I spent about forty-five minutes at Moe’s the other day, and it reminded me of every single reason that I love being in bookstores (aptly as I just, by the powers vested in me as overseer of this blog, named it the #1 Bookstore in the East Bay). It’s not something I’d maybe put into words before, and it’s more than the fact that they’re filled with books, which one can subsequently purchase. It’s because a good bookstore visit is like a portal to the entire interior world.
As someone who can be kind of introverted, unadventurous, a homebody, the world can sometimes feel small. On especially hermit-y weekends it’s about the size of my apartment. (Again: small.) It’s also the size of my routine: the sidewalks that take me to work, the bus stops I wait at, the lunch spots I go to, the cubicle I somehow spend forty hours a week inside of. It’s no bigger than my regular news sources, and email, and Facebook. It’s the people I deign to see on a regular basis.
So imagine how delightful and how freeing it is to step into a space where tangential un-thought-of worlds open and explode around you, in unexpected ways. You pull a book off a shelf and it’s like you suddenly see, not just what’s on the page but everything that page implies, everything it could potentially lead to—consecutive nights of reading, long philosophical discussions, knowledge of untold unthought-of things. An entire hinted-at world. Opening and exploding.
It’s the next best thing to skydiving. Or seizing the day, the way they do in, like, pharmaceutical commercials.
At Moe’s, we spent forty-five minutes on the basement level and never even made it to the second floor (fiction). And it was still enough to inspire this blog post. Moe’s basement level—which is more like Floor negative-0.5, because it’s just a few steps down from the entrance—has a substantial music section, some children’s literature, critical theory, and a bunch of fiction that for some reason is not on the second floor (fiction).
Where to begin. There were full Wagnerian opera scores. There was loose sheet music from old Hollywood films dating from 1933. There was a two-volume set of Mozart’s letters, PUBLISHED IN 1866. ($65 for the set.) There was a multi-volume collection of Henry James works. There were children’s books from when I was a child (the self-same edition of The Secret Garden that I had/still have). There were children’s books from when my parents were children (or at least youngish: an original printing of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 1974). There were children’s books from when really old and/or dead people were children (Folk Tales from the Far East, 1927, with illustrations).
There were compact, modest new paperbacks with stunning artwork of Ray Bradbury’s best-loved novels. There was a full shelf of Vonnegut. There were Beatles guitar fake books.
EVERYTHING ONE COULD WANT. If by “everything” you mean more than one could possibly hope to conceive of in one forty-five-minute period, what with the limitations of the human mind and all that. A finite “everything,” but subjectively, still, everything.
And you leave thinking, buzzing, full of ideas and subjects and fodder for your theories, big and small, grandiose and mundane (I like both kinds). You come away more than you were.
And I could not, conceivably, come away empty-handed in such a situation, even though I’ve been trying to limit my book purchasing in anticipation of a very big upcoming move. I left with the sheet music for “Love Songs of the Nile” from talking picture The Barbarian (for my Orientalist music collection, of course), the aforementioned Folk Tales from the Far East collected by one Charles H. Meeker (who in 1927 was apparently a high school history teacher in Florida, formerly a teacher in the Philippines—for my old book/Orientalist book collection, of course), and The Martian Chronicles.
Here’s pictures of Orientalia and otherness that I encountered on this wonderland-freaking-visit. And The Martian Chronicles.
Following up on my popular (kind of) post of the 10 best bookstores in San Francisco, and as an East Bay resident of almost two years, I’ve decided to tackle the East Bay’s best bookstores. To be fair, when I say “East Bay” I’m really only talking Berkeley and Oakland, since those are the only places I go (and, you know, the most interesting parts anyway). If you have suggestions to add from more remote East Bay cities—Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Hayward, et al—please forward. Or if you think I missed any in Berkeley and Oakland, please forward as well! Disclaimer: All best-of list are totally subjective and subject to vehement disagreement.
1. Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley
Legendary bookstore on Berkeley’s equally legendary Telegraph Avenue. (Note: Telegraph Avenue is also the name of a recent Michael Chabon novel, though the release party was a few blocks up and over on College Avenue—see #6.) The first day I went to Moe’s, there was a fire down the street. It was my birthday, November 20th, 2011. I had just moved to Berkeley, and my dad, who went to UC Berkeley in the 1970s and lived right off Telegraph, claimed there were two bookstores you needed to go to in Berkeley, and one of them was gone (Cody’s). Moe’s was the other. I guess my point is, it was a fateful, apocalyptic-y day– and Moe’s did not disappoint. There are four floors of books—and before floor two I was already bowled over by the critical theory and music sections on floor one. Fiction and history reside further up, and on the top floor is an antiquarian bookstore, something I have no use for as a consumer but I love to look around in anyway.
PAIR WITH: Amoeba Records and some low-end college grub (which abounds).
2. Half Price Books, 2036 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Half Price is part of a massive nationwide chain, headquartered in Dallas of all places, so I was hesitant to put it here. But because it’s a used bookstore and because I’ve gotten a whole freaking lot of use out of it, I decided to bestow it with second place recognition. I literally end up here all the time. It’s huge, spacious, utilitarian, unpretty, and full to the brim of cheap and completely serviceable books. Just today I popped in with no intention to buy and was sorely tempted by a $5 Emily Bronte, a $6 Lorrie Moore, and a $7 Henry Miller. (Only left with Lorrie Moore.) If you’re more concerned with quantity of books than quality of space, go here. It’s worth it. Though I hear their buy back rate is pretty abysmal.
PAIR WITH: Phil’s Sliders and a nerd visit to Games of Berkeley.
3. Walden Pond Books, 3316 Grand Ave., Oakland
This used-and-new bookstore is just right. Not too big, not too small. Not too esoteric, not too mainstream. With just the right dash of Oakland-style anarchism. It’s one of those bookstores where, wandering between the stacks into some hushed, dusty back corner, I’ve become quietly enchanted—a bookstore it factor. Walden Pond has it. (That’s no small compliment.) Speaking of Oakland, if you’re one of those folks who thinks Oakland is scary and inaccessible, 1) you’re wrong, and 2) this is one of the dozens of areas you should come to to be proven wrong. The Grand Lake area has a historic theater, charming restaurants, and a good mix of yuppie chains and indie storefronts, plus a big ass lake for your lake-related activities pleasure.
PAIR WITH: A long stroll-slash-hike around Lake Merritt.
4. Pegasus Books, 2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Pegasus is a lovely three-location East Bay chain, though I’ve mostly frequented this one in downtown Berkeley. The Shattuck location feels like a very large room and the outside is electric blue. I always head straight for the raised loft-ish area in the back, which carries fiction, history, social science, and ethnic studies—in addition to my regular reading, I’ve found at least two straight up historical, as in pre-1910, printings here for my collection. One of these was discovered in a bargain box sitting outside of the store. Also, last time I was there, they were selling a complete World Book encyclopedia collection. Bonus points for nostalgic elementary school library flashback.
PAIR WITH: Buttermilk fried chicken and mashed sweet potatoes at Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen (maybe browse here while waiting forever to get seated?)
5. Shakespeare & Co., 2499 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley
Of course this doesn’t come close to its namesake (?) in Paris, which I had the great honor of visiting in January 2012, but it does to an extent replicate French Shakespeare & Co.’s musty old library aesthetic. Maybe that’s why they wouldn’t let me bring my coffee in (but there’s a Peet’s right across the street—bookstores and coffee go together!). This version is also slightly more spacious-feeling, in that it has tall ceilings and you can spread your arms without hitting a bunch of super old books. But there’s just enough of that old timey old book charm to make it worth repeated browsings.
PAIR WITH: Peet’s (after you’re done) and a thrifted sweater from Buffalo Exchange.
6. Diesel Books, 5433 College Ave., Oakland
Diesel, located in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, has a hip, urban feel to it, and the space is clean and decidedly unhaphazard. I chalk this up to its SoCal roots (the only other two locations are in LA)—following this logic there must be an aesthetic break between North and South, where NorCal favors things like wood and block letter prints and messiness while SoCal/Diesel favor industrial flooring and tidy arrangements. I prefer the former, but the latter is still nice. I was first introduced to Diesel because they temporarily transformed into “Brokeland Records” for the opening of Berkeley resident Michael Chabon’s new book Telegraph Avenue, so they clearly have some cool author and book events too.
PAIR WITH: Upscale window shopping, wine bars, and Zachary’s Pizza
7. Builders Booksource, 1817 Fourth St., Berkeley
Builders Booksource is an art and architecture bookstore, and I am neither artist nor architect. Yet I enjoy every visit. In one of those visits, I purchased one of the few “art” books I actually own, a photography collection called Paris in Color. Builders recently downsized to half of its original space, but continues to hold strong on Berkeley’s bustlingly adorable Fourth Street. Every time I pop in, I’m inspired by something or other—last time it was a photography collection of Islamic-inspired architecture in America. Road trip idea!
PAIR WITH: Chartreuse and orange furniture browsing at CB2, Crate & Barrel Outlet et. al., a structured/deconstructed top from Anthropologie, and a slice of pizza margherita from Bette’s To Go
8. University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
This long, narrow little bookstore across from the UC Berkeley campus has a great selection of university press (hence!) books, with tall, impressive bookshelves and an academic air. Having once aspired to work at a university press (Stanford or University of California would have sufficed, though Columbia would be a dream), I find their entire premise exciting. The website notes that they aim to stock “an intellectual and literary realm of infinite richness, ever renewing,” which is also pretty exciting. In short, good finds.
PAIR WITH: A walk to and from the Campanile and a classical music-scored coffee at Musical Offering
9. A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland
Besides having a great good adjective-laden proper-English-be-damned name, A Great Good Place for Books also has a sweet little space in Oakland’s tony Montclair neighborhood, a super helpful staff, and an adorable small-town local feel (when I was there, a little girl came in to find a gift for her friend, and the cashier said, “Oh I can tell you what she has, she was in here yesterday”). It’s very small—basically a long room laden with a fiction/nonfiction wall, and then a quaint back area for children’s books—but they make the most of their space. Also, side note, all of the storefronts in this area have thatched-ish European-y Disneyland-esque roofs. Too cute.
PAIR WITH: I haven’t been, but “The Montclair Egg Shop”? A must try. Also several cute ice cream places in the vicinity.
10. Books Inc., 1760 Fourth St., Berkeley
This Bay Area mega-chain was also on my San Francisco list, mostly because they are ubiquitous and reliable and still smaller than Barnes & Noble. My personal Books Inc. is the one on Fourth Street, simply because it’s close to my house. It’s small but inviting, with large glass doors and very helpful clerks who make reasonably good recommendations. And they don’t mind all the (countless) times I’ve come in “just to browse.” Down side: I’ve had a Frequent Buyer card for over a year and still haven’t gotten a free book. Can they lower the “buy ___, get one free” threshold just a bit?
PAIR WITH: Travel luggage ogling/trip fantasizing at Flight 001, then picking up some handmade ravioli to take home from The Pasta Shop
For the last week I have been adding new words to my “favorite words” list, which isn’t an actual list but something I have vaguely kept track of in my head over the years (past favorites: idiosyncrasy, verisimilitude). Sometimes I like a word because of how it sounds. Plain and simple. “Juxtaposition!” But sometimes I like it because it’s like a portal into its meaning, which of course is only the beginning of its meaning, because aren’t words kind of like ciphers, arrangements of letters and sounds and whatnot, sometimes forcibly squared away into discrete objects or alphabetical permutations, but that can remotely access great wells of significance and the barely differentiated oceans of continuous meaning that constitute the human encounter with the world?
Maybe that theory is a bit grandiloquent. (Favorite.)
But anyway, this past week I came up with two new favorite words, in comparatively rapid succession, kind of by accident. Because they both do that access-y meaning-y thing, where they can be used literally to describe a thing or they can be thought through more deeply or used as a metaphor.
Anyway, I’ll just tell you what those two words are. Without any explanation or anything. One is “deconsecrated” (found in a New Yorker article about high art puppet shows, in which the featured players are rehearsing in a deconsecrated church). The other is “enharmonic” (meaning two musical notes, like D-sharp and E-flat, that have different names and functions but are, at pitch, the exact same note).
This is a roundabout way of telling you that my own personal word guru is Vladimir Nabokov (I wonder if he’s ever been called that before?) and I think I’ve gone on enough about him in the past, but I just finished reading his memoir Speak, Memory so I need to go on a little more about how he is the master of all things words. I’ll stick to the point.
Vladimir (we’re on a first name basis) started the reminiscences that constitute Speak, Memory as a young man, which roughly cover the period from his birth to the birth of his first and only child Dmitri, though he didn’t finish and publish them until sometime in the 1960s. He has a remarkable memory for detail, like superhuman—it seems memory, like writing, entomology and synesthesia, was an innate talent.
For me, the ultimate Nabokov fangirl (I wonder if anyone else has ever described themselves that way before?), this work is a real treat, because it allows the reader into the thoughts and feelings of the man, the myth, the legendary author. As much as I love his fiction, it can lean too heavily towards the cerebral, a showcase of his magisterial intellect and imagination, while missing a warmth or a tenderness or any window into Nabokov’s own humanity. Maybe that’s not fair—I think the warmth is there, but it’s faint and subtle and buried. His most famous protagonist is a monster. His family relationships are distant and ridiculous, and his love affairs tend to be all-consuming, fiery instruments of their participants’ destruction.
Which is why this sublime passage from the end of Speak, Memory is, for me, so revelatory (note that towards the end of these recollections, he begins periodically addressing the narrative to a “you” that can only be his wife Vera; the most overt manifestation of the fact that all of his books are dedicated to her):
“Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time… It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.”
So, freaking, romantic. If you’re into that kind of thing.
Anyway. It’s hard for me to explain why I love Vladimir Nabokov so much (beyond posting long samples of his writing). I think I should just consider myself lucky that I’ve found an author that so consistently and so unexpectedly impresses and thrills and delights me, that I love not only as a writer but as a person, and yes that includes the times where I come across something about him and am like, “Vladimir, why do you have to be so stuck-up about writing?” or “Vladimir, what’s wrong with you that you don’t like music?” but that’s normal with anyone you love.
The things that DO make him lovable: his awkward feelings about public speaking. His strangely pompous humility (how can you be self-deprecating about your own writing in writing so grand? Er, grandiloquent?). His obviously deep love and attachment to his wife and son. His ethics (which will of course be politically problematic on several points in retrospect, but which generally tended to abhor racism, anti-Semitism, violence and tyranny; his wife Vera was Jewish; though, also close to home, he never quite accepted his brother’s homosexuality). And—DUH!—his butterfly hunting!
Speaking of which. One of my favorite and most adorable and endearing passages from Speak, Memory, about the unwanted attention he draws when going about his butterfly-hunting business (something he loved from childhood all the way to his death):
“America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have—perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand. Stern farmers have drawn my attention to NO FISHING signs; from cars passing me on the highway have come wild howls of derision; sleepy dogs, though unmindful of the worst bum, have perked up and come at me, snarling; tiny tots have pointed me out to their puzzled mamas; broad-minded vacationists have asked me whether I was catching bugs for bait; and one morning on a wasteland, lit by tall yuccas in bloom, near Santa Fe, a big black mare followed me for more than a mile.” (131)
So for anyone who loves Nabokov three eighths as much as I do, Speak, Memory is like an ostentatious gift of words that’s dropped in your lap and you almost feel guilty that you get to indulge in it. But the words are finite, and one thing that I tend to do—and maybe others can relate—or maybe I’m a big weirdo—is be constantly cognizant of the finiteness of the things I love and the time I get to spend with them.
This phenomenon manifests most overtly when I’m on a trip and I start to panic a little as the days slip away, all the more so if I felt they weren’t used to their utmost potential. But it also manifests in books, music, etc. When I first got into my favorite band Radiohead in early college, I had an exquisite first few months of acquainting myself with and acquiring their ten-year catalog, and then (until In Rainbows) one day it was gone. When I first started reading Harry Potter, the last book had already come out and I’d seen four movies, and I got to rip, leisurely, through all seven books without the anguish of the multi-year gaps that my hipper friends had to wait through. And then after Deathly Hallows it was gone. When Fellowship of the Ring came out I watched it four times in the theater, five more times at home before the second movie came out one year later, bought every theatrical and extended edition and CD soundtrack, plus film production picture books, plus at some point acquired one life-size Legolas poster (it was a GIFT), and then Return of the King came out and I saw it opening night and it was exhilarating and it was gone. Until The Hobbit, kind of.
I still have a ways to go through Nabokov’s entire oeuvre (favorite), but I feel the end, creeping up on me from behind Pale Fire and the rest of his Russian Period. I guess the best thing to do is enjoy it while it lasts.
…So here I am again. Talking about Nabokov, Radiohead, and Lord of the Rings. Some things don’t change at least.
It has long been told in my family that James Herriot, the veterinarian-turned-author-of-veterinarian-exploits, All Creatures Great and Small, was from the same small English town as my mother’s father’s family. Thirsk sits a ways outside of York, in northern Yorkshire, in the north part of the country. When I visited with my mother and grandmother several years ago, we popped into the Herriot Museum in quaint downtown Thirsk—decided we didn’t want to pay admission—then walked up the way to the church where my grandparents were married and my relatives were buried.
Recently my mom mentioned that our family connection to James Herriot might be a little more solid than mutual residence. My great-grandmother, Gertrude Wombwell Hardy, was a larger-than-life character, short, solid, and thoroughly outgoing. (She did after all come from circus folk. “Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie.” Apparently this is for real.) She had two stubby Pekingese that were named—wait for it—Chinkie and Chummie. Who could have foretold that her granddaughter would someday marry a man of the East? (And that little Chinkie’s name would become* a racial slur. But I digress.)
*This verb contingent on your own theories of language, of course. Did it become one or was it always one? Yada.
Anyway, as my mom deduces, great grandmother Gertrude could only have taken her two darling dogs to the only veterinarian in town, Mr. James Herriot (real name: James Wight). Thirsk has grown today to a bustling metropolis of 5,000 people, but in the 1940s it was much smaller. Further, as my gran deduces—based on Herriot’s practice of simply fictionalizing his real life, his town, his townspeople in his books—one of his characters was probably based on Gertrude. I haven’t read his writing so I can’t say which one. My mom says she thinks Gertrude might have disappeared into a composite character of a wealthy woman who called her dog “Trickie-woo.”
My only familiarity with All Creatures Great and Small was the BBC series based on the books that ran from 1978 to 1990. This is still how I think of it.
But this is what my mom and gran deduce. Because Gertrude was quite a real-life character (“putting on airs,” as my gran described it), because she had five boys (“boisterous,” as my mom described them), and because the Hardys owned about fifty zillion (but less than ten) local businesses over the course of their professional life (including a milk bar, and a pub), Gertrude Wombwell Hardy could not have helped but left an impression on the local veterinarian. This is our evidence.
I like to picture that James Herriot knew my grandpa and his brothers when they were little boys, or when they drove fish and chip deliveries around town in their bike + sidecar setup as youths, but according to Wikipedia Herriot opened his practice in Thirsk in 1941, which was in the midst of World War II—and all five of the Hardy boys had entered the service. Sidney (No. 1) and Fred (No. 5) joined the Army; Bert (No. 3) and Geoff (No. 4) joined the Navy; and Dudley (No. 2, my grandfather) joined the Air Force as a truck driver. He never saw combat—was discouraged from becoming a pilot after seeing two men die in a fiery crash at his air strip. Lucky, then. Fred was evacuated at Dunkirk. Bert died in the sinking of the HMS Diamond in the Aegean Sea.
(Also lucky was my paternal grandfather, who with the rest of the barrack basketball team at his Arizona internment camp went to sign up for the war—once Japanese Americans were allowed– but was turned away because of an inner ear problem. Some of them died in Europe. The teleology of genealogy: Of course our forefathers had to survive to proliferate.)
This is my personal family literary history. This is the only famous author I can currently say I have connections to. (Besides knowing people who know Dave Eggers.) I guess it’s doubly romantic and exciting because it reminds me that my history extends outside of my own lived experience so snugly contained within the confines of California. And that my great grandmother might be in a book.
Last week at the Books Inc. two blocks from my house (good news: there’s a bookstore two blocks from my house; bad news: it’s not a used bookstore), I flipped through the introduction to Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and then decided to buy it. Two reasons: he referred to himself as the “white sheep” in his non-college-educated family (a little self-congratulatory, but a clever inversion of an idiom nonetheless), and this line in response to being called “one of the major lyric voices of our time”:
“As Keanu Reeves, the Hawaiian balladeer, would say, ‘Whoa.’”
From these things I decided I liked him. It doesn’t take much. It’s like when you’re talking to a person for the first time and you find out what music they listen to, or which of your jokes they laugh at. First impressions matter. Same is true for writers.
When I began my lifelong quest to read every single great piece of literature ever written in the English language, I started at the Borders in Davis, CA. Not totally auspicious, but within walking distance to my college apartment. I guess I have a thing for walking distances. That Borders is gone now, as are all other Borders; in its place stands a Whole Foods. But I have the fondest of memories in that transformed space—aisles of overpriced grain products where the overpriced CDs used to be—because it’s where I started my relationships with several of my absolutest, positivest favorite authors, who I still to this day am madly in love with.
What I would do, is I would drift towards a title based on its name and its reputation and its book cover, and then I would get a sense of it from the back cover description, and then I would open to the first page and see if I liked what I read, if I saw the literary relationship going somewhere, if we were I guess verbally compatible. I readily admit this isn’t always the best way to find a great book. There have been plenty of first-pagers (as I call them) that turn out to be not-so-interesting, and plenty of slow-starters that have become all-time favorites.
But sometimes first impressions are correct.
Here’s my first-pagers. Emphasis on the words I loved the most.
The Satanic Verses
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again…” Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky.
“I tell you, you must die, I tell you, I tell you,” and thusly and so beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night. “To the devil with your tunes,” the words hanging crystalline in the iced white night, “in the movies you only mimed to playback singers, so spare me these infernal noises now.”
Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohé, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.”
I was transfixed by this opening. So magical realist, so fantastical, so virtuosic! Two men falling from the sky? The one, Gibreel Farishta, a flamboyant, histrionic Bollywood actor flapping around and singing; the other, Saladin Chamcha, a fastidious and completely assimilated British Asian who wants to fall straight down in peace. Already hinting at grand themes of faith, country, catharsis, transcendence, which are further explored as Gibreel begins to turn into an angel, and Saladin into a devil.
Nowadays, I like my magical realism a little less hit-you-over-the-head, but Rushdie immediately got major props for creativity. The whole first chapter was an exhilarating dream sequence of a twenty-nine-thousand-foot drop which, incidentally, the two men survive. I devoured this book. Then read Midnight’s Children, which I like even better. Is genius. Also recommended: Shame; East, West; The Enchantress of Florence (less substantial but still gorgeous, gorgeous words).
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.
I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.
Kind of a polar opposite, stylistically, from Rushdie—Vonnegut has the most spare, straightforward, ironic of mid-century American writing styles. If given the choice, I tend to favor the virtuosic over the concise, but sometimes there’s beauty in sparseness. Sometimes there’s a lot of weight in what’s not said. That’s what I felt with Vonnegut.
It starts right off with a question: how much of this is real? How will I know whether he’s making things up, overdramatizing? (As I now understand it, most of the war parts are true. Most of the parts with time travel and Tralfamagorians: not true.) Then there’s a flip observation: there’s probably a lot of human bone in the ground at Dresden. Pain, trauma, horror without measure wrapped up in a Vonnegut’s dryly humorous semi-sci-fi tale using very few words, because some things you can’t really express. Boiled down to its essence in the refrain: “So it goes.”
This is still my favorite Vonnegut. Also recommended: Cat’s Cradle; Welcome to the Monkey House (short stories).
It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
Yossarian was in the hospital with pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.
Each morning they came around, three brisk and serious men with efficient mouths and inefficient eyes, accompanied by brisk and serious Nurse Duckett, one of the ward nurses who didn’t like Yossarian. They read the chart at the foot of the bed and asked impatiently about the pain. They seemed irritated when he told them it was exactly the same.
“Still no movement?” the full colonel demanded.
The doctors exchanged a look when he shook his head.
“Give him another pill.”
Nurse Duckett made a note to give Yossarian another pill, and the four of them moved along to the next bed. None of the nurses liked Yossarian. Actually, the pain in his liver had gone away, but Yossarian didn’t say anything and the doctors never suspected. They just suspected that he had been moving his bowels and not telling anyone.
Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed. There were extra rations of fresh meat, and during the hot part of the afternoon he and the others were served chilled fruit juice or chilled chocolate milk. Apart from the doctors and the nurses, no one ever disturbed him. For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience. He was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay on because he always ran a temperature of 101. He was even more comfortable than Dunbar, who had to keep falling down on his face in order to get his meals brought to him in bed.
The first page of Catch-22 was just a total WTF, and so was the rest of the first chapter, and I liked that. Absurd, inane, hilarious, confusing, somewhat disingenuous, as if the whole narrative is playing a trick on you. And yet—like Slaughterhouse Five—the irony masks a core of pain and horror, similarly experienced firsthand by Joseph Heller (is he Yossarian?) during his service in Italy. So funny, and then horrible things happen (image that stands out in my head is the bottom half of a person standing on a raft offshore). And the Snowden chapters! So heartbreaking. The entire mood is captured in the problematic of the title: one of those “if I don’t laugh I’ll cry” situations.
This is the only Heller I’ve read, so I can’t in good faith call him “one of my favorite authors,” though I think this book is brilliant. He’s something of a literary one-hit wonder. Though if you are so inclined I believe there is a sequel.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
The Holy Grail of books. My most favoritest of favoritest authors. The ecstasy of Nabokov’s prose is evident from the opening lines of his greatest, and for obvious reasons most controversial, work, the deconstruction of the syllables of Lolita and the many names of Dolores Haze, not to mention the first glimpse into the disturbed psychology of erudite narrator and sickening sex offender Humbert Humbert. His words are unmatched. He has the uncanny ability to make me feel like I’m not reading but seeing, at the same time that I am hyperaware of each and every one of his verbal feats.
Turning to the second page, I was further enamored by his sense of humor:
“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”
That parenthetical made me laugh. Nabokov may paint beautiful, intensely detailed narrative pictures, but when he doesn’t want to waste time on description, he throws out two words and gives you everything you need to know. “Picnic. Lightning.” Bam.
As may have been mentioned on this blog before, Lolita started an eight-year relationship (still going strong) with Vladimir that has taken me through Ada, or Ardor, Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and his brilliant Short Stories, and I’m currently reading his enchanting Speak, Memory—probably the best memoir I’ve yet to encounter. I don’t use the L-word too often (or maybe I do, but usually for un-serious things), but I. Love. Him.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
First line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
First line(s): “‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’ There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.”
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
First line: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
There’s more. It’s a lifelong quest.
Please check it out on the SevenPonds blog:
That should sufficiently cover it so I won’t have to blog about it here too :)
Travel Writing and the American Gaze: The Best American Travel Writing, edited by Anthony Bourdain and Jason Wilson
(Disclaimer: I feel super obsolete writing a review of a 2008 collection. In fact, I even felt obsolete reading this book in public. The downside of including years in collection titles [as opposed to, I suppose, big Roman numerals, or even Arabic numerals; see the “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD series]. I’ll just pretend that 2008 was a good year for wine and travel essays.)
I would never have read this book, but my mom happened to have it and was no longer interested in reading it. My mom regularly checks out plastic-coated hardcovers from the library that some American woman or British man or vice versa wrote about their lovely summer or decade in Tuscany or the south of France or Venice or where-have-you. She thought this would be in keeping with her reading proclivities, but no— the book is instead filled with reporter-at-large type essay dispatches from Chad, Cambodia, northwest Pakistan, Turkmenistan. Full of danger and discomfort; not stories where you necessarily want to trade places with the protagonist. She blamed series guest editor Anthony Bourdain, whose brand is after all titled “No Reservations.”
She thought it would be my thing though. And I guess it kind of is.
The diversity of the stories and the journalistic clarity of the writing (the most-represented major publications here are The New Yorker and Travel + Leisure, with some Harper’s and Slate thrown in) made for consistently interesting, entertaining reads. I’ve never followed travel writing as a genre, but there’s something to be said for getting the opportunity to be thrown into a far-flung place for 6-12 pages at a time, learning minutiae about a country or city or neighborhood you’d maybe never have thought of otherwise, much less visited.
But I have my complaints. And I don’t know if I should lay these complaints at the feet of individual writers and editors, or upon the shoulders of the genre as a whole.
The first thing that struck me, several stories in, was that most of the writers were men. Four out of the twenty-five essays were written by women. It took about ten essays to get to the first woman-penned story, and, lo and behold, it was a super-short, semi-humorous, quasi-poetic reflection on a bathroom hookup with a hot Israeli in a Brazilian youth hostel (“Mr. Tingler,” by Emily Maloney). Not exactly comparable in gravity to, say, the embedded reporters in African war zones (see: “African Promise,” by J. Malcolm Garcia; “The Border,” by Peter Chilson).
I get that this is largely a question of access. While women can and do travel most of the world, there are places and contexts where they aren’t quite as welcome, and spaces that are not as easy to penetrate and move freely in. (Exceptions, maybe, can be found in Kristin Ohlson’s “Kabul Nights,” in which she visits secret restaurants in the Afghan capital, and Annie Nocenti’s “The Most Expensive Road Trip in the World,” in which she and a female documentarian ride along with Qatari princes and real estate magnates on a falconing trip through some of Pakistan’s least hospitable parts.)
This lack of representation makes sense, but it’s still disappointing. It’s like living in a little world where, superficially, women have every opportunity that men do, but then zooming out and remembering that they don’t, that the outside world is even farther from a liberal paradise than America is.
When I went to Lebanon solo (I swear, I’ll shut up about this some day), I felt extra apprehensive because of my gender. My fears proved mostly unfounded, though I definitely attracted strange looks wandering the streets of Beirut by myself, taking pictures. When I arrived in Paris, before my (male) friend met up with me, I was hassled by two separate panhandlers in front of Sacre-Coeur within two minutes; after he joined me, there was no similar incident for the remainder of the trip. When a female friend told me about her solo travels in Eastern Europe, she recommended attaching oneself to older local women to safeguard against creeps. Shit, even here, when I walk home from BART at night, I have my spidey senses on for the entire walk home (it’s generally a pleasant enough suburban neighborhood, but there is the occasional crime in the area and there’s almost no street light, which turns every shadowy passerby into a potential misogynistic psychopath).
So maybe there are problems in other parts of the world, presenting us with a stark dichotomy of gender access, and this isn’t the fault of the authors or editors of any one travel volume. But my other complaint was the way the writers themselves, these American men, talked about the cultures they visited, in particular foreign women, their interactions with them and how they are treated by their countrymen: what I like to call the American gaze.
In particular, two stories rubbed me the wrong way. The first was “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” by Jeffrey Tayler. You might already be apprehensive because of the title. I was too.
“The Woman in the Kuffiya” is a short, three-page personal anecdote originally published on WorldHum.com. In it, Jeffrey Tayler retells a brief encounter he had with an Arab woman in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, in a town called Harran. He is walking along a road by himself, “lost in thoughts about history and the Bible.” Then, the young woman in the kuffiya, or red-and-white-checked Arab scarf, pulls up her horse-drawn cart and offers him a ride. She speaks no English, and he converses with her in his limited Arabic. Her name is Hawa’. He asks if she is married, she is. She offers him fresh baked bread. She complains about the men in her village and how lazy they are.
But mostly, Tayler is captivated by her beauty. When she first releases her kuffiya, it unmasks “a comely, full-lipped mouth and clear bronzed skin.” Aware of the fact that he is in an Islamic country, he tries to avoid staring, but “she was just too beautiful.”
When they reach his destination, he turns to say goodbye, and they share a charged gaze filled with a shared “repressed lust.” Then she readjusts her kuffiya and moves on.
Tayler ends by contemplating the strength of his attraction to this woman. The last two lines:
“The oft-maligned Islamic custom of purdah does much to preserve passion in its most urgent and ineffable form. No topless beach has ever, to me, looked the same after Harran.”
I’m really not sure how to take this. On the one hand, he could be commenting on the paradoxical tendency of sexual repression to perversely promote sexuality and bring it to the forefront of thought, something Foucault wrote about and Russell Brand adapted in a bit to apply to the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings, which I don’t disagree with. But what else is happening here? Is he Orientalizing/fetishizing Islamic womanhood? Is he placing an entire culture and its participants within the context of his own male, desirous American gaze? (“Gee whiz, I don’t really believe in women covering themselves, but now that you mention it, it’s pretty awesome for my libido.”)
Admittedly, it’s a brief, subjective piece, and it’s Tayler artfully, un-self-consciously reproducing the experience exactly as he lived it. But sometimes the way we live things doesn’t deserve to be transferred unfiltered from head to page, where it can sit with an undue sense of its own weight and authority.
The second story was “Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World,” by Seth Stevenson, originally published on Slate.com, about the author’s through-the-looking-glass trip to Dubai. This one I was a little more ambivalent about, because in some ways it feels like it could have been written by the male me. Like “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” it’s more overtly subjective than most of the other essays in this collection, and the dude doesn’t try to hide his insanely American and Western worldview. In fact, he comes off sounding like he’s never even been a travel writer before this moment—there’s a sense of innocent wonder in his story lacking in the work of the other writers, who tend to favor feigned objectivity or, at the very least, wry appreciation.
On the flip side, Stevenson’s naïveté also means he seems to have embarked on this little journey with only the shallowest understanding of Islam and the Arab world, likely gleaned from cable news channels and newspaper headlines. His mission: to understand the bizarre spectacle of capitalism in the middle of the Middle Eastern desert that is Dubai, and to extrapolate that to grandiose statements and solutions on the East-West cultural divide. For him Dubai is confounding: how can the Arab world have its own answer to Las Vegas? How can a religion so often at odds with Western civilization enjoy the fruits of our decadent, consumerist system?
For the most part he tackles these questions with humor and levity, and for the most part that’s fine. But at one point, he goes into a little “aside” in which he lists three bones he has to pick with the way women are treated in the U.A.E. He puts these “bones” in list form, which was such a total me move that I almost liked him for it—but then, the content of this aside was stunning in its ignorance (not me, I hope):
“1. It seems horribly unfair that the men’s dishdashas are white, while the women’s long cloaks (called abayas) are black. I ask you: Which would you rather wear beneath a blazing desert sun? If Arab culture weren’t otherwise so progressive on gender issues, I might say this was a clever means of discouraging women from leaving the house.
2. The unfairness becomes crystal clear when you go to the beach here. The Emirati women keep their abayas on. Meanwhile, their husbands strip down to tight, short bathing suits—exposing their flabby stomachs and hairy backs.
3. I’m fine with the headscarf that covers the hair. (This seems not unlike wearing a yarmulke.) But the face veil is fundamentally different and, in my view, not okay. One cannot happily contribute to society when one has no face. The veil transforms women into a pair of downcast eyes. And again, it seems, more than anything else, like an enticement to stay at home.”
Oh. Kay. So. Many things wrong. Here.
…Let me respond with my own mini-listicle.
1. Seth, you’re speculating. Nothing else in this fun little story gives me any confidence that you’ve studied Arab history, social or sartorial, so I’d be careful about making any bold hypotheses on the development of gender practices, lest you influence a young mind as impressionable as your own. Read: Your one visit doesn’t make you an expert. And that whole “progressive on gender issues” line? Just snarky. Especially because I feel like you’d be one of those people who’d ask me how much I had to cover myself in Lebanon and how hot it was in the desert there. (For those people: No more than here, and Lebanon isn’t desert.)
2. Considering your #1 and #2 make the implicit assumption that these hypothetical beachgoing couples are Arab, your observation on the hairy backs sounds vaguely racist.
3. Oh, so we’re starting from the place where all things associated with Jewish culture or religion are deemed “good” and a Western-sanctioned benchmark as to what types of head coverings are acceptable? Alright, so with that potentially flawed premise, let it be known that Seth is fine with the headscarf, but he draws the line at the face veil (as he calls it). “Not okay,” says Seth. Those women are oppressed, those men are bad, and Seth is standing by shaking his head. It’s just that simple, people.
Anyway. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the part that gave me the most pause. The pausiest part was later, as Seth tries to wrap up all of his uninformed observations and cultural aggrandizement in one neat little bow, if that bow were a horrible anecdote that somehow managed to be offensive to both Western and Eastern sensibilities at the same time.
It happens when he and a friend go to a club called Cyclone, which is full of prostitutes. The scene disturbs him: young, attractive women playing up to old, bald men, as security looks on to make sure “transactions” are made outside of the club and not in. He even notes the “desperation” in the air, as strong as the scent of one of the Hungarian hooker’s perfume. After scurrying out:
“Let it be said: I have witnessed sexual deviance being tolerated—or at least ignored—within the borders of a Muslim country. And I’m declaring it a promising sign. If there’s one thing the West and the Middle East can come together on, it’s a Hungarian hooker.”
Whether or not this was slightly tongue-in-cheek (it may have been, but still ultimately fit with the overall earnestness of his article), this sentiment kind of took me aback. Coming together over the shared notion of women as prostitutes? Hookers as preferable to women wearing veils? Middle Eastern society being viewed as “progressing” no matter what attribute of Western society it adopts/shares? So creepy in so many ways. (And really: you witnessed sexual deviancy in an Arab, Muslim country? Do tell! …This is kind of like the moment when you’re a certain age and you realize your parents had to have sex to have you.)
Note that the entire essay was written from the point of view of someone who clearly deemed himself a progress-minded liberal, who ended his little story by criticizing some British teenagers who called the Arabs backwards. Racist teenagers. Always easy bait. (See: Twitter.)
These were the two stories that I found the most problematic, maybe in part because of my own focus on the Middle East. But there were others, other stories that produced uneasiness about the nature of the white, male, American gaze, activated in a foreign land. “African Promise” by J. Malcolm Garcia, which unquestioningly adopts the ironic phrase of the title. “Dark Passage” by Peter Gwin, which comfortably revisits Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. “Wheels of Fortune” by Peter Hessler, which basically talks about how much everyone sucks at driving in China.
Travel literature by its very nature must be subjective, a reflection of the society the writer represents entering the society the writer visits. For the American traveler, the American gaze is unavoidable. But I wonder—as a newcomer to the genre—can you write around it? Can I take the scribblings in my travel journals of yore, which admittedly contain signs of my own American gaze, and translate them into something I’d be comfortable publishing? Do Americans have to encounter the world this way—so limited, yet so assured?
I’d be interested to know. Because I kind of want to be a travel writer.
A couple weeks ago, I had a bookstore dream. (It happened in Seattle, a place with its own reason for bookstore dreams.) In my dream, I was a little upset, see, because I was growing tired of a long-standing arrangement which had a bookstore being set up in my apartment living room every weekend. Who knows how long this had been going on, but I was tired of it. Why? Because their merchandise was getting mixed up with my own personal book collection, such that I was coming home to find books missing from my bookshelf, having been sold accidentally to my living-room bookstore’s clientele (which, apparently, I had no shares, rent, or financial stake in). Most annoyingly, I was missing single books from trilogy collections: The Golden Compass, The Rosy Crucifixion, The Lord of the Rings. Just one or two from each. I was working up the nerve to tell the living-room bookstore staff to please keep their books separate from mine, before the dream melted back into unconsciousness or some other dream, and was thus never resolved.
As a dream, this was less a nightmare than it was simply absurd. The fact that I so willingly accepted the premise that my living room was a bookstore, in retrospect, revealed the total unreality of the memory. But were that absurdity to be transposed onto real life—if such things happened, if there was such a lack of respect for reality that a retail business could be set up, sans permission, in my personal space—it would be a nightmare, wouldn’t it?
I’d never read Franz Kafka. I knew him as the waking-up-as-a-bug guy. I knew him as an overused adjective (Kafka-esque, successfully skewed in an episode of the now-defunct animated show “Mission Hill”). I knew him from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” in which Borges argues, intriguingly, that an artist creates his own predecessors, who previously have no reason to be thought of as part of a continuous tradition. Most of all, I knew that his shit was supposed to be weird.
The Trial is like one long nightmare. It’s very similar to Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which together seem to form a tradition of early 20th-century European surrealist imprisonment literature. Except that unlike Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C., Joseph K., Kafka’s protagonist, is never actually imprisoned, in the literal sense.
Instead, at the beginning of The Trial, Joseph K. comes home to find that he has been accused of a crime by the Court and will, at some undefined point in the future, face trial for it. He is not imprisoned. He is not told the nature of his crime or its punishment. He is simply allowed to go on living his life, knowing that someday, he will have a trial.
The rest of the book follows K. through his tribulations as he goes about his normal life working in a bank downtown while also trying to work out his legal defense and learn the ins and outs of the courts. K. learns that the Court is basically a horrifying, immovable bureaucracy:
“For although the pettiest lawyer might be to some extent capable of analyzing the state of things in the Court, it never occurred to the lawyers that they should suggest or insist on any improvements in the system, while—and this was very characteristic—almost every accused man, even quite simple people among them, discovered from the earliest stages a passion for suggesting reforms which often wasted time and energy that could have been better employed in other directions. The only sensible thing was to adapt oneself to existing conditions. Even if it were possible to alter a detail for the better here or there—but it was simple madness to think of it—any benefit arising from that would profit clients in the future only, while one’s own interests would be immeasurably injured by attracting the attention of the ever-vengeful officials. Anything rather than that!” (151)
K.’s reality often becomes surreal—absurd—and this is unsettling, to say the least. His visits to Court buildings and his dealings with those who work for the Courts—and, increasingly, those who don’t but end up having weird connections to them anyway—have a disorienting effect. The buildings themselves are labyrinthine and oppressively stuffy. All of the people K. meets seem less like subjective figures with their own thoughts, feelings, and ambitions than they do simulated humans who exist only to play a part—or a conspiracy—in K.’s life: dream-people. (Shuddery.) And everything, ultimately, seems to lead back to the Courts.
The most absurd, and hence the most nightmarish, part for me was when K. visits a painter who might have some inside connections that will help him navigate the Court. He drives way out to an obscure part of town, climbs a winding, claustrophobic staircase followed by a trio of silly whispering teenage girls, then enters the painter’s strange apartment, where the painter is working on a portrait of a judge that “strikingly resembled the portrait hanging in the lawyer’s office.”
The apartment is very stuffy, and at one point during their conversation the painter offers to open a door; the door he indicates is, oddly, in the wall behind his bed, partway blocked, and K. hadn’t even noticed it until that point. (Like in dreams when things are one way, then they abruptly change, but you have to accept that they’d been that second way the whole time and it’s maybe your cognizance and not the reality that is flawed.)
After a long conversation with the painter, K. finally decides he must leave, and this is where it gets really freaky. The painter for the first time opens the door behind his bed, saying, “Don’t be afraid to step on the bed”:
“K. would not have hesitated to do it even without his invitation, he had actually set one foot plump in the middle of the feather bed, but when he looked out through the open door he drew his foot back again. ‘What’s this?’ he asked the painter. ‘What are you surprised at?’ returned the painter, surprised in his turn. ‘These are the Law Court offices. Didn’t you know that there were Law Court offices here? There are Law Court offices in almost every attic, why should this be an exception? My studio really belongs to the Law Court offices, but the Court has put it at my disposal.’ It was not so much the discovery of the Law Court offices that startled K.; he was much more startled at himself, at his complete ignorance of all things concerning the Court.” (205)
What a twist!
I guess it freaked me out because not only did this turn of events have a haunting, conspiratorial effect—that K. cannot go anywhere without being within the Court’s grasp—it also represented a lack of respect for reality, giving all of K.’s movements through the narrative a surreal, absurdist, practically Escher-ist (maybe Charlie Kaufman-ian?) bent. How could there be law offices in this tall, unwieldy apartment slum, in this forgotten part of town? What kind of architecture would support this unexpected addition just outside the painter’s high-floor studio, which K. had come upon by a different entrance altogether?
The story ends with the inevitable: K. is executed for his unnamed crime. He never learns how to appropriately pass through the Court system—and it’s just as well, because along the way he met several other accused men who had been facing trial for years and were, while still alive/free, virtual prisoners to the system, at the complete mercy of the lawyers and judges and officials of the Court.
The last passage, in which K. is led by his two executioners to a quarry to face his punishment, is striking. K. looks up and sees a human figure lean out of a distant window with arms outstretched:
“Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or was it mankind?… Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.
“But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.” (285-286)
In the grand tradition of the family saga which includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and, to a lesser extent, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury comes American author Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which follows the Greek-American Stephanides family over three generations culminating in the biological and spiritual identity crisis of the narrator, one Calliope “Cal” Stephanides.
Ever since this novel came out a decade ago, I’d been under the impression that it was primarily about the experiences of a sexual hermaphrodite, as evidenced by the title. Calliope starts life as a girl, and spends thirteen years believing she is female until, upon hitting puberty, she discovers she is actually a boy. She has a rare condition that results in a not-quite-penile “crocus” which doesn’t fully show itself until adolescence. And so at age thirteen, Calliope becomes Cal.
Serendipitously, the Stephanides family lives in an ultra-modern multi-level house on a street called Middlesex, which becomes a metonym for this period of Cal’s life. This is one of several heavy-handed devices Eugenides employs that, in my opinion, keep this great book from being truly genius.
More on that—but as I said, despite my first impressions, Cal’s condition and sexual identity are not necessarily the most important part of the book, though they contribute an intriguing backdrop. It essentially is a family saga; more precisely, an American immigrant family saga. With Cal leading the way, we start in Bithynios, a tiny Greek village in that netherland that has historically alternated between being part of Greece and being part of Turkey. This is where Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are from. The Greco-Turkish War is on. After their village is destroyed by Turkish troops, they escape to America with a bereaved Armenian doctor in tow.
Everything about this novel is inexorable. Cal never lets us forget that all of this history results, ultimately, in him. Overtly, this means that his grandparents’ incest (clearly a prerequisite to any family saga), his parents’ lesser incest (first cousins), and the eighty-something Armenian doctor he gets stuck with as a child because of family loyalty contribute to his abnormal condition and the belatedness with which it is discovered. Less overtly, this novel is about the immigrant experience, about coming to America, about being in America and belonging elsewhere and always having that somewhere else inside you. And so here also does his family’s story constitute his own identity. Everything is teleological.
Middlesex is also hugely informed by Eugenides’ own experiences. First of all, Eugenides… Stephanides. Same number of syllables. Second, Greek. (Jeffrey E. is half.) Third, growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, as he did. Cal spends his early childhood in Greektown in Detroit until the city’s auto boom begins to bust, at which point his father’s restaurant fails and then the race riots occur. One thing I liked: in a subversion of textbook-American history, Cal portrays these as a legitimate revolution:
“So was it a riot or a guerilla uprising? Let me answer that question with other questions… Why had General Throckmorton deployed his tanks on the East Side, miles from the rioting? Was that the kind of thing you did to subdue an unorganized gang of snipers? Or was it more in keeping with military strategy? Was it like establishing a front line in a war? Believe whatever you want. I was seven years old and followed a tank into battle and saw what I saw. It turned out that when it finally happened, the revolution wasn’t televised. On TV they called it only a riot.” (250-251)
Also, Eugenides spent time in Berlin in the early 2000s, which is where we find Cal as a forty-something man as he narrates his chronicle.
I’m always interested in the ways authors have or have not lived the experiences of their protagonists—the geography, the chronology, the demography, the education, career, relationships. Like my favorite WWII authors: Joseph Heller was stationed in Italy as a pilot who had to fly missions, hence Yossarian. J.D. Salinger served in Europe and afterward dealt with stress and emotional trauma, hence Seymour Glass, and also the narrator of “For Esmé.” Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when the Americans firebombed it, hence Billy Pilgrim and Slaughterhouse-Five.
This, in turn, makes me wonder if one can truly write about something they haven’t lived. How do you fabricate something out of nothing? How do you write honestly about a place, a time, a person you never were? Makes me think of a quote from Angels in America– another work about this great land of ours– by (best character) Harper Pitt: “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions… Nothing unknown is knowable.”
(And this is why I can’t write fiction.)
Eugenides has written three novels, and while certain elements of his life undoubtedly informed The Virgin Suicides (growing up a boy in 1970s suburbia) and The Marriage Plot (I haven’t read it yet, but probably being an English grad student in the 1980s), Middlesex feels the most like it very closely follows his own life’s trajectory. Besides, of course, the hermaphrodite part, though who knows if this isn’t some vague externalization of an inward gender struggle.
Also, like any family saga worth a darn, the genealogy is stretched and overlaid onto the macrohistory that is occurring in the background, in the real world, like a less silly Forrest Gump. Henry Ford makes an appearance, because Lefty works in his factory. (An awesome scene where Lefty’s English class puts on a “melting pot” pageant at which Ford is in attendance, complete with the students in ethnic costumes climbing into a fake pot and changing into red-white-and-blue, as teachers stir with giant spoons.) The riots. Cal does LSD in San Francisco. Bigger things are happening; the family’s story is bigger than itself.
This is a beautiful book, and it contained moments of brilliant honesty, but I found myself a little disappointed in what occasionally felt like a simple lack of originality. Some of the more florid passages seemed ripped from a Creative Writing 701 course at Stanford (where Eugenides earned his M.A.), wonderfully executed but missing a soul. The devices were occasionally too clever, the prose too self-aware.
It may be that I was disappointed following my reading (and re-reading) of Eugenides’ 1993 debut novel The Virgin Suicides, which was dazzlingly original: an entire novel told from the point of view of no one in particular, a mass of “neighborhood boys” who witness from afar the tragedy of the Lisbon sisters, in the style of a Greek chorus. The whole narrative of that book felt heavy, dreamlike, unlike anything else I’ve come across. As wonderful and engaging as it is, Middlesex just wasn’t as revolutionary.
“Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I was attracted to a girl? That happened all the time. It was happening more than ever in 1974. It was becoming a national pastime. My ecstatic intuition about myself was now deeply suppressed. How long I would have managed to keep it down is anybody’s guess. But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.” (388)
First. I got a Kindle Fire. Yes, I got a Kindle Fire. An electronic reader; or, an “e-reader,” as the kids are calling it. Something I swore never, ever to do, something that undermines all the values I hold most dear and strikes at the very core of who— I— am.
That’s not true, it’s actually not that big a deal. In part, because I will always retain my love for books, the physicality of books, their tangible existence, but also because the Kindle Fire is less a reader and more a mini tablet, with email and internet and photos and apps and games and etcetera. In fact, what I’m loving most about it so far is the brilliant screen with its high definition and vivid colors. Fruit Ninja looks phenomenal. My Southwest photos look editorial.
And what I’m discovering (though my relationship with the Kindle may change—it’s still early) is that, principally, I think this little guy* will make an excellent magazine reader. I already signed up for a subscription to Vogue (a sign of the medium’s potential salvation?) and the photo spreads and layouts are, no exaggeration, freaking gorgeous. I actually think they might look better in digital than on the page. The white glow emanates always outward, from the spread itself, a superior luminary arrangement to the glossy page’s tendency to reflect large crinkled spots of daylight that in passing obscure the ink.
This admission of digital superiority is an implied blasphemy on my part, coming into conflict with my core tenet that the page always trumps the screen; but I think as long as I limit that blasphemy to magazines, as interactive and visual and occasionally tawdry as they are, I can still belong to my church. (Not that one. The bibliophile one, that holds congregation at used bookstores.)
*He still needs a name. Idea: Pantalaimon?
Moving on. A few months ago, I made an impulse buy at an architects’ bookstore in Berkeley: Paris in Color, a photo collection by American-in-Paris Nichole Robertson. Having recently been to Paris, and having some of my favorite movies set in Paris (Amelie, Moulin Rouge, Paris, je t’aime), and aspiring to be an American-in-Paris, and just, generally, being a Francophile (or maybe, more accurately, a Paris-phile), I thought that a visual hodgepodge of the city would be perfect for my collection, even though I tend to avoid art books: the ones you don’t read but just awkwardly look at from time to time.
Awkwardness aside, this lovely little offering from Chronicle Books (awesome San Francisco-based publisher that focuses on art-related and visually appealing books) is slightly unusual in that its representation in Paris is, well, so colorful. Separate sections devoted to purple, pink, blue, yellow, orange, display every chroma Paris has to offer; even though the city tends to be associated with black, gray, beige, red, and, I suppose, the gold-yellow of its lights. The photos also eschew touristy or landscape-y views for closeups: chairs, signs, bicycles, awnings. My favorites are the patisserie menus, written in chalk cursive. Very evocative of the being there.
But I still associate Paris with those aforementioned moody colors (just like I associate London with browns, whites, reds, and royal blue). Maybe that’s why my favorite sections are the black and the white. So pretty!
And to my aunt, if she’s reading this— thanks for the Kindle (a.k.a. Pantalaimon)!