Monday, April 30, 2007

The Poisonwood Bible

Last week was such a stressful week. Although I had the book club book plus a couple of 14-day loans, I wanted comfort, not yet another mountain to climb after a long day. The size and subject matter of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver might make it seem like an odd choice under the circumstances, but not to me. I really love that book, and have read it repeatedly over the years. I recommend it to anyone who will listen. Tonight, that includes you.

To simply say that it's about an American family who travel to the Congo as missionaries and witness the end of colonial rule, the murder of the newly elected prime minister, and the installation of a ruthless and venal dictator is to strip all the meat off the bones of the book. Although that is its basic outline, it is not an "issue" novel, not set to cram lessons down your throat but to expose the facts in the intimately intertwined histories of the Price family and the Congo, and let readers decide for themselves where to lay their sympathies and blame.

The Price family has six members, and each, except for Nathan, gets the chance to tell their side. Nathan is the family's driving force, a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher determined to deliver salvation to the heathen Congolese through Jesus. His wife, Orleanna, married him at a young age, and is just trying to cope the best she can. Rachel is the eldest daughter and is what we called back in the fourth grade a "girly-girl": she frequently locked horns with her father on topics like nail polish, dating and skirt length. She is just shy of her 16th birthday at the opening of the book and her attempts to cope in the Congo, where they don't even have indoor plumbing, add levity to the more serious moments of the book.

Next in line at only 18 months younger than Rachel are twin girls, Leah and Adah. Both are extremely bright and academically oriented. Leah is outgoing and tomboyish, worshipful of her father, and religious. Adah suffers from hemiplegia. Her chapters are the most intriguing, for her affliction has freed her mind at the same time it's crippled her body. She can read and write backwards and forwards, and enjoys making up palindromes to suit the situation at hand. The book is her sole confidant; although she can speak, she elects not to, for the most part, and will write when she has something to say. Ruth May is the youngest of all, only five when the book opens, and views the world with a typical young child's perspective. As things go from bad to worse for the Price family and the Congo, she becomes a poignant symbol of sacrifice and loss of innocence.

And things do indeed, go from bad to worse. Epidemics of disease, plagues of driver ants, draught, famine and flood ravage the village of Kilanga where the Price family has set up housekeeping. Nathan is poorly suited to the work of witnessing to a foreign culture: he is a poor listener and a loud talker, and manages to alienate most everyone of influence within the village. This makes him angrier and more stubborn, harder on his family, and more determined to save every soul in Kilanga. Although most of the missionaries leave shortly after Independence, Nathan refuses to, despite the pleas of his family, even after tragedy strikes both the Prices and the new Republic of Congo, shattering the Price family and scattering them across two continents, never to reunite.

There are many, many things that are remarkable about this book. The characters are the main thing. They do pass the Maxwell Perkins test: if you were to meet Orleanna, Nathan, Leah, Adah, Rachel or Ruth May on the street, you would know them at once and know how you'd want to react. They are complex, they are "real people", defying easy judgement. You dismiss Rachel at first as merely the court jester, then condemn her as an opportunist, but ultimately come to understand her. Orleanna comes across at first as a stereotypical cowed, submissive housewife, but as her personal story unfolds, you admire her strength. Even tyrannical, cold Nathan, who hits has family and punishes his girls with The Verse (he gives them a Bible verse to start with and they have to copy that, and the next 100 verses, with the last one revealing their sin), becomes a more sympathetic figure when we learn that he was at Corregidor during World War II, and was the only man in his company to escape the Bataan Death March and to survive the war.

I also admire the technical achievements of this book. Kingsolver has done a staggering, wide-ranging amount of research into Congolese language, culture, history, and geography, and has been able to juxtapose it all with the Christian Bible. In Adah's chapters, it seems as though Kingsolver has trained several languages like you would a poodle: English, Kikongo, and French obligingly roll over, turn around backwards, shake hands and play dead in her able hands. To borrow a phrase from Rachel Price, it is a sheer tapestry of justice that Kingsolver didn't win the Pulitzer for this book. I give it my highest recommendation.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

For All Those Stuck in a Rut

If the past few months have taught me anything, it's the frustration of living a stalled life. Sometimes the desperation overwhelms you to the point where you practically dive through the closed, second-story window in an escape attempt. Other times, the lethargy overwhelms you to the point where you sit in a chair for 45 minutes, debating the merits of making a cup of tea before you ultimately decide not to bother.

If you're in that situation -- unhappy but unable, for whatever reason, to make a change -- Everything Must Go by Elizabeth Flock might be a good read. the book tells the non-story of Henry Powell, a one-time high school football star who is now (and forever, it seems) an assistant at a moribund, locally-owned clothing shop. Henry had the chance to go to college, even went for a semester, but got recalled to home by his father, who was worried about his mother. He has been there ever since (he's close to 40 when the book closes), chatting with his former classmates when they drop in for the holidays, following their successes and failures in life, occasionally sneaking the quick drink at the local watering hole before checking in on his aging, failing parents.

The book hopscotches back and forth in time, giving the impression that so little happens in Henry's life that it's difficult to distinguish one year from another. And unlike many books about people stuck in ruts, Henry does not come thundering gloriously out of his, although the book does close on a hopeful note. Perhaps it's more realistic that way -- I think ruts are often endemic to people's personalities, especially a 15-year rut like the one Henry Powell experiences. Still, Henry has his dignity, and his small happinesses. He's never someone you warm up to -- he doesn't pass the Maxwell Perkins test of being able to recognize him on the street -- but you do root for him. I was shocked to realize halfway through, that I'd tried to write this exact short story acouple of years ago, without any luck. I swear that I'm not bitter that Flock succeeded where I did not.

If you're stuck in a rut, this book will not "cheer you up" in a simple manner. It will, more than likely, give you someone to feel superior to ("Holy shit: At least I managed to go on a few dates between the two Bush Administrations!" or "This job may not be much, but it's better than working in a decaying clothing store!"). It will also galvanize you to action. Not wanting to be another Henry Powell, you'll do what you can to ensure this rut is only a passing phase and not your life.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

You are Doing a Puzzle

You are sitting at the table, with the pieces of the puzzle. You don't know what it's going to turn out to be, but the pieces are the prettiest pieces you've ever seen: magenta, electric blue, lime green, crimson, vermillion, shimmery gold, muted silver and cerulean. Lots and lots of cerulean. When you're finished, the picture they make is both so clear that you don't see how you could've missed it, and utterly, utterly beside the point.

So it is with reading Nicole Krauss's book,The History of Love. My friend Sophie recommended it to me a long time ago, and I finally got around to reading it. I was surprised to find, as I started the book, that I'd read part of it already: it was published in The New Yorker as a short story a few years ago.

The story follows the lives of two individuals who couldn't be more different. Leo Gursky is a Polish Jew, an old man, a retired locksmith. His story is very sad: his true love, from his village in Poland, escaped the Nazis and came to America before he did. She was pregnant with their child but did not know it at the time. He wrote her letters every day. She wrote him letters every day. Neither set connected with their recipient. By the time Leo managed to escape the Nazis, she had given up on him, and had married. Another man was raising Leo's son, and she had come to love him. Leo never did marry and was waiting to end his days alone, hoping only that he won't die on a day where no one has noticed him, and making petty scenes in public to ensure this.

Alma is a teenager. She lives with her brother, known as Bird, who believes he is a holy man and is constructing an ark in a vacant lot for the next great flood. Alma and Bird's father died when they were young. Their father was a wilderness expert and to honor his memory, Alma spends much of her time researching and writing about how to survive in the wilderness. Their mother, a translator, fell into a deep depression after her husband's death, from which she never really recovered.

The thread that binds Alma and Leo is an obscure book called The History of Love. I can't say too much more about how without ruining it for you, and I know I've made the story sound rather grim, but trust me when I assure you that it doesn't leave you feeling that way. There is a warmth, a realness, to both main characters. Their respective losses are a part of who they are, but they don't define them. The story doesn't come into focus until the final chapters, but like I said, it's almost beside the point. Alma, and Leo, themselves are the point of the story, and they are brilliant. I enjoyed this one a lot and will be sad to return it, despite the $13.75 in fines I recently learned that I owe, for various things.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Stop this Clock!

Plastic bags consumed this year:

This is how many plastic bags have been used this year alone. Ewwww!!! In honor of Earth Day, I'd like to encourage you all to visit and consider buying a tote to take to the store with you, or at least reusing your own plastic bags. I do this, and the morons around here always look at me like I've got three heads: "Um, do you, like want these bags, ma'am?" But that's OK. I was worried about this reaction until I saw a man a few years ago in the grocery store, who brought along his own bags like it was nothing. If I can be that person for someone else, it's worth having to explain to every idiot on the planet why there already are plastic bags on the belt with my groceries, and how they got there.

Counter courtesy of

Thursday, April 19, 2007

On Beauty

Since I started this blog, I've posted about a few truly awful books, and a lot of mediocre ones. The good ones, it seems, are rarer and rarer, but when they come along, they're truly worth the wait.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith has been my constant companion for the last few days. It served as a brief respite in the middle of two very hectic days, welcomed me home after 12-hour days and long drives, and gave me a break from cleaning when I was snowed in on Monday. I came, regretfully, to the end of it last night. It was an enjoyable and moving read, and I highly recommend it to all of you.

The book is a tale of two families, negatives of one another. The primary characters are the Belseys. Howard Belsey is a British expat and Rembrandt scholar; his wife of 30 years, Kiki, is an African-American hospital administrator. They have three children: Jerome (who, despite the family's agnosticism, is a devoted Christian); Zora, a budding intellectual, and Levi, still a teenager. Howard's archrival in the academic world is Monty Kipps, the head of the other family. He is an arch-conservative, anti-affirmative action, black British Rembrandt scholar who has been feuding with Howard through letters and articles for over a year when the story opens. His wife, Carlene, is the negative of Kiki: frail and reserved (as opposed to Kiki's vitality and warmth) and a stay-at-home mom. Jerome's opposite on the Kipps side is Michael, a brash, hardnosed financial analyst (although Jerome's field of study is never stated, we get the impression that he leans towards the humanities like the rest of the family). Zora's opposite is Victoria Kipps, also extremely bright, but beautiful and seductive.

Levi has no opposite, but doesn't need one. Levi is straddling two worlds in this story. His family values education and upward mobility. Early on, Smith traces Kiki's family history: her female ancestors were all nurses, all impoverished, until her great-grandmother was left a fabulous house by a wealthy and grateful patient. Jerome and Zora are both carrying on the family traditions of academic achievement and self-improvement. Levi is not interested in school. Failing an alternative, and wanting to get in touch with the "black" side of his roots, he gets deeply involved in the hip-hop scene and in the world of Haitian immigrants. He quits his job at Virgin Records (it's not named, but may as well be) and sells CDs on the street.

Smith is black, and her other books have strong undercurrents of race and identity, but she manages to write about these serious themes in engaging and humorous ways. She also makes her books about much, much more than that. Kiki and Howard are suffering marital problems in the wake of an affair Howard had with a colleague. Howard's midlife crisis continues throughout the novel, compounded by career-related difficulties (not the least of which involves Monty Kipps, who gets a lectureship at Howard's college). Jerome did an internship with Monty Kipps and had a brief affair with Victoria, which ended in disaster when he proposed. And the portrayal of Zora, a young woman who is utterly confident in her intellect, yet deeply unsure of herself, is beautifully wrought. Swirling around it all, sometimes on the perimeter and sometimes in the forefront, is the art that these two men have chosen to make their life's work.

Race, subjugation, the nature of beauty, the narrowing of life in one's later years, and the harrowing, bustling confusion of trying to figure it all out as a newly minted adult -- it's all here. On Beauty will challenge you, make you think, make you laugh, and make you regret the book's ending, as I did.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Hollywood Gold

A while back, I recommended The Dirt by Motley Crue as the ultimate rock n' roll autobiography. I would like to make a similar recommendation for Lana Turner's autobiography for anyone who is interested in a slice of life during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I finished it today -- as you can imagine, it's not a terribly time-consuming read -- and enjoyed it a great deal, yes, even before I got to the murder.

Everybody shows up for roll call: Bob Hope, Betty Grable, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, Artie Shaw, Louis Mayer, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford -- I mean, everybody. Lana takes the reader on the whole journey: How she got discovered (not quite how the legend went, but similar); how she rose to stardom; the inside story of each of her seven marriages and her numerous love affairs.

And above all else, the sacrifices she made to stay at the top, and the realities of life under the studio system. One of the most heartbreaking moments of the book was when she discovered she was pregnant with Tyrone Power's child. She desperately wanted the child, and in her account, Power seemed pleased when she told him. Power was not yet divorced from his wife, although the marriage had been effectively over for some time. Having the child would've risked both of their careers. As she put it, "I'd be publicly branded a whore, and I'd never work again." So she had the abortion. Her relationship with Power ended shortly after that.

The thing that made her book enjoyable to read was that it was very clear who was writing it. Although she undoubtedly had assistance in writing it (the book is copyrighted to Eltee Productions Inc. and Hollis Alpert), her personality comes shining through in anecdotes about how her hip mannequin was the smallest at the studio ("Greer Garson's was the largest, but she is a tall woman.") and how she always insisted on wearing real jewels in her movies.

Her personality (like most of us, I suppose) is confusing and contradictory at times. She describes in terrifying detail how Johnny Stompanato threatened her life and her family's life, how he stalked her relentlessly, even finagaling his way into a vacation to Acapulco she'd planned for herself. She couldn't break away from him or call for help. Yet, she had no qualms about drawing the line in her professional life. She was originally supposed to appear opposite Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder but wanted control over her wardrobe. The director of the film called her up and cursed her out, so she called the studio and said she wouldn't stand for that and was quitting the film. She mentioned that she was concerned over the publicity, but even she acknowleged that wasn't the whole reason and there was something else that allowed her to keep getting duped and caught up in abusive relationships that were based on deceit (Johnny Stompanato hadn't even given her his real name; she found out Artie Shaw had been married twice before after she'd been with him for nearly two months already; her last husband asked for a loan, then disappeared with the money).

Clearly, this one won't go on the shelf between Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment. But if any of you are plannign vacations soon (either the mental kind or the kind where your whole self gets to go), Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth would be a good one to have along.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Goodbye, Kurt Vonnegut

For the second time since I started this blog, I'm saddened to report on the death of a favorite writer. Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday at the age of 84. It was a good long life, but people like him always seem as though they're taken too soon.

I first became acquainted with him as a writer when I was in high school. The play our drama club did that fall was "Welcome to the Monkey House," based on four short stories from that book: "Harrison Bergeron;" "Who am I this time?"; "The Euphio Question;" and "The Kid that Nobody Could Handle." I came across the book a few years later in a used bookstore and decided to pick it up. I was hooked. Although I didn't really "get" some of the stories (and still don't, I confess -- I like his premise fiction much better than his realistic fiction) it still stands as one of my favorite books. "All the King's Men" still has me biting my nails every time I read it, although I know it so well I almost don't need the book to reread it. "Tom Edison's Shaggy Dog" makes me laugh (and wonder about my cats). The final sentences of "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" give me chills every time. ("With that last, terrible sentence flitting through my mind, I rolled fifty consecutive sevens. Goodbye.")

Most critics would probably agree that his more recent books have not been all that great. I remember when Timequake came out, he pleaded with them to be gentle and stated that it would be his final book, since he was getting too old for this. But still, Kurt Vonnegut at his worst is much better than many authors at their best. I can't believe that we'll never have a new book by him again. RIP Kurt Vonnegut. While you were here, you challenged us, you made us think, you made us dream, and you made us enjoy it all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Stop reading this and start reading The Knife Thrower

As difficult as a novel can be to talk about, a collection of short stories is even harder. A collection of highly metaphorical, offbeat short stories like Steven Millhauser's The Knife Thrower is even more difficult. But it's the best thing I've read in quite a while, so I owe it to all of you to try.

There are few things more frustrating than a book that promises a lot, from its title and appearance, and fails to deliver. I talked about Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape in a previous post. Toni Morrison's Jazz is another offender. Even if I liked the book (which I didn't) it had nothing to do with jazz whatsoever. Millhauser promises a lot with his titles: in addition to the title story, there's "Paradise Park", "Beneath the Cellars of Our Town", "The Sisterhood of Night" and others ( full table of contents). And he delivers, every time.

The stories have a fantastical, dreamlike quality to them. They start grounded firmly enough in reality, describing the opening of a new department store, for instance, or a lost amusement park. But they spin off-kilter quickly. I mentioned earlier that they are highly metaphorical, but they can be enjoyed on their simplest level too. Millhauser has a gift for using things that naturally intrigue us, like amusement parks, automatons, flying carpets and sideshow acts, to talk about larger currents in society, like the nature of consumerism and the hungers that drive it.

And I've just made this book sound unspeakably dull. I can't think of enough positive things to say without wrecking the book, so I will conclude this post by saying that I recommend you head down to your local library and experience it, or another of his short-story volumes, for yourself.

Book Club Again

I didn't make it on here after last week's Book Club -- I was busy with Easter preparations. So I'm writing about it a bit belatedly.

I was looking forward to this one, since it featured a writer whose books I enjoy. I've read My Sister's Keeper and The Pact by Jodi Picoult. I've noticed that if you read enough works by any writer in a short period of time, they start to seem formulaic. You notice the connections between them: how Richard Russo's main male character always has a screwed up relationship with his dad, or how Barbara Kingsolver likes to put a scientist or failed scientist, etc. With Plain Truth, I've spotted Picoult's formula. Her books are about a legal melodrama and the lives of everyone it touches. In My Sister's Keeper, a girl who was conceived to be a bone marrow donor for her older sister (a victim of childhood cancer) seeks emancipation from her parents when asked to donate a kidney. In The Pact, a teenaged boy stands accused of killing his girlfriend and best friend since infancy.

In addition to the emotional power of Plain Truth, there's the added attraction of a glimpse inside a world not frequently treated in popular culture, that of the Amish. The legal melodrama in this book centers around Katie, a young Amish girl who gave birth out of wedlock in her parents' barn. The baby was found dead in the barn. Katie denied not only killing the baby, but even being pregnant or having sex at all. Ellie, a driven attorney and lost human being, is persuaded to take the case by her aunt-by-marriage who left the Amish faith, and who is Katie's aunt. At Katie's hearing, the judge releases her on her own recognizance, on the condition that someone accept responsibility for her. Katie's Amish family is not allowed to do so, so Ellie speaks up.

It's a measure of Picoult's skill as a writer that this moment didn't sink the entire book. It's a plot more worthy of a bad sitcom than of a book by a popular writer, but you do come to care for Ellie and enjoy seeing the Amish world through her eyes. The Amish are easy to romanticize, but Picoult doesn't hesitate to depict some of the more unpleasant aspects of Amish life: the subordinate role of women to men, and the requirement that individuals subordinate their own will to that of the church, for example. Picoult makes few judgements on the beliefs of the Amish and lets the reader decide for themselves.

