Monday, December 11, 2006

"The Inheritance of Loss" Kiran Desai

On an episode of the TV series Extras, actress Kate Winslet explains to the two main characters of the show that a sure-fire way to get an Oscar is to star in a movie about the Holocaust. Another good bet is to play a mentally retarded character.

Judging by the attribution of this years Booker Prize and subsequent reviews, it would seem that in the post 9/11 literary world a good way to get your book noticed is to make it about “globalization, multiculturalism, inequality”, as one BBC reviewer listed the themes on Kiran Desai’s latest book.

I’ve finished “The Inheritance of Loss” more than a month ago, and for a while was not exactly sure what to make of it. More to the point I didn’t know if I had liked it.

On the surface I had. Just like reviewers a bit everywhere I found it moving, thought provoking and honest.

Kiran Desai’s book is really about two stories (you read one chapter about one, and then the next about the other until the end); one set in a village in India, near the border with Nepal, the other in New York. I’ve grown to dislike this narrative technique because usually what happens is that I grow to like one of the stories better, and therefore rush through the chapters about the other one. In “Inheritance of Loss” I felt the same. I wanted to read about Biju and his ordeal as an illegal immigrant in New York, and leave the other characters behind. His ordeal is made poignant, because you know this happens, and Desai paints so many details so expertly, that you can’t help but feel you are watching a documentary. In fact, if a documentary was shot following the life of an Indian immigrant in an American city, I almost doubt it would feel as real.

But Desai’s ability to render the actual so life-like, to infuse the everyday with the political, is probably what keeps “The Inheritance of Loss” from being a truly great story. A message, be it a political or a moral one, is a good thing to have in a novel, but you have to make the reader believe he traveled the path on his own, even though he has been of course, gently led along by the author. The heart of the great novel must rest with its characters and plot, not merely with its manifesto.

In Kiran Desai’s book you are slapped right and left with politics. The author lays bare in front of you immigration in the forties to the British metropolis, in the character of the retired judge (he brings to mind V. S. Naipaul on several occasions), and today’s correspondent, immigration to the United States. You have only one conclusion to reach, led by Desai: the process of leaving infuses the family with joy and hope in a better future for their offspring, while their souls are broken beyond repair through their travels west. Immigration, in some way, takes away faith in humanity, and replaces it with a coldness and indifference to others (the judge after all, seems to feel only real affection towards the dog).

This pull of immigration is not of course, limited to India (Biju, meets workers from many countries in the kitchens of NY’s restaurants) and not even to third world countries. In the Italian series, “La Meglio Gioventu” one of the first scenes, set, I believe in the beginning of the eighties, shows a college professor, advising his pupil, one of the main characters, that if he wishes success in his academic field, therefore in his life, he must immigrate as soon as possible, preferably to the United States, or to England. Outside the USA, Britain, and maybe France or Germany, every other middle-class, teens to thirties young person has been brought up to believe that a better life can be achieved simply by relocating deeper into the Empire. This is why Biju’s story strikes such a deep chord, and has the capacity to do so almost universally.

Desai’s other story, follows a retired judge, his teenage granddaughter, Sai, their cook (who is Biju’s father), and other assorted villagers, through the months of a political upbringing led by ethnic Nepalese. These characters feel a bit one dimensional, especially Sai. Actually a characteristic of Desai’s book is that all the characters seem quietly out of focus, blurred, as if you could never get to their minds and hearts. They are, all of them elusive, and not in a good way.

Although the judge’s reminiscences about his youthful immigration to Britain, are closer in nature to the quality of the chapters on Biju, the ploy of making Sai, fall in love with her tutor, who then joins the insurgents feels very contrived, as if the only point were to give the author a character in every possible side of the political spectrum.

I guess the worse criticism I can offer on “The Inheritance of loss” is that it doesn’t feel genuine. I felt I was being rather obviously manipulated, and at the same time felt that it wasn’t necessary, since I was going to get to the same conclusions without being dragged along. The characters feel cold, but mostly it’s as if the author herself didn’t like her own creations, or didn’t want to get too involved with them. Some reviews stress the beauty of the language, but to me, the more poetic, descriptive passages, felt labored, in such a way that calls attention to the writer and away from the story.

This is not a book that will live on in your mind, at least not in the way favorites usually do: through an expertly sketched character, vivid descriptions, or an absorbing plot.

However it is still a good read. It does make you want to think about where you stand on a series of issues.
In an interview cited in the NY times, Desai described her first novel “Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard” as “frivolous”. When I first read this I thought she was being self-deprecating in a funny sort of way. Now I’m not so sure. There’s definitely some lack of substance in “The Inheritance of Loss” as well, even though it deals with important trends in society.

Maybe that’s why it reads like a term paper written by a good student: all the facts are there but not the heart. But, she knew she’d get a good grade. This is, after all, the teacher’s favorite subject.

Friday, December 01, 2006

"Hons and Rebels" - Jessica Mitford

The Mitford Sisters
( Jessica is missing. The others are l-r Deborah, Nancy, Diana, Unity, Pamela)

The Mitford family has the dubious honor of having spawn one of the most eccentric groups of siblings ever. Between them, a famous novelist, two nazi sympathizers, a communist, a duchess and, less spectacularly, a homosexual and a horse-lover (not some sort of perversion, by the way).
I wasn’t aware that the Mitford sisters enjoyed such a cult until I read Atlantic magazine’s review of “Decca: The letters of Jessica Mitford”. But really, how can anyone not find them fascinating? Like the Beatles, everyone can have a favorite, only here you have seven to choose from.
I decided to start my forays in Mitford country trough “Hons and Rebels”, Jessica’s account of her childhood and teen years until her first marriage ended in untimely widowhood (she was 23).
First published in 1960 it is a very honest memoir. You might believe Jessica’s communism (and Diana and Unity’s Nazism, or even Nancy’s socialism) is first and foremost a rebellion against her parents and education, and she concedes as much in the end of “Hons and Rebels” when she attributes much of her (and her husband’s, Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill) teen to early twenties personality to it:
“Both Esmond and I would have scouted the idea that anything in our conduct was remotely attributable either to heredity or to upbringing, for, like most people, we regarded ourselves as “self-made”, free agents in every respect, the products of our own actions and decisions. Yet our style of behavior during much of our life together, the strong streak of delinquency which I found so attractive in Esmond and which struck such a responsive chord in me, his care-free intransigence, even his supreme self-confidence – a feeling of being able to walk unscathed through any flame – are not hard to trace to an English upper-class ancestry and upbringing”. Sure, some of the time you guess more than witness a certain obnoxiousness of character, but true-blue Jessica and Esmond were first and foremost completely clueless about the world. This provides funny episodes such as the author’s disbelief at meeting real working class brit girls, and finding them not only politically ignorant, but also disinterested, humorless and bitter, and the couples joyous sense of adventure in getting jobs such as sales-girl or stocking salesman, as if they were incredible explorations into some unknown world (which of course, it was). It could have swung either way, but in the end I joined their team. They wanted so much to experience life unencumbered by their familial values and prejudices, to make up their own minds about the world, their optimism is contagious, and yet Mitford never falls into a rosy discourse, which could have been so easy to achieve.
Just as riveting as the atmosphere of Swinbrook where the seven children grew up in near isolation, is Jessica Mitford’s account of the events leading up to Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. I was shocked to learn that it was, at one point, unclear whether Britain would join the war with or against the nazi regime, as well as the degree of cooperation Hitler enjoyed with prime-minister Neville Chamberlain’s government. And I was just as amazed to learn that as early as 1933 a book entitled “The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror” was published featuring photographs of the mistreatment of jewish prisoners.
You can’t help but empathize with Jessica Mitford’s puzzlement at her favorite, and once closest, sister, Unity (nicknamed Boud) endorsement of nazi doctrine. Part of adult life is, to my mind, often about little moments of alarm, when you realize you have a less than clear idea of who exactly your siblings, your parents and childhood friends are.
You’d have to be a cold fish indeed, to conclude “Hons and Rebels” and not wish to follow deeper and further into the history of these very unusual sisters and brother. Yes, it’s voyeuristic, but ultimately they only have themselves to blame – they’re just so damned interesting. In the parlance of those times – terrific.

Jessica Mitford

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Latest books read

Over the last week and a half I’ve gone through Anne Tyler’s “Digging to America”, “My life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Proud’homme and Abby Goodnough’s “Ms. Moffett’s First Year”. They were all heartwarming, each in their own way (respectively, a work of fiction, a memoir and a journalistic narration), and yet they are not so far apart. The three books have as their main characters women who, past the youthful years that are supposed to be our best, find a new passion, in motherhood, love, food and teaching.

Friday, November 17, 2006

"History Lesson for Girls" - Aurelie Sheehan

If there is a cozier feeling than seeing a book you think you’ll love and then reading it and loving it just like you knew all along you would, I don’t know what it is. A book like “History Lesson for Girls” restores my faith in the world and in people.
I read Aurelie Sheehan’s book in two afternoons, and now I wish I had stretched it out a while longer – even though it would be impossible to hold on for more than another couple of days – but I couldn’t wait to follow Alison Glass and her best friend Kate Hamilton in their “perambulations” on horse back, as well as the ones they made up for their lost heroine of olden days, Sarah Beckingworth.
Now, if you’re not into first person narratives of young teenagers, maybe you won’t be as awed as me by “History Lesson for Girls”. Then again if you’re not, you probably won’t appreciate many of the books I’ve written about here (which means, by the way, that you suck).
Set in 1975, in the waspy small-town of Weston, Connecticut, Sheehan’s book covers almost a whole school year of thirteen-year-old Alison’s life, whose painter mom and poet/university English teacher dad, have just moved to this picture perfect New England hideout for wealthy men and their bored wives. Getting adjusted to Weston seems, at first glance, like it will be harder for the girl’s parents: even though Alison suffers from scoliosis and has to wear a Frankenstein-like contraption called a Milwaukee Brace to force her S shaped spine into a more conventional orientation, she gets “saved” by Kate Hamilton even before she sets foot in her new junior high – or maybe its Peaches and Jazz, the ponies, who do the saving. Riding in nearby trails, crossing icy streams and racing their hearts out is what turns Alison and Kate into best friends (that, and sneaking to smoke Winstons together). They even create a girl named Sarah Beckinworth for a school project about Independence War era Weston: just like them she is brave, fierce, self-sufficient and a heck of a rider.
Alison’s mom, on the other hand, ends up being sucked into a grand scheme for the town’s jubilee organized by a very color coordinated group who call themselves the Women of History, despite being a bona fide bohemian, while dad mopes around believing that hypocritical expressions such as “helping the community” are only the first step down a very frightening road that will end up, surely, in Republican Party membership.

But let’s not forget this is the seventies we’re talking about, the decade that most sordidly popularized an unhealthy mix of politics, religion and sex. Even while the young girls escape the constraints of time – theirs is a timeless friendship – the parents prove too weak to resist society’s pull. A case in point is Kate’s father, Tut (not his real name), a self-appointed Egyptian shaman, turned millionaire thanks to his book “Pyramid Love” whose message is that buying is holy or as he puts it a “ spiritual basis to acquisition”– or Alison’s mother who drags her daughter through yoga, faith healing and other new-age pursuits hoping to set her spine straight.
I’ll leave the plot twists and bittersweet ending alone for those willing to give the book a try. I liked especially how the leitmotif of history is not obviously (or at all) tied with the girl’s story, how there are some loose ends and things left unexplained. Even if our narrator is now grown-up, she doesn’t feel a need to spell it all out – in this, and also in its tone and rhythm “History Lesson for Girls” closely resembles Life.

"Miss American Pie" - Margaret Sartor

Turning into a young woman is a process both filthy and holy. Margaret Sartor gives us a look into those that are, in a lot of ways, the least feminine years of our lives, the absolute worst and sometimes incredibly amazing, teenage years.
Almost since the beginning, “Miss American Pie” made images appear in my mind, images I had seen before. It didn’t take long to realize they were Sally Mann’s photographs of her kids in “Immediate Family”, and now, I can hardly think about the book without getting these “mannesque” stills wafting in.
From 1972, when she was thirteen years old, until 1977, when she turned eighteen, Margaret Sartor kept a diary, which she has now published. Two older sisters (mostly absent from day to day life since they were both about to leave for college when the diary starts), a younger brother, a next door neighbor, a beloved pony and horse, a cast of girlfriends and boyfriends, an old-fashioned dad and an “artistic” mom, make up the characters of this coming-of-age story set in small-town Louisiana.
There are themes in “Miss American Pie” which resound in every adolescent girl. Maybe we didn’t all have a pony but we sure as hell which we had, and we all hated our parents, our girlfriends and ourselves from thirteen on. Our hair was something to be loathed and which caused almost unbearable pain, as did other, assorted parts of our body. Boys were run after, and away, from on alternate weeks. Everything was awful and cool in equal measures.
But we didn’t all grow up in the almost rural South where nature is still there for kids to walk in at night or dawn in near absolute safety (from anyone but themselves); where you experience the good and bad of living surrounded by animals, (where deer hunting is still a ritual for young boys) where race and religion are still defining issues; where girls start drinking, smoking, driving and lying at such a young age, while almost simultaneously they decide to give your life to the glory of the Lord. This intoxicating mixture of sacred and profane, that is frequently, unintentionally funny, is well illustrated in the 1974 diary entry “I wonder if Jesus was sexy”. Remember what it was like to be both shallow and deep?

“September 21
God loves a cheerful giver. I’ve decided to be cheerful.

September 22
Cheerfulness is not in my nature. I’ve decided I’m going to improve my mind instead. I’m also considering giving away all my favorite clothes.”

