Joan Didion is that rare thing: an American woman of letters whose pronouncements on that country’s way of life are considered to bear great weight. JJoan Didion is that rare thing: an American woman of letters whose pronouncements on that country’s way of life are considered to bear great weight. Journalist, essayist, novelist and columnist, her intelligent and perceptive observations have probed her nation’s psyche for three decades.
In this, her 10th book and fifth novel, she turns a fictional probe on the machinations of American politics in the Orwellian significant year of 1984. The story takes in the workings of US central administration and international diplomacy, as well as the American media and the shady operators who work on the fringes of State corruption.
Elena McMahon is a journalist reporting on the presidential election campaign when, to oblige her father, Dick, who “does deals”, she goes to Central America in his stead. There she find herself adrift, a pawn in a game with rules she can only begin to grasp, at the heart of an arms trafficking operation and a political conspiracy around Treat Morrison, American Ambassador-At-Large.
Elena’s story is related by an unnamed, “not quite omniscient author... who wanted the story to materialise for you [reader] as it did for me [narrator]”. The novel employs such tricks throughout, calling attention to an awareness of its own methods and questioning the conventions of all modern narrative forms - fiction, journalism, thriller writing, reportage, even film scripts. “What we want here is a montage, music over,” begins one chapter. “Angle on Elena. Alone on the dock... taking of her scarf and shaking out her hair.”
Didion is a superb stylist with a number of signature techniques, the most characteristic being the way she repeats key phrases with minute but important variations. With each repetition a seemingly innocuous phrase - “Christ, what business are they all in?” or “My understanding is that Dick McMahon will not be a problem” - becomes ever more significant. Beginning with Elena’s meeting with Treat Morrison, the narrative moves forward and back in time, layering phrases and events on top of each other with an incancatory rhythm. The effect is to engender in the reader first suspicion, then dread, and finally understanding.
The climax of the novel - the last outcome, Treat Morrison tells us, that he would have wanted - is not unexpected, it has in fact been flagged for us on page 15. But the reasons that it happens are presented through a finely woven web of intrigue and counter-intrigue. Through dark details, quiet understatement and subtle ironies Elena’s entrapment within this complex web is revealed.
Nobody could fault Didion’s technical skill. But this reader was left with a “so-what” feeling on finishing this book. Yes, American politics is rotten. Yes, what happened to Elena is terrible. But we are no more moved by her fate than we would be by an in-depth newspaper report.
In her journalism and essays, Didion’s techniques are illuminating, her intelligence flashing light on the murkier corners of American life. But fiction can deal only secondarily with the national character; its first duty is to its own characters, and in the best fiction characters are more than just vehicles for ideas, which is essentially what Elena, Treat and the rest turn out to be. Didion’s technical brilliance may disguise this but ultimately does not compensate for it. Here, rather than illuminating, it obscures.
This novel is a cold and clever exploration of the USA's heart of darkness but those who expect novels to also reveal something of the human heart will be disappointed....more
One of the pieces in this new collection of Alice Walker's is a letter to Bill Clinton, rejecting an invitation to the White House because of the CubaOne of the pieces in this new collection of Alice Walker's is a letter to Bill Clinton, rejecting an invitation to the White House because of the Cuban blockades. In it she writes: "The world, I believe, is easier to change than we think. And harder. Because the change begins with each one of us saying to ourselves, and meaning it: I will not harm anyone or anything in this moment. Until, like recovering alcoholics, we can look back on an hour, a day, a week, a year, of comparative harmlessness."
The letter alludes to the 1962 `Hands Off Cuba' protest rally in which Walker took part, to how she loves Cuba and its people (including Fidel), to the effect of Clinton's embargo on Cubans, especially children. "Their way of caring for all humanity," she writes, "has made them my family. Whenever you hurt them, or help them, please think of me."
This short letter represents much of what people find disagreeable in the work of Alice walker. Her brand of basic, sometimes essentialist, truth jars in a postmodern world where irony, apathy and relativity rule. Her statements can feel too banal, too touchy-feely, too "all-you-need-is-love" to 21st century first-worlders.
This collection traverses her thoughts on the trials of Winnie Mandela and Salman Rushdie as well as Castro; on being banned, treasured and criticised as a writer; on genital mutilation; on her mother, father, brother, daughter and cat. On when she told her friend to stop saying "you guys" to her ("I don't respect `guys' enough to obliterate the woman that I see by calling her by their name"). On organised religion; on other writers whom she honours like Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde; on the Million Mile March and her mother's blue bowl.
The forms are as eclectic as the contents - letters, essays, speeches, conference addresses and what can only be described as musings. Some pieces are only three paragraphs long, others run for many pages. What links them is their author's commitment to activism and her unique take on the world.
Walker has been involved in political protest all her adult life. "As a poet and writer, I used to think being an activist and writing about it `demoted' me to the level of `mere journalist', "she writes. "Now I know that, as with the best journalists, activism is often my muse." These are not simply writings about activism, they are in and of themselves activist.
It is easy to accuse Alice Walker of naivete. Certainly she can make questionable statements with supporting evidence that is scanty or arguable; for example, her assertion that pre-patriarchy "women headed vibrant cultures that traded, reasoned and celebrated with each other without the need to erect forts or walls".
But to say she is naive is not just inaccurate, it is to miss the point. Walker is not so much engaging in political argument as extending the boundaries of political thinking. Not just criticising white, Euro-American, male thought but challenging its dualistic, either / or approach with a writing style that seamlessly integrates the political with the cultural, the spiritual and the creative. Not just cutting through the discharge of prejudice that the "free" world calls information but helping us see with what another courageous black woman writer, Audre Lourde, called the "outsider's eye".
