Tag Archives: Literature

LitBeetle’s Top 5: Man v. Nature Books

27 Mar

A few recent reads inspired me to make a list of some great survival stories. Many writers attempt to capture the age-old struggle against Nature’s tempests, but only a few succeed. The list below are some favorites of mine–new and old–that I hope you will enjoy! In the comments, let me know your own favorite books of humanity’s battle for survival!

FIVE

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

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There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

FOUR

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant by Michael Punke

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Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant. The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself.

THREE

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian by Andy Weir

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In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that. As NASA scrambles to send a rescue mission to a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney uses his scrappy resourcefulness, will to live, and dark humor to guide him through one of the most entertaining survival novels of our time. Andy Weir’s debut shines as a thrilling, accessible science fiction story.

TWO

To Build a Fire Cover

To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London

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The title story to this collection of Jack London’s classic short stories is as dark and robust as any of the full novels on this list. A nameless man travels through the Yukon with his wolf-dog. When the dog falls through the ice, the man dives in to save his companion. Now, wet and freezing in temperatures of fifty below, the man is focused on a single, life-saving task: building a fire. London’s steady, descriptive prose mirrors the Nature’s indifferent temperament in the face of a human being’s impending doom. Sounds fun, right? Don’t forget to pack those weatherproof matches the next time you go camping, is all I have to say.

ONE

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

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Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature. Frail humanity versus the open and indifferent sea? No thank you, but this–the most harrowing fight for survival–puts In the Heart of the Sea at the top of this list.

What are your favorite survival books? Leave me recommendations in the comments below!

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On Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”

17 Mar

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ten years have passed since the critically acclaimed, world-renowned author Kazuo Ishiguro published a novel, and the passage of time does interesting things to writers, even those as established as this Man Booker Prize-winner. Lauded for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contributes a fantastic but vastly different addition to his repertoire. The Buried Giant, released to stores March 3, 2015, is a fantastical story of a journey through the land of King Arthur, and were it written by any other author, it would be shelved resolutely in the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore, but I guess I should be grateful that this book is both stunning and working toward mainstreaming genre fiction. The next thing you know, Brandon Sanderson will be winning the Pulitzer or something. Watch out, world!

Ishiguro’s long-awaited seventh novel is not the traditional fantasy in the stereotypical sense of the label: unpronounceable made-up words, valiant heroes coming of age, and a fabricated back story longer than could fit in the 1,200 pages of the published product. Ishiguro’s fantasy is, in a handful of ways, much like his other novels: poignantly brief and excruciatingly sorrowful. The Buried Giant begins in a nameless hamlet in England. King Arthur is dead, and the England he united by sword and by law lies in an uneasy balance of Saxon and Briton. The people also lie under the spell of a heavy mist that suppresses the memories–both good and bad–of everyone it touches. The loss of memory transforms everyone into addled, helpless fools. People hunt for a missing child and then forget why they’re wandering through the woods. They set off down a road and 50 yards later can’t remember where they’re headed. Two elderly villagers, Axl and Beatrice, feel the nagging shade of a memory of a son they once had, and they set off to find him, in spite of their frailty and their foggy minds.

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from "Carl Jones")

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from “Carl Jones“)

Traveling from their small village, through cursed woods, over craggy mountains, toward their son’s village, the couple encounters a whole cast of references from Arthurian legend (half of which I’m sure I don’t even get). An ancient and doddering Sir Gawain quests with his equally ancient horse Horace to slay the she-dragon Querig who lives on top of the mountain. A young Saxon warrior quests to do the same, and when he crosses paths with our Axl and Beatrice, the couple is caught up in a story that will test the strength of their love as well as their memory. Before the wild world tears them apart from each, Axl and Beatrice must remember what they mean to one another.

One’s own memory is tricksy enough as it is, but when the topic of collective memory is addressed, history becomes a living entity unto its own. Think of how a nation or a society or even a family develops a collective memory through the retelling of an event or through the media or through trending, crowd-sourced narratives. We are constantly building our story as a group. When the mists of forgetting fall on the people of this story, ties are severed between present and past, between husband and wife. Beatrice is tormented with the idea of an incomplete memory, especially the memories of her son, whose name neither she nor Axl can recall. She and Axl have the opportunity to try and lift the curse, but is it worth remembering the pain of the bad memories just to experience the balm of the good ones?

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from "Swaminathan")

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from “Swaminathan“)

Ishiguro returns again and again to the concept of collective memory in his novels. In The Remains of the Day, especially, he discusses denial and misremembering through an aging butler struggling with memories of his involvement in dark deeds during World War II. The Buried Giant takes advantage of its fantasy genre to make the conversation of memory more blatant by making it more magical. Querig’s cursed breath descends on the land and forces a loss of collective memory for an entire generation. The horrors of that past are veiled in blissful forgetfulness, and the joys of a lifetime are only glimpsed in the corner of a dream. Ishiguro calls out humanity’s tendency to bury great tragedies to spare itself the pain and struggle of resolution. The collateral damage of this denial is that great joys and great accomplishments are also buried. Great loves and great progress are lost beneath the earth. Axl and Beatrice’s quest to find their son becomes a quest to remember–their son, their past, and their love for each other. In this beautiful novel that is at once lighthearted and tragic, Ishiguro produces a stunning story that is worth every moment of the ten years we waited for it.

“It would be the saddest thing to me, princess. To walk separately from you, when the ground will let us go as we always did.”

Read It: You don’t need to be a fan of Game of Thrones to enjoy this fantasy novel. In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro addresses one of his favorite topics: the discrepancies of memory. The fantasy setting is a thin veil for the author’s deeply moving story about the fluidity of narrative, but it is also a deeply moving story, so whether your a scholar coming to study a contemporary master’s work or a casual reader like myself, just looking for an entertaining and skillfully rendered tale of adventure, look no farther than TBG.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to read this novel if dragons killed your parents or you have some blood feud with your Saxon neighbors. This novel doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the fiery political climate of the post-Arthurian era. Then again, and more likely, you may be expecting the Ishiguro of ten years ago, the Ishiguro of The Remains of the Day, and you’ll probably be disappointed. Gone is the subtler artifice of his earlier years, and if you don’t keep an open mind, his new style will turn you off, marvelous though it is.

Similar Books: I honestly can’t compare this novel to Ishiguro’s others, but if this is your first of his novels, please read The Remains of the Day to feel the power of his prose when Ishiguro reached what some would call the pinnacle of his literary career. Aside from this, The Buried Giant reminded me of classical epics like Virgil’s The Aeneid and Homer’s The Odyssey. Axl and Beatrice’s travels through the English countryside ring of older tales–tales of hellish paths and overcoming otherworldly challenges. For more reading on modern takes of Arthurian legend, read John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from "English PEN")

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from “English PEN“)

Book v. Big Screen: “Inherent Vice”

24 Jan
Paul Thomas Anderson's January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

When the creator of brilliant films takes on the adaptation of a renowned author of modern classics, you go big or go home. You could end up with a critical bomb like The Hobbit installations (go ahead and fight me, but I said it!) or a masterpiece like There Will Be Blood. I think I need to rewatch Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent cinematographic adventure three or four more times to really decide on which end of the scale Inherent Vice lands. The film, which was released widely to theaters on January 12, is visually stunning and accompanied by one of the better film scores I have heard in some years, but when I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel by the same name, I knew this would be a nearly impossible book to successfully adapt to the big screen. My initial reaction is that Anderson’s attempt, while valiant, fell short of the mark.

Larry “Doc” Sportello is more than a pothead. He’s an enthusiast, a connoisseur, a meta-hippie. That’s just his day job. Doc is sometimes a private detective, and when his ex-old lady Shasta shows up on his doorstep one hazy night going on about a conspiracy to kidnap her new millionaire boyfriend, Doc is helpless to avoid being pulled into a mess. And the mess that real estate moguls, cults, Asian mobs, and drugged-up dentists cause in 1970’s Los Angeles is too much for most to handle. Doc follows Shasta’s trail through the upper echelons of L.A. to the seedy depths where neo-Nazi biker gangs and crew-cut FBI agents like to roam.

Joaquin Phoenix's depiction of hapless Larry "Doc" Sportello is spot on.

Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of hapless Larry “Doc” Sportello is spot on.

The ensuing drama is a series of long, panning, slow-motion shots of said real estate moguls, neo-Nazi bikers, et. al. in a beautiful side-scrolling painting of a an era. The film wouldn’t be complete or nearly as beautiful, though, without it’s corresponding soundtrack, created by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite musical boy genius Jonny Greenwood. The guitarist for famed rock band Radiohead also composed scores for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. The two now exist on a spectral plane of their own, like a secret club where only the critically acclaimed and artistically progressive get to go. I expect we’ll see more of their collaborations in the future.

Immerse yourself in the master mood-setter’s musical prowess here: Jonny Greenwood’s immaculate score

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

I won’t lie, though; despite its beautiful visuals and score, Inherent Vice was a difficult movie to fully enjoy. The several outright humorous moments, often featuring Josh Brolin’s tightly wound Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, added a wonderful lightness to what would otherwise be a depressing story of corruption and futility. But even I, having read the book quite recently, felt the strain of keeping up with a convoluted plot and unfamiliar verbiage. Those who didn’t read the book first, and I imagine there are many who haven’t, will probably need to lean on the occasional, disembodied narration like a hand rail. It guides viewers through important back story and the jumbled cerebral exercises of Doc’s hazy mind. With the narration, Anderson treads the fine line of telling too little and telling too much. For once, I think a movie could use more narration rather than less, and I’m not just saying this because I enjoy the sound of Joanna Newsom’s voice (talking, not singing so much), but a lot of valuable information is omitted or gets lost. By the second or third re-watch, though, I may change my mind. You will have to decide for yourself and come tell me what you think.

Book or Big Screen: I try to be political about these discussions, but some things are just better left to 369 pages of terse prose. Between the confusing plot and the endless period references, the book–and the slower pace of entertainment consumption of the written word–suits the theme and plot better than the film. While the film is easy on the eyes and ears, Inherent Vice the book takes the cake on this one.

Readers, Beware: You may need to dig into the novel for about one hundred pages before you start swinging with the groovy cats of Los Angeles’ hippie-covered beaches, but once you get there, it’s a beautiful place. Pynchon is magical, hilarious, and driven all at the same time. That being said, Pynchon’s method of setting the mood is by bombarding you with slang and pop-culture references, all of which sometimes takes precedence over plot and character development. The movie has it easy: a few well-placed vintage product placement and an accurate costume designer do all the work.

Viewers, Beware: The film version of Inherent Vice is a wild ride, and if the deep layers and plot twists don’t muddle your mind, then the unfamiliar slang, barely audible conspiratorial whispers, and drug-addled slurs will. Had I not read the book first, I imagined I would have been utterly lost ten minutes in. The only saving grace was Joanna Newsom’s soothing narration, which for the most part, smoothed out the wrinkles.

 

On Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” and Amy Bloom Live

21 Oct
Lucky Us

Lucky Us

Apparently, I needed a six-week hiatus from all things book-related, but you better believe I’m back now, despite the glorious initiation of the NFL regular season. (Just don’t expect any blog posts on Sunday nights.) I can’t think of a better author to get me off my lazy ass than Amy Bloom, with her powerful, imagistic storytelling and her epic whirlwind plots. On August 4 at the Seattle Public Library, Bloom read from her newest novel Lucky Us and immediately hooked me on her quiet authority. She filled the room with her presence before she even read a word, and when she did start reading, the author of Away–nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award–reminded me why I love her stories.

In Lucky Us, half-sisters Eva and Iris work out their tumultuous love-hate relationship with World War II-era America as their backdrop. Eva’s story begins when her mother leaves her on the doorstep of her father and half-sister, and she narrates her life as she knows it: being the shadow of the captivating, horrible, hilarious characters around her. The narrative alternates by chapter–from Eva’s first-person perspective to the letters from Iris years into the future to the close third-person perspectives of secondary characters–as the sisters and their makeshift family travel from coast to coast back again, picking up and losing members along the way.

Fireside Chat

Eva, like many of her fellow Americans, spends her days entranced by the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt in his Fireside Chat.

Here are the three things you need to know about Amy Bloom:

1) Her greatest strength is writing incredibly three-dimensional characters. With Bloom’s background in psychology, she shows that she knows people. None of her characters are perfect, but they are all relatable. They are all believable. They are all real people. In the reading she gave in Seattle on August 4, she said, “The goal for me isn’t to create characters. The goal for me is to create human beings.” In the short length of the novel, Bloom creates a plethora of human beings. None of them seem to be very likable, even the passive, apathetic Eva, but something can be said for creating a unlikable human beings really, really well.

2) Bloom believes “World War II is where you saw the seeds of change begin to crack,”  and that belief led to her extensive research of the state of a country on the brink of yet another global war. From era-specific music to the lure of Hollywood, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the internment Japanese- and German-Americans, Bloom sets a solid historical foundation for her sweeping family epic.

Manzanar

One character finds himself

3) For Bloom, novel-writing is like a race against time and space. She has to cover as much ground and as many years as she possibly can, and she’s only got 250 pages to do it! While her short story style is concise–pithy even–and jam-packed with content, Bloom’s novels feel plot development on steroids. Lucky Us begins in Eva’s youth. She is an abandoned daughter, a younger sibling in the shadow of her flippant, teenage half-sister, but by the end of the novel, decades have passed, and everything has changed. It may feel as if Bloom writes in generalizations because years pass in a single paragraph, or characters travel cross-country in half a sentence. But truthfully, Bloom’s prose is so efficient and terse that she doesn’t need a hundred pages to describe a road trip.

SPL

Bloom is as succinct and impactful in person as she is in her writing. At her reading in Seattle this summer, she established herself as an expert on people and an expert storyteller.

Read this book if … you enjoy historical fiction, character-based stories, and/or American epics. There are many things Bloom excels at, but my favorite is her apparent love and respect for the American epic.

Don’t read this book if … you’re a sucker for details. Bloom doesn’t care much for those. She’s a brilliant character sketch artist. She’s genius at the long game. But her broad brush strokes aren’t for everyone.

This book is like … Bloom’s first novel Away in its scope and similar content. Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a young, first-generation immigrant to the United States. Lillian embarks on a cross-country journey from New York to Alaska in order to be reunited with her daughter who was separated from Lillian and left in Russia. Lucky Us also reminds me of A View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. The Nobel Prize-winner Munro writes mostly short stories, as does Bloom, and both authors’ attention to history and epic perspective feel extraordinarily similar. One major difference is Bloom’s tendency toward the romantic and Munro’s tendency toward the understatement. Both are excellent.

Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. All to say, she’s a badass.

 

On John Darnielle’s “Wolf in White Van”

14 Oct
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle follows the meandering voice of Sean Phillips–disfigured and left in solitude by a tragic event in his childhood–into the Trace Italian, in the hope of finding refuge from reality.

If it weren’t for a friend of mine, I would never have heard of John Darnielle’s debut novel Wolf in White Van or John Darnielle’s acclaimed band the Mountain Goats (Thank you, @shriver!). Yes, I know. I’m a dirty philistine, but my eyes are open now. I may not throw on the Mountain Goats’ bouncy tunes by choice, but I will pick up any other novels Darnielle decides to write, because Wolf in White Van was an absolute thrill to read.

In Wolf in White Van, Sean Phillips narrates his reclusive life with an only half-lucid, meandering voice that leads readers through the maze of his memories and fantasies. Sean is the inventor of Trace Italian, a mail-in role-playing game set in post-apocalyptic America. Players from around the country send Sean their moves, and Sean mails them their results in return. Encroaching hunters offers players the choice to run, hide, or forage for food; finding a hut in the desert offers the choice to explore it or move on. Each choice leads to another. Each road destroys the possibility of other roads. Trace Italian is a universe of infinite possibility, and though the goal of the game is to find the Trace Italian–a safe refuge hidden from the horrors of this barren world–readers will learn that sometimes the goal isn’t at the end of the game but at the beginning, where it all started. When Lance and Carrie–two teenagers looking for escape–find themselves lost in Sean’s creation, even Sean’s fortified sanctuary begins to crumble.

“I feel my own freedom remembering this turn, what it means to find a place where the world’s shut out for good at last, where all signs point back at one another and the overall pattern’s clear if you look hard enough.”

Everything unravels and points backward in time toward the event that both destroyed and rebirthed Sean’s life, and event that directly led to his creation of the Trace. As a teenager, Sean was grossly disfigured and hides away to save others the discomfort of seeing him, hearing him speak, enduring his presence. Trace Italian provides most of the contact Sean has with the outside world, and he forms bonds with its players through small, insightful signs they give him with their handwritten game turns.In the astrologer’s hut. Through fragmented passages and no semblance of linearity, Darnielle etches out a schizophrenic narrative that circles a single tragic event in Sean’s past, and try as he might, he cannot shut out his own memories. There is no refuge that can protect Sean from himself. Everything he does traces inwards into a dark interior, more complicated than his ruined exterior.

Trace Italienne

A trace italienne, or star fort, is a type of gunpowder-age fortification designed to minimize risk by cannonball to the main walls of the fort. To Sean Phillips, the Trace Italian is a mythological sanctuary and the goal of his mail-in game.

If there is any criticism I can offer of Darnielle’s debut novel, it’s that WiWV is too brief. I’m a big fan of escapism and so is, supposedly, Sean Phillips. But we spend very few pages in the meat of Trace Italian. A couple of paragraphs of Sean’s second-person, choose-your-own-adventure role-playing game gives readers a glimpse of a vast, alien world, but I felt like I was told I was looking at a Brachiosaurus while being shown a single vertebra. I didn’t quite believe the Trace could be a real haven for Sean or a real danger to Lance and Carrie, because I didn’t quite believe the Trace was a real place. I wonder what Darnielle could have done with another hundred pages.

All you need to say is, "White van," and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility.

All you need to say is, “White van,” and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility. Add the word “wolf,” and you have yourself the worst kind of predator.

The area where he excels is creating incredible, surreal images in a way that reminds me of Don DeLillo or Haruki Murakami. Young Sean Phillips spends his post-event time watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network in the wee hours of the morning, bingeing on talk shows hosted by pink-haired pastors’ wives and evangelistic specialists on the evils of popular culture. Sean is drawn in by the bizarrely repetitive segments that cover the same topics using almost exactly the same words over and over again. One specialist warns of the rock and roll lyric that, played backwards, actually says, “wolf in white van.” It’s a message from Satan. It’s a sign of evil. Sean wonders what it means. He explores the ludicrous but inherently dangerous image of a starving, predatory wolf in an inherently dangerous vehicle like a white van. There is a monster, lying in wait, setting the trap, luring its next meal.

The question becomes, who is the wolf? Is Sean the disfigured monster luring innocent victims into his trap of a universe? Or is Sean the victim, the lured one, the innocent one? As Sean lies prone–both in the isolation he created for himself as an adult and in the hospital in his past, recovering from an unbelievable tragedy–and builds the Trace Italian within himself. He raises walls of dirt and forgotten things, and cloaks himself in his own version of the truth.

“When I was a child, I dreamed of powers like these, but I no longer have those dreams. I am free.”

John Darnielle

John Darnielle reads Wolf in White Van for the Macmillan audio book. Check out first few minutes on SoundCloud!

Read this book if … your body is ready. WiWV is a crazy ride, short as it is. Read it also if you’re already a fan of The Mountain Goats. The novel reads as if Darnielle expounded on one of his angsty death ditties–short chapters feel like verses, and the rhythmic prose moves the story along to a steady beat. Make sure you listen to “The Sunset Tree” on repeat while you read.

Don’t read this book if … disjointed narratives bother you. This plot doesn’t move linearly, and it may take some careful reading to follow along. A casual reader may still find it entertaining, and Darnielle’s voice is captivating whether you know what he’s talking about or not, but WiWV requires a good deal of attention to keep pace with the experimental story structure and keep track of the heavy symbolism.

This books is like … the dark, scary version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, in which a virtual reality game is substituted for a written one and the whole story is told from the perspective of players instead of the creator. On the level of narratives, WiWV reminds me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and, on a lesser scale, of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist or maybe Mao II, but without the over-the-top, self-adoring postmodern mumbo jumbo (mumbo jumbo that I deeply love, so don’t get me wrong).

On Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”

17 Jun

The Sun Also Rises [1927] by Ernest Hemingway paints a portrait of the Lost Generation--namely, a group of ex-patriots surviving the Modern Age through willpower, irony, and a whole lot of wine.

The Sun Also Rises [1926] by Ernest Hemingway paints a portrait of the Lost Generation–namely, a group of expatriates surviving the Modern Age through willpower, irony, and a whole lot of wine.

Ernest Hemingway–grizzled, über manly, misogynistic, brawling, brilliant writer that he is–has been a strong influence on my life as a reader, ever since 15-year-old LitBeetle picked up A Farewell to Arms because she was really, really bored. Don’t get me wrong: the racism and sexism, the unabashed machismo gets my blood up, and not in, like, a sexy way. Hemingway is a pure and simple dick. I can temporarily suspend my moral outrage,though, because I’m absolutely in love with his spare and simplistic prose. With The Sun Also Rises, I basked in Hemingway’s iconic understated voice, and it left me sighing and staring appreciatively off into middle distance (not to mention left me wanting to drink wine from a leather flask).

In the first four pages of TSAR, Hemingway basically sketches out the entire plot of School Ties by introducing Robert Cohn, a young fighter who bruised his way up in the world and played a lot of football, so I kept picturing Brendon Fraser stalking around Paris with his jerk friend Matt Damon. The Sun Also Rises, though, is told from the perspective of Robert’s friend, Jake Barnes, who coasts through an indulgent, careless life as an expatriate in Paris. He spends his days writing news articles to wire back to America and spends his nights drinking copious amounts of gin, sherry, and absinthe. He is a proud member of the Lost Generation, and he is a mirror of young Ernest Hemingway’s life abroad. Having lived through the most horrific war in human history, Jake and his friends drown their disillusionment in unbridled pleasure-seeking, which seems harmless at first, but sentiments escalate when the setting changes to the violence of Pamplona’s bull fights and when everyone becomes tangled in an icky little love triangle, like you do. Jake’s love of his life, Lady Brett Ashley, is a free-wheeling, free-loving woman who can’t help herself but break a few hearts. Robert Cohn is the Jewish-American writer who vies for Brett’s affections, along with Brett’s fiancée Michael Campbell and Jake’s American friend Bill Gorton. So, I guess that makes it more like a love pentagon. It’s a whole mess and, according to Hemingway, we can pretty much lay blame on the Jew and the woman, obviously.

Here's a cheat sheet to all the characters:

Here’s a cheat sheet to all the characters: Jake Barnes, the self-pitying drunk; Brett Ashley, the heartbreaker drunk; Robert Cohn, the brooding drunk; Mike Campbell, the mean drunk; and Bill Gorton, the funny drunk (and then there’s Georgette, but we left her in Paris).

In Pamplona, watching the brutal running of the bulls and the bull fights, the love polygon gets heated, and all the drunks get to flex their drunky drunk muscles in high melodrama fueled by selfishness and Spanish wine. Jake hangs back as more of a passive, journalistic observer as the plot unfolds. Robert Cohn’s obsession with Brett grows during the fiesta, and so does everyone else’s anti-Semitism. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones, but my heart started racing as the tension built. I fully expected someone to whip out Valyrian steel and start lopping off heads. Hemingway’s hard-boiled, no-nonsense prose drives the atmosphere toward that tension. He builds with spurts of dialogue to move the plot along and rhythmic, repetitive descriptions to set the stage with lasting images.

Hemingway creates a environment that perfectly demonstrates the lostness of his Lost Generation. Jake and his friends wallow in their petty infighting, careless quips, and sadomasochism. At one point, Jake leans out of his hotel window, drunk as he has been for the entire week-long fiesta, and watches a man being gored to death by a bull in the streets below him. The bull’s horns pierce straight through its victim from the lower back and out through the man’s chest. It seems Jake feels nothing at the sight. Brett and the others love the fighting and the danger and even the gore. Only Robert Cohn feels sick to his stomach at the violence, and his sensitivity is one more reason for his companions’ derision. Cohn is the odd man out, the man who can’t participate in the irony and the coldness, the man who feels too much and actually invests himself in people. To the Lost Generation, a culture of calculated abandon and intentional denial, Cohn is weak so he is cast off. And also he doesn’t drink nearly enough.

Even now, Hemingway continues to be a polarizing author. Many readers hate him and his macho style, but he’s still revered as one of the best American authors to date. Tell me in the comments below if you’re Team Hemingway or a Hemingway-hater, and I want to know why!

Hemingway's own trip to Spain inspired TSAR. Here he is (far left) in café in Pamplona sitting next to Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley. (From Wikipedia)

Hemingway’s own trip to Spain inspired TSAR. Here he is (far left) in café in Pamplona sitting next to Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley. (Don’t tell me you wouldn’t hit that.) (From Wikipedia)

“Badly cogido …. All for sport. All for pleasure.”

Read it if … you’re a sucker for terse prose, Modernists, or feeling simultaneously superior and self-loathing about everything in general. Hemingway incorporates the confusion of the Lost Generation in a handful of iconic characters. TSAR is the perfect snapshot of the ruination The Great War and Modernism laid to young men and women and writers around the world.

Don’t read it if … your prosaic preferences lean toward more descriptive writing. Hemingway doesn’t tend to wow readers with flourishes or catchy turns of phrase, and, where other writers are more like painters, Hemingway is a blunt instrument hammering an image home. If the weather is wet, Hemingway will let you know things are wet and they’re damp and everything is wet and glistening with water because it’s raining wetness. If there are soldiers marching down a mountain, goddammit, Hemingway will force you to feel those footsteps in your bones. Don’t read Hemingway if you’re not prepared to be Hemingwayed.

This book is like … Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, which tells a slightly different tale of the expatriate scenes in Paris, only 30 odd years later. Like TSAR, Giovanni’s Room gives us protagonists who appear as cold observers, seemingly unfazed by the self-destruction all around them and yet complicit in it. And, of course, let’s not forget the most obvious allusions to The Story of Ferdinand by  the master Munro Leaf, because, you know, bull fighting.

I'm used to seeing Hemingway as the grizzled, bearded man shooting fish with a machine gun from his boat, but he wrote TSAR when he was only 27, a young journalist in Paris with his whole, epic career in front of him.

I’m used to seeing Hemingway as the grizzled, bearded man shooting fish with a machine gun from his boat, but he wrote TSAR when he was only 27, a young journalist in Paris with his whole, epic career in front of him.

 

On Italo Calvino’s “The Baron in the Trees”

16 May
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

I can’t possibly go a full year without reading and reviewing another Italo Calvino novel, and I’m growing my collection faster than I can read (par for the course). In fact, I’m known at the local bookstore as “the girl who buys all the Calvino,” a distinction of which I’m rather proud. Calvino’s fabulist The Baron in the Trees, though, didn’t seduce me the same way Invisible Cities did, and definitely didn’t completely bowl me over the way If on a winter’s night a traveler …. On the surface, The Baron in the Trees is a simple story of an eccentric nobleman who, on a whim, leaves his life of comfort and takes up residence in the trees, never to touch the ground again during his entire adult life. The surface story is a pretty wrapping for Calvino’s usual fare of intelligent commentary on communist politics and the philosophical concept of independence.

In a novel that reads like Don Quixote and reminds me more than just a little of Robin Hood, we learn about a young Baron named Cosimo whose wayward spirit and rebellion against a society of hypocritical nobility leads him away from the comforts of his home and into the trees of the Italian countryside. It’s the late 18th century, and Cosimo is 12 when he first climbs into a tree, never to set foot on earth again. Neither the pleading of his noble parents nor the fraying bond with his younger brother Biagio can convince Cosimo to go back on his decision. Once in the trees, the young baron learns to travel via a highway of twisting routes through oaks and olives and ilexes. He hunts with the help of his well-trained retrieving dachshund names Ottimo Massimo. He befriends the local peasants and helps them with fruit harvests. He even falls in love. Anything that can be done on earth, Cosimo can do in the trees, albeit with a dash more of eccentric flavor.

Sure, the Swiss Family Robinson did it, but on easy mode. And with zebras and stuff instead of Ottimo Mossimo the dachshund.

Sure, the Swiss Family Robinson did it, but on easy mode. And with zebras and stuff instead of Ottimo Massimo the dachshund.

The Baron in the Trees is nothing if not a goofy, entertaining parable of independence. The whole story is narrated by Biagio, the brother left behind on the earth, and he curates the stories told him by Cosimo who, as he grows into a man, becomes less and less reliable in his recounts of amorous escapades or friendships with brigands or battles with pirates. Cosimo and Biagio aren’t your typical unreliable narrators, but they are story weavers, sometimes taking a seemingly roundabout route to a destination, making TBitT feel like a rambling oral account from a doddering uncle who spends too much time refilling his punch cup at family functions. While this is fun and all, the only passage I felt I truly enjoyed and admired was the book’s final two pages where Calvino’s vivid imagery really breaks through.

"... anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it."

“… anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it.”

Read it if … you enjoy the fabulist genre. TBitT reads like a grown-up’s fairy tale: it’s short, sweet, and full of blatant symbolism.

Don’t read it if … you have a phobia of jagulars who drop down on you from trees when you look up at them. Also, don’t read it if you don’t want to spend a decent amount of your time untangling Calvino’s symbolism and political/cultural references. You may still get a lot of enjoyment from Cosimo’s escapades, but this is much more than rom-com in the Italian countryside.

This book is like … Candide, in all its ironic and fun-loving trappings. Voltaire even plays a small part in TBitT. If you like the genre, though, you should also look up H. Rider Haggard for more adventure or Ambrose Bierce for more sadness.

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino. The man. The myth. The legend.