I've never really felt comfortable writing a review of a Pynchon book. From the short and relatively accessible Crying of Lot 49 to the byzantine and...moreI've never really felt comfortable writing a review of a Pynchon book. From the short and relatively accessible Crying of Lot 49 to the byzantine and complex Gravity's Rainbow, he's always left me standing agape, grasping for the right words to express just what it was that I had experienced, yet knowing that whatever choice I eventually make I will only be able to express the tiniest amount of what I had just been through. Because, if you're patient enough and not too thrown off by what seem like insufferably long asides with no contextual relation to anything that has come before in the book, Pynchon will take you on a journey to the farthest reaches of your imagination. From stitching together materials from a wide and eclectic group of influences, he will attempt to gain entry into the fabled halls of imagination itself, a literary paradise in which all is simultaneously effortlessly possible and maddeningly difficult. Whether he succeeds is a matter for great debate, but for me it's always the journey that makes it worthwhile.
In Against the Day, Pynchon chooses one of the most interesting eras in modern history, a time in which the old world was making way for the new in drastic violent upheavals in nearly every realm of life. Beginning with the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 and meandering along through time until just after the end of the Great War, Pynchon paints a surreal portrait of a world on the cusp of multiple revolutions. From the political struggles of the time- Colorado miners to unionize for better working conditions against the mine owners and their Pinkerton thugs, the blooming revolutions in Mexico and Russia, and the anarchists everywhere in between struggling to advance the freedom of all humanity to the scientific struggles and breakthroughs of the era- Nikola Tesla struggling to gain funding from capitalists to develop ways to transmit electricity wirelessly, the endless debates between rival scientists as to whether the gaps between the stars are filled with aether or nothingness, and all of the quaternion and vectorist mathematics that can explain it. Not to mention hydrogen-fueled airships, expeditions to the North Pole and into the center of the Earth, treatises on the unique nature of Venetian light, and enough bdsm power games to make your hedonist cousin blush, I'm not kidding when I say that this book really has it all.
Supported by a rotating cast of hundreds, the story primarily follows the fortunes and trials of the Traverse family as they attempt to get revenge for the assassination of their dynamite-chucking anarchist father. There's Frank, the staid and reliable middle son who uses his schooling at the Colorado Schools of Mines and his family's penchant for dynamite to attempt to get revenge on the two men who murdered his father, an odyssey that sees him rambling back and forth across the US-Mexico border more times than a character in a Cormac McCarthy book. There's Reef, the eldest son whose quest for revenge gets derailed along the way when he finds that it is far easier to use his skills as a cardsharp to defraud decadent aristocrats in Europe. There's Kit, plucked from his family's poverty and sent to private schools in the East by a powerful industrialist who may or may not have been the man who gave the order to have his father killed and who becomes a pawn in a massive game of intrigue between the forces of repression and freedom. Then there's their wayward sister Lake, so filled with self-loathing that she runs away with one of her father's assassins to a life of monotony and beatings.
All of these events occur within the pages of Against the Day but it doesn't really say anything with regard to what the book is actually about. Truthfully, after reading almost 1100 pages, I'm not entirely sure. It would be a bit of a cop-out to say that this book is about the search for paradise, both literal and metaphoric. Sure, there's a lot of that in here- the quest for Shambhala, the search for inner peace, the idealism of the anarchists- but what stands out more to me is Pynchon's playing with and breaking down duality. The vectorists and quaternions eternally quarreling, the breaking down of the gender binary that goes on between Yashmeen and Cyprian, the feud between the Traverses and the Vibes, the permeable boundary between the two worlds that is viewable only from within the epicenter of a large explosion or by peering through a piece of Icelandic spar. Not to mention the endless allusions to light and dark and how they're not really all that different, a listing of which would create a book nearly as large as the source material.
While the story does tend to feel a but unwieldy around page 600 and I found myself wondering on more than one occasion whether Pynchon had even the slightest clue as to where he was going with the tale, in the end I found myself just enjoying the ride. While a bit lengthier than his opus, Gravity's Rainbow, I found the writing to be vastly more accessible and didn't find myself reading and rereading a page half as often as I did with GR. I think this probably has more to do with being more familiar with Pynchon's rather unique way of spinning out a tale than with a change in his style, but it leaves me wanting to return to Gravity's Rainbow for a reread to see what new discoveries I can find within those pages. If you should find yourself stranded on a desert island, or locked away in prison for a length of time, you could do a lot worse to occupy your mind than reading Against the Day. (less)
What an utterly beguiling book! I turned the last page of this hefty book nearly a week ago and I've been struggling to find the adequate words to des...moreWhat an utterly beguiling book! I turned the last page of this hefty book nearly a week ago and I've been struggling to find the adequate words to describe my time with it ever since. This vast and sprawling epic is an ambitious, eloquent and beautiful novel- the type of read that reminds you of what all literature should strive to be. Or as Bolano puts it far more succinctly: "what a sad paradox... Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown... they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench." This is exactly that sort of book and Bolano is undoubtedly one of the great masters, if it wasn't clear after Savage Detectives then 2666 should put all doubts to rest. This is the sort of book that inspires a reader to pick up a pen for the first time in who-knows-how-long and jot out their own ramblings or makes you want to tackle all of those great pillars of literature that have loomed intimidatingly on the horizon for years, as though after summiting this peak you can handle just about anything an author can throw at you. Bolano likely intended such a challenge to his readers though, the chiding asides sprinkled through the book about the state of writing and reading in the world today serving as goads to spur the reader on.
Like most great pieces of literature, it's not easy to describe this book. At its center lies the fictional city of Santa Teresa, a sprawling necropolis of factories and slums situated across the thin Arizona border in the Mexican state of Sonora. A perfect representation of the dark and cannibalistic side of capitalist consumption, this city is a charnel house that consumes with unceasing hunger those souls who venture to the border looking for a better life. An epidemic of brutal killings has plagued the city for over a decade, hundreds of women raped, murdered, and dumped on trash heaps as the citizenry has internalized the message fed them at every turning. This message, that people, like the goods churned out in the maquiladoras, are disposable, cheap, rarely missed and easily replaced, creates an oppressive atmosphere of dread that permeates the five interweaving stories that spin out from Santa Teresa like the spokes on a bicycle and perfectly brings to life the Baudelaire quote with which Bolano opens the book, "an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom."
In a postscript the heirs to Bolano's estate write about how, in his last days, Bolano insisted that the book be split into its five parts and sold separately so as to provide for the future well-being of his offspring. Fortunately his heirs couldn't stand to see the book sundered like that and initially published it as a whole before issuing a second edition sold as a quintet. While each of the parts can be seen as a stand alone tale set in the same world, I think it is the incongruities between these differing parts of the story that help the whole thing congeal into its own large imbalanced creature. We have the critics, devoting their whole lives to promoting a reclusive author who may or may not have finally surfaced in Mexico while still playing out the familiar power dynamics of a three-way sexual relationship. We have the Chilean expat, Professor Amalfitano, who may be receiving telepathic messages from an ancient race of humans or may just be going mad with worry about the fate of his nubile young daughter in a city that eats its young. There is the aging black power activist turned magazine writer, venturing into Santa Teresa on his first assignment as a boxing reporter. There are the hapless police of Santa Teresa on the hunt for this woman killer whilst being flummoxed at all turns by corruption from above, poor training from below, and the sheer systemic nature of the murders. Then, finally, there's the reclusive author himself Benno Von Archimboldi, a former German soldier turned literary star who seals together all these disparate parts into its substantial whole. Separately these are all interesting and distracting vignettes, together they form like Voltron into a lumbering golem of greatness.
