Thursday, March 23, 2017

Huck Out West, by Robert Coover

W.W. Norton, 2017
308 pp


I knew I had to read this book when I first heard about it in The New Yorker last September during an interview with the author, Robert Coover. In that article, Deborah Treisman asked Coover what inspired him to write Huck Out West -- to which he replied

"Twain was a somewhat racist white boy (he belonged to Confederate militias in the early days of the looming conflict) who was changed for the better by his own writing—another phenomenon that many writers have shared, growing into their own best selves. Twain grew up among African-Americans, mostly slaves, and he learned to love them, but Native Americans were another story—a story he actually began, called “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.” Very early in his narrative, the savages reveal their irredeemably vicious nature by massacring everybody in sight, and, soon after that, probably because it had in effect dead-ended, Twain abandoned the story. I decided to take up his notion of Huck and Tom heading West just before the American Civil War, seeing the horror of the time through Huck’s eyes, while retaining the feel of “A Boy’s Adventure Story." 
To prepare for this book, I took the time to reread Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and I was amazed how different both books became after reading it as an adult.  One huge thing I missed as a kid reading this  novel,  something which has great bearing on Huck Out West, is that while Huck and Jim are making their way on their raft down the Mississippi, they find that they share a desire for freedom -- Huck is escaping from not only his abusive Pap but also from what he sees as entrapment by civilized society,  while Jim is seeking to find and buy freedom for his family who are slaves.  It's during this journey that the two bond, Huck ultimately coming around to see Jim as the human being he is.

In just the barest of nutshell summaries because I do NOT wish to give anything away, in  Huck Out West, which is narrated by Huck himself, our friend is older now but still trying to avoid the trappings of "sivilization." After a series of adventures that have a certain General Hard Ass (think Custer) out for Huck's head, he ends up "making camp"  in the Black Hills, "sacrid to the Lakotas,"  the "mighty warriors" who "did not like white folks like me...," who make an exception in Huck's case.  He bonds quickly with a young Lakota named Eeteh, since he, according to Huck, "was having about the same kind of trouble with his tribe as I was having with mine." Huck sets out on his horse with his teepee, ending up at Deadwood Gulch
"nigh to cricks too fast and shallow for rafting, but prime for fishing -- there was even a patch of sweetly clovered meadow beside the crick for Tongo to graze on -- I knowed I was at home."
  Huck is happy there, beyond happy --
"there warn't no town, just the Gulch, not no saloons nor churches nor women, nor not no gold, nothing to trouble the peace, only a few hairy old bachelors..."
 -- but he finds his peace shattered by the influx of emigrants who begin to flood into the area as word gets out about gold in the Black Hills. Soon the place is swarming with missionaries, prospectors, opportunists, deserters, drifters, and others who are there to claim their own piece of the American pie in any way they can, and who view the Lakota as  "savages ... ain't even completely human," including his old friend Tom Sawyer, who shows up on the scene.  Huck knows what's coming, having seen it before while working as a horse wrangler for the General, and along with Eeteh,  just wants to get away from  "all this sivilizing" as he had tried to do so many years before. But his hand is forced when he must make a choice between his past and his future.

Where there are some genuinely funny moments in this novel, the story told here by Huck is quite frankly, horrific. As Mr. Coover notes in the New Yorker interview mentioned earlier, it's "Not a pretty history:"
"The story starts at the outbreak of the Civil War and ends with the Deadwood Gold Rush. This era, not the Revolutionary period, was what truly made us who we are. It was an adventurous time, but also one full of greed, virulent hatreds, religious insanity, the slaughter of war and its aftermath, widespread poverty and ignorance, ruthless military and civilian leadership, and huge disparities of wealth." 
There is much, much more to this book (the power of storytelling and myth, what it actually means to grow up, etc.,) but what struck me the most about it  was reinforced later by something I heard after finishing the novel  in an online interview on WNYC (which you absolutely shouldn't listen to until after you've finished the book).   It's all to do with the bonds between Eeteh and Huck that transcend their differences, and the image of the two living the  "possibilities of human-to-human peace and reconciliation,"  just as Jim and Huck managed to do a long time ago while floating down the big river.   What a lovely thought, especially right now.

 I didn't  read this book as just a modern sequel or to spend time comparing it to Twain's original work.  I don't think that's the point and frankly,  it's just a big waste to approach this novel that way. Despite the horrors of the reality found here, it's a gorgeous book and one that needs reading right now.

My favorite real review of this book (but do yourself a favor and don't read it until after reading Huck Out West) is by 

Edwin Turner, Biblioklept, 02/06/2017

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Random House, 2017
343 pp


"Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch." (306)

With apologies for interjecting what some people might consider an f-bomb here, Caitlin PenzeyMoog from The A.V. Club absolutely nails my own experience with this book when she says that Lincoln in the Bardo "will blow your fucking mind."  I don't think I could say it any better.  I loved and was beyond awed by this book, and while it's only March, unless something equally outstanding comes along, this novel just may turn out to be my favorite book of the year.  It is absolutely stunning, and highly deserving of every superlative I can think of.

"The Bardo" is not a place on any map, but in Tibetan Buddhism, is considered to be an "intermediate state," referring to
"the in-between existence experienced during the transitional period from the moment of death to the moment of conception. However, this term has also been used to express all transitional experiences throughout life; for example, the experience of sleeping is an intermediate state between the moments of falling asleep and waking, and even the moment of death itself is considered an intermediate state between life and the after-death experience."
In addition,  "adherents of Tibetan Buddhism consider people always to be in a transitional state between one experience and another," a concept that will become very important as the book progresses. 

To give a brief, simplistic peek at what's happening in this book,   Abraham Lincoln has just lost his young son Willie to typhoid, and he is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery before the Lincolns can return to Illinois for a proper burial.  After the funeral, a severely grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt to spend time with his boy, finding it beyond difficult to leave him. While Willie's body is dead, his soul/spirit  (or however you want to define it) continues on, and he finds himself in the company of countless other  souls who have not yet made the transition.  They are a varied group in terms of who they were before they passed away, a multitude of spirits all with their histories and their own voices that talk to us as this journey progresses. The chief among them are Hans Vollman, The Reverend Everly Thomas, and Roger Bevins III, who have not yet transcended and are waiting for things to be as before (meaning they don't quite understand their situation),  and who serve as our window into what is happening in the cemetery. As a child, though, Willie can't afford to linger -- our guides reveal that he is deteriorating and worse -- for the sake of his soul he absolutely must move on before it is too late. As Bevins reveals, "the young ones were not meant to tarry." 

In a genius move on the author's part, we stay with these spirits and with Willie throughout most of the book, but then he shifts his focus after a time to the President, who is not only paralyzed with grief, unable to make himself leave his son in the crypt, but also stuck in a critical moment.   As we're told, while "young Willie lay under embalmment," the President and citizens learn of the incredible number of casualties
 "from the Union Victory at Fort Donelson ... an event that caused a great a great shock among the public at that time, the cost in life being unprecedented thus far in the war."
As one account notes,
"As the dead piled up in unimaginable numbers and sorrow was added to sorrow, a nation that had known little of sacrifice blamed Lincoln for a dithering mismanagement of the war effort."
He has become to many the worst president in American history; he is hated and reviled; and as he continues to grieve for his son he grieves for the nation; he also wonders how to proceed in the midst of so much sorrow.  Ultimately, it will be his own time spent lingering in the Bardo that will help him to achieve his own transformation that will allow him to move on.  How that comes about I won't say, but the last few chapters of this book will, as the AV Club writer said, blow your ***ing mind.

As always, since I'm just a reader and not a writer, and not someone who knows how to do real reviews,  it's difficult to convey the intensity of this novel in a short post and I can never fully seem to give the best books the justice they're due.  But  Lincoln in the Bardo is a beautiful novel  and Saunders' writing is an experience in itself.   In terms of style, it is not written as one long historical-fiction narrative, but in a format that is itself unique.  In the first chapter, we encounter our first glimpse of the cemetery inhabitants, whose names appear beneath every utterance, so that there are no quotation marks to denote speech. 

Sorry about the crappy blurry photo - I was in a hurry. 

 Then there are alternating chapters of what appear to be contemporary accounts and some from modern histories that provide voices of the time or historical perspective, noted in the same way to give the names of the speaker, the historian, the journalist, the diary writer, etc.   These seem to be a blending of real and fictional works, all done brilliantly.  There is just so much genius, beauty and power to be found in these pages, and in my opinion, some readers might just discover that although the book is set in 1862,  it is also a perfect book for our own time.   

Friday, February 24, 2017

Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle

Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 2017
224 pp

arc, thanks to Powell's Indiespensable and to the publisher

The very first word that popped into my head after finishing this novel was "strange."  That's a positive in my reading universe, since I actually prefer books that are a fair distance from ordinary.
I'm not going to do plot in any big way here, because once again, to tell is to spoil and I don't want to do that.  What I will say is that readers who are expecting a horror novel or thriller based on the back-cover blurb may want to think twice, because it is neither.

The novel opens in the late 1990s, in the small midwestern town of Iowa, Nevada at the Video Hut where young Jeremy Heldt works as cashier.  Normally it's a routine job -- people turn in their videos, pick another one, and move along.  But all of that is about to change, when more than one person tells Jeremy that there's something on the tape they'd rented.  Jeremy takes a look at She's All That, and discovered that someone had indeed "transferred a scene" onto the movie.  At first his reaction is "who cared," but then he's reminded by another customer that there was something weird about the film Targets and decided to take a look for himself. The woman who'd first reported the anomalies was curious enough to take detailed notes about what she'd seen, as did Jeremy's boss when she watched. Unlike the customer, though, Sarah Jane actually recognizes the location "beyond question,"  and makes a trip to the place where she meets the current owner.  Her visit is where this story really begins, and with that I will say no more.

I can see why some people have been disappointed; many readers thought the novel should have moved along different genre lines, because the first few chapters set up a scenario not unlike several horror novels I've read. I'm not at all disappointed though,  because a) I tend to go into a book without expectations and b) again based on reader negatives, I like the move in and out of the present because it makes for a more fully-developed story.  In the long run, I found Universal Harvester to be mainly about absence, loss, and those who are left behind who are often stuck in a sort of purgatory to cope in any way they can. Another thing that comes out in this story is that we may think we really know someone, only to discover that we may never actually truly understand them. And finally, I also saw in this book a story about a disappearing way of life as time and technology make their marks on society and on individuals as well.

I enjoyed this book,  and while I have to agree that it does tend to meander a bit, when all is said and done it is a poignant novel, and despite the fact that it turns out not to have been a horror novel, it's frightening enough in its own way.  The best way to read it is to keep an open mind and concentrate on what it is, rather than on what you think it should have been.

real reviews:
NPR, by Carmen Maria Machado
LA Times, by Michael Schaub

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

from January -- Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig

Vintage, 1991
originally published as El beso de la mujer araña, 1976
translated by Thomas Colchie
281 pp


Still behind both readingwise and postingwise, so this will be a short post as I continue to go through my January reads.   I think it's a shame that I just don't have time to give this beautifully-written novel the attention it deserves, but I  have a LOT to catching up to do both in the book world and in the real one.  In my opinion, Kiss of the Spider Woman is an exquisite novel, one I could not put down until the very last word.

To give away too much about this book is to spoil, so it will be just barebones here. Set in Argentina in the mid-1970s,   Luis Molina and Valentín Arregui are cellmates in a prison -- Molina, a gay window dresser, for corruption of a minor, and Valentín for being a Marxist guerilla who will not give over any information to the authorities.  Molina spends much of their time together recounting films he's seen, which at first seems like an escape mechanism, but as the novel progresses, it becomes very clear that there's much more than passing time going on. As Molina works his way through several movies, the reader begins to notice that they cover a wide range of themes, including  political awareness, power, questions of identity and the true nature of the characters, sacrifice, betrayal, and the nature of relationships, but even more importantly, they are all about different forms of repression and imprisonment. The movies offer both prisoners a chance to begin serious and meaningful dialogue about their own inner anxieties, and their relationship becomes closer as they begin to open up to each other. But of course there's more than meets the eye here, leading to terrible, tragic consequences.

