Sunday, September 30, 2007

Is this the way the world ends?

The title of this book is misleading: "Have a Nice Doomsday: Why millions of Americans are looking forward to the end of the world" implies a sort of nervous temptation to believe that all the myths about global warming, nuclear terrorism and other such apocrypha would come true.

But Guyatt's book is nothing of the sort. It touches upon the eschatological ambitions of nearly 50 million Americans who believe that the coming of the Antichrist is on hand, and we need only prepare for ultimate doom. Guyatt, an English-born history lecturer at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, spent several months in the US meeting doomsday enthusiasts and proponents.

Guyatt speaks about the booming apocalypse industry that comprises books, DVDs, stickers, pamphlets and so on. He focuses attention on the likes of Joel Rosenberg, Tim LaHaye and John Hagee who have made a fortune for themselves by linking sayings in the Bible with the destructive forces shaping our world today.

One such book he discusses is The Last Jihad by Joel Rosenberg, which predicted 9/11 and the war in Iraq before these events occurred. Rosenberg bases his claims on the Book of Ezekiel, which he claims, "is an intercept from the mind of an all-knowing God." Guyatt maintains a calm disposition throughout, though he cannot escape being surprised and even, at times, appalled by the extent to which Biblical prophecy has been made into a contemporary art.

Even more insidious, in Guyatt's view, is the acceptance that eschatologists seem to find in the corridors of power. By Rosenberg's own admission, he has been invited to a bipartisan Congress meet, in which not less than eight Congressmen expressed curiosity at his ideas. "Has Joel Rosenberg completed the circuit between apocalyptic Christianity and American foreign policy?" Guyatt asks the reader, and one can read the dreadful scenarios crisscrossing his mind.

The only trouble with Guyatt's account is his blatant left-liberal propagandizing. Nearly all the actors in the book are tech-savvy right-leaning xenophobes, falling over each other to bring Israel's voice to Washington. Surely that cannot be the case. Barring that, the book offers a timely and cautious look on why Americans need to know who's driving their foreign policy, stuck in one too many quagmires as it is.

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From St. Petersburg Times

Friday, September 28, 2007

The return of old masters

Denis Johnson, whose best is arguably still Jesus' Son, returns with an apocalyptic Vietnam novel, yes, a Vietnam novel replete with spy rings, delirious patriots and shattered lives. It is, to employ a cliché, a tour-de-force.

Essentially, the story revolves around the capers of the "Colonel," a legendary CIA "man with a message," prone to grand theorizing about the psychology of warfare. Not so charismatic is his nephew, Skip Sands, a novice at the game, who, inspired by his uncle, joins the CIA and finds himself in the dungeons of Vietnam.

While the novel flits between time zones and places as disparate as the US, the Philippines and Malaysia; the bulk of it is centered around the American experience in Vietnam, where the Colonel devises a massive counter-intelligence framework, called the "Tree of Smoke".

Assisting him in the operation, which, in the words of a character "is neither desk nor field. It's somewhere out in the jungles of romance and psychosis" is Nguyen Hao, a Vietnamese, who in turn hires his friend Trung Than for the task.

Trung (referred to intermittently as the Monk for his sublime spiritual forays) is a disillusioned former Communist sympathizer: "I remember when the cadres came to my village in 1945 and read Ho's speech to us. A young woman got up and read in a voice like a song. The world rang with Ho's words. In the girl's beautiful voice he talked about freedom, equality." Johnson seems to be saying, it is because of such epiphanies, that people both go forward and regress in their lives.

These are broken people, racked by guilt and the trappings of conscience. If it was not for the war, they may have found themselves leading virtuous lives, devoid of deception. On an ordinary morning, Hao is seen waking up; "thinking what it means to do battle with––no, not to fight against, but simply to face unwaveringly––the dragon of the Five Hindrances: lust, aversion, doubt, sloth, restlessness." Johnson's keen eye solidly keeps us company amidst the dense undergrowth of symbolism and mysticism, as when he here transforms a game of bowling into a philosophical inquiry:

"Skip had never bowled, never before this moment even observed. The appeal was obvious, the clean geometry, the assurances of physical ballistics, the organic richness of the wooden lanes and the mute servitude of the machines that raised the pins and swept away the fallen, above all the powerlessness and suspense, the ball held, the ball directed, the ball traveling away like a son, beyond hope of influence."

