Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

They were invariably immigrant men, and she told herself that in treating them with respect and dignity she was separating herself from the immense sea of indifferently racist Australians out there […] But she felt neither courtesy nor respect at this moment. Fuck him, she thought sourly, ignorant Muslim pig. 

The namesake of the novel occurs at a seemingly innocent Australian BBQ that reads like Rupert Murdoch's nightmare: the hosts are Hector, who is Greek, and his Indian wife Aisha, and their guests include more Greeks, Australian aborigines turned Muslim, and gay kids all frolicking together. And of course, a super drunk white Australian, whose kid is a total brat and ends up misbehaving--and that's when the 4-year-old is slapped by another guest, an adult. 

Everyone slinks away, either in rage or ashamed, or just wanting to make sure they can't be interpreted as having taken sides. As the story progresses, we skip from one character to another to see how they navigate through family loyalties and friendships, hurtling toward the impending day at the court. 

The novel is cleverly constructed, and although on the surface it certainly makes you think about the issue at hand--slapping a child-- it addresses different forms of bodily and mental abuse, and the traditions of how we end up accepting some of them. All the characters in the novel, regardless of age, are either using drugs or copious amounts of alcohol, or they did in their past that they now secretly pine for or feel superior to. They all have pretty lousy sex, too. Then, they obsess about their looks--a lot of words are spent on describing every nook and cranny in the characters' bodies, up to their toe hairs. They're dolls, going through the motions that their forefathers set for them. 

This is also the one part that I'm not too comfortable with, because I can't tell whether sometimes it's the characters being simplistic or the writing. At one point, one character describes two women the same way on the same page: first, a random woman as "The blonde one was a looker," and then a paragraph later, describing a police officer as "She was blonde, a looker." 

Racism seeps in, too. At the sight of conflict, everyone becomes a negative representation of their ethnicity to others. The characters believe their decisions are made purely from logical standpoints, but they all have a chip on their shoulder that's been waiting to be spoken out loud. Drunk Gary is not just Drunk Gary--he's a fucking Australian. Bilal is not just Bilal--he's an Aborigine who is expected to abuse his body with drugs and alcohol and go back into bars for a favor, although that's a lifestyle he struggled to leave behind ages ago. Aisha is not just Aisha for Hector's family--she's that Indian slut.

And again, there's slight discomfort with the descriptions: although the novel itself addresses racial issues, some of the non-white characters are described in food terms, a treatment white characters usually don't get: "His unblemished olive skin was tanned rich chocolate brown." Two food items in one! I have yet to see a white character described as having "mozzarella undertones." White characters are just blonde.

The novel poses interesting questions about what it means to protect the weak, and who the weak really are. And just as you think you have formed your opinion about the infamous slap, you find out more about the characters involved that might change your mind yet again. That's the type of novels I like--where you're not lulled into comfort but instead, you need to question your opinions.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Street Cat Named Bob and How He Saved My Life by James Bowen
A friend recommended this book, slightly sheepishly: it's nothing special, you know, but it's really cute.

A Street Cat Named Bob may not be a mind-blowing masterpiece, but does everything need to be? Reading Bob can only make you a better person. It's completely devoid of cynicism, although the odds are stacked against James, who was a recovering heroin addict busking for money on the streets and living in a housing program flat for homeless in London when he met the cat.

When Bob wanders into his life, James finds a new motivation for himself to get clean: not only was he now responsible for a little life, he didn't want his new cat buddy even to see the crappy side of his own life. He truly wanted to become a better person for this cat.

How He Saved My Life is not an exaggeration. Sure, Bob wasn't resuscitating this guy in the street corner, but thanks to him, James first started earning more money through busking (suddenly coins were flowing for a man who had a cat on him!), and once he got a bit more money and confidence, he was able to buy a stack of the equivalent of Real Change and become a newspaper seller for the homeless organization in London, which gave him a steadier income. Then, people began to approach him because of the videos or pictures they'd seen of James and Bob on the web.

That's how he got this book deal, too.

This little story entertained the hell out of me. Like with Steve O's memoir, James approaches his own downfalls with refreshing honesty that is not wrapped up in disingenuous humility. Although it would be easy to read James's story as classic instructions for just pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and then everything will be peachy if you only try hard enough, James readily acknowledges that he'd already done what he could have under his circumstances, and without this deus ex machina of Bob appearing at his doorstep one day, who knows where he'd be.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Under the Dome by Stephen King
[When Big Jim, concerned for his son's mental health, asks him a yes/no question:]

Junior shook his head slowly back and forth, but his eyes stayed in exactly the same place while he did it--pinned on his father's face. It was a little eerie.

What simple, short sentences, but they evoke a truly creepy image. And then King downplays the creepiness with the "a little eerie." When I read this description I went from feeling slightly disturbed to giggling. I had forgotten what a good writer King is.

When the TV series Under the Dome began airing, I was excited: no more Langolieers, please--in this day and age, plentiful money must be funneled into a King project, right?

We watched the show halfway through the second season, increasingly frustrated: like Lost, it introduced more questions than resolutions, all seemingly designed to ensure that the viewer will never stop to think. "That makes no sense! Why is he suddenly behaving so-- Ooh, a shiny new thing!"

I had to read the book to find out whether the original material was as nonsensical as what I was watching.

Within the first pages, some important characters from the TV show are killed. OK... Well, I knew then what won't happen in the book.

Although the book has a fantastical setting of a small town trapped under an invisible dome, the novel only uses the dome as a backdrop for looking into the nastier aspects of human behavior. To me, the overarching theme was bullying and exerting power onto others, whether the characters had been on the receiving end of bullying or dishing it out on a school yard, during war times, or in small, local settings politically. In the TV show, this is sort of hinted at, but the larger discussion of people manipulating other people for personal gains is overshadowed by Shiny Fantasy Objects and Portals.

If you're hooked on the TV show, feel free to read the book: there will be no spoilers because hardly anything is the same: Barbie is not some hitman who just happened to be in town when the dome came down--he's a cook at the local restaurant and everyone knows him, although he's not a local; Norrie is not a kid with lesbian parents who just happened to be passing through--she's lived in Chester's Mill all her life; Sam Verdeaux is not related to anybody else, nor does he have a shady past. He's just the town drunk and idiot, not a dashingly handsome, yet troubled man. Julia Shumway is indeed the town paper's editor, but she has no missing husband.

I do want to wait until the show is over to see what they do with the final episodes: the ending of the novel is terrifyingly cruel, but will the show writers go there? I can't wait for the resulting CG extravaganza!

I'm glad I read Under the Dome. I haven't read a single Stephen King novel in probably a decade, so I had forgotten what a great writer he is. He often gets flack for writing horror, or fantasy, and is not taken nearly as seriously as other, similarly prolific writers. But his stories are well-crafted, and like with my favorite authors, I would stop to reread sentences simply because they were so good.

I especially get a kick out of King busting through the fourth wall, which happens a lot in Under the Dome. The narrator describes the dome coming down from a variety of perspectives, including a truck driver and a woodchuck, and ends the description with this:

We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester's Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an instant has passed since the sixtyish fellow from the Toyota slammed face-first into something invisible but very hard and broke his nose. He's sitting up and staring at Dale Barbara in utter bewilderment.

Although such a display of smart-assery, I still love these sections: they're a great way to condense events and make characters seem more realistically connected to the world and other people around them.

I have some other books from the library I need to finish reading, but I'll put another Stephen King book on hold. Maybe it's time to reread IT.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Independent People by Halldór Laxness, or, The Digital Reading Experience

I've tried to write about Independent People since I read it in early September, but every time I'd draft a paragraph I veered to blathering about the reading experience, forgetting about the story itself. I thought I'd wait to forget about this pesky interference of the vessel on which the story was brought to me, but it's no use. So here we go.

I read both printed and digital books. I buy all my knitting books in paper form, because I need to browse back and forth quickly, or I want to have all the instructions available at one glance; I buy printed novels if I know I'll end up lending or gifting them. I buy new books from authors I know I'm going to reread again and again. I buy books from second hand stores, although it pains me that authors are not getting anything for my purchase. 

I like my Kindle, too. I've bought a bunch of novels in digital versions that I already own in paperback, simply because I don't want to drag ginormous books with me during my commute, or when I'm traveling abroad because I like traveling light. And, most of the time, I buy printed books from where I'm visiting, so I want to save that space in my luggage.

Interestingly enough, if I'm at all skeptical about whether I'll like the story or not, I'll buy it digitally, because I don't want something potentially disappointing littering my shelves. Most of the time, though, I place a hold at the library both for the printed and the digital version, and see which one is available first. 

In addition to promoting clutter-free shelves, digital reading offers an experience printed books cannot: a nearly complete lack of spoilers. I love it. I don't pay attention to cover art because I just navigate to the Buy button, click it, and start reading; I don't get to flip the book over to read the blurb in the back. My mind is not primed for the story based on how good the graphics on the cover are, or the spoilers provided in the back cover. This is why I was so upset when I finally saw Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the bookstore: both the front and back cover give the twist in the novel away, and it's a twist that made me think about larger, ethical questions, because the author had so cleverly made me empathize with a situation by not telling me, the reader, the whole truth. It was great, and I felt so bad for any readers who wouldn't be able to experience the same.

Reading digitally would have been a New Critic's dream: you turn the book on and start reading from page one, never seeing a biography for the author, or a spoilery blurb, or choice quotes handpicked by the publisher to praise the novel that will prime you to look for those positive features in the novel yourself. You shove the author aside and just let the story come to you. Usually, I also skip any introductions written by other authors--I'll make up my own mind first, thank you very much. 

This unadulterated reading experience can be kind of scary, too: I have to actually form my own opinions about the story! What if I had given up on Independent People because it was dragging on in the beginning, and then later someone had pointed out that the author won a Nobel price for the story? Obviously, I'd be a real dumbo to admit that I didn't like a novel that was so widely revered. I just wasn't reading it right. Yeah, that's it! Let me give it another go and make sure I now understand why I have to like and appreciate it. 

Digital reading could work as a blind literary taste test. It might also help people get over some hangups about cover art (that's me) or about certain genres. What if I just give you a book and tell you to read it because it's good--do you really need to know whether it's fantasy or not, or whether it's true crime, because you can't stand those genres? Good stories should transcend their genres, and people should feel free to toss a book into the corner because they hate they way it's written, or because of the ideas it represents, not because they are categorized under a narrow label. 

But onto Independent People. A friend of mine wrote a short recommendation for it, and because I was about to leave for Iceland I downloaded it onto my Kindle. I read absolutely nothing about the story beforehand. 

And it was a weird reading experience, but in an eye-opening way.

I didn't know beforehand that it was an epic.
I didn't know that it wasn't written last year; it was written in the 1950s. 

So I started reading, becoming increasingly more puzzled.

A bunch of people were introduced, and I had no idea who was the main character. I almost gave up because the first 50 pages or so seemed to be constantly building up for something, but nothing was getting resolved--but curiously, that was the reason why I eventually stuck around. The story seemed so... large. Just as I had gotten to know one character a bit, a new chapter began and someone else was now introduced. Were they all going to meet at some point? How were they related? And what's all this stuff about politics? I wanted to know where it was all going.

Once I was on a roll, I decided to look up the author. 

Finding the story's publishing date and its genre of course colored my perception of the story. Whereas earlier I'd thought that the author was putting himself in the shoes of Icelanders from the days of yore, and I wondered what Icelandic people actually thought of his portrayal of their history, I now realized that the author--and his parents and grandparents--had more or less lived in the times he wrote about. Ah, so he's a reliable source, then, writing to his peers who had just come out of the book's historical events in the past decades. The intended audience was now completely different than what I had expected.  

I know, I know; who cares what the author's intent is, right? But stories are written with certain audiences in mind, and if you are supposed to write about what you know, how can we not take intent into account? 

Although I enjoy the blind taste test reading immensely, I still think it's often important to be aware of the historical backdrop for a story, or the author and his or her intent, although enjoying a story is by no means dependent on these factors. Learning more about Halldór Laxness and the novel helped me to understand its significance in its cultural setting. The experience is kind of like reading Heinlein: whenever I find myself annoyed by some of the social conventions in his novels, I check the publishing date and go, ah yes, he wrote this in the frigging 1940s. They're still annoying conventions, but I understand them better in their context. 

As to Independent People... I ended up loving it. The protagonist we follow the longest, Bjartur, is lovable, yet infuriating: to him, independence means a herd of sheep, a small crop to live on, and never being in debt to anyone. He leaves a wake of tragedy behind him because of his unwillingness to deviate from his personal morals, mostly in his relationships. When his daughter, Asta, is old enough, the story switches to following her being trapped in the crop to make sure that Bjartur's dream of independent living comes true.

It's an absolutely heartbreaking story, yet at the same time a fascinating insight into Iceland and its cultural and political background.