Friday, December 20, 2013

So Much Unknown About The Known World

The Known World is not a book that you will soon forget.  As you turn the pages, the story reveals itself as such a singular and unique piece of work that, despite some its imperfections, it’s something that sticks in your head.  It’s one of the rare books that offers up an unknown world to the reader that far transcends the paper and ink confines that it’s written on.  Author Edward P. Jones struck gold with this, his first novel, and the compelling story combined with his unusual writing talents have resulted in a stunning book.

Set just several years before the outbreak of the Civil War in Manchester County, Virginia, Jones gives us the story of the Henry Townsend Plantation.  As with any pre-Civil War plantation at that time and place slavery was a sad reality.  However, what makes the Townsend plantation unique is the fact that Henry was black; a free man, slave owner, and shoemaker, “protected” by the wealthiest white man in the county. 

When Henry unexpectedly dies it’s up to his young widow to hold the plantation together and maintain a certain way of life.  But things began to unravel one strand at a time and we experience this upheaval and its consequences through the perspective of the various slaves, slave owners, community of freemen, crackers and other members of Manchester County.  With a sprawling cast of characters, each perspective adds a new piece to the puzzle as the author constructs a vibrant and complexly layered portrait of a disturbing, but very real, part of our past; a past that only half-a-dozen generations removed, we marvel at in disbelief.   

Jones has created one of the most vivid profiles of slavery in fiction.  Throughout the book he draws liberally from an historical record that, while highly plausible, was also invented.  In the absence of any real historical record of black slave owners, Jones superbly employs this tool to reinforce the plot-line and it adds a distinct richness to the writing.  It’s this, and other unconventional writing devices, that both surprise and add heft to the story.  And while sometimes distracting, these efforts succeed much more often than they fail.

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his writing is his restraint.  In a world founded on excess, Jones’ controlled writing is a powerful contrast to the absurdities and extremes of the environment.  It allows the reader to feel the rawness of the human emotion in its most powerful light.  As he navigates through a system of complex moral issues and social contradictions -made even more complicated by skin color- Jones reveals his character’s pain,  and societies hypocrisy, more through what he leaves unwritten, than by any of the words he puts on the page.

Comparisons to Tony Morrison’s Beloved, and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner are apt, as they have become the contemporary standard-bearers for this genre.  But what Jones has done is present this gripping subject matter in an original light; in a way that’s never been conceived before.  He has put new wine in old skin and the results are dazzling, perhaps even unforgettable.

Friday, November 15, 2013

History And Intrigue Collide In Wolf Hall

Much has been made of Wolf Hall, the fictionalized account of Henry the VIII’s court, since its original release in 2009; from the Man Booker Prize, to universal critical acclaim and monster sales, it’s all been richly deserved.  Though repeatedly the subject of writing, theater and film, Hilary Mantel’s engrossing retelling of this Tudor chapter of history is perhaps the finest since Shakespeare broached the subject.

Set in the years between 1500 and 1535 and centered on the events that helped shape modern Europe, it’s the story of Henry’s wedding of Anne Boleyn and the divorce that forever altered Western Civilization.  The courting of Anne and Henry’s quest for an heir form the ostensible backdrop of this story but Mantel’s focus on the backroom dealing and horse trading that facilitated the betrothal is the real point of interest.  Wrangling with the Vatican, the slippery French, and the hated Spanish while trying to prevent an invasion by a united Christian Europe and suppressing an uprising on the home front are just some of the preoccupations Henry faces. 

Fortunately he has a ringmaster named Thomas Cromwell to handle the delicate -and not so delicate- intricacies of his agenda.  And in the hands of Mantel, what a fascinating man Cromwell proves to be.  The archetype of a “well-rounded Englishman” he is an engrossing and complex protagonist in this original take on the Tudor court.  As a sort of a benevolent Machiavelli, who deftly balances and pragmatism and hope, ambition and intrigue are just as much at the core of Cromwell as the other courtesans, but we want to believe that his motivations are somehow for a greater good and that’s partly why Mantel’s Cromwell is so irresistible.

Contrary to most works that tend to focus on Henry or Anne as the singular characters, Mantel cleverly chooses Cromwell as the narrative vessel for navigating this era of European upheaval.  Cromwell is all the more remarkable as he is the first man of low-born status to ascend to right hand of the throne, head the government and essentially hold the keys to the realm.  And this clash of classes adds to the richness of this work by humanizing the historical events.   

Mantel’s gifts as a writer are apparent from the first few paragraphs.  From the opening scenes the prose accelerates, compelling you to burn through the 604 pages.  She flaunts convention writes with clarity and doesn't indulge in wordy flourishes.  But perhaps the most impressive quality of her writing is that she’s able to inject an almost kinetic quality into the economical, even sparse, prose; the words dance off the page and it reads almost like a thriller.

Wolf Hall is the first of a Cromwell trilogy and we give this remarkable book our highest recommendation for historical fiction.  The second of the series, Bring Up the Bodies, was published in 2012 and has also been showered in critical acclaim and awards.  We can’t wait to devour it!  

Friday, October 4, 2013

Middlesex: More Than Just An Address

Hermaphrodites, incest, boot-legging, illegal immigration…this might sound like a Jerry Springer episode but we’re actually talking about the themes in Jeffery Eugenides Pulitzer prize winning novel, Middlesex.  In lesser hands, you might expect a story woven around these elements to rely on shock and novelty to grab the reader’s attention.  But in Eugenides hands, these are little more than a starting point for an entertaining and provocative work about our search for identity.

Like so many epic novels Middlesex is a multi-generational tale of uprooted immigrants creating a new life in a foreign environment.  When Turkish forces invade the Greek countryside in 1922, Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides are forced to flee their simple village life and start over in Detroit, USA.  Over the next three generations we learn of the family’s and the city’s intertwined histories, their secrets and their future.  Using prisms of ethnicity, race, socio-economic grouping and sexual identity Eugenides takes us on a fascinating tour of a colorful Greek family and the legendary highs and lows of the city of Motown.  Throughout the narrative both the characters and the city struggle to resist externally imposed identities and remain true to their heritage in an ever-changing environment.   

The protagonist of this tale, Cal, is the granddaughter of Lefty and Desdemona, and just happens to be a hermaphrodite whose condition remains undiscovered until her late teens.  You can be forgiven for assuming that this plot element is simply a gimmick.  But it’s not.  And the reader is hardly even aware of Cal’s unusual biology until the latter stages of the book.  Instead, when the story finally reaches Cal’s part in the story, her/his inter-sexed makeup is used as a tool for deconstructing yet another layer of identity: sex/gender.  And what could easily become freakish or even tawdry is actually quite tender and illuminating.

Eugenides employs science, biology, humor and unwanted sorrow to handle Cal’s story, deftly balancing these perspectives to create a holistic vision of an unusual life from birth to middle-age and the perpetual search for identity.  It’s a grossly compelling vision grounded in the universal need to be accepted -something that is certainly far more difficult for someone whose physiology does not fit within the norms of a biology textbook. 

At the heart of Middlesex is an enlarged ensemble of colorful characters that practically jump off the pages and Eugenides has a knack for capturing the immigrant experience and the reverberations felt throughout the first, second and even third generation family members.  Throughout this excellent book, the writing is engaging, the pace is crisp and the characters sparkle.  Middlesex has all the requisite ingredients for an impossible-to-put-down-page-turner and it does not disappoint. 

Eugenides has written just one other book since winning the 2003 Pulitzer, The Marriage Plot (2011), and previously authored The Virgin Suicides (1993); both of which have found commercial and critical success.  We look forward to reading these other works and can only hope that we don’t have to wait another decade for his next novel.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Failed Dreams and Hilarity in Lipsyte’s Home Land

(Editor’s Note: Apologies for the hiatus.  Since the arrival of our tiny Literate Man, Sam, there have been fewer hours in the day for basic exercises like reading, sleeping, and working on our time machine.  But we are now back at work.  Also, please do wish our very own talented editor/author/highlander, Patrick, a happy 400th birthday today!)

Candor and honesty are rare commodities and not something typically found in a high school alumni newsletter.  Unless you’re reading Catamount Notes, an alumni correspondence containing personal updates penned by a certain Lewis Minor.  These soul-bearing dispatches are riddled with failure and regret –but never without hope!- and form the basis for Sam Lipsyte’s novel, Home Land, a darkly hilarious and surprisingly poignant examination of what remains when your dreams are crushed and you find yourself three months late with the rent.

Minor, aka Teabag, is our faithful tour guide through the wreckage of his unfulfilled aspirations.  Years after graduating, little has changed from his high school days.  He still lives in the same mind-numbing New Jersey suburb; he still has the same friends; he still suffers the same insecurities; he still does the same stupid things; and he describes them all in a very frank and very funny way.  But with his ten-year high school reunion fast approaching feelings of self-doubt and disillusionment began to cloud the horizon as people and events he’s tried to forget begin reappearing in his life with mostly unpleasant results. 

Lipsyte has a rare talent for narrative introspection that is both entertaining and revealing.  In Teabag, he’s created a distinctive protagonist, a sort of Ignatius J. Reilly/Holden Caufield mash up, that will not soon be forgotten.  He’s a crass buffoon that if not for his redeeming vulnerability, would come off as the kind of weirdo you might see hanging around a 7-Eleven browsing pornographic magazines.  But Teabag has heart.  And he pours it out on the pages, both the compelling and the creepy, with heartbreaking honesty. Throughout the story, he and his ensemble of friends and enemies prove a worthy vehicle for Lipsyte’s stylized plumbing of existentialist anxieties. 

The depth of introspection that Lipsyte’s able to achieve in Home Land, often juxtaposed against a backdrop of childish situations or foolish rantings, is a pleasant surprise and a great testament to his talent.  For some, these themes may border on the obscene or feel overdone, but Lipsyte remains true to the characters and the quality of writing is never compromised.  At times, the sparse storyline also feels threatened by the constant introspection, but the overall product will impress with some unexpectedly rich prose, not to mention dozens of laugh-out-loud moments and clever dialogue.

Since publishing Home Land in 2004, Lipsyte, now a professor of fiction at Columbia, has earned wide acclaim for other works such as The Ask (2012) -also recommended by The Literate Man- and The Fun Parts (2012). 

In short, this is one of the funniest novels we’ve read in some time and Lipsyte’s writing is superb.  Home Land is a deceptively good read that will linger in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page.