The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Book # 203

REVIEWER: Kara

The Satanic VersesI attempted this novel once, back in college, and gave up on it – like many other people, I know! So this time before I began reading it I took the time to do a little research, and I’m so glad I did. I also think it didn’t hurt at all that it’s more than a decade later – I’m a much wiser and more attentive reader than I once was.

One bit of research I did ahead of time was to gain a simple understanding of what “the satanic verses” are in Islam. One whole plot line of the novel is basically a wildly creative, dreamy reflection of the origins of Islam and the proselytizing of the prophet Muhammad. So a very basic understanding of this helped me understand Rushdie’s version in the novel. For a super quick overview of the satanic verses, check out page 30 of this PDF: http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/angloph…

There are also two quotations from Salman Rushdie I came across in my research that helped clarify the novel’s structure and goals for me before I started and helped me pay attention to what I was delving into. First, on the structure. In an interview (found here: http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps….), Rushdie talks about his influences. He talks about James Joyce, and their joint interest in stuffing their respective novels chock full of references. But he also says this:

“Well, take Fielding; the thing that’s very impressive about Tom Jones is the plot, that you have this enormous edifice which seems to be so freewheeling, rambling — and actually everything is there for a purpose. It’s the most extraordinary piece of organization which at the same time seems quite relaxed and not straitjacketed
by its plot. I think that’s why the book is so wonderful.”

I think that’s part of why this book is so wonderful too. The world of the novel is highly imaginative/creative, and anything goes in the way of magical realism. That said, it’s a bit zanier than any magical realism I’ve read before, perhaps even too zany. Lots of it is thought-provoking, other parts are just fun/funny, and a few parts just seem silly and not much else. But the undertaking of creating several worlds (the real world – in India and London, and various dream worlds) that are occupied by overlapping characters, and ensuring these worlds and characters build on and reflect back on each other is a fantastic, immense achievement.

As the novel moves between them, dropping information and picking it back up later, equating various characters with their counterparts in other worlds (by name or action or common characteristics), the sheer puzzle it must have been to put this all together is incredible to me. But Rushdie managed it. Over and over as I read I’d see those brilliant little connections running all over the novel. It can feel a little intense and overwhelming for the reader, but I found the experience fun. How can I describe the experience? Most books you read, you’re walking down a path from point A to point B, beginning to end. As you follow the path, occasionally it loops back on itself, revisiting and building upon a key theme or idea here and there. In this book, you’re walking down three or four paths at once, each of them looping back, around and through each of the others almost constantly.

I also love Rushdie’s loose, informal, yet highly complex writing style. He runs words together, invents words, takes them apart, and makes ample use of slang, repetition, conversational/stream of consciousness tone, to express exactly what he wants to say. He also makes grammar his slave (rather than being a slave to it). He breaks a million rules, but this actually just adds to the clarity of his writing rather than subtracting from it.

The second quotation from Rushdie that shed a lot of light for me going in is as follows, from “In Good Faith,” an essay Rushdie wrote about The Satanic Verses:

“If The Satanic Verses is anything, it is a migrant’s-eye view of the world. It is written from the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis (slow or rapid, painful or pleasurable) that is the migrant condition, and from which, I believe, can be derived a metaphor for all humanity. Standing at the centre of the novel is a group of characters most of whom are British Muslims, or not particularly religious persons of Muslim background, struggling with just the sort of great problems that have arisen to surround the book, problems of hybridization and ghettoization, of reconciling the old and the new. Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves.”

I would have picked up on this theme anyway (at least I think so!) but it was helpful to be able to watch for it as I read. Coupled with this theme, was a sense of the need for transformation that migrants feel, from deep within themselves (like the character Chamcha) or from the world around them (like Gibreel). I was really engaged by the ways that all of the various characters struggle with their identities as they straddle the line between their backgrounds and their new homes. Each character takes a different path on this, with a different amount of success or failure that is attributable as much to the character’s identity as to the amount of transforming they do. In other words, the novel makes clear that there’s no right answer, that there is no one path:

“‘The world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga. Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all alive at the same time; in one spot, blissful happiness, while down the road, the inferno. You can’t ask for a wilder place.'”

