Monthly Archives: January 2014

Of Moss and Women

ImagePoor Elizabeth Gilbert.  She wrote one sensational best-seller (good for her, by the way) and now, no matter what she writes and how meticulously researched, emotionally precise, and just plain good it is, nobody can let her forget that she once wrote a book that has been relegated to the denigrated category of popular literature.  It’s a shame that not one reviewer (at least, that I could find) of her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, was able to refrain from mentioning, often with a hint of malice, her previous success.  Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, couldn’t help but speculate that the heroine of her new novel, Alma Whittaker, “would never have read the 19th-century equivalent of Ms. Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.”  Oh, please.

It’s a shame because The Signature of All Things is terrific.  As anyone who reads this blog probably knows by now, I have a weakness for a good 19th-century novel, and Gilbert’s story seems to take its cues both from the novel of manners and the adventure novel as it follows Alma, whose life spans most of the century.  Incidentally, another critique that seems to repeat in several published reviews regards the implausibility of the adventure part of the plot, which seems to me to be a stretch.   First, people, it’s fiction – implausible things are allowed, even supposed, to happen when you make things up – and second, have you not read any other novels ever?  Because, say, Around the World in Eighty Days doesn’t seem very plausible either, but it is so good that people still read it more than a hundred years after it was published.  And no one except a very fusty scholar indeed would ever bother to read a book review that was more than a hundred years old.  So there.  Elizabeth Gilbert 1, reviewers 0.

I’m a huge sucker for exactly this kind of novel, and it doesn’t disappoint.  It’s ambitious, detailed, dramatic, even delightfully implausible.  Implausibility, after all, is why I read fiction.  My real life is depressingly plausible enough.  It follows Alma, a character whom it is impossible to root against, for all her faults, through the turns and twists of an entire life, and nearly an entire century.  And what a century it was!  This novel focuses in particular on the world-changing scientific developments that shook the 19th century, culminating with Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, through the marginal perspective of what used to be called a “polite botanist” – that is, a botanist with two X chromosomes.  Alma, confined to the boundaries of her father’s palatial estate by her mother’s dying wish and the customs of her time, becomes an expert in mosses, discovering a universe in the humblest, most overlooked plants.

ImageAlma, like her mosses, is an unassuming creature who contains worlds.  As she unlocks the secrets of moss we watch as she also unlocks human secrets: love, jealousy, regret, resentment, friendship, humility.  The parts of the novel that reviewers found implausible I found essential to this process, which is central to the momentum and meaning of the novel.  These plot twists seemed to form the crucible in which Alma’s character develops, necessary not only to the plot and forward motion of the novel but also to its slow internal flowering, the blossoming of human understanding and universal sympathy that good books offer a reader.  Perhaps part of what reviewers saw as implausibility, other than some of the wilder plot elements, was the way in which Alma became a kind of feminist hero by the end of the novel, but this seemed to me to be one of its strengths, in imagining, or reimagining, the kind of life that has always been absent from history.

One other note on the discomfort this book seemed to cause in its official readers: Gilbert’s depiction of sex, sexuality, and gender here is far more fluid, and less bounded, than our culture likes it to be.  I can’t help but wonder if “implausibility” is just code for “this does not fit into any category I have ever known and therefore I don’t like it.”  As a contrarian in these matters, I rather appreciated the novel’s attempt to normalize behavior and desires that both within and outside of the context of the story might be unclassifiable, like, perhaps, a never-before-seen species of moss.

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A Question of History

ImageThere are a few books I can think of that I wish I could read again for the first time: Cloud Atlas, Midnight’s Children, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a handful of others (incidentally, the older I get the more this wish enters the realm of possibility, as I forget everything about everything I’ve ever read and it all becomes new again).  I am adding Laurent Binet’s HHhH to this list.  Binet has pulled off something unique and really, really difficult: an experimental, funny historical novel about a Nazi.  Really, it’s about the death of a Nazi, which makes the topic palatable, if not appealing, and enables us, knowing the outcome from the beginning, to laugh.  As much as it is about the Holocaust, however, this novel is also about itself: at every turn, it self-consciously interrogates the form and function of the historical novel, as well as history and historiography, through the author/narrator’s asides to the reader.  I hesitate to call them asides, since they are so central to the narration, and so abundant, but that is precisely what this novel (if it is a novel) calls on us to do: question the relationship of center to periphery, the value of what is left in and what is left out, and whether such a thing as an authoritative narrative of an event, or of history itself, can exist.  (In this, I should note, it is a sister text to a novel I have studied extensively, Sholem Asch’s 1939 Yiddish historical novel about Jesus, The Nazarene, about which I am happy to regale you some other time.  Back to HHhH.)

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Reinhard Heydrich

Ostensibly, or on one level, HHhH describes the events leading up to and succeeding the assassination of Reinhard(t) Heydrich, known as the Hangman, head of the Reich Main Security Office, organizer of Kristallnacht, chair of the Wannsee Conference, architect of the Einsatzgruppen, and, according to Hitler himself, “the man with the iron heart.”  Heydrich, the acting Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (i.e., the Nazis’ puppet ruler of what is now the Czech Republic), was assassinated in Prague in 1942 by Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabčík, Czech nationalists and refugees, trained by the British government and the Czech government-in-exile.  This is the end of the story.  This we know from the beginning.  And that, of course, is the problem common to all works of historical fiction: the reader always already knows what happened.  HHhH tackles this problem by pursuing the story obliquely, always at its margins, following every seemingly digressive path, to suggest that we don’t always already know what we think we know, or what really happened, or whether any one authoritative account is ever possible.

Rather than a grand, sweeping, linear narrative, HHhH proceeds through a series of short vignettes, some about Heydrich, some about the history of the Holocaust and World War II, some about Kubiš and Gabčík, and some about the author/narrator’s own biography or his process in researching and writing the novel.  Some of these are a few pages long, some only one line.  This pastiche form extends, too, to the novel’s prose, made up of narrative passages, complete with invented dialogue (its invention is pointed out explicitly by the narrator); speeches; recorded conversation; memoir; poetry; newspaper articles; various historical documents and reports; and metaliterary commentary like this: “In the first draft, I’d written: ‘squeezed into a blue uniform.’  I don’t know why, I just imagined it being blue.  It’s true that in photos Göring often sports a pale blue uniform, but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day.  He might just as easily have been in white, for example.  I’m not sure if this kind of scruple still makes much sense at this stage.”

Sometimes this commentary is laugh-out-loud funny, usually at the expense of the ridiculous egos of some of the big Nazi players and their constant competitive political machinations in the service of gaining Hitler’s favor and thus control of a slice of the empire pie that the Nazis were making of Europe.  Very few writers or filmmakers have succeeded in laughing appropriately and well at the Holocaust or any part of it; some have tried, but failed (right now, I can only think of two films that make this attempt and fall short for very different reasons that I can’t go into here: Life is Beautiful and Inglorious BasterdsThe Producers, in its way, is more successful but also makes its Holocaust humor into a kind of footnote).  Binet’s success at writing something meaningfully humorous about Nazis cannot be overstated, precisely because it is so rare, and because it underscores the project of the novel so beautifully, its insistence on a non-monolithic, non-authoritative account of the events it describes, one that refuses to conform to expectations – indeed, an account that defies expectations purposely to expose the danger of those very expectations to a thick, rich understanding of history.

Binet slyly writes, “History is the only true casualty: you can reread it as much as you like, but you can never rewrite it.”  Of course he knows that this is exactly what he is doing, even if he senses his own powerlessness in the face of events as he does it.  We all rewrite our own histories, and the histories of others, all the time without admitting it to anyone (even, maybe, ourselves).  HHhH foregrounds this rewriting in the service of better history, and better fiction, and it’s a masterpiece of both.

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Small Worlds

ImageThis summer, looking for something to read and with a few minutes to spare before an appointment, I popped into the Powell’s Books on Lincoln in Chicago to pick something up.  I had no clear idea of what I wanted, so I browsed the fiction shelves for something interesting.  About midway through I came across a clutch of Alice Munro books, and I immediately plucked one off the shelf.  I’ve never read an Alice Munro story I didn’t like, a streak kept intact through my reading of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  When, a few months after I bought the book, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was delighted, particularly because the type of fiction she writes is so infrequently rewarded appropriately: Munro writes only short stories deeply focused on the interior lives of her characters, most of the them women, without literary pyrotechnics or dramatic plotlines.  Yet her stories are some of the most moving and satisfying works of fiction I’ve ever read.

This collection was made famous (or what passes for famous among the cultural elite) by the filmmaker Sarah Polley, who adapted the story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the award-winning 2006 film “Away from Her.”  The story is in many ways representative of Munro’s work (although, interestingly, the protagonist and main consciousness in “The Bear” is a man): it has few characters, minimal dialogue, is focused on the interior lives of its characters and in particular on the secrets and mysteries inherent in human relationships.  The story focuses on an aging, childless couple who have moved to a rural area to escape a scandal related to the husband’s affair with a young student of his at the university where he once taught.  Though relatively young, Fiona, the wife, begins to exhibit symptoms of dementia, and her husband places her in an assisted-living facility nearby.  There, losing her memory, she develops a relationship with another resident, a mute and brain-damaged man who dotes on her in a way her husband did not.  Her unfaithful husband finds himself in the unfamiliar position of the jealous spouse, experiencing a kind of karmic payback for his years of infidelity.  At the same time, the story gently and tenderly dissects their decades-long relationship, exposing to light the kinds of feelings and desires that often remain hidden, even to the most devoted of spouses.

There is rarely, if ever, an uncomplicated or unmessy relationship in a Munro story.  She tends to explore the underside of love: the forbidden desires, repressed resentments, concealed infidelities (large and small), and petty jealousies that are inescapable for human couples.  My favorite Munro stories tend to be her classic type, in which we follow the consciousness of a young woman in rural Canada, usually in the 1950s or 60s, as she navigates her way toward becoming her own person in a world that demands far less of her than that.  Perhaps that’s because these seem closest to Munro’s heart as well, and follow the details of her own life in some of their particulars: the dissatisfaction with young wife- and motherhood, the longing for meaningful experiences, the battle against low expectations for women.  The lives and experiences of these characters couldn’t be further from my own, yet I nearly always identify with them personally; even when I don’t, I am always, invariably, rooting for them to succeed, or persevere, or simply be who they want to be.

Not long before she won the Nobel Prize, Alice Munro announced that she was going to stop writing, because she has been writing and publishing since she was 20 years old (she’s now 82) and she was ready to retire.  Although she intimated that after winning the prize she might reconsider her decision, I’m glad that I haven’t even come close to making it through her entire oeuvre, so there are still many new Alice Munro stories for me to stumble across and savor.

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New World Magic

I’m going to cheat a little bit here: in general, I have refrained from writing on this blog about books I read for work because I intended for the blog to force me to read more for pleasure.  But here’s one of the little route modifications I discussed in my last post: I’m running out of time and I need to increase my count to make my attempt seem respectable.  So, although I read the two books I want to write about in order to give a lecture about contemporary American Jewish literature’s engagement with Jewish magic and mysticism, I’ll write about them here, ignoring the old adage about mixing work with pleasure.

On the surface, there isn’t a lot that is similar about Ari Goelman’s 2013 young adult novel The Path of Names and Steve Stern’s 2011 adult adult novel The Frozen Rabbi other than an engagement with Jewish mystical themes and ideas.  Broadly speaking, they fall into what I think is a growing category of contemporary Jewish American fiction that turns to Jewish magic to explore something fundamental about being Jewish in America, hybridized identities, and the idea of America itself.  (The Golem and the Jinni is another book I’ve written about here which also belongs to this group.)  But in their specifics they seem to confirm the old Jewish joke about two Jews and three opinions, in that the America and the American Jewishness represented in this work is ambivalent and sometimes paradoxical.  I won’t get any further into general conclusions here, since I’m still in the midst of working on this material.

ImageI don’t read many YA novels, and I don’t know whether this is generally the case, but the biggest flaw, for me, in The Path of Names was its somewhat simplistic narrative arc, in which the protagonist has a problem, confronts a challenge, and resolves her problem in exactly the neat way your second-grade teacher told you stories were supposed to work.  Having read the Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander books, I know that not all novels for young readers work like this, so I suppose it is a legitimate complaint against Goelman.  However, the reason I mention it is because in other ways The Path of Names is extremely rich – especially in its treatment of Jewish history and mysticism – and it seems a shame that its story doesn’t match the ambition of its ideas.

One of these ideas is about the value of knowledge itself, and the epistemic necessity of community.  Embroiled against her will in a 72-year -old quest to discover the ineffable name of God, the awkward, pre-teen loner Dahlia Sherman has to navigate a litany of Jewish magical creatures– dybbuks, iburs, golems – mystical concepts –gematria, the seventy-second name of God, an imaginary group of shadowy secret-collectors called the Illuminated Ones – and everyday confusions – mazes, boys, summer camp social life.  Goelman cleverly makes the nerdy Dahlia a devotee of math and magic (the quotidian, sleight-of-hand type) and then shows her that these passions are deeply connected with Jewish history and culture, or at least the mystical flip side of them.  In the slightly preachy end, Dahlia learns, through her encounter with the Jewish mystical world, that the knowledge she prizes and her community are linked: as she tells the villain of the novel before their showdown, “If you don’t tell anyone, then knowledge isn’t anything.”

ImageIn this rejection of the supremacy of the individual, The Path of Names also seems to offer a counternarrative to American individualism, a topic with which The Frozen Rabbi is also engaged.  Delightfully and with a certain eye-winking humor, The Frozen Rabbi offers a picaresque history of modern Jewish life, in Europe and America, as well as a complicated satire of American Jewry and America more generally.  Again the plot centers around a teenager who enters into the world of Jewish mysticism and magic, although here the narrative arc is more complicated, and culminates not in a simple personal transformation occasioned by the events of the story.  Rather, the transformation comes early in the book, and the conflicts and crises to which it gives rise form the crux of the novel and the basis for its satire and somewhat jaundiced view of American culture and capitalism.  On yet another level, it may suggest that Jewish history/culture/magic is in itself a kind of rebuke to or critique of contemporary American culture.  On the other hand, it may not be doing this at all, as the whole book is so tongue-in-cheek that at times I wondered if there was anything serious in it at all.  The Frozen Rabbi is immensely enjoyable, however, and although it may decline to reveal its satirical ambitions, it raises all the questions without offering facile answers.

Just as the highly assimilated, American Jewish protagonists are drawn to the world of Jewish mysticism in these books, American Jewish writers seem drawn to Jewish magic at the moment, perhaps as a  particularly Jewish expression of the apocalypticism present more generally in American literary fiction these days (all zombies all the time, right?).  I’m sure there’s more to be said about this; hopefully I’ll say it better in an article soon.

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New Year’s Resolution

ImageWow, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here.  The past semester nearly drowned me, and although I’ve been reading, I haven’t been writing anything that hasn’t been absolutely required of me in order not to make a terrible fool of myself (and then, I may have done that anyway).  As is somewhat usual by now, my world is a precariously balanced set of items – work, money, family, among others – that I have so far put together in such a way that they have not collapsed (yay, me!) but could, it seems, do so at any moment.  I’m in the middle of another uncertain (perhaps doomed) academic job cycle and the future looks fairly dim.  There’s a little pinprick of light out there, but it’s far away and I know I can’t count on it.  I wouldn’t in any way compare my current situation to the grieving, drug-addled Cheryl Strayed of her memoir Wild, but let’s just say the book resonated with me particularly well at the moment.  As I scroll constantly though a list of both sane and crazy options in the event that I don’t get a permanent position, I’ve added “Hike the Pacific Crest Trail” to my list, although I’ve thus far avoided thinking about the damning logistics of doing so with a young family.  Probably not going to happen.  Nonetheless, sometimes the idea gives me a little glimmer of hope, or just makes me smile.

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Cheryl Strayed

Strayed has a great story, but so many things about this book could have gone wrong: it could easily have veered into sentimentality, self-help platitudinousness (this has to be a word, right?), or hectoring.  But Strayed is a really good writer, and she keeps it simple, mostly allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions/life lessons/caveats from the situations she describes, avoiding many common pitfalls of a memoir of this type.  This is probably also why the book has been extremely popular, and why I found it resonated with me: although her situation is unique and her solution extreme, there is a certain universality of emotion and response described in the book.  I might be facing a different set of problems than she did, and I might not decide to solve them by dropping everything and unadvisedly hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with no preparation, but I’ve certainly felt whatever sense of grief and abandon that leads her down that path, and the idea (as noted above) certainly sounds tempting.  In other words, Strayed does a good job of allowing me (or you, or anyone) license to both feel the extremity of whatever it is that’s on our minds or in our hearts and follow that to its logical conclusion.  She doesn’t allegorize her story, but she offers it as an allegory to you.  Make of it what you will.  I appreciated the opportunity to escape into my own fantasies about living on houseboats or moving to a country whose language I don’t speak or disappearing onto the PCT.

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The Pacific Crest Trail

I won’t give away all the details of the story here, but Strayed, having lost her mother and gotten divorced within the space of a year and at an age when most people are thinking about graduate school, not marriage (much less divorce) or death, does a lot of stupid things and then decides, with the kind of clear thinking we expect from a grieving, possibly drug-addicted, immature person, to hike a good portion of the PCT, a wilderness trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian, through California, Oregon, and Washington.  Unfortunately, she’s never even really camped before, much less backpacked hundreds of miles on her own.  Despite her ill-considered decision (which she regrets within the first ten miles), she sticks with it, more or less, figuring out along the way how to do the things she doesn’t know how to do and making alterations to her route when it is proves impassable.  It’s not really a traditional tale of stick-to-itiveness or goal achievement, which is both the essence of the story and the source of its appeal.  If she executed her plan perfectly and emerged whole and healed from the experience everyone would smell a rat, despise her, and hate the book.  Instead, she mostly accomplishes what she set out to do, not quite in the way she set out to do it, and ends up in a better, but by no means perfect, place at the end.

Maybe the kind of messy reality the book winds up with is another source of my personal resonance with Strayed’s story.  Of course, I haven’t quite ended up where I thought I would, in senses large or small.  I’ll leave aside the bigger issues for now, but certainly as regards this blog I have no illusions that I will accomplish my goal by my birthday, which is now a few weeks away.  I really did think that it was an achievable mark, 40 books in a year, and maybe in another year it would have been.  I’m not giving up; I’ll try to post on as many books as I can before the 25th, but I’m not going to delude myself or chastise myself about my prospects.  I probably am not going to do what I set out to do, but I did what I could and at this point that has to be enough (I’ve been working on applying this principle to my professional life for years and I’ve been less successful; maybe this will help).  I do plan to keep the blog going, and I hope people will continue to read it.  I’m going to try not to beat myself up about it or call it a failure.  Rather, I’ll take what feels like a success – writing about what I want, sharing it with people, reading more books and thinking seriously about them – and leave everything else.  Part of Wild was about achieving tremendous goals, but an equally important part was about keeping those goals within the realm of the possible, or even the probable.  And that’s what I’ll take with me into the new year.

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