Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Body Artist, by Don Delillo (audio version)

The body artist is a woman who uses her body to create stories, images, different characters. She is a performance artist and her body is her medium.

In this story Lauren, the woman, the body artist, is facing the sudden death of her husband, a famous man. She is living in a rented house in a lonely location on the coast, trying to sort out her life and to continue working on her body. After she has been there a while she hears an odd noise and discovers a young man living in the house. While she is surprised she realizes quickly that the man is harmless, that he is "different" in a way she does not recognize. He does not respond to her questions normally; in fact he doesn't respond at all. He repeats things he has heard, most especially conversations Lauren had with her husband, word for word. And even in their voices.

Lauren tries to figure out when he heard these things, how long he has been in the house, who he is.

Gradually, over weeks, she becomes more accepting of the man, whom she names "Mr. Tuttle", and questions him less. She fixes food for him, washes him, has one-sided conversations with him. She explores her own mind and body through him, through watching and being super-aware of everything.

In fact, she is forever being aware. Aware of her feelings, her looks, her surroundings, what she says, what she sees. She is constantly observing and observing what she observes. And changing her perception, wondering for a bit if Mr. Tuttle is actually some new version of Ray, her husband. I began to wonder if Mr. Tuttle existed at all.

I honestly found it funny. As I listened to it I spontaneously laughed and said things like "OMG!" I couldn't really believe the near-stream-of-consciousness, the constant buzz of introspection. I found it funny and tiresome at the same time.

The reader, Laurie Anderson, probably did well in interpreting how this story should be told. She reads it softly, as if to herself, as if she is thinking it all. I found it unnerving, almost monotonous.

Through it all I tried to figure out what was really going on, what I should be getting from this. And I never did. I really hope others do.

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

I have honestly never read anything like this before, and I don't quite know what to make of it.

Clearly it's funny. It's sacrilegious. It's political and timely. Sort of.

Misha Vainberg, son of an enterprising Russian who took advantage of the changing of the guard - from communism to capitalism - to enrich himself, is the star of this strange adventure. Misha travels to the U.S. to obtain a higher education at Accidental College and falls in love with New York City as well as with a voluptuous young woman there. His money helps but there is something else about this very fat young man that attracts women, for he is forever falling in bed with one or another. Still, his heart, for a very long time, stays with Rouenna.

He returns to Russia, his father is murdered, and he learns that his father is responsible for the death of a Texas oil man. Misha and his millions are no longer welcome to the U.S., where his love remains.

But wait! Rouenna has fallen in love, or like, with a professor in NYC by the name of Jerry Shteynfarb, who has a bio strangely similar to the author's. She is ecstatic about all JS is teaching her, while Misha grumbles and tries to find ways to get back to NYC himself.

On his way he lands in Absurdistan, and here is where it all gets especially bizarre, as if it weren't already. He is there when a civil war breaks out between the two warring factions - and he is recruited to be something of an ambassador to Israel, drawing on his Jewish roots. At which point he writes a grant proposal for an unusual museum of the Holocaust.

I am not adequately prepared to review this book. The combination of Eastern bloc absurdities, the mocking of sex and religion, the parallels between Absurdistan and certain countries currently occupied by the Americans, including the efforts of companies like Halliburton and Kellogg Brown & Root, is more than I can comprehend and make sense of.  I think what kept me reading, after a fashion, was that I actually liked the rotund, sex-crazed, oddly caring Misha.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

This is a remarkable little book. And "little" it really isn't. I started reading it thinking I'd just get it out of the way and maybe learn a little on the way. But it really captivated me and I learned a great deal more than I expected.

Years ago I read The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia. For years I carried around the unfair assessment of Australia that a colony founded with prisoners and cruel prison wardens, a country where the native population was wiped out and the British rule prevailed, was not a country I liked. It's funny, considering the parallels to my own country.

Over time, though, I got over it. It's another country with its own identity, secrets, wonders. Perhaps this memoir would give me a different perspective.

Jill begins life in the bush. She is born in 1934 in the back country of Australia to an ambitious and hard-working family, with two older brothers, a determined father, and a hard-working, intensely capable mother. Her mother oversees the running of the house on the sheep ranch, keeping everything shining and running and developing a thriving garden, full of vegetables and beautiful flowers.

Initially the sheep ranch is successful and improvements are gradually made. Jill becomes a hardworking child who likes working on the vast ranch with her father and his workers. Having been born on the ranch she does not realize how the ranch, the open spaces, the incredible quiet were unique in Australia. She accepts the requirement that she not cry, that she be stoic in the face of adversity. At the same time she is well aware that she is loved by both parents and valued fully. At this point I thought, "a functional family!" Yes, difficult times, hard times, but love and caring and support.

But then times change. A drought takes over the land, throwing the family and all other similar families into turmoil, distress, near-ruin. Sheep die and the smell of rotting bodies takes over Jill's memories of the land. In time she is more than ready to leave Coorain, the ranch. A terrible incident leads to the family moving to Sydney to ride it out.

Once settled in a small house in Sydney, Jill is sent to a private school that emphasises academics yet also accepts many children formerly from the bush. Quiet and reserved, she has a hard time initially fitting in but eventually her hard work and determination win her a solid place and a chance for a university education.

Jill enters the University of Sydney. She has always excelled at working hard and in spite of some setbacks continues to do so here. She becomes a true academic, a scholar in the history of Australia.

It is during her time here that Jill starts to make connections in her life. She starts to see a wider world and puts things in place that had not occurred to her before. She recognizes the second-place status women held at the time and for the first time sees the role aborigines have been forced to play for so long. She breaks away from her lifelong worldview - that of a colonial beholden to Britain. She has been raised to speak and behave more as a British citizen than an Australian. As she discovers more about her land, its citizens, and writers both Australian and not, Jill realizes that her beloved land is rarely recognized in its own right, for itself.

In addition to realizing where Australia fits in the world, Jill explores the role of women and other disenfranchised persons. She rises in the academic world, but constantly feels a pull from her mother. Her mother, the capable, strong, personable woman who handled everything in the bush, had become increasingly dependent on her daughter and less capable of caring for herself. Jill, for her part, felt suffocated and incapable of continuing to live with her mother.

The book is in large part an exploration of the relationship between the two. It is so much more, ultimately, yet this relationship is at the heart of it.

I found it a fascinating, deep, emotional account that explores one life but also the life of a country I did not know much about at all.

Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich

It has been something of a theme in the last few of Ehrenreich's books that the middle- and lower-classes get to carry the cross. When bad things happen, it's their fault,whether the bad things happen to them or to somebody else. In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich specifically targets the coaches and seminars aimed at newly-unemployed white collar workers, telling them how to change their looks and attitudes, and asks "what's wrong with this picture?"

In Bright-Sided, she takes this theme farther. She investigates the actual positive-thinking industry itself, from its presumed origins to the present day, and points to the links between this near-magical-thinking method and the recent economic disasters. A significant case in point was George W. Bush, who hated to hear anything "negative". If we believe all is right with the world then good things will come to us.

Ehrenreich traces the origins of the positive-thinking movement to a reaction to doomsday Calvinist training back in the early days of this country. She picks out a few examples of preachers of different sorts, most particularly Mary Baker Eddy, who rejected the common fatalistic teachings of the day and proposed that all we need is there for the taking if we simply let it in.

While she makes several references to Harriet Beecher Stowe and two of her siblings, she does not, oddly, mention Henry Ward Beecher, another brother, who essentially led the movement away from Calvinism to an early version of today's feel-good religions. He became what was probably the first religious megastar, even accompanied by the scandals that seem to go along with this position. (Take a look at The Most Famous Man in America - and here I note that I am related to the Beechers, just for disclosure.) Somehow Ehrenreich misses Beecher, but she doesn't miss the bigger picture.

From here she moves into the twentieth century and to such luminaries as Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People). She looks at the new crop, from Martin Seligman to the co-authors of The Secret to many others.

While the now-huge industry of positive thinking, including motivational speakers, seminars and workshops, books, DVDs and more, relies in large part on the contention that positive thinking actually works, Ehrenreich plunges daggers into that balloon. She dissects the claims that the method is backed by science and finds that the emperor has no clothes.

So what? So what if millions spend their money needlessly on shoddy science? It wouldn't be the first time. The reason for Ehrenreich's anger, which starts at the very beginning of the book with anger at the exhortations of others to see her diagnosis of breast cancer as a positive thing and her chances at beating it as dependent on her attitude, is that this focus on wispy, intuitional, ungrounded methods pulls the rug out from under sounder disciplines and actions. Thus the rise of the corporations at the expense of everyone under the top levels. Thus the damage to our economy, to our housing stability, to our position in the world, and to our own ability to do anything about any of it.

Positive thinking, in other words, is a negative thing. We need to stay not in the negative but in the real world. Base our decisions on sound reasoning and experience. See what is happening clearly, take the blinders off. Get angry if it makes sense.

As usual, the book is simply written, easy to read, and contains many pages of notes and references, allowing one to take it further.

I like that Ehrenreich faced this one down directly, but I want more. I may need to dip more into the heavier texts. We'll see. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok

Before getting this book I heard some chapters on the radio. When I was listening to some chapters on the radio, randomly, I thought the book was nonfiction. I was a little disappointed to find that it is fiction. However, it is based in large part on experiences in the author's life so I believe we can take many of the details as real.

The main character, Kimberly Chang, arrives in New York from Hong Kong with her mother when Kimberly is eleven. The cost of her trip, as well as the medical care for a recent long illness her mother suffered, was borne by Kim's aunt Paula, and when they arrive Paula sets them up in an apartment and arranges for Kim's mother to work in the garment factory owned by Paula and her husband.

Paula's generosity is only apparent, however, not real. The apartment is in an abandoned building, has broken windows, rats and cockroaches and one old mattress. It is indescribably dirty. Paula keeps saying the two will be moved soon, when a better apartment becomes available that they can afford. They grit their teeth and bear it.

Kim's mother starts work at the factory and Kim goes to school, where she faces cruelty and prejudice because she does not speak very good English and her clothing is very poor and often not very clean. After school Kim is expected to join her mother and help her meet her quotas. It is hard, back-breaking work that goes on for long hours, well into the night, and the pay is for piecework, which is illegal. The pay averages less than the minimum wage and the work is often dangerous. There is, of course, no health plan but instead a doctor who is willing to overlook certain conditions when he treats those who have accidents.

Gradually, because she is "good at school", Kim improves in her studies and gains entrance to a prestigious private school. At work and at school Kim tends to keep her distance from others her age, but does find friendship with a few. She then has to make sure that her friends never come to her apartment, for she is deeply ashamed of it.

Thus we are introduced to an underground world, mostly familiar to new immigrants, and the adversities the immigrants face. Our story is of a young girl who is determined to beat the odds.

It may not be true but it could be true of many, and the details are interesting and compelling. I enjoyed getting to know Kimberly and her mother and seeing how she faced difficult situations, sometimes bravely and sometimes very awkwardly. It is easy and quick to read, enjoyable. 

The River King, by Alice Hoffman

Good stuff. A novel about a town and a school, and subsequently about certain persons who cross lines to be in both places.

The town is Haddon and the school Haddon School. For various reasons, the townspeople do not embrace the school and there is a rift between the two that few cross. An incident at the school brings the two together in a way, an uneasy way.

Carlin Leander, a naturally beautiful scholarship student from Florida, attracts the attention of Gus (August) Pierce, a sloppy awkward freshman who has not yet met his family's expectations, on the train coming to the school. The two make an odd couple but they share characteristics that make them best friends. When the school's prize senior persuades Carlin to go out with him, the relationship between Carlin and Gus changes. These changes lead, in a way, to a horrific event.

Meanwhile, new photography teacher Betsy joins the school because she has almost unthinkingly become engaged to one of the teachers there. Like Carlin, she is an odd one out, beautiful in her way but not engaged to that beauty. She is forever getting lost in the small town and in more than one way takes her own path.

Abe, a police detective, meets Betsy, and the two share a moment of deep attraction. This attraction threatens to destroy Betsy's relationship with her fiance as well as the school, and she resists more than once. There is a push-pull nature to the hidden "romance", adding to the suspense that kept me reading.

I became easily attached myself, to all of these characters as well as to one of the side characters, another teacher, stricken ill. I was also intrigued by the swans that had been placed in the area behind the school, whose bad natures were legend. I wanted a little more of them, in fact.

The story has an odd twist - something sort of paranormal but not in the usual way. The melding of the natural with something else, accepted by some but not others. It seems to be a way to point up problems and to indicate when they are resolved.

Altogether I found it a satisfying book, beautifully and clearly written.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ash Wednesday, by Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke can write, clearly. Better than many with bigger names in writing.

This simple novel is about growing up, changing, learning to love, learning to commit. The two characters are James and Christy. They have both been around a bit, are no longer starry-eyed and too young, yet neither is yet thirty. James lets the world take him where it will, and doesn't as a rule stand up to temptations. He likes the simple things, like hanging in the bar with his buds. Yet he has entered a time of life when he is feeling some dissatisfaction with the way his life is going.

Christy is perhaps an "old soul". She seems to be almost too old for her years, yet at the same time she retains a hope that something special can still happen to her. She is cautious, though, and she reads people well. She knows she can take care of herself. Thus she leaves the town where she lived, heading back to her home town in Texas, when she finds herself pregnant. She doesn't tell James about the baby or about her leaving.

Coincidentally, James is starting to realize how important Christy is and he hunts her down, finds her at a bus terminal many miles away. From here on there is a struggle - he wants to marry her, he wants to be with her, and yet there is always a little something that Christy senses, a something that is holding back. So she is not quick to say yes.

We follow James and Christy in alternating chapters, one narrating, then the other, as they try to understand each other and believe in each other. They fight with their own demons as often as they have it out with each other.

It's a quiet little novel about a kind of growth. Many times I felt the conversations were a bit strained, like Hawke was trying too hard to make something happen. It reads like a stage play, wordy with each sentence heavy with importance. Sometimes I would have liked more action, perhaps just tiny actions, like expressions and body movements, and fewer words. For me the situations and inner changes seemed too neat and well-presented. It's a pleasant book, though.

Oh. One more comment. There is almost more than enough God in here for this to be classified a "Christian" novel. I did not enjoy this aspect of it. 

The Good Life, by Jay McInerney

A post-9/11 novel. I have now read, I think, three that might be put into this category.

Two affluent couples live in Manhattan in 2001. We glimpse their lives just before the attack on the World Trade Center and then follow them in its aftermath. Most particularly we follow Corrine, from one couple, and Luke, from another. After the attack, Corrine finds her way to a soup kitchen that was set up to feed the workers, and volunteers there. Luke happens by and joins as well, at least part, it seems, because he is attracted to Corrine.

The two fall in love. They carry on their affair carefully, to protect their children primarily. Both feel this is the love of their lives and cautiously they start to think of divorce and remarriage.

None of the characters is a saint. While I rooted, generally, for Luke and Corrine, I felt annoyed by their attitudes and expectations at times. At the same time I appreciated that their thoughts were thrown so nakedly on the page. No pretense. As an exploration of the characters, their weaknesses and strengths, it is an interesting book. By the end we are (or I was, anyway) involved in their lives and in how their choices affect others close to them. I wondered if they would follow their dreams or come crashing to earth or land some place in between.

The story is also a look at the lives of many of the affluent in Manhattan, a world unto itself. What constitutes a "good life"? 

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

Relentless. That's the word that kept coming to me as I was reading this.

The book follows the life of Juris Rudkus, who arrives full of hope from Lithuania as a young man in the early 1900s, and who finds himself in "Packingtown", the edge of Chicago where the stockyards existed. He enthusiastically takes on one job after another, gets ground down by it, underpaid and overworked, and subject to a wide range of dangers, until his enthusiasm is dampened and almost dead.

He has a wife and child to support and his wife's family emigrated with him, so he has a house full. Every person in the house who can work does work, including the children, yet they cannot stay ahead of the bills.

