December 2006 Archives

Library Tuesdays: The Half Brother

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Once, when I was in fourth grade, our teacher was reading us Roald Dahl's Matilda. Everyone was getting absorbed in the story, and then she stopped, and said, in a very ominous voice, "There's something wrong here. Do you know what it is?" A delicious chill went down my spine. There was something mysteriously wrong in the story! What could it be? Dark family scandals? Characters with unsuspected yet fatal flaws kept absolutely secret for many years, until they explode in a terrible climax? Witches? Disfigurements? Secret portals to alternate universes? That sense of something really mysterious and intriguing, something I'd undoubtedly never encountered before, something so strange and convoluted that I couldn't even conceive of it, was intoxicating. The vague sense of mystery and unease was probably more thrilling than any answers could have been, but I still hoped the answers would be really good.

Disappointingly, it turned out that the only thing mysteriously "wrong" in Matilda is that the daughter is more principled than the parents, an obvious plot point that was actually no mystery at all. There are other works, though, that do still give me the spine-tickling "something is wrong here" feeling, and Christensen's family saga The Half Brother is one of them. So many of its cold, Scandinavian characters are wounded and secretive in some way, and the reader is never totally sure exactly what is "wrong" and how it came to be that way. What is lurking in the depths of Arnold Nilsen, the protagonist's father who starts out life as a disabled joker in a land of straight-faced fisherpeople, and ended up as a maimed, progressively shady con man? Is he better, or much worse, than he seems? Why exactly is the titular half-brother so angry, and where does he go on those long absences from home? What happens in the darkened house of the main character's friend Vivian, whose mother was disfigured in a car accident and never shows her face? Why does the kindest character, the one who seems balanced and sane, suddenly commit suicide? Can we trust the narrator and protagonist, Barnum, given that he tells us he is a liar and a drunk?

Throughout the novel, the reader catches glimpses, and we are unsure whether that could have been someone we know. Was it him? Could it have been her? Or was it just a stranger? Were two events unconnected, or was the connection between them all-important? Perhaps most hauntingly, one is never sure how much any individual character knows about any other character - and it is therefore nearly impossible to interpret anyone's behavior. Something is most definitely "wrong" with the Nilsen family, in the most intriguing and delicious sense, and the mystery lingers on after the book is over, since many of these threads are never truly tied up.

One of the prominent themes in the novel is silence - a silence its characters retreat to after traumatic and often inscrutable events. Finishing the novel, for me, was almost like entering a Nilsen-like silence myself, a place away from Barnum's narrating voice, where I would sit with all the contradictions and mysteries of the story, and either attempt to understand them, or just let them be. It was like skating on a sheet of Christensen's beautiful, crystallized language into my own conclusions. In my Half Brother trance, I almost slid toward Norway to dig meditatively at some of these mysteries with my own hands. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I stopped myself just in time.

Library Tuesdays: Owen Meany/Christmas Medley

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The other day my mom was showing off the pop-up paper art version of a Victorian dollhouse that is the newest Christmas adornment over at my childhood home, and I got to thinking how it's funny that the entire Victorian era somehow seems "Christmasy," due almost entirely (I have to assume) to Dicken's A Christmas Carol. This is especially striking since Dickens wrote so many other famous books as well; I mean, he had Great Expectations, Oliver Twist AND David Copperfield to associate Victorians with orphaned urchins, but A Christmas Carol is only one novel. Very impressive, Charles. Very impressive.

Anyway, this got me thinking about favorite Christmas stories of mine. As much as I like Dickens, his holiday opus is not among them. Actually, I couldn't think of that many cherished holiday tales, which made me a little sad. Granted, I'm not at all religious, and cherish Christmas in a wholely personal, secular way that involves having a leisurely morning sharing hand-crafted and/or lovingly selected gifts with my family, then eating a delicious breakfast involving the kind of sugary pastries in which I normally don't indulge myself. Even so, it seems like there should be some Christmas tale I hold particularly dear. "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote is devastating, and almost makes it into the "cherished" category, but, for some reason, falls just short. It's so, so sad; I can't often summon up the moral fortitude to read it. Then there's that famous part of Little Women that makes everyone think of the book as a Christmas story even though it's really not - the one where Jo cuts her hair and Amy exclaims "Oh Jo! Your one beauty!" But as hilarious as this line is, the scene as a whole is, I have to admit, a little bit saccharine for me.

