Sunday Salon: the Scattered Post
I have far too many books to talk about! And even for me, they struck me as particularly random. I suppose that’s what happens when I miss most of a week of blogging…although, I didn’t read that much this week either. But towards the end of November, I was a reading machine, so we’ll see how many I get to today. ;)
I think my expectations for Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai might have been a bit too high. I expected to just love it, but I didn’t. In all honesty, it didn’t feel like a real novel to me…more like a fictionalised memoir. It tells the story of a middle-class, gay Sri Lankan boy growing up during the increased violence of the 70s, and it’s rather episodic. Each chapter tells its own story, which is quite self-contained, and the writing style is quite straightforward and utilitarian. And the characters never quite came to life…it was almost as if the author knew them so well he forgot he might want to describe them a bit more to the reader. I don’t know…this wasn’t a bad book by any means, and from a LGBTQ perspective, it ‘felt’ true (to my straight self), but it just didn’t touch my reading soul. That being said, there were some images that will stay with me, especially this one:
When we got home, Amma phoned Mala Aunty and, as Q.C. Uncle had predicted, she heard the click. I phoned a classmate just to make doubly sure that we were being tapped. It was strange and frightening to hear that click. I was reminded of the time a family of large rats lived in our house and we were never sure where they were hiding, from which cupboard or drawer they would jump out at us, behind which door or toilet commode we would find them. In addition to fear of those rats, I remembered feeling helpless because, for a long time, nothing we did made them go away.
Since this was Selvadurai’s debut novel, I’m curious to see how his writing has evolved since then. So I’ll still be reading Swimming in the Monsoon Sea; I’ll just go in with more reasonable expectations. If you’re looking for international LGBTQ lit, do give this a go. Or if you prefer more straightforward books, without many frills, this would be a great choice!
The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz didn’t live up to my expectations either. While she is a scientist, I found some of her claims a bit suspect…especially when she mentioned evolutionary psychology. It was a brief mention, sure, but that’s litmus test for me when I’m reading popular science. She also did this really weird thing where she started chapters with brief ‘scenarios’ that I’m almost positive were fictional and then referred back to these characters later in the chapter as if they were real people. I was confused, to say the least, and the book felt like 80% fluff. As if Herz had decided to turn a Newsweek article into a book, but without adding any real information. I did learn a few new things (for instance, as you get older, your sense of smell weakens along with your vision and hearing), but I wouldn’t really recommend this.
I swear I’ll get to the gushing soon! But let’s talk about Empress by Shan Sa first. This was my second experience of her…I really enjoyed The Girl Who Played Go, which was set during the Japanese invasion. In Empress, Shan Sa has taken the real story of China’s only woman ruler (back in the seventh century) and fictionalised it. I knew nothing about Empress Wu going into this, so I can’t say how much is historically factual and how much is artistic license. But I can say that I think Empress would have benefitted from some tightening…it felt at least 50 pages too long. It also kept taking me by surprise; it opens with Empress Wu’s birth and feels like straight-forward historical fiction at first. But then, in the second half of the novel, time starts jumping a bit erratically; I would start a new chapter and find myself years in the future. This was disorienting; for me, I liked other aspects of the story enough to keep reading, but I think more plot-focused readers might find the muddled aspects a deal breaker. What were those other aspects that made me happy that I read this, despite its problems? First of all, the setting! Shan Sa really brings ancient China to life, first in the provinces, but primarily in the Forbidden City. Once again, I can’t speak for the authenticity of the details, but I felt like I was with Empress Wu, seeing her world through Shan Sa’s lush writing. Here’s a taste:
The seasons came and went. In springtime, the skies were filled with peach rose, pear white, grenadine orange, and magnolia mauve. In the autumn, the wounded leaves of the maples and the bloody tears of the persimmon tree showered over the city. I lived in the mos tbeautiful palace in the most beautiful city in the world. I was surrounded by indolent calligraphers and sensuous poetesses draped in muslin and silk. I owned the world’s best chargers, so swift they struck flying swallows as they galloped. I commanded warrior and spiritual princes, philosopher and strategist ministers. I was adored by an entire nation of passionate, hardworking peple. But these triumphs, this grandeur-the apotheosis of earthly achievement-no longer moved me.
