Sunday, December 13, 2009

Weird by design

Title: Geek Love
Author: Katherine Dunn
Bookmark: some random receipt

I was really excited when I saw this title on the shelf, thinking that the author, like me, believes nerds to be romantic ideals. The first sentence on the back cover set me straight. This was not the colloquial use of "geek," but the traditional: the guy at carnivals who bites the heads off live chickens.

The Binewskis are a carny family. More than that, they are the carny family. Patriarch Al inherited the Binewski Fabulon from his own father, and married a Boston socialite who--that's right--ran away to join his circus. But times were tough for carnivals and their folk, and when all the freaks in his show drifted off, found new employment, or died, Al was in a fix. Then he hit upon his Plan, to which his loving Lil enthusiastically agreed. They would breed their own freak show.

Al used his love and knowledge of medicine to dose his wife through ovulation and gestation with everything from cocaine and amphetamines to arsenic and radioisotopes. As you might expect, the rate of return was less than stellar. One of the attractions of the family's Fabulon includes a display of the four children who didn't survive. Of those that remain, Arturo "the Aqua Boy" has flippers where his arms and legs should be, and performs daily in a large tank of water, swimming with unmatched skill. The Siamese twins, Electra and Iphigenia, share one pair of legs and the lower half of their trunk, but have four arms and play piano duets together, singiing beautifully and charming crowds. Our narrator, Olympia, is perpetually disappointed that she is "only" an albino hunchbacked dwarf, and not as "gifted" as her older siblings. Finally, there is Chick, who to all appearances is a completely normal child--so much so that they are ready to abandon him to a "norm" family before they discover his gifts.

Referring once more to the back of the book, Chick is described as "the family's most precious--and dangerous--asset." Having read the book, I beg to differ.

Arty is the quintessential power-mad psychopath. He flies into a rage if the twins bring in more tickets than his own show, it is implied that he might have killed one of his four siblings floating in the glass jars (a tailed lizard-looking girl who would have been a greater draw had she lived to show-business age), and he attempts to murder chick when he realizes the young lad's potential to somehow be more important to the family than he is. In time, Arty runs the show, and Al gets pushed into smaller and smaller roles. Arty is the one who makes decisions, hires and fires, and eventually a very literal cult following of over a hundred lunatics following the carnival from town to town, hanging on his every word, and going to great length to become "Artier than thou."

The story is told as a combination of flashbacks, flashbacks of flashbacks, news clippings and notebook jottings, and present-day (for Olympia) narrative. The carnival is long in her past, and she nonw lives in a small apartment building managed by her mother, who no longer recognizes her, and inhabited by a defrocked Benedictine and Oly's own daughter, who was raised as an orphan and has no idea who her real family is--though she does have a small, writhing tail.

There's a lot going on here, and some of the weaving is complex enough that I occasionally had to flip back through the chapters to find an earlier reference to a character who unexpectedly reappears later on just to remind myself of who they were, but it's worth it. Oly plays detective to find out more about the mysterius woman making a bizarre offer to her daughter. Arty comes to power through a long series of twisted machinations. Chick, who has such great power, is mysteriously reduced to an errand-boy, performing acts counter to his own high moral code simply to get love from his family. Al and Lil, once the king and queen of the carnival, each slowly withdraw further and further into their own shells, husks of what they once were, hollowed out by their son's selfish drive for power.

The threads are fascinating and terrifying and revolting and most of all brilliantly, beautifully written. Al will yell hysterically profane things like "Ah, the flabby-gashed mother of god!" and will be followed a few pages later with hauntingly written passages: "There are parts of Texas where a fly lives ten thousand years and a man can't die soon enough. Time gets strange there from too much sky, too many miles from crack to crease in the flat surface of the land." I don't even know what that means, but I loved reading it (I actually had a much better example in mind, but I can't find it anymore. It's lost in three hundred pages engaging prose). I still haven't decided whether anything was ever satisfactorily resolved. I mean, I know what happened, and the threads are all tied up, but I still want to know why a lot of it happened. Some of the answers are implied, or hinted at, but there's so much conflict between the characters and even in the minds of the individual characters--to say that they are complex would be short-selling them. They might as well be real people by the time you've finished reading their life stories--that you can reason your way to or from half a dozen different motives. Oly certainly doesn't witness everything herself, though she gets second-hand accounts from various sources and shares those with us, but there is a certain realism--even it is unsatisfying in a narrator--in us not knowing any more than she does. If someone goes quietly (or loudly) insane, she can only tell us what they do or say, and not why they might have done or said it. It's enthralling, sometimes heart-breaking, and ultimately a little revolting, because when you get right down to the roots of the story, it's not about the various members of a freak show; it's about a family, and how they treat each other, and while their appearances may be alien, there is something unnervingly familiar in how they touch (caress, throttle, stab) each other's lives.