There are some faltering steps though, however small. Part 4, the part that focuses on the killings, gets particularly rough about two hundred pages through after about the 70-80th clinically stark description of the raped and murdered corpses that keep appearing in the illegal dumps of Santa Teresa. A friend of mine aptly described this section as the book's Everest and it did indeed prove difficult to summit, but well worth it in the end. Finally, there's also the unfinished nature of the book. Bolano died before finishing it, so things are never tied up neatly in a little bow for the reader. Still, leaving the story without a definitive conclusion fits well with what I've taken away from the book- that events just happen and that there's no rhyme or reason to most of them. That we would all like to think we are the protagonists in our own stories, but for all we know we're just bit players in another player's banal Sisyphean epic. If you can accept that not things need conclusions but are just as powerful simply for having existed even briefly then this is a book that will astound and inspire. (less)
There are books at which we arrive to too soon, books that are forced down our throats by well meaning instructors and friends, books that are passed...moreThere are books at which we arrive to too soon, books that are forced down our throats by well meaning instructors and friends, books that are passed on with loving grace and books that are clung to relentlessly for years. There are books of which we hear much yet never open and obscure books that catch our eye in a musty booksellers that swiftly become those items with which to cudgel our own friends. There are books that you forget minutes after reading and books that haunt your steps for years like a ghost of memory. Those are the books which I am always in search of, the always rare tomes that live on inside of you long after the final page is turned and inform your worldview for years, either consciously or not. Without realizing the import at the time, picking this lengthy read from atop my ever-growing to-read pile was the defining moment of my entire year.
Mario Vargas Llosa is an author of whom I had heard much, yet, for one ill-conceived reason or another, had never picked up any of his works and read them. All throughout my hodgepodge affair with Latin American authors there he has sat, waiting patiently as I endured the brilliant-but-meandering Garcia Marquez, the imaginative-yet-overblown Allende, the deliberately obtuse Bolano. Finally on a cold morning in February, as I cursed at my stacks of books purchased in haste and then left to linger for months, the spirit of inspiration that first moved me to acquire this structurally unsound stack of literature lit once more upon my shoulder and whispered at me to pick that beautiful red cover featured above from the neglected horde. Nothing has been the same since.
It is remarkably easy to dive deep into the world of post-Monarchist Brazil, populated by a vast coterie of the wretched and the ignorant and torn apart by the shifting winds of change and the turning of one epoch to another. Brazil has won its freedom from the monarchs of Portugal and is constructing its first civil government- with all the implements of the State which we take for granted now: marriage available for the first time outside of a church, a census to better know the nascent country's people and its needs, taxes to be paid for the creation of new roads and railways to better connect this country of nigh unfathomable size. Things that we, little more than a century later, take for granted (though we still seem to be having some delay with that whole Civil Marriage thing).
Not so in turn-of-the-century Bahia, a state midway along the coast known today primarily for its vast cacao plantations. In the backlands of this state wanders a man known as The Counselor preaching the Gospels to the illiterate, rebuilding churches fallen into disrepair and, everywhere he walks, showing love and acceptance for the most miserable and misshapen (both physically and mentally), some for the first time in their lives. He builds quite a dedicated following out of the dregs of society, winning over cangaceros (bandits), merchants, beggars and mutants as he travels for many years around the interior. Until one day he is shown a proclamation from the Republic informing the populace that civil marriage is now allowed and a census is to be taken regularly. Seeing this as a full assault on the church to which he is beholden he realizes that the faith is under assault by this new monster called the Republic, who must surely be the Antichrist in disguise. There is nothing to be done but to find some land and build a true city of god where his followers may live in peace. The fledgling state sees this as an open revolt to be quashed immediately lest other regions follow the example of the faithful of Canudos and proceeds to send out that true Antichrist, the Brazilian Army to ruthlessly put down this secessionist movement.
And so begins the tumultuous The War of the End of the World, based on true events but given poetic timbre by Vargas Llosa's pen. A cast of hundreds filters through, all with their histories and viewpoints, none purely evil and all conflicted by the demands this new age makes upon them. The beauty of Vargas Llosa's writing really comes through here as each, rebel and soldier, takes their minute upon the stage and illuminates very clearly the trying nature of these times. The doomed European idealist Gallileo Gall who believes quite fervently in both the ideal of Revolution and the disproved tenets of phrenology. The Dwarf, a member of a traveling circus fallen upon hard times. The near-sighted Journalist who plays the role of a faithless Job here, plagued by misfortune again and again. The retired cangacero Pajeu who has found grace in the Counselor's teachings and makes up for his bloody past by becoming a guerilla leader against the Army expeditions that assault Canudos again and again. The cast is vast but, so consummate is Vargas Llosa's skill, it never becomes overwhelming or difficult to keep straight.
