Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: Giving Voice to the Madwoman in the Attic

The premise of Wide Sargasso Sea is fantastic: to present the back story of Antoinette Cosway (also known as Bertha Mason), the infamous "madwoman in the attic" and wife of Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. And, if you're a lover of the character of Mr. Rochester, you may wish to stop reading here, because Jean Rhys is more than moderately successful in exposing his prejudices and placing the blame for his wife's alleged "madness" squarely upon his shoulders.

The work is even more impressive when it is considered in historical context: published in 1966, the book came just four years after Jamaica's independence from the United Kingdom, and can be read largely as a rejection of the long period of British imperialism and subjugation of the Afro-Caribbean populations of the West Indies. In short, Rhys (a native of Dominica) argues that the British never understood the culture or the motivations of their unwilling subjects, and it is this misunderstanding, labeled as inherited "madness" by Rochester, that condemns his wife to solitude and leaves her only an act of desperation.

Beautiful, powerful, and occasionally scattered (like the culture it describes), Wide Sargasso Sea is number 94 on Modern Library's list of 100 Best Novels. Weighing in at less than 200 pages, the minimal effort is well worth the reward. For both literary and historical reasons, this is a novella that is not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rivertown: A Marco Polo Journey for the 21st Century

In case you hadn’t heard China is a pretty big deal. It’s not only a massive place but it’s home to one-fifth of the world’s population, fifty-six distinct cultures, over two-hundred languages and is poised to become the most colossal economic force in history by mid-century. But there’s only so much you can learn about a country through statistics and in the case of China it’s not much.

To really understand something about China you need to know the people and Peter Hessler knows the Chinese people. He is perhaps the world’s foremost foreign authority on what makes the people of China tick -at the very least the most insightful writer of such things. After spending two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the backwater Sichuan town of Fuling and becoming fluent in Mandarin Hessler stayed on in China for the next decade as a correspondent and contributor for The New Yorker and National Geographic, respectively. He has since become the go-to chronicler of the turbulent remaking of modern China and just might be the first “Genius Grant” recipient ever featured on TLM.

But it’s his two years in Fuling, his initial impression of the “sleeping giant,” that he focuses on in Rivertown (Oracle Bones, Harper Collins 2006 and Country Driving, Harper 2010 are his other books about China) and it’s one of our favorite books regardless of genre. It’s part memoir, part examination of a culture unfamiliar to the West and entirely engrossing. Hessler’s elegant and revealing prose achieves a rare clarity for a subject matter often clouded with misunderstanding and bias.

In Rivertown Hessler paints a picture of an ancient past coming to terms with the radical upheaval of several recent decades of reform and how the current generation –unwittingly thrust into this tumult- is coming to terms with this uneven transition. Embedded in a university classroom in the Sichuan hinterland Hessler writes from a privileged position surrounded by the unvarnished optimism of his student’s youth and the excesses and atrocities of their parents’ generation forever lurking in their thoughts.

Hessler’s done what almost no other observer of China has been able to accomplish: paint an even-handed portrait of present-day China as seen through the eyes of ordinary people and written in an accessible, perhaps even heartwarming, style. He captures both the innocence and indoctrination of his students’ thoughts and behaviors and presents these contradictions in a lively and engaging metaphor for an entire country. But his principal triumph is that he doesn’t try to simplify the complexities of modern China or compare them with the ways of the West; he simply tries to understand them.

What gives Hessler’s work such accessibility is the fact that he’s neither an academic (although his collective knowledge of Chinese culture, language and history would seem to qualify him as such) nor an outside observer as almost every other voice on the subject is. Hessler is as close to a Chinese insider as a waiguo ren can be and his writing style and introspection border on the literary.

This is one of the most tender, poignant, insightful and clarifying examinations of Chinese culture and society ever written. As purely memoir, it stands apart for the author’s piercing self awareness and the articulation of dislocation that foreigners experience in an inward looking society. As a glimpse into the human side of the changing social and culture currents in present day China it stands alone. TLM highly recommends Rivertown.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Work Song: Another Doig Hit

Ivan Doig is a terribly inventive writer. As one of the preeminent writers of the American West anything he puts on paper is worth reading. Doig provides us with a thinking man’s glimpse into the Wild West; always looking beyond the cowboys and gunfights and providing a more complex –but always fun- account of the settling of this unsettled land.

In his most recent novel, Work Song, he has found the perfect backdrop to showcase his storytelling and writing talent: Butte, Montana. At one time during the past century Butte not only had the largest red-light district in the US but was also home to more millionaires per capita than any place on the planet thanks to its massive copper deposits which earned it the reputation as the “richest hill on earth” (curiously enough, Butte also produced the great Evil Knevil -arguably its greatest natural resource). Naturally this promise of instant wealth drew every type of character imaginable to the little town at the foot of the Rockies and this melting pot provides a rich and fertile canvass for Doig and his talents.

In Work Song Doig bring backs the popular protagonist Morrie Morgan from The Whistling Season (Harcourt, 2006) and he provides the same insightful narrative as an educated fish-out-of-water in his new surroundings among immigrant miners. Hoping to strike it rich in Butte he instead stumbles into a position as librarian overseeing “the finest set of books west of Chicago.” It’s while working at this fantastic library under a bearded mountain of a man known as the “strangler” that he runs into a former student and quickly finds himself embroiled in a battle between the powerful mine owners and the miners’ union. He manages to complicate his situation even further by falling for the widowed –and apparently off limits- owner of his boarding house.

The book begins a bit uneven and some of this has to do with the assumed familiarity of the reader with Morgan from Doig’s previous work. But the reader needn’t be familiar with any of his other books to appreciate Work Song and patience is generously rewarded once the book hits its stride. By the time we were midway through we couldn’t put the book down. There are times when the writing seems more clichéd than folksy and some of the characters are memorable only for their caricature-like qualities. But this takes little away from the overall enjoyment of the book and as a protagonist Morgan is a complex and compelling figure whom Doig skillfully uses as a vehicle to project elements about the broader time and place he occupies as he reveals the various layers of the man.

Doig’s real skill is telling a story and using the historical context of the West to paint a memorable setting; he’s done a masterful job bringing a turn-of-the-century mining town to life. Work Song hums over the final 150 pages and the ending proves to be more fulfilling than expected as the story works to a plotted crescendo with the writing getting tighter with every turn of the page.

Work Song is a quick and fulfilling read and while perhaps not Doig’s greatest work it’s well worth a look. He’s a fascinating man and a fine writer and his latest book is a unique period piece that you won’t forget any time soon. Highly recommended by The Literate Man -as are most of his Doig’s books.