August 2009 Archives

2666: The Part About the Crimes (Book 4)


For better and worse, the fourth section of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 was, almost universally, not what I expected.

There were three things that did line up with my expectations: The Part About the Crimes was thought-provoking, well-written, and dealt, as the title implies, with the hundreds of sexual homicides committed against women in Mexican border-town Santa Teresa (Bolaño's fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez). But the ways in which these things were true greatly surprised me, and I thought I would organize my thoughts around all those surprises.

First of all, after the slow, Lynchean tension and (as I said in my thoughts on Part 1) "bizarre, semi-surreal wrongness" of the first three parts of the novel, the reader suddenly finds herself, in Part 4, deposited instead in the the clipped, no-nonsense language of a police procedural. Most scenes in The Part About the Crimes are more reminiscent of Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy than than Vladmimir Nabokov, more suggestive of L.A. Confidential than Mulholland Drive:

The woman was wearing a white dress and she was barefoot. She was about five foot seven. There were three cheap rings on her left hand, on the index finger, middle finger, and ring finger. On her right hand she was wearing a couple of bracelets and two big rings with fake stones. According to the medical examiner's report, she had been vaginally and anally raped and then strangled. She wasn't carrying any identification. The case was assigned to Inspector Ernesto Ortiz Rebolledo, who first made inquiries among Santa Teresa's high-class hookers to see whether anyone knew the dead woman, and then, when his questioning yielded scant results, among the cheap hookers, but no one from either group had seen her before.

I found this sylistic shift to be disconcerting, but ultimately quite effective. All along, I had assumed that the root of the wrongness, that intangible thing that was nightmarishly "off" in Santa Teresa, WAS the murders. I had subconsciously assumed that to see the crimes themselves would be to come face to face with the mysterious wrongness - and I think that this is the assumption around which most police dramas revolve. The Part About the Crimes deconstructs this assumption in just about every way possible, and its first method is to remove the sense of mystery, of intangibility, as soon as the crimes are revealed. It's as if the reader has been walking down a long hallway, as Oscar does in The Part About Fate, with a mysterious, tinted light at the end of it. Perhaps there is some distorted music playing in the distance. The reader brushes away veils, distractions, grotesque strangers met in the corridor, and eventually reaches out her hand, pushing the door inward to reveal the mysterious contents of the room...and right at that moment, someone flicks on the switch. The light is no longer sickly green, but plain, everyday white. The occupants of the room are not a sinister pair of businessmen and a femme fatale, but a team of bored cops performing a routine investigation. One of the cops walks over and hits a button on a boom box, and the atmospheric music clicks off. Everything is factual, mundane, even tedious. And yet...there are still hundreds of unsolved murders. Something is still very wrong, but merely looking at the discarded bodies of the murdered women can bring no enlightenment. The wrongness dwells elsewhere.

In a standard police drama, the mysterious horror of human crime is made "okay," neutralized, by the way in which it's solved and explained in the course of the story. I think this is the reason so many readers find murder mysteries to be a comforting genre, even when the crimes involved are horrific. The plot is formulaic and the action, in the abstract, predictable: the reader is presented with the description of a crime scene, sometimes multiple crime scenes, and tries to absorb all the details in order to "solve the mystery" later on. Soon the cops arrive. Sometimes the initial wave of police are corrupt or lazy, inclined to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Eventually, though, the reader is introduced to the main character, who, due either to professional integrity, a personal vendetta, or sheer cussedness, is invested in "getting to the bottom" of the crimes. He (for it is usually a man) strikes out on his investigation, uncovering relevant secrets and overcoming various obstacles. If the story began with multiple, seemingly unrelated crimes, the protagonist usually comes across evidence that connects them. He convinces himself of the true culprit, then runs various risks gathering enough evidence to prove his suspicions. In the end, whether he apprehends the criminal, witnesses the criminal's death, or is forced to let the criminal go, he has at least explained the sequence of events to his own and the reader's satisfaction.

Bolaño turns all this on its head, and toys gleefully with the expectations produced by the crime-writing quality of his language. In the first place, the sheer volume of the Santa Teresa murders would quickly overwhelm any reader stubbornly attempting to process each crime scene in the traditional way, much as it overwhelms the resources of the Santa Teresa police department itself. Whereas, in a traditional cop drama, we are hardly ever treated to descriptions of crimes truly unrelated to the main action, The Part About the Crimes summarizes the discovery of every single female victim of violent death between 1993 and 1997, including those which are proved - or not proved - to be isolated incidents, usually family violence on the part of boyfriends, husbands, or fathers. Presenting this unfiltered, yet clinical, view of the violence against women in Santa Teresa creates a kind of background noise - the constant reports of dead women are like a skipping record against which the reader comes up again and again, always expecting, in vain, to progress to the next bar, the next phase of the mystery plot. Bolaño refuses us a beginning, middle, and end, and gives us instead a perpetual beginning, crime piling on top of crime in a way that obscures them all and confuses any attempts at forward progress.

So too, unlike the neat and tidy, identically "signed" serial murders featured in many crime plots, the Santa Teresa murders are messy, illogical: there are too many specific linking elements to be coincidental, yet many seemingly connected murders lack some or all of the "signature" ingredients. Many women are found anally and vaginally raped and then strangled, but many others are found stabbed, and some are not raped. Many of the victims have long hair, but, as another character points out, this is a trait shared by most of the female population of Santa Teresa. Many witnesses report having seen the victims coerced into a black Peregrino (like the one parked outside Amalfitano's house in Part 2), but on the few occasions the cops manage to catch up with such a car, those who possess it are thieves, who just stole it and don't know its history. Most victims are murdered elsewhere and transported to the place where their bodies are dumped, but this is not always true. As one police inspector tells a reporter toward the end of The Part About the Crimess, it seems futile to apply any organized logic to the pattern of attacks: "It's fucked up, that's the only explanation." This is not the message the reader is left with in a traditional police drama, but it may be a more honest one.

I spent a long time thinking about the presentation of "the crimes" in this section, and how I feel about it. For some reason, I had expected The Part About the Crimes to deal with the murders as they happened, from the perspective of a third-person narrator who would probably have access to the victims' thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, I'm relieved that this wasn't the case, because I don't think I could have made it through that many rapes and murders at such close quarters. Examining what's left over afterward is much easier, and can be much more concise. On the other hand, the decision to present not so much the crimes as the evidence of the crimes, seems to depersonalize the victims in the same way their attackers did. It makes the police the protagonists of the story, rather than the women. To a certain extent this is probably inevitable - as I said, detailed descriptions of the actual crimes would quickly become too disturbing for most readers, including me. And I do think Bolaño's decision to chronicle each specific dead woman, rather than merely stating "That month a dozen more bodies were found," accords each victim some degree of individuality, as well as developing the messiness and confusion of the investigations.

