Native Son

I might not have read this had Studio 360, one of my favorite podcasts, not featured this pioneering novel. Richard Wright was a deeply political African American writer, and the overt politics of this book are remarkable. The breadth of the political ambitions of this book is enormous, and the book’s artistic flaws lie mostly in these ambitions. I almost never skim while I’m reading (what’s the point of reading fiction if you’re not taking in every word?), but there is a long, important scene more than halfway throught Native Son that I just flipped through, mostly because of the gross improbability of the scene itself, but also because every character in the scene was more or less a mouthpiece for a position and I already knew what they were going to say.

This said, Native Son is worth reading. The first three quarters of the book is gripping, harrowing, and powerful. The novel’s politics do not in any way interfere with the author’s invention of a believable character in the protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Also, though the politics occasionally dominate the story to the point of obscuring a reader’s ability to fully commit to the fictional world, Wright’s politics are in no way simplistic. I hurt my head thinking about what Wright wants a reader to think about in this book. And I hurt my head in a positive, educative way.

With the media echoes of Ferguson Missouri ringing in our ears, the intractable troubles that result in Bigger’s crimes are more relevant today than ever. As a white man more than half a century removed from the fictional events of Native Son, I found great value in Wright’s portrayal of Bigger Thomas’ inner conflicts. It’s worth-while pondering what Wright has to say here, as painful as it may be to ponder.

Wolf in White Van

John Darnielle, lead singer and pretty-well everything else from the band The Mountain Goats, is one of the best living American songwriters. I admire his work, and several of his songs are among the few I count as my favorites.

So I was afraid to read this book in case it wasn’t very good.

If you’re thinking the same thing, the coast is clear. Wolf in White Van is a powerful, insightful, and moving novel.

There is an undeclared sub-genre of contemporary fiction I’m noticing recently. I’m not sure what to call it, or even if anyone else has noticed the trend. But I’m thinking of novels such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and Room. These are books whose narrators experience an extreme version of social alienation. The book then becomes almost exclusively about point of view.

Wolf in White van is a little like these books. The narrator has been severely facially disfigured as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He has also suffered social isolation in another, very peculiar way involving an unusual mail-in fantasy game. What Darnielle excels at is pinpointing the precise ways in which physically and socially displaced people are made to suffer, both from their own inner anxieties, and at the hands of a callous but understandable community.

Given the extremes the narrator has been through, and given what I know about the great, angry compassion Darnielle is capable of expressing through his songs, I expected Wolf in White Van to be an angry book. But I’d say it’s not angry at all. It is compelling and hugely sympathetic.

There is a slight structural flaw somewhere in the book. It’s told in retrospect, and there are at least three alienating crises that the narrator goes through: there’s his disfigurement, the crisis precipitated by the fantasy game, and the court case resulting from that game-related incident. This is a lot of emotional ups and downs, back and forth through time, in a relatively short novel. At times I found it a little hard to keep straight.

Nonetheless, I finished this book and immediately began rereading it, something I’ve almost never done. Wolf in White Van is a very, very good book.

The Children Act

Ian McEwan is the author of several books I count as personal favorites. Saturday, Atonement, Enduring Love, all of these are startling and moving in their own way. I never read spy thrillers, but his The Innocent, is a fascinating nail-biter set in cold war Germany. On Chesil Beach, is a short, era-drenched examination of sexual relationships prior to the revolutionary 60s. All of these novels, and more of his works, I count among those rare books I’ve gone back to read more than once, more than twice.

But he’s also capable of missing the mark. Amsterdam, which inexplicably won the Booker, is a clumsy, improbable mess.

I’m going to have to count The Children Act with McEwan’s failures, I’m afraid. The novel has a promising start, with the up-close examination of the blossoming of a major marital rift for a couple in late middle-age. This section is full of what makes McEwan a master: tension between tragedy and comedy, interestingly observed physical detail, great emotional insight, and terse, blistering dialogue. But then the novel goes off track, into a moral and legal and religious issue related to one of the main character’s occupation. The marital tension just dissipates¬† and then dies out, taking a backseat to the story of a young Jehovah’s Witness whose life depends on a blood transfusion both he and his parents are refusing for him.

