Friday, December 25, 2009

goodreads book review: the obscene bird of night, jose donoso

The Obscene Bird of Night The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
themes of identity, humanity, reality, and belonging cycle through and circle the obscene bird of night. it's not really pleasant to read, though there are moments where a smile is not out of order. but most often it's really bizarre, and misleading, horrific even as its compelling. before philip k. dick died he was trying to write a book called the owl in daylight. i suspect he would have written his own version of the obscene bird of night. i think he would have understood this book. i cannot say i do. i am certainly in awe of it, in all its monstrosity, its virtuosity, despite the fact that it left me depleted and brain sore, overwhelmed by images of the grotesque, yes, obscene scenes that came alive, that are still burning in my mind. i will likely read it again half a dozen times, if not more, in trying to comprehend it. most of the action takes place in a rest home for old servants, owned by an old and respected family, and later, in the summer house of that same family, where a grand experiment is made, both buildings edifices that are bigger inside than out, and labyrinthine in nature, much like the book itself.

the main narrative voice is often one "i" but not always, a male servant. the fluidity of this "i" means it shifts and tricks you, so that it is no longer he but yet someone else, and just when you think you are beginning to understand, the "i" slaps your hand, and shows you something else. there's not really a central figure in this novel for me, unless it is the imbunche, the mythological creature story that has at its heart a witch that steals children, and seals up their nine orifices. the shards of the narratives are dark, stark, and nasty, yet somehow donoso (who is the ultimate "i" though not the only writer in this book) is matter of fact, makes you want to keep looking into all the different mirrors that he holds up, makes you want to keep reading even though your mind is reeling. the effect of his facility with these characters softens the blow somewhat; he makes horror palatable, as nabokov did when he made me empathize with humbert humbert. to me, it makes perfect sense (and i wondered if it was a tip of the cap to lolita) that the most-of-time-narrator is most-of-the-time called humberto. when he is not mudito. or an old lady. or a child. or a lover. or a papier-mache head. and iris is also gina. and ines can do everybody's voices, she's a natural mimic, so you can imagine where that might go. there are no villains really, there are no saints, though these capering fools will try to invent some, as the story unfolds.

since pkd never wrote the owl in daylight, i'll say this book is like a south american nightmare mutation of the sound and the fury. i didn't immediately understand all the threads in that book either but that's what keeps me coming back to it, and it's why i will read the obscene bird of night again -- that slap is a challenge that still stings.

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goodreads book review: the magnificent ambersons, booth tarkington

The Magnificent Ambersons (Modern Library Classics) The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
the magnificent ambersons makes you think about how humans value things, and other people, and reputation, for what reason, and in what proportion. it is a book that i want to talk to other people about because i keep rolling it over in my mind, the choices and observations tarkington made in some cases baffle me, and i'm still not sure what to think, of it, the world, or myself.

had i not read penrod just prior to reading the magnificent ambersons i'm not sure i would have liked it as much as i did. tarkington had already softened me when it came to whims and importunate desires of boys so i was somewhat prepared for the dark and evil epitome of boys who never grow up: the monster at the heart of this book, george amberson minafer. part of me still chafes at the injustices of the world revealed in this novel, reminding me that somebody who is only beautiful on his outside can wreak such harm and destruction on the people that love him. the relationship between georgie and his mother isabel amberson is the most destructive in the book, and the pattern continues when he takes up with lucy morgan, the daughter of eugene, isabel's true love whom she spurned when he lost sight, for a brief moment, of propriety. i revolted against these relationships until finally i came to this passage:

"But though she was a mistress of her own ways and no slave to any lamp save that of her own conscience, she had a weakness: she had fallen in love with George Amberson Minafer at first sight, and no matter how she disciplined herself, she had never been able to climb out. The thing had happened to her; that was all. [..:] But what was fatal to Lucy was that this having happened to her, she could not change it. No matter what she discovered in George's nature she was unable to take away what she had given him; and though she could think differently about him, she could not feel differently about him, for she was one of those too faithful victims of glamour. When she managed to keep the picture of George away from her mind's eye, she did well enough; but when she let him become visible, she could not choose but love what she disdained."

and for all that i still hate georgie, these words helped me understand, and identify with lucy, and at least took me down from my moral highground for a moment to remind me that our rational minds are not always in control of our hearts, and sometimes we love people who aren't good to us, or for us, but it is nigh impossible to revoke our love once we give it.

all of these entanglements play out in turn-of-the-century american society where the established ways of business were changing, and people began calling horseless carriages automobiles, and one way of life began to die out, while another began. this backdrop is almost another character in the novel, and tarkington's interest in the culture that was and his horror at what it was becoming is vivid, and real, and easily identifiable for contemporary readers, in this, our own moment of change. i am now interested in reading the rest of the growth trilogy, and alice adams.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

goodreads book review: penrod, booth tarkington

Penrod (Penguin Classics) Penrod by Booth Tarkington

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
penrod is an amusing book. it's not laugh-out-loud funny but the misadventures of this inscrutable and bad boy are captivating, and knowing, and made me smile. tarkington lets us into the hallowed halls of an adolescent male mind which is itching for experiences, and wily in its meeting of any consequence that these experiences might bring. penrod, as the epitome of boys, an untroubled huck, breathes life into the archetypal boyhood. he is good at getting into scrapes whether they are of his own devising or not (usually they are), and things often spiral wildly out of his control despite his efforts at containment. he is popularized as the "worst boy in town" by the girl he likes best, and he's hotly defensive of his honour. he is curious, vindictive, but also sometimes kind. if you have spent any time with an unruly young man, with some brains, and too much energy, you have met penrod. the other characters too, are well drawn and quite familiar: his family, frustrated, amused, and perplexed by him; the other kids who are his friends and enemies all-at-once live in awe or fear, or collude with him; the other townsfolk cluck, or cause calumnies for him. the characterizations in this book feel real even if they also sometimes smack of caricature, as real people sometimes do.

some of the caricature in this book i had trouble with: specifically the endemic racism. i realize that it is a by-product of the society in which tarkington was raised, and understood, but it's distracting and painful to read some of these sentences that are tossed off, and in some cases, weaken the narrative. here's an example, with square brackets mine:

He sat staring at the an open page of a textbook, but not studying; not even reading; not even thinking. Nor was he lost in a reverie: his mind's eye was shut, as his physical eye might well have been, for the optic nerve, flaccid with ennui, conveyed nothing whatever of the printed page upon which the orb of vision was partially focused. Penrod was doing something very unusual and rare, something almost never accomplished except by [coloured people or by] a boy in school on a spring day: he was doing really nothing at all. He was merely a state of being.

cut those four words out, and it is marvellous writing, and cements the portrayal of a boy's mind which is the novel's central theme. and i can't even say that this is the worst of it. penrod has two black playmates named herman and verman, who have a raccoon they eventually name sherman after their dead brother, and they are wonderful characters, and is often the case, in some ways much more attractive than penrod himself. yet, we are forced to endure narrative that characterizes them as in the "lower stages of evolution" and the like. at least these racial slurs are relatively few in number, and the brothers are treated with respect by penrod and their other colleagues in the arts of chicanery.

i'm really glad i read this book despite the racism. each time i come across this issue, i face the quandary of to read or not to read. it is troubling, that a book that brings so much pleasure can also knock it out of you with a careless, and often useless remark. it is also a relic of the way the world was, and i can curse the editor of penrod for not seeing that the strength of the above paragraph was dimmed by the stupid addition of a folksy slur, and be glad that times have changed. boys and their spirits however, have not altered in essentials since the publication of penrod, and i cannot say that that is a blessing or a curse, so much as shake my head wryly at the epitome of boys so embodied in this book.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

goodreads book review: the sundial, shirley jackson

The Sundial The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
this is among my favourite novels. every time i read it i am just as struck by its harmonious discord as i was the first time: this story is to me, a perversely uneven amalgam of a drawing room comedy, and creepy gothic haunted house tale. i think i only like the book more for the fact that the pieces don't quite fit together, and the scene that scares me the most isn't the one i'd expect, though there are several claustrophobic and uncomfortable moments in the sundial, and i always smile at this book at the dialogue which i think is some of jackson's wittiest writing. it almost feels like oscar wilde briefly inhabited the mind of jackson when she wrote this book because the characters are so pert, and alive, that even when they are cruel, or shallow, or stupid, i am fond of them. the drunk villagers are a joy each time, and i am as foolishly in love with essex as i ever was, though i know he is a cad.

people i have loaned it to never seem to like this book as much as i do: perhaps it is because i am as crooked and misbegotten as it is. several found fault with the ending which makes me perfectly content -- the ending they want i think would have to be a whole other book. i find everything i want in a book here: poetry, and confusion, loneliness, and fear, and the waiting for something bigger than yourself, so that you don't have to think about yourself, or what the point is, anymore.

thank you shirley for leaving me stories that understand me so well.

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