2018 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Classics, Contemporary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Joan Didion, Non-Fiction

“Joansing” for Didion

While Halloween has always held a coveted spot in my heart and imagination, the truth is, I used to get almost as excited for the 4thof July. It was like the summertime version of my favorite autumn day, where the rules were bent and the pure joy of living was the day’s entire purpose. I distinctly remember people from my childhood commenting about my love for this holiday, and about how patriotic I must have been. But that was never the reality.

What I loved were the barbecues and the being outside with friends all day, playing kickball and having water balloon fights, and getting so bloated on hot dogs and ice cream that I thought I’d burst before the big city fireworks show. I loved the morning parade, being in it as a Boy Scout and, when Boy Scout days were over, arising early to save the family seats along the sidewalk, close enough to grab candy and other goodies from the parade participants.

And I can still hear the sound of the ice cream truck, softly in the distance. I can see my friends’ faces as they heard it too; we’d look at each other at just the right moment, realizing it was time to pause the game, rush home to beg for a dollar, and then get back out into the street in time to stop the truck as he came tinkling down the road. But more than anything, it was the fireworks.

Reading Joan Didion is like reading the 4th of July. It is fireworks in my brain and sitting down with an old friend to chat about and think about everything and nothing, and leaving exhausted by the pure and exhilarating experience of being together again. There’s no special magic to fireworks, once you learn they’re little more than powder, a match, and some cleverly timed fuses. In the same way, one can “figure out” the technical and creative style of Didion in order to explain just how she does what she does, and why it is so compelling. But even now, that knowledge, about fireworks and Didion, remains subliminal, and I continue to be, above all, caught up in the spectacle, in the color and rhythm and choreography of it all.

The White Album is a collection of essays written in the “aftermaths of the 1960s.” Her subject matter ranges from personalities like Doris Lessing to events like the Manson murders. What holds it all together is the skeptical and, in hindsight, sobering but accurate perspective of an often-mistaken view about the United States’ “greatest decade.” Didion takes an unflinching look at the optimism of the 1960s, the supposed freedoms, and the many breakdowns and reckonings of that idealism, the unmasking, as it were, of one decade by its disillusioned successor, the 1970s.

In the first essay, from which the collection takes its title, Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In other words, the writer’s work at this time was to try to make sense of the senseless, and the 1970s more than any other time revealed that, sometimes, the narrative is simply wrong.

In later essays, she writes about architecture, like governors’ mansions and museums, as signifiers of our culture’s shaken and superficial, even misleading, view of our own past. In “The Getty,” for example, she writes, “the Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it.” If the collection has one unifying theme, it is this critique on what we Americans think we know about our own past, and how quickly truth and reality seem to slip through our fingers. To read this collection now, in 2018, is a particularly painful and humbling experience.

One of the most under-rated essays in the collection is its last, “Quiet Days in Malibu.” In a way, this piece, written between 1976-1978, is the logical concluding piece not just because it comes near the end chronologically, but because Didion writes about the personal experience of living in Malibu in order to reveal that it, too—the reality of her hometown—is different from how it is perceived by those who live outside of it. Malibu, California has an aura about it that relates to nothing real, according to Didion, just as the 1970s exposed the truth of the 1960s, puncturing its aura forever. Aptly, and somewhat ironically, at the center of her experience in this essay is an immigrant who runs a local flower shop for decades. His are some of the most expensive, sought-after plants in the world and, like everything else, their position is precarious. Danger and uncertainty, instability and tragedy, are always lurking. And yet, so is hope—inexplicable, untraceable, blind hope.

I adore Didion’s writing, so beware my bias. That said, this is perhaps her most tightly themed collection. Despite an essay or two with which I had some intellectual or emotional disagreement (there is one titled “The Women’s Movement” that left me feeling more than conflicted), I felt a fierce and powerful sense of grounded awe while reading these essays and after finishing the collection. This is what I’ve come to expect, personally, from my time with Joan Didion.

The rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air.


This was the fifth book read for my TBR Pile Challenge.


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Alissa Nutting, Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Crime Novel, Fiction, Gender Roles, Narcissism, Pedophilia, Psychology, Psychology of Sex, Sex Addiction, Sexual Predator, Sexuality, Sociopaths

Review: Tampa by Alyssa Nutting

17292511Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 48

Tampa is the much-talked about, widely reviled, and heavily debated inaugural novel from writer Alissa Nutting.  It is based on the real-life events of a Florida teacher who had sex with her underage students.  In it, we are introduced to one of contemporary fiction’s most unbelievably cold and calculating sociopaths, Celeste Price.  While most of literature’s psychologically imbalanced men and women tend to be masochists and/or murderers, Celeste is instead an obsessive-compulsive sexual deviant and addict.  She just cannot get enough of the fourteen year old boys.  Yes, you read that right.  She, a 26-year-old high school teacher, preys on adolescent boys.

Indeed, Tampa is likely to be one of the latest and greatest in a long line of books that are sure to face (or face again) censorship and library ban requests.  Why all the drama?  Well, let’s begin at the beginning:  Nutting’s principal character (the young, first-time teacher, fresh out of her education program) opens her story with a masturbation scene, which leads into her recounting an anecdote about her first sexual experience with a boy, when she (and he) were just fourteen.  Thus the scene is set for her lifelong fascination with youthful teenage lovers.  Everything is told, by the way, in graphic, explicit, highly imaginative detail.

Shockingly, this reality is probably not the most unappetizing element of the book.  After all, there are places in the world where 14 (or younger) is the age of consent.  There are some nations and religions which marry-off their girls before they have even reached puberty.  So, while the age issue might be nauseating to most of us in certain political and social circumstances, it is not the worst of the story.  What is truly disturbing is Celeste Price’s narcissistic self-involvement, her willingness to do absolutely anything, to anyone, in order to get her way.  Maybe that means whoring herself out to a student’s father.  Maybe it results in psychologically damaging a young man, probably permanently, by making him believe that he is responsible for his own parent’s death.  Anything goes, as long as Celeste gets her sex.

At first, I was put-off by the very cold, clinical narrative approach.  The prose is distant, almost willfully antagonistic.  It is such as makes the reader not at all sympathetic to the Celeste’s “plights.”  But, of course, that is entirely the point.  Celeste is a cold woman who sees things in a very bizarre, unnatural way.  Life, for her, bends toward one direction – sexual gratification.  Her next fix is almost always on her mind, so all other matters fall off, like rain on a thrice-waxed automobile.  Are all sexual predators as entirely consumed as Celeste?  Probably not; however, creating a grotesque so as to make a particular point is one of the oldest narrative techniques, and it still works (as long as we do not fall into the trap of taking everything so literally).

Overall, I was satisfied with the book.  Perhaps satisfied is not quite the appropriate work, given the subject matter.  I think Nutting pushes the envelope – she is bold and daring in an environment and climate which, currently, is ever ready to pounce and condemn.  Unfortunately, her characters are quite lacking in breadth and development, which does mean the story falls somewhat flat emotionally, but I am not convinced that that is not somewhat intentional (I do feel for Celeste’s primary victim, sometimes, but that is about the extent of it – even her husband leaves much to be desired in terms of empathetic ability).

Cameron-Diazthe-sexy-teacher-1It is easy to understand how some have mistaken this novel for pornography.  After all, nearly every page (and certainly every chapter) is littered with sexual innuendo, sexually explicit inner-monologue, or actual depictions of (sometimes insanely wild) sex acts.  But, pornography?  No.  The purpose of pornography is to sexually arouse a person and stimulate them to orgasm.  That is not the purpose of this book.  Yes, it is graphic and, yes, it is detailed – it is, as much as I hate the word, highly taboo.  But its purpose is much greater than “to be daringly titillating.” In fact, that is not the point at all.  The narcissistic, sociopathic machinations of this school teacher may seem unbelievable, but that is exactly the point – there are people in the world like this (or near enough), and we, Nutting seems to say, remain happily and almost intentionally blind to this fact, particularly when it comes to viewing young women as potential sexual predators.  How do we imagine pedophiles, after all?  Creepy middle-aged white men?  But, what if that ridiculously attractive young woman happens to have a sexual preoccupation for young boys?  Or young girls?

