Sunday, July 27, 2014

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking; he had his own ideas and peculiar ways.  If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; the apple; Abraham; Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler.  After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a  glass of water.  "I'm fainting, please get me a little water."  You were lucky even then to make yourself understood.  And this happened over and over with everyone you met.  You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell itself not to understand or be understood, not to know the crazy from the sane, the wise from the fools, the young from the old or the sick from the well.  The fathers were no fathers and the sons no son.  You had to talk to yourself in daytime and reason with yourself at night.  Who else was there to talk to in a city like New York?

There's something telling about the lengths of books.  Beyond every other stylistic difference, there's something about, say, Muriel Spark's tendency to write short novels that differentiates her from someone like Tolstoy.  Augie March is a Tolstoyesque book, immense, meandering, insatiably devouring different scenes and locales.  What is the writer of Augie March trying to do in writing a book of only 100 pages, as in Seize the Day?  What accounts for the difference?

For one, Augie March was a story of several years; Seize the Day, as its name suggests, is the story of a single day in the life of New Yorker Tommy Wilhelm.  Tommy is a failed actor who has recently moved into the same building as his aging father, who is coldly dismissive of Tommy's many problems: his poverty, his strained relationship with his wife, who refuses to grant him a divorce.  Spurned for money and compassion by his father, Tommy comes under the influence of the suspicious Dr. Tamkin, who convinces him to make an ill-advised investment in the commodities market.

Tamkin is full of cryptic, new-agey advice about how Tommy should reinvigorate his unhappy, broken life.  But even the notion of success eludes Tommy:

But at the same time, since there were depths in Wilhelm not unsuspected by himself, he received a suggestion from some remote element in his thoughts that the business of life, the real business--to carry his peculiar burden, to feel shame and impotence, to taste these quelled tears--the only important business, the highest business was being done.  Maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here.  Maybe he was supposed to make them and suffer from them on this earth.

Perhaps, Tommy thinks, the "essence of his being here" is to suffer, but if that is so, why does his father fail to give him sympathy?  His father, of course, is old and preoccupied with his own death, which he accuses Tommy--rightly--of not sufficiently caring about.  Like his son, the father suffers acutely, but neither is able to work up the kind of regard for the other that would bring any kind of relief.

This particular day offers an intense crisis for Tommy, but nothing really happens to him over the course of it: the day is not seized; he exits the novel as feckless, confused, and frustrating as he enters it.  One aspect of the novel's brevity is that it precludes any kind of change in Tommy or his father.  It's difficult to imagine Tommy ever changing in any significant way, but over 300 pages that kind of stasis might have been maddening.  Instead, Bellow offers us a glimpse at a man who is lost and will remain lost, and lets us briefly experience or recognize that mode of suffering.

Seize the Day is one of those novels where I feel as if something got past me--I feel, uncomfortably, as uncertain as Tommy at the novel's end.  Is that by design, or is there really something in it that I'm missing?  I cannot say I really enjoyed reading it, as I did Augie March or Henderson the Rain KingTommy Wilhelm is a profoundly difficult protagonist, impossible to like and unpleasant to consider.  Bellow's prose is, as always, something to behold, but it wasn't enough for me this time.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

“The Days were a clan that mighta lived long
But Ben Day’s head got screwed on wrong
That boy craved dark Satan’s power
So he killed his family in one nasty hour
Little Michelle he strangled in the night
Then chopped up Debby: a bloody sight
Mother Patty he saved for last
Blew off her head with a shotgun blast
Baby Libby somehow survived
But to live through that ain’t much a life
—SCHOOLYARD RHYME, CIRCA 1985”







Thus begins Gillian Flynn's second novel (the first being Sharp Objects and the third being Gone Girl).

Of the three, Sharp Objects was my least favorite. It was okay, but for a non-genre reader (I don't generally choose psychological thrillers or murder mysteries), it didn't stand out. Gone Girl I love and found incredibly compelling - a book that I would and have recommend(ed) to basically everyone. Dark Places I loved more than Gone Girl. It is obvious to see how Sharp Objects leads to Dark Places leads to Gone Girl - she explores MANY of the same ideas throughout like the role of media related to crime and perception and how to have a female character that is really unlikeable. In spite of Gone Girl's INCREDIBLE success, Dark Places is the standout novel of the three.

The premise of the book is exactly what the school rhyme says: on January 3, 1984, Michelle Day was strangled, Debby Day was hacked with a bowing knife and ax, Patty Day was shot with a shotgun - all of this presumably done by Ben Day, an outcast teenager who dabbles with Satanic rock music and had no alibi for the night of the crime. Libby Day at age 7 is the lone survivor who testifies as an eye witness at her brother's trial which puts him away for life.

The novel is written in a really interesting way that works wonderfully.
Libby Day Chapter - present time (Libby is in her 30s at this point)
Patty Day Chapter - January 2 1984
Ben Day Chapter - January 2 1984

In the present day, Libby is flat broke and has hooked up with a group of people who think Ben may be innocent and are willing to pay her to investigate. As her investigation continues in real time, taking her back to interview different people who might know something about The Night, the Ben/Patty chapters get closer to the events of The Night, and the reader gets closer to knowing the truth with all the characters.

The mystery is solid, the psychological is thrilling, the writing is good enough, and it is incredibly well researched. I watched Randy reading a picture book for satanic ritual abuse survivors, Satanic Panic: the creation of a contemporary legend, and Satan's Silence: Ritual abuse and the making of a modern American witch hunt, and we had quite a few discussions that piqued my interest. This book was an incredibly satisfying way to end our little Satanic Panic kick.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

Every time I have taught a play by Shakespeare, some enterprising student will offer the observation--sometimes phrased as a question, sometimes a matter-of-fact dismissal of the entire enterprise--that Shakespeare didn't really write the plays attributed to him.  High school students are by nature, I think, conspiratorially minded.  I've known many who are happy to attribute most world events to the machinations of the Illuminati, as if an all-powerful super-secret international cabal would be transparent enough to make itself known to a sixteen-year old in Queens.  But some are also just happy to take Shakespeare down a peg, since he's been terrorizing them from the grave since middle school.  This phenomenon reached a fever pitch about three years ago, when the Roland Emmerich film Anonymous came out, which depicts Edward de Vere as the "real Shakspeare."

But high schoolers aren't the only ones susceptible to Shakespeare conspiracies.  As Shapiro notes in his prologue, "I can think of little else that unites Henry James and Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and Orson Welles, or Mark Twain and Sir Derek Jacobi."  Contested Will is a history of Shakespeare conspiracy theories, focusing on the two most popular historical candidates: Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.  These are not the only candidates, of course, and if you go see the new Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive you'll find a centuries-old vampire Christopher Marlowe who claims to have written Shakespeare's plays.  But most of the critical energy of anti-Stratfordians, as they're known, has focused on these candidates, with de Vere only surpassing Bacon as the preferred candidate in the middle of the 20th century.

An anti-Stratfordian might disagree, but for the most part, Shapiro's book is incredibly even-handed.  He treats his subjects with deference and respect (for the most part), detailing the personal and critical histories that spurred these movements.  One of the things he points out is that Shakespeare did not live in an "age of memoir," as we do; this is one reason that an author like Mark Twain, who claimed that everything he wrote was autobiographical in one way or another, found it difficult to believe that the plays could have been written by a relatively impoverished glover's son from the English backwaters.  But the book is best when it can't resist taking a swipe at the anti-Stratfordians, as when Shapiro discusses the attempts of Orville Ward Owen and Elizabeth Wells Gallup's attempt to uncover a hidden code attributing the plays to Bacon:

Prescott's account of Gallup piecing together names from a string of letters recalls nothing so much as the scene in Twelfth Night in which Malvolio is spied on as he decodes an unsigned letter with its cryptic message "M.O.A.I. doth sway my heart."  Malvolio gets off to a promising start--"'M.' Malvolio. 'M'--why that begins my name."  But he runs into trouble when he sees that "there is no consonancy in the sequel," since "'A' should follow, but 'O' does."  Malvolio, the patron siant of hopeful decipherers, resolves the matter in his ow nfavor by fiddlign with the anagram: "yet to crush this a little, it would bow to me," for "every one of these letters are in my name."  The first decoder of Shakespeare's words, Malvolio would not be the last to crush an anagram to fit the name he so badly wanted to find.

Shapiro saves a final chapter for outlining the case for Shakespeare's authorship of the plays.  The clearest evidence, he notes, is "first what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him."  In other words, Shakespeare's plays were attributed to Shakespeare when they came out, and no one thought to claim otherwise until the 19th century.  He also makes an argument I hadn't thought of before, describing the progression of his writing career, which was radically different in its final years, challenging the kind of creative dating required to make the events of the plays fit into the schematics of Baconians and Oxfordians.  (de Vere, for one, died twelve years before Shakespeare, so that one takes some work.)

