Monday, May 19, 2008

The Winner Is...

Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton. She barely squeaked by Ursula Le Guin.

The Wharton discussion will commence on June 30th.

Happy Reading Everyone!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Time to Pick a New Book

Iliana has passed the torch to me for coming up with suggestions for the next Slaves book. I tried to find books that weren't too long and were by well-known authors but not necessarily the works we think of first. And some of them are a little...different.

  • The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin. "In a future world racked by violence and environmental catastrophes, George Orr wakes up one day to discover that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. He seeks help from Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist who immediately grasps the power George wields. Soon George must preserve reality itself as Dr. Haber becomes adept at manipulating George's dreams for his own purposes.

    The Lathe of Heaven is an eerily prescient novel from award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin that masterfully addresses the dangers of power and humanity's self-destructiveness, questioning the nature of reality itself. It is a classic of the science fiction genre."

  • Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. "Intelligent, sensitive, and fiercely passionate, Martha Quest is a young woman living on a farm in Africa, feeling her way through the torments of adolescence and early womanhood. She is a romantic idealistic in revolt against the puritan snobbery of her parents, trying to live to the full with every nerve, emotion, and instinct laid bare to experience. For her, this is a time of solitary reading daydreams, dancing — and the first disturbing encounters with sex."

  • The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton. "Set in the 1920s, The Glimpses of the Moon details the romantic misadventures of Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, a couple with the right connections but not much in the way of funds. They devise a shrewd bargain: they'll marry and spend a year or so sponging off their wealthy friends, honeymooning in their mansions and villas. As Susy explains, "We should really, in a way, help more than hamper each other. We both know the ropes so well; what one of us didn't see the other might -- in the way of opportunities, I mean." The other part of the plan states that if either one of them meets someone who can advance them socially, they're each free to dissolve the marriage. How their plan unfolds is a comedy of eros that will charm all fans of Wharton's work."

  • Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather. Set in 17th century Canada, it tells the story of Euclide Auclair, an apothecary, and his daughter Cecile, newcomers to Quebec. It features life on the edge of the wilderness and a love story.

  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. A series of three novellas (don't worry, it's only 216 pages) following Porter's semi-autobiographical protagonist Miranda through WWI and the 1918 flu epidemic. The stream of consciousness narration gives us the details of Miranda's Texas childhood, her work as a newspaper critic, her romance with a soldier, and her hallucinatory flu visions.

  • The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter. "This story follows Evelyn, a young Englishman, along a journey through mythology and sexuality. It is a story of how he learns to be a woman, first in the brutal hands of Zero, the ragtime Nietzsche, then through the ancient Tristessa, the beautiful ghost of Hollywood past."

Voting is open until Sunday (18th) and the "winner" will be announced on Monday with the discussion set for June 30th (does that date seem about right?)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Discovering Magical Realism

I love it when a book is not only enjoyable, but brings me to a new understanding about myself, or of something I had not known, or been aware of before.

Dreaming In Cuban by Cristina García introduced me to a genre of which I knew little. The term magical realism would come up repeatedly when I read other reviews of this book. It is a term and concept I had not given much thought to previously, but as I continued reading, I could hardly keep it out of my mind.

According to García, this book began as a poem that quickly grew into a something else:
Dreaming in Cuban actually started out as a poem and slowly grew. After about a hundred pages, I realized that what I was working on was a novel. Nobody was more surprised than I.
Her initial efforts are evident by the beautiful language used when developing her settings and characters:
At the far end of the sky, where daylight begins, a dense radiance like a shooting star breaks forth. It weakens as it advances, as its outline takes shape in the ether. Her husband emerges from the light and comes toward her, taller than the palms, walking on water in this white summer suit and Panama hat.
However, there was much more to what was being said and described by the author. I wanted to understand so I could better appreciate her words and story. Thus I took it upon myself to do some research and find out what this genre was and its impact on literature. It was then that I discovered an essay written by John Christie titled Magical Realism (The Magic in the Real). In it he gave an excellent definition:
…put simply, [it] refers to when an artist blends the fantastic with the real, or mixes the bizarre with the logical and plausible.
I cannot tell you how much this helped when reading García’s novel.

On its surface, Dreaming In Cuban is the story of three generations of women who are dealing with the physical and emotional challenges to their identities as well as their relationships. The story spans eighteen years and takes place in Cuba, New York City, and Florida. Yes the principal characters are Cuban, and this does have a strong influence upon what takes place between them. However, I found the following within the book, and it seemed to me the most accurate way to describe what I was reading:
I’ve been reading the plays of Molière and wondering what separates suffering from imagination. Do you know?
I feel that the author actually succeeds in integrating suffering with imagination. Her beautiful prose shows this in the characterization of Celia del Pino:
Celia cannot decide which is worse, separation or death. Separation is familiar, but Celia is uncertain she can reconcile it with permanence.
Death was alluring, seductive, and Celia longed to die in the thrill of it over and over again.
This book touches a lot upon the suffering of its main characters, but not in a way that makes this a depressing book. Somehow, the struggles of each woman, swirls in and around their imaginations, feelings, and memories in a way that makes this a much more interesting read.

The author said it best when asked about what kind of role memory plays in the novel:
Memory is more a point of departure than a repository of facts. It’s a product of both necessity and imagination, of my characters’ needs to reinvent themselves and invest themselves in narratives of their own devising. Each of them needs to be a heroine, to believe she is doing the right thing, choosing the only path to a kind of personal redemption.
This statement, as much as any, speaks of what I liked about this book. However, it is not for everyone, as some readers may not be comfortable with the surrealistic quality of many of the passages.

I can honestly say that as much as I enjoyed it, it was not one I could, or would read voraciously in one sitting. There is too much about it, and within it, that deserves that its reader spends more time enjoying it.

Cross posted here

Friday, May 02, 2008

Dreaming of Escape

What I really love about blogging is the way it has introduced me to so many books I would never have thought to pick up. Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban is the kind of novel I never used to read because its cultural setting would have been too exotic for me, too beyond the frames of my own reference, or so I would have considered. In fact, this turned out to be completely true: the strangeness and the beauty of the narrative both stem from the vividly different cultural imagination that informs them, and I found this to be a source of fascination and interest. The main female protagonists were so alien to me, perceived things so differently, approached relationships so differently, grasped desperately after such different desires, that I found myself pausing midway through the story to try to get my bearings.

This is a matriarchal story, tracing the history of a family and a culture down through it’s female line, from Celia, the grandmother whose passion for the politics of Fidel Castro causes much tension with her daughters, the rageful Lourdes who embraces capitalist America with her bakery in Brooklyn and the deeply disturbed Felicia, whose hallucinatory journey through life in search of love often has murderous consequences for those who offer it to her. Lourdes has a daughter, Pilar, whose subversive spirit seems to carry the burden of the narrative’s optimism. Can Pilar break away from her genetic and her cultural history to make something of her life and find some happiness? For all the faults and flaws that trouble the female lineage here, it seems that the male one is even worse. Men come off very badly in this novel, being deserters, rapists, aggressors, philanderers. Rather than strength they indulge themselves in violence, rather than tenderness they become weak and idle. The imbalance between the sexes and the damage they inflict on each other seemed to me to be in keeping with a cultural situation of poverty, instability and pessimism. It’s a crazy world in Cuba, a society permanently trembling on the brink of violence with a kind of kangaroo court set up to deal with civilian problems of infidelity, petty thievery, counterrevolutionary activities. There’s nowhere to go where the personal isn’t political, where oppression and uncertainty don’t seep into every nook and cranny of private life. The women who have lived in Cuba have all suffered terrible trauma of one kind or another at the hands of men, and so it’s not surprising that they are terrible mothers, too wounded to take care of their children, too angry and confused to guide them, and no surprise either that the supernatural dimension of this story, the appearance of ghosts and the communication by dreams, holds out pockets of hope and optimism for the characters, rather than the fear it generally inspires in European stories. Power, corrupted, tainted and abused, tends to metamorphose in surprising ways.

It’s not enough, however, to prevent the mentality of the characters from veering between hopeless submission to imprisonment, and desperate attempts at escape. Celia has invested deeply in Communism as an answer to her society’s problems and clings to it without being able to see its problems or communicate its advantages to her daughters. Lourdes has run away to America and embraces the market place, but the way she treats others is locked in a pattern of dictatorship. Her intrusions into her daughters life are unforgiveable (although Pilar, unfazed by this behaviour manages to remain ambivalent about her mother, feeling equal amounts of love and hatred). Felicia, meanwhile, is perhaps the most dangerous of all, her fugues into romance and madness and spirituality being almost indistinguishable from one another in terms of their severe consequences. What these women long for is change, proper, manageable, salvationary change, but their souls are too steeped in their country’s political problems to achieve it. What they look for is change from outside, when it’s the quiet change within that could really save them. Recognising their eccentricities, dealing with their anger and healing their wounds are options from another time and another place, and not available to them. Pilar, the granddaughter, remains the most hopeful character because she possesses enough self-awareness and enough revolutionary spirit to make a difference to her life. And she has art on her side, which has ever been the way people have managed to see around the corners of their society and imagine something better.

I found this to be a rich and intriguing book, exotic, vividly described, disturbing in places and frustrating in others but never less than interesting. I really got into it, as you can probably tell! Thanks to the Slaves for another great read.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Dreaming in Cuban

I enjoyed reading this book, and I’m happy that the Slaves of Golconda chose it because otherwise I doubt I would ever have picked it up. It’s a good read — an entertaining and smart novel about the intersection of family, politics, and religion.

I’ll admit that I’m generally not fond of the kind of point of view switching that goes on in the novel — it shifts not only from character to character, which I have no problem with, but between first and third person, which does irritate me a bit — but since having multiple voices speaking throughout the novel is so obviously important to Garcia, I can see why she chose to do it. Part of the point of the book is to get multiple perspectives; not only does the narrative focus shift from character to character, sometimes rapidly, but we see at least some of the characters from the inside, where they sometimes speak for themselves, as well as from the outside. Interspersed throughout the novel are one character’s letters as well, offering another perspective on the story. All this has the effect of capturing a great amount of complexity in relatively few pages (240 or so); the technique mimics the interconnectedness and the web of relationships it seeks to describe.

The story is about a Cuban family as it changes throughout the politically turbulent years of the mid-20C. At its heart is the matriarch Celia, a self-sufficient woman living on the Cuban coast who gets caught up in the furor of the revolution headed by Castro, who is never named but is a powerful presence in the novel. Her two daughters (she has a son as well but we don’t learn much about him) follow very different paths as adults; one of them, Lourdes, emigrates to the U.S. and becomes a proper American capitalist, working hard and eventually owning two successful bakeries. Her daughter, Pilar, isn’t impressed by this success, however, and finds ways to rebel against her mother’s strident pro-Americanism and moral conservatism. She becomes a painter and attends art school; one of the novel’s best scenes tells of a painting she completes for her mother’s new bakery, which is supposed to be patriotic in its message and ends up being something quite else.

The other daughter is Felicia, who remained in Cuba and who struggles throughout her life with mental illness. Her story is a sad one, as she is caught up in a difficult marriage and has trouble raising her three children; one summer, the summer of the coconuts, she and her young son survive on nothing but coconut ice cream. Her children are torn between their need for and love of their mother and their curiosity about their estranged father; they suffer from their mother’s bouts of illness, but she, too, is a victim. Celia does what she can to help her grandchildren, but her interventions can only do so much good.

The novel is ultimately about the ways our families shape who we are — they define us, whether we live in close proximity to them or thousands of miles away. Several of the characters are haunted by the ghosts of dead relatives or are able to communicate telepathically with far-away family members. Others, such as Pilar, are haunted by memories of the lost home in Cuba; while her mother wants only to live securely in America, Pilar wonders what life is like on her lost island and what kind of relationship she could have with her grandmother Celia. No one can escape the influence of family, whether it be the memories they create for us or the standards they set against we can try, often unsuccessfully, to rebel.

No one can escape their political context either; the Cuban revolution divides the family both ideologically and physically, causing a rift that is symbolized by Celia’s picture of Castro which she has placed over a picture of her husband and which Lourdes flings into the sea in a fit of rage. The picture symbolizes how political and familial forces blend in intricate ways to shape each of the novel’s characters. They can’t change the circumstances of their birth; they can only respond to them in the best way they can.