My ten favorite books of the year

My ten favorite books of the year (in no particular order), with reviews if applicable:

 The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides: Reviewed below

The Pale King, David Foster Wallace

The City and the City, China Mieville

The Name of the World, Denis Johnson: The Name of the World is a gorgeous, compact, lucid little novel about a man who has lost his family.  This tragic event is far enough in the past that it’s not really what the story is about even while it’s everything the story is about.  It’s a novel in which nothing much happens and lots of things happen, and it feels like life.

Johnson’s storytelling is so lush and vividly depicted that the entire book is highly cinematic.  It is sad and beautiful and hopeful.

One of my favorite scenes involves the protagonist, Mike, visiting a Midwestern church.  Johnson describes the “nearly three hundred people, all singing beautifully.  I wondered what it must sound like out in the empty green fields under the cloudless blue sky, how heartrendingly small even such a crowd of voices must sound rising up into the infinite indifference of outer space.  I felt lonely for us all, and abruptly I knew there was no God.  A tight winding of chains had burst.  Someone had unstuck my eyes.  A huge ringing in my head had stopped.  This is what the grand and lovely multitude of singers did to me…I sang, too, and nobody stopped me…For exactly an hour by my watch, we praised the empty universe.  I felt our hearts going up and up into an endless interval with nothing to get in the way.  All my happy liberated soul came out my throat.”

Despair, Vladimir Nabokov

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, Leo Tolstoy

The Sea, John Banville: The Sea by John Banville is exactly the kind of book that I am prone to love: the lyrical, poetic inner workings of a person’s mind meant to highlight the complexity of memory and the impact of the passing of time.  And, for the most part, I really liked the novel, but it fell short of “love,” and I think this is because Banville did too good a job writing it.

The novel is narrated by a middle aged man—Max?—who has recently lost his wife to cancer.  He can no longer live in the house he shared with her, so, in his grief, he sojourns to the place on the sea where he spent his childhood and had his first loves.  The story is his remembering: his childhood and the tragedy that befell the family of his first girlfriend, Chloe Grace, and his wife and her slow demise.

The prose is vivid and carefully composed.  The memories shine or blur as needed to show the allure and trickery of the past.  But our narrator is almost too well rendered by Banville: He’s so lost in his grief that the tragedy of the far past pales when put side by side with the grief of the loss of his wife.  His drunken distance and remove end up keeping the readers at a distance.  The tragedy of the Graces, foreshadowed on the first page, ends up falling flat when it is finally revealed to us at the very end of the novel.  It no longer holds much emotional weight for our narrator, so it doesn’t end up having any emotional weight for us, the readers, either.

I’m excited to read other works by Banville.  It’s clear that he is a meticulous writer of gravity, but, at least in The Sea, a little less poetry and a little more urgency would have gone a long way.

Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie: “Joseph Anton” is the name Salman Rushdie took while living in hiding under the fatwa issued in reaction to his book The Satanic Verses, and this is his memoir of that time.  I found most fascinating his discussion of his early life–his arrival in Britain to attend boarding school at the age of 14 and what that immigration and uprootedness meant to him–and his thinking about the writing of “The Satanic Verses” and its historical roots.  The descriptions of life under the fatwa are also very moving–Rushdie’s ideas on the role literature and free speech play in forming a free society are particularly eloquent and inspiring–however he catalogs every detail of his clandestine life to the point where some of the memories start to feel repetitive.  Also his discussions of his relationships to various authors–supporters and detractors alike–and his romantic life, while interesting, at time come across as self-aggrandizing.  I’m a big Rushdie fan and enjoyed most when he’s talking literature, but I felt he could have used a more aggressive editor.

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie: Reviewed below

The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis

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Book Review: The Satanic Verses

DSC_0295Salman Rushdie has explained his controversial The Satanic Verses as a book about how newness enters the world.  Rushdie read history at Cambridge, where he first heard of The Satanic Verses, a non-canonized story from Islam about the temptation of the prophet Mohammed to include in the Qur’an three of the goddesses from the native, polytheistic religion that was more popular than Islam when Islam originally came into being.  This inclusion, this compromise, could have potentially made Islam more palatable to non-believers, but Mohammed eventually declined to compromise, being firm in his beliefs of the one true God.

This story makes up a significant portion of the overall text of The Satanic Verses, but, despite it offering its name to the book, the novel is about a good deal more.  The prime story deals with Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, two Indian men who fall to earth after their airplane to London is bombed, and live.  Their living is clearly the work of the intercession of some supernatural being (perhaps Satan who interjects himself as narrator from time to time).  Their fall results in Gibreel, an Indian film star, turning into the angel Gabriel (Gibreel) while Saladin, thusly, becomes the devil, horns, hoofs and all.  Gibreel’s dreams are angelic—he dreams of conferring with the prophet Mohammed regarding the Satanic Verses, and he also dreams of a modern-day prophet, a young girl who intends to lead a group of pilgrims from India across the Arabian Sea to Mecca.  He also falls in love with a steely, strong mountain climber, Alleluia Cone, who, having been to the top of Mount Everest, has gained her own degree of prophetic truth.

Rushdie uses Saladin’s story to explore the question of newness through the immigrant experience.  Saladin embodies the assimilated immigrant: He is so in love with his adopted home of England that he hardly is able to see the anti-immigrant racism and violence happening around him (though, granted, he is rightfully fairly consumed with his own personal transformation into the devil).  Is Rushdie suggesting that the desire to reinvent oneself, the desire to become other than what you once were is somehow devilish?  If he is, he is sympathetic to the devil.  One of the greatest strengths of this book is its ability to look at questions of good and evil and complicate the picture.  While Rushdie says it’s a book about newness, I read it more as a book that rejects the myth of dualism: Saladin is a sympathetic, big-hearted character who has a hard time being seen as more than his horns, and Gibreel’s angelic powers end up, like many of the Biblical angels, wreaking havoc.

The other strengths of the book are its playfulness, expansiveness, and clever language.  Rushdie is dealing with big ideas and big histories.  While much of the novel is allegorical in nature, it never comes across as simplistic or didactic.  This is magical realism at its best: While much of the book feels fantastical and fun, it never is only that.  The ending, an accounting of Saladin’s father’s death—admittedly drawn heavily from the death of Rushdie’s father—is absolutely, heartbreakingly beautiful and un-fantastic.

Ironically, the furor over the novel when it was published, gave it the prominence it deserves.  Despite your views of Rushdie as a person, he’s a brilliant writer, and I think The Satanic Verses is the best expression of that brilliance.

When to Choose

Today in my twelfth English and European Literature classes, I was lecturing on Frankenstein and the different religious archetypes the characters fit.  I think it’s a pretty interesting lecture because it draws on religious and mythical stories and philosophy, including Carl Jung’s ideas on the collective unconscious and the role that archetypes play in that concept.

However, students hear the word lecture (something that I very rarely do actually) and groan inwardly.  Today, in my sixth period, they groaned literally.  I found this rude, and I told them so.  (“If you came in with something you had to say to me that you thought was interesting and important and I groaned, wouldn’t that just be disrespectful?”)  Now, I realize that in some ways we were playing out the age-old teacher/student drama cliché: teacher asks something of students, students resist, call it “boring,” rebel, et cetera, et cetera.  I do sometimes, as a teacher, feel trapped in what feels like an unfortunate and inescapable typecast position.  This all is, of course, very hard for me because I try everything I can to have my pedagogy be about empowerment and liberty.  I don’t want to be an authoritarian, but I do want to provide my students access to powerful knowledge—in other words, it’s not just all going to be fun and games; though hopefully a lot of the intellectual wrestling feels fun!

One kid, a kid I normally really like, a kid who has had a somewhat recent revolutionary consciousness raising and, therefore, feels prepared and empowered to challenge and question much of my practice—a habit I often enjoy and encourage—raised his hand and argued that I shouldn’t force students to like Frankenstein the way I have been.  I pointed out that I would never force anyone to “like” anything, but I do expect them to at least think about it, and that I’d do my best to give them new, interesting ways into the text so that they could like it.