She handles Ellie's personal life less deftly. Ellie has run away from a long-term relationship with a fellow laywer. At issue is -- you guessed it -- Ellie's desire to have a child. During the course of the novel, Ellie rekindles a relationship with an ex-boyfriend. Then, she threw up the morning of the trial. On TV (and apparently in some books), there is only one reason a woman ever throws up. Yes, indeed. Picoult made Ellie learn of her pregnancy in the midst of defending someone for murdering her newborn!

Despite maudlin plot devices, the book is very engrossing and enjoyable. Picoult populates it with enough interesting people to keep you busy: the devoted Samuel (Katie's Amish boyfriend), Katie's brother Jacob, torn between his intellectual curiousity and his family, Katie's unyielding father Aaron, her stoic mother Sarah, who has suffered several stillbirths, the death of her youngest daughter, and the loss of her son through shunning. The book has a surprise ending, as well. There was much debate at the book club over what actually happened, and how Katie's baby actually died. I won't say more in case any of you want to read it.

There are plenty of criticisms you could level against Picoult's books. They often tend towards the sappy and melodramatic. The ones I've read have that "ripped from the headlines" feel of Law and Order (in fact, Lifetime cast Mariska Haritgay of Law and Order SVU to play Ellie in the movie version). But you could also do a lot worse. They are entertaining and uplifting and will take you away from yourself. I will probably continue to read her from time to time.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The silent function of libraries

Perhaps this will not be news to readers in more urban environs, but it was to me out here in the sticks. In this article on WorkingForChange, a recently retired librarian discusses the modern library and the homeless problem. It's a very moving article about society's inability to deal with the chronically homeless in any kind of compassionate or even cost-effective fashion. Rather than simply point fingers, the author suggests some changes that could be made, many of them not terribly expensive. It really makes you wonder why, as a society, we've allowed all this to go on.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

When The Tigers Broke Free

Normally, I don't do this sort of thing, but someone sent me this on Craigslist, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head, so I decided to post about it since I haven't finished The Knife Thrower yet.

One thing I've always admired about Pink Floyd is their ability to make a whole statement with a song. Lots of songs sound like real chop jobs: one guy in the band has a melody, the other one has some lyrics, and they cram them together. The singsongy, 6/8 time of the vocal line plays up the fact that the story is told by a child. The snare drums and brass give it a militaristic feel, the choir and the slow timpani in the background give it the funereal aura. You can almost tell what the song will be about before the lyrics even start.

This song is from the movie The Wall, but it didn't make it on to the soundtrack for whatever reason. There has always been discussion and debate about exactly how much of the plot line of the film was inspired from life, but there's no question about this song. It's the verifiable tale of what happened to Roger Water's father, Eric Waters (and the rest of Royal Fusiliers Company C) at the Anzio (weird side note: spell check suggested maybe I meant "Nazi" here) bridgehead in Italy during WWII.

Even in 1979, when the song was written, the story of WWII was starting to take on a romantic, heroic glow. Yet Eric Waters died because of a foolish mistake, and the king for whom he died didn't even bother to sign his real signature to the scroll he sent the family, just a rubber stamp. Roger's mother hid all of Eric's effects in a drawer, rather than have to confront the facts of his death every day. And the death of a father he couldn't have remembered well haunted Roger that he wrote this song, probably a good 25 years after he found the drawer with the scroll, and you can still hear his resentment and grief in the last line of the song.

"When the Tigers Broke Free" isn't your typical Pink Floyd song. Most of Pink Floyd's lyrics are more metaphorical, and frequently employ bizarre, trippy imagery which sends your mind off on all kinds of tangents (probably why it's so often associated with drug users). This song is as straightforward as it gets, about as metaphorical as a coffee cup. Hell, he doesn't even put a simile in there. Yet, it still has the power to make you think, about the futility of war, the lies we tell ourselves about noble causes and heroic deaths, the coldness of those who send people to die in their wars, the effect it all has on those left behind. It's as if Monet had decided to paint a photo realistic painting, just to show he could. Or, to use a simile from our times, it's like when Michael Jordan decided to play baseball too, if he'd been any good at it.