Saturday, February 16, 2008

Mac's Reaction to Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World

The Kingdom of This World is my favorite novel by Carpentier. I much prefer it to his more famous Los pasos perdidos. It is the product of Carpentier's experience of what he called "Lo real maravilloso" [the marvelous real]. The straighforward believing tone of the narrator about the abilities of Ti Noel and Macandal in the supernatural (e.g. becoming a goose at will) is evidence of the style that some would later call Magic Realism, where the magical is normal, but the real is considered magical (the classic example is José Arcadio's reaction to ice in One Hundred Years of Solitude).

The novel also deals with the brutality of absolute power, and how Haiti has suffered at the hands of those in power, no matter the color of their skin. The novel's brevity is amazing given the rich narrative and imagery Carpentier uses. A less gifted writer might have needed another hundred pages to accomplish the same effect. I can't quite figure out how to explain that I find the novel to be memorable, even well above-average, until the end, when it becomes one of my all-time favorites. This is the passage that moves me to the point of tears and makes the novel just plain perfect at the end:

Ti Noël had squandered his birthright, and, despite the abject poverty to which he had sunk, he was leaving the same inheritance he had received: a body of flesh to which things had happened. Now he understood that a man never knows for whom he suffers and hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know, and who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either, for man always seeks a happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him. But man's greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is. In laying duties upon himself. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no grandeur to be won, inasmuch as there, all is an established hierarchy, the unknown is revealed, existence is infinite, there is no possibility of sacrifice, all is rest and joy. For this reason, bowed down by suffering and duties, beautiful in the midst of his misery, capable of loving in the face of afflictions and trials, man finds his greatness, his fullest measure, only in the Kingdom of This World. (Trans. Harriet de Onís)

It is our ability to be altruistic as we struggle and toil through life that brings us closer to the divine. That is why this life, the kingdom of this world, is when we must prove ourselves.

Man, Carpentier was talented.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mac's Reaction to The Abstinence Teacher

The Abstinence Teacher tells the tale of a divorced female very liberal sex-ed teacher named Ruth who gets into trouble because she tells her students that some people like oral sex (imagine that). This sets the local evangelical church into a tizzy and they force the school board to adopt an abstinence-only sex-ed curriculum. Meanwhile, a divorced born-again reformed drug-addict named Tim somehow comes to coach Ruth’s daughter’s soccer team. His own daughter is also on the team, and after a severe collision and a come-from-behind win, he is so caught up in the moment that he spontaneously leads his team in prayer. Ruth has a conniption fit, storming onto the field and embarrassing her daughter and the coach. However, try as she might to stay mad about the prayer, she can’t because she’s all hot-and-bothered by the hunky soccer coach. It's a bit more complex that what I've just described, but that's a good summation.

I'm conflicted about this book. Let me explain.

My personal opinion about sex is abstinence until marriage, but, you have to teach kids some of the basics about sex. I think abstinence only is well intentioned, but ultimately doomed to failure for the majority of kids. If Coach Norbert Terza hadn’t shown me the Miracle of Life movie and some basic diagrams, I wouldn’t have known certain things about my own body. Like, for example, when I had my first nocturnal emission, I was actually startled by it, but when I sat down and thought about it, I remembered learning what that was in health class. I would’ve NEVER gone to my own parents about what had happened. EVER.

Sex-ed is important. But, there’s a fine line between allowing someone else to teach your kids, and what your kids need to know that you can’t teach them. I guess the main worry I’d have is that the instruction might lead to curiosity and experimentation. And as much as my loins burned and throbbed in high school, I feel it has been better for me that I didn’t penetrate any flesh, until marriage.

But my problem with the novel isn’t the subject per se; it’s more to do with the presentation. Here are some pros and cons of the work.


The author has a gift with words; he captures all the little descriptive details of any situation which serves to enrich the narrative. He encapsulates moments. In the chapter I cite, the main character is forced to go to an abstinence training seminar because she keeps deviating from the curriculum. The teacher, a marmish do-gooder born-again woman named JoAnn asks them to all write down one sexual escapade that they each regret. One of the alumni, a stereotypical man gym teacher baby boomer named Roger reads his, and this is how the author illuminates the moment:

Roger looked around the table, smiling at each member of his audience, making a preliminary claim on their goodwill. After clearing his throat and cracking his knuckles, he picked up the composition book and began to read.

"Anyone who has given any thought to the matter will understand that the difference between fifteen and sixteen is hard to pinpoint with the naked eye. I have known fourteen-year-olds who look like they're twenty, and seventeen-year-olds who could pass for twelve. Yet for the legal system, the distinction between fifteen and sixteen is crucial and enormous, and woe to the man who finds himself on the wrong side of that line. I accept this--many laws, such as speed limits, rely on arbitrary numbers, and we all do our best to obey them. But who's really to blame when a teenager claims to be an age she isn't? The deceiver of the deceived? Roberta was a camp coun---"

"You know what?" Jo Ann said, raising her voice above Roger's." "Why don't you just stop right there?"

Roger looked up from the page, puzzled and clearly annoyed. "But I just started," he said.

"That's all right, " JoAnn told him, "I think we've all had enough of you for today."

The chapters alternate back and forth between Ruth and Tim. The chapters about Ruth are full of liberal sexual freedom rationale. The narrator takes her side when the chapter is about her. In the chapters on Tim, we see that his struggles to be a good Christian man are sincere, that what the rest of the world sees as phony are the well-intentioned efforts of his heart to bring others the peace that he found through Jesus Christ. Perrotta has a gift for narration. But…..


I will go against critical opinion here and say that I disliked the movie Election (also a Perrotta work). I like reading Perrotta’s works, but damnit if he can’t finish a plotline. The book’s ending sucks. It’s a lay-up. There’s no denouement. The book wants to be Magnolia, but comes off like Crash’s little brother. And I HATED Crash more than I hated Cabin Boy. Only thing is, those movies had endings. Imagine if Magnolia had ended before the rain of frogs, or if Crash had ended about halfway through (actually that might have been better); that’s where The Abstinence Teacher leaves you. (The character) Tim reaches some big decision and then nothing: no closure, no outcome, no nothing. I swear he finished this book the morning after watching The Sopranos finale.

Ruth’s two best friends are a gay couple dealing with commitment issues. Other than being window-dressings, they serve no function in the novel and could be removed without damaging the book. I mean they aren’t even there to make a political point; they are a side plot that distracts from the rest of the novel.

Therefore, I cannot recommend this book because it doesn’t finish what it started. The writing is masterful, but you’ll come away wishing there were something more to it. It was about 40 pages too short.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Book 3: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Apparently Tim isn't going to read my last selection. So, it was an interesting book. I liked it. It examined what happened to all the deities that were brought to the Americas by believers after the people lost their belief in them. Good book. Tim'll never know.

By the way Tim, I'm almost done reading The Abstinence Teacher.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Book 2: Separate Flights, by Andre Dubus

For my first choice in the Dävine Book Club, I selected Separate Flights, a collection of short stories by Andre Dubus. Before I go into my thoughts on the stories, I first want to talk about why I picked this book.

I was in Singapore for a week in September, meeting with our operations department on a project I'm involved with. The jet lag took me four or five days to really overcome -- I've done Europe a number of times, and jet lag to and from there is cake, but going to Singapore was absolute murder on my body. On Sunday, my fifth day in the city, I was finally on a normal schedule, so I got up in the morning and went to church, then came back and watched rugby on TV. At around 2:00 PM I was bored, and I knew I wouldn't be able to make it the whole day without going out (I try to avoid "going out" on Sundays), so I grabbed my book and headed over to the subway, then over to a mall called VivoCity, which was supposedly really cool. I checked it out for a while, took some pictures, grabbed some dinner (sushi, really good), then I walked into a book store with the sole intent of picking my book for this club. I felt rotten at the time. I was lonely. I was halfway around the world all by myself. I had spent four days falling into a daze at 6 PM every night, then wandering the streets (well, taking taxis places, then walking around) in the middle of the night looking for anything interesting to do or see or eat. So I really was in a bad place when I walked into the book store. I felt sorry for myself, I felt like sitting in my loneliness and savoring it, being proud of it.

I had heard about Dubus' writing at many points in my adult life, but I had never read anything of his until I saw a few of his titles in that bookstore. The title of one of his books caught my eye: Adultery & Other Choices. I flipped through a few of them, read some passages, read the covers, and knew very quickly that I wanted to choose a book that reflected my emotion at that moment, and that something by this author was likely my best bet at achieving that desire. I ended up picking Separate Flights, and I purchased it as soon as I was online the next day. It was waiting for me when I got back from Singapore.

So that's the story of how I came to choose this book: I knew it would be dark, I expected it to make me feel sad and empty and lonely like I had wanted at the time, and I knew that it would be different than anything I had read in the recent past, if ever.

On to the book itself: Dubus is an excellent writer. To put it simply, every one of the stories in this book could be described as "Great writing about terrible things." To start, it's clear that Mr. Dubus was not happy with his life; there is a recurring plot line in all of his stories, in some more literally than in others, that he had not seen in life what he had expected of it. There is disappointment in every sentence he wrote. Here's a sample from the title story that reflects the theme of the entire set of stories, and also of Mr. Dubus himself:

At Helen's wedding she had of course cried a little, and for some of the accepted reasons: a daughter had grown, a daughter was leaving, a phase of her own life had ended. But her tears were bitter too, for she knew the rest of Helen's life would never live up to the emotional promise of that day. Like graduation ceremonies where you heard all those words about what lay ahead, then you went out and nothing happened. Helen and Larry would end up, in a friendly way, boring each other, disliking each other.

The other major theme is infidelity, which seemed to stem in the stories from the previously mentioned boredom. In the eyes of Dubus' narrative, marriage is required of everyone, and expected, but it inevitably leads to boredom, which leads to infidelity, often to vice, always to a life of the resolution that we never get what we want, and we have to continue to live with that disappointment. It's quite discouraging. I simply don't agree with Dubus, but I know that his description of men and women was a representation not only of the men and women we all know in our professions and communities, but also of what Dubus himself was clearly experiencing at the time he wrote these stories (and throughout his life, since all of his other stories are apparently cut from the same tree).

Dubus is masterful when it comes to writing about the tedium of life. Not just the everyday things -- doing the laundry and the dishes and jogging and work -- but also the ever-shrinking emotion of those who live "normal" lives. I've never read a book that says so much about so little "real time" without making it seem like overkill. The pace of the stories matches the emotion, and I appreciated it, even though, to put it lightly, it bummed the hell out of me.

I felt down and sad with every story that I read and finished, but that was the goal. Not all literature has to be chirpy or poppy or have happy endings. In fact, life rarely is as happy as we'd read it in books. Dubus did his part to change that perception, and I enjoyed (not in an entertaining sense, but in a life and feelings sense) his pattern of writing about the everyday corners that no one ever wants to address.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mac's Reaction to Andre Dubus' Separate Flights

So, Tim’s selection this time was Andre Dubus’ short story collection, Separate Flights (1975). Andre Dubus had an amazing gift for perfectly describing the minute details of our surroundings. Indeed, his words remind me of Walter Benjamin’s statement about how the camera lense captures “unconscious optics.” Dubus’ words capture those things that our minds see and then forget (which Funes the Memorious was unable to do in the Borges story). His writings are full of trivial details that do not help advance the plot, but their presence makes the story all the more richer. His writing, because of its insistence on minutely detailed realism, reminds me of such authors as Benito Pérez Galdós, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Henry James, George Eliot, and Gustave Flaubert.

With those names mentioned, I must add that I hate Realist literature. I recognize the talent it takes to write realist prose, but I don’t appreciate that talent. I don’t read to get descriptions of everyday life; I experience that every day. I read so that literature will move me, make me feel something that I’ve never, or rarely, felt before. Under those criteria, this collection of stories DID make me feel something. But, what I felt wasn’t exciting, new, or engaging. Rather, it was a loathing of the ins-and-outs of the dreadful waiting game that is the marriage of most people. The slow descent into not loving one’s spouse, of turning to drink and cigarettes to slowly pass the time away—to help one cope with tedium, of infidelity and all the rationalizations as to why it’s okay, of making excuses, of selfishness, of despair and longing and unquenched desire for something that never existed.

The people in Dubus’ stories are miserable, because they choose to be. They are miserable because of their own pride. He notes, often, that the situations they find themselves in could all be reduced with an apology or a declaration of love. But, the people always balk at the last second. There’s selfishness and not selflessness in virtually every story.

I hated “Over the Hill,” “In My Life,” “Miranda Over the Valley,” and I especially loathed "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and “Separate Flights.” “Going Under” was a decent story, but not one I would ever care to read again. I really enjoyed “The Doctor,” and “If They Knew Yvonne” was an excellent read, and a story I might keep in the back of my mind when I write a paper on autonomous morality in literature.

As a married man, I can only read so many tales of adultery before it starts to bother me. I’ve never felt any of the despair and angst that these characters have because my marriage to Mickelle is based on more than just this life, plus I actually like my wife--our marriage wasn't founded on pure lust. My religion teaches me that my marriage in the temple is a covenant for time and for all eternity. To soil that covenant by being unfaithful is unthinkable. Yet, to the realist in me, it is a constant worry. I don’t want to ever become like the people in these stories, so in a way, I’m glad I read this really terrific (in the classic sense) book. It taught how not to be with my wife. Open communication of desires, frustrations, issues, and such is a key to a healthy marriage. The other person can’t respond to a problem if they don’t know about it.

Dubus’ book paints every man in the world is eventually unfaithful. Hardly!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Tim's reaction to "The Book of Dave"

My simple reaction: WOW!

A more in-depth response: I don't tend to look at books from as academic a point of view as Mac does, as my interest lies more in how a book feels and what it means than what it actually says or how it says it, even though one could claim that the study of the philosophy of a book is just as valid as the study of its mechanics. That aside, I found this book to be one of the best feeling and most meaningful books that I've ever read.

The pace of the book was spectacular. Normally I chip away at a book over the course of weeks or even months, but I was lucky enough to read most of this book while I was on my way to Singapore and on the return flight. The pace of the book was so compelling that I didn't want to put it down. There were no lulls -- each plot point flowed freely into the other. It was believable and never caused me to step back and say, "what the?!," even though it was fantastical enough to make me know that it was a fiction, and that it was an attempt at making a statement.

I loved the alternating narratives. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the story moved between plot points with ease, even jumping between narratives more naturally than I expected. Questions were asked in narrative and answered in the other. There were surprises in one that made me love the other.

As far as how I actually felt about the story, the word I walked away with was "hopeful." Now, I'm a religious person, and this story did have a bit of an anti-religious smack at times. There was an undercurrent of a "your religion was made up by the most random person in the most random happenstance imaginable" attitude, but I still felt like Will Self was attempting to instill hope through it all. You could sense the authoer's struggles with religious identity, but even through all that I had the feeling that he WANTS to believe something, and that more than that he believes the tenets of a faith are worth mentioning outside of the context of religion. I read the scriptures because they help me to relate godly lessons into my own life, and, while not a spiritual text or religious work, "The Book of Dave" struck the right chord for me at the right time in my life.

Some pages made me emotional -- Dave's pain was palpable. His discouragement was visible, his anger was noted on every page. That's what I look for when I read a book -- a visual and emotional representation of another life. In this sense, the book was perfect. In many senses, it was one of the best books I've ever read.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Book 1: The Book of Dave, by Will Self

So, Tim and I have started what we’re calling The Dävine Book Club, in honor of our first book: Will Self’s masterpiece The Book of Dave.

I don’t quite remember how, but it came to pass that I got to pick the first book we would read. During the Summer, Idelber Avelar had mentioned meeting Will Self at a conference, and how much he had been impressed by his writing. Avelar is a literary critic extraordinaire, and after reading nothing but Latin-American Literature for the last 12 years, I was itching for something new. I researched Will Self’s work and decided that The Book of Dave sounded like the best-reviewed and most-fascinating of his works.

The novel alternates back and forth between a post-Deluge Ing (England) that has embraced Davananity, the religion of Dave, taken from metal plates found buried in the Forbidden Zone on the isle of Ham (modern-day Hampstead Heath), and the horribly tragic life of Dave Rudman, a mentally-ill (at times) Cockney taxi driver blessed with a perfect recall of the Knowledge. To be a taxi driver in London, one must memorize the entire city; this information is called The Knowledge, and in his mental illness and anger against his lying, adulterous, and frigid wife who lied-to-him-that-she-was-pregnant-with-his-child-after-a-one-night-stand-so-he-would-marry-her, he melds the Knowledge with his misogynistic rants into a new Gospel for a New London. He has the harangue engraved on silver plates and then buries them in his ex-wife’s backyard. At some unknown point in the future after a catastrophic flood, they are discovered, and a new religion emerges based on the cabbie’s diatribe. The masters of this religion create a feudal society that strictly enforces the Doctrines and Covenants of Dave. Comparisons with Middle Age Europe and Spain under the Santo Oficio de la Inquisición are obvious.

But what we have is a society set up around how a blue-collar Cockney divorced taxi driver thinks the world should be run (in the midst of his mental illness). Imagine how you wish the world could be, engrave it on plates, bury it on high ground, and some day it might come to pass. As I interpret it, it seems that the world today is just fine being run by societal consensus rather than a jaded and scorned individual.

There’s a key moment in the book when religious satire becomes clear. We are told that shortly after his divorce Dave starts going to a diner for food every day. He strikes up a friendship with a very devout Muslim. In talking about the Koran, Dave asks the Muslim man if he really takes seriously what “some bloke wrote a thousand years ago.” The man’s response shows Self’s satire of modern religion, because the man answers, coolly, “Not some bloke Dave, it was God,” ending the paragraph and the debate.

Self does some of the usual tricks you’d expect for a book about the future. There are different dialects of English: Arpee and Mokni (get it, mock Cockney?). The terms for everything are bits and pieces of late 20th/early 21st Century vernacular. Breakfast is “starbucks,” the Creation is the “MadeinChina,” and pigeons are “flying rats.” But, it’s not hokey. The accents are fun to read, and a glossary is provided to aid the uninitiated. I only wish I understood a bit more of British slang, because I often found myself not knowing what a word meant, and not finding it in the dictionary.

That’s the gist of it. But, to elaborate, Self’s book is a masterpiece of religious commentary and satire. He examines all the religions of the Book, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and especially Mormonism. Being a Mormon, I see his point crystally-clear. However, my belief in the Book of Mormon has nothing to do with it being a really old book, rather, it’s my faith after having prayed about its truthfulness. I could be totally wrong, but I don’t think that I am. And besides, like Socrates advocated, better to live the virtuous life than one of immorality and angst. The Book of Mormon works for me, just like the second Book of Dave would’ve worked for the Ham-sters had Symun been able to thwart the PCO.