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