Another Review (!!), this time of "Translucent Tree"

 Stop me if you've heard this one, but I seem to recall that judging a book by its cover is generally frowned upon. Or perhaps that was a metaphor for some wider sphere of human behavior. At any rate, I have to tell you that I have sinned against the commandment that forbids cover-judging: the new Vertical edition of Translucent Tree, by Japanese novelist Nobuko Takagi (whose work is translated for the first time into English here) has a truly stunning cover design. A fanned spray of pine needles graces the golden front cover, the word "Translucent" lurking quietly next to it. The transparent (and thus, of necessity, translucent) dust jacket layers a pine cone on top of this fan, and echoes the "Transparent" with a word on the other side of this botanical embrace: "{TREE}". It is lovely, I judged it, and I bumped this up the queue of my LibraryThing Early Reviewer books. I blush to admit it.

Not as much as I blush to contemplate this: I encouraged my octogenarian grandmother (a great appreciater of any well-designed thing) to read the book, on the basis of the cover alone. I did this despite the fact that every book I have ever loaned to my grandmother without reading it first has proved to be among the most luridly erotic books in my library. Now, my grandmother is no prude. But still, I can imagine she would have been somewhat surprised (though probably her reaction would have stopped well short of alarm) at the anatomical explicitness of the love scenes in Translucent Tree, a novel in which love is fixedly, defensively, obsessively defined by the two protagonists in the most bluntly sexual of terms, as if physicality alone could keep the real world at bay.

Chigiri first met filmmaker Go decades ago when he assisted in the making of a documentary about her father, one of a dying generation of great swordsmiths in Japan. She was just a teenager, lurking at the edges of the filming. On an impulse, the middle-aged Go returns to their town years later and seeks out the elderly swordsmith, who now suffers from the bewilderment of Alzheimer's, and Chigiri, now divorced with a daughter of her own. They are confused by the desire that strikes them both (a coup de foudre, as the French would say), so they begin to refer and joke about it in the least vulnerable terms possible: Go offers the impoverished Chigiri money on a kindly whim, and when she asks him why, he bluntly admits that he wants her. He says it in such a way, however, that rather than emphasizing the tenderness of the impulse, he equates it to the purchase of her body. Alright, she says boldly, I will sell myself to you. He wants to backtrack to a more literary route for their romance, but it is too late: they have committed themselves to the narrative of prostitution and it is only through economies of sex and cash that they can express their love.

This is a bold narrative strategy, and it provides a suitable degree of torment to consume the characters throughout the novella. As you can probably imagine, it is a jarring and not entirely satisfying novel to read. There is a minimalism here that I associate (in my very limited experience with the translated literature of this nation) with a certain school of Japanese literature, and when it is combined with the straightforward physicality of the love scenes, the result can be somewhat alienating. This might be an effect of the translation process, or it might be an intentional device of the author's. Indeed, this is a novel that refuses us any of the conventions of romantic fiction: the lovers are middle-aged and riddled with physical flaws, they are adulterers with little time to spend with one another and no prospect of "ending up together," they place their interactions intentionally in the most self-consciously debased of terms and create transcendence out of this debasement, and we see their physical and mental disintegration vividly over the course of the 188 pages of the novel. So yes, perhaps Nobuko Takagi is intentionally cultivating an alienating and alienated style.

An interesting novel, if not an enjoyable one. Quietly unconventional, while avoiding flamboyant innovation.

A Review (!) of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"

It has been a while since I have posted a straight-up review, hasn't it? Well, here you have it!

The protagonist of Mohsin Hamid's Booker-nominated novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist approaches a foreign stranger on the streets of Lahore and declares himself "a lover of America." "I noticed you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services" (1).

Over an uncomfortable meal, this "lover of America" unfolds his amorous tale: his absorption in the romance of American college life; his obsessive friendship with a Princeton classmate who (like the nation which she stands in for erotically in the mind of Hamid's hero Changez) is creatively brilliant, thoughtlessly privileged, and terminally nostalgic in the most painfully literal of ways; his fundamentalist devotion and radical disillusionment with the religion of capitalism in his first job with an elite corporate risk appraisal firm.

Changez actually strives both to attract and repel his audience. He is travelling internationally for business on September 11, 2001, and he recounts his reaction to this assault on his national beloved with an unusual level of starkness:

I stared as one - and then the other - of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.

Your disgust is evident; indeed, your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist. But please believe me when I tell you that I am no sociopath; I am not indifferent to the suffering of others. [...]

But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack - death on television moves me most when it is fictitious and happens to characters with whom I have built up relationships over multiple episodes - no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees. (72-3)
I read this passage and felt the very surge of anger the narrator observes in his interlocutor, but this is knee jerk anger, unconcerned with Hamid's interest in how symbolism works up and is worked by individuals. In fact, I was reluctant to quote this section, which seeks to enrage with its forthrightness, when so few of my readers would have the context of the previous 71 pages of sympathetic, studious, enamored politeness (boardering frequently on an excruciatingly comprehensible but hardly justified self-loathing) of Changez's first years in the States to mitigate the impact.

The novel is told by Changez in an unusual mix of first and second persons, and the relationship this establishes between the protagonist and his unknown, unspeaking new American acquaintance is both the great strength and great weakness of the novel. Second person narrative is a notoriously difficult tool to wield: here it results in a lot of "You look [insert emotional response here]. You must be thinking [insert stereotypical and stereotyping American attitude here]" moments in Changez's conversation. Each time one of these arrises the narrative jars with gimmicky resonance.

On the other hand, the mystery of this encounter drives the short book forward with increasing urgency: How random is their meeting in Lahore? Who is the American, and what is he doing there? Is his perpetual distrust of Changez and the other Pakistanis they encounter merely the jumpiness of a stranger in a strange land? Is it prejudice? Or does he have good cause to think that people mean him harm? Is Changez's account of his reactions even to be trusted, or does it (and perhaps even Hamid's novel?) rely too strongly on broadly stereotyped American behaviors? We are encouraged by the conventions of the novel to sympathize with Changez (the narrator) while also being implicitly identified with his unpleasant, frightened, and voiceless audience. This speaks volumes about the unusual relationship with readers that Hamid is setting up here. Will the effect of this device differ if the reader is not (like the "tourist" Changez directs his tale to in Lahore, and like me) American? The ambiguities of this relationship add a great deal of complexity to what can sometimes seem a too-straightforward novel that retreads ground covered abundantly by the American and international media. To uphold these complexities, I wished for an even more ambiguous ending than the rather striking one Hamid gives.

If any of you have read the novel, I would love to hear what you think about this relationship between Changez and his American interlocutor, what this does to the way we feel about ourselves as readers, or how effective the ending of the novel was in the spoiler-welcoming comments.

The SECOND Unread Authors Challenge

Behold! The Second Unread Authors Challenge is upon us!

Last year I ran this challenge from September to February, and the premise was this: almost all of us have authors who we have long meant to read, but somehow never gotten around to (you can see a long list of mine at the bottom right of the blog). Perhaps you have always been intrigued but intimidated by their work. Perhaps "required reading" and your favorite authors have taken up most of your time. Perhaps they have been sitting on your shelves for years, continually trumped by new fascinations. Well, now is their time.

The rules:

  1. The challenge will run from August 1, 2008 to January 31, 2009. You may join at any time before or during those six months.
  2. During those six months, read at least SIX books by an author whose work you have never read before.
  3. You may choose six different "unread" authors to introduce yourself to, or you may choose just one or two and explore their work in greater depth.
  4. Authors may be drawn from any genre of literature. The only requirement is that they be authors whose work you substantially regret not having read yet.
  5. Your choices may overlap with other challenges you have underway.
To join the challenge or to get ideas from the posts of last year's participants, go to the Challenge Blog. You will find instructions on how to join in the post at the top of the blog.

Last year I failed spectacularly in my goals (amidst, in my own defense, the madness the surrounded the completion of my dissertation), so I will address my list this year with new found zeal. Many parts of my lists will remain the same from last year, although I was spurred on (during at after the period of the challenge) to read a number of authors from my list.

I list six authors on the primary list below with (in parentheses) ideas about which book I might start with). After that I have listed a number of "extra credit" or alternate authors/works.
  • Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy)
  • Friedrich Durrenmatt (The Physicians or The Visit)
  • Orhan Pamuk (My Name is Red)
  • Richard Powers (The Gold Bug Variations)
  • China Mieville (Perdido Street Station)
  • Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook)
Alternates/Extra Credit:
  • John Fowles (The Magus)
  • Joyce Carol Oates (Bellefleur)
  • Stendhal (The Red and the Black)
  • Iris Murdoch (The Black Prince)
  • Nadine Gordimer (Burger's Children)
  • Tim Winton (Cloudstreet or Dirt Music)
  • Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda or True History of the Kelly Gang)
  • Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)
  • Caryl Phillips (Crossing the River)
  • J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace)

The Pie of Dorian Gray, and other tidbits

Last week I made a pie. My first ever pie. Not one to be lured in by a classic recipe, I decided instead that my first attempt should be with a Meyer Lemon Shaker Pie. It sounded so delicious! And I had these lemons from the farmer's market that D instantly identified as Meyer lemons.

It was a beautiful pie. What can I say: this was an ideal pie for television. It was perfectly flaky-golden-crusty, with terribly authentic-looking crimps along the edges and holes cut in the top. There was just one problem: it was inedible. I don't want to blame this wholly on D's lemon-identification abilities, but those suckers were not Meyer lemons. Of course, D would probably blame the eye-crossing bitterness of the pie filling on the fact that I left the peel on the lemons. Look: the recipe didn't say to peel the damn things, and it is part and parcel of my manically literary way of relating to the world that I am an exact, some might say obsessive-compulsive, follower of recipes. (D, by contrast, went into the kitchen last night and made a delicious pesto and an odd but highly intriguing spiced, mashed yam dish without ever making reference to anything but his own whims.)

To his credit, however, D did perform (I choose my verb carefully here) the supreme act of love when I gave him the first slice of the photogenic, but deeply bitter pie. [It seems appropriate, since I am now in LA after several weeks' stay in London, that the food I make should feature Hollywood surfaces that skillfully conceal acerbic, neurotic inner lives. That's right, my pie had an inner life. It was my first EVER pie, alright?] He admired its appearance thoroughly, then gamely took the first bite. "Mmm...," he said, miraculously avoiding pulling a face of horror, "Tasty. The, um, crust is particularly good."

I took my first bite. "It is AWFUL!!" I yelled, at the top of my lungs. "No, no!" he replied, "Just a bit sour, that's all."

And then, when it became clear that we weren't going to be able to eat a second bite of the Pie of Dorian Gray, he (recipe-liberated as I have told you he is) tried to make sorbet out of the innards. And it was still awful. "That pie," I told D, "has broken my heart. Not the heart that loves you, but a separate 'pie' heart. It is like when I was little, and I convinced my parents that I had a separate 'dessert stomach' that explained how I could be too full to finish my dinner but still have plenty of room for dessert. My pie heart is broken. I may never love again."

So the next night, I just sat in front of the TV, despondent, and ate my empty, beautiful pie crust.

And that, my friends, is an allegory for life in Los Angeles.

~ ~ ~ ~

Other tidbits, many of which have been on my "To Blog" list for some time:

I am newly in love with the Apartment Therapy blog and its culinary sibling The Kitchn. While I was in London, The Kitchn introduced me to a delightful concept of the Iron Chef Party, in which guests are invited to participate in a cooking smackdown, eithers as chefs or judges. I love Iron Chef in both its Japanese and American incarnations, so I am saddened to think of how unlikely it is that I will be able to host such a party in the foreseeable future.

~ ~ ~ ~

Speaking of the foreseeable future, D brought this story to my attention with a level of enthusiasm that made me nervous that perhaps splinter-nationhood loomed in our future together: the lone inhabitant of a small Shetland island has declared independence from the UK. He calls his domain Forvik, and there is some good news for all the truly idealistic libertarians out there: he is opening his country's doors to new Forvikians!

"I also invite anyone from any country in the world, who supports these aims, namely to become free of liars, thieves and tyrants in government, to become a citizen of Forvik," he added.

~ ~ ~ ~

There is much more to be said, but that's all I have time for right now, I am sorry to say. I have to return to the Peach Caramel Pie I have in the oven. Hope springs eternal in the human pie-heart.

Book Awards Reading Challenge... the Second!

The time has come for another Book Awards Reading Challenge! And, lucky for me, I failed so spectacularly at completing the first one that my list of possibilities is extremely easy to formulate this time: my list for the second challenge will largely consist of the unread books from the first challenge, with a few key additions. What a delightful challenge, and what a joy to get a second chance at completing it!

You can read about the challenge in greater detail (and sign up for it) at the challenge's blog, but the basic rules (as laid out on the blog) are these:

  1. Read 10 award winners from August 1, 2008 through June 1, 2009.

  2. You must have at least FIVE different awards in your ten titles.

  3. Overlaps with other challenges are permitted.

  4. You don't have to post your choices right away, and your list can change at any time.

  5. 'Award winners' is loosely defined; make the challenge fit your needs, keeping in mind Rule #2.

And here is the "list of possibilities" from which I will draw my ten titles:
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (NBCC Award, Pulitzer Prize)
  • Small Island by Andrea Levy (Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Costa/Whitbread, Orange Prize)
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons (Hugo Award)
  • Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (Nebula Award)
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (Hugo Award, Nebula Award)
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize)
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (Booker Prize, Miles Franklin Literary Award)
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (Booker Prize)
  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Giller Prize)
  • March by Geraldine Brooks (Pulitzer Prize)
  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (The Governor General's Prize, Pulitzer Prize)
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright (Booker Prize)
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Alex Award)
  • The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney (Costa/Whitbread)
  • The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Edgar Award)
  • The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart (The Governor General's Prize)
  • My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (IMPAC Dublin)
  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (IMPAC Dublin, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize)
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (James Tait Black Memorial Prize)
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green (Printz Award)
Such is my need to work through my ginormous TBR pile that I made it a criteria of inclusion on this list that I must actually OWN a copy of the book. And still I needed to weed the list pretty heavily to get it down to 20 possibilities.

For those of you who love a good challenge, keep an eye out for my second "Unread Authors" challenge, which will run from August to January, and which I will be announcing (officially) soon!

The Things to be Learned at Mark Twain's Hearth

Apologies for my long absence: I have been out of the country, with extremely shaky internet access and a distinct lack of free time. But more on that soon: first, a long promised tale.

Virtually my first action as a doctor was to undertake a visit to the home of Mark Twain (who clearly could rock the academic attire with the best of us) an easy drive from my university home of the past six years, but one (since I am not a driver) that I have never made. So, naturally, after a perfect party thrown by my delightful friends and family, after robing and hooding and receiving my diploma, after almost everyone had gone home and D had headed off to Philadelphia on a 24 hour work trip, where else would my parents and I go but the very eccentric home of Samuel Clemens, whom my father happens to resemble to an uncanny degree.

In fact, I was disappointed when only a couple of our fellow visitors remarked on the likeness. It must be admitted that the resemblance was strongest when my father was in his twenties and had not yet grown a goatee. This choice of facial hair and a reluctance to don white linen suits as Clemens self-consciously did in his later years means that although Père Sycorax at college age almost exactly resembled the photo to the right, he currently looks only distantly like the older Twain shown above.