The films provide great insight into various means of repression forced on others by outside forces; it is also, in part, a story which examines the ways in which different people seek to transcend their own forms of imprisonment. Obviously, there's much, much more but this post just has to do for the time being.

Like so many great novels, Kiss of the Spider Woman has been studied, scrutinized, analyzed and it has become the topic of a number of scholarly works, so there are numerous places to turn to for serious analysis if anyone's interested.  As I said earlier, I just don't have the time right now to give it the recognition it deserves.  It is not very often I use the term "beautiful" to describe a novel, but it certainly fits in this case.  Kiss of the Spider Woman appears in Boxall's original 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, and while it doesn't seem to have been a lot of readers' cup of tea, in my opinion, it's one that should not be missed. After reading the book, see the film -- absolutely amazing.

Friday, February 10, 2017

real-world book group read: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

W.W. Norton, 1993
originally published 1899
324 pp
read in January


"The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings." 

The original,  intended title of this novel was A Solitary Soul, which once you've read the book, actually makes a lot of sense. Both titles work well, though, since main character, Edna Pontellier, is both "awakened" to her passions and to her own mind, and afterwards sets out to try live the life she wants, defying the social conventions of her class, of nature, of her gender, and of her time.  It's a lovely book and the story itself is quite short -- this particular edition has a lot of commentary and critical contemporary reviews which bumps up the page count, but the story itself ran to only 109 pages.  It's to her credit  that the author was able to express so much in such a brief space and come up with a work that is so powerful that it still resonates more than one hundred years later.

The story is very well known, so I won't rehash it here. As far as the book group goes, The Awakening prompted a great discussion as we talked mainly about Edna and about the other women in this story (Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz) and how they may have represented two alternative paths, both rejected by Edna.  The men also became a focal point of discussion, as did the fact that Edna's privileged life allowed her to make the choices she did, since she had servants to do everything including taking care of her children, leading to a discussion about the lack of choices among women in lower classes.  And then, of course, there's the ending, which we talked about for quite a long time.

Reading over several readers' comments on this book, a LOT of people were unhappy with Edna, and I'd be lying if I said I would have given her an award for mother of the year. On one hand, it's  possible to see the book focusing on someone who refused to give up on freeing herself from the strictures that bind her as an individual;   on the other, some people have seen The Awakening as a "cautionary tale" about "the danger of elevating passion over love," or as one person noted, a reminder of the consequences of people "especially women" stepping "outside those unforgiving boundaries."

The only negative (and not for me since I read quite widely in books of this period) is that the prose style can be a bit tedious, but once you've figured it out, the story just pops right out at you and you're hooked.  I can very highly recommend this book -- considering how long ago it was written, it's very much pertinent today.

do not miss this article:

"The Awakening: Learning to Swim," by Barbara Kingsolver

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Bleeding of the Stone, by Ibrahim al-Koni

I haven't posted in a while. Two reasons -- one, Larry and I have been very ill with some stupid respiratory virus that someone so nicely shared with us; two, the other day I was scrolling through facebook and saw this

from Wittitudes

and thought to myself, yep -- that is definitely me, since as I've discovered,  recent events have yielded a multitude of WTF moments that I'm struggling to cope with, bringing on stress-induced lethargy, which is a struggle to try to overcome. Anyway, the point is that it's been a beyond-tough month.

The Bleeding of the Stone is the work of Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni.  Mr. al-Koni, according to the blog Arabic Literature (In English), was born in 1948,
"raised in Libya's Fezzan region among nomadic, Tamasheq-speaking Tuareg. It wasn't until he was twelve that he began to formally study Arabic. He went on to study literature in Russia, after which he moved to Poland, and then finally to Switzerland in 1994." 
He has won several awards, among them the Swiss State Award (1995) for this book,  the Japanese Translation Committee Award for his Gold Dust (1997), and in 2010, the Arab Novel Award. His novel New Waw won him a place on the shortlist for the National Translation Award in 2015, the same year he found himself as a finalist for the Man International Booker Prize.

