Friday, May 28, 2010

Dispatch: chocolate

Current book: In Cold Blood
Pages read: None

Friday. No reading. I made triple chocolate cookies. That is all.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Current book: In Cold Blood
Pages read: 3 - 74

I'm a little confused as to how this counts as a novel, but I guess it's a fictionalized version of a crime. Capote seems to be trying pretty hard to stick to the events as they happened, though. Then again, it's hard to tell whether the statements from the people in the book are actually court transcripts or not, and there are certainly some conversations and accounts of events that are, at the very least, creative nonfiction. The library puts it in the nonfiction section, and I think I would, too, so I'm little unhappy that it's on the novel list. It's hard to criticize nonfiction like literature. You can criticize the syntax and diction and storytelling, but it's pretty difficult to question the author's decisions about plot and character if he hasn't made them up.

Well, anyway, this is the story of a multiple murder in a small town in Kansas called Holcomb. In the first section, we meet the family that's going to be murdered and the murderers, as well as quite a few townspeople. The Cutters, Herb and Bonnie, and their two children, Nancy and Kenyon, are a prosperous farming family whom most people in town like and respect. Herb is a self-made man and a devout Methodist who drinks neither alcohol nor caffeine. His wife Bonnie struggles with depression. Nancy is 16 and very popular, and is currently dating Bobby Rupp, the boy next door. Kenyon, 15, is reserved, but quite intelligent.

Dick and Perry, the murderers, are paroled convicts who live several hundred miles away. They became friends in prison, and Perry proposed the crime to Dick after they were both paroled, saying that murdering the whole Clutter family would be a great way to make a large amount of money. (We don't have any information yet on where that money might come from or what it is that they plan to steal after committing the murders.)

There's a long section of introductions to the family and the killers, and then the plot flashes forward to Nancy's friend, Susan, finding the family dead in the house. The police come, and from the descriptions of what they find, it's clear that the crime was brutal and horrifying. All four of the Clutters are tied up, some gagged as well, and have been shot in the head. In addition, Herb has had his throat cut. (It's quite graphic, actually, and I wasn't really that pleased at having to read about it. There's a reason I don't read true crime; it's usually disturbing and awful.) As far as suspects go, so far Bobby Rupp is the main target of the investigation, though we, of course, know that Perry and Dick are the real killers.

Yeah, it's true crime-y. It keeps you going, to some extent, but I feel like, as is often true in crime books, the author is so proud of his research that he feels like he has to throw in every tiny detail he discovered in the investigation. At some point, Capote tells us that Nancy has a picture of Bobby at the edge of the local lake, but feels compelled to add that that's as far as he'd ever go, seeing as he couldn't swim. Do I care? Not really. You could make an argument that he's trying to be immersive, but I think it could use some editing. Also, I can't help but feel that true crime novels are exercises in voyeurism to no real purpose. Is there really a message that you're getting across by telling me the savage details of a depraved crime? People can be evil? Yeah, I expect I could have figured that out by reading the newspaper.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

They were juggled!

Current book: None
Pages read: None

I'm between books at the moment. I saw baby geese at the little park near my house today, though. (Goslings would have been a better word there, but I'm here to provide you with authenticity, and I thought of them as baby geese.) Their parents hissed at me, and I found myself saying, aloud, that they should stop hissing at me because I wasn't coming over there. Talking to geese, ladies and gentleman, it's what I do.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It is later than you think.

Current book: Franny and Zooey
Pages read: 91 - 202 (end)

I've got to hand it to Salinger; he pulled it out in the end. I wasn't expecting it at all, but I ended up actually liking this. A lot.

So, the rest of the book pretty much consists of Zooey having a conversation with Franny about her mental breakdown. She has decided, it seems, to follow the precepts of a little religious book called The Way of the Pilgrim that she found amongst Seymour's possessions. It basically boils down to the fact that you should try to pray all the time - to make your whole life a prayer - because that way you'll be close to God, or whatever it is that you think of as God, and therefore give your life value.

