Sunday Salon: Spreading a Little Link Love

I decided this week to do one of those link love posts.  Since my vacation started up full force this week, my teacher training class is done and we’re back from a brief vacation trip, I have the time to do one.

And I really like it when other people do them.

So here are a bunch of various articles and reviews that I thought other people might like to read and might have missed.

  • Derick Attig argues why we should stop saying “who just happens to be gay” in our book reviews over at Book Riot.  He makes some very good points about what’s really going on when we avoid talking about a character’s sexuality.
  • For a wide range of reviews with focus on quality horror see Book Guy Reviews.
  • At Lonesome Reader you’ll find ten little know LGBT books you should read if you haven’t including Patrick Ryan’s wonderful novel Send Me.  Savidge Reads has done the same here.
  • Jeremy Hawkins at Electric Lit explains why bookstores won’t go the way of video stores.  Here’s hoping he’s right on this one.
  • Also at Electric Lit, Tobias Carroll takes a look at revisionist westerns, though he admits the revisionist western goes back to John William’s Butcher’s Crossing (1960) and Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958),  so I think it’s fair to ask just what the revisionists are revising.
  • Alex at Thinking in Fragments has a review of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which made me recall why I started reading book blog reviews in the first place.
  • Matthew at The Mumspimus has a terrific and thorough review of A Little Life. I have it on reserve at my local library so there may be a review of it here someday soon.
  • Laura Hudson gets so much right about rape scenes in her article for Wired.  For example: Rape has been so overused and misused in popular media that adding yet another manipulative sexual assault to the world just to heighten the stakes of a story or have a Very Special Episode is not just one of the most offensive things a writer can do, it is also one of the most boring.  

Let me know what you think, and feel free to leave a link to something good in the comments.

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Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides

It is possible to study history by studying the lives of certain key people in history. One of the key people in American history, at least in the history of the American West, is Kit Carson. An illiterate early pioneer, Carson was a mountain man trapper who joined the Army of the West on its 1846 invasion of Santa Fe and what became New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada. He remained in the west his entire adult life, participating in the Bear Flag revolt that led to California statehood and in the decades long battle between the Navajo nation and the United States. Along the way, he fought in the western most battles of the Civil War and became an American legend, in spite of his mixed feelings about the publicity he received.

 In his book Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides covers as much of Carson’s life as it’s possible to cover. Carson dictated an autobiography but left behind little record of his own life to contradict the novelizations of it that eastern publishers were cranking out to sell to a public anxious for stories of the wild west. Sides is able to go into detail about Carson’s life by going into detail about the lives of those who knew him and those who participated in the same struggles he did. This makes Blood and Thunder a comprehensive account of America’s expansion into the southwest.

 This focus on people who knew Carson is not without its downside. While the people Mr. Sides discusses are interesting, few people in the American West of the 19th century could help but be interesting, they are not Kit Carson. When the book strays from its main subject, which it does often for entire chapters at a time, it becomes less interesting, at times even a big of a slog. The other problem with a book focusing on Kit Carson is that he is not an entirely sympathetic character. It’s difficult to come up with truly heroic people when looking at the history of the American West. Carson was certainly a man who deserved much admiration, but he also deserved much scorn. The Bear Flag Revolt, which led to California’s independence from Mexico began with a double murder. What was done to the Navajo nations, as well as to many of the other tribes dealt with in Blood and Thunder, leaves little to admire in those who fought them.

This leads to my main problem with Blood and Thunder. While I do not think Mr. Sides is in any way attempting to whitewash Kit Carson or to write an uncritical heroic account of America’s westward expansion, I kept thinking how differently this story would be portrayed had it been written by a Native American scholar, or by a Mexican one. Mr. Sides does discuss things like Carson’s scotched earth policy against the Navajos which led to the deaths by starvation of 1000’s of non-combatant men, women and children. He even mentions, briefly, the fact that after end of the Civil War, many whites in New Mexico, including Carson, kept Native Americans as slaves in their own households. Mr. Sides book does a fair job of balancing the heroic history so many readers want with the reality of what went on on the ground, but only a fair job.

 

 

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B..  I thought I’d find something about American history to re-publish here for the Fourth of July.  When I read about American history, I tend to focus on the west, California in particular, so I didn’t have anything about the revolution.  I do think Sarah Vowell’s new book on Lafayette looks good.  

 

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Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

edinburghI’m impressed, very impressed.

Both by Alexander Chee’s wonderful debut novel and by the fact that this is makes four “new favorite books” in a row.  I’m really rolling towards a wonderful summer.

Edinburgh  is a novel about the long term affects of devastating events.  The narrator is Fee, short for Aphias, a Korean-American child growing up in Maine.  Fee is blessed with a beautiful singing voice, one so good that he is invited to join a professional boy’s choir featuring boys from all over the state of Maine.  Unfortunately, the choir director is a pedophile who has been targeting the boys he teaches.

Though the choir director is arrested in the first quarter of the novel, the affects his attacks have on the boys take a dramatic toll on them in the following years.  Some do not survive.  One, Peter, was Fee’s first love.  Though the two boys remain best friends well into high school, Fee is unable to save Peter who commits suicide.  The novel continues to follow Fee as he struggles to recover through college and well up into his 30’s.

One thing that keeps Fee going is his relationship with his Korean grandfather and the fantastic stories his grandfather’s culture brings.  These myths weave into Fee’s own life giving the book brief moments of magical realism that the reader can take as fact or as dream.  Fee’s father faced his own tragedy, one even worse than Fee’s, when his six older sisters were taken by the Japanese during World War II.  Fee’s grandfather never saw or heard from his sisters ever again.  He dies not knowing what happened to them.

This sounds like very heavy reading, and it is, but Edinburgh is also filled with wonderful bits of insight that I found beautiful.

Some examples.

When the choir director is arrested and the scandal hits the newspapers his parents are forced to tell his grandmother, who lives with, them about it:

Dad told her, she stayed quiet.  She sighed, and it sounded like a sigh that had been learned under a different sorrow.

When Fee finally comes to understand why he never turned the choir director in, even after he had moved on to other boys in the choir:

Hiding him hid me.

In college, the first time Fee has consensual sex with another boy:

Sex is asking someone to touch you where your skin is thinnest.

Think how important the word “asking” is in that sentence.

In college where Fee is studying art he begins to have fits of uncontrolled crying  while posing for another artist who took Polariods of each pose to help complete the work later.  Fee remembers the Polariods the choir director took:

The teacher had marked each pose with a careful Polaroid, and the tears that day were my only reminders that the photographs Big Eric (the choir director) had taken of us had never been found.  Of everything that had been turned in for evidence, the pictures were not among them.  I wondered then if somewhere, pictures of me with him filled a book.  Being shown to someone else.

Fee thinks about his grandparents late in the novel and of all the hardships they faced in Korea and afterwards:

Their whole difficult lives seems not to weigh on them at all.  Taken as mornings and meals, suppers and evenings, all of the world could be carried, both the sad and the delicious, their lives seemed to say.

I know that’s just a more poetic version of taking things “one day at a time” but doesn’t it feel so much better.  Break it all down into “mornings and meals” and you can live through both the “sad and the delicious.”  Isn’t “delicious” a much better word here than “happy?”

You can probably guess that I’m a little bit in love with Alexander Chee’s narrator at this point.  Where were you when I was 13, Fee, and still playing Dungeons and Dragons late into the night like you?

In case you’re someone who needs to know before you start reading a book like this, Fee gets a happy ending though the plot does go a little bit astray in the end which does feel rushed.  Mr. Chee’s plot choices are not the ones I would have made, but they are his to make.

And I did like they way he brought the story to a close in the end.

 

Edinburgh is my fifth book in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.

 

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, LGBT, Novel | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

as I lay dyingI read this one because of the controversy.

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has been on and off of my TBR shelf a couple of times.  It’s one of those books I’m told I really should read, but never seemed to get around to actually reading.

Then a couple of weeks ago it was mentioned in an article about the use of trigger warnings in college English classes, or it might have been an article about the problems using classic literature  can bring: racism, the use of rape as a dramatic element.

A couple of friends of mine came to its defense in the comments of a Facebook post so I decided to give it a go.  Plus it cost $14.00 and I had a $15.00 Barnes and Noble gift card burning a hole in my pocket.

I don’t really know where to begin with As I Lay Dying.   I think I’ll have to read it at least one more time, maybe twice, before I can honestly feel reading to start unpacking it.  So be warned–this post will ramble.

I’ll start by saying that I loved it.  It turned out to be funny, which I didn’t realize until about 70 pages in.  Parts of it are extremely powerful.   The final chapter that Addie narrates is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  Other parts of it, the chapters narrated by Darl who is eventually taken away to an insane asylum, are very difficult to say the least.  Try this paragraph. See how far you get before you get lost:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep.  And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you.  And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not.  And when you are filled with sleep, ,you never were.  I dont know what I am.  I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not.  He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not.  Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on the our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep.  And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not.  Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be.  And Jewel is,  so Addie Bundren must be.  And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath the rain on a strange roof thinking of home.

When I first read this I immediately wondered if Faulkner was deliberately trying to spoof Martin Heidegger, the German post-modern philosopher whom you have probably never been forced to read.  I was forced to read him once, in graduate school, and have never gotten over the experience.  It left a permanent scar, all this business of is and was and will be is and was is and is was.  Heidegger or maybe Gertrude Stein, she does the same sort of thing her her prose.  A madman, Darl, trying to reason his own existence into being.  It’s very tough reading followed by a final line that is best described as a beautiful haiku, a piece worthy of Basho.

As I Lay Daying  is about the Bundren family.  (I mistyped that initially as “the Burden family.”  That certainly reveals a lot about them.  Or about how I read them.  A Freudian typo?)  When the novel opens the family matriarch Addie is on her death-bed.  Her grown sons are building her coffin as she dies.  They even show her the cut and planed boards for her approval before each one is used.  After her death, her husband Anse insists and taking her from the family farm to Jefferson because she once made him promise to bury her there.  Jefferson is a four days journey by wagon normally, but severe rains have washed out the bridges so the journey ends up taking nine days.  They nearly lose their mother’s coffin twice, once in a flood and once in a fire.

But this is all really funny, honest.  You have to read it.  One of my friends who defends the novel says it should be viewed like National Lampoon’s Vacation which really does work.  Faulkner–National Lampoon–they have much more in common than you might think.

The Bundren family, along with a host of characters they meet along the way to Jefferson, share the narration.  Each chapter has a different narrator which makes the novel difficult to figure out, but also allows Faulkner to bring great depth to his characters.  Darl’s mental process in the paragraph above for example.  His confusion becomes our confusion when he is allowed to tell his own story.

I wish I could include all of Addie’s final chapter here.  Just past the halfway mark, even though she has been dead for several days at this point, Addie tells the story of her life.  She has had a very hard life with Anse and her children, not all of them Anse’s children though he does not know this.  Her chapter ends with this wonderful paragraph:

One day I was talking to Cora.  She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.

I’ll be honest, this struck close to home.  If sin is just a matter of words, then so is salvation.

Ouch.

So, what about the controversy?

As far as racism goes, it’s not a major issue in the book.  One could ask how the Bundren family manages to wonder through Mississippi for nine days and only encounter white people?  That’s a legitimate question.  There is some use of racist language, done to comment on how dark one character looks after he has been burned in a fire. That’s not enough to knock it off of most reading lists but it is enough to cause legitimate controversy.

While the Bundren family is not a happy place for the two women in it. they are fully drawn characters.   It’s hard to see either as a powerful woman, but they each serve to expose the situation of women in their time and plance.  Dewey Dell, the teenage daughter, is the one who’ll cause the most debate.  She has gone on the journey because she wants to get an abortion.  She carries what she thinks is just enough money to pay for it.  Towards the very end of the novel, she goes into a pharmacy and tries to ask for the medicine she needs though she does not know the proper language for it.  “Women’s troubles” is all she can come up with.   One pharmacist refuses her.  A second agrees to help her and takes her into a basement where he gives her phony pills and probably rapes her.  This scene happens off stage leaving the reader to fill in what actually takes place.  One source I found argues that this is not rape because she consented in order to get the abortion; though this just serves to bring up a host of other issues even if one agrees.

There is so much going on with Dewey Dell’s character enough for a three-hour graduate seminar to discuss.  Her position in the Bundren family, how she became pregnant, the social-politics of abortion then and now, the question of agency, exactly what happens to her, how these very real topics should be dealt with in art, and can they be used in a comedy.

It’s going to take at least one more read before I can fully deal with all of the issues in As I Lay Dying.  If you call that a cop-out on my part, I’ll have to agree with you.  It is something of a cop-out on my part.  But I really do want to read it again.

As I Lay Daying certainly has issues, but those are not reason to exclude it from high school and college reading lists.   I think they are reasons to include it.  One purpose of great art is to force us to confront ourselves.  As I Lay Dying certainly does that.

And, did I mention, it’s really funny.

 

 

As I Lay Dying counts as book four in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, Fiction, Novel | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

If the emperor has no clothes, what will his children wear?

In The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, Marina Thwaite is working on a book. She hopes it will make her reputation, make her a journalist/social critic  like her father the successful Murray Thwaite. Murray has done very well for himself: a long prosperous career as a journalist, a successful marriage, a substantial apartment in a good neighborhood in New York City. Even his affairs are successful. In between the jobs that pay his bills, Murray works on a book of philosophy. He’s not sure it will ever be published, but he turns to it more and more now that he is approaching retirement age, reviewing what he has learned over the years.

Marina has been working on her book since she came up with the topic as an undergraduate. No one thinks she’ll finish it. Not her parents. Not her close friends Julius and Danielle. No one but her fiance, an Australian journalist who’s moved to New York to start a magazine that will expose the pretenses of American culture. He thinks Marina’s book, The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes, is a perfect fit for his magazine, hires Marina on as an editor and moves into the life of Murray Thwaite, a man he openly dismisses as a fraud to anyone who’ll listen.

The small circle of family and friends who populate The Emperor’s Children have been living a delusion.  They believe that they are something they are not, that they are dressed in fabulous clothes that everyone would see if they’d just open their eyes.  Murray is invited to receive honorary degrees and give commencement speeches, but what he has to say is largely regurgitated axioms, nothing new. Julius writes reviews for the Village Voice but  lives in a crummy downtown apartment and goes through a series of bad relationships. Danielle is the least delusional of the bunch. She has a career in television journalism, but even there the meaningful stories she’d like to do are cut in favor of celebrity profiles.

Enter cousin Bootie, Murray’s nephew from Michigan. Bootie drops out of college to move in with his Uncle, the great Murray Thwaite.  Bootie who worships Murray hopes to learn through  working with a great mind only to find that his uncle is a fraud, a man who says things that he knows will please his audience instead of speaking truth. After he discovers his uncles book of philosophy, Bootie begins work on an expose about Murray.  He’ll show the world that the emperor has not clothes.

While there is plenty of plot to go around in The Emperor’s Children, it’s beside the point as far as I’m concerned. The Emperor’s Children, like Ms. Messud’s first book The Last Life, is a novel about characters. Because the narrative shifts  focus from character to character, giving each of them their turn in the spotlight, Ms. Messud is able to flesh out each one.  This made The Emperor’s Children the sort of novel one reads not so much for the plot, but because one likes spending time with the characters. I can’t say that I liked them all all of the time, but I came to like them all and to want the best for each of them.

About half way through the book I realized that it was set in March of 2001 and I began to worry. I was tempted to leap to the back just to see what date the story ended on. None of the characters were aware of what was in store for them that September;  no hints were given by the narrative. I would have finished the book in any case, but knowing what was in store for New York City transformed The Emperor’s Children into a page turner. I stayed up long past bedtime to finish it.  The September 11, 2001 attacks make The Emperor’s Children a commentary not just on a small group of New Yorkers but the entire country. Like most of America, just about all of it to be honest, the characters in the novel continue with the drama of their daily lives, convinced that they are wearing fabulous clothes until someone comes along and points out that they are naked after all.

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  It was the second novel by Clare Messud that I read.  I remain a big fan of hers.  Yes, I’m one of the people who loved The Woman Upstairs.  

Posted in Book Review, Fiction, Novel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments