Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Hunger Games, Collins

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins

            Over Christmas break, I read The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, because vacation means you are supposed to consume junk food, in this case in the form of a YA bestselling novel. I sought out this book for my vacation reading because I found the premise of it (which I learned of from friends and by seeing the preview for the upcoming film) intriguing: It’s some unspecified time in the future. The United States has endured a civil war and now the victors – The Capitol – lord it over the 12 surrounding Districts, hoarding food and goods for themselves and keeping the rest of the country in poverty to maintain the status quo. As a yearly reminder that rebellion against the Capitol doesn’t pay, two children between the ages of 12-18 are chosen from each district as "tributes," to compete in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death in which the last child alive “wins.” Of course, there are plenty of surprises to keep those pages turning. I couldn’t put it down and now, two days after finishing the book, all I can think about is buying the next one in the trilogy.

The best part, for me, was the richness and novelty of the descriptions both of the Districts and the Capitol. Anyone with a penchant for fantasy or science fiction knows what I’m talking about – the fancy machines that wash your hair for you, the plethora of food available at the push of the button, and outlandish costumes and fashion trends of the make-believe future and, in contrast, the brutal life in the poorest District, where hunting is illegal and workers must buy back the food and goods they produce at crippling prices. And then, of course, there’s the embedded social commentary.

I don’t know whether she intended it or not, but a lot of what goes on in the world of The Hunger Games might very well be taken as a critique of the issues facing our own society today. The Capitol taking wealth directly from the hands and mouths of the rest of the country seems strongly reminiscent of the claim that the 99% is being oppressed by the 1% in the U.S., which the recent “Occupy” movement has brought to our attention. And some of the discussions between Katniss and Rue, another Hunger Games tribute from a different district, call to mind Marx’s analysis of the worker who, because she lacks ownership or even the ability to purchase the goods and services she produces, becomes alienated from her work and her society. Here is a conversation between Katniss and Rue to explain what I mean: “‘I’d have thought, in District Eleven, you’d have a bit more to eat than us. You know, since you grow the food,’ I say. Rue’s eyes widen. ‘Oh, no, we’re not allowed to eat the crops.’ ‘They arrest you or something?’ I ask. ‘They whip you and make everyone else watch,’ says Rue. ‘The mayor’s very strict about it.’” Of course, we don’t whip people here for stealing or for entering the country illegally, but we do arrest and deport our own food workers on a daily basis, and you can’t tell me there isn’t an element of power and humiliation inherent in that punishment, too.

I could go on and on, making comparisons between the Capitol and the current United States. There’s plenty more to say about it. But in the interest of starting off 2012 with happy thoughts, I’ll end my analysis there.  The good news is that you don’t have to register any of this between the lines stuff to enjoy The Hunger Games. Regardless of your political ideology, you’re sure to feel both sympathy and admiration for Katniss Everdeen and many of her fellow tributes as they navigate the massive, manipulated, and deadly game they have no choice but to play.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Tropic of Capricorn, Miller

Tropic of Capricorn
Henry Miller

“I will not do this. I will do some other thing! Very good. But can you do nothing at all? Can you stop thinking about doing anything? Can you stop dead, and without thinking, radiate the truth which you know?”

            This book is a strange combination of elements – stream-of-consciousness, dada, spiritual text, and coming-of-age tale. Like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it tells an at least partially autobiographical tale of the artist from youth to young-adulthood for the purpose of figuring out how the artist became the way he is, and how he reached his particular understanding of his role. There’s also a similar lack of delineation between one section and the next (one wants paragraphs, chapters, section headings – and is continually denied such comforts). Unlike Portrait, however, Tropic zips between ages and stages, so that the reader has to pay close attention to where Henry is at every moment. No matter how much things change, however, the obsessions of the protagonist remain the same: sex, writing, suffering, and truth.

            It’s easy to get distracted by the portrayal of sex in this novel. It’s not surprising that the book was banned for “obscenity” in the States, and had to be published in France. The large middle section, the womb of the book, if you will, is consumed with images of Miller having sex with everyone from hookers to his wife. I was reminded of Norman Mailer’s alleged misogyny in An American Dream in these sections, and there is at least one episode where the author appears to describe raping a woman as a wonderful experience (for him). Still, I think that the sex is a distraction for us, almost like a trick – an arrow pointing in the wrong direction - though it may have been a path to renewal for the author. What is more interesting is the spiritual aspect of Miller’s ruminations.