In fact, throughout the book there is no light, no relief from the suffering, nothing but pain, suffering, death. As I said, relentless. Until the end, when socialism catches Jurgis's fancy and he believes that at long last he has found salvation.

The book reads rather like a tract, a lengthy tract spelling out the abuses in the stockyards and in capitalism in general, and then defining just how socialism will make it all better. The characters are loosely developed, described well physically but not particularly otherwise. They serve as the engine that drives the train of the message. Sinclair can write but he spends too much time driving home his point again and again and not allowing us to see any complexity in the situation or the people.

Because Sinclair was an excellent investigative journalist, he writes with great detail of the abuses of the people who work in the stockyards, and in a few pages outlines the abuses to the animals themselves as well. What was taken away from the novel when it was first published was the lack of proper safety measures in the production of meat, so that much was contaminated, and there was an outcry about food safety that led to government inspection systems and greater regulation of the industry.

It is unfortunate that conditions are not much better now, and in some cases they are worse. There are regulations in place but there are few inspectors and often they are paid for by the company. Often the solution to contamination is to accept it and cook everything until any disease microorganisms are dead. The treatment of the animals is certainly no better and in many cases far worse than it was a century ago. The intense confinement of animals had hardly begun then.

The Jungle was a wake-up call for many. Sinclair had hoped it would be a call for socialism but that did not happen. In spite of his efforts to separate truth from fact about socialism the idea simply did not take sufficient hold, especially given that it was outranked by communism for a while, and that fell into deep disfavor. Unfortunately many think the two are the same.

I was horrified to read of the conditions the workers endured, and of the horrors for the animals, knowing almost everything in the book was documented. I am glad that others are now writing books about current conditions. I hope a decent fiction book will get written now that will finally grab the attention of the majority of people, who will then demand an end to the miseries suffered by so many. 

Circling My Mother, by Mary Gordon

As promised, Mary Gordon "circles" her mother in this curious memoir. She grabs memories from others along with her own, and tries to piece together how others saw her mother, to get at a more complete picture.
At the end, she says she doesn't want to forget her mother, and it's apparent that writing about her helps her remember. But it isn't just memories that color the story.

We learn of her mother's, Anna's, early years, when she contracted polio at the age of three, how she lived with her sisters, how she supported her family for years, years for which she never was given thanks. We hear about her unusual marriage to a literary man some years older, who never manages to make money at any of the many schemes he tries. And we hear of the surprise birth of little Mary, Anna's only child, almost a miracle.

Mary remembers growing up with her afflicted mother, wondering how her parents got married. They fought every day but apparently made up at night. She remembers the beauty of her mother's face, complexion, hair, and doesn't forget the awkwardness of her gait, with her damaged leg, eventually encased in a brace.

A part of this memoir that I found particularly interesting was Anna's religion. She was Roman Catholic to the max, a max I honestly did not realize existed (my ignorance). Not only did she adhere to Catholic tenets, but she also chose her friends and even film stars, based on their religion. This in spite of the fact that her husband was Jewish and the two did not easily combine their faiths but rather ridiculed each other. For several years Anna actually took time out to spend with a favorite priest. She, and other older women, would take a "vacation" to be near this priest, to listen to him, spend time in his environment as he moved to different locations. This relationship was an odd one, as the priest was falling continually downward in his work, not easily accepted by most churchgoers, yet these women were entranced with his view of the world.

While Anna was held back by her affliction, Mary suggests that maybe this was actually what she wanted - to be happy in her clerical work and confined to a limited world. Her polio gave her what she may have really wanted.

IN the end, Mary tries to connect the earlier almost glamorous mother with the ill, dying, demented, alcoholic one, relying even on the smell of her favorite perfume. She struggles at this point in the book in a way that she doesn't seem to elsewhere. It is a time of confession and exposure and she is uncomfortable with it, yet feels it is necessary.

I found it a fascinating look at not just the woman and the family but also at the time: depression, war, post-war euphoria, religion. As well as the tidbits about genealogy, where Anna came from and how she hung onto it.