Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review of English, August

Critique of : English, August, by Upamanyu Chatterjee

My rating: 5/5

It’s very difficult to articulate exactly what this book elicited in me while reading and make it cohere, so I’ll just throw stuff at the ceiling like semi-cooked pasta and hope some of it sticks, to amuse the guests.
Agastya (August) is an Indian Administrative Service officer in training, who has left the bustling energy of Calcutta for a forlorn existence in Madna, buffeted from one official to the next and trying to conserve some sense of self. He is unhappy, and lends this unhappiness the credence it warrants.
Afternoons, he spends time with exiles such as himself, drinking whiskey, smoking marijuana and voicing desultory thoughts. His mind wanders, restless, and during sleepless evenings he engages in nightly runs to tire his body and force it to remember what life should feel like. He sits in his room listening to of jazz music on cassette player (the story takes place in the 80’s) and reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He suspects that his cook serves him faeces so scrounges meals off his social acquaintances and observes their family dynamics.

But Agastya is not lazy or without ambition. He aspires whole-heartedly to be happy. His senses are keen and he is always on lookout for perspective on his existence, the possibility of a way out, the conclusions of kindred travellers.

I read this book in the mornings. After dropping off my younger girl at school, I walk toward work and stop off every day at a youth hostel in Paris’ 19th arrondissement that has an open café. There, seated in a corner with my coffee and book, I hear other languages, mostly European but also some Asian, people come from all over, there’s a tingling in the air. It’s a good place to read a book like this one, steeped in an sense of passage, of curiosity, of search.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review of: Immortality, by Milan Kundera

Immortality, by Milan Kundera - book review

My rating: 3/5

This is one of those novels that I read and am not quite sure what I am reading. Then, the reading ends and I’m not at all sure of what I have read. Then, I attempt the delicate operation of mentally piecing together all the characters, ideas, storylines, dichotomies, and the exercise is so infructuous that I wonder if really, do the pieces fit together, or is it all just a jumble of mismatched parts that only share a common color?

Oh, botheration.

What can I say about this book? The title doesn’t lie, for one. It is about immortality, that which remains when the person has gone, and persists through the ages a relatively long time. Kundera starts with a gesture offered by a woman at a swimming pool, a type of wave that seems to be throwing a ball into the air. The gesture is not that of the elderly woman doing it but more that of a young woman, a come-hither wave that invites to unspecified mysterious glee. Kundera (he actually puts himself into the novel as a wine-drinking swimming-pool visiting guy) states that there are more people in the world than ideas and gestures, so these ideas and gestures get borrowed around a lot and the people who may think they have their own ideas and gestures are deluding themselves. He sets out to illustrate this.

So, we encounter Agnes, who has a head that bores downwards and an ass that points to the heavens. Her sister Laura is the opposite, with an ass that bears her toward the ground and a head that seeks to go ever higher. We enjoy a diversion in the past where Goethe holds at bay a young would-be mistress Bettina who is intent on writing his biography and thus steal his grasp on immortality. We meet Paul, Agnes’ husband who hosts a cultural television show but upholds the sanctity of the media image over cultural complexity, and who is the aid of his own executioners. There is Rubens, whose sexual life serves to highlight the five phases of erotic in-bed dialogue (athletic mutism, metaphore, truthful obscenity, hearsay, and mysticism). There’s Avenarius, ecologist who slashes tires to rid the city of the pervasive movement of cars. Through these characters, Kundera traces lines and highlights hidden structure.

I read this book entirely in the bath, all 500 or so pages of it, after putting into place a technique for toweling off my forearms and holding the book directly above the bath water with my elbows resting on the bath bottom. I suspect that it’s a good read for a bath, because it requires relaxation to indulge the style, given to massive, aimless digressions and a pace that often trudges forward ever so slowly. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this read, and I wonder how much of it I’ll remember tomorrow, next week, next month,  next year. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Review of The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

My rating: 4/5

This book reminded me a lot of the Lord of The Flies, in that the microcosm of youth is used as a model in which to explore power dynamics and group relations.