This novel is also very much tied up in religion and politics, from a very contemporary and international perspective. Having been written in 1988, I was surprised by how modern and relevant Rushdie’s ideas still are today about how we view each other’s cultures and faiths. In the novel, Rushdie writes: “…because what you believe depends on what you’ve seen, — not only what is visible, but what you are prepared to look in the face.” To me this expresses a key truth about how we misunderstand each other, fostering fear, contempt and violence. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that the novel’s first section includes a hijacking of an airplane by terrorists; this scene may be even more relevant post-9/11 than it was in 1988.

Of the terrorists, Rushdie writes this: “What did they want? Nothing new. An independent homeland, religious freedom, release of political detainees, justice, ransom money, a safe-conduct to a country of their choice. Many of the passengers came to sympathize with them, even though they were under constant threat of execution. If you live in the twentieth century you do not find it hard to see yourself in those, more desperate than yourself, who seek to shape it to their will.”

The third sentence in that quotation has given me quite a bit of food for thought. Terrorism is a transformation strategy, it’s brought on by misunderstanding and fear, but it’s also an attempt to have a little power and control over your own life. We all do this in small ways – mostly non-violently, and hopefully in morally good and compassionate ways, but we’re all shaping our worlds the best we know how.

I hope the links I’ve included here are helpful to anyone who has struggled with this novel – it’s not an easy read, but it’s well worth the undertaking. That said, even though I really appreciate what Rushdie has accomplished here (and even enjoyed it), Midnight’s Children is still my favorite novel by Rushdie.

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What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt

Book # 18

Reviewer: Kara


WILThis novel is narrated by Leo Hertzberg, an art historian in New York City, who tells of what he’s loved (and lost) in his life. The story begins when he buys a painting by Bill Wechsler that he loves so much that he helps to launch Bill’s career. Both men have sons of the same age, one of whom dies tragically in childhood. The bulk of the novel is about the other son, Mark, who is passed from home to home and adult to adult, and how this affects him psychologically.

I was thoroughly astounded by Hustvedt’s undertaking here. In What I Loved she has created at least half a dozen depthful, realistic characters that I came to care about. The story Leo tells us of what he has loved and lost in his life kept me up at night a time or two and left me aching for him.

The most interesting theme is duplicity. Early on, the Wechsler and Hertzberg families are each other’s double. As struggles and tragedies impact the families, they change in different ways and look less and less like mirror images. The novel takes advantage of this opportunity to show two different outcomes of the events, two different ways that the characters are impacted, two different reactions.

Hustvedt also adds amazing and wonderful detail to her prose. She has clearly done thorough research on many topics: hysteria at the turn of the 20th century, psychological disturbance and psychopathy, eating disorders, and art. In particular, I loved the detailed descriptions of Bill’s works of art, which are very creative and interesting. They give fascinating insight into the fictional story, but they are also imaginative, beautiful, and sound very much like something that could actually be seen in a modern art gallery or museum. I wished several times, but most especially when Bill was working on the series of 101 doors, that I could go see his work in real life. The details are so precise and visual that it seemed to me this art must exist!

During the more action-packed sequences of the novel, such as when Leo chases Mark across the Midwest, the prose gets a little news-y; by this I mean that it reads like a feature article in a magazine more than a novel. However, this strikes me as a much better way to keep these sorts of scenes exciting than the usual way authors do it: by dropping any semblance of character continuity or growth.

Overall, this isn’t a happy book but it is an impressive one that has left me a lot to think about. Hustvedt has successfully mined love and loss to write a beautiful novel. There is also plenty to learn here about several other themes, including art, mental disorders and hysteria, and the effects of violence and drugs on a teenager and his family.

Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

Book # 975

REVIEWER: Kara


TJTom Jones is not only Henry Fielding’s masterpiece; it is also considered to be a key stepping stone in the development of the modern novel as a literary form. For this reason alone, it very much belongs on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. If you’re interested in the development of the novel, you’ll be fascinated by Fielding’s experiments and ideas which continue to be reflected in novelistic style even today. If you’re not, there’s still the creative and comic story of Tom Jones and Sophia Western.

Each of the eighteen ‘books’ that are part of this novel includes a preface, and Fielding most often uses these prefaces to explain his style decisions and what’s important to him in writing what he calls a realistic ‘history.’ These prefaces are sometimes funny, sometimes silly, very often argumentative, and always interesting. Fielding is spot on when he writes:

“In like manner, the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author’s skill in well dressing it up.”

One style choice Fielding makes is to depict and discuss both ‘high’ and ‘low’ life and characters in the novel. There are scenes among peasants in inns and on the highway, and there are scenes among the gentry in their homes and social gatherings. Fielding contrasts the two sometimes, but more often he sheds light on similarities:

“The great are deceived if they imagine they have appropriated ambition and vanity to themselves. These noble qualities flourish as notably in a country church and churchyard as in the drawing-room or in the closet.”

He also pokes fun, at fashionable notions or ideas that are ridiculous to him, as when Mrs. Western, in attempting to convince her niece to marry a man she hates, says:

“I have known many couples, who have entirely disliked each other, lead very comfortable genteel lives. Believe me, child, I know these things better than you. You will allow me, I think, to have seen the world, in which I have not an acquaintance who would not rather be thought to dislike her husband than to like him. The contrary is such out-of-fashion romantic nonsense, that the very imagination of it is shocking.”

In my opinion, Fielding’s most important contribution to the development of the novel is his relatively well-rounded characterization. Earlier writing tends to have characters who are either perfectly good or villainously evil. There is no complexity to them and, therefore, no reality. As a reader, I tend to hold excellent characterization as critical to my enjoyment of a novel – it’s well above plot for me, though of course I know that plenty of people feel the opposite. What Fielding chooses to do in his novel is to adhere to reality, to human nature, and only have characters who ring true as people:

“For we do not pretend to introduce any infallible characters into this history, where we hope nothing will be found which hath never yet been seen in human nature.”

Overall, considering his attempt is one of the first forays of this kind, I think he is relatively successful, particularly in the main character, Tom Jones, who is virtuous and kind-hearted, but also naïve and impulsive. In Sophia Western, the other principal character, Fielding is less successful. I think this has more to do with his prejudices towards women than anything else. Fielding’s thoughts on women, which I discuss more below, were liberal for his time but are certainly ridiculous now.

Fielding also tackles the issue of plotting in new ways. Earlier writings feature characters having adventures episodically and, for the most part, the ordering of these events doesn’t matter at all, the secondary characters in the scenes are interchangeable and often don’t reappear from one event to the next, and there is no real unity to the story. Here, however, Fielding develops a large cast of secondary characters, most of whom reappear throughout the novel. They know information or take part in scenes that are needed to further the plot. The whole novel is a progression from happiness to tragedy, and then back to happiness, rather than a series of discrete scenes.

While all these things are clear steps forward for the novel as a form, there are still lots of problems. The one that bothers me the most (and that still bugs me in plenty of contemporary novels) is the reliance on miscommunication and far-too-convenient near misses and twists of fate to further the plot and, especially, to tie things back together in the end.

Beyond all this work on the development of the novel, I also enjoyed Fielding’s ongoing commentary on religion and virtue, why they matter, and where they go wrong. For example:

“…both religion and virtue have received more real discredit from hypocrites than the wittiest profligates or infidels could ever cast upon them; nay, further, as these two, in their purity, are rightly called the hands of civil society, and are indeed the greatest of blessings, so when poisoned and corrupted with fraud, pretense, and affection, they have become the worst of civil curses, and have enabled men to perpetrate the most cruel mischiefs to their own species.”