In discussing matters at hand, Franny and Zooey first talk about how critical and sarcastic they both are about almost all the aspects of their lives: Franny mostly about her college professors and how classes are so focused on the acquisition of knowledge rather than wisdom, and especially the appearance of intelligence. and Zooey on the facades of show business and the difficulties of having to pretend to like his colleagues. They both discuss the experience of having felt themselves be savage and hateful and bitter, but unable to stop saying critical things or acting like arrogant assholes. (I have to say, this part struck a chord with me. I've had this experience more times than I can count. And they're right - you can feel yourself doing it, but somehow it just keeps happening. Since I've already admitted to being an arrogant asshole sometimes, this next part can't really make it any worse, so I'll go ahead. I think it's a product of being both educated and intelligent in a world of people that aren't usually as educated or intelligent as you.)

Anyway, after that part, Zooey criticizes Franny's impulse to live her life in constant prayer, citing the fact that she doesn't know anything about Jesus or religion, or even what it is that she wants. She's upset, and he leaves her alone for a while. Stricken with remorse, however, he calls her on the separate phone line in the house and poses as Buddy to give her advice. She sees through him almost instantly, but, in the end, he gives her advice anyway. What he says is this: understand that it's by finding what you love to do and what you are happiest and best at doing and actually doing it that you give your life value. To the actor who is Zooey, performing well for his audiences is praying to God. In a way, the audience is God, and their appreciation is Zooey's benediction. Living your life well, he tells Franny, is giving it value, is, in fact, the same as praying every moment. Franny realizes the truth in his statement, and falls asleep happy. The end.

So, seriously, complete surprise. Crazy optimism! Excellent life philosophy! I kind of love you right now, Salinger. And the fact that the major conclusions of both of the important parts of the final discussion in the book resonated hugely with me is no small thing, especially with the religious context of the second part. The religion, it was clear, was not the point; it was about everyone's lives and finding value in them, regardless of religious convictions or lack thereof. This book has profound ideas that are expressed in such a way as to make you think about them for years to come. Definitely worthy of the list.

P. S. Zooey is apparently short for Zachary. Which just doesn't even make sense.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Is that your final answer?

Current book: Franny and Zooey
Pages read: 3 - 91

I had to buy this book, which was annoying. The library's copies all had holds on them. No idea why some random Salinger book is in great demand, but there you are.

So far, nothing has happened. I'm not even kidding. The 90ish pages that I read pretty much consisted of two long conversations. The information boils down to this: the Glass family consists of seven children separated by nearly 18 years. Franny and Zooey are the two youngest members. They all, at one point, competed on a quiz show called It's a Wise Child. The eldest brother, Seymour, who was quite a prodigy, offed himself a couple of years ago. Franny is at college, but has just had a nervous breakdown and returned home. She's refusing to eat and thinks the world is made up of people not worth knowing; she thinks that everyone's the same, and all of it is a sham. (Not unlike Holden Caulfield.) We learn this when we see her have lunch with her boyfriend, Lane, before the mental breakdown. Anyway. Zooey, who's slightly older than Franny (and a boy, which I wasn't expecting, what with the name and all), is a successful television actor, also living at home, who is constantly annoyed by his overprotective mother, who wants him to get an advanced degree instead of acting. Buddy, another brother and the narrator of much of this, teaches English at a prep school in New England and watches over Zooey by way of letters; several years earlier, he encouraged Zooey to pursue acting rather than higher ed.

That's where we are. Things are pretty much static. I'm kind of expecting that they'll remain that way right until the end, when there will probably be a suicide or two.

It's very Salinger. So much so, in fact, that I don't find it altogether different from Catcher in the Rye, really. I don't know; the major problems of the characters seem to be the same, which is that they are overcome with the ennui of life and are having difficulty identifying that which is important to them as well as their own self-images - except it's less entertaining than Catcher because the narrative voice isn't as quirky and evocative. (Seriously, there's one line in the first few pages of Catcher where Holden's talking about a friend with whom he's horsing around at Pencey Prep, and he goes, "I landed on him like a goddamn panther." One of the best moments of my high school reading career, right there.) We'll see if it improves.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Yeah, I'm talking to you, water bath!

Current book: None
Pages read: None

It's cheesecake-making day. There are no posts on cheesecake-making day.

