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.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Book # 593

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TGOWI have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing all of John Steinbeck’s entries on the 1001 list.  I started with Of Mice and Men back in 2012 and followed up with Cannery Row last year.  I had put off The Grapes of Wrath because in my head I had an image of a long, dour story of hardship that I would not enjoy, despite loving Steinbeck’s writing style.

I was both right and wrong.  It is a long story; it is a story of hardship and yes, I still love the way Steinbeck writes.

The novel was published in 1939 and is set during the Great Depression.  It follows both the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers from Oklahoma who are forced off their 40 acres and join the mass migration to California looking for work and a new life, and the mass of migrant labour that was caused due to the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s.  Steinbeck intertwines both the personal narrative and the larger, more generalised story of the masses through alternating chapters.

We start by meeting the Joad family.  Tom, the second son, is released from McAlester prison after serving a sentence for homicide.  He meets an itinerant preacher on his way home and they travel together to the family farm.  When they reach the farm they find it deserted.   It is at this point Steinbeck begins his social themes around the hardships of the sharecroppers.

The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this.  Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the lows shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight.  And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive.  There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life.  But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from.  The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse.

There is considerable time spent on this theme of people having a connection to their land and that the mass farms and mechanisation by tractor is cold and disconnected from the land and therefore so are the ‘tractor men’.  It reappears throughout the story in the searching, wishing and dreaming of having a bit of land that each of the Joads expresses.

Once Tom and the preacher, Casy, find out that the family are planning to leave for California with his uncle John, they make their way to his land and join with them in preparation.  Even though it means breaking parole, Tom goes with them as he and his younger brother, Al, are the only ones able to drive the cheap, broken-down vehicle they’ve had to buy in order to leave.  Once on the road Steinbeck breaks in to another theme, that of being refugees on Highway 66.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there.  From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads.  66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

Steinbeck writes some terrible, moving passages in this section of the novel.  The pathos is palpable.

Listen to that gasket whistle.
Chee-rist! There she went.  Blowed tube an’ casing all to hell. Have to fix her. Save that casing to make boots; cut ’em out an’ stick ’em inside a weak place.
Cars pulled up beside the road, engine heads off, tires mended. Cars limping along 66 like wounded things, panting and struggling. Too hot, loose connections, loose bearings, rattling bodies.
Danny wants a cup of water.
People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road.
Danny wants a cup a water.
He’ll have to wait, poor little fella. He’s hot. Nex’ service station. Service station, like the fella says.
Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars – wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?

It is a brutal story but it is, for the most part, told in a way that makes it readable and relatable.  You feel a whole range of emotions for this family as they meet hardships at every turn.  Ma Joad is one of the strongest characters I’ve come across in my reading.  She has terrible faith and determination despite all that happens to her family.

I have barely touched on the ideas raised by Steinbeck, others being around ownership and waste, unionism and enslavement.  This is a fabulous book, with wonderful writing, but at around page 300 it began to lose me.  Only with a bit of determination did I keep it up and finish off the last 230-odd pages.  This last part I read with constant trepidation of what was going to happen.  I’m glad I kept at it, and with the exception of finding it a touch too drawn out, would recommend this highly.

As a piece of historical, social fiction and part-treatise, it is a must to read.  We like to think we are civilised enough that such displacement couldn’t happen again, but I think there are timeless lessons to be learned in the Joad’s story and we’d be well advised to think on it.

Happy reading.

2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

Book # 389

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


2001I must confess to never having watched the entirety of the film, of which this novel is the precursor and close colleague, so the story was entirely new to me.

The novel, according to Clarke, started with his 1948 short story The Sentinel as the base and was expanded to include ideas from five other short stories in turn.  Adding in a whole lot of new material and there the novel developed in to it’s final form.  The whole work was intended as a precursor to Stanley Kubrik’s movie from the outset.  As Clarke puts it:

Because a screenplay has to specify everything in excruciating detail, it is almost as tedious to read as to write. John Fowles put it very well when he said: “Writing a novel is like swimming through the sea; writing a film script is like thrashing through treacle.”  Perhaps because Stanley realised that I had a low tolerance for boredom, he suggested that before we embarked on the drudgery of the script, we let our imaginations soar freely by writing a complete novel, from which we would later derive the script.
This is more or less the way it worked out, though towards the end novel and screenplay were being written simultaneously, with feedback in both directions.

For those familiar with the film, the basic storyline revolves around large alien monoliths.  The first section, Primeval Night, deals with the man-apes’ contact with the giant monolith which turns up near them one day.  Moon-Watcher and his tribe come down from their caves one morning to find the New Rock.

It was a rectangular slab, three times his height but narrow enough to span with his arms, and it was made of some completely transparent material; indeed, it was not easy to see except when the rising sun glinted on its edges.

This becomes the stepping stone in human development as the man apes are captivated and manipulated by the strange monolith, leading to Moon-Watcher’s experience of feeling dissatisfaction with his life and his subsequent stretching in to new ideas.

It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy – of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.

We then skip forward to a time when man has a base on the moon, and space flight has become a part of life.  In this case we follow Dr Heywood Floyd on his special trip to the moon in order to see TMA-1.  In one of those wonderful precursors to real life, Clarke describes Floyd’s access to technology on his flight.

There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth.  One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers, he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad.  Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.  Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle world expand until it  neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort.

Yes, here is a seed for the internet and the iPad.

Once we have met TMA-1, and have heard the scientists explanations for what it means, we are then transported to the spaceship Discovery and it’s two crewmen – David Bowman and Frank Poole.  They are part of Project Jupiter, a two-year voyage to the giant planet.  After TMA-1 is discovered, their mission is added to. No longer just heading to Jupiter, but on to Saturn as a one-way trip.  Five years would be spent in hibernation before being rescued by a still unbuilt Discovery II.

We follow the voyage of Discovery and meet it’s onboard computer, a HAL 9000, or colloquially to the crew – Hal.  In light of the recent film release “The Imitation Game“, it’s interesting to note Clarke’s reference to Alan Turing and his ‘Turing test’.

Whether Hal could actually think was a question which had been settled by the British mathematician Alan Turing back in the 1940s. Turing had pointed out that, if one could carry out a prolonged conversation with a machine – whether by typewriter or microphones was immaterial – without being able to distinguish between its replies and those that a man might give, then the machine was thinking, by any sensible definition of the word.  Hal could pass the Turing test with ease.

And Hal’s thinking becomes one of the focal points of the middle of the story.  Without this, the latter denouement is unlikely to have occurred as Bowman would not have had sufficient motivation to make the choices he does.  But I will leave you to find out the fate of Bowman, Poole, Hal and their hibernating colleagues on your own.

It is quite an quick read at a touch over 200 pages.  Not having watched the film, I struggle to see how this story could turn into a feature length piece, but now have some incentive to see it in comparison to the novel.  The language is straightforward, and in Arthur C. Clarke’s usual forward-looking style, he gives us an interesting idea to ponder on how we evolved and where that might take us in the future.
I have to note that there are little snippets that annoy – such as the odd overt sexist throw-away comment that belies the novel’s age and the author’s world-view – but on the whole it is a pleasant and relaxed read.

Happy reading.

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.”

 

The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

Book # 538

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TGISThis is Doris Lessing’s first novel, published in 1950.  She has another three on the 1001 List.

The setting is 1940s rural Rhodesia.  The opening lines are:

Murder Mystery
by Special Correspondent

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning.  The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime.  No motive has been discovered.
It is thought he was in search of valuables.

And from there we join the story of Mary and Dick Turner starting, at the end of things, with Mary’s death and the arrest of Moses, the houseboy.

Mary is from a poor white family, where her mother struggled to look after them and her father was overly fond of alcohol.  Her childhood leaving a huge psychological scar on her.  As she grows up she finds success as a single woman, working happily in a good job and enjoying an active social life with her many friends and acquaintances.  One day she overhears an insulting comment from people she thought of as friends, and determines then and there to marry.

Along comes Dick Turner, a poor farmer who is on his annual town visit, taken by chance to the movies where he sees Mary and then pursues her only to be absent for months before returning.  They marry in short order, and it is the first sign that things are now set in train that will end in Mary’s death.

Dick takes her to his farm, which he mishandles.  Mary believes she will adapt but the circumstances of their poverty-stricken existence, coupled with the pride that both of them cling to, means that they set themselves apart from the surrounding white community.  Dick is entranced by the land and Mary comes to hate it.

The underlying commentary of the novel is that of the mindset of white Rhodesians towards their native workers, and how their community holds itself together.  Mary is an overt and cruel racist.  She is an intolerable mistress to her houseboys and fires them for the most trivial things.  Dick, also holds similar views, but is less vocal and cruel with them.  At one point Mary starts to feel he is almost like one of the field labourers.  The story displays all the nastiness of the colour bar mentality.
A passage in the second half of the book expresses something of this.

What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man in Africa by accident looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip.

Yet, despite that repulsive attitude, there is still something of pity to be had for Mary.  She is clearly a broken person from her childhood and marrying in haste to a man who takes her back into the poverty from which she had escaped opens up all of her earlier experiences once again.  She becomes her mother, only on a farm.  Her personal disintegration is painful to watch, as is her attitude and behaviour towards the native workers.

The same can be said for Dick Turner.  Over the course of the novel, he too begins to unravel.  His inability to complete tasks and take a pragmatic view of his farm keeps them in continuous penury.  His inability to understand Mary, and her distance from him, especially after she sees his mismanagement first hand, eats at him also.  To me it seems like the title was made for him…the grass sings for him… he is obsessed with the farm and this becomes his undoing.

The book is full of easy language, appropriate for it’s time and expressing the values of the people described.  The subject matter is harsh and Lessing doesn’t hold back in her prose.

It is a small book, coming in at just over 200 pages, but it is a challenging one.  Watching people self-destruct and misuse other humans is never going to be light reading, but it is well worth your effort to expand your understanding of life in Southern Africa in mid-century, in order to begin to understand the Southern Africa of today.

Happy reading.