Category Archives: Articles/reviews

A Partially Realistic Novel, Yet One Full of Conundrums and Mysteries: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Kukotsky Enigma”

The title of this novel at the start prepares the reader for something out of the way and curious, yet it doesn’t come up to the actual novel itself in strangeness and states of compositional alienation. it’s a 2001 novel, hence still fairly recent, translated into English in 2016 by Diane Nemec Ignashev.  It is in fact the translator’s afterword which adds part of the mystery to the novel, as it is her word that is the only explanation of some of the outré, bizarre, and fantastic elements of the book itself.  And her explanation in at least one particular seems a little off-center.  But to begin at the beginning:

“Since the end of the seventeenth century all of Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky’s male ancesters on his father’s side had been physicians.”  As with many a traditional Russian novel of family dynasties, The Kukotsky Enigma proceeds to give some family back history, and then leads into the immediate history of Pavel’s own childhood fascination with his father’s manuals, books, and charts of the human body.  The young boy is particularly drawn to the fold-out flap anatomy book, wherein there is a “naked lady” with a fold-out womb and other organs.  As a child, he is half-afraid that if he is discovered looking at the book, that he will “get his ears boxed,”  but as it turns out, his father actually gives him the gift of a better anatomy book, one with two hundred forty-five drawings, and leaves him to examine it.  It is a book by Leonardo da Vinci, “one of only three hundred hand-numbered copies.”  From here, the boy spends “his happiest hours” in his father’s study, looking not only at anatomy books, but at books on natural history, zoology, and comparative anatomy.  His father’s next munificent gift is a microscope, and from that point on, the course is set for a life in the medical sciences.

One of his father’s friends in obstetrics and gynecology takes the student on when he reaches university age, and though his father dies and his spendthrift mother uses her time trying to retain her former state of elegance in the reduced circumstances of their 1920’s living space being “consolidated” to include three more families, Pavel retains his position and goes on developing his medical skills.  Something strange happens to him, however–the first enigma to bear the name Kukotsky.  He realizes on examining a patient that he is able to see a “full-color schematic image” of tumorous cancers inside her body without ever opening her up, and this gives him pause.  This is a gift which comes from somewhere unknown, which neither his ancestors nor his generous father could have controlled.  He calls it “intravision” and never speaks of it to anyone.  It has a price, however:  even though it improves and increases over the years, he has to live the life nearly of an ascetic in order to get it to operate.  Too much food, or physical contact of an intimate nature with women could temporarily disrupt his gift.  He, however, in order to further his gift, is willing to abide by ascetic conditions, and misogynistic ones.  At this point, he meets up with his future wife, Elena Georgievna Flotov, though he doesn’t recognize her as this at first.

The difference seems to be that she appears on his operating table as a patient, and it is necessary to remove most of her female organs; thus, she is a woman and yet not a woman, a delicate, womanly presence of grace and femininity, yet without the key things that might cause her to get pregnant again.  Quickly, he arranges for her, her tiny daughter Tanya, and her servant Vasilisa to come and live with him, and when news arrives that her husband Flotov has been killed in war, he immediately marries her and adopts Tanya.

From here on, the novel progresses for a while as a family novel, not only of this family, but of another family, Ilya Iosifovich Goldberg (a wayward genius geneticist) and his twin sons, Vitaly and Gennady.  Ilya is in and out of prisons because of his stated views, not even so much about politics, but about genetics issues which the powers that be believe can affect political things and people.  The twin sons, as they grow up, are in friendly competition with each other over Tanya.  And then, due to a tragedy amongst other, poorer people known to Pavel and Elena slightly, another little girl, Toma, is adopted into the family, which causes a permanent schism between Pavel and Elena, though they still live together.  Tanya enters training in medical research and then due to stresses in her family and society, leaves without warning, staying out all hours of the night and worrying her family.  Pavel takes to drinking too much, a habit which stays with him for the rest of the novel.  At this point, the realistic quality of the novel breaks off, and Part Two begins.

Another major conundrum of the book, Part Two, opens with a woman lying in a sand dune, and progresses with her joining a group of unknown people without names, who are going from someplace unknown to someplace else equally uncertain, led by a man known as “the Judean.”  This part of the novel reads very much like a fantasy novel, and yet it seems to me to be an approximate vision of the afterlife, as it might be.  It is this part of the novel which most closely suggests the original title that Ulitskaya, according to the translator’s afterword, had originally given the novel:  Journey(s) to the Seventh Dimension.  It is all very impressionistic, and yet after a while, one begins to recognize a few of the previously appearing characters in these strange new beings with odd names.  Some of them, however, don’t even appear in their realistic guise until the next more realistic section after Part Two, which continues the family saga(s).  Though the translator explains that some of the book is supposed to intimate characteristics of Alzheimer’s (which illness Elena gradually develops, particularly in Part Three), I stick by my impression that this section, with all its mystery, is quite like a fantastic version of the afterlife, perhaps Limbo or Purgatory, though without the religious connotations.  Then comes Part Three.

Part Three progresses with the family sagas again, until there is a sudden dislocation to talk about the murderous career of a former violent guard named Semion Kurilko.  The story follows him for several pages, without explanation, until suddenly he makes contact with one of the characters we’ve been following, and tries to murder him.  But then, Kurilko is hanged; still, we don’t follow the other character anymore, and the section ends.  Another compositional enigma!

Finally, the book ends with a short Part Four.  The subject is of two parts:  one is a picture of Elena as “Granny” to her granddaughter Zhenya, after Pavel’s death.  Though Granny lives with Toma (the poor adopted child) and her husband in another tiny apartment, it is Zhenya (heavily pregnant) who comes to bathe and take care of her.  Elena seems actually to have Alzheimer’s in this section, which was prefigured in earlier Part One and Part Two by some of her moments of disorientation and the odd journal entries she made at those times.  So, actually, I suppose, it hasn’t been entirely unprepared for.  The second part of the last subject is not of age, senility, or death, but of birth.  The book ends with the two sides of the united family grouping around the new birth, and Ilya Goldberg planning to come back from America to see the baby.  Thus, Pavel’s original interest in treating the diseases and ailments of pregnant women (not totally to exclude the major subject of his securing abortions for women who desperately needed them, amidst much societal animosity) circles round again in his posterity, though the male line of doctors which was followed at the beginning is at the end replaced by the female line of women giving birth and tending to their own.

I have made much of the curiousness of this book, and I have to say that this does not indicate that I did not thoroughly enjoy it, which I did.  It is a fine novel.  The puzzles come in when one considers the method of construction of the novel itself, and the sometimes abrupt switches from subject to subject following the divisions into sections.  Also, the two major characters in the novel, Pavel and Tanya, both die before the end of the novel, and Elena, a distant third major character in the course of the realistic sections, receives much of the emphasis if one considers that original title about “the seventh dimension” as a synonym for Alzheimer’s, and the fact that she outlives the other two.

All in all, this is quite a major achievement, and it is obvious why it won the 2001 Russian Booker Prize.  Such questions and ponderings about the structure and the substance as I have raised are meant not to denigrate its quality, but to emphasize just how much there is here to think about, how much about life we can stand to reflect upon.  And it is a rich contribution to literature about Russian life in particular, inasmuch as it locates the characters in their times and traditions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some areas around the Black Sea.  It is rare to come across a novel which can not only paint the picture of family relations in a complex situation, locate those families with respect to the professions and trades, and finally put the whole in a societal framework which makes the entire book more comprehensible to readers from cultures all around the world.  This novel is such a novel.

 

 

 

 

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A Masterful Job of Novel Construction, as Proven By a Mistake–Anna Quindlen’s “Still Life With Crumbs”

Normally when reviewing someone else’s work, I delve around into all the many thoughts I had about the book while reading, put together my sense about the book and what my experience of it led to in a general way, and then commence writing my post about it.  But in the case of Anna Quindlen’s novel Still Life With Crumbs, what happened was that my experience was what you might call a “nouveau” reading session, unintentionally taken on through a mistake in the website, while the book itself, though masterful, was more or less a straightforward read.  There were small flashbacks and flash forwards, but the flash forwards predominated over the flashbacks and were nearly always heralded with the tantalizing phrase which I came to look forward to, “but that was later,” or “that happened later.”

Here’s what I thought happened the first time through:  I started with a novel chapter entitled “A Young Agent, An Old Photographer,” which was fairly self-explanatory.  As I read forward from that chapter title, I was occasionally puzzled by references to characters and events that I didn’t recognize, but was able to piece together enough of the elliptical story to follow where the author was leading.  Things were clear as they developed from that point on, though I felt adrift from moment to moment, and had to stop and remember a few things more than usual in order to understand what was happening.  When I got to the last chapter, I was thoroughly startled:  this was simultaneously one of the best novels and absolutely the shortest one I’d ever read.  It was rather more of a skeleton of a novel, charming as that technique and difference from others was, than it was a full-fledged development.  Nevertheless, at that point I did what I usually do, and keyed into the website to go back to where I had started in order to write down names, plot formations, and details in order to revive the experience of reading for this post.

Imagine my surprise (and also a strange sense of letdown, oddly) to find that through some glitch in the library website, the book was actually much longer at the beginning than the point at which it had originally situated me!  In fact, the point where I had begun is roughly three-fourths of the way through the novel!  Dutifully, I read through the actual first three-fourths of the novel, and found that to my delight I had managed to get almost all of the story correctly as it had developed from the real first page!  When I thought about it, that gave me my topic, my new topic, for this post–how many novels you’ve read can you say were actually so well put together that you could follow the storyline that late in the novel and not be totally at sea, all the while feeling still excited both by the shorter storyline and the original true full length novel?

Just to clue you into the gist of the novel, it’s about a late middle-aged photographer, a woman, who is supporting both her aged parents to some extent and also contributing some money to her talented son’s well-being, in addition to supporting her own career in two different homes.  Money troubles as well as a curve in the nature of her subjects cause her to rent out her New York City apartment, which she loves, and rent a small cabin in upstate New York, a place with which she has no initial innate sympathy, lacking country roots.  Gradually, she starts to shoot new subjects and to become aware of an entirely different lifestyle and group of friends.  She is touched as an individual not only by the newness of it all, but by all the incidents which involve her friends, both old and new.  I won’t spoil the ending for you by telling you how it ends, except that it develops in a way which seems totally natural to real life, as people call it.  Though there are no improbable leaps of the imagination called for, however, the pace never lags, the interest never wanes, and the whole is a tour de force of full blown fictional creation in very simple words and sentences.  Once one has read the whole in its proper order, the last fourth of the novel, which I had at first assumed was all of it, clearly and cleanly concludes all of the foregoing material and tops it off very neatly and happily.  Yes, it has a happy ending, after various trials for the characters, and a few unhappy internal events.  And what’s more important, the happy ending is neither soppy nor improbable.  The whole gives the impression of having been written by someone well-versed with the particular sort of life lived by the heroine.

Though I’d never read Anna Quindlen before, she is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, and her writing shows quite obviously why she was given this award.  She has written both fiction and non-fiction.  Another book of hers which I’ve heard of before but never read is One True Thing, a title which may well be as familiar as you as it is to me.  I think I’ll look for it on the websites soon, because as curiosity provoking as her title Still Life With Breadcrumbs is, One True Thing is, as a title, equally enticing.

 

 

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C. S. Lewis’s (Lack of) Sympathy for the Devil: “The Screwtape Letters” and “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

Recently, I was watching an episode of “Inspector Lewis” on PBS television, and in the famous mystery series, Inspector Lewis and Inspector Hathaway were investigating murders of some people who were either followers of “The Inklings” (J. R.. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis), or of medieval alchemy, it took them some time to discover which.  Some of the details about The Inklings in this generally well-researched series made me curious, but while I was conversant with the other two, I had never heard of Charles Williams the literary figure before.  So, I dug out the only book I’d ever had by C. S. Lewis (excepting a childhood’s version of The Chronicles of Narnia), a copy of The Screwtape Letters which also included a short piece called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.”  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the primary work, its subtitle is “How a Senior Devil Instructs a Junior Devil in the Art of Temptation.”

One of the most curious things about this book is the way in which it conveys serious moral philosophy without, however, verging either into the preachy or the satirical in a pure sense.  It examines moral issues relating to humanity, a Christian version of God, and the wages of sin in a topsy-turvy way through Screwtape’s earnest and falsely urbane written advice to his nephew, Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young man to fall from grace.  The book traces each step (or misstep) Wormwood makes through the lessons Screwtape is apparently offering his nephew, while the nephew’s letters to Screwtape, soliciting this advice, are suppressed by the book’s creator.

In his “Preface,” C. S. Lewis says, “The commonest question is whether I really ‘believe in the Devil.’  Now, if by ‘the Devil’ you mean a power opposite to God and, like God, self-existent from all eternity, the answer is certainly No.  There is no uncreated being except God.  God has no opposite.  No being could attain a ‘perfect badness’ opposite to the perfect goodness of God; for when you have taken away every kind of good thing (intelligence, will, memory, energy, and existence itself) there would be none of him left.  The proper question is whether I believe in devils.  I do.  That is to say, I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God and, as a corollary, to us.  These we may call devils.  They do not differ in nature from good angels, but their nature is depraved.  Devil is the opposite of angel only as Bad Man is the opposite of Good Man.  Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael….It should be (but it is not) unnecessary to add that a belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature.  Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings, not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats.”

Lewis further explains two other choices of his creation of characters, the first to give his devils no real sense of humor (“For humor involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside.”), and the second to make his devils bureaucrats and their subordinates (“I like bats much better than bureaucrats.  I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’  The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint.  It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps.  In those we see its final result.  But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men   with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.  Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”  He goes on to point out that the devils only have any kind of supposedly civilized concord with each other in a temporary sense.  When Wormwood finally fails, in this book, to tempt his subject to Hell when he dies, and instead sees him headed for Heaven, it’s his own uncle, Screwtape, who has been giving him devilish avuncular advice all this time, who rejoices the most (and literally salivates the most) at his downfall in Hell.

The shorter piece by Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” finds Screwtape the honorary speaker at the annual dinner for the Tempters’ Training College for young devils.  The piece has some quite pointed bits about what exactly they are dining upon. For example, they eat “a municipal authority with Graft sauce”; a “Casserole of Adulterers”; a “Trade Unionist stuffed with sedition”; and they drink “sound old vintage Pharisee.”  This piece is rather more politically than morally slanted, as herein C. S. Lewis takes aim at the ways in which he feels the principles of modern democracy and the annihilation of individuality are leading people from the straight and narrow to the wide broad highway of sin.  This work is not really as universal as the main text, but criticizes mainly what Lewis finds objectionable in the democratic society of his own time.  This is not to say that it’s not interesting to read, but there is a stronger Toryish flavor to it from what I can tell without having done further research beyond just reading the piece myself and judging from that (a true Britisher reading it might disagree, and might feel that Lewis’s objections are free of bias).

At any rate, I’m very glad to have read this book finally, having often wondered what lay between its covers.  Though more of a spiritual than a religious person myself (having been raised a Christian, but also having tried to extend my understanding in some degree at least to other religious systems as well), I found that Lewis’s was an innervating and and energetic point of view, and one well worth encountering, even at points where it seemed dated.  After all, you have to look for the virtues in any book you read, while trying to explain to yourself the faults and shortcomings.  It’s a position you would want people to approach your own work(s) with, and you as well.  Happy exploring in the literary world!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Biography of a Song–Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'”

Today, I’m writing about a song which is my favorite popular song of all time, and one about which there is not only a lot of concord (that it is a great song), but also a lot of disagreement (that it is spiritual, that it is full of primal sexuality, that one artist or another has done a better job of conveying its “basic” meaning, that one version or another is the best, etc.).  I don’t know which artist I first heard sing it, because I turned the television on in the middle of a performance just in time to catch the lyric lines “She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, she cut your hair,” and somehow, the incongruity of the notions of a throne and having one’s hair cut by a woman at home (or perhaps the collision inherent in the idea of a kitchen chair being like a throne) caught my attention in a very primary way.  I fell in love with the song immediately, but in spite of this book’s insistence about the ubiquity of the song, when I went to a local DVD and CD store to obtain a copy of the media form it was on, I only encountered absolute blankness from the clerks.  I did not know at the time that it was by Leonard Cohen, the famous Canadian composer and songster also responsible for such songs as “Bird on a Wire.”  I had seen the song performed by a much younger man, a very soulful character also, however, but not one whose name I remembered hearing.

My next encounter with it was on Bon Jovi’s 2008 DVD “Live at Madison Square Garden” (which, however, I did not get a copy of until about 2012 or so, or certainly a few years after its first production, anyway).  It has remained my favorite rendition of the song except for Leonard Cohen’s, and that’s because it has at least five of the now current seven stanzas (I would really love to see the original 80 stanzas just to read, but that remains for another time).  The only thing I did not like about Leonard Cohen’s own version was that he was in London at the time, and he stuck the name of his performance locale in the song when he performed, which he apparently did in other places as well.  I don’t like it particularly not because of any resentment towards London, but because I like the song the way it is, and don’t like it much when any artist or artiste kowtows to a local audience instead of during a “pure” version of the song.  But that’s just my own obsession with completeness and purity speaking; I understand that the local audiences of the various places went wild when he did it.

And now, to the ostensible subject of my post, the book itself.  The book is uneven, in that it offers a wealth of interesting detail about the song, its development, and history of production and reproduction, but also throws a bunch of famous and not-so-famous names at you, which gives a feeling of “I guess you had to have been there.”  It sometimes descends to the level of “he-said-she-said” or gossip, but for the most part, it is well worth an attentive read.  It contrasts the way the different artists performing the song have seen it, because each artist seems to have wanted to make it his or her own, even to the extreme (in my view) of leaving words and stanzas out.  The frontispiece quotes are from Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley, in that order, and thus offer the two most famous attitudes and artists’ views of the song.  Cohen said, “‘Hallelujah’ is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord.’  The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist.  I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have an equal value.  It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”  Perhaps the song’s most popularly famous performer (somewhat possibly because of his own later and untimely demise), Jeff Buckley, said “Whoever listens to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.  The hallelujah is not an homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm.  It’s an ode to life and love.”

One particular thing that this book did for me, however, was to encourage me to reach beyond my own limits:  because I tend to prefer songs by their original composers or first singers (or both), because I tend to prefer to get all the lyrics and not just half or the mere repetition of a few words and a chorus, and because I get distracted when there is more than one key interpretation to a song, I found this book a challenge.  It forced me to see that the song does indeed belong not only to Leonard Cohen, but to the world, and while that’s entirely a good thing, because it seems to communicate a sort of togetherness and community spirit, I do still feel the right of my own preferences:  I, too, am in the world!  And perhaps that realization, for each person who hears the song or reads the book, is the single most valuable thing about either.

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Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending.  You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending.  My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work.  Perhaps it is all of these.  At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.

To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it.  Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do:  whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story.  Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds.  Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing.  The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students.  In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced.  He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary.  It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.

“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question:  what else have I done wrong?”  This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories.  For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers:  “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.”  Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man.  In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation.  There is responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”  He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly:  tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”  What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.

And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history.  Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize.  And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.

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A Title by Any Other Name– Patrick Ness’s “The Rest of Us Just Live Here”

As YA fiction is not my forte, this will be a shorter post than most, and will probably just whet your appetite, or at least I hope so.  I do occasionally read YA things, and I have to say that until I actually started this one, I was expecting something completely different.  I mean, the very intriguing title, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, suggested to me a funny, smart, ironic modern book, with quips and quirks and characters to illustrate the unexpected turns and twists of life.  I didn’t get quite that, but the book is a valuable lesson in appreciating the unexpected, whether you are a reader or a character.

There are two different story lines in the book, one concerning a group of teenaged seniors in their final year in high school, who are suffering from various everyday traumas of growing up, from insecurity to anorexia, to coping with romantic problems.  And then, of course, as later emerges, there’s the one of them who’s coping with being one-fourth Immortal (the God of Cats, a nice choice to my cat-loving imagination).  The second story line, which appears in a short paragraph at the beginning of each chapter and which seems at first to have nothing much to do with the other more usual set of circumstances in the main plot line, concerns the dramatic supernatural misadventures of another group of students whom the first group call “the indie kids,” apparently kids like those one might see in B-list indie horror and suspense films.  All the main deaths happen to them, and while the more “normal” kids discuss the events when they become aware of them, they don’t actually aid or intervene in the indie kids’ affairs until the very end of the novel.  So, one assumes, the title “the rest of us just live here” is a sort of smart-ass rejoinder to the screenwriters who put so many unfortunate and adventurous teens in their films, a sort of denial that everything is fated to happen to people of that age.

In fact, the short paragraph at the beginning of each chapter which briefly summarizes what is happening to the indie kids is so brief and flatly stated that it reads like parody, and its back and forth between marauding Immortals and hapless indie kids would be a mere summary of some lost novel with no real believable interest, except for the union between the two groups of teens which comes about at the end, when they all graduate.  At that point, the threads of plot are all wound up, though new beginnings are also clearly in the offing, uncertain though the future is for all of them.  This is a fairly good growing-up novel, though the voice could use a little work, because the narrator comes across as a bit more mature than the usual high school senior, even one of superior intelligence and even one with OCD to cope with, his particular problem to sort out.

The counterpoint which is established between the illnesses and neuroses of the “normal” kids and the supernatural visitations upon the “indie” kids is actually quite nice and well-developed, by force of the fact that whereas in the ordinary supernatural book, the supernatural is a metaphor for the traumas of development into maturity and its attendant dangers, here the two are interwoven in a non-metaphorical way to show that “the rest of us” who “just live here” are not so immune from life-shattering events, even if they don’t view themselves as particularly dramatic.  There are also little flashes of humor here and there, both from the characters to each other and in such features as giving the one-fourth Immortal student dominion over cats.

There is an author’s note here as well, just as there was in the Duchovny book I reviewed last time, but this one is less self-oriented and more interesting, though the author’s references are also topical.  The book came about in connection with a Typhoon Haiyan fundraising effort, and we read that two of the character names, Henna’s and Jared’s, were taken from real people known to the author, who were a part of the fundraising history.  All in all, I think that though this is not Pulitzer Prize material, it’s a good book for the more mature teenager, not more mature in the sense of being able to withstand repeated doses of violence and horror without nightmares, but mature in the sense that he or she will be able to perceive the points the book is trying to make.  And that’s my post for today.

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When is a cow not a cow, and a story not (much of) a story?–David Duchovny’s “Holy Cow!”

Maybe it’s just that it’s spring, all things are budding and blooming, and once again I’ve begun my hunt for the perfectly (or even imperfectly) uplifting book, possibly one with a message, or just one with a lot of fun to it.    I had wondered if David Duchovny’s book Holy Cow! would be it.  It wasn’t.  Perceive me as seriously underwhelmed, both in the uplifting-message and the amusement department.

Since there’s not much point in worrying about spoilers and such when a book has no suspense anyway (especially not of the literary kind), here’s what the book is basically “about”:

A cow named Elsie, a pig first named Jerry who then re-names himself “Shalom,” and a turkey named Tom, all of whom suddenly acquire the ability to read and operate technology, decide to leave the farm and go (respectively) to India, Israel, and Turkey, where they expect to elude their seeming fates as human food and be appreciated (or worshipped, in Elsie’s case) as the individuals they are.  Fair enough.  But the book’s jokes are hokey and fall flat, the twists and turns of the “plot” are unsurprising or at least unrewarding, and the “message” at the end, that we should all (humans as well as animals) appreciate that we are animals and work a better deal out between our higher and lower faculties, is not handled well, and comes out facile and silly.  The whole is clearly not an allegory, and even mentions George Orwell’s famous book Animal Farm, which is.  The later book mentions that an ordinary farm is not like Orwell’s allegorical one, which seems to initiate a departure point for Duchovny’s story, yet the point seems to be obvious:  this is a story with talking animals which is not an allegory.  So what?  It doesn’t make it as a fairy tale either, and is not one which I can imagine children taking an interest in (or adults finding enough satisfaction in to keep then reading, unless they had committed to do a post on the book, like yours truly).

The three animals travel together (and the improbabilities of this roving life are not overcome by any startling or marvelous events such as we are used to in fantasy fiction), and in each of the three target countries, they are disappointed of their goals to be individuals.  Their learning curves are very unstupendous, as they don’t change much in the choices they anticipate for themselves, Elsie (for example) returning to the farm, to the ordinary cow’s life, quite possibly.

So, what do I advise about this book?  Give it a miss, unless you are just a sort of person who’s curious about what celebrities think about in their spare time.  The “I-wrote-this-book” element comes in strongly at the end, when Duchovny presents himself as the “cow-writer” (by unamusing analogy with “ghost-writer”?).  Though I rarely pan a book wholeheartedly, this is one that I really do dislike, not for any big overwhelming thing it does wrong, but just because it’s boring and the choices are ones that are expected and dull.  But then, I guess that is a big overwhelming thing!  The author is listed in the credits as an actor, director, and writer.  I suppose it’s cranky to say he should stick to acting, where others provide him with words, and where a lot of us like him.  I’ve never seen anything he’s directed, and so can’t comment about that.  But if this a representation of his abilities as a writer, then he needs a writing class which focuses on topic (I didn’t really notice much wrong with his stylistics or grammar, but perhaps that’s because I was slogging through the book looking for content).  And now, I think I’ll take a dose of spring tonic to get over my bitchy mood, and look for a better book to read and review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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