Also, to the concept known as bain-marie: screw you, sucker! People eat my cracked cheesecake and like it!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Positive reinforcement

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: 463 - 561 (end)

I love how it's easy to tell when I get tired of something, because I start to read it really fast and keep speeding through it until I get to the end. With some books, that means the entire thing. With others, I make it 400 pages or so and then start, metaphorically, to look at my watch. Imagine Sonic the Hedgehog when you let him stand around too long, tapping his foot and sighing at you. It's like that. (Oh, dear. I believe I may have just dated myself.)

Anyway. To the increasingly politically charged atmosphere of the immigrant neighborhoods of London, Gibreel and his trumpet act as a catalyst to the eruption of riots and arson. It is unclear whether Gibreel really has the power to cleanse evil with his trumpet, through some kind of fiery magic, or if he and his trumpet simply trigger others to set fires, but in the end, much of the neighborhood is burned and the police are forced to invade. Pamela and Joshi end up dying in one of the fires, and Saladin almost does, but at the last second, Gibreel arrives to save him.

Then there's a little pause. (I guess we'd call it an intercalary chapter. I learned that term in Junior English in high school when we were reading The Grapes of Wrath. Remember that whole damn chapter about a turtle crossing a dusty road? Well, I do. You don't forgot that kind of agonizing boredom. However, you also don't forget the literary term you learned because of it. So I forgive you, Steinbeck. I guess.) Before more real world, we finally get to the conclusion of the butterfly-girl, Ayesha's, pilgrimage story. The pilgrimage does make it to the Arabian Sea, though many die on the way, and Saeed follows all the way in his car. They walk into the sea and it does not, visibly, seem to part for them, but several witnesses who followed them into the ocean say that far out, they saw the waters recede and the pilgrims walk across the seabed unharmed. Saeed, who also followed them into the sea, says he saw no such thing, and is left mourning his dead wife.

Back in reality, Gibreel goes to India and resumes his film career, and Saladin, recuperating, gets the news that his estranged father is dying of cancer in India. He goes immediately there to see him, and they reconcile before his father dies. He also reconciles with Zeeny, the girl he fell in love with on his first trip. (Whom, in my summary, I accidentally called Kadija. My mistake, but I sort of have an excuse. In the book, Zeeny did have a friend called Kadija, and I once taught a class in which there were two girls named Kadija and Zeeny, who were friends and sat next to each other. I think it influenced my recall in this matter.) Saladin decides to stay in India, partly because he now owns his father's property there, but also because of how London has treated him. After a while, Allie Cone, who has permanently broken things off with Gibreel, comes to India to launch another expedition to Everest. (I did mention that she was a mountaineer, but not that she'd climbed Everest in the past. Sorry.) Gibreel, hearing that she's returned, finds her with Sisodia (it's only by pure chance that the two are together at the time) and kills them both in a psychotic rage, convinced that they're sleeping together. He visits Saladin afterward, for what reason it's unclear, but tells him that it was the memory of Saladin's manipulations (which Gibreel still does not know were really Saladin) back in London that drove Gibreel to commit the crimes. Then he shoots himself. The end.

Fun times, huh? It's a good novel, though it seems completely insane in the summaries. And it does, in fact, have completely insane moments. It also, however, says a great deal about religion, race, immigration, identification with one's homeland, and modern society. They are complex issues, it muses, and there is no right answer to any of them. We have to consider the events that happen to us both in the real world and in the imaginative world. Sometimes things that seem miraculous happen, and we have choices about how to deal with them. Perhaps, to ignore the philosophical world that underlies them, to ignore the emotions that they raise in us, is to invite our own doom. But to go too far in the other direction and accept them at face value is to do the same. Somewhere in the middle of those extremes lie life and all the decisions that must accompany the living of it. Rage and revenge are easy to embrace, and forgiveness harder. Suspicion and escapism are again, easy, but reconciliation and the act of working for the betterment of that which is important, are also, again, harder.