Not only is the war addressed through the macro, but from the ordinary foot soldier’s point of view as well. In the story of Bill and James Houston, the romance of the distant conflict tuning into the horror of reality is elicited in sorrowful tones. It's surprising how well-worn attempts at retracing the utter shock of conflict succeed in unsettling the reader.

In a novel awash in masculine motifs (understandable, given the subject matter), only one woman manages to get heard. Kathy Jones, a one-time paramour of Skip, is wonderfully evoked through the letters she writes to him. In spite of her absences during much of the text, she appears triumphant in the end, when her message meets the novel's purpose.

This is a big novel, not just in size (which lumbers to a mammoth 600-plus pages), but also in its scope. Rich in Biblical imagery, Tree of Smoke is an irreplaceable addition to the teeming literature on the "Asian war".

More than anything else, at a time when the US is embroiled in another messy foreign intervention, this book is a reminder of the dangers of false belief and the extent to which we let our prejudices taint our perceptions.

Another old master makes a long-awaited comeback this fall, with his unerring portrait of working class America. Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs is his first novel since the widely appreciated, Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls.

Certain themes resonate from that seminal work, like the deterioration of small-town life. In Bridge of Sighs, the fictitious town of Thomaston is in the grip of an impending disaster. The local tannery is spewing pollutants into the town's lungs, causing many residents to develop cancers.

At one level, the book is an ode to the memory of Russo's childhood, his imagining of places where "the only taxi service was Hudson Cab. Their ad in the Yellow Pages refereed to a 'fleet' of taxis, all clean and spacious, with courteous, punctual drivers—proof, my mother said, that you could claim just about anything and get away with it."

At another level, however—and it is at this plane that the novel truly finds it voice—it is the story of three people whose circumstances bind them together for life. Louis Charles Lynch is the owner of a local grocery store, married to Sarah Berg.

Louis—or Lucy—was a childhood friend with the artist Robert Noonan, known to loved ones as Bobby Marconi. The novel traces the lives of these three––Lucy, Sarah, and Bobby––from a shared childhood in Thomaston to the parting of ways in adulthood.

If one thing is taken from Russo's work, it’s his magnanimity of spirit. Nearly all characters are imbued with a generosity so large it’ll make you smile (or wince). We first meet Lucy as he begins narrating his story: at 60, smug with life, looking forward to a trip to Venice, his first time outside Thomaston. Slowly, by way of carefully selected––almost tender––words, Lucy takes us into his world.

Lucy is portrayed as suffering from occasional spells, a result, it is believed, of a traumatic childhood event, during which he was enclosed inside a trunk and abandoned by a group of boys. Rewind to the past where this incident elucidates ties to his family.

Lucy has a devoted relationship towards her father, and Bobby, a tumultuous one with his own abusive old man. In spite of their differences, the boys come to develop a close bond, a bond that will be tested on the altar of love and fidelity.

This ordinary friendship becomes the emotional fulcrum of Russo's tale when both men fall for the same girl. Sarah is a free spirited daughter of the local English teacher, who wishes for one thing but ends up with another. Russo takes us through these lives with an expert's hand, revealing the most enticing parts through letters the main characters share. In that respect, this novel closely mirrors Johnson's.

Life and its tragedies take Bobby to Venice, where he comes into his own as a painter. But the memory of a painting, deceptively titled Young Woman at a Window, haunts the book like a phantom, threatening to open old wounds and re-ignite dead passions.

But it isn't romance alone that provides the artist his muse. As Bobby basks in the glory of his artistic success, Russo ponders:

"Bobby Marconi had always treated his loathing of his father like a precious commodity, something to be hoarded, something you could run out of, or that could be stolen if you weren't vigilant. Bobby had been a miser [...]fearing what sympathy might cost, he'd concentrated on protecting and growing his bitter stash."

The titles of both novels are symbolic (the meanings of which are clarified in the course of the narratives). There is a passage in Joel 2:30-32, which augurs the coming of the apocalypse:

"And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, when the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes."

Indeed, the "tree of smoke" of Johnson's book is a map of doom, sucking its adherents into a morass from which escape, even when it comes, remains tinged by the threat of lasting trauma.

So it is with the so-called "Bridge of Sighs," a bridge in Venice which gets its name from the sighs of the condemned prisoners who walked across it to their incarceration. In Russo's book, the bridge is both an unattainable symbol of love and the title of one of Bobby's paintings, whose subject is his father. Contrasting it with Young Woman, Bobby launches a brooding meditation into art, and finally rids himself of the burden of hate.

What both novels accomplish to devastating effect is to capture the voices of their characters. In Tree of Smoke, that voice is the hurried, rushed lingo of the soldier in the field; in Bridge of Sighs, it is the contemplative murmur of a man drawing out the past. It is our good fortune that we can be party to such diverse paradigms.

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From The Fanzine

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More mail natter

My response to Shailaja Bajpai's Chuck de, Shah Rukh:

Hello Shailaja,
I am not sure if I agree with your contention that SRK should not have done the Fair & Handsome ad. There is a crucial difference between other stars promoting fairness products and SRK doing the same. From endorsing Lux to extolling the virtues of fair skin for men, SRK has followed a deliberate approach towards robbing the luxury and beauty segment of its feminine side and if I may add, feminine expectations. His metrosexual persona is a slap on those mindsets that prefer lighter-skinned females, even as they go around maintaining rigid gender boundaries where men can be tall, dark and handsome. SRK, via his endorsements, strongly attacks such notions of patriarchy (in subtle ways, yes) and lays down the onus of being sexy (and fair) on men as well. It may not be the perfect antidote for our national obsession with fair skin, but it does manage to break down a few hypocritical shibboleths about ideals of feminine beauty by reversing the gaze for once.
Sincerely,
Vikram Johri

Cultural discourse

Was cleaning up my mail box today, when I came across this interaction with Sarah Weinman of GalleyCat. Her response and my reply to that are pasted below:

Hi,

This refers to the post about the NBCC convention in New York. Since I am in Delhi, I won't be attending it, but I sure don't think that it's akin to "Larry Craig chairing a committee looking into proper airport rest-room etiquette". A lot of interesting people from the book world, such as Dwight Garner and Eric Banks would be attending it, and any forum that discusses the state of culture today is worthwhile. The decline in book reviewing is but one aspect of the general trend towards dumbing down and a place where like-minded individuals debate that cannot be construed as incestuous nit-picking. It's informed discussion.

As regards the other criticism of NBCC members "skimming books" and that too for a repetitive place in some eight odd dailies, I would only like to send across a link to one of my reviews, which discounts both assertions:

http://patrakaar2b.blogspot.com/2007/08/indian-clerk.html

Though this mail represents my personal views, I hope GalleyCat would at least ask for views from both sides of the line in future, and not publish rather one-sided and malicious remarks.

Vikram

Hey Vikram,

Though Ron wrote the post and generally this line of thought is his, I thought I'd respond from a personal standpoint, too. First, that assertion about NBCC members skimming books took me by surprise - but it refers to board members, and while your examples are certainly good to offer up they don't really answer the assertion per se.

Next, with regards the idea of the symposium...well, on the one hand, you're right, but on the other hand, there's already been the exact same types of panels at BEA, a case where the converted were talking to the converted. That's not the larger issue: figuring out how to get readers excited about literature is. And unfortunately, this symposium won't come close to that enthusiasm element. In this instance, Jennifer Howard's comment is pretty much dead on.

All best

Sarah (also an NBCC member)

Hello Sarah,

Thanks for your response. It's good to know that you agree that not all of us skim.

I am really not sure there is a way to get people enthused by literature, except of course, Harry Potter (which isn't literature). Literature, by its very nature, attracts the slightly unconventional, vulnerable, if I may add, and our present culture steeped in stereotypes of power and hegemony is unconducive to spreading the good word. In my view, one can only hope that there would be other dissatisfied souls who would turn to the power of the written word to make better sense of their world. And therefore, the converted talking to the converted is but another exercise in cultural discourse and need not be looked upon askance.

Best,
Vikram

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Delving into a "beloved skill"

Have you ever pondered how those implicitly intricate symbols on the page transform into life-altering experiences for a few of us? What is the basis for this uniquely human fascination for reading, and what can that fascination teach us about ourselves?

Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, broaches these questions and offers a comprehensive view of the history, the present, and the likely future of this beloved skill.

The misleading title is a reference to the French novelist’s description of reading as an intellectual “sanctuary” and to the use of the squid brain for neurological research in the 1950s. These seemingly unrelated symbols are meant to indicate Wolf’s approach to writing this book. She marries the cultural-historical (referred to by the former) with the biological to paint a well-rounded picture of reading and reading disabilities.

In Wolf’s view, the Sumerian cuneiform was a landmark accomplishment in the development of writing. For the first time since the beginning of civilization, “symbols rapidly became less pictographic and more logographic and abstract.” In fact, this change forced a reworking of human brain circuits:

“First, considerably more pathways in the visual and visual association regions would be necessary in order to decode what would eventually become hundreds of cuneiform characters…Second, the conceptual demands of a logosyllabary would inevitable involve more cognitive systems, which, in turn, would require more connections to visual areas in the occipital lobes, to language areas in the temporal lobes, and to the frontal lobes.”

It’s a mutually reinforcing relationship, Wolf observes: “The brain’s design made reading possible, and reading’s design changed the brain in multiple, critical, still evolving ways.” Some of these changes come across as so radical that only the realization of our being at a safe distance from such physiological alchemy introduces a semblance of acceptability.

Her history of reading offers interesting insights into the great arguments of our age. She likens Socrates’ reservations about the transition from an oral to a literate culture to her own worries about the increasing digitalization of all forms of youth culture today:

“First, Socrates posited that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life; second, he regarded the new–and much less stringent– requirements that written language placed both on memory and on the internalization of knowledge as catastrophic; and third, he passionately advocated the unique role the oral language plays in the development of morality and virtue in society.”

Wolf applies each of the above criteria to her questions about digitization, and finds Socrates’ arguments remarkably prescient and cautionary. Perhaps our learning today is of a lesser form than the classical Hellenic variety, and our future generations may reap the woes of rapidly advancing computerization.

Wolf is a sympathetic writer, sensitizing us to the need for looking at the world of reading from a child’s perspective. If we are to understand reading disabilities better, we would need to get into the science of the reading brain. For this, she sets the reader a task. On the well-assumed condition that a reader of this book would be unfamiliar with the Chinese alphabet, she makes us compare two identical sets of Chinese letters.

It is a difficult process that needs close inspection for the reader to arrive at an answer. Had these been English letters, Wolf seems to be gently nudging us into acceding, we adults would have taken no time to answer. But since it is a new script, it demands our time and attention. So it is with children, and it is important to understand this difference.

Several such examples make the reader aware of the fine art of reading, its hidden wonders and dauntless vigor. In a chapter titled “The Unending Story of Reading’s Development,” Wolf cites the case of nine-year-old Luke, who recommended himself for her reading intervention program.

It turned out that Luke did not have any reading disabilities per se, but Wolf’s team had never come across “a child with a more profound problem in the time it took to name a letter and read a word.” That is, Luke’s was a case of moving from “accuracy to fluency in the higher stages of learning.”

Wolf then delves into a neurological exploration of the time line of mental processes that a fully expert reader uses, and in so doing, makes us better appreciate the nuances of reading. From here to dyslexia, which occupies the latter parts of the book, Wolf switches between biology and humanities to drive home her point.

Reminding the reader that the likes of Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein were dyslexics, Wolf ponders whether we can explain the “preponderance of creativity and ‘thinking outside the box’ in many people with dyslexia?” Wolf’s rhetorical questions are tackled with grace and one always feels richer for having spent time with her.

Thanks to umpteen illustrations of the brain at various stages of the process of reading, and Wolf’s revelation of a dyslexic son, the book rises from a merely professional tome to a personal and highly accessible project.

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From the California Literary Review

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Different takes

Sebastian Faulks, the writer of such acclaimed war novels as Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, turned to psychoanalysis in his last wok of fiction, Human Traces. London’s Observer called it an “ambitious study of psychiatry in its infancy.” Faulks takes the spirit of that inquiry to a considerable conclusion in his latest, Engleby.

Mike Engleby is the product of just another family – an abusive father, a distant mother and a loving sister. A loner given to irritating disquisitions into the supposedly sublime, you wouldn’t want to make friends with a man like him. Overanalyzing everything to death, Engleby’s narration literally stuns you with its never-ending verbosity:

“With every atom of my being I long to be nineteen again…But if I can’t manage this simple maneuver through the dimension of time that we poor, incompletely evolved homo saps can’t fathom or bend to our will, why should anyone else? And even if they did, why should we listen to what they claimed to find?”

After attending the local grammar school in Reading, he lands at Chatfield, a public school, where his education is restricted to learning the tricks of abuse (he is ragged in his first year, and himself becomes an abuser in the second), and where really the seeds of his later acts are sown. Because he is sharp, he makes it to an unnamed college at Cambridge, where he falls head-over-heels for Jennifer Arkland, a fellow student.

But is it love, or something darker? Engleby follows every act of Jennifer’s closely, keeping a close tab on her whereabouts, paying undue attention to her utterances and even going as far as stealing her letters. Naturally then, when Jennifer goes missing after an evening party, he is one of the prime suspects.

However, our smooth-talking protagonist is able to extricate himself of any culpability. Sure, he loved her, he seems to say, but that is that. For the reader’s part, one does wish to give the benefit of the doubt to this vulnerable rebel who displays a preternatural tendency to pondering the unbearable lightness of being.

Years pass, and the memory of Jennifer recedes. Mike Engleby, who has renamed himself the more palatable Mike Watson, achieves some degree of success as a journalist. His interviews with Jeffrey Archer and Ken Livingtone, liberally garnished with smart-alecky comments, are priceless nuggets about British politics and culture of the ’80s, and the novel, for a while, perks up into lighter territory.

The grand dame herself also makes an appearance, in what is the latest round of English novelists’ recent fascination with the UK’s Iron Lady. In describing her as a woman with a “peculiar force,” Faulks pays her a tribute not dissimilar to one offered by Alan Hollinghurst in The Line of Beauty. Faulks writes:

“Mrs. Thatcher’s entourage consisted of about a dozen men in dark suits with carnations, blue rosettes or both…Even the older ones made repeated attempts at looking more dignified as they waited; then a whisper would start, and a giggle passed through them, making them look like ushers at a gay wedding.”

Yet, in spite of his supposed worldly successes--a partner with whom he now lives (though not happily) and general overall stability--something’s not quite right with Engleby. Disconnected fragments from the past keep presenting themselves to him, and these flashes give intermittent peeks into sinister memories that are as confounding to the reader as they are to their recipient.

Why, for instance, does panic set in whenever he reads reports of maimed/decomposed bodies of women discovered from pits? Why is he prone to misanthropic bursts of rage which end in blackouts (“I’ve found, at moments in my life, that this emotion [anger] can cut free from the thing that provoked it and become an independent force.”)?

By the time Engleby reveals that he nicked Jennifer’s bike on one occasion all those years ago, the reader is haplessly grinding his teeth and wondering if he is in the company of a self-deluded, Patrick Bateman-like psychopath? So, who is Mike Engleby? Is he really amnesiac, or a dual personality, or worse still, a perfectly sane but iniquitous narrator?

Different people will have different takes on this novel once they are done with it. For some, it would be a cautionary tale of obsessive love gone awry. For others, it would be a murder mystery replete with courtroom antics, and for others still, it would serve as a sort of philosophical inquiry into human frailties and the limits of consciousness. It is to Faulks’ credit as a writer that none of these interpretations are wide of the mark.

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From Chicago Sun-Times

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Booker tales

Giles Foden on the Booker selection process

Indra Sinha on the "Surprise Party"

'Tomorrow' comes, and it disappoints

Paula Hook, an art dealer married to a biologist, cannot get herself to sleep on the night of June 16, 1995. She and her husband are to reveal a terrible secret to their teenage twins, Kate and Nick, the next day, exactly a week after the twins' 16th birthday. Paula (perhaps in her thoughts, perhaps by way of writing) begins to address the twins and prepare the ground for what unbearable revelations her husband is going to bring their way in the morning, that is, tomorrow. Hence the title.

Graham Swift (pictured) is the writer of such robust novels as The Last Orders (which won the Booker prize) and The Light of Day. Here, however, he slips into a sort of self-serving trance, from which escape proves impossible. Paula, as the mother who must ready her children for secrets that involve them intimately, stretches her story to the breaking point. For a novelist, this may be necessary, required as he is to maintain narrative tension. But as a purely human piece of writing, Tomorrow fails.

Paula badgers on, discussing grandparents and cats and vets, even as we wonder if she could really be mother to these kids whose life she is all set to topple. Every time there is the hint of a shocker ("No, I've counted lots of things, but I never thought I'd become so keenly involved in counting sperm"), she deflates it and digresses. One almost wishes to wring her neck and force her to spill the beans, if not for the reader's sake (which is understandable), then for her children's.

I couldn't help thinking that if I happened to be one of Paula's kids reading her testimony, I would happily jump to the last pages to know what was happening. The announcement, when it comes, is not all that it is cracked up to be. And therein lies a lethal flaw at this novel's heart: too great a buildup for too soft a disclosure.

For a first-time writer, Tomorrow may have been a pardonable exercise; but from Swift, it is no less than tragic.

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From St. Petersburg Times

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Exciting, virginal territory

I came to Xiaolu Guo's (pictured) book after having been bombarded with all the pre-release hype, most of it in the UK. So I knew, before I picked it up, that it's not written in impeccable English -- why, it doesn't even follow the regular rules of grammar; that it's a love story between a Chinese woman and an English man; and more solidly perhaps, that it was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize for fiction, a highbrow British prize reserved exclusively for female authors.

Perhaps it was the result of this hype that Chinese-English Dictionary took a while to have the intended impact on me. No doubt, it's an endearing work, but hindered somewhat by the farce of maintaining poor English, Guo may have compromised on narrative tautness, at least in the beginning.

The story revolves around a 24-year-old Chinese girl, Z (that's how she prefers to address herself, since the English find her real name Zhuang too damn difficult to pronounce), who comes to England to learn English. She comes from a family of peasants who now run a shoe factory in China, and wish their daughter to learn the language of globalization.

Z enrolls in a language school in Holborn and begins her training under the formidable Mrs. Margaret. These initial chapters (the book takes us through a year in Z's life, separated by months) are a source of much humor. Z realizes the contortions of English leave her in an unenviable state, not just because the language is so very different from Chinese, but also because it speaks for a culture she can't even begin to fathom ("Homosexual: strange word, I cannot imagine it.").

But Z, like any other youngster her age, dreams of finding a perfect love, and her wish is granted when she meets a middle-aged Englishman during a film screening. This "you" takes her home and so kickstarts this coming-of-age story. "You" is 44 years old, a vegetarian (as opposed to the carnivorous Z), and has only had homosexual relationships in the past (which Z seems to have little trouble with).

The growth of the relationship -- from learning the nuances of polite behavior to realizing that discord is part of intimacy -- is carried off in subtle allusions to the difficulty of sharing lived space. To the reader, the openness that the man welcomes Z with, comes as the aftermath of a life lived too fast. To him, she is the simpleton that comes after the furore. To her, however, he is the first man she has been intimate with. Which is why this email from him has her scratching her head:

"In the West we are used to loneliness. I think it's good for you to experience loneliness, to explore what it feels like to be on your own. After a while, you will start to enjoy solitude. You won't be so scared of it anymore."

Love, to her -- to the Chinese her -- implies matrimony and family. Things like privacy and identity are incomprehensible to her Eastern mind. Through the dynamics of this relationship, Guo gives us insightful peeks into how the West and East are temperamentally different. There is also the question of physical space which, in the third world, is never enough, never quite enough to nurture and cherish solitude.

As she sets out on a pan-European tour on her boyfriend's insistence, Z is given a copy of Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy, the irony of which is not lost on the reader. And yet, she learns all this and more. The west makes her see, ultimately. Heartbreak, freedom, nostalgia.

Guo is a sensitive writer, and perhaps my surprise, even my bewilderment, at her narrative technique has more to do with the novelty of the idea than any real weakness thereof. For it must be asked: how many times has the shoe been on the other foot? How many times have we read accounts of the Western gaze on the Eastern native? Countless, if I were to hazard a decent guess. Just that this time, the gaze is inverted, and it takes us into a new territory, all the more exciting for its virginity.

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From Chicago Sun-Times

Spinning magic from tragedy

As the star author of a collection of short stories, Drown, that was released to critical acclaim, Diaz has tried to encompass the magical realist themes of traditional Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez in his work, even as he maintains a fresh, "MTV-generation" voice. That effort pays off --to some extent-- in his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

It's a cross-generational saga that bounces back and forth in time. Oscar is a slightly wonky kid who uses words like "precipitous" in daily conversations and is the butt of good-humored jokes ("I am copacetic. Everybody misapprehends me"). And there is the omnipresent Yunior, who makes it a point to remind us of his love for Oscar, and his burden--narrating Oscar's life and history.

But this book isn't about the plastic discomfort of an American coming-of-age. No, before all this, before the Dominican experience of America, there was the terrible truth of Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo lords over this story like a giant--a supernatural agent of death who would leave no stone unturned in making the lives of his subjects tales of utter barbarity.