My problem with the way it begs this question (and it is a good question), is that it does seem to fetishize, in a way, pedophilia or sexual predation from this vantage point.  That is to say – a traditionally written book about a sexual predator would likely make the villain wholly repulsive – and that villain would usually be a middle-aged white man.  Here, when the tables are turned and it is a female sex villain, she is almost unimaginably attractive, so much so that it is not just the young boys, but also their fathers (and maybe even some female colleague teachers) who want to devour her.  It’s a dangerous tightrope Nutting walks, and it leaves open for discussion some additional, important questions.  How do we view problematic sex situations, and how do we envision the “bad guys?”

The book isn’t supposed to strike terror into the hearts and minds of every young teenage boy (most would probably enjoy this book, actually) or their parents, but it is supposed to open the dialogue, and it does so by creatively re-imagining events that actually happened. It is a groundbreaking piece of work, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to stomach it.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adults+
Interest: Pedophilia, Sexual Predators, Abuse, Sociopathic Behavior, Narcissism, Psychology of Sexuality, Sex Addiction, Creative Nonfiction, Crime, Gender Roles (Stereotypes).


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Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Dance, Expatriate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Family, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, Flappers, Jazz Age, Literary History, Literature, Psychology, Zelda Fitzgerald

Review: Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Save  Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 16


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was the troubled wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most famous American writers of all-time.  Save Me the Waltz is her first and only novel, one which is largely autobiographical and which covers  approximately the same time period as her husband’s masterpiece, Tender is the Night.  Both books fictionalize the couple’s life in Paris together, but each from their own perspective.  While Tender is the Night deals with F. Scott’s attempt at handling his wife’s eccentric nature (and ultimate mental breakdown), Save Me the Waltz is much more about Zelda’s hopes and dreams and her sense of being overshadowed in most regards by her husband’s great success.  Zelda Fitzgerald was considered to be one of the first American “Flappers” – a glamorous and materialistic woman whose greatest hope was to become a superior ballerina, though she only pursued dance late in life. The story itself is interesting in that it reveals Zelda’s perspective on F. Scott as well as her interpretation of that great American time period known as “The Roaring ‘20s.”


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The majority of the characters aside from Alabama (Zelda), David (F. Scott) and Bonnie (their daughter) are relatively flat and, at times, even incongruous (characters’ names spelled in different fashions, eye colors changing, etc.).  What Fitzgerald does well, though, is creating characters in relation to Alabama.  The dance instructors and love interests, for example, all come to life quite unexpected because of the way they interact with Alabama.  The relationship between David and Alabama is drawn extraordinarily well and, in fact, reminds me of a lovers’ relationship written by Hemingway in The Garden of Eden.  It is tortuously romantic – hopeless and beautiful at the same time.  It makes sense that this would be the most aptly developed relationship, considering it is at the core of the story (and the primary impetus for Zelda’s writing the story in the first place).  Little Bonnie’s character is also quite charming and her relationship with her Dad is lovely, particularly near the end. 


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

This book has been both praised and derided for its prose and style.  The structure is sound and relatively traditional; however, the prose and language itself is quite odd.  At times, it reminds me of a less sexual, female version of William S. Burroughs, as there are oftentimes breaks into vivid streams of consciousness, where one has to wonder if passages were written in a fury of (drunken? drugged?) rage; while these moments are sometimes over-the-top and even inexplicable or largely irrelevant, they are also quite beautiful.  There’s a bizarre honesty to the breaks in tempo and the seemingly random items which Fitzgerald chooses to romanticize through language.  As a lover of creative storytelling and free prose, I was quite enamored by it.  Still, for some readers the prose could be distracting or even exasperating as it is, in many ways, self-indulgent and can come across as a novice creative writing student’s first, best work. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

When Zelda Fitzgerald originally wrote this book, it was much more accusatory and obviously biographical than the version which was ultimately published.  Her husband believed that she had created the book in a fit of self-destruction, hoping to destroy her (and his) reputations. F. Scott Fitzgerald and their editor, Max Perkins, “assisted” Zelda with revisions.  Although historical evidence (letters, manuscripts, etc.) seem to prove that their part in the revision process was limited and mostly geared toward making elements and characters who were modeled after real-life events and individuals more obscure, Zelda would later accuse her husband of forcing her to change the book entirely and also allege that he stole her original manuscript to write his own (Tender is the Night).  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book, then, is in its history and historical significance.  Much can be learned about the Fitzgeralds’ relationship and personalities not only by reading the story (as the two main characters are modeled directly after F. Scott and Zelda), but also in researching the creation of the book itself, as well as F. Scott’s similarly themed novel (which is ultimately much more despondent).


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Literary History, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dance, Paris, Italy, Expatriate American, Jazz Age, Roaring ‘20s, Family, Schizophrenia, Creative Non-Fiction.


Notable Quotes:

“Alabama had learned from the past that something unpleasant was bound to happen whenever the Saviour made his appearance in the dialogue.”

“The heat pressed down about the earth inflating the shadows, expanding the door and window ledges till the summer split in a terrific clap of thunder.  You could see the trees by the lightning flashes gyrating maniacally and waving their arms about like furies.”

“People are always running all over the place to escape each other, having been sure to make a date for cocktails in the first bar outside the limits of convenience.” 

“The troubles with emergencies is that I always put on my finest underwear and then nothing happens.”

“A shooting star, ectoplasmic arrow, sped through the nebular hypothesis like a wanton hummingbird.  From Venus to Mars to Neptune it trailed the ghost of comprehension, illuminating far horizons over the pale battlefields of reality.”

“People are like Almanacs, Bonnie – you never can find the information you’re looking for, but the casual reading is well worth the trouble.”

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Book Review, Comedy, Creative Non-Fiction, Drama, Edward Albee, Fiction, Madness, Marriage, Play, Psychology, Sexuality

Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD:  59

Plot/Story:

 4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is intoxicating – literally.  With every turn of the page, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the twisted mind of the play’s main characters, George and Martha.  This married couple, daughter of the College President and Professor of History, horribly stagnant in his career, bring a fresh young couple (the new Biology professor and his wife) over for drinks after a late faculty party at Martha’s father’s house.  If the scenes reflect the actualities of “behind the scenes” University leadership life, then perhaps college education should not be such an American ideal.   The examination of mental instability (i.e. sociopathic tendencies, narcissism, and schizophrenia) are riveting and terrifying all at once, particularly as the story unfolds and more and more truth is sucked out from the multitude of fictions.  The dangers of the enabler, to, and the perverse pleasure which can be gained from progressing another person’s instabilities and delusions is interesting and embarrassingly amusing.  The description for the play states that one of the greatest points for this drama is its dramatic revelation at the end, and I must agree- though I saw it coming from early on, many readers probably will not and, regardless of knowing or not knowing, the revelation and its subsequent impact on the small party is stunning.


 Characterization:

 4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

The two main characters, George and Martha, are brilliantly rendered.  As their mania unfolds, the reader twisted personality traits – their motivations, desires, and failings – all come to light, in such a loudly subtle way, seen seldom in any piece of writing.  Their son, too, and Martha’s father, though the reader never actually meets either of these characters, are so well described and recalled by George and Martha, it is almost as if they are active characters in the play – something Albee deserves immense credit for having achieved, as it adds an interesting sub-plot which advances the over-the-top major scenes quite nicely.   Also, the younger couple, Nick and Honey, is developed just as much as they need to be in order to allow George and Martha’s story unfolds.  They are there to serve a purpose, which is to allow George and Martha’s “games” to progress, their animosity to reach the boiling point, and the great truth (or lie) be revealed in the final pages.  It also allows the reader to contrast a simple, well-planned, and expected “romance” (Hope and Nick) with a ravenous, destructive, sickening lasting-passion (Martha and George).


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

In a play or drama, the biggest indicator of great “prose” is really great dialogue, scene direction, and description.  This play in particular does not have much scene direction, though the points where Albee does make suggestions as far as stage placement, facial expression, etc. are so well-thought that the play almost requires nothing else (each director will be able to make this play his/her own, but with the direction Albee affords, it is almost certain that the most important moments will be executed in the right ways).   The character reactions and descriptions, too, are simply stated, but make all the difference; such as when Nick, after finally picking up on the nature of Martha and George’s disturbing tete-a-tete is directed to be: “Stretching . . . luxuriating . . . playing the game) – perfection.   What really progresses this play, though, is the interaction between the characters – the simple, flippant replies, the overly-dramatic reactions to the most mundane situations – Nick’s embarrassed replies; Honey’s confusion and naivety.  Each of the characters is completely “on point,” though the only one who really seems to develop at all is Nick – and this is fitting, because George indicates that Nick will, indeed, be the one to move forward, while the rest of them remain stagnant in their lives, relationships and, most notably, careers.  The most development, though, is not with characters – but with the story itself.  Still, it is the characters and their dealings with one another which allows this development to occur and to work.


Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

One of the most interesting elements of this particular story is that it deals with characters that are completely mentally unstable and irrational – illogical in every way, but working in what one would assume to be one of the most sound, logical professions, higher education.  Who could be more staid and calm than a History professor?  Who could me more respectable and proper than a University President’s daughter?  Edward Albee grabs us from the start by putting these seemingly simple character types into a relationship which is highly volatile and unpredictable, in a setting which should be nothing but calm and moderate.  The inclusion of the two “new kids” on the collegiate block adds much in comparison – as if to say, with age and experience comes not wisdom, but insanity, so be warned!  Of course, Albee is not making generalizations about all Academicians, or all History professors, or all Biology professors’ wives; but, still, he does seem to be saying: “Dear reader, take another look – things are rarely what we expect them to be.”  The nature and art of psychological warfare is put under the microscope and outcome is extraordinary.  Watching Martha and Gorge go back-and-forth with their “games” is at times invigorating, at times exhausting, but always interesting and unbelievable (except that it seems entirely natural).  Sexuality, too, as well as alcoholism, politics, and science vs. society are all discussed as a part of the dialogue of this one evening, and these elements progress the story further into madness and resolution.


 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Psychology, Madness, Marriage, Sexuality, Schizophrenia, Sociopaths, Delusions, Academia

Notable Quotes:

“Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?”

“Martha, in my mind, you are buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose — it’s much quieter.”

“I looked at you tonight and you weren’t there! Finally snapped! And– and I’m gonna howl it out! And I’m not gonna give a damn what I do, and I’m gonna make the biggest goddamn explosion you’ve ever heard!”

 

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1001 Books, Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, Historical, Isabel Allende, Latin Fiction, Literature, Magical Realism