Rushdie's narrative is so complex and well-crafted, his diction so vibrant and real, and his message, in the end, so compelling, that I can't help but say it's a great work of literature. I am not only willing to grant it a place on the list, but also state, with certainty, that it should remain there. (I still don't like magical realism. But see how mature I am, putting in on the list even though the style is not my personal preference? I want points for that! Someone give me a gold star!)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bread and circuses

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: None

No reading today, as is common on Wednesdays, but I'll say things anyway. Last week I made bread, and though I confused myself about the instant yeast a little, it ended up coming out really well. I'd made it before, but this time was the first time I didn't have the supervision of someone who'd made bread in the past. So I was pleased with it. I also find myself thinking that it was pretty easy, and am therefore inclined to make my own bread on a regular basis in future. It's just not that hard, the house smells great, and then you can give bread away to your friends. What's not to like?

I have Google Analytics on this page, so I get to see where the people who visit my page are located if their IPs are set for that, and I enjoy it when people not from the U.S. visit and stay for a while. Yesterday there was one hit from Israel and one from Germany, and they both stayed long enough to actually read content. It was exciting for me, because I'm a dork.

I also get to see what search terms from Google lead to my page, and I'm pretty sure that whoever searched for "housewife sex with boy servant" was pretty disappointed.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rush job

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: 400 - 463

I suddenly got really tired of this book today, so this is going to be quick.

Mahound finds out about Baal and the prostitutes, has the place raided, and everyone gets executed. Then Mahound dies.

Saladin goes back to his house and tells Pamela, his wife, that he'll give her a divorce, but is going to stay in the house while he gets his life back together. Joshi and Pamela continue their relationship, but Joshi is highly deferential to Saladin. Eventually, Saladin meets Gibreel at a party and sets out to destroy him as an act of revenge. Allie and Gibreel both trust Saladin and think he's trying to help Gibreel recover from his mental illness. However, by taking advantage of Gibreel's hallucinations that he's an angel and his general lack of mental balance, Saladin sets out on a campaign, Iago-like, to convince Gibreel that Allie's cheating on him. He successfully does so, and after destroying the interior of Allie's apartment, Gibreel runs amok in London. He hasn't done anything yet but buy a trumpet, but clearly he's going to go all Judgment Day on the place.

Blah-blah religious imagery, revenge, Shakespeare, and some other stuff like that. I got all tired of the rhetoric and philosophizing and detached random narrator who's supposed to be God. I can only take so much magical realism before I snap. Apparently, 400 pages was my limit this time. So, really, Rushdie's doing way better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who pretty much lost me at page 40 of 100 Years of Solitude. Still, magical realism guys - choose one: magic or realism.

Monday, May 17, 2010

May break my bones

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: 315 - 400

For some reason, this book just seems to let me summarize it really fast. Perhaps it's because I've read it before and therefore don't have to decipher the plot, or perhaps it's because not that much happens, really. I'm not sure, but I lean toward the latter; frankly, Rushdie spends a lot of time philosophizing.

No word on Saladin, just fyi, but Gibreel remains happily ensconced with Allie while he learns about her personal life, including the fact that her younger sister, once a model in London, died of a drug overdose in her 20s. Shortly after this revelation, Gibreel gets a message from God that he ought to be out doing archangel-y things instead of lying around with a girl, so he tries to go do them. Unfortunately, he just ends up acting crazy when he does things like trying to jump off buildings, and is returned to Allie by a concerned bystander, Sisodia. It turns out that Sisodia is a film producer who wants Gibreel to make movies again - specifically a series in which he plays Gabriel - and is representing a group of Gibreel's creditors in India who won't be appeased any other way. Gibreel agrees, but during the press junket, has another attack of angelicity (Well, I don't know. What word do you want me to use? Angelitude? Angelness?) and sort of flips out.

In the delirium that follows, he has more dreams of Mahound. It's ten years after the time period of Gibreel's first dreams of Mahound, and the exiled prophet has returned to Jalilah, but now he is the one with the power. The whole town converts to Islam at Mahound's behest, but the townspeople continue to lead double lives, eating pork and visiting whores while pretending to be devout. Baal, a poet who once wrote mocking poems about Mahound, hides in the most popular whorehouse, the Curtain, where 12 of the prostitutes have taken on the identities of Mahound's 12 wives. Eventually, Baal assumes the identity of Mahound in order to better support the customers' illusions that they are sleeping with Mahound's wives. Also, Salman (Is it a coincidence that he shares the author's name? Somehow I doubt it.), one of Mahound's former disciples, tells Baal about the fact that he has tested Mahound's revelations from God and found them to be wanting. He maintains that Mahound is making up whatever rules he wants and passing them off as scripture, and that the content of the verses that Mahound delivers as messages from God is therefore suspect at best.