Jerry Renault is a high school freshman who is mandated by a secret mafia-like seniors club the Vigils to refuse to participate in a chocolate sale. At first a pawn of the Vigils, he becomes an embarrassment after the Vigils rally to the chocolate sale yet Jerry, in an existential act, decides to brave the collective ire and persists in refusing to sell the chocolates.

The tension is palpable, drawn with precision and rhythm. Dialogues are pivotal in showing how pressure is applied and status maintained in this closed system of a religious school in which Christian virtue is a founding value but is never evoked. The absence of any tangible female character only compounds the prison ambiance: there is light at the end of the tunnel because high school cannot last forever, but the brothers taint this light by showing that even as adults, the world continues to function with pressure and domination.
Jerry becomes a focal point for the frustration and cruelty of the student body. Progressively, he comes to embody both the scapegoat and a proxy for the figure of Christ, as symbolized by the football goal posts in the form of a cross. As such, his refusal to sell the chocolates, to participate in the economics of the system, is a punishable retreat from the material world into the spiritual world of existential affirmation, seen both on the “Do I dare disturb the Universe?” poster in his locker and also the “do your own thing” motto.

I was enthralled by this book. The only real negative point I’d make about it is that, having read it, the ending seems to be proposed by the author as the sole one possible, that the forces in place in this universe are implacable. As such, and probably because I don’t agree with the conclusion, I would have preferred a more open ending.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review of: A Moveable Feast

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4/5

What a fascinating read!

Hemingway’s legend precedes and slanders him. What image we have of him, magnified by the myriad portrayals and caricatures of the man in film and literature, utterly fails to capture the essence of the man as a writer.

Reading ‘A Moveable Feast’, Hemingway’s memoirs of Paris, I was at first frowning at the simplicity of the wording, thinking that the lack of nuance was abandoning much depth of experience, until details thrown out in stark contrast to the canvas started coming out to punch me in the face. The turning point in the reading is a scene where Hemingway describes a boxing session he is having with Ezra Pound, the simplicity of stance and movement, and it seemed to me (I may be wrong about this, or simply reading too much into it) that Hemingway is describing his writing as he writes it, that this was a sort of meta-message to the reader enjoining him to be wary of the sudden jabs and uppercuts that the writing will be throwing.

At some moments, the previous chapter almost needs to be re-read in light of how he finishes it, as when he describes a light conversation with Pascin at a bar.

Sometimes the book is laugh-out-loud as when he’s trying to get some writing done on the terrace of a café and an aspiring writer/critic (mercifully unnamed) keeps butting in. Or the whole description of travelling across France with Scott Fitzgerald, or when Scott Fitzgerald confesses the crux of his marital woes, I laughed, I couldn’t believe what I was reading!

All in all, I think the main interest of this book lies in capturing the experience of the American writer in Paris at a time when an American-writer-in-Paris was the thing to be. That may seem trite and it is, but what can you do, that period in literary history has come and gone, and while there will certainly be other Parises and other expatriate writers in search of themselves, a party and a bit of exoticism, but each time will be different and this one really, drop-fed in parsimonious detail, is a pleasure to take in.

Monday, June 4, 2012

American Gods review

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

My rating: 2/5

I must admit I'm underwhelmed by this book. The premise is interesting, the difficultly of gods to throw and maintain roots in American soil, and a conflict of old and new gods to determine who keeps the mindshare of the American people. The story, however, is just comic-book-ish in both content and execution: psychology and description take a distant backdrop to dialogue, which left me frustratingly wondering just what goes on in a god's mind. The powers and vulnerabilities of gods are never explained, which gives the story full latitude to bend and adapt to the necessities of the plot: sometimes the characters are above human frailties, sometimes not.

Plot twists and an interesting trip to the land of the dead do a good job of redeeming this book in the final quarter, however.