Fielding sets up a dichotomy between religion and philosophy, which is physically embodied in two characters (Thwackum and Square) both of whom have their good points but also their faults. Ultimately, Fielding argues that choosing one over the other is problematic. The two together are needed:

“True it is, that philosophy makes us wiser, but Christianity makes us better men. Philosophy elevates and steels the mind, Christianity softens and sweetens it. The former makes us the objects of human admiration, the latter of Divine love. That ensures us a temporal, but this an eternal happiness.”

While Fielding has such interesting ideas about virtue and goodness, and their importance in making a person worthy of admiration, he ultimately succumbs to the sense that high birth is just as important, and very much an indicator of whether or not someone is virtuous. This made the ending of the novel a little disappointing, but I can’t fault Fielding too much for being a man of his time.

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There – Lewis Carroll

Book # 854

REVIEWER: Kara


TTLG

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

For me, this second installment about Alice is even more wonderful than the first (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and that isn’t an easy feat! Both books feature Alice, a 7-year-old girl with a wildly vivid imagination. In her dreams, she enters magical worlds populated by smart and witty animals and everyday objects. She fearlessly explores, makes friends, and learns, taking the twists and turns of logic and magic that constantly alter the reality around her in stride. For child and adult readers alike, this is about as much fun as literature can be.

The reason I so love Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There is its excellent poetry. The book contains both Jabberwocky, a poem stuffed with old-fashioned words that Alice needs help from others to decipher, and The Walrus and the Carpenter, a lovely poem with both sad and silly moments that has stuck with me as a favorite since my childhood.

What Carroll does so well is lift up and glorify the witty and imaginative ways that children think about words and logic as they grow and learn. He gives credence to what seems silly and absurd, and offers the puns, riddles, jokes, and even nonsense that children love and adults tend to groan about. He refrains from preaching or infantilizing, and an authentic sense of child-like wonder at the world pervades the book.

I highly recommend both of Lewis Carroll’s stories about Alice as family read-aloud options – there’s no better way to experience them.

Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

Book # 609

REVIEWER: Kara


TEWWG

In the opening scene, Janie has just returned home after running away with Tea Cake, a young man she fell in love with. Arriving at her house, she tells the story of her life to her friend Pheoby; as readers we are listening in to the tale. Beginning in her youth, Janie has several bad relationships. Her first husband is kind, but she doesn’t love him. Her second is successful and charismatic, but she feels as though she has been placed on a pedestal, unable to be part of her community. When Janie finally gains her independence, it is Tea Cake whose style of love allows her to finally do and be what she has always wanted.

This is an action-packed novel and the story held me unceasingly throughout. The climactic scene between Janie and Tea Cake was terrifying, heartbreaking, and exultant all at once. I loved Janie’s tone and powerful belief in herself and her right to reach out and take the life and love she wants. She’s a smart and strong woman who has learned from her difficult life experiences and the life-altering decisions that were made for her by being ready and willing to take risks:

Pheoby: “…But you’re takin’ uh awful chance.”
Janie: “No mo’ than Ah took befo’ and no mo’ than anybody else takes when dey gits married. It always changes folks, and sometimes it brings out dirt and meanness dat even de person didn’t know they had in ’em theyselves.”

The discussion of race from Janie’s (and probably also Hurston’s) perspective was illuminating for me. I was particularly interested in Janie’s response to her grandmother’s hopes for her, which is tied up in both race and gender:

“She was born in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me — don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”

It’s clear that Janie understands that her grandmother wanted only the best for her. She wanted Janie to have what she never could. But having experienced it, Janie now knows the truth: that her grandmother’s greatest hope was not what she needs or wants, and that both being black and being female will keep her from ever really having what she wants.

My favorite part of the book is right at the very end, when Janie tells Pheoby that she can tell all the nosy neighbors anything she wants to tell them – she trusts her friend and cares little about what the others think of her. She also shares two lessons (see the quotations below) she has learned through her experiences, one about love and one about life. Both are worth remembering.

“Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”