Thursday, December 31, 2009

Maxine Hong Kingston/THE WOMAN WARRIOR: MEMORIES OF A GIRLHOOD AMONG GHOSTS


I had approached reading The Woman Warrior more as an anthropological project than as a book to enjoy. I would be seeing what one of the original breakthrough female Asian American writers produced to shake up the literary world, but I would know that in the same period between its publication and today, both Amy Tan and Bruce Lee had gone from heroes (they've got everyone talking about China! look how cool they are!) to antiheroes, wall-builders of cultural misunderstanding who have inadvertently forced any Asian and Asian American writers/actors/etc after them into proscribed, limited, and ethnically stereotyped modes of expression. (Poor Amy, poor Bruce; both are heroes to me.) How would Maxine Hong Kingston's work fit into this scheme? Surely The Woman Warrior, which was first published in 1975, would prove part of this happy-to-unhappy trajectory.

Part of the fun of approaching a book with preconceived notions is watching them break down in your pleasant surprise. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short but lavish book, and Kingston's prose is compelling and clever. Her composition and language are both innovative, and make the text brain-perking regardless of whatever content you're looking for. And although many of the themes within may have since become associated with that Amy Tanism, it is happy to remember that Kingston really was the forerunner of the genre.

The book is divided into five long chapters, or sort novellas. The first, "No Name Woman," reimagines the forbidden story of an aunt back in China who bore a child out of wedlock. "White Tigers" is a fantasy metaphor of Kingston's childhood, and describes the origin of the "Woman Warrior" in the title--loosely based on the tale of Fa Mu Lan, the woman who went to war disguised as a man to save her family and her village, it establishes Kingston as a girl child fighting both for and against her family and origins. "Shaman," the third section, is a narrative of her mother's time at medical school in China. "At the Western Palace," the fourth, is the story of her mother's sister who came to America at age 68, after thirty years of estrangement from her husband, who had moved to America and married a new wife. The last, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe," is about Kingston's bilingual childhood, struggles in school and in reconciling the person her Chinese "village" wanted her to be with her American home.

The theme of "ghosts" manifests itself in different ways. There are literal ghosts throughout, evil Sitting Ghosts and Wall Ghosts of her mother's local superstitions, all crafting nefarious means of causing harm to the living. There are the "white ghosts" of Kingston's American childhood--in other words, all the white Americans around them in their California home. And there are the ghosts of the ancestors whose narratives her mother "talks-story," the poets, warriors, and myths that shape her conception of Chineseness.

I read this because it was on my fill-in-the-gaps list--an important book I had trouble imagining getting around to--but I ended up enjoying it. Plus it made me think. Win-win-win, as Michael Scott would say.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Last Will of Moira Leahy, by Therese Walsh


A quick, yet necessary, preamble:

Before I begin to relay the contents of this novel, look at that cover. Magical. Haunting. Amazing. I ordered this book online and when it arrived at my door, I tore open the packaging, ravenous, and then stared at the cover for who knows how long before I could peel my eyes away to see what lay beneath. And inside is just as beautiful as outside (I'm still not talking about the story yet). Click HERE to read my post about the importance of font in the overall experience of reading. Elina Nudelman, the interior designer of this book, gave some wonderful insight in the comments section.

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Never in my life have I read a book so emotionally moving. The Last Will of Moira Leahy left me breathless. Speechless. And then crying in my shower later. I am not ashamed to admit that; it's a huge compliment to the author, Therese Walsh. Grazie.

The story is about identical twin sisters Maeve and Moira Leahy. Through the first two-thirds of the book (roughly), each chapter is divided into two parts. The first follows 25 year-old Maeve in her present-day situation. The second (appropriately labeled Out of Time for more than one reason) follows childhood Moira through different stages that ultimately connect with what Maeve is currently experiencing, while at the same time giving the reader hints about why they are no longer in each other's lives, and how it will be resolved.

The final leg focuses solely on Maeve and how she puts all these seemingly unrelated clues together (songs that play in her head, notes nailed to her door, cryptic invitations to specific places in Rome), and glues them with a singular object, the keris, which ironically, is a blade. She begins her journey in a New York auction house, then travels to Rome, and finally, back home again to Maine. Each setting has a uniqueness that adds to the events that take place there, but especially riveting for me was her experiences in Rome (no surprise there, I'm Italian).

That is also where we meet Maeve's lost/found love, Noel. He is a minor character, sort of, but I had an instant connection to him. In fact, Walsh's portrayal of all the different characters, no matter how big or small their role, is one of the main things that sets this novel apart. All are given realism, more than one facet. That alone would keep me reading, but the story itself has a marvelous complexity that I cannot even begin to describe without butchering it. So I won't.

I'd rather you read it yourself and experience it in your own way.

For me, reading this book was likened to having wings and learning to fly. Scary in some ways (looking deep inside and facing your fears, your true self), but also exhilarating (discovering that beneath the ugly past there is hope, there is beauty, there is music, there is love).

All I can say is thank you, Therese, for writing this story. Thank you for the avventura.

~Lydia Sharp

For more about this book and this author:

Excerpt
Therese Walsh's website
Writer Unboxed
RWA-WF website

Monday, December 28, 2009

THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST/Stuart Neville


Disclaimer to the FTC: I received my copy of this book via Stuart Neville's Twitter short fiction contest. It is signed by the author, and I'm not giving it away or selling it no way, no how. Besides, I still haven't figured out what "Win but win" means.

The Troubles may be over and peace in Northern Ireland reached, but Gerry Fegan's troubles are far from over. During the tumult he was one of the IRA's most ruthless henchmen, killing twelve people - and now their ghosts literally haunt him. He's always had a talent - if you can call it that - for seeing the dead, but these ghosts have haunted him for seven years, keeping him awake with their screams, something only the drink can quiet. When he converses with a prominent politician, McKenna, in the bar in which he frequents, he finally discovers what the ghosts want. They don't want his remorse; they want him to kill the people who gave him the orders that resulted in their deaths.

Sometimes fiction can be a better teacher than the history books. I knew nothing of the Troubles in Northern Ireland before reading this novel, and the IRA was a far-off entity of freedom fighters who occasionally made American news. On the surface, Ireland has changed greatly: it's prosperous and there are more opportunities than ever before. Becuase no one beyond Fegan is sure who's responsible for the murders, Fegan's mission threatens to upend all the shady deals between the Unionists and the Republicans that tenuously keep peace in place. But there's no stopping Fegan once he's figured out what his ghostly companions want.

Complicating matters is Davy Campbell. An undercover agent, Campbell a man who's been on the inside so long he can't imagine ever getting out. But his handlers - whom I gathered to be British intelligence - disagree. In a way, Campbell and Fegan are one in the sense that they're both compromised men who made their living off the Troubles. In their scenes together I could feel the sympathy between them. Despite Campbell's apparent betrayal to the cause, he gets a reprieve from Neville's cold eye, for Neville's portraits of the politicians and people in power in this novel is unforgiving.

Marie McKenna, niece to the murdered McKenna, is Fegan's love interest and all the more interesting because Neville plays her as more of a lifeline for Fegan, the life jacket thrown to a man drowning in his efforts to reach redemption. His hopes for happiness and healing rest solely with her and her daughter, Ellen, though it's Ellen, through her childhood innocence, who helps him the most. She's the Ireland Fegan fought for.

The writing is taut and stripped of all banality. I really felt for Fegan - for who hasn't done things they regret? - and hoped fervently that he would find some measure of peace, if not actual happiness. Whether he gets that in the end, or has traveled too far into the abyss, is something to be pondered long after reading.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

THE HELP - Kathryn Stockett


For the love of Thor, get this book. Read it in your book groups. Discuss it. Ruminate. Journal about it. I finished it days ago and could not write this review because I keep thinking about it.

Set in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, all of the maids ("colored" or "nigra") wait on white women during their bridge games, parent the family's children, scrub the house, cook the meals, and say, "Yes Ma'am" and count the silver. She will use a separate bathroom, and she cannot eat with the family. If one is fired for backtalk or thievery, the head of Jackson society, Miss Hilly, will ensure that woman will never be employed in that town again.

Miss Skeeter, daughter of a cotton grower and his former-debutante wife, has bigger plans than the diamond on the finger and kids in the nursery. She wants to be a writer. Through her determination, she gets to talk to a New York agent. When told to come up with something no one talks about, Skeeter realizes that the relationship between the maids and their employers is a sharp subject. The problem is that no one wants to talk for fear of what Miss Hilly, one of Skeeter's best friends, will do if she finds out.

Minny and Aibileen are wonderful characters as the first maids to speak of their experiences to Skeeter. However, even with Skeeter's kindness during this racially-wrought period (Kennedy forcing the governor to allow a black student into "Ole Miss," the rise before Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech), I wonder of the irony of her motives. She is using black women to get ahead. I wonder at the author's motives - a white woman writing in black vernacular.

The book made me think and analyze and create opinions. What could be more delicious?

4.3 out of 5.0 So-Co Teas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD - Margaret Atwood

About a third of the way into this book, I thought, "Have I read this?" and flipped it over. "Praise for Oryx and Crake" the back copy exclaimed. I almost stopped reading.

I read Oryx and Crake before I began this blog, but if I had to rate it, I would have given it a 2.25 out of 5.0 Stupidity DNAs.

Atwood, whom I have adored in the past, makes me believe we may be having relationship problems now.

At the end of Oryx/Crake (spoilers), Jimmy the Snowman is left in a tree, the DNA-manipulated perfect species of blue-penis-waving men and big busted women singing happily along the ocean.

The Flood tells how Jimmy got there, though through the eyes of God's Gardeners, a nature-cult that would make PETA look like a Burger King. Living off of organic food grown in their roof gardens, they listen to Adam One and sing a lot of hymns. Personally, the hymns were annoying additions, but a couple held humorous references (like Saint Dian Fossey - who died while studying the silver-backed gorillas). Adam One tells the Gardeners of the Waterless Flood that will cleanse the earth.

However, it is Toby and Ren who are the leaders in this book. Toby had once eaten meat and worked at "A Noo Yoo" spa, while Ren was a stripper/sex servant at a local security-approved brothel. At once point, Toby is Ren's teacher, but it is the very weak connections to Crake and Jimmy that link this book to Atwood's "prequel."

Does the waterless flood occur? Yes, you know this if you read the first book. By the way Atwood ended this novel, we are not finished with her fiendish obsession with the future yet. Expect a sequel in a few years, and people will buy it because it is Margaret Atwood. Not this girl. Some of my favorite authors have fallen in love with their characters to the point where the plot or narrative becomes unbelievable and annoying. While Atwood wants to show the world a unique perspective on where we may exist with DNA testing, gene splicing, and government rule (in this case, being privatized), I wonder if she considers the waste of trees being used to distribute her messages.

1.75 out of 5.0 Gorilla Farts.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Faith Bleasdale/THE LOVE RESORT

A romance novelist who runs a resort so she can see the beautiful people and put them in her book is disappointed by the caliber of her guests so handpicks six gorgeous people to visit but is then disappointed by their behavior.

That's not much of a summary sentence, and it does leave out a lot of things, but I think that's at least partly because the book seemed all over the place. Hollywood stars, affairs, a novelist who doesn't even try to write...

The handpicked people are of course not what they seem, but not in a particularly interesting way for me. Some of the characters were interesting but a lot felt cliched to me.

The romance novelist made me crazy, there was again a thread of prospering cheaters (I'm 0 for 3 on that today... WHY is that a theme in so many books?) and the writing itself really lacked polish for me. The ending felt tacked on and overall I wasn't thrilled with the book.

Nancy Warren/SPEED DATING

An actuary and a race car driver pretend to be dating to fool the driver's ex-wife but it may become more than pretense.

Another romance. Being an ebook, it's difficult to tell for sure, but I think this is a novella not a full novel. While I liked both characters, their development wasn't as rich as I'd have liked, and their relationship went from "she likes him but he won't commit" to "we're together" so fast I scrolled back in the book to see if I'd missed something.

I hadn't.

I'm not clear on what stopped him from committing and what changed his mind, and from what I know about romances (admittedly not a lot) I SHOULD be clear on those things. But I enjoyed a lot of the situations in which the characters found themselves and since my husband likes NASCAR it was interesting to read a book set in that world.

Stephanie Bond/IN A BIND

A week of supposed no-strings sex threatens to become something more.

I'm not usually into straight-on romance novels and this one had some of the characteristics that tend to annoy me (immediate sex, misunderstandings that a few casual questions would have cleared up) and also my main hot button: cheaters who get to prosper. (I really want to see a cheater truly get what s/he deserves for once... maybe I need to write that book myself?)

But I did enjoy it, because I thought the main characters were interesting and real. The heroine was struggling with her guilt over what she was doing and I believed her. The ending didn't tie up absolutely every loose end, which worked for me as well.

This book is part of a series: ten years ago, college women wrote letters to their future selves describing their sexual fantasies, and the professor has mailed them the letters and they decide to act on those fantasies. Interesting concept, I think. If I'm in a romance-reading mood, I'll check out more of her books.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Darkness Forged In Fire: Book One of the Iron Elves, by Chris Evans


This book is best described as a military sci-fi set in a world of epic fantasy. From the very first sentence, you know you are in a world under stress: "Mountains shouldn't scream, but this one did."

I do believe that is the best opening line I've read all year.

The Shadow Monarch has returned to claim what She feels is rightfully Hers, and spreads a burning frost through the forest to find it. Konowa Swift Dragon, the main character, was once an Iron Elf. And apparently, once an Iron Elf, always an Iron Elf. After a one year isolation in the forest he is suddenly thrust back into service and asked/forced to lead the Iron Elves again. Only this time, the group is not quite as Iron-y. Or as Elf-y.

The best supporting characters, in my opinion, were the dwarf, Yimt, and his human sidekick, Alwyn. The latter had joined the military service because he'd thought it would make him a man, and quickly realizes that it is more than he bargained for. With the veteran dwarf at his side, though, he learns how to survive and how to find the courage within himself that he'd previously thought was nonexistent. Also, by the end of the book, he is quite adept at loading a musket, even under not-so-perfect circumstances. If I could point to a single scene in this novel that got the most emotional reaction from me, it was one of Alwyn's point-of-view scenes, in which he had to flog a fellow soldier who out-ranked him. Even thinking about it now gets me misty-eyed, so I'm going to stop there.

Back to Konowa, our lovely MC. His character is really what kept me reading. There is a scene near the beginning where he and his tree-loving father (oh, I forgot to mention, the elves have a special relationship with trees…except for Konowa, that is…he hates them) are having a heart-to-heart chat while making stew. The sarcasm and wit in this exchange had me tearing up with laughter. It was outstanding. But perhaps I am biased. I really am a sucker for good father-son banter. It is a close second to husband-wife banter. Very close.

Konowa's interactions with just about every other character were excellent. The only thing I can find fault with in that area was his relationship (or rather, lack of relationship) with Visyna. It was hinted at, several times, that they had feelings for each other, but nothing ever came of it. In fact, the whole matter was dropped off a proverbial cliff at one point, never to be seen or heard from again. A little frustrating. And the banter between them was more annoying than anything else.

The story was not without it's weirdness, but some of it added humor. Like the drunk pelican. Yeah. I think it might be worth reading the whole book just to see the drunk pelican. Kudos to Mr. Evans for finding a way to weave that into the story.

The only major fault I had with the book as a whole, was that the ending was so obviously just a set up for the next book. It was not satisfying, in my opinion. I am all for trilogies and series and whatnot, but each book still has to stand alone. And if you're going to lead into the next one, do it in an epilogue, not the final six or so chapters of the book when you should be wrapping things up.

Now, that being said, this novel is a strong contender for my pick as Best Read of the Year. The writing was excellent. Easy to read. Tension on every page. And some of the wording and descriptions left me breathless. I loved the military aspects of the story, too, which set it apart from what I typically see in fantasy.

Highly recommended. Book Two is available now, and Book Three will be released in 2010. Both are on my list of future reads. (For more about Chris Evans, click here.)

~Lydia Sharp

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lev Grossman/THE MAGICIANS


Quentin, a seventeen-year-old prodigy about to graduate from high school and deeply dissatisfied with his life, stumbles onto the grounds of a secret college for magicians. His intelligence and as yet undiscovered talent for magic gain him a place at the exclusive school, but classes are grueling (wizardry is no easy task, as it turns out), school life is difficult to maneuver (sex and alcohol abound), and he is still searching for direction by the time he graduates. A foray into Fillory, the charming fantasy world he read about as a child may give his life some purpose--or it may force him to finally confront reality.

Mostly this is an adult's rumination on the Narnia and Harry Potter series, which is what makes it so fascinating. To call it derivative, as many have done, is to completely miss the point. The school resembles Hogwarts in many ways and Quentin constantly thinks about a series he read as a kid that is obviously a nod to the Narnia books. But Quentin's experiences are much more difficult and sloppy than those of the characters in his beloved Fillory books, and in the end Quentin must come to grips with the fact that life as described in childhood fantasy novels is often easier and more purposeful than real life.

Unfortunately, the plot is episodic to a fault, without even the benefit of successful character development; the attempts to show the dark inner workings of various characters didn't work well, to me. I didn't find myself especially fascinated by or empathetic toward any of the characters, especially glum and numb Quentin. But some of the twists in the story are really marvelous, and the climax was a big surprise. The ending sort of tapered off, without Quentin really coming to a satisfying resolution for his inner problems. However, I would still recommend this book to those who read the Narnia stories as children. The incorporation of Narnia-like Fillory was fascinating enough to carry the whole novel.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon


Moonrat has been kind enough to set a 60,000 word limit for reviews on this blog. I may need all of them. On the other hand, I may just confine myself to “good grief” or even MmmmHmmm. These are all valid responses to Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read because I was participating in Moonie’s readalong. Without the encouragement of knowing I could post “Finished” on Twitter and have people out there who understood, I could not have gotten myself through this novel. Actually, it came out as FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISHED, right from my heart.

I can’t even begin to encompass what Gravity’s Rainbow’s about – I know that there’s at least one companion book out there (costing more than the novel itself) to explain it all to you. I didn’t purchase it, as a) I’m a skinflint and b) I like to approach a book at the first reading without context, to experience it as a new meeting of minds. My purchase came with some hype: “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” is the proud boast on the back cover of my copy. I feel a bit like the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes on when I say, as I think I must, “No it’s not.”

It was published far back in the mists of time, i.e. 1973, an era when drugs were cool and books about drugs were just the hottest thing out there. I remember letting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published at about the same time, percolate into my then teenage brain and thinking wow, this is deep because I don’t understand it. Could it be that Gravity’s Rainbow has the same effect on the reading public? Not that it’s about drugs, directly, you understand. My point, I think, is that getting all awestruck about a book just because it’s difficult to grasp is an erroneous approach.

Well I’m four paragraphs in, and still haven’t said what GR’s about. How Pynchonesque of me. Well, it’s about the V2 rocket, WWII, the Allied occupation of Germany after the defeat thereof, the beginnings of the Cold War in the contest between the USA and Russia to scoop up as much Nazi technology as possible, paranoia, mind-conditioning, espionage, sadism, masochism, power… The themes of Rocket, Sex, Excrement, and Death recur as relentlessly as pornography.

The obvious penis/rocket metaphor is given human shape as Slothrop, a character with so little personality that even the author is compelled to remark on that at one point. Conditioned in infancy, Slothrop is believed by those who control him to be able to indicate an incoming V2 by having an erection; he is therefore trained and sent out into the Zone (which seems to equate to Germany under Allied/Russian occupation but also has a symbolic value) to find a very special version of the Rocket by following his, well, not his nose. And the trouble with Slothrop is, the novel’s much more interesting without him, so you get a brilliant beginning, a long Slothrop Desert in the middle, and a somewhat interesting last section when Slothrop has sort of faded into the scenery. I got so tired of Slothrop’s penis at one point in the Desert that I stopped reading the novel for two weeks.

I haven’t read any other books by Pynchon, so I don’t know if the writing method employed in GR is typical of him, or confined to this book. He tends to shift suddenly from one subject to another, launching himself off a random reference into a new tangent at variable rates of frequency. In the first, and by far the best, third of the book, his tangents have a way of coming full circle, but once Slothrop is released across Europe, Pynchon’s train of thought wanders off with him and never returns, although the last part of the book is, mercifully, a bit more coherent. It also contains plenty of doggerel, snatches of song, and arcane references to secret societies and mysticism.

Still, as disjointed as the narrative may be, there are certainly plenty of unifying images: erections, the Rocket, excrement, inventively imaginative public toilets, drug dealers, prostitutes, and bad taste. Pynchon excels at the latter, and I must admit that the scene where Slothrop, in a hot air balloon, is being chased by a planeload of American military singing filthy limericks is one of the high points of the book. The scene where the characters begin making up disgusting, alliterative foods (menstrual marmalade, ringworm relish and the like) at dinner until the guests begin to vomit is decidedly Monty Python. There is also a very dark side to Pynchon: racism, homoeroticism with a homophobic edge, coprophagy, sadism and pedophilia are not left out of the mix. My local library declines to stock a copy of the novel, and when I tried to get an inter-library loan, it never arrived. If I were Slothrop, I would think that They are exercising censorship…

Well, I could go on and on, but by now you’ve either read the book and disagree with me totally (maybe I’m wrong and it is brilliant), are titillated enough to want to go buy a copy, or have crossed that one off your list. Final verdict? I’m always up for broadening my reading horizons, and it did have its luminous moments, but on the whole I can’t see myself becoming a Pynchon fan. I’m having a hard time attaching a tag to this one, as almost any description in the Book Book lexicon would apply to it: I think I’ll go for overrated, but it would make a great read for anyone interested in 60s/70s thought or trying to loosen up their own writing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook

Joy Is So Exhausting
by Susan Holbrook
Coach House Books
$16.95 CDN / 88p



Despite spending a considerable amount of energy pumping poetry, and particularly Canadian poetry, I avoid readings like the proverbial plague. Cue Susan Holbrook.

For entirely unrelated reasons, I happened to attend Coach House Press's launch of its fall titles. Joy Is So Exhausting was one of the titles released, and Susan Holbrook was one of the authors reading. The evening was progressing pretty predictably: the Coach House staff hosting the event revealed themselves to be charming individuals, and various authors read from their excellent and recently-published books.

Then Susan Holbrook came up to the microphone. She's probably not you'd think a poet rock star would look like: she's a short-haired, nice looking, lady in maybe jeans and a button-up shirt. I can't quite remember, but my view in the crowd was not great. A drunk lover of literature was standing on a chair for a good view and kept falling off it, right next to me. Apologizing profusely each time, but climbing up again undaunted. He would know, if he could remember, what she was wearing. Suffice it to say, there were distractions for my memory reel.

Regardless of this, and of her unmemorable Clark-Kent-airs, Holbrook is a poet rock star, or maybe just a comedienne extraordinaire. In about thirty seconds, she had the packed barful of literary types in stitches of laughter and didn't let us relax until she had finished her reading.

Oh, and how excellent is Susan Holbrook's wit of word play. One of the poems she read, published in this collection, is entitled "INSERT." As she said at the reading, women usually catch on before men. An excerpt:

Your First Timpani?
Take a deep Brecht and relapse. It's much easier to insult a tanager when you're religious. It takes pratfalls. Most Wimbleton need a few triumphs before they can comfortably and easily insert a tam-o'-shanter. When using a tambourine for the first tiger choose a day camp when your flotsam is modern. Refer to the diamonds so you know what to do.

