Scaramouche (Sabatini)

When I am waiting for a favorite writer to produce (in this case) his new book, I will often read books he recommends. This is what led me to Michael Ondaatje’s recommendation, Scaramouche. Though it belongs in the same category as the likes of A Tale of Two CitiesThe Count of Monte Cristo, and Les Miserables, it is definitely the weakest of the quartet. Individual sections are compelling, but it lacks the coherence of the other three novels and therefore does to deliver the memorable power of the other three books I mentioned. It hits a lot of the same topics – the personal and political, the French Revolution and its aftermath, the class system, revenge, love – but ricochets around so much that the predictable ending does not land with the power that Sabatini probably wanted. It’s an entertaining, but ultimately forgettable novel. I’m not sure what Ondaatje sees in it. So while I am waiting for Ondaatje’s next one, I’ll probably re-read The English Patient, which just won the Booker Prize’s 50th anniversary award.

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Jungle of Stone (Carlsen)

Subtitle: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

The subtitle, it now seems to me, tells you everything that is great about the book (roughly, the first 400 pages) and everything that is disappointing about it (the last 60 pages). When Carlsen focuses on Stephens and Catherwood and their re-discovery of the Mayan civilization, his account is compelling in the same way that Stephens’ original accounts apparently were. The tenacity and resilience that the two men show as they follow leads, navigate and escape revolutions, and deal with the weather, rough terrain, mosquitoes and malaria (before the two were linked) and the generally destructive passage of time is just amazing. And Carlsen’s words, though he clearly admires the two men, are honest. There is criticism for the way they, especially Stephens, exploit the locals and loot some of what they find. That said, to his credit, Stephens is more open-minded than his contemporaries when it comes to considering whether the Mayan civilization is the product of indigenous minds or more traditional outside influences, such as the Egyptians.

I understand Carlsen’s instinct to find closure for this story, but once Stephens and Catherwood leave Central America, the book loses its (and the word choice is deliberate here because of its historical significance) ‘steam.’ Carlsen indulges in his own history of the Mayan civilization and then concluded the biographies of his two protagonists.

Perhaps Carlsen wanted to put all of his research in one place, but the book’s subtitle suggests that he had too many agendas, and the last 60 pages diminish the momentum of his powerful narrative.

House Made of Dawn (Momaday)

In Steve Martin’s play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, he raises the question of which comes first – the art or the artist. In other words, if we didn’t know a painting was by Picasso, would we admire it as much? I recently read an article about this issue in The Atlantic about Basquiat. Here it is — Basquiat

My first memorable encounter with this issue was Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. It’s a story, if I recall correctly, of the gruff Dominican father who, it turns out (not a spoiler alert – you can see it coming from the proverbial mile away) who has or develops a heart of gold when it comes to his daughters. “If I wrote that,” I said at the time to anyone who would pretend to listen, “people would dismiss it as a stereotype. But because her last name is Alvarez, we’re supposed to accept it as authentic.”

I thought of this experience as I made my way through Momaday’s novel. First, I could probably tell you elements of the plot, but as for offering a coherent sentence or three, I’m not optimistic. Second, much of what Momaday,  the winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award, writes about are, in my limited experience, traditional topics in First Nations literature – nature, elders, Indians in the country vs. the city, fears about the loss of traditions, etc.. But am I just supposed to accept them as true and insightful because of the author’s biography? Plus, there are a few important white characters here, the woman in particular, who seem broadly, if not crudely developed. But am I being hypocritical here? Does he get a pass on trying to develop a white character? (Michael Chabon does not get a pass for the terrible black characters he created in Telegraph Avenue. They were ridiculous cartoons.) Is this meant to be how the protagonist perceives the white woman?

I think it comes down to skill. Momaday’s writing is sharp and deliberate. There’s a description of a rainstorm that I read and re-read before I moved on. It’s stunning.

I liked the book. Most of the characters seem genuine, and Momaday’s insights into nature and traditions (especially stories) are thought-provoking.

