Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reading is sexy XXXIV

{image via Daquar} 13. Grimus by Salman Rushdie This is Rushdie's first novel, and it is in fact science fiction (not magical realism). The cover, of course, is replete with "too good to be science fiction" reviews by the usual suspects of serious-periodicals-who-do-not-want-to-be -caught-dead-reading-SF. Mainly it's a fable, but immortality, other dimensions, extra-terrestrial life, and a quest, do play a part, as do anagrams.

The Native narrator's mother dies in childbirth. Our protagonist's gender is ambiguous for some years after birth and young Born-from-dead (nicknamed Joe-Sue) is inexplicably pale. All of these things make him an outsider, raised by his rebellious older sister Bird-Dog. Breaking taboo, Bird-Dog ventures down the plateau to learn about the people there (and names herself after a song she hears). Her brother comes of age; she takes his virginity and he is attacked by an eagle on the same day. He takes the name Flapping Eagle. Bird-Dog meets a gypsy named Sispy who offers her two bottles (for her and her brother each); a yellow liquid to proffer eternal life and a blue to take that life. Bird-Dog drinks the yellow bottle and smashes the blue, but Flapping Eagle saves his - a decision which drives a wedge between them. Bird-Dog runs away with Sispy, and Flapping Eagle finding himself is ostracized, drinks his yellow liquid and ventures into the world. He ends up a kept man of the hideous and mysteriously long-lived Livia Cramm, learning to sail the seven seas. He finds he has a competitor for the inheritance in despised occultist Nicolas Deggle. One day, Livia dies and his blue liquid goes missing. For seven centuries, he lives a nomadic sailing life* and grows tired of it all, when who should he meet, but "the Deggle himself". Through Deggle he finds himself washed up on the shores of Calf Island, home to immortals tired of life among the mortal. He is taken in by oddball couple Virgil Beauvoir Chanakya Jones and Mrs. O'Toole. He learns he must climb the mountain and face the mysterious, psychologically damaging 'Grimus Effect' if he ever hopes to find his sister Bird-Dog. He must fight his inner demons when a Gorf (an intellectual rock-like creature from the planet Terra, obsessed with ordering and anagrams) interferes with their progress, but he survives and makes it to the town of K. The town filled with immortal barkeeps, miners from the old west, failed academics, Russian aristocrats and token Marxist, and of course, a whore-house, where people avoid the Grimus effect by focusing all their attention on one thing, to allow them to ignore anything else. All this is back-story to allow Rushdie to use the utopian society of K, to critique society.

There are the usual Rushdie intellectual games; Gorf is an anagram of frog, and the quotation involving the myth of the simurg might prompt you to consider the word Grimus. I cannot consider a town named K without thoughts of Kafka though he cites Qāf (ق), a letter in the Arabic alphabet - hence, 'Calf Island'. I identified the philosopher-gnome as Polonius, and was rewarded with several allusions to Hamlet. The bar-keep is Flan Napolean O'Toole and his bar is called the Elbaroom. If the relationship between Flapping Eagle and Bird-Dog does not trigger thoughts of Freud and Oedipal complexes, consider the Madam named Jocasta and her flop-house called The House of the Rising Son.

This is an interesting book. He followed it with the more substantial Midnight's Children, but Grimus has its own rewards.

14. boring boring boring boring boring boring boring by Zach Plague. Yes, I read a book called boring boring boring boring boring boring boring; a "typo/graphical novel" "written and designed" by Plague. It's a satire about a town dominated by an arts school, Uni-Arts and the associated art culture (or lack thereof). It mixes imagery, typographical games with the text. For instance the hero Ωllister (almost exclusively written with an omega, not an O) faces the patriarchal figure and Mogul for the art scene The Platypus (written in a Gothic face) who is determined to get his hands on the Ωllister's grey book. Ωllister is the cool aloof outsider, and art prodigy, but really a sort of fledgling mover and shaker, all too often not only setting up the exhibits of his peers, but giving them the ideas and means necessary to to make the art. Adelaide is his ex and perhaps true love (allowing the author the rather bizarre typographical play on the Ω & A). Punk, is a punk, a loyal side-kick, and incredible source of chaos. I enjoyed this book. It's rare to see a real satire. Parts of this book were also surprisingly real and authentic feeling despite the outrageous absurdity, post-modern tricks, Appendices, plot around 'art terrorism' and copious drug consumption and students hooking up. There is also some great word-play which had me laughing at details such as a girl reading a magazine 'charticle' on 10 ways to get it on in a pond. The portfolio class was priceless. This book is also about loneliness, coming of age and trying to connect with people. The set up to the climax deserved a better denouement, but I recommend this book nonetheless. You can even read the book on his website.

15. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger I've been wanting to re-read this for a while. I think I last read it when I was about 15. One of my favorite authors, Douglas Hofstadter has written that he re-reads The Catcher in the Rye once every 10 year to see what each new decadal incarnation feels about the book. I appreciated that when I mentioned this to my Mom and the DJ and we all agreed this is a book we wanted to revisit. (I was scandalized that a friend - you know who you are- harboured strong opinions about the novel without ever having read it). It was fascinating, though I had forgotten many things, what had stayed with me. It was, much to my surprise, funnier than I recalled. Holden Caulfield's voice is so strong, and he has some observations which are pretty witty, despite the darkness of the larger story ark. There's so much of what it feels like to be human here, of grief, of frustration at having to play a role in society (prisons we choose to live inside), of how people mistreat and ignore each other, of games men and women play, the tragedy of growing up. If you haven't read this book, why not now?

16. Blindness by José Saramago. This was not what I was expecting, though I now realize in hindsight that The Cave was alluding to one horrific episode. A man is driving home when he is suddenly struck with 'white blindness'. A stranger helps him home and then helps himself to the man's car - but karma is swift as the thief is soon blind. The government quarantines those infected in a futile attempt to avoid an epidemic of blindness. The ophthalmologist's wife feigns blindness so as not to be separated from her husband. The society within the quarantine rapidly degenerates; hygiene is a challenge for the newly blind and the soldiers guarding them at gun point (for fear of infection) supply insufficient food. As the quarantined group grows rapidly, the small society around the doctor's practice is faced with some of the worst horrors humans can create. New inmates use guns and violence to hoard food and turn the quarantine into a veritable concentration camp. After extracting all the valuables from their fellow blind people, the women are the next 'commodity' to be extorted under threat of starvation. Saramago writes in a particular style, avoiding names and referring to characters by titles like 'the man with the eye patch', 'the girl with the dark glasses' and 'the doctor's wife' which gives the feeling of a fable. Further, he avoids most punctuation, particularly in dialogues, but his characters are so strong that one can generally identify the speaker. The doctor's wife is not only sighted but a true hero. The connections and artificial family which develops in the face of extreme hardship is touching and a sign of hope, but this book made me weep.

17. The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkings. I needed to know that I had found a book which wouldn't make me cry.

{Series so far: books read, more books read, books read, books read continues, more books read, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII,XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII}

*Any boat which survives seven centuries of sailing is definitely science fiction.

No comments: