*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

****Gun Street Girl

Ireland, street scene, Belfast

Belfast street (photo: Recuerdos de Pandora, Creative Commons license)

By Adrian McKinty, narrated by Gerard Doyle Gun Street Girl takes place in Belfast, in the mid-1980s, and The Troubles provide a fine backdrop of tension and mayhem. It’s the fourth (yes!) of a planned trilogy, because McKinty—and his readers—couldn’t quite let Detective Sean Duffy go.

The complex plot grows out of actual events of the era, including missile thefts from aerospace company Short Brothers (a convoluted affair in real life) and the hostile environment created by the Thatcher-FitzGerald Anglo-Irish agreement. In the novel, Duffy is out of step as usual with his confreres in law enforcement, especially for being the rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. When a murder investigation takes Duffy and a new recruit to Oxford, England, they encounter a more generalized anti-Irish prejudice. The British coppers apparently believe the Irishmen will be satisfied to sit in their cozy b&b in Oxford (unless my ears mistook, referred to as “Morse-land,” in a nice homage) and drink whiskey. They are, of course, mistaken.

What has taken them to Oxford is the unraveling of a case that at first appears open-and-shut. A couple is found murdered, and it looks as if their son shot them then committed suicide. Under Duffy’s supervision, Detective Sergeant McCrabban is technically in charge of this investigation and is ready to close the books on it, but something’s not quite right. For one thing, no one really wants Duffy and McCrabban poking around in it.

Meanwhile, Duffy’s future with the R.U.C. faces an almost-certain dead-end, and MI5 agent Kate tries to recruit him for her agency. All things considered, a change of employer is more than a wee bit tempting. She’s the Gun Street girl, and, as Tom Waits would have it, Duffy will “never kiss a Gun Street girl again.”

Doyle has won numerous Earphones Awards from AudioFile, and has a solid history narrating mysteries and thrillers. In this book, he must present various Irish and English accents and does so beautifully. I could listen to the book again just to hear him read it. Detective Duffy’s voice is crucial, since the story is told in first-person narration, and Doyle captures him—and McKinty’s dry, self-deprecating humor—beautifully.

A longer version of this review is available on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

*** Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran FoerExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell

By Jonathan Safran Foer, read by Jeff Woodman, Barbara Caruso, and Richard Ferrone – Many people are already familiar with this 2005 book, because of its popularity (despite mixed reviews) and the Tom Hanks movie made from it, and  know the basic plot: nine-year-old Oskar Schell, bereft after the death of his father in the World Trade Center, finds a mysterious key among his father’s possessions and embarks on a one-boy quest to find what the key will unlock. His only clue is the word “Black” on the envelope the key was inside.

Oskar is precocious—an inventor, a scientist, a tambourine-player, a Francophile—and knows so much about so much that the holes in his knowledge gape unfathomably. He’s also full of tics and fears and will pinch himself to make a bruise when something upsets him. Overall, he is an engaging and often funny narrator, getting a bit tiresome only from time to time (this review is of the audio version, so I cannot comment on the circled words, photos, fingerprints, and other marginalia featured in the print version).

Any book about a quest is about what the seeker learns along the way, and Oskar’s brief encounters with the multitudinous New Yorkers surnamed “Black” are well-imagined (especially 103-year-old Mr. A. Black who accompanies him on some of his searches). From them, eventually, he comes to terms with his guilt and grief. Yet the most important understanding he acquires, he finds at home, when he comes to understand there are many ways to respond to the loss of someone you love and not one “right” way.

Parts of the book are told from the point of view of Oskar’s grandmother and his grandfather, his father’s parents. For me, these lengthy flashbacks, told in the form of letters about their past, World War II Dresden, and their difficult relationship with each other, were not as interesting as the present-day story.

