We've all been there: we're at some a casual party and the guest list makes for an interesting combination of family, friends, even colleagues... and,We've all been there: we're at some a casual party and the guest list makes for an interesting combination of family, friends, even colleagues... and, of course, there's just one kid who could very well be the spawn of Satan. His parents adore him and he's spoiled rotten (in indulgent behavior if not in material items), so everyone knows there's no hope of getting his actions in line; we all simply have to endure the experience and hope he just doesn't start screaming or hurt someone. In Christos Tsiolkas's novel, The Slap, just such a situation takes a controversial turn -- the brat makes a movement that could potentially be seen as threatening to another child and that child's father intervenes to slap the offending brat. The rest of the novel resounds with this slap as it reverberates in the lives of every attendee. As the next few months play out, eight different perspectives are used to further the story along and explore the massive amount of tensions within the lives of those involved.
There's no easy way to summarize the novel -- like life, everything is tangled up and has become too complicated for simple summaries. The Slap is set in Australia and tensions abound. There's racial tension, cultural tension, religious tension, generational tension, classist tension, sexual tension... it's a society where everyone is allowed to have a valid opinion, no one's existence should be negatively impacted by another's, and yet there are very few relationships (friendships or otherwise) that are not strained as a result.
Since the book is all about the relationships between people (and a bit about what those relationships say with regards to society at large), the best way to explain things is to give a cast list. The book opens with the perspective of Hector, the son of Greek immigrants, who seems to compensate for never having found a career passion by being a bit of a philanderer, despite having a beautiful Indian wife, Aisha. They have two kids and are the hosts of the fateful barbecue alluded to above. Hector is sleeping with a teenager named Connie who works in his wife's veterinary clinic (she's eighteen, it's legal). Connie's best friend is Richie, another teenager just coming out of the closet, and they're both trying to figure out their lives as they potentially move on to university. Hector's cousin, Harry, is the guy whose child is threatened and who does the slapping. Harry has a temper and a fierce prejudice against people who simply do not pull it together to do right by their families (like the family of the slapped child, he believes). An excellent father, Harry has a successful car repair/garage business (he's even lenient in dealing with an employee who is stealing from him), a beautiful home, and an excellent relationship with his wife... and the mistress whom he supports (and who has kids that are probably not Harry's).
Meanwhile, the child who was slapped is named Hugo and he really is quite dreadful. Hugo's father is Gary, a struggling (read: failed) artist who drinks a great deal and gets blamed for a large number of his small family's issues (and the legal drama that ensues), but is not necessarily always at fault despite appearances. Hugo's mother is Rosie, one of Aisha's oldest friends and after being a somewhat wild child/wild young adult/wild adult, she has settled down and made Hugo her world. She's still breastfeeding him at age four. Let this single observation tell you all kinds of things about her. Rosie and Aisha are also dear friends with Anouk, who doesn't have children and so doesn't quite understand Rosie and Aisha at times, though she also chooses not to tell them when she realizes she's pregnant (by her much-younger-than-she-is television star boyfriend) and decides to have an abortion. Aisha is torn in her allegiances on the slapping issue as a result of the fact that it's her best friend versus her husband's family. Hector's parents (Harry's aunt and uncle) are Manolis and Koula, who think the kid deserved the slap and are not thrilled about Aisha's inability to totally stand with the family (though really, Koula refuses to even say Aisha's name). Also within the circle are two married, converted Muslims who, if the Muslim-conversion-thing wasn't enough controversy as it is, are an interracial couple -- he's Aboriginal and she's white.
I think that includes all the major players. An ecclectic bunch to be sure, and Tsiolkas is covering a great deal of ground by including such complicated people in his novel. It means that the topics touched upon range far and wide -- though perhaps the one thing Tsiolkas isn't writing a novel about is child abuse. Instead, everyone seems to acknowledge that hitting a child is a wrong thing, but the issue of a person snapping is a much more accessible moment... and can be illustrated in the daily lives of us all when we reach a moment that pushes us into a decision we might not otherwise make. Personal allegiances and beliefs muddy the waters here as characters are forced to choose sides or awkwardly defend their neutral status. A moment like this, where a child is struck by an adult, is supposed to be a clear-cut situation -- physical violence in polite society is supposed to be completely unacceptable. Instead, a single instance of breaking this carefully maintained control on one's physical impulses calls in to question the numerous other sins hidden under the guise of a "civilized" state as impotent desires seethe and burn under our skins.
Tsiolkas may be making a statement about Australian society (and indeed, many of the racial slurs and classist issues within the story were surprising elements of Australia that had previously been unknown to me), but his larger themes include more than that single continent, enveloping a number of modern cultures that must deal with differences that are not allowed to be treated as differences. Certain voices rang truer than others and there were certain similarities in tone, but on the whole, I found Tsolkas to present interesting narrators who might not be likable but could never really be pushed entirely into the truly detestable camp. Even the "good guys" make wrong choices or do less than ideal things.
We read this for my book club and we had a rousing discussion -- I always enjoy books that provoke different reactions from people, as it allows us to delve in to the reasons we felt as we did and what caused the splits of opinion. The Slap was really an ideal read, given its multiple perspectives and strong societal themes at the heart of its narrative. Some people might be horrified by the graphic sex, drugs, and various behaviors. Maybe I'm just a dissolute and profligate New Yorker, but I thought even some of these things had incredibly positive and redemptive elements to them -- perhaps it really is all about perspective....more
Beauty Salon is a 63-page novella by the Mexican experimental novelist Mario Bellatin, a deeply unsettling account of a man watching others die in theBeauty Salon is a 63-page novella by the Mexican experimental novelist Mario Bellatin, a deeply unsettling account of a man watching others die in the midst of a unknown illness affecting a city, vision clouded by the murky waters of aquariums and self-isolation.
