The latest addition to my website is N. Scott Momaday‘s House Made of Dawn. This was the first Native American novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It tells a familiar tale, that of a Native American man who cannot find his way in white society and turns to drink for solace. Abel had been a fine runner as a young man and had been brought up by his grandfather in the traditions of his people, hardworking and responsible. His mother and older brother had died when he was still young and he never knew his father. However, he had had to go off and fight in the war, where he did not fit in and the memory one of his white comrades has of him is doing a crazy war dance in front of attacking German tanks. When his grandfather collects him from the bus stop when he returns from the war, he is drunk. A defeat by an albino in a horsemanship contest at a local celebration leads him to murder the man, as he is clearly, in Abel’s eyes, a witch. After six years in prison, he is in Los Angeles but things do not go well there and he turns to drink. Only after being badly beaten up by a rogue cop and sent to hospital does he return home, to look after his dying grandfather. Momaday not only tells his story very well, showing in a fairly dispassionate way the plight of the Native American in a white society, his painterly description of the land and the people on it are masterful. It is still as worth reading now as it was forty-seven years ago.
Category: USA Page 5 of 8
The latest addition to my website is Adrian Jones Pearson‘s Cow Country. Before reviewing the book, I must say a few words about the author. I decided to read this book as it was rumoured to be by Thomas Pynchon. This theory has been debunked and, for what it is worth, Alex Shephard’s seems to me to be the most reasonable, not least, because, as he points out, A J Perry and Adrian Jones Pearson share the same initials. He points out that Perry appears to be based in Lawai. What he does not point out is that Lawai is in Kauaʻi County and that Kauaʻi is (approximately) pronounced Cow Eye, the name of the college where the book is set. When I saw mention of this book online, I contacted the publisher (which has only published this one book). I received a response from Natalie Zeldner. I contacted her at 9.56 a.m. UK time and she responded within half an hour (a record!), This means that she responded at around 5.30 a.m. if she is on the East Coast, 2.30 a.m. if on the West Coast and 11.30 p.m. if in Hawaii. Maybe US publishers are up at 2.30 and 5.30 a.m. but I would have thought 11.30 p.m. more likely. Intelius shows no record for a Natalie Zeldner and Googling reveals nothing except for a few connections with this book, which means that it fairly certain that Natalie Zeldner is a pseudonym. I also contacted the web designer but he tells me that his templates are readily available on line and has had no contact with Perry, Zeldner or Cow Eye but he has done his own research and come to no definitive conclusion. In short, I believe that Perry, Jones Pearson and Zeldner are either the same person or close associates.
As regards the book, I found it very funny. It tells the story of Cow Eye Community College, a remote US community college, in a drought-ridden area. Charlie, who seems to have no surname, is hired as the Special Projects Coordinator, with three main tasks: organising the Christmas Party, which was not held the previous year, improving the college’s woeful accreditation status and repairing the disastrous cultural divide in the college. The college is divided along all sorts of lines: meat eaters vs non meat eaters (Cow Eye Ranch, now defunct, used to be major a supplier of beef to the US); smokers vs nonsmokers; New Agers vs traditionalists; natives vs incomers; users of electric typewriters vs users of manual typewriters and many others. Most people are firmly on one side or the other, without any room for compromise. Charlie feels that he is nothing entirely, a compromiser, and he wants to change this, to be something entirely. What makes the book is its great humour. Jones Pearson satirises community colleges and, by extension, the United States; he uses a fair amount of third form/sophomoric humour and has a long line of running jokes, from Charlie’s trying to be something entirely to the US flag which, every times it appears, seems to add a star or two, starting off with twenty-three and finishing with forty-nine. It is all very funny but, behind the humour, there is clearly a serious intent, about getting on and compromise and about the nature of the United States. A lot of effort has gone into this book, not just the 540 page book, but also the various websites, including the author’s homepage, the college’s and others mentioned on my Adrian Jones Pearson page. While I admire all the effort put into it by, presumably, Perry, his pseudonyms and his associates, it is sad that he needs to do this to get this book in the public eye.
