Disappearance – David Dabydeen

Book #131

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love

Work, work, work, that’s the doom of your people isn’t it? Isn’t that why the English shipped millions of you over to the Caribbean? So how come you don’t hate them?”

“I’ve not really considered it that way… I just don’t…” I said, thinking of Professor Fenwick’s influence on me, his conscientious tuition and dedication to duty. How could I hate such a man, whatever culture he belonged to? A single act of kindness on his part had the power to erase a whole history of crime. “It’s the future that matters,” I continued, struggling to evolve a cogent answer, “I’m me, not a mask or movement of history. I’m not black, I’m an engineer.”

“That’s silly,” she continued immediately, “you can’t block yourself off from the past and sit daydreaming at the edge of the desert. That’s why I had to go back with Jack, that’s why I wanted him to find me even though I resented it. I walked away from the desert and returned to the English compound and began to fight. I really longed to be alone, colorless and invisible, but I couldn’t escape being English, I couldn’t escape being what I was. So I fought against myself. No more slushy reminiscences in the English Club about oak trees and cream teas back home. Of course the other women grew suspicious of me when I gave up bridge sessions and meetings to plan safari weekends. Jack made excuses for me, saying the heat had gone to my head, that I had become grumpy and solitary, but I didn’t care. What mattered was secretly teaching the African children about our dinosaur culture, however deeply we tried to bury it and make neat furrows and tranquil gardens in the earth above. Do you know that the best histories of England are being written by black scholars nowadays? Do you? Probably some of those very children I taught who have now grown up.” She snatched the glass from my hand and poured out more wine. I noticed the trace of froth at the corner of her mouth. She’d worked herself up into a passion. I began to appreciate the reason for Jack’s absence. He had not abandoned her, he had run away! She was too formidable for him, so he fled. All his fantasies of blood and sex were nothing compared to the knowledge of horror she possessed and was determined to proclaim. “You don’t know much about our history or yours,” she said, resuming her attack. “Have you ever thought that the engineering you’re versed in is all derived from us? That we’ve made you so whiter than white that whatever fear and hatred you should feel for us is covered over completely?”

I had no trouble finding a passage to quote in Disappearance. The hard part was choosing among the many that I post-it marked along the way as I was reading. David Dabydeen tells the tale of a Guyanese engineer of African descent visiting a rural coastal English town to work on a project to shore up collapsing cliffs against the forces of a powerful sea. He rooms at the home of an aging British woman whose husband is not around and whose whereabouts aren’t entirely clear. She has spent a portion of her married life in Africa, and the engineer is profoundly unsettled by the artifacts on prominent display in her home which call to mind his ethnic heritage and by her expectations about who he is, based on his nationality and ethnicity. The book is about identity, colonialism and its effects on colonized and colonizer, about rationality vs. superstition and belief, about the relationship of the personal and the political, and about the ability of humankind to triumph over the power of the natural world. The engineer comes to like his host very much, but struggles to make sense of her. He is also struggling to understand himself and the philosophies that guide him personally and professionally. The story weaves in and out of the present, with Mrs. Rutherford and others in the village telling him of her past, and with the engineer recalling his own childhood and early career in Guyana.

I liked this book, I really liked it, but wasn’t blown away or enchanted. I think I was in my head rather than my heart for the most part, and the things it did with my head were not interesting or experimental or revealing enough to make up for my not being more emotionally involved. I definitely recommend the book, but there are others I’d tell you to get to first if you had to choose. Still, I’m glad I had time for this one, and I’m particularly glad for a quick and interesting read from the 1001 list from a country as small and under-represented in world literature as Guyana. Because I hate to have to leave out some interesting quotes, I’ll close with another passage, this one from the narrator’s memories of Guyana.

“Repentance?” I asked, startled by her mention of the word which haunted my boyhood. “How do you mean?” But she said nothing else, retreating into herself, into a space as cramped and suffocating as the village she had come from, a handful of homes in the pocket of bush on the banks of a river too dangerous to cross except by boats with engines. Its strong hidden currents frequently capsized the small canoes they paddled, sucking in a body and feeding it downstream to piranha. There seemed to be no way into the village and no way out except by hazarding one’s life. Those born into the place were doomed to stay there, inheriting the wretched plots of clearing from their parents, existing on a diet of yams, plantains, wild fowl, and fish. She had managed to get out, only to be trapped in a canteen in the service of male students who wanted to force her into the tighter space of their lust. And yet the word “repentance” came from her mouth, so naturally, Alfred’s big word which had signified to me the whole broadness of the sky in which God lived. “So big,” he had said, pointing to the sky before returning to the patch of cloth on his machine.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis

Welcome to today’s review.  We’ve reached another milestone.  It is the 100th book to be reviewed here.

Book #260

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love

First you need to go back to the quote that starts my review of The Moonstone. Betteredge argues that it is a real problem for the rich that they are idle. Well, Martin Amis takes that premise and doesn’t just see the raise, he goes all in. But his setting isn’t high society 19th century England. It is nouveau riche late 20th Century London, NY, and LA. He is merciless. Well, almost. You can build a little sympathy for the protagonist, but you may hate yourself for doing it. John Self is a crass, overweight ad-man turned movie director with a taste for booze by the gallon, cigarettes, coccaine, pornography, and violence (against men, women, whoever). He knows he has problems, but he’s not doing much about them. Oh, and he loves money. He manages to leave a path of destruction in his wake that Gabriel Betteredge could not even imagine, possibly because the messes he makes cannot even be loosely attributed to an interest in art or natural history.

I have a hard time deciding whether to recommend this book. On one hand, it’s pretty brilliant. On the other hand, you have to live through a guided tour of protagonist John Self’s life and brain, and it is a very ugly ride. He spends an incredible percentage of his time falling-down drunk or blacked out. When he’s awake, he’s usually in a strip club or worse. This guy is beyond uneducated and uncultured. A woman he knows introduces him to books. He reads Animal Farm and doesn’t get that it is allegory. Here is his response to reading a book about Hitler:

As for Hitler, well, I’m consternated. I can’t fucking believe this stuff. Look how far he spread his violence. And I thought I was agressive. Boy, Germany must have had some dizzy spell or drunk on, in the Thirties and Forties there, to have given headroom to a sick little gimp like him. I’m consternated. I can’t believe this stuff. And you’re telling me it’s true?

Well, at least he was consternated. And that’s why I hung in there with him. That and his description of LA:

You come out of the hotel, the Vraimont. Over boiling Watts the downtown skyline carries a smear of God’s green snot. You walk left, you walk right, you are a bank rat on a busy river. This restaurant serves no drink, this one serves no meat, this one serves no heterosexuals. You can get your chimp shampooed, you can get your dick tattooed, twenty-four hours, but can you get lunch? And should you see a sign on the far side of the street flashing BEEF-BOOZE–NO STRINGS, then you can forget it. The only way to get across the street is to be born there. All the ped-Xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of LA: don’t walk. Stay Inside. Don’t Walk. Drive. Don’t Walk. Run! I tried the cabs. No use. The cabbies are all Saturnians who aren’t even sure if this is a right planet or a left planet. The first thing you have to do, every trip, is teach them how to drive.

With passages like that, you are tempted to keep reading in spite of the hellish world you are travelling through. You want to know if John will be redeemed. You also want to know what is up with the caller who threatens him anonymously and seems to know his every move. It took me two tries to get through this book. The second time I still wasn’t always sure it was worth it, but it is on the 1001 books list, and so I felt inclined to try. This is a funny and scathing critique of a segment of society that certainly needs critiquing, but if you have scruples about reading ugly stuff, it may not be for you.

The Hours – Michael Cunningham

Book # 89

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love (First published August 2012)

I just finished Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. This was a complicated read for me because it carried so many echoes of important pieces of my own life. I’m a psychologist, and I treat depression fairly frequently. Often it feels manageable, and I feel confident that our psychiatrist and I can help people reconnect fully with life. But there are patients with whom the physical grip of the illness feels too powerful, and it becomes literally a life and death battle to discover a way to help the patients wrest their minds from the conrol of the illness. In addition, early in my career, I worked almost entirely with HIV patients. From 1991 to 1996 volunteered at Gay Men’s Health Crisis in NY facilitating a group for men with AIDS. Until about 1995, an AIDS diagnosis was almost certainly a death sentence, with potential significant brain damage from opportunistic infections possible on the way. In the mid 90s, protease inhibitors began to turn things around. For those not too far damaged by infections, the reduction in viral load was able to make HIV into a more manageable chronic condition. The emotional complexity of this time was tremendous. Circles of friends already savaged by the disease had to make sense of the new possibility of hope and a resumption of fairly normal life for some, but the tragic reality that discoveries came too late to save the minds or lives of others equally precious. The work I did at GMHC is still the most moving work I have ever done. I loved and lost some tremendous people in those years, and at times the work was a powerful mixture of crystalline awareness of the beauty of life and its simple moments and tremendous despair at the devastation I bore witness to daily.