It begins with Belicia Cabral, or Beli, Oscar's mother, "a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her." Her life goes for a toss after she meets and falls in love with the Gangster, a hired gunman and Trujillo's acolyte. In long descriptive passages, straight out of a feminist tome on the plight of the battered wife, we read exhaustingly terrifying details of the horrors perpetrated on Belicia. Strictly speaking, the depressive Oscar is not a match on his family whose ability to survive is exemplary, and it is these latter stories that provide a well-needed fulcrum to an otherwise light tale.

Oscar's grandfather, Abelard makes nearly half of the book, and his journey from respected doctor to deranged prisoner is a dirge for human space within the Dominican dictatorship that Trujillo ran with an iron fist. The details grip you by the neck, challenging you in a convoluted contest of will power. This here is a description of Abelard's first encounter with Trujillo's dreaded police:

He tried to remain calm--fear...is the mind-killer--but he could not help himself. He saw his daughters and his wife raped over and over again. He saw his house on fire. If he hadn't emptied his bladder right before the pigs showed up, he would have peed himself right there.

There is a strong mythical element to the book's ongoing consideration of fuku (a curse) vs. its opposite, zafa (benediction). For this is what the stuff of legend is--the shared history of a people, a source of comfort against the unknowable brutality of destiny. Opium for the masses? So be it. Not just Latin American motifs, the book also pays a nod to "Unus the Untouchable" and other such pop culture references. It would be hard to deny Diaz his skillfulness. But a contemporary Marquez? Not yet.

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From St. Petersburg Times

Evoking Henry James

Tessa Hadley (in the pic) did her Ph.D on Henry James and has written a book (Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure) on the master's style. Here, in her third novel after the critically acclaimed Accidents In The Home and the not-so-well-received Everything Will Be All Right, she pays a deserving tribute to her dissertational subject and her inspiration for writing.

The novel is set in Cardiff, Wales, and revolves around the life of Kate Flynn, a middle-aged academic who has decided to take a break from her teaching and return to care for her mother Billie who is suffering from rapidly advancing dementia.

In the opening scene of the novel, a stray swan comes looping down on the road and strikes a car when Kate is driving home from London. The occupant of the car is Suzie, the wife of David Roberts, a childhood acquaintance of Kate. This small incident reverberates through the novel as Suzie imagines the dead spirit of David's first wife Francesca speaking to her from beyond the grave by way of the dead swan. To the public health professional in David, all talk of such superstition is gibberish, but Suzie takes it up with Kate as well, at a time when so much is happening in Kate's life that one starts to look upon Suzie's whims as only innocent questions into the dark.

Hadley is especially gifted in taking such ordinary motifs and imbuing them with meaning and substance only so they return later in the novel to pack a robust picture of life within the folds of the pages.

Kate's family home is a relic of the past where three generations of her family have stayed and it is a sort of mini-memorial to an era when her family was prosperous. But now, she has returned to her 'estate' and with a senile woman to care for, the novel sets us firmly in the grip of dark, mildly tragic territory.

But Hadley is a luxuriant writer and her turns of phrase are observantly composed. She welcomes us into her story with an effortless élan and narrates her tale with an easy simplicity.

Kate and David strike up a rapport due a shared interest in music, but Kate also finds herself the center of attention of David's teenage son, Jamie. The lad shows an initial interest in Kate because of her knowledge of Fransesca, who was Jamie's mother. But the attraction develops more intense along the way. Jamie, surprisingly for his age, is a restrained individual and one does not grudge his one night of forced intimacy with Kate.

Kate is undoubtedly the heroine here, though she does not always display very heroic or even noble qualities. Confused about her relationship with a teenager, and reclining for support on David after Billie passes away suddenly, she is both in the groove and outside it. Tethered to an irrepressible cynicism, she yet emerges clean in the mess that follows her break-up with Jamie.

As a portrait of marital life gone awry, David and Suzie's relationship is explored with a sense of dramatic action taking place behind the scenes. Suzie, a school teacher, has taken to living with New Age hippies, apparently without reason. But Hadley enmeshes the incident of the dead swan with the narrative to push forth the idea of the distance between the couple. However, when David returns home one evening to Suzie bathing in the tub, the smell of another woman (Kate--she doesn't know) in the air, she seeks no explanation; rather looks upon it as a quid pro quo for her own past woolly-headedness. It's a well-etched scene, striking in its exactness.

My personal dark horse among the characters is Billie who comes alive as a loving woman being cared for by a rather impatient daughter. Submissive, staying behind the scenes, she is a picture-perfect exemplar of maternal softness. Her slow, quiet loss struck me as a very personal blow.

What Hadley is notably adept at is drawing out ordinary, familial scenes and apportioning them such bold strokes of realism that the characters and the surroundings become enticingly visual--the richness of her descriptions need only be matched by the imagination of the reader.

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From Washington Times

Stories trapped within the cracks

There is a pivotal dialogue in the 2002 Stephen Frears film, Dirty Pretty Things, about the immigrant’s experience in Britain: “We are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your cocks.” Marina Lewycka’s (pictured) second novel, Strawberry Fields, is an accomplished reconfirmation of the truth of this statement – a hard-hitting reprising of the many horrors that starry-eyed immigrants face in the West.

One Ukrainian, three Poles, a Malawian, a Chinese, a Malaysian and Vitaly from somewhere in east Europe, work on a strawberry farm in Kent, where they pick strawberries for a meager wage, most of which is deducted to meet living expenses. Yet, there is an unhurried amicability to their work environment, with the men and women staying in two different trailers and their leader Yola encouraging the men to work with their shirts off because that ensures a “pleasing sexual harmony” within the group.

To this setting comes Irina, a Ukrainian girl, who is running away from a family she now fears she never had. Her father has deserted her mother for a much younger woman and Irina, buoyed by charming visions of the fictitious Mr. Brown, has come to England to make a life for herself. At the farm, she meets Andriy, a handsome Ukrainian miner who lost his father in a mining accident, and has come to the West because the accident that killed his father (a wall collapsed on the other side, when it could as easily have fallen Andriy’s way) has so haunted him that he cannot imagine returning to work inside a mine.

When an incident involving their proprietor, Farmer Leapish, threatens to get out of hand, the gang is forced to go on the run, launching a cross-country trip that takes them to different places, both geographically and emblematically. Vitaly, their erstwhile colleague, is now a mobilfonman, working as a “dynamic-edge cutting-employment solution recruitment consultant”, a euphemism for an agent who masks low-paying jobs as lucrative career options.

The Poles – Marta, Tomasz and Yola – find themselves working on a chicken farm, but here comes a statutory warning: Don’t read these parts if you are a non-vegetarian. It would take you off chicken forever. From fattening chickens so they’d yield bigger breast portions to scalding and electrocuting them, the barbarous underbelly of the chicken trade is showcased in blinding light. It is unfathomable where that fresh-looking, cellophane-packed chicken leg that you buy from an air-conditioned supermarket is coming from.

Irina, forever looking at Natasha and Pierre from War and Peace as ideals in her quest for romance, begins to see what her parents meant when they warned her about the dangers of a single girl looking for work in England. Her ordeal begins when she is abducted by a slimy agent and separated from the group. The reader can’t wait for her to be reunited with Andriy which, fortunately, happens soon enough.

There are segments in the book where its tenor may betray a fondness for Communism, and it is easy to flow along, given Lewycka’s frank portrait of the dark pedestal on which the capitalist excesses of the West rest. Yet, such an analysis is not strictly correct. If Andriy is wearied by his experiences in Britain, Irina continues to believe that it is much better to be ruled by a local thug than by the Kremlin. Also, Vitaly’s life story, narrated moments before his death, brings out both the ill-effects of Communism in east Europe, and also, Lewycka’s ability to imbue negative characters with grayness.

At a time when volcanic shifts in the global economy are engendering new fissures between peoples and societies, Strawberry Fields should be compulsory reading for anyone who wishes to delve into the human stories trapped within the cracks.

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From St. Petersburg Times

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Man Booker shortlist

is in:

Darkmans by Nicola Barker
The Gathering by Anne Enright
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Animal's People by Indra Sinha

I haven't read most titles on the list, but my admiration for Mister Pip is evident here, and my dislike for Reluctant Fundamentalist here. The Gathering and Animal's People are waiting to be picked up, but going by what others say, these could be strong contenders too.

For book jackets, rush to Eric Forbes's well-rounded post.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Upcoming reviews


Coming soon, reviews of the following books:

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo
Tomorrow, by Graham Swift
Strawberry Fields, by Marina Lewycka
Hold Everything Dear, by John Berger
The Master Bedroom, by Tessa Hadley
The Age of Shiva, by Manil Suri
The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold

Finding Galleyland

This here is the state of my bedroom, dining room, drawing room, and.... It feels like I am living under books, what with not less than three galleys arriving in the mail on any given day. I am seriously considering buying a couple of these.