Sunday, February 21, 2010

sixteen

The Stranger

What, you were expecting me to read Camus' The Stranger and attempt to give an intelligent literary or philosophical review that says something profound and new? Not even going to try. I will, however, posit that Meursault, the main character, is actually a self-absorbed, psychopathic Ford Prefect that went to Algeria after he realized that he was stuck on Earth while writing the Earth entry to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Meursault (Ford's pseudonym, obviously) is a dispassionate observer of reality and Earth culture, and barely reacts to what people normally assume humans would react to, and pays deep attention to the mundane. Ford to a T. He's often not engaged, stares off at nothing (probably looking toward his home planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse), and the traditional moral code of Earth culture has little bearing on him. He doesn't understand when people are aghast at his aloofness after his mother's death, because his mother is actually in another solar system.

He's also a little depressed and psychopathic due to his realization that he can't leave the planet and falls in with bad company. He doesn't care. He's also still getting used to English. He therefore speaks in short sentences. Camus was wise to notice this.

Okay, short of that breakthrough, I've got little else to say about The Stranger. It didn't really teach me anything about French culture (other than the caricature of existentialist French philosophers smoking cigarettes in cafes saying "├ža ne fait rien"). I got the cursory philosophical understanding my mind is capable of in the exploration of existentialism and lack of meaning. It wasn't a very enjoyable read, and I'd only recommend it to people who want a quick exploration of these themes. Meursault's a jerk who couldn't care less about anything, but instead of just sitting there, his only actions are to make other people's lives worse (except maybe Maria's). I don't have time for people like this, not even imaginary antagonists. He disqualifies himself as the protagonist, in my view.

One more note - I wonder what atheist thinkers say about this book. Granted, the chaplain and the magistrate he deals with are more representations of overt dogma, forced meaning, and outmoded ideas about the reason for guilt. Yet Meursault catapults himself so far away from decency, while also attacking religion, that things get tricky if people assume all atheists are like this. I'd be curious to hear how folks of secular inclinations have dealt with books like this.

I guess I was just expecting a little more from a book that's so critically acclaimed. But I could absolutely change my mind - I did love Fight Club, which is a modern existentialist story. But it doesn't really matter in the end, after all. Right?

fifteen

What Is the What

What a book. When you read "fictional autobiography" your ears should prick up in warning, and when the subject matter is a Lost Boy of Sudan, the danger of an author's journey to exploitative self-gratification goes to Def-Con 2. Dave Eggers' What Is The What manages the wobbly tightrope and works with the real-life subject of the fictionalized autobiography, Valantine Achak Deng, to write an incredible book.

As I understand it, Eggers was initially just going to help Deng write a book about his life, as a way to try to explain the conflicts in Sudan to a global audience. They met after he'd been in the States for a while and attempting to acclimate himself to the new environment and resolve the differential between his goals and what seemed possible. Somehow Deng and Eggers, after lots of work together, realized first that Deng wasn't up to writing a comprehensive book in English, and then that a straight-up biography or memoirs wouldn't be feasible. So they settled on an attempt to tell the story of his life through some fictional devices to streamline the narrative. I also imagine that the broader historical expository that was weaved into various conversations and internal ruminations was more for the reader's benefit than an actual part of his life. Somehow it works.

Valantino Achak Deng is a Dinka from Southern Sudan and experiences the second major civil war in Sudan starting at roughly age 7 or 8, when his village is destroyed and he's separated from his family. He eventually joins groups of other orphaned boys walking to Ethiopia, hundreds of miles west, through deserts, rivers, government soldiers, lions, local Islamic militias, hyenas, strafing helicopters, and rebel troops, all of which try to kill the orphaned boys. Making it to the refugee camp in Ethiopia of course does not solve their problems, and they have to flee to a refugee camp in Kenya, where he spends ten years growing up. He finally gets cleared to go to America as one of the famous Lost Boys of Sudan to settle in Atlanta, in 2001. He's sitting on his plane on the tarmac in Nairobi ready to fly to New York on Tuesday, September 11th. The plane doesn't take off for obvious reasons. He does make it to the States, and acclimating to a new environment, culture, and country isn't the only thing he has to deal with. The first sentence brings you to the present (of the book), and in the events of about two days, he doesn't tell his backstory through obvious flashback narration. Eggers uses what seems like a very authentic device - instead of "remembering" entire portions of his life, or telling people verbally what his life was like, Deng is shown to internally monologue (dialogue?) with people he's interacting with that don't fully seem to understand him. The man who robs him gets a detailed explanation of what insane things he went through just to stay alive in Sudan - at least he does inside of Deng's head. It jumps around a bit, but the narrative flows well and I think it works.

I like to think I read enough newspaper articles, blog posts, and books, and talk to enough people who know more about this conflict than I do that I have a small idea of what's happening in Sudan. But it's hard to meld recent updates (that often assume a lot of prior knowledge) and conversations into an understanding that makes sense in a narrative format. This book was invaluable for me to put a lot of the puzzle pieces together. It's not that it teaches you historical facts (though it does), it's that Deng's story personalizes the insane things that have happened and are happening in a desolate part of the world. I feel like now when I read a NYT story on Sudan now it fits into a more comprehensive framework.

Eggers also manages to either take his own sense of humor, or use Deng's sense of humor at the absurd to join intense occurrences with humorous interpretations. It goes beyond just the silliness of African-immigrant-figures-out-air-conditioning jokes, to provide some universal misunderstandings and hilarious mis-takes that let you laugh at the bizarre, and see Deng's deeply optimistic and hopeful view of his life. That is an accomplishment in and of itself.

PS - I read this on audiobook, and a character from the Wire narrates! He does a great job and had the accents down pat.

Friday, February 19, 2010

fourteen

Bloodchild and Other Stories: Second Edition

I read the short story Bloodchild years and years ago and forgot how good it was. I didn't know it was in a larger short story anthology, and was happy to find the chance to read more Octavia Butler. She mentions in one of the extra essays in the back of the book that she's the only black woman who makes her living writing sci-fi, and after reading the short stories, I want to read some of her novels. The stories in the mix touch on interspecies love (via a parasite kind of relationship); biblical incest in present-day life; disease's effect on progeny and coping; a total breakdown of language's affect on society; and finally what the lives of the crazy people who work in dead-end jobs that we quickly look away from must be like. The one about disease was very interesting in the way the characters deal with a degenerative genetic disease and how that affects their plans for creating a family. Of course she takes the plot on a perpendicular turn from there, but I thought the whole story was interesting.

That's all I'll really say without ruining more of the plots than I already have, but if you like alternative fiction, give her a shot. I'm going to give some of her novels a shot, perhaps even this year.

Also, in another essay she recommends audiobooks to gain a further understanding of the way language is used, so take that, audiobook doubters!

thirteen

True Compass: A Memoir

I was really excited to read this book - as we'll never be able to have autobiographies of JFK or RFK, this is as close as we'll get. Teddy'll always be my Senator, and he's been a hero to liberals, but I wanted to gain another window into his older brothers in addition to an accounting of his long life. It was an enjoyable and informative read. He didn't paint over the bad parts, dealt honestly with happy and sad times, and I think managed to say some interesting things while thinking over an extraordinary existence. It's not often that people are able to spend a year writing their memoirs when then know they're going to die. Certainly even fewer with the life of Edward Kennedy.

I'd heard lots of stories about his parents (pushy, demanding, abusive, supportive), but I think this sums up the way he viewed it:
"Once, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, Dad called me into his room for a chat. I must have done something that prompted the conversation, but I don't remember what it was. But he used phrases so concise and vivid that I can remember them word for word nearly sixty-five years later: 'You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy. I'll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won't have much time for you. You make up your mind. There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you."
Wow! That's cruel, loving, and hilarious honesty, and I can understand why Teddy Kennedy became the man he was. His mom sounded great along those lines too - lots of trips to the museums and pop quizzes in arithmetic on the way there and back.

The stories about Jack and Bobby helped complement what I'd learned in books like The Last Campaign - I really need to see if there are some well-reviewed RFK biographies.

I'd provide more of a summary but that would be silly for all he's seen. It was helpful to go through the important political events of the last 50 years through his eyes, even the things I thought I knew about. One anecdote about Reagan might prove exemplary. He and several other Senators walked into the Oval Office to discuss trade quotas and protective tariffs for domestic shoe production. Massachusetts, Missouri, and several other states had a strong local cottage industry making all kinds of shoes, and foreign manufacturing was threatening livelihoods across the country. When Kennedy started to raise the point and explain what might be done, Reagan cut him off and asked him what kind of shoes he was wearing. Kennedy was thrown off track and told him, and Reagan launched into literally a half hour's talk about what kind of shoes he liked, how his dad sold shoes, where in the country you could find the best shoes, how to polish your shoes so they'll keep their shine, and so on. The Senators were floored and never got the discussion back to where they wanted it, and soon the meeting was over. The Senators then had to go out to the cameras and have a press conference about what was not talked about in the Oval Office. Reagan had no idea and no interest.

Kennedy manages to write without a My Life-ish laundry list of everyone he's ever met, and also without a stream of talking points in pablum form. I learned a lot, and loved the conversational tone. So sad he's gone.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

twelve

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

I decided to break my permanent rule against reading abridged books by trying the audiobook version of Dreams From My Father, read by the author, now known as POTUS. I never read abridged versions, especially this year, but I made an exception because I thought the experience of the President reading his book, written in 1996, would be entertaining and enlightening, adding depth to prose I wasn't entirely sure about.

I was right - hearing him read this truly added a lot to this book, even if certain parts were excised. I'm making a note to go back and read the full book after this year to get the full text, but I'm really glad we spent the drive up to Boston hearing him tell us his story. After finishing The Audacity of Hope, I knew he was a great writer, so his particular clever ways of putting words together didn't surprise me. But the clear sentiment he felt when writing about his feelings in Dreams From My Father shines through the prose, allowing him to say some pretty unique things. I'd love to be able to quote longer passages, but because it's an audiobook I could only email myself short blurbs. These were what got to me:
Each of us chose a costume, an armor against uncertainty.

Sorry-ass motherfucker ain't got nothin' on me

Maybe we could give the bad-ass n@$%*! pose a rest, save it for when we really needed it

Everybody was welcome in the club of disaffection
Those phrases are not something you hear from State Senators, Senators, or Presidents, and it was refreshing to hear them, in his own voice. It gives me hope for the remainder of his presidency.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

eleven

Pride and Prejudice

I can't really do much to add to anything that's already been said about Pride and Prejudice. I'd heard it was a favorite of many friends, so I gave it a shot on audiobook. I was expecting awful convoluted prose, halting stiff drama, obsession with etiquette, and lots of sighing. Essentially I was fearing either a romance novel or the antecedent of every awful romantic comedy you've ever seen.

I wasn't counting on Jane Austen being so smart. She can write very, very well. I've had to stop myself from imitating her style after I finished - I'm amazed at how complicated her phrasing could be without sounding too contrived. She manages to make complex sentences flow easily. Consider me impressed.

As for the subject matter, I'd heard people sighing about Mr. Darcy for years, so I imagined that he was either the one that got away or the one meant for Elizabeth in the end. Perhaps that's what colored my view of Wickham's account of Darcy and Elizabeth's credulousness. I mean, you meet one guy, he seems okay if a little awkward, and then another guy who you know even less tells you the first guy's a jackass, and you believe the second guy? I suppose she called the book Pride and Prejudice for a reason (and Wikipedia tells me it was first called First Impressions).

I would have been even more misanthropic than Darcy if I had to deal with these lunatics and their slavish attention to social contrivances all the time. I suppose it would have been useful for me to read this in high school to see what my dislike of high school social contrivances seemed like to some people from the outside. But really, wouldn't you have been like Darcy?

Elizabeth is a great character - managing to be logical and intelligent but human and messy as well. I liked her relationship with her father, and it took me a while to see her mother's being more ridiculous than harmless.

Anyhow, I went into the book with low expectations, and came out impressed. It seems as if the bad romantic comedies rip off Austen rather than all of them being cut from the same silly cloth.