Ninjas, The Apocalypse, and Mutant Creatures: The Gone-Away World

goneaway_080808040151153_wideweb__337x500And just like that, I’ve read 100 books this year. I’m a little stunned and more than a lot tired. Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World somehow ended up being the last book I read this year. And I regret that because it clocks in at a hefty 498 pages. And it is a sprawling book to say the least. As my title alludes, this book contains among other things: ninjas, kung fu, satire on the British education system, satire on the war in the Middle East, benevolent pirates, satire on weapons of mass destruction, zombie-like mutant beings who come out of the fog, an evil corporation, satire on corpocracy, various funny comments on global politics, and a disquisition on the use of sheep in war. All in all, it is a rambling book that really needed an editor to help clarify and condense the narrative. Of course, it’s also a lot of fun to read because it refuses to follow narrative rules of thumb.

Even saying that, I should be clear that it took me a while to get into the narrative. I think I was a solid 200 pages in before I had a handle on what was going on and was emotionally invested in the novel. I suppose when the novel is 500 pages, this is okay on some level, but for me this was not good. It meant that this book sat for a few days and most of it had to be read yesterday. Harkaway is clearly a talented writer with a good eye for satire and poking fun at post-apocalyptic narrative and science fiction’s seriousness. At the same time, I could not help but identify various parts of the novel which could have been cut to make the novel less bulky. For instance, the first chapter sets up the narrator and his gang of Civil Freebooters being asked to step in and save the world by putting out a fire on the Pipe, the magical object that keeps the bizarre and surreal fallout from a high-tech war out from the small piece of land that humanity now lives in. The second chapter and several more that follow then step back and introduce the narrator meeting Gonzo, his best friend and lifelong ally, as a child in a sandbox. It moves forward all the way up to the present so that by the time we return to the end of the first chapter we are at page 302. That`s a 275 page flashback. In fact, flashback is not the right word at all because a flash is brief …

What I most liked about The Gone-Away World is how Harkaway sets up various set pieces of action including the final battle between the narrator, Gonzo, and his friends and the evil (almost video-game like) corporate honcho that has nefarious plans to rule the world. The scene is like a mish-mash of kung fu movies, westerns, science fiction, and James Bond thrillers all shaken together. Others include the evacuation of a town in the middle-east in the face of a gas attack, the battle between Ben Carsville (the war movie buff who is useless in actual war) and his anti-self in a former airbase ruled by a now-insane dictator (and also riffing heavily on Indiana Jones), or the attack on Gonzo`s parents that is defeated by Old Man Lubitsch`s bee-keeping skills. This was a fun read, but I`m not sure that there is much to take from the novel intellectually. If you wanted to read the book as some sort of meta-critique of pop culture, you probably could, but I think that the novel is held back too much by its length and rambliness (a good precise critical term, right?).

I would recommend this book to fans of Kurt Vonnegut, satires of pop culture, and kung fu-movie aficionados.

Harkaway, Nick. The Gone-Away World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

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Tragedy and Young Boys: The Round House

lo_res_bks_photo_louise_erdrich_-_the_round_house_hcI finished Louise Erdrich’s The Round House a few days ago but couldn’t get around to writing the review because of festive events. I really liked this novel and read it in a few long sessions because Erdrich has a clear sense of how to build suspense and keep readers turning the pages. I should say that this is impressive given that her narrative roughly follows a murder mystery plot, a style of plot that I have not necessarily been on board with this year. The Round House is narrated by Joe, a 13 year old Ojibwe boy on a North Dakota reservation, and it follows the massive fallout from the brutal assault and rape of his mother on the reserve. I will try not to spoil the plot as I think everyone should go out and read this book because it is easily in the top 10 books I read this year. Joe’s father is a Native judge, and he takes the case quite personally, leading Joe to also band together with his friends’ in their own attempt to solve the crime. What makes the crime so heinous is that the criminal has carefully planned it so that any justice is going to be difficult to achieve. Erdrich highlights how Native tribes in the US have a very difficult time operating their own judicial systems because of the legal quagmire that surrounds their rights and sovereignty. The crime, depending on where it occurred, would have to be tried before a tribal court, the county court, or the federal court because parts of the federal government still lay claim to native people as wards of state.

What makes The Round House so good, for me anyways, is the way that Erdrich digs deep into the violence of rape and the fallout that occurs, but she also does not let this kind of trauma freeze readers into emotional paralysis. Like Joe, we are left trying to grapple with a mother who enters into a catatonic state while all of his friends are just beginning to enter puberty in an eventful summer on the reservation. Joe is caught between two worlds: the adult one of his parents and the youth of his friends with no easy way to reconcile them. This tension drives the narrative alongside Joe’s quest to find the killer.

Yet The Round House is also about the everyday lives of the Ojibwe on their North Dakota reservation. We come to know how the social world of the place and the important role that the Round House plays in keeping Ojibwe traditions alive. Even though Joe’s world is shattered by the violence done to his mother, he is still a thirteen year old boy and Erdrich illustrates how this event forces him to mature. She also throws in a fair bit of humor (including some hilarious dirty scenes where two old Ojibwe exchange what I can only guess are tall tales about their past sexual lives). Erdrich carefully balances the novel with poetic description, narrative plotting, and witty dialogue so that The Round House  is a very readable book where it easily could have been a very difficult one. This is not say that The Round House does not offer challenges, but rather that it does not sink into the quicksand of heavy-handed pathos. Erdrich asks difficult questions concerning justice for North America’s indigenous peoples but she also delights in the vibrant world we live in.

I highly recommend this book for all readers.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.

Fly Fishing and Family: A River Runs Through It

6a00d8341c627153ef01156f15bf24970cI just zipped through Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying a novella about fly-fishing. Now, in the interest of forthrightness, I am not a fisherman and probably will not ever be. There is some form of patience involved that I do not possess. However, Maclean’s short narrative did get me thinking that maybe I should give it another shot. Anyways, in the Foreword Annie Proulx writes taht this novella is “one of the rare truly great stories in American literature – allegory, requiem, memoir – and so powerful and enormous in symbol and regret for a lost time and a lost brother, for human mortality and the consciousness of beauty, that it becomes part of the life experience of the reader, unforgettable” (xi). This is high praise, and I’m not quite sure that my own reading experience of A River matches up to it, but I do think that she does a good job summarizing what the novel gets at.

Maclean’s novella is both a fishing story about two brothers and an attempt by the narrator to come to grips with his inability to help his alcoholic, hard-living brother out. Like Hemingway’s work, fishing is a masculine pursuit that has careful rituals that must always be observed, requires skill, strength, and dexterity, and becomes an almost mystical activity that connects man back to nature. I am more than a little skeptical about these kinds of narratives, particularly because of how they set up nature as an exclusively male domain for the testing of “manliness”.  The unnamed narrator is an older brother to Paul, a journalist whose sole goal in life is to fish as much as possible and enjoy himself without working too hard. However, his idea of enjoyment involves a fair amount of alcohol and he also has inherited a feisty Scottish temper that often lands him in trouble. The narrator and his Scot-Presbyterian minister father are caught unable to help Paul, but instead watch as his life begins to fall apart. Paralleling this, the narrator is asked by his wife to also help her brother, Neal, who has his own problems which also involve alcohol and an inability to come to grips with reality. Most of the helping happens around fishing trips that achieve various degrees of success.

Maclean packs his novella with humor, irony, poignancy, and a number of reflections on faith and the broken human condition. I was taken in by his smooth and free-flowing prose. The ending nearly brought me to tears in a coffee shop, no mean feat, and I feel like this is a story that I may come back to at some point. A university roommate of mine loved this book and he is now an avid fly-fisherman. I cannot say for certain whether the novella caused this, but Maclean is able to paint fly-fishing in a sublime light.

I would recommend this book for fans of fishing or readers.

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.

An Epic Comics Yarn: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

downloadMichael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an epic novel well worth the 600+ pages that it takes up. I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical of the novel, especially given some of the less-than-stellar prize winning books that I have read this year. However, Chabon’s novel is top-notch stuff that fully deserves the Pulitzer Prize it received after its publication in 2000. Amazingly, there are no illustrations or drawings in a novel that is primarily about comics and their ability to allow their readers to escape their realities. I suppose that I assumed that somewhere along the line an editor or head honcho would have floated the idea. Given that the novel is already more than 600 pages long, I can see why they chose not to. Anyways, that’s just a random thought I had while flying through the book.

Chabon’s narrative centers on Joe Kavalier, a Czech Jew who manages to escape from the country before the Nazis clamped down on the movement of Jewish people leading up to World War II. He moves in with Sammy Clay, his New Yorker cousin, and together they dream up a plan to get rich using comic books as their means. Of courses, the fact that Kavalier trained as an artist for a few years plays a role while Sammy’s own ability to craft narratives quickly and with skill also helps. Together they create the Escapist, a Jewish superhero whose ability to escape any kind of confinement or predicament helps him to defeat the thinly-veiled Nazi enemies he faces. Amazing Adventures then spins outwards, detailing the rise of Kavalier and Clay in the Golden Age of comics along with the decline of the business following the war and Kavalier’s inability to save his own family. The novel throws a number of twists and surprises throughout its labyrinthine narrative. I loved it from the first few pages and I did not stop loving it by the time it ends.

What I think Amazing Adventures also does remarkably well is to tell a story about the Holocaust without becoming either too depressing a read or crafting a completely implausible triumphal narrative a la Schindler`s List. Instead, it takes on the Holocaust through Kavalier who is always haunted by his absent family caught in the Czech Republic as the Nazi party takes power and executes its genocidal plan. *Spoiler alert*  At a few points Chabon hints that Joe may be able to save his younger brother or his family, but he does not do so. Having taken a graduate seminar in Holocaust fiction a few years ago, I had sworn off any literary takes on the Holocaust because good Holocaust fiction is inevitably soul-crushing. Simply put, nothing good can ever come of 6 million plus people being murdered. Any survivors or people who knew those killed are left with a massive historical weight that can easily become a fatal albatross around the neck. Chabon carries this weight in front of him, yet he does manage to craft a narrative of survival. The emotional complexity of Joe`s journey from a poor escapee to a successful cartoonist and beyond is a testament to Chabon`s writing skill and to his ability to tell a story without needing to sugar-coat it. For the first time since that graduate seminar, I found myself enjoying a Holocaust novel (although Amazing Adventures is not just a Holocaust novel, it is a lot more too). Thank you Chabon!

I highly recommend this book to readers of American literature, comic books, Holocaust literature, Jewish literature, and almost anyone else. This is an amazing  book!

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2000. Print.

Wildly Inconsistent: The Last of the Mohicans

60872I am on to the home stretch now with four books remaining, having stayed up late in bed to finish James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. I’m not really sure what I have to say about the novel beyond the fact that it is wildly inconsistent. Not just in the representation of indigenous peoples (which is uniformly awful and Cooper may have a legitimate claim to being the first writer to pen some of the most notorious “Indian” characters), but also in the sense that the plot wanders all over the place. While it is not quite as bad as John Richardson’s Wacousta (essentially the Canadian equivalent of The Last of the Mohicans), the ending is disappointing and overly convenient. Please note that throughout this review I will refer to the indigenous characters as Indians rather than indigenous peoples, following Daniel Francis’ distinction of Indians (a creation of European settler-invaders, often found in literary works) and indigenous people (the peoples that the Europeans actually encountered.

*Spoiler alert* In the end, Cora, the older of Munro’s two daughters dies at the hand of a mindless Indian, conveniently clearing the way for Duncan Heyward to marry her younger sister, Alice. This is a convenient plot device because not only does it turn Cora into a martyred figure, but it also does away with her problematic heritage. As her father confesses to Heyward, her mother was a mulatto from the West Indies, meaning that Cora has African blood in her. As readers, we are expected to be horrified at this and her death conveniently clears Munro’s stain and allows Heyward to marry the pure white daughter Alice (from a different mother). From a 21st century perspective, this is hugely problematic given the kind of racial politics Cooper espouses throughout (“Don’t you dare pollute your blood line with some inferior race, white readers!”). But it also has become somewhat ironic given that Cora, at least, is a more determined and fulsome character than Alice who seems to spend most of the novel faint or unconscious because she has a weak constitution and cannot possibly handle the violence and brutality of the frontier (unlike Cora, presumably because she has slave blood in her).

I suppose I had hoped that The Last of the Mohicans would be fun. And, in a sense, it is. There are plenty of fight scenes, surprising violence, lots of wandering in the woods, plenty of sublime landscapes, and the good guys win in the end. Of course, this last point is also the problem because the Indians are either blood-thirsty, mindless dogs like the Iroquois, or they are noble savages who are conveniently dying away as more Europeans arrive like Uncas, the title character. Apparently, this novel has been adapted into at least 7 different films, showing how much value is attached to this narrative. This is where it gets problematic because the novel very clearly helps to assuage white consciences about the atrocities committed by Europeans on the indigenous people they encountered. While there were clearly some atrocities perpetrated by the indigenous peoples on French and British populations, they pale in comparison to the systematic violence that has been directed at indigenous people since then. Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian is a wonderful counterpoint to this book, because he searches for evidence of “Indian massacres” and finds very little to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples by Americans, Canadians, British, French, Dutch, and Spanish invaders. I am not quite sure what to do with The Last of the Mohicans. Do you teach it in a critical mode, pointing out the flaws of the novel to students? Or do you pass it by and allow it to disappear into the mists of history with its harmful legacy, hopefully, dissipating over time?

I would not recommend this book to any but the most serious students of American literature. It is important culturally speaking, but I don’t think it merits this importance.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2012. Print.

Slow Like a Snail, But Is It Good?: Canada

4I am not sure what to think of Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. It is a big novel, clocking in at 418 pages, but it moves incredibly slowly. On the first page, Dell Parsons, the narrator, announces the two key plot events in the whole book:

“First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first” (3).

That is the first paragraph of the novel and it sets up what should be a gripping and exciting novel. What follows is certainly not gripping, but much slower and seemingly inevitable. A friend of mine reviewed the novel here and she called it plodding. I have to agree with this assessment because Dell’s eventual narration of these two events takes up basically 400 pages. Seriously, it takes that long! The opening paragraph could have been the start of a great short story, but instead it opens up a slow-moving, deeply philosophical and somewhat unexciting novel. In a way, it seems like Ford is trying to say violence happens in an ordinary, everyday manner, and that things happen to us in our childhood over which we have no control.

Part of my frustration with the novel is the way the jacket description of the novel sets up fall expectations. It promises an exciting novel full of violence and “cataclysm” but Canada simply doesn’t bear this out. It also more or less gives a way any surprises that the novel might offer up. Ford is careful in the first paragraph not to name those involved with the murders, but the jacket blurb reads: “[Dell’s] search for grace and peace only moves him nearer a harrowing and murderous collision with Remlinger, an elemental force of darkness.” Okay, so we all know to look out for Remlinger now … great. But for me the most problematic aspect of this blurb is that it makes this claim: “in this brilliant novel, set largely in Saskatchewan, Richard Ford has created a true masterwork.” I am not going to argue with the second part of that claim, but the first part is completely wrong. When Dell doesn’t arrive in Canada until page 213 of a 418 page book, you cannot claim that the book is set largely in Saskatchewan. Less than half of it is actually set in Canada, so that claim is ridiculous (not taking into account that most of the novel is about Americans and America with Canada a convenient escape from troubles in the US).

What I did find interesting and troubling was the way that Ford used Saskatchewan’s landscape. It becomes a barren, desolate prairie that weighs heavily on all of the characters. It creates existential thoughts, it crushes souls, and it makes you feel lonely. Okay, I get it – big spaces makes humans feel small. The funny thing is that this is a very old trope in Canadian literature, but here it gets airtime like its a new, revolutionary thought. In 1973, literary critic Laurie Ricou wrote a book about precisely this feeling – that the vastness of the prairie weighs heavily on humans – called Vertical Man/ Horizontal World. It is a bit odd to read new American literature and find it recycling old Canadian tropes. I also was not happy with the way that Charlie Quarters, the novel’s Metis character, is represented as a shifty, unreliable, and morally suspect person. Why did he have to be Metis to be this way? I’m sorry, maybe I’m being too politically sensitive here, but this kind of representation simply reinforces stereotypes of indigenous people as unreliable, lazy, and morally suspect.

Overall, I did enjoy moments of the story and at times even liked the slowness of the pace. I think that Ford may have been experimenting with a different form of narration whereby he tells you upfront what will happen and then carefully works to fully craft the emotional complexity of that world. I`m not sure it always works (I know that Dells`parents are going to rob a bank, you don`t have to tell it to me again!), but I also don`t think this is a terrible novel.

I would recommend this novel to fans of Ford`s work and to those who are interested in seeing the big, bad Prairies and how they will ruin you (Saskatchewan is a very desolate place in this novel).

Ford, Richard. Canada. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

Mysticism by the Waters: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

41vzd0Zp9OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was quite the journey. I suppose, having read some quite skeptical and suspicious literary critics who don’t take too kindly to Dillard’s kind of writing, I expected something quite different. Instead, I was continually surprised by the poetic lyricism and, dare I say, mysticism of Dillard’s year-long journal of Tinker Creek (the book also won her a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction). She talks not simply of the animals, insects, and plants that reside in the creek outside her door, but also, quite frequently, of the divine, aesthetics, beauty, and human consciousness. I find myself unable to quite describe my own reaction to Pilgrim because it is so far-ranging and well-crafted. Sure, there were moments when my eyes rolled a little at the sometimes frustrating tangents into metaphor laden philosophy, but there were other moments where I had my breath taken away. The entire book could be summarized in a line Dillard gives about halfway into the book: “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery” (143).

Pilgrim is not a quick read because it moves so easily across natural history to theological musings and back, hitting history, astronomy, physics, mythology (particularly Inuit), and poetry along the way. I would hesitate to put this book in the same category as a book by Bill Bryson or even nature writing per se. There is too much poetry and mysticism in this book to confine it to that category. Some readers will love it and others will be turned off by it (I think I am somewhere in between if I am honest). Her description and reflections on the eating habits of a giant water bug are startling both for the insect’s horrifying eating habits and for the way that Dillard weaves the seeming cruel brutality of nature back into an unorthodox praise of all things created. This kind of literary skill is worth dipping into Pilgrim for, but I think readers really need to take their time with Dillard’s work. It, like the writing of most mystics, does not divulge its full meaning or depth on the first surface reading. In a way, I could see myself continually coming back to this book to dip into its waters again and again.

This is partly because Dillard works in a non-linear manner. She comes back to several key episodes including the giant water bug and an oak tree that enflamed her imagination, deepening her reflections on these episodes and using them as touchstones to bring her thoughts back in a circular manner. In doing so, Dillard gives us not just a literal or natural historical sense of Tinker Creek but also a spiritual sense of the area. If you are looking for someone to re-enchant landscape for you, then Pilgrim is a great field guide. Tinker Creek is neither wilderness sublime nor controlled nature, but somewhere in between, making it a useful template for most North Americans. We could all use a little more enchantment with the natural world in our lives, and Pilgrim might be able to help us to find it (or you may find yourself turned off by it …).

I am somewhat on the fence with this book. I think it could be a great read for some readers while for others I would hesitate to recommend it. If you like contemplative thought (think Thomas Merton, the Christian Desert Fathers, or most Buddhist writing), then this book will appeal to you. If you like your facts kept high, dry, and safe from “subjective” feelings and emotions, then stay away.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974. Print.