Shapiro is committed to making a rational case, and so avoids from too much invective, but I'll add what I see beneath his history: the case for noble authorship rests on a kind of half-subtle classism that rejects the idea that a man from humble beginnings could be a literary genius.  The subtext of Baconianism and Oxfordianism is that the breadth and imagination of Shakespeare's plays could only be achieved by someone with status and money.  As such, I think those who doubt Shakespeare's authenticity often say more about themselves than they do about Shakespeare.

There are a couple final points that Contested Will makes that I had never considered: First, that Shakespeare scholars, with their recent obsession over the playwright's life and how it affected his work plays into the hands of the conspiratorially minded: "[R]efusing to acknowledge that they have been doing similar things in their own books--even if their topical readings are far less fanciful and the author whose life they read out of the works is the one named on the title pages--rightly infuriates those who don't believe that Shakespeare of Stratford had the life experiences to write the plays.  I was left wondering whether Shakespare scholars ignore their adversaries (when not vilifying them) because they share with them more unspoken assumptions about the intersection of life and literature than they care to admit--and, indeed, were the first to profess."  Et tu, Stephen Greenblatt.

The second I'll leave quoted by itself, since I think it's the most persuasive and prudent reaction to the conspiracy theorists:

What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes hims so exceptional: his imagination.  As an aspiring actor, Shakespeare must have displayed a talent for imagining himself as any number of characters onstage.  When he turned to writing, he demonstrated an even more powerful imaginative capacity, one that allowed him to create roles of such depth and complexity--Rosalind, Hamlet, Lear, Juliet, Timon, Brutus, Leontes, and Cleopatra, along with hundreds of others, great and small--that even the least of them, four centuries later, seem fully human and distinctive.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

Miro found himself at the door of the cathedral.  In the cool morning air it stood open.  Inside, they had not yet come to the eucharist.  He shuffled in, took his place near the back.  He had no desire to commune with Christ today.  He simply needed the sight of other people.  He needed to be surrounded by human beings.  He knelt, crossed himself, then stayed there, clinging to the back of the pew in front of him, his head bowed.  He would have prayed, but there was nothing in the Pai Nosso to deal with his fear.  Give us this day our daily bread?  Forgive us our trespasses?  Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?  That would be good.  God's kingdom, in which the lion could dwell with the lamb.

Then there came to his mind an image of St. Stephen's vision: Christ sitting at the right hand of God.  But on the left hand was someone else.  The Queen of Heaven.  Not the Holy Virgin but the hive queen, with whitish slime quivering on the tip of her abdomen.  Miro clenched his hands on the wood of the pew before him.  God take this vision from me.  Get thee behind me, Enemy.

The third book of the Ender series picks up where Speaker for the Dead left off: Starways Congress, the organization which controls the known universe, has sent a fleet to destroy the world of Lusitania, home of the descolada, a crippling virus which has the power to destroy all human life.  But not only are Ender and his family on Lusitania, but the only two sentient non-human life forms ever discovered: the formics, who were carried there by Ender in the second novel, and the pequeninos, who depend on the descolada for the operation of their life cycle.

Xenocide deals with the efforts of Ender, his sister Valentine, his adopted children, and the artificial intelligence program known as Jane to stop the Lusitania fleet.  Whether they do or don't, I can't tell you--the novel ends before the fleet arrives (which takes years and years, considering the distance required for space travel).  In the process, though, they manage to invent faster-than-light space travel and unravel the mystery of philotes, the elemental rays which connect all life in the universe--so there's that.

In many ways, Xenocide reproduces the themes of the first two novels.  It argues passionately for a world view that recognizes all forms of life as valuable and encourages its reader to imagine what it is like to be the Other, whether it's an alien entity or a human rival.  What it adds to these is a sense of how complicated that recognition can be.  The pequeninos and formics are hatching a plan to build their own spacecraft and save their species, but that would mean spreading the descolada throughout the universe.  How does one properly recognize life when the continued existence of one means the elimination of the other, and vice versa?  And what counts as life, anyway?  Jane is alive, in a sense, and one possible solution--shutting off the communication networks in which she exists--may mean her death.  One of Ender's stepchildren theorizes that the descolada itself could be a form of sentient life, deserving of its own right to exist.  Would destroying it be xenocide, the destruction of an entire intelligent species?

Xenocide also offers an interesting take on religion.  One of the few new characters introduced is Li Qing-jao, a girl on the planet of Path who is tasked in aiding Starways Congress and the Lusitania fleet.  She is "godspoken," blessed by the gods of Path with superior intelligence, but also forced to undergo humiliating rituals of penance to rid her of uncleanliness.  Spoiler alert--it turns out that this condition is a form of genetic OCD inflicted on the super-intelligent citizens of Path to keep them under control.  When this is revealed to her, Li Qing-jao dismisses it as an evil lie meant to keep her from true obedience.  She is, in a way, the very picture of the unskeptical fundamentalist that Orson Scott Card has been portrayed as--perhaps rightly so.  I thought Ender's thoughts on Qing-jao were especially interesting:

Qing-jao, I know you well, thought Ender.  You are such a bright one, but the light you see by comes entirely from the stories of your gods.  You are like the pequenino brothers who sat and watched my stepson die, able at any time to save him by walking a few dozen steps to fetch his food with its anti-descolada agents; they weren't guilty of murder.  Rather they were guilty of too much belief in a story they were told.  Most people are able to hold most stories they're told in abeyance, to keep a little distance between the story and their inmost heart.  But for these brothers--and for you, Qing-jao--the terrible lie has become the self-story, the tale that you must believe if you are to remain yourself.  How can I blame you for wanting us all to die?  You are so filled with the largeness of the gods, how can you have compassion for such small concerns as the lives of three species of raman?  I know you, Qing-jao, and I expect you to behave no differently from the way you do.  Perhaps someday, confronted by the consequences of your own actions, you might change, but I doubt it.  Few who are captured by such a powerful story are ever able to win free of it.

What to make of that in light of Card's own trenchant Mormonism?  Or Miro's compulsive re-imagining of the story of the Holy Viring to include the hive queen, above?  What does it mean to be "free" of the stories we tell?

Despite these fascinating aspects, Xenocide shows signs of diminishing returns.  The characters simply aren't complex or interesting enough to support what is at this point maybe 1,500 pages of fiction, and start to wear a little thin.  The technological efforts of Ender and the Lusitanians starts to verge on absurd: the "philotic connections" are awfully New-Agey, and the time it takes them to invent faster-than-light travel (which involves momentarily leaving the fabric of spacetime) beggars belief.  But the plot remains compelling, and deferring the one thing the third book seemed to promise--the arrival of the fleet--is a canny move that pretty much ensures I'll have to read the next one.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Walking Through Fire by Nawal El Saadawi

"The gist of the report was that Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, the medical doctor in charge of the health unit of Kafr Tahla, had exhibited a signal disrespect for the moral values and customs of our society and had incited women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam."

"'Inciting women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam.' This became the accusation that was levelled against me whenever I wrote or did anything to defend the rights of women against the injustices widespread in society. It followed me wherever I went, step by step...irrespective of who came to power..."






I read and loved A Daughter of Isis - Nawal El Saadawi's first memoir - as a graduate student. It covers her female ancestry, her childhood, her adolescence, and young adulthood. The insight it gives into Egypt, female genital mutilation, feminism, sexism, etc as she grows up and becomes a medical doctor, an activist, and a novelist; it is wonderful for an ignorant American reader like myself. 

I ordered The Later Years but pushed it to the bottom of my stack. After reading The Handmaid's Tale, I had a craving for this book. I wanted to hear about a culture that attempts to control women's bodies from the perspective of an insider of that culture. 

Unfortunately, I would not recommend this book as an introduction to El Saadawi or even for people who loved A Daughter of Isis. While it has many interesting insights and anecdotes of her life in Egypt after she became a doctor/activist/novelist and her life in exile in America after too many death threats, overall it doesn't stand up. The book has a spiral organization rather than a chronological or topical one. It starts with American exile, circles around to early medical career, circles back to exile, circles to first marriage, circles to medical school, circles to third marriage, circles back to first marriage, circles to exile, circles to second marriage, circles to third marriage, circles to first marriage, etc. 

It is sometimes hard to figure out where we are in time because of the three different husbands and the constant revolutions and wars. Perhaps that is the point - it's hard to tease out whether the scene is the revolution of the 50s or that of the 70s or the imperialism of the British or the Americans or whoever.

Finally, throughout the book El Saadawi expresses the frustration of not being able to write...repeatedly...in very similar language...with very similar metaphors. 

This book just didn't have the staying power of her previous memoir. I do, however, want to read one of her novels and see that side of El Saadawi.