Monday, November 25, 2013

*Messiah, by Gore Vidal; *Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk

We're finally moved in upstairs again since the remodel (yay!), so  I can find everything once more and now I actually have time to get back to the books about fictional cults I've set aside to read this month. I think I'll be carrying the list into December, because there are quite a few more I want to get to.  For now, here are two incredible novels that I most highly recommend.

Up first: Gore Vidal's Messiah.

Penguin, 1998
originally published 1954
256 pp


"If this thing spreads it will become organized. If it becomes organized, secondary considerations will obscure the point."

 If ever there was a reason to take a break  from reading what's on the New York Times bestseller list or  from current fiction, this book is it.  Going onto the favorites list for 2013, this novel is simply amazing.  Considering it was first published in 1954, it's surprisingly current and definitely way ahead of its time.  In this book, a new religion is born, and a simple message offered by a charismatic young man becomes organized, publicized, bureaucratized and ultimately bastardized before it encompasses the entire non-Islamic world.  It's highly satirical, funny in a dark humor sort of way, and makes you appreciate how perceptive this author must have been, considering all of the events coming out of  messianic cults over the last few decades.

Eugene Luther (which is actually Gore Vidal's real name) has been living in Egypt for the last fifty years under an assumed name.  He is working on an account of "that original crisis" that sent him there, which began when he was introduced to a former embalmer by the name of John Cave ("a pair of initials calculated to amaze the innocent").   Luther meets him through Iris Mortimer, a woman to whom he was introduced by another character, Clarissa.  On a visit to California,  he first hears Cave speak at a small gathering, and somewhat "against his will" Luther realizes that he was totally absorbed.  As Iris notes, "There's something in oneself which stirs and comes alive at his touch, through his agency."   Cave's message is relatively simple: "it is good to die."  This was the sole vision of John Cave, at first anyway; everything changes when Cave is put in the hands of  publicist Paul Himmell and his erstwhile partner, Jungian analyst Dr. Stokharin, and Cavite Inc. is born. It's Iris who notes that
"a society which knows what we know, which believes in Cave and what he says, will be a pleasanter place in which to live, less anxious, more tolerant." 
Himmell puts Cave on television and his popularity soars -- but to Himmell and his investors, Cave has become a product. While Luther has misgivings about the whole religion phenomena, telling the Cavite Board of Directors that they will
 "... do more harm than good by attempting to supplant old dogmas and customs with new dogmas. It will be the same in the end, except that the old is less  militant, less dangerous than a new order imposed by enthusiasts,"  

he readily accepts being drafted to supply background on Cave, to give him a "respectful ancestry," and soon he is also drafting dialogues, supposedly containing doctrine that becomes the basis of "Cavesword," the new religion. Millions of people are enticed by Cave's TV presence, and Cavesword spreads like wildfire, despite threats posed by leaders of Christianity, and despite Luther's growing misgivings.

But Cave sells -- and  becomes even more popular when Cave, a natural recluse,  is kept away from crowds allowing a mystique and mythology to grow.  It isn't long before Cavesword spawns centers in all major cities run by Residents and Communicators; nonconformists are "swayed" toward Cavesword in these places; eventually they become centers where practitioners can commit suicide.  As the story gets closer to why Luther is living in Egypt under an assumed name, it also starts taking on even more frightening tones.

This is, of course, a barebones outline of plot; this is another one you really can't get a feel for without reading it, but Messiah is simply put, an outstanding novel.  It seems to parallels the rise of Christianity, including the dissenters, the overlaying of old traditions to make new ones, the schisms, and mythologies that grew out of historical reality.  It examines the relationship between postwar American anxieties and the need for some kind of larger-than-life solution to offer people beyond the old, superstition-based religions.  It also looks at television's ability as the ultimate medium of persuasion -- considering that this book was written in 1954, that's an incredibly farsighted vision on Vidal's part.  But really, the best thing about this book is the realization that comes to Luther as he comes to understand his real role vis-a-vis  John Cave; sadly it's at the end so I can't really spill it.  It is however, a revelation that had me thinking about this novel long after I'd finished it -- in fact, the same is true of the entire book.  There is so much more to discuss, but if I wrote all I really wanted to, it would be more like a paper rather than a review.  Messiah is also first book I've ever read by Gore Vidal, and I absolutely love the way he wrote -- so much so that I've already picked up two more of his books.  It's as good or better than much of the fiction coming out currently, so if you're into great writing, excellent plotting and a story that causes you to sit and mull over what you've just read, you really can't make a much better choice than this one.  It shouldn't be pooh-poohed just because it's nearly 60 years old ... you'd think after reading it that the author somehow had access to news of the future.  Superlative. That's my final word.

Next:  Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk

Anchor Books, 2000
(originally published 1999)
289 pp


"You're going up and up and up and not getting anywhere. It's the illusion of progress. What you want to think about is your salvation." 

Going from Vidal's sublime Messiah to Palahniuk's ridiculously sublime Survivor isn't such a great leap, really.  There are a few shared ideas between the two books, for example, the importance of television as a medium for publicity and maximum exposure, the "messiah" as commodity in the hands of publicists and agents, and the reimagining of historical fact into a mythology designed for public consumption.  At the same time, only Chuck Palahniuk can write like Chuck Palahniuk, throwing in some very pointed barbs at American lifestyles.  As I noted somewhere, this book has some very disturbing scenes, but god help me, I couldn't help but laugh.

If you haven't yet read this novel, you might get a little confused like I did when I opened the first page. I thought my book had been screwed up in the binding process -- it starts on page 289, with chapter 47.  It's gimmicky, but it really does work.  Survivor is the story of Tender Branson, who, when we first meet him, is on an airplane minus passengers and pilot, the former having been deplaned shortly after takeoff and the latter having parachuted after giving tips to Branson about how to keep the plane in the air after the pilot jumps, the amount of time before all four engines flame out, etc.  Branson is the sole occupant of the plane, and is now telling his true life story to the airplane's black box which will survive the inevitable plane crash.  He wants to get it clear right away that he is no murderer; getting from the beginning to the end when he finally reveals the reasons behind clearing his name is the journey the reader makes through the novel.

And what a story it is.  Prior to sitting in the cockpit, Branson's adult life was one as a "full-time drudge," and part-time god."  His day job was slaving away at housecleaning for wealthy employers, guided by a day planner, so that at any given hour of his workday, he and his employers know what he's doing. He's interrupted periodically by calls from his boss, who asks him questions about such topics as how to eat lobster correctly at an upcoming dinner, which forks to use, that sort of thing.  Tender Branson is a whiz at home economics; he spent his life being schooled in running the perfect home.  He is also, as we discover shortly after meeting him, a member of the federal Survivor Retention Program, which affords him a caseworker with whom he meets each week, a tiny apartment with a shared hallway bathroom, free government cheese and a bus pass.  Branson grew up in the Nebraska church district colony of the Creedish; at age 17 he was baptized and sent out as a labor missionary.  This was the common practice of the Creedish; all boys but the first-born sons (all named Adam)  went out into the world to work and shared the name of Tender. The girls who were not chosen as wives for the first-born sons went out to work as well, sharing the name of Biddy.   Back home, the Adams and their wives had children, children and more children, and the children spent their lives learning a particular trade.  There were rules for living on the outside, though -- no dancing, no listening to broadcast media, and the biggest one of all was this one:
 "If the members of the church district colony felt summoned by God, rejoice. When the apocalypse was imminent, celebrate, and all Creedish must deliver themselves unto God, amen."
While Tender Branson is cleaning grout and getting bloodstains out of leather, the word comes that the Creedish in Nebraska have been delivered; he is taken into the Survival Retention program so that he doesn't off himself.  There are rashes of suicides among the survivors, and at some point, Tender becomes the only surviving member of the cult (well, as far as the authorities know), and thanks to a savvy agent whose job it is to make cult suicide look "fresh and exciting every time around,"   is turned into a new messiah for the people.

As Tender's lifestory is recorded for posterity, the author takes potshots at different facets of American culture that blend into Tender's experience.  For example, while being refitted as a "new guru" for people who need to "make sense of their risk-free boredom of a lifestyle,"  he climbs the "stairmaster to heaven," and is wardrobed, told what to say, and pumped full of botox, steroids, drugs etc in order to make him media perfect. As his agent tells him,
"Nobody wants to worship you if you have the same problems, the same bad breath and messy hair and hangnails as a regular person." 
Sitting in the cockpit, Branson reflects that "Reality means you live until you die...The real truth is nobody wants reality."

There are also riffs on diagnosing yourself via the DSM with the disorders of the day, things people pray for here combined into his "Book of Very Common Prayer,"  people being so busy with working and making money that they don't have time to enjoy their gardens, but one of the biggest ideas that comes out of this story is based on how to find salvation in the face of  boredom that comes from sameness  and having no control over your own life.

As I said earlier, it's not all funny, because there are some pretty tragic things described in here, but I defy anyone not to laugh while reading this book.  Fantastic novel -- if you haven't read it, go and get yourself a copy soon.  I love Chuck Palahniuk because he's such a great satirist, expressing questions about life in terms everyone can understand and recognize.  Another one not to be missed. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

book discussion: At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcón

Riverhead, 2013
384 pp

arc - my thanks to the publisher and to LibraryThing's early reviewers program

"...the play is different every time."

Some time ago I read this author's Lost City Radio, and loved it. Absolutely. Now he's back with At Night We Walk in Circles, and I loved this one even more. The blurb describing what's on the inside doesn't even come close to describing what actually happens in this character-based novel, which I would say focuses largely on identity, how past events come to be re-imagined, and the effects of blurring the thin line between reality and artificiality.

Set in a South American country somewhere (likely Peru based on a number of clues in the story),   the novel opens with the story of Diciembre, a theatrical group formed by a group of "radical students" at the city's Conservatory during the war. Their slogan was "Theater for the People," and they often went out into the "conflict zone," where'd they perform plays.  It was risky, but then again, being in the city also had its hazards: Henry Nuñez, the lead actor and author of the play The Idiot President, was arrested and sent to prison. His crime was one of "incitement," and he remained there from April through November, 1986, incarcerated as a terrorist.  From his prison cell, he made a radio broadcast, a "jailhouse interview" heard by many people, but by one person in particular who at 8 years old, was so impressed that Henry became his hero.  This is Nelson, who became intrigued about the occupation of "playwright," and who already had been making up his own dialogues about a girl with whom he was secretly in love, sometimes acting them out for his brother.  His brother explains that a playwright is someone who makes up conversations and calls them scripts, much like what Nelson had already been doing. It was then that Nelson decided that he wanted to do that as well -- it became his dream to become a playwright.

As the wartime curfews continued, Diciembre staged all-night shows such featuring such entertainments as "pop reworkings of Garcia Lorca," "stentorian readings of Brazilian soap opera scripts," and "anything that kept audiences awake and laughing through what might have otherwise been the long, lonely hours of curfew." As the 80s closed, and into the 90s, the troupe was a shadow of what it used to be. Things were changing in the country as well -- the capital had been "reimagined" in such a way that made it seem that no "unpleasant history" had ever happened there.   In  2000, the anniversary of Diciembre's founding prompted some of its "veterans" to mark the event somehow, and they decided it might be fitting to take The Idiot President on tour out in the countryside.  Henry was brought in from his now-quieter life to participate, "but only if a new actor could be found to join." His friend Patalarga is on board, and enter Nelson, now a theater student at the Conservatory, who ultimately gets the third part.  The timing is perfect and Nelson needs an escape, especially since  the woman he loves has set up house with someone else, and since the death of his father, he can't leave mother for his long-awaited trip to the US.  As the men wait at the bus station before they are taken away, Henry tells Nelson that they're "entering the world of the play now...its constructed  universe," and that he should "give in to it." As the narrator tells us, the beginning of the tour is  "when the trouble began." 

We learn all of this background and more  from a first-person narrator, who has only appeared some 13 pages into the book (well, in my ARC copy anyway).  His very presence signifies that something is not right -- that something has gone wrong with Nelson. Later, we also discover that he is trying to "decipher the mystery" around a "brief encounter" between himself and Nelson, by interviewing
 "his confidantes, his lovers, his classmates, people who'd seen fit to trust me, as if by sharing their various recollections, we could together accomplish something on his behalf. Re-create him. Reanimate him. Bring him back into the world." 
Using these interviews and words from Nelson's journals, he tries to piece together the chain of events that started with Nelson going on a tour for a play with two other actors, because he feels some kind of bond with Nelson.   The thing is though, that each person he interviews knows Nelson from a different vantage point, from  different situations in which Nelson has played different parts, so that eventually we find that there are  a number of different Nelsons.  How then is it possible to know the true Nelson? Is it possible at all?  Even he is aware of himself as an actor -- at the last drink he had with his brother he came to the realization that everyone, including himself, is always acting. When all is said and done, and as you come to the end of the story, you start to wonder if even Nelson really knows who he is any longer.   What I find striking about this book is that it is built around actors, their roles, performances, scripts and improvisations -- all tools used to create  illusion.

Re the title:  As Henry asks earlier, when he talks to the narrator about walking in circles while in prison,  "how do you set a play in a world that denies your characters any agency?"  I'm not exactly sure, but I think this statement may provide some clue.

 At Night We Walk in Circles is definitely not easygoing as far as the reading.  This book could be the easily be included in  a literary  or  history course, one that spends most of the semester analyzing it. All the same, I love this writer's work and this one I can only describe as hypnotic and haunting, mixed with a touch of very dark humor at times.  Highly recommended -- take it very slow, though.  It's not a book you want to rush through.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Knopf/McSweeney's Books, 2013
491 pp


"...any information that eludes us, anything that's not accessible, prevents us from being perfect."
                                                  -- 287

Let me start here with how I felt about this book when I turned the last page and closed the cover. The words "holy sh*t" came out of my mouth, and I was tempted to go disconnect myself from every social media site I'm on. As far as the book itself, I didn't think it was perfect; in fact, it is a bit contrived, but still a very timely read, one that gave me a case of the willies.

The story focuses on Mae Holland, who when we meet her, is working in a dead-end job until recruited by her best friend Annie, who works at a tech company called The Circle, and is in the upper echelons known as the Gang of 40, "privy to its most secret plans and data." One of the founders designed the Circle's "Unified Operating System," which
"combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy -- users' social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests."
He also invented TruYou, "one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person," where you had to use your real name, which "tied to your credit cards, your bank," and your personal identity, basically did away with online anonymity. TruYou is presented as a system beneficial to the customer, since he/she wouldn't have to remember multiple user names, multiple passwords, etc. In fact, everything that the company does is "beneficial" in some way, for example, microchips embedded in bone to prevent kidnappings or to easily locate missing children, other measures designed to prevent crimes, and technologies to make everyone and everything accountable via transparency provided by built-in cameras. And all the while, The Circle monitors everything that's going on, boosting the slogan "All that happens must be known." Its point of view is that privacy begets secrets, secrets beget lies, lies beget impropriety, and that the only answer is to be completely open about everything. In short, "If you aren't transparent, what are you hiding?"

As Mae gets into her job, and gets sucked into the community aspect of the company, she not only gets swept up in all of The Circle's potential, but also develops her own unflinching desire for success, doing all that she can to make herself well known. Soon enough she quickly becomes a rising star with designs on getting into the top ranks.  Now, if this book were only about Mae and her ambition, well, that story's been done already, but The Circle offers a look at how promises of utopia can easily turn into a nightmare. The company has designs on making things so that eventually "all government and all life" would be "channeled through one network," with no escape from being "tracked, cradle to grave." In the world of The Circle, there will be no protection -- the by-then transparent politicians who "owe their reputations" to this company could be easily ruined by getting involved against it.

While I don't think this book is so great on character development or prose, it made me stop several times while reading to think about what I'd just read. I spent a lot more time thinking about it when I was finished, mainly about what the repercussions could be if technology induces us to give over all of our private information to one single entity that controls and monitors all information flow and all of our personal activities, vs the benefits that the technologies might offer. Yes, this book is didactic, and yes, there's zero subtlety here in terms of the message that is meant to come across, but it is definitely a thought provoker.

This book has gotten incredibly mixed reviews, so it is one that should be judged not by other-reader opinion, but by your own reading of it. I've seen everything from "this book is utter crap" to someone calling it essential reading, so the range of reader response is huge. In my opinion, it's a very timely book to be reading right now, and if it gives you a case of the willies, it's because the future described in here should scare the crap out of you.

ps/ after reading this book, I bought a brand-new copy of Orwell's 1984. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013
336 pp

arc (a big thank you to the publishers!)

To put it rather bluntly, this book is not very popular among fans of Diane Setterfield's previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale, who I suppose wanted something more along the same lines in her new novel,  Bellman and Black and didn't get it.  I sort of feel like one of the lone holdouts -- I actually liked this book.  Then again, I went into it without any expectations:  even though I also liked The Thirteenth Tale,  I wasn't expecting this one to be a carbon copy.  I still don't understand why people come unglued when a particular favorite author goes off in a different way than in previous books -- as I've said so many times, it's very unfair and limiting to the writer when readers tend to expect the same thing over and over again. 

Set in the Victorian era, as a boy of ten, William Bellman, his cousin Charles and their friend Luke were hanging out on a summer day, and Will tells the others he can hit a bird that was in a tree "half a field away." He had fashioned a perfect slingshot, picked the perfect stone, and launched it, hitting a black bird against all odds. The other boys were impressed; Will was "sick at heart, proud, abashed, guilty."  On his way home he glances back to where the bird had fallen and notices a congregation of rooks, all looking in his direction, and he also thinks he sees a boy dressed all in black. He's obviously haunted by what he's done, and while he spends a half week in bed with a fever,  he starts to apply what the author calls "his ten year old genius and power" to "forgetting." William's adult life starts out promising -- he is helping his uncle at the family's textile mill and comes up with a number of measures to make the mill more productive and lucrative.  He falls in love, marries just the right woman, and has beautiful children -- the perfect life, one others are either envious or proud of.  Yet, it's not long until he is faced with several deaths, and at each funeral, he thinks he sees a man all dressed in black. William throws himself into his work rather than deal with his grief; when tragedy strikes and he loses of all of his family members but one, he makes a "deal" with the man in black for the recovery of his dying daughter.  William then moves to London and branches out into a new career with death as its centerpiece, and again applies his magical touch, throwing himself body and soul into his work,  making it a successful enterprise.  And all along he's waiting for "Mr. Black" to return and collect what he's owed.

If you look at the title of this book on Goodreads it is Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story (which is btw, NOT  the title on the hardcover copy I bought) and somehow word has gotten out that it is just that, a ghost story. If you read it very carefully, though (and without wrecking the story for others who might wish to read it), you have to make up your own mind  -- in some ways, it reminded me very much of Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, which also requires that the reader really examine the "supernatural" events that occur.  What I see here is a study of a man who has excelled in forgetting, keeping his grief buried, and who has tried to carry on while unable or unwilling to mourn the tragedies of his life just to function.  Seen in that light, this very much character-based story really works for me, explaining a lot of the ambiguities that follow throughout the novel. I will say that while the book is highly atmospheric, William's character may seem to some readers to come off as flat.  He is anything but -- his drive, his inner thoughts and his actions all point to a man in a great amount of pain.  It's all in how you read it.

Lots of readers have commented on "lack of plot," but again, this is a character-driven novel so the interest lies in trying to fathom what's going on inside of William.  I really don't get why people are so negative in their comments about this novel -- I found it highly unsettling and mysterious, haunting, but at the same time the horror here is completely on the subtle side until right at the end when all is made known.  Frankly, I couldn't put it down.  So what I didn't exactly care about were the rooks-eye scenes; while I get why they were there, they were often a little distracting. Otherwise, it's one I can definitely recommend, and one I'm definitely going to revisit. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

US readers: today's book on the giveaway pile: Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield (ARC)

I've finished reading Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield, and bought a hardcover copy for a second read. That means I have an advanced reader copy available if anyone would like it. I'll pay postage.

please give my book a home!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

US readers: 2 more books needing homes

I'm toiling away on getting these book boxes unpacked so I'm finding books I was planning to give away. First we have Colum McCann's TransAtlantic

published this year and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; next there's Paris, by Edward Rutherford, also published this year which I mistakenly ordered from an online book club and probably won't find time to read in the near future. 

Take one or both, I don't care. All you have to do is to be the first to comment with which book(s) you want, then email me at with an address. 

Please! These books really need a new home! I pay postage.

US readers: anyone want an ARC of Dan Simmons' The Abominable? It's free and I pay postage!

I have an ARC of The Abominable by Dan Simmons available to anyone in the US who wants it.  If you do, all you have to do is be the first one to make a comment on this post, then send an email with an address.  I'll  even pay postage!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

this month's book group read: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan

Touchstone, 2013
371 pp


If you are at all interested in women's history or in the history of America's nuclear program, The Girls of Atomic City should be one of those books that gets added on to and then moved up to the top of your tbr pile.  It is one of the most thought-provoking nonfiction books I've read in a long time.

Pretty much everyone knows the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter, who symbolized the women helping out the war effort during World War II.  When the men went overseas, many of the women left behind were called on to do jobs previously done by men, and their work amped up production lines to keep the war going.   The Girls of Atomic City explores some of the women who also kept things going in a project located  in a facility in what is now Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one that was geared toward putting an end to the war.

 The women were trained to do only very specific tasks without understanding the overall project that their labors helped to create.  They were not allowed to talk about their work, nor were they allowed to question anything, and they never knew who might report them if they did.  The project was so secret that wives couldn't talk to husbands about their work, dating couples couldn't discuss their jobs, workers couldn't talk to families or friends on the outside, and  violations of that rule often ended up with people simply disappearing, never to be heard from or seen ever again.    The women, along with the majority of men working at Oak Ridge, had no clue at all that everything they did helped to contribute to the production of the atomic bomb that was used first in Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki.  It was only when the bombs were dropped that the news was released, and people finally realized what it was they'd been working on, with very mixed reactions.  In The Girls of Atomic City, the author examines the personal and professional lives of some of the women who called Oak Ridge home for the duration.  The book is definitely thought provoking and also provides a look inside the America of the WWII years.   

You can read about it here, on my nonfiction page, if you're at all interested.  Personally, I felt that it was sometimes flawed in the telling, but overall, it is an incredibly eye-opening and very fine work about something I'd never heard of before.  It most definitely sparked an excellent discussion with the group. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

November: fictional cults

November is going to be Nancy's mental health month -- meaning that I'm not doing jack until Thanksgiving.  It's been a rough couple of months here at mi casa, starting with a redo of our entire top floor, which meant packing, stashing, throwing crap away, -- it's amazing how much one accumulates over seven years of living in the same house. Add in a trip to Seattle, leaving all of the mess to wait until I got back, then a gigantic Halloween party that I'd planned that required my pre-party attention for three solid days in a row. Aarrgh! Stress has been the norm around here, but I'm counteracting it all with a month (until the holiday) of doing absolutely nada. Nothing. Rien. 

So this month, as I'm reading through Eleanor Catton's  weighty tome The Luminaries, I'll also be reading novels that feature some sort of cult action. I got the idea after finishing Dave Eggers' The Circle. Even though it's not about cults, one thing it reveals is how people can get caught up in things well beyond their control.  Here's a sample of what I've dug up already in my library: 

Messiah, by Gore Vidal
The Dain Curse, by Dashiel Hammett
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The Possibility of an Island, by Michele Houellebecq
Oyster, by Janette Turner Hospital

I'll also be reading Daniel Alarcon's new book At Night We Walk in Circles, Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield, and I'll also be posting a discussion of The Circle by Dave Eggers this week.  

I finally have time to just read, so I'm pretty happy! Yay!