Filed under: Blog Stuff | Tags: 2011, best of the year, books, literature
In the past year, I’ve read 97 books. (This will probably be 98 by the real end of the year; I’m on Lehane’s Mystic River and having a hard time putting it down to, you know, do all the “American stuff” I should be doing while on vacation.) I finished my Peace Corps service and the next day took a furgon (van) to Tirana, Albania, to start my Fulbright grant. I also came back to the States not once but twice (after twenty months without setting foot on American soil), both times making the library one of my first trips after arriving home.
A quick highlight of some of the best and worst in reading, of the past year.
Best “Discovered” Author: Margaret Atwood. After having a copy of The Blind Assassin on my shelf for years, I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale and, just a few days ago, The Blind Assassin. I’m still not sure how to write about her novels, but I can’t wait to explore her backlist – even if I never come up with a review any better than: “Incredible. Read it now.”
Author to Abandon: In my first year in the Peace Corps I got hooked on Elizabeth George. That lasted until I traveled to Egypt last winter, and found myself trapped, on the bus ride across Macedonia (we were flying out of Bulgaria, so my first leg of the trip was ten hours of bus rides across my home country) with a copy of What Came Before He Shot Her. And, my god was it bad. I gave her one more try with the soul-crushingly bad Missing Joseph, in which George confirmed for me that she does not really want to be a mystery novelist, not any more, but rather to be a writer about society’s ills – under the guise of a mystery novel. Never again, Elizabeth. Never again.
Most Over-hyped Novel: The Night Circus. Count me in the group of reviewers grumbling over feeling tricked and let down by this one. Beautiful cover, tons of gushing reviews, but the occasional moments of gorgeous description weren’t enough to make up for Morgenstern’s “plot” and vaguely drawn characters.
Book I’d Most Like to See as a Movie: Still, I think that some of the things I did like about The Night Circus will translate well to the screen. I can’t wait to see what the circus looks like on the big screen…and am hopeful that the director will flesh out the plot.
Author Whose Novels Makes Me Most Uncomfortable: After finishing Stieg Larsson’s spectactularly mediocre Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, I was at a loss for Scandavian crime fiction. Where to turn but to Henning Mankell, whose The Fifth Woman and Faceless Killers I read in November and December. I decided to give the books the benefit of the doubt despite their terrible titles, even offering Mankell a chance to redeem himself for the bloated mystery of The Fifth Woman, but I’m checking out after two tries. Either the translations are bad or Mankell’s prose is as lumpen and sodden as I think it is; I’d like to give my time to mystery novelists with some style. What’s more, Kurt Wallander just makes me uncomfortable: his suspicion (founded on zero evidence) that one of the victims of The Fifth Woman was gay, and the way he obsesses over this theory for over half the novel; his wet dreams about “black women”; his attempts to seduce married women. Just, ugh, Kurt. Ugh.
Novelist Who Most Makes Me Want to Move to Boston: Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane!
Book/Article/TV Series/Movie That Most Made Me Want to Move to Texas: Friday Night Lights, duh. I’m partial to the article over the book (a closer focus on the football itself), but Bissinger’s ability to reveal a town in both article and book form is extraordinary. I really, really thought, while reading the book and watching the TV show, that I would do well living in the heart of economically depressed Texas. And clearly I wouldn’t (read Friday Night Lights the book and it will be clear why; Bissinger is not judgmental but people often don’t appear in their best light [in other words, lots of racism]), but that I thought that – even for a minute – is a marker of just how carefully Bissinger drew his town and his subjects.
Author I’m Most Excited to Read in the Future: I’m going to fudge this one a little. I’m psyched to read more Margaret Atwood and Colson Whitehead, but when I thought of this category (about twenty seconds ago) it was with Karen Russell in mind. I didn’t love Swamplandia!, which I read while home last summer, but moments of the novel were thrilling and creative and had me wishing she had written more. My review of Swamplandia! reflects my disappointment with the novel; although this was Russell’s first novel I somehow expected more of it and of its close. I don’t plan to revisit her first novel, but I do want to see what Russell comes out with in future.
Best Short Story: I haven’t been keeping up with Story Sundays lately (these’ll be back on schedule soon, promise…really, I do promise), but looking back at the list is a powerful reminder of how many Really Good Short Stories I’ve read in the past year. Because I can’t choose just one, my two favorites of the year are Murray Dunlap’s “White Boy” and Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag.” (Side note: Kelly Link also wins the honor of being Most Featured Author, with three stories in the past year. She is absolutely one of the best short story writers alive.)
