Monday, January 26, 2015

The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain

"He had four wives altogether and many lovers as well. It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife. But that was probably vanity, wanting to stand out in a long line of women."

I was introduced to this historical fiction novel from an episode of Books on the Nightstand where Mclain gives a short talk about her book. It intrigued me because she admits that she was not a fan of Hemingway - at the time I wasn't as well - but in her research she comes around: "Getting to know him in this other way, from Hadley's point of view, was a total revelation...that guy, that egomaniac misogynist I-hate-my-mother and drink too much, he didn't exist yet..." Mclain talks about Hemingway in a loving way that really intrigued me. I have definitely fallen in love a little bit myself. If you have only ever seen old bearded too much sunshine and liquor Hemingway, here is a treat for you: 
Who wouldn't want to call him Big Poppa?
After reading The Sun Also Rises, I finally picked up this book and fell instantly and immediately into the story. It is incredibly well researched, and I assume the major plot points are accurate, but it is told from the perspective of Hadley and thus we hear her thoughts and know her in a way that isn't possible - keeping the novel squarely in the category of fiction. 

It begins with a prologue where Hadley introduces her 'memoir.' Even the purest anti-Hemingwayian will know that he was a cheater who had a string of women, so it's no surprise when she says: 
"This isn't a detective story - not hardly. I don't want to say Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she's coming anyway, set on her course..."
Nonetheless, this of course made me keep watch. Every time Hemingway flirted (which is often) and every time a female shows up (Gertrude Stein? Zelda Fitzgerald? Duff who Lady Brett Ashley is very much based on?) I wondered, "Will this be her?" Knowing that it's going to happen doesn't make it any less devastating when it does. 

The strength of the novel is that if every character's name were changed, it would still be a good read. It's a great story - timid 28-year-old girl meets exuberant and gorgeous boy. They fall madly in love, run off to Paris, hang out with beautiful brilliant people, get drunk, throw up together in chamber pots, and run off for the next adventure. Of course, all the brilliant people happen to be ones that you probably already know: Gertrude Stein, Alice, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald with little Scottie, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, etc, etc. (which will probably remind you that this is a book rooted in real events with people who really are that interesting and rich and you're not - sorry).

The other issue that it handles well is the idea of being the Famous Artist's partner. Hadley spends a lot of time set off to the side with other partners while the Great Artists talk about Important Stuff. This can be frustrating for Hadley because she's intrigued by these people, but they're not really interested in her. She even self-reflects on how she didn't really understand what she was agreeing to do in this marriage: 
"Over and over I'd sworn I'd never stand in the way of his work...but more and more I understood that I didn't know what those promises really meant."
In one lovely moment, a friend who is critiquing their marriage says: 
'That's my beef with marriage. You suffer for his career. What do you get in the end?" 
"The satisfaction of knowing he couldn't do it without me."
And he couldn't. Although Hadley is completely absent from The Sun Also Rises (in spite of being there for most of the events which are loosely based on real events and definitely based on real people), the book is and always will bear her name in the dedication. 

I have no idea whether serious Hemingway fans would find this interesting or a bunch of fluffy drivel, but I enjoyed it enough that I am going to keep my Hemingway kick going. I feel like it is only fair to him if I read the other side of the story, so next up is A Moveable Feast. If I've got any space left in my heart for Poppa, it's on to A Farewell To Arms. 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

She thought, An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breath, tighten her belly.  For months its whole life would be all dreams and no waking.  The steps in the road, the thought of the knife, then the dread sinks away for a while, and how is a child to know why?  She could only guess what it was that Doll was afraid of, or ashamed of, but she lived her fear and her shame with her, taking off through the woods with an apple thumping in her lunch bucket and Doll wearing a big straw hat she must have hoped would shade her face enough to hide it a little.  More than once Doll took her hand to hurry her along and wouldn't let her catch her breath and never told her why.  She always stayed back from the firelight even when the night was cold and even when there were no strangers there to see.  Doane and the others saw, of course, but Lila was the only one she ever really trusted to look into her face.  Well, child, Lila thought, I will see you weltering in your blood.  And mine.  Lonely, frightened, my own child.  If the wildness doesn't carry us both away.  And if it does.