Bolaño confronts the reality of misogyny and classism in Mexican society - especially within the police force - in a way that definitely doesn't condone it. He makes it clear that, despite the overwhelming volume of murders confronting them, the police would be more motivated to solve these crimes if most of the victims were not lower-class maquiladora workers, and female. Many of the cops share, to some degree, the killer's (or killers') view of these women as disposable trash, as evidenced by their joking conversations about how many ways it is possible to rape a woman, and their morning sessions of sexist jokes. The depictions of these callous, sexist cops is far from flattering, and the police who are as close to "heroes" as the novel gives us, are those who oppose them. But I still have mixed feelings about the treatment of women at the hands of the narrative in this section, and I'd be interested in others' thoughts. Is there a feminist way to write a novel about something like the Juarez murders? Maybe, maybe not.

I found The Part About the Crimes less pleasant to read than the first three books of 2666. The seemingly endless descriptions of female corpses got tedious, despite my previous comments about honoring each victim's individual identity, and there were fewer flashes of the satirical humor that pervaded the first few sections. Nevertheless, I thought it did important work: it interrogates what we expect from a crime novel, and posits that our desire to be comforted by a neat, satisfying conclusion after a spate of grisly murders is, in words of Inspector José Márquez, "fucked up, that's the only explanation." I am extremely curious to move on to Part 5, and see where Bolaño's narrative arc will take me.

Dorky lit-crit note, added August 18: While reading Susan McClary's Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, it occurred to me that Bolaño's refusal to "move on" with the story in Part 4, but instead to "stall" in a perpetual beginning of endless crime scenes, could actually be read as explicitly feminist. McClary argues that the traditional story arc, in which the protagonist works diligently toward a climax, overcoming certain obstacles in order to reach his successful conclusion, is a narrative model predicated on a forceful, stereotypically individualist male erotic practice. I know that this will sound wacky to people not used to thinking in terms of feminist criticism, but it strikes me as profoundly relevant. The audience (reader or listener) is taught, by encountering this narrative arc again and again in every TV show and Saturday morning cartoon, to crave that final climax even if - perhaps especially if - it requires a violent explosion of force to bring about. McClary points out that, although this model seems universal and "just the way things go" to modern folks, it hasn't always been the case: prior to the seventeenth century, there were many musical and lyric modes that stressed pleasure rather than desire, which gloried in a voluptuous "being-in-time" quality, rather than an individualistic striving after change and closure. It occurs to me that the standard detective-story narrative is one of the most blatant literary examples of this phallic striving-to-climax model: it even finishes, frequently, with an orgasmic car chase, gun fight, or other display of violent bravado. It therefore makes sense to choose to problematize the detective novel format when writing about the Santa Teresa murders, since all the dead women are victims of exactly the same kind of individualistic male sexual violence that McClary associates with the buildup-to-climax storyline. Perhaps Bolaño didn't want to perpetuate said violence all over again in his narrative structure. Again, I know it sounds kind of off-the-wall, but it was an idea that intrigued me.

Thoughts on Part 3: The Part About Fate
Thoughts on Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano
Thoughts on Part 1: The Part About The Critics

Ourania, or, on reading in French


J.M.G. Le Clézio's Ourania is the first full-length novel I've ever read in the original French. I'm proud of the accomplishment, since I started taking French during college in order to read Proust in the original; it feels great to be progressing toward that goal. Yay! I liked Le Clézio's writing style, and had mixed feelings about his plot: a French geologist, who as a child distracted himself from the Nazi invasion by imagining a Utopian land, travels as an adult to Mexico, where he encounters two more attempts at Utopias: an egalitarian academic Institute, and a sort of hippie commune for society's outsiders; both are doomed to failure. But more than that, it was enormously enriching (and frustrating, and empowering!) to start making this language my own on a footing of sophisticated, adult literature. Huge thanks to my friend Marie Christine for bringing me Ourania all the way from Toulouse!

The act of reading in a second language vastly colored my perception of this novel; much of my experience of it was the experience of reading French, rather than the experience of reading Ourania specifically. Reading in translation had its triumphs and frustrations for me; there were only a few passages, for example, in which I could absorb the rhythm and flow of the language, the atmosphere of the scene, in the same way I do effortlessly when reading English prose. (When I did succeed at this, I typically made the kid-learning-to-ride-a-bike mistake of realizing I was doing it, thinking to myself "Look! I'm doing it!" and then promptly losing the ability because I was distracted.) I'm not conscious of skipping over words when I read in English; in fact, I usually pride myself on being a pretty careful reader. But dealing with non-English prose really made me realize how much I take for granted when reading natively: a large vocabulary, colloquial turns of phrase, the small details of tone and cadence that create particular moods or signal different authorial styles. In French I was forced to slow WAY down, increase my levels of patience with making slow progress, and learn when to look words up and when to read for rhythm and general meaning.

Interestingly, I also found that reading in French made me hyper-sensitive to individual words - sort of like an enforced close-reading exercise. Whereas in English I am often conscious of the richness of prose overall, my reading in French currently involves more acquisition and appreciation of individual words. (I think my favorite of the words I picked up from Ourania is recroquevillé(e) - curled or shriveled up. It rolls off the tongue so nicely!) Early in the novel, I noticed the narrator's use of the adjective "vide" - empty or void, which can also be a noun and has a verb form vider - to describe a look in his grandfather's eyes. Shortly thereafter I started noticing the word cropping up all over the novel - a total of twenty-three instances, at least that I noticed.

  • "Il y avait des corbeaux dans les champs de pommes de terre, ils tenaient des sortes de réunions, leurs glapissements emplissaient le ciel vide." (15) /
    "There were ravens in the potato fields; they had kind of gatherings there, their barking filling the empty sky."
  • "Le rez-de-chaussée était composé d'une grande pièce vide qui avait servi autrefois de dépôt..." (15) /
    The ground floor consisted of a large, empty room that had at one time served as a warehouse...
  • "À part le bruit des moteurs, tout était vide. Aucun voix." (21) /
    Aside from the noise of the motors, everything was silent. Not a voice.
  • "Peut-être est-ce le vide de son regard, la pâleur de son visage qui me permettent de comprendre l'importance de l'événement que nous étions en train de vivre..." (22) /
    Perhaps is was the emptiness of his look, the pallor of his face, that allowed me to understand the importance of this event we were living through...
  • "Je me suis un peu perdu dans le quartier des Parachutistes. Un dédale de rues, de maisons sommaires, de cours vides." (48) /
    I was a bit lost in the Parachutists' neighborhood. A labyrinth of streets, of sleeping houses, of empty paths.
  • "Le jardin était quasiment vide." (82) /
    The garden [of the brothel] was almost empty.
  • "Peut-être que c'est cela qui sifflait dans mes oreilles et me donnait le vertige. Ma solitude. Le sentiment du vide, du très grand vide de mon existence." (122) /
    Maybe that's what hissed in my ears and gave me vertigo. The feeling of the void, of the great emptiness of my existence.
  • "Je me souviens qu'à cet instant j'ai ressenti un vide, et mes oreilles on tinté, parce que je venais de comprendre la folie des habitants de Campos et leur Conseiller..." (149) /
    I remember that at that instant I felt a void, and my ears rang, with having just understood the naivete of the inhabitants of Campos and their Conseiller...
  • "Je ne comprenais pas, alors il a dit: "Même se tu pouvais distinguer des milliers, des millions d'étoiles avec un télescope, ce qui est le plus grand, le plus vrai dans le ciel, c'est le noir, le vide." (188) /
    I didn't understand, so he said: "Even if you could identify thousands, millions of stars with a telescope, still, the biggest, the truest thing in the sky is the blackness, the void.
  • "...les incursions, les violations, les maladies aussi, l'avortement fait à la hâte par ls vielle curandera que tu appelles ta grand-mère, la racine très amère qui a vidé ton ventre..." (209) /
    The incursions, the violations, the illnesses too, the hurried abortion performed by the old procuress you call your grandmother, the bitter root that emptied your belly...
  • "Elle a un visage triste de fille sage, une frange au ras de son regard vide." (215) /
    She had the sad face of a wise girl, a fringe lining her empty gaze.
  • "Il répète ce qu'il m'a dit à mon arrivée, ce ne sont pas les étoiles qui importent, mais la connaissance du vide." (220) /
    He repeats what he told me when I arrived: it's not the stars that matter, but getting to know the void.
  • "Rapaël a quitté son travail à la boutique de grains du marché, dès qu'il a su l'arrêté d'expulsion. Il a vidé sa chambre au-dessus du magasin..." (249) /
    Raphael quit his job at the grain market as soon as he learned of the order of expulsion. He cleaned out his room above the shop...
  • "Les bas-côtés étaient vides, les Parachutistes étaient retournés chez eux..." (250) /
    The road shoulders were empty, the Parachutists had returned to where they came from...
  • "Elle m'a regardé, j'ai lu un vide dans ses yeux jaunes." (251) /
    She looked at me; I read a void in her yellow eyes.
  • "Je suis un peu intimidé d'entrer chez Uacas. C'est pauvre, un peu vide..." (256) /
    I was a little intimidated to enter Uacas's house. It was poor, a bit empty...
  • "Avant le départ, le Conseiller a vidé tous les comptes qu'il avait overts dans les banques de la Vallée." (272) /
    Before the departure, the Conseiller closed all the accounts he had opened with banks in the Valley.
  • "Les journées étaient longues et vides." (280) /
    The days were long and empty.
  • "En même temps, il ressentait une douleur, un vide au centre du corps." (285) /
    At the same time, he relt a sadness, a void at the center of his body...
  • "Le bâtiment est vide, sauf trois grandes croix en bois peintes en noir..." (287) /
    The buildling is empty, save for three large wooden crosses painted black...
  • "La mer est vide, frisée par le vent, d'un bleu un peu gris." (296) /
    The sea is empty, ruffled by the wind, of a slightly greyish blue.
  • "Un rêve tellement effrayant que le vieil homme était apparu tout nu sur le seuil de sa maison, le corps en sueur, les yeux grands ouverts et vides, comme s'il était devenu fou." (323) /
    A dream so terrifying that the old man had appeared completley nude on the threshold of his home, his body covered in sweat, his eyes large and empty, as if he had gone mad.
  • "[Mon père] ne me causait aucun problème, juste une légere amertume quand je pensais au vide qu'il avait laissé dans le coeur de ma mère." (324) /
    [My absent father] didn't cause me any issues, only a slight bitterness when I thought of the void he left in my mother's heart.

I don't know whether I would have noticed the predominance of an equivalent word if I had been reading a novel in English; I might have read right over it, or it might have blended in with the other words or been eclipsed by other aspects of the prose. I definitely wouldn't have had access to the repetition if I had read this novel in English, since, as you can see from my lame attempts at translation, the different senses of vide(r) become at least four English terms: empty, void, silent, cleaned out. I'm not even sure if I want to claim significance here: is it remarkable to repeat "empty" twenty-three times in a 335-page novel? I'm not sure, but I do think it's interesting that the repetitions of the word tend to cluster around passages of great emotional import: the protagonist's childhood memories of World War II, the hope (of the commune Campos) and poverty (of the Red Light slums) he encounters in Mexico, his meetings with the prostitute he falls in love with (this was my least favorite aspect of the story), and the grief he feels upon learning that Campos is being disbanded. And at least two of the above quotes are definitely a key idea in the philosophy of the novel: the Conseiller's claim that it's not the stars that matter, but the void between them. And overall, thinking back on the novel's obsession with imagining Utopian alternatives in which to live, I believe this return of the void is important: it's the thing these characters are trying to either fill or understand, the troubling, vertiginous reality of human life with which they're trying to come to terms.

I have to rant a bit about what annoyed me in the novel: namely, the admittedly realistic 1970s mentality of the characters. The social sciences department where the protagonist Daniel goes to work is full of extremely obnoxious anthropologists - characters intended by Le Clézio to be obnoxious - who form a clique that dominates department events, cracking crude jokes about the Red Light area and how they want to "conduct anthropological studies" there, if you get my drift. Daniel, understandably, gets totally fed up with them, but then he goes off the deep end in the other direction and starts idealizing a young prostitute named Lili, imagining himself in love with her and wanting her to personify the buoyancy of the human spirit to triumph against great cruelty and abuse. There are passages where he remarks on how "childlike" she still is, despite a litany of abuses, all imagined in detail by Daniel, and also ones in which he calls her "immortal." Dude, I am SO TIRED of this sensitive-bourgeois-man-fancies-himself-in-love-with-young-prostitute-and-wants-her-to-alleviate-his-cultural-guilt storyline! The man in question always thinks he's such an open-minded hero for "seeing past" her corrupted façade to the wellspring of purity beneath, but he never actually, I don't know, gets to know her at all; he just lets her function as yet another void onto which he can project his own dreams and desires. I kept wondering whether Daniel's egotistic tendency to essentialize Lili would be addressed critically at all, and honestly I could have missed some subtleties of the French prose, but as far as I could tell, the author is sympathetic to his protagonist's angsty "love" for a woman he doesn't even know, which irked me. (There is also an essentialized portrayal of the "childlike wisdom" of a Central American Indian character, although that was somewhat balanced by other, more complex Native characters such as the French-Chocktaw war veteran Conseiller of Campos.) Nevertheless, I have to admit that I found this essentializing, romaticizing tendency to be an accurate addition to Daniel's character, given his background, era, and political leanings, even if it did make him less sympathetic to me personally. So this is not exactly a complaint about Le Clézio's characterization; more a rant about supposedly liberated people who react to bigotry with "positive," romanticized stereotyping. That said, Daniel's so-called relationship with Lili is really just a detail, and overall I found a lot to love in this novel and its meditations on the flawed, transitory nature of Utopian dreams.

As an amusing little side-note, now that we're coming up on the fourth installment of the 2666 readalong: I originally started Ourania right before diving into Part I of Bolaño's novel, but I had to postpone it because there were so many eerie similarities in the subject matter that I was having a hard time keeping them straight. I had never before read a novel about self-absorbed professors visiting Mexico and getting romantically involved with poverty-stricken women there, so it was bizarre to coincidentally end up reading two of them at once!

(Ourania was my seventh book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing France.)