Rather than have a plot or any story arc, the novella simply exists as a snapshot of an existence: the narrator vaguely recounts (for it feels like there's hardly ever any direct statements of action where one thing leads to another, only statements of what things become) how he turned his beauty salon into the Terminal, a place where men on the verge of death from this unknown illness come to die so that they do not meet their end in the street or under bridges. At the Terminal, these guests have a bed and a bowl of soup, along with the company of others close to death, though they cannot have outside visitors and they cannot speak of God. The narrator only accepts men (note that it is not just men who are affected by this illness, but the narrator always turns away women and children) and only accepts those whose death is imminent. In addition to these actions, we have a spotty account from the narrator of his own life as a homosexual man who occasionally wore women's clothing while out late looking for encounters or simply just in his beauty salon. (By the time the narrator is telling his story, though, he indicates that he has burned most of these clothes.) The seedy encounters between men, often at bathhouses or on streetcorners, and the very few flashes of real intimacy shared by the narrator with another only magnify the feeling that this is an isolated man, alone in the world by his own choice and yet he still reaches out to human kind as he takes in the ill and dying, even if he attempts to stay completely detached from individuals.
Weaved throughout the story is a near-constant attention to the fish and aquariums that once provided the beauty salon with its unique and elegant air. Careful attention was once lavished on these creatures, though now few have survived time and neglect; still, the narrator remembers the breeds of fish and particular details about their interactions with amazing clarity. He recites individuals types and recollects their behavior, with particular attention to violent encounters or mysterious deaths, starting with the first three fish he ever purchased. If one ever looked at a novel in terms of a fishbowl, then perhaps Beauty Salon is a strong argument that life is spent floating along, trapped in a set existence and waiting for the inevitable demise as others look on.
As that observation might suggest, I would hazard to say that Beauty Salon might be the most depressing work that I've ever read through. Bellatin crafts some of the most haunting imagery and even now, weeks later, I still recall scenes with a shudder. Very little action occurs and the book seems an attempt to sketch the character of this narrator, yet I still can't understand him... and perhaps that is part of the point. I hesitate to use the word "detached" when discussing the narrator, as he never pulls away and out of life, yet he seals off his ability to connect emotionally with anyone or anything. It doesn't necessarily make him hard, but it makes him seem appear callous, even if that, too, isn't quite right. Caring for men in their dying hours and yet not caring to know them as individuals. Reaching out for physical encounters with other men, yet never seeking a relationship. Intensely focusing on his fish and then deciding to move on to some other breed, and so discarding the living fish as though they were already dead. It's all very unsettling and the reader is left wondering if there's any meaning to life at all or if we are the fish, easily purchased and easily discarded. If we are the fish, then we're really simply floating through life, subject to the whims of a greater force outside the tank... or perhaps (which might even be worse) observed by nothing and no one at all.
The book is structured with the narrator telling his story without interruption, ultimately revealing that he, too, has contracted the same illness as those who die around him and it is only a matter of time before he'll share the fate of so many others who have arrived at the Terminal. There is no obsessive focus on this, as if we're listening to the rasped and rushed words of a man on his deathbed, and yet there is a confessional quality to it, with topics fading in and out as he calmly speaks on. This is the first work of Bellatin's to be translated into English and I cannot help but wonder what subtle linguistic notations were lost in translation. The novel was originally published in 1999, so perhaps that will have some impact on your interpretation of the mysterious illness striking the city... though perhaps not so much as if this were written in 1989, I think. It is impossible to not interpret this as a reaction to the height of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s/90s when information about HIV and AIDS was so scarce and entire communities seemed to disappear, ravaged by the same illness. One might also think of Saramago's Blindness and other books where disease seems to wipe out a population, though the focus on the narrator's lifestyle reminds the reader that not everyone is dying of this disease. Life does seem to go on in the city, even though it feels as though many men come through the Terminal's door. One of the truly frightening things is the utter lack of hope from within the narrator, who has no illusions about his fate and, given that one of his rules for the Terminal is there can be no talk of God, he does not ask moral questions of a higher power. It is not a novel of despair, but one of bleak vastness... an emotional death that has taken place long ago and left a man in the four walls of what was once his dream business... now reduced to a sanctuary that only offers the essentials as men prepare to die.
If all of that isn't enough to scare you off and, instead, you feel intrigued, then I would actually recommend Beauty Salon... for no other reason than the images and ideas stay with you. The thoughts they inspire certainly aren't warm and fuzzy, but they get interesting. This was a book club selection and I voted for reading it purely on the basis of a NY Times article published a little over a year ago, written by Larry Rohter:
A few years ago the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin attended one of those literary conferences here where writers are asked to talk about their own favorites. Unwilling to make a choice, he invented a Japanese author named Shiki Nagaoka and spoke with apparent conviction about how deeply Nagaoka had influenced him, fully expecting the prank to be unmasked during the question-and-answer period.
Instead the audience peppered him for more information about Nagaoka, who was said to have a nose so immense that it impeded his ability to eat. So Mr. Bellatin (pronounced Bay-yah-TEEN) decided to extend the joke and promptly wrote a fake biography — complete with excerpts, photographs and bibliography — called “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction.”
You can find the rest of that article here. Seriously, after reading that, how can you not want to see what else comes from this man's imagination? Of course, Beauty Salon does not share any of the whimsy of this particular prank, but what it does have is an amazing attention to details and an ability to provoke deep thought... though I'm not sure my thoughts are guided towards anything in particular besides what springs from musing on the presentation of this isolated man's experience and perspective. It might not be pretty, but I'd still be interested in reading more of Bellatin's work in the future, pretty or no....more
When the phrase "Mormon comedienne" is enough to produce a chuckle, you know that Elna Baker's memoir cannot fail but be amusing as it sets out to chaWhen the phrase "Mormon comedienne" is enough to produce a chuckle, you know that Elna Baker's memoir cannot fail but be amusing as it sets out to chart the first quarter century of just that... a Mormon comedienne. The ridiculous title The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance should be enough to clue you in that we'll certainly be hearing from an interesting perspective, though thankfully this is no humorous indoctrination to the Mormon religion and the book isn't poised to provide insight so much as it's ready to provide charming and ridiculous stories from the life of one particular Mormon girl as she struggles with her faith and overall life in the city that never sleeps. Of course, I say this, and yet my whole review seems to be a discussion of Elna and her Mormon faith, so evidently as the chuckles wore off, the thoughts inspired by this particular girl and her faith questions/issues clearly stuck with me.