It's not hard to see why fundamentalist Islam was upset about the book, but I still stay it's a shame that there's a small percentage of Muslims that give the religion a bad name by preventing anyone from casting aspersions on the prophet Mohamed. The Muslims I know would say that people can say what they want about Mohamed, but the truth of the Qu'ran speaks for itself, and doesn't need to be defended with violence. While I find a lot of things about many religions suspect, I think there's often truth to be found (and a great deal of untruth) in their holy books. That said, though, the religion that cannot bear to be publicly challenged or ridiculed only weakens the argument that it properly represents those truths.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gunpowder, treason, and plot

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: 259 - 315

Ok. Actual update. Sorry about the two-day absence, though I'm sure you've grown accustomed to the lack of substance on Wednesdays. Anyway, point is, I'm here now.

There's not that much to report in the book, actually. Saladin lives in the attic of Sufyan's house for a while, growing more friendly (though not romantically so) with Sufyan's daughters, especially Mishal. Mishal starts dating a friend of Joshi's, Hanif, which is technically illegal since she's only 17, and certainly objectionable to her parents, who end up throwing her out when they discover it. At the time she's thrown out, Hind decides that it's time Saladin, who has only grown more monstrous during his stay, also leaves. There have been rumors about him in the neighborhood, and, combined with the growing racial tensions of 80s London, things are pretty volatile for him. Mishal spirits him to a friend's club, where, lying on the floor trying to sleep and breathing brimstone, he realizes that all of his problems are Gibreel's fault. He has a temper tantrum and tears the place up, and when Mishal and her friend return, they find that he's a normal human again. It seems the release of rage removed all his satanic attributes.

Gibreel, in the meantime, is living with Allie Cone and being pampered day and night. They have sex a lot. Um. That's really all.

Thatcher's England is really the central part of this section of the narrative. Rushdie clearly sees the tightening of immigration policy and the state-sponsored nationalistic conservatism of the Thatcher administration as a threat to the freedom of Great Britain. The fact that the tensions in the neighborhood that Saladin's staying in are due largely to conflicts with the police, rather than with criminal organizations or other civilian factions is pretty good evidence for that. Also, the fact that, though the rumors of some kind of devil in the neighborhood have people nervous, those people end up embracing the devil as a symbol of their unity is quite telling. Since everyone thinks they're Satan-worshipers and witch doctors anyway, why not become them, or at least use Satan as a symbol of their identity? When there's nothing to fulfill but negative expectations, why not go ahead and do it?

Anyway, it's interesting to look at the Thatcher influence from an historical perspective and go, "Indeed. That would have been worrisome. Fortunately, it eased rather than escalating." Thatcher's administration in the U.K. produced some top-quality rebellious literature. Both this and V for Vendetta are clearly a reaction to it, and they're both important contributions to the literary world. I guess I appreciate her for that, if nothing else.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Oh my ears and whiskers!

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: 259 - something. I don't know.

I'm not dead; I'm just completely crazed. I read today, but will update tomorrow. Just too much to do.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: 170 - 259

In this bit, Saladin finds out that he's in a hospital ward with several other immigrants who have sprouted unusual animal features (Do you see the allegory? If you're having trouble, rest assured that Rushdie will SMACK YOU IN THE FACE WITH IT.), and eventually they stage a revolt and break out. Saladin goes to his house, of course, where he finds his wife, Pamela, with an old friend of his, Jumpy Joshi (pretty much always referred to as Jumpy). Pamela and Jumpy are having an affair, but frankly, Saladin's too concerned with being the incarnation of Satan to worry about it. Jumpy takes Saladin to the home of a friend in London who can conceal him and care for him. This man, Mohammed Sufyan, is unhappily married to a woman by the name of Hind, and they have two daughters, Mishal and Anihita, both of whom are going through their rebellious teenage years, and therefore find Saladin, in the corporeal form of the ultimate bad boy, rather fascinating.

Gibreel, in the meantime, has found Allie Cone and is staying with her in seclusion. That's all that's really happening in his life, but he's also continuing to have vivid dreams in which he plays the role of the angel Gabriel. In the latest, Ayesha, a young woman in a tiny village in India that is known for its huge population of butterflies, becomes Gabriel's wife. As the chosen one of an archangel, she is a holy woman, and often has visions or episodes from which she emerges naked, clothed only in a cloud of butterflies. One day, she dreams that the whole village must go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, including the elderly, children, and the infirm. They must, she says, go entirely on foot, including across the sea, which, it has been promised, will part for them so that they can complete their journey. One of the men of the village, Mirza Saeed, is highly skeptical of her, but he is the only one. Even his wife, whom Ayesha correctly told she was dying of cancer, believes in the girl, and abandons her husband to follow Ayesha to the sea.

I'll provide more analysis when it comes together more. It's a bit early for the theme of the whole thing right now, except for the part about the British viewing immigrants as no better than animals (or, in fact, some kind of animal-human crossbreed). Oh, established populations and your continual pattern of treating newcomers as second-class citizens. Happens every time. You'd think that at least in America, which is, of course, almost entirely populated by immigrants, we'd have got over this idiocy by now. But clearly, seeing as Arizona has entered some kind of panicked pseudo-police-state-existence, we haven't. I sigh at you, modern society. Sigh.

Monday, May 10, 2010

After the fall

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: 78 - 170

I forgot to update on Friday. Sorry about that. There wasn't anything interesting to say anyway. This weekend I made some delicious coconut basmati rice, though. Basically, you just cook basmati with half of your water replaced with coconut milk, throw in some ginger, cardamom, and cilantro, and wait for the amazing deliciousness that is the result. It's not strongly flavored, but it is, somehow, complete. I loved it.

In the world of literature, the plane that Saladin and Gibreel are on gets hijacked and they end up being held hostage for 110 days on a runway in the middle of nowhere. During that time, Gibreel has a series of nightmares in which he is the archangel Gibreel (Gabriel to you Judeo-Christians) and is responsible for passing the word of Allah on to Mohamed (whom Rushdie calls Mahound). During these dream sequences, he makes mistakes, such as telling Mahound that he should let the followers of Allah also worship three goddesses in order to increase the popularity of the religion. Mahound goes along with it, though he knows it's wrong, and then Gibreel changes his mind. This causes the government of Jalilah, the small city to which Mahound is trying to bring the word of Allah, to treat all the new Muslims disdainfully and abusively. (This part is also what is partially responsible for the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, since it implies that the prophet Mohamed sold out to false idols.) Anyway, so there's that part.

Other than having nightmares, Gibreel also spends his time annoying Saladin, who doesn't like him at all. They become sort of bizarre, uncomfortable friends as a result of nothing more than proximity and Gibreel's random affection for Saladin. Eventually, the hijackers fly the plane to London and blow it up in the air, and Gibreel and Saladin are miraculously saved from disaster, falling not to their deaths, but to safety on a beach in Britain. (How? No explanation. That's why it's magical realism.) During the fall, however, both men are transformed into supernatural creatures: Saladin into, basically, the devil, complete with horns, goat's legs, and a giant phallus, and Gibreel into an angel, with a halo and an awe-inspiring presence. (No wings, though, in case you were wondering.)

Rosa Diamond, an old British lady, finds the men and takes them into her home, where Saladin is soon arrested by the police, who think he's an illegal immigrant or a terrorist or both. Gibreel, though he clearly holds magical angel power over the policemen, doesn't intervene, nor is he arrested or even considered suspicious. Saladin is treated abominably, even though, in the true idiom of magical realism, nobody acknowledges the fact that it doesn't make any sense that he's a devil. Eventually, when the cops realize he is, in fact, a British citizen, they knock him unconscious so that they can claim they never treated him poorly at all, and he wakes up quite a bit later in a hospital. Gibreel lives with Rosa for a while, and discovers that she has an interesting and star-crossed history, mostly because of the fact that he relives parts of it, ostensibly because of his new-found angelic powers. After working through that history with her, and in so doing, becoming her lover for a brief time, he leaves to find Allie Cone, the English mountaineer he had previously fallen in love with in India.

Sound weird as hell? That's cause it is. I have to say, though, that this book is a lot easier to read the second time around. Knowing that it's magical realism makes a difference, it's true, but knowing the major plot points is actually even more helpful. The first time through I think I was just spending the whole time going, "What the hell is happening right now? Saladin's the devil? Gibreel is actually an angel? But also interacting with Mohamed? Wait, what?" Not having to do that this time makes it a great deal easier to appreciate the style and the underlying substance of what's going on. The section I read for today doesn't have a whole lot of message, however, other than the clear implications about the treatment of immigrants in Britian, so I'll save the analysis of Saladin and Gibreel's transformations until they're a little bit more integrated with the plot. I'll say this, though: things are not going to go well for Saladin. Looking like the devil - not particularly helpful in modern society.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Shame about the fatwa.

Current book: The Satanic Verses
Pages read: 3 - 78

Full disclosure: I have read this before. I read it for a class in grad school called "Urban Literature," which was taught by a British guy of Indian descent. One might think, since it deals with India and Britain, that he would have had interesting insights about it. It's possible that he did; I, however, remember not even a single word that he said in that class. (You have no idea how obnoxious he was.) I was hoping, though, that I'd still have response papers floating around about the novel, but it seems that I chose to avoid writing about it. That means I can't recycle them and pass them off as blog posts. (Which I would never do. It would be wrong.)

Anyway, so this book is about two men from India, their relationship, and the various things that happen to them both during the same nondescript period of time. Gibreel Farishta is a Bollywood actor who has met with great success playing Hindu gods, regardless of the fact that he is Muslim, and has also, during his career, become quite the womanizer. (Can I just say that I really don't like that word? It implies "one who creates women," right? So, either we're saying "one who creates women out of girls" (i.e. takes their virginities) or we're saying "one who makes women more womanly by having sex with them." Either way, go ahead and imagine that I'm making enraged sounds.) One of his favorite mistresses was Rekha, whom he found fascinating because she created a dramatic fuss every time he left her. He has abandoned her, however, for Allie Cone, an English mountaineer, with whom he falls in love after he is stricken with a mysterious illness and, as a result, loses his faith in religion. Shortly after he briefly meets Allie, Gibreel abandons his life and movie career to chase after Allie, and flies to London to do so.

Saladin Chamcha is an actor in London who mostly does voice-overs and costumed or made-up roles because of his race. He has forsaken his Indian identity to try to make himself as British as possible, and has settled in London and married an Englishwoman. He and his father are estranged, though his father paid for his English education. He recently made a trip back to India, where he met Khadija, who tried to convince him to stay and embrace his Indian self. After a failed attempt to reconcile with his father, during which he discovered his father was dressing up one of their servants as his late wife (and Khadija took his father's side on the matter), he abandons any thought of living in India and gets back on a plane to London. It is, of course, the same plane that Gibreel is on. The plot will thicken. I promise.

So, I know I disliked Midnight's Children, the very first book on the list, which was also by Rushdie, but I think The Satanic Verses is actually quite a brilliant novel. I've got the perspective of having read it before, of course, so I'm able to reconcile events later in the novel with the style here at the beginning, but I can't say that I had any trouble continuing to read it the first time, either. The magical realism and amorphous timeline that were frustratingly choppy and rough-hewn in Midnight's Children have been honed by Rushdie's growth as an author in this novel. Instead of being confusing and obnoxious, they have become intriguing and surprising. It's largely due to his inclusion of a strong narrative voice, never identified as a particular character, that consistently offers commentary on the plot events. That voice is rational but emotionally involved, omniscient but humanly flawed, and almost parochially Indian in its diction but quite cosmopolitan in its analysis. It is, frankly, a triumph of nuanced, complex literary style.

Anyway, I'll stop, because I should try to hold off on the analysis of what's to come until I actually get to it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Contradiction in terms

Current book: None
Pages read: None

No time to read today. Nor did I make exciting food. So I have nothing to tell you. Except that I have nothing to tell you.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Take five

Current book: Jazz
Pages read: 3 - 229 (end)

Yeah, I read this all at once. Well, actually, I read some yesterday, but most of it was this morning on the elliptical. You might be thinking, "Oh, it must have been really compelling." That would be a reasonable assumption, but a wrong one. Actually, I found it rambling and a bit obnoxious. It was not entirely unlike Faulkner.