Beauty is not happiness.
I also loved the political intrigue; it was a bit like a historical thriller. ;) Granted, Empress Wu’s punishments tended to be rather harsh, but I think it would take such a remarkable woman to become China’s leader that the harshness didn’t really surprise me. I also found the gender aspects of the book fascinating; Empress Wu first arrives at court upon a summons from the Emperor, and for years she lives in a world of only women. Within that world, the women form romantic attachments…and Wu herself gets involved in a bit of a ‘toxic relationship’ (to use a very twenty-first century term). I found this a neat parallel to some of the other novels I’ve read this year (The Consequences of Love and By the Sea) that look at the relationships men develop when women are hidden away. I’m not sure I’d call it ‘LGBTQ literature’ precisely…I don’t know. I don’t feel qualified to get into the nitty gritty there. But it wasn’t just sex…various aspects of gender are explored, especially as Empress Wu rises to power. I’m quite happy to have read this one, and now I want to read some nonfiction on ancient China!
I was really hoping to give Translation Nation by Hector Tobar its own post, but then I ended up not typing out all of the notable passages before returning it to the library (sometimes, I get lazy, hehe). Tobar is the son of Guatemalan immigrants who grew up in LA and is now a journalist living in Buenos Aires (I know, I want his life too). In this book, he travels around the US chatting with various Spanish-speaking communities (they’re primarily of Mexican and Central American ancestry and include brand-new communities as well as ones that have existed since the Mexican-American war). While I didn’t agree with everything Tobar says, I loved his writing. His analyses are smart, and his descriptions marvelous. I’m a sucker for any kind of an-so book, especially one focused on my fellow Americans. ;) Plus, one of the chapters focuses on my city, which made me squeal in excitement! And it mentions the library! It was also neat to read on the heels of American Vertigo (another book I had hoped to do a post on and which is now languishing), since both authors mention Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I really loved this one and it lived up to my expectations. So, if it sounds good to you, definitely get your hands on it! I wish Tobar had other nonfiction books for me to read (especially one on his life in Buenos Aires!), but I am now curious about his novel, The Tattooed Soldier. War novels make me nervous, but I’ll have to get over that so I can experience more of his writing. ;)
“The Ascent of Mount Fuji” is a play written in the 1970s Soviet Union by Chingiz Aitmatov, ethnically Kyrgyz. It’s set in the Kyrgyz Republic (then part of the USSR of course) and looks at a group of old school friends who have gotten back together to go camping, along with their wives and their favourite school teacher. I loved this play! It looks at the different choices people make when living in a society like the USSR, and how they live with those choices. It also has a surprise ending that’s quite gripping. It’s a short play (to my delight, the edition I got from the library was bilingual, so I read it in Russian, flipping to the English bits when I needed some help), about 100 pages, but it packs quite a punch. I don’t often read plays, preferring to see them performed, but I think I should re-examine that policy, since realistically since leaving college I don’t have many opportunities to attend live theater. I’d highly recommend this to everyone, as long as you can get your hands on it! Aitmatov has quite a backlist, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to track down a few more of his works.
