Ain’t she a beauty…

I think the best literature is that which attempts to bring the basic human experience to light.  I know that there is a different story for every individual person on this big ball of dirt, but the inner workings of all 6.5 million of them are not terribly different – only the circumstances.  We all love, hate, cry, laugh, eat, sleep and struggle.  The best writers can tell you things about yourself and your fellow human beings that you didn’t know you already knew.  On Beauty by Zadie Smith is one of those.

On Beauty is the story of a family.   There are lots of details about this family I could tell you – the mother is a black Americanwoman from the south and the father is a white Englishman.  The husband is a professor of Art Criticism who is very cerebral, the wife is a hospital administrator who is very emotional. They have three children who are smart and funny and very, very different.  They live in the Boston area.  The children are all in their late teens-early 20s.  The marriage is going through a rough patch.

But those are just facts.  They are sharply depicted but merely the backdrop on which this novel is painted.  The title is On Beauty, and that beauty comes in lots of flavors here, but they ultimately lead back to the central beauty – love.  Not sappy romantic love – real-life, hard-core, everyday all day love.  Husbands, wives, children, siblings, parents, family, friends.  The love that ties them together, causes them pain and heals their wounds.  It wrenches the heart and makes it new.  Smith shows us how love looks – how it cannot exist without pain and forgiveness and clarity and commitment.

In case I’ve been unclear up to this point, let me just state for the record – I love this book. I love it for a dozen reasons – the writing is fabulous, the family dynamics are powerfully and painfully accurate in detail and texture.  It takes place on a college campus full of over-educated brainiacs who use the ‘cancer of their intellect’ to avoid facing their emotions (as I did for much of my life).  All its characters are beautifully flawed human beings.  But the reason this book will remain on my shelf forever (now that I finally own it) is because of one passage.

I read this book several years ago (it was published in 2005) and wrote this passages down in a journal I have for quotes that resonate powerfully within me.  This one is a favorite out of those – one that, while I can’t quote it word-for-word, I never forget is in there.

The three siblings in the book (aged 16 to 22) have just bumped into each other serendipitously on a street corner, and to celebrate they go have coffee together.  The oldest brother, Jerome – just back from college for the holidays – is basking in the happy glow of being with his siblings:

Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel – before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets.  After a few years, Levi arrived: space was made for him; it was as if he had always been.  Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth.  He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.

Makes me tear up every time I read it.  This passage made me feel guilty for not giving my son siblings.  It makes me want to pick up the phone and call my sisters and tell them I love them.  I’ve never read anything that comes close to portraying how being a sibling feels to me.  And I want to thank Zadie Smith for that gift, and share it with all of you.

What to read, what to read?

I was just going to skip the write-up on Arresting god in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay, mostly because it doesn’t take many words to say “the writing was okay, but I didn’t get the point of any of its short stories.”  Instead, I decided it was an opportunity to discuss how I chose the books I end up reading.

Several things led to my picking up AgiK, none of them very scientific (must be the lit major in me).  I have several beloved authors that are Indian (Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arundhati Roy), and this author comes from the same area of the world.  I read ‘Nepal’ and my brain said ‘Tibet’ (again, same part of the world, I believe they maybe even be adjacent to each other, although I have not verified that). So I was thinking ‘the same country as the Dalai Lama’.  But of course, that couldn’t have been true, because one of the other things that intrigued me was that Samrat Upadhyay is supposedly ‘the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West.’  And we all know that the Dalai Lama has published several books – but maybe he doesn’t write in English?  You see how I was tricked?

And that title – Arresting god (note small g) in Kathmandu – how cool does that sound?  I’m a sucker for the obscure title (Five Quarters of an Orange? quarter=four, how did they get five?).  Smacks of questioning religion (a particular area of interest for me), exotic places (who even knows where Kathmandu is?  Or how to pronounce it correctly?).   And in practical terms – as my roommate pointed out – what do you do, put handcuffs on him?  How exactly does one arrest a deity? (I’m sure Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman would have a few ideas).

In the case of Away by Amy Bloom, I already mentioned that I picked it up because of 1) the title, and 2) it mentioned Alaska on the back.  In addition, the edition I have has a close-up of a fancy fruit bowl/centerpiece with a background of a stream through the wilderness.  Having picked up Blackberry Wine on the same shopping trip (with its associations with Five Quarters of an Orange), I imagined it would be similar to something by Joanne Harris so I finally picked it up.  Turned out, not so much.

It doesn’t surprise me that people stick with authors they know – if you’ve read previous books and enjoyed them, it is a safer bet to buy another of their books than to try someone you’ve never read.  That makes it tough for new authors, but there it is.  For those of us with an ever-voracious appetite for something new and exciting to read, there are resources out there to get more information on the latest book.  I have an email subscription to the weekly Powell’s newsletter, and in it they discuss upcoming releases and do tons of reviews/interviews/whatnot on their website as well.  I picked up Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Population: 485 by Michael Perry, and bonk by Mary Roach (which I have not read yet) based on information I read in those newsletters.

There are also independent bookseller associations (such as indiebound.org) that distribute information on new releases that are less about making the publishers happy and more about telling readers about great writing. In stores like Title Wave, you’ll find cards placed in front of new releases with recommendations from the American Booksellers Association (a trade association of independent booksellers) and, like Powell’s, hand-written notes with recommendations from staff members. (In case y’all haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m a big fan of the independent bookstore ).

Obviously, you can check the best seller lists and book reviews in sources such as The New York Times and your local paper, but people like books for very different reasons, and you don’t always get a good sense of the book from a review.  I mean, seriously, some of you may have already decided that I have no idea what I’m talking about because you loved Away and have devoured everything Amy Bloom has read.  And it’s a tough world out there, I hate wasting my money on a book that wastes my time.  Thankfully, the world also invented the used bookstore.

I love spending half as much on a book – whether I love it or hate it – and having the option of getting at least half my money back (or like credit for future books) for a book that suckered me in with a cool title and a completely inaccurate synopsis.  I just add those to the pile, and next time I go to Powell’s (until recently, Title Wave) I take those duds with me and let the fine people at the store credit me for the junk I don’t want while I spend all that credit and more before they’ve even had a chance to look at them.  And of course, when the budget has been stretched beyond its limit, and the credit is all burned up – there’s always the library (whew!)

So get out there!  Take a chance!  Read a book!  That’s an order.

One! One great book! ah ah ah…

As an avid reader, book snob and baccalaureate in English, certain things are expected of me.  One of them is that I’ve read every famous old book written in English. Of course, this is unrealistic and unfair, but there it is.  As a result, books like The Count of Monte Cristo get put on my list by the prissy old-school professor in my head that thinks you can’t call yourself educated if you haven’t read the entire English-language canon.  Moby Dick, Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities, Siddhartha, Anna Karenina and others have made it onto the list – and not all of them make it back off fully perused (if you know what I’m saying).

I put TCoMC on my list because my friend, Rita, recommended it.  She paints crystal and glass for a living and – rather than listen to music – she listens to books on tape (or more accurately, on her IPod) while she’s working. She was telling me how much she really enjoyed this book – she didn’t expect she would like it so much.  All I knew about TCoMC before I picked it up (besides the fact that Rita loved it) was 1) it was written by Alexandre Dumas, the same guy that wrote The Three Musketeers, and The Man in the Iron Mask (both movies I had seen, books I had not read) and that Guy Pearce played the count in a recent film adaptation (which I had not seen, I just remember a clip of Pearce escaping from a scary island prison).

I am happy to report that I did indeed finish all 1200+ pages of TCoMC.  In fact, it was difficult to put down.  The intro to the new Penguin Classic translation I got from the library says that the book was written during the time when the modern-day detective novel was being born (it was written 40 years before the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes). It is also among the highest selling books of all time.  Of course, since he was popular, Dumas didn’t get much in the way of critical props (as the intro also informed me. I know I never read Dumas once in any of my lit classes – and that is a LOT of lit classes).

In the story, Edmond Dantes is a poor French sailor who is about to get married and also be promoted to captain of a ship.  Some jealous acquaintances anonymously accuse him as a traitor, and the prosecutor finds him guilty to protect his own interests. This takes place during the post-Napoleon era, before the Emperor returns briefly from Elba.  As a result, Edmond spends 14 years in jail, in solitary confinement, for a crime he never committed.  He escapes with help from a fellow prison, who bequeaths to him a fortune that no one else believes exists.  With this fortune, he becomes the Count of Monte Cristo and patiently sets out to repay those acquaintances for the harm they’ve inflicted as well as repay those who were faithful to him, some to their own detriment.

I’ve read plenty of mystery/detective novels, and most of the time I can figure out what’s going to happen.  The best part of TCoMC was that, while you could see the pieces that the Count was assembling, you couldn’t be sure what he was going to do with them until it was about to happen.  And he never concocted lies to punish the wicked – he merely tempted them, lured them in, then exposed their wickedness to the world.  Nor did he commit violence against any of them.  Those with violent natures turned upon themselves or else were attacked by their fellow villains.  And when the innocent were hurt, he mourned.

I also liked the fact that the ending wasn’t trite and unrealistic. The novel as a whole is over-the-top, but not ridiculous.  There is no possible fairy-tale ending that could have replaced what the Count/Dantes lost, so Dumas does not insult our intelligence by giving us one.  What we get is a happy, believable ending that doesn’t diminish what came before.  And there’s even a gay sub-plot! In 1840!  And while I wouldn’t say that the female characters were positive role models (they are either pure as the driven snow or nasty schemers), they are reasonably intelligent for the most part (the young ones are smart but naïve, the older ones are pure in spirit or conniving but not heartless).  I guess one of the reasons I really liked the book was because the characters were well done, and everyone is human. The villains love their kids and/or wives, the heroes make mistakes, honor is important, but truth and honesty even more so.  Evil is punished, and goodness is rewarded. The Count sees himself as an agent of God/Providence, appointed to punish the wicked and reward the faithful.

If you want a fast-paced (but long) detective/mystery story, it doesn’t get much better than this.  And (most) people will be all impressed because you’re reading high-brow Victorian Literature – two for one!

wouldn’t trade him for anything

So what would you do if you woke up in a strange room, in a strange apartment, and in a strange body? How do you convince people that you are you, not the guy whose face you’re wearing? And what do you do when you realize that almost no one knows you well enough to be convinced?  That’s what happens to Max Trader. He is a boutique instrument-maker who has no family and whose only friend is a 13-year-old neighbor (who believes him, but freaks out because she thinks her mother has been ‘taken’ as well).  And of course, the guy who switched bodies with him is not a nice guy – duh! What do you do when the world yanks the rug out from under you, when suddenly anything – good and bad – is possible?  These are the questions posed by Trader, written by Charles de Lint.

In the realm of favorite authors, there are still degrees of favorite-ness to be delineated.  On the short list of authors for whom I have a hard time finding the words to convey how much I appreciate their existence and contribution to my world, Charles de Lint is in the top 5.  This is not a formal list, you understand.  I don’t feel the need to assign a rank to each and place them above or below each other. Each is unique and cherished for different reasons, and I find all that grading and assigning of privilege annoying and counter-productive. (Others on the list include Barbara Kingsolver, Tom Robbins, Louise Erdrich, Terry Pratchett and Virginia Woolf.) So when I tell you that Charles de Lint is a favorite of mine, what I mean is that if you were to ask me the name of one author that you should read and enjoy in your lifetime, Charles de Lint is likely who I would mention.  He is probably the least-known of my ultimate favorites.

It all started (for Bev) long, long ago in a galaxy known as Title Wave.  My friend, Deb Day, and I both read a lot and often trade books.  She was looking for something to read in the sci-fi section of Title Wave, and saw a book called Someplace to be Flying, sky blue with a black feather on the spine.  That was all she could see, but it drew her attention enough for her to pick it up – and the rest is history.  That book knocked us both out and I have since bought a dozen or more copies as gifts for other people.  Her and I have since devoured everything he’s written, collecting them and re-reading our favorites.  Thankfully, Title Wave gave us a steady supply of new and old de Lint, they must have known we were in need.  And the municipal libraries in Anchorage also had copies of many of his stories – often filed under Youth Fiction.  And while I won’t say that every book he’s written is a 10, de Lint’s got more hits on his roster than most, and several books on my default, read-again-when-you-have-nothing-new-or-because-you-need-a-reason-to-live list. Trader is not one of my uber-faves, but I only recently purchased it, so it was time to read it again.