Review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 50

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

I finished reading The House of the Spirits approximately 20 hours ago; I have held off on writing a gut-reaction review because I felt this book deserved much, much more.  This is definitely one of the best books I have ever read, and probably the second best this year (after Lust for Life by Irving Stone).  The story spans three generations of Chilean women, grandmother-mother-daughter, but all from their births and onward (so, really, we also get glimpses at a fourth generation – the grandmother’s mother).  Of course, the many other families, friends, foes, and “others” in these women’s lives are also present and one of the great things about Allende’s delivery is that, though the book is about the women, she manages to never make their husbands and lovers or their children feel like “stand-ins” for any portions of the story.  The women are all endowed with certain supernatural gifts – Clara, the mother and beloved wife, is one of the greatest seers and spiritualists of her time. Her daughter, Blanca, is not nearly as gifted as her mother, but she has a certain sensuality and telepathic ability which results in her being sought after by pretty much everyone. Blanca’s daughter (Clara’s granddaughter), Alba, re-inherits, so to speak, the grandmother’s gifts – and it is Alba who eventually tells the long, tangled story of love and politics, history and family, tradition and superstition.  What made this book further fascinating for me was the discovery that its author, Isabel Allende, is the niece of former President of Chile, Salvador Allende.  He was apparently the first democratically elected Marxist in Chile and he was either assassinated or committed suicide.  Historical fact seems to point toward suicide, but Allende’s narrative clearly drives home the point that she, at least, believes the former President to have been assassinated, as the man made a radio speech during a bombing and siege of the Presidential Palace stating that he was democratically elected by the people and would serve until the end.  Suicide, then, within hours of this claim seems unlikely and Allende is clearly claiming that his opposition (which included the Nixon administration), assassinated Allende and made it look like he had killed himself.  The intrigue, the history, the intense sensual and spiritual and political passion – it is almost too much to grasp.  The story of these three women is so engaging and interesting that you almost do not realize that you are learning an incredible amount about the history and people of Chile.  It was not until the end, when the greater political action began to take precedent that I realized Allende had been teaching me so much about a country which I have taken for granted pretty much always.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
I was very worried at first that I would begin to get characters confused, particularly because the main characters were all female and “gifted” in one way or another, and they were related and interacted regularly with the same minor characters throughout the book.  But this was not a problem.  Allende delineates each character quite well, clearly defining and describing each so that it is almost impossible to mistake them.  She also does the same for her minor character, like Clara’s brothers, Blanca’s lover, Pedro Tercero, the phony Count and husband de Satigny, Alba’s lover, Miguel.  Even more crucial than the characters being genuine and identifiable, though, are the way the grow and develop throughout the passage of time.  The prime examples are Esteban Trueba and his granddaughter, Alba, who are the two characters present (physically) for the majority of the story and who close the novel at the end.   We watch Alba grow from a small child to a strong, capable woman.  We watch Trueba visit the del Valle family as an immature, self-conscious youth and ultimately witness him grow into the wealthiest landowner and most staid, powerful Senator in Chile.   The way these characters, all of them, interact with one another – from the poor peasants of the ranch to the doctors, the soldiers, the neighbors, and the ridiculous mystics – is so interesting to watch, so fun to engage in, and so real, despite being largely impossible most of the time (at least the magical side of it).  The strength of characters and their interactions, coupled with their continued growth and development throughout the storyline does wonders in terms of holding up a plot which, in lesser hands, could have reeled off into the realm of fantasy. 

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I will admit to one misgiving I had with the prose.  The novel is mostly written in the third-person omniscient.  This is perfectly fine and acceptable, particularly in a novel which spans so much time and tackles so many themes – historical, political, and social.  What threw me off quite a bit, though, were these brief interruptions throughout the novel where suddenly the reader finds the prose has switched from third-person to first-person narration.  At first, I thought this must be a fluke – a mistake of the translator, maybe.  After it happened time and again, though, I realized it was intentional and I did not understand or enjoy it.  It was a break from the flow of the story.  Then, I got to the end of the book and I realized what was happening, and it was beautiful.  I cannot deny that, as a first time reader, I was disconcerted by the flip-flop in prose but I can argue, now that I am finished with the book, that it was a masterful stroke and that, when I re-read the book (as I surely will someday, maybe many times) these switches in narration will be lovely and bittersweet, and I will probably chuckle slyly about how superior Allende is and always will be to me as a writer. The magical realism element, too, was done extraordinarily – so well, in fact, that I can only compare it to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or perhaps some Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though, if I’m being honest, I enjoyed Allende more).  What makes the magical elements work so well in this book, aside from Allende’s hand being at the palate, is the intensely sad but romantic and passionate, personal story behind the story.  This is the story of a people, an impossible, unbelievable story, told from the memory of one of its characters who survives incomparable, unimaginable cruelty and abuse, simply for loving whom she does and for being the grandchild of a man’s mortal enemy.   The ways that history comes back to haunt us is real and terrifying – the bitter, brutal lengths that people go to in order to avenge themselves for grievances in a past barely memorable is stunning, but true.  Whether we are to believe that the magical side of this child’s ancestors was real or not is hard to say – perhaps we are to accept that it is fact or perhaps we are to infer that these are strengths the storyteller imbued her ancestors with because she had found herself so helpless and vulnerable at one point.  Either way, it works.  It works very well.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