In general, as noted by Ursula Lindsey  at The Nation, al-Koni's entire "oeuvre"
"charts the disintegration of the country's nomadic, tribal and mythic culture under the impact of foreign intrusions and then of oil wealth."
Interlink Books, 2013
translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley
136 pp

"Only through dust will the son of Adam be filled." 

Set in Libya, Asouf grew up living with his family "alone in the desert, alone in all their movements and wanderings." He can't even remember a time when he lived around "human neighbors," and even as a child when another family came to settle close to where Asouf's family, his father decided it was time to move on. He often said that  he'd "rather have jinn as neighbors than people," and that all he wants is peace.  As Asouf was growing up, he'd learned how to hunt, how to break wild camels, and how to hunt the waddan (the moufflon referred to on the cover).  As an adult, Asouf continues to live alone in the desert, still shunning most human interaction, even though he has been given a job by the Italian government  as a tour guide and "guardian of the Wadi Matkhandoush." His task is to escort people who come to view the sacred stones and ancient paintings in the rocks.  However, when two hunters arrive demanding that Asouf take them to find the waddan,  he does all he can to protect these creatures that his father had told him were "possessed by the spirit of the mountains."  But more importantly, his resistance to the hunters comes after his "transformation" following a life-changing event in which he  sees his father's eyes in one of these waddan, leading him to realize that "He, his father, and the mighty were one now. Nothing could separate them."

The Bleeding of the Stone pulls in the reader not just because of  the story, but also because of the lovely blending of mysticism, Sufism, Islam, the Old Testament, and traditional beliefs.  Additionally, some of its chapters have epigraphs from such thinkers as Herodotus, Sophocles, and Ovid that set the stage for what's to come within.   Sofia Samatar, writing for The Interstitial Arts Foundation explains that the book can be read as an "ecological parable and also a portrait of the desert as a rich and vital center,"  but it is also a story that pits the traditional world against the worst of  modern intrusions, and a novel that speaks to resistance. Finally, it is just flat out beautiful in terms of the writing. I really wish I could give this novel the treatment it deserves, but I'd be here a long time so check out the links at the end of this post.

 The Bleeding of the Stone is not going to be for everyone -- it's a very out-of-the-box kind of read that absolutely demands reader participation and lots of think time,  but it is an incredibly powerful novel that I can most heartily recommend.

a couple of things:
1. an interview with the author
2. one of the best articles I've found on this novel by Sofia Samatar -- at 

 fiction from Libya 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O'Brien

Little, Brown and Company, 2015
299 pp

"Come away, O human child
To the waters and the wild,
With a faery, hand in hand, 
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."  
                                                                              -- 152

In 1999 while a full-scale manhunt was on for Radovan Karadžić, aka "the Beast of Bosnia," who was just last year convicted of "genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity" by a UN tribunal, Karadžić managed to escape into Serbia.  In 2005, as Julian Borger reports in The Guardian
"a self-styled spiritual healer and clairvoyant, Mina Minic, answered a ring on his doorbell in Belgrade to find himself face-to-face with a tall man with a long bushy beard, abundant white hair done up in a top-knot tied with a black ribbon. He looked 'like a monk who had done something wrong with a nun,' Minic would recall later." 
This "tall man with a long bushy beard" was none other than Karadžić himself, 
"trying out a new identity provided by sympathisers in Serbian intelligence. He introduced himself as Dragan Dabic, a therapist who had just returned home from a stint in New York following an ugly split with his wife."
He was arrested in Belgrade in July, 2008, but only after
"working for years in a clinic...practicing alternative medicine. He even lectured on videotape at local community centers, in an open and active life..." 
The Little Red Chairs moves the scene from Belgrade to the small Irish town of Cloonoila, where one winter night, Dr. Vladimir Dragan arrives and proceeds to take up work as a holistic healer and sex therapist. People would later remember some bizarre occurrences on that night -- "dogs barking crazily, as if there was thunder, and the sound of the nightingale." At first
"There were those who smelt vice and corruption, while a few lone voices were insisting that he might be an artery for good."
The local schoolmaster responds by relating the story of Rasputin,
"...who hailed from the wilds of Siberia and infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court, presenting himself a a visionary and a healer. He was going to lift Russia from its lethargy, and darkness, he was going to cure the sick child of the Czarina, the future heir, of his haemophilia and he was going to perform miracles ad infinitum. Did he cure the heir? No. Did he save the Russian family from the firing squad? No. He was a fornicator and had carnal knowledge of most of the women in the court."
His last words on the topic were a warning that "Rasputin's last supper was a plate of biscuits laced with cyanide." His little speech gave me a jolt -- not knowing anything about this story prior to reading it, the mention of Rasputin and how he had "infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court," gave me my first clue that something just may not be right here, that what's on the surface isn't the real story.    On the other hand, throughout the town the thought also floated that perhaps the newcomer would "bring a bit of Romance into our lives."  Eventually the town gets used to him, incorporating their new healer into their lives and activities. Over the space of  the first few chapters O'Brien captures individual thoughts and reactions among the people living there, among them Fidelma McBride.

