Monday, July 30, 2012

Review of: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Review of: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Rating: 5/5

One is often tempted to give a perfect rating to a book merely because one can find nothing wrong with it. When I read this book, though, I was reassured in my conservative ratings by the way the writing transported me to unforeseeable heights.

An absolute marvel. An astounding piece of literature.

Basically, the story is that of Calliope Stephanides, third-generation American greek girl, who, due a recessive gene that was expressed after two generations of inbreeding, is a hermaphrodite. She has both male and female sex organs. Born a girl, her male identity will assert itself toward puberty, with earth-trembling consequences to her existence. But in a larger context, this is a book about identity and belonging.

Dual identities: Greek and American, Male and Female, White and Ethnic.

Note: this review contains spoilers, not so much in what is stated, but rather in the quotes. If you wish to avoid having anything spoiled, I suggest you don’t read the quotes, or just skim them.

Cal starts the story at his grandparents in Smyrna just before the routing of the Greek army by the Turks, in the first world war. They come to America, settle in Detroit, have children, who have children, which spawns Cal. In the backdrop, we are treated to the conflict of Greeks and Turks, Ford’s car-making factory and the heavy-handed treatment of employees, the rum-running of the prohibition, the birth of the Nation of Islam, the second world war, race riots and the civil rights movement, the slow downfall of Detroit. Cal is both a omniscient narrator and a personal voice, just because he decides so, and we forgive him the transgression of the literary code because, after all, this is a book about transgressions. And the writing is beautiful, and insightful.

Beautiful like this:
‘And so it began. He played “Begin the Beguine” against Tessie’s collarbone. He played “Moonface” against her smooth cheeks. Pressing the clarinet right up against the red toenails that had so dazzled him, he played “It Goes to Your Feet.” With a secrecy they didn’t acknowledge, Milton and Tessie drifted off to quiet parts of the house, and there, lifting her skirt a little, or removing a sock, or once, when nobody was home, pulling up her blouse to expose her lower back, Tessie allowed Milton to press his clarinet to her skin and fill her body with music. At first it only tickled her. But after a while the notes spread deeper into her body. She felt the vibrations penetrate her muscles, pulsing in waves, until they rattled her bones and made her inner organs hum.’
Insightful like this:
‘This is my country,” Lefty said, and to prove it, he did a very American thing: he reached under the counter and produced a pistol.’
Sometimes, the writing is just downright, ribald funny. Like in this paragraph where he describes, movie-like, the initial success of the family restaurant:
‘“Give me two fried whiskey down!” Milton shouts, showing off his new lingo. “Dry white, 68, hold the ice!” Close-up of the cash register ringing open and closed; of Milton’s hands counting money; of Lefty putting on his hat and leaving unnoticed. Then more eggs; eggs being cracked, fried, flipped, and scrambled; eggs arriving in cartons through the back door and coming out on plates through the front hatch; fluffy heaps of scrambled eggs in gleaming yellow Technicolor; and the cash register banging open again; and money piling up. Until, finally, we see Milton and Tessie, dressed in their best, following a real estate agent through a big house.’
What particularly struck me is the way language itself is decrypted. A character that is both male and female necessarily has a particular voice, and this is not merely used but addressed in it’s own right. For instance:
‘Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.”’
Cal even manages to capture fundamental ways a child perceives the world. In this paragraph, Cal is fooling around in a bath with a girl her age:
‘We aren’t kissing. This game is far less serious, more playful, free-style, but we’re gripping each other, trying not to let the other’s slippery body go, and our knees bump, our tummies slap, our hips slide back and forth. Various submerged softnesses on Clementine’s body are delivering crucial information to mine, information I store away but won’t understand until years later.’
Sometimes, the story is so poignant it is heart-wrenching:
‘and finally one morning he looked up into the face of the woman who’d been the greatest love of his life and failed to recognize her. And then there was another kind of blow inside his head; blood pooled in his brain for the last time, washing even the last fragments of his self away.’
What I loved is the way insight is transmitted in such a curt yet eloquent manner. Cal’s father Milton is a republican. What better way to describe his trouble with literature than to evoke the pinnacle of republican lterature?
‘“Here’s a good one,” said Milton, holding up Milton. The only thing that disappointed him was that the series didn’t contain a book by Ayn Rand.’
Or how better to capture the sixties then the following sentence about Cal’s older brother?
‘He bought a motorcycle. He started meditating. He claimed to understand 2001: A Space Odyssey, even the ending.’
There is a recurring reference to literary tropes such as Chekhov’s Gun. In a few sections, a gun manifests itself, Cal does more than mention it, he overtly expounds on Chekhov. We are left to wonder when the gun will go off. One wonders how far the story can go without delving into science. When Cal does, it is brief and humorous. It feels like a debunking, as in this passage about the hunter-gatherer anthropological model:
‘Why can’t men communicate? (Because they had to be quiet on the hunt.) Why do women communicate so well? (Because they had to call out to one another where the fruits and berries were.) Why can men never find things around the house? (Because they have a narrow field of vision, useful in tracking prey.) Why can women find things so easily? (Because in protecting the nest they were used to scanning a wide field.) Why can’t women parallel-park? (Because low testosterone inhibits spatial ability.) Why won’t men ask for directions? (Because asking for directions is a sign of weakness, and hunters never show weakness.) This is where we are today. Men and women, tired of being the same, want to be different again.’
I was utterly spellbound reading this book. In another transgression, Cal switches to magic realism in describing his father’s death.
‘Milton no longer had any brain waves, so it was understandable why, hovering in the Cadillac, he might have forgotten that the Zebra Room had burned down long ago. He was mystified at not being able to find it. All that was left of the old neighborhood was empty land. It seemed that most of the city was gone, as he gazed down.’
Utterly spellbound.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review of: Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick

My rating: 2/5

I found this book on an internet list of books to read. The title was alluring to me, evoking as it did a culture clash of America and Europe and some form of budding teen romance. It promised laughs galore and some level of adrenaline.

I can't say I'm disappointed because all those elements are there. The female crazy euro character is everything we have come to expect of the female euro assassin as developped during 40+ years of Cold War: rational, willul, determined, slim, naturally sexy, cultured, sophisticated, versed in the dark arts of assassination and wistully inclined to give her heart to the doughy American boy whose naïve whimsicality wins her heart almost from the get-go. The male character is everything we have come to expect from the post-generation-X adolescent whose cooky journal we are privy to: he's in a rock band with an ironic name, he is hopelessly a virgin due to his lack of self-possession in female presence, he has good marks in school and could be promised to a bright future if he could only avoid letting his girl problem pull him into the dregs of some urban gun fight.

So we follow our two heroes, she having 5 targets to kill before the night is through, he just hanging on and trying to do the right thing, they gradually giving in to the ever more pressing need to abandon themselves in a member of the opposite sex. The plot works, though the mechanisms used to keep it on track feel contrived. Mostly, though, it's not that funny.

Oh, I did chuckle a little! But the ingredients don't coalesce, and I think it's because they weren't pushed beyong their nominal definition, so the read mostly feels wooden.

The interesting aspect of the writing is that each chapter is formulated as an answer to a college application form question.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chekhov's Gun

Just came upon this nifty expression: Chekhov's Gun.

From wikipedia:

"Chekhov's gun is a literary technique whereby an apparently irrelevant element is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear later in the narrative.[dubious – discuss] The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who mentioned several variants of the concept in letters."

The article goes on to state that, in Chekhov's view, one must not put a loaded gun onstage if one does not have the intention of having someone fire it at some time in the play.

Review of "Youth in Revolt", by C.D. Payne

Review of "Youth in Revolt", by C.D. Payne

My rating: 4/5

This is really a peculiar read.

It's the journal of Nick Twisp, a manipulative, cynical, sex-obsessed youth whose erstwhile (I'm using that word because the author likes it so much) good behavior is succombing to the adolescent prime imperative of losing one's virginity. He hones in on his new amour Shinee, who is willing, experienced and cooperative, though enigmatically distant and drifting. Things get in the way, obstacles made of arbitrary parental actions and decisions, space, timing, his constrictive teen existence, his lack of economic freedom.

I found this book very funny. Nick's über-logical approach to things make him undertake courses of action that made me cringe and squirm and giggle (think fellatio with his best male friend), and it occurred to me that, had I read this book as an actual teen I would have been rather shocked. I myself was as rational a teen as Nick is, but I wasn't one to brave borders and stand up to adults. Much. Well, maybe a little, but not in any way as much as Nick. But Nick has no real respect for adults, he's an adult trapped in an adolescent body and in an adolescent's life. As such, being a virgin at his ripe old age of 14 seems to him egregious, and the end will justify all means at his disposal (and then some).

It seems that this is less a believable account of a 14-year-old than the attempt of the same character at 40 to rewrite his past. That would illuminate the latent understanding of adult intentions and levers, the self-deprecating humor, and the candid avowal of the utter simplicity of what he wants: sexual congress, as soon as possible.


Arcadia, by Lauren Goff - book review

I only read the kindle excerpt, which I believe is the first chapter. That's as far as I'll be going for now until my reading schedule loosens up a bit.

I had to check it out because there's so much noise about this book right now. I think America is reaching a turning point where the whole sixties (this book is set in the seventies, but it's about a hippy commune so we'll just call it the sixties) is leaving the realm of collective memory to enter the history books, and books about the period, free love, Vietnam war etc. will proceed less from first-person accounts and more from research and the usual framework of historical fiction (interviews, going through scanned newspapers, searching for period diaries, etc.)

I'd probably have been more partial to this read if I hadn't had my expectations bulked up by all the hype. Many reviewers note the writing as "lush", which it isn't, not really. In fact, I wouldn't call it 'bare', but it's closer to 'bare' than 'lush'.

Anyway, my expectations were busted by the actual text. Somehow, I thought I'd get a closer glimpse of the personalities in just such a commune. I'm really fascinated by communities that put their individuality aside and willingly participate in a collective adventure, suspend relations of power and economics, and fully let the spell of the group take command of their destiny. It must be frightening. In this case, we won't know, because the main character Bit was born into the community, so he isn't given any choice, it's the only reality he has known from birth. My other problem with this is that, as a child, he has no real judgment on the adult characters, he merely witnesses them through their speech and smell and gifts and bad teeth.

**spoiler ahead**

It's a fun read, though. When the people of the commune need to work together, there are invariably tensions arising from the wants and wills of each and every, and the text describes how they undergo tension-releasing yoga sessions, prescribed by the group's yoga specialist, as often as needed to maintain peace and harmony. Or how Bit's view of the world beyond the commune is the chemical taste of peppermints smuggled to him by a grizzled Vietnam vet.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Male and female authors on my reading lists

There’s a feature on goodreads that allows one to see one’s list of most-read authors. One clicks on “My Books” then the the “Most read authors” link. My ten most-read authors are all men. Mary Stewart arrives in 11th place, though she’s tied with the three authors ahead of her.

Is my reading really that male-dominated?

I exported my list of goodreads “read“ books and did a quick tally of male and female authors.

The result:  just over 10% of books authored by women, the rest by men. 

More surprise. I knew I read more books by men than women, but wouldn’t have imagined it being that different. Also, my tastes aren’t really eclectic, in fact I mostly read books that were discovered or suggested by friends (real-life and goodreads), mentioned on book sites or prize lists (that, I admit, I am ashamed of, reading books because they won some stupid prize). Then I realized that the huge bias is mostly a product of my teenage reading years. I don’t particularly gravitate toward male-dominated genres like sci-fi and fantasy, but I used to, and I used to read more books by major sci-fi and fantasy authors. 

So that explains it, right? Wrong. I exported my to-read list and the result is just about as damning:  13% women writers.