I think I may be the only person I know who has not seen the movie of The Hours. I knew this was a book that was in part about the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, and that it was about 3 women from different eras. But, I didn’t know I would be grappling with their moments of deep depression, and I had absolutely no idea I would be back in New York in the late 90s looking again into the heart of the AIDS epidemic. I had to take a very deep breath when I found myself walking the streets of my old neighborhood and watching the planning of a party for an author in the waning days of a battle with AIDS. I haven’t been back exactly there in awhile.

My review of this book reflects all this. I’m a little tearful as I type. I really can’t know how this book would feel to someone who doesn’t have these points of emotional connection. You will have to let me know. In the meantime, I am taking a few moments to savor the memories of the men who graced my life in those days, whose gifts to me are greater than they will ever know.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The HoursMichael Cunningham‘s Pulitzer Prize winning homage toVirginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway, the reader travels between single days in the lives of three women. The first is Virginia Woolf herself, convalescing at a country estate to rest from the stresses of London and beginning to craft Mrs. Dalloway. The second is Clarissa Vaughn, humorously called Mrs. Dalloway by her best friend and former lover Richard who is now dying of AIDS and for whom she is planning a party that evening. The third is Laura Brown, a housewife and mother in the suburban LA of the 1950s.

Cunningham explores the wonder that each woman feels at some moments of her day, but also the emptiness and desperation that can, with equal or greater power, eclipse other moments, leaving her feeling profoundly insecure and disconnected from the living of her own life. The least prone to the experiences of emptiness and insecurity is Clarissa, who is now in an 18-year lesbian partnership and mother of a grown daughter. This is not coincidental, both Virginia and Laura are enlivened by a same-sex kiss, the implications of which can not be as easily and fully explored in the social environments of their times as they can be by Clarissa. Clarissa’s freedom to explore her world more fully, to love deeply both the men and women in her life in ways that are honest, seems to be a piece that Cunningham sees as crucial to feeling at home in the world.

Reading Mrs. Dalloway prior to reading this novel is crucial to truly appreciating what Cunningham achieves here. Without it, the book is a meditation on identity, life, and love, with a skillful interweaving of multiple plotlines. Knowing Mrs. Dalloway, a reader is able to savor the echoes of Woolf’s style and the small details of plot which are captured and reworked by Cunningham, particularly in the thread which follows Clarissa’s day.

This novel is also one of a small group of works that expertly captures a particular moment in time at the end of the 1990s in the American gay community. Clarissa’s reflections on the effect of the early AIDS epidemic, and the subsequent changes wrought by the discovery of protease inhibitors, on the lives and relationships within the gay community at that time are exactly on target. This makes up a relatively small part of the novel, and yet the particular questions about life, sanity, and the nature of relationships that the changes in the epidemic cast in stark relief in those days are exactly the questions that form the center of the novel.

This is a complex and skillfully crafted work. Read Mrs. Dalloway first, so that you can truly appreciate it. 4.5 stars.

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Book #109

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love (First published July 2012)

Recently I have read a string of books with protagonists who are murderers or at least thieves. In this book, the guilt or innocence of the protagonist is at least in doubt. While my last several protagonists were self-professed criminals, Grace Marks, of Alias Grace has been convicted of murder, but claims she cannot recall critical details of events surrounding the deaths for which she has been imprisoned. The novel is based on a real criminal case, and Atwood’s treatment of the topic is artistically masterful without giving up a bit of the suspense of a good murder mystery. My Goodreads review begins with an excerpt from early in the book, as Grace is getting to know the doctor who has traveled from Massachusetts to interview her.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And that is how we go on. He asks a question, and I say an answer, and he writes it down. In the courtroom, every word that came out of my mouth was as if burnt into the paper they were writing it on, and once I said a thing I knew I could never get the words back; only they were the wrong words, because whatever I said it would be twisted around, even if it was the plain truth in the first place. And it was the same thing with Dr. Bannerling at the Asylum. But now I feel as if everything I say is right. As long as I say something, anything at all, Dr. Jordan smiles and writes it down, and tells me I am doing well.
While he writes, I feel he is drawing me; or not drawing me, drawing on me–drawing on my skin–not with the pencil he is using, but with an old-fashioned goose pen, and not with the quill end, but with the feather end. As if hundreds of butterflies have settled all over my face, and are softly opening and closing their wings.

But underneath that is another feeling, a feeling of being wide-awake and watchful. It’s like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night, by a hand over your face, and you sit up with your heart going fast, and no one is there. And underneath that is another feeling still, a feeling like being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach; and not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting open of its own accord.
And inside the peach there’s a stone.

In Alias Grace, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1997, Margaret Atwood tackles a historical mystery from a small town in Canada in the mid-19th Century. Did Grace Marks participate in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress or was she simply an innocent bystander taken hostage by the stable-hand who was convicted and hanged for the crime? The real Grace Marks was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison, and eventually Grace was released. Atwood approaches the events in the tale through the device of a young doctor, Simon Jordan, who comes to interview Grace in order to test methods of dealing with amnesia. The novel alternates between two points of view. Grace reflects on her current situation, as in the quote above, and also provides edited and unedited versions of the answers to questions Dr. Jordan asks her. The other perspective is the young doctor’s. He struggles with big and small decisions about his own personal life, while at the same time trying to discern the truth about the crime Grace is accused of committing. Through these two lenses, the novel explores class issues, sex roles, the nature of memory, and the 19th century spirtualism craze, among other themes. The characters are well and sympathetically drawn. Grace is a strong, perceptive and appealing heroine. Her life history has made her both wise and circumspect in her dealings with those around her. Dr. Jordan is younger and more naive, and serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Grace. Atwood begins each section of the novel with selections from literature and from contemporary documents about the historical murder case. The book gets under your skin, and is very hard to put down. In some ways it is the most straightforward and accessible of the Atwood novels I have read, but that doesn’t make it a simple book. It’s a suspenseful and fascinating read.

The Thousand and One Nights – Anonymous

Book #996

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love

Reading the Arabian Nights in not a simple proposition. Not only, depending on the version you read, is it long to incredibly long, but first you have to actually choose a version. I started with the very good Wikipedia summary of the history of the collection and translation of the stories. You see, the various collectors and translators over the centuries have had different agendas in approaching the tales: make them less baudy, make them more baudy, make them fit another culture’s picture of the Islamic culture they portray, make a literal translation of the language (thus losing some meaning along the way), make the story total reach 1001… It’s complicated. After reading Wikipedia, I settled on the Husain Haddawy (spelling of the name on Goodreads is wrong, by the way) translation which is linked here. Haddawy actually has a great introduction that talks about the history of the stories and makes a good case for the choices he and the author from whom he translated the work made in compiling their version. One of the things that he argues, and I agree with him, is that to do this work justice, the translator has to be at home in both the cultures involved, the culture of the tales and the western culture into which they are translated. That way the translation can be true to the original while rendering the tales in imagery and language that create the effect of the original in the new tongue. I have been very happy with my choice of this translation.

The basic premise of Arabian Nights is that a king, betrayed by his wife and hearing of a similar experience from his brother, decides that the only way to have a faithful wife is to marry a woman, sleep with her, and kill her the next day. He is pretty much wiping out the female population of the kingdom when his vizier’s daughter steps in with a plan. She begs her father, who is charged with rounding up wives for the boss, to marry her to the king. The first few stories actually make up part of the argument between the daughter, Shahrazad, and her father, about whether he should accede to her request. Eventually he does, and she marries the king, but brings her sister along, to set up the plan. The sister asks Shahrazad to tell them a story before the night ends, and Shahrazad does, but leaving them with a cliffhanger so that she can live to tell the rest the next night. The process continues this way, with stories within stories and cliffhangers most nights. Shahrazad definitely believes in the power of suggestion, since there are many examples of people being pardoned if they tell good stories or are worthy people. Eventually the king gets the hint and decides that he won’t kill her, and the kingdom is saved.

The stories are wonderful little nuggets, many involving enchantment and demons, most also involving beautiful royals and romance. At times they can seem a little repetitive, but they are still wonderful. Haddawy has preserved the pieces of poetry interspersed in the tales which adds to the pleasure of the reading. I recommend taking your time with this collection, as the tales were intended, rather than reading the stories in large gulps quickly over a couple days. It will be much more fun that way.