Many of de Lint’s novels and short stories (and all of my favorites) fall into the category of Urban Fantasy.  The setting is current era (right now, could be your street or town) but the story is anything but ordinary.  The reinventing of Native spirits, fairies, hobgoblins and other creation myths and fairy tales often comprise a significant part of the plot and setting.  In Trader, for example, two men’s minds are exchanged between their bodies.  There is a lot going on—trips to the spiritworld, jilted girlfriends, Coyote relatives, artist/waitresses, mother-daughter relations, soul eaters and more – but the theme is about living your life and owning your decisions.  And important questions like: What makes you who you are – how you look or the actions you take?  Is it random luck or karma that determines your fate?  One of the things I adore about de Lint is that there is always a higher purpose – he doesn’t just write fun fantasy books, he wants you to think about your own life. He wants to interrogate the world we live in and believes that we can change it for the better with everything we do.  Anyone who has read de Lint will probably recognize several of the minor characters in Trader (such as Jilly and Joe Crazy Dog).  I personally love it when an author uses the same city and setting to tell separate stories that add up to a whole world of people and events.

If you want to read de Lint at his best, pick up StbF, Forests of the Heart, Spirits in the Wires or Memory & Dream. Now I have to go read StbF… it’s been at least a year.  Charles de Lint needs to live to be a hundred and write me 50 more books.  I don’t ask for much…

not-so-swept Away

I’ve seen the book Away by Amy Bloom many times on my frequent trips to various book stores (I notice the book because one of my favorite books is also called Away, written by Jane Urquhart) but I finally picked it up at Powell’s for $5 after reading the back (it said the heroine treks from New York to Alaska – gotta go w/the Alaska book).  This is my first book by Bloom.

Away is the story of Lillian Lyeb, a Jewish survivor of the pogroms during the Russian Civil War in the early 1900s. Her entire family is killed in front of her, including (she believes) her young daughter.  She does what she must to get by as an immigrant in New York until a cousin comes to convince her that her daughter is still alive in Russia. Lillian discovers just how bad things can really get when she tries to arrange a trip back to Russia to find her daughter.  Everyone thinks she’s crazy, and the things she has to do to get anywhere are far from pleasant.

This is not a happy book.  The writing is vivid and the plot moves along nicely, but in the end, I wondered what the point was.  Lillian has gone through horrific experiences – which we live along with her – and in the end she gives up on the only goal – beyond survival – she ever had for no apparent reason other than exhaustion and the bird in the hand.   I am a huge fan of the non-linear plot line, the lack of closure, the virtually plotless novel, the unhappy ending, and just about any other post-modern format or device out there.  But a lack of plot closure should not make a pointless novel.  She almost kills herself several times to get to Russia, and then just… stops in Alaska.

Am I supposed to assume that, because she found a man she cares for – I think love is too strong a word – that Lillian doesn’t need to even find out if her daughter is alive and safe anymore?  That cannot be it.  Maybe I’m supposed to believe that – because there is serious doubt that the cousin was even telling the truth about the child, that Lillian just quits when she finally finds a place she can be even a little happy? That one sucks, too. The reader finds out that the daughter is indeed alive and safe with a different family, but Lillian never does.  I’m sorry, but that SUCKS as an ending.  And it’s not even a ‘hey, I’m never going to get there, I’m never going to know, so I must try to live my life but I’ll always wonder’ kind of ending.  It’s more like ‘I worked and walked and did terribly things and walked some more and froze and starved and now… I think I’ll stop here, after I’ve crossed the entire North American continent and am almost to Siberia.’  Not cool.  I feel like I’ve suffered along with her, and for nothing.

Also – and I know this is totally nit-picky, but I can’t stand it when writers get the details wrong – moose do not run in packs.  Ever.  10 moose traveling together?  Not happening.

I will probably give Ms. Bloom another shot, because the writing was indeed enjoyable.  And I don’t need a happy ending, just an ending that doesn’t make me regret finishing the book.