This part of the plot, if this meandering book can be said to have a plot, has several very well-imagined scenes: vintage McEwan at his best. Then, just when that tension promises to stay interesting, we veer away again, back to the now much less interesting and less skillfully rendered marital trouble. And the final section of the book appears totally lost. It so weirdly and obviously echoes (almost plagiarizes, really) the end of James Joyce’s great story The Dead, that I wondered frankly what the hell McEwan was doing by now. Joyce did the tense scene between a husband and wife so perfectly, and for such different purposes that it’s hard to say what McEwan intended.

The Children Act is a short book. That does not make it worth the read.

TransAtlantic

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Colum McCann is a masterful novelist. In his 2009 book Let the Great World Spin, he managed an uncanny juggling act of seemingly impossible-to-reconcile elements: high and low class characters, the Vietnam war, culture, creativity, obsession. And he managed to bolt all these elements to a very specific, obscure 1970s historical event, and at the same time make it all metaphorically reflect the post-9/11 period.

I read that book with a sense of wonder at the author’s accomplishment. In fact, the technical marvels McCann pulled off in Let the Great World Spin were of a calibre that reading the book became akin to watching a stunning high-wire act (a non-metaphorical high-wire act is at the heart of the novel’s action.)

The same can be said about McCann’s bravura performance in TransAtlantic. Except… the author plummets from the wire in the novel’s final act.

The falling off of book three of this three book novel is so startling and disappointing that I at first thought the novel’s sudden loss of interest and momentum was a trick, as when a canny acrobat pretends momentarily to lose his balance.

But alas. No recovery came. And it’s a shame. 80% of Trans Atlantic, the first two books, portrays the many small and large ties between Ireland and North America (including Newfoundland!). The cast of dozens includes British aviators Alcock and Brown, who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight, Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and social reformer, and US Senator George Mitchell, who played a key role in 1998’s Good Friday Agreement among Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

Up to book three, the novel is so superbly performed: characters, incidents, parallels, interesting transitions and juxtapositions, that it makes the pancake-flat third book almost incomprehensible. How can so much of this book be so good and the final section so… not even bad… so… nothing.
All the momentum and interest and frenetic bounce of the book’s first movements completely and immediately dissipate in book three. And sadly, they ever come back.

The Patrick Melrose Novels

First of all, I’d like to congratulate Picador for coming out with this ebook compilation of the first four novels (the fifth and final installment has just been published separately) in Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. I bought all four of these titles in a single ebook volume for about ten dollars. This is exactly the sort of creative packaging that more publishers should be doing with ebooks.

St. Aubyn has been much lauded, both for his prose chops and for the extraordinary bravery and honesty of this fictionalized autobiography. And I’m afraid I have no choice but to laud him and his novels yet again.

St. Aubyn writes exactly the sort of novel I hate: focused on stupendously privileged people and their (erstwhile, in my experience) boring and trivial neuroses. What sets the Patrick Melrose novels apart, what tempers the privilege, is the frank portrayal of intense human pain.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his privileged upbringing, St. Aubyn himself experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of his own family members. And the fictionalized portrayal of that pain is so powerfully rendered that I was able to get over my personal prejudices and care deeply about (some of) these characters.

With no fraught teary-eyed overdoing of emotional events, St. Aubyn lays bare the truth of the Melrose family. And does so with great humour, and, somehow, enough detachment to keep from sinking into bathos.

The series begins when Patrick Melrose is five, and proceeds more or less at ten year intervals after that. Part of what makes the books so entertaining and digestible is that, although they depict the agony of an aristocratic family over four decades, they avoid completely the daunting ‘sweep’ of saga. Two of the four books, the first and the third, begin and end in a single day. The second, within a very few days and the last, Mother’s Milk, although it spans several years, cleverly avoids the feeling of narrative heft by dividing itself into three sections, each of which takes place on three consecutive family summer holidays.

The result is a surprisingly light, snappy, energetic read across the entire series that belies heavy-sounding summaries.

