Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver

In her essay collection Barbara Kingsolver brings to us an extended love song to the world we still have. Whether she is contemplating the Grand Canyon, her vegetable garden, motherhood, genetic engineering, or the future of a nation founded on the best of all human impulses, these essays are grounded in the author's belief that our largest problems have grown from the earth's remotest corners as well as our own backyards, and that answers may lie in both those places.
Sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately persuasive, Small Wonder is an examination of the people we seem to be, and what we might yet make of ourselves.

When I first opened this book I had mixed feelings about reading it. On one hand there was a lot of anticipation: I've heard so much about Barbara Kingsolver, I've heard her excellent interview on the BBC World Book Club, I've been meaning to read something by her for the longest time and now was my perfect opportunity. On the other hand I heard that environmental and humanitarian issues are a dominant theme in this collection of essays and I don't tend to make that kind of reading part of my entertainment lineup. When I got to the book club meeting and admitted that I haven't read the book the ladies were unanimous: "Just pick the ones that sound good," they said, "you're not going to miss some deep meaning if you do". And so I did.
I read "Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen" and "Letter to my Mother" first, and the latter almost made me cry. Then I read "Lily's Chickens" and "The One-Eyed Monster" and a handful of others. I skipped over the ones where issues were prominent and stuck to the ones that dealt mostly with people on a personal, intimate, level, and I loved them. Kingsolver made me feel as if I knew her through her writing, as if I could relate to this woman whose life is nothing like mine, but who somehow could understand me, and who I could in turn understand. I suppose it's a sign of a masterful writer if a few essays can make the reader feel close to a stranger, if they can show that no matter the place and the circumstances people really are the same everywhere.
Kingsolver's reputation is deserved and I'm glad that I have the Small Wonder essays a chance. She strikes the perfect balance between fearless frankness and not revealing too much, and her writing brings the reader so close it's almost like you're having a conversation with the author and she's telling you about her life and her beliefs. If you haven't read anything by Kingsolver yet I would recommend that you pick up this collection, it's an excellent example of what this author can do.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

First published in 1945, his Ficciones compressed several centuries' worth of philosophy and poetry into 17 tiny, unclassifiable pieces of prose. He offered up diabolical tigers, imaginary encyclopedias, ontological detective stories, and scholarly commentaries on nonexistent books, and in the process exploded all previous notions of genre. For good or for ill, the blind Argentinian paved the way for a generation's worth of postmodern monkey business - and fiction will never be simply "fiction" again. ~ Mary Park

As I was reading Ficciones I was often stumped because I had trouble reconciling the title of the collection with what I was reading. Oh, I did understand that the pieces were fiction, but they read like philosophical treatises so often that by the time I was halfway through a piece I'd forget how it started or what it was supposed to be about. You understand why it took me longer than usual to finish this book, even by story collection standards.
Fortunately there were a handful of stories that kept me going: The Circular Ruins, The Garden of Forking Paths, The Shape of the Sword, Death and the Compass, and The Secret Miracle had just enough philosophy to elevate them to literary status and just enough genre to make them engaging and easy to follow. These six stories had mystery and intrigue to make the very serious questions or morality, fate and wonder seem more down to earth, and I enjoyed them immensely. Yes, my tastes trend toward the bourgeois when it comes to books, and I'm not ashamed to admit it! Seems G.K. Chesterton thought similarly at least part of the time (see banner quote).
Borges' work is definitely inspiring in that it prompts the reader to think about the various "what if"s of the universe, such as what if we're just a figment of a greater being's imagination, what if there is more than one future, what if our potential is so much greater than we know, what if our understanding of history is fundamentally flawed. And he did have a wonderful way with words. The vividness of his writing reminded me of Ray Bradbury, except that Borges' feels more effortless and graceful. I'm guessing the rest of his books aren't particularly light reading either, but given a choice I'll take Borges' collected works any day.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Agatha Christie's Birthday Google Doodle

In 2010 Google had a Doodle dedicated to Agatha Christie's 120th Birthday, thought I'd share it with you to commemorate the brilliant lady's day this year. Maybe I should read a Poirot mystery to exercise those little gray cells...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

David Lurie is a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.

When I think of a book I ask myself "What is this book about?", and I did the same thing with Disgrace. The answer to my own question puzzled me: I'm not exactly sure. It's definitely about a man who undergoes a series of traumatic events and changes as a result, but not too much. It's also about the people of South African rural areas, about family, about attitudes toward the four-legged creatures with whom we share the planet, morality, deceit and about how all these things are thrown into sharp relief when the circumstances are just right. Yet it's not about any of them. Finally I decided that this book is about how all the different parts of life affect a person, mold him, shape him, break him and, well, change him. Make him better? Maybe. Make him different from who he was the day before? Definitely.
The best novels always have strong characters who make you care about them, even if they're not all that likeable. David Lurie is not likeable at all, in fact he is kind of despicable, and yet Coetzee made it easy to sympathize with him. Not approve, mind you, but definitely sympathize. He takes us into Professor Lurie's head and we live through his experiences with him, feeling his indignation and disdain, his self-doubt and finally his affection for his daughter who he cannot help and who continues to reject his advice and his assistance. It's difficult to remain indifferent when one is allowed into a character's life like that.
I hear there is a lot of controversy and strong opinions about this book. I haven't looked into this, but I think that they stem from the situation David Lurie's daughter finds herself in, the part of the story that deals with animals, and the interactions between the white and black South Africans. I don't really understand why there is controversy. Coetzee's position regarding all events of the novel is neutral, it's as if he is simply reporting the facts as he witnesses them. He's not expressing opinions or taking sides, he is just telling a story. It is a fact though that this story makes one think about everything it touches upon. Isn't that what a good novel is supposed to do?
I would highly recommend this novel to any reader who is willing to give the book that isn't at all happy a chance simply because it's a good story very well told.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes."

When I first read this book in high school my impression of it was "What terrible drivel! And this guy is a literary heavyweight!?", which is just more proof that what is considered literature was not written for children and therefore children are not the best audience for these works. They're just not equipped to understand the nuances of the story and to read between the lines. Of course there's always the option that my teacher wasn't all that good or that I was a particularly dense teenager, but I prefer the first theory.
If you read up on Metamorphosis you'll see the opinion that Gregor's transformation into an insect was just a physical manifestation of what he already was. Another commonly-accepted view is that the more important metamorphosis was that of the Samsa family as a result of Gregor's transformation. These interpretations made me think about the significance of Gregor changing into a creature that is revolting, a creature the family tries to accept but at the end cannot, and I wonder, for what is that a metaphor? What kind of person is Kafka writing about, what is it about him that is so unacceptable to his family? There is a passage toward the beginning of the book that indicates that there's something wrong with the lower abdomen of the insect Gregor, that it's diseased in some way. Then toward the end there is a passage about Gregor wanting to kiss his sister's neck. Do these passages reveal something about the nature of this character that overnight makes him a pariah in his own family? I think they do, and maybe I'm over-thinking it, but when viewed through that prism the story makes more sense than when it's not.
I'm pleased to say that this re-reading confirmed for me that Kafka's work deserves every bit of its exalted reputation. He really was a master of weaving stories that feel very close when you read them, despite the fantastical nature. Reading this book you can see the Samsas' apartment, them, and their issues. You even somewhat understand why the family feel about Gregor the way they do, regardless of his present state. After all, you know the man who dreams about kissing his sister's neck was odd even before his transformation into a gigantic insect. In fact, Metamorphosis is full of such implied revelations, but you have to be paying attention to see them. I would definitely recommend reading closely to get the most of out this book, and indeed any other of Kafka's work, because it seems that the boldest ideas are the closest to the truth with this author. Just bear in mind that often his imagery is far from innocent.
I'm curious to read more of Kafka's work now and I'm fully prepared to take my time with every piece, because his writing is just not something you should breeze through. Should you decide to pick up anything he's written I recommend you prepare yourself to take your time as well.