My students continued to challenge me in a fairly undelightful way, and I got frustrated.  I finally sat down and decided I wouldn’t go ahead with my lecture, and students could just fend for themselves.  After a time of me sitting grading papers, a couple of the kids apologized for their behavior; I asked if they wanted me to go ahead with the lecture, and the students all responded in the affirmative.  It ended up being fairly engaging: I’d built in places for the students to respond and discuss, and the class ended on a positive note.

At the end of class, the student who’d challenged me, I’ll call him Roberto, came to talk to me.  He apologized again, and then we talked for a while, and I was able to express some of what I think is a heavy paradox that, as a teacher, I struggle with all the time.  He said that I shouldn’t teach books like Frankenstein but should instead teach something more “age appropriate and interesting.”  I pointed out to him that I do assign “outside reading” for exactly this reason—they read three books throughout the year of their own choosing, books they are excited to read.  (Roberto read Che’s The Motorcycle Diaries as his first outside reading book.)  I also argued that there isn’t a single book I could choose to read that everyone would like and that, again, of course my intention and hope is that they would like Frankenstein and, barring liking it, I still absolutely expect them to think about and engage the book.  But finally, a more abstract point and what is at the heart of my conflicted feelings about student choice in the classroom is that I think value exists in reading books and other texts and engaging with ideas that aren’t necessarily our preference.  I told Roberto that I think this is the foundation of democracy; if we only ever read or think about ideas as our preferences dictate, how will we ever be true citizens in this messy, complex, pluralistic world we live in?  I think this is especially true for young people—there is still so much of the world for them to explore.  How can they already have an unmitigated sense of what is “worthy” and “interesting” to think about?

Yes, I want my students to love learning, and I do realize that much of the time what this means is lessons, activities, and texts that speak directly to them and their experiences, but I also think there’s something revolutionary about making connections between what might seem like disparate ideas.  It’s true that Frankenstein was written two hundred years ago, and I find myself arguing with all kinds of Shelley’s ideas—I don’t agree, for instance, that humans should never seek to answer the big, burning questions about the mysteries of life, that knowledge is too dangerous to pursue.  I’m not a Christian as Shelley was, and so I push back against her almost puritanical ideas about humans not playing God.  But they’re interesting to engage with: How far is too far when it comes to scientific tampering?  How can we use our knowledge responsibly?  What can a god-centered morality teach us about how to live well?  And I urge my students to grapple with these questions.  We also draw connections between Frankenstein’s monster and people in our society who feel like outsiders and therefore do terrible things—it’s easy to connect the text to bullying in schools, and we discuss the young men who shot up their school in Columbine, Colorado for instance.  We debate the death penalty since much of the book is concerned with revenge, and we consider the morality and responsibility of genetic engineering.  If they can see that a two hundred year old text still says something about our world today then maybe they’ll be more open to people who come from other cultures.  Maybe they’ll be less likely to see people as other than themselves.  Maybe they’ll be able to feel connected to the larger conversations that are happening in our world today.

All this as well as my own personal love for a wide variety of literature is why I still insist on teaching books that many students might not choose on first glance.  One of my own personal experiences with this was being assigned to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin during a summer program in college.  I was upset that we weren’t reading more authors of color, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin just felt like even more of an insult given what I thought I knew about the book from the various cultural references to it (e.g. Malcolm X’s referring to folks as “Uncle Toms”).  I do still find it unfortunate that our curriculum on New England Literature didn’t include more authors of color or, for instance, slave narratives, but that doesn’t detract from the huge impact that reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on me.  While I would never list it as one of my favorite books, reading it was probably one of the most impactful reading experiences I’ve ever had, probably because I didn’t initially think it was an important or relevant text.

All this is not to say that I don’t value student choice.  I am well aware that many of my seniors in high school have very clear pictures of the directions they want their lives to go in, and I would never second guess that.  I also wouldn’t insult them by saying they don’t know what is best for them.  I do, however, hope that they learn to be open-minded and able to be interested in a large expanse of ideas: to me, this is what makes for a rich, meaningful life.