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home tell two sides--let's say faces, like a polygon--of a story about a pair of families in rural Iowa in the mid-20th century.  Gilead, a lyrical novel written as a series of letters from the aging Reverend John Ames to the child he knows he will leave behind, is a beautiful but muted reflection on death and the bittersweetness of leaving a life behind you.  Home, about the prodigal son Jack Boughton (son of Ames' best friend), is about trying to create or recover a home that has long been broken, but compared to Gilead, it felt to me relatively stale and saccharine.

Lila tells the story of Ames' wife, a formerly vagrant drifter who finds herself thrust together with the much older Ames, and who asks him to marry her on an impulse.  Soon, she is carrying the child who will become the son who is the recipient of the letters of Gilead.  It's not in the first perspective, but the strength of voice that was missing in Home returns here, modulating Robinson's perfect liturgical prose with Lila's earthier language and mannerisms.  Lila also reaches back to Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, for a sense of wildness and danger that the two other novels, meditative and sedate, largely forego.

The narrative begins when Lila is a child, viciously neglected by her family.  She's stolen away by a boarder named Doll, and they live for years together with a small band of migrant workers who drift throughout the Midwest.  She learns to trust no one except for Doll; she learns how to use a knife for fishing, cleaning, self-defense.  Eventually, Doll is arrested for using her knife--how exactly, and to what extent is never clear, but it seems to be on some member of Lila's family who's come looking for her--and the two part ways forever.  This parting lingers in Lila's spirit; without Doll she seems both lost to the world and vice versa.

In Ames' home, the two pass the time talking about the Bible.  Lila is attracted to a passage from Ezekiel, when God talks about his rescuing the nation of Israel: "And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in the blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live."  She sees God's pity for Israel in Doll's pity for herself, a pity which she struggles to comprehend and honor.  She is smart, though uneducated, and challenges the staid Calvinist Ames in his views.  She chafes against thinking of Doll as unbaptized and lost:

Doll probably didn't know she had an immortal soul.  It was nothing she ever mentioned, if she ever thought about it.  She probably wouldn't even have known the words for it.  All those people out there walking the roads all those ears, hardly a one of them remembering the Sabbath.  Who would work when there was work to be done?  What use was there in calling a day by a certain name, or thinking of it as anything but the weather?  They knew what time of the year it was the timothy bloomed, when the birds were fledging.  They knew it was morning when the sun came up.  What more was there to know?  If Doll was going to be lost forever, Lila wanted to be right there with her, holding to the skirt of her dress.

Ames, and Robinson, come pretty close to answering this question with the idea of universal salvation.  Ames says,

If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I'm sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy.  And probably a little bit surprised.  If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us.  Which is really much harder to accept.  I mean, it doesn't feel right.  There has to be more to it all, I believe.

Lila isn't a theological tract (and not half as close to one as Gilead), but rather an exploration of human uncertainty, and the valuable wisdom of instinct.  Lila's intelligence challenges Ames, and you get the sense that it challenges Robinson, as well, who carves a space for comfort for her characters without simple answers.  Though Lila seems to constantly have one foot out the door, called back by her life of wildness, she ultimately comes to recognize domestic tranquility as a kind of divine grace, a manifestation of the kind of pity that looks on a child weltering in its own blood and cares for it.  And then, with the birth of her son (who, as we know, will eventually be orphaned) she becomes a participant in that grace as well.

