BookFiendUSA: So, how was it? My GR friends’ reviews are all over the place on this one. How does it compare to Virgin Suicides or Middlesex?
SandyBan...moreBookFiendUSA: So, how was it? My GR friends’ reviews are all over the place on this one. How does it compare to Virgin Suicides or Middlesex?
SandyBanks1971: It’s…OK. Not badly written at all, but nothing incredible either. I can’t compare it with Eugenides’ earlier works, as I have never read anything by him before.
BookFiendUSA: Seriously? You’ve never even seen the Sofia Coppola movie?
SandyBanks1971: Nope. But I’ve read the synopses of the earlier books, and I can tell you that there are absolutely no virgins, suicides or hermaphrodites in this one. Instead, we get a manic-depressive, a wannabe Christian and an English major.
BookFiendUSA: No hermaphrodites?
SandyBanks1971: No. But there is a Marriage Plot.
SandyBanks1971: It’s a common plot in 18th and 19th century literature. Typically, there is this girl --- the heroine --- and she has to choose between different suitors, and there will be all sorts of hijinks (pride, prejudices, misunderstandings, madwomen in the attic, etc.) before the nuptial payoff. Austen, Eliot and the Brontes used it extensively in their books.
BookFiendUSA: It’s a romcom!
SandyBanks1971: Something like that. The heroine in this book, Madeline, is an English major (“English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”) who is steeped in these books and has to choose between Leonard, the brooding, brilliant manic depressive, and Mitchell, the earnest, spiritually inclined sensitive guy. I looked forward to how Eugenides is going to use this sort of plot in a modern setting and how he is going to resolve it. As one of Madeline's professor muses, “What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” “How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? ... Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays?” I’m also curious about whether the central romantic triangle is based on any particular 19th century novel (Franzen recently did this in Freedom).
BookFiendUSA: So ---?
SandyBanks1971: Eugenides does use the marriage plot, but the ending is a sort of a deconstruction of its traditional form. After all, in an age of gender equality and easy divorces, how could the Marriage Plot still matter? Leonard is obviously the Heathcliff type, and Mitchell is maybe a mix between Linton and St. John Rivers. Madeline is --- actually I don’t quite know who she really is, especially compared to the male protagonists. Eugenides gives her a pretty extensive biography, and an intermittent ambition to go to grad school and write for literary reviews, but other than that, she seems to be merely a flimsy foil for her suitors. Early on, we are told that she loves Austen and James, but unlike Mitchell and Leonard, whose lives are transformed by the books that they read, there seems to be hardly any connection between her and those books. In a pivotal moment, she reflects on…Madeline. Yes, this Madeline, the little convent schoolgirl from Paris.
Leonard ruminates on Nietzche and Mitchell has his Thomas Merton inspired epiphanies, and Madeline thinks deeply about Madeline? Why can’t she reflect on Wuthering Heights? Or, I dunno, Middlemarch? Or Persuasion? We never learn about what Madeline really thinks of the marriage plot --- and the obvious parallels to her private life --- either (her thesis is, after all, titled: “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot”). If The Marriage Plot is meant to be a modern reworking of an Austen or Bronte novel, this lack of development of her character is big minus.
BookFiendUSA: Okay, so the major female character is lame. I get it. I’d rather read a ton of Madeline books than a Henry James, though. Now, some people think that this novel is terribly pretentious, with its Ivy League setting, WASP characters and lengthy Barthes quotations. Do you agree?
SandyBanks1971: Not necessarily. I mean, he’s writing about life in an Ivy League campus --- is there going to be an egghead or two, trust-fund babies, and academic egotists on steroid? You bet. To be fair, some of the kids are wealthy WASP types, but Leonard needs financial aid, and Mitchell is Greek and strictly middle class. There’s lots of name-dropping, but in most cases, they’re followed by sufficient exposition. The quotes are necessary to understand the characters’ mindset, as they live in books as much as in the real world. And Eugenides is actually poking fun, wryly, at some of the faddish academic theories:
“Madeline had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.”
BookFiendUSA: Anything else that you like?
SandyBanks1971: I like how he writes about being in your early twenties, just out of college with your whole life stretching ahead of you. Grappling with issues, intellectual or otherwise. How everything seems to be of looming importance. How stuff happens, sometimes casually, that determine how you life the rest of your life. I think he captures that well, and can be quite eloquent about it. So I guess I’ll check out the suicides and hermaphrodites. (less)
This must be what real-life spying must be like: instead of tall, dark and handsome --- short, graying and pudgy; instead of hot babes and flashy cars...more This must be what real-life spying must be like: instead of tall, dark and handsome --- short, graying and pudgy; instead of hot babes and flashy cars --- unfaithful wives and nondescript vans; instead of a gleaming HQ stuffed to the gills with gadgets that would make Steve Jobs’ jaw drop --- musty offices and yellowing archives guarded by ‘janitors’ and matronly secretaries who are more apt in dispensing Jasmine tea bags than sexy flirtations. Spies and their runners are recruited from a narrow, incestuous circle of academia, men who could very well pass their lives as unremarkable City accountants or Oxbridge dons, if they had not been drawn into the ‘Circus’ during their formative years. Le Carre’s morally murky world of espionage is both utterly convincing, no doubt due to his own real-life Circus experiences, and genuinely suspenseful, with a quality of writing that goes far beyond the average thriller. Characters are imbued with novelistic depth and feelings, and the story itself is told in sequences of set pieces, mostly of the talky sort, which could be very tedious indeed if the writing is not up to the task. That said, the action unfolds slowly across leaps of space and time in a rather cerebral manner, and it’s not difficult to get bogged down in details (admirable in their verisimilitude though they are) and lose the big picture altogether. I’m glad that I read it on the iPad, which comes with a handy search function. Who’s this Sand guy again? Oh, he is Camilla’s husband, last mentioned a hundred odd pages ago. Definitely not a cozy mystery that you can follow while keeping one eye on the TV. (less)
had a dysfunctional relationship with your parents?
had a college best friend that turned out to be toxic?
started up as an idealist but t...moreHave you ever…
had a dysfunctional relationship with your parents?
had a college best friend that turned out to be toxic?
started up as an idealist but then compromised into working for the dark side?
cheated on your nice guy husband with his cool best friend?
had a teenage son who ran away from home to shack up with the neighbor’s underage daughter?
been corrupted by the military-industrial complex?
If you answer "yes" to any of the above queries, you would probably be able to recognize a part of yourself in the characters of this novel (the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, Midwestern liberals, and their family and friends). Granted, not many among us enjoy looking at ourselves in the mirror first thing in the morning, with all that pillow-plastered hair, sleep-creased face and rheumy eyes staring back at us. Likewise, most of us would probably balk at being forced to look at our mirror images during the low points in our lives. But Franzen provides all these reflections in such a precise, detailed, Technicolor 3-D glory that you just have to look. And then, depending on your life experiences, there will be times when you go “ouch” with painful recognition, and other times when you go “huh” with astonishment. For me, it’s mostly the case of the latter rather than the earlier, but isn’t it the novelist’s job to provide us with those vicarious experiences that we know are fictional but that feel like the truth? And Franzen delivers this in spades, from the messy, often contrarian emotions that one feels as a family disintegrates, to the moral confusion that ensues from adultery, compromises and corruption.
In its denseness, length and ambitious scope, Freedom looks and feels like one of those sprawling 19th century realist novel (Walter is Pierre, Patty is Natasha, and Richard is Prince Andrei/Anatole, or at least that’s how Patty sees it), complete with authorial pontification on virtually every big issue that defines the era that it chronicles. If the 19th century was, among other things, about the emancipation of serfs, the advent of the railways, land enclosures and Napoleonic wars, Franzen’s Bush-era America is about 9/11, environmental degradation, well-connected big businesses and Middle Eastern wars.
In working the issues into the narrative, Franzen sometimes abandons realism and subtlety for broad satire: the rent-seeking foundation that Joey works for is called RISEN (Restore Iraqi Secular Enterprise Now), Walter rants that “WE ARE A CANCER TO THE PLANET” in front of West Virginians rednecks that he displaced to make way for a coal mine/bird sanctuary, and among the kooky names that he considers for his zero population growth NGO are Lonelier Planet, Rubbers Unlimited, Coalition of the Already Born, Smash the Family and All Children Left Behind. And there is a stomach churning comedic/pathetic scene with Joey and his turds (don’t ask).
But at its heart this book is an inquiry into the nature of freedom, how it is exercised and the consequences thereof.
"It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to."
To be fair, Franzen also skewers liberals like Walter, who takes their environmentalism to loony extremes.
A substantial part of the book is told in Patty’s voice, referring to herself in third person, in the form of a diary that she writes for therapy. This voice has little to differentiate it from the authorial third person, and rather hard to believe issuing from an ex-jock, stay-at-home mom. As I read it I wondered why Franzen insisted on using it. It only became clear why towards the end of the novel, where it provides extra oomph to the bittersweet, wonderfully poignant ending.
So is it War and Peace? No, it’s not War and Peace. But nothing is. It is a well-written novel that successfully captures the post 9/11 zeitgeist, as well as charting the ebb and flow of personal relationships between its flawed as hell but ultimately sympathetic characters in a realistic yet compassionate manner. And like many of the great 19th century novels that it resembles it is also didactic: a cautionary tale about the dark side of freedom.
"The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage." (less)
BookFiendUSA: I see that you’ve been reading Super Sad True Love Story. Cute title, big hype. What’s it about?
SandyBanks1971: It’s about this guy, Len...moreBookFiendUSA: I see that you’ve been reading Super Sad True Love Story. Cute title, big hype. What’s it about?
SandyBanks1971: It’s about this guy, Lenny Abramov, second-generation Russian Jewish-American, who is in his “very late thirties” and very bothered about it. He thinks that’s he’s a RAG who can’t get the girl anymore, and a failure in his job to get HNWIs to buy his company’s “life extension” programs.
BookFiendUSA: I know that HNWI is High Net Worth Individual --- but what the hell is a RAG?
SandyBanks1971: Rapidly Aging Geezer. It’s a texting abbreviation.
BookFiendUSA: But I’ve never heard of it. You’re just making it up.
SandyBanks1971: It’s from the book. That’s how young (and the not-so-young but cool) people speak in the future.
BookFiendUSA: In the future? So it’s a sci-fi?
SandyBanks1971: Not really, but it’s set in a dystopic near future, when the US is well on its way to becoming a sort of a third-world country, both economically and militarily. America is mired in an unwinnable war with Venezuela. The US$ is pegged to the Yuan and the “Chinese Central Banker” is coming to claim a sizable chunk of Manhattan for debt repayment.
BookFiendUSA: We have been stuck in Afghanistan/Iraq for years and we already owed a gazillion trillion US$ to China in T-Bonds and stuffs, so that’s pretty conceivable. What else is different about this near future?
SandyBanks1971: Well, for one thing, everyone is hooked to his/her “apparat”, a kind of a super I Phone that constantly streams too much data for anyone’s good. No one has any privacy because everything’s on the internet: your life history, net income (in Yuan-pegged dollars), BMI, LDL level, sexual preferences, etc. Everybody is a health nut who obsesses about the food that they eat. Wine is not wine --- it’s “resvestarol”. Beer are drunk not for their taste but for the triglycerides. People are judged solely on their credit and “fuckability” ratings, all of which are constantly beamed to the entire world through their apparati. Books, of the ink and paper variety, are shunned because they’re considered dirty and smelly. Trendy young women dress in transparent “Onionskin” jeans that put all their junks on display and shop at “AssLuxury” for overpriced nippleless bras. Oh, and America is ruled by the Bipartisan Party and the all-powerful, all-knowing ARA (American Restoration Authority).
BookFiendUSA: Sounds depressingly familiar.
SandyBanks1971: It’s DYSTOPIC. Who knows, if the guy gets it right, it might become a 21st century 1984 or something.
BookFiendUSA: Okay --- so what’s the story? Does it have some kind of a plot?
SandyBanks1971: It’s mostly about Lenny and his awkward romance with Eunice Park, a Korean-American girl. Eunice is 24, and her parents (stereotypically) want her to improve her LSAT scores so she can get into law school (some things NEVER change, even in dystopian futures). However, Eunice has other ideas and chooses to spend some time in Rome instead, where she meets Lenny. Eunice isn’t too keen on him at first, but she eventually sort of fell for him, male pattern baldness, monstrous Askhenazi proboscis (JBF!) and all. But it isn’t easy; Lenny is a cuddly/repulsive RAG and Eunice has plenty of baggage of her own too.
SandyBanks1971: Just Butt Fucking. It’s from the book.
BookFiendUSA: But does ANYTHING happen --- I mean besides the love story?
SandyBanks1971: The climax of the story involves the “Rupture” --- after which the US as we know it is basically gone. There is a bloody riot involving government troops and LNWIs…
BookFiendUSA: Lemme guess: Low Net Worth Individuals?
SandyBanks1971: Yup. The government falls and the country has to be parceled off to its various creditors: the Chinese, the Norwegians and the IMF. People lose their nest eggs overnight because they are in non-pegged US Dollars.
BookFiendUSA: A sort of an apocalypse.
SandyBanks1971: Actually, reading about it gives me a sort of a déjà vu feeling. In my neck of the woods, we’ve had something like that happening in 1998, during the Asian financial crisis. There was a bloody riot in which thousands of people, most of them poor, died. There were tanks on suburban streets, widespread looting, rape and arson. The government signed a humiliating bailout deal with the IMF, and soon after that it fell. The local currency plummeted against the US Dollars and there were massive bank rushes. People lost their jobs overnight. It was total chaos. What is dystopian future in this novel is recent history for us.
BookFiendUSA: Wow. I hope it won’t happen anytime soon here. But what do you think about the book? Do you like it?
SandyBanks1971: It’s not badly written and can be quite engrossing. It’s a satire, and some of it works, but it can be relentlessly over the top at times. Nothing that makes me ROFLAARP (Rolling on Floor Looking at Addictive Rodent Pornography), for sure. But also nothing that makes me TIMATOV (Think I’m About To Openly Vomit), either. I find Lenny sort of pathetic-repulsive, and Eunice kind of vapid. And their supposedly touching romance does nothing for me. Some of Lenny's obsessive ruminations about mortality is depressing (the guy is my age and he makes me think that I should spend my lunch hour pondering such things, instead of napping or writing reviews on GR). I’m glad that I’ve read it though, and probably would try Shteyngart's other books. (less)
Come, come again whoever, whatever you may be Heathen, fire-worshipper, sinful of idolatry, come Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times,...moreCome, come again whoever, whatever you may be Heathen, fire-worshipper, sinful of idolatry, come Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times, come Ours is not the portal of despair and misery, come.
Inscription on a wall at Rumi’s tomb, Konya, Turkey.
Something strange happened to me in Rumi’s tomb. I’m not sure if it was some kind of a spiritual experience, but there is definitely something spine-tinglingly eerie about it. Listening to the haunting Sufi music while gazing at the richly caparisoned tombs, which were covered with cloths embroidered with gilded Kufic inscriptions and topped with enormous turbans, gave me a sense of being in a portal to another world. I didn’t know anything about him, except that he was a famous Sufi poet, and that our bus tour stopped in Konya because his tomb complex, with its startlingly turquoise turret, was a must-see architectural jewel.
Perhaps the long bus ride from Istanbul and the hot midday sun made me light-headed and open to suggestive experiences. I still don’t know.
“I don’t like this place.” Someone spoke and startled me out of my reverie. It was Orhan, our Turkish guide.
“Why?” I asked him.
“No. Not the Mevlana. It’s this place, Konya. The people here are fanatics, I don’t like them.”
Reflexively, I looked around the tomb; there were surprisingly few visitors aside from our group --- women in black chadors that I was told were Iranians, other tourists, Western and Asian, and a few Turkish men in western clothing. Some seemed to be praying, but others merely gaped at the tombs and the marvelously intricate decorations on the mausoleum’s walls.
Orhan followed my gaze and said, “Do you know that they have tried to bomb this place several times?”
“But why? Isn’t the Mevlana a famous Muslim saint?”
“It’s because of this”, he pointed to the inscription on the wall. “The fanatics don’t like this so they want to destroy it. Come on, let’s get everyone back to the bus and get out of this place.”
Three days later, we were in Canakkale, in a hotel full of sunbathing German tourists with a glorious view of the sparkling Dardanelles. Orhan was chatting up a few scantily clad Frauleins. We seemed to be light years away from Konya and Turkey’s dusty Anatolian heartland. I wondered what the ‘fanatics’ that Orhan spoke about thought of this place, and how they could share the same country with their more secular fellow citizens.
Another Orhan, the Nobel Prize winner, tells us all about it in Snow.
The setting is Kars, a border city that seems to be perpetually swathed in swirling snow, where Islamists, army-backed secularists, Kurdish militants and leftists have been grimly battling for supremacy since Ataturk’s times. We follow Ka, an exiled poet who is sent to Kars to write an article about suicides among headscarf wearing girls, who are forbidden to attend state schools and universities unless they unveil themselves. In a short time, Ka witnesses a military coup, an assassination, a play that ends up in a massacre, and meets the individuals who represent the main opposing factions: Blue the charismatic Islamist/terrorist, and Sunay Zaim the actor/politician/staunch secularist. We may suppose that the westernized Ka’s sympathy naturally lies with the secularists, but no; he is apolitical; his real reason for coming to Kars is to see Ipek, a woman whom he has hopes for. Ipek, who recently divorced Muhtar, the leader of a local Islamist party, lives with her father and younger sister, Kadife. Kadife, to her secularist father’s consternation, is known as the leader of the headscarf girls --- and also secretly Blue’s lover. Soon, Ka is drawn into a vortex of torture and murderous violence, and political as well as personal reasons eventually compel him to choose sides.
Pamuk, who shares Ka’s westernized upbringing, presents the differing point of views even-handedly; all of the factions involved are equally dogmatic and violent. The Islamists kill in the name of religion, while the secularists do so in the name of the Turkish state. They both believe in a zero-sum game scenario in which even the slightest compromise is impossible. The result is a stark drama worthy of a Greek tragedy --- and indeed, the pivotal scenes of the story literally take place on the stage. The novel itself has a stagy quality; some of the dialogues feel like set pieces and some of the characters are barely three-dimensional. I occasionally found the insecure, ever doubtful Ka infuriating, especially in his pursuit of Ipek. Some sample dialogue:
Ka: “You’re here this evening, aren’t you?” Ipek: “Yes.” Ka: “Because I want to read you my poem again”. Ka: “Do you think it’s beautiful?” Ipek: “Yes, really, it’s beautiful.” Ka: “What’s beautiful about it?” Ipek: “I don’t know, it’s just beautiful” Ka: “Did Muhtar ever read you a poem like this?” Ipek: “Never.”
Ka began to read the poem aloud again, this time with growing force, but he still stopped at all the same places to ask, “Is it beautiful?” He also stopped at a few new places to say, “It really is very beautiful, isn’t it?”
Ipek: Yes, it’s very beautiful!”
Forget it, Ipek, you’ll never be happy with THIS guy.
The story ends with a murderous finale, also on stage. Without spoiling it, I must say that I didn’t find the rationale for the murder to be wholly believable.
I like how Pamuk subtly presents the issues in this book, which are important and unfortunately increasingly relevant to the lives of many people, both in the East and the West, but I don’t really care for the characters and how their stories are told. Pamuk never wholly convince me that these are real human beings instead of stage actors who must act the story. Otherwise, this shall be a solid 4 star book. (less)
"What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds."
I’ve been impressed wi...more "What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds."
I’ve been impressed with Mitchell’s ability to don different kinds of literary hats in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but the range of the diverse genres that he experiments with in this novel is even more astonishing; there is Melvillean historical fiction (in the guise of a 19th-century diary), an epistolary novella (in the amusingly flippant tones of a 1930’s English roué), a satire of the current London publishing scene (told by an entertainingly rude escapee from a fascistic old folks’ home), an airport novel about a 1970’s muckraking reporter uncovering corporate corruption, a dystopian sci-fi set in “corpocratic” North Korea (in the form of an interrogation transcript), and an oral history of post-apocalyptic Hawaii, told entirely in first person using a futuristic dialect. All of the voices are entirely distinct, surprisingly consistent idiolects. The made-up dialects that Mitchell invented are fascinating; the clone in the North Korean story gradually loses her mechanical speech as she recounts her integration into human society, and the futuristic Hawaiian dialect is a believable version of English that has been abraded, a crude language shorn of its grammar and vocabulary, a linguistic expression of the fall of civilization.
That said, more than a hundred pages of this
“ Their chief was called Senator, he’d got more power’n our Abbess, yay, he’d got an army o’ ten-fifteen knuckly men with whoah spikers whose job was to force Senator’s say-so, an’ no un chose Senator, nay, it was a barb’ric pa-to-son bis’ness.”
was PAINFUL to read.
It didn’t help that sci-fi/dystopian/ post-apocalyptic stories were emphatically NOT my favorite genres. At this point, I almost flung the book to the wall, but thought better of it, and skipped the last 50 pages of that, and went on with the next story --- which while still sci-fi, is written in the less vertigo-inducing language of the clone.
(Later, after I reached the end of the book, I returned to the Hawaiian tale and finished it. It was still a chore.)
After that, the continuation of the rest of the stories was a breeze to read, especially Frobisher’s (“The devil, Sixsmith, is in the pronouns.”) and Cavendish’s (“Putting Timothy Cavendish together again was a Tolstoyan editing job.”).
So, what is Cloud Atlas? A series of brilliant pastiches connected by literary duct tapes? A dazzling exercise in post-modernism? A brave experiment in narrative structure?
I don’t know.
I would say that the structural connection between the stories is tenuous at best, but what truly unifies them is a common theme: man’s will to power over his fellow man in all its permutations. The stories are all explorations of the domination and exploitation that are inherent in human relationships throughout history. The predatory relationship between a quack doctor and his patient, between ‘civilizing’ missionaries and their Pacific islander converts, between a totalitarian government and its subjects, between mentor and amanuensis, between slavers and their victims --- they are nothing but a variation of the same theme, and one which would eventually doomed our civilization.
I must confess that for the last five years, I have had a love and hate relationship with Orhan Pamuk (I also had a similar relationship with Charles...moreI must confess that for the last five years, I have had a love and hate relationship with Orhan Pamuk (I also had a similar relationship with Charles Dickens, but that’s another matter altogether).
Pamuk’s style is meticulous and ornate, intensely introspective, sometimes deliberately repetitive, shot through with that particular Turkish kind of melancholy called ‘huzun’. At his best, his prose achieves a poetic, hypnotic quality that makes My Name Is Red such a compelling, mesmerizing read. But what John Updike described as a Proustian ‘arabesques of introspection’ could also easily devolve into interminable navel gazing that makes wading through his novels, such as The White Castle, a ponderous undertaking. This novel is a mixed bag of both the strengths and weaknesses of his style.
It begins promisingly enough with a love triangle between Kemal, the young scion of one of Istanbul’s wealthiest family, Sibel, his Sorbonne-educated fiancée, and Fusun, a poor, distant relation who happens to be a nubile 18 year-old beauty contest finalist. Their illicit romance, consummated in an empty apartment filled with his mother’s abandoned possessions (surely there’s a Freudian subtext here?), slowly consumes Kemal’s life, and yet he still clings to Sibel, who is not only understanding but is also willing to nurse him through lovesickness for her rival. This earlier part of the novel is quite compelling, although the eroticism occasionally veers towards the graphically icky territory (“As our kisses grew even longer, a honeyed pool of warm saliva gathered in the great cave that was our mouths combined, sometimes leaking a little down our chins…”). However, as Sibel finally gives up on her errant fiancée and Fusun contracts a reputation-saving shotgun marriage to an aspiring screenwriter, Kemal (and the narrative) becomes bogged down in a mire of repetitive, increasingly self-indulgent ruminations. This part depicts eight years of the characters’ lives in which the following happens:
1. Kemal hangs out with Fusun, her husband, and her parents;
2. while with her, he is transcendentally moved by some gesture or words from his beloved;
3. he steals (“collects”) things that remind him of such moments, such as the soda bottle that she drank from, the saltshaker that she used during dinner, the ceramic dog figurine that sat on top of her TV, cigarette butts (all 4,213 of them, meticulously classified according to how they were crushed),etc. He then carefully stores these items in the empty apartment and sometimes mouths them when he misses her;
4. he makes feeble, half-hearted attempts at producing a movie in which she is going to star in, but is eventually too repulsed by the notion that she will have to do a kissing scene --- or worse, be pawed over by actors and directors --- that he never goes through with it;
5. Fusun pouts and sulks;
6. Kemal is devastated;
This goes on for hundreds of pages. There is a chapter titled ‘Sometimes’ (in which every sentence begins with that word) which contains nothing but random snippets of their daily life. It is cute for one or two pages, but exhausting as a chapter-length exercise.
I began to scan the pages. How long is this thing going to be on?
And then suddenly there was a twist in the story and it became good --- really good. I couldn’t stop reading --- and hoping. I forgave Kemal for being a borderline creep with his ‘collecting’ and I forgave Fusun for being so wrapped up in her acting ambition. I wanted them to drive away into the sunset in Kemal’s ’56 Chevrolet and live happily ever after in a Turkish dreamland.
And it all ends in a sigh --- a big sigh.
And suddenly you understand everything: the years of waiting, the lifetime of remembering, the significance of mundane things, the obsession with collecting, and why there is a need for so many museums in this world.
“In poetically well built museums, formed from the heart’s compulsions, we are consoled not by finding in them old objects that we love, but by losing sense of Time.” (less)
Reading this book, I can’t help to be reminded of an Asian-American friend that I knew when I was a graduate student in an upstate New York university...moreReading this book, I can’t help to be reminded of an Asian-American friend that I knew when I was a graduate student in an upstate New York university. I lived with several other foreign students from Asia in an off campus apartment, and by the end of my first semester, we found ourselves a nucleus for a small circle of variously hyphenated Asian Americans. Perhaps some of them were simply drawn to people who look like them, regardless of the differences in our backgrounds --- we were Indonesian, Cambodian, South Korean, Vietnamese and Hong Kong Chinese --- people who wouldn't have been drawn to each other had we lived in our native continent. Soon, we began to perceive that each of our new friends had some sort of identity issue going on. I wouldn’t call it a crisis, since some of them seemed to breeze through it with little difficulty. But for others, especially our Cambodian-American friend --- let’s call her Nina --- it was particularly acute. Too little to remember much of her homeland when she left it, Nina felt that she was constantly torn between the culture of her non-English speaking mother and the country that gave her family asylum and a chance at a new life. Her brother was a juvenile delinquent, something that she tellingly attributed to “cultural confusion”. In contrast, she did well for herself, attending an Ivy League college on full scholarship. Her English was flawless, and she dated a white all-American guy --- yet somehow she always felt out of tune. Nina was neither fish nor fowl, and she was painfully aware of it. She confessed that she liked hanging around us because she desperately wanted to understand Asian culture; to hear the language spoken, to eat the food, to feel the humid monsoon --- all without leaving the safety of her adopted American home. We sensed that she was somewhat fragile, and that much of this fragility came from the dual identity that she bore.
Of course, this is the classic immigrant’s theme, one that has been played out over and over again in American fiction, of which The Namesake is a worthy addition. I would not say that there is anything new or profound in the story, which is actually quite predictable, but Lahiri tells it in such a fluid, elegant prose that one can’t help to read well into the wee hours, absorbed in the meticulously observed, if occasionally repetitive, details of the various characters’ lives. She might not have reached the heights attained by the classic Russian novels that are often referred to in the novel, but she wrote with a clear-eyed yet compassionate insight, and the end result is both emotionally resonant and genuinely moving.
One star deducted for the saggy middle when the titular character began to engage in pointless, dead-end romances that seem to revolve around dinner parties in which the entire catalogue of Dean and Deluca gourmet delicacies are conspicuously consumed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to highlight the contrast between Gogol’s humble immigrant roots and the profligate habits of posh, sophisticated New Yorkers, but even fancy oysters and artisan cheeses get old after a while. (less)
I often read about how The House of the Spirits is comparable to One Hundred Years of Solitude; aside from them both being written by Latin American a...moreI often read about how The House of the Spirits is comparable to One Hundred Years of Solitude; aside from them both being written by Latin American authors, they are also multigenerational family sagas steeped in the turbulent history of their respective countries, flavored with that Latin American specialty --- magical realism. But despite those superficial resemblances, they are completely different beasts.
Magical realism is perhaps one of the most difficult literary sleight of hand to perform --- an overuse of it can turn a decent story into a gimmicky fable where pointless supernatural events replace narrative and character development. Marquez is a master of the genre, and even he is not always entirely successful. Fortunately, Allende employs the device in a restrained way, keeping it more like an ambient sound in a symphony of family drama and history. The drama is enjoyable enough and there are parts that make for compelling reading, but for most of the book, the writing rarely rises above the pedestrian, although still well above the paint-by-number dreariness of Zorro. The characters, some of which are interesting enough, are ultimately too two-dimensional to generate genuine pathos, especially considering the tragic aspects of the story. There is also a jarring switching between third-person omniscient and first-person narratives that does no service to the overall story. So, to sum up, this book is no masterpiece, but it is probably worth your while, especially if you are a fan of family sagas replete with illicit, breathless romances and epic political happenings in a faraway country. (less)
"Old longings nomadic leap, Chafing at custom's chain; Again from its brumal sleep Wakens the ferine strain."
The Wolf Totem, like The Call of the Wild, a...more"Old longings nomadic leap, Chafing at custom's chain; Again from its brumal sleep Wakens the ferine strain."
The Wolf Totem, like The Call of the Wild, a book that it is often compared to, calls for a return to unfettered nature, with its individualism and harsh, but utterly logical values. The wolves don’t kill because they are cruel, but because, like all other living creatures, they need to eat to sustain themselves. The beautiful Inner Mongolian grassland which serves as the setting for this novel is not a peaceful Eden; it is a fiercely contested battleground where humans, wolves and other animals have been waging war against each other since time immemorial. Nature has its own system, in which the constant warfare serves as a balancing measure that guarantees the survival of the grassland and all the species that depend on it. The traditional Mongolian herdsmen understand this and strive to maintain the delicate ecological balance on which their livelihoods depend. However, when ignorant outsiders (agriculturalists, mostly Han Chinese, with no regard for sustainable grazing) impose their production quotas and machine-gunned the wolves to virtual extinction, the ecosystem collapses and the grassland slowly turns into desert. An already familiar and distressingly common scenario all over the world, but which is perhaps even more pertinent for China, a nation that has suffered extreme environmental degradation in the name of progress.
But Wolf Totem is not just a stinging, yet well-meaning ecological fable --- it is also a strident call for Chinese nationalism. The Chinese, the author believes, has become a “sheep-like” race, the antithesis of the more dynamic wolf-like nomadic races. The sheep-like characteristics of the Chinese, particularly their lack of assertive individualism, had resulted in China’s humiliation before foreign powers, and allowed atrocities such as the Tiananmen Square massacre to be perpetrated against them. “There’d be hope for China if our national character could be rebuilt by cutting away the decaying parts of Confucianism and grafting a wolf totem sapling onto it. It could be combined with such Confucian traditions as pacifism, an emphasis on education, and devotion to study.” Jiang Rong, an academic who was jailed for his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen student movement, apparently sees no contradiction whatsoever between wolfish qualities and pacifism. He ardently believes that this is China’s way out of its current malaise and constantly preaches it through his characters. It becomes rather tiresome after a while, and one inadvertently begins to think of counter arguments. Didn’t the Chinese eventually assimilate the conquering nomadic races? How come China has endured for almost five millennia as a major power while the proud descendants of Genghis Khan are now merely one of its minorities? Haven’t the Chinese proven themselves to be adept at lupine tactics by becoming an economic juggernaut in less than a generation?
And what is the appeal of this novel, if it is merely an ideological tract disguised as fiction? It is surely not its (debatable) ideological message. Nor is it the human characters, which for the most part are merely mouthpieces for the author’s theories. It is the vivid, cinematic evocation of nature, red in tooth and claw that had me reading into the wee hours. The bone-chilling description of how a wolf pack traps and devours a herd of warhorses. The blood-curling account of an epic wolf hunt under the moonlight, with hundreds of riders with flaming torches and baying dogs. The harsh lives of the nomadic herders and their animals, told with convincing details and understanding that could only come from long familiarity. Oh, and the story of Chen Zhen and the wolf cub, both endearing and tragic. These are the meat of the story and they are substantial enough to outweigh the obvious flaws. For several days, I was transported into the distant Mongolian steppes, riding against the wind with a pack of hounds, scanning the endless horizon for sheep and wolves --- and that should be reason enough to pick this book up. (less)
This book, my second from the author, contains all the ingredients that should make it an engrossing read: art, medieval history, and mystery. However...moreThis book, my second from the author, contains all the ingredients that should make it an engrossing read: art, medieval history, and mystery. However, after slogging through it for several days, I find the main mystery to be too contrived to be believable (that 20-page exposition at the end by the villain scarcely helps at all), and the other ingredients merely garnish instead of an integral part of the story. Sure, there are plenty of literary allusions (we are beaten over the head with the ones to the Sherlock Holmes stories and they become annoying after a while) and artistic references (Breughel, Bosch, Bach) but unlike, say in The Name of the Rose Including Postscript, most of them seem to be random and merely incidental to the main story. The ‘mystery’ contained in the painting, despite all the ominous hints earlier in the story, turns out to be scarcely any mystery at all, which is doubly disappointing after the weak main whodunit practically collapses under its own weight. That said, I must confess that the other ingredient in the story --- the chess game --- is completely above my head, and that I'm largely oblivious of its role in the mystery. What eventually save this novel are the strengths that become more apparent in Perez-Reverte’s subsequent books such as The Club Dumas: the atmospheric evocation of old-world European cities and the creative use of arcana.
SPOILER WARNING. Do not read the following if you don’t want to find out about the ending.
Munoz, the Sherlock figure/chess master of the novel, stumbles upon the solution of the mystery through a pseudo-Freudian analysis of his mysterious opponent in the chess game. His theory is that men and women players betray their gender identity by favoring certain pieces, and the homosexual villain is found out because he chooses to indulge his feminine side by favoring the bishop, “ the chess piece that best embodies homosexuality”, with its “deep, diagonal movement”. Munoz also has another theory about how chess is not only oedipal, but also “anal sadistic” --- but let’s not get into that. Later, it turns out that the villain has been using a computer program to play, thus disproving Munoz’s hokey analysis. It’s a clever subversion of the omniscient detective figure, but it also means that Munoz finds the solution through sheer chance instead of deductive ability. We also never find out whether Julia and Munoz go through with Cesar’s criminal plan for the sale of the painting in the black market. I wish that Perez-Reverte had told us and explored some of its legal and moral ramifications. It would have made him a truly excellent chess player in my book. (less)
“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
Norwegian Wo...more“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
Norwegian Wood is supposed to be Murakami’s realistic novel; there are no mind-bending revelations, or even cats that talk, but a strong sense of ephemerality pervades the novel in a way that is at times surreal. There is nothing extraordinary about Toru Watanabe, the first-year student protagonist; he is studying drama, though he seems to have no real passion for it, he is apolitical in the age of worldwide student revolts, a middle-class kid from Kobe and a mediocre student who works part-time in a record shop to make ends meet. He is also at that precious age on the cusp of adulthood when everything that happens takes a looming significance. The central drama of his adolescence revolves around Naoko, the pretty but fragile girlfriend of his best friend who committed suicide at the age of 17, and Midori, an outgoing fellow student who is a tenacious survivor of both her parents’ deaths from cancer. Torn between the two, Watanabe navigates through the haze of love and lust, life and death, only to find himself at “the dead center of this place that was no place”. Yet, for all the tragedies that it contains, the story ends on a note of battered hope, flitting though it is, just as ephemeral as a firefly’s fading light.
We also get a fascinating glimpse of Japan in the late 60’s/early 70’s, when the country was well on its way to become a mighty economic power --- a Japan with bullet trains and hostess bars, where the soundtrack was The Beatles and almost all the artistic references were Western. A Japan full of model students and overachievers, who most often than not ended up losing their souls. Hence the suicides are given a sort of poignant dignity; they just happen to see the pointlessness of it all and calmly, rationally, opt out. Here today, gone tomorrow, like petals that fall away with the rain and are swept away the next day, or perhaps, as in that old Beatles song, the “bird has flown”. (less)
I have a confession to make: I am allergic to sci-fi. The kind that has as its hero a humanoid who lives i...moreThis review is for the first two books only.
I have a confession to make: I am allergic to sci-fi. The kind that has as its hero a humanoid who lives in 23345 AD on a dystopian red planet, where he must fight slimy insectoid aliens whose sole purpose in life is to lay and hatch their filthy eggs on human bodies. The guy is barely human anyway, with half his face swathed in shiny robotic gear with glowing red eyes that look like the battery-powered tip of my 10 year old’s toy laser gun. Or instead of being half-android, he is half Vulcan or Neptune or whatever and thus has the emotional life of a plant. He would speak in pseudo-scientific jargon, something like, “ I must get the quark-photon-intercellular battery on my jet-propulsion pack to work so that I can get back to my Hyper Drive Interstellar Pod and shoot off to Alpha Centauri XYZ2345 in 10,000 times the warp speed along the space-time continuum”. I could feel my brain slowly turn to mush after barely ONE page of dialogue like that. He would have a robotic sidekick that looks like my Brabantia Dome Lid Waste Container with a string of blinking Christmas light around it, except that it can also speak in a metallic voice that somehow sounds like my mother-in-law in one of her bad days. Oh, and there will be other more sympathetic alien life forms that look like the misbegotten offspring of a camel and an orangutan, or some rubbery stuffed toy that the dog had chewed to bits. In short, I just can’t see why I should care about the fate of these monstrous, barely human creatures. Why waste precious time reading about some trash can android or an alien that looks like the Elephant Man on a bad hair day while there are perfectly normal, realistic HUMAN characters out there?
My favorite genre is historical fiction; you know, those books about human beings who either have been dead for centuries, or never existed at all, written by people who cannot possibly have any first-hand knowledge of the period that they’re writing about? Nothing could be more different than science fiction, something that I have not touched in 20 years or so.
So, what am I doing with The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Omnibus, 832 pages of sci-fi drenched in techno babble and redolent of the smell of a million alien armpits?
Well, for one thing, it’s included in the BBC’s 100 Big Reads, which for some reason has become my guide to a worthwhile reading list that is not solely composed of the classics. The other thing is that it’s supposed to be one of the funniest books ever written ---I can always overlook the sci-fi for the funnies. And the characters are recognizably human, or at least sort of human, although one of them is called Zaphod Beeblebrox, (which, incidentally would make a good brand name for a laxative) and has two heads and three arms. The other two are genuine human beings from Earth --- or carbon-based ape-descended life forms --- take your pick, and the other one is a human looking alien with ginger hair (a hideous genetic mutation that should be bred out in real humans). And he is conveniently named Ford Prefect. No need to memorize ridiculous alien names when a simple English one will do.
And now that we are superficially acquainted with the protagonists, it’s time to summarize the plot of this sprawling intergalactic tome --- except that there is no real plot to speak of. Well, actually there is something about looking for the Ultimate Question --- ‘What is the meaning of life?’ --- which is of interest to all life forms in the universe, at least to those that have the brain capacity to ponder such things. But mostly they just bounce around from one bizarre planet to another, having weird adventures in which they meet, among others, a paranoid android, rebellious appliances, a comatose intergalactic rock star and a megalomaniac book publisher. Ultimately, the barely there plot is nothing but an excuse for an absurdist farce through which Adams pokes fun at organized religion, meat-eaters, politicians, big businesses, environmentalists, the publishing industry and other pet peeves. Some parts are brilliantly funny, especially in the first book, while others had me scratching my head and wondering whether he was high on something when he wrote them. Certain sections are mind-numbingly boring and confusing in that special sci-fi way. Oh, and the constant smugness and non-stop zaniness are grating after the second book or so, and I just lost interest completely after finishing it.
At least I know now that ‘babel fish’ is not just a strangely named online translation program. And that it is possible to write a book about what is essentially nonsense and have it become a major pop culture icon. But I’m also mightily relieved that I can stop hitchhiking through THIS universe, which is probably too cool and too clever for me to completely understand.
And this shall be my last sci-fi book for the next 20 years. (less)
In Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby returns to his favorite stock character: the emotionally stunted fanboy. He’s considerably older, though, and somehow mo...moreIn Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby returns to his favorite stock character: the emotionally stunted fanboy. He’s considerably older, though, and somehow more distasteful in his petty obsessiveness, perhaps because we are finally allowed to see him through the eyes of the long-suffering woman who wasted the best years of her life hanging around him. Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe, an obscure singer-songwriter who has not released any new material after his seminal 1986 album, Juliet, is not just a weekend hobby. He drags Annie, his live-in girlfriend of 15 years, through obscure corners of America in a voyeuristic quest for his reclusive idol. At one point in their trip, Duncan asks Annie to take a photo of him pretending to pee in a smelly rock club restroom where he thinks something pivotal had happened to Crowe. Annie is glad that the toilet couldn’t talk, because otherwise, “Duncan would have wanted to chat to it all night”. It doesn’t get better back home; Duncan is also a self-appointed world-class ‘Crowologist’ who spends an inordinate amount of time on his website about the singer with his fellow obsessives. They have no time for marriage and children, and now, herself pushing forty, Annie feels that her chance for happiness has withered away along with their dead-end relationship.
When Crowe unexpectedly releases a demo tape of Juliet (subsequently known as Juliet, Naked by fans), Annie gets her double chance at revenge: first by listening to the album ahead of Duncan (unthinkable!), and then by writing a negative review of it on Duncan’s website (how dare you!). Duncan considers her lack of appreciation for the new album to be a fatal moral failing and leaves her for another woman. Surprisingly, the great Tucker Crowe himself agrees with Annie’s assessment and begins to write confessional emails to her, divulging nuggets of information that Duncan would give his right hand for. His own marriage failing, Crowe heads to England to visit one of his numerous children from former relationships, taking his youngest with him. Then, in a bid to escape reunion with assorted abandoned children and ex-spouses, he goes to stay with Annie in Gooleness, the dreary coastal town where Annie and Duncan live.
Will Annie find a second chance with Crowe? Will Duncan be cured of his obsession after meeting his all-too-human idol in the flesh? Will serial husband /absentee father Crowe finally gets it right? If this were an earlier Hornby novel, say High Fidelity, or About a Boy, the answer to these questions (after a certain amount of angst) would be a resounding Yes. But we are in a different territory here. The landscapes of middle age are different from those of early adulthood, and some people are probably just too set on their way to tread another path.
I am giving this novel four stars, but actually it’s more like three and a half stars. Hornby is in a fine form here, but the ending somehow feels anticlimactic after so much build up earlier on, and some parts with Crowe and Annie feel redundant to the point of dullness. There is no laugh-out-loud moments, instead, the humor comes from Hornby's ribbing of the internet fanboy culture and the earnest errors that it propagates. "Dear God", indeed.