Foer has obvious affection for this character, his voice, and his quest to find out how his father really died after the “extremely loud and incredibly close”—and just how loud and how close we don’t find out until near the book’s end—tragedy of 9/11. I cannot help but wonder whether this affinity is related to his own experience, which Foer did not write about until 2010. When he was eight, a summer camp sparkler-making project went awry, and the explosion injured him badly and nearly killed his best friend. Part of that traumatized boy may have become Oskar.

****Ordinary Heroes

Scott Turow, Ordinary HeroesBy Scott Turow, this World War II tale (2005) started off slowly for me, but by the time the main protagonist (the narrator’s now-dead father) is in the European war zone, I was hooked. The narrator discovers that his father, a Captain in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s office, was court-martialed near the end of the war and could have faced a firing squad for his actions in pursuit of an OSS rogue spy.

The framing story that introduces the narrator’s quest to excavate his father’s past wasn’t quite compelling enough and the big reveal not that much of a surprise, but the book’s middle was terrific. Characters were well developed, and various hellish aspects and moral conundrums of war convincingly frustrated the captain’s search for the spy at every turn. Coming to terms with the damage of war was a life-long project for the father, carried on silently throughout the narrator’s life. New York Times reviewer Joseph Kanon liked it, too.

Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey

cosmos, science
Star formation in the cosmos (photo: NASA)

I really want to like this program, though I thought the opening episode of the 13-part series was too conceptual. Perhaps the producers believed that a generation of kids raised on Star Wars and CGI special effects wouldn’t warm to it otherwise, and perhaps that was just the result of getting some basics out of the way, but I’ll be looking for future episodes to have less sweep and more deep. Reviewers liked it.

In a tribute to counter-programming acumen, the Sunday night Fox broadcast is smack up against Masterpiece Theatre, probably cutting the audience for both. Thankfully, Cosmos reruns on Mondays on the National Geographic channel. Anything that would help Americans take science more seriously has to be appreciated. Said Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson in a Wired interview, “The idea that science is just some luxury that you’ll get around to if you can afford it is regressive to any future a country might dream for itself.” Dream on, my fellow Americans.

*****The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt – The 1654 painting, The Goldfinch, animates the action of Donna Tartt’s third novel, which is receiving much-deserved attention (and the Pulitzer Prize). The story begins when twelve-year-old Theo is injured in a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum, and an elderly dying man orders him to pick the painting—which happens to be one of Theo’s mother’s favorites—out of the rubble. Stunned, confused, and pretty much ignored in the aftermath of the explosion, he stumbles home to show it to her. Yes, there is an over-long interlude in Las Vegas when Theo lives a feral existence with his father and delightfully reprobate Russian friend Boris, and yes, it ends with a rambling 20-page essay. Still, it’s a wonderful adventure story that at its heart is about how we decide what’s important in life, what’s real to us and worth saving, and what is simulacrum and worth saving anyway. In that essay was one of my favorite lines of the book, about how different people are strongly, inevitably drawn to certain things—“a city, a color, a time of day. The nail where your fate is liable to catch and snag.” Don’t let the length put you off–it’s a page-turner.  (2/10)

 

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Listen Up!

So many friends tell me they don’t have time to read any more that I’m surprised more of them haven’t taken up audio books. While it’s true the old-fashioned klunky tapes or CD’s were a bit of a pain—and expensive, too—I’ve listened well over a hundred audio books on an MP3 player and now an iPod. One book a month is my Audible.com subscription plan, and that’s about what I can “read,” Audibly.

Apparently lots of people read in the car, and that’s OK for longer trips, but short trips around town with a lot of stops wouldn’t work for me. I like at least a half-hour, uninterrupted. Longer, if possible. So I read while mowing the lawn (electric mower), weeding the garden, making dinner, anything that doesn’t require my full concentration. My mind picks what to focus most on–another reason listening and driving might not be the best idea. Listening while cooking goes a long way to explain some of the meals around here.