Worst Book: Gertrude Stein. Three Lives. I read a few bad books this year, but this is the only one that had me wanting to tear the book to pieces.
Best Book: So hard to choose just one. Soooo hard. In the past week alone I’ve read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (incredible! and also the first time I’ve read a book because I love the author’s twitter feed) and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, both of which deserve a place in the year’s top five. Top honor, though, still has to go to Michael Crummey’s Galore from Other Press. An unbelievable look at a town, tradition, how we share our histories and stories, and time. It’s been less than a year since I read Galore, but it is already near time for a reread.
I hope all of you have had a wonderful year, wonderful holidays, and are looking forward to the New Year! On my way back to Albania I’ll be stopping for a few days in Rome, so regular posts won’t resume for about two weeks. See you then!
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: a clockwork orange, anthony burgess, book reviews, books, literature, stanley kubrick
In his introduction to A Clockwork Orange Burgess details his disagreement with his original American publishers about the form the published novel should take, whether it should be published with twenty chapters (as it originally was in the United States; this is what Stanley Kubrick based his film on) or with twenty-one (as Burgess wished). In this twenty-first chapter Burgess attempts to give his novel some moral shape or center, a clear and positive message about the ability of humans to change and grow. After having his morality defined and controlled via the Ludovico treatment, Alex in this final chapter is meant to appear to have come, of his own free will, to adulthood complete with an acceptable moral code.
Whatever Burgess’s intentions, though, this chapter feels rushed, tacked on, an attempt to “redeem” Alex and fundamentally change the character he has established for himself over the previous twenty chapters. This chapter falls back on tropes of the coming-of age novel, with Alex realizing that he is eighteen, that it is time for him to marry, that it is time for him to grow up. In falling into such traditional concepts of the move into adulthood, Burgess fails not only in a purely artistic sense, but also undermines his own belief that Alex at this point is no longer a clockwork orange. Because Alex is unable to imagine a life in which he is capable of making moral decisions or capable of making decisions birthed of his own agency rather than a sense of what is expected of him based on his age, he does not truly have agency even in III, 7; and Burgess’s decision to represent Alex’s growth through a baby photograph Alex carries in his pocket is far too similar to representations of enforced change earlier in the novel to effectively showcase Alex’s “growth” as a character. While Burgess does succeed in III, 7 in raising additional questions about Alex’s agency, he does so at the cost of the realism of the character and the novel. Alex becomes, in III, 7, nothing more than a cardboard figure, no longer a puppet for F. Alexander but for Burgess himself. Burgess ultimately fails as an author, in destroying the sovereignty of his main character and making apparent that he, Burgess, considers any and all aspects of his characters to be changeable without concern for the realism of the novel’s world.
To attempt to show, in one chapter, change and growth as they may actually occur—that is, gradually, over a long period of time, certainly not over a few days at the most as is the case here—is artistically irresponsible, and removes from Alex the possibility of any agency as a character. Burgess is correct in stating, as he does in the work’s introduction, that the work is too didactic to be artistic, but much of this didactism emerges in the final chapter, when Burgess attempts to imagine the sort of moral growth he feels is necessary to a successful novel, but without allowing Alex the time to grow and change in what seems a genuine manner.
In terms of this idea of moral growth, III, 6 is no better than III, 7; it is however a stronger close to the novel because it holds to the tone of the rest of the book, and seems to be more concerned with Alex than with explicitly imparting a moral message. Burgess succeeds in creating a horrifying vision of Alex’s powerlessness. Though he is cured of the Ludovico cure and is able to once again act according to his original sense of morality, he has no choice in this cure. It becomes unclear whether there is a way for Alex not to live as a “clockwork orange,” and Burgess is able to create this sense of uncertainty while holding with the artistic sensibility of the novel as a whole. When Alex asks the nurse, “has anyone been doing anything with my gulliver? What I mean is, have they been playing around with inside like my brain?” (174), Burgess succeeds in presenting Alex as a character with some depth, as a character who doesn’t feel like a character—a point on which he fails in III, 7. There is something genuinely shocking in the way Alex is “cured” of the Ludovico treatment, and in Alex’s question above. In making clear that it is only after days of receiving the “cure” that Alex begins to realize what is being done to him, Burgess crafts a more horrifying image of governmental control over the will than he is able to with the Ludovico treatment. It is unclear how Alex feels upon realizing that he may have received a sort of cure to the Ludovico cure (in his question above it’s not made explicit whether he’s pleased or unhappy at the thought of being cured again), but the ambiguity of Alex’s feelings, coupled with the ambiguity of the government returning Alex to his original morality without his consent, allows Burgess to raise more questions of morality and free will in this chapter than in III, 7. The moral growth Burgess desires to write of may not be apparent, but his artistic performance is high in that he is able to create sympathy for a character who will soon be carrying out the same acts of violence as he did in Part One of the novel. He raises questions of the differing levels of morality, of whether Alex is essentially more moral than those in the government who have “cured” him because he lacks power or agency against that government. It is precisely Alex’s lack of power in this passage, Alex’s inability to enact his will, that makes the scene such a striking one.
Burgess succeeds in III, 6 in making a character lacking any morality seem moral in comparison to those around him, makes Alex a character worthy of the reader’s sympathy (though this could not be termed an “easy” sympathy; questions of what Alex will do after release from the hospital complicate it). It is more the shame, then, that Burgess should in III, 7 make clear that Alex, that all his characters, have been nothing but machines through the whole novel, that Burgess should strip Alex of the humanity he seemingly gains when in the hospital so that he may strive to recraft the novel in the form of what he considers an artistically ideal morality tale. Alex may not be a moral character at the close of III, 6 (the chapter’s close, with Alex thinking, “I was cured all right”  is strong precisely because Alex is not moral, because this one sentence forces the reader to question how Alex will enact his will after leaving the hospital) but questions of his agency and will continue to exist within the novel, with Burgess’s hand far less visible than it is in III, 7.
While Alex in III, 7 does not seem to be explicItly influenced by any other characters as he is via the “cure” in III, 6, it becomes clear that he is only the creation of Burgess, and that he lacks any degree of selfhood. Burgess ceases to treat Alex as though he is a person, and Alex seems subject not only to the whims of those around him, but to the whims and artistic aims of Burgess as well—Alex’s world is no longer self-contained, but reveals itself to be the product of Burgess’s hand. While Burgess is able to take shortcuts in his writing elsewhere in the novel (for instance, in failing to explain in any detail how the Ludovico treatment works; the important thing to Burgess seems to be that he be able to examine questions of free will and morality, and to create a detailed cure would delay the answers to those questions), this is one instance in which such shortcuts fail Burgess’s artistic vision. Burgess attempts to show Alex’s growth and change by placing a baby photograph in Alex’s pocket. He writes, “I couldn’t explain how it had got there, brothers, but it was a photograph I had scissored out of the old gazetta and it was a baby. It was of a baby gurgling goo goo goo…” (184). The Alex of this passage, of this final chapter, does not seem to be the same Alex of the past twenty chapters; and this difference is not due to any growth on Alex’s part, but to forced change on Burgess’s part. Because Burgess is unwilling to devote more than a chapter to Alex’s growth, he is unable to achieve his artistic goal of a novel that ultimately addresses the growth of its characters. Burgess fails to understand that while enforced change can be represented as coming via a pill, a tv screen, or an IV, genuine change cannot be seen through a baby photograph suddenly and inexplicably placed in a character’s pocket. Such an image of change is not an image of genuine growth, and if Burgess truly believes (as he writes) that the point of a novel is to “…show the possibility of moral transformation…” (viii), then surely he could devote more than a single chapter to that transformation.
Burgess’s laziness is at other points in the novel excusable, as that laziness acts as an expedient to the telling of Alex’s story. There is something refreshing, too, in Burgess’s lack of concern with precisely why Alex confesses, or how the Ludovico technique works, as it suggests in the first instance that there is some level of Alex’s character that the reader is not able to access, and in the second instance that Burgess is more concerned with examining Alex and what happens to Alex than with the precise, scientific details of what happens to him. Burgess is able to get away with representing change as coming from a pill because that is the nature of the treatment he has created, because the very nature of enforced change does not allow any sort of gradual change or growth. By representing Alex’s “genuine” change in III, 7 through a sort of new pill, a photograph of a baby, Burgess treats Alex and his growth as though it is again enforceable, and in doing so destroys the illusion of Alex and the world of the novel. When Alex accidentally pulls from his pocket the photo of the “very fat baby” (184) it is clear that Burgess has simply attempted to plant another pill, that whatever redemption Alex finds in the last pages of the book will be as false as his previous pill-induced morality.
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: a clockwork orange, anthony burgess, book reviews, books, literature, stanley kubrick
Because I have some strong feelings on the twenty-first chapter of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, I’ll be writing today’s review as if there are only twenty chapters to the book. I’ll get to that final chapter in my next post.
A Clockwork Orange is a remarkable book, often more for its language than for the skill with which Burgess plays with the novel’s major themes. What’s often noted about the novel is, correctly, the “nadsat,” the slang that Alex and his friends speak to one another as they wreak havoc on the lives of strangers. Burgess’s world, a vision of our own had it gone on a slightly different course, is formed in large part through the language his characters speak; it’s that language, that world, that makes the book a must-read, that lends a sense of reality to the story. It’s the nadsat that hides the fault to Burgess’s writing, the degree to which he manipulates his reader, along with Alex, to certain lines of thinking throughout the book. (There’s a post coming on the nadsat, later.)
In the first seven-chapter section of his novel, Burgess establishes Alex as a character whose cruelty towards others is relieved, for the reader, only by his love of music. Alex and his droogs, his friends, spend the first chapters moving from bar to bar, buying people off for their complicity in creating abilis, and robbing and raping on the street and in private homes – and this as teenagers, Alex being only fifteen years old. Burgess is quick to establish Alex as a character whose moral center is far from the average; he’s not only a character who does wrong, but a character who fails to recognize the wrong. Even his love of music turns sour for the reader when he seduces a couple of girls back to his parents’ apartment to listen to albums on his new stereo, then rapes them.
Burgess neatly splits Clockwork into three sections, with the first ending when Alex is arrested for murder. This is all a set-up for Burgess’s main thematic questions, of whether a bad person can be forced to be a good person, and of whether it is better for a naturally bad person to remain so, or to lose his or her free will in becoming what society recognizes as “good.”
While in jail, Alex is selected to be the first recipient of the Ludovico treatment, a revolutionary program designed to reform the worst of criminals in only two weeks. The treatment isn’t as interesting as are the ethical questions Burgess raises; and if there’s a fault to this segment of the novel, it’s that Burgess is too quick to hand speeches to his characters, pushing the reader to think in the direction he’s directed. The Prison Chaplain is most often victim to Burgess’s puppetry, as when he discusses the Ludovico treatment from a moral standpoint (and keep in mind that Alex’s interest in the treatment is nothing more than an interest in getting out of jail 18 years earlier than he otherwise would).
‘Very hard ethical questions are involved,’ he went on. ‘You are to be made into a good boy, 6655321. Never again will you have the desire to commit acts of violence or to offend in any way whatsoever against the State’s Peace. I hope you take all that in. I hope you are absolutely clear in your own mind about that.’ I said:
‘Oh, it will be nice to be good, sir.’ But I had a real horrorshow smeck at that inside, brothers. He said:
‘It may not be nice to be good, little 6655321. It may be horrible to be good…. What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions, little 6655321.’ (95)
To be sure, Burgess poses interesting moral questions here. When Alex is released he is a shell of his former self, despised by many for the person he used to be, yet unable to defend himself against a world that retains the cruelties he himself is no longer capable of inflicting. It’s in this third section (in the first six chapters of it, anyway) that Burgess creates a work that I find in so many ways stunning. Although Alex as a character has been significantly changed by his treatment, there’s a suggestion that the world itself doesn’t change; there are patterns that must be maintained, ones of redemption and of retribution. And Alex, a character who once acted his life out upon others with impunity, suddenly finds himself the subject of their worlds, used as a political pawn and unable to trust, any longer, the words of others. When the Ludovico treatment strips Alex of his ability to act violently he is stripped, too, of his ability to act as his own agent in the world.
There’s an answer in here to Burgess’s question, if you’re looking for one, but it changes significantly based on how many of the chapters you opt to read. I prefer to read the book as Burgess’s American editors initially published it, and as Kubrick adapted the film: twenty chapters, ending with Alex again listening to his music (which he had been unable to bear after the Ludovico treatment ended), thinking:
I was cured all right.
What a way to end the novel, what a stunner of a closing line: it suggests so much for the reader, tells us, really, what person Alex truly is, but leaves to us his next move. It suggests, too, a constancy in human nature; not that a person can’t change slightly over time, but that there are certain elements to a person’s nature that cannot be broken, and that Alex’s most true and correct self is the one that tears apart old men’s library books on the street. Some of Alex’s old droogs have grown up and moved away from him in the two years he spent in jail, but Alex himself stands at novel’s end as a character who has been changed but also proven the degree to which he cannot be changed. Though this isn’t the ending Burgess wanting, it’s one bristling with tension as we feel Alex, the real Alex, returning to himself.
Filed under: Story Sundays | Tags: “A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love”, literature, reading, short stories, story sundays, Touré
Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.
Let’s start this post with a couple of confessions, or disclaimers. One, tomorrow I’m flying to America for my first Christmas at home in three years, so anything I write today is going to be pretty high on the stupid scale. Because I’m just! so! excited! I am not big into holidays, and I hadn’t even thought of going home for Christmas until just over a week ago – but now I can’t wait. There are just so many things for me to do and eat (pecan pie! pecan pie!) while I am home.
Second, this is a story I’ve been meaning to post about for a really long time, as evidenced by the fact that I saved the draft of this post (which is not really a draft – it’s, like, one sentence and a link to the story) as “story sunday for 10.23”. Whoops! It’s “A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love” by Touré. I hope that the title immediately calls to you the way it did to me; this is such an offbeat story, featuring the greatest/oddest location for a church you can imagine. Daddy Love is an indelible and dynamic character, the descriptions of his sermons and, uh, “interactions” with church members veering wildly between cringe-inducing, hilarious, and illuminating.
He preached with a dynamism that hypnotized and bewitched, employing rhythm and volume, intensity and repetition, moans, grunts, hollers, hums, and a raw spiritual force beamed down from up on high to give his sermons wings that you could grab ahold of and go with him as he took flight, transcending English, while you nestled inside his truth–strings of words dipped in a magic that let him say crazy things no other preacher could say and pull you into a new awareness that would make you do crazy things, that, if you really knew how to listen, might make your life a little better.
Sorry that I can’t do more credit to this story. In my defense, I’m all hopped up on travel energy and need to go do something useful, like rewatch Breaking Bad and not drink any more coffee.
If you’d like to join in to this weekly meme and run your own posts about short stories, available for free online reading, email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to have you!
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: book reviews, books, eating animals, factory farming, jonathan safran foer, literature, vegetarianism
In Eating Animals Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know about eating animals in America. This is, as he points out throughout the book, one of the most disturbing aspects of being an American meat eater today: there’s a willful blindness to it, as consumers know that their chicken has been pumped full of chicken-flavored liquid to compensate for the bird’s lack of flavor (this being not dissimilar, weird as it sounds, to apples that look great but don’t really taste like anything), that their meat, milk and eggs come from animals pumped full of drugs, and that even meat or animal products stickered “cage-free” or “range-free” came from miserable animals with only the most marginal access to the outdoors and no access to what we would consider a normal or humane life.
Foer’s book is a necessary one, one that should be read by anyone eating factory farmed meat (which is pretty much everyone) or not (which is everyone else), because he addresses some topics that don’t come up in other books, like those from the Michael Pollan crowd, on eating in America. Foer focuses heavily on the cultural aspects of food; he tells stories about his grandmother’s cooking, and how her relationship with food influenced his own, and influenced his thoughts on what he wants his son’s cultural relationship with food to be. As he writes, “Food ethics are so complex because food is bound to both taste buds and taste, to individual biographies and social histories.”
He writes, too, about how it’s not merely the day to day of factory farming that is cruel, but the very genetics of the animals, which we’ve bred for the amount of meat they can quickly provide us rather than their ability to naturally reproduce or walk without pain; even the vast majority of the “best” farms are raising these same genetically cursed animals.
From 1935 to 1995, the average weight of “broilers” increased by 65 percent, while their time-to-market dropped 60 percent and their feed requirements dropped 57 percent. To gain a sense of the radicalness of this change, imagine human children growing to be three hundred pounds in ten years, while eating only granola bars and Flintstones vitamins.
Skeptical as I was about reading a novelist’s take on factory farming, Foer brings something to the story that others haven’t been able to; he draws comparisons more vividly than many other writers can, and though he is ultimately advocating a vegetarian diet, he never seems preachy about it. He opens the book to others, printing letters from an animal activist, a rancher, and a factory farmer, among others. And while he sometimes picks at the sustainable meat producers, the sort that Michael Pollan heaped praise on in his Omnivore’s Dilemma, his criticism works in view of his larger argument for vegetarianism. Unlike Pollan, who advocates eating meat sometimes, and seeking out sustainably produced meat, Foer leans towards removing meat from the diet altogether. It is, he argues, not a necessary part of the diet, and it is near-impossible to wade through the dozens of meaningless labels assuring consumers of the humane production of their food to find meat that has, actually, been humanely produced.
Near book’s end, Foer writes, “No one loves to eat as much as we do, and when we change what we eat, the world changes.” Foer’s book is all about accepting responsibility, about understanding the ways we interact with our food and then moving toward a healthier and more sustainable and humane diet, and if he sometimes picks fights with other writers, like Pollan, who have done a lot to advance this cause, it remains a pleasure to hear his voice – advocating not just more mindful eating of meat but no eating of meat, not until we have a system that we can be certain is handling animals humanely.