Like the better-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa creates a whole world around the blessed miscreants in Canudos, but also improves upon it by pulling back on the scope of his ambitions and focusing instead on just those events that are germane to the story at hand. Where Garcia Marquez can tend to become overblown and distracted by whatever thoughts pass through his, admittedly admirable, head, Vargas Llosa uses his digressions to better tie his story together. This is performed so perfectly that when, near the end of the tale, a character says that "Canudos isn't a story; it's a tree of stories" you can't help but nod your head in agreement and marvel at Vargas Llosa's deft skill in crafting such an impeccable novel. Having been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature one can only hope that this brings his works to a new generation of bibliophiles for he is, without a doubt, one of the finest wordsmiths that I have ever had the privilege of reading.(less)
It's no secret that I've been in a reading slump for the larger part of this year. The books I've been picking up have been mildly engaging at best, m...moreIt's no secret that I've been in a reading slump for the larger part of this year. The books I've been picking up have been mildly engaging at best, mind-numbingly dull at worst. It didn't matter what I tried- classics, contemporary fiction, sci-fi, noir, even non-fiction; all just seemed to land listlessly back on my stacks. With White Teeth, Zadie Smith's first award-winning novel, I think it is safe to say that the slump has finally passed.
Following several generations of two very different families, the Jones and the Iqbals, Smith creates an interesting story of second generation immigrants torn between the duties of tradition and culture and the alluring temptations of Western living. The scions of these two families, Archie (a naive North Londoner) and Samad (a Bangladeshi Muslim) met in the immediate aftermath of WWII, cementing a bond of friendship through morphine abuse, slapstick, and a shared desire for the glory that had somehow bypassed them on their journey to the front. War over, they return to London and wed their respective spouses- Archie to Clara, a young Jamaican immigrant running from the repressive Jehovah Witness faith of her mother, and Samad to Alsana, a child bride chosen for him nearly twenty years before she was even born. They breed, as humans are wont to do, and we follow the trials and tribulations of their children as they walk the high tightrope act of pleasing one's parents and branching out to create their own identities.
Smith has crafted a fun tale that reminds me of the lighter moments of early Salman Rushdie books, specifically the London scenes of The Satanic Verses. Smith herself tips her hat to that self-same novel in a rather hilarious scene depicting the outrage that erupted in the Muslim world following publication of that heretical book, which most of its haters refuse to read on general principle.
The character of Samad, a vainglorious man who feels he must live up to the brave deeds of his great-grandfather, who fired the first shot of the Indian rebellion of 1857, was hilarious in his self absorption, like a British Ignatius J. Reilly, and quickly became my favorite. Clinging to the past like a drowning man to a life preserver, Samad tries to instill his sons with a sense of history and respect for their culture- he wants them to be good Muslims (while he himself pays the barest lip service to Allah), but only of the type that he approves of. Thus it is that his two sons are alienated from him, Magid because he adopts a fundamentalist view of Islam in response to the racism he faces in 1980s London and Millat because, though sent back to Bangladesh to be raised by devout family members, he adopts a blind faith in the rightness of Western culture and science. It'd be tragic were it not written with such impeccable skill.
There's a lot in this book, and not all of it works- the incessantly repeated references to teeth serve little to no purpose that I can see, and the female characters are the barest sketches, caricatures with little to no depth that left me mildly disappointed. Still, I devoured this book in near record time and found myself pausing often to read a sentence out loud to friends, which I take as a sign of success. This is a book that deserves the acclaim that has been lauded upon it and I can't wait to get my hands on her follow-up, On Beauty.(less)
I have to admit to a long-standing curiosity about Moby-Dick (not least of which is why the albino whale’s name is hyphenated in the title but just pl...moreI have to admit to a long-standing curiosity about Moby-Dick (not least of which is why the albino whale’s name is hyphenated in the title but just plain Moby Dick in the text itself). I read and loved a Reader’s Digest condensed version (gasps of dismay echo across the Metaverse at this news) of this book around second grade and have always wondered what the arbiters of taste at Reader’s Digest decided to leave on the cutting room floor. Could it have been an illicit love scene between Ishmael and his cannibal harpooner Queequeg? A scene in which the first mate, Starbuck, purchases some coffee beans from an Islamic trader, thus finally making sense of that brand’s name? Did Ahab put aside his vendetta with Moby in order to form a chorus line of ivory-appendaged amputees?
Sadly, none of those things came to pass. Instead I quickly learned that Moby-Dick is not one book, but two. The first is familiar to all of us: a sailor, let’s call him Ishmael, signs on to crew with the Pequod, a whaling ship from Nantucket (no word on whether the limerick is true) captained by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. Want to know how I knew he was monomaniacal? Because that’s the only adjective that Melville uses through the course of the book to describe Ahab’s obsession with hunting and killing the whale that bit off his leg. I’m unsure of the timeline here, but I’m pretty positive that Melville was writing before the advent of thesauruses (thesauri?). Regardless, this half of the book is exactly what you would expect from a yarn of its sort. The sailors are a mixed bag of old sea dogs, young cabin boys enchanted by the glittering romance of the sea, and pagan harpooners living solely for the hunt. This segment of the story flies by like an albatross over the azure sea (prolonged exposure to this book has left me unable to make any non-nautical metaphors)- brisk, refreshing and nigh effortless.
Mixed in among Melville’s ruminations of sea life and epic foreshadowing is another book, far more dense and infinitely more difficult of a road. The second is more in line with the Naturalist writings of the 19th Century and is nothing less than a complete history and biology of whales, whale hunting, gutting whales, refining their blubber into oil, and the unique structural adjustments made to ships to allow the processing to take place while at sea. I have to admit, I thrilled at reading the first few of these chapters. Melville writes them well with great description of the inner workings of the sperm whale and I laughed at his chapter on how the placement of their eyes meant that whales were effectively blind- he was obviously writing before the discovery of sonar. Little-old 21st Century me liked the idea of having a piece of knowledge that Melville, for all of his in-depth research (and trust me, it's in-depth), could not possess.
The struggle came when these chapters extended for first twenty, then fifty, then finally a hundred pages. The pacing of the story fell off as I was treated to descriptions of the oxygen:water ratio in a whale's spume, descriptions of all known types of whales hunted by man, the bell tool used for scooping the valuable sperm from it's brain cavity or how the sperm whale possesses a thick and hard battering ram of a head with which it can defend against predators. I understood what Melville was doing- if he's not going to introduce the actual nemesis in this tale until the very end of the book then he's going to make damn sure that the reader knows just what this whale is capable of. It just dragged so slowly that by the time we did finally catch a glimpse of Moby, I greeted it with a sigh of "finally" rather than much excitement.
I think that, in the end, I don't regret taking the time to read this tome. There are some absolutely rapturous descriptions of the ocean, a body I never tire of hearing about, and the hunger that the crew showed for the hunt (especially the antics of Stubb, the second mate, and the harpooners) made for some exciting reading. However, the endless treatises on whale physiology just went on too long for me to be able to rate this over two stars.(less)
I can not think of a book that has let me down more than Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Admittedly, this may have been caused by i...moreI can not think of a book that has let me down more than Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Admittedly, this may have been caused by in no small part by my high expectations for this novel after having read the deliriously exciting first chapter several times in a bookstore during one of those quite regular hunts for the next book to steal my heart. I mean, who can resist a first chapter that contains paragraphs like:
"In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed that among there there extend for acres and acres the Book You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered." Pg. 5
Has there ever been an author that more exquisitely expresses the stressful choosing of which books are to be adopted into your Home for Lost Books and which are to remain in the Book Repository awaiting their Lee Harvey? This, thought I, is an author who speaks my language. At least, that's what I thought until the end of Chapter 2, when the story I was allegedly reading "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" was perfunctorily cut off and Calvino began addressing his main character as the second person "you," leading to vast confusion of a wholly unpleasant nature. And so the book progresses, alternating throughout from the first chapter of various Books That Have Not Been Written to the maddening second-person pronoun-filled main "story," though none of it ever makes sense aside from as a plot device to string together 14 first chapters of Books That You Would Rather Read Than This One.
