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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
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2013 Book Discussions > A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Day 1 and 2 (November 2013)

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Deborah | 983 comments This is for discussing the first section of the book specifically.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) Phew. I got to the end of this section and had to take a baking break to clear my head. I'm having a hard time understanding the GoodReads friend of mine who found this book to be funny.

Perhaps he meant he was surprised by the humanity. There is a lot of that here, people still being people, despite starvation and craters in the landscape. But quite a few of those who are even left are shells.


Deborah | 983 comments I think the writing is terribly funny in places. I was thinking too, that this is probably why this will be a good book. That ability to laugh at life and people even amid misery and tears is so human and true.


Jason Perdue | 8 comments I've laughed out loud several times in Days 1 & 2. It appears to change tone a bit in Day 3.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) Jason wrote: "I've laughed out loud several times in Days 1 & 2. It appears to change tone a bit in Day 3."

Do you remember those moments? I cringed and grasped more than anything,


message 6: by Deborah (last edited Nov 03, 2013 07:14AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Deborah | 983 comments I hope that I am not wrong here when I state this opinion, which I am states an opinion and not fact. -
My observation is that their is a very specific sense of humor typical of those who grew up in the USSR. It's dark and sly and it pokes fun at the way things often don't work the way they should.

And I see that in this work over and over. Even in the opening pages, where you're given this horrific scene of a man watching his neighbor's house burn, and caring for his (most likely) adopted daughter. I thought the digression about whether he should pray was brilliant. It steps outside of that emotion into the world of logic and persistence. I loved the logical conclusion that if the praying didn't stop the fire starting it wouldn't put it out.

Yes, it's not a joyous humor but rather a gallows absurdity.

I loved the scene where Deshi and Sonja speak to and about Akmed as though he weren't there. I love the bit about the oncologist.

There are these little asides, some funny and some just infused with light that save this from being a gloomy bit of sad story no.8,999,000,247,123. Not funny but hinting at joy is the promise of the lime for the lemon woman - I liked that.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) I did love the lemon woman. And the old worker at the hospital and the way she teased Akhmed.


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments I'm with Jenny on the funny angle in this first section. I see what Deborah is saying and I can look back at the passages noted and see how they might be considered funny. But, especially in this first section, I was in no mood to pick up on the humor. There are some later that I did find amusing but only after I got more in tune with the characters.


Jason Perdue | 8 comments They joke at the absurdity of life and at the horrors. Akhmed is a joker. Deshi is a woman disillusioned about love (esp. oncologists) in the midst of unimaginable tragedy.


message 10: by Daniel, Inactive (new) - rated it 3 stars

Daniel | 738 comments Mod
Regarding the humour, I found it hysterical when Akhmed focused Havaa's energies on teaching the one-armed soldier how to juggle - especially when he started invoking the names of various deities.

The lemon woman brings up a question that I wanted to ask here. What does everybody else make of Marra's constant mentioning of what will take place, giving us some glimpse of the hurricane that will arise from a butterfly flapping its wings? The lemon woman is a perfect example, for Marra points out that "she was still four years and one month away from her seventy-sixth birthday and the miracle of her first lime" (p. 30). Another example would be when Natasha lights her cigarette "from the hot plate her father had, twelve years earlier, purchased secondhand from a woman who would never find a flame that cooked an egg quite as well" (p. 104). Is this a cheap gimmick, or does it serve to flesh out the larger story?


Jason Perdue | 8 comments Those lines inject an incredible amount of character in the space of one line. I love it. It brings these side characters to life instantly. I think it's unique and creative. It's unpredictable and completely lacking in cliche which to me is one of the marks of good writing. It also reminds us that 1995 and 2004 are in the past and that things have happened after the story being told to us.


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments I thought that the author's inserting of future events concerning characters was part of the charm of the book. This seemed to be a theme in the National Book award longlist novels, as it also was a technique used in Someone by Alice McDermott and The End of the Point by Elizabeth Garver. I liked it, as I often wonder what happens to characters after the story being told is done. I think it is especially effective in this book. One reason I think this, is that knowing what happened in the future for some characters left me with a sense of hopefulness.


message 13: by Daniel, Inactive (new) - rated it 3 stars

Daniel | 738 comments Mod
Jason wrote: "Those lines inject an incredible amount of character in the space of one line..."

Absolutely.

Linda wrote: "...knowing what happened in the future for some characters left me with a sense of hopefulness."

That's an appealing perspective. There's so much latent despair in the book. There must be some emotional pressure valves for the writing to work, which is (I think) what we pointed out regarding the humour. But I never thought of this device offering some hope or consolation. Nice.


message 14: by Hanne (last edited Nov 10, 2013 07:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hanne (Hanne2) I just finished this part in the book, and I'm really taken by this book. It's a heavy subject, but I do think it's being infused with humour to make it somewhat bearable.

I see humous has already been discussed above, so I'll just add my two cents. It's no funny-slapstick-humour at all, but very sarcastic black humour. I didn't laugh out loud, but I did smile. The first time Achmed and Sonja meet for instance, when she's interviewing him and he gives seemingly simplistic answers.
But it's also 'laughing' with the absurdity of so many things. The 'it must be pay-day soon' because the soldiers are just shooting around as their pay seems to correlate with the amount of munition 'used'. That got a very crooked smile from me.
The topic isn't funny at all - everything but. But the way it's written makes the whole thing so absurd and face-palm-worthy that it becomes somewhat funny.

All that makes it even more powerful and aching, when the truth simmers through. A very strong scene for me was the part with the barbie doll. The suggestion that perhaps she was a black widow about to take some Russians hostage at the theatre - that this is why she was dressed so fancy.
That scene made me cringe like hell, because i remember this from the radio news. It's another terrible page in the history of this conflict, and it is used so lightly in connecton with this doll.


Deborah | 983 comments I had no idea that this was an incident. I will google it, unless I can prevail on you to give some context.


message 16: by Hanne (last edited Nov 10, 2013 07:09AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hanne (Hanne2) My memories are a bit fuzzy on the account, but I just found a link to this on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moscow_t... or a shorter chronology of the horrific event http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002...

It happened in 2002, and the chapter is set in 2004 so I'm pretty sure this is what they are referring too.

Armed Chechen rebels took 850 people hostage in a Moscow theatre during a sold out performance. The siege took more than 2 days, and the military had to use gas in the end to get it ended. 170 people died and nearly everyone had to be taken to the hospital.


Deborah | 983 comments I had absolutely no recollection of this at all! How odd.


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments I had forgotten this but reading the accounts brings it back to mind. This is the sort of news I was referring to on another discussion of this book -- seems to me the news we hear about Chechnya is focused on terroist activities rather than on what the civilians, i.e., non-combatants, are facing.


Deborah | 983 comments I have been a little swamped and fallen behind. I just started Day Three.

Do you ever find yourself hooked on a tertiary character? (I assume he doesn't play a big part, but I'm fallen behind after all.)

I find I keep thinking about that gangster. I find him fascinating. I don't know that I believe that Alu is his least favorite brother. I don't think this will have any bearing on the story. But I thought about this tonight while washing dishes.


Deborah | 983 comments Oh, and I think this is also sort of an interesting tie to the idea that morality is informed by sentiment. Which Khassan contemplates.I think.

He's (the gangster, not Khassan) is a terrible person. But he's a terrible person who pays his debts, keeps his promises, loves his bother.


message 21: by Daniel, Inactive (new) - rated it 3 stars

Daniel | 738 comments Mod
Deborah wrote: "Do you ever find yourself hooked on a tertiary character?"

Totally! And I'm right there with you. The introduction of that gangster was the point where the story really pulled together for me. We'll have to bring up Alu at a later point, because that's another thing I was hooked on.


message 22: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (Joy1) | 2241 comments Thank you all for your comments. I finally got to read a decent chunk of this today (11/18), although only into Chap 5. I did do some hopping and skipping through the book, however, since I may have to return before completed and need to decide how much I'm willing to invest in overtime dues or a copy of my own.

I agree much with the comments about the significance of the black humor and its roles in the story telling, although I hadn't stopped to think about it per se. In terms of the story itself, at the moment I am reminded of both Purge by Sofi Oksanen (political oppression) and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (challenging hospital conditions).


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments Deborah wrote: "Oh, and I think this is also sort of an interesting tie to the idea that morality is informed by sentiment. Which Khassan contemplates.I think.

He's (the gangster, not Khassan) is a terrible perso..."


Deborah, I found the gangster interesting, but never thought to characterize him as a terrible person. Why do you think he is a terrible person?


Deborah | 983 comments Hijacking the Red Cross is a pretty crappy thing to do.


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments Lily wrote: "Thank you all for your comments. I finally got to read a decent chunk of this today (11/18), although only into Chap 5. I did do some hopping and skipping through the book, however, since I may h..."

Lily, your comparison of the hospital conditions to those in Cutting for Stone is interesting, especially given that Verghese's hospital was in the United States! I'm going to have to think about that for awhile.


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments Deborah wrote: "Hijacking the Red Cross is a pretty crappy thing to do."

Agree that is a crappy thing to do, but he doesn't seem to have killed anyone when he did it. And Sonja accepted the supplies and put them to good use. The Red Cross probably had the resources to replace what he took and he did not have another source to provide Sonja with what she needed, so perhaps the end result was that more people were helped than would have been otherwise?


Deborah | 983 comments Ok. I'm willing to amend terrible person to morally suspect.


message 28: by Lily (last edited Nov 19, 2013 02:49PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (Joy1) | 2241 comments Linda wrote: "Lily, your comparison of the hospital conditions to those in Cutting for Stone is interesting, especially given that Verghese's hospital was in the United States! I'm going to have to think about that for awhile...."

Linda -- My mental comparison was more with the mission hospital in Addis Ababa.

There are elements of the struggle for hospital supplies in other war torn area stories, too. The Tiger's Wife? Even War and Peace.


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments Lily wrote: "Linda wrote: "Lily, your comparison of the hospital conditions to those in Cutting for Stone is interesting, especially given that Verghese's hospital was in the United States! I'm going to have to..."

I don't remember the mission hospital in Addis Ababa in Cutting for Stone. The contrast between the NY hospitals is what has stuck. I do remember it in The Tigers Wife. You are right I think about it being an issue in war torn areas. We are also seeing it in the Phillipines right now as a result of the hurricane damage -- different cause, similar result.


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments Deborah wrote: "Ok. I'm willing to amend terrible person to morally suspect."

And I can agree completely with that statement!


message 31: by Lily (last edited Nov 26, 2013 07:46PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (Joy1) | 2241 comments I've had a hard time figuring out who is related to whom and how in this novel -- except a little bit about the "lead" dog ;-) (don't have my copy within reach to check his name). I also haven't figured out how to make effective use of the time line at the top of each chapter.

I also am finding it sloughing to get through it -- it is not grabbing me with a desire to follow either character development or a plot. But the setting and the somewhat quirky insights are keeping me picking it up for short bursts -- but only about a chapter at a time. (Unlike Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? , which I am reading concurrently and am having a hard time putting down. Yet ACoVP seems so much more "important" to read.)

This was helpful as background (would be interested in other suggestions):
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europ...


LindaJ^ (LindaJS) | 1858 comments Thanks for the link Lily. The background information is quite useful and provides a background for the story. It is good that different books grab different people, although I suspect when that happens both sides are confused by the others reaction! I hope you stick with A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for a bit. It mesmorized me. It did take me awhile to be sure to note the year the chapter was taking place in. It helps to know especially when looking back.


message 33: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (Joy1) | 2241 comments Linda wrote: "...The background information is quite useful and provides a background for the story...."

I was backtracking this morning, trying to figure out when or how Havaa's mother disappeared. Still haven't found it -- not sure if it is in what I have read or will come in the future. (I was in Chapter 10, first one of the third day section.)

But the picture of the bombed out building in the picture in the link above came to mind as I reread the opening of the door to the "storage closet" on the fourth floor of the hospital and imagined what might have been seen. (p. 20)

While I tend not to watch much tv -- the ads get to me, would rather use internet news sources and then spend time reading -- this story reminds me of war scenes from Lebanon and Syria. Few things I read have felt more harrowing, even the Stalingrad siege itself, whether in topic or in presentation. I give Marra considerable kudos for recreating the sense of chaos, both with story and with structure, sometimes right down to sentence structure. Neither of these is the example that first struck me (can't find again now), but each is a more elaborate non sequitur:

SPOILER ALERT These examples are from the opening Chapter 10 of "The Third Day": (view spoiler)


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