Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Portrait of "Ulysses" as a Young Novel

Book Review: The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

In all of my reading experience (and I am talking about literally thousands of books under my belt), somehow I have managed to miss out on the unique experience that is James Joyce's Ulysses.

Now, having read Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book, I still may not have the urge to dive into Joyce's stream of consciousness, but I certainly have an understanding of what makes it one of the most important books of modern (and modernist) literature.

Discussions of literature often treat the work as somehow separate from the context in which it was written, and often as separate from the author himself. Birmingham treats us to more than just a critical analysis of Ulysses, of which scores have already been written. Dangerous Book is equal parts history, biography, and literary criticism; it places James Joyce and his work in the context of contemporary events, the work of other authors, and Joyce's personal struggles. Rather than looking at Ulysses as a thing apart, he takes us between the covers of the often troubled mind of Joyce, and the often troubled times he lived in.

As Birmingham show us, Ulysses becomes more than just the prototypical modernist novel, more than just a controversial and banned book. In no small way, Ulysses is the story of James' own journey as an author; the journey of his crowning work from scattered notes to the printed page is no less an epic voyage.

The interplay of life and art that is revealed here is astounding in its complexity. Ulysses, that most dangerous book, scared censors not just for what it tells about the characters in the story, but for what it tells us about ourselves. Kevin Birmingham draws us a portrait of a man, his book, and the world around them, and shows us how they all fit together to bring Ulysses home.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Just Below the Surface

Book Review: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

" ... men who spend their lives on the water know that magic is real."

On the surface, Tiphanie Yanique's Land of Love and Drowning is a multigenerational tale of a family in the Virgin Islands in the early 20th century. As such, it is an interesting enough novel, detailing the ways in which the characters interact -- their lives and loves and travails. The reader gets a taste of the island culture: the flavor of the language, the beauty of the landscape, the aroma of indigenous cooking.

But when the reader dives deeper, into the warm depths of Love and Drowning, he finds an entire world hidden below the relative calm above. Strong currents of racism, roiling storms of war, schools of segregation, and whirlpools of adultery lie in wait.

The transfer of the Virgin Islands from Danish rule to American guardianship turns out to be simply the exchange from one type of colonialism to another. The Americanization of the Virgin Islands brings the foreign concept of private property ownership, and the fencing off of the beaches. There was a gain in material comforts, but it was in exchange for a loss of liberty.

With the influx of American cars and plumbing and electricity came American racism and segregation. The fences on the beaches extend into daily life, with restrictions based on color lines. Miscegenation was frowned on, the historical mixing of African and European and Asian and Carib. Islanders who served in the armed forces returned from the mainland disillusioned; they had expected to be accepted by their new American compatriots, only to find doors closed to them.

Yanique skillfully interweaves the personal stories with the larger events to create a whole cloth - we see history from the personal perspective of the characters, and each is given equal weight. Placed against the magical, mystical background of the islands, Land of Love and Drowning gives us the Virgin Islands as microcosm; where Jim Crow and Hollywood intersect with the ebb and flow of the Caribbean and the bleached bones of a shipwreck, lying just below the surface.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"There are no cats in America"

Book Review: A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

In the animated movie, An American Tail, the simple immigrant mice have an idealistic view of the United States, including the belief that in America "there are no cats". Needless to say, they are shortly relieved of their naivete, and nearly of their lives as well.

In A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Lev Golinkin presents us with a deceptively simple story - his story - and we follow this childhood memoir down its seemingly predictable path. And then, like a matryoshka doll, we find that there is another story tucked inside it; and inside that one, another -- and another.

"The anti-Semites didn't know -- they hated because they had been programmed to hate, and they obeyed because they had to obey to survive. No one knew, no one understood, and, as the old saying goes, one will always fear what one doesn't understand."

Inside Golinkin's childhood memories nestle the dark tale of anti-Semitism, the story of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the ongoing history of immigrants to America. Inside those are the personal stories of the Ukrainian people, the struggle of Jews seeking escape to the West, and the organizations and individuals trying to aid them. And deep inside it all, the story of Lev Golinkin and his family.

As I dove farther down into the nested stories inside Golinkin's Backpack, I began to reflect on how this plays out in America today. Immigration has become a hot button issue - but then it always has been. It was no different in decades past when the immigrants were Irish, or Italian, or German. Those who had already managed to secure the blessings of liberty were all too eager to quench the lamp, close the golden door, and leave the masses huddled outside.

"Every immigrant expects something from America. People don't scale fences, trudge through deserts, abandon careers, friends, loved ones, the graves of their parents, risk their lives without hope of something waiting for them on U.S. shores."

My grandmother emigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Her family was German, among many who had been invited to settle in the Volga Valley; but the political situation had changed, dangerously. Her parents put their two daughters, barely teenagers, on a ship to the United States. For them, America represented hope, and freedom from fear.

A Backpack and a Bear is not an essay supporting immigration. It is just the story of a Jewish boy in the Ukraine who held that hope. In the process it becomes the story of all those who have ever made that journey to stand in the light.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Collection of Pieces and Parts

Book Review: Problems with People by David Guterson

I like short stories. There ... I said it.

It started with Steinbeck, but branched out into Hemingway, Kipling, and Edgar Allan Poe; then on to Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers - I was hooked. Detective stories, science fiction, horror ... pick a genre. They are short, sharp, succinct; something that you can read in a sitting but that can stay with you for a lifetime ("The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Snows of Kilimanjaro").

David Guterson is a skillful writer; I especially enjoy his crafting of dialog. There is no shortage of excellent writing in the ten stories that comprise Problems with People. Yet somehow, the great writing does not seem to jell into great stories. At times I felt as if I was reading a character sketch, or a chapter randomly lifted from another book. I appreciate that the short story puts constraints on an author in terms of character development and plotting, however "short" should not mean fragmentary - there still needs to be a story.

At times, especially in the stories "Shadow" and "Hush", Guterson is almost there. I did not have that same feeling with those as I did with the remaining stories; that this was a longer work with some pieces left out, like a badly edited newspaper story. Guterson's use of the language approaches poetry at times, and can be a joy to read, the words like fine wine on the tongue. The pieces within the stories are very well done, sadly the parts don't come together as a whole.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Man and the Myth

Book Review: Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed by John F. Ross

Are heroes made, or are they born?

Webster defines a 'hero' as "a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities". It seems then, that to be a hero requires other people, people to admire and idolize; it is an extrinsic quality. Yet the same source defines the term 'heroic' as "having or showing great courage" - a purely intrinsic characteristic.

In reading John Ross' Enduring Courage, the reader is able to get a sense of the often conflicting definitions that we apply to our heroes. How many of our sports heroes, elevated to that status by media coverage and hype, have fallen from grace when we find out that they used performance enhancing drugs to get there? We maintain the expectation that somehow they are different, that they possess some inner strength or character trait that makes them different, we are disappointed to find it was simply a quest for their fifteen minutes of fame.

At the same time, there have been people who worked hard, persevered, and conquered. John Ross gives us a mixture of hyperbole and reality that truly conveys the dual character of Eddie Rickenbacker - on the one hand the hard-nosed, often un-likeable son of immigrants; on the other the self-promoting race car driver and aviator. Sometimes the flowery language of Enduring Courage seems to have been cribbed right off a 1914 advertising poster: "... his ability to handle with nerve and clear calculation those insanely chaotic moments at the edge of speed and fear." This is the 'hero' side of creating the idol, and Ross often goes over the top with his adjectives.

The heroic side of Eddie Rickenbacker lies between the lines, in the character and courage that he brought to bear in times of stress and adversity. This inner strength often alienated those around him, but it was an integral part of Rickenbacker, a foundation for all that he did and was to become. While it may be a less attractive target for flowery phrases, that core is what differentiates paper heroes from the truly heroic. Perhaps without really meaning to, Enduring Courage illustrates what we really want our heroes to be.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Man and His Owl and a Reader's Dilemma

Book Review: The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl by Martin Windrow

In general, I do not approve of people keeping wild animals or "exotics", as pets. Quite frankly I don't care much for zoos or aquariums either, especially where the emphasis is entertainment rather than education (for example, Sea World).

The process of taming or containing our wild co-inhabitants often results in their physical and mental degradation and early death. To me, an integral part of the beauty of wild things is seeing them IN the wild.

Martin Windrow decided he wanted a tawny owl as a pet. And while I objected to the reasoning behind his decision, I found The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar to be a thoroughly entertaining story that is educational as well.

So much for preconceptions.

Interwoven with the stories of the trials of having an owl in your apartment (not for the faint-hearted!) there are lessons in the biology and behavior of owls in general, and of tawny owls in particular. Windrow obviously approaches his owl adoption seriously, although not always realistically. As with any pet, there are always unforeseen issues - but the scope of those issues is dramatically different when we're talking about a raptor as opposed to a tabby cat. But owl and man seem to come to a mutually agreeable compromise.

And there is no doubt that Windrow cares deeply about his feathered friend. Depending on how much emotion you want to ascribe to an animal, Mumbles the owl regards Windrow as a central figure in her life as well. That mutual regard and respect is key in our desire for relationships with others, regardless of the species.

Despite my reluctance, I was drawn into the story of The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar; it is filled with humor and humanity that appeals to the naturalist inside all of us. At times I felt there was a certain tunnel vision, a sort of denial on the part of Windrow that caging an owl was not exactly the humane thing to do, regardless of its birth. But aside from my personal objections, it is a captivating and enlightening story that is well worth the read.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Authentic Western

Book Review: Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

"It begins and ends with horses, now and in history ... the horse alone has the power to transport us".

I was born and grew up in the Western United States. I have traveled from one side of this country to the other; I have seen some great places, but I cannot imagine living anyplace else. There is a flavor to the West that satisfies something inside me. I know that every part of the United States has its own personality, and that for different people, different places feel like 'home'.

When I read a story that is set in the West, I can quickly tell if the author has actually lived here. There is a different way of talking, a different way of looking at life that comes from long, empty spaces and sharp stark landscapes. I think you have to live it to describe it. There are a handful of writers who 'get it'; in Painted Horses Malcolm Brooks shows that he is one.

Painted Horses transports us to another decade, another way of thinking, yet not one that is really all that foreign to us. The battle between progress and historic preservation is still ongoing; we lose a little bit of our history every day. Brooks sets the scene, and begins to fill it with characters on both sides. With a playing field as big as the West, it can sometimes seem that the characters aren't even in the same game, but love of the land and its history ties it together.

Painted Horses has the marks of a mature and seasoned author, and the facets of the story are as varied as the colors of a Colorado sunset; when the glow finally fades and the stars come out, you can't wait to do it all over again.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Where Worlds Collide

Book Review: The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi [translated by Darryl Sterk]

"No other creature can share experience like this. Only human beings can, through writing, experience something separately together." - The Man with the Compound Eyes

Most of us lead what we consider simple lives. We look at the mundane activities of daily life - eating, sleeping, working - without consideration of how they affect, or are affected, by the world around us. Indeed, our quest for individuality seems to demand that we see ourselves as separate, living at the center our own little world.

The Man with the Compound Eyes is a novel of interconnectedness; where people, places, things, and even time periods come together, and "the finest movement of any organism represents a change in an ecosystem." Author Wu Ming-Yi takes us to a place where our mythic past of oral legends and wrathful gods meets our technological present of live news coverage and cell phones. There, on a beach in Taiwan, they must confront not only each other but the uncertain future as well, when the rising ocean dumps back all the trash people had dumped into it.

As if we have compound eyes, Wu Ming-YI allows us to see a single series of events from multiple perspectives; each intimately personal, yet remaining interrelated. Woven together with the threads of life, death, love, and loss, the characters in The Man with the Compound Eyes face their shared trials and individual travails. "Life doesn't allow you any preconceptions. Most of the time you have to accept what life throws at you, kind of like walking into a restaurant where the owner dictates what you're having for dinner."

