Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell





Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose. 










I really want to like Karen Russell's work, and it is even a little difficult for me to figure out why exactly it is that I don't, but I don't. After a very disappointing experience with Swamplandia!, I was still committed to reading at least one of her short story collections. One of my feelings about Swamplandia! was that maybe Russell wasn't yet ready to take on a novel, and her writing was lovely, so with those two things in mind her short stories could be absolutely perfect for me. Unfortunately, no. 

I am in the absolute minority (I read review after review after review to try to figure out why, for once, I am at odds with the literary world), so I can't say that I would un-recommend them based on my own experiences, but these stories are just not for me. I like dark and twisty (see Gone Girl, Dark Places, Sharp Objects), I like magical realism (see The Color Master, Wind Up Bird Chronicle, 100 Years of Solitude), and I like clever (see every other literary darling), but...the way she puts it together doesn't work. 

I categorized my Aimee Bender short story collection into: Heartbreakingly Good, Incredibly Good, and Just Good. For Russell I will do: Good, Meh, Why? 

  • Good
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Reeling for the Empire
The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis
  • Meh
The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979
Proving Up
The New Veterans
  • Why?

The Barn at the End of Our Term
Dougbert Shakleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating

The Goods have solid writing and ideas and their strength is taking extra-ordinary situations and giving the characters in these completely human moments that are absolutely ordinary. 

The Vampires in the Lemon Grove are having marriage problems and their relationship issues manifest in a conversation that is superficially about one thing but actually about another. 
"The lemons aren't working, Clyde." But the lemons have never worked. At best, they give us eight hours of peace. We aren't talking about the lemons. "

The Reelers for the empire are girls who have been turned into silkworms whose silk is helping Japan become a silk exporter, but the girls all have to live together in a single room and they are driving each other crazy.
"Courage, sisters!" sings Hoshi. Hoshi is our haiku laureate. She came from a school for young noblewomen and pretends to have read every book in the world. We all agree that she is generally insufferable. 
When the Graveless Doll of Eric Matis appears - looking like a scarecrow - our juvenile delinquent protagonist takes a moment to realize how lame his imagination is.
All day and all night, the scarecrow had to stand over his quilty hills of wheat and flax, of rye and barley and three other brown grains that I could never remember (my picture of scarecrow country was ripped directly from the 7-Grain Quilty Hills Muffins bag - at school I cheated shamelessly, and I guess my imagination must have been a plagiarist, too, copying its homework). 
I did enjoy these three stories, but all three of them share a 'huh' moment when I turned the last page and realized the story was over. It's not that I need a clear resolution where all questions are answered, but endings should not be a surprise. That is what stops these really interesting premises with lovely ideas and prose from being truly excellent. 

The Meh stories are different levels of creepy - maybe some of them even belong rightly in the Horror category, but the premises aren't as interesting and the endings are still unsatisfying. 

The Why? stories are ones that really emphasize my overall problem with the book: 

  • it reads like a collection of writing exercises. 
Writing Exercise: Write a story from the perspective of a non-human character. 
Result: The Barn at the End of Our Term, where former presidents are reincarnated as self-aware horses



Writing Exercise: Take an ordinary event and treat it like a major sporting event. 
Result: Dougbert Shakleton's Rules for Antartic Tailgating, where the super stoked fans for Team Krill are beaten by the super stoked fans of Team Whale every year.

I understand that many people really love Karen Russell, and I do see potential, but I don't think that I will be picking up any more of her books. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. 

You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad. 

All things truly wicked start from an innocence.

I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but [Hadley]. 








Continuing my Hemingway kick (following The Sun Also Rises and The Paris Wife), as recommended by a fellow 50 booker, I decided to tackle A Moveable Feast. This book is a collection of autobiographical vignettes edited and published posthumously. The book covers the same years as The Paris Wife. Although The Paris Wife is fiction, it has all the same people, places, and events, and is structured as a typical narrative, so reading A Moveable Feast so closely after it was probably a different experience than most readers would have. It felt a little like reading George Plimpton's Capote where the reader receives different perspectives on the same events. I was able to see Hemingway's side of things, and for the record, he knows he's a cad (see above quote about how he felt after cheating on Hadley). 

It was a very quick read - I finished it in about six hours of airplane travel - as there are blank pages between each story and a set of photos. For anyone who is hip with the literature at this time, it's like reading a gossip tabloid. Fitzgerald did what? Stein said that? Oh my! 

I wouldn't recommend it as anyone's first or only foray into Hemingway because it's not representative of what he was trying to accomplish with his writing (although it is of course in his classic style). 

My next Hemingway novel will be A Farewell to Arms and then I think it's time to put Big Poppa to sleep for a while. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

The foolish Wallflower Order hadn't learned a damned thing.  They thought that by fumigating the Place Congo in the 1890s when people were doing the Bamboula the Chacta the Babouille the Counjaille the Juba the Congo and the VooDoo that this would put an end to it.  That it was merely a fad.  But they did not understand that the Jes Grew epidemic was unlike physical plagues.  Actually Jes Grew was an anti-plague.  Some plagues caused the body to waste away; the Jes Grew enlivened the host.  Other plagues were accompanied by bad air (malaria).  Jes Grew victims said that the air was clear as they had ever seen it and that there was the aroma of roses and perfumes which had never before enticed their nostrils.  Some plagues arise from decomposing animals, but Jes Grew is as electric as life and is characterized by ebullience and ecstasy.  Terrible plagues were due to the wrath of God; but Jes Grew is the delight of the gods.

The back of my copy of Mumbo Jumbo cites Harold Bloom as including the novel in his "five hundred most significant books of the Western Canon."  That's hilarious, and certainly wasn't written by Ishmael Reed, who exhibits a pretty jaundiced opinion of the "Western Canon" throughout Mumbo Jumbo.  In fact, one of the most entertaining things about this novel is its gleeful iconoclasm, the way it smashes up the sacred cows of Western art, music, and religion as Eurocentric bullshit:

Outstanding in the collection is the figure of of a monkey-like Portuguese explorer, carved by an Angolan.  He is obviously juiced and is sitting on a barrel.  What side-splitting, bellyaching satriical ways these ancient craftsmen brought to their art!  The African race had quite a sense of humor.  In North America, under Christianity, many of them had been reduced to glumness, depression, surliness, cynicism, malice without artfulness, and their intellectuals, in American, only appreciated heavy, serious works.  ('Tis the cause, Desdemona.)  They'd really fallen in love with tragedy.  Their plays were about bitter, raging members of the "nuclear family," and their counterpart in art was exemplified by the contorted, grimacing, painful social-realist face... For LaBas, anyone who couldn't titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian connoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation.

Mumbo Jumbo explores the common idea that the supremacy of Western Art is subconsciously a way of perpetuating racial and cultural superiority by making the subconscious conscious.  Reed imagines a world order literally protected by secret Teutonic orders like the Wallflower Order and the Knights Templar, who work to subvert black culture and protect Eurocentricism.

This world order is threatened by the appearance of the Jes Grew (as in, it "jes grew" out of nowhere), a dance craze that Reed describes alternately as a cultural movement, an infectious plague, and a mystical VooDoo force.  The secret societies work to stamp out the Jes Grew but are opposed by a ragtag group of black Harlemites including the proprietor of the VooDoo Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, PaPa LaBas and his friends Berbelang and Black Herman, and even, quite hilariously, the secretly part-black president of the United States, Warren Harding.

Reed comes awfully close to suggesting that whites can't be trusted.  All of them in this novel are villainous or treacherous or both, and they have names like Biff Musclewhite and Thor Wintergreen and Hinkle Von Vampton.  Their machinations are fun but fairly incomprehensible--among other things, they try to recruit a "talking android" who will discredit black culture from the inside and search for a secret book which gives the Jes Grew its power, or something.  A military revolution in Haiti is somehow connected.  It's not always quite clear whether Reed recognizes how shaggy and silly the whole plot is, but the book elides the distinction between the silly and the serious.  After all, you wouldn't want to be the kind of reader who couldn't "titter a bit."

Law's Empire by Ronald Dworkin

Law as integrity denies that statements of law are either the backward-looking factual reports of conventionalism or the forward-looking instrumental programs of legal pragmatism.  It insists that legal claims are interpretative judgments and therefore combine backward- and forward-looking elements; they interpret contemporary legal practice seen as an unfolding political narrative.  So law as integrity rejects as unhelpful the ancient question whether judges find or invent law; we understand legal reasoning, it suggests, only be seeing the sense in which they do both an neither.