As for what the whole thing is about, well, that might take some time.

 

Does anyone have a next Momaday to suggest?

 

Exit West (Hamid)

I did not like The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I mean, I really didn’t like it. And my dislike increased exponentially as it continued to receive praise. I thought it was didactic and clumsy. And so I ignored Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and planned to do the same with this one, but it kept lingering and getting good reviews from people I respected and. . .  they were right.

This is a great novel. Since at one level, it’s about migration, it’s a great novel for right now, but it is not a political novel or at least it’s not just a political novel. It’s also about the migration of the human heart. What makes it most remarkable, though, in addition to the tremendous writing  – the passage of Nadia reading a news story on her phone that features a photo of her reading a news story on her phone or at least seems to is one of the most perfect marriage of form and meaning that I’ve ever encountered – is that amidst all of truth that Hamid depicts, he has, and I need to steal this phrase right now, “the audacity of hope.”

This one will never become a movie which is good because, to borrow a line I loved in a high school classmate’s poem, “this isn’t the movies.” This is real. This is honest. This is what literature is supposed to be.

An American Tragedy (Dreiser)

I had not planned to make Dreiser’s epic my big book for the summer, but I found myself at an event with an unexpected hour to kill, and had noticed a used book sale. I read both it and Sister Carrie in graduate school and remembered like them both, though I recall my Prof. did not care much for my thesis on the latter.

Anyway, a wise man (my barber) once said, though certain things (he was referring to museums) don’t change, we change and our new reactions to exhibits and books can be revealing. I was, for example, eager to read one of my favorite childhood books to our children – only to abandon it because of its relentless stereotyping. Romeo and Juliet is certainly different as a parent than it was as a teenager.

Though I can’t recapture my initial impressions of An American Tragedy (I’m quite sure that I don’t have my Sister Carrie paper, though I do recall the basic thesis and still think it was worthwhile), I do wonder what I thought of the protagonist, Clyde Griffiths. Was everything his fault? Was he guilty? Did I grimace then as I did this time when I read about his upbringing? I doubt I wondered much about Dreiser’s apparent critique of organized religion because his view seems to match my own. This time, the parallels between this novel and Native Son jumped out at me, including the exquisite tension of the key scenes.

I think this time that I have more ideas about what makes this novel particularly American and, despite any skepticism about Clyde’s character, what makes it a tragedy. I did recall Dreiser’s use of space and architecture as a marker, and it is beautifully done here.

I will return to Sister Carrie soon and maybe even explore some other Dreiser.

Electric Arches (Ewing)

It was her three re-telling poems that first made me sit up and take notice. In each, Ewing starts with a typed account of an experience with brutal racism, but then stops short. We then see her handwritten (and presumably much more positive) re-telling of how the encounter ended. These new endings (and all three poems are featured in a section of her book called, “True Stories”) contain a magical element, one that allows the persona to reclaim the narrative.

As a white male, I am not sure I was able to find my way into all aspects of all of these poems, but I found enough to get a firm grasp on their power. I can’t wait to share them with students.

Ewing’s site

Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape (Schlabach)

Although I last lived there over 20 years ago, Chicago, and particularly the South Side where I went to college, has fascinated me since I first came to know it. This book (a published dissertation, really) promised to appeal to both my love for Chicago and my love for literature, with its promised focus on the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright.

In the end, the book / dissertation is okay for many reasons that despite their elaborate bindings, few people outside of the author’s family ever actually read dissertations. It’s repetitive, self-referential and features too much jargon. There’s no heart here, no passion. It’s an informative book, but not really a meaningful one. There’s some nice focused attention on both Brooks’ life and her work. The section on Policy (what I knew as Numbers) is well-constructed, but even the author seems to realize that she has to strain to connect this with the literary landscape.

So, it was good background reading and made me want to read more of Brooks’ work, so those are both positives.

I was surprised that Schlabach, a white author, made no mention of herself in relation to her subject. This oversight shadowed the whole book.