Images like Mann’s “Jessie and the Deer, 1985”, where the little girl is dressed in a ballet tutu with ballerina shoes, next to the back of an open pick-up truck, from which a dead deer’s head with a gash in the neck hangs; or “Candy Cigarette, 1989” where a more grown up Jessie looks straight at the camera – at her mother – with the eyes of a thirty-eight year old divorcé in a nine year-old’s body seem to came directly from this narrative universe. Just like Mann’s images are always raw, so are Sartor’s entries not usually more than a couple of lines long. They seem to say that growing up does not sit well with posing or writing for hours.
Going through adolescence is such a strange process, that even when you see it through every scientific viewpoint, biology, psychology, there always seems to be something very important missing. If you want to look at it from a magical perspective, one who is closer to the real feel of it, a good place to start is “Miss American Pie” or “Immediate Family”. You will not be able to look away for a second – if you do, you end up missing the whole thing.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

My 10 Favorite Travel Books

Simon Winchester – Krakatoa - The Day the World Exploded

Tony Horwitz – Into the Blue – Boldly going where Captain Cook has gone Before

Tony Horwitz – Confederates in the Attic – Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Bill Bryson – The Lost Continent – Travels in Small-Town America

Bill Bryson – A Walk in the Woods

Thurston Clarke - Islomania

Elaine Sciolino – Persian Mirrors - The elusive face of Iran

Christiane Bird – Neither East Nor West – One Woman’s Journey through the Islamic Republic of Iran

Will Ferguson – Hokkaido Highway Blues – Hitchhiking Japan

– Take Me With You – A round-the-world journey to invite a stranger home

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Beyond the Blue Horizon", "Chasing the Monsoon" and "Tales from the Torrid Zone" by Alexander Frater

Travel writing: when it’s good, it’s great; when it’s bad, it’s usually written by a Brit. At least that was my conclusion after a quick survey of the two shelves I’ve allotted to the genre.

My introduction to travel writing came in the form of Bruce Chatwin’s books – first translated into Portuguese in the mid-nineties. His “In Patagonia” was partly responsible for my choice of Anthropology as a degree, and therefore becoming utterly useless for the national job market – something for which I should either sue his estate or thank him eternally. Whatever.
Since then, I’ve read a number of travel books and though I’m no connoisseur, at the very least, as they say, I know what I like. This is it:

  • I like an author who does his/hers historical research, but doesn’t feel compelled to dump it all on the readers, just to prove it. If it’s really boring or incomprehensible, either make it simple and entertaining or just leave it out, for god sake. It’s not my fault you have been stuck at the library for the past eight months.

  • People. If you’re not good at talking to people and getting then to open up, and at thinking about them as human beings just like yourself (like V. S. Naipaul, whose every conversation makes for uncomfortable reading in “The Middle Passage” or “A Turn in the South”), it is better to refrain from travel writing. The British writers suffer particularly from this last affliction, especially when around their old stomping grounds in the East – they just can’t shake the old Empire shadow, I guess.

  • Diversity. Don’t make it all about one subject – history, politics, nature, one person, I like a little of everything. Books with a theme are wonderful, but there is no need to become monomaniacal. In this respect, I think Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa”, although maybe not a travel book per se, is nearly perfect: it’s got history, geography, geology, botany, biology, anecdotes, personal recollections and a couple of more things (on the other hand his “Map that changed the world” is the exact opposite). Themed travel writing offers its own pitfalls, the most dangerous being when the subject overrides the travels – such as in “Colour – Travels through the paintbox”, by Victoria Finlay, a very accomplished book about the history of pigments, but where the fact that the writer is in India or Spain is largely secondary to the narration, which is focused solely on the processes and people who obtain the pigments, and even so is 438 pages long; one of those cases where you feel the author is telling you absolutely everything she learned during the research stage.

  • Last but definitely not least, humor. Dour and gloomy whiners should be banned from perhaps all writing, but especially travel writing. There’s nothing worse than traveling with someone who is constantly getting aggravated over train schedules, bad food or inconvenient people, and nothing better than being guided by someone who can have a laugh at being cheated, fooled or insulted (Bill Bryson is the man, of course).

  • And so, rather belatedly, we reach the matter at hand, Alexander Frater’s “Beyond the Blue Horizon”. This was my third Frater, after “Chasing the Monsoon” and “Tales from the Torrid Zone”. Frater is the opposite of monomaniacal. If anything, his books go through so many places and times all at once that the pace is dizzying. It’s not that he explores that many subjects: his favorites throughout remain meteorology, aviation, tropical medicine, with pretty girls and alcohol the two recurring leitmotifs while in transit. Born in the pacific island nation of Tuvalu, his grandfather and father were local celebrities - as much as severe Scot missionaries can be, anyway – who provided the first organized care in the way of medicine, and religion, of course, to the natives. Obliged to leave because of World War Two, the Frater family spent some time in the Fiji, and after studying in Australia the author made his way to the metropolis where he became a journalist, and eventually the Observer’s chief travel correspondent.

    That Frater is well traveled there can hardly remain any doubt – he managed to write “Tales from the Torrid Zone”, 378 pages long, and tell stories on forty-one countries he has personally visited, and still mention thirty others. What did I learn about Guyana, Laos or Gambia I can´t recall exactly, but I now know there is a foundry in London where you can order bells, the smallest of which cost around two thousand pounds. The reason I know this is because the most important story in the book is about the author’s generosity in offering his old church in Tuvalu a new bell – not very modest, but for all intents the best episode in the book.

    From 1990, “Chasing the Monsoon” is, to my mind, the best Frater. Having a set goal – following the monsoon in India to the final destination of Cherranpunji, “the world’s wettest place”, a pilgrimage his father planned but never made – does wonders for his writing: it reigns him into a specific place and phenomena and still allows him to recount once again his childhood, which was extraordinary.

    Goaded by “Chasing the Monsoon” and since there was only one other book by Frater I hadn’t read, I embarked on “Beyond the Blue Horizon”. The Time Out blurb on the cover reads, “You’ll have great difficulty putting this down”. Well I put it down about three months ago, and had to force myself to finish the remaining two-thirds in two days, or I knew I would never get through it. I should say this was Frater’s first book, first published in 1986, and having the others it is undeniable he got a lot better at it.

    In “Beyond the Blue Horizon” the writer undertakes to follow, by commercial flights whenever possible, the Imperial Airways Eastbound service of the thirties, London to Darwin. Now, I like airplanes just as much as the next person – which means, I guess, that I might like to read about the experience of flying or about people who are passionate about it, but not necessarily about the technical parts of the process – but this book, 430 pages long, was just too much for me. Part of it, is caused by Frater’s own virtuousness, since he sticks as closely as possibly to the old schedule, and therefore never spends more than, on average, one night in each stop, and doesn’t even leave the airport in about half of the fifty-two stops. It’s all very well if you want to know the name of a lot of airports, their history, and the models of the airplanes on the tarmac on the hours Frater goes trough, and read with him extracts of journals of old Imperial passengers, but for the rest of us, quite tedious. All the interviews are with airport or airline managers or people otherwise connected with modern flying (or a “pretty” or “striking” air stewardess when he gets the chance).

    You do get a feeling of how exciting it must have been in the first days of commercial aviation when Frater interviews Mr. Tata, the founder of India Airlines, or the great aunt of the Jodhpur maharajah, or in Australia, where everyone seems to know something about their legendary pilots, but otherwise his questions mostly draw blank stares. Some of what passes for ignorance might be related to the subject itself: Imperial Airways was not, despite what might be inferred, a pioneer of commercial flights. When it was created in 1924, both KLM and France’s Aéropostale had been active for five years, and the regular airmail service was only established in 1937. Many of those who speak to Frater refer Dutch pilots by name, for in those days, they were the heroes of aviation.

    The thing that really surprised me about this tour, taking place in the early eighties, is how much of the old colonial flavor could still be tasted, especially from India on. Maybe it’s because Frater was able to sojourn in some pretty amazing places such as the Jodhpur Palace, or the Eastern and Oriental in Malaysia and Raffles in Singapore where Conrad, Maugham, Kipling and others also stayed, but it was painful to read about adult Indians, Bangladeshi, Malayans, and Singaporeans working at the hotels as private valets still referred to by the author as “boys” (albeit between inverted comas). Colonial? I hear you ask – surely not? Well take a look at this passage from when the author arrives at Australia: “ I had grown unaccustomed to the sight of Europeans doing menial work” – sure, it’s worse because I took it out of context, but still, it’s pretty bad.

    The historical recollections throughout always feel contrived, as the author forces them into every stop. Maybe he should have stuck with one historical character, a pilot preferably, instead of jumping between passengers and crew. It also doesn’t help that in the journal he most quotes from the journey is being done backwards. The ending feels forced just like in Torrid Zone (there he delivers the bell to the old church accompanied by a lovely young radio reporter who shock! wins a prize with the piece); here, on his last flight, he manages to find a woman who had her maiden voyage on the exact same plane Frater flew as a child, and who his also obsessed with flying boats. Maybe I’m a cynic but it just sounds like too much of a convenient ending.
    From "The Happy Isles of Oceania" - Paul Theroux (quoted in Brad Newsham's "Take Me With You"):

    The woman known on board as The Countess...said she was a travel writer. "I am writing a story for the best and most brilliant newspaper in the world" - and she named a German daily paper. "They respect me so much that in seventeen years they have changed only one sentence of mine."

    "What was the sentence?"
    "It was very reactionary you will think," The Countess said.
    "I'll be the judge of that."
    "All right then. "Three hundred years of colonialism have done less harm to the world than thirty years of tourism."
    I smiled at her and said, "That's brilliant."

    Sunday, November 05, 2006

    A New England Autumn Wish List

    The Uses of Enchantment - Heidi Julavits

    A "black-humored tale of psychoanalysis, Yankee repression and prep school angst" according to the NY Times review. And the great cover doesn't hurt either.
    Although the Village Voice is ambiguous about the storytelling quality, i'd still like to make up my own mind.

    Lisey's Story - Stephen King

    My favourite King book, Black House, is co-authored with Peter Straub, whose work i probably prefer to King's (at least the books I've read, since they are both so prolific it's impossible to have an acurate opinion on the whole), but this one has potential...

    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Books in hiatus

    Some of the books that I haven’t been able to finish, for one reason or other…

    Snow – Orhan Pamuk – I’m two thirds through this one, and although it’s been sitting on the shelve for more than five months I still hope to finish it

    Garbage Land – The secret trail of trash - Elizabeth Royte – about half way through, but interrupted for more than a year now so its prospects are not good, I’m afraid

    The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem – It sounded like a good idea: NY in the 70’s cartoons, music, but something just didn’t click between me and this story

    A Sense of the World – How a blind man became history’s greatest traveler – Jason Roberts – I’ve only read forty pages and I intend to finish it. The thing is I’d been reading non-fiction almost exclusively for months and felt like a change

    Wednesday, November 01, 2006

    Saturday - Ian McEwan

    The rich are people too

    Some books seem to obligate critics to concentrate on a lot of issues other than the story at hand, and Saturday is one of them. Most reviews of Ian McEwan’s latest book seem to include an overview of his body of work, and to compare how high or low Saturday fares in comparison. Many have found it lacking. Also, because of the particular narration – the whole book is but one day seen through the eyes of one character – there have been comparisons with works of the same ilk. This is where my lack of canonical reading might serve us all. I’ve only ever read another book by McEwan: Black Dogs. That was more than ten years ago, and while I can’t remember what exactly it was about, I do remember being utterly repulsed by it. In fact, I’ve only undertaken to borrow Saturday from my sister, because she assured me I would hate it. But I didn’t. Ah!

    On the other hand I’ve finished it a week ago and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. Because of the setting – the Saturday is the 15th of February of 2003 - throughout the day, the largest anti-war demonstration in London is never far from sight (or when it is, it is followed by TV or radio) or the narrator’s mind – the reader is lead to believe that there is some underlying message about 9/11, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Britain’s role as U.S.A’s ally.

    But if there’s one theme in Saturday, it is the misplacement of modern fear – how we collectively can’t shake the terror of going up in flames in some kind of terrorist attack – and yet, we are most vulnerable to everyday dangers, the kind that might blindside you on a casual weekend, as it happens here. Henry Perowne, the narrator, is a character whom I found it difficult to empathize with and I suspect this is a feeling that might be shared with many readers: he is wealthy, lives in a privileged part of London, is a very successful neurosurgeon, happily married to a likewise successful and beautiful woman with whom he engages in apparently copious amounts of sex, and both his children are well in the way to conquering what passes for achievement today: celebrity (the girl is having a poetry book published by a renowned house, the boy about to tour NY bars with his blues band). He drives a Mercedes S500, is bored by non-medical books, and believes more good than bad will come out of invading Iraq. Henry lacks even the charm of being average, for what we have here ladies and gentlemen, is an utterly upper-class man, one whose positivism and unfailing faith in science and progress, are the obvious overripe fruits of being born in a country that was, not so long ago, the metropolis of a worldwide empire. We can be sure that Perowne is firmly anchored in that part of the western world that in Orhan Pamuk’s words is “scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population”.

    Henry Perowne and his family are a bunch of privileged parasites who go to Oxford University or travel the world instead, and who spend their holidays in a chateau in France with their poet grandfather. I, for one, have wished the likes of them dead, many times. But here is the thing: after spending a whole day in Henry’s head I couldn’t wish him ill anymore, because I found out he was a caring and kind person. And it wasn’t just that the big house came through his wife’s side of the family, that he hates his father-in-law, or that he’s a bit of a coward when it comes to physical confrontation.

    I now knew he had been brought up by a single mother in a typical middle class home, that seeing his mother consumed by Alzheimer’s made him feel that strangely human mixture of feelings where you want to avoid the person who doesn’t remember you, and yet feel guilty for not making a visit they don’t even know you promised to make; that he doesn’t believe his faithfulness to his wife is remarkable, since he had never been attracted to other women; that he genuinely admires his children’s talents even though they manifest in areas far from his own profession; that he respects his co-workers and thinks of his patients as individuals. He is probably one of the few neurosurgeons who admit, even to themselves, that what they do is glorified plumbing. Even the dinner he cooks for the family reunion is humble and hearty – a fish stew.