Law's Empire is Part IV in my multi-part series reading about legal interpretation.  See here, here, and here.  Dworkin also happens to have made a guest appearance in my review of Scalia's book.  Although the order was, more or less, random, I'm glad I read this book after having read the others.  In all important respects, Dworkin is responding to the theories of legal interpretation represented by Posner, Scalia, and Breyer.

So, a quick recap of those folks:  Scalia believes legal interpretation is a matter of finding the definitions of the words of a statute (or the Constitution) based on how those words were understood at the time of passage.  Thus, his analysis is what Dworkin would refer to as backward-looking (Dworkin stays away from the word "originalism" and instead uses the word "conventionalism," I think because he views this as the conventional view of legal interpretation).  In contrast, Breyer views legal interpretation as a kind of pragmatism---that is, judges are problem solvers.  Thus, judges should solve problems taking into account anything relevant to solving the problem before them.  Posner, who is closer to Breyer in that he is a legal pragmatist too, believes that judges should seek the "best" result, defined by what is best for society (and constrained by the extreme importance of precedent and predictability to society).

Why this long review?  Because Dworkin rejects both approaches.  He believes both conventionalism and pragmatism fail to adequately describe what judges do when interpreting a legal text.  He rejects conventionalism as being too narrowly focused (conventionalism cannot explain our equal protection or 8th amendment jurisprudence, for example).  He rejects pragmatism as producing too much discretion in judges (for Dworkin, a pragmatist judge is constrained by nothing).Instead, Dworkin proposes "law as integrity."  Under law as integrity, a judge is to resolve a legal dispute based on what is most consistent with prior interpretations.  This approach frees a judge to appreciate the way legal concepts develop, while also constraining judges by preventing them from departing too far from precedent.  For example, and because gay marriage featured so prominently in my review of Scalia's book:
The lessons of our constitutional history are clear: inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens, our most important institutions.  When we integrated our schools, education improved.  When we opened our juries to women, our democracy became more vital.  When we allowed lesbian and gay soldiers to serve openly in uniform, it enhanced unit cohesion.  when same-sex couples are married, just as when opposite-sex couples are married, they serve as models of loving commitment to all.
Latta v. Otter, (Reinhardt, J., concurring).  According to Dworkin, then, a judge looks not only to the text of a statute or provision but also to the development of a legal principle with an eye toward where that principle is going.

Doesn't he kind of look like
Saul from Breaking Bad?
I would be remiss if I did not mention the analogy Dworkin uses to describe this kind of legal analysis.  He compares legal interpretation to a novel, written one chapter at a time by different people.  Each person must continue the novel based on the chapters written by the authors before him or her.  In the same way we might criticize a person for writing a chapter inconsistent with prior chapters, we can criticize judges for writing an opinion inconsistent with precedent.  However, the analogy also works in a forward-looking way: new chapters must build on the development and progress of prior chapters.  So, too, with the law.

I find Dworkin's solution pretty compelling.  Moreso, even, than Breyer or Posner, although I think both would argue their approaches are more or less the same as his, the only difference being the words used; Breyer and Posner would probably respond to Dworkin's criticisms by saying that consistency is important to their pragmatism, and thus, Dworkin's approach creates no different results.  This may or may not be true.  I believe, though, that Dworkin's explanation of legal interpretation is more enlightening.

Seriously, though, doesn't he?
I'm not sure if there will be a Part V to this series.  When I did my Posner review, Scalia, Breyer, and Dworkin were all on my to-do list for legal interpretation.  In this regard, I've exhausted my list.  Maybe, that's it.  We should announce a Law as Integrity Day, have a parade with Legal Conventionalism and Legal Pragmatism Floats slowly self-destructing and with a giant Integrity balloon.

Probably, though, there'll be a Part V and I just don't know it yet.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald

At the end of his first year as a Junior Fellow, Fred thought it only right to tell his father that he was no longer a Christian, but in such a way to distress him as little as possible.  All this sounded more like 1857 than 1907.  He had heard family stories, distant echoes or reminiscences of giant battles from what seemed heroic days.  Two of his uncles had quarrelled over Strauss' Leben Jesu and struck each other and one of them had caught his head on the edge of the fender and broken his skull.  The other one, Uncle Philip, had been known for the rest of his life, though never in the family, as Slayer Family.  In his mother's family there were some who hadn't spoken to each other for many years, and there were women, once young, who had broken off their engagements because their betrothed had ceased to believe and who had bleached and withered into spectres of themselves behind church missionary society typewriters and the stalls of jumble sales.  Fred, who was kind-hearted toward the past as well as the present, felt that he ought not fall short, in the new century, of what had cost so dear.

