Tuesday, December 29, 2009

15. "Ceremony" by Leslie Marmon Silko

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. 1977. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
244 pages
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko documents the life of Tayo, a veteran of the Vietnam War. Tayo, who lives on a Native American settlement, suffers from severe shell-shock. In order to heal, he must complete a ceremony initiated by Betonie, one of the medicine men of his settlement.

Betonie begins the ceremony and it is up to Tayo to finish it. Interestingly enough, in the introduction to the book, Silko writes about how the writing of this book was her own healing ceremony. At the time that she began writing Ceremony, Silko was suffering from depression and homesickness. She and her family had moved far from her home and she was having a difficult time adjusting to the change. Silko suffered physically from depression with headaches and fatigue. By writing the novel, Silko was able to heal herself emotionally, and physically.

I have a deep love and appreciation for this novel. I was fortunate enough to read it at a time in my life when I was in need of healing myself. I found solace in Silko’s narrative, plot, imagery, characters, and poetry.

This novel is truly a masterpiece (and I’m not just saying that because of my own attachment to the characters and story). Silko weaves poetry into her prose and makes the theme of hybridity quite visible. Often, the poems take the shape of their subject—a poem about warriors is shaped like a downward pointing arrowhead, for example.

The plot is thickly layered and nonlinear. It holds readers’ attention and all the pieces come together quite nicely by the end.

Ceremony’s characters are deep and unique. I couldn’t help but feel compassion for all of them, even the antagonist(s). This is one of Silko’s gifts to her readers. She drives home the point that we are all connected, we are all imperfect, and our choices affect everyone. She humanizes the antagonists to break down the wall between “us” (the supposedly “good”) and “them” (the supposedly “evil”).

As I said in my last post, these reviews are not meant to judge those of you reading them. They are simply a way for me to express what value the books I read hold for me. In this case, Ceremony holds immeasurable value.

5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP

Friday, November 13, 2009

14. A Note from d'Artagnan "On Elitism"

"On Elitism"

I am not going to post a book review as scheduled this week because the past couple of weeks have been insane and I just didn’t get to it. I will though, offer some thoughts on art, music, and literature and my book reviews in general.

Elitism in the creative arts pisses me off. I really can’t stand it when people confuse preference with status. I see and hear it happening a lot in my line of work. If Person A prefers a certain genre of music but Person B prefers an entirely different genre, Person A seems to automatically judge Person B. Suddenly Person B’s self-worth is mixed in with what music they listen to and whether or not that music is “cool” or “lame” according to Person A.

The same thing happens with literature. Certain books are devalued and therefore, anyone who likes those books are devalued as people. Preference or taste becomes a status game.

I HATE THIS CRAP. (Excuse my language.) I find it absolutely ridiculous.

It is my understanding that one of the main purposes of art, music, and literature, is to reach people. The creative arts are a means of self expression and connection. Just because a piece isn’t preferred by one person, doesn’t mean it can’t hold value to someone else. Just because Person A values a certain type of music, doesn’t make Person A somehow superior to Person B.

It is a matter of SUBJECTIVE PREFERENCE. One is not better than the other; they’re just different!!!

Reasons for connecting to or enjoying a song or a book or a painting are different for every single person. Maybe they like the lyrics to one song. Maybe a certain character reminds them of someone they loved. Maybe a brushstroke reminds them of who the hell knows what else.

My point is, people should be able to like the music, literature, and art of their choosing without that preference leading to some sort of judgment of their character, intelligence, or worth. The creative arts are meant to be enjoyed and discussed. They’re meant to be provocative and being elitist about any art form defeats its purpose entirely.

I hope that my reviews are not perceived as elitist.

Anything I express in this blog is ALWAYS up for discussion, contradiction, etc. I don’t claim to be the ultimate judge of ANYONE’S writing. In doing these reviews, I am not passing judgment on readers but expressing what value the books I read hold for me. Feel free to disagree as much as you would like. There is a good chance you’ll be right because I think that, ultimately, the only person that can truly judge the quality of a piece is YOU.

Ok, I’m done now. Hopefully I’ll have the Ceremony review up for you next week.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

13. "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt Inc, 2001.
319 pages.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

“This book was born as I was hungry,” writes Yann Martel of his novel, Life of Pi. Hunger is only one of the many sensations the protagonist experiences after he is shipwrecked in the Pacific. Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2002. Film director Ang Lee is also reported to be interested in directing a film adaptation due for release sometime in the year 2011. (This is according to his comments at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival).

In Life of Pi, Piscine Molitar Patel, known to world as Pi Patel, spends his childhood in Pondicherry, India. He grows up in a public zoo surrounded by exotic animals thanks to his father’s work as a zookeeper.

Pi, as a child, is passionate about God and religion. He is a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian all in one package. He finds God in everything—in the animals he tends to in the zoo, in the wind, in each of his places of worship, in his relationships. In the first part of the novel, he is truly saturated in a desire to know God and the nature of universe.

In Part Two of Life of Pi, Pi and his family have been hit with hard economic times. They decide to move to Canada where they plan to start a new life. The ship intended to take them to their new life in Canada unexpectedly sinks in the Pacific Ocean. Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a Bengal tiger, an injured zebra, and an assortment of “pests”—rats, flies, etc.

Pi tells an incredible story of survival and faith. He managers to keep himself and Richard Parker (the tiger), alive through many different resourceful means from catching fish and turtles, to training the tiger like a circus performer, and finally, to discovering a mysterious floating island. He survives at sea for 227 days.

This text takes the reader to the brink of survival. The middle section becomes long and is filled with intricate details. It feels like the middle section will never come to an end, giving readers a taste of the desperation Pi, himself, might have felt during his ordeal.

Written to appear as nonfiction, the story becomes addicting. The characters are vivid, lovable, and real. Readers travel with Pi, cry with him, are afraid with him, become desperate with him.

The way the novel ends tests readers' faith on many levels. The ending’s twist makes readers question the difference between truth and fiction. Life of Pi will leave a lasting impression on all who are willing to join Pi on his journey.

3 darts out of 5

Monday, September 14, 2009

12. "Between the Acts" by Virginia Woolf

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. San Diego: Harcourt Inc., 1941.
219 pages
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Between the Acts
was the last book Virginia Woolf wrote before her suicide in 1941. It is a story about a family in England who hosts a play at their country home to raise money for the church. The plot covers the play itself as well as the interactions and happenings, as the title suggests, between the acts. There are several unhappy characters making connections with other equally unhappy characters and a lot of implied scandal that never comes to fruition.

I am usually a huge Virginia Woolf fan. She is my favorite writer, and this is the first of her novels that I’ve been disappointed by. Keeping in mind that she died before she was able to make revisions, the characters seemed to lack the motivation and depth Woolf had so frequently achieved in her earlier novels. The plot moved slowly, very slowly, and nothing really seemed to happen. The depiction of character interactions was dull and simplistic.

Maybe this is the effect Woolf was going for. Maybe she wished to illustrate how mundane life can be. If that was the goal, it sure didn’t make for good reading. This is not her best work and I would recommend Orlando or Mrs. Dalloway over Between the Acts in a heartbeat.

1.5 darts out of 5

Friday, August 28, 2009

11. "HOWL and Other Poems" by Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg, Allen. HOWL and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956.
44 pages.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

HOWL is the first book of poetry I’ve ever tried reviewing. This collection contains work by Ginsberg while he was in Berkeley, California and some from his earlier years as well. Originally meant as performance pieces, his poems explore themes of nature, love, God, spirituality, sex and sexuality, industrialism, materialism, and politics. HOWL’s publisher was actually put on “obscenity” trial because of the text’s graphic nature.

His poems are written in a Walt Whitman-esque style and in the poem “A Supermarket in California”, Ginsberg actually addresses Whitman directly. It is quite obvious that he was inspired by Whitman’s long and repetitive phrases. If you are a Walt Whitman fan, you will probably be able to appreciate this text.

My personal favorite poem from this collection was “America.” In “America” Ginsberg’s voice drips with ironic sadness, disappointment, and confusion. There is a certain intimacy about it that I greatly appreciated.

This text is worth a read if you are at all interested in poetry or queer writing and writers. He celebrates bodies and sex as something holy and doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of life in America in the 1950’s.

3 darts out of 5.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

10. "The Sand Child" by Tahar Ben Jelloun

I apologize for not posting in a very long while. I've been off taking care of summery things. I plan on posting much more now that things have sort of settle and I'm getting "back into the game" so to speak. Anyway, here it is:

Ben Jelloun, Tahar. The Sand Child. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

The storyteller in The Sand Child states, “When I read a book, I settle in it” (135). This was my experience as I read through The Sand Child. Set in Morrocco, The Sand Child is a prequel to The Sacred Night and starts at the very beginning of a complicated tale. Ahmed who later becomes Zahra is born female but raised as a male because of zir father’s obsession with having an heir. According to Islamic inheritance laws, only a son can inherit the full fortune of a family’s wealth.

From Ahmed/Zahra’s birth the prose is complicated and mythical. It is required that one “settles into it” to really absorb its worth. Deep and abstract, the text uses little dialogue and shifts between narrators frequently. It is as much about the protagonist as it is about the influence of storytelling in North Africa.

Having also read The Sacred Night I was pleasantly surprised at Jelloun’s ability to graceful move between narrative voices. Each storyteller has a vivid and distinct style. Readers are offered three possible endings to this portion of Ahmed/Zahra’s life. In creating a sort of choose-your-own-ending novel, Jelloun has given readers some control over their reading experience. The readers themselves can become storytellers too.

3.5 darts out of 5

Sunday, April 19, 2009

9. "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" by Jeanette Winterson

Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. New York: Grove Press, 1985.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

The color orange is supposed to represent energy and warmth but it is a far cry from what the protagonist experiences in Winterson’s first novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Raised in a Pentecostal church, Jeanette experiences extreme ridicule and humiliation after she is discovered to be in a romantic partnership with another woman. She is publicly humiliated in church causing her great emotional strife.

This is a difficult review to write after only reading the book once. There are many, many layers in this text that I certainly did not discover after just one pass through. One section of the text is a mythical fairy tale which emphasizes the importance of story-telling in the text. It wasn’t apparent to me at first, but the more I read the more I picked up on the numerous strands of stories that were being woven together.

Winterson writes, “Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time” (93). This is a good way to interpret this work. It explains everything while leaving everything unexplained. Certainly worth reading a couple of times.

3.5 darts out of 5

Sunday, February 22, 2009

8. "Queer Theory and Social Change" by Max H. Kirsch

Kirsch, Max H. Queer Theory and Social Change. London: Routledge, 2000.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Queer Theory and Social Change was one of those life-changing books for me. I tend to be a pragmatic and practical person. I get more satisfaction from actively doing things and I enjoy being productive. This book gave me a new outlet for my work—a way to both think and do.

Kirsch is highly critical of queer theory but makes a clear distinction between queer theory and queer politics. He defines queer politics as a positive social movement. Queer politics allows for recognition of queer identity and the use of queer as a sort of umbrella under which LGBTI individuals can unite and form solidarity. Queer politics are active and productive. Kirsch defines queer theory as a theory of non-identity. He makes a parallel between queer theory and capitalism because of queer theory’s individualistic and apathetic nature. He claims that queer theory only reaffirms capitalist goals rather than dismantling capitalism like it claims to. Capitalism is reaffirmed because of the way queer theory doesn’t allow for community.

Kirsch is highly critical of Judith Butler and I must say he makes a few excellent points. He breaks down her work even to the particulars of her writing style. He argues that queer theory, Butler’s work in particular, needs to find a way to reconcile the individual vs. the community otherwise it is doing more damage to the queer movement than good. He writes about queer theory being the new “novelty” in academia when really, capitalism has already told the same stories.

This book is written in an easy-to-read prose. He uses solid evidence and whenever he presents a dense quote, he unpacks it so that readers are sure to understand. This is part of why I love this book. Hopefully, when I further my career in academia and am writing about densely theoretical work, I can do as a good a job as Kirsch does in making my work clear and easily understood. His logic is sound and he not only picks apart some of the problems of queer theory but offers some solutions as well. This book is certainly worth the read for anyone frustrated with queer theory but still wishing to embrace queer politics.

5 darts out of 5

Sunday, February 15, 2009

7. "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name" by Audre Lorde

Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Freedom: The Crossing Press, 1982.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is described as a “biomythography.” It traces the pain and also the joy that Audre Lorde experienced growing up in New York, working in Connecticut and studying in Mexico. It also traces the joys and sorrows accompanied with coming out and living as an “out” lesbian in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. This book closely resembles work of other queer writers such as Leslie Feinberg. The struggles the women went through are similar and are documented in a similar way. Lorde is an advocate for community building, especially building communities of lesbians and other identified queer women. By structuring her book in the way she has, Lorde has joined the current community of queer literature and writers meeting her goal of community building in a very tangible way. In the course of the novel as well, she pays tribute to the many and varied women who have shaped her life.

“Being women together was not enough. We were different. Being gay-girls together was not enough. We were different. Being Black together was not enough. We were different. Being Black dykes together was not enough. We were different” (Lorde 226). Here Lorde ruminates on the different oppressions she, as a Black lesbian was faced with throughout her life. The book clearly and elegantly articulates the intricacies of this particular kind of oppression during the time of her youth.