Lila is a staggeringly beautiful book.  I was disappointed that Home was such a bore, since Gilead strikes me as one of the best--maybe the best--novel of the 21st century.  But perhaps it was merely a sign that she's a human being.  Lila is almost as good, which is saying quite a lot.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Cheers to a good country song.
To another long work week gone.
And, yeah, I'm raising my glass to those saving our ass overseas.
-"Ain't Worth the Whiskey" by Cole Swindell

After a Fox News embedded reporter captures Billy Lynn's Bravo Squad heroically preventing an ambush, the soldiers are brought home to travel the country on a victory tour, speaking and doing meet and greets in malls, city halls, etc., culminating in an appearance at the halftime show of the Cowboys' game on Thanksgiving (set in about 2004-05). Billy, the book's protagonist who was particularly brave during the battle, is only 19 years old, and struggles to process the stresses of his newfound quasi-celebrity, his family's fear for his safety and general moderate dysfunction, and normal 19 year old stuff, like trying to get the number of the Cowboys' cheerleader who he makes out with after their press conference.  Meanwhile, Bravo Squad also has to deal with the movie producer trying to make their story into a movie and how much they might make from such a venture.

Even though I highlighted a number of passages in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, I went with these Cole Swindell lyrics because they perfectly exemplify Fountain's thesis: that the way Americans think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are detached from reality, and that the way we "support our troops" is by turns insensitive, ridiculous, depressing and hilarious.

Throughout the novel Billy encounters folks who want to "support the troops," by earnestly praising him or awkwardly thanking him or asking him questions that are at times stupid or personal or callous.  Many talk about "nina leven" and "terrRr," most say they're praying for him, some drop in something casually or vaguely racist, but none of them understand what he has gone through, is going through or will have to face when they go back to Iraq for eleven more months after the football game (and probably longer after that, if they survive).  One man tells Billy that seeing him shoot insurgents while tending to his dying friend was one of the proudest moments of his life, not stopping to think for a moment that it was the worst day of Billy's.  At one point during negotiations regarding funding the potential movie about Bravo's exploits, a rich guy, who never served, growls at Billy and his sergeant that he's the only reason that the movie has a chance of being made (not realizing that the only reason the movie has a chance of being made is because Bravo Squad killed people and suffered its own casualties).

No matter their age or station in life, Billy can't help but regard his fellow Americans as children.  They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines.  He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children.  These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants.  Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.

Fountain argues that so much of what we consider "supporting the troops," like the line in Swindell's song, is really just to make ourselves feel good, that we're contributing something, for the five minutes that spend thinking about it, to events that we know nothing about.

I heard this book compared to Catch-22, and while it wasn't nearly as subtle or scathingly hilarious as that classic, it did highlight the absurdities of war in a very familiar way.  Overall I thought it was a good book that definitely made me re-evaluate how I "support the troops."  One thing I feel like I should note is that as far as I can tell, Fountain is not a veteran himself.  While many of his observations made sense to me, I am also not a veteran, so I wonder if those who did serve agree with his point of view.

Ben Fountain went to Carolina

There was lots more to talk about regarding the Bravos and masculinity, but again, I don't know if Fountain portrayed them thus because that's how he thinks young soldiers behave or if they actually behave that way (see above).  Also, I felt I had blathered on long enough.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law by Mark Herrmann

One of the curious aspects of law school is the extreme extent to which it does not provide practical training.  Yeah, you learn the doctrinal stuff, like what a contract is, what murder is, etc.  But, you don't learn things like how to file a law suit.  To be fair...I still don't know how to do that.  I guess some things don't ever change.

Mark Herrmann has done a service by providing practical advice for new lawyers, in the form of a curmudgeonly boss.  For example, he instructs new associates about their written work:  "I will make three assumptions about your work.  First, it will contain no typographical errors.  Second, it will contain no grammatical errors.  Third, all citation forms will be correct.  Please review your written work before you hand it to me to be sure that my assumptions hold true."

Two points about this advice.  It's both obvious and not.  Of course, after someone says it, it's obvious.  Why would you give something to your boss that's not done?  Before someone says it, though, it's to think that you can get away with giving a draft, and then doing the final touches after a supervisor approves it.  But, as the curmudgeon points out, this just creates unnecessary work for the supervisor.

Or another example: detailed instructions on how to leave a voice mail: "If it truly is important that I return the call, state your phone number, not just slowly, but twice.  That way, when your cell phone connection to my voice mail garbles your phone number the first time you uttered it, a chance remains that I actually will hear the phone number the second time around."  Again, obvious, but not (because people don't know how to leave their phone number in voicemails).

Most of the advice in the book is of this sort: it's obvious if you think about it, but if no one has ever told you, you might not ever think about it.

One chapter that was especially helpful was "The Curmudgeonly Secretary," For someone who has never worked with a secretary before, this chapter was pretty helpful.

Other sections were less relevant for my life (like, drumming up business).  Still, I'd recommend the book to any attorney.  I would especially recommend the book to new lawyers, even those of us (ahem) who have been out of law school for almost 4 years.  It's also short and to the point, so it reads well and quickly.  I read it over three nights.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Okay, I think I get George Saunders.  He has a real knack for voice, and an ear for the tortured, slapdash language of everyday life.  For example, here's Saunders in the head of a teenage girl:

Was she special?  Did she consider herself special?  Oh, gosh, she didn't know.  In the history of the world, many had been more special than her.  Helen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual.  She, Alison, could not hope to compete in the category of those ladies.  Not yet, anyway!

The bad grammar ("long before such time as being gay"), the misused vocabulary ("conceptual") and the lowbrow ("amazing," "awesome," "gosh")--this might as well be a guide of how not to write.  But it sounds persuasive as Alison's inner monologue.

His stories are littered with the verbiage of the 21st century.  As a protagonist of one of them, you might take the drugs Darkenfloxx or VeriTalk or KnightLyfe, which, unsurprisingly, makes you think and act like a medieval knight.  You might use a contraption called the SifterBoyDeLux (for cleaning pig pens) or the MiiVOXmax (for God only knows).  Saunders is keenly aware of the particular absurdities that clutter up our lives as consumers and how they affect the way we see and interact with the world. The best story in Tenth of December, "Semplica Girls," imagines a world in which the ultimate status symbol is a line of living girls, usually from Third World countries, strung together in your yard by their heads.

As a symbol of the way consumer culture exploits poorer societies, that ought to be ridiculously literal.  But the story is really about the blindness of the narrator, who desperately wants the "SGs" for his daughter, who is jealous of her wealthier friends and ashamed of her family's relative poverty.  He writes about his family in a diary, constantly stopping to explain to "future generations" what the past was like, but never thinking to stop and explain the purpose of such ugly cruelty:

Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passe?  Will future people know sometimes cats fought in night?  Because by that time some chemical invented to make cats not fight?  Last night dreamed of two demons having sex and found it was only two cats fighting outside window.  Will future people be aware of concept of "demons"?  Will they find our belief in "demons" quaint?  Will "windows" even exist?  Interesting to future generations that even sophisticated college grad like me sometimes woke in cold sweat, thinking of demons, believing one possibly under bed?  Anyway, what the heck, am not planning on writing encyclopedia, if any future person is reading this, if you want to know what a "demon" was, go look it up, in something called an encyclopedia, if you even still have those!

"Semplica Girls" isn't really an indictment of consumer culture, per se, but rather the lack of imagination that makes us so uninterested in it.  At his best, Saunders is concerned with the moral fabric of everyday life.  His protagonists are almost always "ordinary" suburban folks, lingering on the edges of the lower middle class.  Another of the strongest stories, "Al Roosten," centers around the fantasies of its title character, intensely jealous of another middle-aged middle-class man who turns out to be more popular at the bachelor auction.  "Al Roosten" takes its cues from Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," but the fantasies, like those of the narrator of "Semplica Girls," are sweetly pathetic: wanting to be loved, respected, admired.  The kind of fantasies, unlike Walter Mitty's fighter pilot, we actually have but find it hard to admit we have.

Sometimes the stories become overly gimmicky: the cuteness of the made-up words, the frenetic intensity of voice, the transparent ignorance of the protagonists.  But ultimately Saunders seems to have found a way of writing about the time we live in that's both fresh and truthful.  Plus, a cute girl on the train told me how much she loved it.  If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

"Please God," she whispered into the palm of her hand.  "Please make me disappear."  She squeezed her eyes shut.  Little parts of her body faded away.   Now slowly, now with a rush.  Slowly again.  Her fingers  went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow.  Her feet now.  Yes, that was good.  The legs all at once.  It was hardest above the thighs.  She had to be real still and pull.  Her stomach would not go.  But finally it, too, went away.  Then her chest, her neck.  The face was hard, too.  Almost done, almost.  Only her tight, tight eyes were left.  They were always left.

Pecola Breedlove wants blue eyes.  Baby dolls all have blue eyes, and so does the girl on the candy wrapper.  Pecola, like her mother and father, is ugly, in the eyes of most people, and she has always been teased.  But Pecola's desire is a desire for self-destruction, the want not only to become something else, but to disappear and be replaced.  What Pecola wants, essentially, wants to achieve white standards of beauty, even if it means being annihilated in the process.

Despite being the protagonist of the novel, Morrison rarely gives us Pecola's perspective.  Morrison, always sensitive to the complex histories and stories that make up a person's identity, lingers on the back story of every single character, no matter how vile they seem at first: Pecola's hateful, bitter father; her resentful mother; the prostitutes who live nearby; the scam artist Soaphead Church; the narrator Claudia, a girl whose family takes Pecola in.  These narratives help create sympathy where most novels wouldn't bother, but more importantly, they make us aware of how Pecola has been pushed to the margins, and make the novel's climax--a moment of tragic violence committed against Pecola I won't describe--even more difficult because of the narrative distance we feel from Pecola.  Morrison won't allow us to establish the sympathy we want to have; but how often do we deny sympathy to those who are less visible in real life?

The Bluest Eye is Morrison's first novel, and it shows.  Even as thorough as the various narratives are, they lack the depth and pathos of the characters of Beloved or Song of Solomon.  The truncated, postmodern snippets of a "Dick and Jane" story that begin each chapter are a distraction, rather than a necessary counterpoint to Pecola's story.  (Much better is the moment when Pecola accidentally frightens a young white girl whose family employs her mother by showing up suddenly, only to see her mother console the white girl while chasing Pecola out the door--Pecola's lack of a place in the "white picket fence" suburbs is sufficiently established.)

But that's only true by comparison.  Even at its weakest, Morrison's stuff is extraordinary.  Occasionally The Bluest Eye offers moments that rival her maturest work.  I thought the novel was strongest when Pecola visits fraudulent psychic Soaphead Church, who promises her blue eyes in exchange for a little black magic.  When she leaves, he writes a letter to God, crowing that his fooling of Pecola is more than God has ever done:

I, I have caused a miracle.  I gave here the eyes. I gave her the blue, blue, two blue eyes.  Cobalt blue.  A streak of it right out of your own blue heaven.  No one else will see her blue eyes.  But she will.  And she will live happily ever after.  I, I have found it meet and right so to do.

Now you are jealous. You are jealous of me.

This is Morrison at her best.  Soaphead, far from being a mere malicious force inserted into the novel to provide resolution to the conflict, is clearly operating from his own deep wounds.  He's right: she believes in her blue eyes.  But "happily ever after" doesn't quite describe it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

He was fairly happy, except that, like many people living in Europe, he would rather have been in America, and he had discovered writing. 

Brett was damned good looking. 

"I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it." "Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. 

As revealed in my review of Zen and the Art of Marlin Fishing, I have not read much Hemingway. I am definitely in the 50 Bookers minority as both Kelly in 2007 and Brent in 2009 preferred The Old Man and the Sea. I vehemently disagree - even though you can't teach The Sun Also Rises and do a Marlin Week with students, The Sun Also Rises is definitely my favorite by far. I probably actively dislike TOMATS. 

Reading this so closely after Ceremony, where the returned vet spends a lot of time crying, it was interesting to see Jake - a WWI vet - crying as often as he does. (It was also weird to see Brett bathe as often as she does - she is constantly going back to the hotel to bathe. Is she trying to wash off the stain of sin or smell of sex? Who knows). 

My few encounters with big Papa really made me believe that I just didn't like Hemingway, so this book was a lovely surprise. Expat narrator Jake is living in Paris, hopelessly in love with Brett, and hanging out with his mostly rich mostly bored expat friends. Boxing, bullfighting, fishing, getting tight (drunk), and being ironic and sad and poignant and honest at all the wrong times. I don't know that this novel is the right one for high school students either because I think the sadness of growing older and feeling unaccomplished is a special kind of sadness reserved for those out of their teens and twenties (I, therefore, don't actually understand it, but Randy explained it pretty well). 
Don't you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you're not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you've lived nearly half the time you have to live already?
It's Hemingway, who is not known for his happy endings, but for me, the greatest tragedy of the novel is the change in the relationship between Jake and the Pamplona hotel manager Montoya. They have a special closeness that was built on years of Jake staying at the Hotel Montoya and discussing bullfights, proving that he - in spite of being an American - has an aficion for the fights and is a true afficiando of the bullfights. Their friendship is described at length
He always smiled as though bull-fighting were a very special secret between the two of us...We often talked about bulls and bull-fighters...We never talked for very long at a time...For one who had aficion (passion for bullfighting) he could forgive anything. At once he forgave me all my friends. (this description goes on for two pages)
As Jake and his friends continue to behave poorly - drinking, causing a ruckus, distracting a very young very handsome bullfighter - Montoya's friendliness becomes more closed and quieter until, when Jake leaves, 
Montoya did not come near us.
Losing friendships happens often enough in life, losing love happens in almost every great novel, but to lose the respect of someone truly respected...that's a tragedy. Jake brought his friends into his own special world and they shat all over it until his place in it was completely ruined. So, actually, maybe it is a fine book for students who probably all have a moment of trying to share something special with friends who didn't deserve the specialness in the first place. 

I plan on reading one more Hemingway novel this year before reading the Paris Wife (I really enjoyed her talk and reading on Books on the Nighstand) - so I am curious for everyone's suggestions. I dislike TOMATS and am very fond of TSAR - what should my next Hemingway be?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The only reason you say race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it's a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

Americanah was marvelous. I loved it.  The novel tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze as they grow up in Lagos, Nigeria, each try to succeed abroad (Ifemelu in America and Obinze in England), and eventually return to Nigeria.  As Brittany put it in her review, it is every kind of story: a love story, an immigrant story, and more.

Adichie's prose is mesmerizing and she is so perceptive. I constantly found myself seeing things in a totally different way and thinking that her way of looking at the matter was so obvious. An important part of Ifemelu's time in America was the blog she ran about race and observations of American life from the perspective of a non-American black, parts of which were excerpted in the novel.

In a similar vein, Adichie was so insightful in her character descriptions:
Ifemelu watched them, so alike in their looks, and both unhappy people. But Kimberly's unhappiness was inward, unacknowledged, shielded by her desire for things to be as they should, and also by hope: she believed in other people's happiness because it meant that she, too, might one day have it. Laura's unhappiness was different, spiky, she wished that everyone around here were unhappy because she had convinced herself that she would always be.
He believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films, a trouble-free belief, because he had not considered them deeply before choosing to believe; he just simply believed.

I often felt like I could easily imagine people like those she described and sometimes even saw some of myself in her characters (for better or worse).  It was also so fascinating to see the world through such different perspectives than mine. From the travails of being an undocumented immigrant and learning to deal with race-based prejudice to dealing with your hair as a black woman, I learned a great deal.

My only complaint with Americanah is that I kind of wish it didn't have to end.  Not that I wanted to read it forever (I thought its length was pretty appropriate), but that I felt like she must have felt pressured to wrap up her story, and in doing so fell back on cliches that undermined her otherwise outstanding character development.  However, that is a minor complaint.  I recommend this novel for everyone and can't wait to read more of her work.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

How then did it work out, all this?  How did one judge people, think of them?  How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking?  And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?  Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one's pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity.

The Ramsay family, along with various hangers on, is visiting their beach home in the north of Scotland.  Their youngest son, James, wants to visit the lighthouse on the island off shore the next day, but his father is convinced it will rain.  This is pretty much the entirety of the plot of the first half of To the Lighthouse, which peers more deeply into the psychology of individual characters than any book I've ever read.  Woolf's style involves jumping from the perspective of one character to another, sometimes flitting through the minds of ten people over the course of a paragraph, sometimes settling down for fifteen or twenty pages of uninterrupted thought which turns out to have taken place in a matter of seconds.  In this way Woolf illuminates the mystery of what goes on in our minds; we barely recognize, much less understand, what lies at the bottom of our psyches.

If what we think and feel is so contradictory, so prone to change, what hope is there for any kind of constancy or permanency, since everything material will pass away as well?  The lighthouse, standing unmoving amid the churning waves, becomes a symbol of this hoped-for constancy.  Perhaps the answer can be found in art, Mrs. Ramsay's guest Lily Briscoe thinks as she labors over her painting of the Ramsay's house:

She looked at her picture.  That would have been the answer, presumably -- how 'you' and 'I' and 'she' pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint  Yet it would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be rolled up and flung under a sofa; yet even so, even of a picture like that, it was true.  One might say, even of this scrawl, not of that actual picture, perhaps, but of what it attempted, that it 'remained for ever,' she was going to say, or, for the words spoken sounded even to herself, too boastful, to hint, wordlessly; when, looking at the picture, she was surprised to find she could not see it.

Art is a stab at permanence; though Lily knows that her painting will be tossed away in the attic, there is something in the attempt that unites it the kind of permanence Mrs. Ramsay describes while handing out slices of beef for dinner:

It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby...

No wonder Lily is so upset when another guest, the priggish Charles Tansley, tells her flatly that women can't paint.  But Woolf has sympathy for Tansley, too, and allows the reader to dwell in his perspective for a while.  If nothing else, To the Lighthouse shows that all human feeling has intrinsic value.

The narrative takes a strange turn in the middle with a long section that describes the empty and abandoned house for years--years!--with some of Woolf's most poetic, but inscrutable language.  When the narrative resumes, Mr. Ramsay, Lily, and the children have returned to the house at long last, but without Mrs. Ramsay, who has died.  The loss of her clearly shakes the other characters deeply, as she was beloved by all of them and served as the center of their universe.  Without her, Mr. Ramsay and the children, who are now much older and don't give a rat's ass about the lighthouse, head out on the journey they never made.  Does it matter that they reach the lighthouse, now that Mrs. Ramsay is gone?  It's hard to say.  To the Lighthouse often plays its cards close to its chest.  But, as with Lily's painting, Woolf suggests that it's not the result that matters, but the attempt.

Paper Towns by John Green

My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Margo always loved mysteries. And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one.

And thus the reader begins the journey in John Green's third (but, at least in my school, his least popular) novel. Now that I've read all of John Green's non-collaborative works, there are some definite patterns that appear throughout, and I want to start by looking at these. 

Looking for Alaska - average dude leaves ordinary life for boarding school life, meets a damaged and intriguing girl named Alaska Young, falls in love, shenanigans happen

An Abundance of Katherines - child prodigy who has 'dated' and 'been broken up with' 19 Katherines leaves ordinary life behind, goes on a road trip, attempts to figure out a mathematical formula to dictate to predict breakups, he meets an intriguing girl named Lindsey Lee Wells, shenanigans happen (I object to his definition of 'dated')

Paper Towns - above average dude leaves ordinary life to go on a nighttime adventure with the intriguing girl he's in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman, shenanigans ensue, Margo disappears, more shenanigans ensue, road trip, shenanigans ensue

The Fault in Our Stars - an ordinary teenager dying of cancer meets an intriguing guy named Augustus Waters at a teen cancer support group, love and shenanigans ensue


  • John Green sure knows how to name a love interest. These names remind me of Amelia Pond and fairy tale names: Margo Roth Spiegelman, Augustus Waters, Alaska Young, Lindsey Lee Wells - who wouldn't fall in love with these people on their names alone? 
  • John Green sure knows how to get rid of parents. Between road trips and boarding schools and cancer perks, we don't really have to worry about parents interrupting narratives, but they are mostly ridiculously cool and supportive of shenanigans because their kids are good middle class or upper class kids who don't ever get into serious trouble.
  • John Green sure knows how people like to create mental narratives for other people that don't live up to reality. These guys - whether ordinary or prodigy - know how to pick a girl with a fairy tale name and turn them (in their minds) into the most intriguing and amazing women of all time. To John Green's credit, these images fall flat eventually, and this idea is actually addressed in Paper Towns (in a way that feels like a response to Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines) when BenFriend tells QProtagonist
"Just - just remember that sometimes, the way you think about a person isn't the way they actually are. Like, I always thought Lacey was so hot and so awesome and so cool, but now when it comes to being with her, it's not the exact same. . . It's easy to like someone from a distance. But when she stopped being this amazing unattainable thing or whatever, and started being like, just a regular girl with a weird relationship with food and frequent crankiness who's kinda bossy - then I had to basically start liking a whole different person"
So, my question about this whole people-don't-live-up-to-reality idea. I realize that high school lends itself to that kind of situation (being able to see someone a lot and yet not know them at all and yet totally feel like you're in love with them), but I just don't remember feeling that way when I was in high school about anyone and I don't feel like I see that happening with my students. Calling these books popular is an undestatement, so obviously these books speak to teens, but I wonder if this particular pattern in plot is the part that is reaching teens' insides? And what would John Green do without this pattern? (Answer: TFIOS - good luck following that one Green!)

For me, the characters that Green creates are really what make these solid novels. [This is most successful in TFIOS where August is just perfect enough to launch the love of millions of teenagers, but also not so perfect as to be unbelievable - there could be an August Waters waiting to sweep people off their feet. There could be a Hazel Grace that we totally want to be our best friend. In the other novels, the friend groups are portrayed really well while the Girl Infatuation Interest is less believable (Margo Roth Spiegleman ran off with the circus, rejected the bassist from the Mallionaires, ran off to Missisippi and lived with an old dude who didn't hurt her and just taught her to play guitar, etc)] His characters are believable in the sense that some high schoolers are this cool - and don't we as readers like pretending we were part of the groups that were that cool? But they're still just teenagers:
Honestly, she's hot, but she's not that hot. You know who's seriously hot? ...your mom. Bro, I saw your  mom kiss you on the cheek this morning, and forgive me, but I swear to God I was like, man, I wish I was Q. And also, I wish my cheeks had penises.
This same group of  friends later plays I Spy:

"I spy with my little eye something tragically hip." 
"Is it the way Ben smiles mostly with the right side of his mouth?" 
"Is it the idea of wearing nothing under your graduation gown and then having to drive to New York while all the people in passing cars assume you're wearing a dress?" 
"A 24-hour-road trip in a minivan? Hip because road trips always are; tragic because the gas we're guzzling will destroy the planet." 
The tragically hip thing turns out to be failing to turn in your rented graduation robes on time. 

Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" plays a really important role throughout the novel which will please any teachers in the crowd, but there's still drinking and sexing that will piss of the conservative parents. If you're a fan of John Green, I think this novel is worth a read. It's different from the other three because it's a mystery, so this won't feel like you're just reading the same story with new characters. However, it doesn't stand up to the emotional depth of TFIOS and LFA. You only have until June 5 to read this before the movie comes out and you'll lose your opportunity to smugly announce "The book was better."