-sex couples rushing to "legitimize" their long-running relationships with celebratory midnight marriages. As the strange continent of "inverts" draws horticultural allusions and comparisons to covert societies in Proust's time, the LGBTQ community is finally being recognized in a way that signals the slow unravelling of ignorance and inequality in mine.
For the first three volumes, it was easy to lose any sense of cultural or chronological divide when faced with so many universal constants of humanity that all but waltzed off their pages and pages of lyrical metaphors; in S&G, we have a Narrator who recalls how the first time he saw an airplane overhead filled him with childlike wonder and lives in a time when it is apparently totally normal for a man to pick out his female companion's evening attire, which are but a few examples that, like unchecked homophobia, for the first time in my journey with Proust heralded a struggle to bridge the gap between when these volumes were written and when I'm reading them, bringing into stark reality just how much separates modernism from modern times, regardless of how well the common ground of so many other shared human experiences minimized the inevitable differences in eras and epochs. I finally felt the full extent of the distance -- literal and figurative, in time and physical distance, of the real and fictionally polished -- between the richly depicted, intricately crafted images Proust used to construct his Narrator's winding halls of memory and the world to which I belong. It was a jarring transition, for sure, but it was also a rather well-timed one: As the Narrator become increasingly aware of adult life's complicated emotions stirring inside and the societal politics constantly changing around him (not to mention the slow encroachment of technology, which does cast a shroud of smoky modernization on a world previously draped in pristine laces and cloud-soft velvets), I, too, got a taste of that irrevocable shift from a reasonably expected understanding to desperate reconsideration of an ever-shifting world.
This installment, sadly, is one I read in staccato bursts of precious free time. It is unfortunate because Proust is best savored like good wine rather than chugged like cheap beer, and I fear I spent more time drunk on his beautiful words than intoxicated by his narrative insight. In those exhausted but relieved hours at home, in those stolen wedges of at-work bookwormery, in whatever few minutes were spent in quiet solitude, I clung to Proust with the desperation of a booklover in the throes of both work-related burnout and the dreaded reader's slump. And while a frantic heart may not be the best way to approach words that are ideally enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, I do believe the Narrator's burgeoning sense of humor and need to slowly drink in his surroundings kept me grounded during chaotic times. While S&G may not have been my favorite installment, it is the one that affected me the deepest.
Among the revolving door of social obligations and self-indulgent observations that seem to occupy the majority of Fictional Marcel's abundant free time, I found myself most invested in his delayed reaction to his grandmother's death. Having never known the magnitude of a transgenerational love like that which Narrator shared with his maternal grandmother, I felt his palpable grief just as keenly as the slow-arriving but no less heartrending clarity of permanent absence that hit him upon revisiting a place that once played such an important role in demonstrating the fondness and compassion that can exist between a grandmother and her grandson. As the Narrator contemplates how different Balbec is without his beloved grandmother, as he muses on how much his own once-young mother has taken on the visage of her own mother now that the elder woman's death has left a role unfulfilled, as he retraces rooms that once were filled with his grandmother's presence, the concrete reality of past time being truly lost time came thundering down against a mostly familiar landscape that derives most of its changes from the players inhabiting it. It is odd that the grief is intense but short-lived, yes, but I couldn't help but write it off as the Narrator's decision to forge ahead with his life rather than mawkishly wallow in grief -- such are the intermittences of the heart, no?
I continue to find the romantic entanglements of these characters to be a high-school level of ridiculous. It seems like so few of the relationships presented thus far in ISOLT -- Swann and Odette; the Narrator and Gilberte (and also Albertine); Saint-Loup and Rachel -- are healthy, mutually affectionate ones, but it could also be that I have little patience for romances, even fictional ones, that are built on a foundation of obsession and possession rather than respect and genuine fondness. And, really, the affair between Morel and Charlus isn't anything laudable, I know, but I can't help but find it one of the most believable examples of heady lust in terms of its execution and its players' emotionally fueled behaviors. There is little else but pure attraction drawing Charlus helplessly toward Morel, who can't help but take advantage of (or be manipulated by, depending on your vantage point) the older gentleman's affections and gifts. Still, the greed with which Charlus tries to keep Morel to himself while all but undressing him in public, the satisfaction he derives just from coaxing the younger musician into his presence is…. okay, a bit much, yes, but also keenly evocative of an irrationally all-consuming, unrealistically intense first crush and the reluctant empathy of understanding such memories drag along in their wake.
Sodom and Gomorrah struck me as proof that the memories of our past can't help but be intertwined with memories of others, a reminder that there are always multiple perspectives at play -- and that, as the ending scenes with Bloch reinforce, not everyone's assessment of a situation will always be reliable or anything more than actions born of misunderstanding a sticky situation that was handled badly because there are no do-over options in real life and things only make sense when hindsight lays down the rest of the puzzle. ISOLT might be fictional, sure, but it is written as an account of life, and sometimes learning life's lessons means that truths can be as ugly as our lesser selves. ...more
As much as I enjoyed reading Kurt Vonnegut expound upon Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country not that long ago, it didn't quite satisfy the cravinAs much as I enjoyed reading Kurt Vonnegut expound upon Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country not that long ago, it didn't quite satisfy the craving I've had for his fiction. Sure, there is something to be said for watching a favorite author turn his fine-tuned gallows humor on himself and the society in which he both lives and has lived but sometimes I just want to be told a story, damnit.
Before launching into the novel proper, Vonnegut introduces Mother Night as the only story of his with a moral he knows: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." He then spends 269 pages proving what a haunting, damning and dangerous moral it is, with enough self-awareness and dark jocularity to keep this tale -- the fictional memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American-born German playwright who hides in plain sight as a propagandist for WWII-era Nazis while all too convincingly infiltrating their ranks to aid the American government that employs him as a spy -- from getting too distastefully morbid.
It is, at first glance, a moral that stands in direct, fundamental conflict with what I believe to be true. Nothing galls me quite like the lazy assumption that a thing goes no deeper than its surface, that what it looks like is what it is and nothing more. To look no further than appearances subscribes to a flagrant disregard for motivation, circumstances, and any one thing's or person's capacity for multidimensional existence and purpose. To ignore the fact that there is almost always something working in the hidden recesses of the unspoken and unseen realms is, to me, the ultimate display of egotism, a perilous assumption that the observer knows more about a situation in which he plays no part and can't be arsed to offer it the courtesy of deeper contemplation or understanding by way of delving beyond the easy veneer.
But because this is Vonnegut, a message that seems to be an idealogical slap in the face of my own personal philosophy is, at its core, a confirmation that I'm not wrong. (And, really, what's the point of reading literature if not to find validation at the hands of greater minds?) If the Faustian origin of this novel's title heralds the eventual hellward saunter of one's bargaining-chip soul, the tale following such an exchange (that is, safety from the Nazis within their ranks as they believe him to be their loyal, hate-spewing voice) shows exactly why the road paved with good intentions leads to where it does. This isn't fake-it-'til-you-make-it terrain: This is a disturbing account of why hiding one's true goodness beneath layers of protective and necessary deceit without leaving a breadcrumb trail for others to find the way back to your honest intentions will always backfire, often with tragic consequences.
The story's moral shapes every character in this tale. Starting with the hero himself, who has an entire world convinced that his broadcasts of deliberately ludicrous anti-Semitic vitriol are spoken in earnest rather than in code, he comes to find that everyone who holds a more-than-fleeting place in his life after he is secreted away to anonymous but tenuous safety in a New York City apartment is hiding their true identities, too. From his doctor neighbor who refuses to acknowledge that his childhood detoured through a concentration camp to the woman he believes (and who has deceived herself into believing) to be his long-presumed-dead wife, from the friend who is really a spy who obliterates Campbell's incognito existence to the white supremacist whose retinue includes a black man and a Catholic who would otherwise be his sworn enemies if he hadn't become selectively blind to their egregious differences by converting them to his cause, absolutely no one is who they really are by virtue of self-denial.
There is a love story desperately trying to proclaim itself as a last bastion of hope in Campbell's apathetic post-war existence. While his beloved wife and muse, Helga, the actress for whom he wrote some of his finest plays as vehicles to showcase the essence of the adored and adoring woman who comprises the other half of his Nation of Two, is declared dead, it is clear that a part of the widower died with her. I don't feel like I'm spoiling anything by revealing that the woman who later finds Campbell in New York and claims to be his Helga isn't for two reasons: One, the truth, which is foreshadowed quite obviously though adeptly, is revealed fairly quickly; and two, it illustrates how desperately Campbell wants his wife to be alive and, when that is proven to be impossible beyond all rational thought, he then desperately wants to pretend this woman is his wife, if not a more-than-adeqaute stand-in for one person who has ever given his life meaning.
The dangers of such doggedly perpetuated tunnel vision that thrives by casting off all ties to reality is a theme that drives home the novel's moral. Leave it to our humanist friend to sum up the problems of both this novel of his and the world at large: "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile."
Campbell knew what he was doing all along. Along his journey to the Israeli jail cell from which he spins his autobiographical tale, he collides with those who have no reason to doubt that he's their brother in arms against the lesser races, a mouthpiece whose convictions are evident in the words he reveals only to three other men and his memoir's audience to be nothing more than caricature on the surface and cipher in their meaning: These run-ins with his in-appearance-only compatriots provide crushing proof that they have warped their own perspectives to allow for the atrocities they've committed while Campbell had his wits about him all along. Rather than making the former apologetic victims of circumstance and the latter a heinous, calculating monster, Vonnegut accomplishes quite the opposite.