At any rate, off we went to the home of my father's doppelganger, which, it turns out, is a very interesting house indeed. When he bought the house, Clemens was not yet a successful writer, having sold just a few pieces. He bought and built it with his wife's money (she had a considerably more genteel upbringing than her husband), which unfortunately ran out just as the house was constructed but before it was decorated. When they finally scrounged up enough money for the decoration, their dreams were glamorous but their budget was still small. As a result, the social rooms of the house are models of trompe l'oeil tricksiness, with (for instance) elaborately painted enamel covering all the surfaces of the entrance hall, which then appeared to be absolutely awash in expensive mother-of-pearl inlay. A sign of how struck Clemens was by the luxuries of his new home: The bed in the master bedroom is made up backwards, with the pillows at the foot. Apparently Clemens was insistant that, having paid so much money to secure a beautiful bed, he wasn't going to be cheated out of the sight of its best feature, the headboard.

Other tidbits to be learned at the Mark Twain house:

  • A man of exuberant glibness, his truest truism (or at least my favorite) may be: "An uneasy conscience is a hair in the mouth." How visceral...
  • Clemens loved Hartford for the sobriety of its citizens and its extensive green spaces, and he reportedly considered it one of the most beautiful places in America. This may come as something of a shock to those who know the modern Hartford.
  • Clemens was never quite comfortable in the strict, formal world of society in which his genteel wife and he moved. At dinner parties, his children would play a "game" that involved hiding behind a screen in the room that adjoined the dining room, and signaling to their mother when they saw "papa" committing a faux pas (monopolizing one guest's conversation, for instance, while ignoring another). His wife would then say, "My dear, did you happen to see the card I left out for you?" and Clemens would know that he had wandered into dangerous social territory.
  • You can see in the photo above that the house is possessed of an abundance of intriguing balconies on the attic floor. This floor, apart from the butler's room, was entirely taken up by Twain's study, which, with its desk, billiard table, and perpetual haze of cigar smoke, was deemed so offensively masculine by Mrs. Clemens that she would never allow women or children onto the third floor. Twain was so social in the house that he despaired of getting any work done, and he eventually instructed the butler to tell all visitors that the master of the house had stepped out. As soon as Mrs. C. caught wind of this, she paid her husband a little visit: did he realize, she asked, that he was actually lying to guests in his home, and that if these lies became known, no one would ever trust them again? He was perturbed, and soon gave his butler new instructions: if the guest was someone Clemens didn't care to talk to, the butler should tell him or her that the author had "Just stepped out" as before. As he was carrying this message back to the guest, Clemens would step right out onto one of these many balconies with his cigar, and wait there until the guest left. What a truth-teller!
  • The Clemenses left the house after many happy years there in a morass of financial difficulty that made it an impossible burden to maintain. They toured Europe (Twain, like Dickens, was a famous performer of his own work) in increasing financial comfort. Many years later, their eldest daughter Suzy decided to return to Hartford to visit with friends and family, and she stayed in the house. While she was there, she contracted spinal meningitis and died. The Clemenses were an extremely close family, and they were undone by this news. When they did return permanently to America, they never felt they could live in the house without Suzy. Twain entered a serious depression. Eight years later Mrs. Clemens died, and Twain and his daughter Clara (the only member of his family to survive him) cared for his epileptic daughter Jean until her death five years after that. The post-Hartford years were hard ones for the Clemens family.
  • I will leave you on a jollier note, however, with this picture of Twain's favorite room of the house (and mine), the library. Twain was (as you might imagine) a voracious bibliophile, although I can't agree with every aspect of his taste. He famously despised Jane Austen, saying, "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone." (Does anyone else find it delightful that amidst this flamboyant, overinvested act of criticism, Twain admits that he has nonetheless read P&P multiple times?) On the lefthand side of the picture above, you can see the glass of a small greenhouse that forms the end of the library. This room was the space in which the Clemens family spent most of their time together, reading or, when the children were small, pretending that the trees and plants in the greenhouse were a jungle, and that "papa" and the butler were ferocious beasts for them to hunt and ride. Oh for a library/jungle of my very own!

A postscript: In the aftermath of my delightful visit to the Mark Twain House, I was alarmed to see this article about the dire financial straits that historic houses in America (including Twain's and Edith Wharton's) find themselves in. If you get a chance to stop in and support these landmarks and museums, grab it!