Miracles, Westerns, and a Mid-West Road Trip: Peace Like A River

peace-like-a-river2It seems my reading has really slowed down after wrapping up my dissertation a week and a half ago. I suppose I am having a bit of a lull after doing so much reading and writing over the past year and a half. Anyways, I picked up Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River on the recommendation of a friend. He suggested it was a mix of magic realism and the western genre, and he wasn’t inaccurate. Peace Like a River centres on the fateful actions of Davy Land who kills two boys in self-defense but then escapes jail and disappears into the American prairies. The novel is narrated by his younger brother, Reuben, a quirky asthmatic who longs for the ability to breath easily and fully. After Davy’s disappearance, his father Jeremiah decides to take their Plymouth car and Airstream trailer out of small-town Minnesota and head west, ostensibly on vacation but actually hoping to find Davy. Reuben’s sister Swede, who aspires to be a writer and loves Zane Grey Westerns, accompanies them and becomes a pseudo-chronicler of the trip as she writes an epic long poem about a vigliant cowboy (Sunny Sundown) trying to hunt down a dastardly villain. The poem provides an interesting counterpoint to the novel’s action as Sundown’s morals and character change according to the increasingly complex moral world that Reuben and Swede find themselves in.

I hesitate to call Peace Like a River a satire of Westerns because it is clear that Enger also has an affectionate attachment to that genre. I cannot claim an intimate familiarity with it, but it’s not hard to pick up the traces of the genre within the novel’s movement. Of course, Peace Like a River is an update Western with the horses replaced (for the most part) by a Plymouth family wagon and the Wild West replaced by the economically-depressed American midwest. Davy is both the villain (he escaped from prison before his trial and is hunted for by federal agents) and the loner hero who is misunderstood by others. There are chases, close calls, guns, and even Swede riding on an authentic Mexican saddle (on a sawhorse in the trailer … there’s also a fair bit of humour too). I suspect that a love for westerns will make this book great in those readers’ minds, but it is not essential as I found it engaging and enthralling.

The other part of the novel that I need to mention is the use of miracles. Peace Like a River is an explicitly Christian novel in that Reuben and his family are Christians, but, more importantly, the novel is a spiritual journey on Reuben’s part. He struggles to understand his father who was on the path to becoming a doctor, but decided on the calling of the Holy Spirit to abandon this pursuit. At the novel’s start he is a lowly school janitor, but boasts an impressive prayer life such that Reuben is witness to various miracles including healing various ailments and walking on air. These events are where the novel borders on magic realism, but I hesitate to call them that because in the imaginative realm of the novel they are simply events (miraculous though they may be). Magic realism has a very specific lineage and genealogy that I’m not sure Peace Like a River fits into (see this site for a discussion of its meanings). If miracles aren’t your thing, then this novel may not be for you … or it may change your mind. Anyways, miracles are a key theme in the novel and I found Enger’s use of them intriguing and sophisticated.

Overall, I loved this novel and am planning on teaching it this fall in a first-year literature and composition class. I would highly recommend this book to all readers.

Enger, Leif. Peace Like a River. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2001. Print.


Welcome to the Dominican US: This is How You Lose Her

X061_37EA_9.JPGLast year I read Junot Diaz’s Drown and loved it. I picked up his latest collection of short stories a few weeks ago and found myself agape at how good a writer Diaz is yet again. This Is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown left off, addressing the middle years of Yunior, the irrepressible and oh-so-human Dominican boy who becomes a tenured English professor. Normally, the professor/writer bit would turn me off as it can easily become self-indulgent and uninteresting, but Diaz keeps his focus on Yunior’s character and the changing dynamics of his family and love life. Most of the stories in the collection are linked in some way, but I’m not certain that Diaz intends an overall narrative to all the stories. Instead, I believe they are more like windows into one New York Dominican community.  That being said, the central event in most of the stories is Rafa’s losing bout with cancer. Yunior’s older brother is even more of a womanizer than he is, yet there is something incredibly heart-breaking about his slow descent towards death. That Diaz can get me feeling sympathy for a character who has no qualms sleeping with as many girls as possible is no small feat. Similarly, Yunior is a complex character as he seems to inherit his brother’s philandering ways. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is an amazing story about Yunior’s long road to recovery after his long-term girlfriend finds out he has been cheating on her with many different women.

What is equally impressive about the story is that it is told entirely in the second person. I have rarely encountered this mode of story-telling and have often wondered how effective it could be. Diaz makes it clear that it can be very effective as I found myself continually identifying with Yunior even though our personalities are so vastly different. He also uses this style of narration for “Miss Lora,” although I felt like this story was less effective as the schoolteacher Miss Lora becomes a figure of sorrow more than anything (also the story riffs on The Graduate in a serious way). The rest of the stories employ a first person narrator, a style that Diaz seems to favor.

One story that stood out to me was “Otravida, Otravez” which is narrated by a female character. This stands out from Yunior’s story because the perspective is so radically different. It adds a counterweight to the somewhat overwhelming obsession with women that the other stories feature. The protagonist is in love with a man who has a wife back in the Dominican but wants to buy a house with the narrator in New York. The house becomes a sign of making it in America and there is plenty of tension and desire in the narrative. I can see how some readers might not have liked this story, but for me it shows that Diaz is not a one-trick pony writing stories about sexually-charged young Dominican men.

I would highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction as Diaz shows an impressive range of narrative skill here. However, he may not appeal to all readers because he adopts a crass and crude tone throughout his stories. The best introduction to his work might be to read one of his stories on The New Yorker‘s website.

Diaz, Junot. This Is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. Print.


Possible Futures and Precogs: The Minority Report

3674-11I have been a fan of Philip K. Dick’s work since reading his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? two years ago. It is one of my favorite books and I have finally gotten around to dipping into Dick’s large ouevre. He published 44 novels and at least 120 short stories. There have been 10 film adaptations of his work with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner being the most famous (even if it is a loose adaptation of Do Androids Dream). There is also a film adaptation of The Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg with Tom Cruise taking the lead role. It  is an excellent film and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I watched it a long time ago (I’m not sure but I think Spielberg stays fairly close to Dick’s novella).

What makes The Minority Report so good is that it is not just a taut thriller but it also is a deep meditation on the meaning of free-will. It is set in the near-future where, through a series of innovations and new technologies, Police Commissioner Anderton has been able to effectively end murders. By using mutant humans who show latent psychic abilities and special machinery, the “Pre-Cogs” as they are called, can predict the future. Their prophecies are carefully combed over and the Police then arrest those who are going to commit future crimes, effectively ending violence with the would-be murderers being sent off to a detention camp for a few years. Problems arise when Anderton finds his one name listed as the future murderer of a man he does not know. What follows is a tense journey as Anderton tries to figure out whether he is being framed in some larger plot by the unemployed Army or whether he is actually in danger of killing someone.

Dick does not beat you over the head with his ideas or thoughts. Instead, he very carefully layers them under the narrative so that by the time you finish The Minority Report, you find yourself asking what just happened. And as you begin to unravel the narrative, you head backwards through the narrative, realizing that Dick has been conducting a secondary conversation beneath the surface that you did not pick up on. In a way, this is how a good crime novel should work (but often does not for me). In this novella, Dick is concerned with whether knowledge of our future actions can change the way we act. The fact that Anderton finds out that he will kill someone in the future does change his course of action, but it also forces him to consider whether the system of using prediction to incarcerate future criminals is itself just. This doubt is, of course, left hanging even by the novella’s end. Dick has readers wanting to believe in the efficiency of the system, but we simply cannot help being nagged by the doubts that it has failed (and that Dick may want us to listen to this voice).

Overall, this is a great novella. It is high-quality science fiction that everyone should read.

Dick, Philip K. The Minority Report. 1956. Mexico: Pantheon Books, 2002.Print.

* The edition that I read was printed like a read out that the Pre-Cogs produced. I liked the look of it and the change-up to my usual reading habits as I read it more like reading something on a clipboard.

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.