The latest addition to my website is Alexandra Kleeman‘s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. I was just yesterday reading a story about eating fads. While this novel is concerned with eating and eating habits, it only tangentially deals with eating disorders. What it is primarily about is how the media focuses on what bodies should look like, mainly women’s bodies, and how we are all manipulated by the media and the food industry regarding what we look like and what we eat. However, this is by no means a straightforward critique of the media and food industry but rather a superbly told story about manipulation, religious cults and the increasing alienation of people from their environment. The unnamed narrator and her room-mate, called only B. B. does seem to be bulimic but the novel is mainly concerned with bodies and food, what we eat and how we choose and our bodies.
Kleeman skilfully shows images from adverts, TV and the perception of the narrator, all of which show the body and/or food, and all of which are disturbing, disgusting or both. The main food we see is Kandy Kakes (there really is something of that name – see photo above right) which appear in a series of decidedly sinister adverts, as a two-dimensional cartoon cat (sorry, Kat) cannot eat the three-dimensional Kandy Kakes but, as they are the real stuff, we can. The narrator will later become somewhat obsessed with these cakes. A strange religious cult, involving Kandy Kakes and eating as one, a TV game show where the final episode involves an individual trying to find his or her partner in a dark room, where there are several naked people as well as the partner, and agreeing to dissolve the relationship if s/he fails to do so and a boyfriend obsessed with the eating habits of sharks are just some of the decidedly strange goings-on. Overall, however, Kleeman gives us a first-class novel about the body and how it is perceived and food and how we are manipulated into choosing it and eating it, which makes for a first-class debut for Kleeman.
The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Franzen‘s Purity. Inevitably, this book has caused much controversy and has been condemned for being sexist (which it partially is but no more than thousands of other novels), problematic, self-indulgent and probably all sorts of other crimes. Ignore the buzz and read the book. It is not a great novel but it certainly is a novel worth reading, with an interesting plot and lots of idea, ranging from the nature of the Internet to implied incest, from the value of money to the role of journalism. The focus is Pip Tyler (whose real name is Purity but, naturally, she tries to keep that hidden). She is the only child of a single mother, Penelope, who works as a check-out clerk in a supermarket and lives in a trailer. Penelope has changed her name (and Pip’s name) to escape Pip’s father and resolutely refuses, despite Pip’s best efforts, to reveal the identity of Pip’s father. Pip has, of course, tried to track him down on the Internet, to no avail. Obviously, this is going to be a feature of this story. Pip has a lousy job selling dubious renewal energy products, a huge student loan debt and no boyfriend. She lives on a sort of commune and is in love with Stephen, who loves only his wife, even when she leaves him.
At the commune she meets a German woman, Annagret, who puts her in touch with Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange-type figure (but not Assange, who is condemned by Wolf and others) and his Sunlight Project (not Wikileaks but similar). Pip is persuaded to join the Sunlight Project but then moves to Denver to work for an investigative journalism project (we only learn why later in the book) where she is involved in investigating a missing nuclear warhead and becomes close to the head of the project, Tom Aberant (sic). Much of the book is about the back stories of Wolf and Aberant, as well as about Pip’s involvement with them. At times I felt that Franzen went into too much detail, particularly with Aberant’s story but, on the whole, he tells a good story and raises a host of interesting ideas. A book worth reading but certainly not the Great American Novel.
The latest addition to my website is Kathryn Davis‘ The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. This is a first-class novel about the nature of art (in this case music) and how it intertwines with life. The story is told by Frances Thorn, a woman who, accordingly to her family, disgraced herself and is now a single mother of twin girls, bringing them up in Canaan, in upstate New York, working as waitress. She meets Helle Ten Brix, a Danish composer, who is living in Canaan with her niece and the niece’s husband. The two become close, not least because Helle is a lesbian and attracted to Frances. When Helle dies (at the beginning of the book), she leaves Frances an unfinished manuscript of an opera, a feminist rewriting of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf as well as various documents, diaries, etc about Helle’s early life. We soon learn that Helle is an unreliable narrator, inventing stories about herself and her family or, at least, exaggerating them. However, she uses these stories, both factual and otherwise, in her work. Frances gradually pieces together Helle’s life, while struggling with her own life (an adulterous affair). It is a superbly well-told story, which deserves to be better known.
The latest addition to my website is Mark Danielewski‘s The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. This is apparently the first of a twenty-seven volume series, with the next volume appearing in October of this year. This one takes 880 pages essentially to outline a plot which consists of twelve-year old epileptic girl in Los Angeles, going with her father to pick up a dog as a present for her and rescuing a drowning kitten and going home with it. Yes, of course, there is more to it, with several sub-plots, not apparently in any way related to the main one and loads of post-modernist tricks – graphics, font changes, multiple languages, text shooting off in different directions, annoying multiple nested brackets and the word familiar invariably printed in a sickly pale mauve colour. The story of the girl is sweet, as she struggles with her epilepsy and with her father, inventor of a powerful game engine and always asking questions and not, in fact, her biological father. Oh, and the book is printed on glossy paper and is very heavy, 1.3 kg (3lb 10oz in old money). I don’t think I shall be reading the remaining twenty-six volumes.
The latest addition to my website is George Packer‘s The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline. Though not a novel Die Zeit described it as the first Great American novel of the 21st century. While it is entirely factual, it is consciously modelled on John Dos Passos‘ U.S.A.. It tells the stories of variety of people over the past thirty-forty years, including the famous, such as Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Joe Biden and Jay Z, as well as the less famous, such as Peter Thiel and a few ordinary Americans and how they contributed to, benefited from or were victims of the unwinding. Packer describes what he means by unwinding: If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.
Packer’s thesis follows a comment by another famous person profiled in this book, Elizabeth Warren. She recognised that the Great Depression had produced three landmark reforms: The FDIC—your bank deposits were safe. Glass-Steagall—banks couldn’t go crazy with your money. The SEC—stock markets would be tightly controlled. These were dismantled in the 1970s and 1980s (and not just by the Republicans). She and Packer have no doubt where the blame lays – with Wall Street (Robert Rubin is the bad boy poster child) and the politicians, many of whom were in the pay of and/or easily swayed by Wall Street. We see stories of how these people made a killing but also of their numerous victims, including a significant part of the populations of Youngstown and Tampa. Packer has clearly done his research and provides us with considerable detail, both with what went on both nationally, and locally, in the case of Youngstown and Tampa and illustrates his thesis with numerous examples and facts. And this is not just a left-wing rant. He sympathises with several people who favoured Reagan, as well as Tea Party members who may be misguided, in that they vote for the Republicans, all too often the cause of their distress. While not a novel nor the Great American Novel, this is a first-class work, which, I believe, everyone should read, just as they should read Capital in the Twenty-First Century, to know who is making a mess of their country, and, ultimately, the rest of the world, and how and why they are doing it.
The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Lila, the third book in Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. This one, of course, tells the story of Lila, whom we have met in the previous two novels as the (much younger) wife of the seventy-seven year old Reverend Ames and mother of his seven-year old son, Robby. In the previous books, she came across as a quiet, unassuming woman, whose origins are something of a mystery. We now learn of her antecedents. She was living with a family, when very young, and, because she cried, she was put outside and left there, even after dark. She was rescued by Doll, a woman who, for some reason, sometimes slept at that house. Doll took her under her wing and they spend the next several years travelling around the country with a group led by a man called Doane, doing odd jobs and just about managing to survive. One year, Doll stopped travelling to allow time for Lila to go to school and learn to read and write. Life was not always easy and most of the time they slept out of doors but they just about managed to survive, till the Depression came and then work and food became harder to find. The group split up and Doll and Lila went off together, till Doll was arrested for knifing a man and Lila, by now an adult, became a prostitute. Eventually, she walked away from that and landed up in Gilead, Iowa, where she met and eventually married the Reverend Ames. While we have been following her early life, we have also learned about her time in Gilead, living in a shack and doing odd jobs. We have also learned of her life with the Reverend Ames, about which she has doubts, even after she becomes pregnant and wonders whether she should leave and set back out on the road, perhaps to look for Doll. It is a very fine book about a woman trying to find her place in the world, whether belonging to a community, being a wife and mother and embracing religion is what she wants or what she needs and her internal struggle to find the solution is not easy.
