Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Johnny Got His Gun

June, 2011

Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo, published 1939, 243 pages

What can someone say about a book that is so well-crafted, so brilliantly conceived, so tangibly aware? I fear that this review will be nothing but treacly gushing. 

Very little happens in this book. So little, in fact, that I can barely write anything about the plot for risk of giving those few events away. I will say that the growing awareness of this man's situation is terrifying, even though, due to a Metallica video, I had known the basic premise before reading it. The man, a WWI soldier, narrates the story, and it is his own realization of his situation that is the most mind-numbing. His situation is impossible to conceive, and his eventual resolve under the circumstances is even harder to imagine. 

As he struggles and problem solves, he takes the reader on myriad memories, many of which could be snatched for beautiful short stories and vignettes. The memories are at once wistfully heart-felt and depressing in their irrevocability. These memories are interspersed with Trumbo's clear anti-war message, although this message never feels overdone or cliche. It is stirring, provocative, and condemning.

Trumbo's strength, other than perhaps the impossible feat of using almost no plot and little hot air to make such a compelling case against war, is his narrative style. It is difficult to find such beautifully written stream of consciousness and such delicately crafted spatterings of commentary among tender content. In short, his writing blew my mind.

I laughed out loud in wonder at his talent, and I cried the tears he wanted me to but not for the reasons that I thought I would. He was far more clever in his plan than I was in my predictions. This was the first book I have read in a long time that, as soon as I closed the book, I said aloud, "I can't wait to read this again."

The Red Tent

May, 2011
The Red Tent, Anita Diamant, published 1997, 321 pages

If I could buy a copy of this novel for all of my female students, I would. I would also likely buy copies for all of the women I know. Fantasy reigning, I would have copies in my car to throw out lovingly to all the women I saw on the street, at the market, or with their daughters at playgrounds. I would leave them on ladies' doorsteps.

To think that women can connect so soulfully through their common feminine experience and the earth to which they are inexplicably tied moves me beyond words. Living in a society where borrowing a tampon in a public restroom is an act of womanly bonding, I was taken aback by the loving yet pragmatic connection of the women in this story.

Anita Diamant, a Judaic studies scholar, takes the mention of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob from the Old Testament, and develops her character, her life. She becomes not a note but a fully realized girl then woman, bearing witness to the wisdom of her mothers and the lessons with her lovers. For those who do not know the biblical stories, Jacob betrayed Esau, left Canaan, then eventually had 13 children, most with the two sisters he married, and the rest with their two slaves. The only girl of the 13 was Dinah. 

As a child, Dinah can only wonder what occurs in the red tent, where her mothers go once a month to menstruate. As she matures, she learns of the secrets, traditions, and rites of their common womanhood. Diamant lets Dinah narrate (even before she is born), giving me the sense that I was being let in on something sacred, something spiritual, and something that simply does not exist anymore.

Whether women long ago did any of these things, I do not know. Diamant makes it clear that women who were not from Canaan did not necessarily do these things. Even the Canaanite men were the only ones who were circumcised, according to the covenant between Jacob's father and grandfather. But to think that there was a time that women were like this to each other or that a new time could be inspired by these possibilities is enough to make me want to cover my city with copies of this book. How wonderful that would be.

The first part of the novel, set in Canaan, struck me the most; over time Dinah's narrative voice became cloying in its whispered longing. Not enough to turn me away, however, and I will lovingly revisit this book over the years to remind myself of the kind of earth-bound connection I could have with my daughters, my aunts, my mother, my grandmother, if only they would read this book and embark on a fantasy world with me.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Road

April, 2011

The Road, Cormac McCarthy, published 2006, 287 pages 

Like most people I have spoken to, I read this book in several hours. Very fast and gripping with speed-friendly formatting--terse dialogue and no chapters. McCarthy artfully develops the setting as a character unto itself, with its palpable frigidity, pervasive bleakness, and perpetual hazards. McCarthy never explains why our world becomes one of such desolate, ashen misery, not even giving a hint of whether it is natural or human-borne. The apocalypse is not part of the story; in fact, the story begins years after the disasters (and it does seem as though there were waves of them in a short period). Remarkably, the story doesn't need the drama of how everything got to the way it is now, and it is a testament to McCarthy's storytelling that the reader is riveted enough with the journey of father and son through this miserable landscape, spotted with cannibalistic "survivors."

Rarely have I seen conversations this laconic, spared even quotation marks and most speaker tags. The father and son, the main--almost only--characters in the book, try to speak, but their reality stifles the scope of topics suitable for their situation. The son has essentially only ever known this life, so barren and threatening that he has been given little fodder for thoughts and feelings unrelated to fear. Yet we feel deeply the relationship he has with his father, somehow revealed through their limited speech and tense circumstances. It was as though--Scrooge and ghosts-like--I were watching them from ten feet away. I'm not sure how McCarthy pulled it off.

Ultimately the book is about choices we make about ourselves and others. How, under the most dire circumstances, do we maintain goodness? Fortunately our main characters are generally good to others and certainly good to each other, which allows the final message to be relatively positive. I suppose, given how monumentally depressing the surroundings are, if the final message weren't at least somewhat uplifting, the book wouldn't have done so well.

These strengths aside, the jury is still out on how I feel about McCarthy's writing style. Experimenting with syntax is great, and I appreciate its taste for busting boundaries. But The Road was nearly unreadable at times. This sentence reads like a question but isn't, and the diction is clunky on the tongue: "Who has made of the world a lie every word" (75). The novel is so fast-paced, so quick to read that the syntax sometimes brought me to a grinding halt. 

Some of his grammatical looseness works beautifully, and some of it seems careless. For instance, he uses always uses an apostrophe for it's but never for don't. There are also several instances when the omniscient narrator suddenly addresses the characters themselves, instead of just telling their story. Inconsistent to a fault. 

Unfortunately for me, The New York Times Book Review called The Road the "most readable" of McCarthy's books, a mystifying claim. By playing with syntax to that degree, I imagine that the meaning would suffer and the writing would seem more mistaken than experimental. The assertion that this book is readable compared to earlier works does make me want to check out his older books...but, if they really are less readable than The Road, it might be a long time before I pick up another one of his books.

Great House

April, 2011

Great House by Nicole Krauss, published 2010, 289 pages

For anyone who read and loves A History of Love, you might be a little disappointed with Krauss's follow-up work. That being said, it is likely only because A History of Love was so fall-on-your-face good that perhaps Great House falls a little flat.

Clearly Krauss is dedicated to incorporating ramifications of the Holocaust into her novels, a tendency that I am personally drawn to as a reader. The effects of that devastating time should not be forgotten nor should they be fitted only to books that deal with the direct experience of those during the actual Holocaust. So I admire that Krauss has based another book on the long-term effects of those losses. She also reminds us of the seemingly mundane the lost possessions of those who perished.

This brings us to the desk that holds together this story, split by stories with their own chapters. As in A History of Love, Krauss interweaves plots, although this time she ups the ante by using three to four instead of two. At first the plots and their characters seem unrelated, and, I have to admit, by the end I was somewhat dissatisfied by loose ends, which made me wonder why some of it was included in the first place. As the books progresses, Krauss links most of the plots together, but even within those plots, some of the characters seem superfluous.

From the beginning I was leery of a desk being used as a foundation for a novel; it just seemed too prosaic--I didn't care how incredible the desk was. And she does make it incredible, but for me it never was able to compensate for its lack of importance. I understand its importance to the characters and its symbolism to all that was lost in the Holocaust, but I still wish the object of everyone's desire had been more than just a piece of furniture.

Therefore, I took issue with the premise and the execution, but Nicole Krauss is still adept at using language lovingly (though far less so here than in A History of Love), creating dynamics between people, and telling their interior stories. She made me cry on more than one occasion while reading, and for this I give props. Some of her passages are so moving, and, true to form, they usually concern love or bereavement, that overall the book is worth a read. I do hold out hope, however, that the follow-up to Great House is as formidable a work as A History of Love, but perhaps it is unfair to ask for a second work of a lifetime.

The Book Thief

March, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published 2005, 576 pages

The most notable aspect of this fantastic YA historical fiction is that the narrator is Death or the Grim Reaper or whatever force might be responsible for collecting the souls of the dead. This version of Death can anticipate death so that he (?) can be there at the right moment, although he is so busy in Nazi Germany and the surrounding areas that he is often overwhelmed by the numbers of souls to which he must minister. Zusak is creative and consistent in building Death's character, although it is never quite clear what purpose he serves other than the important one of honing perspective to the mind-boggling casualties. An adult reader, just as rapt as a young adult might be with the story of orphan Liesel in her new foster home in Molching, Germany, will likely appreciate the novelty of Death narrating, especially as a means to attract young readers. This Death is hip and raw, yet measured and feeling. Some of Zusak's most beautiful and incisive language comes when Death speaks to the reader.

There are stretches where Death's narrative voice all but vanishes, which is easy to do because the plot itself is riveting. Zusak's characterization, whether is it rebellious Liesel or her wildly contrasting new parents or her best friend Rudy, is crisp and tangible. As these people deal with the encroachment of fascism and the expectation of complicity, their relationships, despite most characters' emotions being kept close to their chests, will bring readers to their knees.

At its very heart, The Book Thief is about telling stories and reading as a means of edification and escape. Liesel steals books to read, but each book serves as a tool for understanding and reflection. Each book tells a story just like her experience with each book tells a story. This pattern never feels forced, however; Zusak's sensitive incorporation of the thefts and Liesel's reading of the books does not feel like a ploy but an opportunity and release from whatever her ache might be. 

Having read a good deal of Holocause literature, I appreciated very much the perspective of the non-Nazi German and the moments of kindness and moral fortitude found there. For me, this book helps to round out my understanding of what happened during that dark time and how people from all angles were exploited, coerced, and annihilated.