On the Reading . . . section of this website you can scroll down to mini-reviews of the 10 books I’ve listened to so far this year. Thrillers are good. If you don’t catch every word, it isn’t a tragedy, and the excitement of getting to the next chapter keeps you on task. If you stop mowing and go do something else, like return emails, you might actually have to turn the book off.

I’ve also listened to some classics I knew I’d never read: Crime and Punishment (endless); The Brothers Karamazov (the mind wanders); Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (the first audio book I ever listened to—scary). These experiences suggest a book like Dr. Zhivago with a lot of long foreign names (two to three per character, at that) would not be a good choice.

What’s most impressive is the quality of the narrations. They add immeasurably. Sometimes when I recommend a book, I mention that I listened to it, and can’t be sure whether it would be quite as wonderful an experience if read. The humor comes through better, for one thing. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a perfect example.

In the marketplace, audiobooks are on the rise. Producers released more than 13,000 titles (some classics, some new) in 2012, compared to only 4,600 three years earlier. Libraries are getting on the bandwagon, too. Patrons of the member libraries of Digital Library NJ and eLibraryNewJersey, for example, can borrow audio books just like regular books. They expire after a set number of days, and the collection is large. And free. Libraries all over the country are doing this.

I buy my audiobooks and own them “forever.” Some I’ve listened to multiple times. Amazon-owned Audible.com (my supplier) has the greatest market penetration and is adding nearly 1,000 titles a month to its already deep collection. The technology options are expanding, but I’m dubious about some of them. You can read a while on your Kindle (when you have time to sit) and pick up where you left off with the book’s audio version (when you don’t). This sounds confusing to me. I would be hearing one set of voices in my head and suddenly they’re all different. You can have the e-version read to you as you read—which would be super-annoying, since most people who have read this far can read faster than the book would be narrated. It would be like taking a walk with someone who moves at half your pace. And, new audiobook creation tools akin to the self-publishing  tools for print are designed to help authors affordably create their own audiobooks. Let’s hope the tools turn them into stellar actors at the same time! The early days of desktop publishing provide a cautionary example.

No time to read? Listen up!

Giving Voice

Yesterday’s writing workshop was on the narrative voice—who emerges from the page when you write something longer than a tweet? (On Twitter everyone sounds almost identically manic.) Or longer than a Facebook post? When your writing—a letter, a story, a blog entry, a news release—demands more than a “Nuff said,” when enough isn’t said until you’ve delivered your readers something that will grab their attention, steal their hearts, pique their curiosity about the world and the mysteries of human behavior.

You write conversation—dialog—in the disparate voices of individual characters; narration creates your voice. Narration tells readers when and where events takes place, it provides the carefully chosen details that bring characters to life. Narration turns the world into words.

Each of us, if we stood on a mountaintop gazing out at the countryside spread below, would choose different words to describe it—once past “Awesome!”, that is—we would put the words together in our own unique way, with reference to our own particular past experiences and our own expectations for the future. Think how you might describe the scene above if you were standing on that peak preparing to descend into the valley to wed your sweetheart, then think how differently you’d describe it if you’d climbed up there to scatter your lover’s ashes.

This difference is the basis for maybe my favorite of John Gardner’s challenging writing exercises: “Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.” The diabolical aspect of this is that you’re not to mention the son, war, death, or the man. No cop-outs of referring to him as a father. But Gardner goes on: “Then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover.” Again, you’re instructed not to mention love or the loved one. By applying those strictures, he guarantees you do not default to easy or hackneyed prose and the descriptions that result are inevitably in the writer’s own voice, not a second-hand one.

In my own writing, whenever a passage comes too easily, I realize it’s not wholly mine. It originated in one or a dozen movies or television shows—bad ones, probably—and I have to go back and hack my own path through the situation, in my own way. Dialog is especially prone to unconscious borrowing.

Voice is why, in my writing group, we really don’t need to put our names on our work any more. Each of us has a voice so distinctive, we’d recognize who wrote the page in front of us, even if it arrived in an envelope posted from Mars. It seems each of us is truly learning to turn worlds into words, to create “his world and no other,” as Raymond Carver said.