The most troubling, challenging and interesting of the four books is the second, the aptly titled Bad News. It depicts Patrick Melrose at age 22 in the depths of a breath-takingly depraved drug addiction. St. Aubyn uses several clever narrative techniques to depict the contradictory inner life: the sporadic, clear-headed fear and depraved self-deception of Patrick the addict.

It is in the midst of the central sequence of this novel, when the main character devolves into a series of theatrical, dissociative and disconnected jokes, where it becomes clear that Edward St. Aubyn is something of a narrative virtuoso. Patrick Melrose goes a little out of his mind here, and the author somehow manages to follow him and follow him and follow him, down into the spent depths of his eroding psyche.

Having followed him into the rabbit hole of his almost non-existent self, the reader is never quite able to view him the same way again, even when he’s managed to pull himself together to present to the world.

I read all four of these short books in a few short days. They are moving and enlightening, entertaining and harrowing. I can’t wait to get at At Last, the fifth and, yes, last in the series.

The Things They Carried

The publisher of this incredible book calls it a collection of short stories. I originally read the title story over a decade ago and I’ve read it many times since, mostly in conjunction with classroom assignments to students.

Honestly, I never felt compelled to pick up the book the story came from, because I doubted any further story could add anything to what the story “The Things They Carried” does. It is simply one of the greatest short stories of all time. It’s full of ideas and humanity and is a tremendous example of tight, skillful, powerfully-unadorned prose style.

But, again, as I stated in the previous post, I picked up The Things They Carried at the Truro university women’s club annual book sale. Like the other 10 or so books I bought there this year, I got this one because I literally found it in my hand. “Oh, look! The whole book!” I thought.

The book is almost two decades old, and in all my bookstore ramblings over the years, I’ve never actually seen a physical copy of it. I realized that if I did not buy it then, when I had it in hand, and when it was so reasonably priced, I probably never would.

This is an extraordinary, genre-bending book. It’s more like a novel than a story collection, although each of the individual narratives has its own beginning, middle, and end, it’s not at all clear that any but the title story could stand alone. However, with overlapping narratives and a consistent cast of character/ soldiers (O’Brien is a Vietnam vet and this book is semi-autobiographical) The Things They Carried is a powerful, insightful, artistically accomplished work. O’Brien intersperses intensely detailed description of the gruesome physicality of war with the probing philosophical questioning of the narrator. One of the most remarkable achievements of the book is the level of personal honesty O’Brien has committed to. Again and again he indicts himself as readily as he accuses anyone else.

Two of the most remarkable moments in the book:

1. After the story of getting to and across the Canadian border, where he ultimately decides to turn around and go home to answer his draft notice, he concludes by calling himself a coward for going to war. He’s only done it as a way of bowing to social and family pressure. It’s a hard moment depicted with enormous insight.

2. The relentless but matter-of-fact way in which O’Brien probes the morality of his having killed a very specific enemy soldier, whose personal effects he is forced to go through as a means of military record keeping.

There is a lot of cliche in the depiction of any war. And our cultural idea of Vietnam is strewn with worn out ideas. I found nothing but freshness in The Things They Carried.

Necropolis

Necropolis is a book I would likely never have picked up had I not already found it in my own hand. This seemingly self-contradictory state of affairs took place in June at the annual book sale held by the University Women’s Club of Truro.

No physical or online bookseller has yet come up with an algorithm to match what Netflix can do with video recommendations. However, though I readily accept the high-tech assumptions about my taste that Netflix makes, I often find my favorite reads in no-tech circumstances: used book stores and charity sales, where the selection is a little out of date, the availability random to the point of bizarre, and the prices are low enough to make choosing to purchase painless.

Necropolis is a history of the city of London, England through the history of its graveyards. I don’t usually read history books (I often find my lack of background knowledge an obstacle.) I have no latent interest in the city of London, where I’ve never been. And my interest in graveyards extends no further than a mild curiosity and a strong dread.

However, in spite of all these seeming obstacles, I was spellbound and entertained by this incisively written account. What struck me most was the development of cultural practices around burial. The modern concept of a one-grave-per-person, permanently-marked resting place is a relatively new development. And religion, politics, and deadly epidemics combined and recombined over and over again over hundreds of years, resulting in a state of affairs in which Arnold describes the soil beneath contemporary London as more or less solidly packed with human bones.

