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Light in August

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Light in August may be William Faulkner’s most accessible novel. Depending on your opinions of his body of work, that may say very little. It is still filled to the brim with stream-of-consciousness style diatribes, but it isn’t as complicated and mind-splitting as The Sound and the Fury. There are multiple perspectives taken into account, but nothing nearing the complications of 15 distinct narrators found in As I Lay DyingLight in August offers Faulkner’s least fractured, easiest to comprehend narrative, and yet, as I closed the last few pages, I felt more weight pressing down on me, that what I had just finished reading was some how more significant than any Faulkner book I read before.

In many ways, I see Faulkner as a master satirist, and he is in peek form in Light in August. Most will tell you Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is the ultimate commentary on post-cvil war race relations (and I would be inclined to agree) but I would challenge anyone to read Light in August to reconsider their position on the matter. But where Mark Twain used humor to shed light on a nasty truth about American culture (its entrenched racism) Faulkner uses a degree of absurdism that has most sensible readers questioning just how much of the absurdism is rooted in the reality of that period.

For instance, there is a scene in which an African American man is being interrogated by a local sherif regarding a murder.. The sheriff has one of his deputies beating the man with a strap after each question. The black man constantly answers that he doesn’t know about the situation being asked about. “I reckon you ain’t tried hard enough to remember,” the sherif tells him at one point, and has him beat again. After a few cycles of this, another law enforcement officer steps in and says he reckons the black man is telling the truth, and perhaps they could stop beating him since they know now he’s telling the truth.

Light in August is filled with these types of moments, ranging from on-the-nose to tongue-in-cheek moments that will have most sensible readers scratching their heads and asking, why? Or how could this be happening in this book? Or better yet, why is this maybe happening somewhere right now?

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Mother Night

 

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“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know.” (Vonnegut, Introduction) Not only is this in the introduction of Mother Night, this is quite literally, the first line of writing to appear from Vonnegut in this book. If you are at all familiar with his writing, you will know that a statement like that, from a writer like him, carries a good deal of weight. And the moral? “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

From there, this book grows perplexing. The main character and narrator of Mother Night is Howard W. Campbell Jr., a Nazi propagandist, awaiting his trial in Israel for committing war crimes. The truth though, is that through his radio broadcasts, he was sending encrypted messages to the allied front: a spy of the highest order. But, he has no proof. “We are what we pretend to be.” And so, Campbell awaits his trial, knowing full well that he is an American hero, but will hang for it. In the interim, he writes out his memoirs.

As is the case with most Vonnegut books, the underlying theme is as fascinating and poignant as ever. And complex. “They were people,” (Vonnegut, 39) is a hard pill to swallow when you realize that the narrator is calling for sympathy for nazis. (Also interesting coming from a man that gave this interview.) There is almost a Vonnegut-ish suggestion that the reader should be sympathetic to these people we have so long considered evil because we are just as stupid. That, perhaps one lunatic with outrageous, amoral ideas could yell at crowds loud enough to start convincing them to act out these evil ways that he is preaching. And, of course, that could never happen in this country, in this day and age, right? Right? Right?! “We are never as modern, as far ahead of the past as we like to think.” (Vonnegut, 27)

What are we pretending to be? It is an important question to ask yourself. It is the question that weaves itself throughout all of Mother Night, and begs the reader for an answer long after he has closed the back flap.

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The Secret History

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Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is the perfect summer, beach read for folks that fancy themselves above such types of books. In this novel, Tartt establishes herself as a sort of John Grisham or Stephen King of the literati crowd. I say this because, at its core, The Secret History is a real page-turner. It is a wildly exciting, thrilling murder mystery with twists and turns throughout. Really though, this novel is a hybrid of thriller and campus novels.

The murder itself is not what provides the mystery, but rather the murderers. Much like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, there is no mystery to whodunit. In fact, the first few pages of The Secret History serve as the narrator’s confession to the reader, as well as the implication of every other character that had a hand in the murder. Now, the only question is, what will they do in the aftermath?

The group of killers is composed of classical Greek students. And this is where the highbrow stuff comes into play. I’m ashamed to say that it took me nearly 100 pages worth of literature references from these various characters, before I came upon one that I didn’t have to look up. And that was a reference to The Great Gatsby that most thirteen year olds could have understood.

Along with the heavy literary references, this book revolves around a deep, psychological dissection that is sure to keep even the pickiest reader intellectually satisfied. I found myself asking uncomfortable questions like, “Well, they had no choice, right?” or “Would I have done the same thing?” immediately followed by a, “No, no, no, of course not.” The characters are complex. The events leading up to and following the murder at the center of the plot are puzzling. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History takes the murder mystery to a higher plain.

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White Noise

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In my opinion, life is too short to waste on bad fiction. So, when it comes to my leisure reading, I stick to authors I know well that rarely disappoint me, I refer to “The Greatest Novels of _______” style lists, or trust the word of a good friend whose opinion I respect. I learned of White Noise several years ago while reading one of those aforementioned lists that boasted the 100 greatest novels of a certain period of time. I do not claim to be highbrow, so a list like this one isn’t an automatic sell for me. Honestly, I feel this review will probably make me sound like an idiot incapable of reading anything resembling an intellectual stretch. Make use of the comment section below if you’d like to agree. Really, all I am trying to say is, I don’t like this book. I’m glad I read it, but I’m more glad I don’t have to again.

When I read the word “Novel” printed on the front of a book, a few things come to mind. At the top of that list is story. I open a novel, with the idea that I am going to read a story. And since I have gone thousands of dollars into debt to be knowledgable about such things, I don’t even necessarily expect to have a beginning, middle, and end. But I do expect story. Take Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 for example. Sure the book doesn’t give us point A to point B directions, and we get lost several times, and we are even left with more questions than we started out with, but it’s one hell of time we have as a reader, and that is thanks to Pynchon’s sheer joy at concocting wild scenarios for the main character and the reader to experience and hopefully enjoy. White Noise, on the other hand, a book that weighs in at a little over 300 pages, could have been compacted into a 30 page short story. What’s more is that it could have done this and still carried the philosophical weight that DeLillo shifts around like a beer belly.

There are some great philosophical buttons pushed in this book, points that I have pondered and even have kept me up at night. How is technology effecting society? Can we recover from how bad we treat the environment? When will we go too far? When will I die? How can I not focus on death? Is there a way to avoid dying? Holy shit, death. Death, death, death. It lurks around every corner in our life, and DeLillo does a great job making sure it lurks around every page of his novel.

So, with such topics, how could I not like this book? It comes back to a matter of story. Instead of characters dealing with these issues by way of plot devices and story lines, the reader is presented with long, albeit very deep, dialogues and internal monologues about them. Outside of two chunks of the book (one of which happens 100+ pages in, the other in the last 20 pages, both of which are excellently and intensely written) we are bored to death by two dimensional characters having four dimensional conversations. Instead of an Atticus Finch or Charles Darnay, we get Murray, who somehow manages to bore the reader with a sociopathic diatribe about how the only way one can truly conquer his fear of death is by murdering someone. Conceptually, for a novel, such things are gold mines, but the execution is dismal.

And that about sums up White Noise. There is so much potential with this book. Airborne Toxic Events! Murder! Sex! But the path that weaves through these events is so meandering and drawn out, that it really takes the wind out of the sails by the time the reader is in view of his destination.

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Ragtime

“[Jacob] Riis made color maps of Manhattan’s ethnic populations. Dull gray was for Jews-their favorite color, he said. Red was for the swarthy Italian. Blue for the thrifty German. Black for the African. Green for the Irishman. And yellow for the cat-clean Chinaman…Add dashes of color for Finns, Arabs, Greeks, and so on, and you have a crazy quilt, Riis cried, a crazy quilt of humanity!”

(Doctorow, 15)

E. L. Doctorow’s love story to The United States at the turn of the century is itself a crazy quilt. Historical figures cross in and out of the plot paths of fictional characters, creating several threads that aren’t fully integrated into the plot as a whole. This goes on for the entire first half of the book, to the point that I wasn’t really sure who this book was actually about. Houdini? Sure, a little bit. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson? They show up in the mix. Or perhaps this book is about the fictional Tateh, a Yiddish immigrant, and his daughter? They show up quite a bit, but is the book about them, really?

I think, as much as this book could be about one specific character, it is really about America as a whole. The good and the bad. Ragtime is a historical fiction that strikes a balance between the nostalgic haze through which we view this period and the ugly, gritty reality of our history. It is about America’s history, but also all of the themes that have become synonymous with the American Dream; perseverance, melting pot society, abuse of power.

Most central to the plot is the nameless family, identified as just this,the family. Even the members of the family go unidentified. Father, mother, the boy, mother’s younger brother. The choice to make this family nameless is the most interesting device Doctorow employs in Ragtime. By doing this, and by (for the most part) having the members of the family do nothing to drive the plot, a thought begins to invade the reader (at least this one). America happens to us, we don’t happen to America. For the average citizen of this crazy quilt of humanity, it storms and rages around us, and beats us up, then tells us to get back on our feet again. Most of us aren’t Houdinis, Henry Fords, or J.P. Morgans. But, as is shown in this book, there is always the chance that we could be. It may just depend upon how much you’re willing to wager on that American Dream.

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White Teeth

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This book is…a doozie. That is said as highest praise. I haven’t been writing book reviews in quite some time, and when I picked this one up I told myself, you are going to review this after you are done reading it. After about a hundred pages, I began to regret telling myself that. And not because it was bad! In fact, it is quite the opposite, it’s a spectacular read! Go grab a copy.

The reason I regretted using this book to restart  my review blog was because, what the hell am I supposed to write about White Teeth? What is it about? How do I answer a question like that with any clarity, when the book is about everything! Race relations, socioeconomic class division , religion, sex, family dynamics, war, genetic experimentation! It’s all here, crammed into less than 500 pages, and it is all beautifully written.

Tertiary to the themes bustling about this novel is the Chalfen family. This is the well-to-do, middle class family that I can identify with because they are so dreadfully and stereotypically…white. Note that I say stereotypical, not hackneyed. Zadie Smith paints with a rather broad brush that somehow manages to highlight some of the most unflattering details of the upper middle class suburbanites that I have dwelled among throughout my entire life.

“They reffered to themselves as nouns, verbs, and occasioanlly adjectives:  It’s the Chalfen way, And then he came out with a real Chalfenism, He’s Chalfening again, We need to be a bit more Chalfenist about this.”

(Smith, 261)

As I read this particular passage, my face flushed. I am by no means embarrassed by my close knit family dynamic, but this was so accurate that I found it uncomfortable, especially as, in the context of this book, “Chalfenism” isn’t exactly a good thing.

But the Chalfean family is so much more than a stereotypically white family. Something so much worse. A white family that thinks they have something to give everyone in the because they are so white, that they have everything figured out, and that the world really should convert to Chalfensim, because it really is the best way to live. As is the case in similar, nonfiction examples of this, they are just as, if not more, screwed up than their lower class counterparts, the Iqbal family (a family composed of Indian Islamists) and the Jones family (a blended family of a father [white/english] a mother [a Jamaican immigrant] and their bi-racial daughter).

The interactions between these families would turn the stomach of any reader. They are so ham handed and awkward that I had to put the book down at certain points. The Chalfen family is terrible for the most part, but especially the mother, Joyce. Her insertion of herself into the children of these families lives are not even slightly well intentioned, and at times come off as vaguely racist. For example the assumption she voices to Irie Jones of black teenage girls mating and dating habits. Keep in mind, Irie herself is a black teenage girl. I’m gagging just thinking about it.

I couldn’t recommend this book more highly, despite my failure to really sum it up. I try to keep these reviews short and to the point, but there just too many points to make about this book. I think the best way to describe White Teeth would be hearty. It is full, and a reader is sure to satiate their appetite with this book.

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God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

 Vonnegut Blog 2

I am a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan. I honestly believe that he was the greatest American satirist. I think that his zany, on-the-nose, lack of subtleness was perfect for what he was trying to say with each of his books. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater has to be among  his most blunt works, and I loved every last page of, which is sad, because there were only 190 of them.

Within 20 pages, I realized this was not a typical book of Vonnegut’s. No spaceships. No Aliens. A relatively easy to follow timeline. By page 50, I realized that the reason he may have decided to forego his usual abstract motifs was due to the message at the core of the story. I get the sense that he felt while writing this, that there was little time to bullshit about the message on this one: American greed.

Eliot Rosewater, the central character, was born into wealth. More importantly, he is a veteran of the Second World War, and due to the horrors he was forced to witness, and in some cases, take part in, he becomes a raging alcoholic, but more interestingly, becomes an outrageously generous man. He establishes the Rosewater Foundation in Rosewater Indiana, which essentially consists of an office that he sits in for hours next to a telephone. If any of the needy citizens of Rosewater need help, wether it be financial, emotional, or otherwise, they know that Eliot Rosewater is a simple phone call away. (He also has a separate line to take phone calls for the Rosewater volunteer firefighters.) Essentially, Eliot has set up a socialist experiment in the heart of capitalist America.

With this premise, Vonnegut goes on a satirical rampage, creating an exposé of capitalism’s pitfalls. The entire book hinges on Eliot’s senator father, and his pampered ex-wife trying to convince him that he iss mentally unstable and to that he needs to seek help in order to retain his family inheritance…because he is too generous toward people that serve absolutely no use.

Filled with the laugh out loud irony that fans of Slaughterhouse Five are certainly familiar with, this book is a fast fun read. Also included are some classic Vonnegutisms like: Samaritrophia: Hysterical indifference to the troubles of those less fortunate than oneself.  Kurt Vonnegut is probably rolling over in his grave over rampant Samaritrophia in our country nearly 50 years after the publication of God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Either that, or he is laughing his ass off to keep from crying.

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