Stylistically, subtlety and understatement are the driving forces of a narration that relies more on a preference for telling rather than showing, a cardinal sin that anyone who's ever enrolled in a even one creative-writing class should recognize immediately; however, as any writer worth his ink will tell you, such rules exist to be broken for those who can break them with aplomb. While Campbell does allow images to speak for themselves, he is writing a memoir that is filled with his own observations, thoughts, conclusions and dot-connecting. What makes his propensity for telling successful is his succinctness: He doesn't dwell on a moment until its emotional resonance has been beaten into even the densest of reader, which is so often the unfortunate result of not trusting the audience to draw its own conclusions and extrapolating the significance of a scene to maximize the devastating impact. It's an an effect that not only showcases Vonnegut's talent but also hints at Campbell's own prowess as a man of words.
Vonnegut may have showed his hand early in terms of the overriding moral of Mother Night, though he peppers his novel with less emphasized though equally important truths that make the human condition a flawed but beautiful thing. The dangers of hate -- "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting... but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive" -- are all but impossible to address in a novel that traverses so deeply and unflinchingly into one of the darkest stains on humanity's historical conscience. But as I've stated (probably ad nauseam) in other reviews, one of my other dearest personal beliefs is that one extreme cannot exist without a contrasting opposite to offer a counterbalance, which is another truth Vonnegut seems to agree with by the equalizing, comforting force his message of love delivers in these same pages: "Make love when you can. It's good for you."...more
If you'll excuse what I know has to sound like a weak attempt at an obvious pun, I find that books are easier to read than people. I summon far less eIf you'll excuse what I know has to sound like a weak attempt at an obvious pun, I find that books are easier to read than people. I summon far less effort to read a page than a face, a chapter than mixed body language: Even the subtext and allusions and metaphors are all naught but new takes on old tricks, and the most elusive hidden messages are often buried no deeper than a careful reexamination of text laid bare with a willingness most people eschew in the name of self-preservation and tactful modesty. Besides, I'm far (far, far, faaaar) more apt to dislike a person than a book, so why not be better acquainted with the entity that's more likely to strike me as pleasing?
Having encountered hundreds of agreeable books by now, I can tell when one is poised to bound across the threshold between casual acquaintance and trusted friend. Because no two books, in a rare display of commonality with us moodier mortals, share the same personality, the one variable is when the deepening of our relationship will become apparent -- will we know by the time the last word hits us like a too-soon au revoir or will we realize that our meeting was fated for roaring success before I've even turned the first page?
Confessions of a Common Reader and I were destined for each other. I knew this to be an undeniable truth simply from a mutual friend's appropriately glowing review that gave rise to the heartening pang reserved for the flash of recognition in spotting a kindred spirit from a distance that may be easily conquered but lengthened intolerably by the inconvenient fact that we'd not been properly introduced yet (thanks for playing matchmaker, Steve!). Like a friend insisting that I ought to meet this person they just know with whom I'll enjoy an easy rapport, I sought the aforementioned book's companionship immediately, knowing it would be one of those rare times reality and fantasy sung in pitch-perfect harmony. Anne Fadiman's collection of essays culled from a lifetime of bibliomania and I, in truth, needed no introduction once our eyes locked in a Barnes & Noble: We knew that we were about the enjoy the rare bliss of a fast friendship and flowing conversation buoyed by quiet but doggedly personality-defining quirks.
Forgoing the polite formalities of aimless small talk that I've never had any use for, we quickly discovered our kinship by way of unabashed conversation girded with the intimate admissions that are usually divulged to the friends whose loyalty was built on years of shared experiences: Ours was a love at first sight that is usually only relegated to the fictions we both treasure as though they are the pillars upon which our own personal histories rest (and, really, they decidedly do).
We found instantaneous common ground by confiding early on that we both regarded it as a monumental moment, indeed -- with an eye cast far more optimistically toward the future than a mere marriage proposal, infinitely more demonstrative of a trust we'd only felt for one person that we proclaimed it before a roomful of witnesses, embracing a humbling but welcome vulnerability light years beyond that first appearance of the two-backed beast -- when we allowed the person we've vowed to love and support until both of our bodies have expired to combine their personal libraries with our own lovingly tended but fiercely guarded treasure trove of tomes, that to allow such a commingling of the closest we'll ever come to an outward manifestation of our personalities' truest forms with another's is the very definition of the hard-won but popularly cliched and carelessly bandied-about designation of "soulmate."
As we freely offered each other the pieces of ourselves we usually sheltered beneath layers of protective trivia and adopted personae, sitting forehead-to-forehead as hours melted away like minutes during our sometimes tittering, sometimes somber but always generously peppered with earnest, animated outbursts of "I know exactly what you mean! I thought I was the only one!" conversation, we unearthed more and more gold nuggets of shared insights and experiences: rampant logophilia; an incorrigible but well-intentioned need to proofread everything made of words; the ongoing struggle against but secret thrill of one's living space looking less like a home and more like a used bookstore (which, really, is the only other place we're truly ourselves, anyway); the pleasure of carnally loving a book to the extent that its spine is permanently bent and its marginalia is such an imprint of the self that the very idea of letting someone else borrow it requires tapping into some inner peace to get over the anxiety akin to letting someone rifle through your diary with dirty fingers and malicious intent; the unavoidable comparison between a decadent meal and a five-course book and the primitive, multi-sensory satiation that accompany both.
Alas, all good things must come to an end and, as we blinked with disbelief into the light of a new day, we realized that our electrifying and animated first meeting was rushing toward its inevitable denouement. And I realized that the jealousies I'd brushed aside in the eager pursuit of getting to know this marvelous new ally with whom I shared multitudinous proclivities and compulsions were now a spreading stain that unfairly marred our enchanted first encounter, which is a personal failing that should say terrible things about me and should not, at all, be held against this exuberant and eloquent little book (but is why I docked a star off its rating -- I assume, with the heavy-handed clarity of hindsight, that Confessions of a Common Reader is dressed in green to warn me how deeply I'd envy anyone whose childhood was a warmly nurturing word nerd's dream and a booklover's haven). I know we'll meet again and, that when we do, my pettiness will have long ago been overshadowed by fond memories of a soul-baring heart-to-heart that is worth the dozens of instances of painfully insipid chatter I suffered through to find it. ...more
The functional division between morning and not morning is arbitrary and artificial because we are too conditioned to face the honesty of admitting otThe functional division between morning and not morning is arbitrary and artificial because we are too conditioned to face the honesty of admitting otherwise. The natural definition of the two is measured by daylight and darkness. Which is why a book like this is best appreciated as 4:14 a.m. bleeds its way toward dawn and the day's potential to become one thing creeps along to reach the other; when you're either so hungover you can only view the world through the safety of metaphors that won't make sense in later lucidity or too consumed with your own mortality to move, you watch as sunlight and shadow wrestle their way across the battleground of your pillow's unoccupied half, the line between them moving like the minute hand that drains opportunity from the day before you realize that nothing will make tomorrow feel any different.
When she stretches upon completing the book she hadn't realized she'd read in a sort of upright fetal position, she overextends her right thigh muscle and the distance between the initial pain and its excruciatingly slow march toward the exit will be how she remembers all 23 characters and their hundreds of stories when she finally limps back to bed. ...more
I initially decided to read this book for two reasons: The first, to see if I like McElroy enough to warrant droppinHo. Lee. Shitsnacks, I am in love.
I initially decided to read this book for two reasons: The first, to see if I like McElroy enough to warrant dropping a hearty lump of money on one of those few exorbitantly priced copies of Women and Men floating around the internet; the second, to justify preordering Cannonball. When I realized that a three-digit price tag is a bargain for the pleasure of feeding both my library and my brainmeats more than a thousand pages of McElroy's words and heady but human observations, and when I ordered his newest novel within a few dozen pages of being enthusiastically enchanted by his debut one (and then danced with joy when I found out its release date had advanced by a week), I knew I had found something special. To say nothing of the fact that I eschewed all other books (save for 33 pages of Proust) and, truthfully, all other uses of my time while rolling in the myriad readerly pleasures to be found in A Smuggler's Bible. This book consumed me and my desire to do anything that didn't involve reading it.
If pressed, I would insist that this is a book about solipsism. It's about how the effects of which drive the self to seek certainty of others while looking for assurance of the self's existence in examining the lives of others. It's a road map through the pains one takes to accomplish both while really only achieving one and it's a testament to the discoveries that can't avoid materializing into stark clarity during such a journey. It is, strangely, proof that we'll only learn the true nature of our own selves by taking an objective stroll through the daunting terrain of self-assessment via others' perspectives, as we are just as uncertain of everyone's existences as they are of ours.
As a wholly unexpected bonus, the influence McElroy had on DFW is practically dripping from every page: It is so evident, in fact, that I didn't even need the internet to assure me of the former's impact on the writing of the latter (though I do get a thrill from those always-welcome times when facts actually validate my suspicions). There are so many moments when the main character, David Brooke, sounds eerily like Hal Incandenza that it delivered a swift kick of déjà vu right to the heart, from David's attempts to be of the same world as those around him while knowing that he's just going through the motions to his tendency to be in a moment merely in the physical sense while existing everywhere but the immediate now. Another character, who also bears a striking resemblance to Himself's youngest son in the way they both devour and retain dictionary entries with a prodigious recall, makes the following observation:
... he verbalizes easily. Yet David doesn't really know how to talk to you. Either he butts in and speaks for ten minutes straight--intense and blind and using phrases like "Of course, ultimately," "complex awareness," "in fact in my opinion." Or he doesn't come back to you at all, just gives you "um-hum, um-hum" after each of your sentences and sometimes in the middle.
There is, indeed, a Wallace-colored thread binding together the characters and voices that comprise A Smuggler's Bible, and it is Hal's thirty-years-prior doppelgänger. David unites the key figures from various points in his existence first by assembling a slice-of-life biography in eight parts about a number of them -- some told from the person's perspective, some with him assuming the second-person voice to narrate the story of another, some expressed in a choir of commingling voices (which results in pages of unattributed text that is conveyed flawlessly, thanks to how distinctly McElroy draws all of his characters and shapes their voices in the context of their roles -- which I can only guess is a taste of the Women and Men to come), all assuming that he knows enough about them (and, with a total recall that alienates him from them, he actually does) to get into their heads well enough to speak for them. He then takes it one step further: Not content to let their voices join in such a passive manner as dictated by his pen alone, he creates a chain letter of sorts to force them all into awareness of each other, forcing each link in his epistolary string to acknowledge those before and after themselves with a letter of their own (and in one deliciously hateful character's case, some religious tracts).
David, for all of his laborious efforts in cataloging the memories of those who have unknowingly provided the fodder for his eight manuscripts, is, indeed, completely unsure of himself. While each of his eight ostensibly non-autobiographical stories blossom and influence each other in ways that I couldn't help but compare to the later works of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and also, of course, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the narratives wedged between each longer reflection reflect how David can't even find cohesion in his own mind. He speaks of himself in a wholly schizophrenic manner, almost violently chastising himself as a voice outside his primary consciousness for allowing his wife to look at his eight memoirs before he's even allowed himself to give them one last editorial perusal of approval -- he, in fact, seems to hate his wife when he speaks of her as this voice that exists separately from but still inside himself.
There are so many roads to take to self-discovery -- say, like half-faking amnesia to see what the get-well letters from others will reveal about the times you've spent together or being allowed otherwise off-limits peeks into acquaintances' and family members' honest impressions of you (though these letters will persistently, disappointingly, though perhaps unintentionally betray more about the writers and their concerns about the parts of their own existences that don't pertain to their relationship with you) or half-listening to everyone to whom you speak, knowing full well that you'll retain every word they speak and every non-verbal cue they issue regardless of how insincere or distracted or downright cold you appear to them.
Writing eight installments of memories ranging from one's own parents and wife to the single-voiced crescendo of a boardinghouse's tenants and staff may seem like an attempt to see the world from other pairs of eye but inserting oneself into each story to varying degrees of importance and purity of intention eventually becomes obvious as another tool of self-examination, proof that one can reach certainty of one's own existence by proving one's significance or prominence, however fleeting, in the Venn diagram of shared personal experience. Each narrative is, indeed, a different way of expressing uncertainty of others on a large-scale and how such doubt is mirrored on the smaller, intensely personal level. Can you trust your own past, both the one you've lived and the one you've inherited from your progenitors? Is the group opinion more valid than the individual's, bearing in mind that the group is objective but the individual knows the difference between how it looks and what it is? Is a person really two different people when you consider their supporting role in your life but their leading on in their own?
This book is one of the few times I read the introduction before diving headfirst into the novel proper, and it was enough to encourage me to continue with that trend. Or it may leave me woefully unfulfilled from the high expectations with which it has burdened me, as I landed on the TOC page already breathless with a cramp in my scrawling hand and having crammed miles of annotations choking the margins of the Roman-numeraled pages. This is the kind of book that encourages long-winded discussions about absolutely everything because it has that broad of a scope and that imperative of a message. This is what required reading for humanity looks like....more
Love Always did a lot of things well but it did a lot of things that annoyed me, too. And then sometimes it annoyed me because it did certain things tLove Always did a lot of things well but it did a lot of things that annoyed me, too. And then sometimes it annoyed me because it did certain things too well, like perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the 1980s. I bloody abhor the '80s, from its self-righteous excess to its synthesized music (which, blessedly, stayed far away from this novel) to its regrettable fashion choices to all of the other ways it was a reaction against the decade that preceded it, as is the nature of generational shifts, I suppose. But is it natural to feel such animosity toward the decade in which one was born but did not come of age? I've always felt that I was born way too late so I think the sense of having missed the things I most wanted to see feeds into the same grass-is-always-greener, contempt-breeding familiarity that I harbor toward my blandly homogenous adopted hometown: Perhaps being born in Wisconsin of the '80s but growing up in the Jersey of the '90s (while feeling like I should have been a transient child of the '60s) further warped the perspective of an individual who was probably already destined for some prodigious weirdness.
Anyway. I rescued this novel from the local library's sea of used books solely because it's set in Vermont. I had no idea that it was about a decade I have no desire to revisit (in hindsight, the cover's time-capulsey, stylized cover art should have been a clue), but I also didn't expect journalists and writers and magazine employees to be the vehicles moving the story along, which was a much more pleasant surprise. And I certainly wasn't familiar with Ann Beattie, who I now know to be a celebrated short-story writer. Having read one of her novels leads me to believe that I'd like her shorter works better, as her writing in novel form seemed a little too meandering and a little too bogged down by details, which I assume is an easy trap to fall into while looking for a way to beef up a text that would have been just fine at half the length.
This novel did feel more padded than fleshed-out; similarly, the myriad points of view offered by the voices comprising this yuppie Greek choir felt like several interconnected short stories with some of the connections being more intimate, more realized and more successfully rendered and resolved than others. The problem wasn't the dimensional, believable characters, nor was it the way that the overall weaving together of many stories felt like a bunch of short stories coalescing into one bigger picture. This deceptively carefree, quickly moving book even had a number of messages worth sending -- they just got lost in the frivolity of the times. Part of me feels that may have been a deliberate move on the writer's part, an attempt to convey that lives still shatter even in the most ebullient of eras, but it just didn't feel as well-executed as it could have been with just a little more restraint.
The characters themselves were, in fact, fully realized, with the least likable among them being at least sympathetic in their own self-pitying, desperately self-actualizing ways. An example: Maureen, the second-place-trophy wife of Hildon, one of the main characters and the founder of the magazine that ties so many characters together, is an odious little shrew serving only her own interests but the novel begins with her perspective (we see how she's planned a themed summer bash with meticulous dedication, an attentiveness that she feels her husband's employees do not deserve), which sets a tone that's immediately reversed as more characters are offered their chances at more flattering second impressions. Through her, we're offered a superficial introduction to many of the POV characters; she feels above them and we, too, feel a sense of sanctimonious superiority -- until the next chapter, when Maureen's self-declared arch nemesis (and, admittedly, nearly pitch-perfect foil), Lucy, Hildon's closest friend and presumed lover -- and the closest thing to a protagonist this novel has -- lets us take a peek into her head. Lucy is nursing a long-suffering sense of dejection over the lover who deserted her five years ago, more from a lack of closure than any real attachment to a guy we find out to be a pretty self-obsessed character in his own right, while trying to offer her teenage soap-opera star niece, Nicole, some of the normalcy, adult guidance and support she's not getting from her own mother, Lucy's sister Jane.
What ensues is a decidedly lighthearted frolic through some serious (and, eventually, unexpectedly tragic but enlightening) terrain, which, to me, sums up the '80s more flatteringly than I ever could. For all the issues I have with the decade of my origin, I get that it needed to be life-affirming through its desperate capriciousness, that the Cold War and rise of AIDS were only two of the ominous storm clouds hanging so heavily that the end of the world must have felt like a constant threat, a perpetual reminder that death is always just minutes away. One of the biggest successes of this book is that it emulates that need to celebrate every time a ray of light pokes through, however fleetingly, because there are no guarantees the sun will come out again. Every joyous moment existed between successfully dodging one bullet and hoping that luck will repeat itself when the next one comes, and Beattie is frightfully adept at conveying that frantic version of what it was like for anyone alive and kicking in the '80s to la la la la live for today.
The prevailing message I picked up from this is twofold: No one person is any one thing all the time. We are all as multifaceted as the story within this novel, with different voices jockeying for prominence and different circumstances necessitating any array of reactions. Knowing this, it is imperative to realize that we have no business assuming that we can ever truly know anyone because we are never privy to the day-to-day thoughts that propel a person down one path instead of the many others they could take to arrive at the end of the day, assuming they get there at all....more
Seriously, I can't put a star rating on this kind of madness.
So it's kind of like the movie Fanboys: A group of friends makes their way west with an aSeriously, I can't put a star rating on this kind of madness.
So it's kind of like the movie Fanboys: A group of friends makes their way west with an altruistic but thoroughly nerdy goal. Only where Fanboys was about sneaking onto Skywalker Ranch so a terminally ill pal could watch the The Phantom Menace before dying, Shatnerquest begins with plans to rescue William Shatner from the apocalypse and is punctuated by the group's ongoing struggle to survive in the face of celestially wrought terrors and the heedless violence that a few bands of survivors always seem to embrace in every end-times scenario.
Which is to say that this tale's pit stop in Riverside, IA (the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk, obviously), still ends in chaos -- but of a much more dire, violent and cannibalistic sort.
The only other work of Jeff Burk's I've read is Cripple Wolf, which means I'm not terribly familiar with this story's more notorious predecessor, Shatnerquake. But I have seen an awful lot of Star Trek at this point, as well as plenty of cult classics and other mainstays of geekery: The gleeful mash-up of allusions to "Magic: The Gathering" tournaments, Star Wars, Back to the Future, comic stores, Kevin Smith flicks, the road trip as a movie genre, gamer culture, zombies, Daleks and tribbles were more than enough to delight my inner nerd.