Fidelma is forty to her husband Jack's sixties, and as we meet her, we find out that the age difference "had begun to matter."  Jack, the local draper, prefers "keeping her to himself, shutting the world out, drawing the heavy velvet curtains too early on a bright evening."  She, however, of the "Gioconda smile,"  is "in her element" among the "warmth and the banter" of others, but most of all, Fidelma is desperate for a child, having lost two during her marriage.  She above all others is drawn to Dr. Vlad -- not necessarily a matter of love but rather centering on her desire to have a baby. The two begin an affair, which leads to serious implications down the road, especially when Dr. Dragan's past catches up with him.  The revelations about his history have a life-changing impact on this woman's life, who eventually makes her way to London after an horrific incident, where she meets other refugees from different parts of the world who have also had to flee their homes, who have suffered as Fidelma states, "fates much harder than mine, excruciating."

O'Brien's introduction of these people into this book as they relate their own stories offers a glimpse of the sorts of horrific realities that would cause people to flee their homelands and just what sort of realities exist for modern refugees trying to make a new life for themselves. This displacement, and the loss of home is a huge theme that carries throughout the story, and not just in Fidelma's situation.  Fidelma carries the added burden of guilt based on what she feels is her complicity, another thematic element that crops up throughout this book. Why, for example, are people so drawn to these self-deluded, "false prophets" who have appeared throughout history and will continue to do so to such horrific ends? It's a good question, and one that people should be considering, especially now.  There is much more, of course, and I'm only scratching the surface here, but it  is a novel very much worth reading.

  The title of O'Brien's novel reflects the line of 11,541 small red chairs laid out on Titova Street in Sarajevo, April 6, 2012  "on the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War."

from The Atlantic, April 13, 2012
In July of 2016 an interview with Edna O'Brien appeared at Faber & Faber's blog where she notes that these "little chairs" are the "emblematic coffins, so to speak, of infants and children who had lost their lives."  She also notes that
"We cannot ignore or avoid what is happening in the world, it is presented on our screens every single moment. It must by necessity come into the work, because we are all witnesses to what is happening. To write about it is not to ease one’s conscience or exalt one’s status. It is simply to be one of the witnesses along the way."
I'm thinking that on a personal level,  the message of standing as witnesses and not looking away just may be the most important one of all in this novel. 

I'm also looking at readers' takes on this book and several people have had a less-than-sterling response to it, largely because it doesn't seem to be the work of the same Edna O'Brien as in her other novels (to which I can't respond because this is my first by her).   I'll agree that in some spots things seemed a bit contrived, and there's a sort of clunky, disjointed feel here and there in terms of structure, but overall, I was completely engrossed in this book which asks some very difficult but pertinent and timely questions. Recommended. 

real reviews: 
James Wood at  The New Yorker
Joyce Carol Oates at The New York Times
Ron Charles at The Washington Post