Which is strange, because, like so many people, I can't get enough of Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life. Equally compelling, though very different, was Paul Auster's Christmas story at the end of the film Smoke, the one the Harvey Keitel character tells so mischeivously to the William Hurt character, and you're not sure if he's made the whole thing up or not. Two extremely memorable Christmas stories on film - so why couldn't I think of any truly astounding Christmas stories in books?

Then I remembered: the prolonged Christmas season section in John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany is definitely my favorite holiday sequence of all time. I empathize so much with serious little Owen, offended at all the petty breaches of orthodoxy in the church pageant. I love his protestations that "NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THE TURTLEDOVES ARE SUPPOSED TO BE" and his indignant response to the persistant casting of the prettiest little girl to play the Virgin: "WHAT DOES PRETTY HAVE TO DO WITH IT? WHO SAYS MARY WAS PRETTY?" I love his audacity in taking control of the entire production through sheer force of personality, and casting himself as the Baby Jesus. I love the sense that Owen was meant for more interpretation of more serious texts and parts in more serious prophecies, but what he gets is the line "The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes," and he insists on lowing cattle because that's what the song says. I love that Mr. Fish, the aficionado of amateur theatricals, is so impressed with Owen's other performance, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the Christmas Carol, that he comes to see Owen play the Baby Jesus even though Fish has never been to a pageant before, and he has to be told that it won't include the crucifixion: "THEY DIDN'T NAIL HIM TO THE CROSS WHEN HE WAS A BABY!"

And then there is all the completely Irving-esque sexual tension between the lumpy girl playing Mary and Owen, and the tyrannical ex-stewardess organizer Barb Wiggin and Owen, and his heartbreaking expulsion of his parents from Christ Church, and Dan's satisfying telling-off of controlling Barb Wiggin after she leaves the poor announcing angel hanging in the rafters, having thrown up on himself. And Mr. Fish's enthusiasm for all of the "barbaric" and "primitive" aspects of the pageant, which everyone else views as disastrous mistakes but which he, with typical English-major acuity, thinks are fascinating interpretations of the story of Christ's birth. The whole thing is just the right mix of hilarious, political and heart-breaking, which is, now that I come to think of it, usually what hooks me on Irving's books in the first place.

'"I'm just not sure when to genuflect, and all that nonsense!" Mr. Fish said, chuckling.
"I don't," I said.
"I DO," said Owen Meany.
"Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't," Dan said. "When I'm in church, I watch the other people - I do what they do."
Thus did our eclectic foursome arrive at Christ Church."

Library Tuesdays: USA

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Not many things make me feel patriotic about the United States. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am about as far from flag-waving as a person can be; not only do I deplore current policies and past atrocities in this country, but I usually don't feel very connected to the huge entity that is "The United States." I feel very connected to Portland, and even Oregon, since I have lived here my whole life and feel I am a product, for better or worse, of this culture. Even the whole West Coast can sometimes conjure up feelings of fondness or belonging in me. But the entirety of this huge, unwieldly nation? Not a chance. There are so many distinct subcultures here with which I have never even had any contact: I have never been to the Deep South, or Appalachia, or the Midwest, or Texas. Even if I had been to one or the other, I would be as much of a tourist there as if I were visiting a totally different country. And yet, John Dos Passos' USA trilogy somehow accesses a deeply - but DEEPLY - buried patriotism in me, and I think for a moment that it's kind of appealing to imagine myself part of a long national narrative, even if most of said narrative is something I wish I could rewrite from beginning to end.