Exploring Further

“Sharpening the Quill,” a series of writing workshops by Lauren B. Davis

The Art of Fiction – John Gardner, the classic “Notes on Craft for Young Writers.”

“On Writing” – Raymond Carver

New York Times essay, “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time,’ – Steve Almond. The significance of narration in literature and life and its fragmentation in the media age. Well worth reading.

The Sufferer in the Mirror

Memoir-writers would appear to have it easy. After all, whom do they know best, in theory, but themselves? The key to this question is “in theory.” Hollywood and sports stars can sail by with superficial “and then this bad thing happened, but I learned a lot” memoirs, because they are, well, stars, and in some misguided sense, we already feel we know them. The rest of us have to dig way deeper.

Aspiring memoirists may be encouraged to expose their most “gut-wrenching secrets” right up front. Chapter one. Even page one. But parading a set of difficult experiences—drug addiction, infidelity, abuse—across the literary stage like cardboard scenery is not sufficient. We’ve all read that. Seen the movie. More than once. The writer’s unique persona and individual reaction to these stock situations are what makes a new version of this play worth mounting. It may take a few—even quite a few—pages to create the character for whom these traumatic experiences have meaning. Writers who merely put their emotional debris on display treat readers like voyeurs. Less experienced writers, encouraged to reveal their darkest moments, may not have the self-understanding that is as much a part of the story as the drug-addled sex in the seedy hotel room.

Author and writing teacher Susan Shapiro in her recent essay, “Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K.,” supports the idea of immediately sharing emotional traumas, of hooking readers early in order to make readers care. Another memoir teacher and literary agent—Brooke Warner—responded to Shapiro with her own essay, “Memoir Is Not the Trauma Olympics.” Warner counters that “real misery memoir works when you drip in the painful stuff little by little.”

Following these two essays, journalism teacher Katie Roiphe wrote “This Is How Your Write a Memoir” for Slate. Her common-sense advice ends with the observation that “expressing yourself is not enough.” Just because an event is true, doesn’t mean it can be written about without the care and attention to salient detail of any other literary endeavor. In other words, it’s hard work after all.

In their words: The recent essays by Susan Shapiro, Brooke Warner, and Katie Roiphe.

Immutability and the Endings of Stories

I’ve heard Peter Straub say the ending of one of his supernatural thrillers caused so much reader clamor to know what happened to one of the characters, he capitulated and added another chapter. Having just read his Mr. X, I think he must have meant that particular book, and the short final chapter that’s tacked on addresses but doesn’t answer the question his readers posed.

Two of my recent reads—Mr. X and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin—share the same mystery—who is the narrator? As we read along, who is telling us this story? In the end, Atwood answers the question, which the reader has perhaps suspected, but Straub raises it in that brief final chapter, calling into question everything that has gone before. If such a fundamental and seemingly straightforward narrative issue can be uncertain, how many of our other assumptions about “what’s going on” in a book are up for grabs?

It’s a testament to the writer’s ability to make us care about a story’s characters that sometimes we wrestle with these assumptions long after the last page, the last scene. No matter how many times I’ve seen West Side Story, I still hope unreasonably that Chino won’t appear with his gun. Reading Anna Karenina provokes the same reaction. Or Hamlet. But it is not to be. (One question resolved, anyway.)

At the last moment, Charles Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations, one of his best-known and most-read novels, with a scene that offered a happier prospect, but one probably less true to everything that went before. He made the change on the advice of Edward Bulwer-Lytton—a popular 19th c. author, best-known today, alas, for opening his novel Paul Clifford with “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the eponymous annual contest “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

What story’s ending would you change, if you could? What else would have to change to make your ending possible? And do you soon find yourself in a hopeless tangle of unintended consequences like poor Jake Epping trying to change events in Stephen King’s 11/22/63?