September 28, 2010
I finished reading Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap a few weeks ago and since turning the last page have pondered the idea of what causes a book to be called offensive.
This unputdownable novel, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, raised the fur for many who thought it too offensive to be considered for the Booker’s prestigious recognition. The outcry was over the content containing “unbelievable misogyny.” I wondered why some but not all, including the judges, held that viewpoint. Is a book universally offensive or offensive to a few? And is a book offensive or are the characters offensive?
In an interview with the U.K.’s Telegraph, Tsiolkas, an Australian author, said, “It’s not a misogynistic book; it’s about infantile men who are misogynistic.”
He’s referring to Hector and Harry, Greek cousins living successful suburban lives outside Melbourne with their beautiful wives and children. Their inner thoughts are filled with pornographic sex, violence, racist commentary and intolerance for the weak. They revert to drugs, booze, infidelity and anger to make themselves feel better, and they’re self-absorbed, arrogant and filled with self-entitlement. Harry almost hits his wife, angry over family business she’s shared with Hector, and when he hugs her in regret, she reminds him of a ”faithful, dumb animal.”
We don’t see Harry slap his wife, but we do see him slap the three-year-old son of hippy couple Gary and Rosie at Hector and wife Aisha’s barbecue in the beginning of the book. This slap reverberates through family and friends at the backyard event, dividing some who think the aggressive, undisciplined Hugo deserved it, while others think it’s wrong to hit a child, especially not one’s own. Gary and Rosie file charges, and as the story moves from the moment of the slap to the court date and after, Tsiolkas takes us through the viewpoints of eight witnessing characters with such skill you never have the sense of an author at work. It’s pure involved reading.
But is it offensive? I didn’t think so. Yes, Harry and Hector are disgusting. They as well as the wives we hear from — Rosie and Aisha — lie to their loved ones and to themselves. The reasons for staying married have everything to do with money and appearances. Tsiolkas balances these selfish adults with the viewpoints of two high school kids who also witnessed the slap, teenagers searching for love and confused by what they want and what they can have. And then there’s my favorite character Manolis, Hector’s father, an aging Greek man who believes his generation bred monsters, sons and daughters who lack humility and generosity, let alone faith and loyalty to one’s family and God.
Curious about this concept of offensive books, I found a thread on Library Thing, a cataloging and social networking site for book lovers, that asks the question: What is the most offensive book you got through? Among those offered up are Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone and John Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. After that, I found a New York Times blog post — “A Library’s Approach to Books that Offend” – about how librarians handle patrons’ objections to offensive books in circulation. “In general, librarians are trained to tackle any complaints about books with a polite demeanor. But they are also instructed to stand firm in defending the book’s presence in the library.” One example of an objection: The library received a complaint about Pulitzer-winner Beloved by Toni Morrison for sexual content.
The Slap no doubt is a potential target for library complaints, if not for misogyny then for sexual content and foul language. But offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder. Wasn’t that at the root of the fatwa issued to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989? The Slap gets both “love it” and “hate it” reactions from critics and readers alike, and I’m in the former camp, as well as on the side of the author – it’s the characters that are offensive. What’s most disturbing is how true to life they appear in this riveting story.
September 24, 2010
Here’s a handful of books that caught my interest this week. These are neither recommendations — I haven’t read them — nor forecasts, rather encounters that took me down a path to learn more about the books. All part of the ongoing discovery of what’s out there for us to read and enjoy.
How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Blackwell. This book sounds like a great way to be introduced to Montaigne, not only his life but the answers in his famous essays about how one best lives a life. Blackwell’s biography of the 16th century philosopher was first released in Britain. The Guardian’s review written by Ruth Scurr says this: “Central as the essays are to [Blackwell's] own approach to his life, it is ultimately his life-loving vivacity that she succeeds in communicating to her readers: ‘What he left behind was all the better for being imperfect, ambiguous, inadequate and vulnerable to distortion. Oh Lord, one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, by all means let me be misunderstood.’”
Piano Lessons: A Memoir by Anna Goldsworthy. I’m a fan of life stories about piano lessons, being one who studied the piano many years and still plays my Yamaha U3. Goldsworthy is an Australian pianist who performs internationally and records with the ABC Classics label. She is also a teacher and on the Liszt list. That means she studied with a teacher who’s in a lineage of teachers who studied with composer Franz Liszt. From the book’s website: “With wit and affection, Goldsworthy captures the hopes and uncertainties of youth, the fear and exhilaration of performing and the complex bonds between teacher and student.”
Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye. A first novel in which a man returns home to Duluth, MN, to take care of his estranged, dying father. At the heart of their 35-year broken relationship is a shipwreck the father survived. From the publisher’s website: “When his father for the first time finally tells the story of the horrific disaster he has carried with him so long, it leads the two men to reconsider each other.” Geye’s debut is listed in Publishers Weekly’s Rousing the Sleepers: Top 20 hand-sells from independent presses this fall.
The Isabella Breviary. According to the publisher’s website, this is an exact replica of the 15th century illuminated manuscript given to Isabella of Castille to commemorate the double marriage of her children. (The original is owned by the British Museum.) Isabella is the queen who sponsored Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Publishing company Moleiro specializes in the reproduction of codices, maps and works of art between the 13th and 16th centuries. Fun to peruse online, not only this breviary but the several illuminated texts offered by Moleiro. 987 numbered copies being sold.
One with Others [a little book of her days] by C. D. Wright. Several years ago I discovered C. D. Wright via her poem “More Blues and the Abstract Truth.” It remains one of my favorite poems. Her poetry doesn’t consistently work for me, yet I always check it out because when it does, it’s terrific. In October, her new collection published by Copper Canyon Press finds its center in a civil rights incident that happened in her native Arkansas. From the publisher’s website: “This history leaps howling off the page.”
September 20, 2010
Someday, I want to do what Susan Hill did. She relied on the riches of her own library for a year and didn’t read any new books.
This wasn’t a whim. When searching for a specific book on her bookshelves one day, she discovered many books in her library she hadn’t read, or that she had read but forgot she owned. She also discovered books she wanted to re-read. And so Susan Hill, a distinguished British author, embarked on a reading journey and then wrote a book about it: Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, a paperback edition, hits bookstores November 1, 2010.
That’s the date of the U.S. publication. Howards End Is on the Landing was published a year ago in the U.K. The Telegraph praised the book and said: ”[Hill] is unrepentant about her prejudice against Australian and Canadian writing and will surprise many by her dismissal of Jane Austen. Her final list of 40 indispensable books ['I think I could manage with alone, for the rest of my life'] should provoke debate and, hopefully, attract new readers for F. M. Mayor’s long-neglected The Rector’s Daughter, for which she is an eloquent advocate.”
You can read the introduction of Hill’s new book on the website of The Guardian, which describes the book as “charming.” It also says, “Trollope and Wodehouse have two titles each on the list, which tells us something about Hill’s tastes, as does the absence of any European authors. What we are left with is a mind-map of a novelist in her late 60s who has spent her life reading and writing books.”
Books about books don’t tend to hit my reading table, but the exceptions — my favorite, Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure — become rich resources for undiscovered authors and books. An example in point is F. M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter, mentioned above, published by Virago Modern Classics. Hill’s list of 40 now has my interest.
Note to book collectors: You’ll want to get your hands on the first printing of the first U.K. edition of this book. It was printed with a serious error that was caught before publication. The book went into a second printing immediately, without the error.
September 17, 2010
This dust-jacket photo should look familiar to TLC readers. It appeared a few weeks ago in a list of new books coming out in September in which I wrote of the book, “the plot portends an intriguing read.” This fiction debut proves to be just that. It’s an unusual story about the deportation of Armenians from Turkey in 1915, engaging us with a strong narrative voice, rich historic settings, foreboding tragedy and troubled relationships.
The narrator and protagonist are 92-year-old Emmett Con, who participated in that inhumane event as a teen-aged gendarme in the Ottoman army, herding thousands of Armenians across the desert toward Aleppo, Syria, in what today is often referred to as the first modern genocide. Starvation, disease, rape and murder took place during the forced march intended to rid Turkey of an ethnic group the Turkish government feared would revolt and demand autonomy.
But Emmett has long been deprived of his past. A head injury during World War I took away his memory and landed him in a London hospital in 1917. There he met his American wife. She brought him to the United States, where Ahmet Kahn became Emmett Conn, working in various trades and raising a family. Now, 72 years later, his life changes dramatically with the onset of a brain tumor that brings back the forgotten past in vivid dreams.
Author Mark T. Mustian moves the story between present and past with seamless dexterity and impressive characterization of Conn the old man and Kahn the younger man. The former entertains loose thoughts, unpredictable actions and surly reproaches toward family and friends, and they ring as true as that of any 92-year-old that broods, mopes and acts like a child. The latter is of a more cruel nature, guarding the Armenians with indifference, until he’s attracted to an Armenian girl with one light eye and one dark eye. Their relationship creates tension in the story, as Ahmet struggles between loyalty to the army and his desire to win the girl’s respect.
Symptoms of the tumor erratically drop Emmett into sleep, as well as seize him with behaviors that react to the dreams. These alarm his daughter, who admits him to a psych facility for observation and medication. Emmett, however, fights to stay connected to the dreams and his past. Eventually, shame and regret from the wartime horrors he witnessed and participated in weigh heavy on his conscience and drive him toward finding forgiveness.
The resolution of the two stories, coming together in the end, is the weakest part of the novel, told with less realism than the powerful story before it. It’s a small matter, though, because Emmett, by this point, has captured us with his surrender to an overwhelming, unimaginable past and his hope for renewal. He’s the kind of character you remember long after his story has been told.
September 14, 2010
I’ve just returned from a hiking trip in Utah where, one afternoon, I saw a young woman reading from a Kindle at Scout Lookout, a destination point in Zion National Park. I figured she was reading while her husband headed up to Angel’s Landing, an additional half-mile climb with shear drop-offs on either side. Observing the reading woman, I wished I’d also brought my book — Angel’s Landing was too frightening for me – but then, I was reading a 482-page paperback, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. There was no room for it in the backpack with the rain gear, water and snacks. Big points there for the slim Kindle.
That evening over dinner with my fellow hikers, I mentioned the Scout Landing Kindle reader. A husband and wife jumped in to express love for their Kindles and the convenience of no longer having to carry print books. Their animated remarks indicated — as is typical for e-reader aficionados — that anyone who rejects the e-reader trend is a Luddite.
I didn’t mention right away that I had indeed done just that, tried and rejected the Kindle. When I eventually confessed, I could feel emotions heating up, as if we were defending rival political candidates. No matter what I said, my print candidate was stuck in the past and not the obvious future leader. Even my comment that I believe print and electronic books can co-exist was dismissed. My love of signed, rare books was acknowledged (they have them, also) but designated as valuable relics. Here’s the rub: The wife of the Kindle-reading couple works in the New York publishing industry.
I’m not against e-readers. I’m fascinated by how they’re transforming the reading world, clearly with major benefits that go beyond portability. The husband in this Kindle reading team suffers from bad eyesight, and he increases the font size not only for his books but also the daily newspapers he receives on the Kindle. It makes reading much easier for him. And when I recommended a book for his wife, she said she could download it that night. Who knows, someday, when the e-readers get worked out and priced right, maybe I’ll find one I like to slip into my suitcase and backpack.
That said, I only saw two Kindles/e-readers on the trip. Everyone else on the airplanes and shuttles or poolside whom I saw reading had print books. Which is to say, we’re all still carrying them around with us, no matter where we go.
A woman in my group carried Father of the Rain by Lily King with her in the van that took us to our hiking spots. One day, while the rest of us were finishing lunch, she went off to sit on a log and read this novel that entranced her. (She told me she couldn’t put it down.) Sure, a downloaded version on a Kindle would’ve been much easier to carry, as we shuttled around Zion and Bryce canyons, but I don’t think that would appeal to her. She told me she liked holding a physical book. Big points there for print.
September 5, 2010
September 2, 2010
I’ve added my first collectible Hemingway to my bookshelves: Number 209 of 300 copies of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” a lesser-known short story printed by House of Books, New York, 1933. Hemingway first editions are as far beyond my budget as a McMansion, Ferrari or a house in Spain, but then along came this more-within-my-budget special edition of a bizarre story.
Two “ambulance” surgeons respond to a 16-year-old boy who arrives in the Emergency Room Christmas Eve. The boy loathes his lustful feelings and their sin against purity and so requests to be castrated. The surgeons tell him he’s normal and send him away. He returns on Christmas Day, mutilated by self-treatment. The most incompetent of the two surgeons is working in the ER and can’t find an answer in his reference book that tells him what to do.
Interesting that NYU School of Medicine posts a summary of this story on its Literature Annotations web page, saying in part, “Two physicians sit in the Emergency Room of a Kansas City hospital on Christmas Day. The narrator’s references to the incompetence or past errors of each is slipped quietly into the text as the story unfolds.” And then this, about the book’s ending: “The self-centered conversation returns to verbal ego-play between the two physicians, without a hint that either has considered the magnitude of the medical malfeasance against the boy.” In the context of a medical school’s website, “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” becomes a powerful cautionary tale.
Also in recent weeks, three paperbacks featuring the famous TV collie, Lassie, join my book collection of vintage paperbacks. Each are 3 1/2″ x 5″ with colorful illustrations. They bring back memories of the Sunday night show I watched in the 1960s about Lassie and Timmy, who owned the collie. And, of course, there was Timmy’s mom, actress June Lockhart on the show from 1958 to 1964, forever in an apron and standing at the back door. Yes, I now own:
- Lassie and the Shabby Sheik (1968), in which Lassie performs heroic rescues in Australian bush country
- Lassie: Adventure in Alaska (1967)
- Lassie: Old One-Eye (1975), being heroic in Washington’s Cascade Mountains
The size makes these paperbacks delightful to hold and flip through for the illustrations. The paper is soft to the touch. Best of all, they have the aroma of musty old books. Gotta love it, and I do.