Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Declaration of War on All Things Twilight

I tried to read Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I really did. I am conscious of the many historical instances in which the seemingly unredeemable popular work of the day—championed by the great unwashed masses, but ridiculed by the literati—later became a pillar of English or American Literature. And so, I very consciously refrain from judging a work before I actually read it for myself and, in all likelihood, determine that it is not, in fact, so much trash, but just another in a long line of additions to English or American pop culture that is mildly entertaining and, perhaps, of latent artistic value to be recognized in some far off date when our children seek to define the age gone by. But fifty pages of Twilight revealed the issue to me in stark detail: we have finally become a nation of literary panderers. For every Cormac McCarthy, there are a dozen Stephenie Meyers who direct the focus of American literary endeavor to the very lowest common denominator. And I, for one, will not watch the ship of American literature founder and sink without at least trying to plug the leak and bail.

There are many arguments to be made against the story of Twilight itself, which anyone who has not been living in a cave for the past decade knows whether they’ve read the book or not. It’s decidedly unoriginal—both Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris did vampires better. It’s also decidedly creepy—the story of a man 109-year old man having an affair with a 17-year old high school girl. Not since Nabokov’s Lolita has a story so successfully cashed in on society’s prurient interest in young girls. And it unabashedly perpetuates the princess myth, wherein the helpless young girl is unable to defend herself against the terrible forces of this world and must seek the protection of the impossibly strong, handsome, and wealthy man that will, of course, dedicate his life to her safety and happiness. That literally millions of young girls around the world are being raised to think that this is an acceptable framework through which to see the world is more our failing as a society than Stephenie Meyers’ as a creative artist.

But none of this is surprising or even particularly bothersome to me. I am sufficiently jaded by popular American culture at this point that lousy, recycled stories roll off my back like so much water off a duck. What does bother me is the scale upon which Twilight has been adopted by and incorporated into American culture and the resulting shift of our collective focus toward those stories that present an airbrushed (if not wholly animated) depiction of American life in a series of clichéd cliffhangers and caricatures while eschewing (or at least relegating to a distant secondary status) any story that accurately depicts the joys and the hardships of this life and the emotional struggles that realistic characters endure in order to survive within it. I genuinely fear that the overriding popularity of Twilight has finally pushed us irrevocably into the category of slack-jawed cartoon watchers, with no interest in stories with organic meaning for our condition as human beings, stories that make us think, stories that make us consider other points of view or strive to be better, or at lease stories that involve an original thought.

And so, somewhat surprisingly, I feel that I owe Stephenie Meyers a personal debt of gratitude. Twilight was, to me, a boot to the head. I can now see the dark night about me, but I refuse to go quietly into it. I am awake, and I recognize that, in order to find those stories that I treasure—stories by which we collectively define and experience the many beautiful variations on the human condition—I must trade Twilight for The Long River Home, Penguin Books for Pushcart, the Oscars for the Independent Spirit Awards, Blockbuster for Netflix, and Amazon for the local library. I must refuse the dry pellets of food poured in my feed bowl and instead beg from the table, because that is where the nutrition lies.
And so, The Literate Man hereby declares war on all things Twilight. I would ask you to join us by making conscious decisions about where your entertainment dollars (and those of your children) are being spent. Rather than dripping amorphously into the jellied mass of the lowest common denominator, let us try to raise it up, slap it around, and help it to recognize that genuine meaning can still be found in literature, if only we are willing to look for it.

To Have and Have Not (Ernest Hemingway) (4.5/10.0)

To Have and Have NotTo Have and Have Not is the kind of book that you can barely believe was penned by Ernest Hemingway. This literary giant wrote many a beautiful thing in his day and no matter what terrible things he may have written between his several masterpieces the triumph of his genius cannot be erased. But this book comes as close as any will.

To Have and Have Not was Hemingway’s most ambitious literary endeavor by a long-shot. And he fails spectacularly. It’s a story about a smuggler and his family in Key West, which attempts to dissect the socio-economic injustices of Depression-era United States. This is no easy subject for certain, and his legacy would have been the better for not having attempting the feat. And yet, there is something admirable in Hemingway’s attempt even if it does make for a miserable read.

The story is disjointed in terms of both time and structure. It’s more a sequence of vignettes that fail to add up to a whole with a string of dead-end tangents around every page. When Hemingway broaches the greater social issues of the ‘haves and have-nots’ as the title suggests, there’s little point or connection to the plot. The examination is superficial, boring, and in the end sheds very light on the real issues. On top of that, it might just be the most extensive collection of awful metaphors ever published. Hardly a paragraph goes by without a clunker of a metaphor jumping off the page to stab the reader in his or her brain.

The most interesting parts of the story are the colorful scenes at various Key West watering holes, which Hemingway paints to perfection. These are no doubt well-researched, first-hand accounts of the Key West bar scene and its many colorful characters, but they serve no real purpose in the story other than to offer a break from the tired language of the rest of the book.

Worst of all, it’s impossible to like any of the characters. It’s almost as if Hemingway went out of his way to make his characters unappealing. And his attempts to add dimension to these figures simply gives the reader more reasons not to like them.

When Hemingway is at his best, he is king. When he’s at his worst, his writing makes L. Ron Hubbard look like Shakespeare. And after reading To Have and Have Not, even a TV Guide will look like breathtaking literature. In short, To Have and Have Not read this book, I’d much rather have not.

If you do give it a read, try and forget about it quickly. Dwell instead on A Farewell to Arms or The Sun Also Rises. This is the Hemingway that we know and love.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Literate Man does the Book Blogger Hop

Every weekend, Crazy for Books hosts the Book Blogger Hop, where bloggers and readers alike are encouraged to explore the book blogosphere in search of as yet undiscovered snarky reviewers talent.  It is a great place to find out exactly what you have been missing and explore all of the distinct and varying perspectives on both classics and pop lit from our fellow lovers of literature.  It is also an opportunity for bloggers, like The Literate Man, to engage in shameless self-promotion educate the reading public about the valuable perspectives that we offer.  So get on board--do the Hop--and tell them that The Literate Man sent you.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

My Invented Country (Isabel Allende) (7.0/10.0)

It's about time we at The Literate Man expand our minds and broaden our horizons to include more talented female authors. One of our favorites is Isabel Allende. She has a gift for storytelling and is one of literature's living treasures.

If you've ever read any of her books you'll begin to notice that most of them cover very similar territory, and you might be forgiven for thinking that all of them sort of bleed into a single, larger narrative. My Invented Country (Mi País Inventado, if you're looking for the original) is no different in this regard. If you're looking for fresh ideas from Allende's cannon you won't find them here. But if you're looking for a light read that will put a smile on your face and fill your brain with snippets of knowledge about her birth country of Chile, this book will more than suffice.

Because The Literate Man's global headquarters are located in Miami--the capital of Latin America and fertile ground for Chilean expats (hola muchachos!)--we at The Literate Man have been to known run in certain Chilean circles. So I have to admit that my particular interest in My Invented Country wasn't of a purely literary bent, but rather a bit of personal research to see what makes our Chilean friends tick.

Promising to "evoke the magnificent landscape of her country," and "the enchanting idiosyncrasies of the Chilean people," I was hooked as soon as I read the back cover. Admittedly, my knowledge of this most southern of South American countries is limited to the information I gather from expat friends and a reporter friend in Santiago who writes about professional basketball there. So it was with great interest and great pleasure that I read this book.

Allende, in a way that perhaps only she can, weaves a personal, cultural, political, historical (and any other descriptive modifier ending in `-al' that you can think of), account of a little-known country rich in narrative. And with her gifted and quirky eye for the details that lay just under the surface this is a great Idiots Guide to Chile.

So whether you're looking to learn more about the rich and turbulent history of Chile from the Spanish colonial conquest to post-Pinochet democracy, the mouth watering cuisine of one the world's major fisheries, the craziness of Allende's mythic family, or you if you'd simply like to partake of her talent as a storyteller, you'll find all that and more in My Invented Country.

It's probably as close as you can get to visiting Chile without leaving the comfort of your favorite reading chair.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We're HUGE in Australia!

Ok ... maybe that's an exaggeration.  But Becky over at Page Turners is Australian and, what's more, she's definitely the coolest book-blogging Australian that we've ever met.  More importantly, she likes us enough to print the brief "interview" that we put together in a fit of shameless self-promotion for her Lights Camera Blog Action series.  Check it out here.  Truth be told, we've had a nice little back-and-forth with Becky about Australian literature, which we can't get enough of.  Thanks, Becky! And don't forget to check out Page Turners--it's definitely worth your time.     

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Ginger Man (J.P. Donleavy) (10.0/10.0)

The Ginger Man is perhaps the most eloquent portrait of debauchery ever painted in the English language. And it may just be the greatest American novel that no one has ever heard of. I can only barely read in any language other than English, so I don’t really know what they have to say about hedonism. But it’s hard to imagine anyone weaving an uglier tale in more beautiful language.
Sebastian Dangerfield is a bad man and behaves accordingly. Shortly after World War II, he finds himself studying at the prestigious Trinity University in Dublin, Ireland. Having squandered his GI Bill money and being miserably wedded with child, he does what any rotten human would do: he abandons his dependants and embarks on a journey of decadent self-indulgence.

Yet, he is a strangely-compelling character who appears more principled in his wickedness than perhaps even the Pope in his righteousness. He is a wastrel of the highest order who at first appalls but soon has the reader weeping in sympathy as his uncompromising mission to find beauty in this life—on his own gluttonous and lusty terms, of course—is revealed.

He takes advantage of women, he steals, he lies, he drinks too much, and he possesses every conceivable carnal vice. He is a person of huge appetites that devours life in breathtaking gulps and gives nothing in return. Yet to a man like Dangerfield these imperfections are what make him beautiful and somewhere along the line Dunleavy seduces us into sympathizing with this with rotten character; more than just sympathize, Dunleavy even brings us to champion this swine for some of the very same reasons we find him so distasteful at beginning of our voyage.

With such a beautiful gift of verse many readers may wonder why J. P. Donleavy didn’t devote his powers to do good. Rather than chronicling a beast of a man on his hilarious journey to purgatory, why not use his gift to pen a serious and profound piece—perhaps the next Great American Novel some might ask.

Well, in my mind he has. And that book is The Ginger Man.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Last American Man (Elizabeth Gilbert) (1.5/10.0)

I rarely have a visceral reaction to any particular book, and the reviews that are hosted here on The Literate Man will attest to the fact that I generally give (very) positive reviews, but The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert really pissed me off. 

First of all, I should have loved this book. The subject is Eustace Conway, renowned mountain man of North Carolina, who took to the woods as a young man determined to lead a more simple and natural life, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in order to find himself, who spent months studying with the Maya in Guatemala, who went cross-country on horseback, and who ultimately established a primitive farm in the mountains of his home state. In fact, I feel a real kinship with the story of Eustace Conway, at least in broad outline. I grew up in the hill country of Western New York, where I worked horse and dairy farms, and spent many an hour hunting up arrowheads in the forests about my family's home. I, too, generally think that life is too complicated, too artificial, too sterilized, and that a return to a more simple existence is good for the soul. I too, spent several months hiking the Appalachian Trial during a break between college and law school. And I spent years living in Guatemala, trekking the spine of volcanoes that run the length of the country, and working with the indigenous Maya communities there. I should have LOVED the story of Eustace Conway; instead, I walked away from Elizabeth Gilbert's treatment feeling only pity for him and very much cheated by the promise of his story.

In titling her book, The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert made a very tall and significant promise to her readers, namely that the story would reflect distinctly American values and otherwise reveal the embodiment of those values in a particular individual. Now, please understand that I have nothing against the man himself.  Eustace Conway is, from all that I know about him, a supremely competent and skilled outdoorsman.  What quickly becomes obvious in the book, however, is that Eustace spent the first half of his life suffering under and running from the harsh and autocratic rule of his father and the second half creating his own home (a primitive farm, known as Turtle Island), where he could draw young people in by the promise of a simpler life and then command and control them in precisely the same manner as his father commanded and controlled him. The rest of the book is no more than Gilbert's idealism of her subject and window-dressing.  In escaping his unbearable home life, Eustace Conway exchanged the yoke for the whip, but the system and the philosophy remain precisely the same.  Such autocracy is not an essentially American trait - indeed, it is precisely the opposite of a respect for individual liberty, a principle which Eustace Conway obviously abhors. A dedicated woodsman, he may be, but Eustace Conway is not in any way, shape, or form a paradigm of American masculinity.