Book Blogger Appreciation Week


I may be the last person in the book-blogging world to mention it, but Book Blogger Appreciation Week is such a cool idea, and I've been looking forward to jumping in with both feet come September 14. (I had a moment of panic that I would still be in rural, internet-free New Hampshire on the 14th, but no worries; I'll be home.) What I DIDN'T expect was that Evening All Afternoon would be nominated for several awards! Thank you so much to whoever put my name in for Best General Review Blog, Best Writing, Best Name (credit to Wallace Stevens on that one), and Best Post. I know the people I nominated for those categories are forces to be reckoned with, so I'm in good company.

I thought this would be a good opportunity finally to do the meme associated with BBAW:

What has been one of the highlights of blogging for you?
Everyone has been answering this with "Meeting other book bloggers," and that has definitely been a big highlight for me as well - getting to know other smart readers and talk with them about books. But for the sake of a little originality, I thought I'd mention another highlight: getting more out of my reading. Since starting Evening All Afternoon, I've found that taking the time to write about my reading material means that I engage more completely with the books while I'm reading, get more out of them as a result, and remember them more clearly for longer after the fact. So, enriching my own experience of literature: definitely a plus!

What blogger has helped you out with your blog by answering questions, linking to you, or inspiring you?
Well, he's not exactly a blogger at this point, but my partner David deserves a huge thank-you for designing this beautiful site for me (and even doing the charcoal drawings!). Once I started actually writing here, Claire and Richard were among the first to reach out and make me feel at home in the book-blogging world. Thanks, guys!

What one question do you have about BBAW that someone who participated last year could answer?
I don't have a clear idea of how this will go, but I don't think I need any specific questions answered - I'm just looking forward to jumping in and enjoying the ride!

Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

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Although I was an English major in college, and my primary mode of artistic connection has always been literature, I somehow ended up with a surprising number of musicologist friends. Well, four of them anyway, which seems like a lot to me. One of the four is currently finishing up her musicology doctorate at UCLA, and I remember that when she started her program she was intimidated by the presence, on faculty, of controversial music critic Susan McClary. McClary's work is divisive among musicologists because she has dared to take methods of criticism developed in literary and sociology circles - feminist, post-colonialist, queer studies and other criticisms that interrogate social contexts of art - and to apply them to Western art music, which has traditionally considered itself immune from such interrogations of "meaning" (many musicologists believe that music doesn't "mean" anything, but simply exists). My friend was a little wowed by McClary's rock-star status, but also conflicted because she found some of the critic's stances to be over the top. I remember her specifically citing an essay in which McClary claims that it's possible to tell that Tchaikovsky was homosexual just by listening to his Fourth Symphony. Eyebrows raised all around. So I was amused and intrigued when, a few years later, another of the four, knowing that I enjoy critical literary theory, gave me a copy of McClary's seminal Feminine Endings as a birthday present (thanks, Rachel!).

Now, maybe I'm just hardened by years of reading criticism in the more liberal field of literary studies. I have read some serious crackpot critics in my time, and McClary? Does not strike me as a crackpot. She doesn't even strike me as over-the-top. In fact, her points seem to me eminently well-argued and reasonable. Let's take that essay on Tchaikovsky, for example. She does not actually argue that a listener can tell he's gay by listening to his music. In fact, she explicitly rejects any line of reasoning that would attempt to claim any such thing. What she actually writes is that certain patterns in the Fourth Symphony - patterns traditionally derided by music critics for failing to conform with accepted symphonic practice - are not actually failures after all, but conscious attempts to diverge from the standard symphonic narrative and tell a different kind of story. McClary carefully outlines the traditional symphonic narrative structure, which bears a strong resemblance to the archetypal Hero's Quest narrative in literature: a hero starts at "home base" (a given key and/or theme), but must leave it and venture into uncharted territory. He meets with the often-feminine Other (the second theme, often referred to in early musicology as the "feminine" theme), which represents either a threat he must overcome or a victim he must save; a struggle ensues. In either case, the second, "feminine" theme is assimilated, by the end of the symphony, into the key in which the hero began, and he returns home triumphant, having proved himself. In Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony all this is problematized: critics have complained that the first ("masculine") theme is overly passive, insufficiently virile (yes! music critics complain about such things!), and that the first movement never satisfactorily resolves. McClary argues that the composer is merely trying to tell a different story than the one usually communicated symphonically: Tchaikovsky's narrative involves a protagonist trapped between two antagonists, unable to realize his full potential. This seems totally reasonable to me, and McClary backs it up with careful technical attention to the score. Given the careful groundwork she has laid regarding the long history of thinking about "masculine" and "feminine" symphonic themes, her next point seems reasonable as well (the bracketed text is mine):

For what we have is a narrative in which the protagonist seems victimized both by patriarchal expectations [represented by the military background music that threatens to overwhelm the primary theme] and by sensual feminine entrapment [the sinuous, interrupting second theme]: both forces actively block the possibility of his self-development. Such a narrative resonates strongly with Tchaikovsky's biography. As a homosexual in a world of patriarchally enforced heterosexuality, his behavior was always being judged against cultural models of "real men." In fact, 1877 (the year of this symphony) was a crisis year in Tchaikovsky's psychosexual development: he finally yielded to social and paternal pressures to get married, with disastrous consequences for all concerned, and then attempted suicide because of his distress over the marriage and his clandestine sexuality. The extent to which these events colored his perceptions is revealed in his letters, and a strong sense of struggle and alienation likewise marks his programmatic description of the symphony.

This is a far cry from the claim that gay people write different music from straight people. All McClary is really saying here is that one's state of mind while making art can be reflected in the final product, and be read back into it later on - a claim that seems to me not only reasonable but inescapably obvious. How could the dramatic events of Tchaikovsky's personal life during this period fail to have an effect on his compositional output? Can you imagine claiming such a thing about any other form of art? We accept as indisputable that, for example, TS Eliot's traumatic experience of World War I helped shape his worldview and can be read back into The Waste Land. It is widely accepted that Bernini's Counter-Reformational political patronage influenced his presentation of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. So why should instrumental music be any different? That is the question McClary asks repeatedly throughout the essays in Feminine Endings, and she answers in lively, readable prose that it is not, in fact, different at all.

There was only one essay in which I thought her claims veered into the strident or tenuous, and, interestingly, I found that same essay to be the most thought-provoking of the bunch. In it, she takes modern composer Janika Vandervelde's piece Genesis II as a jumping-off point to talk about whether there can (or should) be a repertory of "women's music": in other words, music made by women which has a specifically female sound, distinguishable from that made by men. She details the widespread negative response to such an idea on the part of female composers who have accepted the idea of the universality and a-gendered quality of Western instrumental music, and want to be recognized as composers, not female composers. While McClary is sympathetic with this position, she questions whether those elements of Western instrumental music so often granted "universal" status are really universal at all. In the most fascinating section of the essay (to me, at least), she points out that the current widely-accepted musical model of striving after the desired tonal resolution, of the individualistic, hero's-quest symphony (not just applicable to symphonies, but also to rock songs and many other forms) only gained its current place of unquestioned dominance after the seventeenth century. Prior to this time, she says, there were other musical forms that stressed pleasure over desire, that were about existing voluptuously in the moment, rather than striving after change. In the age of imperialism, conquest, and the rise of capitalism, though, the current quest-based narrative became so dominant that many of us just accept it as "the way music works." This singleness of structure is obviously detrimental: if there is no musical model for pleasure, but only for desire, then attaining the desired goal is a kind of musical death, since the piece is over as soon as the goal is reached. McClary goes on to make the claim that, when she presents her graduate students with examples of this earlier musical mode, the male students tend to find it confusing and boring (complaining that "nothing happens), whereas the female students tend to delight in it, recognizing something they knew to be true but which they had never heard articulated musically before.