Informative. Gripping. Enjoyable. I had a great time reading this book.

Bandits

This is the first Elmore Leonard novel I’ve ever read. I’ve tried other so-called genre writers of suspense or crime fiction before. I’ve especially tried the writers others say are surprisingly good ‘for genre writing.’ Ian Rankin: I could not sustain interest in his feigned attempts at characterization. George Pelecanos I like a lot.

And it’s true what people say about Leonard. His prose is as good as anyone’s. His sentences are tight as well-tuned drums. His dialogue is mind-blowingly good. I don’t even know how he manages to write with so much dialogue. I remember at one point while reading this novel I tried to take a mental note of where the dialogue ended and the description, narration, or exposition began: no good. It’s so seamless I always just got lost in the scene.

It’s also true that reading Leonard was a great lesson for me in what I value most in literary writing: the inner lives of the characters. There is none of that in Bandits. You get a little about the personal histories of the characters. You see the very surface level of their responses to what is happening to them. But there is just about zero depth here. It’s action. It’s all talk. And I’m not opposed to either. As a matter of fact, I love action and dialogue. But action for its own sake just bores me. There’s only so much I can take (and I guess I only discovered this while reading Bandits) of what is happening. I want to know why. I want to know the deeper story. I want to know what effect events have on the inner lives of people and I want to know where those inner lives intersect with their outer lives. Leonard does not care about that. This happens. And then this. And then this.

I don’t think this is necessarily a moral failing. But it is an artistic shortcoming. Leonard (solely on the evidence of this novel) is a master craftsman, but he does not appear interesting in being an artist.

Winnebago Man

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Documentary film-making is becoming a high art form. One of the things I’m enjoying about this new massive spate of things to watch and the relatively new means of watching them, is the way the significance of an individual film can have so little to do with its ostensible content.

I don’t care about most of the things you’re supposed to care about to be interested in this film. In fact, my indifference to them leads me to not even attempt to name them.

What I find fascinating about this movie is the slow way the director reveals the character of Jack Rebney, the Winnebago Man of the title. And the movie does not merely reveal Rebney to the director or to the audience. Director Ben Steinbauer, through his determination to film a reluctant subject, gives Rebney opportunities to make relatively important life choices, right on camera. And these choices, I believe, reveal Rebney to himself.

Rebney learns, in the course of this film, that he is not the misanthrope he thought he was. That’s kind of a big deal.

Oedipus the King

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When I told a colleague I was reading Oedipus the King, this man with three university degrees replied: “I’m pretty sure I’m not smart enough to read that.”

There is a completely mistaken assumption underlying this statement. That is assumption is that Greek Tragedy is some highly cerebral, elitist literary form. I’m sure that in the present, the number of people reading this stuff is small compared to the number, say, downloading movies from torrent sites. However, these plays were written at a time when there were few competing story-telling media.

If you Google Greek tragedy and read a few paragraphs about how these plays were staged, if you Wikipedia this play in particular and read a bit about how it works (it’s highly formalized and ritualistic), you can breeze through this riveting book in an afternoon (the version I read was only about 75 pages in length).

There is so much tension, clearly visible on the page from almost the very start, that it’s hard to imagine someone getting lost or bored. I ate this book up like candy.

Blood Wedding

As part of a project to read more plays this summer, I recently read Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding.

I read it cold, in the sense that I was completely ignorant of Lorca and his work when I picked up the play.

Blood Wedding strikes me as a powerful examination of the places where culture and ritual and human lives meet. It’s interesting to see, not futility, but inevitability, as a theme in this work. Individuals make a few paltry choices and these set in motion a heartless, devouring machinery of culture.

KUATO

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Go to kuatoband.com, listen to a few sample tracks from this great instrumental rock band, and then buy both of their EPs and their newly-released full-length.

Here is what I appreciate most about KUATO:

1. They never do what shitty instrumental rock bands do, which is devolve into a bunch of showy-offy and unlistenable shredding.

2. They take the time to arrange the tunes into varied and interesting soundscapes.

3. They record in a manner that rewards careful listening: guitar tones are great and separation of sounds in the mix allows for individual instruments to be picked out easily.

4. They have an identifiable sound, but every tune stands on its own.

I have all of the recordings available online, and I’ve been enjoying listening to them in the background as I do work around my house and I’ve enjoyed putting on the headphones and listening intently.

And quit your grumbling that there are no great instrumental rock bands to listen to!

Lullabies for Little Criminals

I’d like to know the story of the title of this book. Was the title the author’s choice? Was it a first choice or a second choice? Was it the idea of a publisher?

The reason I wonder about this is that Lullabies for Little Criminals is an almost perfect book. In fact, the only fault it possesses is the title. This book got a lot of acclaim when it came out several years ago, and all the public discussion I heard made me think I’d really like it. However, there was a niggling… something… about the title. The title suggested to me that the book, a searingly honest look at the life of a 13 year old street kid in Montreal, might have some ugly or sneering ironic tone that I might find offensive or off-putting.

There is not a wrong note in this entire book. Page after page, chapter after chapter, this has got to be one the the most clear-eyed accounts of a life at the far fringe, the ugly edge of Canadian society. And the point of view, which would have been so easily steered into falsehood, is perfectly evenly maintained.

This is an important and moving account of what it must feel like to be a kid whose life has been derailed because of dysfunctional adults. But the book never gets maudlin, never sensationalizes, never devolves into preachiness. The narrator rarely judges the insane events around her. She has been given few tools to assess adult behaviour on a moral level. Instead, she just gives an honest-seeming account of her life.

A book this good is a cultural achievement. O’Neil’s new novel is just being released. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Tim’s Vermeer

In this, the era of the documentary explosion, there is a whole niche genre that I’ve decided to call “Quirky Friend of the Film-maker.”

It’s a pretty self-explanatory genre, really. The name says it all. And Tim’s Vermeer, a portrait of a computer graphics entrepreneur with some wildly obsessive hobbies, fits pretty neatly into the category.

Tim Jenison likes the work of the painter Vermeer, reads some speculation about what techniques Vermeer might have used to achieve his extraordinary depiction of light, and sets out to see if he can figure a simple process Vermeer might have had access to.

What’s of greatest interest to me is not the quirky protagonist or his (frankly) nutty determination to spend months painstakingly trying to reproduce a Vermeer painting from scratch. What I like is that this movie acknowledges process. Artists may or may not be geniuses or innovators or intuitive and creative giants. But genius, creativity, and intuition are mere abstract concepts used after the fact to try to understand creative work. The work itself is the result of physical, craftsman-like processes, most of which, as they are going on, neither resemble nor feel like anything other than meticulous and draining work. Tim’s Vermeer gives a great sense of art as work.

Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin is a novel of the highest calibre. It tackles political and cultural ideas in inventive ways. It offers a panoramic social view. It deals with a wide swath of human frailty in a compassionate manner. And it does all this with very little pretense and a whole lot of story telling interest.

Cleverly set around a historical event (the 1974 New York twin towers tight rope stunt), it manages to credibly examine social conditions of the era in which it’s set while at the same time drawing clever parallels to the impact of 9/11.

Characters range from well-off judges to manipulative, cynical drug- dependent artists, to a modern day Irish saint among the down-trodden of the city, to desperate and eventually imprisoned street prostitutes. At the novel’s very centre is the tight-ropist himself, and a long chapter describes in reverent detail the months of physical training and preparation he put into carrying off such an audacious feat. The most interesting aesthetic effect of reading this chapter is probably meant to be the implied analogy between the preparation required for the twin towers tight rope stunt and the terrorists who must have meticulously prepared, decades later, to take down those very towers. But I could not help thinking, as I read the details of wire and tension, the fit of a thin-soled shoe on a highly trained athlete and artist’s foot, I could not help thinking about McCann himself, the author of the novel.

Making this sprawling beast of a novel work was a similarly well performed stunt. But, Let the Great World Spin is so well and gracefully performed that it never feels like a trick.

I have several books in a stack to read this summer, and they are the only thing that kept me from turning back to page one and starting this book over immediately.