While she's not the most conventional Mormon, Elna Baker's religion colors just about every aspect of her life... whether she wants it to or not. Sure, there are lots of moments where you might be able to put aside the issue and think that she's like any other funny girl recounting anecdotes from childhood and her young adult years. After all, Elna's got a crazy dad who scared the crap out of his kids after tricking them into believing that aliens had arrived in the form of Dairy Queen treats. Her parents paid a Moroccan rug weaver to use their kids for child labor. Her mother sent her off to college with a warning against making out with lesbians. Elna then did make out with some questionable fellows for the sake of feeling like she's seizing her youth. She ruined a family vacation by being self-involved and pretending to faint from low blood sugar. She nearly had sex with an actor who isn't Warren Beatty but whom she refers to as Warren Beatty for the sake of hiding the identity of the real actor. I mean really, haven't we all? But if you think that you'll be able to forget that she's a Mormon, think again. It will always come back to be a major focus. It frequently puts Elna in awkward or painful situations, but just trust that it's actually a combination of her faith (and culture, one could certainly argue) and clear perspective that has probably helped Elna be as funny as she is. (Case in point: a particularly hysterical and painful essay on her tenure at FAO Schwartz when a particular baby doll became the Christmas must-have toy and the store ran out of white babies, leaving parents to struggle with politically correct language as they asked for babies with the acceptable color skin and the option of buying the white sample baby with malformed body and flippers for hands over babies of other ethnicities.)
What helps make Elna funny is that she is her own worst enemy. If something is going wrong for her, it's more than likely her own fault... and rather than lament this, she has no problem laughing at herself and asking us to join in the fun. (An excellent example of this is when an attempt to get the cool guy in school to kiss her resulted in a gash on her head and a maxi-pad was taped to the wound.) Despite being incredibly naive at moments, she also has an impressive bullshit detector when dealing with others. (I'll note that its this perspective which often makes it hard to believe that Elna totally accepts the Mormon religion and its many unique tenets when she seems so level-headed otherwise... but this is a non-Mormon talking.) While she notes that most Mormons are known for saying "no" to things, Elna makes it a point to live life to the fullest and say yes to as much as possible (just not drugs, alcohol, sex, or caffeine). The result of living life like this is that Elna either scores big (crashing a 7-11 conference and getting free tickets to their booze cruise) or she fails spectacularly (the stupendous homemade fortune cookie costume that got slightly bent and ended up making her look like a giant vagina on the way to the annual title dance). No matter what, even if one does occasionally want to smack her upside the head, the reader is always in her corner, hoping that Elna will be happy and find love (though subversive readers like me and most of my book club were hoping that the whole "find love" thing went hand-in-hand with abandoning Mormonism... more on that later).
The other major issue for Elna in this book is weight -- for most of her life, Elna was a "big girl" (weighing over 200 pounds) and it isn't until after moving to New York that she decides enough is enough and she will commit to a change. She sees a doctor who provides her with a diet and exercise regimen (along with "vitamins" that turn out to be a drug like Fen-fen) and manages to lose 80 pounds in record time. She suddenly becomes the thin girl that she's always wanted to be -- but she's still an insecure fat girl in her mind, which always seems to rear its head, even after her miraculous transformation. (And let's not forget that she also attributes her weight loss to a miracle of God helping motivate her through the process... until she realizes that her miracle is due to the drugs the doctor put her on.) Nonetheless, her triumph is heartwarming because even if one laments a culture where people feel they must be think, at least Elna seems to be doing this for herself and not anyone else. In addition, her own reaction to her transformation is fascinating as she chronicles the highs and lows -- including a brutally honest admission that she got irritated with her family for still referring to her sister as the beautiful one when Elna felt she should have made some headway. (As a child, she remembers a man offering to trade their father one thousand camels for her beautiful elder sister Tina and, when refused, he suggested one hundred camels for Elna. "Nine hundred camels, I thought. There is a nine-hundred-camel difference between my sister and me? The rest of my life can be described as a pursuit to be worth more camels.") It also leads to uncertain territory as Elna realizes the weight loss can really be attributed to the drugs (Mormons don't like drugs) and then she starts to contemplate cosmetic surgery (to remove the excess skin that resulted from her dramatic weight less). Given the rules laid out by her faith and culture, Elna is repeatedly put into situations where decisions must be made and she lays everything on the table for the reader.
It's the honesty that makes the reader sympathize with Elna in her essays; she's never one to sugar-coat her actions, though one does get the feeling that she'll never be an essayist like David Sedaris who risks alienating family for the sake of a laugh. (Indeed, in my book club, we laughed about how certain Elna stories started out like Sedaris stories... such as when her parents take the kids to the airport and challenge their kids to find the cheapest fare for their weekend destination. In an Elna story, this was a family bonding experience... something charming and exciting that we wish we could have experienced ourselves as children. In a David Sedaris story, this would have been faux character building exercise as the parents toss the kids on a plane and then drive away to have the weekend to themselves while the kids are left to fend for themelves in a foreign country, cobbling together bits of languages to buy food and somehow negotiating a drug deal.) The novel starts out with one of the best dedications I've ever seen... a note to her parents, thanking them for helping her become who she is. "This book... aside from the nine F-words, thirteen Sh-words, for A-holes, page 257, and the entire Warren Beatty chapter... is dedicated to you. You might want to avoid chapters twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three anything I quote Mom saying, and most of the end as well. Sorry. Am I still as cute as a button?" Her candor becomes endearing as you realize that she wants to be loved for who she is and somehow this gives her the courage to tell the whole story exactly as it happened, mistakes and all.
