Sunday, May 27, 2007
This is the story of Rebecca Schwart, from her birth on a streamer bound for New York to her childhood in Milburn, to her failed marriage to Niles Tignor and finally, to her change of identity to Hazel Jones. But revolving around this tale is the larger story of Jewish immigrants who escaped Nazi Germany to make lives for themselves in America. This one is not about the happy stories that we come across every now and then; rather it is a story of dashed hopes and murderous intrigue.
The novel begins in Chautauqua Falls with Rebecca returning home after a hard day's work at Niagara Tubing. Around the canal towpath, she is accosted by a stranger -- the cloying Dr. Byron Hendricks, who mistakes her for another woman, Hazel Jones. Rebecca pushes him away, but this meeting and the promise of a legacy for the enigmatic Hazel stay with her. Little is she aware that this name would come to define her future.
Rebecca's father, Jacob Schwart, was a math teacher in Germany who decided to emigrate to America to escape Nazi persecution. But when he, along with his wife Anna, his sons Herschel and Gus and the newly-born daughter Rebecca, moves to Milburn, he realizes that he must settle for the worst because he is not like them. This otherness marks Jacob for life, and is liberally bolstered by the treatment the community metes out on him and his family.
He is made the town's gravedigger, and the trauma and the humiliation of this make him a hard-hearted, insensitive monster. Rebecca's trials start right from early childhood when her brothers desert the family in quick succession (Ms. Oates delves into their reasons with touching candor) and her father, in a fit of mad animal rage, kills her mother and himself.
But in the merciless world of Ms. Oates' fiction, realism is always lurking around the corner and if one expects poetic justice, then one must wait forever. Rebecca's marriage to the brutal Niles Tignor fails, but it gives her the one constant source of cherishing in her life -- her son Niley. After an especially violent episode (in which Ms. Oates renders beautifully a mother's convoluted worrying for the safety of her son), Rebecca decides to leave Niles and make a new life for herself.
It is then that she heeds the voice of an inner oracle and adopts the name Hazel Jones. Niley becomes Zacharias ("a name from the Bible") and so begins the final phase in this sprawling saga. The last few chapters herald good tidings for Rebecca. In media tycoon Chet Gallagher she discovers a love she has never known. Rebecca's life story, in its unceasing twists and turns, keeps you hooked to the very end.
Ms. Oates follows an unconventional technique to stretch the narrative. She takes you into the present -- the very tactile present -- and then by means of recollections, memories and realizations, she draws out the past -- slowly, deliberately, intimately -- until you realize that without informing you of anything by way of facts, the writer has set you up firmly in the world of Rebecca Schwart. Rebecca becomes so real that you can almost imagine her springing to life from within the folds of the book.
So bare is Ms. Oates' prose, so precise in its clinical beauty, that when she does relent and give space to her characters to create a scene of filial bonding here, of mind-numbing violence there, the effect is heart-breaking. This book is a moving ode to the difficult choices people make in their lives, some of which leave no room for escape.
From the Washington Times
Monday, May 14, 2007
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Life's pain, joys infuse Mallon's story of the Red-baiting '50s
History gives 'Travelers' real intrigue
This is from Colette Bancroft's review in SP Times:
Fresh out of college and brimming with idealism, Tim Laughlin comes to the nation's capital ready to join the Cold War. Devoutly Catholic and anticommunist, Tim is also agonizingly, given the times gay, although he's still a virgin.
Not for long. He takes one look at Hawkins Fuller, a charismatic, cynical State Department official, and falls helplessly in love.
Hawk, as the moony Tim is soon calling him, gets the younger man a fascinating job on the staff of a senator. Their relationship may be a love affair to Tim, but Hawk is clearly in it for the sex and, perhaps more important, the secrets Tim can gather.
