Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Bram Stoker is henceforth banished from my reading list

Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm is not the worst book I’ve ever read, but it’s pretty damned close. If I had to quickly come up with ten bitter adjectives to describe this book, I could. Don't believe me? Here you go:
  • Atrocious
  • Absurd
  • Disorganized
  • Ridiculous
  • Incomplete
  • Overlong
  • Boring
  • Laughable
  • Enraging
  • Pathetic
There. That took me 10 seconds.

I enjoyed Dracula, and so thought another novel of Stoker’s would be a safe bet. Wrong. Wrong. This novel is a total failure, both as a novel generally and as a horror tale specifically.

Structurally, it is a total mess, with more threads than I can count having been dropped. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and their motives, when revealed, make no sense in the context of what’s happening. And almost every opportunity for convincing horror is annihilated because of Stoker’s frequent decision to present scary happenings not directly but through dry and interminable conversations between Adam and Sir Nathanial.

When we are presented directly with supposedly terrifying moments, they’re too stupid to be borne, with people dying from staring contests and villains being defeated by young ladies who know how to vogue. Also, there is the destruction of primeval white worms through…the purchasing of real estate, which is also a very sound business investment for a young man.

My god, I can’t believe how awful this novel is! I stopped after every chapter and banged my head. Well, not every chapter, because if it’s unremitting awfulness had been apparent before I was a third to halfway through, I would have dropped this bitch like it was a plague-ridden baby-child with an ugly mug and a squall emanating from it like a Siamese cat in heat.

The novel did begin badly, but in a truly awesome and kind of hilarious way. For example, here is Stoker engaging in some subtle foreshadowing:
She was clad in some kind of soft white stuff, which clung close to her form, showing to the full every movement of her sinuous figure. She was tall and exceedingly thin. Her eyes appeared to be weak, for she wore large spectacles which seemed to be of green glass. Certainly in the centre they had the effect of making her naturally piercing eyes of a vivid green. She wore a close-fitting cap of some fine fur of dazzling white. Coiled round her white throat was a large necklace of emeralds, whose profusion of colour quite outshone the green of her spectacles – even when the sun shone on them. Her voice was very peculiar, very low and sweet, and so soft that the dominant note was of sibilation. Her hands, too, were peculiar – long, flexible, white, with a strange movement as of waving gently to and fro. (pp. 22-23)
But this sort of deliciously kitchy moment turned out to be very rare and the shiteous aspects described above represent the true order of things. Also, there were so many horribly racist comments dropped that this novel makes Kipling look like an equal rights advocate, there was enough fear and disgust at female sexuality to fuel a Freudian’s entire career, and then there was the gigantic kite flying from Castor Regis – because, you know, madmen with mesmeric skills like also to fly gigantic kites from the tops of their castle for no good reason.

In answer to your unspoken question: yes, I did, in fact punch this book hard, several times in succession, after finishing reading it.

I am now on to Yukio Mishima's Forbidden Colors which, if it turns out to be terrible as well, will at least do so in grand, ambitious, and raging style!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane

W.G. Sebald's Vertigo begins and ends with authors other than Sebald. In the first section entitled Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet, we're told something of the story of this character and how he decides to become the best writer who's ever lived. Beyle is, of course, better known to the world simply as Stendhal.

How Stendhal becomes the literary lion we know him as now is, however, not really explored in this first section of Sebald's novel. Rather, what we read about is how fragile he is, how utter destruction - emotional and mental - is always dogging his footsteps. This constantly threatened annihilation is both the result of his commitment to writing and the only thing that keeps it at bay; and this is the thread that runs throughout Vertigo as a whole, as Sebald tells the story of his own (or his closely related narrator's) writing, as well as Kafka's; it is also the story of a number of briefly introduced readers who are all just barely hanging on to their connections to the rest of the world via reading at the same time that reading is their only refuge therefrom.

I would say "spoiler alert!" here except Vertigo isn't so much about what happens as how; but you've been warned, just in case
What, then, to make of the book not only concluding with Pepys's diary entry on the Great Fire of London but also of the narrator's seamless transition from describing reading the book to describing the events of the fire as though there himself? And it's not even "himself", for it is a collective "we" that is described as observing the aftermath of the famous city's famous conflagration.

To go from creating portraits of the most solitary of human beings and characters to concluding with a collective noun in the midst of great destruction was startling. I'm no doubt over-simplifying quite horribly, but it's as though Sebald (or his narrator - I have no idea, really, how closely allied they are) imagines true human community being possible, not in the face of disaster, but only in reading about disaster. Such community is, in other words, an almost entirely imagined one, one that leaves each of us as solitary and grasping at sanity as ever before.

This is a heavy, somber book. I wasn't enjoying it near its beginning but I quickly changed my mind and think, in the end, I may have enjoyed Vertigo more for being structurally loose and subject to constant change (of perspective, time period, etc). Having also really enjoyed The Emigrants, I will certainly read all of Sebald's works eventually.

While scouring the interwebs for a shot of the book's cover, I found a website devoted almost entirely to Sebald, which you can check out here. It's written and curated by someone with literary and art history training - which could not be more perfect for Sebald. I highly recommend this site.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three

Today, Bookphilia.com turns three. I think this has been the most interesting year of blogging for it saw me become increasingly frustrated with the whole process – so frustrated that I deleted the whole damn thing. Of course, I didn’t allow the radio silence to last very long; or, more accurately, I wasn’t able to endure the radio silence and I came back with a vengeance and I think some of my best posts have been written since then. Or maybe the quality hasn’t changed, but my pleasure has certainly increased.

The difference? I’m not really certain, to be honest, although I think part of it was just my finally accepting that while you can take the girl out of the academy, you can’t entirely take the academy out of the girl. Not that the majority of my posts at all resemble the kind of academic writing I used to do, but that for all my terrible experiences in grad school, I nonetheless developed a real taste for writing about what I read while there. I can’t quite remember why I ever felt this was something to be resisted or agonized over, but I don’t feel that way now. When I spent hours and hours writing about Romola, for example, I simply enjoyed it; and in the face of anything as intellectually complex as the writing of George Eliot, I will happily do the same, as exhausting as it was.

So, yes, the third year of Bookphilia has been the most fascinating so far. I’ve killed one feature (The Reading Lamp), continued with another that is both a writer and reader favourite (Curious/Creepy), and begun another two – there are my occasional musings on being a book-seller (The Sarazens head without New-gate), and then there are my newly hatched dreams of talking with the dearly departed literati (I Interview Dead People – look out for a new interview very soon!). But writing about the books I’ve read is still my primary focus and will remain so.

I’ve also begun my very own personal quest to learn about French literature, and I have read twelve books in the area during the last year. One book a month is pretty good for me in terms of providing some structure while still allowing me to dip into the random things that appeal to me. Total randomness is not so prevalent this year as it has been in the past, however.

Having finished my PhD, I’m finally able to check out all those fat Victorian novels I’ve been yearning for and the weightedness of my choices in favour of British literature is much, much higher this year than it has been in the past. I would say I’ll work on that, but you all know how ridiculously unable I am to follow through with any reading promises I make.

Now, of course, an anniversary calls for lists, and I am happy to provide.

Books begun but impossible to finish
  • The Complete Poems of Ben Jonson – I would say it’s still too soon post-PhD, but frankly, I just wasn’t enjoying this collection.
  • The Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne – Very sadly, ditto. Sigh. Maybe next year?
  • Cryptonomicon – I will certainly try this again, because I’ve really enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s work in the past but the 50 or so pages I spent with this one had me tearing my hair and rending my cheeks the whole time.
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Again, not the right time and irritation was my only critical response. Blog year 3 was only for “normal” Murakami, it seems.
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Trying to improve upon perfection is, indeed, foolhardy.
  • The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature – Sigh.
Favourite Books
I would say that these are in no particular order, but the first four are definitely my ultimate favourites of the past year:
  • Can You Forgive Her?, Anthony Trollope
  • David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  • Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  • The Immaculate Conception, Gaetan Soucy
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (a reread)
  • Old Goriot, Honore de Balzac
  • Romola, George Eliot
  • Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
  • The Virgin in the Ice, Ellis Peters
  • Dangerous Liaisons, Choderlos de Laclos
  • Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky
  • Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee
  • Adolphe, Benjamin Constant
  • Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
  • Arthurian Romances, Chretien de Troyes
  • The Snapper, Roddy Doyle
  • Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon, Jorge Amado
  • Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
  • Silas Marner, George Eliot
Least Favourite Books
These are the ones that still make me want to punch someone in the neck, preferably their authors:
  • La Bete Humaine, Emile Zola
  • The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq
  • Run, Ann Patchett
  • The Scarecrow and His Servant, Philip Pullman
  • Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay
  • A Heart So White, Javier Marias
  • The Eyre Affair, Jasper Ffacking Fforde
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
I’m going to spare all of us and resist making any predictions or promises about where my reading will go in the next year. Suffice to say, I plan to enjoy myself, heartily.


Wednesday, 24 March 2010

More Small Porgies, less racism, please

I have recently finished reading Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, which has been hanging around my house a long time. We have a cool hardback version from the early 1950s, which I have long admired for its pure bookliness. (Bookliness = the adjective to describe comely books.)

I admire this book as well for Kipling's good stories, super-amazing woodcut drawr-ings, and the hilarious commentary that accompanies them. For example, to your left you will see Kipling's picture of Small Porgies, a creature who makes a cameo appearance in the book's final tale, "The Butterfly That Stamped." The story is pretty great, but check out the commentary on the picture:
THIS is the picture of the Animal that came out of the sea and ate up all the food that Suleiman-bin-Daoud had made ready for all the animals, in all the world. He was really quite a nice Animal, and his Mummy was very fond of him and of his twenty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine other brothers that lived at the bottom of the sea. You know that he was the smallest of them all, and so his name was Small Porgies. He ate up all those boxes and packets and bales and things that had been got ready for all the animals, without ever once taking off the lids or untying the strings, and it did not hurt him at all. The sticky-up masts behind the boxes of food belong to Suleiman-bin-Daoud's ships. They were busy bringing more food when Small Porgies came ashore. He did not eat the ships. They stopped unloading the foods and instantly sailed away to sea till Small Porgies had quite finished eating. You can see some of the ships beginning to sail away by Small Porgies' shoulder. I have not drawn Suleiman-bin-Daoud, but he is just outside the picture, very much astonished. The bundle hanging from the mast of the ship in the corner is really a package of wet dates for parrots to eat. I don't know the names of the ships. That is all there is in that picture.
Having a dad so silly AND creative AND smart must have been totally awesome. (Well, my dad is creative and silly and smart, but he doesn't write books. When we lived together, we used to have hours-long adjective contests, when we'd just list off the weirdest, most obscure adjectives we could think of, until we could think of no more. Now you're either thinking that I'm the weirdest or the coolest person ever. Hint: it's the former.)

Too bad about the racist part of cool dad Kipling. Yeah. I'd never read any Kipling before Just So Stories, not even his (in)famous poem "White Man's Burden." All the stories in this tome are pretty much not-racist, except for "How the Leopard Got His Spots", which begins in the usual lovely way and then sucker-punches you with the N-bomb and some other nasties. Sigh.

It's not that I hadn't heard Kipling was problematic in terms of his racial views, but that I hoped it somehow hadn't extended to his kiddy lit. And it mostly didn't, but then it did. I kind of feel that if you excised this one story, you'd have one of the best children's collections ever. But then it wouldn't really be Kipling would it? And that opens up a whole can of worms fit for a Philosophy of Art class or something.

On Friday, I will celebrate the end of my third year of Bookphilia. I'll be providing a list of may favourite books of the last year and making absolutely no promises or predictions about the coming year.

Monday, 22 March 2010

It's a little startling...

when the book you're reading flags the date on which you're reading it. W.G. Sebald makes me feel as though the boundary between me and what I read is as thin as gossamer (to use a pretty little cliché - haven't you noticed all these posts floating around cyberspace lately listing the most clichéd clichés popular in book reviews? I thought I'd add the gossamer one so someone will say "Aha!" and add it to the next list.)
On the evening of the 22nd of March, 1842, with the approach of spring already in the air, he fell to the pavement in rue Neuve-de-Capucines in an apoplectic fit. He was taken to his apartments in what is now rue Danielle-Casanova, and there, in the early hours of the following morning, without regaining consciousness, he died. (Vertigo, p. 30)
I've only just begun this novel, but the titular dizziness exists, of course, on both physical and metaphysical planes. As this is a novel of the early 90s, I would have been shocked if this double registering of the term weren't used. You may feel as though you are detecting perhaps a small drop of the snark here; I can't really argue against that perception. Sebald was widely becoming accepted as a genius when he died at the relatively young age of 57; after reading The Emigrants, I would have agreed.

Now that I'm 45 pages into Vertigo, I'm not quite so sure. For one thing, Vertigo, both structurally and thematically, is very similar to The Emigrants - memory and the isolated individual, memory and the larger society that either excludes or only partially admits the individual. Also, the writing is not as good. I keep thinking: if Kundera and Pamuk were to co-author a book, this is what it would look like; and I don't imagine this collaboration as positively as when I suggested that Mahfouz's The Harafish was like an amazing novel done by Dickens and Rumi together. But then, one of these things is not like the others - Kundera is clever, but Dickens, Pamuk, and Rumi were/are brilliant and the difference between the two terms is too often glossed over (another cliché for your list!)

In spite of my concern about the quality of Vertigo, it's still the sort of things that's just right for a beige, rainy day in late March; and so I return to it now, and will say more about it anon.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

A game beyond the game

I've just finished reading David Mitchell's crazy, brilliant, beautiful novel Cloud Atlas for the second time. My god, it was even better the second time around, which I would not have thought possible. I saw many more of the connections between each section this time and appreciated the brilliant writing - and the shocking fact of Mitchell's ability to write in many (at least 6) different styles brilliantly was constantly brought home to me as I made my way through Adam's, Robert's, Luisa's, Timothy's, Sonmi's, and Zach'ry's tales.

What I love about this novel is - well, one thing I love about this novel - how the line between what seems real and unreal is constantly destabilized and shifted, so that everything ends up seeming hyper-real and shimmery, like a dream or a strong memory, at the same time. Good god, I can't talk about this book! I won't even try to write a "proper" review of it. It makes me feel like my brain and heart are both going to explode, in the way only perfect, once in a lifetime books can. Instead, here's an interchange between my cyberspatial friend Kevin and me. I think what we say raises as many, if not more, questions than it can possibly begin to answer about Cloud Atlas. This is apropos, I think; Mitchell's work opens things up in a way literature should.

As you will see, all the good stuff below is Kevin's.
Dear C, know how you form a hunch about a book, its structure, theme, and purpose, only to have your hunch change as you read, or even after you finish the book entire, months or years later?

Well, here's my hunch about Cloud Atlas. Tentative as it may be.

It's largely plotless by art and design because that's the best way for Mitchell to establish his primary theme, which I take— my idea's tentative! — to be this: Something there is that eternally recurs.

In the fullness of time, language, culture, and even the biosphere change, like so many ever-shifting, white-to-gray-to-pink cumulus, cirrus, and stratus clouds, yada yada yada.

But something there is that stays the same, namely, a desire for autonomy, identity, and self-understanding. Think Somni ascending!

Because we're weak, paltry yearning wills, we cleave to the experiences of others, their letters (Frobisher), stories (Cavendish), interviews (Somni-451), and oral yarnin' (Sloshin').

What better way to show eternal recurrence at play than by creating mighty gaps in the temporal and narrative arc of a plotless novel?

Without these negative spaces, how could one yarn about that which doesn't change?

That's Mitchell's genius in Cloud Atlas, I think.

Anyhow, I'm not entirely satisfied with what I've said. After all, there is a plot of sorts, in the very loose sense that the motives and actions of characters in one story influence the motives and actions of characters in another.

Without Sixsmith and Bill Smoke, there's no Fall.

Without Sonmi-451, there's no Zach'ry the goatherd invoking a mythology to puzzle over it all.


I like what you've said, a lot.

I've been trying to get at something similar but I keep being distracted by/inspired by Mitchell's references, flagged and otherwise, to other books. He mentions, for example, Orwell and Huxley in Sonmi but Bradbury and Zamyatin and Miller, Jr. and Wyndham are there too. And I'm sure he wants us to see them! For me, this is somehow connected to how every narrative that seems "real" is questioned, overtly or otherwise - Ewing's journal seems inauthentic to Frobisher; Frobisher's letters change Luisa's view of Sixsmith; Luisa's narrative seems like hackwork to Timothy; Timothy's life is a film for Sonmi; and Sonmi is Zach'ry's sacred text!

I didn't notice the first time I read this novel how very similar Adam's diary is to Zach'ry's tale - just from different perspectives - the pacifist tribe at the mercy of their martial and ruthless brothers, and what's at stake.

I think we're both right, in other words, and that you articulated what I was seeing through textuality what you're seeing through the metaphysical - but the thing is - they're not separate!


By the by, your point about inter-textuality and the "real" and "authentic" just now reminded me of a lovely expression that Zach'ry uses in a conversation with Meronym about the Hole World and our place in it, something like the "true true is diff'rent to the seemin' true."

CA is quickly becoming one of my all time favorite novels...

God, I love this book and I love what happens to people the first time they read it. It's like we're reminded of how perfectly magical literature can be...No, I have no perspective on this novel. It is probably my favourite novel of all time; no, it is. I suspected so, but this re-read has simply confirmed.

What does one read after Cloud Atlas? I can't even imagine, right now.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Slut in the kitchen, chef in the bedroom

Friends, you've really been depriving yourself if you haven't been reading the London Review of Books classifieds all these years. Self-deprecation, irony, and desperation have never been so attractive; indeed, if these ads are any indication, my long-held but hitherto secret hunch has proven true and I may, therefore, now reveal it to you: everyone in England is so inherently hilarious that I would marry them all, sight unseen. The LRB personals are online here; unfortunately, the site hasn't been updated in a while. Not sure what the status of the print version is.

In the meantime, the editor of the LRB classifieds has put together a bookish collection of some of the best ads posted over the years, called "They Call Me Naughty Lola": Personal Ads from the London Review of Books. Unless you hate hilarity, wit, and good grammar, you'll love this book. I recommend reading it out loud with someone you like (or who, at least, has a good reading voice); this is what hubby and I did, up until the last section anyway, when things had to be accelerated so the book could be returned to the library on time.

Some samples to whet your appetite (and to alleviate your shock over my post title):
Slut in the kitchen, chef in the bedroom. Woman with mixed priorities (37) seeks man who can toss a good salad. (!!!! Okay, maybe the shock just increased. Heh.)

I've divorced better men than you. And worn more expensive shoes than these. So don't think placing this ad is the biggest comedown I've ever had to make. Sensitive F, 34.

It takes a real man to wear a dress. It take a revolutionary to wear those shoes with that blusher.

I am not afraid to say what I feel. At this moment in time I feel anger, giddiness, and the urge to dress like a bear and forage for berries at motorway hedgerows. Man, 38.
And my favourite:
Allele, anatta, arrear, arrere, bedded, bettee, breere, caccap, ceesse, cobbob, cocoon, deesse, dolool, doodad, effere, emmele, emmene, ennean, essede, feyffe, gaggee, giggit, googol, gregge, hammam, hummum, hubbub, jettee, kokoon, lessee, lesses, mammal, mammee, mossoo, mutuum, nerrer, ossous, pazazz, pepper, perree, pippin, powwow, reeder, reefer, reeffe, refeff, retree, seasse, secess, seesen, sensse, sessle, settee, sissoo, tattee, tattoo, tedded, teerer, teeter, teethe, terrer, testee, tethee, tetter, tittee, treete, unnung, veerer, weeded, zaara. Six-letter words with one occurrence of one letter, two occurrences of another letter and three occurrences of another letter. By Christ, I need a woman. I'm 41, but if you've got a pulse, cable TV and a smoothie-maker you'll do.
Ah, love.

I clearly have nothing to say about this book except "Yay!" so let this post be both a directive as well as a lesson to you: Eating well can be much kinkier than you think. Also, the Brits are probably not as sexually repressed as you are; unless you're a Brit, in which case, have I just created a Mobius strip of dubious hilarity? And finally, because I can't count, and for no good reason except that spring really seems to have arrived, a little Chaucer (Parliament of Fowls) for you:
Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake,
And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The human side of Haruki Murakami

If you've been reading Bookphilia for awhile, you probably know that I have a complicated relationship with Japan's most popular literary export. I loved after the quake and Underground; further, I count Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and South of the Border, West of the Sun amongst my favourite books of the last 5 years, if not of all time. On the other hand, I thought Kafka on the Shore was promising but ultimately disappointing, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was alternately irritating and forgettable, and I haven't been able to get past page 20 of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at all.

This author's inconsistencies have inspired me to identify a literary affliction I've dubbed the Haruki Murakami Syndrome - what happens when gifted authors are both abandoned by their editors (who stop doing work because such authors' works sell no matter what), AND said authors begin to believe the hype about themselves and stop trying as hard. With this unfortunate and unfortunately pretty widespread affliction in mind, I was terrified to read Norwegian Wood, which is considered to be one of Murakami's best, and is his most beloved novel in Japan.

Luckily, Norwegian Wood reflects good Murakami + good editor which = excellent book. (Also, it must be said, great translating. As there's no way for me to know what may have been altered slightly or left out, I judge good translation by one thing: how unnoticeable it is. Nothing is worse than being constantly aware of reading a translation instead of just reading and enjoying a book.)

I still think of Murakami's "normal" books, South of the Border, West of the Sun is my favourite - but that may simply be that it was in that novel that I first saw the author's hitherto unknown to me human side. His fantastic novels are too fantastic to be anything but (a sometimes amazing, sometimes unsatisfying) intellectual experience; works such as South of the Border, West of the Sun and Norwegian Wood are to me much richer works, for they don't remove the emotional from the intellectual so coldly and blithely as books like Hard-Boiled do.

So, yes, Norwegian Wood is a wonderful book. Having read no reviews of it before reading it for fear of running up against unflagged plot spoilers, I'm not sure why others liked it; I suspect it may be that for all of Murakami's apparent rejection of more traditional forms of his nation's literature, he's very good at the art of nostalgia, at invoking an atmosphere of quiet pain and gentle elegy - the things that sit at the heart of the great haiku of Basho and the works of writers like Yasunari Kawabata. Given my personal tastes in Japanese literature, this makes up a great deal of why I prefer Murakami's less fantastical works.

But what I really love about Norwegian Wood (and South of the Border, West of the Sun) is Murakami's talent for creating characters who are experienced and knowing and shat upon by life, and yet at the same time somehow tremendously innocent and artless and vulnerable. Many others attempt this, but I don't feel many manage it as successfully as Murakami does. In his hands, such characters seem real rather than created. Following are two snippets of conversation between two of the main characters, Toru (the narrator) and Midori (a girl he meets in one of his university courses) that I found particular endearing.

In the first snippet, Midori is trying to get Toru to reveal something, anything, about his mysterious love Naoko; because Toru refuses to reveal anything, Midori's imagination has been running wild, and she invents a sex-starved older woman for him:
"She's dying for it all the time, so she does everything she can think of. And she thinks about it every day. She's got nothing but free time, so she's always planning: Hmm, next time Watanabe comes, we'll do this, or we'll do that. You get in bed and she goes crazy, trying all these positions and coming three times in every one. And she says to you. 'Don't I have a sensational body? You can't be satisfied with young girls anymore. Young girls won't do this for you, will they? Or this. Feel good? But don't come yet!'"

"You've been seeing too many porno flicks," I said with a laugh.

"You think so? I was kinda worried about that. But I love porno flicks. Take me to one next time, O.K.?"

"Fine," I said. "Next time you're free."

"Really? I can hardly wait. Let's go to a real S and M one, with whips and, like, they make the girl pee in front of everybody. That's my favorite."

"We'll do it."

"You know what I like best about porno theaters?"

"I couldn't begin to guess."

"Whenever a sex scene starts, you can hear this 'Gulp!' sound when everybody swallows all at once," said Midori. "I love that 'Gulp!' It's so sweet!" (pp. 183-84)
This scene is in no way subtle, and yet it works in spite of that - or maybe because of it. Another scene as striking to me occurs later in the novel as Midori and Toru become much closer:
"Tell me about yourself," Midori said.

"What about me?"

"Hmm, I don't know, what do you hate?"

"Chicken and VD and barbers who talk too much."

"What else?"

"Lonely April nights and lacy telephone covers."

"What else?"

I shook my head. "I can't think of anything else."

"My boyfriend—which is to say, my ex-boyfriend—had all kinds of things he hated. Like when I wore too-short skirts, or when I smoked, or how I got drunk right away, or said disgusting things, or criticized his friends. So if there's anything about me you don't like, just tell me, and I'll fix it if I can."

"I can't think of anything," I said after giving it some thought. "There's nothing."


"I like everything you wear, and I like what you do and say and how you walk and how you get drunk. Everything."

"You mean I'm really O.K. just the way I am?"

"I don't know how you could change, so you must be fine the way you are."

...We got into her bed and held each other, kissing as the sound of the rain filled our ears. Then we talked about everything from the formation of the universe to our preferences in the hardness of boiled eggs.

"I wonder what ants do on rainy days?" Midori asked.

"No idea," I said. "They're hard workers, so they probably spend the day cleaning house or taking inventory."

"If they work so hard, how come they don't evolve? They've been the same forever."

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe their body structure isn't suited to evolving—compared with monkeys, say."

"Hey, Watanabe, there's a lot of stuff you don't know. I thought you knew everything."

"It's a big world out there," I said. (pp. 264-65)
Ah, the rambling conversations that alternate so naturally between nothing and serious things, the kind of conversations that only come with real intimacy! I don't know of any other author who can do this so well as Murakami can.

So, yes, I loved this book. If you're looking for a review by someone who hasn't gotten aboard the Norwegian Wood love express (and someone who tells you anything about what the book is actually about, which I don't feel like doing, for I am having a sleepy Sunday), check out Verbivore's recent review here. Her points are all valid I think, but they didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Elegant parricide

Old Goriot is the first Honoré de Balzac novel I've read and through it my commitment to my French literature project has been both revived in my heart and confirmed as a brilliant idea, for this is an amazing novel.

I do reveal plot details
Old Goriot is well-written (and translated, I think) and the plot extremely compelling. But just as compelling as the plot is Balzac's way of telling it. This is a bitter, cynical book that has at its heart William Shakespeare's King Lear - a story tragic and horrifying enough as it stands - but it's a retelling that is missing the tale's only source of possible redemption:
"They have cast off their father," Eugene [said].
"Yes, indeed, their own father," replied the Viscountess, "the father, a father, a good father, who, they say, gave each of them five or six hundred francs to ensure their happiness by marrying them well, and kept only eight or ten thousand livres a year for himself, believing that his daughters would remain his daughters, that in their new lives he had created two new existences for himself, gained two houses where he would be made much of and adored. Within two years his sons-in-law had banished him from their company as if he were the lowest of social outcasts." (p. 92)
The blame doesn't belong solely with the sons-in-law, however; their wives are as uninterested in remaining connected to their uneducated father as they. Old Goriot loves Delphine and Anastasie like Lear loves Cordelia - utterly and irrationally.  But in this tale, there is no Cordelia, only two daughters, whose vanity, ruthlessness, and selfishness are all Goneril and Regan. Père Goriot is lost not only for placing his entire being, both physical and metaphysical in his monstrous daughers' hands, but also for having no Fool to stick near and alternately tell him the truth and comfort him. His only friend is the young Eugène, a naive young provincial come to Paris to study but soon turned toward the shallow beauty of "society", particularly as populated by Goriot's Delphine.

Eugène is torn between this new addiction to luxury and his natural feelings directed at the suffering old man. In the end, what he chooses is not clear. Having buried Goriot without the help, financial or otherwise, of his daughters, Eugène looks out at Paris from the vantage point of the graveyard. He declares, while looking at this city which continues to both draw and repulse him, "It's war between us now!" (p. 354), meaning, presumably, between himself and society generally, and with the sisters he worships specifically.

Yet, the French line is ambiguous (according to my thesis supervisor, with whom I recently had tea), stating only something to the effect of "Now it's war!" The translator of my copy of the book made a decision, then, as I suspect all translators must do at some point, to clarify; yet, that Eugène leaves Goriot's pauper's grave to go dine with one of the very daughters who allowed her father to die mostly alone and with no help maintains the ambiguity I believe Balzac intended, no matter what the translator thought they were illuminating. There may be a war acomin' but whether Eugène's fight is against the corruption that so disgusts him or against the social opposition he still needs to overcome to complete his rise to the top is not clear.

Balzac's cynicism and ambiguity are so complete as to seem to question literature itself. This novel both relies on a literary past (primarily through its basis in Shakespeare's play but also through various and multiple references to other authors and works), and at the same time to deny the possibility that reading can accomplish anything the shallow enjoyment of the sorts of people he eviscerates. Near the beginning of the novel, our narrator takes close aim at his readers and their lives of easy and unchallenged pleasure. Describing the sort of people living in the quarter where Old Goriot molders away in exile from his beloved children, Balzac writes:
They live in a valley of crumbling stucco and gutters black with mud, a valley full of real suffering and often deceptive joys, and they are so used to sensation that it takes something outrageous to produce a lasting impression. Yet now and then in some overwhelming tragedy evil and good are so strangely mixed that these selfish and self-centred people are forced to pause in their restless pursuit of their own affairs, and their hearts are momentarily touched; but the impression made on them is fleeting, it vanishes as quickly as a delicious fruit melts in the mouth. The chariot of civilization, like the chariot of Juggernaut, is scarcely halted by a heart less easily crushed than the others in its path. It soon breaks this hindrance to its wheel and continues its triumphant course.

And you will show the same insensibility, as you hold this book in your white hand, lying back in a softly cushioned armchair, and saying to yourself, "Perhaps this one is amusing." When you have read of the secret sorrows of Old Goriot you will dine with unimpaired appetite, blaming the author for your callousness, taxing him with exaggeration, accusing him of having given wings to his imagination. But you may be certain that this drama is neither fiction nor romance. All is true, so true that everyone can recognize the elements of the tragedy in his own household, in his own heart perhaps (pp. 1-2).
If the ambiguity of whether or not Eugène's dinner at the end of the book will be a parley or an attack is unclear, this initial reference to how dinner will be eaten without scruple by its readers, no matter what horrors are visited in this novel, increases it. As Balzac insists his readers can recognize his subjects in themselves he at the same time implies that they will not do so; they will refuse self-recognition as easily as Goriot's daughters fail to acknowledge their duty to him.

This may be taken as a challenge, certainly, yet Balzac himself continually suggests the impossibility of literature as a medium through which the world may be accurately described and therefore understood. The story of King Lear is one that ought to be known by his characters, and yet the parallels between his story and Goriot's are drawn only by those outside the story. The lesson cannot be learned by the characters. Further, in the midst of his most intense struggle with his warring duties and inclinations, Eugène (the character most capable of moral decision-making, whether or not he realizes that potential) insists on both his own inability to escape and the impossibility of describing what it is that entraps him: "Believe whatever evil you may hear about the world, it's all true! No Juvenal could adequately paint its gilded and bejewelled horror" (p. 320).

Yet, I believe Balzac is being cynical and ironic about this as well, for he more than adequately conveys the social and familial sacrifices made in favour of establishing and maintaining one's graceful and celebrated place in the world. The failure remains with the readers who do not recognize themselves in his portraits and his characters who see nothing clearly except how to grasp at the sordid baubles they so wretchedly require. Invoking references to literary works and their authors who display humanity in all its hideous lack of goodness and glory is not meant, I believe, to ultimately question the ability of literature to reveal human truths. Rather, it's meant to increase the sense of horror that ought to be inherent in readers not taking such truths personally, by contrasting his characters' spectacular failings and blindnesses against the wisdom and penetration of literature's brightest stars - and the latter includes Balzac, as far as I'm concerned, whether he intended to include himself or not.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Curious/Creepy: I'm not the creepiest person here, this time

Friends, I am currently somewhat sun-drunk, so this edition of Curious/Creepy could either be extra fun or very embarrassing. Sun-drunk: what happens when sickly book-sellers manage to crawl out of their batcaves and betake themselves to Kingston, where it happens to be super-sunny and warm enough to sit outside and bask, and sometimes to lie on parkbenches and bask regardless of the fear of being asked harshly to leave because someone official believes you're homeless. Sun-drunk. I am sleepy and warm and maybe slightly sun-burned and I am very content.

A train ride to my beloved Kingston this past Saturday is what led to this vitamin D binge. On the subway ride to the train station, I saw a lady who looked like she was doing the public transit ride of shame home (i.e., tall boots, well cut jacket, hair did, makeup, except everything was a little rumpled). Back when I used to do the walk of shame (when you are returning home on Saturday wearing the clothes you wore out on Friday, and you're hoping no one you saw last night will see you this morning, because...) I never had a book with me - it might get lost, and someone would have to die.

But she was curled up in her rumpledness over two seats absolutely engrossed in Georgette Heyer's Simon the Coldheart, which I hope is not a reflection on the person with whom she spent her evening of debauchery prior to the post-debauch, requisite journey of shame. More likely, she was imagining a time when one could debauch oneself in a dress with 15 crinolines and not wash for months at a time. We're so amateurish these days.

On the train, I spent the majority of my time very happily engaged with my first Balzac novel, Old Goriot. But you know me, I made time to peek over people's shoulders and drop things in the aisle so I could look up at people's books to read their covers. I also, of course, employed the professional book creep's secret weapon: pretending to go to the lousy, rank, infected train washroom in order to promiscuously look over 10s of people's shoulders in quick and reckless succession. This is an imprecise method for I always miss a few, but there is also always success.

In this case, the first book I saw was Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. I've met or encountered very few people who've managed to finish this book (I found it atrocious and never managed to get even past page 20 any of the three times I tried) but this youngin' (early 20s WASPy man) was in what looked like the home stretch, with fewer than 50 pages to go. So kudos to him.

The question is: was his ability to finish Rushdie's most notorious novel reflective of his zen-like commitment and imperturbability, or his righteously awful bad taste in literature? If I had quizzed him, would it have been the "Satanic" or the "Verses" he liked best? If the former, I would recommend him to read The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce for a more satisfying experience with more plot, and if the latter, I would recommend The House at Pooh Corner for the edification of his obviously imperiled, but not entirely lost, soul.

The second book I caught sight of in my superhero-esque swoop through the aisle was Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love - one of the usual suspects discussed in a recent post. I have not read this book. I am not sure, but I don't think the title is ironic and therefore I can't bring myself to read a book that tells me, in this day and age, earnestly to eat.

Laird, what does this woman think this world is, 1950/60s America when babes were babe-lier for being curvy (oh Marilyn!)? You evil tempter, Gilbert, this is the 21st century, where womens in their 30s are expected to wear jeans made by and for 10-year-olds on a strict diet of lettuce leaves, cigarettes, and laxatives. Elizabeth Gilbert clearly didn't watch the Oscars last night or she'd know that she's about to have some McCarthy-esque blackballing dropped on her probably totally fat (like size 4 (gasp!) ass). I think I've heard rumours that Sarah Jessica Parker is going to put out a fatwah on her too.

Closer to "home" on the train, the woman one row behind me and to my right was reading Qiu Xiaolong's The Mao Case, which is one of these Inspector Chen mysteries I've been thinking about trying. (Thoughts, from anyone who's read any of these?)

This woman was disregarding the stern commands of the almighty Skeletal Parker and mowing down on the biggest tin of mixed nuts the world's ever seen (well, the nuts in the tin, not the tin itself). She had more mixed nuts than a Christmas party in a Salvation Army church basement where the Boney M Christmas album is on and is turned up to 11. And she was eating them in a sort of frantic way which I recognize as the result not of either starvation or addictive eating, but as a sign of being at a part in the book in which Extremely Tense, Horrifying, and Awesome things happen and the only way to deal with the tension that doesn't involve either rocking back and forth or crying aloud is to stuff your face constantly. I recall doing this very thing with the Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov and most of The House at Pooh Corner.

Also, she may have been ensuring herself the utmost distraction from the Olympic mouth-breather/snorer who was sitting in the seat next to her. When 18-year-old skinny guys snore that much I can only suggest that they apply for a grant from the government now, because that shit is only going to get worse.

Nearby as well, I saw someone reading Peace Child by Don Richardson, and this is where the "more creepy than even Bookphilia" comes into the story. This white-haired lady was sitting in the seats in front of me and I had to lean in like Jack telling Olive Oil "HEEERREEE'S JOHNNNY" to see what she had on the read. I didn't say it out loud, don't worry. So, she was settled in with her read and I was settled in with my read when we stopped at Oshawa to let in more passengers.

Here's where the creepiness got turned up to 11. (And while this feature celebrates creepiness, I would have much preferred to have been able to choose listening to Boney M rather than note what follows.) First, I noted the subtitle of this book, which is this: Imagine Sharing the Gospel With a Tribe of Cannibals Who Admire Judas's Betrayal More Than Jesus' Sacrifice. To which should have been added a bevy of !!!!!!!!!!!!s and some photos of righteous white people looking SHOCKED and DISGUSTED. Creepy book, all of a sudden, and creepy of sweet Grandma lady for reading religious martyr-y porn-y stuff. Really, why can't we N. Americans restrict our racial paternalism to movies about white ladies saving young black men from lives of poverty?

But then, she was totally out-creepified by two of the new passengers. Seats on this trip were assigned, like on an aeroplane, and she must have read her ticket wrong for two late middle-age people, a pair of breeders who looked about as in love with each other as Philip Pullman with C.S. Lewis, came up to her and began with no hesitation to scream their fucking heads off at her for trying to steal their seats! They really left no time whatsoever for the woman to apologize or even check her ticket but glared at her like some Stepford children at an adult with brown hair and a desire to chose between chicken and fish on long-haul flights. So, the jungle heathen-hating reader was humiliated by the suburban heathens, oh lord, and forced to move two seats back and share a seat with a most likely sinnified young lady who is probably not married and has probably also at some point had sex (but didn't appear to be taking the train ride of shame home. That would be rough.).

The male half of this loving couple, it turns out, was reading James Patterson's The 8th Confession. He and his adoring wife spoke naught to each other at all between Oshawa and Kingston and that was a blessing for I felt a satanic temptation to goad them on to ever greater heights of rage and apoplexy to see if they'd explode in a blinding flash of light. Because they were quiet, I did not have to destroy them. Also, I'm a coward, so OMFG, thank goodness I didn't have to try to destroy them! I don't want to fiiiiiiighttt!!!!

And that concludes this edition of Curious/Creepy. I will be returning to the big city at an obscenely early hour on Wednesday morning, for I have to be at work for 11, and I doubt I will be sufficiently lucid to spy on anyone. I suspect I will only be able to stalk one thing that morning: delicious, evil, so delicious coffee.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The psychology of silk underclothes has not yet been fully considered

Over at The Guardian online, Daniel Tapper laments the impending loss of what he calls "lucky-dip reading", that is, the discovery of a brilliant book outside one's comfort zone, stumbled across via the declining art of the leisurely book browse. Tapper argues that as more and more book shopping is done online, people will become less and less likely to pick up something they wouldn't normally read, buy it without knowing anything about it, enjoy it, and thus have their reading horizons broadened. He predicts increasingly strict and very narrow readings structures defining people's experience of books, and I agree with him that this would be a great loss, on many levels.

He may be more right than even an alarmist like I would like to admit. For every 19-year old who comes in to my shop looking to buy everything Pearl S. Buck ever wrote because she just read one and loved it (this happened Wednesday), there are 10 people looking for the kinds of usual suspects Tapper laments on behalf of frustrated booksellers in the UK - Stiegg Larsson, for one, and more in my experience, Khaled Hosseini, Alice Sebold, Audrey Niffenegger, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Further, 30-40% of my shop's sales occurs online and this percentage will likely only increase. More and more people have decided what they want to read before they arrive, which makes random and wonderful discovery unlikely. Not that it doesn't happen. It certainly happens here and while I am currently on a semi-obsessive 19th-century fat novel kick, the "lucky dip" approach is still generally my personal emm ohh. And being able to engage in the lucky dip without spending money has made me even more willing to read a book entirely without any cushioning information.

Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is an example of this very thing. This novel has been kicking around in my shop for a few months. I hadn't heard of it before it came in, and I did not read the back cover copy or even the author bio until I was done. I simply picked it up a couple of days ago and began...and it was lovely. Purely and simply, lovely.

Miss Pettigrew is a 40-year old, down at heal, unemployed governess in late-1930s London; the novel regales us with her adventures after she's accidentally sent to a rising entertainment star's apartment to ask for work. Delysia LaFosse (yes, she's as delicious as her name suggests) invites Miss Pettigrew in only to have the latter save her from a series of social disasters with style, aplomb, and a great deal of grace and hilarity - characteristics Miss Pettigrew would never have attributed to her drab and fading self before.

Don't worry about my having revealed the bones of the plot to you - this novel is, like P.G. Wodehouse's novels, entirely about how the events are described, not so much about what occurs. If the title of this blog post, lifted from one of Miss Pettigrew's ruminations on how dressing effects how she deals with others (p. 93) doesn't tempt you to read this novel, let this snippet convince you:
"Would it harm her to marry me?" demanded Michael.
"It would be the very best thing for her," said Miss Pettigrew with decision.
Michael beamed cheerfully.
"Discerning female," he exulted. "You and I are friends. Didn't I say you had sense?"
"You mentioned it," said Miss Pettigrew.
"Have you any influence over that ridiculous mistake she calls a mind?"
"I don't think so," said Miss Pettigrew unhappily.
"I thought not. She hasn't got sense to know when an influence is good."
"Oh, but she's so nice," begged Miss Pettigrew.
"She's a damned, irritating wench."
"But very lovely," pleaded Miss Pettigrew.
"Yes, confound her, but not the sense of a mouse."
"But does she need it?" asked Miss Pettigrew earnestly.
"A bit of grey matter would do her no harm."
"But I thought men didn't like brains in women."
"I do. That's why I'm different, so God knows why I picked on her."
"She has sense," said Miss Pettigrew spiritedly.
"Then why doesn't she use it?"
"I don't know," sighed Miss Pettigrew.
"Because she hasn't got any."
"I'm in the room, you know," said Miss LaFosse in her lovely, chuckling voice.
"Be quiet," said Michael. "This talk is serious. We don't want folly intervening." (pp. 152-53)
And this fantastic, snappy back and forth just continues! Watson was truly gifted not only at producing the hilarious one liners, but also at stringing together pages and pages of them in a row. I found this book to be as amusing as any good Wodehouse novel, but with characters - especially the unique and unforgettable Miss Pettigrew - more three-dimensional than his. Truly, a lovely surprise and one that speaks in favour of the satisfaction that may be gained through playing a little library or bookstore roulette.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Late to the party

Since the publication of Three Day Road in 2005, Joseph Boyden has been Canada's literary darling. Well, he was until Lawrence Hill published The Book of Negroes and now Hill is the darling; now, I guess, Boyden is viceroy darling. But still, being second in command when it comes to making serious readers say and write things like "SQUEE!" is a good position to be in.

I am not going to squee!!! about Three Day Road, although I think it's pretty good in lots of ways. The thing about arriving so late to a squee party such as the one inspired by Boyden's first novel is that there's been five years' too much hype; all I've heard since 2005 is how AMAZING and BRILLIANT and PERFECT it is and HOW MUCH I WILL ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT. Well, no.

The novel certainly had some really good moments - Niska's narrative interventions in particular struck me - but it's wildly uneven. There were points at which I was absolutely enthralled and didn't notice as I plowed through 50 or 100 pages without looking up. On the other hand, there were equally long stretches in which I counted off every page and wondered what the hell had gone wrong. Boyden is certainly too young in his career to be suffering from an unearned case of the Haruki Murakami syndrome; he shouldn't yet have an editor who's become sleek and fat and lazy on his past successes and does no work because people will buy up his author's publications no matter how un-good they are. Whether or not Boyden has an editor of questionable ability or energy levels, there were several key things which worked against me loving this book.

First, I suspect Boyden's primary talent is in short story writing, for the best parts of Three Day Road could have been plucked out and read as self-contained examples of such (like that amazing first windigo tale near the beginning or Niska's dramatic and hilarious rescue of Xavier from the residential school). These segments just possessed so much more narrative energy and good writing than the larger parts of the overall narrative set in France.

Second, it's really hard to do anything narratively unique with World War One. In Canada at least, images and stories of the first great war are so ubiquitous as to constitute cultural memory. We have these heritage moments that throughout my childhood and still now are played on the t.v. with regularity. Images of trench warfare, in particular, are here, I think, just as familiar as images of the Vietnam War in the US. So, writing about World War I requires some other perspective, something to make such history seem unfamiliar, or it must be used only as the narrative's background - the latter of which Pat Barker does so well in Regeneration. Boyden does nothing new with the details; he studiously hits key points in Canadian military history in the war in such a way that I felt Boyden and I watched literally all the same WWI movies and tv heritage moments over the years.

Yes, the focus on two native snipers is original BUT here's the third problem: the primary narrator, Xavier Bird, is about as flat as they come. There is nothing either memorable or unique about him; in fact, he is almost, but not quite, allegorical (if I want to be generous and not simply say cliché - for not only does he play the cliché soldier who naively falls in love with a whore, but he also plays the cliché young native displaced from home and trying constantly to hold on to his connection to the earth and nature, etc). It's not that either of these things couldn't be done well, because I'm sure we've all read books in which authors take clichés and make them entirely new and seem entirely real; but Boyden doesn't achieve this here. Conversely, Xavier and the novel's other characters while sometimes functioning either almost mythically or allegorically, don't do so completely enough to dispel the negative aspects of being, essentially, ciphers.

Fourth problem: This book tries too hard to be "literature" instead of just being a really good yarn, and yarn-making is where I think Boyden's talents really lie. He is not good at creating characterological interiority; he is good, when he allows himself to do so, at writing really good stories.

Finally, there's the issue with how this book is marketed. While Xavier is the primary narrator in Three Day Road, his aunt Niska sometimes tells the overall tale from her point of view. As a bush Indian born in the 19th century and entering upon old age when Xavier returns from France in the 20s', she is firmly steeped in traditions threatened, but not entirely destroyed by, European settlers. This is a book about Canada and the war, but it's also about how one maintains native identity in the face of a ruthlessly encroaching imperialist culture. In this country, this is something that should not be forgotten as one of the only forms of racism that is openly tolerated here is racism against natives. I'm not objecting to the subject matter, obviously.

I feel a little weird about how strenuously Boyden's heritage became integral to the novel's reception. He is listed in the author bio as of "Irish, Scottish and Métis roots" and this was repeated ad nauseum whenever the book was discussed on tv, in the paper, etc. On the one hand, this assertion of a shared cultural history with the subjects of his book separates him from writers of the dominant culture (in Canada, like the problematic W.P. Kinsella) who "write" native culture without really knowing anything about it, or just as importantly, without respecting it.

On the other hand, Boyden's status as both an insider and an outsider - for he is partly Métis, and Métis can very often "pass" if they so choose - complicates his position as representative of an oppressed native "culture" (and, it must be said, there are many distinct native cultures in this country). This marketing move brought to mind a biting poem of Sherman Alexie's, first published in 1996 in The Summer of Black Widows. Alexie is American but I think the point applies:
"How to Write the Great American Indian Novel"

All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.
Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.

The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably
from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.

If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender
and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man

then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.
If the Indian woman loves a white man, then he has to be so white

that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.
When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps

at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature:
brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.

If she is compared to murky water, however, then she must have a secret.
Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.

Yet Indian secrets can be disclosed suddenly, like a storm.
Indian men, of course, are storms. The should destroy the lives

of any white women who choose to love them. All white women love
Indian men. That is always the case. White women feign disgust

at the savage in blue jeans and T-shirt, but secretly lust after him.
White women dream about half-breed Indian men from horse cultures.

Indian men are horses, smelling wild and gamey. When the Indian man
unbuttons his pants, the white woman should think of topsoil.

There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape.
Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.

Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions
if they are in love with Indians. If a white person loves an Indian

then the white person is Indian by proximity. White people must carry
an Indian deep inside themselves. Those interior Indians are half-breed

and obviously from horse cultures. If the interior Indian is male
then he must be a warrior, especially if he is inside a white man.

If the interior Indian is female, then she must be a healer, especially if she is inside
a white woman. Sometimes there are complications.

An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman
can be hidden inside a white man. In these rare instances,

everybody is a half-breed struggling to learn more about his or her horse culture.
There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.

For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender
not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.

In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.
There are tropes, used by non-natives to write native culture that Alexie responds against, in this poem and elsewhere, and Boyden uses many of them. Does it make it okay that Boyden does so but has some personal connection to native culture? I don't know. See, this poem both elucidates the marketing problem I'm trying to get at and it confirms it! It confirms it by suggesting that only natives can writes native characters and that others are co-opting something that isn't theirs and that this will have real results in terms of destroying the culture of real natives. Which means people like Boyden must be framed as really native in order for their works not to be automatically assumed to be the product of cultural imperialist co-opting...And this could just go on forever without us getting anywhere.

Maybe what I disliked most about the choice to "market" Boyden's ethnicity is that it suggests to me the publisher's distrust, both in Boyden's book to be suitably respectful and complex on its own, and in readers who I think ought to be treated like they're not stupid-heads, even if it's not true. People don't get less dumb and uncritical by being treated as though they are completely lacking in the ability to think for themselves. Having Boyden's heritage displayed so prominently is like the publisher is telling us it's okay if there are some questionable moments of representation here because look!, he's brown-ish! I don't know who should feel more offended by this - Boyden or his readers.