            What the author is interested in here is figuring out what is essential and what is true – not merely what happened, or what we, in an everyday sort of way consider to be “true,” but so much more. He claims to want to get to the “thing in itself,” a la Kant. Not “how does one become successful?” but “What is worthwhile?” One thing he claims again and again to absolutely not be worthwhile is the backbone of America, and capitalist culture in general – i.e. “making a living.” Though he holds a few jobs throughout the course of the book, for him making money is worse than beside the point because it gets in the way of the real work of life.

This disconnect between working and actually living life is the central problem, a problem which is perhaps greater for the artist than for any other worker. Miller seems to oscillate between the belief that the artist is the only toiler with any hope of stepping outside the “automated process,” and the concern that even the artist is missing the point – that even expression gets in the way of the true goal, which is silent acceptance. Probably the best example this is Miller’s friend, Grover, who as a young adult suddenly becomes a born-again Christian and hence the most “alive” person Miller has ever met. The difference is not religion, but rather that “if once, like other people, [Grover] had thought it was necessary to get somewhere now he knew that somewhere was anywhere and therefore right here and so why move?” Why indeed? Perhaps we feel we have to because, as Miller seems to realize in Tropic of Capricorn, we are all caught in the wheel of suffering (samsara in Buddhism). In Tropic of Capricorn Miller seems to reach some profound realizations on his own path to enlightenment (/artisthood?). The beauty of the book is that, if one can get past the distraction of the “obscenity,” observing another’s journey can help others along the path, too.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

You Don't Love This Man, DeWeese

You Don’t Love This Man
Dan DeWeese

“Among the million images of my daughter that had passed through my eyes, why were these the ones that lingered? Asleep during a toddler nap, aloft above the playground, laughing at the table: each was of Miranda alone, I noticed. Or alone, save for the presence of the mind recording the moments, of course. Save for me. “

Why do things happen the way they happen? Is life merely a series of meaningless coincidences? Do our actions or non-actions play any kind of role in the outcome? Do some people have control while others stand by, waiting and stewing? These are some of the questions raised by Dan DeWeese’s novel, You Don’t Love This Man. Another question might be who is “this man,” anyway? On the surface the title seems to refer to Grant, the protagonist’s one-time friend and future son-in-law, but it’s possible that it also refers to the main character himself. As a quiet, mild-mannered bank manager, Paul does not make a particularly exciting hero, after all. In fact the author himself refers to the character, in the afterward, as a “sidelined” person. It makes sense: Paul is in many ways only coincidentally and peripherally involved in the plot itself, but this book is not about the plot. It is about the mind at work observing the plot as it unfolds. These seemingly trivial, yet weighty, observations of the main character – a spider building a web outside his office window over the course of several days, the disappearance of his co-worker’s freckles when she wears makeup, and his recognition that he does not want them to disappear – were some of my favorite parts of the book.  

In my MA degree I studied “British Modernist” literature with particular care, and it seems to me that DeWeese’s novel has several of the elements that I attribute to work in this genre. You Don’t Love This Man is modernist in the sense that it interrogates one man’s thoughts and actions over the course of a single day (two of the most famous modernist works, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses, also fit this profile), which just so happens to be the wedding day of his only daughter. Though the action of the novel takes place in the present tense, the past haunts it at every corner. Paul has taken the day of his daughter’s wedding off from work, but ends up being called in when his branch gets robbed. Paul realizes that the man in the robbery photos is the same one who robbed him twenty-five years ago, an event which was instrumental in solidifying his relationship with the woman who would be the mother of his only child, as well as the man who would be his friend until he started dating his daughter. The investigation of the robbery, as well as a missing bride, provide the author plenty of opportunity for explanatory flashbacks, all of which seem to propel the book forward towards some kind of grand conclusion.
It is this aspect of pacing, I think, that makes the novel seem different to me: it’s slow and steady, yet seems to build towards a crescendo which, most likely purposefully, never arrives. I won’t give the ending away (part of the book’s beauty is this feeling of moving towards something big) except to say that DeWeese does not provide easy answers, or concede to readers’ desires for all the threads to tie up (with one exception). What emerges is a pattern. Life has one, DeWeese seems to say, but its particularities may or may not mean anything. This idea reminds me of what I took to be Somerset Maugham’s message in Of Human Bondage, another modernist text. The notion of life as “a Persian rug,” passed on to Philip by a drunken painter he reveres as a kind of sage, seems to fit DeWeese’s book quite well. The novel is “modernist” in this sense, then, too: life may not contain a meaning, but it is full of beauty and worthy of our curiosity. For Paul, that seems to be enough. After all, what choice do we have but to live?  

Friday, November 11, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

“All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbor was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.”

I have to tell you something that might upset you: Until now, I had never read To Kill a Mockingbird. 
 Don’t stop reading! I know you might find my confession shocking, appalling even. Many do (though not so much as the news that, until very recently, I had also never seen Star Wars). But please, don’t hold it against me. As I often tell people, “I was never made to read a book in high school” - a true, if not altogether fair, statement.
            Now I have read the famous book thanks to my friend, Turner (find his excellent blog about being an “adjunct” librarian at who bought it for me on one of our recent jaunts to a local organic – I mean independent – bookstore. (I said the Bay area had superior indie bookstores and Turner is attempting to prove me wrong, with lots of fun, if little success). So, for the past couple weeks I’ve been falling asleep with a chapter or two of Scout, Atticus, and Jem Finch’s adventures in Maycomb County.  Now that I’ve read the book I’m no longer surprised that it was not an assigned text in my hometown. It uses the “N word” a lot, for one thing. For another, I think most folks in my town would probably not appreciate the insinuation from the author that the Finches, due primarily to Atticus’s education, are better than the average, everyday Joe. I mean, they don’t even go to church.
            My take on the book, at least the one I feel most interested in pursuing right now, is that it is about class, much more so than race. Of course it is. “The thing about it is, our kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the colored folks” (229). The problem is not just racial prejudice, it’s prejudice in general – How can her teacher hate Hitler for killing Jews when she herself despises the black people in her own town? Scout wants to know. This is a complex question without a simple answer or a happy ending for (most – the altruistic Finches, of course, being the exception) white people – not the kind of thing I was taught to think about in high school. In fact, many of Scout’s observations about education might well be applied to my own, and while her experience is presented with humor rather than overt criticism, it is by no means held up as a shining beacon of truth and tolerance. “Why [the teacher] frowned when a child recited from The Grit Paper I never knew, but in some way it was associated with liking fiddling, eating syrupy biscuits for lunch, being a holy-roller, singing Sweetly Sings the Donkey and pronouncing it dunkey, all of which the state paid teachers to discourage” (247) – an indictment of small-town social/moral indoctrination if I ever heard one.
            The problem with the book, for me, is that Atticus is too perfect. I found myself admiring him, as the author clearly wants me to, but grudgingly. He’s too calm, too heroic. He’s the Jesus figure of the novel, a secular Jesus for the bleeding heart liberals on the coasts (is what some people I know might have said). Scout is too smart, her eyes too keen. What child understands and notices as much about the paradoxes of humanity as Scout does? Even the mysterious shut-in, Boo Radley, is unrealistically selfless and caring. (Boy, I sure do sound cynical, don’t I?) In fact, everyone in the book is pretty damn wholesome, despite the author’s frequent protestations to the contrary. Everybody, that is, except Bob Ewell; the villain of the novel ultimately gets his just desserts by “falling on his knife” and dying (Did Boo kill him? Or was it really Jem? Am I supposed to know?), a reasonably satisfying ending, I suppose, and certainly one with a clear moral message: prejudices kill not only the victims, but the perpetrators, too.           
I enjoyed the novel, and getting to know the characters in it. I think it is a good book that raises important and interesting questions in a charming and unexpected way. These are all excellent accomplishments. But I can’t help thinking that I would have appreciated it more had I read it when I was younger, less informed, and more hopeful.
            Please don’t stop reading if by this post I’ve cut a tiny hole in one of your favorite literary memories. Instead, tell me why I’m wrong and what I’m missing here. Thanks for reading. :) 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To the Lighthouse, Woolf

To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf

“No, the other was the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.”

            The essence of the book is that everything one thinks, feels, and sees is real, at least for that moment. One wants to sum the book up with some definite truths – either there is connection among people, or there is not connection among people and we all, as Mr. Ramsay says, “perish, each alone.” Come on, Woolf, make up your mind already! a reviewer might be inclined to shout. But the flashing in and out is, of course, the point. Can people connect, the book asks? Yes. When, how? Seldom, it answers; the how changes all the time.
            The book has three parts: The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse. The first sets the scene of the Ramsay family at what might be considered the height, or heyday of their communal happiness. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are staying at their house at the seaside along with their eight children and several family friends. Though the story comes to us primarily through the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay, the thoughts of a few of the children and several of the guests are also conveyed. The overall impression is of a cozy life of pleasure, marred by only fleeting disturbances of emotion.  
In the Time Passes section we are told, in small, bracketed paragraphs, that Mrs. Ramsay and two of her children have passed away in separate incidents. The beautiful and melancholic descriptions of nature, light and shadows here reminded me a little of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, which I have reviewed on this blog before.
Finally, in The Lighthouse, a few of the family members – Mr. Ramsay and two of his children – and two of the guests return to the seaside house. This section is primarily told through the still (happily) unmarried painter, Lily Briscoe.
            “Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? – startling, unexpected, unknown?” 
            These thoughts of Lily’s hint at one of the central themes of this book, and of all of Woolf’s fiction – Time. How do we, and how do others, change? Why does everything always change? Perhaps most importantly, what remains? All of the characters in To the Lighthouse ask themselves these questions in different ways. What they do not do, however, is ask each other. This brings us to the next most important theme in the book – Connection. Everyone here seeks connection with others, and all find moments of it. For no one, though, does this sense of connection to humanity last longer than a few brief, blissful moments. This remains true. The characters’ understanding and acceptance of that truth changes.
            All of the typical Woolf elements are here: waves, the seaside, rocks, light, shadows, parties, artist characters. And, as I said, so are her usual preoccupations – Time and Connection. It’s tempting to judge a writer, such as Woolf (or Robbins, or Auster, or Austen, or Huxley, etc etc) for getting stuck on a theme or a particular set of questions. We could dismiss these writers as “one trick ponies,” but I contend that in so doing we would miss out on each of their beautiful attempts to convey what haunts and inspires them.

            What do you think? If a writer always comes back to the same themes, do you get bored? Do you stop buying their next books? Or do you find that you love their voice, style and particular way of looking at the world so much that you don’t mind the repetition, instead enjoying journeying along with them on a new, slightly different foray into their obsessions?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Our Man in Havana, Greene

Our Man in Havana
Graham Greene

“There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?”

            What I like about Graham Greene’s novels is the flavor of exotic locals, that sense of armchair travel to foreign times and places. Greene really did travel to and live in the places he writes about, and he is more than willing to divulge the bad along with the good, conveying settings that seem real precisely because of their confusing mix of beautiful scenery and repulsive humanity. Since I, too, am a lover of world travel and have spent time living outside my home country, I also appreciate that Greene doesn’t varnish the truth of what ex-pats are like abroad. He paints us in all our drunk, detached, sentimental glory, and explores, albeit in an offhand, sardonic way, our reasons for leaving, for staying away, and for every step in between.
            Our Man in Havana follows Wormold, a (horrendously named) English vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana. Wormold’s wife left him long ago and he has had to raise his now-teenage daughter, Milly, by himself. This plot twist allows Greene to show that Wormold is a better guy than many we’ve encountered in the stories of other British humorists. He’s not just trying to get along for his own sake, but for his daughter’s, who he raises Catholic in spite of not being a Catholic himself (his wife was). Concerned with mustering enough wealth to provide for his daughter, who has expensive tastes, Wormold accepts a position as a spy with a British intelligence agency when an agent from the London office somewhat randomly offers him a job in a bar bathroom. Of course, he has no idea of how to be a spy, so he makes up stories and invents fake agents, whose salary and expenses he then collects. It’s fraud, yes, but the reader feels more sympathetic twoards the meek and unassuming Wormold than the “intelligence” agency. This is not surprising considering Greene’s depictions of the men at the top in his “Interlude in London” sections: “Hawthorne, I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.” “Is that desirable, sir?” “Of course it’s desirable. Nobody worries about conventional weapons.”
            The ideas and questions Greene raises in this novel are interesting, but the way he raises them is often so heavy-handed that one loses the sense of discovering something for oneself. There is hardly a question of meaning here: Greene lets us know what we are supposed to think. “A family-feud had been a better reason for murder than patriotism or the preference for one economic system over another. If I love or if I hate let me love or hate as an individual. I will not be 59200/5 in anyone’s global war.” What our countries do should not define us as individuals, even though that’s exactly what they hope to achieve, subsuming our individuality in order to bend it to their own purposes. We may be tempted or conditioned to believe that our countrymen and women are closer to us than people from other cultures but, as Wormold finds out, it doesn’t matter where someone comes from, it’s what they do and how they live that counts.
            Greene’s books are short, quick reads that transport you to another time and place without ever leaving dear old England very far behind. I enjoy traveling to these places with Greene and I will continue to do so, even though I know I’ll have to look further to move beyond the important but somewhat basic idea that England just doesn’t have all the answers.