American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming — a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path.

My first Neil Gaiman novel! Hurrah! If you haven’t already, check out this stupendously awesome address! So for months, I’d been hearing about Neil Gaiman from my friends (yes, I know he’s prolific and I know he’s been around, but apparently I’ve been living under a rock. Sue me.) Next up, my list includes Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and Fragile Things. Neil Gaiman also wrote Stardust, which just happens to have been turned into one of my favorite films (again, I realized this recently. Basically made me even more excited for my first Neil Gaiman experience). If you’ve never seen it, go watch it. It’s amazing. Seriously. Watch the whole thing.

I’m always impressed by people who have such an interest in and a command of mythology. It’s so vast that anyone who chooses to undertake projects that deal with it directly gets my vote. I find it interesting myself, but I confused/mixed-up too easily. At least for formal learning. I tend to learn more and more by default the older I get.

What I enjoyed most about this novel was how Gaiman played with reader conceptions. Some things that happen in the novel are very expected. But instead of seeming trite and cliched, they work. It’s almost as if, by giving the reader some givens, Gaiman can go further and do more with this crazy universe he’s creating. And as you read, in no place do you catch the tell-tale signs of a lazy author. Everything is methodical and thought-through. There are places where one sentence contains an unexpected detail that connects back elsewhere in the novel, without ever being directly dealt with. That probably didn’t make sense. But if you’ve read or when you readAmerican Gods, you’ll see what I mean.

One friend told me that one thing that bothered her about this novel was that Shadow isn’t really a character you can relate to or connect with. But I came away thinking that’s okay. I don’t think you’re supposed to connect with Shadow. It’s not really a book about Shadow. It’s a book about mythology and the intersection of old and new. It’s also about the clash of the rustic and the rural with the industrial and the city. In this way, I don’t think it matters whether we relate to Shadow or not. He’s there so that the story can exist, but he’s not the base of the story. If that makes sense. Shadow tends to go along with most things without really putting up much resistance. On the one hand, I see why, and on the other hand, I don’t. I think it’s this tendency in Shadow that makes him hard to relate to. People are kind of ornery and stubborn by nature. Shadow is extremely compliant. But, after all, he’s called Shadow. The general definition of a shadow is:

-A dark figure or image cast on the ground or some surface by a body intercepting light.

And that is Shadow, to the utmost extent. He’s somewhere between a person and a non-person, somewhere between death and life, always in between, trailing, on the margins.

You see what I mean about Gaiman being a careful writer?

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.

In the months since its publication, this novel has been making the rounds on the blogosphere. Even before it was released, it drew meteoric buzz as a result of Eugenides’s previous novels, including The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, the latter of which received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This was my first encounter with a Eugenides novel and I can safely say that I was not in any way disappointed.

My roommate read this novel a few months ago. She was already a great fan of Eugenides. I had read the buzz about the novel, the reviews on the internet and in magazines. But it wasn’t until she started to tell me about it that I really perked up. Point One: It’s a novel about post-grads in the midst of a recession. Point Two: The main character is an English major. Point Three: She and others spend an intensive amount of time studying and discussing semiotics and literary theory. Point Four: Mental health is a central component of the novel.

Upon delving into the pages, I was surprised to find how human the characters are. This is something that is oft repeated when discussing novels. But in this case, I felt it in a way that I’d never felt it before. All three of the central characters are annoying. And impossibly endearing. Multiple times I wanted to reach into the novel and smack them up the side of their heads. And always, I continued onwards.

That the writing was wonderful, beautiful, and deliciously precise is no surprise. What was surprising was the way the novel drew me in. In love, I think, there are two main ways it manifests itself: either suddenly and impressively like a hurricane, or so slow and tepid that by the time you realize it’s there, it’s too late to think of disentangling yourself from its embrace, if you even wanted to. The second describes this novel. There’s nothing that I can particularly point to that hooked me. Just that, as I went about my life, my thoughts would return over and over to the novel and I’d wait excitedly for the few moments I had before bed to give in to it. Eventually, I was in deep and took to carrying it around and reading it at the bus stop and on the bus (even though I get horribly carsick).

The final thing (among multitudes of things) that I found interesting about the work was the way in which mental health was discussed and dealt with. MINOR SPOILER: One of the characters is a manic-depressive, or, bipolar. I like to think that now, in the second decade of the 21st century, we’ve moved away from taboos and into something like acceptance of mental illness. But I don’t think we have. I’m taking a class at the moment on the writing of illness in narratives. After several years in a college lit department and hanging around other writers and poets, I am of the opinion that most people with an interest in the arts have at least the barest vestiges of something not quite wired right in their brain. Myself included. I could write an entire post about my speculations about these connections and the ways in which these “flaws” become strengths, but I won’t. Eugenides’s novel takes place in the eighties, before the days of the pharmaceutical industry and its ready plethora of drugs to treat this, that, and the other. For this character, the only treatment available to him is dosing with lithium. Which he despises. But, there are no other drugs to try.

I knew I wanted to read this novel because I knew there were never be a better moment in my life to do so. In the three central characters, I found a threefold manifestation of my own journey. There’s the student with no clear direction, the student who decides to travel the world, and the student who immediately proceeds into academia/work. That we are also in the midst of a time of recession and higher unemployment (though recently, I have begun to feel that people in my year are luckier than years past) does not escape me. As I prepare to launch out into the world, I am seized with an overwhelming desire to soak up as much fictional takes on the post-grad experience as I can. To that end, I’ve even rescued a novel draft from my own personal slush pile and have resumed work on it, seeking to write a novel about that weird point in your twenties when you feel everything and nothing is on the table, when everything and nothing has already been decided. The mystical quarter-life crisis? Perhaps. Though I suppose I’m too young still even for that.

As I contemplate my own college graduation next weekend, I find myself paralyzed with fear and paralyzed with hope. It’s like an escalator: no matter if you’re going down or up, you don’t have to do a thing because it carries you inevitably to your destination. I hope I’m going up.

Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Awe and exhiliration–along with heartbreak and mordant wit–abound in Lolita, Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America. Most of all, it is a meditation on love–love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation. 

I’ve now read this novel twice and my opinion of it has not altered. Lolita is quite the masterpiece. It takes sheer talent to make the reader root for a character they should absolutely hate and despise. A middle-aged man obsessed with a child? Pedophilia. But also, something else. The most impressive thing about the novel, which particularly struck me the first time I read it, is how skillfully we’re drawn into Humbert’s world. Some criticism argues that Lolita’s ‘voice’ is eradicated from the novel and we never get a sense of who she is. I think it’s there though. Very subtly, it’s there.

Th novel is primarily about Humbert. And Nabokov’s writing is excellent. Sophisticated and eloquent, the writing alone makes up for any moral repugnance in the plot. And I do have to say, I very much enjoyed the plot of Lolita. The story is clever and interesting how Humbert rarely makes many decisions. Outside circumstances are constantly at work, opening and closing pathways. Some narrators bulldoze a path through their world and others let the path come to them. Humbert is one of these.

I’ve been analyzing this novel in conjunction with Stanley Kubrick’s take on Lolita. My research has illuminated something quite interesting. Spoiler alert: Humbert’s love for Lolita is what ultimately makes this novel redemptive. Out of something bad/morally wrong, you get something right and true.

The thing about this novel is that it’s really not for everyone. It always bothers me when people go and read a novel and come back with, “It’s racist, it’s anti-Semitic, it’s patriarchal, it objectifies women” etc. Much is to be made of context and knowing what the book is about before you sit down to read it. So much of these social/moral problems in texts stems from the time period in which it was written. Your nineteenth century American novel is racist? Shocker. Your seventeenth century British novel has weak female characters? You were expecting something different? I think when you read something, you should always know what you’re getting into. I don’t think there’s anything worse than calling out a book on something that is either fundamental to what it’s trying to do or fundamental to the society/time period in which it was birthed. Lolita was scandalous for its time, no doubt about that. I just don’t want anyone to come back and say, that novel was disgusting why ever did you recommend it? See all of the above.

There are two Lolita films: the Stanley Kubrick and the Adrian Lyne. I’ve only seen the Kubrick and I highly recommend it. It’s an extremely non-erotic take on the Humbert/Lolita story. Kubrick’s film is very comedic and entertaining. If you haven’t seen it, go and rent it. I’m planning to see the other one at some point, though I’ve essentially heard, “There’s a good Lolita film and a bad one”.

Happy reading my friends!

I Wrote This For You

I Wrote This For You by Pleasefindthis

THE DEDICATION LIST

To the small.

To the star counters.

To the cloud watchers.

To the inspired.

To the birds.

To everyone who’s ever cried.

To everyone who’s ever tried.

To those who pull themselves up off the floor.

To those who can still find love in their hearts, even after everything.

To those who paint the world each day with the colours of their feelings.

To those who hope.

To you.*

*Thank you.

If you’ve hung around my blog long enough, you’ve probably notice that I keep talking about this: the I Wrote This For You project/creator/book/phenomenon. I obtained the book a few weeks ago now, but only now did I finally sit down and read it. I think I was waiting for the perfect moment. Or the un-perfect moment as it turns out. I used to think it was pretty unpleasant to be single during the winter holidays and on Valentines Day, but I have also decided being single in the spring is also kind of a downer. Anyways, after an evening of lamenting, I remembered that this book was sitting in my book pile. I pulled it out before bed, intending to read a few pages. Of course, if I’d thought about it for more than five seconds, I would have realized that what I was really sitting down to do was read the whole thing.

I think the thing people find most striking about the I Wrote This For You project is how universal it is. No matter where you are, you can read a random entry on the blog or a random page in the book and it will speak to you. It’s interesting to consider these universals of the human condition. What is it that the project has tapped into, that so many people find themselves deeply touched by it?

At its core, this is a book about love and loss. Something nearly all of us have experienced. The great love that was there until they walked away. On one level this is a book about getting over or not getting over someone. Because if you really loved them, you’re not going to get over them. There will always be those little things that spark the memories and the feelings, the snapshot of the person you used to love. On another level, this is a book about love in its elemental form. Love between friends, love between parents and children, love between lovers.

For me, many of these passages jumped out at me as I was reading it last night. I’m sure every time I read it, there will be more and new and different passages that catch my attention. In some ways, it’s like holding a book that holds all the advice you need in life, everything you need to hear. Let me share with you one passage that directly relates to how I was feeling when I started reading this:

THE RETURN TO GREEN

Oh shut up. Every time it rains, it stops raining. Every time you hurt, you heal. After darkness, there is always light and you get reminded of this every morning but still you choose to believe that the night will last forever. Nothing lasts forever. Not the good or the bad. So might as well smile while you’re here.

Really, I think this book contains the keys to the collective soul. There’s a reason it speaks to us; because it is all of us. I Wrote This For You.

Watch the video.

1984

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life–the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language–and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written.

I’m not sure which novel was responsible for setting me on the path of a deep and abiding love for dystopia and post-apocalyptic futures. I know that it wasn’t Nineteen Eighty-Fourbecause I remember the first time I sat down to read this book thinking, “I’m going to love this book. This is everything I want in a novel.” And it was.

Please excuse me: I have no idea why it is sometimes written '1984' and other times 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'

Nineteen Eighty-Fouris one of those novels that, in its very simplicity, takes hold of your mind like nothing else. They say it is a story of one man’s struggle to remain an individual in the face of Big Brother. I say it is a novel for humanity that remains as relevant as it was when it was published in 1949. The year 1984 has come and gone, but the threat of a Big Brother-like society is still very real. Many studies have notes how an increasingly technological society loses some of its individuality even as it becomes hyper-public: when one knows everything about a person at the click of a mouse, what is left to learn? Even elsewhere, we see the fingerprints of Big Brother: invasive governments, biased media, governments who want to strip the rights of the people as a way to keep them under their thumb. We see this around the world, but we even see it in the American government. Big Brother is not simply a fictional manifestation of 1949 or even 1984, but one of those transcendent figures whose has entered into the vernacular.

My main complaint about Nineteen Eighty-Four is that I wish it were longer. There is so much to this society that I wish Orwell had provided us more pages to roll around in. I’ve read this novel a handful of times, and each time I wish there were more. In some ways though, I imagine that as the beauty of the novel: A short parable which finds its extra pages of material in the fodder of global society.

 

Talking About Tolkien (The Dark Globe)

I’m over talking about Tolkien at the Dark Globe today. For those of who have been wondering what I’m doing over at the Dark Globe and what that means for isleofbooks, keep reading. For my own blog, I’m not planning to do anything differently. This will still be a blog devoted to rave reviews about books along with author spotlights, series spotlights, literature readings out and about in San Diego, general musings about writing, and the newly hatched poetry features. Some of who click around in the tabs or look at my Goodreads will notice that I read a lot more than I post about. Because I don’t intend this blog to be a place for general book reviews (see the About section), I don’t review a lot of what I read. So that’s what I’m doing at the Dark Globe, talking about the other books that were good/great, but didn’t make me want to buy a hundred copies and leave it on people’s doorsteps.

Tolkien looking the part of an English novelist/professor

Local San Diego: Eileen Myles

UCSD New Writing Series Presents Eileen Myles, 3/12/12

This is the image they used to advertising Myles’s reading. To me, it kind of sums her up perfectly. As an artist, as a writer, as a poet, she is incredibly human. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to her read at UCSD three times now and every time I am amazed by how utterly normal she is. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s kind, she’s the sort of person I’d want to narrate my life if my life was a movie. And above all, I find her to be quite humble. There are those people who you know think highly of themselves even if they’re not saying anything to that effect. Some of them deserve it, some of them don’t. But Eileen Myles isn’t one of them. She’s quite well-known, but she’s the humblest famous person I’ve ever encountered.

I can’t decide if I like hearing Myles’s work or her stories about her life more. It seems she’s been everywhere, done everything, met everyone worth knowing. She even ran for President once.

There are some people whose actual voice and their writing voice, don’t jive. For whatever reason, they seem like separate parts of the same individual. It’s hard to imagine them reading their own work. Myles isn’t one of those people. When she’s reading poetry, reading fiction, talking about her life, it’s all the same. There is no boundary between Eileen the artist and Eileen the person.

My friend once pointed out to me that in my writing, the word/image of “dust” always sneaks in. I always found that interesting, but considered it to be sort of weird quirk I should probably try and get rid of; I’ve never heard it/seen it in another. But tonight, for whatever reason as I was listening to her, all sorts of words and ideas kept popping out over and over. Chief among them is the idea of water, of wet, of the ocean, of things that flow. I don’t know Eileen as a person, but after hearing her several times, I would say this concept is important. The idea of something that exists everywhere with the power to calm and to destroy and to mold everything around it. Yet water is innocuous in that we need it to survive just as we need the food we eat, masticating it between our teeth and destroying it beyond recognition. When we take in water we reduce it to its most primitive level and strip it of its power.

Eileen finds meaning and beauty everywhere around her, even if it’s as mundane as a box of Tampax sitting on a window ledge (actual inspiration for a poem). Eileen Myles isn’t your grandmother’s poet; like a lot of the writers I’ve been profiling here through my Local San Diego series, Eileen is a modern poet, someone young readers and writers can connect to. You won’t find a Shakespearean sonnet in her work (at least, I don’t think so. But if you did it’d be a Shakespearean sonnet like you’ve never heard it before). Like Charles Bernstein, Eileen is a thoroughly accessible poet. She told us she’s sixty-two, but like Bernstein, she might as well be a thirty year old with thirty-two years of experience. I sort of had a thought as I was sitting there: Does writing keep us young?

Someone asked her a question about her writing process. While she didn’t give a straight answer, she did impart us with a little gem, however unintentional, in reference to a pencil that captivated her attention: “I wrote until that pencil had no more poems”. I think that’s something we can all aspire to as writers.