Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mid-vacation reading report

I've been on vacation (staycation, for now) for two weeks and have read six or seven books. They've ranged from meh to good to great. Below, a few words on the great one. First, a note on a new phenomenon I've observed: I'm losing the capacity to read vacation-y books. That is, horror, mystery, etc.--light stuff. OK, I've never been into any of that, but most years by the time I tumble into my vacation weeks I'm so tired and wrung out that I feel like all I can manage is some non-taxing reading. What I'm discovering this time is that, pooped and brain-weary as I may be, stuff of little substance doesn't sustain my interest. Yes, I read one or three early in the month--Red Moon, about which see my post below, and a couple after that--and yes they were each a cut above the run of the genre, each touted as literary to one degree or another. One or three was enough. None mattered. As to literary attributes, sure they were not laughably bad, but even in my limpid state not laughably bad is not good enough. Thus it was that when I finally hit the #1 position on the e-book waiting list for a library copy of NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, downloaded it, and read the first 70 pages or so, I woke up the next morning realizing I had no desire to read on. Hill is Stephen King's son, not a factoid I'd have commented on if those first 70 pages hadn't read exactly like a Stephen King book--no, not exactly, Hill is a slightly better writer, or at least less prone to pack his prose with irritating repetitive tics of various sorts--but they do. Story, style, characterization, all of it is King-ish to the nth degree. And what I woke up thinking was: who cares? Who cares about this story, these characters? Not me. Luckily, I've amassed a big pile of books, physical and virtual, to choose from over the next two weeks, so chances are decent that I'll find some meatier fare.

I did read one great book earlier this week. Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman. I've blogged before about my regard for this wonderful writer, and with this most recent novel he does not disappoint.

Perhaps two or three times in my life I've read a novel with a female protagonist that left me marveling that the male author was able to write so true, so real a woman character, to so fully inhabit a woman's consciousness. Those all pale next to Kelman's accomplishment here. Consciousness here is both the medium and the message: how her lived life leads to these thoughts, these feelings. You know, being determines consciousness.The book lives us through 24 hours in the head of a young worker, seamlessly conveying all that her life is: work, worry, motherhood, pain, sorrow, sex, hope, love, loss, hope, bitterness, rage, despair, exploitation, frustration, fatigue. In the course of it she observes and comments on racism, women's oppression, homelessness, social service cuts, British imperialism and much more. Kelman is always a political writer, no less here than in his other books. His take is dead-on, here again.

Now I've got two more weeks off work, one more in the city and one--hooray! hurrah!--down the shore where Teresa and I will take our first real vacation in 15 years. I hope to get some good reading in, though I doubt I'll find another book as good as Kelman's this time around.

Monday, July 8, 2013

I bit. No dice.

I spent all four days of the U.S.-imperialist holiday weekend hunkered down in our bedroom with my wife where the air conditioner huffed and puffed and, with a fan added to the mix, kept the space bearable, in the low 80s or so. Yes at a certain point we did get cabin fever but the alternative, venturing out into the muggy smoggy high-90s air and walking somewhere, seemed worse so we stuck it out. Mostly we read. Teresa finished two books, shortish, serious. I finished one, longish, pure vacation nonsense: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy.

Red Moon is a marketer's dream. It's a big fat horror story wholly in the Stephen King/Dean Koontz mold. Yet it's also, supposedly, literary, a step above your standard scary novel. The jacket features blurbs by writers from both sides of the mass-market-vs.-literary-fiction divide, and Percy comes fully credentialed from the lit side, so you see, the idea is to appeal to everyone. OK I bit.

OK describes the novel. It's not eye-rollingly insipid. The writing is fine, yes a step above both King and Koontz who themselves are better than most of their cohort. Honestly, though, I can't work up much enthusiasm. The characters are competently wrought but no more than that. Ditto the action. I never cared much about any of it. I felt no pain, no sorrow, no fear, no tension. I did keep reading, and I'll tell you why.

There is a veneer of political relevance to Red Moon. I was mildly intrigued as I read along, curious as to what direction the politics would take. I had to read to the end to conclude that it's just a veneer. There is no actual honest engagement with actual political issues. There is certainly no side-taking. It's a glib middle-of-the-road petit-bourgeois ever-so-slight glance at relevance, that's about it. Liberalism in literary-horror form.

The werewolves in this book, and the congruent alternate history into which the werewolf plot is slotted, can be read as parallels to, variously: September 11 and the preceding U.S. funding and creation of terror groups, the Bush/Obama "war on terror" and civil liberties, anti-Muslim racism, right-wing vigilantism, anti-immigrant racism, anti-U.S.-imperialist "terrorism," left-radical activism, the 1960s anti-war movement, AIDS and AIDS activism and discrimination against people with AIDS, and I forget what-all else, forgive me, it's quite a mishmash. Pieces of the story echo pieces of these various historic realities at various points. It would be an inaccurate stretch, however, to say these pieces separately or together amount to commentary on any of these political realities. No position is taken; we're just teased along the way, with a sort of authorial wink; I guess we're just supposed to note the clever similarities and leave it at that. No, I'm wrong, there is one position taken: there are bad werewolves and good werewolves, those who want to find a way to get along in society and those who want to destroy non-werewolf society. Oh how very bold and courageous (not!). This is the essence of liberalism, crying woe at the evils of the status quo but clinging to it. This bad terrorist werewolf/good civil libertarian werewolf dichotomy, in fact, reminded me of a book I've been meaning to read for some time, and I've now begun it: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim—America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani.

There's also an unfortunate though not uncommon problem regarding the national question that kept popping out as I read. With only one exception I recall, a brief scene in a cave where several minor characters are introduced with name and nationality, throughout the rest of the book whiteness is a given for every character. If a character is not white it is pointed out (in fact it's often the only thing that's pointed out); otherwise we're to assume the character is white. As in a description of several people in a crowd that goes something like: a tall man with deep laugh lines around his eyes, a stout woman with short brown hair in bright blue capri pants, and a Mexican in jeans and cowboy boots. Wow. That this is still the standard is so sad.

One other point of frustration with Red Moon. It's about the oddly faulty way the quest for a vaccine for werewolfism informs the plot. A vaccine, as is accurately explained early on, is basically a tiny dosage of a version of an infectious agent (virus, bacteria, or, fictionally here, prion) that, once introduced into a person's system, stimulates the immune system to resist it and thereby inoculates the person against any future attack by the infectious agent. It's why I get a flu shot every year (yeah I know you're agin' it, but my public-health epidemiologist super-communist comrade argues for the flu shot and I find his view convincing). OK. So a vaccine is a preventive measure. It's to prevent infection. Perfectly understandable that a key plot strand involves the search for a vaccine to prevent folks bitten by werewolves from themselves succumbing and becoming werewolves. But. Not in the least understandable, in fact perfectly nonsensical, that it seems also to be intended as a cure, which is an utterly different thing than a vaccine. And that in the novel's final pages our hetero-coupled heroes (nope, not a single same-sex-lover anywhere in sight in this 500-plus-page novel with a cast of thousands), having, against all odds, managed to get a hold of the single extant vial of vaccine, are about to administer a dose to themselves. They are already infected! It's a vaccine, not a cure! Oy, I hate it when this kind of thing undermines my readerly willingness to suspend disbelief.

Ah well. One week left till I start my vacation days. I have another fat new supposedly better-than-average horror-type book on my pile but I think I'll let it wait. Maybe it's great but probably it's not, and one non-thrill is enough for this summer.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rajesh Parameswaran is a fucking genius

I don't use the G word lightly. Genius is rare. But I have found it, in the pages of I Am an Executioner—Love Stories, the first book by an extraordinary writer, Rajesh Parameswaran.

Dazzling. Dizzying. Shout eureka! For this is the work of an astounding talent. A true artist—that is, someone with wild, unfettered imagination, boundless creativity, pitch-perfect literary chops, and at the same time engagement with the real world.

Thank goodness I decided to read this book. It was a fluke, as I almost never read short fiction collections. Yeah yeah the short story is the perfect form, I know that's the standard wisdom, but me, I prefer the novel with all its messy imperfection. Wow, what a horror I skirted. What if I'd let my aversion to story collections avert me from this one? I'd have lived my life without ever having experienced the thrill, the joy, the mind-stirring transport that reading I Am an Executioner is.

There are nine stories here. Two are merely excellent, merely beautifully written and perfectly crafted stories, poignant and affecting. The other seven? They. Blew. Me. Away. Five of those seven ("The Infamous Bengal Ming," "Four Rajeshes," "I Am an Executioner," "Elephants in Captivity Part One," "On the Banks of Table River") blew me so far away that I have yet to reassemble myself. Last night I dreamed myself into one of the others—that's how deeply these stories affected me, and I don't recall this ever happening before with anything I've read, though perhaps it has and I've forgotten—I dreamed myself wandering in a gigantic file room, one square mile gigantic, filled with filing cabinets so tall they reached all the way to the yards-high ceiling, and I dreamed that I was trying to find the file reporting on the minutiae of a certain facial expression I might have exhibited one afternoon 22 years before.

Never mind me, though. Perhaps I'm overly susceptible to this sort of thing. Perhaps tonight I'll dream myself an arthropod, not of a Kafkaesque variety, rather one among a future Andromedan population coping with Earth-based colonialism. Oy, I hope not, because I'm afraid my dreaming mind might explode in the effort to meld elements of science fiction, political allegory, thriller, police procedural and tragic romance, all of which elements Parameswaran melds seamlessly in the book's final story.

I don't know if I've ever read fiction that so splendidly interweaves so many layers and levels. These stories, especially the seven mind blowers, are about so very much. Weirdly, as far as I can tell from the several reviews I've read and reader comments at sites like Amazon and Goodreads, very few seem to have picked up on this. They note the postmodern aspects, check. The metafictional element, check. The virtuosity of voice and structure, check check. But is no one reading the multiple meanings in each of these stories? Far be it from me to impose my own worldview on an author whose life and opinions I know very little about, but I don't think I'm nuts to divine in these pieces a great deal beneath the surface. These stories variously touch on racism, emigration and immigration, imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism, misogyny, homophobia, violence and more. You can read them without taking any of that in, but it's the echoes of the real world embedded in even the most fantastical of the stories that deepen and enrich them, make them not only riproaring wild rides but thought-provoking, profound.

All this, and I haven't even mentioned hilarity sprinkled throughout. Or the panoramic literary and historical allusions with which these stories are packed. Here, named or not, are William Shakespeare, Satyajit Ray, Vladimir Nabokov, Srinivasa Ramanujan and more, probably more than I caught though I caught enough to keep my mind spinning.

And the language! Oy gott the words, the sentences! I NEVER underline in my books—but I couldn't help myself with this one. Some of the sentences, even whole paragraphs, are so stunningly perfect, so evocative and provocative, that they stopped me cold, had me reading them over and over, ultimately unable to proceed unless I underlined them so I could find them again. And I will. Some day when a yearning to read a perfectly expressed fictive idea overcomes me, I'll pull I Am an Executioner off the shelf and find the underlined passage and be delighted anew, reminded again that literary genius, though rare, does exist out there in the world. Over here, in fact, in Queens, where perhaps I've sat next to Rajesh Parameswaran on the #7 train, never knowing I was sitting beside a master.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Wall

I'd hesitated to read TheWall by William Sutcliffe.

It's a story that, without directly saying so, is about the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, about Palestinian life in West Bank cities and villages torn asunder by the ever-encroaching settlements and the apartheid wall. The story is framed as a first-person narrative by an Israeli boy--it's seen through an Israeli child's eyes, not a Palestinian's. And it's not written by a Palestinian. For all these reasons I'd been leery. In a novel that fits this description there's so much that could go wrong, even with the best authorial intentions.

Then I read this review by Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa, whose wonderful novel Mornings inJenin I'm glad to have occasion to plug here again, as the international bestseller translated into 33 languages is beyond crucial reading for anyone who seeks to understand the Palestinian experience of the criminal racist Zionist project. Abulhawa opens her review, sure enough, by noting "that a Palestinian might have reason for pause when confronted with a novel that reflects life under Israeli occupation, written by a British Jewish author.

"Right or wrong," she writes, "the author's background is relevant to me in such circumstances. So I admit that I picked up Sutcliffe's latest novel, The Wall (Bloomsbury, 2013), holding my breath, because a people's narrative, their truth, their memories, and their very real pain, is not to be taken lightly in literature."

Given these caveats, Abulhawa's conclusion is stunning. She calls The Wall "the best work of fiction on Palestine written by a non-Palestinian."

Wow. Sutcliffe must be humbled by such strong praise from such an esteemed source. Please read Abulhawa's full review. And, if you care to, the following few thoughts of mine.

Sutcliffe subtitles the novel "A Modern Fable." Indeed, it's a fast read with few characters, a clear through line and, most important, an unambiguous moral center. This is a story about a young person discovering hidden truths, finding out he's been lied to, finding friends where he's been warned were his enemies, and finding the strength to do the right thing, ultimately at profound personal cost.

The last page had me weeping, as the protagonist tells us:
I tried to help and I failed, but I can try again, and I can keep trying, and if I fail again I can try once more. With this realization, I immediately feel renewed, fortified, blessed, knowing that even if I spend my whole life failing, I will be failing at something I believe in; I will be fully alive and fully me. If the alternative is to do nothing, to forget, there is no alternative at all. How can I possibly forget [phrase redacted to avert plot spoiler] … the soldiers and The Wall and the people who are supposed to be invisible?
His name is Joshua, clearly an allusion to the biblical story—only this Joshua, we're left hoping, will not be the leader of an army of invasion. This Joshua will do what he can as a supporter of an army of liberation led by the oppressed themselves, an army that will bring the racist occupiers' apartheid wall tumbling down. (Modern-day Jericho is itself in the West Bank, and has been occupied and attacked repeatedly by Israel not only in 1967 but repeatedly in the years since.)

I'd also like to think that the novel's title The Wall is a nod to the great 1950 novel of the same name by John Hersey. That earlier book was a fictionalized account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising against the Nazi occupiers there by the besieged starving Jews. Sutcliffe is suggesting a parallel, I think, between today's Palestinians—walled off from their land and squeezed into ever shrinking spaces, deprived of their livelihoods, malnourished, unable even to get aspirin as in one of the key plot elements here—and 1943's Warsaw Jews. You know what that makes Israel. And you know I agree.