Sound familiar? It goes on from there, culminating in the "Rémoulade":

Sit on the tolerant with knowledge apart, or squint slightly. Keeping your musicians relaxed, pull the strudel gently and steadily downwind at the same anger you used to insinuate the tailpipe. (See Imaginary flour.) Then simply flush the tadpole away.

Holbrook, who undercovers as a literature and creative writing professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, is spot-on throughout this collection. She writes a poem using only the letters that a calculator can produce. She digs into the conversations between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. These are ludic and wonderful poetic experiments. Holbrook dances with the texts, as adeptly with Stein as with the tampon package instructions. No mean feat, when you think about it.

So, whether she's exploring the permutations and combinations of the headline, "Harper proposes free vote on the issue of same sex marriage" or categorizing people in "Good Egg Bad Seed", Holbrook is delightful:

People who open the door for you and people you open the door for.
People who open the door for you and appreciate it and people who open the door for you and it's irritating.
People who love it when you open the door for you and people who refuse to let you do it, they want to be the door-opener, and you have a little fight about it.
People who play Boggle and people who would rather be shot in the head.

There are people who love reading poetry like this and people who haven't read poetry like this but need reviews like this to go out and read poetry like this so they can love reading poetry like this, too.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Night by Elie Wiesel


[Spoiler warning] This is one of those books that’s been on the fringes of my awareness for quite a while - I thought I really ought to read it, but I was reluctant to because I thought I’d find it depressing. So I eventually picked it up on a trip to the bookstore, as it made a welcome interruption to Gravity’s Rainbow – out of one kind of madness into another.

Night is a short volume, only 112 pages of story, which, for the few of you who don’t know, describes Wiesel’s experience as a teenager in Transylvania in the Second World War, a Jew in a small, very devoutly religious Jewish community where he, the son of a well-educated storekeeper, was devoting his life to his religious studies.

The community is tightly knit and, you get the impression, quite insulated from the outside world; the war is a faraway thing, even when the foreign Jews are rounded up and deported from the town. One of them, Wiesel’s friend Moishe the Beadle, returns to warn the town of the danger of the Nazis, but nobody listens. By this time it is 1944, and the community is sure that the war will soon be over and they will be safe.

Inevitably, the German army arrives and the restrictions begin, then the displacement of the Jews from one ghetto to another. And yet still the community is optimistic. Looking at these scenes with historical hindsight made me want to scream alongside Moishe the Beadle – how could these people be so unaware? And yet it’s human nature to hope…

Of course they are transported to the camps. And of course what follows is a nightmare of separation, deprivation, starvation and brutality. Wiesel reports it all so simply; there’s an almost flat, unemotional quality to his writing that makes it quite possible to read unemotionally, even at the poignant moment when he watches his mother and younger sister walk away in the opposite direction, never to be seen again.

The aspect of this book that most deeply impressed me was the devotion of the Jews to God, even as they wondered where He was in all this horror. Even Wiesel, who professes to turn his back on a God who would let such things happen, constantly refers to Him even as he denies Him. There's much to be learned from the people in this book.

Wiesel sketches the brutalities he suffered and saw very sparely, without much detail. What he tells is enough. He moves the reader swiftly from day to day, week to week as the inmates are moved farther away from the liberating Allies. Then suddenly the narrative slows down to encompass the death of Wiesel’s father, and you can truly feel the numbness of the brutalized teenage boy who is barely able to feel compassion through his hunger. It’s powerful stuff. Then the story moves swiftly again, through the liberation of the camps, and ends with Wiesel looking at himself in a mirror – the face of a corpse. “The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.” Was this the first time he envisaged writing a story that had himself as its main character?

What can you say to such memories? I feel as if I’m writing a summary rather than a review, because the only possible response to this story is respect. Yet the writing has much to commend it – this edition is a new translation by Wiesel’s wife, and the writing is clear, simple, direct and immediate. I give this book the “life-changing” tag simply because it is a familiar horror story seen from the inside. Survivors of such events are rarely able to speak of them, so it is a privilege to listen to a man who did not spare himself from the task of writing his story.