On Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”

18 Jul

Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we're accustomed to hearing.

Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we’re accustomed to hearing.

Even having lived in New England for four years, I rarely thought about how this country was founded. The cobblestone in Providence and the patina-covered historical society plaques on every other building foundation in Boston seemed quaint at the time, but I was more interested in hunting for a decent cup of coffee through the forests of Dunkin’ Donuts than studying landmarks. And what little understanding remained of the development of these United States of America, our Puritan forefathers, and the birth of American culture was handily overturned by Sarah Vowell’s quick-witted, nonfiction history The Wordy Shipmates.

Students in U.S. public schools are used to the story of the pilgrims–some of the first English settlers to emigrate to the shores of New England. In elementary school, I understood the pilgrims to be happy-go-lucky explorers, chowing down on turkey cylindrical hunks of cranberry sauce with Squanto, and I spent six years making hand-traced turkeys on construction paper. In high school, I learned that the pilgrims were bunch of evil, racist land thieves who ruined the best parts of this land. Vowell tells a more balanced story. She rightly points out that we in U.S. live in a world created by Puritans, whether we like it or not, and explores the culture and consequences of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony in a way my third grade teacher and my bland high school text books never could.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a coffin to leave a cesspool of sin (as Winthrop's folks thought of it) for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a vomitty coffin to leave the cesspool of sin that was England for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death. Just another day in the life.

From the beginnings of Puritan unrest in mother England to the voyage of the Arbella, from the seeds of American dissent to the horrors of the Pequot War, Vowell bounces through her research, carried along with her sardonic humor. John Winthrop leaves England for New England on his flagship Arbella, preaching on the long journey across the pond that his people are the modern Israelites, tasked with holy mission of being America’s “city on a hill.” It’s a quote from the Bible, and it’s an image that will follow the U.S. through its history as a nation.

Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was Boston, and the foundation of this colony still influences us today. Vowell’s recognition of this and inclusion of Winthrop’s far reaching touch on American society gives TWS a fun narrative: Winthrop banishes a heretic to Plymouth, and the Reagan administration sells guns in South America; Roger Williams prints some strongly worded pamphlets, and Vowell takes her nephew to a museum; Anne Hutchinson gets tossed out of Boston for leading a Bible study in her home, and JFK becomes the first Catholic elected to the U.S. presidency. Vowell’s begrudging respect for the Puritans is made plain. She identifies with them, she respects them, she finds comfort in their words despite it all:

“… in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.”

It is, in fact, all about words: the Boston charter, Winthrop’s lengthy sermons, the Magna Carta that laid the groundwork for the impending American Revolution, and John Cotton’s pamphlet war with the notorious Roger Williams. The words of the Bible inspired the Puritans, drove them to become the people who they were with such strength that our ears are still ringing with their passionate sermons. Their words and their books founded Harvard and set the precedent for America’s higher education. Their words made peace and made war. It’s the witty words of Sarah Vowell, though, that wrap up everything–all the historical facts and sermon quotes and droll judgments–in the pretty bow of her understanding of current affairs, and it’s this contextualization and personalization that makes TWS a compelling read.

"It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island ... Rhode Island was purchased by love."

“It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island … Rhode Island was purchased by love.” -Roger Williams, after the Narragansett presented him with the whole state of Rhode Island as a gift.

Read it if … you enjoy nonfiction history, obviously. But also read it if you primarily read fiction, like me, but are looking for something new. Vowell’s snarky prose and winding storytelling keeps TWS interesting throughout, and creates a gently arcing narrative that is easily accessible for novel enthusiasts.

Don’t read it if … you have no interest in early U.S. history. Vowell’s dry humor can only carry one’s interest so far. You may want to steer clear, too, if you’re set on either pedastalizing or demonizing the Puritan settlers. Vowell gives an honest account of their lives and strives to humanize John Winthrop and his constituents. If you are some kind of fervent Calvinist, you may dislike the way Vowell criticizes the Puritan lifestyle of constant fear and self-hatred. If you still hold a multi-generational grudge against the English colonists for ruining everything, you may not like the way Vowell maintains her respect for the Puritans’ resilience, resourcefulness, and occasional compassion.

This book is like … Dean Olsher’s From Square One, a fun exploration of the art of crossword puzzles–both creating them and completing them. While the subject matter is completely different, the execution is fairly similar. And just for kicks, here’s what I wrote in the first line, which apparently still holds true, of my review of Olsher’s nonfiction book that I published in December, 2012:

“I don’t always read non-fiction. But when I do, I read about a topic I love and it’s written by a former correspondent for NPR.”

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR's popular radio series "This American Life." It's no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we're so used to hearing on public radio.

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR’s popular series This American Life. It’s no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we’re so used to hearing on public radio.

What gets you to read nonfiction? Is it your natural state of reading? Do you need inspiration or a gun to your head? Tell me in the comments below!

On Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”

8 Jul

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe [2013] by Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the Stonewall Book Award, the Honor Book, the Michael L. Printz Award, and Pura Belpré Author Award, but it's no big thing.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe [2013] by Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the Stonewall Book Award, the Honor Book, the Michael L. Printz Award, and Pura Belpré Author Award, but it’s no big thing.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s critically acclaimed young adult (YA) novel just scooped up a new award: the Longest Blog Title on LitBeetle Award. This title is so long that the abbreviation needs an abbreviation. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an epically long title fit for its epically epic content.  The YA novels I grew up on were about eating worms on a dare or talking field mice who really liked their dandelion cordial, but AaDDtSotU (see how long that abbreviation is??) follows in the footsteps of many contemporary teen novels that have recently refused to shy away from tough issues.

Aristotle Mendoza is a 15-year-old in El Paso, Texas, and he’s experiencing all the confusing elements of limbo between childhood and manhood. Puberty, high school popularity, friction with his parents–all the usual teen trials–aren’t the extent of Aristotle’s troubles, though (for one, he has to deal with being named after an ancient Greek philosopher). Ari’s coming of age story begins in summer, and this novel is very much a summery novel. Ari’s summer is lonely, and he prefers it that way, but when another boy named Dante stumbles into Ari’s life, the unlikely duo begin a path of discovering the eponymous “secrets of the universe.” They also discover the meaning of friendship.

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Sáenz writes from Ari’s perspective, so if you’re really interested in immersing yourself in the solipsistic, curse-filled existential crises of a teenage male, you’re in luck, because Sáenz does an admirable job of it:

“Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.”

Ari is incredibly thoughtful and self-aware for an adolescent, but he is still an adolescent. He experiences that singular inner turmoil of growing up and feels the compounding drama of becoming himself. Sáenz ends up creating a story that is true to the melodrama of one’s teenage years, but also gives beautiful portrayals of relationships. (OK, so “solipsism” was unfair of me.) Not only is Aristotle about the friendship between two young men, but it also presents beautiful, honest representations of parent-child relationships and healthy adult relationships between Ari’s and Dante’s respective parents. Young adult fiction so often falls into the ease of pitching “us against them” when it comes to parent-child interactions. Sáenz lets us know that it’s OK to be crazy about your mom and dad.

Aristotle is a story of summers, of love between friends and family members, and of desert storms. More than a tale about coming of age, it is a tale about navigating the tough stuff in life and learning to ask for help. It’s about learning to live as a person in relationship with other people. It’s a wonderfully simple concept featuring some lovely characters and written in Sáenz’s colloquial and often poetic style.

This is a novel about summer, deserts, and those rare storms that sweep across the American Southwest, changing the landscape and bringing sweet, terrifying relief to arid lands.

This is a novel about summer, deserts, and those rare storms that sweep across the American Southwest, changing the landscape and bringing sweet, terrifying relief to arid lands.

Read this book if … you could use an uplifting, easily accessible story. Aristotle is written with the easy language of young adults but with enough prosaic poise and mature themes to keep it enlightening for older readers, and despite those heavier themes, it is filled with hope, love of human nature, and the promise of happiness.

Don’t read this book if … you’re younger than 10 or 11 or are averse to some adult themes or adult language. Sáenz’s characters deal with everything from drinking to sex to crime and–like you would expect from a teenage boy–sometimes have the mouths of sailors.

This book is like … Going Bovine by Libba Bray, which tells the story of a young man who has contracted Mad Cow Disease. He has to learn to navigate his own coming of age while dealing with a deadly illness. Like Sáenz, Bray doesn’t shy away from tough issues like mortality and maturity. She uses her wit and singular humor to present a fantastic young adult alternative to a lot of frippery out there today.

Poet, novelist, theologian. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is closer than most to uncovering the secrets to the universe.

Poet, novelist, theologian. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is closer than most to uncovering the secrets to the universe.

What is your favorite book about friendship? Tell me in the comments below!

On Jessie van Eerden’s “Glorybound”

1 Jul
Don't be fooled by its summer-reading-list cover. Glorybound by Jessie van Eerden is an impressive first novel that was more than mere entertainment.

Don’t be fooled by its summer-reading-list cover. Glorybound by Jessie van Eerden is an impressive first novel that was more than mere entertainment.

glo·ry/glôrē/noun

1. high renown or honor won by notable achievements.

2. magnificence; great beauty.

My one claim to fame, and the primary reason I picked up this novel, is due to the author herself. Jessie van Eerden earned a fellowship at my university and instructed a couple of my classes where she helped foster my young, angsty attempts at fiction writing. During my time as her student, van Eerden was working on the draft of Glorybound and I was thrilled to see what she had produced. What she produced was a lovely debut novel that I genuinely enjoyed, and though I lost count of the times the word “glory” was used, her apparent fixation on the word and the concept is well founded in this poignant story about beauty in a devastated landscape, and high renown in the scarred lives of the Lemley family.

Crystal and Aimee Lemley are sisters, scraping by in the old mining town of Cuzzert, West Virginia. Abandoned by their preacher-father when they were teenagers, the two sisters, now young ladies, have set out to become women-prophets of their basement church Glorybound. Crystal has taken a vow of silence. Aimee took a vow of chastity. Both are inspired and tormented by their father’s tremendous faith and tremendous failure, despite the fact they haven’t seen him in ten years. When a volunteer teacher comes to town from the big city of Chicago, the Lemley family, Glorybound, and all of Cuzzert is shaken up and seems to be headed toward a rocky resolution of their past pains.

Glorybound feels like a gender-reversed, modern take on the novel and television series Christy.

Glorybound feels like a gender-reversed, modern take on the novel and television series Christy. Teacher comes to town, teacher meets love interest, teacher navigates religious community in the Appalachians, teacher learns to become human. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great story. (And I have such a soft spot for the TV show.)

Van Eerden tackles the most basic and the most tragic of topics: human relationships. Crystal and Aimee are both cut off from society by their self-imposed vows. Their father cuts himself off from nourishment and from outside influences. Cuzzert itself is cut off from the world as ex-miners leave in search of jobs and traffic is rerouted to the big city. For much of the novel, the characters must struggle in their isolation and come to terms with themselves before they allow themselves to touch or be touched by others.

Much of Crystal and Aimee’s struggle is birthed from their complex understanding of their God. God, to them, is represented by their father: a charismatic, brilliant being who the girls believe to have failed them. The sisters take their vows to become prophets as a test of their faith, to prove their faith is stronger than their father’s. But their vows are also self-inflicted punishment, flagellation of silence and loneliness to purify them of their father’s sins. Crystal’s childhood sweetheart returns to Cuzzert to give us an entirely radical view of religiosity. Ronnie Sisler is a snake handler. His road to understanding God runs through venomous serpents, and he seems courts death to both prove God’s protective hand over him and to prove God’s very existence. Van Eerden gives us an ambiguous perspective on spirituality, and presents religion as a lifestyle–full of its own flaws and extremes and beauty–in an unabashed, descriptive prose, and, in fact, it’s her prose that carries the novel more so than the plot of family drama.

What do people do … when they go untouched, when they ain’t okay with being touched? They cover their arms with flannel sleeves; they turn to ashes and go gray. They see red; they go wild. They set fire to their dresses and leave lace and a pink belt in the trash barrel to make other folks wonder. They get themselves thrown in prison, and they call the punishment down. They handle serpents just to feel the scales and the muscled-tongue bodies. They do any number of things.”

Pentecostal snake-handling is still alive and well in the U.S. According to some biblical scripture, snake-handling is a sign of a believer.

Pentecostal snake-handling is still alive and well in the U.S. According to some biblical scripture, snake-handling is a sign of a believer.

Aside from her evident lyricism, van Eerden gives precious attention to detail. From lengthy accounts of laundry day to mood-setting descriptions of Glorybound’s Spirit-filled sermons, it’s obvious she believes the glory is not always on an epic scale, but oftentimes in the smallest actions–in the brief touches and few kind words, in the lost buttons and the drying dresses hanging in the thick West Virginian air. I have passed through West Virginia and loved what felt like a landscape of wilderness. Even Cuzzert and, maybe especially, the Lemley girls feel wild and wonderful. One measure of Glorybound‘s success is that it makes a part of me want to live it.

West Virginia is a portrait of conflict: wilderness versus industry, the beauty of unruly nature versus the brutal scars of the coal mines. It still remains one of the most poignant states I have ever visited.

West Virginia is a portrait of conflict: wilderness versus industry, the beauty of unruly nature versus the brutal scars of the coal mines. It remains one of the most poignant states I have ever visited.

Read it if … you have a free moment, because the novel just flies, or if you’re interested in new, rising authors. I hope Jessie van Eerden continues writing, because she has a lasting voice, one that’s attuned to addressing those lovely moments of simultaneous heartbreak and beauty.

Don’t read it if … you take issue with spirituality or religion. While Glorybound may not be a strict come-to-Jesus novel, its characters and its story revolve heavily around the central figure of an imposing God.

This book is like … The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls gives us another view of a young woman growing up in rural America and navigating the eccentricities of the adults who raised her. Christy by Catherine Marshall tells the tale of a young, bushy tailed city girl decides to hike into the Appalachians to teach school children in Cutter Gap. She has to battle her own prejudices and those of the Cutter Gap citizens, and she has to decide between the affections of an atheist doctor and the new, dashing preacher.

Jessie van Eerden taught at Seattle Pacific University through a fellowship program, and now teaches at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Jessie van Eerden taught at Seattle Pacific University through a fellowship program, and now teaches at West Virginia Wesleyan College. (Photo from jessievaneerden.com)

Tell me in the comments below, have you have ever read a book that made you want to visit an unlikely place?

On Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”

27 Jun

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2003] won the Hugo, was nominated for the Nebula, and was named Time's best novel of the year. It's no joke.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2003] won the Hugo, was nominated for the Nebula, and was named Time‘s best novel of the year. It’s no joke.

What do you get when you mix Regency Era social dramedy with magic? A whole lot of parlor tricks, one would think. Susanna Clarke, though, has written an incredible masterpiece of mash-up fiction, combining Jane Austen-esque commentary and witty dialogue with an alternate magical universe. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the most enjoyable fantasy novels  I have ever read and, despite its 1,000+ pages (and the fact that I took a three-year hiatus somewhere around page 500, for reasons completely unrelated to its quality as a book), it flashes by like a raven in flight and leave you wanting more.

On the cusp of war with Napoleon, Regency Era England has become a divisive nation. A mad king has become the puppet of quarreling dukes, lords, and admirals. Armies of young men fight in the muddy fields of foreign countries. The English is industrializing, becoming tamer, losing its wilder, more pagan heritage. Following so far? Everything is pretty text book, all history and common knowledge … and then comes an understated mention of magic (it’s no big thing), and this familiar England is suddenly transformed into Clarke’s alternate history.

In this new universe, England has long been bereft of practical magic. At the start of the novel, magic is a pastime to study in dusty books by councils of bored, old noblemen. But a magician by the name of Mr Norrell appears on the scene, and he has made it his quest to bring practical magic back to England … as long as he’s the only one to practice it. When he takes on a single, brilliant pupil–a young nobleman by the name of Jonathan Strange–tensions rise and an dangerous rivalry is born. It seems England isn’t big enough for two magicians, but neither Jonathan Strange nor Mr Norrell is going to let their motherland go that easily. Through dark spells, enchantments, political intrigue, and war, the two magicians battle for dominance, and both are too absorbed with each other to notice the encroaching doom they face at the hands of something far more powerful than anything imaginable.

Portia Rosenberg's lovely illustrations add to the eerie settings and familiar-yet-bizarre atmosphere.

Portia Rosenberg‘s lovely illustrations add to the eerie settings and “uncanny valley” atmosphere.

Clarke’s attention to detail and world-building skills are as magical as Mr Norrell’s enchantments. She creates a fluid and absolutely believable alternate history that is firmly founded on actual English history and a host of modified mythology. Frequent footnotes refer to fictional books on magical history or citing ancient myths. Clarke’s meticulousness may extend the book to an epic scale (and literal size), but it pays off in grounding a fantastical tale in an understated style that makes JS&MN digestible for every reader.

The magic system Clarke creates is not as elaborate as Gaiman’s or Sanderson’s, and one could point that out as a flaw in her universe. In her defense, magic in the world of JS&MN is dusty, bookish, inscrutable, and an altogether mystery thanks to Mr Norrell’s monopoly of the subject, and with this in mind, I didn’t mind the lack in detail in just exactly how Jonathan Strange can walk through a mirror and into another dimension. The magic Clarke excels in is the magic in creating a compelling alternate universe, complex and conflicted protagonists who are far from perfect (and sometimes far from likable), and a story that makes me want to re-read it immediately. And you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be streaming the BBC miniseries when it comes out.

The Regency Era is one of our most beloved period settings, and you have to attribute that to the tight pants and snug bodices.

The Regency Era is one of our most beloved period settings, and you have to attribute that to the tight pants and snug bodices.

Read it if … you’re looking for a meatier summer read. While entirely entertaining, Clarke’s fantasy novel is more than a romp in the heather with faeries. The depth and breadth of Clarke’s universe, the detail to historical and mythical references, and the devotion to character makes JS&MN one of the most robust fantasy novels I have ever read.

Don’t read it if … you’re intimidated by large books, or you refuse to let go of your misconceptions that period fiction (especially, heaven forbid, anything compared to Jane Austen) is literature lite. JS&MN is a fun read but certainly not frivolous in the context of fantasy novels.

This book is like … Jane Austen, but that’s the totally easy comparison to make, and while Clarke’s novel takes place in the same era, the content is obviously different. Austen tackled social conventions with her subtle wit and dialogue. Clarke’s take on magic and mythology addresses the dangers of polarization, obsession, abuse of power, and a really, really weird bromance, which is all much more in line with a book like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I haven’t yet read the novel The Prestige by Christopher Priest, but the film adaptation [2006] was a thrilling story of two stage magicians whose rivalry builds to an extreme, violent end.

Susanna Clarke looks a little magiciany herself. She's only written one other book besides JS&MN. Maybe she'll pull a Harper Lee and call it good.

Susanna Clarke looks a little magiciany herself. She’s only written one other book besides JS&MN. Maybe she’ll pull a Harper Lee and call it good.

Tell me in the comments below which literary mash-up you would prefer:

  1. Mark Twain meets zombies!
  2. Kazuo Ishiguro meets vampires!
  3. Charles Dickens meets steampunk!

On Tao Lin’s “Shoplifting from American Apparel”

24 Jun
My "Art of the Novella" collection continues to grow with this edition of Tao Lin's Shoplifting from American Apparel.

My “Art of the Novella” collection continues to grow with this edition of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel.

Purely by accident, I read two novels this week starring completely apathetic, self-pitying protagonists. One was Hemingway writing himself into a torrid affair set in Pamplona, and the other was contemporary author Tao Lin writing himself into Shoplifting from American Apparel, an installation in Melville House Publishing’s “The Contemporary Art of the Novella.” Lin’s protagonist Sam navigates the hipster scene of New York City, various halfhearted affairs, and his own kleptomania in this autobiographical story.

Sam, a young man in his twenties of a nondescript profession is leading a nondescript life. The very nondescriptness of his life sets the tone of Lin’s novella to a droning, tongue-in-cheek pitch–a perfect vessel for Lin’s story about a self-pitying protagonist who’s greatest trouble is creating meaningful relationships. The trouble starts with an instant message conversation between Sam and Luis, a friend Sam knows only through a digital connection. Sam’s other relationships include several pseudo-girlfriends and the acquaintances he makes spending the night in jail for shoplifting.

I imagined Sam to be the brooding type, like Jon Snow. Only Jon Snow actually had things to brood about.

Lin’s protagonist Sam is totally the self-pitying, the brooding type, like Jon Snow. (Only Jon Snow actually had things to brood about, and Sam just feels the loneliness of the postmodern Information Age.)

SfAA is a postmodern novella of a postmodern man, written in a postmodern style. Contemporary readers, myself included, really love our labels. And it’s not just readers. As a society, we love to categorize the hipsters things and the retro things. We love to say things like, “That’s so post-postmodern.” Lin capitalizes on this bizarre level of self-awareness, and seems to jab at Sam/himself through the character’s juvenile personality. Sam spends a lot of time (I mean, it’s a novella for Christ’s sake, so we’re already low on real estate) complaining with Luis about how “f@#cked” they are.

The short form is perfect for Sam’s story. For one, no one wants to spend that much time reading about Sam’s idea of an extreme sport: full contact apathy. Secondly, Lin gives us a narrative made up of snapshots. It’s a montage of curated moments that feels a lot like two-minute football highlight video on YouTube. The distant third-person perspective furthers Sam’s ostracization from the reader. In the same way he struggles making deep connections with his friends and lovers, Sam remains unknowable to the voyeur-reader. All we know is that he’s kind of a prick. It’s Lin’s skillful portrayal of a dislikable character that I appreciate, and I enjoyed this novella in the same way (though, not to the same level, maybe) that I enjoy reading Nick Carraway or Rabbit Angstrom. These are protagonists who feel pride in their lostness, in their f@#ckedness, in tension with their self-hatred.

It turns out Tao Lin is really bad at shoplifting, and so is Sam, Lin's novella doppelganger. But I totally get it. I wouldn't want to pay $90 for a knit, plain heather gray sweatshirt either.

It turns out Tao Lin is really bad at shoplifting, and so is Sam, Lin’s novella doppelganger. But I totally get it. I wouldn’t want to pay $90 for a knit, plain heather gray sweatshirt either.

Read it if … you have a brief moment to contemplate narrative form and the meaning of human relationships. This book may barely hit the 100-page mark, and it will feel like a light read if you let it. Lin’s hyper self-awareness is evident throughout the novella, though, as well as his intelligence.

Don’t read it if … hipsters make you angry, because a hipsters writing about the flaws of hipsters is going to lose its subtle messaging with you. SfAA could also just rub your the wrong way because you read it at the wrong time. I happened to read it at the right time, since Hemingway apparently put me in the mood for the whole asshole-protagonist thing.

This book is like … Ed Park’s Personal Days, which tells the story of a group of coworkers trapped in the cold, impersonal, bizarre world of a digitally based workplace. A third of the novel is written in the format of long, meandering email threads. Park’s characters are decidedly goofier, but it’s a quick read and points to the limitations and nuances of language in a digital medium.

From what it sounds like, and from the Google results of his pictures, Tao Lin is kind of a kooky guy. I'd love to hang out with him one day and have random adventures in NYC. As long as the night doesn't end in prison for shoplifting stuff.

From what it sounds like, Tao Lin is the kind of kooky guy who I would love to hang out with. As long as the night doesn’t end in prison for boosting stuff from overpriced clothing stores.

Tell me in the comments below: Who love-hates their generation more, a writer from the Lost Generation or a writer from the contemporary hipster generation?

 

On Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”

17 Jun

The Sun Also Rises [1927] by Ernest Hemingway paints a portrait of the Lost Generation--namely, a group of ex-patriots surviving the Modern Age through willpower, irony, and a whole lot of wine.

The Sun Also Rises [1926] by Ernest Hemingway paints a portrait of the Lost Generation–namely, a group of expatriates surviving the Modern Age through willpower, irony, and a whole lot of wine.

Ernest Hemingway–grizzled, über manly, misogynistic, brawling, brilliant writer that he is–has been a strong influence on my life as a reader, ever since 15-year-old LitBeetle picked up A Farewell to Arms because she was really, really bored. Don’t get me wrong: the racism and sexism, the unabashed machismo gets my blood up, and not in, like, a sexy way. Hemingway is a pure and simple dick. I can temporarily suspend my moral outrage,though, because I’m absolutely in love with his spare and simplistic prose. With The Sun Also Rises, I basked in Hemingway’s iconic understated voice, and it left me sighing and staring appreciatively off into middle distance (not to mention left me wanting to drink wine from a leather flask).

In the first four pages of TSAR, Hemingway basically sketches out the entire plot of School Ties by introducing Robert Cohn, a young fighter who bruised his way up in the world and played a lot of football, so I kept picturing Brendon Fraser stalking around Paris with his jerk friend Matt Damon. The Sun Also Rises, though, is told from the perspective of Robert’s friend, Jake Barnes, who coasts through an indulgent, careless life as an expatriate in Paris. He spends his days writing news articles to wire back to America and spends his nights drinking copious amounts of gin, sherry, and absinthe. He is a proud member of the Lost Generation, and he is a mirror of young Ernest Hemingway’s life abroad. Having lived through the most horrific war in human history, Jake and his friends drown their disillusionment in unbridled pleasure-seeking, which seems harmless at first, but sentiments escalate when the setting changes to the violence of Pamplona’s bull fights and when everyone becomes tangled in an icky little love triangle, like you do. Jake’s love of his life, Lady Brett Ashley, is a free-wheeling, free-loving woman who can’t help herself but break a few hearts. Robert Cohn is the Jewish-American writer who vies for Brett’s affections, along with Brett’s fiancée Michael Campbell and Jake’s American friend Bill Gorton. So, I guess that makes it more like a love pentagon. It’s a whole mess and, according to Hemingway, we can pretty much lay blame on the Jew and the woman, obviously.

Here's a cheat sheet to all the characters:

Here’s a cheat sheet to all the characters: Jake Barnes, the self-pitying drunk; Brett Ashley, the heartbreaker drunk; Robert Cohn, the brooding drunk; Mike Campbell, the mean drunk; and Bill Gorton, the funny drunk (and then there’s Georgette, but we left her in Paris).

In Pamplona, watching the brutal running of the bulls and the bull fights, the love polygon gets heated, and all the drunks get to flex their drunky drunk muscles in high melodrama fueled by selfishness and Spanish wine. Jake hangs back as more of a passive, journalistic observer as the plot unfolds. Robert Cohn’s obsession with Brett grows during the fiesta, and so does everyone else’s anti-Semitism. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones, but my heart started racing as the tension built. I fully expected someone to whip out Valyrian steel and start lopping off heads. Hemingway’s hard-boiled, no-nonsense prose drives the atmosphere toward that tension. He builds with spurts of dialogue to move the plot along and rhythmic, repetitive descriptions to set the stage with lasting images.

Hemingway creates a environment that perfectly demonstrates the lostness of his Lost Generation. Jake and his friends wallow in their petty infighting, careless quips, and sadomasochism. At one point, Jake leans out of his hotel window, drunk as he has been for the entire week-long fiesta, and watches a man being gored to death by a bull in the streets below him. The bull’s horns pierce straight through its victim from the lower back and out through the man’s chest. It seems Jake feels nothing at the sight. Brett and the others love the fighting and the danger and even the gore. Only Robert Cohn feels sick to his stomach at the violence, and his sensitivity is one more reason for his companions’ derision. Cohn is the odd man out, the man who can’t participate in the irony and the coldness, the man who feels too much and actually invests himself in people. To the Lost Generation, a culture of calculated abandon and intentional denial, Cohn is weak so he is cast off. And also he doesn’t drink nearly enough.

Even now, Hemingway continues to be a polarizing author. Many readers hate him and his macho style, but he’s still revered as one of the best American authors to date. Tell me in the comments below if you’re Team Hemingway or a Hemingway-hater, and I want to know why!

Hemingway's own trip to Spain inspired TSAR. Here he is (far left) in café in Pamplona sitting next to Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley. (From Wikipedia)

Hemingway’s own trip to Spain inspired TSAR. Here he is (far left) in café in Pamplona sitting next to Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley. (Don’t tell me you wouldn’t hit that.) (From Wikipedia)

“Badly cogido …. All for sport. All for pleasure.”

Read it if … you’re a sucker for terse prose, Modernists, or feeling simultaneously superior and self-loathing about everything in general. Hemingway incorporates the confusion of the Lost Generation in a handful of iconic characters. TSAR is the perfect snapshot of the ruination The Great War and Modernism laid to young men and women and writers around the world.

Don’t read it if … your prosaic preferences lean toward more descriptive writing. Hemingway doesn’t tend to wow readers with flourishes or catchy turns of phrase, and, where other writers are more like painters, Hemingway is a blunt instrument hammering an image home. If the weather is wet, Hemingway will let you know things are wet and they’re damp and everything is wet and glistening with water because it’s raining wetness. If there are soldiers marching down a mountain, goddammit, Hemingway will force you to feel those footsteps in your bones. Don’t read Hemingway if you’re not prepared to be Hemingwayed.

This book is like … Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, which tells a slightly different tale of the expatriate scenes in Paris, only 30 odd years later. Like TSAR, Giovanni’s Room gives us protagonists who appear as cold observers, seemingly unfazed by the self-destruction all around them and yet complicit in it. And, of course, let’s not forget the most obvious allusions to The Story of Ferdinand by  the master Munro Leaf, because, you know, bull fighting.

I'm used to seeing Hemingway as the grizzled, bearded man shooting fish with a machine gun from his boat, but he wrote TSAR when he was only 27, a young journalist in Paris with his whole, epic career in front of him.

I’m used to seeing Hemingway as the grizzled, bearded man shooting fish with a machine gun from his boat, but he wrote TSAR when he was only 27, a young journalist in Paris with his whole, epic career in front of him.

 

On Robert Charles Wilson’s “Spin” (Spin Saga #1)

13 Jun

Set aside your prejudices against shoddy sci-fi covers, and believe me when I tell you that everything inside Robert Charles Wilson's Spin [2005] is worth your time.

Set aside your prejudices against shoddy sci-fi cover art, and believe me when I tell you that everything inside Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin [2005] is worth your time.

Imagine sitting underneath the starry night sky, picking out the constellations you half remember from that one field trip to the planetarium in fourth grade. Imagine its the clearest night with full view of the impossibly massive universe before you. Then imagine the stars die. Not in a slow fade or winking out one by one, but a clean, sudden, silent death that leaves the sky utterly blank. This is the horror that begins Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. This is an apocalypse that doesn’t come with zombies or fire. It doesn’t come all at once. It comes quietly, in one of the most frightening moments in sci-fi.

Tyler Dupree narrates the memory of seeing the stars disappear when he was 12 years old, sitting on a hilltop in October with his best and only friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, twins from the Big House. They are the children and heirs to a genius businessman and an alcoholic mother. Tyler is the son of the Big House’s maid. Across the social divide, the friends experience that night and the subsequent drama in three vastly different manners. The children grow up and learn that the disappearance of the stars wasn’t the only outcome of the “October Event,” or “the Spin” as it would later be dubbed. When a massive, planet-wide shield is erected over Earth’s atmosphere by powers unknown, time itself changed: for every second that passed on Earth, three years passed in the rest of the universe. The aging sun is suddenly approaching its death much sooner than expected, and human beings are forced to find creative ways to survive or cope with what looks like the apocalypse. Diane looks to religious extremism, Jason buries himself in the research of the Hypotheticals–those thought to be responsible for the Spin–and Tyler becomes a doctor and does everything within his power to carry on as if nothing had changed at all, burying his emotions and fear beneath a clinical denial.

"The spin" changed more than the stars. It changed the human experience of time. In a solar system like ours, that changed the deadline of Earth's very existence.

“The Spin” changed more than the stars. It changed Earth’s relationship to time. In a solar system like ours, that changed the deadline of the world’s very existence.

Throughout the novel, Tyler’s narrative alternates between a chronological retelling of his past–in which he navigates life under the Spin, following the Lawton siblings around, and trying to ignore humankind’s imminent doom–and Tyler’s present, in which he endures a mysterious illness while trying to escape the notice of the tyrannical New Reformasi government. In the chronological narrative, Jason leads a civilian aeronautics organization called Perihelion, whose method for dealing with the Spin is ambitious, creative, and extreme: with billions of years to play with outside of Earth’s atmosphere, humankind attempts to bioengineer and colonize Mars. In one of the most creative solutions to the prospect of extinction that I’ve ever read (in my many, many years of reading about solutions to prospects of extinction), RCW exploits the bizarre nature of the Spin and its impact on humanity’s perception of time. When Jason and Perihelion send payloads of durable bacteria to Mars, they only have to wait a few months before they see the results of evolution, right before their eyes. Mars is terraformed then populated then left to its own devices, and the result is a millennia-old culture of micro-evolved Martian humans.

I never get tired of referencing Total Recall. Bring on the Martians!

I never get tired of referencing Total Recall. Bring on the Martians and red filters! The Perihelion project aims to terraform Mars, taking advantage of the Spin’s alteration of time, in order to save Earth and learn more about the Hypotheticals. The results are beyond anything imaginable.

RCW’s vision for the apocalypse is truer than one might think on just reading the synopsis of Spin. Sure, you may think it’s unlikely that Hypothetical beings play God with time and space without rhyme or reason, and it is. Despite all of his intricate, scientific explanations (of which there are many) of the Spin and the Hypotheticals and Mars and time, RCW shows that he knows something even better than theories of the space-time continuum: he knows human nature. He knows society. He knows how people react when they see their own deaths in the stars, and this knowledge and its portrayal are the compelling components of this novel.

Despite the broad scope RCW gives on society’s reactions to trials and tribulation, the entire novel really takes place in Tyler’s head, and his attempt at objective observation. He applies his distanced view to everything he witnesses, including the events he holds dearest in his memory. He plays the voyeur to the drama of the Lawton siblings and almost idolizes everyone else’s reactions to the Spin, not matter how eccentric or drastic or fearful they might be. On one hand, Tyler’s lack of involvement gives him an historian’s view of events: “It wasn’t the Spin that had mutilated my generation. It was the lure and price of Big Salvation.” He is able to comment on the immobilizing fear felt by the generation that grew up with the Spin. It wasn’t the thought of death but the price of salvation that crippled humanity’s ability to be human. As Tyler’s objectivity slips away, and he becomes more human than he’s ever felt before, he trades his coldness for pain, his observation for action, and his idolization for love.

RCW knows human nature. Spin addresses the fearful, chaotic, desperate reactions to the apocalypse, which he contrasts with moments of charity, selflessness, and hope.

RCW knows human nature. Spin addresses the fearful, chaotic, desperate reactions to the apocalypse, which he contrasts with moments of charity, selflessness, and hope.

Read it if … you enjoy speculative fiction–the “what-if” kind of sci-fi. Spin can be a little heady at times. A good handle on moderately sciency language, or at least a respect for the rigorous type of sci-fi writing (i.e. not just lasers and hot cyborg sex), would be handy to have around. This is a great novel to spark some good discussions with your book club or your inner self or your cat, so also make sure you have a good processing method.

Don’t read it if … you’re not emotionally and spiritually stable enough to handle a harrowing fiction of the end of the world. While an actual situation like the Spin is far from realistic, people’s reactions to the concept of their own doom are very real. Riots, pillaging, cults, terrorism, starvation, general chaos are all so human, and if that scares you, steer clear of this book. And maybe go read something a little earthier, like Steinbeck or Austen–books that deal with regular mortality instead of apocalyptic mortality.

This book is like … The Plague by Albert Camus. Camus gives us another view of the apocalypse, albeit on a much smaller scale. A resurgence of the bubonic plague rears its head suddenly and horrifically in the Algerian port of Oran. Dr. Bernard Rieux shares Dr. Tyler Dupree’s bewildered attempt at objectivity, but with very different results. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is another fantastic novel in the sci-fi genre that plays with our understanding of time and its theoretical manipulations. How does one survive and stay human when a year to you is a hundred to the rest of humanity?

Robert Charles Wilson has won a billion awards (if you round up), and is now a huge blip on my sci-fi reading radar.

Robert Charles Wilson has won a billion awards (if you round up), and is now a huge blip on my sci-fi reading radar.

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