Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

January 25, 2011

Graham Greene famously divided his fiction into “novels” and “entertainments”, the former being driven by literary ambition and the latter driven by plot. Greene eventually stopped making the distinction, perhaps because “entertainments” such as Brighton Rock had gained respect for their literary merit. More recently, literary novelist John Banville generated controversy by stating in an interview that he was “slumming it” when he wrote crime fiction under the pseudonym “Benjamin Black”. Of course, to hear the insult you need bat ears and a fragile ego, but that’s basically what he said. How else to interpret Banville’s statement that, as himself, he “writes painfully slow while [Black] is fluent and fast”?

William Boyd is slightly younger and has probably learned from his elder’s mistakes. As far as I know, he did not claim to write his thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms with any speed or notably fluency. I, of course, have no idea about his writing speed. But I will tell you, Boyd is remarkably fluent in English (I will admit to, uh, refreshing my recollection of both “bosky” and susurrus” by page two). I hope Dudley Edwards does not find out about Boyd’s wanton fluency.

Adam Kindred, a distinguished climatologist, starts things off by crossing Chelsea Bridge after interviewing for a university job. Adam, recently expelled from marriage to an American woman, has come to the new-to-him city of London to start afresh. Adam has “no idea how his life is about to change in the next few hours – massively, irrevocably – no idea at all.” But first, Adam surveys the river and muses that it is “odd how…instincts mysteriously drive you.”

Adam’s instincts take him to a small Italian restaurant where he strikes up a conversation with Dr. Philip Wang, an allergist. When Dr. Wang leaves a folder of documents behind, Adam decides to bring the file to Wang himself because “it seemed a friendly and helpful thing to do.” Wang never gets the folder back, instead dying from a knife to the chest. The police think Adam, the last man known to have seen Wang, is the murderer. Adam chooses to go underground rather than try to explain the curious circumstances which resulted in Adam’s prints ending up on the murder weapon.

It wasn’t ‘respect for the law’ that seemed to him paramount and fundamental, any more. No: it was freedom that governed this instinctive choice – his personal freedom. He had to stay free, at all costs, if he were to save himself, somehow. To remain free seemed the only course of action he could and should take. It was odd, this philosophical epiphany, but he was immediately aware that the individual freedom he currently possessed was unbelievably precious to him – precious because he now realized how tenuous and vulnerable it was – and he did not propose to surrender it to anyone, even temporarily….

He passed a pub on his left and was tempted to go in and drink something but, along with his new belief in personal freedom, he was aware of how expensive everything was in this city – he had to hoard his remaining funds as he figured out what to do next while he waited for the real guilty man to be identified and apprehended.

To complicate matters, Adam is pursued both by the police and by a hitman. The police are largely faceless except for Rita Nashe, who stumbled upon the body in the first place. Rita is a young constable who soon transfers to the Marine Support Unit (MSU). This being a thriller, the transfer away from the unit involved in the investigation of the murder brings her more thickly into the plot. Boyd handles this with aplomb, making the confluence of Nashe’s life and the story seem natural, as if Boyd was reporting on an interesting development rather than manufacturing a coincidence. This is a thriller, but a thriller written by an outstanding writer.

The hitman is a nicely full character whose interaction with the plot needs no finessing once Adam stumbles on his handywork. Adam is a loose end and Jonjo is a professional. Jonjo is not quite as frighteningly relentless (and psychotic) as Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurhh, but he is very good at what he does and not at all reluctant to use whatever means are required.

Being underground, Adam interacts with a number of interesting characters, including Mhouse, a prostitute. Mhouse plays a significant role in the story and, through Boyd’s skill, remains more interesting than cliched.

The documents Philip Wang has left behind relate to a drug, Zembla-4, that is on the fast track to approval after purportedly success clinical trials. The head of the pharmaceutical company that owns the rights to Zembla-4, Ingram Fryzer, is the last major shoulder over which the reader peers. Fryzer and his good for not much brother Ivo both sit on the board of Calenture-Deutz. Their financially-driven machinations provide the insight onto the important of the documents, something the reader learns well before Adam.

Boyd keeps the pace swift, but not breathtakingly so. Danger for Adam is everywhere and, meanwhile, he is on a race to save not only himself but a small subset of mankind. The stakes are appropriately large for a thriller, if not paradigm-shifting. All of which, to my mind, makes this ultimately more satisfying than the average novel in this genre. And Boyd uses that earlier piece about personal freedom and his plot to at least raise some interesting questions about free will, self-determination, and morality.

Perhaps, I am a bit biased given his description of “the potency and reach of the bloggers.” But what surely ruins my objectivity is Zembla-4. Zembla, of course, is the fictional land formerly ruled by Charles Xavier Vsevlav of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I am nothing if not a sucker for Nabokov references. Once I see one, I think I see them everywhere:

Small flames burned palely on the familiar tartan lining of the trench.

Maybe that one is a stretch.

Boyd does more than shout out to the master of the mid-20th century. He creates characters who are decidedly not easy to love or to hate. Nearly all of them are sufficiently flawed to keep them real and none are so purely evil that they are simply an alien them. Each is bent by his or her chosen profession. To borrow Boyd’s central metaphor, the bending is such that an ordinary thunderstorm mutates into a super-cell storm and thriller fans will be pleased with the destruction wrought.

This Is How by MJ Hyland

September 8, 2010

Everything unconditional belongs in pathology. – Nietzsche

I chose to read this author because she is a Tony’s Book World recommended author. I chose this specific book of Ms. Hyland’s because it was a Whispering Gums recommended book. And, too, the author was kind enough to drop by my blog. So, though I did not rush out and buy a copy of one of her books as she hinted I might, I did rush to my Kindle and buy one of her books. Jedi mind tricks don’t work on me.

The lesson here is not for writers to comment on my blog so that I will automatically, a month later, read your book and blog about it. It is for writers to get two other bloggers whose literary discretion I admire and whose opinions I trust to gushingly recommend your work and, only then, come nudge me in a most classy manner. In that case, I very likely, almost certainly, will rush somewhere to buy a copy of your book. I am conditionally easy that way.

The book. Well, it starts with that dark quote from Nietzsche above. Beyond that, the best thing to say about it is that I highly recommend it. This is a book that is best read cold. Everything I can tell you about the character and the plot without entirely spoiling the novel you are better off discovering on your own. Really, you are. But if you insist on knowing more, read on.

The protagonist of This Is How, the odd Patrick Oxtoby, narrates. Through the first person narration, the reader has insight into the sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, sometimes pitiable, and always engaging thoughts of Patrick. He is difficult not to like, but, all the same, makes the reader and everyone else around him a little nervous. The novel begins with a description of his hard, but not too hard knock at the door of a boarding house where he will try to begin a new life. The knock is answered by Bridget, the charming and attractive proprietor of the boarding house. This early scene gives an idea of Patrick’s quirkiness.