Now let me say, a whole spate of warning bells go off in my head when people start talking about a "female music." I am extremely reluctant to accept essentializing notions that equate the feminine with unchanging, cyclical Nature and the male with striving individualism. And I definitely think there are points in this essay where McClary crosses the line into Dworkin-esque condemnation of all tonal music as essentially violent and imperialist. That said, when I think about my all-time favorite narratives, I have to admit that they all stress exactly the sense of voluptuous being-in-time that McClary describes. Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (particularly the "Time Passes" section), Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, the novels and short stories of Eudora Welty: while all these works have narrative arcs, it is the beauty of the prose and the gorgeously vivid evocation of specific, subjective moments in time that really distinguishes the experience of reading them. None of them feature absolutist conclusions; the emotional ends tend not to be wrapped up neatly, and the reader must accept ambiguity and compromise. And, predictably, critics of these novels tend to complain that they are "boring" and that "nothing happens" in them, EXACTLY like the male students McClary describes in her classes. There are, of course, male fans of Woolf, Robinson, and Welty: in fact, the most ardent Woolf fan I've ever met was a man. But McClary's essay does give me food for thought, and a new critical tool for thinking about different kinds of narrative structures.

(Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality was my eighth and 700-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)

Wide Sargasso Sea


Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is one of those novels: I know I ought to read them, because they're touchstones of entire genres of creative and critical writing, but I put them off for one reason or another. Well, let me be blunt: I put off reading anything else by Jean Rhys after slogging through her incredibly bleak 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight in a British Modernism class in college. Regular readers of this blog will know that I do not shy away from the dark or dismal. Most of my favorite authors are widely regarded as "depressing," and I'm sure for many people there wouldn't be much to choose between the comically cynical (Bukowski, Céline, Thompson, Beckett) and the fluidly psychological (Woolf, Welty, Rushdie, Joyce). I devour the works of all these writers with abandon, and find many of them laugh-out-loud funny. But Jean Rhys almost did me in. Good Morning, Midnight struck me as the actual experience of clinical depression, distilled into book form. There was absolutely no relief from drab, ugly surroundings and crushing loneliness, not even in the form of a few equally-depressed friends to share the protagonist Sasha Jensen's burden, or an occasional wry humorous touch. There seemed to be no passion, love, or even affection left in any part of Sasha's psyche. Dismal, unredeemed, solitary alcoholism reigned from the book's opening pages to its brutal close. When I put it down, I had had enough.

Luckily, Wide Sargasso Sea is a much different novel. This re-working of Jane Eyre's madwoman-in-the-attic, which Rhys set largely in her native West Indies, was published in 1966 - ten years after most people thought its author had perished in an alcoholic stupor. It was instrumental in kicking off the whole field of postcolonial studies, and remains a touchstone text. Although the story of Antoinette Bertha Mason's terrifying childhood, arranged marriage, and subsequent slide into insanity is certainly dark, a few factors save this late novel from the all-out brutality of Rhys's early work. For one thing, whereas Good Morning, Midnight is set on the cold, rain-drenched streets of Paris and London, which Rhys and her characters plainly detest, Wide Sargasso Sea unfolds in the sometimes-sinister but always vibrantly beautiful West Indies, a place Antoinette loves passionately. (This alone separates her from Sasha, who I remember as loving nothing, even tepidly.) Rhys's feelings about her Dominican roots are not unmixed, but she and Antoinette share an ability to relate deeply to the West Indian landscape in a way she certainly doesn't do with Europe.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible - the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered - then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, and deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.

Encapsulated here is the tension of Antoinette's early life: a neglected existence in a beautiful place she loves, which is nonetheless full of darkness and forbidden objects and ideas. It is also host to an explosive racial politics that means she is never fully "at home," even in the house where she grows up. As the young daughter of a former slave owner just after emancipation, she is caught in a position impossible for a child to understand: her parents and the other white colonizers represent a shameful legacy that has recently been rejected, but she in turn is rejected by the black community for her white skin (and privileged attitude). Rhys conjures the oppressive atmosphere of secrets and fear with a sure and vivid hand; I love her style, particularly in the sections narrated by Antoinette.

Not only that, but I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity Rhys brings to both Antoinette and her husband (who is not explicitly named, but is patterned on Brontë's Rochester). Rochester is not cast as an unmitigated villain, nor Antoinette as a blameless victim. Their relationship from the first has the doomed cast of a Greek tragedy, but not because one or the other begins the story as a tyrant. I admired Rhys's subtlety and compassion in this regard: she obviously feels strongly for the oppressed West Indians both black and white, but she does not pretend that any particular member of the oppressing class is a heartless monster. At the same time, being a sympathetic person doesn't stop Rochester (or Antoinette, for that matter) from perpetuating the prejudices and cruelties begun by their compatriots.

Rhys does make a number of decisions that puzzle me - chief among them, the structure of the novel. One of her stated aims in Wide Sargasso Sea is to give a voice and a personal story to the "poor ghost" Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë's novel. This is what she starts out doing, letting Antoinette Bertha Cosway/Mason narrate the events of her childhood and early adulthood. But then, just as we reach the eve of Antoinette's meeting with Rochester, the narration switches to his internal monologue. With one brief exception, we don't regain Antoinette's narrative voice until she has succumbed to madness and been locked up in Thornfield Hall. This was obviously a conscious choice on Rhys's part, but it strikes me as such a strange one: just at the point when the reader would benefit most from Antoinette's point of view, she is silenced. I can think of a number of rationales for structuring the book this way; if it was important to Rhys to make Rochester a sympathetic character, for example, the easiest way is to get inside his head. In one of the essays appended to my edition (the Norton Critical), Lee Erwin argues that the structure of Wide Sargasso Sea is meant as a reaction against the traditional Regency/Victorian novel that ends (we assume happily) with the heroine's marriage. Antoinette's story seems to "end" with her wedding, but since her marriage rather spectacularly doesn't work out, she must return to enact the only other traditional feminine ending: madness and death. Erwin also points out that Rochester's narration, in which he is disgusted because his white wife reminds him of a black woman, lets us see how closely allied are the white Creoles and the black ex-slaves in the eyes of the colonizer, even if they are forever sundered in their own eyes. All of these ideas are interesting, but I was still left unsatisfied with Rhys's decision to let Rochester tell such a large portion of Antoinette's story. In a novel this short, it seemed tantamount to denying Bertha Mason a voice all over again.

And speaking of the appended essays to the Norton Critical Edition: I got a lot out of them. I collect Nortons but don't always read the additional materials; sometimes I finish the actual novel and feel "done." This time, though, maybe because the novel itself is so concise, I felt primed for some high-quality critical responses, and the Norton editors did not disappoint. I especially appreciated Sandra Drake's discussion of how Rhys incorporates West Indian obeah/voodoo beliefs, specifically imagery around zombi-ism, into Antoinette's story. She points out that:

Like many Caribbean beliefs, the zombi is of African origin. A number of African societies thought that bokors - "sorcerers" who turned great powers to evil ends - could reduce persons to automatons and force them to do the bokor's will, including work for him. A number of Caribbean scholars have been intrigued with the question of why this belief should have attained much greater importance in the Caribbean than in Africa, coming to its fullest development in Sant Domingue, later Haiti. Laroche and Depestre suggest that it was because it was so well suited to represent the condition of plantation slavery in the Americas.

So interesting! I will quite possibly never think of zombie movies in the same way again. Drake goes on to explain that Caribbean believers in obeah/voodoo feared zombi-ism much more than they feared death, since they believed that upon death their spirits would be transported back to Africa, whereas zombi-ism trapped the spirit indefinitely in a helpless slave state. Therefore, she argues, Antoinette's "awakening" from her zombi trance and plunge off the roof of Thornfield is actually a triumph, rather than a tragedy. I started out quite skeptical about this claim, but I have to say that Drake summons such strong textual evidence that I ended up more or less convinced.

As a postcolonial re-telling of Jane Eyre, Rhys's novel was hardly a revelation to me. When I studied Brontë's novel in college, there wasn't a student in the class that didn't gag, groan, or otherwise react negatively to the passage where Rochester equates the West Indies to a sinfully contaminated Hell, and is about to commit suicide until a "wind fresh from Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement...and the air grew pure." To a modern reader, the cultural chauvinism and xenophobia in this scene fairly leaps off the page; I hardly need an entire response novel to convince me of it. That wasn't the case, though, in 1966, and the fact that some of Rhys's points now seem obvious is a testament to how influential Wide Sargasso Sea and similar studies have been over the past forty years. Not only that, but its stylistic and character-driven merits make it a compelling read even without its political agenda.

(Wide Sargasso Sea was my third book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1960s.)

On writing about reading


                    Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive...
                    - William Wordsworth, "Lines completed a few miles above Tintern Abbey"

Emerging from a few days away from the internet I find, to my dismay, that the old book-blogging chestnut has reared its silly head again (this time in the form of challenges to Farm Lane Books and others): are negative reviews valid? And also, apparently: is it valid for a blogger to write about her own subjective experience of a book, rather than its objective "worth"?

My basic thought on this issue: You're joking, right? Who are we, Matthew Arnold? Who actually believes anymore that it's even possible, let alone desirable, to separate one's subjective reading experience from the book as an art object? I'm not advocating lazy reading or slipshod writing. But I believe, like Wordsworth, that in perceiving a piece of art we participate in its individualized creation, in creating its reality for us. As every readalong, college seminar or book club meeting emphasizes, twenty people can read the same novel and come away with vastly different impressions and experiences. This is not just a matter of people liking different things, but of every reader possessing a complex web of life experience, types of intelligence, moral priorities, sense of humor, rhythmic sensitivity, socioeconomic background, and a plethora of other factors that aren't leaping to mind at the moment. I believe anyone who professes to write about books - about anything, really - without acknowledging the vast subjectivity of human existence is dishonest or delusional. Is a book "objectively good" if nobody reads it? As many a Ray Bradbury short story points out, books are nothing without readers, just as there are no readers without written material. Not only that, but a given book is different to every reader who picks it up, each of whom reads in a different way. It's both futile and offensive to attempt to force one's own reading and writing style on others. And I think we should be celebrating that multiplicity, not fighting it.

Not only that, but I think all this emphasis on so-called "positive" and "negative" reviews misses the point. Sure, there are those books that strike me as so terrible that I want to throw them at the wall (and I defend anyone's right to write about those experiences). And there are books that are utterly breathtaking, and reading them transforms my world forever. But honestly, those two categories do not make up the bulk of my reading. For the most part, my reactions are complex and nuanced, and a big reason I write about books is to sort out those subtleties for myself and anyone else who might like to read along. Looking back over the past six months of writing about reading, I don't see many reviews that could be boiled down to "I loved it" or "I hated it." The "worst" book I read this year was also one I heartily enjoyed. I write a lot about what puzzles me in books, what intrigues me, how my expectations are subverted, books that remind me of other books and where those comparisons break down, how my mental state while reading affects my perception of the book. These are the questions that interest me, and they are much more complicated than a simple like or dislike.

And there is a long tradition of such writing about reading. In fact, essay-writing on the reading life is a much older and (in my opinion) richer tradition than the comparatively new discipline of the bottom-line, thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down newspaper review. As another example, here is Virginia Woolf on John Ruskin:

For if anyone is able to make his readers feel that he is alive, wrong headed, intemperate, interesting, and lovable, that writer is Ruskin. His eagerness about everything in the world is perhaps as valuable as the concentration which in another sphere produced the works of Darwin, or the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It may be that, if we submitted his works on art to a modern art critic, or his works on economy to a modern economist, we should find that there is very little in them which is accepted by the present generation. Even an unprofessional reader, who picks up Modern Painters attracted very much by the bright patches of eloquence, is fairly startled by some of the statements concerning art and morality which are laid down with the usual air of infallibility and the usual array of polysyllables. Nor is it easy for one reading industriously in the six volumes of Fors Clavigera to find out precisely how it is that we are to save ourselves, though it is plain enough that we are all damned. Nevertheless, though his aesthetics may be wrong and his economics amateurish, you have to reckon with a force which is not to be suppressed by a whole pyramid of faults. That is why perhaps people in his life time got into the habit of calling him Master. He was possessed by a spirit of enthusiasm which compels those who are without it either to attack or to applaud; but beneath its influence they cannot remain merely passive.

Is this a "negative" review? Woolf calls Ruskin wrong-headed, intemperate and amateurish; she paints him as a pedant and a moralist, overly self-satisfied and long-winded in his mistaken opinions, and insufficiently clear in expressing them. She speaks with the slight condescension of a Modernist discussing a Victorian forebear. At the same time, her delight in him, in his unquenchable vitality and passion, is much more than a bone thrown to the dogs of public opinion. She believes in the magnetism of his personality, and his helpfully galvanizing effect on those around him; is this, then, a "positive" review? The truth is that it isn't a "review" at all, but a taut and insightful essay about the experience of reading, which is both subjective and universal, and incorporates the full range of human emotion.