What surprises me the most is that, of the many functions that literature fulfills, I look to it to spend time in other people’s skins, to see life from the eyes of those whose life is far removed from my own. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review of 1Q84, book #1

Review of IQ84, book #1 - by Haruki Murakami

Rating: 4/5

It helps to know a little about Murakami to properly appreciate this novel. I’m not versed in lit-crit, but I believe this is called “context”, or as the French say, “texte con” (if you are a grad student reading this thousands of years from now, please note that that was a joke and do not spawn silly theories on historically alternative meanings of the word “con”).

Murakami is a seasoned and dedicated runner, and draws many parallels from his joint universes of running and writing. In distance running, it is important to move forward, find the pace that suits the distance, avoid friction and unnecessary energy expenditure, find a rhythm and occupy the mind with music and daydreams to allay the monotony.

From what I can discern in Murakami’s writing, the same applies. The plot moves forward, the characters patiently pursue whatever is awaiting them in the barely-discernable distance, and bounce along avoiding getting hurt and keeping their heads level with the horizon. Then, toward the end, an all-out sprint that releases a cascade of adrenaline, and it’s done. This appears to be his model. His plot is on a path from which he does not veer, his characters are always in character and self-coherent, there are no superfluous digressions, the whole is like a well-greased machine that glides forward, seemingly effortlessly.

(Note to assistant: engage the spoiler machine, full power)

The novel has two main characters: Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is a math teacher and writer, whose writing talent is stymied by some form of writer’s block until he does a rewrite of a strange girl Fuka-Eri’s story about mysterious Little People who enter this world to build air chrysalises, which may or may not be made up, who knows. Fuka-Eri asks questions that don’t end in audible question marks, which adds to her strangeness. Tengo met Aomame in his school days and retains an intense memory of her, and of the one time she held his hand and peered deeply into his eyes. Aomame is a martial arts instructor with a fetish for intense sex with middle-aged men with thinning hair that may be proxies for Murakami, who knows. She also dabbles in contract killing of abusive husbands, contracts given to her by a rich dowager who is referred to as the dowager, whose security by a burly gay man named Tamaru, who may be a contract killer himself, who knows.

This is how the plot moves forward: Tengo rewrites Fuka-Eri’s story and in the process is drawn closer to her, thus learning of her past in a a cultish organic farming institution called Sakigake. Aomame kills abusive husbands and is introduced to the women who have retreated from them, among which Tsubasa, who escaped from the Sakigake compound. Ramification point identified. Oh, and Aomame’s world is strangely different from our own, because the police carry berettas not revolvers like she seems to remember, and by-the-way don’t look now but there are two moons in the sky just like, it is revealed, is the basis of Tengo’s novel. Whoooooooooooa, dude!

(Note to assistant: turn off the spoiler machine, NOW!)

I will admit to being bored during much of my reading of this novel, though the strangely familiar strange elements make up for it. I expect more grit in a novel, more dissonance and friction and pain. Maybe, too, I expect all these things as a runner which is why I suck so much at running, who knows.
Still, that final sprint in the novel, what a rush! Enough to bump this review’s rating from three to four stars.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Well, I was doing a bit of writing this week, toying with novel ideas like any other recently-turned-40 corporate drone, and then it all came to a screeching halt.

Because of this scene from Adventureland:

I watched it, then I watched it over again, then I watched it ten times over. And I wondered: how would you go about putting something like that into words?

It must have been simple enough to put into a screenplay:

And, just like that, you can borrow all the soulful longing of Lou Reed's song by just playing it at the right moment, thus evoking a state of mind, a time period in American history, and New York, and the ache of the end of adolescence, and the yearning for a soulmate, and the smell of desire and 80's carseat leather, and a sense of aimlessness. Just like that, with Lou Reed's song plastered across a sequence in a car at night under a bridge. And it's not cheating.

Really, how can a novel hope to contend with this medium? Oh, I know, they mustn't be compared, they can't, a literary work will move you in ways a film won't, but that pure, total experience of music over images, simple and straightforward, totally open and unprotected, will never, ever, be conveyable in words on paper. And it made me sad, enough anyhow to put the pen and notebook away for the week, maybe more, enough time to let the charm of those few seconds in a car with James and Emily wear off.

Maybe I'll go watch it again.