So, the gist is this: Violet, a 50-something woman living in Harlem in the 20s, is married to Joe Trace. Joe steps out on her with a teenage girl, Dorcas (I know. It was a bad era for names.), whom he ends up shooting because she cheats on him. Alice, Dorcas's adoptive mother, becomes friends with Violet afterward, and explains how she tried to treat Dorcas right and, in fact, raised her in almost Puritanical fashion. Dorcas's friend, Felice, eventually explains to Violet how conniving Dorcas was, and that Joe wasn't as much at fault as he seems. Violet and Joe stay together. Included, also, are the stories of Violet and Joe's youth and their marriage in the rural South.

Morrison's style was obviously supposed to be modeled on the wandering improvisations of jazz, but, as usual for me, I found the wandering improvisational quality annoying rather than masterful. (Come to think of it, I'm not a big fan of jazz for the same reason.) The book is successful in creating a portrait of 20s Harlem, I guess, but I found the story less than interesting and the characters neither sympathetic nor compelling. When you add to that the fact that it meanders around and jumps in time, I was not a fan. Does that mean I think Toni Morrison's not a good writer? No, actually. I think she did what she set out to do and that successfully. I didn't like it, nor do I think it was transcendent, but it was literature. Not one of the best 100, though.

And, we're moving on.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Make this bed with awe

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 498 - 559 (end)

Stingo and Sophie stop in Washington, D.C. on their way down to Virginia, and it's there that he tells her that he loves her and he wants her to marry him and live in Virginia with him. She's reticent, but doesn't say no. She does tell him, finally, the rest of her story.

The big revelation of Sophie's guilt is all that's left of that story, really. When she and her children arrived at Auschwitz via train, the official who processed them was both drunk and cruel. Instead of simply routing the children to the places they'd normally go, he told Sophie that she could have one of them spared, and the other would be sent to the gas chambers. She was required to choose, or they'd both die. She refused at first, of course, but faced with saving one of them or neither of them, she eventually buckled and told them to save Jan. (It's an horrific moment, it's true, but I knew it was coming and that significantly lessened the impact of it for me.)

After she tells Stingo this story, they end up sleeping together, and in the morning, he wakes to find that Sophie has left him to go back to Nathan in New York. Stingo chases after her, but arrives at the boardinghouse too late - Nathan and Sophie are both dead. They took cyanide pills, finally carrying out the suicidal plan Nathan had first conceived of in Connecticut. Stingo stays for the funeral, and even reads at it, overcome as he is with grief for both of them. Afterward he gets drunk and falls asleep on the beach he used to visit with them, musing on the cruelty of humanity and all that is dark in the world. When he wakes up, though, he is refreshed by the promise of the new day and the future that it symbolizes.

Well, it was very good, but I find myself confused by exactly what the deeper meaning of it is. I mean, there's the obvious lesson of the depth of cruelty and inhumanity to which mankind can sink, but the fact that it's intertwined with Nathan and Sophie's relationship changes things. It took me a while to figure this out, but I've finally decided that it is, as I hinted at a few posts ago, a message about the way guilt can eat someone alive. Sophie was with Nathan not really because she loved him, but because her guilt made her feel that she deserved, somehow, to be treated inhumanely. You would think that after the abuse of Auschwitz she would desire only that which was good and comforting, but I think she felt that, because the world had so poisoned her soul with the experiences she had had, there was nothing for her but more darkness. Accordingly, she found another source of the derangement that humanity is capable of, this time in actual mental illness, and inflicted it upon herself, not even as an atonement, but simply as her due in life.

Styron examines this tendency of humanity pretty didactically, it's true, but the characters are real enough and the lens of Stingo's struggle to comprehend it delicate enough that the examination is moving rather than preachy. It's mitigated, too, by Stingo's ability to see that what he has learned is important and horrible and agonizing, but still to look at the future with the hope that it will be better. It speaks to the fact that Styron believes in humanity's ability to improve the world by learning from the mistakes of the past, but also that it can only be realized by facing the bleak truths of those mistakes. I'd have to agree.

I believe this one is worthy of the list. But I will be glad to stop having Holocaust nightmares.


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