Alas, much like Cripple Wolf, Burk's newest offering could have benefited from just one more round of careful editing. I can't turn my proofreading powers off even for lighter fare, so things like "in between" being rendered as one word, "Twitter" being capitalized inconsistently, "wares" being replaced by its homonym and at least one instance of an erroneous "and" supplanting "an" just pulled me out of the story and made me remember that I was reading this at work while wearing my Bitchy Grammarian hat.
But I know I'm a snob about certain things, just like I know that this is simply good, bizarro fun that shouldn't be taken too seriously, given the gratuitous bloodshed and things like a dude slicing his way out of horror-movie monster's belly. For all my hang-ups over flaws in the mechanics, the little bit of exposure that I've had to Burk's older stuff makes me feel pretty confident in saying that his writing seems to be on a steady upward trajectory: The action flows well, the narrative is mighty tight and even the excessive bits are comedic rather than tedious.
I find that the bizarro genre is at its best when there's some heart at the.... well, heart of the story, and Shatnerquest has it, surprisingly, in spades. Each of the main characters gets a chapter of back story (yes, even William Shatner, which explains how he turns into a rampaging giant stomping the ever-loving piss out of LaLa Land -- and you're goddamn right that Squishy the pleasantly plump cat's origins actually reduced me to tears) and the road-trip-story standards of friendship, a blossoming romance and the redemptive journey are all undercurrents driving and elements softening the more overtly wacky and downright savage elements of the plot.
And Shatnerquest does society a great service by answering the age-old question of who would win in the battle between Klingons and steampunks. Also: It's got zombie Borg. Motherfucking zombie Borg, guys....more
No longer confined to orbiting his parents and living for the freedom of a solitary walk, no longer living in thrall of adolescent hormones and grapplNo longer confined to orbiting his parents and living for the freedom of a solitary walk, no longer living in thrall of adolescent hormones and grappling with the strange new worlds blossoming both within and without himself, The Guermantes Way finds our Narrator thrust ever forward into adulthood and the disappointing discovery that grown-ups rarely behave like adults, especially when the pride of ancestral inheritance is on the line and there are duplicitous societal niceties to abide by, while the utterly insignificance and inanity of it all are underscored to devastating though understated effect by the first real taste of loss that this age usually carries with it. This third volume of In Search of Lost Time captures the period when our window to early 20th-century Parisian society is finding his place in it, though, true to his nervous, writer persona, he seems content to observe (now with the emergence of a sly humor) rather than engage with these exalted figures whose human forms slowly pale in comparison to the larger-than-life names he has aggrandized in youth.
It is, I imagine, intentional that battlefield philosophy receives generous attention early in this volume, as everything that follows is revealed to rest upon a framework of military-caliber tactics, from love (or what passes as love within the confines of Proust's created world -- ye gods, do any of these characters know what a healthy relationship actually looks like?) to facing the Grim Reaper as he counts down the minutes to one's predestined departure from this mortal coil to the carefully plotted choreography of maintaining superficial acquaintances to simply navigating daily life among even second-rate society when each moment brings a new potential for detonating reputationally ruinous land mines. If my piecemeal knowledge of foreign-language pronunciations isn't too far off the mark, I'd go so far as to suggest that the first syllable of the titular name is tellingly reminiscent of the French word "guerre."
I am so grateful that the (still somewhat and charmingly naive) Narrator is beginning to see through the shiny veneer of the socialites with whom he spends so much time and is slowly discovering, through both his own astute observations and whatever decidedly reliable tidbits are churned out by the rumor mill, what dirty secrets are hidden just below the surface and who has a limitless number of faces he or she presents according to present company and circumstance -- not to mention the public knowledge that is simply not spoken of unless it's being rehashed in hushed voices. If these vast stretches of recounting one gathering after another weren't full of the Narrator's observations about who's lying to whom, marital fissures slowly widening right before the public's eye, the double-talk that flatters one while slandering another (or are simply backhanded compliments cruelly served to one unlucky individual) and other betrayals of the his unwillingness to swallow the facade presented at these salons, I would have been bored to tears, page after page of gorgeous language or not, because I just don't care about such petty triflings in real life. A moment of the Narrator's blunt honesty echoed my own sentiments while handing them back to me in a beautifully rewrapped package while also illustrating that he was just as bored as I was in danger of becoming if not for his wit, beautiful prose and keen insights making it all worth the effort:
I scarcely listened to those anecdotes, something like the ones M. de Norpois used to tell my father; they afforded no food for my preferred patterns of thought; and, besides, even had they possessed the elements they lacked, they would have needed to be of a highly exciting nature for my inner life to be aroused during those hours spent in society when I lived on the surface, my hair well groomed, my shirtfront starched--that is to say, hours in which I could feel nothing of what I personally regarded as pleasure.
He does offer such a poetic presentation of these long hours listening to others' witticisms grow stale with every retelling, of gossip masquerading as current events, of current events being reduced to small talk (thanks for the Dreyfus affair primer, V.!) that it was easy for me to forget that the Narrator just wants to lose himself in his hosts' collection of Elstirs (which he does with abandon when finally given the opportunity, like the awkward animal lover who spends most of a party in the corner drunk on liquid courage and cooing not to an attractive stranger but to the party-giver's cat -- not that I have any personal experience there), catch a play and maybe finally start tapping into the creative juices that just won't let the words flow smoothly from his mind to the page. Society is no place for a sensitive man with an artist's soul, as even the most celebrated wit at the salon will eventually turn him into a plaything or a vehicle of immortality, as great painters are demonstrably reduced to mundane portraiture that will only be nitpicked by unappreciative minds for failing to capture the subject's outer beauty and inner glow adequately enough to pacify an aging ego that is fighting the nullification of death with the frivolity of social escapades.
As a sobering reminder of such an inevitability, this volume also sees the loss of the Narrator's beloved grandmother (it's not really a spoiler if the book in question is nearly a century old, right?), whose stroke and rapid decline allow her one last gesture of undying love, as she suffers in valiant silence so as to not upset her family and amends her few voiced complaints to meaningless utterances should they be overheard, lest she further worry those she's about to leave behind. The visible wreckage gathering in the Narrator's mother as she watches her own mother's life ebb away is heartache set to words and makes for one of the most sorrowful sequences I've ever observed as a reader, but also serves as a testament to the humanity with which Proust animates his already estimable writing. The Narrator's own first taste of loss that runs deeper than simple interruption of a mother's nightly affections is the natural foil to the artificial high-society world he so often finds himself in, which emphasizes the skewed perspective of the latter and permanent void of the former.
It seems that a book about recapturing lost times through recollections of the past is bound to memorialize the dead as well as serve as the predictable offspring of a society that is so obsessed with itself that it gleefully, and often maliciously, recounts its own clever turns of phrase when it's not reliving a favorite adversary's shameful misstep. Because if that's not the epitome of living in a moment before it hurries into the fading past, what is?...more
In the long-running tradition of so-bad-it's-good entertainment, 2003's The Room is a fairly recent but impressively groan-worthy addition. Its low-budget approach to visual effects, a script held together by non sequiturs and the wealth of glaring continuity errors make it either instantly derided or ironically charming, depending on the viewer's stomach for shoddy craftsmanship and clueless defiance of cinematic etiquette.
For the enviably/unfortunately uninitiated, The Room is yet another take on the love-triangle template, offering up one more tale of a fellow whose quietly mundane existence will be predictably turned upside down by the barely concealed affair between his fiancée and best friend, the latter played by Greg Sestero, who also served as the flick's line producer. What sets The Room apart is its enthusiastic departure from the conventions that make a movie watchable. The acting is uneven, as even the more talented cast members could only do so much with the ridiculous script and inept director. Dramatis personae inexplicably come and go with all the finesse of a drunken hippopotamus, and they cling to and then disregard their motives with similarly contrary abandon. The dialogue is wooden at best and hilariously incoherent at worst. Plot lines are introduced, run with and cast off without resolution. In short, this is the very stuff that cult followings are made to immortalize, and the audience participation that screenings both public and private invite help to reshape this train wreck into sublime chaos.
While this book heralds itself as being Sestero's life inside The Room, The Disaster Artist reads more as Sestero's attempt to make sense of both writer/producer/director/lead actor Tommy Wiseau, depicted as an independently wealthy manchild who houses more insecurities than does a comprehensive guide to mental maladies, and his self-funded, self-promoted and self-delusional labor of love. Sestero, with enough writing assistance from journalist Tom Bissell to warrant a co-authorship, explores the torturous trajectory of The Room from nascence to its opening night, as well as the strained but symbiotic friendship between Wiseau and Sestero. Sestero's own faltering forays into Hollywood are chronicled as a sort of apologetic explanation for why he stuck with a project he clearly expected to fizzle into obscurity and stuck by a man who gave him both a place to live and an opportunity for work in exchange for the mind-bogglingly creepy way that Wiseau leeched off Sestero--the more successful actor and infinitely more attractive and youthful of the two--as if Sestero's good looks and acting chops were things he could possess for himself via sheer proximity.
Much of the book is devoted to recounting Wiseau's especially memorable bouts of weirdness, jealousies and general inability to function as an adult: Goading Sestero into nearly abandoning him just to prove that he has the power to offend; producing a demo reel fashioned nearly blow-for-blow from a scene in one of Sestero's other movies; spectacularly failing to remember the very lines he wrote; subjecting the whole of The Room's creative team to his unnecessary and gratuitously filmed nudity; spending extravagantly on the film when he feels it's in the best interest of his vision but skimping on paychecks and other details he arbitrarily dismisses as minor.
To me, if not for a friend's firsthand assurance that Sestero is a genuinely likable guy who regards his accidental ascent to pseudo-fame with equal parts wry humor and gratitude, the book's tone--that of a young actor desperate to make it in L.A., whose naivete, curiosity and willingness to look beyond his vampiric guardian angel's downright hostile quirks all work together to cement an uneasy friendship that barely survives a disastrous attempt at living together--would be off-puttingly glib. Wiseau is painted as the perennial (though unintentional) sad clown who would be a tragic figure if not for his nigh unflappable hubris. But Sestero does, to his credit, try to soften his description of a man who has clearly suffered some obsessively guarded psychological setback that has seemingly forever grounded him in the defensive, combative mindset of a newly minted teenager. An example: All attempts to inject a hint of unscripted coherence in Wiseau's film are met with such disproportionate resistance and unfounded accusations that it's unsurprising the film went through several incarnations of its cast and crew; Sestero attempts to explain that, to the best of his understanding, Wiseau sees all attempts at changing his project for the better as mutinous trespasses, a threat to the tenuous authority he has purchased with his self-propelled picture. Even in the instances where Sestero seems inexplicably passive in his inability to assume control when Wiseau has lost all touch with reality, there is a strong undercurrent of desperately gleaned sympathy that keep his remembered interactions buoyantly surreal rather than needlessly cruel.
Still, the bulk of the book's humor is at Wiseau's expense, as it is impossible to read about his diva-sized antics, tantrums, paranoia and obstinate refusal to divulge personal details without cackling the nervous guffaws of tension-eroding disbelief because Wiseau's fiery outbursts are in no way proportional to their triggers. The Sunset Boulevard and Talented Mr. Ripley quotes that begin each chapter and, later, the copious nods to both films just may be the most perfect encapsulation of Wiseau within these pages. This is a man who is painted as sleepwalking through life, who literally cannot help how bizarre he is, who rewrites his own personal history as he sees beneficial.
The lingering effects of The Disaster Artist are an increased sense of respect for the hapless players at the mercy of Wiseau's deranged puppet master as well as a nagging suspicion that $6 million can't quite buy talent but it sure can stack the odds in one's favor if one is hellbent on crafting a blockbuster from incoherence and birthing a star from a woeful dearth of thespian proficiency, reality be damned....more
Italo Calvino is a veritable drug. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, and don't trust them if they do.
Ever since the rapturous reading experience thItalo Calvino is a veritable drug. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, and don't trust them if they do.
Ever since the rapturous reading experience that is If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, I have been hooked on the man's words. As it is with most blossoming relationships, I'm a little wary of coming on too strong or getting too close too quickly and chipping away at the charming veneer of novelty in the throes of my overeager enthusiasm before we've gotten comfortable with each other, but this is the third book of his I've read in a year (exactly a year, actually) and I am just as giddily smitten with Invisible Cities as I was with my aforementioned introduction to Calvino's works and also Cosmicomics.
Invisible Cities clocks in at a seemingly stingy 165 pages, with many pages only half-filled and a number of them left conspicuously blank. But since this is a Calvino novel, his beautiful, beautiful words are only a fraction of the payoff: The ideas, the images, the quiet messages, the prophetic warnings disguised as storytelling, the dreamlike quality licking at the edges of every sentence and even the apparent silences of seemingly unused spaces carry more weight than they would if they were crafted by any other writer's hand. And there is not a sentence that does no warrant savoring with a second or third read in this entire book.
This novel is what happens when two historical figures -- in this case, an elderly but spirited Kublai Khan and the younger traveler Marco Polo -- whose lone commonality is being alive at the same time try to communicate without sharing a language. Polo conveys the cities (or is it just one city's many faces?) he has seen to the emperor through gestures, objects and other nonverbal cues. Like Cosmicomics, it is a map comprising the essences of things; like If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, the reader becomes part of the narrative as he is welcome to draw his own conclusions just as much as Khan is.
I think I've made it pretty clear in previous reviews that I love duality and the play between opposing forces in my reading materials of choice, probably to the point that I find them in places they don't really live. Invisible Cities has 'em by the fistfuls, though. The palpably dynamic tension between the visible and in-, happiness and misery, the imagined and the real, the living and the dead, the storyteller and his audience, the roaring inferno and the heavenly plains, the finite work of creation and infinite motion of ruin, the image and its mirrored reflection was a delight unto itself, but the additional step of blurring the lines between each extreme with every achingly gorgeous stop on the raconteur's journey through recollection and the listener's odyssey of imagination was exactly the kind of extra mile I expect Calvino to traverse with gusto.
There is an inversion of expectations that gives each push-and-pull pairing of opposites some of the hazy magic that is so particular to Calvino's works. It's not entirely surprising to read about cities where the living envy the cities of their dead to the point of emulation and confusion as to which populous is really alive, or whose people are more at peace with the certainty of obliteration than their earthbound counterparts because their metropolis is built upon a spider-web network of ropes and they are all too aware that their precarious balance could fail at any moment (is there anyone more alive than those who are reminded of death on a daily basis?). But there is a pleasant surprise when the design of a carpet and the layout of a city are echoes of each other; oracles who are consulted about the mystical connection between two unlikely entities only offer the ambiguous insight that "[o]ne of the two objects…. has the form the gods gave the starry sky and the orbits in which the worlds revolve; the other is an approximate reflection, like every human creation."
While there are common threads and themes woven throughout Polo's narratives, no two cities (or no two faces of the city) are examined in the same way. The cities' signs, desires, dead, names, skies and other shared traits may be explored but never to the same effect. And sometimes seemingly unrelated characteristics make similar points: A city would have no history without its dead, just as its living have no motivation for progress without acknowledging the mistakes upon which a history was built, just as the dead have a peace that the living won't know without forging ahead in life.
There is a sense of concentricity that unites each urban observation, which, along with the interspersed exchanges between emperor and explorer, help move the novel toward its oft-hinted-at augury of urgency that reaches its climax as the stories reach their conclusion, as relevant as it was centuries ago when Marco Polo and Kublai Khan were supposedly having their animated discourse in a garden, as when Invisible Cities was published four decades ago, as when I finished it this morning:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, and make them endure, give them space....more
Based on the opinions of people with excellent taste in books, I knew I was in for something good when I grabbed Pastoralia from the shelf the other dBased on the opinions of people with excellent taste in books, I knew I was in for something good when I grabbed Pastoralia from the shelf the other day. I didn't know what to expect beyond that but it sure wasn't the sardonic giggles this collection gave me. Does everyone find their first foray into Saunders's mind this darkly endearing? 'Cause.... lemme tell you, you all led me somewhere I can't wait to revisit.
There is something off about the worlds Saunders creates. Not off-the-charts unbelievably weird (view spoiler)[(yeah, he makes the reanimated, telekinetic and downright draconian corpse of a once-beloved aunt seem like a thing that could totally happen because he's that good and, as a character observed, maybe it does happen all the time but who would believe it so why bother with the crazy-talk and risk everyone thinking that you've finally gone 'round the bend?) (hide spoiler)] but there's this vertiginous element to them that makes being jarred from such a mercilessly absorbing reading experience by, say, the unwelcome intrusion of your job (whyyyyyyy do you people keep assuming I'm here to proofread your ineptitude when I'm so clearly lost in something that is infinitely more rewarding than your refusals to grasp the nuances of proper comma usage and pica distances WHYYYY?) a little disorienting upon reentry. I encountered a thing that doesn't happen often enough while reading this short-story collection: I forgot I was reading because I was so engrossed in the tales Saunders was weaving. Picturing the story that was taking shape right in front of me was equal parts riveting and really quite disturbing. Kind of like the clown car on fire that you'll snap photos of as you pass the gruesome scene but fuck no you're not stopping to help because it's a car full of clowns and everyone knows that clowns are evil but then the sadness of the whole thing hits you when you post the picture (along with an appropriately glib comment) on Twitter later but you're still snickering about the image for days.
And then there is something distinctly, deliciously Vonnegut-flavored here, too, but Saunders even makes that all his own. While Vonnegut's humor seemed like that of a cranky but avuncular relative whose lessons seem harsh at the time but are driven by an overriding love and a desire to emphasize the necessity of self-improvement, who softens the blow of reality with a satirical wit, Saunders seems more interested in pointing out the flaws so they can be turned into a long-running joke that derives its comedy from the dichotomy between a thing's inherent potential for dark humor and the deadpan subtlety in observing it from such an angle. It's realizing the hopelessness of a situation and having a good laugh at its expense because, otherwise, the void wins and everything is rendered too meaningless to face just one more insignificant day.
Pastoralia, ultimately, is a collection of stories that proves if you're taking life too seriously, you're doing it all wrong. Tragedy is just comedy that tests your resolve to arrive at the punchline. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Oh, adolescence. Is there any period of time more frustrating, conflicting and downright disappointing than that too-long span of gawky limbs and endlOh, adolescence. Is there any period of time more frustrating, conflicting and downright disappointing than that too-long span of gawky limbs and endless opportunities for embarrassment? When one's body is alien territory, when one is faced with an onslaught of wholly unfamiliar impulses, when the head and the heart and all of the hormones are battling for control over a vessel that just wants things to make the kind of black-and-white sense they did in the blissfully naive days that are just out of arm's reach but already rapidly fading memories, constantly pushed farther and farther away by the systematic remapping of a formerly recognizable world.
Both Proust's narrator -- still imbued with vestiges of an innocence that can only take root in a childhood shaped by terminal sensitivity -- and his vulnerable heart stumble cautiously and cluelessly beyond youth's idyllic safety zone into the uncharted realm of life after puberty: He is, indeed, alone in the umbra cast by blossoming young girls who have gained his affections but will not share the warmth of their vernal lights with him. One of Proust's most obvious successes with this volume is the familiar poignancy he gives to the fumbling initial efforts of gaining another young heart's favor because, really, did any of us understand the objects of our blindly obsessive desires at that age? Reading this book was like going through all those terrible milestones all over again, only with each misstep beautifully rendered and every confused failure examined with an enviably erudite melancholy that still captures the fatalistic immediacy of all those awful lessons' first cuts.
From the beginning, his understanding that the world he had not long ago regarded with a child's certainty was now turned on its head was apparent, as the feverishly anticipated chance to see his favorite actress results in the kind of shattering disappointment specially reserved for those times when an impossibly idealized dream becomes a vapid reality. This is only the first in a series of crushing blows, though: The narrator's dreams of literary greatness are effectively dismantled by his father's colleague; a beloved writer has little in common with the literary persona he has come to adore; his first taste of love sours with his beloved's cooling interest and cruel neglect; the church at Balbec simply does not live up to his expectations.
But the necessary dethroning of old favorites and the tarnishing of long-upheld ideals make way for the man the narrator is to become, just as childhood's magic sooner or later drains from all those things that once so enthralled our younger selves. It is imperative that the narrator grow tired of such things so he can make new discoveries: His happiness is no longer derived solely from the sensory delights of a delicious feast, the beauty of nature, his mother's love, the wonder of the arts -- though the echoes of these things do reach the core of his soul to move him with their familiar stirrings of joy when they prove to be at their most resplendent moments. With age comes discrimination: As one can no longer live in a constant state of marvel distracting him from the myriad things to be discovered both within and without him, he also must learn what is truly worth his awed regard.
Like all teenagers, the narrator gradually distances himself from his family, focusing on the friendships and infatuations that define life on the brink of adulthood. And, like every teenager I ever knew, some of those friendships are based on convenience rather than a mutual affinity for each other's company. The deepening bond between the narrator and Robert serves as a beautiful foil for the narrator's desperate attempts to tally the redeeming qualities within Bloch, a back-home chum whose coarse manner and general inability to recognize his own countless flaws make his presence difficult to bear even at a reader's safe distance. The two dueling personalities embody the narrator's own wavering balance between youthful indiscretion and the discrimination of experience, highlighting the decay of the former as it becomes unreasonable to cling to such childishness to any longer. Just as not every girl the narrator fancies will return his interest, he no longer has to subscribe to the youthful notion that he ought to be friends with everyone.
Proust's writing is the real star of the show here, with a sumptuous language that just drips poetry from each page. His insights prove time and again that human nature is constant across the ages, even though people themselves are in constant states of adapting to both interior and exterior forces. What I found the most remarkable, though, was the way he takes the tired tradition of similes to positively novel heights by playing two almost diametrically opposing elements against each other to fully express the emotional resonance of a seemingly insignificant moment: A household cook's reverence for her cuisine is likened to Michelangelo's dedication to his art; the fading hope of restoring a broken relationship is akin to the panicked desperation of a wounded man who has drunk his last vial of morphine; "[j]ust as the priests with the broadest knowledge of the heart are those who can best forgive the sins they themselves never commit, so the genius with the broadest acquaintance with the mind can best understand ideas most foreign to those that fill his own works." They take what could be bloated ravings exaggerated to the point of nonsense and translate them into a personal relevance that paints a more accurately vivid representation of a personality than bland narration ever could.
This is people-watching at its finest, a tour of humanity with an unusually tender soul leading the way through his own emergence into adulthood and his discovery of the world around him....more
It is all too easy to dismiss Thomas Pynchon's most recent novel as another one for the "Pynchon Lite" pile, which is by no means fair to a book that can't help counting the likes of such heavyweights (both in the literary and literal senses) as Against the Day, Mason & Dixon and the undeservedly Pulitzer-snubbed Gravity's Rainbow among its older, beefier brothers. Bleeding Edge takes place in a world immediately surrounding September 11, meaning that it is finally a Pynchon book set in a time period with which all of its readers, especially its American audience, are familiar (this is, of course, assuming that there aren't any post-millennium-born kids out there surreptitiously paging through their parents' copies of a tantalizingly shiny-covered tome), thus minimizing the frantic research that usually punctuates a Pynchon novel's obscure cultural allusions and mathematical formulae rendered in high-minded gibberish, allowing for an appearance of simplicity and uninterrupted reading that may lull one into a false sense of knowing which way's up when Tommy P. is navigating the screaming that comes across the sky.
No, this is not a postmodern labyrinth housing a lunatic beast that is just itching to pummel the unsuspecting and unprepared with tricksy words and engineering metaphors. This is a love letter to New York City that knows all too well how The Big Apple can be a finicky--but ultimately rewarding--mistress. This is a September 11 story that does not cash in on a day burned into a nation's collective conscience. This is, quite possibly, the most from-the-heart novel Pynchon has written since Vineland--though it's still peppered with paranoid brilliance and an understanding of early-aught pop culture and tech savvy that most septuagenarians simply can't summon.
Bleeding Edge follows Maxine Tarnow, a defrocked fraud investigator and mostly divorced mother of two elementary-school-aged boys, on a madcap rush that scrambles atop NYC rooftops and dives to the depths of the as-of-yet unexplored nether regions of an internet the public was just beginning to embrace en masse. It is the standard Pynchonian detective fare in that it derives its own flavor from a cast of characters bearing Muppetesque monikers, a balance of humor and heartache that is nothing short of scientifically calibrated for maximum effect, a tangled web of paranoia surrounding a shady computer-security firm that only works itself into a tighter knot the more Maxine prods at it, and a healthy dose of parental concerns augmented by a Jewish mother's terminal worry.
While Pynchon's previous works had a tendency to spiral off into myriad directions, Bleeding Edge seemed more streamlined than its predecessors. An old acquaintance brings the questionable finances of an as-of-yet defunct dotcom to Maxine's investigatory attention before the pages even reach the double digits and the plot tirelessly tears ahead from there. Each question posed by our unflinching protagonist does, unsurprisingly, bring three more questions to the surface but there is a sense of overall connectedness and bigger-picture relevance threading its way through each new twist and turn that Maxine & Co. face.
Allowing the plot to remain unusually unfettered by carefully choreographed chaos and divergences, along with wrangling a comparatively small cast, allows Pynchon's writing to take center stage in Bleeding Edge. For all his ability to weave masterfully complex scenarios into a rich tapestry of life-imitating, intricately layered storytelling, Pynchon cannot ever get enough credit for simply being one hell of a writer. The man knows his way around the English language like few others do, deploying ten-dollar words just as easily as he plays casual comedy against understated devastation.
The events of September 11 occur more than halfway through the book, and the day itself is relegated to roughly three pages. It is tempting to submit to the urge that allows that day to dominate whatever it touches; however, Pynchon's deliberately tactful approach to encapsulating the day allows for its aftermath to come to the forefront, as its lasting effects and the inevitable changes it brought--especially to New York City and the areas close enough to both it and Washington, D.C. to feel the ripple effects for years to come--were the true test of a population's endurance. This is where so much of the book's heart comes into play, as September 11 and parenthood become inextricably linked: As we cannot protect our children from the unpleasant truths of life, we could not protect ourselves from one Tuesday in September that rocked everything we thought to be true more than a decade ago. For all of her professional acumen, Maxine is, at her very core, a loving Jewish mother who wants to give her boys the world and can't shake the guilt over such a world being a dangerous place that, like the parade of girlfriends they'll one day bring home to her, will never be good enough for them.
The point is, one has to adapt to and learn from life after trauma, as one can't become stronger without facing an event that demands personal growth and paradigm-shifting perspective tweaks to overcome it. Which is as close to a resolution as Bleeding Edge really has. Because sometimes things aren't neatly settled. People die but the world marches forward and will not stop as a courtesy to all the survivors who are left shaken and grieving. Unplanned growth is the universe's way of pushing us beyond our comfort zones to become the best version of ourselves. Admittedly, it is initially frustrating to come to an end of the book that leaves a trail of loose threads in its wake but the questions that this novel asks still don't have answers. And the questions aren't nearly as important as the discoveries made while searching for a solution, anyway....more
I feel like I owe Sylvia Plath an apology. This is a book I actively avoided for years because so many people (namely female classmates who wanted toI feel like I owe Sylvia Plath an apology. This is a book I actively avoided for years because so many people (namely female classmates who wanted to be perceived as painfully different or terminally misunderstood or on the verge of absolutely losing their teenage shit) lauded the virtues of this book and how it, like, so totally spoke to them in places they didn't even know they had ears. My own overly judgmental high-school self could not accept even the remote possibility of actual merit lurking between the covers of something that such bland, faux-distraught ninnies clung to like a life raft.
I should probably also apologize for referring to every pair of oven mitts I've ever owned as a pair of Sylvias but I think the lady scribe in question was too mired in real problems to care all that much about my sick amusement's crass reduction.
"The Bell Jar," packed as it was with bleak truths, difficult topics and wryly dark humor, was not at all what I was expecting. Old biases die hard: I couldn't help but brace myself for a trivial tribute to mental imbalances, White Girl Problems and petty complaints disguised as life-ruining moments. What I got was an utter lack of histrionics and a sincere, to-the-point road map of one talented young lady's fight against her inner demons. Sylvia's alter ego Esther Greenwood (let's all take a second to appreciate the sly cleverness of trading "Sylvia" for the fictional surname "Greenwood") is so straightforward in addressing her despair that I couldn't help but extend more sympathy than I thought I could muster to her understated suffering. If nothing else, this book taught me that my own bouts of the blues are simply me being human and could be so much more debilitating: For that clarity of self-awareness alone, I am grateful.
Reading this as I neared the "Infinite Jest" finish line offered necessary perspective that helped me get a better idea of what it must have been like inside such a messy head. The relative ease with which IJ's depressed cast could self-medicate in secret or seek refuge where at least someone was trying to understand the extent of such gaping psychological wounds offered a jarring contrast to the way Sylvia/Esther seemed truly isolated from those who couldn't see how awful it was to live inside herself. While she encountered precious little understanding in both her personal life (Mrs. Greenwood's inability to see her daughter's problem as her daughter's problem instead of wondering what she did wrong just rubbed my modern sensibilities the wrong way) and from the medical professionals who were tasked with helping her rise above the sinking despair she couldn't escape, I finished this fictionalized semi-autobiography 50 years after its publication with a keener understanding of what Sylvia Plath endured than I'm comfortable with. ...more
This book is elegant madness. Beauty given meaning both because and in spite of life's brutality. Chaos in 300 pages of one gorgeously rendered sentenThis book is elegant madness. Beauty given meaning both because and in spite of life's brutality. Chaos in 300 pages of one gorgeously rendered sentence chasing another and another and another down the spiral of ebbing sanity and diminishing credibility.
The Writer is God. Don't you ever forget that, as this has always been the case. Much in the fashion of a lonely deity or (at the risk of redundancy) a scientific force dividing What a Thing Is in half to create What a Thing Isn't But the Opposing Thing Is, the Writer creates something from nothing, wringing words from a blank page, finding meaning in babbling, rambling nonsense. What greater accomplishment is there to coax a stunning monument to all the stuff of life into existence on the uninvitingly barren terrain where a gaping void once stretched its unyielding maw?
The bulk of this novel is built on the crumbling foundation of a man who leeches off the ugliest parts of religion and his resulting slow decay, both of the mind and the soul. This is also where the most stunning moments of primitive wonder transform Omensetter's Luck from a mere battle of wills, a hackneyed rehash of the ongoing confrontation of good and evil, to something much less -- and also much, much more -- than a black-and-white yarn spinning in the same prescribed direction as its many tired predecessors.
Religion, despite its modern familiarity as a weapon of hate, a favorite manipulative tactic of politicians, a tool of regress, is ideally a mode of sympathetic understanding that relies on the belief in prevailing goodness, of doing unto others, of embracing the bigger-picture benefit of turning the other cheek or biting one's tongue when plucking both eyes from the offending face would be all the more -- though momentarily and devastatingly -- gratifying. It's denying the flesh to feed the soul. Here, a full century before it's almost the expected perversion of a benign idea, Reverend Furber, paying no mind to the hypocrisy he wields in flagrant embrace of the deadliest sins, clings fast to the biblical literalism that only makes sense to a deranged and poisoned mind. It is his stubborn refusal to see the world through the less judgmental eyes of a man not bound by dogmatic rigidness -- say, the sort of man who attributes the blessings of his life to sheer, dumb luck instead of self-congratulatory though self-defeatingly empty faith -- that is his fatal flaw.
(When one's declining physical health or dissolving mental acuity reach the preset point of no return, does it become impossible to tell the dreams of the younger self from the life actually lived? What happens when personal fantasies begin to outnumber actual events that were shared by many, anchoring one soul to the greater landscape of communal experience? Are one's external and internal memories meant to bleed into each other to ease the inevitable transition of the experience of the conscious self back to the unconscious cycle of nature?)
Opposing forces will always be at odds but that battle is often a stalemate in neutral. There isn't always a winner -- in fact, in a traditional sense, there is more often two comparable losers -- because stasis is the natural way of things: When two objects are as equally matched as they are intended to be, order is maintained and the interlocking but always-warring pieces connecting that one integral duality to those upon which the rest of the A-and-also-B world relies, the cycle of existence remains in constant, indifferent motion....more
Like apparently so many others, my love of Bukowski led me to Knut Hamsun, particularly this short but harrowing piece. In Buk's poem "you might as weLike apparently so many others, my love of Bukowski led me to Knut Hamsun, particularly this short but harrowing piece. In Buk's poem "you might as well kiss your ass goodbye," my literary hero asks one of his own, "Sir.... that first novel, did you really eat your own / flesh as a young writer? were you that / hungry?," leaving me to ask how can one NOT give in to curiosity when presented with bait that's so temptingly flavored with desperation and meat of the scribe? Besides, reading the very book that left such an irreversible impact on Buk the same way that his poetry has affected me was the kind of atemporal unity of shared reading experiences that makes me love discovering my favorite writers' favorite writers even more.
If I hadn't realized a long time ago that the romance surrounding the life of a starving artist is more of a well-manufactured lie than an honest portrayal of an uncertain existence that's fraught with so many basic concerns that any hope of creative output is thwarted by the much more biologically imperative pursuits of food and shelter, Hunger would have been a rude awakening.
Ostensibly, this is about a homeless, jobless and increasingly hairless writer's slow descent into madness through hunger: hunger for food, for shelter, for adequate company, for letting his talent flow from his brain through his pencil to the page. He is completely at the mercy of the notion that creative greatness can't be rushed and he suffers poignantly (and sometimes with a dark humor) for it. He goes days without eating, he pawns his possessions nearly to nakedness, he chews on wood chips (and, yes, his own fingers) for sustenance, he sleeps outside as a brutally cold Scandinavian winter bears down on his little patch of Norway. It is the ultimate ballad for what can be sacrificed in order to live through just one more unforgiving day, how the hope of publication propels the despondent writer in his peregrinations.
As the story trundles on and Hamsun avails himself (or attempts to, being limited not by his own fading conscience but rather the standards of those to whom he tries selling his possessions) of everything down to the buttons of his coat, it becomes increasingly clear that those who are blessed with talents they are meant to share with the world can stand to lose everything of material worth so long as they keep those precious mental facilities about them, as evidenced by Hamsun's mounting fear of permanent madness: Losing his mind for good means that he has lost the one true asset that is the essence of his being and, at a survival level, makes him economically viable again so he can afford to focus on the outpouring of words that he is so clearly meant to leave behind as inspiration to generations of his literary successors....more
The venerable Thomas Pynchon wrote a laudatory back-cover blurb for Warlock, a book that he indirectly directed me to via his introduction to RichardThe venerable Thomas Pynchon wrote a laudatory back-cover blurb for Warlock, a book that he indirectly directed me to via his introduction to Richard Fariña's Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me, wherein he details its prominent role in the pair's Cornell days and how their own whole sick crew adopted the vernacular of the beleaguered characters making their ways through this novel. I'm not even going to pretend like I have any business treading terrain already traversed and thoroughly owned by T. Ruggs but I was so blown away by this tome that I can't pass up an opportunity to add my surprised (and, at the time of this review's final revision process, somewhere in the hazy middle ground between wine-soaked and week-day hungover) admiration to the mix.
The Western is a genre that I find as dry and dusty as the landscape its tales so often play out against. I don't much care for the setting -- both in the geographic sense and the era itself -- nor do I have any pressing need to watch gun-battle climax after gun-battle climax (the heavy-handedness of such symbolism not even withstanding). While there are a few notable exceptions (I did love High Noon, which I only watched for the sake of a grade, as well as the veritable classic that is Back to the Future III), they are but a scant few oases in the vast wasteland of a genre that has offered little to hold my interest.
So even with Pynchon's literary ardor in mind, my interest in this book took a nosedive when I realized that it was a Western. Visions of whiskey-soaked tempers, petulant saloon girls and gun-totin' outlaws passed across my judgmental regard with the enthusiastic reception of a tumbleweed rolling along an abandoned mining town's long-forgotten roads.
Thankfully, 2013 is turning out to be the year of misguided misgivings, as various volumes have shattered my lukewarm (if that) expectations; Warlock proved to be no exception. It turned so many stale conventions on their heads that I had no choice but to take notice of how masterfully it asserted its claim on a bygone and often cliched era. The early-1880's peculiar zeitgeist became an effective vehicle for illustrating how times may have changed but the nature of man knows no chronological boundaries.
Pretty early in the book (like, the second page) comes a roll call of sorts introducing the cowboy outlaws comprising the San Pablo gang who are regarded, to varying degrees, as a united threat to the delicately balanced society of Warlock, a town that's a sort of reimagined Tombstone. But close on its heels (like, the next sentence) is the admission that "[t]here is no unanimity of opinion even now amongst those of us who believe them at least to be a regrettable element," allowing that only one of nearly a dozen named men is truly a menace to humanity and the rest are at the mercy of temperament, opinion and sobriety (or the lack thereof). The duality of the human animal is the most dominant force of this novel: There is no such thing as a "good" or "bad" man, just circumstances that bring out one side more than the other. Nary a character escapes a full examination of his or her integrity's strength, either through the (admittedly biased) eyes of others or by betraying the full range of their personalities in reaction to a host of dire situations, and it allows for Warlock to become populated by a hot-blooded, fully realized cast, each of whom has a specific role to serve in a unique capacity.
Because this book is also about perception and loyalty and how easily those two seemingly cut-and-dry ideals can be skewed according to circumstance and motivation, the reader is called to question even the most well-meaning of characters who let themselves fall victim to the simple human failing of being swayed by either public opinion or the limited view of a much bigger picture. One of the town's shopkeepers, for example, keeps a journal that allows for the novel's lone first-person perspective and, despite his determination to be as objective as possible, finds himself regarding other characters' well-intentioned actions with an increasing, though reluctant, distaste because he simply doesn't know the full story: The reader knows him to be a rational man and is forced to reconcile his mistakenly waning respect for admirable characters when the shopkeeper has proven himself to be an otherwise reasonable voice. It is no fault of his own, as he is operating with insight to only a small portion of a much more complicated story, but it forces the reader to consider just how difficult it is to remain untainted by faulty information and the powerful lure of partiality.
The result of all these dueling forces, both internal and external, is that heroes of this book aren't regarded by the lowly populous as heroes for very long, as the very human compulsion to aggrandize an extraordinary man to superhuman proportions is only rivaled in its desperate intensity by the cynical satisfaction of witnessing a revered figure plummet just as swiftly to reviled depths. Not that a modern-day audience can draw any contemporary parallels to such flagrant displays of schadenfreude, eh?...more
I have a tendency to annotate, underline and lovingly deface my reading material. I promised myself that I'd go easy on this one, settling for the lesI have a tendency to annotate, underline and lovingly deface my reading material. I promised myself that I'd go easy on this one, settling for the less-permanently-marring dog-ear method when something really jumped out at me; otherwise, I'd be leaving a trail of graffiti that would render this memoir unreadable should I want to revisit it in the future. My reserve lasted for 21 pages: The line "I always wondered what gave Dad the right to decide this maid or that driver was the person he assumed them to be," after I recovered from the way it struck every vulnerable nerve I have, was the moment I realized that this was going to be an excruciatingly familiar story.
I haven't spoken to my parents in almost three years. Three years without my mother's toxic narcissism and my father's inflexible, controlling approach to life. Three years without pretending everything's okay and smiling through the outbursts that exposed a rage not even in the same universe as being proportional to the instigation. Three years without holidays turning into both battlegrounds and showcases of superficiality in equal measures (let me tell you about the Thanksgiving that my now-husband and I were kicked out of my parents' house after asking for help in paying for our wedding). Three years without my "bleeding-heart liberal" perspective trivialized or my feelings negated. In other words, these have been three of the most peaceful, enjoyable years I've ever known. I finally feel like I'm coming into my own as an adult because there is no one telling me how wrong I am and making me feel like a disobedient child every step of the way.
This is Rachel Sontag's story, of course, but I superimposed so much of my own on hers that it was impossible to separate the two by the time I arrived at the last page. Rachel's journey and mine didn't align precisely and perfectly, of course, but hers was the first that made me feel like someone, somewhere, gets it -- hence this memoir reading like an understanding hug (which is still just as true as it is corny).
Because the bare necessities aren't enough for a child. Having things like a home and a full belly and both parents doesn't automatically equate to feeling swaddled in safety and security and love, as those necessary abstracts are not found in objects but in gestures. Attempting to manipulate a child into some predetermined parental ideal without showing any regard for her worth as an individual with her own wishes and aspirations and potential by belittling and bullying her does not make her stronger: It makes her scared and instills in her a smattering of issues that are going to make the ordinary act of living a daily victory (and some therapist a little richer).
There are three main differences between Rachel's story and mine: She had some early inkling that things were not normal about her family dynamic, that adhering to a stringent set of rules was not the glue keeping most families together and that most daughters didn't live like even the slightest deviation from a father's ironclad commandments would set the end of the world in motion, whereas I hero-worshipped my father until some time after college; she had extended family present in her life to occasionally rescue her and call her father out on his impossible expectations or reconstructed realities, whereas my paternal family is far-flung and was never that involved with my nuclear family during the few years they lived nearby (and, besides, my father was always not speaking to at least one of his siblings at any given time) -- and I don't even know my maternal family, as the last contact I had with them was in the mid-'90s; and her mother was weak-willed, another target at the mercy of a tyrannical force (though she at least demonstrated the ability to say "I'm sorry," a phrase I've never heard my own mother deign to offer), whereas mine lives like people are supporting characters in her movie and only seemed interested in presenting a united front with my father when it offered an opportunity for tag-teaming a child into psychologically battered submission.
The dissimilarities of our childhoods were why I was able to tear through this memoir in less than 24 hours without being reduced to a wobbling puddle of tears and self-pity. They kept reminding me that, for as much as I hate my own parents, at least my mother never physically weighed me down so she could wallop me or my father never woke me up at ungodly-o'-clock in the morning to accuse me of slowly killing my sickly grandmother by unloading some imaginary bitterness on her.
But, as Infinite Jest had taught me, there is a crucial difference between identifying and comparing, and I did keep that in mind while reading this. Because while some kids would kill for Rachel's Cancun vacations and European excursions, all she wanted was to "feel like somebody's child." She was lonely and alone, which she realized at 15. I got caught up in the illusion of normalcy (with a healthy serving of denial on the side) for so long that it took some caustic blow-outs and nasty e-mails for Adult Me to finally see my parents for what they are rather than what I wished them to be and decide that I was better off without that poison in my life.
And even though Rachel and I didn't travel the same path, different issues manifested in similar ways. Her mother's problem can be distilled down to her vision of marriage being a way to fill the void her own lack of a paternal figure had left in her, effectively seeking a father in a husband, a childhood in her own children and the dad for her daughters that she never had, regardless of the emotional cost. Rachel considers the possibility that neither of her parents had fully matured before their forays into marriage and parenthood, which I've often thought about my own mother and father, who were married at 19 and 22, respectively. And I distinctly recall a childhood trip to Disney where my father told my brother and me that "this is like a second childhood for your mother, since she never got to do things like this" -- a comment that didn't seem terribly significant until many, many years later when I realized that my mother got married as an escape and finally accepted that having children would encourage my father to both stay with her and leave the place she was trying to flee.
Like Rachel, my parents didn't physically abuse me (I was spanked once, which made my ass involuntarily clench every time someone raised their voice for the next decade; Rachel's mother hit her a few times but that was just.... sad more than anything else) but they also never said they were proud of me, or supported my decisions or made me feel like I was anything other than another possession for them to exert control over. The difference between abuse and neglect (and how the two are equally as damaging in their own ways) are explored subtly in this book until Rachel mentions a foster-care seminar she attended where the two extremes' end results were outright explained: "Neglected children feel invisible, as if their presence had no bearing on anyone or anything. Abused children feel all too visible, as if they were the center of everyone's world, because they had been the center of someone's world, the recipients of an abnormal amount of attention."
While Rachel clearly identifies with the abused-child personality, being her father's primary target (her younger sister, however, embodies much of the neglected child's symptoms), I feel it both ways. And that led me to a realization that a few years of unassisted but diligent psychological diggings hadn't yet unearthed: That I feel verbally abused but emotionally neglected. Rachel agonizes over whether a complete stranger she passes on a bus will be offended when she opts to sit next to another stranger, while I often feel the same way but then counter my inner turmoil with ".... but who am I to think that I matter enough to be more than a forgotten blip on a perfect stranger's radar?"
Even after all the parental destruction, what hit me hardest was the efforts Rachel and her sister have made to repair their relationship, as they know they are the other's most understanding source of comfort. The last time my little brother and I talked, we had agreed that we both feel like lonely planets (I can't remember which one of us invoked the comparison but it was something we both felt illustrated the point well): There's nothing for us to orbit but we've picked up satellites in the form of friends and significant others along the way that make the loneliness easier to bear and, occasionally, we find ourselves in tandem trajectories along our self-propelled paths. It's still hard for me to see him as anything other than either the competitor my mother set him up to be (nothing like telling your kids which one was "better" that day and playing favorites to feed into sibling rivalry, eh?) or my failure as a big sister to shield him from the damage I didn't even see 'til years later, but his girlfriend is turning out to be just as good to him as she is for us. She's the sister I always wanted and the good-hearted guidance he's always needed, as well as the outside observer who made me realize that I miss the hell out of the only person who truly understands how fucked up it was growing up in the conditions we did. The little glimpses of Rachel and her sister slowly rebuilding their bond made me just as certain that this is something my brother and I can handle as it did reinforce my determination to never, ever have children because I fear ruining a child even more than I fear being attacked by spiders in the shower (which is to say, psychotically so).
Quite honestly, I am tired of writing this "review" and am a little more than emotionally wrung out from it -- no one's fault but my own, yes, but true nonetheless. I'll end this with the passage that I could have written myself but am so grateful that I didn't have to: "There were simple things I needed to learn. Things that seemed to be common sense for most of my friends.... I didn't know how to tell the truth. I'd become so accustomed to arranging my words around what I was supposed to say, or what I thought most people wanted to hear, that basic communications were almost impossible for me. Saying "no" when I didn't want to do something, admitting to my own mistakes, asking for the things I wanted."
(ETA: I think I'll give this one a more traditional review in the future -- Rachel's story deserves more attention than I gave it here -- but I had to purge myself of all the old feelings this book brought to the surface first.)...more