To me, the great thing about book blogging is its flexibility: it needn't be the same thing to all people. Many book-bloggers follow the newspaper-review model, and that's great. Others cultivate a less formal, more personal vibe, something akin to sitting with friends in a virtual living room, and having a conversation about the books one has been reading. Some professor-types use book-blogging as an erudite but casual arena in which to prepare for the more polished forum of academic papers. Still others, like me, aim to continue the tradition of book-based essay-writing: more formal than a fireside chat, more personal than an academic thesis, educated but not comprehensively so, following whichever threads intrigue me rather than the ones I consider most Important-with-a-capital-I. And the great thing about the internet is, there's room for everybody. We can all do the type of book-blogging we enjoy! There is no compulsion to fit our square selves into round holes. But, as in any heterogeneous group, I think we need to be careful not to judge each other by the standards we apply to ourselves. After all, depending on what a given blogger is trying to do, my standards may be totally irrelevant to her, and hers to me.

I'm not saying that the reading world must descend into a morass of unmitigated "I'm okay, you're okay" relativism. I think there are things that would be dishonest in any form of writing for public consumption: plagiarism, for example, or claiming to have read or finished a book when you really haven't, or falsifying your account of your own experience because you feel pressured to give one kind of review or another ("positive" or "negative"). And there is certainly an objective reality to any story: if a novel concerns a young African-American girl witnessing the race riots of the 1960's, few people will extract from that book the tale of an 18th-century Dutch farmer. My point is simply that there's no way for humans to experience this objective reality except through the lens of our subjective perception, so it's an exercise in futility to try to edit one's subjectivity out of a response piece. Not to mention, one would probably be excising exactly the material that many readers would find most interesting.

And now, to the couch. I have some reading to do.

A Quiet Life


In a piece of remarkable serendipity, I happened upon A Quiet Life at Powell's just after reading Claire's post about the authors she planned to read for the Japanese Literature Challenge. Knowing the lady has taste, I picked it up and started reading. I got through the first chapter in the store, bought it, came home and devoured the rest of it over the course of three days, letting it eclipse any other reading I might have been doing. I've been reading a lot of the bizarre and macabre lately, and the understated, minimally-drawn yet intimate realism of A Quiet Life felt like exactly the contrast I needed. It's always such a gift to happen upon something so precisely calculated to resonate with my mood at a particular juncture, and when it happens I always try to welcome it with open arms.

Two things really made this book for me: the quality of the writing, and my warm liking for the main character, Ma-chan. The plot, which is apparently an artful mixture of fiction and autobiography, concerns the three adult children of a famous Japanese author, K, who retreats to a temporary post at UC-Berkeley to deal with one of his recurring existential crises (which he calls "pinches.") His wife accompanies him, leaving the three kids, the eldest of whom (Eeyore) is brain-damaged, to fend for themselves. They are all making their ways through that liminal space between adolescence and adulthood, and the quietly-narrated events of the year or so in which they live alone in their parents' house serve to deliver them a bit closer to realizing who they are as human beings.

I've seen several reviews that claim this book is essentially written from Oe's (or K's) own perspective, and only "ostensibly" narrated by his daughter, Ma-chan, who is used as something like a smokescreen. I didn't find this to be the case at all. Ma-chan, for me, is vividly her own person, and I feel a great deal of wamth and tenderness toward her. It's been a while since I've read a book whose main character I flat-out liked as much as I like Ma-chan. She's struggling with all the universal difficulties of being 20 and figuring out what kind of adult she's going to be, and, as a young Japanese woman, she's been socialized in the importance of filial piety, respect for her elders, and some degree of submissiveness. These things are genuinely important to her; she's no cultural revolutionary. At the same time, there is a core of confidence and vehemence to her that coexists with her diffidence. She is honest with herself about her growing consciousness of faults in her parents, particularly her father, and of the feelings those faults arouse in her. She sees herself as "a coward" in social situations, yet she finds the courage to do a wide variety of scary things - call attention to an assault on a young girl, care for her brother, write her college thesis on a writer everyone says she is too female and inexperienced to understand. When she encounters attitudes and actions that she doesn't like, she may not say anything out loud, but her inner refrain of "Hell no! Hell no!" articulates her strong selfhood.

As a side-note: Ma-chan is writing her undergraduate thesis on Céline, who she was inspired to read after meeting Kurt Vonnegut (K.V. in the novel) and having him autograph a volume of Céline's work for which Vonnegut had written the introduction. Coincidentally, I also came to Céline first through Vonnegut. I think this must be pretty common for American readers who read Céline at all - after all, Vonnegut is extremely popular, and praises the French writer in one of his most famous books, Cat's Cradle - but it was yet another endearing connection with Ma-chan.

Above all, I love Ma-chan's thoughtful intelligence. Not only does she cultivate a loving and observant relationship with Eeyore, but she thinks deeply about the ways in which people interact with the mentally handicapped. She and her siblings (and their parents) live a rich life of the mind, conversing about films, novels, and philosophy in a way that is real and profound without ever seeming ostentatious. Despite the difficulties in Ma-chan's relationship with her father, I felt so tenderly toward them both for the way they respect each other's intelligence and do their best to help each other along their diverging paths.

I don't have the ability to comment on French style, but with Céline, I get the impression that he writes in a way that, contrary to what I had imagined, presents a serious subject in a light and straightforward manner - and I like this. I had copied this passage on one of my cards a few days before, and was translating it far into the night, when I realized Father was standing beside me, having snuck up without my noticing - which is another reason this passage, in particular, remains in my heart. Father doesn't dare touch my letters, but he readily picks up the books I read, or the reference cards I make, and looks at them. He does this all the time, and it has irritated me since I was in kindergarten. And that night, while I was copying down some more passages from the book, he picked up a few of the cards and said, "Hmm ... 'the old have nothing more to hope for, these kids, all ...' How true." His voice was so unusually earnest and sad that I couldn't make a face at him for having read my cards without asking me.

The next day, however, Father brought me volumes one and two of Céline's Novels, from the shelf of the Pléide editions he especially treasures...

One of the things that struck me about A Quiet Life was how enigmatic the supposedly autobiographical character - the novelist/father K - is to all the other characters. Wherever Ma-chan and Eeyore go, people are speculating about the cause of K's "pinch." His old friend Mr. Shigeto thinks that K is having some kind of religious crisis - that his all-or-nothing "lack of faith" (K perceives a necessity for sacrificing all worldly entanglements in order to be a "person of faith," and he has chosen instead a family and material success), is throwing him into a metaphysical quandary. Ma-chan's aunt, with whom the main characters converse while attending K's brother's funeral, theorizes that K was frightened by the looming reality of his brother's death, and ran away to California in order to avoid dealing with end-of-life issues. Ma-chan herself wonders whether her parents have retreated to the United States in order to repair damage done to their relationship over the years - damage partly caused by K's attitude toward Eeyore. Ma-chan's mother suggests that K's "pinch" may be caused by his feelings of inferiority and failure as family patriarch, which were touched off when he was forced to call a professional plumber to sort out a sewage problem.