The Gate of Angels is Fitzgerald's stab at a university comedy along the lines of Lucky JimThose novels feel British in a peculiar way, because college in the United States is so vastly different, with its own kind of pretensions and strange ritualisms, but without the musty weight of tradition and chauvinism that these novels tend to poke fun at.  The scattered jokes about the different colleges at Cambridge are lost on this American reader, though I suppose that the most important thing about St. Angelicus--a school Fitzgerald has made up--is that it is tiny.  The protagonist of the novel, Fred Fairly, is employed at the college as a lecturer, "assistant organist, assistant librarian, deputy steward, and assist deputy treasurer.  The words assistant, deputy, and so forth didn't mean that there was necessarily anyone above him to do the work, only that he must do it without being paid."  It also male-only, and as a condition of his employment, Fred has to agree never to marry.  You may guess for yourself how what kind of conflict that introduces to the novel for Fred.

Fred has decided that he is an atheist, and feels obligated to tell his father, a small-town rector.  His position is teaching science (I think some kind of theoretical physics).  Fitzgerald wrings a lot out of the epistemological overlap between science and faith.  Fred's mentor, Professor Flowerdew, rails against the theoretical study of the atom, a new study in 1907:

'There will be many apparent results, some useful, some spectacular, some, very possibly, unpelasant.  But since the whole basis of the present research is unsound, cracks will appear in the structure one by one.  The physicists will begin by constructing models of the atom, in fat there are some very nice ones in the Cavendish at the moment.  Then they'll find that the models won't do, because they would only work if atoms really existed, so they'll replace them by mathematical terms which can be stretched to fit.  As a result, they'll find that since they're dealing with what they can't observe, they can't measure it, and so we shall hear that all that can be said is that the position is probably this and the energy is probably that.  The energy will be beyond their comprehension, so they'll be driven to the theory that it comes and goes more or less at random.  Now their hypotheses will be at the beginning of collapse and they will have to pull out more and more bright notions to paper over the cracks and to cram into unsightly corners.  There will be elementary particles which are too strange to have anything but curious names, and ant-matter which ought to be there, but isn't.  By the end of the century they will have to admit that the laws they are supposed to have discovered seem to act in a profoundly disorderly way.  What is a disorderly law, Fairly?'

'It sounds like chaos,' said Fred.

I find this a pretty funny riff on scientific thinking.  Fitzgerald, writing in 1990, knows that this is exactly what has happened--the biggest problem in physics today is that our various models of the way things work seem to completely contradict each other.  (Though Flowerdew's reference to "anti-matter" tips the hand of the irony a little too far.)  But that doesn't invalidate the theoretical structures that Flowerdew wants to reject, and Fitzgerald asks us to apply that to other kinds of thinking and knowing, including the kind of religious tradition that Fred abandons.

At the beginning of the novel, Fred gets into a bicycle crash and falls in love with Daisy, who was riding the other book.  Fitzgerald gives Daisy the middle section, which details her career as a nurse.  Like many of Fitzgerald's heroines, Daisy is smart and tough, and lives somewhere near the edge of respectable society.  Is Fred and Daisy's meet-cute meant to suggest a kind of order that arises out of disorder (the bike crash), and even suggests some divine or otherworldly influence?  How about when, at the end of the novel, Daisy--having split from Fred after a formal inquest about the bike crash reveals that she was accompanied by another man--wanders into St. Angelicus, not knowing that Fred works and lies there, only to fortuitously rescue the college's blind old master?  The fellows at the college freak out at the presence of a woman, but Fitzgerald suggests that Daisy is able to puncture this insulated, pretentious, narrow-minded, and hyper-masculine space, and that such puncturing is exactly what it needs.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Color Master by Aimee Bender

"You can ruin anything if you focus at it."

"Men love to watch two women kiss, but how I love to watch two men. So clear in their focus. The amazing space created for me when there is nothing demanded or seen."

"...she steeps [her tea] with the kind of Zen patience that would make Buddhists sit up in envy and then breathe through their envy and then move past their envy."

"I put the anger in the dress the color of the sky. I put it in there so much I could hardly stand it - that she was about to die, that she would die unrecognized, that none of us would ever live up to her example, and that we were the only witnesses. That we were all so small after that. That everybody dies anyway."



I am madly in love with Aimee Bender and have been for a very long time. I use sentences from her work frequently with my students to discuss what makes a Perfect Sentence. 

Her most recent collection of 15 short stories which range from good to heartbreakingly perfect. The stories cover a huge range of topics, many different kinds of characters (although the Slightly Awkward Introverted Female appears quite often), and varying levels of magical realism. I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading an Aimee Bender story comes after the reader has experienced many many of her stories. Because I'm familiar with her work, I read it with a heightened sense of anticipation - she can and will do anything with her characters. When two men start making out in "On a Saturday Afternoon," I know that they can begin to devour each other, they can devolve into single cell organisms, or they could start to eat soap (plot points that have appeared in her other work). For people who don't enjoy magical realism, this would probably lead to high levels of frustration, but for me it leads to absolute delight. 

The story I would put in the Heartbreakingly Perfect category is "Tiger Mending." The story centers around two sisters who are brought to Malaysia so that one sister - a perfect seamstress - can mend tigers whose skin has been ripped apart. (The sister is the one above who is steeping her tea with perfect Zen). Like Sherman Alexie's "Indian Education," this story will become one that I figure out how to work into a variety of classes I teach just because I love it so much. 

Even the ones that are Just Good have extra special features. Although I put "Lemonade" in this category, I am impressed with Bender's ability to create a voice that is completely different from other 14 voices that are in this collection. ("I was a the Bev with Sylv and we were eating Chinese food takeout from Panda Express and I said about how the chicken chow mein would be a good street, like Chow Main? Like a Main Street in a food part of town? Get it?") 

I recommend Bender to almost everyone. Her writing is just so special, her stories so whimsical but with an intelligence that is not often associated with whimsy, and the way her characters are searching for something real which can't be lost seems to be relatable to almost everyone. 

I would categorize the stories in this collection as follows (without any kind of ranking within a category):

  • Heartbreakingly Perfect

Tiger Mending
On a Saturday Afternoon
Bad Return
The Color Master
Americca


  • Incredibly Good

Faces
Wordless
A State of Variance
Appleless
The Red Ribbon
The Doctor and the Rabbi
The Devourings


  • Just Good

The Fake Nazi
Lemonade
Origin Lessons

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The boys sat without talking, breathing heavily, exhaling plumes of white breath.  Even now that they had stopped rowing, their breathing was synchronized, and for a brief, fragile moment it seemed to Joe as if all of them were part of a single thing, something alive with breath and spirit of its own.

So, unbeknownst to either of us, Randy and I were reading the same book at the same time (great minds, etc., etc.).  He also posted about The Boys in the Boat, and I gladly direct you to his review, which has a good synopsis of the story.

First off, this was a great book. Following so closely on the heels of Unbroken (both the book and the movie), it's hard not to compare the two, at least a little, as both feature American athletes at the 1936 Olympics (Louis Zamperini even makes a cameo).  But while Unbroken (the novel) was spectacular (and much broader in scope), I thought that Brown did a better job of capturing the events of those Olympics.  The Boys in the Boat was primarily about Joe Rantz and the University of Washington crew team, but Brown interspersed details of Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels's propaganda machine in the preparations for the games, which I thought added a needed element.  It was so creepy to read about the preparations the Germans made for the Olympics, how they sanitized the burgeoning fascism and Antisemitism to put on a show for the rest of the world.  Knowing how Germany and the rest of Europe would so soon be torn apart added an extra layer of morbid drama to the events.

West of the stadium a vast, flat assembly area, the Maifeld, had been leveled and a great limestone bell tower was being erected.  The tower would stand just over 248 feet tall.  The great bell it would house would bear around its bottom edge an inscription sandwiched between two swastikas, "Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt!" ("I summon the youth of the world!")  And the youth would indeed come.  First for the Olympics and then for something else.  A little less than ten years in the future, in the last few desperate days of the Third Reich, scores of Hitler Youth - boys as young as ten or eleven - would crouch below the bell tower among blocks of fine Franconian limestone, the rubble of the buildings now being erected, shooting at advancing Russian boys, many of them not a great deal older than they.  And in those last few days, as Berlin burned around them, some of those German boys - those who cried or refused to shoot or tried to surrender - would be lined up against these limestone slabs by their officers and shot.

The 1936 games are fascinating to me (I'm still waiting for an amazing movie/book to be made about Jesse Owens. How has that not happened yet?), and Brown did a great job of capturing the pageantry and emotions.

This was also a great sports book.  Unlike Randy, I didn't know anything about rowing before I started reading it, but the passages about the intricacies of the sport were surprisingly fascinating.  Brown also did a good job of keeping the anticipation and drama ratcheted up throughout each racing scene.  I kind of figured Joe and the UW guys would make it to Berlin based on the cover, but I was still on the edge of my seat.  All in all a very interesting and exciting read that I highly recommend.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

To defeat an adversary who was your equal, maybe even your superior, it wasn't necessarily enough to just give your all from start to finish.  You had to master your opponent mentally.  When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not---that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown, something that once revealed would make him doubt himself, make him falter just when it counted the most.  Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.

Daniel James Brown's book describes the journey of the U.S. Olympic rowing eight that won gold in 1936.  Brown weaves an incredible, moving tale, juggling the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the California-Washington rivalry, the east coast and west coast rivalry, and, perhaps most importantly, the stories of the individual rowers themselves.

The frame story focuses on Joe Rantz, starting with his childhood.  Brown writes about how Rantz is abandoned by his family; how in response, Rantz learned to become self-sufficient; how Rantz joined the rowing team because he needed it to guarantee a campus job.  This self-sufficiency becomes a problem for Rantz because of the essence of rowing, which requires complete and utter dependence upon your crewmates, captured in this moment between the boat-builder-resident-philosopher, George Pocock, and Rantz:
Pocock pased and stepped back from the frame of the shell and put his hands on hips, carefully studying the work he had so far done.  He said for him the craft of building a boat was like a religion.  It wasn't enough to master the technical details of it.  You had to give yourself up to it; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it.  When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart.  He turned to Joe.  "Rowing," he said, "is like that.  And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.  Do you know what I mean, Joe?"  Joe, a bit nervous, not at all certain that he did, nodded tentatively, went back downstairs, and resumed his sit-ups, trying to work it out.
 Pocock makes numerous appearances throughout the book.  Each chapter starts with a quotation from Pocock, capturing the essence of rowing.  This is something that makes the book more pleasurable, but also something that makes the book special for rowers.  Pocock's quotations capture the truths of rowing in a way I have felt but never been able to put into words.  And it's not just Pocock's words.  Brown's writing also puts into words something I've always believed about rowing: that it is a uniquely special sport.  That it teaches cooperation and mutual-dependence in a way unlike other sports---that is, successful rowing requires cooperation of the purest form. Pocock puts it this way: "Where is the spiritual value of rowing? . . . The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole."

Perhaps because these days we've been inundated with sports-underdog-political implication movies, one would think that another story, with only the sport to distinguish it, would fall flat.  This book does not.  Brown's interweaving narrative captures rowing while still carrying the symbolic importance of the boat's victory.  This is not a small feat, and Brown's writing deserves a lot of credit.

But then, so does the story.  It is a moving story of nine young men who come together to row.

Highly recommended, especially for anyone with rowing experience.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence.  It was an old song, old as the breed itself--one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad.  It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred.  When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the old pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery.  And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.

The Call of the Wild is a story about a dog.  That, with its brevity and simplicity, have made it into a children's book, but you might not want to read it to your children.  It seems overly hostile to the kind of socialization that young adult novels pretend not to favor but really enforce--ideas of finding yourself and your own place in the world.  The Call of the Wild is about finding a place outside of the world--the civilized one, at least--and pursuing isolation while communing with forces that are primeval and nearly vanished.

Buck the husky grows up in luxurious circumstances in California, but finds himself kidnapped and sold to gold rushers in Alaska who need sled dogs.  This, according to the prologue by Gary Paulsen, was a typical practice, because the demand was so high that dognappers thousands of miles away from gold country were needed to supply it.  Buck struggles at first, as you might expect, to his harsh new circumstances: sleeping in the snow, feuding with other, more hardened dogs, catching wild food, dealing with hunger.  But what Buck endures awakens an innate spirit buried within him by the pampering forces of civilization.  He becomes intensely competitive and bloodthirsty, and soon becomes the most accomplished, even renowned, sled dog in the Alaska territory.

London clearly has a deep and abiding regard for the rough-and-tumble gold rushers.  The most miserable thing that Buck endures is not the elements, but a pair of effete urban brothers who dream of making it rich but who have no idea of how to operate a sled team.  Ultimately, their foolishness does them in, and they fall--with ten dogs--under broken ice, because they have no understanding of, or relationship with, the harsh landscape that surrounds them.  Buck himself is the distillation of the pioneering spirit that London wants to praise: tough, headstrong, a little savage.

London describes Buck's progression as a kind of regression back through history, reaching back to the "raw beginnings of life in the howling ages."  The civilized present is juxtaposed against the caveman past, and found wanting.  The novel ends when Buck joins a pack of wolves, his long-ago ancestors, before eventually striking out on his own as if the image of the first dog that ever existed.  London allows himself to dip into a kind of mysticism that seems silly.  Can we take a published writer seriously when he extols the virtues of a time before printing, or writing, or even language?  But its appeal is still powerful, and offers a compelling vision in opposition to the anemic weariness of modern life.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin said nothing. He kept his face, his whole body, perfectly still in his chair. He looked at a spot over Fogg's shoulder. He was giving nothing away. Certainly it was the simplest possible explanation for what had happened last night. Part of him, the part he trusted least, wanted to leap on this idea like a puppy on a ball. But in light of everything else that had ever happened to him, in his entire life, he checked himself. He'd spent too long disappointed by the world--he'd spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn't the only world, and coping with the overwhelming evidence that it in fact was. He wasn't going to be suckered in just like that. It was like finding a clue that somebody you'd buried and mourned wasn't really dead after all.

While definitely entertaining, The Magicians is somewhat unoriginal and largely lacking in plot and character development. Normally, I find unoriginality to be a forgivable sin, especially when an author chooses to pay homage to great works, as Grossman did. However, combined with the latter transgressions, the work falls flat.

The trope of a dissatisfied teen finding a way out of his uninspired life into a magical world is a deserved classic. However, I find it difficult to believe that such a change would leave that character so static. Quentin, we are told rather than shown, does not change in a substantial way through four years at Brakebills or a year post-graduation. Watching Quentin retain his angsty demeanor despite these incredible life changes is frustrating at best and brought to mind another angst-ridden teen who wanders his way around New York. Even worse, the supporting characters were so flat that few of their actions made much sense beyond serving as people with whom Quentin could interact.

Where the book shone was in the description of actual events. Grossman embedded some details that captured the imagination and made the magical world of Brakebills (especially Brakebills South) come alive. Even the most mundane objects refuse to be familiar:
a silver statue of a bird that seemed to be twitching. “Poor little thing,” he said, petting it with his large hands. “Someone tried to change it into a real bird, but it got stuck in between. It thinks it’s alive, but it’s much too heavy to fly.” The metal bird cheeped feebly, a dry, clicking noise like an empty pistol. Fogg sighed and put it away in a drawer. “It’s always launching itself out of windows and landing in the hedges."
The gaps in plot development, however, leave one grasping for a thread to connect all of the events. Frequently I felt myself putting back on my teacher cap, entreating Grossman to show us rather than tell us that the students and staff had a hard time recovering from the intrusion of evil into their idyll or how the students drifted following graduation. Prior to these events there was no baseline for normal and little description of behavior afterward to indicate a major change. I would gladly have read a second volume in exchange for the missing details.

The most heavy-handed allusion (I'll use this term loosely) in the work is to C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. Had Grossman used this reference to show Quentin's values or inquisitiveness, it is one that could have been hugely successful. As it was, the repeated allusions simply made the eventual trip to Fillory inevitable. This adventure smacks of Quentin's last opportunity to mature, a mystery left to the sequel, which I still don't want to read.

Though I found the work to be lacking in literary merit, it is entertaining. The events Grossman focuses on are intriguing and the light treatment plot and character development receive make it easy to breeze through. I also have a strong suspicion that it would seem less contrived and obvious to someone who had explored fewer classic works, a suspicion largely confirmed by my sister who had not read Gulliver's Travels, Catcher in the Rye, or any of The Chronicles of Narnia. The passing nod to Harry Potter as Grossman takes his protagonist to a magical school provides an excellent point of departure.

P.S. I'm glad to find I'm not the only one who found this work lacking. Billy's only comment in 2010 was "fail," which I'll second.

P.P.S. My sister has indignantly informed me that she has read The Chronicles of Narnia. My mistake, sorry!