Monday, March 26, 2012

A Traveller in China

A Traveller in China
By Christina Dodwell

For anyone that is considering traveling in China (or anywhere in central or east Asia for that matter), you would be doing yourself a service by picking up a copy of Christina Dodwell's excellent travel book, A Traveller in China. Although the book is nearing thirty years of age, it is a wealth for information, and anecdotes by one of the world's most intrepid and fearless explorers. Furthermore, unlike many books on the subject of China, Dodwell dedicates the bulk of her journey to the more remote regions of the country rather than the well-worn tourist track of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Kunming. The book resounds as much today as it may have when it was first published.

When this book was published in 1985, China was still in the midst of its gradual transition out from the disasters of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. While it was still very much a cultural and political backwater, the machinations of things to come were already churning under the leadership of Deng, Xiao-Ping. Christina Dodwell provides a candid look at China at a crossroads: the last years prior to its Great Economic Explosion that would roll through the 1990s and continue unabated up until today.

I admire Dodwell's travel technique. She traveled China alone in the early 80s, a time when foreign travelers were a rarity, solo foreign travelers even rarer still, and solo female travelers a virtual non-entity. Having traveled through Asia extensively myself (though not China, I must admit), I can say that Dodwell was never in any real danger among the people, but certainly this trip took a lot of guts. Traveling amongst Chinese populations can be a very lonely experience if you aren't prepared.

Furthermore, Dodwell tends to stray away from the traditional hotel, restaurant, bus, hotel circuit, opting for a more granola approach. She hefts her inflatable canoe along with her and is always keen to put in along a river, lake or stream. She is also keen to stay with local people whenever it is offered, which gives her a keen insight into the lives of some of China's most misunderstood minority groups. And while she is careful not to cross paths with police or other government officials, she makes every attempt to visit places that are still "officially closed" to tourists. Dodwell makes her way to Ju Jie Shan, Lake Er Hai and Tibet.... all closed to tourists in the early 80s. In that respect, Dodwell is an intrepid, fearless explorer who provides a unique perspective on this part of Asia.

Certainly she had the pedigree. Dodwell's grandmother was a journalist during the tumultuous days prior to the Second World War and spent over ten years in China traveling and writing. Dodwell makes some effort to retrace her grandmother's path, starting in Beijing but finds that much of what existed in the 1930s had been destroyed or torn down. In her hunt for footprints left by her family, she is left disappointed.

Despite this constant flux, what Dodwell discovers on her travels through the western and southern provinces (Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Yunnan, Gansu and Tibet... not in that order) is a land that is not far removed from the 19th (or 18th, or 17th) century. Uighur people living in yurts, Hui people hunting and cultivating in their traditional ways, Miao people sporting their traditional dress and Tibetans dining on yak meat stew (with a bit too much animal hair). The presence and influence of the Han Chinese at the time of writing was still very much tenuous. This book was written long before the Chinese government got vigilant about relocating hordes of Han settlers into these territories in an effort to Sinicize them, a strategy that I am lead to believe is working, much to the detriment of these cultures. To be certain, Dodwell does encounter Han racism along the way. A truck driver who picks her up on the road to Lhasa is puzzled as to why she might want to spend time with Tibetans, calling them dirty and lazy.

Dodwell doesn't get much involved in editorializing her travels and never falls into the trap of cultural relativism, which is refreshing considering the majority of books I have read over the past few years on the subject of China have been largely condescending. She offers some cursory history and other essential information if it pertains to her travels but rarely strays from her own travelogue. She does, however, say enough to allow her readers to formulate their own opinions. That's a fine line, to say the least, and she walks it well, although she did make me laugh heartily when she made reference to a fellow European's fashion choices:

"The girl was wearing short shorts, which many of the younger Western travelers in China seem to wear, not realizing how this offends the local people's customs. What kind of Chinese woman would walk with bare thighs in public?"

Oh boy, Ms. Dodwell, how times change. The question today would read: "What self-respecting Chinese girl doesn't own at least two dozen pair of ultra-revealing short shorts and a multitude of miniskirts that leave little to the imagination?" I got a kick out of that line so much so that I woke my (Taiwanese) wife up just to share it with her. She failed to see the humor at 1:30am. Too bad, I guffawed.

While much of the book focuses on her travels through the vast expanse of nature in China's western provinces, paddling the lakes and rivers in and around the Tienshan Mountain Range and the Tibetan Plateau, it is the time she spends with the people that makes this book timeless. She is invited into yurts, eats everything that is offered to her, travels by horse, donkey, mule and camel and generally has a knack for familiarizing herself with shy communities. Her experiences truly feel as if they were from another century. It is a virtual certainty that she encountered communities who had never seen white people before (it is suspected that Dodwell is the first outsider to ever witness the Dragon Boat races at Lake Er Hai). There's something to say for that.

For those who are interested in the rapid transformation happening in China since the early 80s, this book offers an interesting bookend to the rise of China. It's a solo traveler's account of the country on the eve of major social and economic change. It is extraordinary to read about the cultural and economic values of China prior to the current variation. What's more, due to the rapid influx of Han people into these far flung areas has turned many of these populations into minorities in their own land. We only need to look at the state of unrest and displeasure in Xinjiang and Tibet to see the growing concern over the future of these populations.

In this respect, A Traveller in China is a book that couldn't and wouldn't get written today, which is a shame. It's the sort of book that reminds the reader of the travelogues of explorers such as Ibn Battuta or Stanley or Livingstone. Travelers who are treading new ground, seeing things from an stranger's perspective for the first time. In 2012, there are so vary few places and communities left on the planet untouched or unseen. It's awesome that Dodwell had the chance to cover ground so few outsiders had seen since (dare I say) the days of Marco Polo.

What's more, Dodwell has incited within me the first inclinations to travel in China, a country I had previously had no interest in visiting. I only fear that much like her attempts to retrace the travels of her grandmother, I would find that much of what she wrote about has been altered beyond recognition. Shame.

Classic travel literature. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Welcome To The Monkey House

Welcome To The Monkey House
By Kurt Vonnegut

Interesting. I just finished Welcome to the Monkey House. Two books ago I read Ape House. This is all part of my challenge to read books that refer to primates (other than humans) in some way. Next up: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It's all opposable thumbs, all the time here at My Life in Books!

OK.... anyway...

Sitting down with a Kurt Vonnegut book is like easing back into your favorite chair to watch your favorite movie while eating your favorite snack food. After months of treading new ground, it's nice to sit back with something familiar. Something unsurprising and solid. Kurt Vonnegut (along with Tom Robbins and Salman Rushdie) are my Rushmore. They are my chicken soup for the reader's soul. They are my safety reads. Goto novels when I feel like I need a refresher on where I came from. I love to revisit these guys and I do so often.

All this revisitation is a bit of a Catch-22, though, because at last count I only have three more novels left before I have read Kurt Vonnegut's entire bibliography. With Robbins, it's one, with Rushdie, it's two. For as much as I read, I have never finished an author's entire career's work (well... except Harper Lee). And while I will be left with collections of short fiction, essays and opinions for all three authors once I complete their bibliographies, as Welcome to the Monkey House shows, this shall be problematic.

Welcome to the Monkey House is one such collection of Vonnegut's early short fiction that I can only assume was published in what he refers to in Breakfast of Champions as "beaver magazines"(actually, after a cursory look on the Wikipedia entry for the collection, most of these stories were first published in reputable sources such as Collier's, Ladies Home Journal and Esquire, but let's not mess with a good story). The stories are predominantly science fiction, although some decidedly not. As with most collections of short stories, the content of Welcome to the Monkey House is uneven. Granted it's the sort of uneven work created by Kurt Vonnegut, which means it's good. But it's still uneven.

Personally, I enjoy Kurt Vonnegut's more traditional science fiction over anything else. Science fiction was the genre in which Vonnegut rarely failed. This turned out to be true on this collection as well. I most enjoyed a story entitled "The Manned Missiles" (1955) in which the father of the first Soviet man in space writes a heartfelt letter to the father of the first American man in space. Their boys' missions, which culminated in each of them dying in space due to the aggression of their respective nations, culminates in a detente between America and the Soviet Union and hints at the end of the Cold War. The story has both heart and social relevance (at least on the date of publication). Furthermore, this story has relevance considering its optimistic view of the future. Many Vonnegut critics have accused him of being overly pessimistic.

The title story, "Welcome to the Monkey House" (which, incidentally is the only story in this collection actually published in what might be construed as a beaver magazine... Playboy) is the centerpiece of the entire collection. It explores the subject of sexuality and overpopulation. In an effort to de-populate the planet people have willingly been robbed of their sexual urges. Furthermore, people are encouraged to visit government sponsored suicide clinics where they are eased off this mortal coil by suggestively clad virgins. When she encounters a Billy the Poet, a man who has not ascribed to the new system, she is shown the nature of this life, which she deems "pointless."The story is rife with sexual and moral tension and is perhaps one of the best stories of Vonnegut's career.

In another excellent story Vonnegut lays out a story about Thomas Edison and his dog that may or may not be a lie to get away from an annoying small town story-teller. In another Vonnegut elaborates on one woman's pathological obsession with home renovation. In yet another he tells the story of the first computer to express human emotions and how it falls in love with a woman.

But there are a few stinkers in the mix here (and no Kilgore Trout anywhere in sight). Like the rockets on the early space program, some of these stories just never seem to get off the ground. They all have that signature Vonnegut style but just don't seem to get anywhere. As one would expect from a collection of an author's early work, the stories read like a young writer trying to find his voice. As a devout reader of Kurt Vonnegut, it was a pleasure to read the trajectory of his young writing and see the origins of the more mature writer that would emerge in the ensuing years. In that sense Welcome to the Monkey House is just as much a piece of literary history as it is a collection of short fiction.

But if you are new to Kurt Vonnegut, I would recommend you pass on this one for the time being and start somewhere more conventional: Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse-Five. As for me, I'm coming full circle. It's just about time I begin my way through Kurt Vonnegut's titles for the second time.

So it goes...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams
By Wayne Johnston

Seems fitting that I sit here writing this particular blog post on St. Patrick's Day, three beers into my evening while listening to traditional Celtic folk music. While this novel has little to do with Ireland or the Irish, it does have everything to do with another island that was predominantly colonized by the Irish. Newfoundland owes much to Irish culture and although the cultures are unequivocally unique, they retain many similarities, none of which I'm going to explain here. I just wanted to make note of the fact that the date works well with the blogpost. That doesn't happen all that often. Anyway. I'll be keeping you updated on my beer consumption throughout this post. Hopefully my spelling, diction and clarity do not suffer more than they usually do. Once this gets posted, I promise I will not edit it.

Fourth beer.

Full disclosure: One side of my family is fiercely Newfoundlander (not Newfie, thankyouverymuch) and although I have never been to Newfoundland (one of my life's great regrets thus far) I feel like there is a part of me that belongs on the America's easternmost outpost where, as the saying goes, the trout are easier to catch than tuberculosis.

I grew up in the shadow of "Down Home" via my grandparents (displaced Newfoundlanders living "away" in Toronto) who retained their uncomplaining Newfoundland character, their barometer on the wall and their thick pea-soup accents (my Grandfather, Cornerbrook... my grandmother, Greenspond, both locations are mentioned in this book, by the way). While they were not nationalists of any sort, there always remained within them a real sense of where they came from. Newfoundland was never far from any topic of conversation in my family growing up.

I vividly recall discovering my grandfather's Newfoundland flag in the basement of their Toronto home when I was about 11 years old. I'd never known anyone in my family to own a flag and it's beautiful colors were too much for a young boy to leave unmolested. I pulled it out of its hiding spot and brought it to my grandfather to ask what it was. My grandfather was a gruff man. Over the years, my mother and aunt had alluded to the full tilt of his legendary temper, but I'd never seen it until that day I stood in his kitchen, Newfoundland flag dragging through the grime on the kitchen floor. It was a roar that would reduce the toughest men to tears. Mercifully, I never saw it again. Needless to say, Newfoundland was in my grandfather's blood.

Fifth beer.

Most people know that Newfoundland became Canada's tenth province in 1949. What few people remember is that Newfoundland was briefly, like Texas, an independent nation. From 1907 through 1932 Newfoundland was the "other" North American nation. However, the depression hit Newfoundland hard and in 1932 amid a litany of scandals and economic disasters Newfoundland was forced to re-colonialize with Britain (The only instance in history of a nation willingly reverting to a colonial state) until such time that it could sustain itself. When the time came, long-time Newfoundland politician Joey Smallwood championed the notion of confederacy with Canada. After a heated referendum (Smallwood championed confederacy), Newfoundland narrowly decided to throw its hat in with Canada. To this day, Joey Smallwood remains a controversial figure in Newfoundland.

The result is that Canada gained and retained a nation that it did not understand and Newfoundland joined a country that it also did not understand. Seventy years on, and Newfoundland is still considered part of and distinct from Canada. The province that doesn't quite fit the mould. One can lump the provinces into groups. The Western Provinces, Ontario and Quebec (those age old enemies) and the Maritimes. Newfoundland alone stands alone with its odd time zone ("Hockey Night in Canada. Game starts at 7:00pm. 8:30 in Newfoundland). Newfoundland is different.

Sixth beer.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is also different. It a strange sort of historical fiction. It centers on the life and times of the aforementioned Joey Smallwood, champion of Confederation. It chronicles his life from poverty in a St. John's slum, through his short stint writing for a socialist newspaper in New York to his return to Newfoundland and his improbable rise to power via the Liberal Party of Sir Robert Squires and, subsequently, his adoption of confederacy with Canada in 1949. From an historical perspective, Colony of Unrequited Dreams is fascinating to anyone interested in Newfoundland history.

The novel takes the form of a lifelong dialogue between Smallwood and a fictional journalist named Sheilagh Fielding and an ambiguous relationship between the two (along with a third fictional character named Prowse). Most of the novel is written in the voice of Smallwood though Fielding's journal entires and chapters from her Condensed History of Newfoundland are interspersed though out the narrative.

I thoroughly enjoyed the sections that dealt with his fictional characters, particularly Fielding (although I must make mention of Johnston's hilarious characterization of Joey Smallwood's father). Fielding is the most compelling character in the entire novel and remains so throughout. It's the character of Joey Smallwood that left me feeling a little nonplussed. Despite being the primary voice of the novel and the most active historical figure in the book, he comes across as a bit of a milquetoast, unsure of himself (and often petty) that it becomes impossible to believe that a man of his sort could possibly rise to the become Newfoundland's first Premier (a position he would hold from Confederation in 1949 until 1972).

Seventh beer.

Perhaps Johnston, a native Newfoundlander, felt constrained by the notion of fictionalizing such an important figure in the history of Newfoundland. Certainly it can't be easy to fictionalize the life of a man still very much in the realm of the collective consciousness. It would be like writing a fictionalized account of the presidency of Ronald Reagan during which he was maintaining a clandestine relationship with Katherine Hepburn. Although Joey Smallwood retired from politics before I was born and died when I was still in high school, from what I understand of the man, he was a political idealist. A man of big ideas and big dreams. None of that character comes out in Johnston's characterization, and I think the overall story suffers as a result.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is by no account a bad book. In fact in many respects (historical, social, literary) it is Wayne Johnston's opus and worthy of a read, especially if you enjoy Canlit and/or anything to do with Newfoundland. I just can't abide cardboard characters, especially one that I think deserved a bit more love and attention. It sort of feels like Johnston is dragging Smallwood's personality across the floor of my grandparent's kitchen. Good thing my grandfather ain't around to see this, Johnston. Good thing, indeed.

OK, time to go pass out. 



Canadiana Addendum...

This is a Canadian novel and thus must be put through my patented CanLit Test.

These are the 11 scientifically chosen questions that determine how Canadian a novel (in this case The Colony of Unrequited Dreams) really is. This is science, people... pay attention!:

1. Novel set between 1900~1945.
Yes. Almost exclusively.

2. Novel is set in/on a small town/island/northern settlement.
Newfoundland is indeed an island.

3. Novel involves a strong/complicated/deranged female protagonist on a journey of self-identification.
Sheilagh Fielding.

4. Novel involves one or more conservative/despicable/sexually deviant men.
You bet. Smallwood's father, Hines, Fielding's Father, Prowse, Reeves.

5. Story involves one or more hard-boiled sidekicks.
Fielding is the very definition of hard-boiled.

6. Story involves an unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infant mortality.
Um..... yes.

7. Story mentions the Dionne quintuplets/Edward's abdication/Vimy Ridge.
Much discussion of World War I. Yes!

8. Story involves a major snowstorm.
Of course. What we in the rest of the world would call the "end of the world," a Newfoundlander calls.... rain.

9. Story contains mild to overt anti-Americanism.
Just a smidgen.

10. Story explores multiculturalism.

11. Story contains mild to overt anti-Religion themes.
Oh boy, yes!

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams gets 10/11 on the My Life In Books CanLit Tester. 'Oly 'Thunderin' Jesus, 'tis a dory'ful o' screech, bye.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

American Dervish

American Dervish
Ayad Akhtar

What follows is definitive proof that my Kindle was money well spent.

I listen to Fresh Air on NPR while I run. I find that it's more interesting than music and a great way to stay informed about cultural, political and social issues while sequestered in one of the most out of the way places on the planet.

A few weeks back, Terry Gross (my favorite radio host) interviewed Ayad Akhtar about his new novel American Dervish. I was intrigued by the premise of the book but, like most things I hear on Fresh Air, I filed it away in my brain. A week later, I read a rave review of the novel in The Atlantic. Two mentions of the book in a week coupled with my weakness for novels with strong religious themes sent me racing to to purchase the book for my Kindle.

Before my Kindle I would have had to wait until A) Someone brought the book to town and saw fit to lend it to me B) I went to Taipei and, with any luck, happened to see it in one of the two English bookstores in the city or C) Asked someone from back home to buy it for me and send it overseas. Option A is a crapshoot, option B happens about three times a year and option C is rarely, if ever, invoked for fear of inconveniencing anyone back in Canuckistan.

For the first time in a decade I have the power to read books that are current (aka published in the same calendar year as I read them) and comment on actual trends as they happen as opposed to years later. For me, the Kindle isn't so much a neat toy in which to download novels and save money and paper, it has rendered me relevant for the first time since 2002. For that I am grateful.

Now, onto American Dervish.

American Dervish is a poignant novel about growing up Muslim in the American midwest (Milwaukee, to be specific). The narrative follows the early adolescent years of Hayat Shah, the impressionable (and repressed) son of a successful, areligious Pakistani-American doctor and his wife. While life in the Shah household is far from perfect, it is turned upside down with the appearance of Mina (a friend of the family escaping an abusive relationship in Pakistan) and her some Imran. Mina presents Hayat with his first Quran and proceeds to instruct him on the nature of Islam, and encouraging him to become a hafiz, one who knows the Quran by heart. What follows is a spiritual awakening (of sorts) within Hayat that skirts dangerously close abject racism and extremism.

I have read other books that have had Muslim protagonists (though, I admit, not that many) and, for the most part, Islam is treated with a degree of respect and awe. I've not come across a lot of novels that have really tackled some of the more nefarious aspects of the faith. While there are literally thousands of novels that question (and even berate) Christianity, I have found that most novels about Islam tend to handle the subject with kid gloves (non-fiction is a different story, of course). Mercifully, American Dervish is not guilty of such evasiveness.

Maybe I haven't read enough novels about Islam but I have read The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie has been living in hiding for decades due to what he wrote about Islam in his 1988 novel and I didn't think it was anywhere near as inflammatory (for Muslims, I presume... not me) as American Dervish. I cannot pretend to know much (anything) about the modern Muslim-American experience but Akhtar does not paint the brightest picture. In fact, this book can be quite bleak in its portrayal of Muslims in America (and Muslims in general). Akhtar spends a lot of time discussing the clashes between old world and new world interpretations of Islam which is the root much of the conflict in the book.

At points in this book the author seems to seethe with anger and frustration at the Muslim community in America and raises some pretty provocative questions about racism toward Jews, women's rights, Sharia Law and contradictory Quranic scripture. In the novel, Hayat's father in particular spits vitriolic venom at the established Muslim-American community and their apparent herd-like mentality. But the novel stops short of descending into a acrimonious anti-religion diatribe. Behind the anger and disappointment there is a genuine feeling of warmth and affection for Islam and a real desire to raise questions about the modern nature of a very old religion. It's a testament Akhtar that he can walk the line between disloyalty and fidelity to the faith that has remained under the social and political microscope for over a decade.

I'm not going to lie, although this book is highly entertaining, it is difficult to read in places. There are some real uncomfortable moments when the reader is expected to check their judgmental self at the door and admit to themselves that they cannot understand the cultural mindset (unless, of course, you are a Muslim and have read this book. Then perhaps you could enlighten me as to whether this is an accurate depiction of the Muslim community in America. Obviously I have no idea). Furthermore, I found that more than once I felt as if Akhtar is treading water in the narrative, unsure of where to go next. There is an uneven feeling in the story that bogs it down in places.

But none of this should dissuade you from reading this novel. I think this novel and its over-arching themes were a long time in coming. In a world that has spent a lot of time and energy pigeon-holing and vilifying Islam, it's high time a novelist took it upon himself to spend some time navel-gazing the tradition and its position in the modern world. In 2012, it is refreshing to see a novelist that is prepared to embrace the often contradictory nature of Islam and examine the persistent tensions that arise within the community struggling to reconcile old world tradition in the New World.

As for me, I'm feeling refreshed as well. If for no other reason than I might be ahead of the reading curve for the first time in a decade.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ape House

Ape House
By Sara Gruen

(Mild spoilers ahead)

Ah, the airport thriller. There's nothing quite like a novel about a plucky journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot while his/her personal and professional life is crumbling all around. These sorts of books are usually described as "gripping," a "wild ride" or "compelling." Not that there's anything wrong with airport thrillers, mind you. I've been known to be compelled into the grip of a wild ride from time to time, but I was a bit surprised to find that Sara Gruen, the author of Water For Elephants, had written one. And as it turns out, it's better than most.

To be frank, I was ready to hate this book after the first 100 pages. It all seemed too absurd. Too Cathy Lamb. The novel centers on a troupe of highly intelligent bonobos living in a research lab who are able to use sign language to communicate with humans. Their closest human friend is a woman named Isabel. Isabel is socially awkward and feels more at home with the bonobos than she does with other humans. Her fiancé was recently put in charge of the research and is immediately introduced as a creepy slime ball who has cheated on her with Isabel's only other friend: a hip, vegan, Lisbeth Salander-esque character named Celia.

Meanwhile, John, a down on his luck journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer has been working on an article about the lab for an on-going piece about great apes, though his partner, an unscrupulous tiger woman aptly named Cat has been scooping his story from underneath him. John's wife, Amanda, is a struggling writer with the world's most annoying mother has been given a chance to write a television series in Hollywood with a man she has met on the Internet. Given Amanda's recent struggles with depression, this opportunity coupled with John's recent troubles with his job, send their marriage into a tailspin. Will it survive? Read on!

All this is trouble enough, but a terrorist explosion rocks the lab and severely injures Isabel. In the aftermath, Isabel is left to mend, John is fired from the Inquirer and the lab is closed down. Somehow, the bonobos are sold to a known pornographer and installed in a house with cameras in every room where they become the unwilling stars in America's new hit reality TV show, Ape House.

Of course all of this seems so improbably stupid that you'd keep reading, too. And it's not that the book gets any less stupid. It's not Water For Elephants if that's what you are thinking. But Gruen does handle the airport thriller genre with a certain flare and depth that others in the field often lack and I ended up liking the book in the end (though not loving it). There were more than a few times when I was sure I had the plot figured only to have Gruen surprise me with a neat little twist. And that's all anyone should really ask of an airport thriller. Good plot, surprises and twists. So I'm not complaining. It's a solid read and I doubt very many people will throw it away in disgust. If you do, you probably are not a hit at parties, either.

But the novel does have a certain degree of social import that deserves mention. Among many other things, Gruen has a lot to say on the vulgarity of our celebrity-obsessed culture and reality television. A solid half of the novel delves into the sleazy side of reality television with its unscrupulous creators. One could almost smell the mustache wax  secreting from the bad guy while he wrung his hands in evil glee at the thought of making millions off this "stupid little monkeys." Why is could have been Donald Trump himself! Naturally, the show becomes a hit and a nationwide success. In that respect, Ape House reminded me a lot of Ben Elton's novel Dead Famous.

Certainly there is a lot to say about our TMZ unfused lives and the saturation of our televisions with such reality nonsense as Survivor, The Bachelor, Big Brother etc... These shows are the cultural equivalent of Big Macs and Twinkies. Indeed, we should spend more time worrying about our cultural diet and what out viewing habits are doing to the collective intelligence of our society, or some such social science-speak. And juxtaposing this obsession with "reality" and celebrity by way of intelligent apes (who continuously display more maturity than the humans in the book) is an ingeniously sly backhand against society as a whole. But my question to Sara Gruen is: Aren't you preaching to the choir, sister?

I mean, anyone who is reading your novels (or, sadly, reading at all) is more than likely already well aware of the degrading nature of celebrity gossip and reality television. The sorts of people that read Sara Gruen books are already the sorts of people who probably don't waste their time surfing Perez Hilton or watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians. They're probably eager to pick up the next Tom Robbins (or whoever...) novel on their bookshelf and forego the antics of overly-tanned, tribal-tattooed 20-somethings cavorting in hot tubs and arguing over who used all the ketchup in the fridge.

Readers are, by nature, cultural vegetarians. They are picky about their pop culture due to the time and effort they invest in their medium of choice. For a reader it's not simply a matter of flicking on the show, mid-episode and picking the themes up mid-sentence. Reading requires time and patience and readers become adept at protecting those commodities. Perhaps this is why readers tend to shun television. It has always been the cultural junk food. Besides, airport thrillers are the reader's equivalent to junk food (though I like to equate them to decadent desserts). They are, along with Young Adult fiction and books about zombies (or vampires) the reader's guilty pleasure. A refreshing slice of sweetness after the heftier meals of which we are accustomed...

Riiiiiiight..... Anyway, for fear of coming across as a snob, I am well aware that I am speaking in gross generalities (and tasty metaphors), but I think I'm getting my point across.

I  do admire Gruen's verve in detailing the unfortunate cultural phenomenon that is the cult of celebrity. Sure, Ape House tackles other issues such as animal rights, the absurdity of extreme groups (both right and left) and the decline of print media to name a few. And one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that it is, after all, just a story. But I couldn't help ponder Gruen's motivation for even bothering with the world of reality television. While I agree with Sara Gruen about everything she says on the subject of reality television and celebrity culture, I can't imagine that many of her readers came to an epiphany about the subject while reading this. Explaining the absurdity of reality television and celebrity culture to an audience of readers is like explaining snow to an Inuit. Totally unnecessary.

But I digress.

OK, perhaps I'm looking too far into an airport thriller for something to write. Perhaps none of this really needs to be said.  Perhaps I should just shut my yap and enjoy this gripping, wild ride.

Good book.

Not great.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides
By Jeffery Eugenides

Before I get into this, I have a recommendation to make for anyone thinking about reading this novel. Do not, under any circumstances, read this book while feeling sad. Don't read it if you feel depressed, down, off, low or even slightly unhappy. And, for the love of God, do not read this book if it has been raining consistently in your vicinity for more than a week (in my case, three weeks). I'm not the sort to suffer from depression (mild or sever) but this book put me in a serious funk.

OK, on with the show...

The Virgin Suicides is the 1993 debut novel by Jeffery Eugenides. It is a book I have been meaning to read for over a decade but circumstances have conspired against me all that time (conspiracies include: forget about the book when I'm in the bookstore, bookstore doesn't have the book, living too far away from bookstore, book is obscenely expensive and I refuse to buy it). After reading and reviewing Eugenides more recent novel Middlesex last year, I decided that enough was enough, ordered it on my Kindle and finally sat down and read it. So to say that this book was built up in my mind is an understatement. There was literally a decade of anticipation burbling under the surface as I delved into this one.

Without going into too much detail, the story is about five sisters who, in the course of a year, each commit suicide. It charts the build-up and execution (no pun intended) of the first suicide and the slow, painful descent of the Lisbon family in the wake of tragedy. It also follows the trajectory of the neighborhood who don't seem to have the emotional capacity to deal with the disintegration of a member group in the community. The novel itself seems often reads like a community coping mechanism, albeit too late. In a broader sense, The Virgin Suicides encapsulates the social and emotional isolation of suburban America. Heady issues for a debut novel, Mr. Eugenides!

Eugenides employs the seldom utilized first person plural narrative, which took some getting used to. The narrator, as far as the reader can tell is a boy within a very large social circle living in the same community (although nameless, clues in the narrative suggest that the community is somewhere in suburban Detroit circa the mid 1970s) who speaks for everyone in his social circle from a point several years after the suicides. The narrative reads like a formal introduction (via collection of evidence and interviews) for some sort of investigation (or perhaps memorial) into the suicides, but the reasons for the formality remain unclear to the very end. It had the effect of reading a modern myth narrated by a Greek chorus.

Once I settled into the narrative style, I decided I liked it for several reasons. The first person plural encapsulates the thoughts, memories and opinions of a large group of people in the community and, therefore creates a semi-omniscient narrator. We experience the story through the eyes of the entire community, which gives the feeling of an urban legend (myth) come true. A lot of the details in the book are gained by heresy and conjecture only adding to the obvious distortion of the truth throughout the novel. Many of the "facts" contradict and there is often a measure of dissent among the interviewees on specific details. All this makes The Virgin Suicides a pleasure to read for those who love narrative nuance.

But the narrative style works very well on a second level. Despite the semi-omniscience of the community, it never penetrates into the actual thoughts, memories and opinions of the Lisbon girls, which is the crux of the story, after all. The narrative style builds a metaphorical wall around the girls (to go with the literal one that is their house and parents). This distance from the subjects places them firmly on a pedestal in the mind of the narrator and, in turn, the mind of the readers. The girls are literally and figuratively out of reach. They are completely intangible and, therefore, lapse into the realm of legend in the minds of the local boys. The girls achieve a distant, almost ephemeral quality in the novel. They are already ghosts at the beginning of the novel and only seem to drift farther from reality as the story progresses. These girls exist only in myth and the motives of the narrator suggest myth making.

Surely, if the narrator had gained more access to the girls while they had been alive, they would have been more human. There are glimpses of their humanity in the book but the narrator seems to miss willfully miss them in order to preserve the girls mythical status. But one gets the impression that the narrator has no intention of humanizing these girls. The Lisbon girls have infected the boys in this community so thoroughly that they will never full recover from what transpired and their particular coping mechanism is to mythologize rather than humanize.

On a second level, this novel deconstructs the deep isolation of the post-World War II North American suburban experience. Eugenides does a spectacular job with setting (as he did in Middlesex). He encapsulates the loneliness and tedium of life in these communities. And this story derives from the dichotomous desires of people who want calm and serenity while simultaneously desiring chaos and disorder. This is best represented in the book during the sub-plot involving the on-going community plan to eliminate Dutch Elm disease in the community trees by cutting them all down, reducing the neighborhood to a barren, naked landscape. The plan is both systematic and chaotic, much like the quietly desperate lives of those who live in the suburbs.

Did this book live up to its reputation (a ten year build up)? Absolutely. Eugenides proved (to me) with Middlesex that he is a significant force in the literary community. Going back and reading The Virgin Suicides only confirms that the pedigree was always there. My recommendation is that if you have not yet read this book, do so. It deserves to be recognized as a modern classic. I finished the book the day before writing this and since I insist on writing my blog within a day of completing a book (to keep it fresh as well as to see what sort of spontaneous nonsense comes out of me) this blog post cannot and will not do this novel justice. There is so much to this book and I fear I will need to re-read this book before too long.

I just hope it doesn't rain when I do.