I'll come back to this book later, but I waver between 3 and 4 stars. I did find real faults with the book (the female hero has unresolved conflict wiI'll come back to this book later, but I waver between 3 and 4 stars. I did find real faults with the book (the female hero has unresolved conflict with her mother and that belongs in some other book) but I also have been permanently changed by the book. If I think about what fault I saw in Year of Wonders it gives me some idea about why she has to gussy up the personal in works that are more important than giving a character an idiosyncracy, or tying the plot up. So. Later. In the mean time, do read this. Recommended for your education as well as pleasure in reading and discovery about history. It's worth noting that Bertrand Russell points out that Islamic literature first referred to Jews as "people of the Book." ...more
I'll qualify my comments by noting that I listened to a tape recording of this story and have not, in fact, "read tThe Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.
I'll qualify my comments by noting that I listened to a tape recording of this story and have not, in fact, "read the book." Not even in the "ractive" (interactive in sci-fi-speak) mode of the sub-title's object: A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, the electronic and interactive primer which is at the center of the plot of The Diamond Age. Like the Moonstone, in Wilkie Collins' classic nineteenth-century suspense story, the Illustrated Primer is a stolen item that kicks off an avalanche of complications, a ”Purloined Letter" in its way. The nineteenth century comes to mind in thinking of A Diamond Age because there is a Victorian aura cast over this futuristic techno-fantasy. There is a mysterious Chinese "Dr. X" (almost to the extent of being an "inscrutable Oriental") with a concealed but masterful plan; a very Sherlock Holmes element. A Judge Fang takes the place of the rationalizing super-detective. But it is a "diamond age," a time of a new digital technology based on microscopic crystals (I think). There are matter compilers, nanobots, cinemites, Crypnets, engineered islands in the ocean, underwater colonies, all keeping it very futuristic, but there is still a kind of British colonial presence in the East Asian geography: the" Viccy" (or Victorian) 'file,' which includes Lord Finkel-McGraw.
The plot set-up is simple although imaginative: Lord Finkel-McGraw, an important "Viccy" political figure, hires an electronic engineer, John Hackworth, to dream up a unique gift for Finkel-McGraw's granddaughter. Hackworth creates the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, whose hardware resembles a book object, but with complex electronic technology that will make the book interactive with the first young girl to open it.
Hackworth has a daughter too, however, and so he makes a secret copy of the Primer with the clandestine aid of Dr. X in an elaborate ploy which has unintended consequences: i.e., a third copy is also made unbeknownst to Hackworth. As he heads home with his illicit copy, he is waylaid and the copy stolen. He dares not report what is missing to the authorities; it might get back to Lord Finkel-McGraw. And thus the immediate problem to be solved is that the copy must be recovered without calling attention to the fact that it even exists.
In the chaotic ghetto of the Least Territories, a slum beyond Pujon and Shanghai on artificial turf connected to the mainland by a causeway, life is hard. And there we meet Harv and his young sister Nell in an apartment where they live at the mercy of whatever transient boyfriend their mother (Tequila) has adopted. Harv is often beaten badly, but at least he is not in danger of sexual abuse as Nell is, and Harv would like to rescue her. It is to the end of getting some money together that he is one in a gang who mug the rich engineer Hackworth. Harv is a weaker member of the gang, however, and the only thing he retrieves from the loot is a little book. And even though Nell can't read--there are no schools, no 'social programs' or reformers in the Least Territories--he gives it to her. When she opens the book, the book's program bonds to her. First she learns to read while the program gathers information about her and her surroundings.
The program 's voice, however, is not an electronic ghost like I-book's Siri or other voice-recognition artificial intelligence programs; it is the voice of a 'ractor (actor in interactive programs), named Miranda, who in addition to using the Primer to help Nell and Harv escape the Least Territories and find a sanctuary, decides to go in person to find Nell and adopt her. It seems the bonding of the Primer goes both ways.
For most of The Diamond Age Nell's story is only one current in a tohu-bohu maelstrom of a plot. I said that making the illegal copy of the complicated electronic primer without leaving a trace of the piracy had unintended consequences, one of them involving skillful Dr. X, resident of The Celestial Kingdom, who later is revealed to be covertly cultivating an army of young girls of Han descent rescued from female infanticides in the starved and waterless "Interior." The girls are being educated by: the PRIMER!