And Eustace Conway is hardly the last of his kind, although he goes to great lengths to market and promote himself as the embodiment of American frontier principles.  Gilbert treats this self-promotion as part and parcel of what it means to be an American hero, pointing to the images that Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, among others, created to enhance their public standing.  By doing so, she tacitly elevates every travelling evangelist and snake-oil salesman to the status of American folk hero.  But these traits are hardly uniquely American or disappearing in our time.  In fact, self-promoting, self-righteous, and domineering natures abound in every society around the world. And so, the promise of the book's title goes not only unfulfilled, but directly contradicted.  I can only conclude that the title was a misguided marketing effort to sell more copies of what is a decidedly flat, fractured, and uninspired tale of an otherwise skilled woodsman who has spent his life in trying to tell other American males (and females) how to live their lives, while he fails again and again to effect a life that is significantly different from that led by his father. He is, simply, one self-promoting autocrat seeking to escape the domination of another, which is hardly a unique story, much less an essentially American one.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras (Mario Vargas Llosa) (8.5/10.0)

For native gringos, like myself, who occasionally stray into Spanish-language fiction, I think Mario Vargas Llosa is by far the most accessible of the Latin American fiction writers. This is true for two reasons: first, for his straightforward prose (though calling him Hemingway-esque is probably unfair to both), and, second, for the tasty themes that Vargas Llosa chooses to treat, which are usually some combination of military and sexual. For anyone who has struggled to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Miguel Angel Asturias in Spanish (and I love them both), Vargas Llosa is quite a relief both in terms of complexity and humor.

But back to the theme—it is the development and introduction of an efficient prostitution ring into the Peruvian military that provides the back story in Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras, which was translated into English in 1990 as Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. You can just see Vargas Llosa’s very first notes on the novel now, “Peruvian army hires prostitutes—hilarity ensues.” And it does. Now, before you sit down to draft your angry letters about the objectification of women, please note that the book is pure satire. Its purpose is to show the farcical nature of applying military strategy to issues which are ... well ... decidedly non-military. And the prostitutes, who take center stage and one of whom tempts Captain Pantoja to consider infidelity, are some of the best-drawn characters in the book.

Pantaleón y Las Visitadoras is perhaps my favorite of Vargas Llosa’s works, though I am also partial to La Ciudad y Los Perros, which treats the subject of young boys growing up in a Peruvian military academy. Either is a great (and relatively easy) read in Spanish for anyone with even conversational skills in the language. But if you want a good laugh or two along the way, I’d recommend Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Apple’s iPad Is for Stories, Not for Books (iBooks: 2.0/10.0)

We’re stepping a bit out of the box here at The Literate Man today to bring you a review of book-related technology. Now, before my office is raided by a team of Apple goons, let me be clear that I love the Apple iPad. For those of us that enjoy stories as related by the more visual media—including the Internet, videos, television shows, and movies—it is nothing short of revolutionary. However, recognizing that The Literate Man is a blog for and about literature, the iPad’s performance as an e-reader leaves much to be desired. In fact, in terms of technology designed to present words on a page, it is not even in the same class as a Kindle or Sony eReader, leaving me to wonder how Apple can even market the e-reader potential of the device with a straight face. In short, the iPad is not the right choice for anyone that is serious about reading content (other than Internet content) on an electronic device.

A little bit of background: I am a traditionalist. As you will note from several of the posts here, I like nothing better than the smell and feel of an old, worn (preferably first run) copy of a work of classic literature. Nevertheless, I recognize convenience and have been reading books on electronic devices for more than ten years. I am dead serious when I tell you that I read not only War and Peace, but also Moby Dick and Anna Karenina, on an early version of the Palm Pilot. Fortunately for all of us, the technology has improved greatly. I have been using a Sony Pocket eReader for approximately six months now. And I do have problems with the Sony. It is simply maddening to attempt to read any type of work with footnotes—David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest just about drove me to the mental state of Hal Incandenza. But the Sony device is lightweight, the type is crisp and clear, and there is absolutely no problem reading in full sunlight. As such, I have continued to use the Sony with pleasure and, in fact, just finished Joyce’s The Dubliners, for which a review will be forthcoming.

As for the iPad, I picked it up about two weeks ago, more for the media-related functions than the iBooks application, which has been widely criticized. Still, I thought that I would probably use the iPad as an e-reader on occasion, and I looked forward to enjoying its innovations. But—and here’s the point—there are none, at least none that I find useful or even noteworthy. It is quite simply a portable computer screen with a white background upon which blurry black type is placed – it is, in short, a Word document. But that’s not all. I have used it to read in a variety of contexts now, and I have found every one difficult and troublesome. To begin with, the weight of the device prohibits you from holding it aloft like a book for any period of time. And, as previously mentioned, the text is anything but crisp, making the reader’s eyes tire after only a few minutes of reading and resulting in a pounding headache if one reads for any extended period of time. And, did you say that you like to read at the beach? Forget it. The device is a better mirror than an e-reader in direct sunlight.

There’s more, but I think the point is made. For me, the iPad is a wonderful media device (and I plan to use it heavily for such), but a complete failure as an e-reader.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Guerrero & Heart's Blood (Alan Clark) (8.2/10)

In 1511, Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish sailor, and Jeronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest, were among a party sailing from Panama to Santo Domingo, which was shipwrecked on a coral reef off the coast of Jamaica. After drifting for weeks, they washed ashore on the Yucatan peninsula and were taken captive by the local Maya. Several were sacrificed immediately and the rest were taken as slaves. As the only two survivors of this ordeal, Guerrero and de Aguilar took radically divergent paths: Guerrero went on to become a respected warrior and chieftain among the Maya, leading campaigns against his own people with the arrival of Cortez in 1519. De Aguilar, in contrast, remained a slave, denigrated and abused by his captors, until he was saved by Cortez and accompanied him as a translator on the conquistador’s march to distant Tenochtitlan.

It is a mystery to me that the story of Gonzalo Guerrero has never truly resonated with the American people. It contains all of the same elements that make movies like Gladiator and Avatar such blockbusters: an Old World warrior, a distrustful indigenous population, a slave to warrior to chief progression, a cross-cultural love story, and a tear-jerking tragedy full of outrageous injustice. I read an award-winning, fictionalized account entitled, Guerrero, by Eugenio Aguirre, some years back. The edition that I read was in Spanish, although I believe that I have seen reference to an English translation at some point. But even that well-written tale failed to capture the conflict in the mind and heart of Gonzalo Guerrero as has been accomplished in this short, independently-published work by Alan Clark. The first portion, “Guerrero,” is a play focused on the character of Gonzalo Guerrero in the period immediately preceding Cortez’s arrival. He is firmly-entrenched in Maya society, where he enjoys the respect of his chief, Nachancan, and the love of his Maya wife and children. Despite de Aguilar’s attempts to remind him of his Christian beliefs, he recognizes that it is his destiny to live and love among the Maya, to practice their customs, which he has come to understand and appreciate, and he is content to do so. Clark treats the many conflicting emotions of the great warrior with deftness and exhibits a distinct knowledge of and appreciation for Maya ritual.

The second portion of Clark’s work, “Heart’s Blood,” is de Aguilar’s retrospective on his captivity and his relationship with Gonzalo Guerrero. While there is an understandable hatred of the Maya that had enslaved him, there is also a love of his companion, Guerrero, and a sadness that accompanies his departure from the Maya en route to join Cortez at the start of his expedition. De Aguilar’s reflection provides a suitable counterbalance to Guerrero’s stoicism and the book feels as if it comes full circle.

The book is not available publicly, but you may contact Alan Clark directly for a copy through his website at