    While we all have our weaknesses, sharing them might go a long way when it comes to not disliking someone. With Henry Perowne I can pinpoint the exact moment when I started feeling a rapprochement. It was accompanying him to the fish market, where, looking at the fish, he can’t help but recall a new research which confirms that they also feel pain, and wonder what this knowledge means to our “circle of moral sympathy”: “though he’d never drop a live lobster into boiling water, he’s prepared to order one in a restaurant. The trick as always, the key to human success and domination is to be selective in your mercies”. Though he’s a forty something male, a rich neurosurgeon, and I’m an unemployed twenty-something female, when you get right down to it we’re both hypocrites. In the end isn’t that what makes us human? Now that’s a message, McEwan.

    Monday, October 30, 2006

    Judge a book by its cover

    Speaking of culinary memoirs, my introduction to the genre were these two books by Colette Rossant. Ah! Cairo in the 1930's and Paris in the 1940's - it just doesn't get more exciting. But besides the story, which is fascinating I fell completely in love with these book covers. I think they are my all time favorites. The photographer is Jeff Cottenden and in his site you can see other book covers he has done as well as examples of his work. Beautiful - serene, melancholy and simultaneously tense, but in a comforting way.

    Sunday, October 29, 2006

    In the NY Times Books section you can read the first chapter of Madhur Jaffrey's memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees. I read it in the beginning of 2006 and found it wonderful, but I might be biased since I love women's memoirs with a culinary inclination. The hardcover edition has a beautiful cover and photographs inside.

    Saturday, October 28, 2006

    Prep - Curtis Sittenfeld and The Moth Diaries - Rachel Klein

    Ever since reading my first boarding school books when I was about ten, a collection named Susana by a German author whose name I forget, I’ve dreamt of attending one of these dreaded institutions.

    Works that take place in boarding schools are usually presented, at least partly, as ominous: this is the place where you get sent if your parents are divorcing (Susana), when your father has committed suicide (The Moth Diaries), or where you commit yourself by realizing that a greater sacrifice is required if you hope to escape the dreadful mediocrity and low middle class humdrum of your foreseeable future (Prep, where the rich girls have their own coded acronym for low middle class- LMC). To me, however, boarding school seemed wonderful. These schools are usually located in beautiful bucolic regions, among rolling hills, or snow-capped mountains, where you might have a lake or a river for water sports, or at the very least a whole bunch of trees and plants. I always longed to live close to nature, having grown up in a very old urban neighborhood of Lisbon, and these kids seemed like lucky bastards to me: they sailed, they played tennis, whenever they went nature was around them (if I recall correctly, Susana’s school even had an optional class on horticulture!). My second favorite thing was the academic mood palpable in these old edifices - because whether or not the reality supports it, the image the institution tries to put across is that excellence in education is their absolute priority - because school was where I felt most comfortable at that age. The only down side to attending a boarding school was that they made you share a bedroom – but the wily Susana also taught me that if you raise enough hell, they’ll probably give you a single.

    In any case, normal happy boys and girls probably attend such schools, but one thing is for sure: their days are so gloriously filled with classes, sports, clubs and friends, that they never seem inclined to take to the confessional required for a good diary read, which is the normal form for boarding school books. Just like Jack Nicholson’s character in “As Good as it Gets”, explains to Helen Hunt’s, not everyone has a miserable life – “some have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that's their story. Good times, noodle salad”. The same can be said for adolescence: only it’s never the cheery, sporty, carefree and pretty girl whose daily entries we get to read, but the odd one out, the clumsy, too smart or not smart enough, too brooding for her own damn good. But maybe that is missing the point with such coming of age stories, because the reason they are compelling is first and foremost their setting – a confined space for all the characters to bump into each other. Be it an island, a prison, a monastery or a school, the real or perceived state of imprisonment automatically takes the plot tension a notch up. But the age is equally important. In a boarding school not only do you have dozens of characters forced to live with each other every day of the week, you also have them in, possibly, the most turbulent, confusing and intense stage of their lives.
    Boys can be the main characters in such school dramas to be sure, but I have to confess that the quintessential of these works for me, has to be about girls. Whatever might be argued, boys simply cannot “do” intense as good as their female counterparts. Their ability to become obsessed, paranoid, or simply sad can never offer the range and mileage of a teenage girl. And as illustrations to the case in point I give you Todd and Neil, the iconographic schoolboys of 1989’s Dead Poets Society, which in their attempt to play sensitive and deep (Hawke’s Todd is so shy he can barely bring himself to speak, and Leonard’s Neil is so distraught by his father’s interdiction of the dramatic arts that he shoots himself in the head) become utterly feminine. When boys behave like boys, they resemble characters such as Tobias Wolff’s in Old School – their preoccupations and anxieties lie with literature not with intimate relationships. When the narrator is a girl, it doesn’t really matter if the school accepts boys (Ault in Prep does; Brangwyn in The Moth Diaries does not) because the focus is always on the feminine universe and although boys might the object of fantasies, it is, even in this case, the way in which the female student body regards the boy (is he popular? How many other girls have crushes on him? What does your best friend think about him? And the popular girls?) which defines him.

    The girls in boarding school drama present an environment of undistilled femininity at its most fresh and stultifying, an environment in which the whole day is passed in breathing distance of dozens of other similarly recent women. The unnamed character in Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries, explains why she so often turns to a book by Collete, whose setting is also a boarding school: "She knows what it’s like to be shut up in a place like this, where all your emotions are focused on the girls around you, where you dream of a boyfriend but only feel comfortable with your arm around another girls waist".

    Similarly, Lee Fiora, the main character in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, remembers her best friend from Ault: "Years later, I heard a minister at a wedding describe marriage as cutting sorrow in half and doubling joy, and what I thought of was not the guy I was seeing then, nor even of some perfect, imaginary husband I might meet later; I thought immediately of Martha".

    The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld have a great deal in common, as might be expected from two fictionalized diaries of similar aged girls, both experiencing boarding school life. And even though Klein’s book takes place in 1971, and Prep in the nineties, they both share an out of time atmosphere. In The Moth Diaries the narrator explains, “Nothing existed outside ourselves and school. For us the world of politics, social revolution, the war in Vietnam never happened.” In fact, the only clues as to the period setting of the story, are given quite late in the action, with the purchase of Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman, and a François Truffaut movie. The feel in Prep is surprisingly similar, maybe because these kids “still listened to music from the sixties and seventies”. The isolation is such an important factor, and yet it’s almost impossible to determine whether it’s self-inflicted or simply endured, maybe even encouraged “I guess e-mail existed when I was at Ault, but I had never heard of it”. It makes sense. If one message comes across clearly from these books is that it is virtually impossible to explain to an outsider what it’s like at boarding school. Kind of like explaining to your dad what it’s like being a teenage girl. Good luck with that e-mail.

    In the end, The Brangwyn Echoes and The Ault Quarterly, the newsletters of the respective schools, figure prominently in both work’s final lines. Sittenfeld’s and Klein’s characters might have had a hard time (a bit of an understatement as far as The Moth Diaries main character is concerned) but they can’t stop themselves from looking at the pictures of their old classmates, and although it is not a carefree experience, they seem to feel obligated to keep in check the lives of their colleagues – somehow the photos of balding jocks and strings of pearls in aged faces reassure them that they were somewhere during their teen years and not just absent from their family homes. Both agree that nothing compares to their experiences at these schools and both have a difficult time characterizing their own feelings “my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was in its energy, not that different from happiness” Lee reflects.

    Lee is from the Midwest and her application for a scholarship at Ault, in Massachusetts, comes after the realization that South Bend, Indiana, and her mattress seller dad, homemaker mom and two brothers offer little in the glamour she feels even at 13 her life should have. She applies to Ault much in the way girls her age send their photos to model contests; it’s a nice dream but she doesn’t really believe she’ll be selected. When she is, she feels, recognizing her colleagues from the pictures in the catalog like what “it might be to see a celebrity”. What we get to witness are the four years in which Lee tries, more than get on the Ivy League ticket, to fit in among the more privileged students – well, it’s also a kind of education.

    We catch up with the unnamed narrator of The Moth Diaries later – she quickly fills us in on the circumstances of her arrival at Brangwyn, her father’s suicide and her mother’s inability to overcome grief -, she is 16 and tells us she has friends, her integration seems completed. Bu in fact, what we are invited to witness in Rachel Klein’s book is the undoing of a normal teenager’s universe, a veritable gothic spiral of paranoia.

    There is a subtle darkness suggested on the first pages that builds to a syrupy thickness that will envelop the reader to the point of suffocation in the end, even though this school is portrayed as very progressive: maybe it was the sixties that made it okay for students to have a cigarette break after dinner.

    Klein is upfront with the horror overtones her story is about to take – the girl’s literature elective is, after all, called Beyond Belief: Writers of the Supernatural and The Age of Abstraction, and we even have access to the reading list (even though it was Robert W. Chambers not E. K. Chambers who wrote The King in Yellow). The Moth Diaries plays with the uncertainty we must always feel with a diary, or indeed, any first person narrator: if our only glimpse of this world is through a character’s eyes, how sure can we be of the impressions? Who is to say that our guide is neither a liar or mad? In The Moth Diaries all bets are off. Not even the middle-aged narrator who looks back on the written pages offers any answers: "I have always been intrigued by the journals that girls keep. They are like dollhouses. Once you look inside them, the rest of the world seems very far away, even unbelievable".
    In Brangwyn the boarders are literary fiends: Dora can quote Nietzsche (even though that doesn’t exactly win her any popularity points) and our narrator takes up reading Proust as a completely normal hobby for a sixteen-year-old, and then is annoyed when she finds out one of the others has finished A La Recherche du temps perdu, some years before. The story revolves around a new girl, Ernessa Bloch, and the way in which she seemingly attracts girls into her orbit in order to change them. The girl who interest Ernessa the most, is Lucy, the narrator’s best friend, hence her own obsession in tracking the new girl’s movements. Lucy is boring but beautiful, just as best friends are supposed to be and fickle with her affections in a way common among teenagers – is she being manipulated by a smarter girl, or is she growing up, outgrowing our narrator? And is Ernessa simply a girl apt at conquering everyone’s attention or something altogether more dangerous? The Moth Diaries invites us in, but also it also compels the reader to make some judgments of which the most important: Is the girl writer sane or psychotic? Can be answered either way. In the end you end up questioning your own beliefs, about locked up teenagers, more than in the supernatural, which seems an accomplishment for a gothic story.

    Klein controls the rhythm, the ebb and flow, of the daily entries, expertly. She paints a believable picture because she doesn’t forget nuances: not all the characters need to appear with the same strength, not everything is equally important, but it still needs to be there; Klein controls the intensity of her paintbrushes, in words, plot and characters so that nothing feels overdone, or underestimated. The Moth Diaries is hypnotic and re-readable something of a rare combination.

    Prep is, on the whole, a less cohesive book. It starts out by suggesting a series of paths that are never fully explored, and the chapters, specially the first ones, have the tone of short stories, each with its moral lesson at the end. The way Sittenfeld keeps intruding as a older Lee to give us little jumps ahead in the narrative and also to seemingly reflect or illuminate certain episodes, is a less than elegant device, it draws attention from the believable Lee to a less likeable nosey parker, who keeps tugging the reader away from the nice rhythm of the story wanting to explain things, and instead being vaguely irritating, as when in chapter seven, certain facts which only happen in graduation (chapter eight) are disclosed, leaving the reader in the end with the feeling of having been short-changed in the need for a real conclusion. There are also some loose ends which add to this feeling: Gates Medkowski, a senior which appears only in the first two chapters, apparently to provide a device for Lee to doubt her own sexual orientation, is then quickly discarded (as are Lee’s doubts), as if Sittenfeld were cautious of using a more important character to play out these feelings, such as room-mate Martha. The same goes for Little Washington and Conchita, who make similarly intense appearances just to quickly fade from the story, as if the author was obeying some strange novelistic rule about ethnic characters. It is almost as if Little, Conchita, Dede (the Jewish character “the kind of Jew you couldn’t hide”), Rufina, Maria and Darden, “the cool black guy”, are offered in part as an excuse for Lee’s choices – her best friend (preferred over Conchita in an episode which for teenage girls can be described as nothing short of treason) is a white, rich, New England girl, Martha, and her crush the blond basketball team star, Cross Sugarman. Not much by way of diversity. The bigger problem is that most characters don’t seem to have an inner life – like puppets they move only when Lee looks at them – with the exception of Sin-Jun, who comes slowly into her own throughout the book, and Cross, alas, only in the last pages. The names of characters are a dime a dozen and most of them are wonderful: Aspeth, Gates, Little, Horton, Hunter and my absolute favorite: “Maisie Vilayphonh, a half-Finnish, half-Laotian junior whose parents were rumored to be spies”, who makes an appearance, sadly, only in name, on the list of students expelled from Ault, who by the way, seem each and everyone of them more interesting than the insipid Martha Porter, or even Lee herself.

    Despite this fact Prep is an accomplished novel in some ways – it creates a believable and fascinating scenario, and the reader does actually feel as if taking a peep at a privileged universe most of us don’t get to experience, but still feel curious about. Lee Fiora is a believable character, and though she may not be likeable, this stems at least partly from the fact that she reminds us of times we were also less than kind to the fat or unpopular girl who wanted to be our friend, to the younger boy who had a crush on us, to our confused parents. She makes us uncomfortable because of that one time we were jealous of a best friend’s success or made our mother cry and that is an achievement. Rachel Klein puts it best in her narrator’s final words “That girl was self-absorbed, but she was also excruciatingly alive”.

    Tuesday, October 24, 2006

    The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion

    When it comes to The Year of Magical Thinking, I believe its appreciation will turn out to be deeply subjective. It comes down to this: either you have experienced the death of someone very close to you or you haven’t – and it will probably be hard to imagine how the other half is feeling about this personal memoir.

    I came to this conclusion when I tried to imagine what I might have thought about Didion’s book had my father not died when I was eighteen and drew a blank. Maybe it would still be moving, but I know it wouldn’t ring true – I wouldn’t be able to recognize so many of the strange thoughts that went through her head after the death of her husband, and to feel a bond over things I never shared with anyone.

    Some reviewers seemed offended at the lack of journalistic tone: “ I’d like to read about Ms Didion’s marriage, but I’d like her to write about it as a reporter, not as a mourner” said Adam Begley in The New York Observer. Wow! That to me is like saying “I want you to tell me about the experience of becoming a mother, or falling in love, but leave everything emotional out of it”. That said I think it’s obvious that the whole grieving period presents special obstacles for individuals who have always been very rational, dependent on facts, and who maybe thought they had a pretty good handle on their feelings.

    Joan Didion by professional (de) formation and character must have been such a person and you feel her throughout the book – with the quotes of medical, psychological and sociological books – trying to grapple her husband’s absence as if it were an intellectual problem, just to find that academia provides small comfort. She keeps repeating in her mind the events leading to the sudden death of John Gregory Dunne, and this provides the backbone of her book – in between there are variations, other memories of homes, conversations, travel, of their daughter (gravely ill before Dunne’s death, in a chain of events which would sound totally unrealistic in a work of fiction), but she always brings you back to that moment.

    The names mentioned in the book also seemed to upset Begley and other readers who spoke of name-dropping (check out metacritic’s site) – which I must confess didn’t bother me much since I didn’t recognize any of them. I find it natural that her friends are other writers or newspaper editors – she’s been around since the sixties for godsake. Just like other readers I did, however, feel some jealousy of the L.A. homes or the constant Hawaii trips – still, I think you’d have to be a really bitter person to let that detract you from the main theme of the book. She doesn’t mention those places to look superior – if anything they are presented as superior because she enjoyed them with her husband, and the feeling I get is that they sound glamorous because she tinges all the memories of their common life with happiness. Even the tough moments every couple goes through are special, because he was there.

    Some moments in life are lonely, but if The Year of Magical Thinking proves anything, is that they needn’t be – it turns out that even when we feel bereft, there are many others who are traveling the same winding path.

    Monday, October 23, 2006

    I was just thinking today about how easy it is to become obsessed with lists: booker short list, NY times bestsellers, most important, best books of...notable books...

    And regarding awards I've often wondered what exactly goes into the decision.
    As readers we often choose to read a book that has received some sort of award over one who has not. A lot goes into this decision: we like to read books that others recognize, and it's probably easier to discuss them with friends or acquaintances if they are well known, and last and definitely not least, books that win awards are usually cheaper because so many are sold.

    Because all of this has been on my mind I really enjoyed reading Jason Cowley's "And the winner is?" article in The Guardian. Lionel Shriver's (who I have not read, and who until now I thought was a man, since Lionel is a male name in Portuguese) story was both sad and hopeful. I can't imagine writing eight books before finally being acknowledged as a "real" writer.

    That said I hope to start reading Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss – The Booker winner for this year – soon. What convinced me over was not her winning though, but Pankaj Mishra’s review, in The New York Times.

    Books I've read since April

    April -
    Mediterranean winter Robert D. Kaplan
    Hotel Tiberias Sebastian Hope

    May -
    Memoirs d'Hadrien Marguerite Yourcenar
    Penelopiad Margaret Atwood
    Travels with my aunt Graham Greene
    Lost kosmonaut Daniel Kalder
    Homestead Rosina Lippi

    June -
    The last samurai Helen DeWitt
    Disgrace J. M. Coetzee
    jpod Douglas Coupland
    Stevenson under the palms Alberto Manguel
    In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz Michela Wrong

    July -
    The life & times of Michael K J. M. Coetzee
    The man who ate everything Jeffrey Steingarten
    Chasing the monsoon Alexander Frater
    Tales from the torrid zone Alexander Frater
    Drugs are nice Lisa Crystal Carver
    My invented country Isabel Allende
    The book of summer Tove Jansson

    August -
    The Conjuror's bird Martin Davies
    The unplesantness at the Bellona Club Dorothy L. Sayers
    Spix's Macaw Tony Juniper
    A thousand country roads Robert James Waller
    State of the Union Douglas Kennedy
    Murder Must Advertise Dorothy L. Sayers
    Suite Française Irene Nemirovsky

    September -
    On Beauty Zadie Smith
    Little Face Sophie Hannah
    Rue des Rosiers Jacques Lanzmann
    On a retrouvé David Jacques Lanzmann
    Summer Crossing Truman Capote
    The Memory Keeper's Daughter Kim Edwards
    Self-Help Lorrie Moore

    October -
    Prep Curtis Sittenfeld
    The year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion
    The Highest Tide Jim Lynch
    Saving Fish from Drowning Amy Tan
    Saturday Ian McEwan
    To be continued...

    Yes, I'll read just about anything..

    Sunday, October 22, 2006

    Saving Fish from Drowning - Amy Tan

    Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning is a masterpiece of irony – and yet another reminder that there is little as damaging to the world as American goodwill. If Edward Said’s Orientalism were ever transformed into a witty case study on the inability of East and West to understand each other, this might be it.

    In Tan’s latest work we are invited to follow a party of twelve Americans off to the Orient on a “Following Buddha’s Footprints” itinerary which will take them to China and Burma. Only a few weeks before the scheduled departure, however, the group find themselves without their guide. Bibi Chen, a fifty something San Francisco socialite, whose philanthropy and love of the arts have turned her into a demi-celebrity in that arena, is found dead in her apartment. Escaped from China as a young girl just before the Revolution, she was the American’s gateway into understanding what they were about to see, their buffer against the inevitable faux-pas that follow over-confident tourists in exotic locations. But their loss is our gain. Instead of guiding her friends and acquaintances to the East, Bibi ends up guiding us, the readers, to the sometimes hilarious, sometimes-embarrassing behavior of westerners abroad. She is a wonderful tour leader and is further benefited by the incorporeal state she inhabits throughout the novel, which permits us to a look at rare locations inside the characters psyches. “It was not my fault” is the first sentence in the novel, one that instructs us to expect the worst from these people – and by the end no one can feel disappointed.

    In casting her tour party, Tan reveals a deft hand in describing a certain type of American, in a way that is both instantly recognizable and most of the time, terribly funny. They are all well-off, some notoriously so, such as Harry, TV’s favorite dog trainer, his long time friend Moff, who has built a bamboo empire selling architectural plants to airports and luxury hotels, clients shared by Marlena who acquires art for the same locales. One, Wendy, is obscenely rich, an heiress who likes to rough it, and who agrees to the trip, encouraged by a former lover, who works for the NGO Free to Speak, and informs her on the practices of the brutal regime in Burma. Wyatt is her escort, and as his name suggests he’s a true blue Midwesterner, whose only concern is how to finance his (mostly) ecotourism. Dwight and Roxanne are a couple, both research investigators, and the difference in their academic careers is starting to strain their relationship (Roxanne is older, and more well-known and respected), although it doesn’t help that Dwight is exquisitely obnoxious. Vera is the venerable “elder” of the twelve, a fifty something African American intellectual, a soothing influence on the more histrionic characters. And Benny, who we might assume drew a cosmic short straw when he was invited to fill Bibi Chen’s walking shoes- the over sensitive gay, strives to please everyone and finds himself, of course, despised by most.

