As some of you know, I recently made my first ever trip to Hawaii with my parents and beloved boyfriend. We spent about four days on the Big Island, caught between a pressing desire to seek out a beautiful beach and collapse on it, not moving until moments before our flight took off, and the equally pressing knowledge that the Big Island was rather vast, as far as Hawaiian islands go, and contained many wonders that we might very well never see again. So we spurred ourselves on to a nearly unprecedented flurry of activity (being a rather sedentary family, all in all), a flurry which yielded this rough photo-diary.

We arrived on the first day after a crack-of-dawn flight from LA, where the beloved boyfriend lives a thoroughly unsedentary lifestyle, and where we had spent a couple of days visiting family and toodling through the canals of Venice (my favorite place to take visitors to LA) and the oddities of Culver City. I was, I have to say, thoroughly shattered by this journey (which came rather close on the heels of my crack-of-dawn flight to CA, which itself rather too intimately followed a traumatizing flight from London to the east coast. There have been quite a few weddings to be attended lately. What more delightful reason could there be for frantic travel?), and was unfit for anything more than zombied rambling through a posh little mall near our apartment and nibbling at a bit of food at a local restaurant.

In this terribly sterile-seeming mall, we made the first of many wee Hawaiian friends when a chameleon (at least that's what we assumed it was, since it changed colors on different surfaces) took a profound liking to the beloved boyfriend (who is obviously well-named, from a chameleon point-of-view):

This wee beastie refused to leave beloved boyfriend's side for a good ten minutes, resting a bit in his hand, crawling up his shirt, sitting on his head. So here's hoping we didn't come home with the rare Hawaiian chameleon palsy, or some similarly fictional disease.

The next morning we experienced the delights of westward jetlag, waking up in the wee hours of the day and rushing out to the beach as soon as the sun rose. It was, in all honesty, the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, its water perfectly clear and (near the rocks) filled with tiny tropical fish and crabs, its sand soft and clean, rocks and trees rising up in the background to provide some interest to the landscape. It was also remarkably empty, perhaps because it was (although open to the public) hidden behind a resort that had been closed after sustaining significant earthquake damage. At any rate, you can see me here frolicking in the surf:

Later that day we went on to the north-east side of the island to examine waterfalls. Since we didn't venture far off the beaten track (we were still rather exhausted from travel) the waterfalls had a rather sterile, stay-back feel to them. Apparently if you take just about any dirt side-road off the one main highway in this part of the island you can find some pretty amazing waterfalls to romp in, unimpeded by the law-suit worries of state parks. But we didn't.

The next day we dedicated ourself to the southern half of the island, which was quite a hike - unless you are in possession of a particularly sturdy four wheel drive, all terrain type vehicle, the only real way around this side of the island is a highway that forms a ring around the island as a whole. So this was a full-day excursion.

We stopped a little more than halfway to our ultimate goal (Kilauea, Hawaii's most active volcano and residence of the god Pele) to visit one of the island's famous black sand beaches, which is also a favorite frolicking-ground for Hawaii's native green sea turtle.

Who was very, very sleepy.

Ok, so the turtles didn't look very frolicsome when they were sunning themselves on the warm black sand. In fact, they looked like they were made out of stone. Very lazy stone. But you could also see (and even swim alongside, if you didn't have a particular fear of the riptides and sharks this beach is known for) these same turtles swimming a few feet out in the waves, and they were remarkably lively. For turtles.

The black sand from the beach (it is now illegal to take it away, since it proved so fascinating to visitors) looks quite like topsoil here, but to us it looked remarkably like caviar. It doesn't, I hasten to tell you, feel like either dirt or fish eggs, but rather like really, really large and jaggedly-grained sand. It was quite hard to walk barefoot on this beach. Coincidently, there was also a very rare green sand beach near this one, although it proved too rugged a hike for us to visit it. The green sand is not (as my boyfriend scurrilously suggested) the result of a nasty fungal outbreak, but rather is a large deposit of a heavy green volcanic mineral called olivine, which remains after lighter sands (black and white) have washed away.

This next photo shows what I have dubbed "The X-Files fern." There was a lot of fascinating flora on the volcano:

After walking a lava tube, viewing the steam vents letting off heat from the active core of Kilauea, and viewing the largest and more active crater (complete with offerings left to Pele), my parents settled in for a rest in the car while BB (belboy?) and I headed off for a hike across another crater. This was perhaps the most gratifying part of the day for me, although it was an unusually vigorous impulse on my part, and about halfway through I did believe I wasn't going to make it and would have to live out the rest of my life in a crater, drinking rainwater and eating ferns. After hiking down the steep side of the crater through lush rainforest, our trail suddenly disappeared (we could only barely make out the white line of the trail heading straight across the crater in the picture below) and we were left to wander aimless around the crater itself, the lava beneath our feet making unsettling brittle, hollow sounds with every step.
We ultimately found our way, and started a grueling hike (for me at least. Probably not for anyone who has been to the gym in the last six months) up the opposite side of the crater, which was considerably more arid. When then made our slow way around the crater's rim to return to our point of origin, and were treated to magnificent views of the path we had hiked through the rising (blessedly rising, since we were blazingly hot) mist:

This picture was taken when were three quarters of the way back around the rim to our origin. You can see the long path we traveled moving diagonally across the picture. In the center of the photo, you can see the crater is still steaming from its last eruption ... which was in the late 1950s.

Coming soon (I hope): Up and down the California coast... in pictures!

Favorite thing I read today

Elizabeth Edwards, chatting with people on Daily Kos:

And eradicating poverty is not a niche issue or a luxury. Poverty drains our economic and social resources, it paralyzes our city services and it causes our rural communities to wither. The costs of poverty radiate far beyond the lives of those in poverty. But we need to address it primarily because it is wrong.

Beasts of No Nation

In the opening pages of Uzodinma Iweala's first novel (adapted from his undergraduate creative writing thesis, which had no less illustrious an adviser than Jamaica Kincaid) young Agu is snatched from his village - situated in an intentionally unspecific African country - and from his family by a rebel militia he knows would just as happily kill him as conscript him. What unfolds over the next 140 pages is the dense and excruciating tale of a child soldier - that paradox of innocence and immorality that seems so alien to the very concept of childhood, but is the experience of so many around the world right now. Agu's new family, led by the charismatic and despotic Commandant, is held together by bonds of fear, born of the certainty of death for the soldier who shows anything but the most eager obedience, the most frenzied hunger for flesh and blood. This death grip of a familial bond seems claustrophobically tight until it is suddenly - and with nightmarish, vertiginous ease - released.

But how can a child like Agu define himself in the aftermath of this sort of belonging? How do you return to any semblance of youth in the absence of the familial support that the war destroyed and then coopted?

This is a very, very difficult novel to read, and despite its short length, it took me several months and a great deal of willpower to finish it. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable feat of craftsmanship for an author at the beginning of his career. This is, after all, a prolonged and attentive exercise in character and voice. The novel is told entirely in Agu's idiosyncratic and trauma-shattered words, filled with exclamations, elisions, repetitions and unexpected ventriloquisms. We are constantly aware of Agu's childlike but detailed (all part of the central paradox of trauma) impersonations of other voices. This is why it is significant that Agu's only friend in the militia is the silent Strika, whose withholding of speech is both a mark of protest in world virtually without free will and a sign of sincerity and immediacy.

Beasts of No Nation is a book so profoundly oral that it requires absolute concentration, sometimes even in a quiet room, alone, reading aloud. Most often noted by critics among Iweala's many carefully wrought stylistic experiments is his use of an insistent, unsettling present tense. Consider this remarkable passage in which Agu reflects on the violence of coming of age rituals before the war, and the present tense blurs the lines between memory, possibility, actuality, and the current:

By the river, tied to one palm tree by its horn and its leg an ox was always waiting and stomping and making long low noise that are making you to sadding very much in your heart. The whole village was watching as all the dancer is dancing in the shallow river until the whole water is shining with small small wave. Then the top boy is going to the village chief and kneeling before him while the other leopard and ox dancer are dancing around and around him. The chief is giving him real machete and saying something into his ear until the boy is going and chopping one blow into the neck of the ox. Blood is flying all over his body and he is wiping it from his mask with his hand. Then he is putting his hand where he is cutting and collecting the blood to be rubbing on his body. When he is finishing, all the other is doing the same until everyone is covering in so much blood. They are spinning and spinning in their leopard mask or ox mask until KPWOM! the drum is sounding.

Everybody is knowing that to be killing masquerade you are removing its mask.

All of the dancer is removing their mask.

All of the spirit are dying and now all the boy is becoming men.

I am opening my eye and seeing that I am still in the war, and I am thinking, if war is not coming, then I would be man by now. (56)

The immediacy of Iweala's language takes us dizzyingly into Agu's head, and it is difficult to inhabit someone consciousnous with this level of intimacy. But these same qualities also make it impossible to distance yourself from the events of the novel, or to romantize them, as so many foreign treatments of African narratives do. The present tense seems to me to be in the service of expressing this inescapable immediacy of trauma, of memories that can be approached but cannot be reconciled through masquerade or narrative. Beasts of No Nation is difficult to read because it is so successfully wrought (although, as a study in character, it pays scant attention to plot, moving swiftly through the conventional - if sadly true - landmarks of child abuse and war crime). The immediacy of the prose is truly oppressive. As this sort of tale should be.

Beasts of No Nation
Uzodinma Iweala

New York Times Notable Books Challenge Selection - 3/12
(Review of Twilight of the Superheroes to come soon, I hope!)

Still alive!

Not to worry! I have not fallen off the face of the planet, as you might have feared.

In fact, we have just returned from a double whammy of travel: my first ever trip to Hawaii, following immediately (the following day) by a journey to Northern California for a small family reunion. Pictures are to come, if I can figure out how to work the digital camera. It is all new technological territory to me.

Meanwhile my film consumption has fallen off utterly: I have had the same three DVDs out of Netflix for what seems like weeks. I have not made nearly the progress I was hoping to on my June reading, and may have to extend some of my goals and challenges into July. Boo to that. I am stilling reading the delightful (if tome-ish) David Copperfield, and am midway through two short ones: Foundation (the first Isaac Asimov I have ever read) and Grendel (which strikes me as both immensely clever and slightly... dutiful. Or perhaps dutifulness-evoking). And, what's more, I owe you a couple of reviews for Beasts of No Nation and Twilight of the Superheroes, not to mention an update on some of my other challenges.

But this may be delayed a little while longer, because we are heading off this very evening for the east coast for a wedding. Our travels are not yet ended, but when we settle down a bit at the beginning of July I hope to 1) finish up the remaining chapter and a half of my dissertation and 2) return to good-blogger status.

May in Books

Ok, I have a lot to catch up on, blog-wise. Mostly because of the creeping laziness that has sucked me into its gooey embrace. I have finally started catching up on all the blogs I love to read and have so sorely neglected over the past two months, but this is proving a daunting task (and one that has expanded, balloon-like, to fill all the time I would normally spend blogging, reading, watching movies, doing work, talking to friends...).

So I will begin my return to blog-duty with an account of my last month of reading, with links to reviews already written:

  1. Special Assignments by Boris Akunin (1999, trans. 2006)
    • The latest in the best-selling Erast Fandorin series of mysteries by the Russian writer who operates under the (semi-anarchistic) pseudonym of Boris Akunin. I bought this in the UK (I don't think it has been published on this side of the Atlantic yet) as a Father's Day present for my Akunin-addicted pa. The delight of the series is referential: each book (without explicitly stating that this is its aim) takes a different sub-genre of mystery and inserts the hero (a dandyish but tragic Russian bureaucrat / detective) into its conventions. In the first book (my favorite, because it gave us access to Fandorin's inner life to a degree that has been frustratingly denied us in later works) the nervous neophyte criminologist is plopped down into a Holmesian logical whodunit (with traces of Auguste Dupin). Later we get a war thriller and an Agatha Christie-ish cruise ship murder mystery. This latest volume collects two novellas which bring Fandorin (now a mature detective of good international reputation) back to Russia to catch Jack the Ripper, among other things. In many ways Special Assignments returns to aspects of the series I have missed, making Fandorin less of a cipher and more of a nuanced human oddity. Like Holmes, Fandorin picks up a side-kick here, through whose less-than-expert eyes we see the events unfold, and this is a more satisfying narrative strategy than some of Akunin's. But there is an odd vein of bigotry (most pointedly leaning towards Orientalism, but not limited to it) running through the book, which is not sufficiently ironized to avoid giving me a good case of the skin-crawls. [May 8, **]
  2. Unlikely by Jeffrey Brown (2003)
    • I had the oddest feeling when I read Jeff Brown's account of the birth and death of a relationship. It seemed incredibly, unsettlingly familiar. Much more familiar than many books I actually had read (Le Guin's Earthsea cycle, which I apparently - my book diary claims - read in 1994). I now realize that Brown's oeuvre is much more like one long, autobiographical meditation, often on the subjects of love and loneliness. Brown's aesthetic is unsettling to me; it is pointedly sketchy, like a teenager's tortured, shy doodlings. But the character he draws for himself evokes a wincing sympathy, and almost everyone will recognize the delicate, detailed realism with which he outlines the progress of love. [May 10, ***1/2]
  3. Last Dance: Behind the Scene at the Final Four by John Feinstein (2006)
    • If you were reading my blog in March of this year, you may have gathered that I am a rabid fan of college basketball. This is not entirely accurate. I really know very little about college basketball, but I am a rabid fan of Tar Heel basketball, the premier sport of my alma mater (well, I will admit -proudly- that women's soccer at UNC does enjoy an even greater level of success, if not of prestige). John Feinstein's wonderfully gossipy portrait of the crown prince of sporting events (second only to the Super Bowl) follows a Final Four that is close to my heart - 2005's, when the Tar Heels won the title against an impossible strong Illinois team. The book is filled with excellent UNC lore, like the tale of near-deified coach Dean Smith's role in desegregating Chapel Hill's restaurants, or the numerous near-fistfights that broke out around this famously gentle but fiercely competitive man. At the same time, it manages to be painstakingly fair to Carolina's arch-rival Duke, a major force in college basketball, and Duke's famously skillful (if somewhat rodenty) coach, Mike Krzyzewski. Any book which can be utterly entertaining, while being equally admiring of both UNC and Duke (not to mention coaches, journalists, and refs) is a work of some skill and delicacy. [May 13, ****]
  4. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
    • The second in Le Guin's "Earthsea" cycle, The Tombs of Atuan leaves Ged, the hero of the A Wizard of Earthsea, behind for most of the book in order to focus on Tenar, a girl who is dedicated at an early age to the service of the Nameless Ones, chthonic beings who strip her name and identity from her. She becomes Arha ("the eaten one") and is taught an increasing brutality as her duties call for her to practice human sacrifice and navigate complex temple politics. A Wizard of Earthsea (which I read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge) was very much a simple, elegant expression of the archetypal magical coming of age story. It was hard to say what made it so satisfying, since it partook of the same basic plot as the Harry Potter books (and many others). The Tombs of Atuan draws on similarly archetypal mythic and narrative material (a labyrinth, for instance, plays a crucial, Ariadnean role), but it approaches this material with such graceful, urgent simplicity that I found myself hungrily speeding through the slim tome. I am trying to ration out the rest of the series, to make the two more that I own last through the summer. Gulp. [May 14, ****]
  5. Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde (2004) [May 17, **]
    • Alas, this was not nearly the book that I was hoping for, after the rest of the series.
  6. The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983)
    • When I announced my intention of leaping into Terry Pratchett's Discworld series to my better-read friends, they jumped for joy and then recommended several works from the middle of the series. Ah no, I thought superciliously, when I start a series, I start at the beginning. That's really not necessary, they assured me, and The Color of Magic is not the most interesting or assured of beginnings. Of course, I arrogantly ignored their advice, and paid the price: The Color of Magic was fun, but not great. It is a collection of shorter tales set on Discworld, held together by two characters: the hapless tourist Twoflower and his grumpy and unskilled wizard companion Rincewind. Not to mention Twoflower's manic, muscular animated luggage, which refuses to allow Rincewind to abandon his charge. Or the meatheaded and mercenary (I'm on a alliterative tear here) heroes they encounter along the way. Some of the satire and pastiche of the fantasy genre is witty and engaging, and the novel turned out to be (I am not entirely happy to say) as light as I expected it to be. But I was forewarned, and will rush on eagerly with the series, knowing that the best is ahead and it was foolish to be such a slave to chronology. As soon as I can acquire the second in the series, that is. [May 23, ***]
  7. Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg (2006)
    • I want to devote longer reviews to both Twilight and Beasts of No Nation than I have time or room for here. Stay tuned. [May 26, ***1/2, NYTNotableBooks Challenge]
  8. Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks (2001)
    • Dylan Horrocks's metacomic about a small town in New Zealand that houses the world's highest density of graphic novel enthusiasts jumped to the top of my TBR pile when some other library user recalled it from me. All I can say is this: thank you, anonymous recaller-of-books. This complicated and multilayered story about authorship, betrayal, and identity turned out to be one of the great delights of my month. In it, comics reporter and adulating historian Leonard Batts (whose name reminded me, every single time I saw it, of poor Leonard Bast from Howards End) comes to remote Hicksville to do research for his biography of native son and comics mogul Dick Burger. But the more he mentions Burger's name, the colder his local reception becomes. Hicksville is overflowing with mise-en-abymes - comics within comics about comics and those who write them - and if it has a failure, it is that it is neither long enough for my taste, nor does it capitalize on all the narrative complexities it promises at the beginning. Call me postmodern (no, wait - please don't), but I was hoping for a little more (or more extended) examination on the boundaries between reality and art in biographical comics, which has emerged as such a dominant genre in stand-alone graphic novels. But I can still recommend this highly to anyone who is interested in comics, New Zealand, or metaliterature. You can find excerpts from Hicksville on Dylan Horrocks's website. [May 26, ****]
  9. Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (2006)
    • See above (#7). [May 30, ***1/2, NYTNotableBooks Challenge]
  10. Burmese Days by George Orwell (1934)
    • I had sworn to myself that I would finish this book before the end of May, but as the 31st arrived, I still had over a hundred pages to go. As I made the traditional wimping out gestures and noises, my boyfriend declared that a hundred pages could be easily accomplished by midnight and he was not going to speak to me until I had fulfilled my goal. So I entered into one of my most uninterrupted, undistracted reading pushes of recent memory. Burmese Days was inspired by Orwell's time in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, when he was just out of school, and it is filled with a vitriolic disgust with the workings of imperialism, and (more particularly) the mindless bureaucratic cogs whose utter lack of empathy makes Empire possible. The novel opens with the poisonous and portly Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin, who is plotting his own ascension of the ladder of respectability by means of the character assassination of the local toady, er, respectable figure, the scrupulously honest if self-hating Dr. Veraswami. Oddly, U Po Kyin then fades into the background for most of the rest of the novel, which follows Veraswami's spineless British friend Flory as he woos a prim but carnivorous new arrival to Burma, Elizabeth Lackersteen. The primary drama then becomes Flory's struggle to make love compatible with his Anglo-Indian identity, an identity that is almost entirely defined by the loneliness of powerful not-belonging. Orwell is unpityingly harsh to his characters, who are universally rotten people, with the exception of Veraswami and Flory, who are merely contemptibly, immorally weak. The result is a novel which, in its urge towards satire, relies too strongly on stereotypes (Asian characters are often defined by their similarity to various animals) which eat away at the novel's moral core. Still, an interesting early work from a fascinating writer. [May 31, ***, British Classics Bookgroup, 1001 Books you Must Read Before you Die]
Some notes on my May reading:
  • As you may notice, my challenges and book groups didn't see a lot of progress this month. Sigh. BUT - I did finish two New York Times Notable Books that had been sitting half-finished on my shelf for several months with weepy puppy-dog eyes, wondering what they had done to deserve this kind of shabby treatment from me. And that is a major source of triumph.
  • My reading didn't venture outside the 20th and 21st centuries this month. Boo to that. More heckling from my internal diversity watchdog: I read only one book in translation/not originally written in English this month. Tsk.
  • Genre diversity? Well, there were two graphic novels and one non-fiction book, but NO plays, to my very great dismay. Also, there was a fair amount of fantasy, but only one book that contributed to the "Once Upon a Time Challenge." Odd.
So how am I doing on my June goals? Well, I have started The Stone Diaries for my Book Awards Book Group, and it is engrossing but not very swift in its progress (by which I mean that MY progress through it is not very swift). I am about a third of the way through The Golden Ass for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, and I may have to switch Morphology of the Folktale out for Grendel as my last book in that challenge, since we have bought our tickets back to the east coast (where my copy of Morphology currently lives) for the very day the challenge ends, making it unlikely that I will finish the last few chapters before the deadline. You can see my (non-)progress through my monthly goal here.

My favorite thing I read today

Oh, David Copperfield is proving to be so good. I haven't made up my mind yet whether it is better than Bleak House, which is certainly more artfully and ornately constructed, but it is filled to the brim with cheerful oddity, and this only makes the injustices visited upon poor Davey more wrenching.

So, I give you a passage from relatively early in the novel (no real spoilers here, I think, although it is a major plot point, so you can choose not to read on, if you wish), when young David meets his ferocious Aunt Betsey (think Miss Havisham, if that disheveled lady had followed a slightly different path in life) for the first time since the day of his birth:

'Oh, Lord!’ said my aunt. And sat flat down in the garden–path.

‘I am David Copperfield, of Blunderstone, in Suffolk — where you came, on the night when I was born, and saw my dear mama. I have been very unhappy since she died. I have been slighted, and taught nothing, and thrown upon myself, and put to work not fit for me. It made me run away to you. I was robbed at first setting out, and have walked all the way, and have never slept in a bed since I began the journey.’ Here my self–support gave way all at once; and with a movement of my hands, intended to show her my ragged state, and call it to witness that I had suffered something, I broke into a passion of crying, which I suppose had been pent up within me all the week.

My aunt, with every sort of expression but wonder discharged from her countenance, sat on the gravel, staring at me, until I began to cry; when she got up in a great hurry, collared me, and took me into the parlour. Her first proceeding there was to unlock a tall press, bring out several bottles, and pour some of the contents of each into my mouth. I think they must have been taken out at random, for I am sure I tasted aniseed water, anchovy sauce, and salad dressing. When she had administered these restoratives, as I was still quite hysterical, and unable to control my sobs, she put me on the sofa, with a shawl under my head, and the handkerchief from her own head under my feet, lest I should sully the cover; and then, sitting herself down behind the green fan or screen I have already mentioned, so that I could not see her face, ejaculated at intervals, ‘Mercy on us!’ letting those exclamations off like minute guns.

Could the prose be any more delightful? After David's long and painful trek through poverty to reach Betsey, we are rewarded by the administration of anchovy sauce and the minute artillery explosions of "Mercy!" I am loving it.