Saturday, July 21, 2007

My Antonia by Willa Cather

I'm writing a paper on Cather's My Antonia as we speak. It's all about representations of reader response to literature in the novel and Cather's status in the American canon, your usual English lit baloney. But let's forget about all that for a second. This novel, canonical or not, moved me to tears with its transcendent beauty. Cather paints a shimmering prairie in colours blue and gold, making you wish there still was some magical frontier out there in the world where people could still start a new. This is a story of immigrants together building a new country out of bits of old blended in with the drive for a fresh beginning. For anyone like myself who has been through the immigrant experience the story still rings true through the fog of decades past and miles untraveled. Antonia is herself a representation of that old America, beautiful and strong, fruitful and fulfilling, before that immaculate vision began crumbling in chunks. Perhaps it never was true, perhaps it was always an aesthetic appeal to be seen as a glistenning Venus rising from the seafoam while the reality of America was dull with dirt all along. It doesn't really matter does it? The myth that My Antonia etches onto the canvas of global culture stands alone as a wonderful memory that may never had been, like a childhood dream that you remember as well as anything that actually happened.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie

I am a tad biased when it comes to Salman Rushdie. He just happens to be one of my favourite writers of all time. The way the man can carve up language to create a new hybrid that is not quite English and not quite anything else is ucanny. And the amazing thing is that it makes perfect sense, as if you were born with some sort of prenatal understanding of the Rushdian dialect. But that's about the auhor's style in general. This, his latest book is a bit of a conundrum. It almost feels like it was written by two diferent people. The novel is very much driven by characters that are complex and engaging, but at the same time almost allegorical. So when Max Ophuls, the famed ambassador conquers Boonyi Kaul, the Kashmiri dancer, it is at the same time the invasion of Kashmir by Indian and foreign forces. The problem for me lies mainly in the character of India, the daughter of the aforementioned couple. She is the focalizer of the first chapter of the book, and unlike all the other characters we encounter in the later chapters, she is simply not alive. But then again, she is American. Whereas the European and Indian heritages and cultures are fine tuned instruments in Rushdies hands as he creates his wonderful symphony, the American here seems to elude him. India (the girl, not the country) is not convincing and she lacks the magic that brings the other characters to life. One begins to wonder if perhaps Rushdie has finally lost it. The fact that the book opens on such a flat note may stop many readers from continuing onward, but please do. Once Rushdie's narrative moves to Kashmir, the novel finally finds its spark and keeps it kindled all the way through. The relationship between Boonyi Kaul and Shalimar the clown that is the driving force of this novel is simply unique and fascinating and it turns the devastation of the beautiful paradise that was Kashmir into a personal grief for any reader.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007)

I won't go on about how much Kurt Vonnegut has meant to me, my parents, my friends, popular culture, anti war movements and anyone who actively tries to remain sane on a daily basis. I hope this review of the last book I read of his will demonstrate everything that was wonderful and uncanny about the man and his work. In a way it is commemorative. So it goes...

Slapstick is an extremely aptly named novel since here we see Vonnegut having the time of his life. What could be more fun than to get a pair of twins, brother and sister, monstrosities at birth, who speak to no one but each other till they are separated at age 18, place them in an insane intellectual and incestuous relationship with each other and let it simmer for about 300 pages? The story is narrated by the brother, Wilbur, King of Manhattan and the last President of the United States, which lies in shambles ever since gravity started going wonky. Vonnegut skips back and forth between Wilbur and Eliza's wonderfully tortured and idiosyncratic childhood and the apocalyptic landscape of Wilbur's present day reality. Only Vonnegut can make apocalypse seem like a pretty good option in light of the state of things as they are. The story is everything that a Vonnegut novel always is: hysterically funny, incredibly smart and heartbreakingly true. He attacks everything from family values to our ongoing lack of respect towards our environment, the book is an onslaught. But as with every Vonnegut novel the soul of the book lies not in the plot or in the moral but in the tiny little quips with which Vonnegut peppers his novels, the little phrases he keeps repeating until they have the collected impact of an atom bomb. "So it goes" said Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5 over and over again until your guts were on the verge of bursting, "Hi ho" says Wilbur King of Manhattan until the slapstick of our known universe is a ball of outrage at the back of your throat. Hi ho indeed. Rest in peace.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

I Officially Suck

Yes, as you may have already heard, I officially suck. But to redeem my suckiness I will now recommend some of the shorter things I've read this month.
First there's James Baldwin's short stories, "Sonny's Blues" in particular that is very warmly recommended. The stories are mainly about the blacks in America in the 30-40s I think. It's hard to tell from my picture, but I'm not black, and it's not the 30-40s (I think), and I'm not American, yet somehow Baldwin manages to place you accurately in the shoes of people who are distanced from you by so many factors. It's like you don't have to be black to feel soul music or jazz, which is actually what "Sonny's Blues" is about.
Next is Grace Paley who actually reminds you of the tradition Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foyer come from. That immigrant literature that seems to be peculiar to Jews but could belong to anybody who still has a concept of old world/new world. Literature with accents, stories with histories, it never seems to get tiring. That baggage that keeps piling up on each new generation, that each generation of writers volunteers its shoulders for. It's all there already with Paley who wrote from the 60s till this day (she's a really old and sweet looking lady now).
And there's also John Updike, who is probably the most successful and acknowledged out of all three. He's also the voice of the fat, lazy, glutinous middle class who don't take anything seriously, who go shopping just to shop and make money just to have it. Updike is bitter, realistic and caustic, trying to kick American's off their pleasure seeking asses. The stories are knockouts though the reality is much the same as it was 50 years ago.
So that's pretty much America in short stories, brought to you by the Ideology and the Subject in American Culture course at the Tel Aviv university. Those are the three writers that most impressed me out of the ones I wasn't already familiar with.
So, until the day I have time to read for pleasure only,

Friday, January 19, 2007 me

Argh! I want to read and review and bring the pleasure of reading reviews, but I'm too busy!!! Just want to let you know that this blog will not become an empty forgotten husk, a shipwreck in the depths of cyberspace. I'm still here, in spirit at least, and once I have time to actually read anything other than Malory (let's face it nobody wants to read Malory, nobody wants to hear about Mallory, the less Malory in your life the better) I will make my triumphant return. Please enjoy the chips and dip on your way out.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Abby Berates Celebrated Classics No. 3

So this is how it is. I have midterms and midterm papers and online midterm quizes (lecturers are getting more and more creative with these things) right now, in addition to working two jobs. In other words, I don't have a lot of spare time to read for fun. Right now I am trying to plough my way through The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (boy that's a lot of c's for one name) which is at once exasperating and oddly enjoyable, you will know the how and why of it all when I finally finish it and write a review. My prognosis is that this will happen around the time the human race will be almost wiped out by the effects of global warming, so you can read it and go "Hmm" and continue basking in the purple sunlight. In the mean time, since I do have to read a lot for all those various midterm permutations I'm being bombarded with, there will be a lot more classic literature bashing in this blog, which I know will make a lot of people very happy. Ok, it'll make the three people that read this thing happy. Ok, alright already, it'll make me happy. Yippeeee!

After that intro, I regret to inform you that there will be no bashing today, since I'm going to discuss Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterburry Tales, a major staple of the English literature canon, as ALL the freshman year English Lit students in the WORLD know, which I actually happen to enjoy! I can start by saying that the way this man managed to criticize every source of authority around him, be it the church, the court, the aristocracy or even storytellers like himself and still slip it by all of them is absolutely masterful. The critiques are so subtle yet so undeniably there! They are present in the fact that the most religious figures on the pilgrimage to Canterbury tell the most bawdy and raunchy tales, that the noble knights are rapists and tell pagan stories and that the infamous, slutty wife of Bath is perhaps the most psychologically complex character here. There are A LOT of tales in The Canterbury Tales as the title may suggest, and I'm not going to pretend to have read all of them. To those of you unfamiliar with the homogenous world of English Lit faculties, everyone reads the knight's tale, the miller's tale, the wife of Bath's tale, and sometimes the man of law's tale or the nun's priest tale. Those are the standards, expecially the first three. They all deal with people from different professions, different sphere's of life, different classes, different genders even! And the best part about Chaucer is that no one can enjoy complete respectfullness and seriousness, everyone gets poked fun at, at least a little bit. Stories get interrupted at their climaxes, narrators get pushed in and out of the complex narratory framework and the strict and structured world of the medievals is turned into a chaos in which all are equal. It's a pain to read in Middle English, with its old timey words and cooky spelling, but after having this text basically shoved down my throat for 3 years, and after much initial resistance, I can finally say that it's most definitely worth racking your brains over.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Oh happy day! Oh happy joyous day! Oh wonderful, beautiful, marvelous day when Nick Hornby releases a novel that doesn't suck. Anyone who's read High Fidelity and subsequently any of Hornby's other novels will know exactly what I'm on about. High Fidelity was a revelation, a celebration, an infatuation and so many other things to anyone who first laid his/her eyes on it. Just like the subject of the book, this was love. And just like the book prophesied this love was in for a disappointment. About a Boy left an aftertaste of lacking but was sufficiently entertaining to preserve the flicker of hope for Nick Hornby's return to form. Unfortunately for all, his next novel How to Be Good ruthlessly stomped that flicker of hope out. And with that disaster of an ironically titled book, all eyes turned away from Hornby to seek new loves to heal the wound of High Fidelity. For me and many others, Hornby was finished, he was through, a fleeting fling that only led to heartbreak. But now A Long Way Down makes me reconsider my affections. It's not High Fidelity but it's up there. Hornby has a penchant for naming his novels in a most ironic manner with regards to his own career, and yes, as banal as it is to say, A Long Way Down marks a long way up on Hornby's literary trajectory.
Hornby's talent lies in his ability to create characters that feel as familiar and real as your friends and family. Here this talent is on full display with four narrator-characters taking turns in furthering the plot line along. These characters are not new. JJ, the American, is Rob from High Fidelity; Martin, the talk show host, is Will from About a Boy; Maureen is a strange combination of Katie from How to Be Good and Fiona from About a Boy; Jess...well Jess is new. Jess is pretty much new to literature, not just Hornby's repertoire. A psychotic 18 year old girl with absolutely no social skills or anything approaching manners. And she gets to narrate too! The context or these characters being brought together is their desire to commit suicide on New Year's eve. Sounds "emo" doesn't it? But Hornby's realistic, no fuss approach makes you look at suicide from a whole bunch of new angles, making you reconsider why anyone would commit suicide and why someone would change their mind. Just like in any other Hornby novel, you should not look for any bombastic resolutions or clear cut conclusions to take with you. What make him special is that his novels always describe a process. A process that doesn't start with the first words of the book and doesn't end with the last, but the glimpse that you are bestowed with is at once depressing and uplifting and all together profound.