I'm not one to let books offend me on a regular basis. In fact, I can think of no other book that has so personally rubbed me the wrong way that I would like to slap its author across the face and challenge him to a duel. Calvino gets a pass on this by virtue of being dead, but come zombiegeddon his corpse and I will have words (or, rather, I'll have words, he'll have monosyllabic grunts (being dead isn't great on the language centers of the mind)). My rage reached a boiling point around the 3/4 mark when Calvino, in another of the "you" chapters begins describing in vivid detail your frustration at the book and your longing to just find the thread of one of the far more captivating tales begun previously.
Perhaps I'd have been more forgiving of this meta- style of writing if I hadn't seen it done far better in other books. Sure, maybe Calvino was breaking new ground in 1979 when this was first published, but a book recognizing that it was a book and using its inherent form to prank the reader is old hat at this point. Perhaps if Calvino had a character more like my own to address as "you" then I would have enjoyed it more. All I know is that all the things he attributed to me are in no way keeping with my character and that if he presumes to use me as a character in his escapades then he should have invested some time in getting to know his subject. This book was not fun to read. This book was not revelatory or ground-breaking. This book was simply jarring and irritating. I would be hard-pressed to think of a book read in the past five years that I enjoyed less- and I'm including my dabblings with Margaret Atwood here.(less)
It’s always a dicey prospect whenever a film studio options the rights to adapt a book into film. Very few works of literature survive first contact w...moreIt’s always a dicey prospect whenever a film studio options the rights to adapt a book into film. Very few works of literature survive first contact with Hollywood. There are those adaptations that excel with help from the author, like Cider House Rules and there are those where the author refuses to have anything to do with the bastardization of their work, which I like to refer to as the Alan Moore approach. There are those films whose adaptations, arguably, best their source material, as in the case of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and then there are those who makes the pages of their books curl up in shame, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Love in the Time of Cholera being two of the most egregious examples. Considering how often readers are faced with this last example, I’ve taken to refusing to read books whose adaptations I’ve seen until long after I’ve forgotten the film so that I can better view each as a stand-alone work.
Seeing as how it’s been nearly a decade since Sofia Coppola was lauded and fêted within an inch of her life upon release of her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ first book, The Virgin Suicides, and seeing as how my goldfish-like memory often leaves me unable to remember what I watched last week, let alone ten years ago, I figured that now, fresh on the heels of finishing Eugenide’s Pulitzer-winning Middlesex, was the perfect time to read this bittersweet tale of first love.
Recounting the last year of the lives of the five Lisbon sisters, ruled over by an imperious and hyper-protective mother who ends up as the de facto warden of the girls in her attempts to protect her from the slings and arrows that life will throw at them. Attempts that will, ultimately, lead to the girls taking their lives. That's not a spoiler. The book admits it in the title and the first few pages. To recount this tale of adolescent despair ("Obviously, doctor, you have never been a 13 year old girl," says the youngest Lisbon sister, soon before taking her life) Eugenides employs an unnamed narrator who could be any one of, or all of, a group of neighborhood boys whose first stirrings of love are directed toward the enigmatic blonde girls who live down the lane.
By scavenging through the girl's garbage and the anecdotes of various schoolmates these boys construct an idea of the girls and the loneliness that surrounds them. Through this collection of found history the boys formulate a constantly changing portrait of the girls and what their various hopes and dreams may be. The way in which Eugenides fleshes out these histories could easily be called precious, if not for the impending doom that the reader knows is always coming. It is this underlying atmosphere of dread that kept the story moving for me, the knowledge of how the girls' deaths would impact the boys and forever alter their relations with the fairer sex, and when the penultimate moment finally arrives nothing of the impact is robbed by knowing that it is coming.
More than anything, though, I think that it is Eugenides' ability to connect with that sense of childhood mystery and endless possibility that makes this book such a resounding success. The way in which each high school boy had a different perception of each of the girls based on their various ideas of what love struck home to me and how I once concocted stories for each of the houses on my paper route and populated them with romantic and headstrong characters.
Ultimately, I ended up loving the Lisbon girls as much as their youthful stalkers. Throughout the entirety, I kept hoping that the boys' dreams would come true and that they'd be able to whisk the Lisbon girls away from their pain and despair, driving into the sunset in Trip Fontaine's GTO, worlds away from the reactionary behavior of their parents. But the title can not lie and this tale was doomed to tragedy from the start. Regardless, though, the ride along the way is what makes this story one of the absolute best that I've read this year.(less)
It’s always a bit of a gamble for me to pick up a book that has made the rounds of the awards circuit, especially when it’s a Pulitzer-winning Oprah b...moreIt’s always a bit of a gamble for me to pick up a book that has made the rounds of the awards circuit, especially when it’s a Pulitzer-winning Oprah book. The thing about award-winning novels is that they’re rarely mediocre. I always tend to find myself either absolutely blown away by them or shaking my head in wonder that such a travesty should ever find print, let alone win the Pulitzer or Man Booker (I’m looking at you, Blind Assassin and Line of Beauty). Still, even if I find myself loathing the book, at the very least it has spurred an emotional response, so I find myself returning to this well again and again for reading material.
Fortunately there are books like Middlesex out there, proving that this is not as foolhardy of a game plan as it may sound. In the nearly 8 years since it was first published, I have seen this book’s telltale black and white cover staring up at me again and again from atop pendulous stacks of used copies. I would always look at it for a few minutes, reread the blurb on the back, and then put it back down with a regretful “not today, Eugenides.” If so many people were ditching their copies of it then how good of a read could it be? This was the premise that I labored under for years, until last week when a copy just happened to drop into my hands at the exact moment when I had nothing else to read.
I have never been happier to have run out of books, as it would have likely taken me another eight years to get around to reading this eminently enjoyable book. Part magical realism, part confessional, part coming of age tale, part immigrant story- this book is a beautiful amalgamation of all sorts of literary tropes. Most enjoyable of all though, is the narration of Cal/Calliope. Starting with the incestuous pairing of her paternal grandparents, Cal traces the genealogy of the hermaphroditic genetic mutation that lurks within her family until it finally makes itself known within him when he hits puberty. Following this gene the reader is treated to the Turkish sacking of the Greek metropolis of Smyrna in the last days of WWI, a portrait of Detroit at the beginning of its long industrial history as her grandfather toils within Ford’s sweatshops, preparations for the invasion of the Japanese mainland in WWII, the “police action” of the Korean War, the 1967 race riots that rocked an already imperiled city, and the sexual revolution that helps Calliope come to grips with her odd genetic heritage and begin to live in his true identity, the man Cal.
Always interesting, especially when Eugenides declaims at length about all of the various gender abnormalities that the genetic soup has tossed out through the ages or the ways in which these people have been integrated into their societies. It’s completely fascinating and I find myself wanting to read far more on this subject. My only possible complaint was that the ending seemed rushed. After spending several hundred pages recounting the family history that made possible Cal’s creation, we get to spend hardly any time at all with Cal the character. I wanted to know what happened between Cal and Julie Kikuchi, as well as what happened to Chapter Eleven (Cal’s brother) or the Obscure Object (the nameless first love of Calliope). The book gave detail after detail, but all I wanted was more. By any rationale that makes Middlesex an incredible success and Eugenides an author that I will definitely be following the career of. (less)