Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I’m clearly in the minority here, and a minority at odds with a very high literary consensus at that, so I have to assume there’s something here that I’m failing to register, that it’s me, and not the book. But I really hated it. I rolled my eyes at literally every page and had to force myself to read on.

297673I found the story hollow and mind-numbingly boring, couldn’t care less what happened next or what any of the characters amounted to, I hated the familiar over-exotisation of the foreign, the Other (reminded me strongly of <i>Middlesex</i> which was also thin on story but heavy on the rhapsodising over that mythical exotic race, the Greeks); and to me the famously eclectic, original style was merely showy, original for the sake of it. It’s like Diaz had this thought of mixing old-school nerdiness, street slang, Dominican Spanish and pretentious uber-literary words and references, throwing in some supposedly self-deprecating but actually smug markers of self-awareness, and it sounded awesome in his head but the end result is, to me, a boastful dissonance with no beauty or point to it, a grape stew, as we say in Bulgarian – a hopscotch of discordant ingredients that tastes off. The book sounded off to me the entire time, and not just the awkward and unyielding blend of varying writing styles, but the drawn out metaphors and similes that seemed to painfully stretch their points, and the supremely annoying, forced-dramatic use of one-line paragraphs, exclamation points and exaggerated descriptions of strong emotions that nevertheless failed to elicit any reaction from me.

And another thing. I’ve had it up to here with the casual misogyny in super cool mega literary hyper praised dudes’ books. It’s not cool and I’ve heard it a million times before and at this point I can’t abide it. Every single woman that makes an appearance in this book (except one, who is there to play the role of the witch) is described in dripping detail as a collection of appetising body parts, and all of those women are traffic-stopping hot, naturally, because what is even the point of non-fuckable females? Diaz, for one, seems at a loss for finding one. Women are routinely referred to as the collective „ass“, „culo“ and „toto“ – like they’re a natural resource instead of, you know, people. Even historical women are mentioned, sometimes manipulatively so, merely in terms of their desirability – like the Mirabal sisters who founded a whole resistance movement but the narrator only mentions them as girls Trujillo wanted to fuck but couldn’t so he had them killed. I found that really irritating and frankly, insulting.

I know it’s supposed to be critical, because the narrator is this hypermasculine guy and in the book hypermasculinity only leads to violence and loss (including Oscar’s own desperate pursuit of it), but Oscar is supposed to be the opposite of that negative and he isn’t that great either. He’s obsessed with being in love with women he literally does not know and this is supposed to be an antidote to machismo? He merely sees women as another sort of object. Not to mention he checks all the boxes of the abominable Nice Guy(TM) stereotype – he gets violent when his love interest starts dating someone else, he stalks a woman, following her around and literally endangering her well-being and possibly life against her protests and appeals, and rationalises it by telling himself if she really wanted him to stop, she’d have him killed. Like, what?! And I so appreciate reading yet another account where women’s actual, stated desires are completely dismissed in favour of men’s ridiculous and self-serving interpretations of their behaviour. Not. Oh, and his fantasy about fucking a friend on the sly because she isn’t hot enough „to date openly“ (Oscar is a character described as physically unattractive and bullied for it) was another favourite too. Love these microaggressions in my literature, cause it’s not enough to actually live them in real life.

This supposed criticism of misogyny still revolves around men and how it affects them – all of the feeling, compassion and analytical power is devoted to them. The consequences for women are presented in a disinterested way, like a natural calamity that can’t be avoided. Which incidentally is exactly how misogynists see misogyny. So, a complete failure from where I’m standing.

The idea of likening the dictator Trujillo to a sci-fi or fantasy supervillain with unearthly origins and powers like Sauron sounds interesting, but is lost on the page. It’s suggested in direct terms, in the space of a page (btw the only page in the entire book that aroused any interest in me), and the rest of the time I guess the reader is supposed to make the connection between the descriptions of his all-enveloping evil and the annoying repeated references to LotR, but those two merely coexist in the same book. No literary devices are employed to imply that connection that I could find.

The similarities with <i>Middlesex</i> were obvious to me and very annoying. Both authors exploit their countries of origin for the easily impressed American literary circles who are always ready to believe the most far-fetched and absurd things about non-US cultures, especially the more exotic-sounding ones. One uses a gene that travels down the generational line, the other uses a curse (fuku) that functions the exact same way. One utilises science, the other – magic. Both things decidedly outside the mundane logic of regular life. It seems performing literary magic tricks for the wide-eyed, well-intentioned but no less jingoistic for it American literati really pays off.

By the way this whole fuku/zafa thing, which only gets vaguely interesting literally in the last 5 pages, reminded me strongly of our own superstitions about уроки and the things you do to break them, like knocking on wood, spitting on kids, etc. and I really couldn’t be as awed by it as I was supposed to be. I suspect the problem is I’m not an American for whom anything outside their borders is non-civilisation, a realm of primitive customs and supernatural forces.

I’m sure there was something supreme and subtle about this book that I just couldn’t comprehend and therefore appreciate – perhaps I should have puzzled it out from the cryptic phrases, references and literal blank spaces in lieu of words thrown in the last few pages which I think were supposed to help piece together the possibly alien nature of the fuku hanging on the de Leons and how it could be undone. Well, I failed. Maybe I’d have been better prepared to place the novel had I been well-read in the Latin-American literary tradition. As it is, I’ve only read Isabel Allende from that crowd and I didn’t care for her either. Maybe Latin-American magical realism, with or without hip additions like Jersey slang and nerdy references, just isn’t my cup of tea.

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Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Warning: spoilers in the last paragraph.

A delightful read. Effortlessly creepy, with a couple of genuinely surprising and well-constructed plot twists (I was lucky enough to be spoiler-free), and wonderfully atmospheric – precisely what you’d want from a „haunted mansion“ kind of book. It has echoes of classic Gothic stories like Jane Eyre. The writing style is flowing and elegant, shining especially in the descriptions of dynamic changes in nature, which are a sort of a barometer for the story’s upcoming twists and turns, creating a sense of premonition which keeps you on your toes. My heart actually raced at a few places. No wonder Hitchcock loved du Maurier’s work.15760593

I identified with the narrating main character almost the entire time. I, too, was the bumbling, inelegant, eager to please awkward girl at 21. I share her fascination with the passage of time, which she dwells on beautifully. I was also easily dazzled by splendour and froze whenever someone expressed the tiniest negative feeling around me. I found her vantage point immensely relatable and that helped me experience the thrill, fear, and apprehension of the new bride in the gorgeous but ominous mansion, imbued with the tastes, touch and spirit of its old mistress who seems to have ruled over every room and every soul in it.

I found Rebecca to be infinitely more fascinating before it was revealed Maxim isn’t pining for her but feeling the weight of his crime. I thought it rather frustrating that Maxim has murdered a woman, and one who he thought was pregnant, to boot, and not even a line is dedicated to how that may be wrong – there’s no remorse, fear for his soul, no reckoning with this pretty horrible deed at all. His bride doesn’t seem to have any ambiguous, at least, feelings about it either – like there’s an understanding that it’s not really a bad thing to do. That kind of flattens the character of Rebecca out; she is much better developed before she is revealed, ironically.

I was a bit bummed the narrator’s name is never revealed. At the beginning it’s mentioned as unusual and beautiful and I really wanted to know what it is.

Review: Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry

You can tell this is a debut. The collection is uneven, the author seems unsure – some stories don’t have a clear direction, others explain too much (crime in the short genre IMO), as if anxious to not be misunderstood; the language is excessively rich, as if to make sure the reader knows this is literary fiction. 828699

Even so, most stories are told from a deep need for storytelling – they’re sincere, unafraid to tackle the humongous topic of the human condition and at times genuinely moving or reflective. There’s a lot of comedy in these pages, but it’s rather grim – like in A Fine Balance, Mistry looks misery unflinchingly in the eye, only this time it’s mostly poverty of spirit rather than physical want he’s dissecting. Much like the parents that are interwoven curiously into the last story – both a part of it and explicitly marked as being outside of it – you can’t really tell how the author feels about this Parsi community or the memories of his childhood. If we go with his father’s theory on writing, expressed in (or from the edges of) the last story, perhaps he started writing before he had achieved sufficient artistic distance. The emotional entanglement is tangible through the dispassionate tone, but not easy to parse.

One thing that irritated me through all the stories was how women (except for mothers) existed in a constant state of being ogled and used for sexual gratification by the male characters, including by the one who’s clearly the author’s younger self – in one story he even sniffs his neighbours’ underwear and masturbates on it wile they’re away. And it’s all just passing remarks, not really a plot element or symbol or anything of artistic purpose, like it’s just how things are generally, without any judgement or comment. In one story, there is a whole page dedicated to the way stray pubic hairs dance around the wearer’s crotch while she’s floating in the pool; in the same story he ogles some women while they’re sun bathing and when later he sees they’re older, he calls them „the two disappointments“; when one of them seems to show interest in him, she becomes a „horny old cow“. This reminded me in a very unpleasant way of this particular experience of my time in India – being constantly ogled, stalked and groped. And it really bugged me that it was described so uncritically here, like it’s harmless and normal. It isn’t.

Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Warning: spoilers for both this book and Jane Eyre

29429901Wide Sagrasso Sea is about the hopeless abyss between coloniser and colonised, although the colonised here is represented by a white Creole (i.e. an earlier coloniser). It’s about how Antoinette became Bertha – the mad woman in the attic from Jane Eyre – through a process of relentless othering by her husband who refuses to recognise her as his social equal and, resenting the fact that he’s been thrust into this marriage for the humiliating reason of monetary need, he drives her to madness with his hardness, and with his willingness to listen to vicious rumours from this „alien“, as he repeatedly calls it, environment. I don’t think it was really the rumours themselves – he had two competing accounts and he chose to trust the one coming from strangers, because he needed an excuse to bury this unequal, from his point of view, marriage he could only associate with humiliation – even though it’s clear, I thought, that he did love Antoinette. He hates that he was forced to marry her for money, he is anxious that she might not be fully white, he is furious that he feels lost on this island, a continuously rejected stranger. All of this works to facilitate his willingness to erase his wife – both her identity, by calling her Bertha (and she confronts him directly about it – „I know, that’s obeah too“), and later, as we see in Jane Eyre, her existence in his life.

It’s a story about the stubbornness and impermeability of a imperialist culture that will not make room for any alternative narratives or points of view as much as it is an account of how Bertha Mason came to be locked in the attic. Rochester could have been happy with Antoinette but that would have meant adjusting his idea of what is truth and what is reality, and as a Victorian materialist, as a representative of a colonising empire that needs all its excuses to occupy, loot and enslave, he cannot do that. The fact that Antoinette ends up a mad woman in the eyes of proper British society not only underscores its rigidity but replays the age-old view that non-conforming women are crazy, not right, unhealthy, and need to be removed from the world. The violence of misogyny here echoes the violence of colonialism, two kindred philosophies practised by wealthy white men.

The introduction, explanatory texts about obeah, slavery and the Caribbean islands, and the notes to the text are a real asset to this edition – they put me in context and helped me understand the setting, atmosphere and a lot of references that would have flown over my head. To me, they made the reading more enjoyable.

Ревю: „Тъмни зори“ от Кирил Христов

Не знам как да определя този роман. Като главния герой и идейният заряд се люшка между злостно женомразие и уважение към жената и мястото й в живота на мъжа (в контекста на едно традиционно общество). Жените са категорично осъдени като нищожни, по-близки до „скотското“, „негодни за култура“, по-извратени сексуално и от по-ранна възраст. Впрочем главният герой вижда всяка проява на човешката сексуалност като извращение, но особено мастурбацията. Има някои шокиращи, дори (или може би особено) за днешно време, сцени в книгата – включително на две седемгодишни момиченца, които мастурбират заедно и взаимно. 8290058

По-голямата част от романа е посветена на душевните терзания на младия Асен, който не може да примири поведението си (сексуална връзка с млада вдовица, която впрочем овдовява на първата страница и на петата вече е в леглото на юношата) със силните си вътрешни убеждения, а именно, че сексът е нещо недостойно, мръсно и животинско. В интерес на истината тази непрестанна вътрешна борба, която постепенно разяжда щастието и желанието за живот на момчето, е описана талантливо и убедително, с немалък психологически усет. Това описание освен това е подплатено от повествователната нишка на романа с изобилие от сцени, в които читателят има възможност да види героя през очите на негови близки и да се „убеди“, че вътрешната борба действително е сериозна, че има силата да промени отношенията му със света и дори чувствата му към собственото му семейство. В края на романовото действие обаче се появява Мъдрият човек (учителят по философия, г-н Божилов), който като лъч от небето спуска наготово обяснението и разрешението на този огромен конфликт благодарение на забележителната си мъдрост, житейски опит и умелост в „сърцеведството“ – всъщност реалистична развръзка, но разочароваща за роман, особено за такъв с толкова патетичен тон.

Изключително интересно е как в речта на този полубожествен образ на г-н Божилов едно след друго следват две напълно противоположни, поне от моята гледна точка, изложения относно любовта, секса и жените – първото е споменатата по-горе женомразка тирада за това как жената има по-повърхностен духовен живот от мъжа (и телесно недоразвитите жени се мъчат да се занимават с мъжки интереси, заприличвайки на „пародия на мъж“ – тази реторика е оцеляла до ден-днешен в България, колко депресиращо), а второто е проникновено и фино изложено описание на правилния начин да прекъснем една връзка, в която не можем да отвърнем на чувствата на другия човек. Ето го в цялост:

„За мене е ясно, че ти всъщност си избягал така презглава от жената, с която си близък, и че без да искаш, отнесъл си се с нея тъй, щото тя ще да е останала със сломено сърце и може би в отчаяние. Ако тя те обича беззаветно, ако, откъснат от нея, ти я излагаш на отчаяни постъпки, знай, че мъката, която те чака, би била още по-непоносима. Ние не бива да не държим сметка за терзанията, които причиняваме на ония, що ни обичат, защото изкупленията, които нашата съвест ни налага, са ужасни. Любовта само на едната страна, разбира се, е недостатъчна. Но ако ти се увериш, че не можеш да й отговориш с напълно достатъчно за тебе чувство, то не бива да бъдеш жесток, а трябва търпеливо да подготвиш раздялата с всичката почит, която дължим на страданието. Ние в никой случай нямаме право да убиваме ония, които ни безпаметно обичат!“

Накрая обяснението защо все пак „умереният“ секс между хора със здрава духовна връзка е добър за умственото и нравствено развитие е сдъвкано и неясно – люшкането между желание и отвращение катализира вътрешните борби и оттам и израстването или нещо подобно. Струва ми се, че и авторът не е много наясно с конкретния механизъм на тази причинно-следствено връзка – просто търси начин да примири еснафските си убеждения по отношение на секса с естествените прояви на сексуалността си.

Краят на романа е мелодраматичен до истерия и доста снижава цялостното му качество, за съжаление.

Review: Animal Farm by George Orwell

529960The book obviously satirises the USSR and the Socialist states that sprang up in Eastern Europe in the mid 20th century, but towards the end, I got the feeling the author was trying to say they weren’t horrible just because they were Socialist, but that they were just as horrible as the capitalist systems they were purporting to replace – on the last few pages, the humans (capitalists) congratulate the pigs (Socialists) on having the highest rates of labour with the lowest rations of food, because that’s been their goal as well, and the pigs slowly morph into humans: in the very last sentence, the animals are unable to tell them apart – because they ultimately turn into the same thing: a system of exploitation and disempowerment where the ones who’ve managed to take control of the means of production are free to exploit, terrorise and even murder the others. The only way to maintain the control of the people is for the people to be educated, vigilant, together in solidarity and empowered to defend the common good.

The methodical replacement of fact with myth is the main tool the pigs (the empowered elite) use to maintain their control on the animals’ feelings of loyalty to the Animalist ideal, even when no part of the original concept remains anymore. That tool is superbly described in 1984 as well, and the chilling part is, Orwell knew it from reality. It’s not fiction, it did and does happen to this day: curating facts to bury what’s inconvenient to the powers that be, exaggerate what’s useful and outright lie about things that never happened. And the really sad thing is, we’ve learnt very little from Orwell.

Review: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

It’s a really unusual book in how it’s told – it constantly thwarts your expectations of what it’s actually about. It starts in the present and goes backwards, suddenly switching from a story about a bourgeois family in Hamilton and their affairs to a bona fide adventure tale of exploration and stupendous discovery set in the surreally gorgeous wilderness of the South-west. That latter story, told in splendid lyrical prose that pays reverential respect to nature’s beauty and humankind’s capacity for greatness, is a synthesis of the philosophical underpinning of the book: the fight for authenticity, honour and being true to one’s inner self, the one buried under the piles of family and social conventions, obligations and pressures.766900

The story and spirit of Tom Outland, a prodigious wildling-turned-inventor, imbues the book and holds the key to interpreting every event, every line, every decision made by the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one – I think it can be described as an exploration of the process of disintegration of the fabric of social convention, shared history, family, chance and everything else we call life, and returning to our earliest selves, before we were moulded by external forces.

Ревю: „За мишките и хората“ от Джон Стайнбек

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Ще пропусна достатъчно обговорените теми за искреното приятелство и горестта на непостижимата мечта, която всеки носи в сърцето си, и ще мина към историята на героинята в книгата, която дори не мога да назова, защото авторът не е сметнал за нужно да й даде име. Всъщност подозирам го в нарочен избор да я представя само чрез притежателната връзка със съпруга й, Кърли – „жената на Кърли“. Мисля, че дехуманизиращото намерение тук е очевидно, при положение, че всички други имат собствени имена; и се потвърждава в съдбата на героинята. Експлицитно и напоително демонизирана при всяка поява на страниците, както в авторовата реч (обилно гримирана, с полуотворени устни, пъчи гърди), така и в речта на героите, които я наричат с разнообразни женомразки епитети, жената в крайна сметка е убита брутално, подобно на мишките и кучетата, които Лени убива без да иска. И когато лежи мъртва на земята и Канди, един от основните герои в повестта, сяда до нея да чака другите, той издава жален вопъл не за нейната съдба, а тази на убиеца й. Нея нарича „никаквица“ и я обвинява, че сама си го е търсила. Паралелите с днешно време, 80 години след тази книга, са на практика 1:1 – развали хубавото момче, животът му е провален, вкара го в беля, сама си го търсеше и пр.

Но ако човек се абстрахира от очевидния ъгъл на интерпретация в книгата, ще види, че тази жена не е по-различна от Джордж и Лени – и тя е самотна, и тя е затворена в кръговрата на един живот, който не иска да живее, и тя носи в сърцето си неосъществима мечта и страда, защото няма да може да я изпълни. Тя казва в прав текст, че просто иска да има с кого да поговори, че й е ужасно самотно и тясно по цял ден да е затворена в къщата, с насилник за съпруг, когото не обича. Всичко това обаче героите разчитат като опити за съблазън и изрично злонамерено желание да ги вкара в неприятности и дори в затвора. Много неприятно ми беше да чета това отношение към нея – от героите и от разказвача – и да си мисля как нищо не се е променило днес и как жените все още се гледат с подозрение, приемат се предимно чрез връзките си с мъжете, смятат се за „изкушения“ и биват обвинявани, ако някой ги нападне.

Всъщност ако приемем, че неутралният разказвач е ненадежден, можем да разглеждаме отношението към жената на Кърли като демонстрация и дори осъждане на женомразките нагласи към жените в това общество. Все пак, ако погледнем безпристрастно, тя не се е провинила в нищо – дори героите казват, че „засега“ не е имало кавги заради нея. Гримът и прическата са нещо естествено за млада жена, която доскоро е мечтала да бъде актриса, а пъченето и съблазняването са интерпретация на мъжете, които от ужас да не бъдат предадени от „инстинктите“ си предварително хвърлят цялата вина за евентуално прегрешение с нея върху нея. Постоянното й ходене при мъжете е точно това, което тя описва: обикновено желание за общуване с друго човешко същество. Тя не е виновна, че в тази ферма няма други жени, с които да говори. И в крайна сметка умира, защото е имала лошия късмет да попадне на човек, който буквално не си знае силата. Насърчението читателят да даде цялото си съчувствие на Джордж и Лени обаче и никаква част на реалната жертва, тази жена, която просто иска да си излее душата, ми остави много неприятен вкус от книгата.

Образът на Лени също е подложен на голяма доза дехуманизация (често срещано с герои с умствени проблеми). Явно е, че героят трябва да бъде трогателен и да буди съчувствие и топлота, но мен ме остави студена – това е опростенчески портрет на човек с умствени увреждания, който има за цел да изтръгне мелодраматична жал от читателя, но не и да представи развит, многостранен образ, създаден с уважение и разбиране.

Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

A purely fantastic summer read that has mystery, romance, drama, friendship and strife. Set in 1920s Bombay (and briefly in Calcutta), it follows the life story and current work of Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman lawyer. While she’s investigating a suspicious case wherein three Muslim widows have declared they want to give up all of their inheritance in favour of the family charity fund, Perveen gets more than she’s bargained for, including a murder committed minutes after she’s left the widows’ zenana after their first private consultation with her. 35133064

Parallel to her investigation of the case, we get the story of her past and how she ended up a single woman working a man’s job at her father’s law firm. I found this part way more engrossing – it describes the fate of her first love and offers some fascinating insights into Parsi culture and practices that were still around in the 1920s. It’s akin to a family saga, with detailed yet easy descriptions of home life and a sensitive exploration of the fragile and delicate relationships between a new bride and her in-laws.

The mystery isn’t that exciting and the writing is very accessible, but you can tell instantly the author is very talented. She builds the fictional world on a foundation of rich local detail, including a barrage of Indian (mostly Hindi and Gujarati) words, architectural specifics, food, holidays, traditions, modes of communication, etc. 1920s Bombay comes alive in the narrative and it’s a pleasure to explore.

I may be biased though because Mumbai is my all-time favourite city in the whole wide world.

Ревю: The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack

It’s fast-paced enough to hold your interest but ultimately it’s pointless. The multiple stories spanning some 200 years make it hard to follow the main plot and eat up the space of the supposedly major characters, so you never get to properly know them, and when one of them died, I couldn’t care less. It was just a name to me. And that’s bad because clearly that death was supposed to elicit a strong emotional reaction.

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The historical parts are half-baked. Famous historical figures like Cleopatra, Caesar, Ghiberti, Rasputin pop up pointlessly along to way, just so they can be there. They’re not a part of the fabric of the story, they’re celebrity cameos.

There’s a lot of telling and scarce showing. The cards are constantly mentioned as being powerful, then Semele or her ancestors touch them, they feel their power, etc., but they never actually do anything. At any point. All the Seeing is done through concentration or in dreams. The cards are basically useless.

The writing felt amateurish to me, like an ambitious high schooler trying to get into the big writing game. The plot twists lacked power because, as I mentioned, there’s not enough time to get to know and therefore care about the characters.