Purge by Sofi Oksanen is another five-star read. It also looks at the choices people make under duress, and at cultures subjugated by the Soviets. In this case, it’s Estonia. The book switches back and forth between the years surrounded World War II and the 90s, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. It also alternates between two narrators, which Oksanen pulls off perfectly. Here’s the thing…it’s impossible for me to talk about the book without discussing the issues it raises. Going into it, I had absolutely no idea what it was going to be about (Tiina briefly mentioned it as a must-read, so I requested it), so I was taken very off-guard. If you prefer to go into books knowing nothing, stop reading now (but if you have a history of sexual abuse/violence, you should know that both the book and the rest of this paragraph contain triggers). Still with me? Well, as I’ve mentioned on my blog before, human trafficking is an issue I care quite deeply about. The modern slave trade, both economic and sexual, is the third largest illicit global industry (right after drugs and small arms), but it’s a bit invisible. Even if Westerners know about it, they tend to assume it happens in ‘other countries.’ Nothing could be more wrong: there are children and women living as sex slaves, raped repeatedly day in and day out, in every Western country you care to name. Additionally, the Western legal systems offer them barely any tools of prosecution, so even when authorities capture the traffickers, there isn’t much they can do. The U.S. government issues on annual report on human trafficking, which you can read online if you’d like to know the extent of the issue. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, young Eastern European women became very vulnerable to these traffickers. And one of the main characters in Purge is a girl who has escaped sexual slavery in Germany and arrived in Estonia, still terrified that the traffickers will re-capture her. Oksanen captured her voice so powerfully, so perfectly…the reactions to what had been done with her, along with the techniques that traffickers use to control their victims (threatening the women’s remaining family, taking photographs & videos that they promise to send to loved ones if the women tries to run, and of course the massive amounts of violence). It was so difficult for me to read, since I kept sobbing so hard I couldn’t see the page, but it was an important read. Meanwhile, the other storyline looks at Estonia’s experiences after the Soviets invaded, and it also looks at rape and its aftermath. Here’s one of the passages I found most powerful, which gives you an idea of how well-written this book is:
She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said that something similar had happened to them. From every trembling hand, she could tell-there’s another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldier approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye. Did they say it to those women, too-did they tell them that every time you go to bed with your husband, you’ll remember me?
When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice the similarities in their behavior. So they wouldn’t repeat each other’s gestures and double the power of their nervous presence. At village community events, Aliide avoided those women, because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s. They wouldn’t be able to help staring in the same direction, the direction the man was coming from. And they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn’t be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.
I can’t talk more about the book without ruining it, but I will say that Oksanen made some powerful decisions regarding her characters that I really respect her for. I highly, highly recommend that everyone read this: no, it won’t be easy. But human trafficking is going on every single day, and it will take all of us to begin fighting it. Awareness, being a witness, is the first step you can take. Plus, Oksanen is an incredible writer.
I wish I could say that I loved The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, but I found it incredibly chauvinistic. It’s funny…the book is about Davis’ experiences as an anthropologist studying cultures on the ‘fringe,’ and he constantly stresses that these cultures are not ‘primitive,’ and that they have much to offer to modern, Western society. And yet, with all of this talk about devaluing traditionally marginalised people, he seems completely oblivious to the fact that women exist. In describing many of the cultures, he only talks about the lives of the boys and men. Now, it might have been that since he is a man, he didn’t have access to the women, and thus couldn’t report more about them. But I don’t know if that’s the case, because Davis never takes a sentence to explain the lack of women in his talks (this book is based on a lecture series). At first I thought I was being too sensitive, but the more I read, the more invisible I felt. And then, towards the end, he wrote a passage about polygamy that was so offensive I couldn’t believe it. To make sure it wasn’t just me, I read it aloud to my mother (who doesn’t share many of my feminist attitudes and who often rolls her eyes at my discussions of gender)…and she was enraged as well. Here it is (I skipped over a bit in the middle to make it less-long):
To maintain large herds it is useful for a patriarch to have a large number of children, and thus these societies typically are polygamous. But with men taking multiple wives, there is the challenge dealing with virile young men of marriageable age who may not have partners to marry. The elders solve this problem essentially by getting rid of the young men, dispatching them for a period of ten years to remote encampments where they are charged with the duty of protecting the herds from enemy raiders. To make this separation from the social space of the community desirable, it is enveloped in prestige.
…Still, there remains the problem of the human libido. To resolve this dilemma the warriors are allowed to return periodically to the community, provided they go nowhere near the married women. They are, however, permitted to approach unmarried maidens. Premarital sexual liaisons are open and tolerated, up until the moment the young woman is bretrothed to an elder, at which time the relationship must cease. But the warrior is encouraged and indeed expected to attend the wedding of his former lover and publicly mock the virility of the old man who has taken his place at his lover’s side. A single adaptive challenge, surviving drought, reverberates though the entire culture, defining for these nomadic tribes what it means to be human.
OMG, are you kidding me?! Even thinking about this is making me so angry. The ONLY problem with old men marrying young women is young men!? Do women not have sexual urges? Do women not have emotions? How do they feel about these pre-marital ‘affairs’? How do they feel about marrying old men? Apparently, none of these questions even *occurred* to Davis. This is what I mean by chauvinism, and it’s something I noticed in a couple of the older male professors I had at college (Davis was born in 1953). It’s as if they still haven’t quite realised that women are people too. It’s a shame, because this book has some interesting things in it, but as a woman reader, I felt consistently devalued and excluded. The discussion of polygamy was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back; if it had come earlier, I would have abandoned the book. As it was, I finished up the conclusion, fuming all the while.
Whew. I’m calmer now, I promise. ;) I picked up The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith as part of my continuing exploration of 18th century literature. So far, I’ve found these authors to be more accessible, on a whole, than their 19th century counterparts. The Vicar of Wakefield was no exception! I wanted to read it since it’s referenced in quite a few of the later novels I’ve read. The title led me to expect some kind of country idyll, perhaps a forerunner Anthony Trollope. Looking back at those expectations now, I’m giggling uncontrollably. Because The Vicar of Wakefield is total trashy fun! It actually felt almost like an adaptation of the Book of Job (I hope that’s not too irreverent a comparison), with the long-suffering vicar experiencing loss after loss, particularly at the hands of a certain squire who turns out to be a villain. The vicar himself is the narrator, and Goldsmith’s slyly ironic tone had me laughing from the get-go. The plotline itself is full of mockery at other novels of the time, which makes the ‘trashiness’ of it feel like a smart, sly wink at the reader. Also, I completely understand why learned people of the time railed against novels now, and why parents worried about the corrupting effects they had on young girls. ;) If you’re curious about 18th century lit yourself, The Vicar of Wakefield would be a great place to start: it’s quite short (the Penguin edition is 224 pages), referenced by lots of other British classic authors, and a definite page-turner. As for me, I’ll be starting Belinda soon: apparently, I can’t get enough of those early novelists!
Unburnable by Marie-Elena John is a debut novel with a lot of potential. It has a definite gothic feel to it, which I loved. I also loved the Caribbean setting: most of the story takes place on Dominica, and even the bits set in the States feature a Dominican character. There are family secrets, black magic, and a lot of exploration of the West African roots of Caribbean culture. John is marvelous at bringing the settings to life…I felt like I was there with the characters, and I really want to travel to Dominica itself now. That being said, this book isn’t perfect; the writing is a bit uneven, and the modern characters don’t always behave in believable ways. I’m willing to cut character motivation a lot of slack when I find myself in a Gothic novel, just because of the conventions, but even then I was occasionally rolling my eyes. It seemed like the obtuseness of otherwise clever characters was only because of the plot, rather than organic to them; I wish John had done a bit better of a job sorting that out. I also wish she hadn’t been quite so into physical descriptions, and taken a few digs at the ‘flat backsides’ of white women. Thanks, there. ;) That being said, I’ll definitely be following John’s writing career with interest, because there were so many wonderful things about Unburnable; I hope there are many novels in her future. And I’d definitely recommend this one!
I think The Crusades Through Muslim Eyes by Amin Maalouf will be the last book I talk about for today! This is a nonfiction history by Lebanese writer Maalouf; I’ve always been fascinated by the Crusades, but I haven’t read any nonfiction about them. So I knew the general outline of the history going into this, but none of the details. Unfortunately, Maalouf just doesn’t write for my type of reading. When I open a history book, I want to know what everyday life was like for the people in that era; I want to see their world come to life before my eyes. (Yes, I know that sometimes involves a certain amount of speculation on the author’s part that would make a historian cringe, but I’m a lay enthusiast.) I’m especially interested in the lives of women in other times. The Crusades Through Muslim Eyes is pretty much the exact opposite! It’s primarily a military history account of the battles, and even Saladin himself never really came to life for me. If you’re interested in battles, this could be just your ticket, but it just didn’t work for me. I’ll be turning to Maalouf’s fiction instead, to see if he’s more interested in daily life as a novelist! ;)
As you can tell, I’m ba-ack! lol This past week, my fibro was a bit cranky, so I was sleeping a good 12 hours a day minimum. During my waking hours, I was spending time with my family, unpacking, and enjoying the free trial month Netflix offered me. No time to blog! But now that I’m feeling better, I’ll be going through my Google Reader, replying to the lovely comments y’all have left, and getting back into reading of course. Can you believe there’s only three weeks to go until 2011?!