The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Home, the second book in her Gilead trilogy. In the first book – Gilead – the Reverend John Ames told his tale and mentioned the son of his very good friend the Reverend Robert Boughton, Jack. Unlike his seven siblings, Jack had been a wilful, badly behaved child and had continued in this way. As a child, he had stolen, refused to go to church and, sometimes, school and generally been a trial for his parents. As a young man, he had got a girl from a poor family pregnant and then refused to have anything to with mother or child. He had subsequently left the family home and had not been seen for twenty years. He returned, somewhat chastened and, as we had learned (though his family did not learn till later in the book) had left behind a woman (to whom he was not married) and child. Ames had been quite critical of him.
This book tells the story of his return but from the perspective of the Boughton family – Jack himself, his sister, Glory, for whom a long relationship has recently ended unsatisfactorily and is now looking after her aged father, and their father, Robert Boughton. The story is essentially about how the three adapt to the situation, with the father-son and brother-sister relationship gradually being improved, if not fully repaired, over the course of the book. Jack still has his problems, not least because he is missing Della, his partner, and their son, because he still drinks, though not nearly as much, because he still feels somewhat uncomfortable with both his father and sister (as well as with the Reverend Ames) and because he recognises that his life has not gone well and the future does not bode well. Most of the book is the struggle of the three to establish a modus vivendi which, gradually, they more or less do but with the inevitable ups and downs. While it is certainly a fine book, I consider this to be the least satisfactory of Robinson’s four novels but still very much worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead. This is another first-class novel from Marilynne Robinson and, in fact, the first of a trilogy of novels, set in Gilead, Iowa, about the Ames and Boughton families, where the paterfamilias, in each case, is a professional religious minister. This book is narrated by John Ames, seventy-seven at the time of writing and with a heart condition, so worrying somewhat (but not too much) about what he sees as his imminent death. Ames had married young but his wife, Louisa, had died in childbirth with their first child, and the baby had died too. He had remained a somewhat lonely widower till he met a much younger woman, Lila, and had married her (at her suggestion). They have a son, who is almost seven, and Ames’ narration is a long letter to his son. Ames recounts the story of his father and grandfather. His grandfather had moved to Kansas from Maine to help John Brown and the Free-Soilers, those seeking to make Kansas a free rather than a slave state. John Ames’ father is aware that his father had been involved in some violence at that time but no details are given. When he was older, the grandfather had come to live with his son, John Ames’ father, but had then wandered off to become an itinerant preacher. After they find out where he is, the father plans to set off and find him and the twelve-year old John asks to accompany him. The journey will have a profound effect on both father and son.
John has followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and become a minister. Much of this book is about his life as a minister and what his faith means to him. He is a pragmatic minister, always willing to help his parishioners, not only in matters of faith but in more practical areas. His parishioners are often poor and that poses its own set of problems. Above all, though he has a joy of life, a joy in his faith and a love of people. But he is no saint and has his own set of problems, not least with Jack, the wayward son of his best friend, Robert Boughton. Jack is wilful. As a child he committed various petty crimes. as a young adult, he got a young local woman from a poor family pregnant and refused to marry her or even look after her. Try as he might John Ames cannot accept Jack. Overall, this is a first-class book about faith, about the complexity of relationships and, above all, about what it means to be a good and decent man, struggling with life’s problems.