Lyrical, mystical, yet ultimately real, The Man with the Compound Eyes is a subtly layered novel that shows us an intricate and multi-faceted world - the world we just happen to live in. An enjoyable read; the translation by Darryl Sterk is seamless. A welcome addition to my library, and highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Searching for One Voice Among the Many

Book Review: The House of Journalists by Tim Finch

The issue of immigration, both legal and illegal, can be complex: convoluted, complicated, and confusing. Tim Finch's The House of Journalists, is equal parts of all of these, but does little to shed any light on the subject.

Focusing on the stories of refugees seeking political asylum, Finch gives us an accurate portrayal of the past terrors, present lives, and uncertain futures these individuals must confront. Mixed in with the often horrific tales of death and torture in their home countries, Finch allows us glimpses of the idyll of their safe home in the House of Journalists, a halfway house for members of the third world fifth estate. Underlying the seeming calm of the House, however, is the implicit threat of deportation. In their new country, the journalists are at the mercy of a faceless government where humanitarian concerns often take a backseat to political expediency.

So far, so good. Where House of Journalists fails is in the telling. The straightforward synopsis I have given above is anything but straightforward in the book. Multiple voices weave through the chapters, shifting from first person to second person to third person, often without a clear indication of who is speaking. At times Finch uses this effectively, but for the most part it simply adds an impenetrable layer of complexity, and the story gets lost in infinite folds of plot.

I believe a more conventional rendering of House of Journalists would have been much more effective. While I'm sure Tim Finch had a lot of fun writing this, it is not as much fun to read. There is a great story lurking in here, but instead of freeing it, Finch has buried it in an effort to be clever. A good first effort - I hope he finds his true voice among the many he presents us here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ulysses in Trieste

Book Review: Trieste by Dasa Drndic [translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac]

James Joyce, author of Ulysses, spent about ten years in Trieste in the years leading up to World War I. In Trieste, author Dasa Drndic uses Joyce's stream of consciousness style to convey the chaotic mix of cultures, religion, and politics in Italy's border regions in the years between the wars.

The unrelenting flow of words is not always effective when detailing the history of the characters' families, resulting in a confusing mix of names and dates that can leave the reader bewildered. But when the story moves into the horrific years of the Nazi 'ethnic cleansing', the reader gets caught up in the flow. Life and death, loyalty and betrayal dance in a schizophrenic 'tarantula', and Drndic is unrelenting, the words flaming on the page, and in the reader's mind.

Great fiction should blur the line between reality and imagination. A great deal of non-fiction has already been written about the Holocaust and its associated horrors, in fictionalizing some aspects of her story Drndic has not lost anything; she puts a human face to the horror, and does honor to those who actually lived (and died) as a result of it. There is plenty of history here; what has been fictionalized supports the facts, it does not undermine them.

Trieste is not a book for the faint-hearted, either in style or subject. Although at times I found the interior monologue annoying (especially in the early going), it is devastatingly effective in the last half of the book. Enter if you are brave enough, and if you stay the course you will be changed.

"... in this 'library' of horrors, in this alchemist's kitchen of maniacs, little lives of little people have been foundering already for sixty years; they are waving their deportation I.D.s, their brittle, faded and cracked family photographs, their hastily penned letters, diaries, their birth certificates and marriage licenses, their death certificates, sketches, poems, their coupons for food and clothing, anything that can supplant their cry, they are waving: Here we are, find us."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Nature as it Really Is

Book Review: Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World by Kathleen Jamie

"American conservation is ... still concerned for the most part with show pieces ...we have not yet learned to think in terms of small cogs and wheels." - Aldo Leopold

There is more to the natural world than picture-perfect scenic vistas, or majestic animals moving in choreographed precision. Not all wilderness is scenic, not all wildlife is majestic. The small cogs and wheels that keep the eco-system moving are often hard to see unless you know what you are looking for; and once you do, they are just as often not pretty to look at. Yet without them there would be no scenic vistas, or wild animals, or human beings to see and appreciate them.

In Sightlines, Kathleen Jamie shares with us both sides of the natural world, the beautiful and the not-so-pretty: "It's not all primroses and otters ... There are other species, not dolphins arching clear from the water, but the bacteria that can pull the rug from under us." At one moment we are watching killer whales swimming free, in another viewing thin sections of necrotic tissue. Is it so much of a jump to see these are but two sides of the same coin?

In her effort to make sense of what she sees and experiences, Jamie finds the same truth that Leopold found decades before: that the small cogs and wheels are every bit as important as any other part of the eco-system. A stagnant tidal backwater may not be as aesthetically pleasing as a soaring evergreen forest, but its function is every bit as important. The chain of life extends from predators to prey to scavengers; down to the bacteria that complete the process of decomposition each link depends on the others.

The sooner we see that they are all part and parcel of Nature "taking its course", the sooner we come to realize "... you just might be making the same journeys as these other creatures, all of us alive at the same time on the same planet."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

(Re)-Inventing Yourself

Book Review: The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean

What would you do if you suddenly found yourself in a foreign country, with no recollection of how you got there, or even who you were? I, for one, have never had to answer that question. David MacLean not only had to face that question, but went on to tell about it in his fine work, The Answer to the Riddle is Me.

His subtitle, A Memoir of Amnesia (isn't that an oxymoron?) gives a clue to his often tongue-in-cheek humor in confronting the conundrum of 'who is David MacLean?' For most of us it would be impossible to find anything amusing in losing our identity. MacLean relates the random thoughts that rebounded through his head, and manages to keep a human face on an inhuman experience.

Under that veneer of irreverent bravado, there is sheer terror. Like a drowning man, MacLean finds himself grasping at straws in an effort to stay afloat in his hallucinatory hell. He desperately grabs on to anything and anyone that might give him a clue as to who he was/is. In some cases he finds himself caught between his two selves - the David MacLean he was, a portrait held by family and friends; and the David MacLean he is, who finds that "continuing on in the world of the sane is harder than you thought."

"My hallucinations left me feeling like the inside of my soul had been flapped out for the world to see; the shame I'd carried through my life had bubbled out and been exposed to the air, and now it wouldn't recede." Epiphany is not always a joyful, uplifting experience; sometimes it can be downright painful, even depressing. "The Answer to the Riddle" is an intense, deeply personal ride through the inner workings of a mind that has had the "reset" button pushed, and the effort of moving forward from that experience. Sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing, always human, this is one of the most honest books I have ever read.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

It's All in Here

Book Review: The Best American Essays 2013 edited by Robert Atwan and Cheryl Strayed

In my opinion, the purpose of literature is to help me see the world through other eyes, and to look beyond the narrow construct of my personal view of 'how things are'. The essay seeks to accomplish this by allowing the author to forward their personal viewpoint on matters of their choosing; a well-written essay will bring the reader into the author's world view, hopefully to expand the reader's viewpoint in the process.

The Best American Essays 2013 opens to the reader a wide selection of windows on the world. While they are all written from a first-person perspective, the subjects they reveal go beyond simple autobiographical short stories. It's all in here: economics (the subject on everyone's mind), politics, science, psychology, relationships. Every essay reveals not just the author's personal outlook; to the perceptive reader they also show our collective views as Americans.

In this day of sound bites and tweets, maybe it is too much to ask for readers to look beyond the mere words on the page, to read between the lines, to savor and mull over the stories that are laid before us and see the deeper secrets they hold. As Charles Baxter points out in "What Happens in Hell": "Why do you desire to believe the ideas that you hold dear, the cornerstones of your faith?" Are we more comfortable with our heads in the sand, seeing only that which is directly in front of us? That world where "... people will walk smiling through puddles of your blood, smiling and talking on their cellular phones. They're going to the movies." (J.D. Daniels, "Letter from Majorca").

Editor Cheryl Strayed points out that "Essayists begin with an objective truth and attempt to find a greater, grander truth by testing fact against subjective interpretations of experiences and ideas, memories and theories. They try to make meaning of actual life, even if an awful lot has yet to be figured out." This demands of us as readers to look for the greater truth as well; to not merely look at these stories like we do the evening news: passively absorbing what we are told and moving on to the next. We need to be actively looking within, even as the author shares THEIR experience of the world.

A book to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and purposefully, digging out those golden nuggets of greater truth.