Unlike other 1960s radicals, Alice Walker's courage and integrity have sharpened, not mellowed, with age. Despite half a lifetime fighting wrongs, she still believes in truth, justic and - she's not ashamed to say it - love, of people and the planet.
"All we own, at least for the short time we have it, is our life," she says in her introduction. "With it we write what we come to know of the world."
Whether we care for her style, or not, the world is a better place for having Alice Walker to write about it....more
Enjoyable and fun in places (especially its analysis of publishers and writers) and she captured the narrator's voice and character really well -- butEnjoyable and fun in places (especially its analysis of publishers and writers) and she captured the narrator's voice and character really well -- but typical of mid-20th century British fiction in leaving me unsatisfied. Like so many novels of that time, its style exceeded its substance....more
This is very useful for my research. In this book Stuart reaches the pinnacle of his biography as fiction experiment -- he fails as a novelist for a vThis is very useful for my research. In this book Stuart reaches the pinnacle of his biography as fiction experiment -- he fails as a novelist for a variety of reasons - inability to plot, inconsistencies, repetition and clunky language around poetic gems. But he is always challenging the reader and engaging discomfort in a very interesting way....more
I WANT to put the bomp back into the bomp-de-bomp’, roars a new book of essays on feminism, sex, popular culture, education and Madonna. Yes, you gotI WANT to put the bomp back into the bomp-de-bomp’, roars a new book of essays on feminism, sex, popular culture, education and Madonna. Yes, you got it, it’s Camille Paglia time again.
The main thesis of Paglia’s latest rag-bag of ideas is that the missing piece in the feminist jigsaw is woman as vamp or tramp. The prostitute, the stripper, the high-glamour star, the seductress; these are “seasoned symbols of tough cookie feminism, my answer to the smug self-satisfaction and crass materialism of yuppie feminism.”
She is as scathing as ever about US feminists like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworking, “the Mad Hatter and her dumpy dormouse,” or Naomi Wolf “Little Miss...yuppie...twit.”
Paglia has been much criticised for her vitriolic comments, getting personal where others thought she should have kept it political.. As far as she is concerned, they’re missing the point. She aims to “espouse offensiveness for its own sake, as a tool of attack against received opinion and unexamined assumptions.” And of course gratuitous offensiveness is a good way to keep all that lovely attention coming.
Vamps and Tramps is many things but more than anything it is Camille’s gaze into the mirror of her many media moments - out of 44 items in the book only five were written specially for it; the rest is previously published articles, reviews and transcripts of TV and film projects, not to mention quotes about Paglia, cartoons of Paglia, reprinted interviews with Paglia - everything that’s been thought about Paglia on air or print since her last book promotion.
In her preface, she compares herself to American radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern, to businessman-turned-politician Ross Perot, to President Bill Clinton. “We have widely different political views,” she says, “but all four of us, with our raging egomania and volatile comic personae tending toward the loopy, helped restore free speech to America.” Is this woman for real?
The answer, of course, is no. ‘Persona’ is Camille’s favourite word and it is in the invention and promotion of the Paglia persona that she has been most successful. When she met the media it was love at first sight and the infatuation looks like settling into a longterm affair. They love her because, as one journalist put it, “she gives good quote;” she loves them because they spread her ideas around, enabling her to crow: “my terminology and frame of analysis have passed into general usage.” She stays sexy in media terms by vamping it up - “improvising, ornamenting, pumping up the excitement” - and adopting a variety of different poses.
So much for the medium, what about he message? There’s much to disagree with in Paglia’s work, not least her biological determinism. Scholarship is only scratching the surface of the nature versus nurture debate but Paglia breezily dismisses thousands of years of social conditioning and declares that the reason women can’t make art is because they have wombs and oestrogen instead of penises and testosterone. She collapses the cultural into the social. “The woman ‘on the stroll’ (streetwalking) is a prowler and predator, self-directed and no one’s victim.” While this might be true of the whore as a cultural construct - that is, construct of the male artistic sensibility - it hardly describes the real experience of the majority of prostitutes.
Similarly, when she writes of striptease as “the ritual unveiling of a body that will always remain mysterious because of the inner darkness of the womb,” and speaks of the admiration and awe of men beholding a nude dancer, she is telling only half the story, overlooking the low social status of sex-workers - and the more patriarchal the society, the lower their status goes.
Contrary to Paglia’s thesis, woman as sex symbol is not missing from our culture; she is everywhere. If feminism has stayed aloof it is because feminism is about arming women with more weapons that the double-edged sword of sexual allure.
But even if you don’t agree with Paglia you do enjoy the romp through western culture with her provocative critical intelligence. She writes about art and popular culture with passion and knowledge. She crams more no-holds barred ideas into a chapter than many of her critics do into a lifetime and presents them with oodles more wit and style.
There are numerous translations of the Tao Te Ching, the classic book of Taoist thought said to have been written by Lao Tsu in the sixth century b.c.There are numerous translations of the Tao Te Ching, the classic book of Taoist thought said to have been written by Lao Tsu in the sixth century b.c. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English's long been a favouite and this version is a revised and updated edition by English and her long-time editor, Toinette Lippe, to "more faithfully reflect the Classical Chinese" and eliminate "lingering infelicities".
What i love most about the Tao is the deep delve into the land of paradox. This translation retains the clarity that makes the paradox negotiable, keeping the text accessible without undermining the mystery.
A book of creative, spiritual seeds ideally suited to our complex times.