    I left Heidi, Roxanne’s younger sister to the end, because I feel she is Tan’s most accomplished creation. In big breasted Heidi, the author gives us a taste of our own medicine, for she starts out as seemingly the silliest of the Americans, a hypochondriac, who read up on every possible health hazard, and never goes out without antibiotics, syringes, a space blanket, a head-lamp (and extra batteries), among other accoutrements. And she turns out to be the only one suitably prepared for the trip, the only one who believes her personality has room for improvement, and a calm presence during crisis.

    They all have some things in common: mostly they prefer tracks and hikes to museums, or other cultural activities and all place importance on getting to know “real people” (as if there was such a thing as “false” people), and share the belief that “natives” are authentic, genuine, and therefore good and honest. Yes, there are also characters that show a superior openness of heart, honesty (even if it means being rude to the “natives”), and even a philosophical stance on the group’s difficulties. They are the children of the party, both on the verge of full blown adolescence and yet still displaying the more commendable side of humanity, Esmè, Marlena’s daughter and Rupert, Moff’s son.

    To add to the irony, Tan soon shows us that not only do the Americans act based upon stereotypes of eastern culture, so do the Chinese and Burmese they encounter labor under similar misconceptions. In this passage Chen gives us a piece of Miss Rong’s, the Chinese guide’s mind:
    She had heard that many Americans, especially those who travel to China, love Buddhism. She did not realize that the "Buddhism the Americans before her loved was Zen-like, a form of not thinking, not moving, and not-eating anything living, like buffaloes. This blank-minded Buddhism was practiced by well-to-do people in San Francisco and Marin County, who bought organic-buckwheat pillows for sitting on the floor, who paid experts to teach them to empty their minds of the noise of life".

    Even an interest in the same forms of spirituality ends up losing East and West in the translation.
    The main challenge with so many characters is to give them all equal time and opportunity to reveal themselves. Even though the book is 474 pages long I felt that Vera for one, and also Wyatt should have had more time on the narrative. Some reviewers seemed to think the disappearance takes place too late in the book (two thirds in to it), but I believe the book is to be read more for the character’s sake than the plot, and anyway a lot happens until you get there. If anything, the moment the Americans vanish, made by attention wander. I left the book aside for a couple of weeks, even though I had been devouring it until then.

    Pascal Khoo Thwe called the oriental characters “wooden and stilted”, in his review for The Guardian, and initially I agreed. But having now finished the book I have a different opinion – Blackspot, Grease, Salt, Fishbones, Loot and Bootie- the Burmese we encounter don’t even have first names, but somehow it just doesn’t seem possible than Tan lost her abilities midway through the book. It is rather like she was trying to call attention to the interchangeability of these characters. They will change our main characters lives forever, their stories of persecution and torture are moving and yet, they will remain blurry and in some levels incomprehensible, until the end – kind of like the East to the West, and vice-versa.

    The book poses a lot of questions such as the morality of tourism in countries with oppressive regimes, the lack of understanding between cultures, the role of the media in the construction of our world. But Tan she never provides any answers, probably because there aren’t any easy ones. As the narrator, Bibi, confesses:
    "But when I was alive, I was not looking for tragedy. I was looking for bargains, the best places to eat, for pagodas that were not overrun with tourists, for the loveliest scenes to photograph".
    For the time being, even if we don’t yet understand the language, maybe we should start by looking each other in the eyes.

    Saturday, October 21, 2006

    The Highest Tide - Jim Lynch

    The Highest Tide was not an easy book to get through. It might sound as a strange assertion for a book so many reviewers raved about, but it’s actually meant as a compliment. Some books create images of such utterly magical universes, places that are simultaneously believable and incredible, it’s impossible not to get caught up in them, and left daydreaming in the middle of a paragraph. They have the allure of classic tales, but can happen in almost any time, and after you read them you can’t never quite get away from them. You’ll be sitting in your sofa, outside it will start raining and suddenly you’re in Mary Poppins’s London, or you’ll be staring at the sea and recall as if they were acquaintances, Sophie and her Grandmother, from Tove Jansson’s Summer Book. If you ever felt this way about a book and it’s characters, you should read Lynch’s book – Miles O’Malley is the kind of boy most of us wish we had been – even, or especially, if we’re girls.

    Miles is just starting adolescence and already he’s feeling left behind: “ I came off as an innocent nine-year-old even though I was an increasingly horny, speed-reading thirteen-year-old insomniac”. The time he should spend sleeping is however, put to better use than most adults who are also sleepless in Seattle (a crummy joke granted, but the story takes place in nearby Olympia, also in Washington state, so I really had to): this kid devours books on everything to do with the ocean and its life forms, and his muse, which he can quote at will, is Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, and also a trilogy on the ocean and the evolution of life. Miles wanders about in the bay, which is almost his front yard, in a kayak and also collects specimens at low tide to be sold to restaurants or aquarium owners of nearby towns. His incredible summer, a perfect coming of age season by the way, starts with a midnight ramble in which Miles comes face to face with a marine biologist’s jackpot: an honest to goodness giant squid taking its last breaths in a few feet of water.

    Some rash statements to the local press, and Miles uncanny ability, at least it seems so to outsiders, to find unusual things in the shallows, combined with the midsummer slump on news stories, are all it takes to turn him into a local celebrity, followed by other teenagers who never gave him a second look, cult-members of a nearby compound and of course a whole bunch of reporters, slimy as sea cucumbers.

    Of course the women who matter most in Miles O’Malley’s world remain elusive to the end: his mother who feels so trapped and suffocated by small-town life, she doesn’t realize how amazing her own son turned out; Florence, the elderly psychic who resists every attempt to curb her independence even if a neurological disease is making her increasingly dependent on a thirteen-year-old; and Angie Stegner, former babysitter and now full-time crush, part-time punk-rocker, whose age, bipolar disorder and random drug experimentation, make her so distant as if she were in the deepest, darkest depths of the sea.
    One of the great things about Lynch’s book is that, even though it can be read by a twelve-year-old, it never gets sentimental or naïve: Florence keeps stacks of books on tantric sex, Angie doesn’t sugar coat her confessions of substance abuse or drunken threesomes, and Phelps, Miles main buddy, is never far from crassness. In fact, a refreshing factor in Lynch’s characters is that they talk with Miles, at least most of the time, as if he were an adult. When they don’t come out and say it, you only have to listen to know what goes on in their heads – as when he finds out about his mother’s frustration because she hasn’t been to “ a real city” since his birth.

    The reason Jim Lynch’s book was hard going at times was that I started missing its characters almost since the beginning. If this were a TV series I would want nothing less than ten seasons. I want to know what happened to Judge Stegner, Angie, Miles’s parents, professor Kramer, Phelps and most of all I want to know how Miles grows up to become an adult.
    Even if Jim Lynch doesn’t oblige, we can only hope his next book is just as spirited. That, and a modestly priced second-hand kayak.