Meanwhile, Chinese Judge Fang (with a Brooklyn accent on the tape) and his assistant Lieutenant Chang, a Confucian man, and a brilliant female assistant wearing spectroscopic glasses, track down the existence of the clandestine Primer accidentally, by means of cinematic recordings of the mugging caught not by stationary security cameras but by roving insectoid cine-mites. Their curiosity is piqued by Hackworth's disinterest in reporting the thefts.
Judge Fang meets Dr. X. in a suave battle of wits. Hackworth, caught between the hammer and the anvil, disappears into a promiscuous surrealist void beneath the ocean for years. Nell has Brothers Grimm adventures with the Primer as she matures, seeking twelve keys from The Land Beyond's fairy kings and queens, with the aid of four characters derived from her four toys: Rabbit, Duck, Dinosaur and Purple (a babydoll with purple hair.)
Hackworth's daughter and Lord Finkle-McGraw's granddaughter are drawn into the wild plot of revolutions, counterplots, underworlds (literally), an army of mice riding cats, the attack of "The Fists of Revolutionary Harmony", apostasy, nanotechnology, and the war of Crypnets to supplant the universal feed of digital Matter Compilers with the Seed of Independence. The vocabulary is a nano-argot of esoterica--plangent, eutactic, lambent, evocative--all which would have, I think, thrilled a David Foster Wallace.
Listening to the tapes of this book, twice, while driving a thousand miles day and night was an experience of dizzying and strange mystery. I apologize for any misspellings of the elements of the book; I am guessing from merely hearing the words. As an old hippie, I can only say: "Wow, man, what a trip!" ...more
Okay, I admit to being a card-carrying English major (although it's really a state of mind, no card required). So I recognize William Faulkner as a 20Okay, I admit to being a card-carrying English major (although it's really a state of mind, no card required). So I recognize William Faulkner as a 20th-century GAW: Great American Writer of the twentieth century. Not only is he a "great," I think that at his best he's one of the very greatest modernists, like John Dos Passos and Eugene O'Neill (drama). And far superior to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. So I'm inclined to respect one of his books whether or not I "like it" for one reason or another. Long ago I read many, if not most, of Faulkner's novels and I chose this title for my book club to read without remembering it particularly from undergraduate days. Then I got only a couple pages into the book and panicked. It seemed almost unreadable: abstract, dense, dialect, idioms. When someone in our book club does not like a book, it is often interesting to discuss the different perspectives. But I couldn't imagine the meeting with eleven hard-eyed women looking at me and saying, "What were you thinking?"
It begins with a monolog by "Darl," who is walking on a hard dirt path through a hot cottonfield in the sun. Darl and "Jewel" are walking single file and wordlessly. Darl does not explain the purpose or the cause. Are they men or women? They are in the south, obviously, with "cotton field." Are they children? Are they white or black, or one of each? One cannot be a servant or subordinate to the other because the one who leads changes at a shortcut where Jewel walks through an empty cotton hut instead of around: Jewel steps through the window, so I guess it's a "he" and at least nearly adult. But in what period? The dialect makes me think of the "local color" movement in American literature, so I would guess it's the 20s or 30s in the rural south, anytime from 1910 to 1935.
But how the heck can I read this if I have to be continually trying to guess or deduce what's going on. In a page or two, another character has a monolog: who, what, where, why, when…all unknown. Faulkner seems to go to some trouble to avoid anything journalistic. And then another character speaks. And another. Each narrator has a unique style and perspective and inflection, but with no exposition, nothing so handy as an objective outside narrator to tell us in what mood we should receive these monologs. I plowed on for a few pages and then laid the book aside. Despite my obligations as the monthly club "leader." Despite my expectations for a Faulkner book. It was grueling reading and the content was grim and getting grimmer. The dialects were so idiosyncratic it made hash of the prose in some places, and yet with vivid descriptions of rain, mud, mules, floods, fires, deaths, poverty. How dense it all was. I imagined all the club members cursing me under their (genteel) breaths.
But the next time I opened the book--thinking of my obligations to lead a discussion--I could hardly put it down. The story-telling became transparent, it disappeared, and the story was a dream I was having. I was hardly aware of "reading," I was just "being" this gruesome story. As in a dream I didn't have explanations for all that happened. Things just kept getting worse.
Gradually the characters' monologs accumulate, until you begin to understand, almost by intuition, it seems, the complex set of characters and events. You are drawn into a series of glimpses through one person's eyes and then another's. Different perspectives convey information about who is perceptive, who is deluded, who is blind. And now there come memories and disclosures that fill in the background, especially comments from a neighbor here or there, a gathering at the general store, critical comments of a doctor, a merchant, and others along the grueling path.
The "I" who is dying is Addie. Addie Bundren, mother of four sons and a daughter. The Darl and Jewel of the opening passage are the second (Darl) and third (Jewel) sons. The first son, a perfectionist carpenter, is Cash. Fourth is Dewey Dell, seventeen and secretly pregnant, and finally a boy who is possibly eight or nine, Vardaman. As Addie is dying, Cash is making her coffin outside her window while Dewey Dell fans her in the heat. A few neighbor women sit in the hot room with her. And she dies quietly, stoical. The trek across the hot field which began the book is a microcosm for everything that follows Addie's death: Addie is transported, without anyone "to do for her" (embalming), in a wooden coffin in an open mule-drawn wagon to be buried with her own kin at "Jefferson." They start three days late waiting for Darl and Jewel to return from a job they wanted to get done. Then the first two bridges are out because of flood. She is nine days dead by the time she is buried, with borrowed spades.
I say I was hardly aware of reading, but on the other hand I had a dual self who noticed and appreciated details of the composition. Descriptions were vivid and many of the metaphors reflected firsthand experience with rural living. A man is stunned like a steer with its head down to drink when the river disappears. Or startled like a horse jumping sideways. A child (Vardaman) who sees a man's bare legs in moonlight says "his legs got fuzzy." Faulkner knowledgeably describes attempts to get panicked livestock out of a burning barn. The mules and horses have to have their heads covered with shirts or whatever's available to become docile enough to lead. The cow, on the other hand, charges Jewel and Darl as they break the barn wall open, and disappears through the hole into the night, her tail upright and rigid. The two mules in harness who are drowned in a flood and roll in tandem "with rigid legs." Descriptions of buzzards circling, of freshly sanded boards being hand-beveled with great care for the coffin, of scrimping to get enough eggs "laid by" to make cakes. A young man's passionate attachment to a particularly stubborn and cantankerous--or, spirited--horse: Jewel fighting to hold the horse near "in a flurry of hooves." A river at full flood with trees and logs coming down, ponderous and explosive, in the surging current. The dimpled surface of the flood deceptively calm, and the cold force of stepping into the water. Cash struggling to keep the wagon on the path of a fording place with one hand, while, with the other, he tries to keep the coffin from floating free. A boy chasing vultures away from the coffin, furious and grieved. A country doctor coming out "in a cyclone" and faced with climbing up to a cabin on a steep bluff. A naïve country girl stubbornly trying to purchase something in a drugstore to end her secret pregnancy.
And lyrical passages, dense philosophy clothed in the plain language of these characters. We are well past the death in the plot when Faulkner inserts the real "stuff" Addie was thinking "as she lay dying." She reflects on how inadequate language is to express experience, describing her intimacy with an evangelical minister who came to her "clothed in desire." Her hatred of teaching school, how she married Anse Bundren to get away from it, how she hated his "love" and how her third child, Jewel, the son of the preacher, restored her to wholeness and virginity from the violations of what her husband called "love."
And ultimately of the inextricable tangles of love and hate, generosity and selfishness, deprivation and a kind of stunned acquiescence with which characters meet fates as different as the sexual victimization of Dewey Dell, the fateful "capture" of Darl, Cash's debilitating accident, Vardaman's weary confusion, Jewel's grieved devotion. And, above all, the victory of the ultimate conman, Addie's husband.
At our club discussion, almost no one liked the book, but they were almost all glad they struggled through it. A discussion arose that kept us around the table until way past our end-time. Why do artists write about, or otherwise try to portray, the suffering of the poor and destitute? What do we "get" from receiving it? Ultimately, we concluded, the goal is to "give voice" to the voiceless, to "hear them."
Which is sometimes all we can do. When women as diverse as our group don't "like" a book but then cannot stop discussing it, and to good purpose, since we talked about our various ways of trying to help students, teens at risk, poor children, abused women. And why we get discouraged, but why we don't stop. When that happens, it's a good book.
I read the book twice after I almost quit on it....more
Our book club has read three of Kent Haruf's novels and liked them almost unanimously, so we were sad to hear of Haruf's death last November. Then we Our book club has read three of Kent Haruf's novels and liked them almost unanimously, so we were sad to hear of Haruf's death last November. Then we learned that a last novel was to be published posthumously, so we decided to make an exception to our normal process of using Library Commission Book Bags or Interlibrary Loan to get the books we read each month. We forked over the money individually ($23) for a hardback copy. A decision I regret now having read the 'novel' in about an hour and a half.
It's about two people in their seventies whose spouses have long since died, and who have no children or grandchildren in town. They are somewhat lonely. The woman asks the man if he would consider coming to her house occasionally to sleep with her: "sleep with" meaning lie in bed and talk with, keep her company in the long nights. And he decides to give it a go. Both Louis Waters and Addie Moore encounter town gossip and then resistance and disapproval from their adult children who "hear about" it and remonstrate.
Since I am in my seventies and alone, I can imagine the benefits of such an idyllic arrangement if emotional complications could be avoided. So it's an interesting thesis. Unfortunately it's under-written, if one can say that. Haruf has always been a genius at understatement: his characters were deftly described and characterized by their problems and solutions in an undramatic way. But they were sympathetic and seemed to represent possible people in a possible universe. Believable, but colored in such a way that Haruf reminds you of the goodness in them, or in most of them. Characters you like better than people you know, almost, because you feel for them without the complications of real relationships. Haruf makes the reader feel empathetic and kindly, somehow reminding us that all in all it's a pretty decent world.
But no one in this book seemed remotely real to me. They're invited for dinner by an older woman who is a neighbor and likes the idea of their arrangement. She serves "macaroni and cheese casserole and iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing and canned green beans and bread and butter and iced tea…and there was Neapolitan ice cream for dessert." This perhaps is supposed to make us smile with recognition of the predictable and typical "midwest" plain food. But it was not believable to me, just trite. In the book it's summer; it's hard for me to believe an elderly woman would serve canned green beans when there are fresh beans available. Most of all, it's so trite that it's boring: why even tell us things that only represent "same old same old" but not with a sense of humor.
Or chapter "31" which begins like this: "Louis mowed his lawn and then mowed Addie's and dumped the grass out of the rear catcher into a wheelbarrow and Jamie pushed it around back and tipped it out in the alley onto the musty pile there and came back for more. When they were finished Louis sprayed off the mower with the hose and put it away in the shed. " "Sprayed off the mower with a hose." What else but a hose would he spray it with? "Put it away in the shed." Where else would he put it away, or how does it matter?
Then, in a way the worst offense, Addie and Louis talk about going to Denver Center theatre and maybe see a play based on a book about their county. Their county is Holt County, Colorado, where all Haruf's novels are set, a fictional place. So all books about Holt County are Haruf's, so Kent Haruf in this extreme bare realism suddenly refers to characters in "that other book." A gaffe, in my opinion.
If you love Haruf, you may like this book. But I wouldn't pay the hardback price if I were you.
Not Like Other Girls was written in 1884. I happened to read it only because it was among some old books I brought home after my mother's death a few Not Like Other Girls was written in 1884. I happened to read it only because it was among some old books I brought home after my mother's death a few years ago. It was in poor condition and was missing any publication data, so when I started reading, I didn't know what period the book would be set in nor what values it would incorporate. I was surprised as I read the first fifty pages or so to realize how firmly set it was in a past further away than even that world Edith Wharton wrote about so well. According to an internet search, it is one of the best-known of some forty novels by Rosa Nouchette Carey (1840-1909) a popular Victorian novelist. "Best-known", however, is a relative description: few contemporary readers know anything about Rosa Carey. And it takes a special interest to read something like this out of curiosity--to see, that is, what it meant to be a popular Victorian woman novelist.
Well, Victorian or no, I loved this book, despite the fact that my favorites are generally contemporary, postmodern, and--well--anything this book is not. I have lately explored some older writing, for the sake of learning about historical values: George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Wilkie Collins, Balzac. The essential difference among these five is that Balzac, Eliot, and Wharton saw social hierarchies as cruel and tragic; Collins and Carey accept a more stratified society as inevitable and natural, and see its dysfunctions as accidental and correctable.
This is a representative Victorian story, reflecting genteel English characters whose lives are ruled by money and class, but Carey is surprisingly moderate, or sensible perhaps, in her views. She does not criticize the rigidity of caste composition or the special demands on women and girls to abide by iron rules governing their behavior with an eye toward propriety and every appearance of it as well. Carey does, however, make gentle fun of its extreme demands. The plot's dilemma is a problem of losing and attaining caste (and money, of course). Carey gently mocks some of the extremes of snobbery and pretense, and her tone of a realistic attitude not completely in tune with the social rules is interesting. The characters are complex and caught between acceptance of how things are and a basic refusal to be ruled by 'society' against their own needs. Although the rigid class hierarchy of British nineteenth-century middle class life is not radically questioned in this book, a few of its caste rules are, especially the rules to determine who is and who is not a "gentlewoman." Since the author in every circumstance shows a partiality to the healthy and 'natural' impulses of youth, even in women, and moreover because in the end no one is shown to be particularly malicious or helpless, Not Like Other Girls belongs, I think, in the comic genre. And this partly explains its appeal.
Besides, a woman who writes forty published novels in her life is not exactly a 'proper' Victorian gentlewoman. (Interesting, isn't it, how propriety, proper and property are etymologically related.)
Carey is what I would call fatuous only in two areas: first, a susceptibility to mother-worship: although she sees and limns the faults in mothers in this book, she is surprisingly acquiescent to the idea that, although mothers may err, their children do worse when they resent it. Second, though she may think the caste system harsh and unduly punitive, she also accepts its basic structure unquestionably. No one in this book will live happily ever after without servants and comfortable wealth. They may threaten to, for the sake of love or for more practical reasons of necessity, but the book cannot end happily with Dick and Nan living without the blessing of Dick's hefty inheritance. Carey doesn't let herself imagine what would happen if needed money had not shown up. ...more
The book starts with a spate, a torrent, of carnivalesque language, dizzying, even a little intimidating I love/hate this book. I feel Geek Love/Hate.
The book starts with a spate, a torrent, of carnivalesque language, dizzying, even a little intimidating. When you sort it out, you realize this is truly a 'freaky' book, narrated by self-described 'freak' Olympia, about all the 'designer freaks' in her family, alive and dead (more of the latter than the former).
First of all, a "geek" in this book is not a "nerd" or an obsessive semi-autistic mathematics and electronics whiz-kid, or more mildly, a boy who is nice but short on party and popularity skills, the opposite of a jock or wit or wheeler-dealer. Even less does it mean hip and terribly smart. No, in this book a geek is what the word meant when I was nine years old: someone in a carnival side-show (of freaks) who bites the heads off live chickens, the gorier and ghastlier the better, complete with growls and gore and guts and feathers and cetera. Yes. Truth.
The back story for the plot is that when the part-time carnival geek (some college kid who thought outrageous was fun) decamped from Al Biniewski's Fabulous Fabulon, up stepped genteel blond Lillian, sedate and petite, from Boston's Beacon Hill, to take his place, thus literally saving Al's carnival gig. But Lil was ambitious and wanted to learn the trapeze. When she took a literal nose dive, breaking her lovely face, it wasn't the same thing, so she and Al married and set about breeding specimens for the Greatest [Freak] Show on Earth. Taking a cue from thalidomide and Love Canal, they used radiation and chemicals to torque their procreative equipment, with varying results. More than a few were born dead and preserved for viewing in glass receptacles. The third-born child to live-- if you count twin girls who share everything below the waist as one--is Olympia, our narrator. She was not terribly interesting as a variation on the usual--i.e, dwarf, scoliosis, albino--but she makes herself useful helping out with the show. The last born is a boy seemingly and troublingly normal, so he is almost abandoned on a doorstep as useless, but his freakish abilities suddenly manifest and the Fabulon family get on famously. Until.
When the first-chapter flashback ends and we come to the current time, Lil is ancient, blind and barely sane enough to act as a kind of concierge in an apartment house owned by Olympia who lives in disguised anonymity and who has contrived this arrangement in order to watch secretly over an apparently normal daughter, Miranda, whom Olympia was forced to give up as an infant. Miranda has no idea she is related to Lil or to the disguised Olympia.
Does this sound freaky and grotesque enough? Believe me it is mild compared to the grotesqueness of the plot's divagations: further characters and their stories are progressively freakier and preposterous and lunatic. And terrible. And lovable. Appalling and terrible. As appropriate for such a carnivalesque sideshow, the plot quickly crosses into a fictional world that is perhaps only comparable to Kurt Vonnegut if he were high on hallucinogenic drugs and a steady diet of Stephen King. One review cited Fellini as a fair comparison. I didn't like Fellini and I did like this book, but I understand the reference. Like/Hate, remember.
Geek Love does have a "point" beyond its shock-value, so can we call it science-fiction? Or just funhouse fantasy? Related to "Mr. Squishy" and "Westward Ho…" by David Foster Wallace, perhaps? Without being didactic, Dunn's set-up lets us examine a curious social tendency: our fascination with the grotesque. What drives people to pay their "one thin dime" for the privilege of staring with a frisson of horror and revulsion at 'deformity'? The skeleton man, the fat lady, the sword swallower, the human pincushion, Siamese Twins, Bearded Lady, Beast-Man (not Marshawn Lynch). Since the deep revolution of civil rights movements in the sixties and seventies, we have better learned to distrust that urge, perhaps even to admit it and examine it. Yet who has not secretly studied the photographs of victims of distorting ailments--elephantiasis being perhaps the least shocking. This resistance to our spectatorial fascination with departures from the "norm" is relatively new. As a grade-schooler in the 50s, I was mightily riveted by the sideshows at the county fair, all the more so because I was too young to be admitted.
At the beginning of this book when I caught on to what "Geek Love" was going to entail, I was shocked. I hovered on the threshold of being offended. I was afraid to keep reading, worried about whether the book was going to be respectful or insulting, revealing or exploiting. Because it seemed somehow ghoulish. We know that we tend to dehumanize anyone that doesn't fit into our provincial definitions of an "Us." Dunn explodes at once the pose of polite avoidance, eyes averted, our hesitant euphemisms. But she does this in order to more fully explore the true (or, of course, fictional) human dimensions of such outsiders. Her outrageous plot even satirizes and explores the erotic desire sometimes invoked by the non-human human. There are dark dark unconscious projections here, lying in the stupid and secret recesses of the socialized brain. The phenomenon of 'othering' is widely studied in philosophy, psychology and sociology. Those we perceive or are taught to perceive as a 'them' become less defined by any qualities they have than by projection of all qualities we want to disown. Or feel forced to disown. If this is a foreign idea to you, I recommend such brilliant treatments of the topic as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, a classic, or even Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which is less academic and more colloquial but gently piercing, or finally, for the bravely intellectual, Edward M. Said's Orientalism.
So Dunn explores that fascination, as well as an even more subtle and perhaps more topical social weakness: our fascination with celebrities and/or someone so beyond the pale that we imagine that person no longer suffers from self-consciousness. When there's no way to hide being different, perhaps then there's no reason to try to avoid being different. I refer again to my hippie period: why did I throw away social acceptance and normality (the 'straight' world)? Was it despair of maintaining an adequate 'front' when I didn't know what to do with my life except I didn't want what I was supposed to want and I decided to give up? Was it a brave leap into ego-free living? (I wish it were only that?) Was it defiance of norms? Or was it, as it is in this book, the overpowering weariness of trying to fit into a social role that seems exhausting and futile as well as artificial?
Well, the Movement of the Sixties was in a way a unique phenomenon, more social reformation than something like the Beatnik rage and despair. But I remember how 'straight people' were fascinated with us, and envied us, and longed a little for the freedom. Even my mother, who was ashamed and grieved by my incarnation as hippie chick, admitted she envied me when I went off to Europe and all points beyond with only a backpack and a guitar.
Geek Love is high drama in which--paradoxically--the freak loves freakishness more than the titillated observer does, and the normal is feared and pitied. And heroically opposed. The end of Al Biniewski's Fabulon, which has morphed into a creation dominated by the first-born of the freak family, and a spectacle recalling a Jim Jones People's Temple cult, is truly like the forced suicide of 918 people in the jungles of Guyana. And the end of the novel broke my heart. ...more
I wish fate loved me the way it loves the main character in Ahab's Wife. Sena Jeter Aslund has written a kind of postmodern nineteenth-century histori I wish fate loved me the way it loves the main character in Ahab's Wife. Sena Jeter Aslund has written a kind of postmodern nineteenth-century historical novel here. It makes me think both of The French Lieutenant's Woman and something like Thackeray's Henry Esmond. And yet its main impact is as a portrait of an utterly fulfilled woman's life, cutting against the grain of everything history tells us about the American woman's position in the nineteenth century. But, of course, history is as much a fiction as a novel, and over the last forty years or so, closer examination of the lives of women shows us that the grand generalizations of history written by what DFWallace calls "androcaucasians" neglects a reality that includes Margaret Fuller, Calamity Jane, Maria Mitchell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Just for starters. Ahab's Wife is altogether contemporary--postmodern in attitude, as I said, and feminist in a refreshing way.
Much of the pleasure for the reader is the way the novel crosses paths with, of course, Moby Dick, not just by the marriage of Una and Melville's Captain Ahab, but in unexpected extensions of the stories of Ishmael and Starbuck and Queequeg. Ahab's Wife is as richly populated with female characters as that so-masculine book of whaling was with men. Moreover, the story is liberally spiced with different sexualities and religions and even brutalities: what I mean is that it is the bold lifelong adventure of an intelligent woman with a voracious curiosity. Una's appetite for life and for reflection upon it is a better explanation of the book's subtitle "or, The Stargazer," perhaps, than the results of her encounter with the historical astronomer Maria Mitchell. The book is also in many ways as densely stylized as Moby Dick, both in its Quakerish accents and its rhapsodic fascination with the natural world as sublime and terrible. Many women writers have been engaged in the literary reimagination of history through the refraction of women's lives, among them women of all ethnicities like Toni Morrison (e.g., A Mercy, Beloved) and Louise Erdrich (e.g., Love Medicine, The Plague of Doves, The Master Butcher's Singing Club). Some of these writers are more interested in the slighted perspectives of non-Europeans, but all could be said to be imagining from the margins of Eurocentric Patriarchy (or, the aforesaid androcaucasian tradition). I don't think Ahab's Wife, or The Stargazer is one of the most important, which is not to dismiss or slight its sweep. It is only to say that Ahab's wife is not Queequeg's wife, nor Starbuck's. The wife of this literary character is the wife of wealth and learning and authority and power and charisma. How could it be otherwise? The author has loved her perhaps only too well to let her worst suffering linger.
Melville's Ahab is technically almost an Aristotelian tragic figure. In choosing a more epic and triumphant arc for her Una Spenser, Naslund diminishes the eminence and significance of both the character and the book. Like Eat, Pray, Love, this story of a triumphant woman promises romantic rewards in place of significance or principle. Una befriends slaves, a dwarf, native Americans, a pox-marked cousin, all lonely or downtrodden people. But she herself is never lonely or outcast for long because--and here is the weakness at the core of an otherwise wonderful book--because she's so adorable.
Early in her life and near the book's beginning she is infatuated with two young men who are close friends. Giles is noble and stirring; Kit is impish and thrilling. Una, only 16 years old and uninitiated in the ways of other young people, fears most of all to be rejected and so is disingenuous with them. And although the book with great insight and imagination plots her entanglement with the two ambivalent lovers, such rejection as she fears is not to happen except as both men in their own ways are driven mad by events that Una will for the rest of her life confess only to one or two of the many men and women who enter her acquaintance. The book benefits from these many characters--historical notables like Thoreau, Emerson, Frederick Douglass--but even moreso for the intimate interactions depicted with Maria Mitchell and Margaret Fuller. Phoebe Folger (see Phoebe Folger Coleman) brings to the book Lucretia Mott and the Seneca Falls women's convention of 1848 (or 1849).
The book treats of smallpox, religious fanaticism, madness, suicide, the death of babies, and of women in labor, slavery, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, a vision of the human-caused extinction of whales. Una ships out as a disguised cabin boy. She learns about initial explorations of a terrestrial source for fuel called "oil kerosene." Houses burn down in great city-wide fires. There is more: the Loneliness caused by loss of contact with friends and family, especially on ship voyages. The many dangers of sailing ships, especially whaling voyages, and--of course, most particularly of the Moby Dick venture. An intimate picture of Ahab going mad for loss of not just his leg, but his sexual manhood, of his return as a eunuch to the young wife with whom he had indulged a possessive and triumphant sexual passion--and she with him.
I don't remember Melville's book well enough to say what in Aslund's portrait is reflective of Melville and what is added or invented. In fact, at some fifty years' distance from my undergraduate experience, I'm not sure I even read the book. Perhaps I just absorbed it by osmosis in general exposure to early American novels. So I have to wonder how much emasculation figured in Melville's portrait of Ahab and how much was added or revealed by sharing the perspective of his fictional wife.
Una never has to compromise again after her youthful adventure of being shipwrecked at sea and marooned for three months in a lifeboat with a dozen men, an ordeal that reduces her and the two young men she loves to murder and cannibalism. Afterward, one of the men, Giles, plunges to his death from a ship's crow's-nest, and the other loses his sanity. Una's father hangs himself; her mother freezes to death trying to get a doctor for the birth of Una's first child, a boy who lives only three days. She survives all this and two sorrowful marriages, but Una is rich in suitors and worldly possessions. She hobnobs with Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists, with artists, scientists, intellectuals, bankers, abolitions. Everyone loves her and she loves them all back. In the end she seeks her own private utopia with stars, seas, and sewing and becomes a sexually satisfied author of her own story. I wish fate so blessed me. And yet I disdain such romances as this even if it is iconoclastic. (I fear that's what a "romance novel" is.)
The final strange symbolism is that Una's wealth in the end is from investment in oil. What's missing in Ahab's Wife with its voracious love of adventures is the true depravity of nineteenth-century America. She just loves her neighbor, the rich judge. Wonderful to discover a money-making investment (petroleum). A triumphalist tale. Henry Esmond as a woman. Or Little Women and Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott but without a Beth to die, nor is there a triumphant fullness of ending. The dwarf David Polander should have been sent to rescue Susan's family but you won't know about that unless you read Naslund's book. I recommend it. It's a pleasure, but not, in the end, the knockout it seemed to promise. The first cross-gender cabinboy or soldier: been done. The intro to Margaret Fuller: been done. The humanization of slaves, even if it becomes an internal reference to Harriett Beecher Stowe's Eliza: been done much better. And then-the happy ending no one saw coming or really wanted.
There's so much in the first part of the book that promises an utterly new imagination, a true view from outside the canon, that the near-replete neatness of the ending hurt my hopes.
I want to think more about this book before I write a definitive review. I read it on a smartphone while I was in Mexico with a friend, my first timeI want to think more about this book before I write a definitive review. I read it on a smartphone while I was in Mexico with a friend, my first time reading an ebook. I'm sure that had something to do with my reactions to it, but the truth is that it was compelling as history, as only a view of history, obviously, but since I believe everything you, and I, and anyone thinks is always a partial view, I appreciate clear ones, without having to adhere to that vision as absolutely true or false. It is not great literature. The personal stories which serve as narrative suspense are love stories primarily and ideological illustrations secondarily. And 'literature'--i.e., literary musicality or architectonics--hardly at all. Nevertheless for the first time I feel as if I have gained a grasp of why the assassination of some weird-sounding "Arch-Duke" (what fantasy novel or comix does this come from?)could have been a linchpin to one of the most hideous wars in human history, one that was relevant only to a scrambling grasping fight over the spoils of 'colonies.' The only reason I would like to live forever is to satisfy my curiosity about how some more utopian future thinkers may picture the whole 'Colonial/Imperial/Capital' -ist period from about 1492 to the end of World War II and the subsequent unraveling of empires in the wave of national liberation struggles that concluded with Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau (& maybe Spanish Sahara). I will now turn back to a book I abandoned last year, Sleepwalkers, for a less fictional treatment of the beginning of World War I. I recommend, for those interested in this topic, two other works of fiction: Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett, and The English Patient by of course Michael Ondaatje....more