She takes hold of her long brown hair and pulls it over her left breast like a scarf.

‘Let me take your coat,’ she says.

‘I’m not bothered,’ I say. ‘I’ll keep it on.’

I want the pockets for my hands.

‘There’s a rack just beside you.’

‘I’ve said I’ll leave it on.’

‘I thought you might feel more comfortable with it off. It’s a very warm evening.’

She looks at me and I look at her and she takes a step back as though she blames the place where she’s standing for the silence.

Patrick is not slow. He did well in school, studied Psychology and History at university for a year or two before dropping out, and is an ace mechanic. While it is never articulated or confirmed, Patrick exhibits symptoms commonly associated with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism. He has trouble understanding social cues and connecting with people. He takes things literally and seems emotionally remote, even with those who should be closest to him. Underneath this (or on top of it?), Patrick is a sweet man. And, then, underneath that, he has an unsettling, potentially violent personality. As pointed out at Whispering Gums, MJ Hyland has created a lovable but disturbing character, who is both simple and complex. At least, it is no easy task to understand him, despite his simplicity.

Only a few pages into the book, we learn that Patrick had a fiancée, Sarah, who abruptly broke off their engagement. He describes the scene in which Sarah, standing at the top of stairs, tells him it’s over. She leaves him standing there as she walks out of the house.

I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression that I didn’t know how to make with words. But I didn’t, and when she’d closed the front door I said, ‘Okay, then,’ and, ‘Goodbye, then.’

Afterwards, I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed hard enough to send her flying.

And I got this sentence in my head, over and over, ‘You broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine.’ It was something I’d never say, not like anything I’ve ever said. I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much….

I’m here now, a hundred miles away, and that’s the past. Sarah’s the past. It’s done with. I don’t have to think about it again if I don’t want to.

This scene fits a pattern in which we at once feel sorry for Patrick and afraid of him. His heart was broken, after all, and cruelly, but then there is his fantasy about the stairs. The reader isn’t alone in these feelings. The characters with whom Patrick comes into contact have the same conflicted feelings towards him. They want to like him, but, just when they start to feel comfortable, Patrick’s oddness puts them on edge again. Through a number of quite funny and touching scenes, Hyland builds Patrick’s unique character and the tension of the novel. The reader can feel the pressure building. Patrick will do something good or something bad, or somebody will do to Patrick something good or something bad. Like Patrick, the story keeps the reader on edge, hoping for the good but preparing for something bad.

This is a great success to the book. Hyland beautifully allows the reader to see what Patrick looks like from the perspective of others, and demonstrates that having access to his thoughts does not actually improve the reader’s ability to predict Patrick’s behavior. Because Patrick is incapable of understanding interpersonal customs and subtext, he is unstable in social situations. He seems to have the potential for violence, even if he doesn’t think about it “all that much.”

Hyland so superbly builds Patrick’s personality and the situation that we, the readers, know that Patrick is going to misunderstand a crucial fact at a crucial point. We know that, but we cannot be certain whether that misunderstanding will set him up for a trap laid by another or unleash some of his anger onto someone else or take a different but similarly tragic course. Tragedy of some sort looms ever larger in the first section of the book. That is, unless the twist is danger averted, a connection made, ensuing bliss. It could be. I certainly hoped that is the way things would turn out. But I have probably said too much already. By the time the crucial early to mid-novel event occurs, it feels inevitable.

And then, in the aftermath too, Hyland conjures the dueling specters of optimism and doom. Hyalnd manages her pacing well, so that, even when little is occurring, you know something will happen. And then it is put off a bit, and a bit. Excellent writing.

This book is about the intersection of love, sex, and violence. Patrick’s deficiencies in interpersonal communication make it difficult to make the types of connections necessary for love or even sex. Violence is another matter, but violence can only beget more isolation and confusion. Or, maybe, they are similar matters. Love and sex nearly as often lead to confusion. At least when someone is hitting you, you can be pretty confident about where they stand.

This novel is bursting with its author’s talent. To go any further into the plot would spoil it. That leaves large themes untouched, so I encourage further discussion in the comments, now if you have read it, later if you will.

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

August 30, 2010

I was lucky enough to pick the winner of this year’s IMPAC award and, thereby, won (along with two others) Kevin from Canada’s 2010 IMPAC contest. In addition to the generosity of giving out prizes, Kevin kindly offered to expose me to Canadian fiction. I eagerly accepted and specifically requested that this book be among the titles he sent.

I had only ever heard of this book through Kevin’s coverage, as a member of the always excellent Shadow Jury, of the 2009 Giller Prize. His review captures the quirkiness and strengths of the book. It does have strengths besides its quirkiness, though the quirkiness is a strength too. I had not re-read the review until just now, partly with the aim of not simply repeating it and partly with the aim of engaging in at least a bit of conversation. Also, my comments here also reflect my conversations with my significant other who grabbed this book out of the shipment immediately and enjoyed it immensely. She liked the way the incident reports become more personal and begin to reveal the narrator as a character rather than as simply a recorder of events. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Kevin has summarized the book well, so I encourage you to visit his review, but I will try to give a shorthand version, for context.

The book consists of 144 incident reports by a librarian, Miriam Gordon, working in a Toronto library. The first incident report recounts Miriam’s interaction with a young man who spends two hours stripping electrical wire and then asks for a handheld vacuum to clean up the mess he has made. The first several incident reports relate events similar to this in that they are seemingly unconnected to plot issues or Miriam beyond her duties as a librarian. Gradually, however, Miriam begins inserting personal details into the reports and embellishing them with memories from her childhood. Martha Baillie pulls this aspect off quite well, I thought, methodically building a plot into these often quite short incident reports.

There are at least three major plot lines. One involves Miriam’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father. Another involves a mysterious library patron who begins leaving notes referencing the opera Rigoletto which, incidentally, is the first opera Miriam ever saw. The very short summary of the opera is that the father’s plot to avenge his daughter’s honor results in a mistake of identity that gets her killed. It soon becomes clear that the Rigoletto notes are meant for Miriam. The grow more sinister over time. There is also Miriam’s interactions with a young man she first sees reading in the park.

The plotlines all seem disaparate and unconnected, like the initial incident reports. However, over the course of this quick read (195 pages, most less than half full) patterns and links begin to form. The effect is one of literary pointillism, almost. It is a quite original approach and Baillie carries it off well. But, given the method of narration and Miriam’s limited knowledge, it is difficult to determine whether any of the connections or patterns are real or only imagined. One patron seems a good candidate to be the mysterious writer of the Rigoletto notes, and then, seems not to be such a likely candidate or is ruled out entirely.

Incident Report 10 is a key to at least two of the plotlines. Miriam relates the story of her first broken heart and her reaction after the breakup by phone.

I rushed out the front door without stopping to pull on my coat or boots. The freezing air slapped my cheeks: it plunged down my throat into my unsuspecting lungs. My father, who happene to be clearing the front walk, tossed aside his shovel and ran after me across the lawn, his feet breaking the crust, sinking into the deep snow. When he’d caught up, he took me in his arms. I present this memory in my father’s defense whenever I take him to trial, as I so often do, laying my fears and shyness, my crippling self-doubt, at his feet.

After this experience, Miriam is wary of romantic love and, as indicated, has mixed emotions regarding her father. Miriam’s relationship to men is, it seems to me, a primary factor in the book. The emotion of this short and quirky novel is subtly potent, creeping up slowly on the reader as the storylines unfold. The parade of eccentric patrons, for instance, marches through the story to the yearning beat of the human heart.

This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump palm of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her.

This small events, when compiled, begin to tell us about Miriam, almost as much as her own more explicit discussions of herself and her mental state. She is an easy character to like. This is often a weakness in a novel, but the beauty of this novel is in its construction and in the events. The world is a tragic place for many of the patrons, despite their kindness. So too, Miriam, as gently caring as she is, has suffered. Her role is not unlike that of the heros of Greek tragedies and her heart is her weakness. Her very likeability, even lovableness, is her fatal flaw.

Kevin from Canada did not like the storyline involving the Slovenian named Janko who Miriam befriends. I thought the storyline was essential to the successful unfolding of the full plot, that it added some needed complexity to the mix, and hit the right emotional notes. This may be where you (and Kevin) realize that I am perhaps a bit more sentimental as a reader than is Kevin. I was pulled in by the relationship between Miriam and Janko and touched by its resolution. I cannot imagine being as satisfied with the book without it.

Before closing, I would also like to note the beauty of the novel as a physical object. The paper is thick and pleasing to the touch. Even more, the inside of the covers contain a reproduction of actual pages that were inserted into the book return slot of a library. The pages are covered with the series “0123456789” repeated over and over. Interestingly to me, the actual photocopy of the page shows that, despite the obsessiveness of the pages’ author, there are apparent mistakes a few times, where a number is repeated at the end of a line or from one line to the next, suggesting to me a fragility of mind that prevents the poor soul from effectively managing even this pitiable scream. It was a nice touch that emphasized the novel’s realism and tethered this story to the world. Damaged people reach out, often ineffectually, and it is not always easy or possible to understand their cries, much less to ease their pain. The physical construction of the book reminds me why my ereader is not a substitute for my physical library, only an enhancement.

Thank you, Kevin, for introducing me (and my wife) to this author and this book.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

May 17, 2010

I discussed this book during my coverage of the 2010 Tournament of Books, but, until now, had not posted a stand alone review. This book was too good to pass by without my writing a full review, notwithstanding that there are already numerous, excellent reviews on the web. Forgive my self-indulgence.

The story is that of Thomas Cromwell. When we first meet him he is still a child suffering under the tyranny of his abusive father, Walter. Neither Cromwell nor the reader remain with Walter for very long.

What is clear is his thought about Walter; I’ve had enough of this. If he gets after me again I’m going to kill him, and if I kill him they’ll hang me, and if they’re going to hang me I want a better reason.

Mantel’s dark wit suffuses the book, providing welcome relief to the tense struggle for power and survival in Henry VII’s England.

The narrative picks up when Cromwell has returned to England and is beginning his upward climb through the Royal Court. Cromwell serves Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, another very ambitious man. Of course, Thomas More is an enemy and the clash between Cromwell and More is central to the book. Mantel takes her time in getting us to that crucial point, though. Her deliberate speed is offputting to some, but the prose is so well written and the suspense so carefully, steadily built that I quite enjoyed it.

History has been more kind to Thomas More than to Cromwell. Mantel brings some balance to the comparison by heavily favoring Cromwell. The reader is brought inside the mind of this man of (relatively) low class birth as he strives to achieve on merit alone. Because of Cromwell has to earn his social status, his wealth, and his power, he is a very practical man. Where Thomas More takes pride in unbending adherence to religious duty, Cromwell values efficacy.

The conflict between Cromwell and More is not just that between a practical man and a principled one. Cromwell is more than an opportunist. Mantel has created a true Renaissance Man. Cromwell and King Henry discuss Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione’s idea of “sprezzatura”; it is clear to the reader, if not to King Henry, that Cromwell is the embodiment of Castiglione’s ideal. Cromwell is reputedly able to quote the entire New Testament, he speaks multiple languages, he is a fearsome fighter, and he is knowledgeable about textiles, packing, falconry, canines, and people. He exercises that “dignified public restraint” urged by Castiglione, openly asserting himself only when necessary.

Cromwell himself places less stock in his “sprezzatura”. He does not believe his graceful excellence in a breadth of fields is what allows him to succeed where lesser men fail.

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook…

So is Cromwell the good guy or a crook? He is both. He is easily the hero of this book and, in fact, is painted with perhaps a bit too much humanity (e.g. the scenes of caring for animals, children, and/or the elderly where others are more cold-hearted). He sees himself as a “subtle crook” and he is. He is a crook like Robin Hood. Those he swindles are the powerful, the overbearing, and the undeservingly rich in either wealth or esteem. Cromwell’s crookery is heroism. He beats the bad guys at their own game.

The re-imagining of Cromwell as the good guy and Thomas More as the bad guy is not just a charming story of a bad boy hero, but corresponds with a shift in cultural and moral standards. Thomas More’s dogmatic religiosity is disfavored in today’s society, whereas a modern reader will almost certainly laud Cromwell’s rise on merit and his questioning of received wisdom. Mantel most clearly defines the contrast between the men in this paragraph in which Cromwell attempts to understand More:

Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

While I may be particularly situated to appreciate Cromwell’s aversion to received dogmatism, Mantel is tapping into a vibrant strain in current culture. In important ways, Mantel is telling us more about our world and our century than she is about the 16th century. This is a narrative about the England of the 1500s, but the questions it poses are modern ones.

Mantel manages the large themes well and supports them with sometimes stunningly intricate details. For an example, take the scene in which Cromwell and Rafe Sadler, Cromwell’s son by upbringing if not by birth, play chess.

For a long time they sit gazing at their pieces, at the configuration which locks them in place. They see it coming: stalemate. “We’re too good for each other.”

“Perhaps we ought to play against other people.”

“Later. When we can wipe out all-comers.”

Rafe says, “Ah, wait!” He seizes his knight and makes it leap. Then he looks at the result, aghast.

“Rafe, you are foutu.”

For those who know little about chess, the scene works excellently, I suspect. Rafe tries too hard to win and goes from a draw to a loss, a tempermental difference also shown by their relative interest in playing other people. Rafe is eager where Cromwell is cautious to wait until sure of his advantage.

I tend to waste far too much time playing chess, so the details of literary descriptions of chess games interest me. Books so often get chess wrong.

A stalemate is a very specific type of position which modern rules declare a draw. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the technical definition of stalemate with this accurate explanation of the circumstances in which it generally arises:

During the endgame, stalemate is a resource that can enable the player with the inferior position to draw the game. In more complicated positions, stalemate is much rarer, usually taking the form of a swindle that succeeds only if the superior side is inattentive.

What initially bothered me about the scene is that the implication is that both players see the stalemate coming and cannot avoid it, proving how equally matched they are. “Draw” would work, at first glance, better than “stalemate” in the scene because a draw without stalemate is the much more likely result in the case of evenly matched opponents, particularly in complex positions. Specifiying a stalemate invites the chess-literate (obsessed) reader to speculate as to what sort of position has arisen. The position must not involve a swindle or they would not both see it coming. The position must be complex. In a simple position, even a moderately experienced player would not try to avoid a stalemate if the only alternative were an losing move because it would be easy to see the alternative move was losing. It is extremely difficult to imagine a position where both sides have equal material and equal advantage but the game is headed to an inevitable stalemate absent error. “Draw” is less jarring than “stalemate”.

What works is that such a position is possible. And “stalemate” is the better literary choice because a stalemate is precisely what occurs in the larger story. King Henry VIII is left without any legal moves in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn. The parallel is nicely done. The coordination between this otherwise insignificant game and the subject of the novel would be lost if Mantel had written a more pedestrian draw. “Stalemate” is necessary, really, to her artistic purposes.

But there is another potential problem: historical plausibility. My examination of stalemate possibilities resulted in my stumbling across the history of the stalemate rule. It has not always been treated as a draw. In fact, in England stalemate was not considered a draw until the 19th century. Mantel is saved, however, because Italy adopted the rule that a stalemate was a draw in the 13th century. Cromwell spent considerable time in Italy and, therefore, could have adopted that rule and taught it to Rafe. Again, Mantel’s scene achieves, barely, plausibility.

And so my initial questioning of the scene resulted in a vindication of Mantel’s choice. The parallel between the game and the narrative is beautiful and, importantly to me, does not come at the expense of accuracy. My faith in Mantel’s research and fidelity to plausibility is strengthened; my admiration of her artistic achievement is enhanced.
Of course, most readers will care little about the chess details of that very short scene. It is only a very small reason why I am so impressed with the work. I tried to point out a number of the larger reasons before launching into my chess pedantry. But there are still more.

The use of “he” as usually referring to Cromwell is a pleasingly original narrative technique that has been pointed out and discussed by others. Likewise, Mantel’s ability to draw the reader into the King Henry’s court has been eloquently lauded before.

There is a great deal more to love about this book too. I found the prose always excellent and sometimes delightful. Rather than try to continue cataloguing all Mantel’s successes, I will leave you with one of my favorite snatches of her prose:

Anne struggles to sit up, she sees him clearly, she smiles, she says his name. They bring a basin of water strewn with rose petals, and wash her face; her finger reaches out, tentative, to push the petals below the water, so each of them becomes a vessel shipping water, a cup, a perfumed grail.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

May 11, 2010

If the measure of a good book is that it inspires you to action, then this 2010 Tournament of Books contender is a good book.* I am going back to my copy of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus on the strength of the curiosity inspired by this book. Whether a higher recommendation than that for this book can be made, I do not know. Even so, I am not sold on graphic novels as a concept.

As the book begins, a man pages through a book entitled Foundational Quest Draft. He has a thought bubble: “It’s such a sad tale! And yet…” He yawns. He notices the “camera” and apologizes. The man explains who he is and what the book is about. So begins, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth.

The explanation given by the man, Apstolos, is as follows:

You see, this isn’t your typical comic book. In fact, when we started work on it, our friends thought we were crazy! And when they did take us seriously it was, as a rule for the wrong reasons. Like thinking the book is something it’s not! Like maybe a “Logic for Dummies” type of thing or perhaps a kind of textbook or a treatise in the guise of a graphic novel. But it’s not! In this, it’s just what 99.9% of comic books are an honest-to-goodness real yarn. Simply, a story!…Ours is rather unusual in this sense: Its heroes are all logicians.

Bertrand Russell is the primary hero, the one we follow most often. The graphic novel has an interesting structure, weaving bits from the creation of Logicomix together with Russell’s childhood, his adulthood, the lives of other logicians, and short attempts to explain the technical issues with which Russell, Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel, and others were obsessed. The structure is managed fairly seemlessly and, despite jumping from Russell’s childhood to the author’s modern day trip around Athens, it works.

Graphics, I would assume, are an important part of a graphic novel. I am not at all the right person to critique the drawing, but it did not seem particularly groundbreaking or beautiful. There were shifts in style between story sections which, I believe, helps signal to the reader which time period and characters are in the fore. In other words, all I can really say about the graphics is that they were not intrusive which is probably the best compliment I can pay them. They served the story well.

The story itself is an interesting one. The story covers the life of Russell with digressions into the lives of other logicians, basically the development of the modern field of logic until the original vision (a complete logical system that is self-proving) was proven impossible to obtain. The graphic novel, however, left me wanting more. Logicomix is about 313 pages long, not counting the “Notebook” at the end with short entries on key terms and characters. The excerpt above was about a page. My point is that if you condense all the prose into a conventional novel/biography, the book would be less than 100 pages. Hardly enough to provide great detail about either the logic or the characters.

This is not a failing of the book, however. If you want the story of Russell’s life (or the lives of other logicians), there are rigorous biographies (as well as Russell’s autobiography). For the logic, there are excellent summaries as well as the source material (e.g. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). These in depth treatments are widely available, but this graphic novel fills a niche.

Logicomix gives enough of each part (the characters, the logic, the story) to leave you wanting more. The authors and illustrators have managed to convey the emotion, the sense of intellectual adventure, and the intriguing stories that pushed the development of logic forward. The ideal audience is likely adolescent or late adolescent boys and girls. They can breeze through this book where the same child/young adult may never be tempted to crack a rigorous biography or philosophical treatise. My daughter is thirteen and paged through it. She was not hooked. Yet. Likely, because she has not yet read enough of Logicomix, but possibly because she is not quite ready for the subtle excitement of the quest for objective, provable truth.

Of course, if the first panel she picked up started with this conversation between Russell and Wittgenstein, I can see the problem:

Russell, you waste so many pages to establish sets! [next panel]

Of course we do, set theory is essential to our argument.

The bloody ass Hilbert calls it a “paradise”! But it is Hell! A Hell through whose gates…[next panel]

…the monster infinity creeps into mathematics!

“Creeps in”? What rot! Infinity is already there from the start, old chap! [next panel]

It’s in the conceptual universe, prior to our poking our puny little brains into it!

Ach, Russell, I am in such pain! [Wittgenstein writhes in agony.]

At first glance, she may not understand the drama of the situation. This is understandable. But it is a bit exciting if you have followed it from the beginning. I am sure of it.

If you do have an interest in the ideas of Russell, Wittgenstein, Gödel, Alan Turing, Georg Cantor, David Hilbert, John Von Neumann, and logicians generally, I can highly recommend the book as an appetite whetter. If you have little interest in their ideas, I highly recommend the book as a way to gain some painless exposure to those ideas. The ideas are fascinating. Do not expect too much. This is a comic book. But it is a very smart comic book and a very successful one.

*Unfortunately for Logicomix, the graphic novel faced Wolf Hall in the first round and, thus, its Cinderella run ended before it began.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

April 27, 2010

John Self beat me to a review of this book and did an exceedingly good job of it. No surprise in either of those facts. I will try not to repeat what he has said and to be brief.

Zeitoun (pronounced “zay-toon”) is the surname of Abdulrahman and Kathy, the people whose “view of the events” before and after Hurricane Katrina the book captures. John Self points out that Abdulrahman is “portrayed more or less angelically”. I would emphasize the more. For instance, the primary faults he displays are determination, unyielding fidelity to other living things, and the desire to be where the action is. These are his tragic characteristics which prove his stumble, if not his downfall.

Most readers will be familiar with the events, both real and reported, following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. We know, then, where the weather portion of the book is going. Eggers had no easy task in setting up the Zeitoun’s story with sufficient details about the hurricane and reports to keep everyone onboard but not so much that it bores. His characters, too, walk the line between oblivion to the scope of the coming disaster and knowing too much:

Nagin told residents that the Superdome would be open as a “shelter of last resort.” Kathy shuddered at the thought; the year before, with Hurricane Ivan, that plan had been a miserable failure. The Superdome had been ill-supplied and overcrowded then and in ’98, with Hurricane Georges. She couldn’t believe the place was being used again. Maybe they’d learned from the last time and better provisioned the stadium? Anything was possible, but she was doubtful.

Of course, the reader already knows what happened, so Kathy seems a little prescient in her misgivings. I have to wonder whether relating the Zeitoun’s pre-Katrina fears on these types of policy matters is either accurate (surely everyone thinks they saw the disaster coming now) or helpful (even if accurate, the reader is almost invited to question the accuracy of the recollection). To me, these glimpses into the Zeitoun’s thoughts distracted from their story, rather than added to it. We have already been shown that Abdulrahman is a great guy, that Kathy is an outstanding mother, that they both work hard and live right. Must they also have such penetrating foresight?

This is really a minor annoyance; these examples crop up only a few times. Eggers does a great job relating the Zeitoun’s story with a building sense of danger, while helping us get to know the family. The bigger problem is the one touched on earlier. The Zeitoun’s seem almost like a sit-com family. I liked them, but I kept wondering if there was more to their story. While there are all-around great guys with all-around great wives and children, it was too neat, too Brady Bunch.

The strengths of the book are many. Abdulrahman’s experiences during the flood, rescuing people, dogs, and property, are particularly well-crafted and evocatively written. The same is true of flashbacks to Abdulrahman’s childhood and early adulthood. The man lived an interesting life and had an intriguing family. All of these aspect draw in the reader and give a strong sense of how Abdulrahman arrived where he did.

The climactic events are disturbing. The pain and confusion are captured in unadorned prose which only adds to the story’s power. This is the story of human tragedy amid natural disaster. The climax is strong and poignant. The reader cannot help but ask questions about how things could go so wrong in, as the characters say, America of all places. These types of things are not supposed to happen here. Of course, they do.
I was disappointed in the denouement, the aftermath. Too little information is provided regarding what happened to the other men with Zeitoun; each of the police officers and National Guardsmen who were involved are given a paragraph after the are tracked down by Kathy and the Zeitoun’s attorney.

There is no doubt that this tells the story of a breakdown in civil society and a personal tragedy for Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. The book does not provide a complete picture, but only the experiences of the Zeitouns as related by them. Issues of Islamaphobia are present, but there were non-Muslims with Abdulrahman who, it appears, were treated no better. It also seems like a definite link is invited between Kathy’s later health problems and these tragic events. And, yet, in some ways the link feels too forced or speculative and, to me anyway, detracted somewhat from the larger issue. The systemic failures would not be less troubling if Kathy had suffered no physical deterioration.

The book is troubling, but imperfect. It is not wholly convincing. I am very happy to have read it and am quite troubled by the treatment of the Zeitouns and the other men with Abdulrahman that day. Like John Self, however, I would be interested in a different book that provided other perspectives. Not only to see the situation from the perpetrators point of view, but also to gain some necessary distance.


Zeitoun was clearly shaken by the events that day. His faith in America was understandably lost. His was not the kind of experience you merely remember; it was an experience which forms your world view. I came across an interview with Abdulrahman Zeitoun in which he states that, in America: “Muslims have no rights.” This is, to put it mildly, hyperbole.

Mr. Zeitoun’s statement suggests that there is a stronger, more powerful book, that is not limited to the perspective of the Zeitouns. Their close experience with injustice is an excellent case study in systemic failures in America; they are not necessarily the best witnesses. I would have preferred either a more novelistic approach to the subject or a more thorough investigation of events from multiple perspectives. Things went terribly wrong in the treatment of Abdulrahman Zeitoun. But it is not as simple, as he points out, as a few “bad apples”. Neither is it as simple as “Muslims have no rights.” As many members of ethnic minorities can attest, this type of problem is not limited to Muslims. As many poor or otherwise socially disadvantaged people can also attest, this type of problem is not limited to religious or ethnic minorities. Rather, the system either allows or creates incentives for this type of abuse. The extraordinary natural disaster that led to the particular example of the Zeitouns certainly exacerbated the problems of either unprofessional conduct by individuals and/or features of a criminal justice system that allow (or encourage) the abuses Abdulrahman and the other men arrested that day suffered.

Eggers did an excellent job of telling the Zeitouns’ story. He could have done more. The Diary of Anne Frank is compelling partly because she did not know what was going to happened, but the reader does. In Cold Blood is compelling because, while told largely told from the viewpoint of the criminals, it is not limited to their perspective. Eggers does not manage to escape the post-event perspective of the Zeitouns. The lessons the Zeitouns learned are not necessarily the right lessons. Their interpretation is, frankly, not as important as their experience. Eggers does manage to relate that experience, but it is a little too tinged with their interpretation to be an unqualified success. I do recommend it as a qualified success.

Lowboy by John Wray

March 22, 2010

I only read this book after it was eliminated from the Tournament of Books. Its elimination severely bruised my brackets. I did not hold its failure against it, however, but against Andrew Womack who inexplicably picked The Help rather than this book. Well, okay, he had an explanation, that’s the great part of the TOB. Still, I did not agree.

Outrage can only carry a person so far when his opinions are held in the darkness of ignorance. Hit a light switch, the world changes.

Andrew Womack, The Help decision was your biggest TOB mistake since 2005 when you advanced The Plot Against America to the Finals while sending Heir to the Glimmering World to the lockers. Your reasoning then was that, despite Heir being “practically flawless”; it was not enough. No, you wanted the book to have more “to tell.” So you waived through the flawed and held back the nearly perfect.

We must learn from history. An important lesson from the 2005 debacle is that hype, page count, sales numbers, “scope”, and historical settings do not elevate a flawed novel above “a beautiful story, beautifully told.” Yet, here we are and Andrew has chosen The Help instead of Lowboy primarily because it “brings a bigger story to sink your teeth into.”

With apologies to Winston Churchill, that is something up with which I will not put. Dangling prepositions are the least of Andrew’s worries. He chose, again, to dismiss the slimmer book with style in favor of a bulky, flawed remaking of history. Bad call.

Andrew rectified the 2005 error by voting against Plot and for Cloud Atlas in the championship. He will not get the same chance at redemption this year, unless the TOB becomes, not only lighthearted, but a joke.

Lowboy is not flawless, but there are no crippling deficiencies. Wray’s prose is efficiently pleasing and manages to capture both humor and emotion in crisp, but not showy, language. Some of the best parts are revolve around Detective Ali Lateef and Yda Heller (mother to the 16-year old, missing, schizophrenic Will):

But the woman outside his office door could never have been a nurse. The shoes had been chosen to make her look less graceful — they must have been — but somehow they had the opposite effect. There was something involuntary, even feral, about the way she held herself. The beautiful woman’s indifference to everything around her. She seemed to have no idea of the inconvenience she was causing. She held her cigarette between her thumb and ring finger, a little distastefully, like a twig that she’d just pulled out of her hair.

The relationship between Ms. Heller and Detective Lateef expands, deepens, and morphs throughout the novel in interesting, unexpected, and aesthetically pleasing ways. Their sections are as important to what Wray has to say about the world as those sections that focus on Will and his exploits while on the run. Both are fully wrought characters that pull the reader into the story and develop the themes of individual identity (Detective Lateef’s name used to be Rufus Lamarck White; Yda Heller is called “Violet” by her son Will) and eccentricity that are important parts of the narrative of Will’s life.

Various explanations are given for Will’s nickname, Lowboy, but his love of the New York subway is what makes the moniker feel most apt. One can imagine that Lowboy, if left alone on an underground train, would be perfectly content. That may not be true, because his constant companion is paranoia and, hence, seeing threatening meaning in everything including in the design of the subway car.

He would never meet the people who’d drawn the blueprint, never have a chance to question them, but he could learn things just by looking at the car. You could see, for example, that they were fearful men. The pattern on the walls, which he’d always taken to be meaningless, was actually made up of thousands of miniature coats of arms, symbols of the authority of the state. The interior of the car was waterproof, the better to be hosed down in case of bloodshed. And the seats were arranged not for maximum efficiency, not to seat the greatest number of people comfortably and safely, but to express the designer’s fear with perfect clarity. No one sat with their back turned to anyone else.

Lowboy is an interesting character. He has some of the charm of Christopher John Francis Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), but with a much darker edge. His unique way of looking at the world is engaging and disturbing. The reader, like so many of the people with whom he interacts, roots for him, is fascinated by him, and fears him. Wray manages Lowboy superbly, never allowing the reader to forget how sick the boy is, but always with enough sympathy and compassion to keep from alienating the readers.

Wary tries to pack a number of issues and ideas between the covers of Lowboy. From mental illness to detective story tropes, from issues of identity to issues of race, Wray touches on them all, but never in a heavy-handed or patronizing manner. It is the kind of book that rewards a second read. Wray writes with care; he writes for attentive readers.

For instance, Detective Lateef’s former middle name is “Lamarck”, but the reason for the reference is hardly apparent when it is made and its significance only becomes apparent to the astute as the characters and plot are revealed. It is the sort of detail that The Help is not polished enough to possess and that The Lacuna would emphasize to the point it lost all its aesthetic power.

While Lowboy was not my favorite TOB contender, it is certainly one of the most well-written. It is shameful that it was nudged aside by The Help. Lowboy will not be for everyone, but it will provide value to nearly anyone who reads it. Wray is an outstanding writer who has put forth a very good effort. On the strength of this novel, I will look for more of his work. Whether the subject of this one entices you, I encourage you to pay attention to John Wray.

*Note – I mean absolutely no disrespect to Mr. Womack who is a fine reviewer and, I am sure, an honorable man. Mostly, I am just trying to have fun with the TOB, so any pokes at Andrew are meant in the best of humor. I do disagree with the decision, but that is the fun of the TOB. Feel free to shred me in the comments, Andrew.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

March 17, 2010

D.G. Meyers has been discussing the idea that plot “serves the same function in fiction that argument serves in philosophy.” He uses Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence to support this thesis. I think he makes an excellent case and, at the very least, the idea is a useful one. In Age of Innocence, each twist of the plot pushes forward the central idea of the novel, which Meyers boils down to “the tragic view of marital duty.” Meyers summarizes:

What is striking is how ingeniously Wharton arranges for Newland Archer, “impelled to decisive action” and moved by “a spirit of perversity,” to do the very things that later make it impossible for him to achieve the happiness he so desperately longs for. He himself plotted, behind the scenes, to remake Ellen Olenska’s life, and his plot comes back to haunt him.

I have not read Age of Innocence, so I cannot engage in a meaningful discussion of Meyer’s thesis as applied to that novel. He makes a strong case, though. I find the idea a useful one.

The Book of Night Women fits nicely into the paradigm D.G. Meyers has constructed. The novel is filled with plotting, both by the author and by the characters. The novel is set in the Jamaica of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Marlon James, to some extent, sets out to explore in Jamaica some of the themes Toni Morrison has explored in the American South. The “night women” of the title are slaves enduring the cruelties of slavery as practiced in Jamaica. Jamaica is, of course, an island and, therefore, there is no Underground Railroad to a free North. The men and women enslaved on the Montpelier Estate do look elsewhere for inspiration and hope, specifically to Saint-Domingue (which, in 1804, would become the Republic of Haiti).

The novel is told entirely in a Jamaican dialect and begins with the 1785 birth of Lilith to a fourteen year-old mother who bleeds to death in the process. The opening scene and the tone in which it is related are sobering:

Two black legs spread wide and a mother mouth screaming. A weak womb done kill one life to birth another. A black baby wiggling in blood on the floor with skin darker than midnight but the greenest eyes anybody ever done see. I goin’ call her Lilith. You can call her what they call her.

The overseer places Lilith with childless woman who raises as Lilith as her own. Lilith grows up spirited and defiant. She competes with the boys in athletics, but is slapped and admonished when she bests them. Lilith is not bowed, however, but cusses and complains about the injustice. This defiance and sense fairness are defining features of her character. Lilith’s character drives much of the plot.

She has the good fortune (relatively speaking) to work in the house rather than in the field. There, she meets Homer. Homer is a wise old woman who has earned the respect of her masters and fellow slaves alike. She takes Lilith under her wing, begins training her to work in the kitchen, teaches her to read, and, eventually, invites Lilith into a secret society of women.

Homer is a practitioner of Myal (not to be confused, as even Lilith does, with Obeah) a form of traditional African magic or sorcery. She is feared by the other slaves and may be responsible for the death of Lilith’s foster mother. She seems to have no real rival for power among the other slaves and has brought together a group of six women. Lilith, asked to join when she is still very much a girl, is the seventh.

The purpose or function of the group of night women remains a mystery to Lilith and the reader for much of the book. The group may be a priesthood of Myal and Obeah practitioners, a group planning an escape or revolt, a governing body among the slaves, or something else entirely. Their existence and some members’ resistance to Lilith joining the group provides some of the mystery and suspense of the novel.

During the daylight hours, the plot is pushed by the familiar intrigues, travails, and small joys of slave life. Lilith is a very beautiful young woman with striking green eyes, so Homer spends a fair amount of time trying to shield Lilith from the undesirable attentions of the white masters and the black “johnny-jumpers” (slave drivers). For her part, Lilith develops a crush on an Irishman who, it seems, pays her little mind despite her various attempts to catch his eye.

All of the later plot developments are foreshadowed effectively, but not convincingly. This lack of persuasiveness was a problem for me throughout the novel. At times, the book almost brought me on board, but each time I felt as if something was not quite right. Imagining the life and psychology of a person trapped in 18th/19th century slavery is not easy for anyone. The failure may be as much mine as the author’s, but I was not entirely convinced. Too often, I felt like I was reading stage directions to get the characters where they needed to go. For all its originality, and there is originality here, the book never completely drew me in.

There is another, perhaps deeper, problem too. The central thesis, without revealing too much, seems to be the way the institution of slavery corrupts everyone it touches. There is no way to live an entirely honorable life within the strictures of the abominable practice, whether as servant or master. However, I do not think the plotting is as tautly conceived as it could have been to make that point (or, if that isn’t the point, then any other point). I do not think all the events work together to prove James’ apparent thesis. He does not spare his characters, but, even so, there is a hesitation to follow events and psychology to their natural conclusion.

The Book of Night Women is an entertaining read, though not the easiest due to its dialect. It has depth, but it is not a complete success. If you are interested in the types of issues and situations common to books on slavery, I would certainly recommend this book, but with reservations. Toni Morrison has so brilliantly harvested so much of this field, the yield of authors like James can only suffer by comparison. There are things left to say and James makes a very good effort at saying them, but I do not think this will be a long-lasting contribution to slave literature. At bottom, the plot deviates too much from the point for the novel to be an artistically convincing argument.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

February 23, 2010

There is the definite danger that I am more impressed by this collection of short stories than I ought to be. I read this while celebrating my liberation from The Help and, therefore, I may not be able to celebrate the joy of the two events. Even so, this is a well-written collection of short stories.

Over at Tony’s Book World, there was a discussion of Nelson Algren a few days ago. I commented on Simone de Beauvoir who was Algren’s lover and who is one of my favorite authors. Someone, Tony, I think, mentioned he was getting ready to read de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed which is a collection of three stories. The title story of that collection is devastating and brings fully to life the emotional destruction of a woman.

I bring this up because Wells Tower could have named his collection, and at least one of his stories, The Man Destroyed. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a great name too. The men who populate most of these nine stories are damaged and broken.

Retreat, possibly my favorite of the stories, dissects a bitter rivalry between two failing brothers. The story opens with this paragraph:

Sometimes, sometimes, after six or so large drinks, it seems like a sane idea to call my little brother on the phone. It takes a lot of solvent to bleach out such dark memories as my ninth birthday party, when Stephen, age six, ran up behind me at the goldfish pond at Umstead Park and shoved me face-first into the murk. The water came up only to my knees, so I did some hog-on-ice staggering before completing the belly flop. My friends laughed until they wept. Our mother put Stephen across her lap and beat his calves red with the hard side of her hairbrush, which, in the eyes of my guests, only confirmed Stephen as a heroic little comedian willing to suffer for his art.

The narrator, Matthew, is a real estate speculator and, after relating several stories which outline his relationship with his brother, calls his brother from atop a mountain in Aroostook County, Maine he “recently bought.” The phone call dialogue makes it clear that the brothers have not much progressed from their childhood skirmishes. Before they are through with the phone call, Matthew has invited Stephen to fly out to Maine and Stephen accepts on Matthew’s dime.

Matthew describes Stephen, the younger brother, in the following terms:

He’s not a churchman, but he’s extremely big on piety and sacrifice and letting you know what fine values he’s got. As far as I can tell, these values consist of little more than eating ramen noodles by the case, getting laid once every fifteen years or so, and arching his back at the sight of people like me — that is, people who have amounted to something and don’t smell heavily of thrift stores.

Matthew, on the other hand, describes himself in terms reminiscent in tone and substance of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe.

I, on the other hand, have always understood that life is an as-is, no-warranty arrangement, and if you want it to add up to anything, you’d better go at it with fire in your gut.[…]Late at night, when rest won’t come and my breathing shortens with the worry that my ambition might have robbed me of some of life’s traditional rewards (long closeness, offspring, mature plantings), I take an astral tour of the hundreds of properties that have passed through my hands over the years.

The story progresses nicely with numerous surprises along the way. The plot doubles and triples back, never allowing the reader to develop too firm expectations. There is humor, both biting and light, interspersed with the painful to watch sibling squabbles. Tower brings all this together with a pleasantly ambiguous ending. In all, it is a very good story with, to borrow a phrase from a blurb on a former TOB contender, “earned emotion.”

There is a bit of unevenness in the stories, but they were all still interesting enough and sufficiently well-written to be enjoyable. Tower is best when exploring the relationships between men, but even the story about the relationship of two teenage girls feels authentic. From these teenage girls to an adult daughter and her elderly father to a young boy and his stepfather to a man and his ex’s new husband, Tower provides entertaining insights into human interactions with a flair that will be fun to watch as Tower’s writing continues to develop.

This is not a landmark work in the development of the short story, but it is a very solid example of the form. You can do worse, much, much worse, than pick up this nice little package. The stories are not uplifting. You won’t feel good about yourself and humanity after reading them. But, they just might show you something about the world you had not noticed before.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

February 20, 2010

Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

Kathryn Stockett “truly prize[s]” that “one line”. If that sounds to you like a “line” to be “prized”, then this is your book. If not, not.

The Help is one of those books that starts with an intriguing idea and good intentions. On those two strengths, it gains a large audience. I suppose there is a little more going for it. The themes it hoped to address are important and worthy of exploration; the story moves along even if the movement is utterly predictable; the characters are likeable if decidedly not complex. Basically, the book does not demand much from the reader other than a tolerance for, or oblivion to, mediocre writing and poor editing.

Did I mention well-intentioned? Because the novel is well-intentioned. There is some heart in there. I can see how it tugs at a certain kind of reader, keeps them going, makes them feel warm and fuzzy. After all, the book was essentially Kathryn Stockett’s labor of appreciation, if not love, for the woman who helped her parents raise her.

The book opens being narrated by Aibileen in August of 1962. Aibileen is a maid for a wealthy family in Jackson, Mississippi. She speaks in a distinctive dialect:

Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime.

One of Aibileen’s best friends, Minny, is another maid-narrator with her own chapters. Where Aibileen is a wise, quiet, and strong woman, Minny is loud, brash, and wise too. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is the third narrator. She a white woman who speak perfect English. Same as all her friends.

An interesting authorial choice of Stockett’s is that Aibileen speaks and writes in dialect, but is able to transcribe Skeeter’s and the other white women’s conversations with impeccable attention to their perfect diction and grammar. She’s a human tape recorder is what she is.

My tone betrays me. I think the book, while meaning well, fails to engage important racial issues or to provide insight into the mindset of “the help” in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. It is quite revealing regarding the way in which “enlightened” white people who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi view the world.

The plot involves various struggles and difficulties faced by the oppressed black maids. The struggles and difficulties are almost entirely caused by or exacerbated by their rich, white, female employers who, except for the clueless Skeeter (unintentionally modeled a little too faithfully on the author) and the formerly-poor and currently-stupid Celia, are almost uniformly mean, racist, petty, spineless, conniving, or some combination thereof. Perhaps, this is to make up for the dialect thing.

Don’t ask about the men.

Skeeter wants to be a writer, Aibileen wants to raise (white) children, and Minny is a necessary device to move the plot, inject some predictable unpredictability, and ease some of Aibileen’s load as the prototypical “help”. Skeeter ends up hitting on the idea of writing about life in Jackson, Mississippi from the perspective of the maids.

The dialect issue is a problem. It is jarring, partly because Stockett seemed to go half-hearted. I say half-hearted both because only certain words seem affected (e.g. “Law” for “Lord”, “a” for “of”, and “on” for “going to” are the most prominent substitutions while you won’t find anyone dropping g’s; and the screwing up of noun-verb-tense agreement by “the help” like: “She glance out at the drive…” instead of “She glances…”) and because, as I already mentioned, the white characters have no ungrammatical tics or improper pronunciations. This is remarkable given that the dialectical distinctions are noted even among the white children, many of whom are primarily raised by the maids with poor diction.

“Aibee, my froat hurts.” [Four year-old Mae Mobley]

“I–I be right there, baby.” [Aibileen.]

Mae Mobley’s mother pays very little attention to her, while Mae Mobley seems to spend almost every waking moment with Aibileen. Yet, Mae Mobley, who can’t pronounce throat, can correctly manage noun-verb-tense agreement and Aibileen can’t, even when she writes.

To some extent maybe Stockett could not win or felt like she could not win. That might explain the seemingly tentative rendering of dialect. If she had tried to be perfectly faithful, she might seem even more out of touch. But, still, her choices in conveying dialect raise questions of authenticity and the author’s understanding of her characters. It conveys a sense that there is still, in her mind, an us and them, just that “[n]ot that much separates us.” But we are still separate.

This impression is reinforced by Skeeter’s unfortunate description of one of the maids she interviews:

“She spoke evenly and with care, like a white person.”

Yeah, from my childhood in the South, that’s definitely how I recall white southerners speaking: evenly and with care.

The characters reinforce this interpretation of Stockett’s own mindset. While the white characters are almost all bad and the black characters are almost all “good” (except for the men), only with the help of Skeeter do they find their voice. I found the plot condescending, in other words.

Some technical aspects of Stockett’s writing were annoying. A small point is her transparent use of “the Terrible Awful Thing” which, of course, is only called by the name “Terrible Awful” until late in the book to maintain some suspense. The thing is neither terrible nor awful.

[Another irritatingly bad feature was the cliched characterization of villains. For instance,] Hilly, the primary villain, suffers from a cold sore on her lip. [edited 6-8-10 thanks to Ramsey’s comment below]

I should point out the good too. The best sentence in the book (that I recall) is when Skeeter describes her mother driving:

At the end of the lane, she puts on her blinker like she’s doing brain surgery and creeps the Cadillac out onto the County Road.

The occasional well-wrought sentence does not make wading through some of the very poorly written sentences worth the slog. Then there is the fact that almost all of the characters pause at….odd times. And every pause is captured. I could barely stand it after awhile. On one Kindle screen, Skeeter gives us:

“Me too what…sir?”

“I don’t…dislike you, sir,” I say, shifting in my flats.

“I know he was very…upset,” I say, when truthfully, I know almost nothing at all.

Most of the other characters have the same…problem:

“You looked mighty…sure a yourself.” [Minny]

“So Hilly…she probably thinks I was fooling around with Johnny while they were still going steady then.” [Celia]

“And you look very…glamorous tonight.” [Julia Fenway]

“I was…feeling so warm in here.” [Elizabeth]

“These next few months are going to be…pretty hard.” [Doctor Neal]

Sometimes the pause is not an ellipsis, but a dash:

“I’ll be gone and–I don’t know.”

I don’t know either.

Perhaps my favorite example, in a “dark and stormy night” kind of way:

“This is what you’ve been writing about for the past twelve months? Not…Jesus Christ?”

“No, Stuart. Not…Jesus.”