I fell in love with this book before the first page was out - that description of the chestnut tree and the boys who walk beneath it season after seas...moreI fell in love with this book before the first page was out - that description of the chestnut tree and the boys who walk beneath it season after season was just so damn proficient I swooned right there on the sofa. And then the description of the Great Personalities, with the contrast between Daniel and Narziß, stoked my interest and I was set for A Good Novel.
And then . . .
No it didn't get bad. It stayed fun and evocative and wildly skillful. But it didn't bloom to its full promise. My main complaint is the imbalance. We live through Goldmund's explorations, despairs, and triumphs, but only get the condensed milk version of Narziß at the very end. And yes, it's a damn good end, a chilling last sentence, full of darkness and longing and unanswered questions, all related to Narziß, but might he not have had a couple questions earlier? And, in comparison, Goldmund had the rich middle and the flat, almost-too-easy end.
Was this imbalance part of the Message? Perhaps, but not very conspicuously (and this is a novel that wears its Message on its sleeve) and it would be thematically odd for such a book to sacrifice artistic integrity for spiritual theme . . . wouldn't it? Or is the aesthetic awkwardness of the ending supposed to be Narziß taking the steering wheel - something like the ending of Adapatation? That's a nice idea, but I just can't quite believe it.
Now, if we take just Goldmund's story alone, the bulk of the novel, there are a million and seven things to love. Walking through the woods has a whole new flavor now that I can imagine how it would be to wander them as a homeless Mary/Eve-worshipping artist in the middle ages. I have this book to thank, in part, that I have never before so appreciated, so viscerally relished a spring, as I have this one.
Over all, above all, I am thankful for this creature. And, while it is imperfect, that is one of the quick lessons we get at the end - all artworks only aspire to their ideal, at the end it is the ideal which has the victory and the artist must succumb to his inevitable poverty. Ha, now I've convinced myself that the odd ending is perfect as it is! Isn't that the fun of writing a review!(less)
"We're all still walking, aren't we? We're still persisting, still keeping on, still sleeping, waking, still crouching on cans, still crouching in car...more"We're all still walking, aren't we? We're still persisting, still keeping on, still sleeping, waking, still crouching on cans, still crouching in cars, still driving, driving, driving, still taking it, still eating it, still home-improving and twelve-stepping it, still waiting, still standing in line, still scrabbling in bags for a handfull of keys.
Ever have that childish feeling, with the sun on your salty face and icecream melting in your mouth, the infantile feeling that you want to cancel worldly happiness, turn it down as a false lead?"
"Bills and wills, deeds, leases, taxes -- oh, man, the water torture of staying alive."
"The revolution is coming, Detective. And it's a revolution of consciousness. That's what Jennifer believed."
Damn didn't expect to lose my heart to this book. It was an anti-mystery that flouted and mocked its own conventions and it was pure sweet noir, told by a big broad lady with a man's voice and blue eyes that've seen everything but still can admit that this deal with Jennifer, that was the worst.(less)
A lot of reviews here think you won't like this if you're too puritanical but I'd say you can't like it if you're not puritanical enough. If you don't...moreA lot of reviews here think you won't like this if you're too puritanical but I'd say you can't like it if you're not puritanical enough. If you don't find it shocking that someone would drink and screw around a lot then it gets boring pretty fast. And the whole second half as I recall relies on cheap racism for laughs which by the way is not a thrilling shocking trait but the mainstreamest comedy there is.(less)
The cat circles her round and round - like the characters in this book circle one another, too timid to invade each other's boundaries. A slow sad and...moreThe cat circles her round and round - like the characters in this book circle one another, too timid to invade each other's boundaries. A slow sad and forgettable book about lost people and good food.(less)
I don't really like housekeeping, but I am sucker for novels about women who do. It's hard to write about any kind of work, to capture that monotony....moreI don't really like housekeeping, but I am sucker for novels about women who do. It's hard to write about any kind of work, to capture that monotony. Especially housework, which as I think the protagonist's husband says at one point, is like God - it has no beginning and no end. Domestic maintenance has this fascinating mixture of comfort, care, and claustrophobia.
So at the beginning of the book, when Nazneen was still wedded to her role as Woman, Plaything of Fate, I was totally hooked. Aside from her domestic trance, I loved the stories from the Bangladeshi village, the description of 1980's London from an outsiders' eyes and the raw exuberant letters from the sister. I was still into it as she fell crazy in love with her little son, neglected all for him, and began to neglect propriety for his sake - I love the scene when the awful respectable Mrs Islam demands that she babysit the boy for the evening and Nazneen flatly refuses.
After it jumped ahead in time into the 21st century, though, it totally fell apart for me. I never understood how she felt about her daughters. I never understood how she felt about the radical political movement she got involved with. The book starts with psychological insight but ends with economic and political musings.
Plus her metamorphosis into liberation rang false and slightly offensive. I hate it when liberation for an Eastern woman automatically means embracing Western ideals. But so it was for Nazneen, whose liberation is confirmed when she dances around her apartment half-naked to "Shout!" And that after the hands-down smoothest falsest separation of a marriage in all fiction. The whole happy ending was so Hollywood ready I could smell the popcorn.(less)
Very stiff, but still hooked me eventually. The second Arabic book I have read in a row (last was Girls of Riyadh) that had this stiff quality. The ch...moreVery stiff, but still hooked me eventually. The second Arabic book I have read in a row (last was Girls of Riyadh) that had this stiff quality. The characters are passionate but the tone is cold and distant. There's something appealing about that. I hear their thoughts and obsessions, but the author does not try to lure me into it with any trick of style. It feels more like the author is simply telling me the story, not trying to enchant the characters to life. This way I have more space.(less)
I read this book while working in rural Northern Ghana, which means I read this at a point in time when I was one of the fantastically rich and powerf...moreI read this book while working in rural Northern Ghana, which means I read this at a point in time when I was one of the fantastically rich and powerful, occupying a totally different world than most of the people around me. Yes I even had a driver. As I walked around with my white skin and fancy clothes, this book gave me something to imagine going on behind the staring eyes. I watched out for young people lurking and listening to my conversations, wondering if they, like Balram in the tea house, were trying to pick up fragmented messages from the outside world. I wondered whether anyone felt that mixture of idolatrous subservience and loathing that Balram described so well. I doubt it, but since I have so little else to go on when trying to figure out what people really think of me there, I still embraced this tiny hint of a possibility.
If I want to talk neutrally about the book - well I can see the point of those who don't find the voice convincing. On the other hand, you have to remember that, though in reality written originally in English, in the fiction of the book, it is written in Balram's native tongue. So I thought of the phrases as all already translated. I appreciated how the language was simple but still cutting and very often beautiful. Still, Balram is definitely more of an idea than a person.
Adiga's more recent book, Last Man in Tower about real estate, corruption and greed in Bombay is a great improvement over this one. The characters are more believable and the themes are more complex. Seeing the progress Adiga made from White tiger to Last Man in Tower, I can't wait to see what he comes up with next!(less)
A wrenchingly strong beginning and lovely writing throughout, but the other reviewers were right to call it disjointed. It worked in some ways - Aziz'...moreA wrenchingly strong beginning and lovely writing throughout, but the other reviewers were right to call it disjointed. It worked in some ways - Aziz's back-story comes like a revelation to explain his distanced paranoia. However some bits were brushed over too quickly, especially Ghazi's transformation around 2/3 through. Heather is never fleshed out and it's particularly annoying that Lorraine only chooses to let us into her head once she loses a lot of weight and starts sleeping with another guy... definitely wasn't a single strong female character in the book at all. No one paper-thin police officer doesn't count. The whole hunt was not done with the sensitivity she probably could have mustered, I felt like all of a sudden I was watching crime TV.
Sitll, I found it an engrossing, rich book. I guess Aziz makes it all worth it. Watching him struggle to understand the gestures and language of the foreign people around him, trying to make sense of his life and his drive for survival, of why things were bad in Algeria and bad in a much different way for him in America, we got to follow along as he explored all this with great poetry and insight.(less)
Not the most elegant writing in the world but skillful treatment of its themes. There were two big ones: the naivete of liberal privileged intellectua...moreNot the most elegant writing in the world but skillful treatment of its themes. There were two big ones: the naivete of liberal privileged intellectuals to blind themselves to the dirty human nature of the oppressed and the way our perceptions constitute our reality. She makes clever points about Irish literature and politics and works it into the story which is quite a feat.
The characterization was often frustrating - she seemed to dislike some of her characters too much to make them interesting, every detail and action was just proof of what a bad person they were. On the other hand the good character, Nora, was a smidgeon too good for me. Always so self-righteous, unfailingly brilliant. Yawn. Steve the professor was the most morally ambiguous and it was sometimes fun/tragic to see his absurdly skewed perception of the world and contrast it with reality, but ultimately he became just another pervy professor and his final move was so clumsy and so quickly squashed that the entire build-up of his sexual tension vs. her need for paternal warmth fizzled out in a terribly disappointing anticlimax.(less)
The book is so good I don't know what to say about it but I can say something about that introduction because that was...moreSome cats just swing that way...
The book is so good I don't know what to say about it but I can say something about that introduction because that was plain awful. Again and again Giles tells us how Algren "challenges" us to identify with these grotesque poor people. Well when I first started reading this I did have that wow moment of damn, I never did quite imagine so clearly what it would be like to actually be one of those putrid crusty drunks leering cock-eyed from a bar stool (I'm thinking of Blind Pig here...) But by the time I ended it I wasn't thinking about social justice or middle class privilege or how proud of myself I was that I had identified with the characters. I was just - in awe. Of some of the most seductive writing and tragic characters I have ever met. Sophie stuck in her wheelchair by the force of her own spite, watching out the window as she waits for Frankie to come home. The "piece of trade" downstairs, waiting too, as the el billows her white curtains. Record Head Bedmar mulling and mulling on how we are all members of one another. All members of one another. The punk scampering along behind his idol. Violet dragging her velvet train around picking up cigarette butts telling all the men at the party that they can only kiss her if they compliment her husband's socks. And Frankie Machine of course running and running from that monkey but the monkey keeps on laughing at him just the same. All the riffraff of West Division street come together to make this one of the best tributes humanity's got.(less)
The Rav's first and last words: "'Speech, he said. 'If the created world were a piece of music, speech...moreA fable about the power of words and of silence.
The Rav's first and last words: "'Speech, he said. 'If the created world were a piece of music, speech would be its refrain, its recurring theme. In the Torah, we read that Hashem created the world through speech...'"
And later, in one of the 13 sermons that begins each chapter: "The more powerful a force, the more holy a place, the more truth there is in wisdom, the more these things should be private, deep, accessible only to those who have worked to contain them."
Strident disobedience comes naturally to Ronit, the Rav's daughter. Through the course of the story, she learns the courage of peace - walking away from a fight without submitting.
As Esti tells her: "But I think, if God wishes to punish me, so be it; that is His right. But it is my right to disobey."
Neither Esti nor Ronit are fleshed out in that bulky way novelists tend to fatten their characters. Their impulses and emotions are minimalist, universal strokes across the bland claustrophobic canvas of Hendon.
On the night of the new moon: "The sky was almost cloudless, with only one long streak of thin cloud smudged across the blue-black. Beneath the heavens, she thought. This is where we are. Always, but especially here, with the heavens looking. She spoke to the stars, silently. She said, 'Can you still love me, after what I have done?' The stars were quiet, but they continued to shine. She took this as a positive indication. She said, 'Your sister is gone,' The stars thought for a moment. They said, 'Our sister will return.' Esti said, 'As mine has?' The stars winked and smiled. Ronit said, 'Er. Esti, what are you muttering about?' Esti said, 'Let's walk through the trees.'"
On the origin of the earth in chaos: "What does it mean, that this world came into being at first through a blinding Act, but then, subtly, slowly, as elements were teased away, as infinitely fine lines were drawn? It means, surely, that, to understand the world, one must understand the separation."(less)
Wow. Raw? Yes. Raw garlic, raw beef, raw onion, raw carrots, raw beets, three raw eggs, and a pile of raw spices, bitten and swallowed, one after the...moreWow. Raw? Yes. Raw garlic, raw beef, raw onion, raw carrots, raw beets, three raw eggs, and a pile of raw spices, bitten and swallowed, one after the next. Agee, perhaps, had he not died before its publication, would have simmered and mixed and stirred his book up for more subtle crescendoing enjoyment. Instead you get this onslaught. Maybe I'm just getting old, but this book made me cry every single time I picked it up. I came to approach it with dread and awe, asking myself, am I ready to enter this trauma now?
OK back up a moment, try to get some distance. That's what he is able to do - Agee. He achieves that golden distance of ruthless observation. You get a Woolf-ish inner monologue, but with even less care about accurately representing how the characters would have represented their own feelings. What I mean is, he translates it for us. In the first pages I thought the whole thing was heavy-handed and silly but then he explained, "There were no words, or even ideas, or formed emotions, of the kind that have been suggested here, no more in the man than in the boy child."
... I just wanted to give a much longer quote just now, but shied away, afraid of exposing the inner soul of this book to casual skimmers. Like Rufus did, when he bragged. He bragged about the death. That exquisitely tragically human reaction to great tragedy, or to any great beauty - show it off. See its grandeur and know nothing better to do with it than to show it off and twitch afterwards in the knowledge that the swine shat all over those pearls.
There are so many moments like that in this book, so many tenderly cruel revelations of frail human dignity. My other favorite is Andrew and the Christmas carol. Questions of faith - should they or shouldn't they, does He or isn't He - are raised over and over throughout the family's shocked grief. Andrew is the least decided. His angry confusion ends the whole book (one of the rawest moments in the sense of surely Agee would have tucked that bit into the dough somewhere earlier on had he lived to do so). But after the sitting through the first night of grief, walking home with his parents, he has these words in his head. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
... I can do no more than keep quoting. This book's shameless beauty refuses further gloss ...
The silent stars go by, he said aloud, not whispering, but so quietly he was sure they would not hear. His eyes sprang full of tears; his throat, his chest knotted into a deep sob which he subdued, and the tears itched on his cheeks. Yet in thy dark streets shineth, he sang loudly, almost in fury, within himself: the everlasting light! and upon these words a sob leapt up through him which he could not subdue but could only hope to conceal. They did not notice. This is crazy, he told himself incredulously. No sense in this at all! Everlasting light! The hopes and fears, a calm and implacable voice continued within him; he spoke quietly: Of all the years. Are met in thee tonight, he whispered: and in the middle of a wide plain, the middle of the dark and silent city, slabbed beneath shadowless light, he saw the dead man, and struck his thigh with his fists with all his strength.(less)
"Another express sped past, and this time, the warm wind rushing between the trains felt like a spell. The faces of the commuters opposite him looked...more"Another express sped past, and this time, the warm wind rushing between the trains felt like a spell. The faces of the commuters opposite him looked potent, magical, even demonic - as if they were creatures from another world: or perhaps always present in his world, well-hidden, exposed now by the jarring energy released by the passing of the engines."
"Only a man must want something; for everyone who lives here knows that the islands will shake, and the mortar of the city will dissolve, and Bombay will turn again into seven small stones glistening in the Arabian Sea, if it ever forgets to ask the question: What do you want?"
"The five-second rule. As children in Bandra, Mrs Rego and her sister Catherine had played it each time a chicken leg or a slice of mango had fallen to the floor. Pick it up before a count of five and you did not have to worry about germs. You would stay safe. She remembered this now. Saying, 'I'd be happy to do this for you' - one, two, three, four - Mrs Rego closed the door."(less)