While the weight issue is important for Elna, the really central thing to Elna's life and the book is her religion and the role it plays in her life. I did mention that God is pretty prominent in every situation, but when it's Mormons... well, if you're anything like me, then you're immediately on the look-out for crazy. Elna is insistent that Mormons aren't nutjobs with multiple wives who worship golden cutlery and dance around in magic underwear (or at least not all of them?). It isn't her objective to convert anybody or even get the reader to understand and accept Mormons as totally normal people, but she is constantly encountering people in New York to whom she feels as though she must explain and defend her religion. (I would probably be one of those New Yorkers, but I should hope I'd be polite not to joke about her faith to her face, but rather, use the opportunity to ask questions to try and understand it all a bit better.) The thing that makes this a bit difficult is the fact that Elna really isn't your standard Utah Mormon. She didn't attend Brigham Young University and she never lived in Utah until she practically forced herself into a relationship with a Mormon guy and she desperately tried to hold on to it, even though she knew it wasn't right. Elna grew up traveling the world with her family; one of her best friends is flamboyantly gay; she dates outside of her religion. She didn't get married at eighteen (and even in her childhood predictions for herself and her friends, she was the late-bloomer who married at the ancient age of twenty). She understands why certain things are funny and has no problem making a few jokes about what her faith means for her (for instance, when noting that you marry someone for "eternity" in the Mormon faith, she recognizes that by not sleeping with him first, she could get stuck with bad sex for eternity). But with this awareness of her faith comes the fact that she does want to believe. Almost every time she's in a vaguely complicated situation (read: a situation where ANY choice is involved at all), her reflections on the situation spiral into a crisis of conscience that seem to put her relationship with God higher than her relationship with her own wants and desires. Does this stop her entirely? No, thank goodness, or else none of us would have bothered with this book. The memoir is basically arranged around recounts of kisses (and occasionally features an updated cartoon featuring the locations of Elna's kisses around Manhattan), so perhaps it's not surprising that it's her love life that is front-and-center throughout the book... or maybe you just needed to know that she's Mormon and in order to achieve the ultimate circle or level of heaven, you have to be married and so finding a marriage partner is a pretty big deal. But even if she does have a relationship with God, I got the impression that she stuck with her religion for the sake of her family. When you're a non-Mormon reading all of this, you like Elna enough to kind of hope that she ditches the religion for the sake of her sanity (Levels of heaven? In the highest one you get to become a God and create your own world? Um, what now?), and yet her loyalty to her family keeps her in a faith that provides emotional obstacles to leaving it. If she marries outside of the church, then she doesn't get to be with her family in heaven. "If I choose not to get married in a Mormon temple, I forfeit the ability to be with my family in the afterlife. I'm convinced that this is why my mother puts so much pressure on marriage: She's afraid of losing me after I'm dead." At a youth meeting, Elna recalls a particular church youth conference called "The Dangers of Dating Outside of Our Faith" where they received a lesson ("Mormons are big on object lessons") where twigs were used to demonstrate their collective strength as a group... though even at twelve, Elna thinks twigs have nothing to do with love. I could keep going on and on with examples of why things seem a little off (though I'll say that perhaps this is because Elna is purposely bringing up humorous incidents where things don't quite line up... incidents which can probably occur in any group, religious or otherwise), but I have one particular passage that seemed to summarize a lot of the story for me as it pertained to Elna, her struggle with finding a Mormon boy, the importance of her family, and the fact that she's not the usual Mormon. She's having a conversation with Tina, her elder sister, about the fact that by Mormon standards, they're old maids in their mid-twenties.
"Why do our lives only matter if we're married?" Tina complained. "Because we're women," I answered. Only this didn't help cheer her up, so I tried another route. "Has dad ever pressured you to get married?" "No." "You see? We're fine. Once he starts interfering, then we know we're in trouble. Until then, we're in the clear--" "He did say something once that really bothered me," she interrupted. "What?" "He said, 'Did we do you kids a disservice by showing you the world?'" "Why would he think that?" I said defensively. "Because he said that now, when mom and him want us to make simple choices, choices they know will make us happy, we can't seem to do it."
This was one of the most profound moments for me in the book because it seemed to epitomize Elna's problem -- her parents were simple Mormons who were happy together and, because of work issues, wound up traveling the world. This may have been lovely for them, but for their kids, it was an exposure to a world and choices that were far more complicated than any simple existence their parents once had. There was no going back for the kids. Ignorance might be bliss, but they were no longer ignorant and couldn't reassume a place in a world without the complexities that gave it color and vibrancy. Things were no longer black and white and for Elna, it seemed that to embrace the Mormon faith wholeheartedly, it rather seems as though they needed to be. At one point, Elna even admits, "My dad says I think too much and that if I'm not careful my thoughts will undermine my faith." Seriously? A religion that encourages you to not think? Clearly this isn't Mormon doctrine or anything, but it makes the reader wish that Elna could give it all up without completely alienating her family (and the reader can see why the members of her family are truly good people and worth her loyalty), which seems to be the main reason she sticks with it.
The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a delightful read. Elna isn't a brilliant writer, but the situations she describes are really the focus of the book. She does manage to win you over to her side so that you're either cheering or wincing every page (and sometimes you're doing both), whether she's describing her rather painful attempt to date and stay with a Mormon guy or she's flying to Africa to try and win back her atheist love. Clearly it's more than just a funny book, as it spawned this whole questioning rant on my part, but I would attribute that to the reader's fondness for Elna growing into a genuine desire to see her happy with her choices. If you're interested in reading the book but are a little bit on the fence, then perhaps you should take a look at this YouTube video (though it will spoil one of the great essays in the book) where Elna Baker doing an early version of the story for the Rejection Collection where she recounts an experience at the titular New York Mormon Singles Halloween Dance and her ruined fortune cookie costume. Perfectly acceptable for work as a video, though you should use headphones for the audio --http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBvVBX... -- and I refuse to be held responsible if you attract stares for snickering too loudly. All in all, a worthwhile read, though I'm not really sure where Elna can go from this in her career. Just the same, I hope she still continues to get herself in awkward situations for my entertainment pleasure, and I'm still holding out hope for the atheist love....more
For ages, this had been on my list of "books I should've read by now" list, citing that many friends had studied this in school and I felt left out ofFor ages, this had been on my list of "books I should've read by now" list, citing that many friends had studied this in school and I felt left out of the party. So I convinced the girls in my book club (all of whom had also missed out on this particular bandwagon) that we should correct this lapse... and... well... I'm glad we did? Ultimately, not many people were all that pleased with Out of Africa, myself included, but it does, at least, provide a detailed glimpse at a bygone world. The reason for its presence on so many school reading lists, however, has got to be the whole "written by a woman" and "about Africa" qualifications, because the paternalistic racism and selective honesty on the part of the author is not exactly something that schools should be promoting to students who aren't old enough to recognize this.
Karen Blixen published Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen in 1937 (Dinesen was her maiden name, though I have yet to figure out where the Isak came from). The events in the book take place over seventeen years -- from her arrival in Africa (to marry her second cousin, the Swedish Baron Bror Von Blixen-Finecke) in 1913 to her departure following the failure of her coffee plantation in 1931. If you finish reading Out of Africa and then read the Wikipedia blurb on Karen Blixen's life, you'll get a little angry. Why? Well, to start with, the Wikipedia blurb shows that Blixen actually had an interesting life, she just chose not to write about any of those bits. (Syphilis! Engaged to her second-cousin after failing to win his brother! Unfaithful husband! Divorce and retaining control of the plantation! Affair with Denys Finch-Hatton! Creating a personal legend of her own life!) In any case, it's a bit frustrating to read a "memoir" when very little of that comes into play. She focuses entirely on her relationship with Africa... so you'd think you might get a little of the husband or the lover, but no -- she barely mentions her husband at all and Denys is simply depicted as a friend.
The book doesn't follow much linear style, except in the fifth and final part where the coffee plantation fails and so Blixen sells it off and leaves Africa. Instead, it's comprised of a number of anecdotes about her life, the farm, and the people and animals on it. With just the hint of the title, the reader knows that everything cannot end well and that the author will be leaving Africa, but that might not be enough to hint at the elegiac tone which suffuses the entire work. It's melancholy and full of longing, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere. Blixen is writing about an Africa that no longer exists, a colonialist occupation on its last legs that is still struggling for elegance and grandeur in a land where grandeur is not high on the priority list (and, thankfully, not high on Blixen's). The Natives that populate the country aren't slaves and Blixen is quite kind to them, but the amount of condescension that radiates from her work is a bit mind-boggling. There are many ways to justify this and soften the blow, but the racism is inescapable. Clearly, Blixen wouldn't call herself a racist and she repeatedly calls many Natives her "friends," but that really isn't the relationship that's described Given the time period and the environment, it's not terribly surprising and her attitude might even have been seen as a bit progressive in comparison to others, but it's still there. It's the idea of looking upon the Natives as lesser creatures who need to be educated, adjusted, and changed. She might have some form of nostalgia for their way of life (and even tries to help it struggle on at times), but her perspective is the vision of someone who knows it will not last and it's probably for their own good that it not. Entire groups of people are lumped together in her descriptions of their temperament and outlook as she tries to explain to a European (or Western) audience exactly what these people are like and it's the rare individual that is singled out for any defining characteristics. There were animals that were described with greater detail than any human individuals. In general, her European focus on work, schedule, and order causes her to paint the Natives as lazy and ignorant, with the occasional admission some of them are clever and that the general populace might have something going for them that the average European has lost. There are a few instances where the activities of the Natives versus those of the Europeans are drawn into stark contrast -- particularly as it concerns justice, penance, and, apparently, logic. There's even the occasional time that she sides with the Native's perspective (though more often than not, she presents it to the reader as an oddity to puzzle or chuckle over). It isn't that she believes them incapable of learning how to do things... but again, here comes the paternalistic attitude. At one point, she even suggests that they might never develop the same attitude towards technology (her examples of this are airplanes and automobiles, for perspective) because they themselves never developed these things. They went from zero to sixty and as a result will never feel the way that others do whose civilizations developed these wonders. The issue I have here is not that they will have different ideas, but that her focus is on how they will never develop a specific attitude, as though there's only one good viewpoint here to which one can aspire. It's all so unfortunate, as Blixen clearly loves the land and the people, but I fear that her love is grounded in a system that could not endure, and therefore is easy to embrace for those who relish a tragic and doomed love.
Given the fact that the book is comprised of incidents and jumps around a bit, I found this terribly easy to set down after reading a few pages and rather hard to pick up again. Perhaps, too, I might have been more inclined to read things if I felt that Blixen weren't deliberately leaving out elements of her daily life. The complete absence of her husband is a gaping hole and while it does lend her the image of doing everything on her own, she doesn't go into enough detail about her own life to justify the responsibility. One also feels that Blixen's narrative is set up so she can pick and choose stories based on what she wishes to convey about this lost time and place... and there's the distinct sense that she isn't always being entirely honest. I don't even necessarily mean her real relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton (because if one wishes to conceal a relationship, that's one's own business)... but the way her narrative gravitated towards him and his death would allow even a child in school to believe that all Blixen's cards weren't on the table. Whether it was that some things were too painful to dwell on or that they didn't fit into her particular image of her time there, it's enough to drive one to Wikipedia to fill in the gaps.
I wouldn't like to give the impression that my entire experience with Out of Africa was totally negative. Her writing style is quite interesting (though Danish, Blixen wrote in English) and I'm not sure if it's the fact that English isn't her native language which gives everything a detached, matter-of-fact tone to it, or if she's adopting it to seem like a more justified observer of human nature. When I looked up discussion questions for the book, many focused on the idea of finding one's self, but no one in my book club actually thought the book was terribly concerned about Blixen "finding" herself. Yes, she was changed by her experiences in Africa, but without seeing any trajectory of self, it was hard to tell just how changed she ultimately had been. It is, however, really quite fascinating to read the account of this time period, if only because there's always some strange nostalgia for bygone days that feature this twisted mix of disparate wealth and social classes. I wouldn't necessarily say that Blixen was whole-heartedly in favor of colonialism, but given the choice between the way things were and the way things became, she'd have preserved the system just as it was. There's never really a thought to whether the Natives would be better off without the Europeans' interference. Everything about the work seems to be looking back without any desire to look forward, which is really quite a shame.
So I am pleased that I slogged my way through and I do recognize that Africa meant something special to Karen Blixen, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be endorsing this for school reading and discussion unless the kids are old enough to understand that these opinions about Native peoples aren't quite ideal. Some of the prose is lovely indeed and once in a while, Blixen succeeded in making me long for to sit on a veranda, surrounded by African scenery, but it was really only the landscape that inspired longing... and perhaps the wish that the Europeans hadn't been quite so hasty to claim the world as their own and displace the original inhabitants for their selfish gain. Better a memoir of the time be preserved than the system it discusses, and at least it's an account to remind us of the many mistakes in our world's history. If you're reading this to discuss with others, it could be quite worth it, but I'll not recommend that anyone trudge through this on their own. I feel a bit terrible for saying so when the book in question is often called a classic, but so it goes. ...more
Considered to be one of the best spy thrillers of the modern age, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the the novel that put John le Carré's on the bConsidered to be one of the best spy thrillers of the modern age, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the the novel that put John le Carré's on the best-seller list (and essentially he's there to stay. Given this fantastic piece, it is well-deserved. Published in 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was le Carré's third novel, but the first espionage thriller of its kind -- namely, the first with the painfully realistic notion that there is no "good" or "bad" side in a conflict and no one is particularly moral or just when it might come at the expense of victory.
Alec Leamas is a burned-out English spy enduring his final mission so that he might "come in from the cold" and retire after a long career in the British Secret Intelligence Service. This chance comes shortly after Leamas's stint as commander of the West Berlin office where he witnessed his last decent agent get shot trying to escape East Berlin. Now, his job is to destroy his own life and give the illusion of a washed-up agent ill-used by his superiors so that he might appear to be a man who's very willing to defect to the East German Communists and sell them information. Leamas is a pro and he plays his role well -- except he does what it seems like every spy does... he gets involved with a girl. Liz Gold is a young Jewish woman who works at a library, a registered Communist who falls hard for Leamas, even though he tries to push her away (though he doesn't try very hard). Whether Leamas falls in love with Liz or simply develops an affection for her, no one should be too surprised if Liz becomes a liability in the high-stakes game that he's playing. Before diving headfirst into his dealings with the East German Communists, he makes Liz promise to not try and find him and similarly asks his British superiors to leave her alone. Yeah. Sure.
To say too much about the plot would be criminal, so I'll simply note that it's all quite worth reading. It's so refreshing to find a novel where things move quickly and the author doesn't pander to a slow audience. I actually wondered at the beginning of the book if I was going to be quick enough to follow along with everything, particularly considering my Cold War knowledge is a bit rusty, but it turned out I had everything I needed to know. The thing that's fascinating now is to be familiar with the jaded concept that neither side is "right" in a conflict, but to see the origin of this idea in the novel that best brought it to light in terms of the modern age. Clearly, this is no James Bond novel where he easily bests the bad guys in the name of Queen and country while sleeping with sexy women and drinking martinis. Leamas is a grizzled case who's been in the field for much too long and he's beyond disillusioned with it all... and yet still, he might retain his own understanding of honor. He's lived a cover for so long that who knows what is "true" and it takes a woman from the outside to prove that not everything is about lies and subterfuge... but such a perspective can hardly survive the onslaught of underhanded dealings. There is, indeed, a real villain in this story, but an individual's blackened soul doesn't necessarily represent an entire country, particularly when the only other true idealist with a good dream to improve the lives of his people is on the exact same side. Leamas, despite being disillusioned with it all, still does seem to have some moral understanding and perhaps that's what draws him to naive Liz.
My book club read this at the suggestion of a member who is writing her own spy novel and so has been immersing herself in fiction and non-fiction that pertains to the topic as research. Perhaps an unlikely choice, it made for some great discussion as we dissected the motives of various characters and sighed over just how annoying Liz was. (Seriously, it's painful how useless and frustrating she was in the face of everything.) There was a movie made of this novel that a few of us had seen, though I personally casted Jeremy Irons as Leamas as I read the book and pictured everything playing out. So much of this spy work is about calculation, planning, and nervous execution. Whenever physical force is used, it's rarely flashy and frequently fails in its objective. It's certainly not the spy thriller that we're all familiar with, but that only makes it more interesting.
John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, a former MI5 and MI6 employee who was very familiar with the intelligence game. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was so successful that it enabled Cornwell to quit MI6 and start writing full time. His first two novels featured the character George Smiley, who makes a brief appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as having a role in the British side of this plan (though not an official Circus agent, supposedly), and Smiley became one of le Carré's leading protagonists. The author calls The Spy Who Came in from the Cold one of his best four novels and it's quite easy to see why. Despite having the appearance of a jaded man and a lone wolf, Leamas is an incredibly sympathetic hero. Before reading this, I had kind of passed over le Carré as a writer whose work wasn't quite my style, but such intelligent writing about the spy game is fascinating for any smart reader with the desire to be told a twisted and complicated story. I already have my eye on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a future read for when I want to dive into le Carré once more... though I certainly hope that future female characters are a bit less irritating than poor Liz or I'll be quickly disappointed....more
Mark Twain noted that he could never depict violence as completely and truthfully as it occurs in real life, particularly not when he wrote with a marMark Twain noted that he could never depict violence as completely and truthfully as it occurs in real life, particularly not when he wrote with a market of young boys in mind. He confessed once to a friend that to write the truth of such violence "would require ... a pen warmed up in hell." In Finn by Jon Clinch, you'll note that Clinch has no such problem in wielding that damned pen. Indeed, Finn might be the most violent book that I've ever read... not for depictions of battle scenes and carnage, but for small acts of unspeakable cruelty in cold blood. I warn you that if you're squeamish... well, then actually, you probably should read this book and learn a few things about yourself. And don't worry, no violent acts towards animals are depicted in the course of the book.
Finn does many things but perhaps what struck me most was the fact that it has an objective to not only to create a back-story for Huckleberry Finn's father, but to see just how far one can push the limits of violence in fiction. Our eyes might glaze over at the evening news and think nothing of the tragic violence there, but when it comes to a work of literature, we tend to balk. I say literature because Finn is certainly one of the finest works of literature that I've read this year. Jon Clinch is a master wordsmith with tremendous talent. I rarely underline things in books these days, but I found myself underlining simple phrases or fragments, just so I might return to bask in their beauty and grace at a later moment. One can easily call such writing poetry, for the words beg to be read aloud and lingered over.
Of course, many people do not associate "poetry" with the people and actions depicted within Finn. Our protagonist seems to be a man without conscience or care, living for himself alone in a crude and dirty existence. There are no simple southern days spent whitewashing picket fences here. I'm not questioning the focus, mind, simply noting the juxtaposition of such beautiful language with such a harsh setting. Finn is as fascinating as he is detestable, but he cannot be dismissed by a simple judgment -- his internal contradictions reach down into his very soul. Since Finn is already an adult by the time we come upon him, we never see a Finn clear of blame and in any way on the "right" side of morality. Finn seems to have his own moral code, even if it waxes and wanes with his needs. What we do see is a man who continues to make choices as though he will never feel the repercussions (even if he is unconsciously twisted by those choices) and there comes a point when you can no longer be redeemed, even by love. His descent makes for a twisted and fascinating tale. Clinch writes that this is Finn's book, and Finn is many things in his life, including a father to Huckleberry, the town drunk, a bigot, and a murderer. Calling this a "prequel" to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be incorrect, for while it certainly casts its net to earlier years, it also takes place right along side the events of Twain's novel, too. Clinch neatly fits in his narrative so that takes some liberties with characters, but never contradicts the original Twain text, even if it does pose some significant theories. While it's not important to have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one might find Finn to be more rewarding with some knowledge of the text. Small details here and there cause the reader to delight in their own intelligence, as though they're in on the joke when they can pick up on people and objects that appear in Twain's original text.
The novel opens with a body slowly drifting down the Mississippi River. Both the body and the river are of supreme importance to the text, for the river will be our near-constant companion and the specter of the body will loom over the entire story to remind us of what has happened and what is sure to come. It is important to note even now that the body is stripped of its skin, skin that might identify the color of the woman that once animated the muscle. The color of one's skin is terribly important in the world of this novel, and perhaps to no character more than the woman whose body is found drifting down the river.
The story jumps back and forth along a timeline, so assume that if you feel something hasn't been sufficiently explained, soon enough the story will reach back to do so. Finn's father is the Judge, a loveless and bigoted man who is, just the same, highly respected in the town. He might be disappointed in his sickly younger son, but outright despises his degenerate and drunken firstborn. Finn owes his ramshackle home and supplementary income to his younger brother, who essentially cooks the books so he can slip his brother some money. Finn makes his "living" by fishing and selling whatever he catches to various establishments with various amounts of profit. (By "living" I also mean his whiskey money, as Finn seems to consume nothing else in such quantity as alcohol.) Primarily, he catches and sells catfish, the ultimate bottomfeeder that so nicely echoes Finn's own existence. The river is also Finn's primary source for acquiring other items that might be sold or might find a place in his home, from small things like nails to larger things, like a female companion who is referred to simply as "that woman" for quite a while in the text until we discover her story. After chance finds him on a steamboat, Finn foils the attempt by two black slaves (a father and daughter) to commandeer the vessel and sail to a free state. As a reward for these actions (and as payment for his skiff that was destroyed by the steamboat and, thus, led to his presence in the first place), Finn is given the daughter, Mary. Mary, who is educated and was treated rather decently by her previous mistress as far as slavery goes, is plunged into a much rougher life with a very rough man. Her motivation can make for extensive debate, largely stemming from why on earth she stays with Finn when it seems that the chance of escaping by risking death is a much more appealing prospect, and while words of love are never spoken, the emotion itself must be assumed. Finn has complicated ideas about blacks, ultimately viewing them as lesser creatures than whites but that doesn't stop him from essentially building a home with Mary and having a child with her. She is both his property and his lover, a black slave worth his contempt and yet an educated creature who reads him poetry. He is faithful to her as he is faithful to nothing else. Whether this stems from emotional attachment or the fact that this is the only kind of woman who can't reject him and demand that he change his ways, well, that's something to ponder, and perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. It is a complicated relationship that seems incapable of yielding happiness, and yet it does seem to result in a contented family for a time.
The revolutionary idea that Finn poses is that Huckleberry Finn is the son of a black woman and it's only the fact that Huck has light skin that later allows him to unconsciously "pass." This question of parentage is a significant issue at a time when having a black mother would mean that Huck, too, could be claimed as a slave. As a result, some incredibly heartbreaking moments occur late in the book, involving Mary's struggle with these facts. This is one in a series of tragedies for Mary, who upholds the literary (and real-life) tradition of minority women enduring extraordinary tragedy with grace. Mary is not the only example of such in the novel and perhaps this other woman suffers even greater sorrows than Mary, but she, too, can also lay the blame for those sorrows at Finn's door. When it comes to sins, perhaps the greatest are not those that require action, but those where one does nothing to stop a terrible deed from being committed, thus tacitly condoning it.