It's almost as if USA is specifically structured to get under my skin, making use of the modernist experimentalism I'm such a sucker for in other works, and using it to express a uniquely American perspective. Dos Passos's trilogy features many different types of narratives: third-person stories about regular American men and women, told in a succinct, newspaper-influenced voice; long, prose-like poems about the larger-than-life Americans of the time, from Rockefeller and Eugene Debs in the early years to Isadora Duncan and Henry Ford in the later; snippets of newspaper headlines and popular songs cobbled together into looser, "newsreel" poems; and the Camera Eye sections, told in a stream-of-consciousness style, from Dos Passos's own perspective. Together this variety of the large and small, journalistic objectivity and intensely subjective snapshots, regular people and giants of art and industry, lets me relate to America-as-vast-experiential-panorama, in a way I usually can't. And the way that the ridiculousness of newspaper headlines and semi-articulateness of a poignant song lyric interact with the complicated and compromised lives of real people rings true almost a century later.

USA also offers a leftist slice of history in a way that's very personal: witnessing a brutal anti-labor attack in rural Washington state in the 1910's, or the ins and outs of a strike in Goldfield, Nevada in 1905, really makes the history of those familiar places come alive for me, and become part of the larger patterns of pro- and anti-labor movements happening all over the country. (Unfortunately, the activists who undermine themselves through in-fighting and excessive drinking are eerily familiar as well.) There is a Kerouac-like love of the small towns and big cities of America, but Dos Passos writes about people who are actually invested in them one way or another, rather than people who are just passing through - an approach I find much more emotionally rewarding. For me personally, writing about the wide spectrum of American experience using a wide spectrum of (American) voices is very powerful, and I've never really seen it done as effectively as Dos Passos does it here. If there are any other lovers of experimental prose out there trying to connect with their American roots (or not), I highly recommend USA.

Sagas of Icelanders (A Selection)

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I LOVED the Icelanders sagas. For a long time I was drawn to the attractively-bound paperback tome in Powell's, but I kept arguing with myself: would I actually read it? Did I really need a huge book of medieval Icelandic literature taking up shelf space? Wouldn't it just sit around on my to-be-read shelf and gather dust? Finally, I caved and bought it, and immediately devoured the entire thing in a voracious style usually reserved for Nancy Drew mysteries.

Most of the medieval or ancient literature I've read features very large-scale action, adventure of epic proportions. You've got Achilles and Odysseus enlisting the gods to help them battle their larger-than-life adversaries, Beowulf trudging out of the blood-spattered hall to slay great monsters and their mothers, or impossibly pure-hearted knights wooing sickeningly pure maidens. The Icelandic sagas have adventure too, and a good deal of trudging, and a fair amount of bloodshed, but there's something intriguingly domestic about them as well. They are about settlers to a forbidding new place, hardy men and women who claim homesteads and raise families in a climate even harsher than the one they left behind in Norway. Although much of the narrative is devoted to feuds between clans, which usually end up being settled by multiple murders, just as much space is taken up with the everyday lives of families, how hard-as-nails farmers gradually increased their wealth and made lives for themselves, showing proper hospitality with presents and feasts when neighbors or family members came to visit, how these farmers' equally tough wives bore them children and how these children gradually came of age as Icelanders. I love the contrast between the outlandish scenes of bloody battle, in which men with berserker blood shift into fierce monster-animals, and the proto-novelistic tales of everyday life. The Sagas portray the birth of a nation as the merging of these two contrasting elements (the outlandish and the domestic), which is a profound view of history that seems surprisingly contemporary.

The characters, in some cases, are more dynamic than any other medieval literature I've read, starting out as Norwegians who claim they would never emigrate to "that god-forsaken fishing hole," but ending up as Icelanders with lives and roots on the island. Whatever they are, it is never near-divine heroes or rose-scented virgins, just strong, flawed people doing their best given the circumstances. Gender roles are also surprising at times, as some of the fiercest and most warlike characters are women. (Not that "warlike" is objectively better than more traditionally feminine qualities, but it's nice to be surprised sometimes.) In addition, whether it's because of my Norwegian ancestry or my kinship to the novelistic form and the history of the everyday, these stories seemed oddly familiar to me, despite the gap of 800 years and as many miles separating me from their composition.

And, of course, there is the fact that nearly all the men in these stories have "Thor" somewhere in their names, which should win points for them if nothing else does. Who wouldn't want to read about Thorstein's travels with his brother Thorgrim and son-in-laws Thorarin and Thorkel? I ask you.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography