I have read this book almost countless times. I have tried to make schematics of its complex structure, to understand the grand architectonics upon wh...moreI have read this book almost countless times. I have tried to make schematics of its complex structure, to understand the grand architectonics upon which Le Carre built an absolute monument to the grand art of running and being an "agent."
The narrative time from the first action of the novel to its last may be something less than a month, but the lives it recounts cover some sixty complicated years. As the "perfect spy" ironically and compulsively, angrily and lovingly, pens a series of biographical sketches meant as a suicide memento for his son, he unravels the psychological tragedy of his vocation. Meanwhile, racing against time, his former mentor frantically tries to find the AWOL agent as does his counterpart on the "other side." Jack Brotherhood and "Poppy," the two halves of his secret life and split personality, a man with too many loyalties and too little self.
Suspenseful, harrowing, rich with personalities and linguistic worlds, vivid, and in the end sorrowful beyond reason. (less)
Benediction is a simple decorous story that recalls Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kittredge in some respect...moreBenediction by Kent Haruf; a review. Juanita Rice
Benediction is a simple decorous story that recalls Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kittredge in some respects and James Agee's eloquent book A Death in the Family. Kent Haruf sets it gliding on the silence of "a mighty working," neither prettifying nor exploiting the common theme: how in life we are in the midst of death and how death is in the midst of life. Haruf's quiet vision of life in a small northwestern town of Colorado is perfectly rendered in melodic understatement, not sweetened by anything other than its insistent attention to the ways human decency is comprised of affection, humor, patience, and sorrow altogether. He writes of moments of "accidence"—coming-togethers of people and light and water, grass and bicycles, pride and anger, intolerance, memories and haunting hopes; individually courageous or generous moments in the lives of otherwise ordinary imperfect people. His fascination seems to be how decency survives in a world of such complicated flawed characters.
Haruf begins his story with an elderly couple, Dad Lewis and his wife Mary, at the moment of their confrontation with a death sentence for Dad, a soon-to-be fatal cancer. They are quiet about it. Not stoic. Not accepting and sustained by overt hopes of a supernatural eternal glory. It makes them both a little breathless with dread of how it will be. Breathless in the sense of having little to say. Here Haruf is at his best, in these quiet renderings of his imagined people when bleakness looms. Dad and Mary have no grandchildren, no living brother or sisters. Their only daughter lives in nearby Denver, not very happily; she has no career demands to prevent her from moving back home for awhile. The man in her life is not a sure or permanent companion. He visits, but not comfortably, and the dying father makes no show of welcome or respect.
This somewhat lone trio—mother/wife, father/husband and daughter/helper—live in a community, however, and the book is really about the totality of community: relationships good and bad, people generous and closed, unsettled and peaceful. The nearest neighbor is a woman the age of Dad and Mary; her life has been more apparently difficult than theirs. Her long-dead husband was neither kind nor successful. Her daughter lived on the edges and has died young of cancer, leaving behind an eight-year-old granddaughter Alice, now living a kind of shocked and silent grief.
Another friend Willa is older than the Lewises, a widow content to live in her farmhouse, renting out the land for farming. With her lives her daughter Alene, 60 years old and a retired schoolteacher who feels her life was blighted by an unhappy affair with another teacher, a married man who, when forced to choose between her and his wife and career, abandoned her with never another word. Emotionally she never recovered.
A fourth component in the story is Lyle, an idealistic minister transferred to a small Holt church as a demotion for taking a stand for a fellow minister exposed as gay. Lyle's wife is still angry and his son is deeply torn emotionally. Then Lyle does it again, openly preaching against war and the righteousness of wanting revenge in the aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center attack. Most of the church members recoil furiously, his wife leaves him, and the stress in his son's life leads to unforeseen and unforseeable consequences, one of the most vivid and compelling events of the novel.
Finally, a fifth element enters into the story—a ghost of a homosexual son who lived under the iron gaze of a father he felt only judged and never loved him, a son who has disappeared from the family and is never spoken about. But his memory arises in each of the Lewises: his mother Mary will not now nor ever give up hope that she'll find Frank again someday; the daughter feels the weight of the interdiction against speaking of Frank. But as Dad Lewis sickens, Frank appears to him. They speak simply. And sadly. And with these memories others come to Dad Lewis as he lies in death's anteroom: his own poverty-crushed parents whom he too abandoned in anger and estrangement, for the beating his own father administered.
And he dies. Is it unfair to say that there are no miracles? Lorraine doesn't find clarity about love and doesn't reconcile with the Denver lover. Alene doesn't find new love. Lyle does not reconcile with his wife, and his son is not healed. Alice is hurt and scared by witnessing another death. But everyone has at least enough minor comfort to go on.
One scene in particular seemed to me the epitome of how we go on, one of those very small miracles. Four women, aged 80, 60, 30 and 8, after lunch on a blistering and sweltering summer day, swim in the cold freshness of a ranch stock tank, taking off their clothes somewhat awkwardly but easily. It is not change, or redemption, nor even epiphany. It is just life, embraced as we find it.
I am surprised by how much I like this, my second book by Kent Haruf, after having read the even better (to my mind) Plainsong. Haruf's work is not the "kind of thing" I generally read, being afflicted with a taste for Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace and such more ambitious—or merely intellectual and sophisticated—kinds of writing: Roberto Bolano*, Michael Ondaatje, David Mitchell, or the more "dreadful" and grim, like Joyce Carol Oates, or Carolyn Chute whose three gritty eighties books (LeTourneau's Used Auto Parts and The Beans of Egypt, Maine) still rank high on my favorites list. Less stylized, perhaps, are books by Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and Ursula K. LeGuin.
But Haruf's books touch a rich chord in my heart. I respect his careful craft and I am grateful for his courageous faith in common decency's ability to survive even though he doesn't blink away the hypocritical, the ugly, or the cruel in the communities he surveys.
This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a review. Juanita Rice
One of the most singly important books I have ever read, This Earth of Mankind by...moreThis Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a review. Juanita Rice
One of the most singly important books I have ever read, This Earth of Mankind by Indonesian author, scholar and activist Pramoedya Ananta Toer does not compel because of style or magnificence of language and least of all for structure when judged from the standard lookout posts of High Western Culture. And therein lies part of its value: to illuminate the specificity of such concepts as exposition, rising tension, climax, symbolism, complexity of psychology, illumination of family dynamics, and neurosis. I'll return to this issue. The primary source of its excellence is the picture of Empire which it delivers from outside the power centers. It is from without the gates that one understands empire; near the throne, as it were, all is magnificence, comfort, safety, even generosity and nobility. But the story is partial which only examines life inside the castle walls without investing those suffering laborers and servants whose lives provide that wealth and comfort. And investigating them as individuals, with personalities.