In the midst of all this theorizing, K himself comes almost to resemble a blank canvas, onto whom each character projects their own interpretation of his actions. Even his name, K, while possibly short for "Kenzaburo," is also familiar to Kafka fans as the shorthand for "everyman." I wondered whether this blankness was a comment on the traditional, patriarchal family structure, in which the father is supposed to be removed and inscrutable, and is therefore left without any confidantes. It also occurred to me that the reduction of palpable selfhood in K, which allows all the other characters to project their own theories onto him, is a good approximation of severe depression, in which the sufferer often feels less and less "like himself" the longer the malady continues. Compared with this sliding into a lack of self, Ma-chan's refrain of "Hell no! Hell no!" seems even more remarkable, as does Mrs. Shigeto's insistence on standing up for the basic human dignity of oneself and all the other so-called "nobodies" with whom one lives:

"Ma-chan," she said, "the little relief I find in what you told me, if I can call it that, is that you apologized for Eeyore before the girl called you dropouts and not afterwards. I wouldn't have gone so far as to slap her in the face, but if I'd been there, I would at least have made her take it back. I wish you had. It's very important for a human being to take such action."

I strongly recommend this understated story of figuring out what actions are important for human beings to take. A big thanks to Claire for putting me on Oe's track; I anticipate enjoying more of his novels in the future.

(A Quiet Life was my sixth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing Japan.)

Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages


I am no foodie. While other kids were dreaming about jet packs and flying cars, my favorite childhood sci-fi fantasy was the invention of a pill that would obviate the need for three meals a day, freeing up my time for less burdensome pursuits. There was a solid year and a half during middle school when I ate the same Stouffer's microwave dinner literally every single night. In fact, I amassed enough proofs of purchase to send away for various prizes through the mail, including a copy of Robert Redford's 1992 adaptation of A River Runs Through It on VHS. Incredibly, I never remember getting tired of this routine. I just wanted not to be hungry; I didn't really care how my dinner tasted. And while my cooking skill and culinary range have greatly expanded since becoming an adult (out of a desire for the basic self-respect that comes with going out to a restaurant with friends without having to coerce the chef into making me a grilled cheese sandwich), food will never be my source of soulful joy in life. And that's fine, because I have books.

I go into all this because one of the only exceptions to my general malaise around food is, and has always been, dairy. I've always loved fresh milk and cheese. Even before I read Anne Mendelson's excellent book on the subject, I was already in the habit of shelling out for organic, non-homogenized milk in amazingly appealing glass bottles, which I have actually taught myself to remember to load into the panniers for return whenever David and I embark on another grocery run. That is how much I love milk. But I don't love it anywhere near as well as Mendelson, and she has the literary chops to do justice to her passion.

Before going any further, taste the milk. Concentrate your attention on what's in your mouth: something ethereally subtle but concretely there. This milk has a kind of roundness or depth that the homogenized equivalent doesn't. The reason is that the contrast between its leaner and richer components hasn't been ironed out but remains just delicately palpable. Its flavor is not so much flavor as a sensation of freshness on the palate that scarcely translates into words. "Sweetness" is as close as anything, but it's an elusive note on the thin edge of perception rather than sugar-in-your-coffee sweetness.

Isn't that lovely? Sometimes it truly is the simplest thing that inspires eloquence.

In addition to its high-test writing, Milk is one of the most physically beautiful books I have ever held in my hands. You can see the gorgeous cover art at the beginning of this review, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg. The dust jacket has a slightly antique-y, stippled texture that invites touching, and even the pages are more creamy and textured than usual - which is fitting, in a treatise on the delights of textural, unhomogenized dairy products. There are vintage line-drawings throughout the book, and although they come from different sources, they all contribute to a coherent ambiance. Merely leafing through Milk is a pleasure.

As is diving in and reading the thing. Mendelson's text is an interesting amalgam of different literary genres: part food history, part chemistry lesson, part political treatise, and part recipe collection. She begins by tracing the history of dairying in its four major seats: the "Diverse Sources Belt" aka "Yogurtistan" (the modern-day Near and Middle East); the "Bovine and Buffalo Belt" (the Indian subcontinent); the "Northeastern Cow Belt" (modern-day Eastern Europe and Russia), and the "Northwestern Cow Belt" (western Europe, including the British Isles). One of the major takeaways from her text is that the way the majority of westerners now think of milk - best cooked with and consumed in its "fresh" (unsoured) state - is very unusual in the world-wide history of dairying. Fresh milk-drinking was originally pioneered in the Northewestern Cow Belt, the youngest of the four main dairying regions and the one whose inhabitants, unlike most of the word, happen to possess a rare genetic ability to digest lactose into adulthood. It only gained currency world-wide due to the rampant imperialism and cultural arrogance of Western Europe, which applied its own standards of food quality to all the diverse peoples it colonized. Ironically, by the time the British (and French) were acting all snooty about the savages' "ignorant" sour-milk-drinking habits, they had forgotten that the consumption of unsoured milk was a relatively new development even on Albion's bonny shores, and felt secure in their convictions that no child could be strong and healthy without a daily dose of fresh, sweet milk.

Imperialism. Amazing all the places it's insinuated its dirty hooks, isn't it?

Mendelson goes on to lament the homogenization of the dairy-consuming scene in the West. Although she loves fresh milk and cream, she points out how much we've lost by narrowing our conception of "good" milk to an exclusively Western-European model. She then gives the reader a brief tour of the state of modern corporate dairying, which has devolved into a race to produce ever-greater quantities of an ever-more-insipid product, at high cost to the health of the cows involved. (The sections about the bovine health problems caused by breed-and-feed tactics were nauseating, and made me an even stronger convert to buying unhomogenized milk from local, grass-fed cows, despite the expense.) Mendelson ends on a positive note, though: the influx of Turkish, Indian, and Eastern-European immigrants to the Western centers means that a diversity of dairy traditions is beginning to be restored to the American scene, and she strongly encourages readers to seek out these rich and varied dairy options.

I don't mean to give the impression that Mendelson's book is a dire political slog. Her writing style is often delightfully pithy, as when she discusses the sweetened commercial soy milks "created from improbable faragoes of ingredients," or when she announces, "I will not attempt to describe the labyrinthine USDA milk price-support system, which baffles my comprehension and probably hasn't been understood by the last five secretaries of agriculture." I found Milk to be a frothy mixture of interesting information delivered in a passionate, personable voice.

Not being the kind of person who devours cookbooks for pleasure, I didn't read the recipe section that follows cover-to-cover. I skipped the meat-based recipes, for one thing, since I don't touch the stuff. But I have to admit that Mendelson's recipe section is not your average cookbook: each division (fresh milk, yogurt, cultured milk and cream, butter and true buttermilk, and fresh cheeses) is accompanied by a short but lovely essay detailing the basic food chemistry involved with each milk product, and a survey of the various takes on the same theme found in different world traditions. And because I'm a milk enthusiast (at least compared with my feelings about other foods), there were a glut of recipes for things I love to eat. Lassis! Clotted cream! Saag Panir! Custard! Fresh, spreadable cheeses! Oh my!

The fact that even I, who normally can't be bothered with the edible world, so thoroughly enjoyed Milk is truly a testament to its appeal. I can only imagine how much a dedicated food-lover would glean from its pages.

(Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages was my seventh and 600-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography