Greasers and Socs Duke It Out: The Outsiders

theoutsidersI’m not sure who recommended S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders too me, but a quick Google search reveals that this book is frequently taught in middle and high schools across North America. After reading it, it is quite easy to see why this is so. The novel features two rival youth gangs, the greasers (lower class and socially marginalized kids) and the Socs (the upper-class kids who jump greasers for fun) and the battle that ensues because of the brutal beating of Johnny, one of  Ponyboy Curtis’s gang members. The novel touches on a number of different themes from violence, gang membership, difficult family situations, and class politics. The Outsiders follows a modified hero’s quest formula with Ponyboy, the protagonist, coming through adversity to discover some new self-knowledge. While I stayed up quite late finishing this book, I am not sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, The Outsiders presents a shallow depiction of class and character with the distinctions between greasers and Socs not really fully developed beyond a case of one side is poor, the other is not. Hinton hints at deeper social issues but does not really explore them in any depth. Then again, she wrote most of this novel while she was 15 and had it published by the time she was 18. Expecting a deep social analysis might be asking too much of the book. However, given that the centre of narrative tension lies in the perceived unfairness of the greasers’ being forced to work for a living and the Socs getting everything on a plate, the failure to speak to class politics seems like a letdown. I guess I found the ending a little too contrived and unsatisfactory. *Spoiler alert* After reading Johnny’s note to him and reflecting on Johnny’s death, Ponyboy decides to write the novel that we have just read as part of an English assignment. While this ending creates a convenient Mobius strip effect, sending readers right back to the start of the narrative, I found it left something to be desired. After all of Ponyboy’s travails, he is content to just play the system and try to get ahead through hard-work and the eventual absorption into the middle class (which remains largely on the peripheries of this novel).

On the other hand, The Outsiders is a great book for young readers. In some ways, I reveled in the simplicity of the narrative, the lack of deep analysis and heavy sophistication. There is something refreshing about this book that stopped my pseudo-Marxist literary analysis from coming into play until I wrote this review. The Outsiders ticks many of the boxes for a high-school English course and I’m certain that I would have loved it had I read it back then. It is an anti-hero story of losers that works and has aged remarkably well unlike say Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower which suffers from too many cultural references and a faulty narrative structure.

So, if read as a young adult novel, The Outsiders is a good read. If you look for more depth, you might be surprised at the shallowness you find.

I would recommend this book to readers looking for a classic young adult read that sparked the YA genre into existence.

Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. 1967.  Toronto: Viking Press, 2007. Print.

Stories From the Hotel: red rooms

red-rooms-cherie-dimaline-paperback-cover-artOkay, I’ve changed up my list and may have to do more changes on the fly as we go. As you may or may not know, I am a PhD Candidate in the middle of trying to write a dissertation. Right now I am doing research (aka. reading a pile of books, red rooms is the fourth I’ve finished this week), so I am finding myself hard pressed to stay on track with 10-10-12. A friend of mine warned me about this problem, so now I am following up on a contingency plan to keep myself on pace.

Anyways, Cherie Dimaline’s red rooms is a series of five interlinked short stories with an intriguing narrative device/framing narrative, but I am not sure that it all pulls together in the end. I had never heard of Dimaline before but have since found out that she is a Metis/Ojibwe writer from Toronto. Although red rooms never names the city it is set in, I get the sense that it is Toronto and the hotel is close to the Skydome or the Exhibition grounds. Dimaline’s narrative device is to set up a narrator, Naomi, who works in house-cleaning at a hotel, a three-star (at most) chain hotel, as a guide to each story. She crafts each story from the objects (and bodies) that are left behind in the rooms that she cleans. I quite like this narrative setup and was intrigued to see what Dimaline would do with it. Having finished the book, I am having a mixed-reaction. On the one hand, there is enough narrative to keep Naomi’s sections interesting (they come at the beginning of each short story), but on the other hand I wish Dimaline had done more to tie Naomi’s life in with the characters of the stories. I felt like there was more to be had from this innovative framing, but Dimaline did not push it.

The stories themselves are well-written and explore interesting terrain. Dimaline’s framing device also means that at some point each story must come back to a hotel room, so that in some ways she is limited in the range of stories she can tell. However, this does not really show through in the book itself (although I can’t really think of any scenarios other than the ones she has covered that would be material for additional stories). Anyways, the first two stories all start with corpses, and, for some morbid reason, I liked these ones best. The first takes up an indigenous prostitute’s perspective and the ending is wonderfully ambiguous. The second takes up a gay Metis man’s point of view and the intriguing relationship he shares with a high end purse shop owner who is dying and obsessed with Metis history. The third story, “Room 106,” features a world-renowned Cree photographer and Demaline does some interesting meta-textual work with indigenous artists here. I think, for me, the problem is in the last two stories. “Room 207” is about the dissolution of an affair between a wealthy man and his Native museum mistress. A large part of the story deals with the actual break-up and I felt that the pacing just got way too slow for my liking. Enough that I stopped reading last night and had to finish today. Dimaline’s stories, at least in this collection, steer away from dialogue and rely heavily on narration. This can be done well but I felt like “Room 207” lacked momentum.  “Room 304,” the final story, is more interesting on a conceptual level in that Dimaline sets up three layers of story with Naomi finding a diary, Natalie (the protagonist of the story and a middle-aged, successful single native mother) reading the diary, and T. the diary’s writer. While I am on board with interesting narrative structures, the diary sections of this story really bothered me. Dimaline writes in a diary tone and I guess it just rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall, Dimaline’s collection shows a lot of promise. The framing device both gives depth to the stories and limits what she can do with them. red rooms is a good read, but I’m not convinced it’s a great one.

I would recommend this book for fans of indigenous writing.

Dimaline, Cherie. red rooms. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2007. Print.

Well That Was That: Dune

herbertduneAfter a couple of marathon reading sessions, I finished Frank Herbert’s Dune. Frankly, I don’t know what to think of it. On the one hand, I could not put the novel down (although I am running behind in the challenge right now, so that might have played a role). On the other, there was some a lot of rolling my eyes throughout these sessions. Okay, Dune predates most mainstream contemporary sci-fi because it was published in 1967. If you’ve seen Star Wars (the old movies … I will not talk about the new ones), reading Dune might seem like Herbert was ripping off Lucas. However, I am almost certain it was the other way around. You have a desert planet, a young hero called to a great destiny, sand worms that eat people, an evil baron/ruler who is physically huge, and so on. Dune has a huge cast of characters, a complicated mythology and history, and a compelling plot line that managed to string me along. The learning curve is initially steep but my edition also included a number of appendixes among which was a handy glossary of terms.

Dune  is also a space opera. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, space opera is “by analogy to soap opera or horse opera science fiction with an interplanetary or galaxy-wide setting, especially one making use of stock characters or situations.” Wikipedia is considerably more direct: “space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, usually involving conflicts between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities.” Although the book is set mainly on Arrakis, the desert planet the book’s title refers to, it is also about changing relationships within the Landsraad (a council of different aristocratic houses) and the Imperium (an emperor held in check by the Great Houses of which Paul Atreides’ father is leader of one). There is galaxy-wide conflict here as the House Atreides continues its blood feud (kanly) with the House Harkonnen. There is also romantic melodrama in the tension of who Paul chooses as wife/concubine, the issue of his mother’s relation to the duke (concubine but wants to be wife but cannot because of political reason). All this to say that, space opera is probably not my thing. While works in the genre create vast galaxies populated by interesting stories, conflicts, and so on, I feel like my appetite for such work has since disappeared. I used to love space operas as a kid (I may have read the entire Star Wars collection in the local library), I am not sure I like them anymore. Perhaps it is because they take on too much self-importance and lose relevance to the contemporary world (Although there are some interesting environmental themes in Dune that some grad student somewhere has written about I’m sure).

Part of my problem with Dune is structural (I am not interested in investing huge amounts upfront just to understand the plot). But part of it is also the content of the book itself. At one point I groaned loudly because of course, Baron Harkonnen (the novel’s villain) has homosexual tendencies which are alluded to throughout. In 1967 this might have had carried popular weight (gays are evil beings), but in 2013 it just comes across as a gross act of heteronormativity. Although Herbert gives women some roles to play in Dune‘s narrative, I kept having a sense that women were ultimately secondary in the grand scheme of the novel. This is a novel about boys/men fighting with swords while the galaxy hangs in the balance. I briefly scanned where Herbert goes in the other books in the Dune series and he does seem to switch focus to female characters later on, but in this novel it’s all about the men. I am just not interested in patriarchal reinforcement anymore.  It is, without a doubt, a key work in science fiction, but it does tend to show its age (a problem that I’m not sure will go away).

I would recommend this novel to sci-fi fans who want to see where many of the big ideas/motifs/themes come from, but I have a suspicion that most fans of sci-fi will have already read this book. If you are not a sci-fi fan, it’s probably best passing on this one.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. 1967. New York: Ace Books, 1987. Print.

Couldn’t Do It: The Practice of the Wild

7I really wanted to like Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, given that it has been such an important text for ecocriticism, but I just could not like it. Sure, there were parts of it that I enjoyed, but on the whole it left a sour taste in my mouth. I think I was expecting something more than what Snyder gives, so perhaps my negative reaction comes as much from wrong expectations as from the material itself. For those of you who don’t know, Snyder is one of the pre-eminent nature poets in American literature. He came of age with the Beat Poets but took a very different route than they did, engaging with the natural world and dipping heavily into Buddhism and eastern religion. The Practice of the Wild collects a series of essays he had published in various places. 

Okay, my first problem with this book was the essays themselves. I found them too diffuse, unfocused, and lacking in rhetorical punch to be effective. This is not to say that Snyder should have written them like a politician’s speech, but rather that the unfocused nature of some of the pieces detracts from their strength. In “Good, Wild, Sacred,” Snyder moves from a meditation on wild land versus good land versus sacred land into reflections on preagricultural peoples, California politics, a trip into the Australian outback, dreams and their significance to Australian Aborigines, shrines in Japan, early North American explorers, the meanings of the word cultivation, what sacred land might mean, and, finally, returning to the Sierra Nevada foothills where Snyder lives. As you can see, he covers a lot of ground here and although this is not necessarily a bad thing the writing does not make sufficient transitions between topics to make it work.

My second problem is more conceptual in nature. Snyder firmly believes that wildness will be the savior of the contemporary moment. He makes a strong case for its importance in human experience in essays like “The Etiquette of Freedom,” but I am not entirely sold on the efficacy of wildness as the key part of environmentalist rhetoric. I could go into a long diatribe of why I believe this, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that wilderness and experiences of wildness are a relatively recent phenomenon historically speaking and seem to speak more to affluent citizens who have the time, money, and will to engage with them (without properly acknowledging this privilege as such).

I really did want to like Snyder’s book. I even read parts of it in the wilderness. I found a number of parts useful, particularly one section where Snyder calls on readers not to abandon where they live for the wilderness but to take lessons from the wild back to their home places: “The best purpose of such studies and hikes is to be able to come back to the lowlands and see all the land about us, agricultural, suburban, urban, as part of the same territory – never totally ruined, never completely unnatural. It can be restored, and humans could live considerable numbers on much of it” (101). Here, Snyder puts forward from very sage advice. Unfortunately, I think this advice tends to be disregarded in favor of Snyder’s preference for the wild.

I would recommend this book to fans of Snyder’s poetry and fans of wilderness. Be forewarned about the loose writing though.

Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 1990. Print.

Slave Revolution: The Confessions of Nat Turner

482pre_0d886e79ddd6d80So I have been up in Algonquin Park on a canoe trip for the last few days, but I managed to finish William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. The novel was the centre of a storm of controversy when it was published in 1967 because of its content and the author’s race. The book retells, with plenty of fictional licence, the events of the 1831 slave revolt in Virginia. The problem was, for many African-American writers of the time, that Styron was himself white. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin had both publicly expressed their support for the book and its author but that did not stop the backlash. Regardless, Styron won the Pulitzer Prize and I have to say that this is an excellent novel.

In case you didn’t know, Nat Turner, a black slave who learned how to read and was something of a preacher, led a very violent and somewhat successful slave revolt in Southhampton County. Even though the revolt was stopped within a few days, Turner hid out in the swamps for several months before he was caught. While in jail, a lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, interviewed him and wrote down his entire confession which was published as The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. Styron’s novel used this book as a source text, but fleshes out Turner’s story to make him an empathetic narrator. The novel begins in prison and ends here as well, but moves back in time through Turner’s early life right through to the events of the rebellion itself. It is a strategy that works quite well although I did find myself flipping back a few times, sorting out whether I had met certain characters before.

One of the most impressive things about Styron’s novel is that it makes Turner, a villain for most Americans up until the late 1960s, into an empathetic character. The novel shows how the institution of slavery turns men and women into absolutely defeated human beings. I am not saying that I support or endorse what Turner did, but Styron makes a very compelling case as to why Turner did what he did. Unfortunately for Turner, the long-term effects of the revolt did not cause widespread uprisings but instead saw a rash of white violence against slaves and a tightening of laws against blacks. Some of these included the banning of teaching reading to slaves and the banning of slave religious gatherings without a licensed white preacher. This is a powerful novel and well worth reading if you want to gain some historical perspective and insight into race-relations in the United States.

I would recommend this book to fans of American literature and to those who enjoyed Laurence Hill`s The Book of Negroes.

Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.

Reading a Long Poem: Towards the Last Spike

CP00647-002E.J. Pratt’s Towards the Last Spike has been on my to-read list for a long time. I read a portion of it in a 3rd year Canadian literature course way back in my undergraduate days, and have always had a desire to read it in the full. After doing so this week, I am not sure where I stand. I think one of the things that I am realizing with 10-10-12 is that poetry does not match well with time-constraint reading. If you have force your way through poems, they lose a lot of their value and potential enjoyment. This is not to say that I raced through Towards the Last Spike but rather that I am no longer sure where reading poetry stacks up in terms of my reading preferences. I think poetry plays a vital role in the literary world and can be a very productive force of change, but I also think that it is slowly falling away from our culture’s lens of focus (this is not necessarily poetry’s faulty so much as a change of preferences in form).

Towards the Last Spike is one of Pratt’s major long poems. At 1626 lines long, it is an epic and sets up to be such. Pratt’s other long poems, Brebeuf and his Brethren and The Titanic, similarly aim at a high voice with high action, modelled on classical models of epics. If you are not familiar with Towards, it takes up the construction of the Canadian National Railway across the continent, driven largely by Sir John A. MacDonald. The line represented a symbolic unifying of the continent and helped to solidify the country economically and physically as a nation. Pratt’s earlier Brebeuf takes up the work of Jesuit missionaries in early Canadian history and sets out to mythologize those events. Throughout Towards, you get a strong sense of Pratt attempting to lift a historical event into the mythological realm. Whether he succeeds in this is a different question. I get the sense that immediately following the poem’s publication, he did succeed. The long poem won a Governor General’s award and capped his long career as a poet and professor at Victoria College. However, in the 21st century, I think the results are somewhat mixed. Given that the CN rail has diminished in importance at the hands of the automobile and airplane, we tend to view this achievement as less than absolutely necessary for Canada’s history. Historically speaking, it may be an extremely important event but I think culturally speaking it does not pack an emotional punch for most Canadians of my generation (maybe if the NFB made a film version … just kidding).

Reading the long poem at a friend’s cottage by Algonquin was an interesting experience as the monstrous lizard of nature that Pratt sets up as the foe lay right around me. This was the aspect that I liked most about the poem. Pratt uses this trope of man against nature throughout to create tension, and even if I have critical reservations about it, I think it is quite effective in capturing the unique geography of Canada. I found that the poem worked best when it focused on the physical building of the railroad rather than on the political battles which surrounded it. Again, this might be a problem of my generation of readers rather than a lack of interest. Overall, the process of reading a long poem was enjoyable and I cannot say I was disappointed with Towards the Last Spike. I do think that F.R. Scott’s criticism of Pratt’s omission of the many Chinese workers who built some of the hardest sections still stands. For historical and literary reasons, I do think Pratt’s poem retains a high level of importance even if it does not necessarily hold the same appeal and weight in the 21st century.

I would recommend this poem to scholars and students of Canadian literature.

Pratt, E.J. Towards the Last Spike.” E.J. Pratt: Selected Poems. Eds. Sandra Djwa, W.J. Keith and Zailig Pollock. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000. 155-204. Print.

Well Worth Picking Up: Drown

8469_jpg_280x450_q85Junot Diaz’s Drown is a short collection of short stories, but it is well worth your time. Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is an American writer with very strong ties to the Dominican Republic. This comes through throughout Drown as the characters are almost all Dominican and move about in the Dominican immigrant community. Diaz’s writing is almost informal and casual but this belies the emotional complexity that underpins each story as his characters struggle through living in the United States as a FOB (Fresh off the boat), homesickness, language issues, and poverty. There is Spanish sprinkled liberally on every page but Diaz includes a short glossary at the back (and what isn’t covered by this makes sense contextually).

Drown was Diaz’s first publication and it is very well put together. Where some short story collections feel like a disparate group of pieces, Drown has not only thematic unity but also an over-arching unity. The central character, Yunior, is the younger of two brothers whose father immigrated to the US many years earlier and only now brings over his (estranged) family. He had been cheating on his wife before, had to get married to get citizenship in order to bring his family over, and once they arrive cheats with another woman. So, Papi is a bad guy. However, the final story in the book, “Negocios” (Spanish for businesses), tells Papi’s side of the story and Diaz pulls out all the stops to make readers empathize with the father. This doesn’t make him a good guy, but it does give him a more depth and a greater sense of humanity.

I should also warn you that Drown is rough around the edges. Several stories deal with violence, drug dealing and using, sexual abuse, and there is language throughout. This does not take away from Drown‘s impact but is a central part of it. Yunior lives in a violent world because poverty is everywhere, not just in the Dominican ghettoes of New York but also back in the Dominican Republic.

If I had to pick a favourite story, it would be either “Negocios” or “Edison, New Jersey.” The latter story deals with a pair of pool-table delivery men who travel into the swanky, elite neighbourhoods of New York to set up expensive tables. The dialogue between Wayne and the unnamed narrator (possibly Yunior) is quite witty and fleshes out the conflicted world of race relations between low-paid Latin American workers and the wealthy whites who purchase the tables. The heart of the story deals with the narrator’s interactions with a Dominican domestic at one of the homes. She is possibly an illegal immigrant and is caught in a much worse position than the narrator. The narrator takes her back to the Dominican neighbourhood to help her escape her problem only to nearly lose his job. I liked this story because it was emotionally compelling and dealt with the difficulties of living in a “multicultural” US. “Edison, New Jersey” shows a very different side of the American Dream, one that is probably more realistic than the high dreams that most American immigrants have when arriving in the country.

I would highly recommend Drown to any lover of short fiction.

Diaz, Junot. Drown. London: Faber and Faber, 1996. Print.