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posted by reyn at 5:18 PM


Saturday, December 05, 2009


Ti: Cleaving
Au: Julie Powell
Bookmark - ARC edition, dog-eared it.
HC published: 12/01/09

I was excited to be offered an ARC of Julie Powell's new book. Plenty of people liked 'Julie and Julia,' including me, even if Julia didn't. It might have turned out to be telling that while 'Julie and Julia' was made into a pretty decent movie, I enjoyed the scenes with Julia more than those that focused on Julie.

Unfortunately, the part of this book that interested me most was the butchering, as the author takes on an apprenticeship after searching high and low for a traditional butcher shop that's willing to take a student. Being as this is a memoir, Powell writes quite a bit about what's going on in her life during this time. Maybe I'm judge-y, maybe I'm naive, but the airing of her not-so-secret and intense affair turned me off - especially since her husband didn't really have much of a choice in the decision to have it aired, I would imagine. On the other hand, I have to admire her balls for putting it all out there.

I do like Powell's writing and enjoyed finishing the whole book for that aspect, but also found that the book was oddly paced and ended kinda abruptly. I suppose that since it's a memoir, you sorta have to write your life at the pace and in the order that it happened and the abruptness could be one of the better ways to express what she goes through.

I suppose it might be most accurate to say that I don't like the author, rather than I don't like the book. There's certainly authenticity in her struggles and foibles, and I'm sure that many people can see things they've thought or felt expressed pretty eloquently, but it just doesn't make her a hero. I don't think she's trying to be one though, so in that way, the book probably hit the mark.

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posted by ~e at 1:42 AM


Friday, December 04, 2009

Herodotus, "The Father of History"

Title: The Histories
Author: Herodotus, Tr. by Aubrey de Selincourt

“So much for what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgment on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”

A copy of Herodotus’ Histories has sat on my bookshelf for years, unread and pristine. I bought it ages ago as an ambitious college student, intrigued by the role it played in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. But my courage failed in the face of its behemoth size – 603 pages of translated Greek prose – and I never opened it. Two weeks ago, I finally resolved to take the plunge. Now my Histories is dog-eared and tattered, with ink stains on the cover and text messily underlined on nearly every page (reading with a pen helps me focus). And the only thing intimidating me now is this review. How can I possibly describe this sprawling, grandiose work in one neat, tidy essay?

Well, I’ll start with the basics. In the 5th century BC, the Persian army bridged the Hellespont and invaded Greece, where a few stubborn city states – led by Athens and Sparta – refused to submit to the rule of Xerxes. The army was massive and diverse, for by that time Persia had conquered much of the known world. Indian archers, Egyptians infantry, and Ethiopians in leopard-skins … all of these could be found in the Persian army. This was no ordinary war, this was world war – with the Greeks standing alone.

And The Histories, which ostensibly concerns itself with the Greek-Persian conflict, is therefore a world history. Herodotus tells the story of the rise of the Persian empire, and thereby tells the story of all the peoples it conquered. And he doesn’t limit his tale to battles. Myths and legends that he learned during his extensive travels can also be found in these pages, as well as a smattering of natural history. Particularly fascinating is his account of Egypt, its wonders, and the mystery behind the annual flooding of the Nile.

These digressions are more entertaining than you'd imagine – and often blood-curdling. Many people in this book are killed in weird ways. There are numerous stories of murder, revenge, and human sacrifice. When a man died in Thrace, for example, his wives (yes, plural) entered into a keen competition to determine which of them he loved best. The winner was bestowed a lovely prize: her family slaughtered her over her husband’s grave, and she was buried by his side. The other wives lived on, but considered themselves disgraced.

I’m so glad I wasn’t born in Thrace.

There is so much that can be said about The Histories. And as I just finished it yesterday, my mind is still teeming with all the thoughts and stories it crammed into my head. This review will never be able to eloquently describe them all. So I’m going to make my last few points in the from that feels most natural to my legal-trained mind: bullet point!

  • Even in translation, there is some wise and beautiful language here. One of my favorite passages describes a counselor, Artabanus, who warns Xerxes that he will have the world’s two mightiest powers against him when he invades Greece. Xerxes, confused, asks how the poor Greek army can possibly compare to his own. Artabanus replies that it was not the Athenians and Spartans he had in mind, but the land and the sea -- for there is no harbor anywhere large enough to shelter Xerxes’ fleet in a storm, nor no land rich enough to feed his massive army. I liked that.

  • Xerxes and the Persian army were nothing like they are depicted as in the recent movie The 300. They were not deformed monsters who fought in loin clothes and body piercings. In fact, as far as empires go, they seem to have been pretty honorable. Xerxes does have a few “crazy tyrant” moments, but he also treats his enemies with respect (usually). In short, Herodotus tells his story in an impartial manner. There are heroes and villains on both the Greek and Persian sides, and the only thing that seems to be perfectly good is the ideal of freedom.

  • The women in The Histories are mostly chattel, passed around from man to conquering man. There are a few exceptions, however, including a bold queen of Babylon, and a woman named Artemesia, who commanded the troops from Halicarnassus and became one of Xerxes’ most trusted advisors. It was always nice when one of these ladies showed up. I got a little tired of the testosterone after awhile.

  • Herodotus’ descriptions of geography are fascinating, particularly because there comes a point where he simply has to say he does not know what lies beyond. Can you imagine what it must have been like to live in a world where you really did not know where the continent of Europe ended? As far as you know, it could have gone on forever. How strange that must be, to live in a limitless world.

I think that’s enough writing for now, sorry for the rambling review. But if you have a long vacation coming up, or just want to read something challenging and rewarding, you could do worse than pick up a copy of Herodotus. It's an effort, but not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. Just keep a pen handy for underlining.

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posted by Elizabeth at 11:07 PM

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mice make me Cross

Title: Four Blind Mice
Author: James Patterson
Bookmark: business card from the used book store where I got the book

I walked into the book store with the intent to find something to keep me entertained on my grossly overpriced Thanksgiving flights, and in that I guess I succeeded. It gave me something to do, and I finished it a day or so after arriving at Dad's place. I wasn't satisfied or impressed, but I was occupied.

Alex Cross is the protagonist of a lot of Patterson's books (in the latest, he even makes it into the title), and two movies (Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider). I figured it was about time for me to check it out--the movies were decent, as I remember, and I dig a good thriller. The downside of the movies is that it took me a few chapters to not hear the first-person narrative in Morgan Freeman's voice. Later on, I tried to get that back because at least then I'd get to listen to Morgan Freeman. The man could read a tax form and make it sound good.

Cross is aksed by a friend to look into the case of an old army buddy accused of murder. The timing is awful, because he asks him after the trial is over and the man's on death row. They eventually uncover an even larger plot and more veterans who were set up for horrific crimes and sentenced to death, confront the trio of assassins hired to frame the men, and try to find out who the mastermind behind it all really is.

It's entertaining enough to read, but Patterson has a habit of overplaying the "suspense" triggers, trying to build moments bigger than they really are, and makes his villains seem even more despicable than they need to be (I hated them long before they started killing hookers for fun, but that doesn't stop him from setting them loose on various other random victims). It's a little like reading a Dan Brown book, but without all the interesting tidbits on religion, art, and iconology. Then he randomly throws in saccharine family scenes and lovey bits with a character leftove from a previous novel. It's not that I mind the protagonist having a personal life, but the scenes are out of joint with the rest of the book, and--like the rest of the book--overplayed. It feels like he wrote two completely different stories and then alternated chapters to build the final novel. The good news is, I no longer feel compelled to read any more Patterson, so I'll save some money, but the bad news is, I feel like this should have been much better considering how much praise he gets.

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posted by reyn at 9:01 PM