Friday 31 January 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020

Thank you Karen from Books and Chocolate for hosting this reading challenge! Not only will this will be a great opportunity for me to get back into reading the "Classics" again but also to continue writing reviews more frequently. My initial goal when starting this blog back in 2011 was to read as many classics as possible, even joining the Classics Club that proved to be quite rewarding even though I fell short of reading 50 works over the course of five years. Nonetheless, I am hoping to redeem myself with this new challenge and maybe even discover some new favorite classics in the process. 

Here are the 12 categories to choose from and my selections (subject to change): 

1. 19th Century Classic: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

2. 20th Century Classic: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe 

3. Classic by a Woman Author: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

4. Classic in Translation: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoeyevsky

5. Classic by a Person of Color: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass 

6. A Genre Classic: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

7. Classic with a Person's Name in the Title: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

8. Classic with a Place in the Title: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

9. Classic with Nature in the Title: TBD.

10. Classic About a Family: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

11. Abandoned Classic: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

12. Classic Adaptation: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Happy reading everyone!

Thursday 30 January 2020

Deal Me in Challenge: The Year of Spaghetti by Haruki Murakami

Card Drawn:

"1971 was the Year of Spaghetti."
I have been anxiously waiting to draw another diamond card so that I can finally read something by Haruki Murakami and "The Year of Spaghetti" did not disappoint. I absolutely loved this short-story! It took me a while to warm up to him but he is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. There are not too many gifted writers who come to mind that are able to perfectly encapsulate the overwhelming sadness from loneliness and self-alienation with such poignant brevity. He cultivates a concise and elliptical style through accessible language, transforming the banalities of ordinary life into something magical. His beautifully constructed sentences pack an emotional punch with only a few lyrical brush strokes. 

On the surface, a story about a guy cooking spaghetti in his apartment might sound pretty dull but somehow Murakami takes this simple premise and molds it into an illuminating and meaningful whole. For those who might not be familiar with Murakami, nothing is ever simple despite their outward appearance. His stories are not constrained by the narrative conventions of plot; rather, they ebb and flow with unpredictable spontaneity like a jazz piece. Dreams and reality are not always so distinguishable from one another--the defamiliarization of objective reality being a distinctive pattern in his work. Ambiguity and equivocal endings abound. Yet, "Year of Spaghetti" is one of his more understated and straightforward narratives without any encounters of the uncanny or metaphysical intrusions. The short-story's brevity engenders a heightened intensity with an unexpected tenderness of vision towards suffocating loneliness. 

The protagonist's obsession with cooking spaghetti is not only a matter of routine but an important ritual, providing his life with purpose, 
a source of comfort against the hostile outside world. However, more importantly, it becomes a coping mechanism to heal a deep-rooted pain and unhappiness. He has retreated into social isolation and become a hermit, rarely leaving the apartment unless to presumably re-stock on spaghetti. Avoiding human contact and directing all his energy into cooking spaghetti is a distraction from confronting his own personal struggles. He feels empty, alone, numb and crippled by self-alienation. He imagines inviting people over for dinner such as a girl he has a crush on or movie actors from the golden age of Hollywood such as William Holden and Jennifer Jones. Murakami might be considered a "Japanese writer" but he evinces cosmopolitan sensibilities so it is not uncommon to encounter many references to American pop culture in his work. There is even a literary reference to J.G. Ballard, a science-fiction writer known mostly for his short-stories.   

So, the protagonist is living his simple and sad life until he receives a phone call from a distant female friend looking for her boyfriend, which completely turns his world upside down. He no longer feels safe within his protective bubble. Solving the mystery behind the missing boyfriend is irrelevant. The emphasis is on the character's psychological state of mind; his reaction and emotional response to the girl's unwarranted imposition that disrupts the natural order of his self-contained little world of cooking spaghetti. We get the sense that perhaps he has romantic feelings for this girl and is harboring resentment towards her for choosing to be with someone else instead of him but their personal history remains ambiguous. The conversation on the phone is quite fascinating, revealing his aversion to intimacy and human connection. He experiences an epiphany after hanging up the phone:

"Thinking about spaghetti that boils eternally but is never done is a sad, sad thing."

This is such a great metaphor because much like the endlessly boiling spaghetti in the pot that is never fully cooked, he too is living a depressing life in this liminal space of paralysis and awakening. Even though the story is incredibly sad, it is not all doom and gloom. Murakami provides a glimpse of hope by the end that perhaps the man's life does eventually get better. "The Year of Spaghetti" is al dente, a savory and delectable short-story that makes me hungry to devour more of Murakami's fine writing. Sorry for the incessant food puns, it was too tempting.

Monday 27 January 2020

Deal Me in Challenge: Subject to Change by Lorrie Moore

Card Drawn:

"We're all suckers for a happy ending."

Pain and humor are intrinsically linked in Lorrie Moore's "Subject to Change," my first introduction to this author. The interjection of jokes, puns, witty remarks and humorous digressions are strategically utilized by the two main characters in the story as a coping mechanism for heartbreak, internal anguish and unresolved trauma. Instead of opening up about their true feelings and being vulnerable with each other, they prefer to circumvent the awkward tension with playful humor, thereby steering the conversation away from establishing any real connection or intimacy. As the popular aphorism goes: sometimes laughter is the best medicine. 

The unnamed female protagonist arranges to meet up with a man named Tom at a restaurant in France. As they engage in lengthy conversation, their sad personal history is slowly revealed through various comedic anecdotes, inferences, flash-forwards and flashbacks. I could not help but be reminded of Ernest Hemingway's classic "Hills Like White Elephants" that consists almost entirely of dialogue between an American man and woman traveling abroad in Europe with the emphasis being on what is left unsaid. That is where the comparison ends because Moore is not a minimalist; she provides just enough information to fill in the gaps whereas Hemingway's story is wildly ambiguous, forcing the reader to deduce what the couple is discussing by reading between the lines and analyzing the subtext beneath the surface (his whole"ice-berg" theory). I would argue that Lorrie Moore is a postmodern feminist writer since she engages in feminist discourses but in an irreverent and subversive way. Indeed, I would go as far to say that she has more (sorry, bad pun) in common with John Updike, especially with her use of the fragmented narrative, vignettes, the exploration of memory and shifting the comedic tone into melancholic despair. Themes of  unrequited love and failed relationships are also common features in Updike's writing that we see here as well. However, Moore sets herself apart from both authors by walking a fine line between mockery and seriousness. Although her highly polished prose might not leave much to the imagination, I found her unique dark sense of humor and wordplay amusing. Call me old-fashioned but I love a good pun and there are plenty of good ones to be found here. She does have a great ear for dialogue but sometimes it veers into quirkiness territory.

Moreover, the story is also implicitly political, criticizing the Iraq war during the early 2000's. Tom is a member of the US military and suffers from a lot of traumatic experiences during his time in the Middle-East. He is on temporary leave and meets the woman in France before having to go back on assignment. Later on we find out that he undergoes a clandestine operation overseen by the military to cure his nagging headaches (PTSD?) by implanting a chip in his brain but suffers greatly during the recovery process. Although Tom's gradual failing health and eventual rejection of the woman is terribly sad, Moore counterbalances this sorrow with humor. For example, the woman makes several references to Tom being the 'Manchurian Candidate' and suggests that he might be at the center of a government conspiracy. Perhaps one can criticize Moore for being insensitive or flippant but I believe she is interested in showing how women use humor to repress or deflect their pain. Her unconditional love for Tom is not reciprocated and it was a little frustrating to me as to why she decided to waste her time pursuing him for all those years since he was not interested in having a relationship with her in the the first place. Was it out of boredom, loneliness, lust, a sense of adventure or did she genuinely love him? I am actually leaning more towards her being seduced by his charming wit and suffering from disillusionment in thinking that she has finally found "the one." Girl, you deserve better.

Nonetheless, the ending is surprisingly poignant and Moore successfully manages to bring the narrative full circle by providing a glimpse of when they first meet at a house party, flirting in the kitchen over empty bottles of wine. The woman comes across as a hopeless romantic whereas Tom is a realist about not having a future together: "We're all suckers for a happy ending." The implication, of course, that he is only interested in having casual sex with her but she is obviously looking for something more serious. Their relationship was doomed from the start. 

Saturday 25 January 2020

Deal Me in Challenge: The Wife's Story by Ursula Le Guin

Card Drawn:

Mouth is alive with juices like wine and I'm hungry like the wolf!

Oddly enough, this is a very sad story yet probably one of the more enjoyable and cleverly written that I have encountered thus far with the Deal Me in Challenge. I totally fell for the ruse, exactly as the author intended. Well played, Ursula. Well played.

This is going to be a very short review because much of the story's power and emotional impact rests almost entirely on its meticulously crafted literary conceit. Thus, providing any plot details would ruin the fun. While some readers may find the story's artifice too gimmicky, Le Guin's specific use of language and the narrative voice is so skillfully written, playfully subverting the reader's expectations. As readers, we make certain assumptions and might not always pay attention to specific word association, which Le Guin methodically exploits to pull the rug from underneath the reader. The ending really sneaks up on you and forces the reader to re-evaluate everything leading up until that pivotal moment. I immediately had to read the story again to see how Le Guin successfully baited me into a sense of complacency. She really got me good.

Friday 24 January 2020

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”
Satire has got to be one of the most difficult literary modes to work in and pull off successfully. I have much respect for great satirists like Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Swift, Percival Everett and but it usually requires a specific frame of mind on my part to fully immerse myself in their work. Not that their writing is impenetrable or cryptically didactic, but the transgressive and ironic humor that often comes out of well-written satire sometimes doesn't work for me or tends to goes over my head. So, I approached Paul Betty's "The Sellout" with some slight hesitation only to quickly discover that the satiric humor is often on point, inviting the author's dual role as a mouthpiece for public outrage and mockery of the muddy terrain concerning race. While the novel doesn't quite live up to its hype, there is still plenty to admire here. Beatty is explicit in his irreverent satire on a 'post-racialized' Black America (of course, such notions are ludicrous and explicitly attacked) but the execution is somewhat flawed. There exists way too many digressions and the episodic narrative tends to undermine any profound critique on anti-black racism, intergenerational trauma, white hegemony and the modern black experience. 

The novel's premise revolves around a black farmer named Bonbon (the significance of his name still eludes me) who is being taken to trial by the Supreme Court for re-institutionalizing segregation to his small county as an ironic form of black empowerment. Yet, I feel that Beatty doesn't push the concern for radical black liberation and autonomy far enough. There is a fine line between satire and vitriolic ridicule that he gets almost right but too much time is wasted on absurd high-jinks, comedic vignettes and pop-culture, literary or historical references. As a result, many parts of the novel seem long-winded and drags on with no discernible purpose other than to hopefully get a few chuckles out of the reader or showcase the author's intellect and acerbic wit. Even some of the jokes come slightly repetitive and reductive after a while (a similar problem that I also had with Joseph Heller's "Catch-22"). Beatty is clearly a smart man; his writing is razor-sharp, full of crackling humor and piercing insight. When he isn't caught up in his own solipsistic posturing and focuses on the more playful and provocative dimensions of satire, the novel can actually be thought-provoking and very very funny. For example, the protagonist inadvertently becomes a slave holder of an older black man named Hominy who was once a child actor as an understudy to Buckwheat in the "Little Rascals" TV series during the 1930's. Their various comedic exploits together as master and slave provides the author with a springboard to satirize the incomprehensible horrors of slavery. Hominy desires to be slave and is intent on bringing back the ubiquitous racism of the antebellum south, which he so eloquently puts it: "True freedom is having the right to be a slave." See? Now, that's some funny ironic humor. Or the section entitled "unmitigated blackness" near the end of the novel when the protagonist's defense lawyer is explaining to the court about the different stages of 'blackness' with energetic flair is subversive as much as it is hilarious. The protagonist, seemingly bored, surreptitiously sneaks out of the courtroom to smoke a blunt outside on the steps of congress and experiences an epiphany: 

"Sitting here on the steps of the supreme Court smoking weed, under the "Equal Justice Under Law" motto, staring into the stars, I've finally figured out what's wrong with Washington, DC. It's that all the buildings are more or less the same height and there's absolutely no skyline, save for the Washington Monument touching the night sky like a giant middle finger to the world." 

I just wish there were more humorous and poignant moments like this in the novel. There were certainly scattered moments of brilliance and other times when the satire fell flat. I understand that the emphasis is on encouraging the reader to think critically about race--more specifically, what it means to be black in contemporary America--but it was still difficult for me to form any emotional attachment to the overall narrative that should have resonated with me on deeply personal level as a person of color. In short, I was left wanting more.

Thursday 23 January 2020

Deal Me in Challenge: The School by Donald Barthelme

Card Drawn:

"Okay class, settle down. Eyes up front. Now, who wants to tell me what happens when you forget to feed our pet fish?"

I recall reading Donald Barthelme's "The School" a few years back and found it completely baffling. Although I could appreciate its dark humor and unconventional narrative, I was left with mixed feelings. His writing came across as arrogantly esoteric, frustrating me to no end because it seemed that he was the only one in on the joke, while I struggled to comprehend the underlying meanings that continually slipped through my grasp. I wanted to read the story again to see if my opinion changed or if I could ascertain any new insights. Suffice it to say, I have had a complete change of heart and it is amazing what a second reading will do. "The School" is as close to perfection as a short-story gets and now I am beginning to understand why he is highly regarded as one of the most influential short-story writers of the 20th century.

Donald Barthelme was part of the post-modernist movement of avant-garde American literature that emerged in the 1960’s. Conventional plot and characterization is rejected. The aesthetics of literature--more specifically, the difficulties associated with writing and using language to reflect the reality of a rapidly changing and incomprehensible world is often seen in these works as linguistically, structurally and thematically fragmented or unusual as a mimetic portrait of modern life. While one can make the argument that he is a surrealist, stories such as "The School" reveal that there is a specific technique behind all of the playful absurdity. Barthelme skillfully subverts traditional narrative conventions through parody, irony and paradox to present a idiosyncratic vision of the contemporary world. The juxtaposition between the trivial and the extraordinary is a recurring motif in his writing and we see this most profoundly in "The School" where a classroom becomes the symposium for philosophical discussion on existentialism, love, sexual desire and most importantly--death, but through the unique perspective of children. The dichotomy between childhood innocence and death is at the center of this story, highlighting what seems to be the author's parody of philosophical conundrums. 

These precocious children do not speak like children at all; rather, they articulate themselves with sophisticated eloquence. The psyche of these children shows an advanced maturity (I could not help but imagine these children living in our current digital age of mass information, growing up with the internet and social media) and it is ironic that they seem more knowledgeable and engaged with the world around them than their teacher who also narrates the story. His general demeanor is rather elusive and taciturn, preferring to remain a disinterested observer. Ironically, it is the children, who seem more perceptive and fastidious in their learning than the adults. Much of the humor in this story is generated from the incongruity between the children's refined language and naiveté. Another layer of irony is that the school is supposed to be a place of higher learning that should provide answers but fails to do so. 

Then we come to the weird ending, which I found confusing and slightly uncomfortable on my first read. Yet, I think that is exactly what Barthelme intended. Paradoxically, love and death become intrinsically connected in this triumphant moment of transcendence. My initial understanding of the story, especially the ending, could not have been more wrong. It's damn near perfect.