Tim's job immerses him in the drama of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's notorious vendetta, which targeted gays in the government as well as communists. As Hawk says of one of McCarthy's victims, "What's his problem? Pink or lavender?" There is bitter hypocrisy at the heart of that attack – McCarthy's chief attack dog, lawyer Roy Cohn, is widely rumored to be gay himself.If you are interested in running a background check on the real personalities involved, here are the links:
Thomas Mallon: Writer (pictured)
Joseph McCarthy: Anti-communist hawk
Roy Cohn: McCarthy supporter
Gerard Schine: Cohn's lover and rabid anti-communist
Cohn and McCarthy targeted many government officials and cultural figures not only for suspected Communist sympathies but also for alleged homosexual tendencies, sometimes using sexual secrets as a blackmail tool to gain informants. The men whose homosexuality Cohn exposed often lost jobs, families, and homes: some committed suicide. It is said that when Cohn learned that one of his victims had killed himself, Cohn celebrated with a bottle of champagne.
In 1984, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS, and he attempted to keep his condition secret while receiving aggressive drug treatment. He participated in clinical trials of new drugs, but reportedly persuaded the researchers to keep him out of the control group, which received inert substances rather than the experimental drug. He insisted to his dying day that his disease was liver cancer.
When Miranda Chase moves into the sleepy town of Amherst, Massachusetts at 13, little is she aware that the place would provide the setting for a robust association. She is befriended by Emily Dickinson, who despite being 15 years her senior, casts a web of magnetic influence on the intelligent Miranda. Emily's profuse output of poetry works like a magical chant on the little girl, and she starts looking upon Emily as her mentor and confidante.
Miranda comes to observe the Dickinson clan from close quarters. Emily's father Edward Dickinson is a strict disciplinarian who rules the household with an iron hand. He is known in the town as an arrogant and distant man, whose career in politics gives him the standing to behave so. Emily's mother is a feeble and quiet woman who has little say in the running of the Dickinson home. This family structure breeds a deep contempt within Emily and she turns to writing to release her anguish. MacMurray is brilliant at constructing scenes where Emily's poetry melds easily with the novel's flow. One afternoon, for instance, Emily slips a note into Miranda's pinafore, which contains a "furious invective toward God and Mr. Dickinson":
I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!
Angels — twice descending
Reimbursed my store —
Burglar! Banker — Father!
I am poor once more!
Miranda finds herself getting caught in her mercurial friend's intense affections. There is a scene in the novel where Edward Dickinson, going against his grain, visits the Chase household and cautions Miranda's father on Emily's wayward streak. This sets the stage for what turns out ultimately to be a timely warning about his daughter who can prove menacing and messianic in equal measure.
As Miranda grows up and shows a talent for education reform, she becomes involved in setting up a new kind of schools where education is treated as an exchange of ideas between equals and not something that is handed down from a superior. This is the beginning of a new phase in Miranda's life and she finds herself getting drawn to a co-worker, who happens to be a married man. Emily, not one to take this lying down, retorts, but it is to MacMurray's credit that she never falls for the trap of showcasing her as a vituperative vamp. The reader is given glimpses of Emily's aversion to sex (a common theme among the poet's biographies) by way of a confrontation between Emily and Miranda. So vehement is Emily at her argument that one is forced to concede that the poet may have, in fact, resided in an alternate world of make-believe where the boundaries between reality and fantasy blurred with alarming frequency:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm
Delight The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
The novel is deeply imagined and MacMurray's virtuosity with the written word comes though on every page. She has a special talent for enmeshing the plot with details of the changing seasons. It seems that the cosmos have conspired to let actions become one with nature in this tale of coruscating clarity.
From the St.Petersburg Times.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
For younger writers today, book reviewing for newspapers remains an important way to try your wings as a cultural critic. You learn what your own voice is by the discipline of judging other voices. And you enrich the community of readers by doing so with the guidance of a good editor and enough space to have your say. Personal blogs, unedited Wikipedia entries and MySpace pages are no substitute!
Just one point of disagreement. A good review on a blog is as likely, if not more, to be peer-reviewed as a newspaper one. We bloggers are not easily pleased, Mr. Hochschild!
Read Mr. Hochschild's views.
Monday, May 07, 2007
Eric Forbes of the excellent Book Addict has written a long piece on literary prizes:
Kiran Desai’s triumph in the recent 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction would drive the sales of both her books, The Inheritance of Loss (2006) and Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), which would in turn revive the sales of her mother Anita Desai’s substantial backlist, which consequently would affect the sales of the fictions of Indian writers in general: Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, Suketu Mehta, Pankaj Mishra, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, V.S. Naipaul, R.K. Narayan, Michael Ondaatje, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, etc. Besides an impressive backlist of fiction titles, many of these writers are excellent nonfiction writers as well.
You can read his entire piece here. Also, in the Observer, Robert Mccrum writes:
The literary prize has many well-rehearsed drawbacks, but it has one great virtue: it is conducted in public and is answerable to scrutiny. To some, that just leads to another disqualification (timid juries, they say, simply confirm the conventional wisdom). But it does not have to be so. Juries are as likely to go mad for a book as any book club. On the plus side, the winners of this year's Orange, Booker and Samuel Johnson etc will take home cheques of variable value and attract varying quantities of press. Their books, now recognised, possibly for the first time, will attract new readers. Then the final and supreme act of judgment will begin. This is immune to the pressures of hype or favouritism. It's called reading alone for oneself.
I had written about the awards economy early last year. That piece is here.
Sunday, May 06, 2007
It happened to me about 10 years ago. I had called David Sedaris’s memoir, Naked, a “tour-de-farce” in a review in Newsday. Shortly thereafter, the publisher ran an ad in which my 600-word review had been boiled down to one phrase: “tour de force”.
That's not all:
It happened to the Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman last October. Grossman says he was “quite taken aback” when he saw a full-page newspaper advertisement for Charles Frazier’s novel Thirteen Moons that included a one-word quotation—“Genius”—attributed to Time. Grossman was confused because his review “certainly didn’t have that word”. Eventually, he found it in a preview he had written a few months earlier, which included the sentence, “Frazier works on an epic scale, but his genius is in the details.” As Grossman put it, “They plucked out the G-word.”
Thankfully, I do not work for the cut-throat PR machine within New York publishing, else I too would be required to leave better sense behind in my pursuit of a catchy (and apocryphal) representation.
Here is another, from a review in Hindu's Literary Review section this Sunday:
The book's blurb says, that it is "Lyrical, spare and charmingly self-deprecatory". Did they get their titles mixed up, or are we to be bombarded by these random clichés every time a blurb-writer's well runs dry? In any case, it looks like everyone stays parched in this endeavour.
Returning to my blurbs not being appreciated, let me say that mine are perhaps too esoteric for some lay readers' tastes ;)
Imagine a million people in a Muslim country marching in defence of secularism and in protest against threats to it from Islamic politics. Imagine, also, a half-million people marching in another Muslim country, denouncing terrorism and religious extremism promoted by certain militant mosques. Difficult to imagine? That is because, in recent years, we have only seen and read about huge Muslim rallies worldwide, including in India, where the target of attack was external — George Bush, Danish cartoons, Israel — and in which at least some protesters took pride in showing Osama bin Laden as their hero. Mass protests, in which the focus of criticism is internal to Muslim society and politics, have been rare. But these did take place recently.
The first happened in Istanbul and Ankara last month when peaceful demonstrators protested against the creeping Islamism in Turkey’s politics and also against the army’s threat of intervention amid a political crisis over presidential elections. “Turkey is secular and will stay that way,” they chanted. “We want neither Sharia, nor a military coup, but a fully democratic Turkey.”
The impact of their protests was so swift that the presidential election, which was already underway, was terminated. Outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer had warned that Turkey’s secular system was under “unprecedented threat” from both “domestic and foreign forces who are working with a common objective”. A remarkable feature of the protest rallies in Turkey was the large-scale participation of women. Turkish women enjoy equal legal rights, intellectual freedoms, and opportunities for educational and economic advancement that are almost unrivalled in the Muslim world.
Educated women are the strongest defenders of secularism because, as one Turkish woman intellectual has said, “Islam and modernity can co-exist, but the key is secularism and democracy.”
In Turkey, which is 95 per cent Muslim, secularism was instituted by the sweeping reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic, in 1923. In his 15-year rule, Ataturk de-Arabised Turkey, liberating it from the medieval socio-cultural model that still holds sway in Saudi Arabia. He replaced the Arabic script with Roman, and abolished religious law and religious education. However, there are two negative sides to Turkey’s government-led drive for secularism, which many progressive Turks believe has swung to the other extreme.
They think that the rigid interpretation of secularism in Turkey curtails legitimate religious freedoms. Secondly, it has given excessive powers to the army, which has overthrown elected governments in the past, to stifle democracy. This could become a hurdle in Turkey’s pursuit of European Union membership.
The second event, on April 15, took place closer home, in Pakistan, where the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party formed by mohajirs (post-Partition migrants) from India, organised in Karachi what was probably the biggest, and most disciplined ever political rally in the country’s history. MQM’s supremo, Altaf Hussain, who has been in exile in London since 1992, addressed it telephonically for one-and-a-half hours.
Targeting the notorious clerics of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, who want to enforce an extremely intolerant Sharia rule in Pakistan, he said, “These people are imposing ‘Kalashnikov Sharia’, extremists are defaming Islam and maligning the name of Pakistan.” He also said, “because of their acts of violence and terrorism, India, Afghanistan and other countries are describing Pakistan as a sanctuary of terrorists.”
Altaf Hussein cited Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s historic speech of August 11, 1947, in which Pakistan’s founder proclaimed the equality of all citizens of Pakistan, whether Muslims, Hindus, Christians, or Parsis. He appealed to moderate Muslims to raise their voices against extremist Islamic leaders who were calling for demolition of girls’ schools and wanted to deprive women of their right to get education. “Muslims will not be able to catch up with developed nations if we do not promote modern education for both men and women.”
Pakistan has witnessed many scary manifestations of ‘Kalashnikov Sharia’ in recent months. In February, Zilla Huma Usman, a provincial minister, was killed by a fanatic. Her crime? She had not covered her head! The assassin told a television channel: “I have no regrets. I just obeyed Allah’s commandment. I will kill all those women who do not follow the right path, if I am freed again.” In another instance of Talibanisation of Pakistan, Lal Masjid issued a fatwa last month against Nilofar Bakhtiar, the country’s tourism minister. Her crime? She took part in a paragliding mission and was photographed with her male French instructor in what was a charity event to raise funds for victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
Last week, Pakistan’s interior minister Aftab Khan Sherpao was injured in a suicide attack that killed 30 people. Analysing such recurring acts of terrorism and Shia-Sunni violence, journalist Zahid Hussein has warned in his recent book, Frontline Pakistan — The Struggle Within Militant Islam: “These are the fault lines from which a geo-political earthquake could at some point erupt. Pakistan’s battle with itself is far from over.”This is the context that makes the mammoth rallies in Turkey in defense of secularism and in Pakistan in protest against terrorism highly significant. Because they represent the other, reformist, side of the battle within the Muslim world.
Davies, referred to throughout as the Doll (a metaphor for how she becomes a toy in the hands of the powers that be), is trying to build a life in a seedy Sydney dance club. That life is upended when she becomes a suspect, and Flanagan skillfully traces her journey over the next five days. An interesting aspect is her observations, as when she pities a Muslim woman wearing a burkah in the intense Sydney heat: "It struck the Doll as a particularly humiliating thing for any woman to have to get about in gear as bad as a burkah. But then the Doll remembered the television creep telling her how humiliating it must be to be a pole dancer, and she felt strangely confused."
Which brings us to the book's other major theme: the dangers of the media being hand-in-glove with the government. TV anchor Richard Cody must pump up his falling ratings and manufactures an extraordinary tale of terror, sex and drugs to implicate the Doll. So enamored is he of his "discovery" that he will let nothing—least of all the truth—get in his way. So Davies becomes a homegrown terrorist, a woman waiting to strike Australia as revenge for her impoverished childhood. This, Cody declares, is the new face of terror: slick, beautiful, completely unspottable.
When truth becomes a casualty of paranoia, Flanagan suggests, we may believe something tangible is being done to curb terror when really only innocents are being compromised.====
From the St. Petersburg Times
Saturday, May 05, 2007
The challenge, in one form or another, comes from the internet. Demand for media content – words, music, video and data – is large and growing, but the way consumers access it is changing. Established distribution channels, such as newspapers, including the Financial Times, must therefore invest to build up their online presence. At the same time, profits from their traditional business and stock market valuations are generally in decline, which makes companies such as Dow Jones vulnerable to bids as never before.
Friday, May 04, 2007
Thursday, May 03, 2007
More to the point, it suits the current fashion for the apocalyptic. Hardly a day goes by that some headline doesn't warn us about impending environmental disaster. Remember The Day After Tomorrow? Forget terrorists. Don'tcha know the real threat is people living in the suburbs driving around in SUVs? It was bad old humans just like you and me - not fanatics with bombs strapped to their bodies - who brought about the ruin described in The Road. You can't mistake the message of the book's last paragraph: It wouldn't have happened if those people had been ecologically righteous.
Of course, as D.H. Lawrence pointed out in the last book he wrote, Apocalypse, those who warn of apocalypse secretly crave it, the way puritans tend to be turned on by the very vices they so loudly denounce.
The Road is just the latest installment in the pornography of despair.I am not sure I agree with Frank's argument. Certainly, common people are not a spot on terrorists when it comes to threatening civilization, but to make a comparison itself is facile. The point here is not terrorism at all, a wholly different phenomenon, but ecological stability. The choices that we make today will have a bearing on how future generations survive on the planet. Climate change is a reality in today's world and columnists from the FT's Martin Wolf to Time's Alex Perry have been drawing attention to the ways in which it is changing our present and future. Perry has gone on to say that conflicts like Darfur and Rwanda could be the result of "a contest between too many people on too little land".
It's nobody's case to justify apocalyptic predictions, but look at it as a literary technique that a writer employs to drive his point home. When we speak of Animal Farm, we don't actually think a Stalinist republic of the animals is possible, but the technique works nevertheless. Is it because we are able to anthropomorphize the context? Similarly, a movie such as The Day After Tomorrow or a book like The Road, while being exaggerative, may have helped in rousing a few indifferent souls to the tangible reality of climate change.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
But while I pondered, I had unconsciously, in my listlessness, in my desperation, been drawing a face, a figure. It was the face and the figure of Professor von X engaged in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex.
Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning's work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. A very elementary exercise in psychology showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom - all these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them?
Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor's statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger. There was nothing specially remarkable, however foolish, in that. One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man - I looked at the student next to me - who breathes hard, wears a ready-made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight. One has certain foolish vanities. It is only human nature, I reflected, and began drawing cartwheels and circles over the angry professor's face.
However, the crux of the piece is the imagined life of Shakespeare's sister, and Virginia's remarkable ability to illustrate her point by delving into imagined lives:
I could not help thinking, as I looked at the works of Shakespeare on the shelf, that it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably — his mother was an heiress — to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin — Ovid, Virgil and Horace — and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, married a woman in the neighbourhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right.
Meanwhile, his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter — indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father's eye.
Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring woolstapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart?
....Here I would stop, but the pressure of convention decrees that every speech must end with a peroration. And a peroration addressed to women should have something, you will agree, particularly exalting and ennobling about it. I should implore you to remember your responsibilities, to be higher, more spiritual; I should remind you how much depends upon you, and what an influence you can exert upon the future. But those exhortations can safely, I think, be left to the other sex, who will put them, and indeed have put them, with far greater eloquence than I can compass. When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.
More Woolf here, here and here.