My book club had the great pleasure of being able to invite Jon Clinch to discuss his book with us, which was an incredibly enlightening experience in terms of actually speaking with the man who was responsible for such a novel. I challenge anyone to read this book and not, at some point or other, wonder about the author himself who would conceive of such situations and characters, somehow able to find the words to describe what might seem to be unspeakable violence. It's not the kind of violence that might seem "entertaining" in any way, but it's violence that occurs in the world nonetheless and most of us probably want to forget that fact. No such chance here. Yet Jon Clinch is a very pleasant and well-spoken man, a loving husband and father whose liberal inclinations led him to slip a Dick Cheney joke into Finn at the last minute (hint: look for a scene involving an accidental shooting and "Whittington"). Clinch speaks eloquently about a novel that is regularly denounced for its content; he's had a great deal of practice in answering questions about the grislier aspects of it. He even told us a great secret that I disclose here: in order to keep up the constant stream of rather terrible events, he had a rule that something dreadful had to happen every seventy-five pages. My response to this was, "It was really only every seventy-five?!" Indeed, the stream of violence is as steady as the ever-moving waters of the Mississippi itself, which seems so at odds with this lovely man who lives in Vermont and dotes upon his daughter. Of course, Clinch is also fiercely intelligent and patiently eager to argue out the fact that violence exists all around us and has shaped our literature and society, even as books increasingly become less violent. To remove it from fiction is to delude ourselves into thinking it is no longer in our lives when the nightly news confirms the opposite.
Of course, if you let the violence overwhelm you, then you can miss out on many of the other terribly interesting things that this novel does, particularly exploring those complicated ideas about race. After all, in Twain circles, it's evidently quite a controversial idea to make Huck half black (personally, I had always assumed Twain was implying something about Native American ancestry in his dusky complexion and strange reserves of knowledge). In today's world, we tell ourselves with increasing frequency that race "doesn't matter" (or at least "shouldn't matter"), and so it is jarring to explore a novel that purposely calls our attention to the facts of a racist time. Another major theme of the novel concerns the sins of the father as we examine Finn and the Judge, both terrible fathers for very different reasons, who have lasting impact on their children, no matter the age of the child.
Whether the reader finds Finn to be a sympathetic character is something that I cannot predict, for even as I loved the novel, I admit that I took comfort in the knowledge that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer one day find the body of Huck's pap in a floating house. The knowledge of future justice (or at least an end to one man's capacity for terrible actions) is perhaps the only kindness that we are allowed in the stream of unrelenting violence. The price of this is the knowledge that worse actions happened in the real world at this time, actions grounded in bigotry and hatred, and a great many of those perpetrators went unpunished. For Finn, he might meet a bad end in a bad life, but I cannot be sorry for the conception and telling of his story. Finn is worth the intense scrutiny and study... and Clinch more than acquits himself of being a worthy teller of the tale....more
On an August morning in 1974, if the New Yorkers rushing past the Twin Towers on their usual morning commute paused to look up, they would have seen aOn an August morning in 1974, if the New Yorkers rushing past the Twin Towers on their usual morning commute paused to look up, they would have seen a tightrope walker on a line suspended between the towers. This moment of guerrilla performance art is what ties together Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, which otherwise explores four separate stories, all of which eventually touch upon each other in strange ways. A group of mothers who lost sons in Vietnam. An Irish brother (and his own actual brother) who is kind to a group of prostitutes in the Bronx. One of those prostitutes, a grandmother and not yet forty, tries to make her life and the lives of her family better. Young artists find themselves fleeing the scene of a car accident and yet they cannot shake the horror of what they have done. This moment in time, suspended, becomes the focus of a novel that offers a fascinating view of a New York that existed not all that long ago, but has been irrevocably lost to us.
It's not that it took me a very long time to get through this novel, it's just that when I set a book aside for a time (for any number of reasons), it's very hard for me to return to it. And it might not have any bearing on the novel itself. For Let the Great World Spin, I just couldn't handle how terribly sad and depressed I felt about halfway through and I needed a bit of distance, but I picked it up again several months later when my book club selected it and I am very pleased that they did. Even in 1974, the Twin Towers were emblems of New York, symbolizing its progress and promise; to view them within the novel is to experience the heavy heart of hindsight.
This is not an easy read, nor should it be. Even if you simply focus on the characters themselves, their lives are full of the heartbreak that is inevitably a part of living. Once setting down the book, however, it is impossible to keep your thoughts from drifting to Ground Zero (particularly if you live in New York, as I do). McCann's characters are vividly real. Even though the actual tight-rope walker plays a small role in the novel, his artistic expression illuminates the tight-rope acts that everyone in this novel is doing -- balancing themselves between conflicting ideas, emotions, or actions. It's a testament to 9/11 that it is so deeply rooted in our national consciousness that McCann evoked every tragic image and moment without any specific allusion to them, until the end when he spoke of his father-in-law's dust-covered shoes. The entire book is haunted by future events, which only makes each new, unrelated pain all the sharper.
My NYC-based book club read this and we had similar reactions, with the general opinion being quite positive of McCann's writing and the book as a whole. Obviously, we shared our "where I was when I heard about the planes" stories. There was the unanimous stereotypical observation that an Irish author can write despair, tragedy, and hardship like no other kind of author in the world. In addition, we collectively appreciated that, despite all the quiet suffering, there was also the undercurrent of resilience, which seems odd for a book not specifically dealing with a tragic event, and yet by reaching in to the past, there was some element that shone through. It's not a British "keep calm and carry on" kind of attitude, but there is the knowledge that whether the tragedy be small and personal or unimaginably large as 9/11, there is the innate human need to continue on and reclaim one's life from the constant thrall of a specific and devastating catastrophe. The motivations for this might vary, but there it is, just the same.
While I wouldn't necessarily recommend that you pick up this title when you're feeling blue, save it until a sunnier day. And any New Yorker should definitely read this for a different perspective on the World Trade Center and its place in our city's history and consciousness....more