Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Is controllable fantasy ultimately more painful than hard reality?

This was an amazing book. When I was finished, I wanted to turn to page one and start all over because I sensed there were patterns and motifs I missed. The writing was beautiful and the ideas beneath the writing were thought-provoking. How do we live our life now? How do we comfort ourselves now?

The themes were dreams, aspirations, memories, and regrets, depicted using the technological tools of modern life: Youtube, cell phones, and twenty four hour news channels.

The book is about a brother and a sister. Nik Kranis, a failed musician, defined by our society as a loser, has in fact not abandoned his art, and in a way, not abandoned ambition either. For twenty five years he has continued recording albums in a garage, though albums only for himself. He’s created and documented a complete fantasy world (The Chronicles) of rock stardom. He’s nutty. The sister, Denise, is afraid she’s losing her memory because her mother has Alzheimer’s. Denise get overly emotionally involved with 24 hour news channels and far off people’s tragedies. Her empathy has gotten out of control (or has it?). Meanwhile, Denise’s daughter finds a perfect documentary subject in Uncle Nik.

The siblings grew up in the heart of Hollywood, each one with a Hollywood dream. Nik will be a rock star, Denise will be a movie star. Nik is handsome, Denise is pretty. What can stop them? Twenty five years later, Denise is a secretary with an upside down mortgaged house in Santa Clarita and Nik is a bartender in a run down one bedroom in Topanga Canyon. Both live in Southern Californian suburbia about as far away from Hollywood dreams as you can get.

Denise’s story feels more complete – in many ways, the novel is about her responding to Nik’s madness. At the end of the book, she travels to Stone Arabia. The title remains a mystery until the very end. Denise disconnects from the Internet and transforms her voyeurism of pity into a face to face connection. That scene is ambiguous. Does technology make us better off?

The stories sort of fall apart at the end, especially Nik’s story and it felt like a semi suitable ending was patched on. But overall, a very impressive book.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A father finds a reason to live in a post apocalyptic landscape by protecting his young son

I thought I would hate this because I heard it was pretentious, but I was completely sucked in and ended up liking it quite a bit. The story was gripping and the prose style, for the most part, was unadorned. The story is presented simply – a father and son walk down a road, somewhere in the American South, through an ash covered landscape. Though sometimes it’s very difficult to walk down that road because civilization, laws and manners have vanished and packs of ruthless cannibals are everywhere. Yet the father persists. Because they “carry the light”. “We’re the good guys.”

This book reminded me of Emma Donaghue’s Room – basically the same plot, about the depth of parental love flowering in an intolerable situation. Saving the child becomes the organizing principle of the parent’s life, even though it is clear they are doomed.   Room had more of a sense of humor and The Road has absolutely no sense of humor. Although in Room, our plucky heroes get rescued. Here there apparently is no rescue (though there is a hiker ex machina).

In this novel, humans have already destroyed the world. I liked the presentation of the destroyed landscapes, the mountains, the oceans, the cities. This novel was also a reminder and a meditation on what would actually happen if civilization was destroyed. We would revert back to the cunning animal state and it would be very bad news for the weak.

There are a few logical problems – in this imagined world there are no bugs, no rabbits, but our two humans keep running into lots of other humans and a seemingly unlimited supply of canned peaches.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Who is Sarah Canary?

At first I was delighted by the lively and vivid prose and quirky characters bouncing off each other but at around the third chapter I realized each chapter was the same – every character is projecting their idea of untrammeled womanhood upon the blank slate of the ever moving madwoman Sarah Canary. Ok. Got it. The plot eventually geared up, ending with a big set piece at the San Francisco Zoo but I felt the story never quite came to a conclusion. Therefore I was left with the feeling that I didn’t get it. Especially not the prettily written end.

This is a historical novel about a group of society's outcasts running around the muddy Northwest. We never see inside of the head of the mute (mentally deficient?) Sarah Canary, but our two main narrative consciousness are Chin, the pigtailed immigrant, and BJ the madman recently escaped from the asylum. They are both in love with or in some sort of thrall to Sarah Canary. Later they are joined by proto feminist Miss Dixon. All of them will have their lives turned upside down by their pursuit of Sarah Canary. To protect her? To possess her?

Every chapter opens with an Emily Dickinson poem and also a rundown of current events happening at that time with an ironic emphasis on the subjugation of women.

I have mixed feelings about this one. The prose was lively and the characters were wonderful and I learned a lot about the historical period. Though I was disappointed at the end, I am definitely going to read more of Karen Joy Fowler.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A deranged man risks all to chase a demonic whale, interspersed with a leisurely history of the whaling industry.

The architecture of this book is majestic, and as I read, I palpably felt the majestic blocks being shifted into place. The Pequod, its own little world. The four teams of smaller boats. Starbuck, Stubb and Flask -- The religious first mate, the irreverent second mate, the materialistic third mate. The four heathen harpooners, yet more Christian in many ways than the Christians. The dark Quaker leader, Ahab. The unthinking white whale that can never be defeated. And our narrator, the scholarly Ishmael.

This novel is a compendium – a great plot, an encyclopedia, metaphysical musings, a la Hamlet, a play, songs, low comedy. It’s a catchall. Although the narrative wasn’t all that gripping, except in parts (and those parts were extremely gripping). I would describe the book as edifying, but edifying doesn’t make for eager easy reading. My goal was 100 pages a day and the daily last 40 were hard going. The final fifty pages of the book are magnificent. The thing is, I don’t really care to know about whales. But I do want to know about life and how it is experienced.  

Three things are going on in this book – an incredibly gripping chase story with cool imagery like harpoons forged in the blood of heathens, an academic exploration of all the things associated with the whaling industry, and a philosophical dialogue about what is the purpose of a man’s life, if any.

This was the fourth book in my project of Re-reading the Classics. The first three books were excellent, as well as a delight and a pleasure to read and I could not put them down. Moby Dick was different. I had to pay close attention as Moby Dick is about many things. However, all four books have in common GREAT characters, larger than life – characters who seem to exist outside the book. All of them have powerful motivations.

 I’m learning a lot.