I am still stunned by the amount of political and societal history that Allende packed into this novel.  I had never heard of the Socialist struggle in Chile, and I certainly had no idea that Chile was the first nation in the Americas to elect a Marxist President.  The insight into this history, and its ramifications at home, particularly, but also the glimpses of world involvement (or non-involvement) that the reader gets seems, now, essential.  How could I not know this had happened?  Why did we never learn about these struggles – the people’s oppression and revolution; the extraordinary failure that it was, and the metaphorical beheading that the movement endured after the loss of its leader?  How awful was the military coup that followed and the economic sanctions and embargoes?  The greedy, nasty politics of the world.  What haunts me is how similar much of the history seems to U.S. history; how dangerously close we dance along the precipices of time, poised to fall one way or another at the softest whisper or wind.  The similarities to the Nazi movement in Europe and the McCarthy era of the U.S.A – the blacklisting, the “code” words, the censorship – it is so clear to see, in hindsight, how wrong these events were in history and how seemingly easy it would have been or should have been to prevent or curb the movements; but Allende knows better, and she explains the interwoven fates of us all, the uncontrollable, unavoidable chaos which we are all wrapped up in and which, try as we might, fight as we might, tends to barrel over each and every one of us until it gets its way.   The novel winds its way back towards its beginning, closing with the memory of the scene and the very words which opened the book, and this idea of the worlds circular, perpetual fate is planted firmly, though the story seems to carry off into the vast, three-dimensionality of forever.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: Latin-American history, political history, magical realism, family, literature, fiction

Notable Quotes:

“I am beginning to suspect that nothing that happens is fortuitous, that it all corresponds to a fate laid down before my birth….” 



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1001 Books, Classics, Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, GLBT Challenge, William S. Burroughs

Junky by William S. Burroughs

Junky by William S. Burroughs
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

William S. Burroughs’s Junky (originally published under the title Junkie) is an autobiographically-inspired romp through one man’s introduction to drugs, the addiction that ensues, and the many attempts-serious or not- to get sober. Burroughs’s tale is honest and to the point. Wild and unusual things happen, as they will when you and your closest acquaintances are all high, but they remain believable – unlike, say, the incredible escapades found in Electroboy or A Million Little Pieces. The main character and narrator (and author), Bill, is introduced to drugs off-handedly while a Midwestern youth. He begins to deal to make money, and the dealing eventually leads to using, which leads to more dealing and more using. The reader rides along as Bill makes his way to New York (where he spends some time in an asylum), down to New Orleans (where he barely escapes conviction) to Mexico, his ultimate refuge.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

Most of the minor characters remain minor and static throughout the novel, but Bill and his more regular acquaintances (keeping in mind that, in the world of the drug addict, few friendships last long) are told well – they are interesting to watch and, while you cannot really “root” for anyone, you still enjoy being along for the trip (double entendre?). The characters in Junky are also much more real, relatable, and believable than those in other Burroughs novels. While it is hard to reconcile the “on the go” lifestyle of the book’s main character (considering he seems to survive for quite some time without any money or income – he never works and rarely steals, at least so we are led to believe), the emotions of the addict, the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the irrationality and the sobered sensibility are wonderfully realized through Bill. He is a complete do-nothing bum, really, but he is witty and entertaining, he is charming – in a way, and mysterious. All of this – the complexity of his character- makes the reader want to see a little bit more, know a little bit more, and it keeps the pages turning ‘til the end.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

The clear, naturalistic day-by-day story-telling, characteristic of The Beat generation, is also conducive to this sort of “witness” story. It allows the reader to connect with what is happening in the story, rather than feeling distanced as one will in later Burroughs works, like Naked Lunch or The Wild Boys. The story is also littered with clever, quotable phrases – clear psychological or metaphysical ideas which are presented here “in the nude” and are later re-examined, tortured, ripped apart and put back together in Burroughs future works. One such example, near the end, is the following: “There is something archaic in the stylized movements, a depraved animal grace at once beautiful and repulsive. I could see him moving in the light of campfires, the ambiguous gestures fading out into the dark. Sodomy is as old as the human species.” Several of Burroughs’s later examinations – natural and human law, beauty in the grotesque, and innate sexuality, are all posed here in this one, clear statement and, as one familiar with Burroughs, it is thrilling to see this clearly and to know to what lengths he will later go in exploration of the topics.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The great thing about Burroughs is he really gets it. This is one of the first and best examples of drug-addiction writing (I cannot classify it as “fiction” with a clear conscience) because Burroughs has no need to exaggerate anything, in the way so many contemporary writers of the same topic do. He tells it like it is, he hints at the nastier sides of the living, and he explores equally the highs of being sober and the functioning ability of the addict. Though the novel is generally about Heroin addiction, Burroughs also explores other drugs, from marijuana and peyote to Cocaine and Morphine. Whether or not drugs interest you, per se, the examination of each against the other – the effects, the dangers, the results of mixing such-and-such of one with the other, is truly fascinating. It becomes clear that Burroughs knows what he is talking about (which, in a way, is rather sad) and is being honest with his readers. It’s as if he’s saying: “Look, guys, this is how it is – take it or leave” without getting too heavy-handed or political. Of course, the burgeoning U.S. laws regarding narcotics – the “crack down” in the states comes up near the end, and Burroughs makes it clear on which side of the argument he stands – both in words and actions. While his experiences and his positioning on the topic are not exactly laudable, the way he tells his story certainly is.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Society, Literature, Drug Culture, Beat Generation, GLBT

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Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, E.L. Doctorow, Historical

Review: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

One of the best works of creative non-fiction that I have read, to date. Doctorow’s narrator is Homer Collyer, the youngest of the great Collyer family. Born and raised on New York’s 5th Avenue – Homer was privileged in wealth, looks, education, and love (platonic and otherwise). Things started going downhill fast. Homer’s brother Langley goes off to war, only to return a changed, cynical, and atheistic man. While Langley is away, the brothers’ parents die, and the trusted servants are not soon to follow – either in death or leave. Soon, it is just the two brothers, one of whom -our narrator – goes blind and (later) deaf. The other becomes strangely eccentric, picking up vagrants and offering them sanctuary, allowing nearly-assassinated gangsters to live and operate out of their quickly deteriorating manse, and collecting piles and piles of newspapers (among other things) for his one true, be-all-end-all newspaper of humanity. The most interesting aspects of the novel are 1) narration from the point of view of a blind and deaf man and 2) the relationship between the brothers, both of whom are defective in some way, but whom rely on each other to the point of hermitage from the world. The ending is truly beautiful and sad – and the brief inclusions of historical happenings, such as the many wars, the counter-culture and drug craze, and the advancement of technology, are particularly curious when told through the narrative eye of a sightless recluse. That the brothers live in such neglected poverty when they obviously have the means not to (they eventually pay off a mansion mortgage in full, when avoiding the bill simply becomes to bothersome) is also intriguing. It’s as if the brothers simply wished to be left alone, and felt themselves to be above all typicalities of everyday American life and citizenship. There is also an element of odd patriotism and familial pride, though neither brother wants much to do with family or their country. All-in-all, an interesting, unique read. Recommended, especially for those readers interested in American and/or New York cultural history.

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