George Orwell wrote an essay of piercing insight about "the brown people" of the world when he lived in Marrakech :
When you walk through a town like this--two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in--when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces--besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer shows what can happen when a talented and determined writer endows those "brown faces," that "undifferentiated brown stuff," with personalities and intelligence, and perceptively investigates their circumstances. This Earth of Mankind is the first in a series of novels now called The Buru Quartet, in this case translated by Max Lane, an Australian diplomat who lost his position in 1982 because of his support for the books and their author. Here is some important historical background he contributed to a "Translator's Note":
[The government of the Dutch East Indies] presided over a colony the exploitation of whose resources made one of the smallest countries of Europe, Holland, one of its richest. This exploitation needed a special condition for its continuation: the maintenance of an attitude of acceptance on the part of the colonized and the governed. The colonizers' determination [here, as in every other sphere of European invasion, from New Zealand and Australia to Alaska, Louisiana and Brazil, from Hong Kong and India and Burma to Morocco and South Africa] was that the native people, especially the toiling classes of the Netherlands Indies should remain forever submerged in a culture of silence. This made their exploitation easier and gave some Dutch then rationale for exhibiting the traditional colonial feelings of cultural arrogance. (1981 and 1990, Jakarta & Canberra)
The lived experience of people under such rule is a necessity for those of us inside the Colonial Mentality even today in order that we understand what still is true of the "developed" (meaning "US") and the "undeveloped" (meaning the people who were robbed, enslaved, and demeaned for so long).
The book itself begins almost like Moby Dick's "Call me Ishmael" with a similar sentence "People called me Minke." This main character, Minke, is young, and he is in a somewhat anomalous position: he is enrolled in a prestigious high school in Surabaya on the island of Java, but in 1898 he is the only native Javanese in the school. He owes this exception to his family's prominent status in the old feudal structures of Java, and –although he doesn't know it—to a change in political outlook in Holland. Dutch-owned businesses like sugar factories are thriving as they move more and more families off their small farms, swallowing up the arable land to provide sweets for the European table. Thriving factories need assistant managers and accountants, positions not respectable and good-paying enough to attract young men from Holland. A suitable managerial class must be developed among the natives, and thus a limited education begins to be desirable for "a few exceptional cases." Minke is a naif; he is acutely conscious of his inferiority as a "Native" to Whites (Europeans) or "Pures" as they were called, and even to the few "Indos" (mostly children of Dutch men and Native women, sometimes in legal liaisons but usually not). On the other hand among the Javanese Minke expects a certain respect for his grandfather's position in the old ruling class of Java, although he has a conflicted relationship with the iron dictatorship of the Javanese patriarchy.
He is a callow hero by common "Western" (Colonialist/European) tastes in literature; remarkably imperceptive, emotionally shallow (he takes a dare, for instance, to win a girl's attentions), and pretty puffed up with himself. But I soon began to understand that my negative perception stemmed from expectations inconsistent with Pramoedya's purposes in writing; he had goals not born of Western perspective and as we begin to understand that form determines content, it can be seen that his choices were necessary for those purposes. Perhaps I could say that it slowly dawned on me that the developments of Minke's personality were not of primary interest; he is the occasion for the recording of representative events. Those events are not primarily what happens to him or what he does, not embroilments, drama, or actions of conflict, but what he witnesses, learns, observes, falls into. Pramoedya is maneuvering a naive character into position to have his social ignorance corrected by what happens around him.
Minke is not a complete blank; he wants to "be a writer" and already his little observations are sometimes published in a Dutch-language newspaper. He is a bright boy of eighteen or so, with high grades, a generally respectable morality and a kind heart. He seems to be attractive to girls although we have no story of a romantic past, of former 'dating' or 'flirting,' all those things so essential to European-style story-telling. And at first I was disappointed, I found him uninteresting. Because of this characterless character, however, I as a reader was carried around not looking primarily at him, but at the world through Minke's eyes and ears. He is not out to 'make his fortune' like the three little pigs and endless European folktales and novels like Scott's Quentin Durward, a fact that is also hard to get used to. He wants to improve his writing and continue to publish, but meanwhile he has a business "on the side," selling designs of furniture, part of his motivation to get around and meet people. The disadvantage of this job for a novel is its lack of "novelty" and interest; it is related not to nineteenth-century get-ahead "progress" or brilliant architecture or mechanics or art. It is, in fact, similar to the position of a tradesman, a salesman catering to wealthy people's consumerist appetites. But as a literary device, this position allows him to meet people of every class, race, and occupation—which is a convenient set-up for a book that wants to investigate social phenomena.
Minke has a small inexpensive room in a house where an older artist friend, Jean Marais, lives with his little girl May. Marais is French, a former mercenary soldier for Holland who lost a leg, his heart, and his European arrogance fighting the "Aceh" [pron. AH-tcheh], Northern Sumatrans noted for pride and courage in their resistance against colonialism. and May's mother was, in fact, from Aceh; Marais mourns her yet. From Marais and his story Minke learns that not all Whites believe in their utter superiority. Minke also benefits from contact with a liberal Dutch schoolteacher; Magda Peters attempts to introduce an understanding of colonial politics and of the contributions of Asian thought and science in Western culture's accomplishments. In a class debate she claims: "If the Netherlands doesn't have a Prambana or a Borobudur temple, it means in that era Java was more advanced than the Netherlands." The director of the school disapproves of a class "discussion," especially of this nature, and angrily dismisses the class. Magda Peters will be forcibly repatriated. Pramoedya will trace a growing consciousness of Asia's dignity from this idea, and from the prospect of Japanese beginning to be formally accorded "White" or "Pure" status as Japan becomes her own colonial power in the early twentieth century, and also as Chinese social activism begins to make itself felt as far away as Java.
Since Pramoedya intends not an examination of the self-doubts of an overly complicated mind (the focus of most western art and literature), Minke is an ideal narrator for a book that doesn't aim at evoking empathy for the alienated individual. What Pramoedya accomplishes in this book (and continues through the four-book set) is a complex history and analysis of Colonialism in the Dutch East Indies, derived from experiences of memorable Javanese people.
It is one thing to state historical facts of invasion, conquest and despoliation; it is quite another for a narrator like Minke to encounter the lived experience of these facts, especially because Minke begins with an exaggerated respect for European culture like the hapless Ceylonese schoolteacher in Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table who thinks he is sailing for a cultural paradise when he takes passage to England, the home of the Great Books.
The primary dramatic crisis of This Earth of Mankind is partly a love story. Minke falls in love with and marries Anneliese, the daughter of a Dutch father (Herman Mellema) and the Javanese woman he had purchased as a young girl for his concubine, his toy, his servant, his "Nyai," the Javanese term of utter disrespect for such an immoral and disrespectable woman. Melema himself has long been an incapable alcoholic wreck, living most of the time in a nearby elegant brothel. All of Mellema's business interests are conducted by this woman, who defiantly calls herself Nyai Ontosoroh, When Mellema dies, however, the estate passes to his Dutch son in Holland, with small shares to Anneliese and her brother Robert who have at least been legally "acknowledged" as birth children although of course perceived by the Dutch part of the family as shameful native bastards.
The crisis is a loss of fortune and position for Anneliese's mother whom Minke soon learns to love and respect despite his initial disgust for "such a woman." It appears that Nyai Ontosoroh will lose everything and be turned out on the street, shamed as a homeless concubine. Moreover, custody of Anneliese, who is still a minor in Dutch law, is transferred to her father's Dutch wife who determines to have Anneliese taken to Europe. Alone. Minke's marriage is considered void, for Anneliese has no standing in law, nor has her mother.
In the struggle to prevent Anneliese's deportation, Minke loses his blithe schoolboy admiration for the marvelous science and inventions brought by Europeans so generously to benefit and "advance" Java. He experiences the steamroller workings of the system under which Java is being impoverished and its people dispossessed and humiliated. The fight against Anna's abduction brings Minke into conflicts and alliances he could never have imagined.
There are other encounters along the way: he meets a revolutionary emigrant from China who is risking his life in the name of a Chinese insurgence against the old ways of hierarchy. Minke experiences disorientation when the Colonialist monolith dubs Japanese as "Pures," to be treated henceforth with the ceremony and respect accorded previously on to Europeans, a prospect that creates a state of confusion—pride in Asia, puzzlement, suspicion. He marvels to learn about Filipinos fighting for independence and then grasps the treasonous sleight-of-hand of the U.S. government in forcing their entry into a "Spanish-American" War for the freedom of Filipinos from Spain, but the subsequent slaughter as the U.S. steps in as the Power under a different name: no longer Colonialism, but Imperialism. (Mark Twain was one prominent American writer who reviled this farcical "war for freedom" in U.S. history.)
Thus Pramoedya Anana Toer introduces the twin prongs stimulating the birth of native bourgeois resistance to Dutch Colonialism. On the one hand the very sciences and education Europe brought with them: newspapers, books, telegraph, all of which allowed Javanese access to ideas of Asian independence, ideas of liberation and nationalism, examples of Asian resistance. On the other hand the "liberal" Europeans who sowed dissent in Europe and abroad about both the injustices and indignities of Colonialism. For Colonialism works first with the sciences of navigation, travel and munitions, but this technology is employed mercilessly. It is embedded in, or creates, attitudes of utter contempt for the very values it inspires in its places of origin: individual freedoms are necessary if all the benefit is not to go to the stay-at-home aristocracy and monarchy. We must remember that the Haitian liberation war and the French Revolution coincided, both of them results of the same phenomena.
It also, as a long-distance political and economical arrangement, requires educated management, even of the people that had to be ideologically castigated and despised in order to justify treating them as less than beasts of burden, more like vermin. The Native. That word which at one point meant "born where it lives" became a synonym for a debased image connotating all at once an animal, inferior, subhuman, immoral, without a soul or a mind. Other words became synonymous—"savages" and "brutes" and "barbarians." The totality of meaning, of course, was merely "those people who have what we want, whom we can kill or enslave to get what we want, and who are only good as labor to procure and produce what we want. A "savage" is someone from the lowest state of civilization, and a barbarian is only slightly better. What is civilization? It is what Europe is and does.
If people are not European, they can only be Natives, Savages, Brutes and Barbarians. And of course, Savages are savage, brutes are brutal, barbarians are barbaric, and the natives "are restless." All of these terms constitute a vast tautology of "otherness" and "opposition." Europe and civilization and Christians and educated are "us." The "others" are not, and they are "opposed." They are "anti" by their nature. Even at home, a European cannot be fully a "Native."
European colonial policy rested as strongly upon imposing their own mental perception of the rightness of their hierarchies. But in This Earth of Mankind a Native is being educated alongside "Pures" and "Indos" (European-Javanese). And Nyai Ontosoroh has fully learned the "business" and is a capable manager and a formidable enemy or ally. This education may have been a historically fatal step, but industrialized colonial power needed educated labor. The policy even has a name: "Assimilation" or "Association Theory."
Minke watches disaster descend on the wife he loves and her mother whom he admires almost as much. By story's end Minke has discovered the helpless legal position of non-Europeans at the same time that he has learned to hate the patriarchal system of concubinage. At first he is reluctant to mix with "low" people. Nyai Ontosoroh is, after all, an immoral woman, contemptible by both Javanese and Dutch standards. But Minke sees for himself that she is an admirable businesswoman, a woman of beauty, intelligence, honor and sensitivity. As he learns how her father sold her as a child to Herman Mellema, Minke grasps the irrationality of blaming her for the venal acts of two men who utterly controlled her life.
The struggle to resist Dutch control of Anneliese and the business inspires many levels of assistance: a liberal Dutch administrator and his daughters, an impassioned journalist who urges Minke to write in the Javanese language instead of Dutch, Ontosoroh's guards and servants. Minke is shaken to his foundations by the injustice and inhumanity he discovers side by side with the courage, dedication and generosity of those who would resist Dutch domination and values. The novel ends with Nyai Ontosoroh saying to Minke: "We fought back, Child, as well and as honorably as possible."
Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre, a review. Juanita Rice
I have owned another St.Pierre book for more than a decade and I suppose I ha...more Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre, a review. Juanita Rice
I have owned another St.Pierre book for more than a decade and I suppose I have re-read it every year, always relishing his work in both subject and style. Given that it was written in Canada in the 1960s and that Paul St. Pierre was not exactly a canonical name, I only recently—after another sojourn "back then" in the Chilcotin world of upper British Columbia—looked around to find more of his writing.
Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse was the main reward of my search, and was well worth the negligible time and minor cost. My first book was Smith and Other Stories, a collection that includes –how to describe them? – stories of varied milieus although all related to characters of British Columbia in the 1950's and earlier. It includes one of the most bitter anti-war stories I've ever read about the breaking of a simple good man by his experiences in Europe during World War II. Another story paints a baldly skeptical—though not cynical—story of a provincial election campaign, the political Old Man, the ambitious executive, the dundering young fool, and a no-nonsense candidate from the backwaters of the upper Okanagan Plateau. A foolish positivist teacher tries to include a native girl among her crude charges and only throws the girl's tragic position into sharper relief. A native wife earns her young husband's beaming pride by destroying the only valuable thing she owns rather than let an eager collector show off among his cocktail party friends. Cabin-fever drives some of the ranchers to catch a ride into St. George and help a hotel full of guests and employees to the biggest party ever known, leaving the manager the proud owner of a certificate stating that he is a prize Angus stud. Smith buys the most expensive coffin in Vancouver to spite a hoity-toity family, spending all of the funds of the Namko Ranchers Association, even though the intended tenant is only rumored to be in need of it.
The novel, Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse, suffers a little in comparison by only being able to develop one situation for one set of characters; on the other hand, it allows the author to push that development further than a short story allows (although he can do a pretty extensive plot in his longer short stories too) and the reader benefits from having the punch lines and final resolution delayed delightfully.
Smith is one of the smartest and least successful of all the ragtag ranchers in St. Pierre's Chilcotin country cast of characters. He is a rancher the way someone who holds money during a bet is a banker: he doesn't handle his business very professionally. He loves to have a drink with other ranchers and with some of the well-respected natives as well, like Ol' Antoine. He loves his horses, and he has a few bothersome cows. The existence of one special horse that needs training is the occasion for the unlikely plot.
One of the author's gifts as a writer is to start a story about some detail, such as an unbroken horse, and spin out what I want to call sidereal, tangential occurrences in a string that accumulates more and more momentum, more people, more complications, gets really thin as it is attenuated, and then comes quietly back to the first point, with the world unshaken but with echoes and reverberations slowly settling down around a point of unchanged stillness. Usually, although not always, with good humor—or at least an ironic grimace. St. Pierre would probably be the first to agree that no good deed goes unpunished.
Here the starting point is a visitor to Smith's ranch, Ol' Antoine, a Chilkoot native who occurs in a number of St. Pierre stories, part of his stories' country of ranches and reservations and open mountains. Smith has it in his head that maybe this time he can finally get Ol' Antoine to tame the rogue cutting horse for him "Indian-Style," which he believes to be a vastly superior method of training,"Horse-Whispering" we might call it today. In fact, Smith has already paid part of the agreed-on fee, but the promised action seems infinitely postponable.
Meanwhile Nora, Smith's wife, is frightened (and armed) because Ol' Antoine didn't come alone. She's sure that out in "the shack" with Ol' Antoine is Gabriel Prettyboy, a Chilkooten wanted for murder. Sure enough, Ol' Antoine has Prettyboy with him and they want Smith to accompany him into town for arraignment because there's a reward promised and Prettyboy wants to get the reward to be able to buy a lawyer. If only Prettyboy, or even Prettyboy with Ol' Antoine, goes in, it's a foregone conclusion that the authorities won't honor their promise of a reward, not to a couple of Indians. He wants to turn himself in because he's starving and freezing to near death hiding out in the mountains and winter's coming, but he wants a lawyer because he really doesn't like the idea of being hanged.
By story's end, a long way down a complicated line, Smith has been dragged into the wake of Gabriel's trial, he's beaten up a court official during a trial because an interpreter is messing with Ol' Antoine's intended meanings in solemn testimony, he's been mistaken for the town drunk by the judge---and you'll have to wait for final word on the horse.
I love reading this man's work. I settle into the world of a kind-hearted man who has a hard head and a really clever turn of language. St. Pierre frankly sees little hope of changing anything for the better, or of anything changing much for the better by itself, but he is resigned to the small goodnesses of ordinary people, or—I should say—the harmlessness of eccentric ordinary people. For few residents of his imaginary world are ordinary. Their lives are physically and financially grueling. They are variously idiosyncratic, "cussedly so," one might say. The ranchers mostly treat their wives as accessory chattel; that's the way the fifties are. St. Pierre understands the justice of the women's grievances, but he is only telling what is, not what ought to be, and the women have their own rewards. In one story, Smith's wife has decided she will not spend another winter half-starving in a little uninsulated cabin nor raise another child to be uneducated and turn out like its parents.
She wants Smith to give up ranching, or else she will leave him. Smith is finally, painfully, reluctantly convinced, but the night the prospective buyer turns up, by coincidence so do half of their friends. With resourcefulness and generosity, everyone chips in their bit to make the evening a warm party with music, laughter, a little dancing. Toward the end, as Smith sits down to dicker seriously with the stranger, Nora pulls him aside, with a rueful expression, saying, "Really, Smith, you know, it's not been so bad here." And the sale fails. The buyer leaves, shaking his head, that poor Smith got talked into trying to stay on, against his better judgment, by an obstinate wife.
In a way, this is just one long shaggy-dog joke. But a good one.
Please see my review of the first book in the Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind) for general background about the novels and the author, Indonesian...morePlease see my review of the first book in the Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind) for general background about the novels and the author, Indonesian Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006). Is it enough to say that in 1995, Pramoedya had spent two years imprisoned by the Dutch (1947-1949), then from 1965 to 1979 by the Indonesian government, and then house arrest for another thirteen years. He was a scholar whose library and research and many of his books were burned during this long period of being treated as a subversive and labelled a "communist" without evidence. When challenged for evidence, the Suharto regime said his communism was generalized since he was such a clever writer he disguised the ideas. !!! His works have been translated into twenty languages, but during his city arrest in Jakarta selling any of his 30 books was a crime. He has received honorary doctorates (one from UC-Berkeley) and numerous writing awards. The Buru Quartet he kept alive during his ten years of cruel emprisonment by reciting them orally since he was forbidden to write anything but letters to his daughter---which then were never sent.
In this second novel, the narrator/hero Minke (continuing from Book one)encounters more evidence of hopeless injustices under colonialism and meets more independent women characters who further challenge the patriarchy of former Javanese hierarchies. We find out more about what happens to Anneliese in the Netherlands, where she is isolated and dies alone. Her death further politicizes Minke, and he begins to understand that his cultural loyalties to European ideologies must be uprooted within himself and he must learn a new appraisal of his own role in life. (less)
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marques; a review. Juanita Rice
After the power and panoply, the beguiling innocence and miracles, of Cien...moreLove in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marques; a review. Juanita Rice
After the power and panoply, the beguiling innocence and miracles, of Cien Anos de Soledad, (A Hundred Years of Solitude), also by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this big novel was greatly disappointing to me. Here Garcia Marquez writes almost only about sex and about love, two things he equates. But he couldn't persuade me of their identity, and in trying to dignify and prettify pederasty by investing the molester with a sense of love and delight he completely lost my credence. Predators are predators, no matter how much they like to call their exploits by the name of love. There are of course marvelous passages but the main thread, or at least one of the two main threads, is the lifelong story of the way a man comforts himself for a deep disappointment in love by seeking serial sexual encounters—innocent women and prostitutes, grand dames and his pre-teen ward, who kills herself when she finds him unfaithful to her.
What a shock such a story would make were the main protagonist a woman. It is unimaginable the noise that would be made if a woman wrote a book about a woman playing at sex games with a young boy in her care, teasing off little stockings and making a long sexual game of stripping off the child's clothes to gratify the adult woman's desire for all kinds of "love." I don't understand our public tolerance for such stories.
I saw what happened to the public image of Andrea Dworkin for trying to draw public attention to the grotesque misogyny of most "Adult" pornography. I accept that my appraisal of this book must remain a minority report. But it's my honest response, so I guess I won't be surprised if the dogs are sent out to bay at my "censorship" (as if I were in a position to ban novels instead of merely offering my own responses and trying to examine them).
And how sad it is to be repulsed by part of the book when the character of the main woman in this story is such a beautiful and powerful character, so intimately portrayed, so complexly, and the ending in which the almost mystical figure of the River's manatees has been erased by the ecological devastation of the travel industry.
The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a review. Juanita Rice
Tell me I don't appreciate Latino culture and I'll reply that Machismo am...moreThe General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a review. Juanita Rice
Tell me I don't appreciate Latino culture and I'll reply that Machismo among the Oligarchs is a dull and repulsive subject to me that is not the same as "Latino culture," or if it is the same, then Nazism is the same as Germanic culture. False, Q.E.D.
This book turns the "Father of South American Independence"—General Simon Bolivar-- into the main character of Love in the Time of Cholera. Or, rather, it invests him with the dreams and obsessions of Garcia Marquez' alter ego who is the main character of Love in the Time of Cholera, for which you are welcome to read my less than fulsome response which doesn't merit the title "review."
Doubtless this novel conveys aspects of the historical revolution against Europe that I did not appreciate before, and I found those stories compelling. But that just made me want to read a well-written history of Bolivar, instead of this highly sex-infused series of nightmares.
Very unfortunately, I just happened to read this and Cholera in the same time period, and my lack of appreciation of each was exacerbated by my fatigue at the other.
Only now can I perhaps better appreciate Roberto Bolano's castigation of "Magic Realism" a little better. Compared to these dashingly machismo fantasy men, I can better appreciate the history of Amalfitano in 2666 and the grim and gritty reports on serial finds of mutilated, raped and tortured women's corpses in northern Mexico since the 1990s. Not a more attractive topic, but at least a look at where machismo eventually ends up. Perhaps that's a glib observation. It's heartfelt, however, after reading The General and Love in the Time of Cholera too close together.
Days of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks, a review. Juanita Rice
Although I thought that this book had a few "thin spots" toward the ending, too neatly illust...moreDays of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks, a review. Juanita Rice
Although I thought that this book had a few "thin spots" toward the ending, too neatly illustrating a thesis perhaps, still I found the thesis attractive enough that I absolve the writer of grave failure. It is historical fiction, based on the historical records of a rural village in England which quarantined itself when the Plague broke out there around the year 1666. It is the annus mirabilis, like the title of a work by John Dryden, or the "year of miracles," and the period of re-establishment of the dominance of the Anglican Church.
The story is narrated in the first person by Anna, a young woman who is impoverished by the accidental death of her young husband as he works his lead mine. She finds work as a maid for the Episcopalian (Anglican?) minister and his wife. Through the frank and egalitarian friendship the wife Elizabeth extends to her, Anna learns to read, and eventually the two embark on a desperate effort to learn the medicinal lore of two herbalists, midwives whom the frantic villagers kill for witches in the early days of the Plague outbreak.
The story has four notable aspects. First is the skill with which Brooks depicts the emotional and physical horrors of the Bubonic Plague, especially in a time and place with no conception of the biomechanics of contagious disease. The village's agreement to quarantine itself is, however, for that very reason not quite comprehensible. If the nature of contagion is undreamed-of, why would the idea of a quarantine occur to anyone? The historical fact is, however, that this village did make that decision, although nothing in the book fully overcomes the historical oddity. A second notable pleasure of the book is the friendship between two women of unequal status; the truly humble character of the minister's wife is given a grim explanation toward the book's end but her bright determination and good sense remain stirring. In addition, the book offers some insight into the selflessness with which the two women and the minister dedicate themselves to the dying and the dead, and to their attempts to struggle against belief in "witchery," whether that belief manifests itself as murderous hostility as it has so often in our culture's sacred spaces—the Renaissance in Europe and the early Pilgrim days of the U.S. colonies. It is a simple truth that some people do rise to such heroism during events of social devastation, and Brooks depicts their efforts as partly driven by blind momentum, as there is no time to stop to consider, but nevertheless as human beings at their best in the ordinary kinds of heroism.
Last, the book makes a generous effort to allow Anna the kind of escape that colonialism offered to many an English man in a tight scrape: Anna has adopted an unwanted baby but by keeping it alive she crosses the will of its father, a powerful aristocrat. Anna's solution is to disembark from London aboard a ship from which she lands in a Persian or Arab country to live out an honorable life as a midwife and herbalist. Early on, she and her friend Elizabeth had found reference to important medical knowledge from Averroes, a philosopher and doctor from Arabic culture; thus the book's end completes her acquisition of knowledge and of peace. I don't think I need to spell out why I so appreciate Brooks for attempting this small bit of counterweight to the "terrorism propaganda machine" that has animated so much public discourse since the first President Bush, but especially subsequent to the World Trade Center attacks of 2001 and persisting to this day in 2013.
Brooks has been a journalist correspondent in the Middle East and knows more of the humanist culture there than most of us let ourselves learn about, and thus—although Anna's flight from Europe and her easy acceptance into a wealthy man's harm, with her virtue left intact!!, is just a tad glib, serving the feminist aspects of the book, it is still welcome as an alternative to mean-spirited savage endings for the sake of sensationalism.
I will soon be reading another Geraldine Brooks book thanks to my book club; I look forward to it. She's not as profound and subtle as Toni Morrison. She's not as savvy at total narrative structure as Barbara Kingsolver, nor as complexly multicultural and delightful as Louise Erdrich. But it's a good book, well-written, full of fascinating historical background and evocative vocabulary to boot. Well-done and enjoyable. (less)
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; a review. Juanita Rice
Well, these are nice high-class characters. Clare, the "Wife" of the title is th...moreThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; a review. Juanita Rice
Well, these are nice high-class characters. Clare, the "Wife" of the title is the beautiful daughter of a filthy-rich dysfunctional family, her father a super big attorney, her mother a manipulative alcoholic. Henry, the time-traveler, is the son of a great symphony musician and a famous opera-star mother. We are definitely "traveling" in good company: Clare's family has a nice spinster housekeeper servant, in the British tradition, plus a good black cook. Henry's dad is cosseted by the Korean good-cook and good-woman living downstairs. There's also, for 'local color?', a very short black lesbian and a crazy suicidal rejected woman. I really hated living in their milieu: why was I supposed to care about them? Nevertheless, I did enjoy the bizarre complexity of the plot. How do you write about a story that takes place in dozens of different time schemes. When Clare is a child and Henry is—what?, in his forties? When Clare and Henry are both in mostly Clare's "time." When Clare has met Henry several times, but he travels back and meets her when he's younger and doesn't know that his older self has already been there. When he realizes that he's already been somewhere. Or doesn't remember, but Clare does. And how about the woman Henry is living with when he first meets the child Clare. I wasn't sold on the in-the-fiction thesis that Henry's time traveling is caused by something genetic: and I especially didn't love the meeting between him after his death and his son who's inherited the genetic affect. I would have much preferred that the story be left in the realm of the magic inexplicable, like certain science fiction of Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance. Nevertheless, and that's saying alot, I enjoyed and engaged with their "fate." It was not quite believable that Henry could keep a job in one chronological present and then disappear, showing up other places in other (previous and subsequent) time periods naked and shoeless and often sick. And survive. Another drawback was all the situations and characters that were featured in various times that disappeared. Clare's brother has invited a girlfriend to a family dinner; she's pregnant and they're going to marry. Clare's mother has a fit that she will ruin his life, and she's definitely rude. We learn that Clare's parents married under the same circumstances, but there's no aftermath with the prospective sister-in-law's intimidation nor the exposure of the parents' secret. Henry's girlfriend commits suicide; a woman who loved her becomes special friends with Henry in his marriage. Why? Reading this was like watching someone put together a complex puzzle. The individual pieces were complex and often beautifully detailed. The characters had moments of compelling believable life. But in the end, when the puzzle was all together, it didn't make a whole greater than the parts. Like watching someone put together a Rubik's cube: fascinating. But not revelatory.
The Summer of the Citroen by Ollie Nash; a review. Juanita Rice
The first chapter or two of this book gave little hint of the seriousness to come. They...moreThe Summer of the Citroen by Ollie Nash; a review. Juanita Rice
The first chapter or two of this book gave little hint of the seriousness to come. They struck me as intentionally not quite believable and just a little comic. Even though a grade-school boy dies of leukemia, it looked to me like this was going to be a rather cynically humorous parody of boys in the south. We get some fifth-grade boys obsessed with comic books and movies, with in-group bullying and uncomprehending parents, and I was getting a bad taste in my mouth. I feared it was becoming a kind of slack-muscled Catcher in the Rye emulsified with Leave it to Beaver. I was wrong. When a vibrant young Cajun couple, Jean and Mina Russo, arrive in Northern Alabama, fresh from Louisiana and driving a bizarre Citroen, the author's ability to draw convincing although eccentric character, partly through good dialect-inflected dialogue engages its gears and a story emerges that gathers momentum and muscle just like its main character, thirteen-year-old Dexter Morris, as he matures physically and emotionally.
Because what he discovers is change. By the book's end in 1965, a mere six years later, Dexter Morris has been drafted and is on his way to report to the army at the height of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The grit of the story emerged back in 1959, the titular season, The Summer of the Citroen, and the ten chapters of the last part serve mostly to reveal the permanent aftermath of that explosive period. For it was not just a mellow vacation between school years for the boy, but a sudden and forced maturation in the face of an adult world of sex and violence and death and work and money. At the outset, granted, it's a little bit like Dukes of Hazzard too: a southern Sheriff, an excessively dramatic preacher, a rum-running ne'er-do-well named Biffle, a nutty older cousin Nadine whom Dexter spies on as she preaches naked in an empty church, and a conspicuous-in-retrospect absence of black families or culture, except for one nameless maid in a rich house in Mobile near the end.
Oh, yes, and tons of beautiful, terribly sexy women. No girls for Dexter—the grown-up ones don't give him time for that. Dex's early maturation includes a barely credible account of his management of a twenty-acre truck farm and a second piece of property with mostly corn and cotton. He's thirteen, remember. It is impossible to doubt the author's intimate knowledge of farming at this level, but the sudden manhood with which the boy emerges from his youthful chrysalis of comic books and cowboy matinees to wheel and deal with pickers, buyers, renters, while he schedules fertilizing, haying and packing strained my credulity, detailed and well-written as it was.
The third element of Dexter's coming-of-age is his inability to remain the naive child of a picture-perfect marriage. Dexter's confrontations with sex, violence, and death in the neighborhood coincide with the unavoidable knowledge that troubles reach deeply into the lives of the two parents he loves unquestioningly well beyond the "Aw gee whiz Mom do I have to?" level. His certain belief in the rightness of God's world-- first shaken by his classmate's death at ten in what was something of a prologue—is further compromised and fractured as deep passions show themselves altering his perceptions, and ours, of even the most cutely comic eccentrics that ring his life. The concluding chapters in 1965 convey a heart-hardened and sad young man submitting to serve as cannon-fodder in a terrifying war. His final cross-country trip on a Harley echos the long-distant but vital images of Easy Rider and a world where illusions are not easily nurtured.
Feminist ponderings. I thought this a well-written book but the all-too-willing women who throw themselves avidly on young Dexter's lance make me wonder about "normal" male perception. I never could have imagined an "ordinary" nubile boy so irresistible to adult women that they can't wait to pull his pecker out and sit on it one way or another. And—moreover—the notion that this boy loves it all so intensely in a relatively uncomplicated manner.
No doubt there are—for I read many male authors' fictional constructs of such a phenomenon—many an adult woman who craves sex with young boys. I think of a couple classic movies: What's Eating Gilbert Grape with Mary Steenburgen forcing somewhat infantile seductions on an unwilling Johnny Depp character, (but who was not an adolescent and who also didn't much like her attentions), and then there was the tragic darkness of The Last Picture Show of long, long ago, plainly portraying the sexuality of the high school age boy as complicated and complicating and the Coach's wife, the seductress, as a sad and neurotic woman. The Summer of the Citroen doesn't take a stance as a clear genre like that latter tragic vision of backwater America and the former slightly satirical comedy despite its deaths, deprivations and disabilities. Nash's vision is not so clear to me, so there is more than a hint of sexual fantasy about the story. What really makes Dexter disgusted with his mother? What really drives him to search for the family of Jean Russo?
Don't mistake me: the story is both possible and entertaining and original. It just didn't seem to me to have a point except to say how neurotic, crazy, tempting, and untrustworthy women are in a world that might be better off without them if it weren't for the delightful sensations they stir up in men who might otherwise enjoy the undamaged male solidarity which is the only serious thing in the world. Besides making good money, that is, and owning pristine property you can sell off for strip mining to meet your charitable projects for the crazy woman cousin you had sex with throughout your teenage years.
There just seems to be no morality in the story, no ethic. Everything is value-free except the mother who left her husband and son. She remains, or remained, unforgiven and unforgivable and, if I'm not mistaken, was so crushed by the coldness and cruelty of her grown son (our hero Dex) that she kills herself. We can't really know, because the only area of the world that's illuminated is that of the authorial alter ego. Dexter leaves her house, so we readers aren't completely privy to what comes next in his mother's life. Or death.
I know that many books function that way. Reading Edith Wharton novels recently I can reflect on their similar construction but Wharton's stories follow through. They chew on issues of right and wrong, of social morality and ethics, of choices with consequences.
Dexter's story has no consequences except property, money and sex, lots of sex—all initiated by women. One gets pregnant and runs away in order not to burden the boy father nor face his parents. Two die. The other main armful was certifiably crazy to begin with, a cousin who suffers psychotic episodes. One –a waitress in passing—he doesn't have time for. And one pulls him into her on the front porch before he even knows who she is.
Women and money just won't leave Dex alone. Even though the people he really loves (chastely) are men. A strange perspective and one that has little of value to say to me, a woman. (And needless to say, a woman whose contemplations of fiction were formed in the heyday of feminism's insistent injection of the second-gender perception.)
The Grave-Digger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates; a review. Juanita Rice
This is a book I loved to hated, and hated to love. Or vice versa. It's only...moreThe Grave-Digger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates; a review. Juanita Rice
This is a book I loved to hated, and hated to love. Or vice versa. It's only my second book by Joyce Carol Oates, and inferior in my opinion to Pretty Little Bird of Heaven because I couldn't quite connect the pieces of the mosaic to something coherent. After only two samples of the Oates oeuvre, can I disill some essence-of-Oates here? I'll try, because I think I "get" it. What was that Dune term? Grok! Joyce Carol Oates has a consummate imagination of detail. The writing is rich with sounds, smells, sights and other tactile senses—the sensations of heat, cold, how clothes feel on the body, the mutual touches of love, the first time talented hands explore piano keys, the smell and warmth of an infant. And she's equally adept with the violent emotions of terror, rage, hope, and need and the situations that can evoke them. She powerfully depicts lives of the subjected: children who hate school, women who slide into prostitution from positions of dependence on men for gifts and favors, men in the grip of drugs, alcohol, and crime. And violence at all these levels. She knows the backwaters of old cities in the eddying shadows after the triumphal looting of capitalism has moved on to new victims: empty mills and abandoned factories, alcoholic Native veterans of World War II or Korea. Her style, topics, characters and events could even perhaps be described as a mirror-image reflection of the great American novelists of the early twentieth century, Edith Wharton. Wharton wrote of the costs of American life among the wealthy and Oates evokes the tragic outlines of American life among the poor and working classes. Oates writes within the context of traditional realism with subjective narrative, life as experienced by one or two characters who are not omniscient; even the narrator and the reader are not privileged to know the meaning or reasons completely. Both of these books dwell close to dangerous violence. They are not adventures or suspense or mystery although they are suspenseful, they pose some haunting questions, and they leave some things unsaid. It's easier to describe Pretty Little Bird of Heaven. A woman who was a local celebrity as a country music singer is viciously murdered in an apartment after she leaves her working-class husband. The suspects are the husband who's a part-Seneca car mechanic, and a married man with whom she has an affair. Being publicly suspected of an ugly murder destroys both men, psychologically and financially, and brutalizes the men's children. The story is told through the eyes of these children, the dead woman's teen-aged son and the other suspect's teen-aged daughter as their lives are drawn into the vortices of the aftermath. A powerful element is the cruel way the singer learns that she is just one more pretty face and voice in a crowd of wannabe's with no hope of the fame to which they aspire. At story's end the two grown children learn at last that neither of their fathers was guilty but by then their fathers are dead. The Gravedigger's Daughter is just one woman's story, a woman whose life is also powerfully influenced by a violence that precedes, and is perpetuated by, her father. This story is again shaped by violence and grotesque social rejection, and grounded in larger social issues: here the family who finds lodging in upstate New York are "Displaced Persons," Jews escaping the Nazis' Anti-semitism. Rebecca, her brothers and parents barely escape Germany alive in 1936; she is, in fact, born in the emigration ship in New York harbor off Ellis Island. Rebecca's German parents Jacob and Anna—a high school math teacher father and a pianist mother—do not recover, do not find a "place" in the new country. Jacob becomes a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker for a small upstate town in New York. Living in a grotesque old hovel in the graveyard, Jacob's grief and bitterness make of him a raging abusive terror to his family. In 1941 the family learns that Anna's married sister with her husband and children has left Europe and will arrive in New York City. They hear nothing more for months until they learn that the ship, with 900 Jewish refugees, was turned back. It is a final blow: Anna sinks into utter inert despair and Jacob eventually explodes. Rebecca escapes and survives, but finds herself in a violently abusive marriage, from which she and her child again escape. In the long run, she meets a man of great kindness, her son blooms with inherited pianist abilities but with the blight of a family's aftermath. The story ends as Rebecca discovers news of a cousin who had survived the return of that refugee ship and now lives in the United States, a powerful but bristly scholar. Overall, the book failed to ever come into focus for me. The book seems to hypothesize that the main character Rebecca is chained irrevocably to her hideous family experiences and those experiences directly stem from the German pursuit of a final eradication of European Jews, compounded by the lukewarm assistance offered to the victims by the supposedly 'heroic' nations as evidenced by the widespread failure of England, France, and the United States to accept the fleeing refugees. But I failed to feel the reality of how Rebecca's parents and family would have been different had their emigration been more successful and not such a social and financial (and therefore emotional) disaster. Rebecca survives—some would say she thrives, eventually. I don't know why: yes, she was resourceful in many ways, but that contradicts the sense of almost fatal injury in her family's catastrophic breakdown. Some of it seems to be almost just "luck," which negates the story of fatal aftermaths. Her experience of abuse by a detestable husband was the most powerful part of the book for me; it succeeded in detailing a realistic sequence of logical but fatal choices on Rebecca's part. I understood perfectly why Rebecca marries Niles Tignor. Oates is also completely plausible in outlining Rebecca's successful escape efforts. After that her story becomes her attachment to a damaged son. Then, finally a faint glimpse of the surfacing of her need to go back, to re-connect with the Jewish experience of World War II as she tries to connect with her cousin in her old age. And then the story's over. I understand that damaged people often, even usually, continue to be damaged and to choose mates and friends who repeat the traumatic situations of childhood. But Rebecca seems at last almost free of the paradigm. And I don't know how or why, and I don't know that I cared much. The moment-to-moment experience of reading The Gravedigger's Daughter was engaging, exciting, often vivid and suspenseful. What her brothers do, how they get out of the family, was engrossing: they had something that held my imagination. But not her parents—they were hopeless from the start. The violent paroxysm that caps Rebecca's family life failed to stir any response from me. Frankly, I felt, what did it matter for these unremittingly broken people? What most moved me was the episode in which the family of Anna's sister arrive as refugees in the harbor of New York City but are turned back to almost certain incarceration in the Nazi camps. I assumed the ship, called the Marea, was non-fictional, but it was only loosely based on the actual experiences of thousands of refugees and of the heroic efforts of ship captains and others trying to save their lives. The Marea with its 900 Jewish refugees seems to have been partly derived from an actual ship, the St. Louis, which was turned back to Europe from Havana for which the passengers had visas but were denied entry, and then were repulsed from Florida ports. I feel it's only fitting that I continue to dedicate reading time to the novels of Joyce Carol Oates. There's something about her choices, her knowledge of and interest in, women and the "non-genteel," whether that's defined by race, or ethnicity or just straight-out class demographics. She's a little unrelentingly lurid in a way that approaches sensationalism, but so are many lives in the not-so-middle classes.
I was in Mexico for a short ten days,in Sayulita on the Pacific Coast, and met a couple of film-makers from Toronto: Agi and Aaron. One day on the path...moreI was in Mexico for a short ten days,in Sayulita on the Pacific Coast, and met a couple of film-makers from Toronto: Agi and Aaron. One day on the path to a distant beach, Agi was talking about the problem of coincidence in films, that audiences can dismiss coincidences as contrived which actually happen with some frequency in life. And then Aaron mentioned Infinite Jest, which he wanted Agi to read.
Well, coincidentally, Infinite Jest stands right up there next to Les Miserables in my great book list. Coincidentally Aaron had just that day finished reading D.T.Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, which he loaned me.
And I spent one of my precious ten days in the tropical paradise devouring this book. Extraordinarily well-written, the book earns its right to discuss the brilliant Wallace and Max's circumspect choices about what to include and what to emphasize made this a must-own book for me. Good bibliography, a great comprehension of Wallace's major fiction. I think it misses the importance some of the short stories, but it haunts me yet.
I was particularly interested to read that Wallace actually tried to attend retreat at Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village in France, but his need for cigarettes drove him away. To me this brings up my only criticism of the other-wise completely admirable AA emphasis, and that is AA's antiquated tolerance of nicotine addiction. Their story goes that cigarettes (and coffee) are mild and harmless, and that trying to quit all addictions at once jeopardizes the recovery from the life-destroying addictions (drugs and alcohol). As a recovered smoker, I think I am justified in saying that you cannot (!!) really pursue a spiritual path while nicotine is jerking your mind around and causing mood swings and mild poisoning. But hindsight about what might have delivered Wallace from the torments of depression/anxiety are pointless. I just couldn't resist this observation.
The main reason to read the biography is to try to comprehend the devastations of mental illness, and to grasp the fact that mental illness is not a moral failing, nor is suicide. I recently saw a documentary video of two young men who volunteered to go through electronically stimulated labor-contraction simulations for a mere two hours. One couldn't take it. Both soon stopped laughing. If everyone who rides a moral high horse looking down at the despicable groundlings who suffer from mental/emotional trauma could live for a mere two hours inside an anxiety attack or an addictive attack or a good taste of depressive self-loathing, perhaps our society would have more compassion. (And probably 75% of prison inmates would have had psychiatric treatment and not be where they are.)
I know a writer who won't read Wallace because he thinks people who commit suicide have nothing to teach him; he finds suicide a coward's resort and an inconsiderate imposition on others. Jonathan Franzen's cowardly article in The New Yorker also pushed the high-road hindsight when he condemned "his friend" for committing suicide to make himself more marketable!!! Some friend.
You see this must be a good biography when it provokes me to such fulminations.
All Wallace fans, and some scoffers, should read this. (Jan. 21 is an estimated date for my 24-hour binge.)(less)
Silent Words by Ruby Slipperjack; a Review. By Juanita Rice
Roughly contemporaneous with Louise Erdrich, another Ojibwe woman novelist, Ruby Slipperjack...moreSilent Words by Ruby Slipperjack; a Review. By Juanita Rice
Roughly contemporaneous with Louise Erdrich, another Ojibwe woman novelist, Ruby Slipperjack spent her formative years in Canada, where her experience was not as mainstreamed as Erdrich's whose father was a German-American and who lived mostly in the northern U.S. Slipperjack (or sometimes Slipperjack Farrell) has written six books; this 1992 novel is her second. I have not read any of the others.
If you have stumbled across any of my reviews of books narrated by children, you know I am not a fan. And here is another one, the story of maybe six months in the life of a tormented boy, Danny Lynx. Danny is eleven; he was happy living in the bush with his parents Charlotte and Daniel, but then they moved "to town," and all hell broke loose, as the saying goes. Charlotte was due to give birth but found that her husband had another woman in town who was also pregnant. Charlotte lost her baby and left; Daniel moved in with the new woman, who is presented as unredeemably motivelessly evil. I would have said "impossibly" or "unbelievably" evil, but I have worked with a juvenile rehab center long enough to know that, sadly, Dickensian torment of children is still very much part of modern life. ("Well, Mr. Gandhi, you've seen London now. What's your opinion of Western Civilization?" "Ah, Mr. Churchill, I think it would be an excellent idea.") She beats Danny and then tells his dad that Danny attacked her, so the father beats him too. Alcohol complicates everything. Here's a sample of the experience, but also of a strange over-writing that negated much of the story's fable-like value for me:
I heard footsteps behind me. The cup went flying and my neck jerked back hard as her hand clamped down on the top of my head. Screeching at me, she pulled me around and I went flying into the living room. I hit the floor face down and it knocked the breath out of me. In an instant, I felt her full weight land on top of me. Sharp pain shot through my body as fists landed hard on my back, one after another. Her other hand clamped down on my hair, holding my face against the floor.
She told him I was lying when I said she threw it at me, because I was jealous having to share Father with her. She said I tripped off the steps. Dad believed her and yelled at me never to tell stories about her again. That really hurt. Dad picked her side. I hate her! I wish I was with Mama, but I don't know where she is. Dad won't even let me talk about her.
There's something about this style that seems over-detailed and yet doesn't create a clear picture or impression of what's happening. The narrator seems younger than eleven, and also doesn't seem like the same person who's in the experience.
What I do like about the story is the contrast between Danny's experience at home and what happens to him as he travels alone into the backcountry where mostly native people live. They readily invite him home, feed him, are generous; he in turn learns that generosity, learns a certain reserve and respect, the "silent words" way of communication (which my Buddhist teacher would call deep listening and skillful speech). I feared from the way the story started that this was going to be a Suffering Story, but once Danny gets away from the "witch," he suffers mostly from his repeated patterns of overreaction and habituated fear.
I was not convinced of the veracity of the somewhat idyllic portrait of native life in the woods and on the lakes, and sometimes the detailing of each small happening with the same emphasis as important ones got tiresome. For instance, Danny meets with a man who is heading north, far north, by canoe. Every single portage is related in step by step manner: "then I went back to carry the food box and put the satchel on top of it while he was getting the canoe ready to carry and I came back again while he was moving it and got the last things from the shore." I paraphrase. But. Every single portage, and there were many.
I did love, however, the story of an old couple that let Danny stay with them, a place he learns safety, quiet, and love. The old man sits quietly most of the time, and then occasionally he tells a simple beautiful story. He describes, for instance, the life cycle of a leaf, how it is folded up on itself when it is born and slowly straightens up to receive the air and sun. Sometimes if it completes its cycle it dies and floats to the ground to give back to the earth; sometimes its cycle is cut short and instead it curls in on itself again before its death. Humans are born folded in on themselves, curled tight. If they live well, they grow straight and take in life. If they are ready when they die, they can die straight and strong, and give back life. If they begin to curl in on themselves, however, they may not complete their cycle. Only it's told more beautifully and wisely. Slipperjack also takes a risk here as a writer: she imitates the dialect of native speakers who don't speak English naturally and smoothly. It's an accent quite recognizable to me, strangely, although the speakers I've known with such a strong accent were Navajo and Lakota. "Sometime, w'en da spirit leaves da body w'en it wasn't time for it to die, da body try to curl up as't was in da beginnin before it turn't into a leaf, because da spirit is dere no more to tell it dat it was already a leaf...pity dat mos' people don' know. . ."
Later in the story we learn that the woman who tends so lovingly and appreciatively to the old man is his sister. After her children were grown and her husband died, she came to take care of her brother for the rest of their lives. The nature of the relationship somehow makes their lives even more beautiful.
Among the good things in the novel are the descriptions of the north country, including Whitewater Lake, which was the lake where the novelist actually spent her young life with her father on his trapline. She was born in 1952, when such places were already disappearing further south. She writes, "I have been to all the places I write about. I know the smell, feel, and texture of the earth I walk on. I belong to it."
This book reminds me somewhat of Andrea Barrett's earliest work like Lucid Stars, in that it's a moral fable pretty obviously. But gently, and with ingenious events and characters. I wish this book had been partially at least narrated by Danny's mother, his father when he began to look for Danny, by one of the many people who later became adoptive parents to him, allowing us to see him a little more objectively and thus understand his subjectivity better. You don't get to know an eleven-year-old by reading in their diary; they are much deeper than they can yet express. It seemed to me that Slipperjack understood that and yet she didn't quite solve the problem.