Zami is a must for anyone interested in queer or multicultural literature. Lorde mixes her prose with her poetry and even uses meta-commentary at times. She takes a few lines to write about one character’s reaction when they learn that Audre is writing Zami. This creates a profound sense of awareness. Readers understand that Audre Lorde doesn’t mince words; each has its place just as, “The important message seemed to be that you had to have a place. Whether or not it did justice to whatever you felt you were about, there had to be some place to refuel and check your flaps” (Lorde 225). For Lorde, the place to refuel was found in the love she shared with the women in her life.

4.5 darts out of 5

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

6. "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch

Pausch, Randy and Jeffrey Zaslow. The last Lecture. New York: Hyperion, 2008.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

This is a quick little book with pragmatic advice. Written by the late Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture reads fast but is, and I hate to say this, unoriginal. This book was written because the author, Randy Pausch was dying of pancreatic cancer and wanted to document his life for his children. He tells stories of how he met his wife, what his childhood was like, and how he was so successful at work. He offers advice but never gets too deep. It feels insensitive of me to say that I didn’t like this book but it honestly didn’t impress me. The story is written in boring prose and the advice isn’t anything I haven’t heard before.

This is a great thing for Pausch to pass on to his children, but not worth marketing to a larger audience. To me, it seemed like a way to make a lot of money fast. Now don’t get me wrong, Pausch seems like a decent fella and I’m sorry he had to suffer through cancer but, in the realm of literature, this book is a flop.

1.5 darts out of 5

Monday, February 2, 2009

5. "Epistemology of the Closet" by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is one of the most notable writers in her field. In my first try at reviewing a piece of literary criticism I’ve found myself staring at a blank computer screen for a long while now. Sedgwick’s writing is a dizzying maze of nominalizations. It took me several tries to unpack this sentence: “Instead, I am trying to make the strongest possible introductory case for a hypothesis about the centrality of this nominally marginal, conceptually intractable set of definitional issues to the important knowledges and understandings of twentieth-century Western culture as a whole” (Sedgwick 2). Eventually, I became accustomed to her prose and, with a decently thick dictionary by my side, I was able to enter Epistemology of the Closet and come out alive.

Sedgwick focuses on the idea of the “closet” and the function that the “closet” performs in literature. The “closet,” if I have translated Sedgwick’s work accurately, is a sort of axis of power in homosexual identification and rhetoric. You can be “in the closet;” what Sedgwick describes as “the viewpoint of the closet,” or you can be aware of someone who is “closeted;” the “spectacle of the closet”. The “closet” functions as an open-secret of sorts.

The primary texts that Sedgwick works to explicate are themselves, dense and theory-heavy. She covers writers such as Oscar Wilde, Proust, Nietzsche and Melville. Her analysis of each text is interesting and thought-provoking, although, at points, overwhelming. This work would be much better appreciated if one has already read work by Wilde, Proust, Nietzsche and Melville. I’ve got three of the four writers under my belt and found that fourth section more challenging than the rest simply due to my own lack of knowledge of that specific writer. Sedgwick has assumed that her audience is already familiar with these writers so if you plan on digging into this text, come to the table prepared.

Epistemology of the Closet is a very challenging read and it is one of those texts that, no matter how many times one reads it, one can pull out something new from it or understand a part more clearly. That is part of the beauty of this book. It gets better each time you read it. (Trust me, I’ve had to read it on more than one occasion). Her work, I must admit, is daunting and not exactly the most accessible piece of writing I’ve come across. She writes in an obviously academic style which isn’t inherently a bad thing but could certainly be discouraging (and annoying) for those looking for a quick read.

3 darts out of 5.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

4. "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then, again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petosky, Michigan, in August of 1974” (Eugenides 3). This is the first sentence of Jeffrey Eugenides second novel, Middlesex. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003 and certainly earned that title.

Eugenides weaves a beautiful and intricate story much like the silk worms he writes about. Middlesex is more than a story; it is a genealogy. Starting with Lefty and Desdemona, the plot unravels and knots and then untangles again in an enthralling circular narrative told by Cal, formerly Calliope. Cal was born Calliope and unbeknownst to him, is an intersexed individual; something he inherited from his Greek ancestry and long line of incestuous familial ties.

The plot starts with Lefty and Desdemona, Cal’s grandparents. They travel to America after their home in Bithynios is destroyed. The rest of the plot traces the genealogy of the Stephanides family and the defective gene that is passed down the family line.

Reading this book was like looking through a family scrapbook. Each character becomes so real and so dynamic one cringes with Cal/Calliope as s/he undergoes inspection by various doctors and researchers and one celebrates with Lefty and Desdemona when they survive the fires in Smyrna.

Eugenides has done his research as each chapter is full, not only of gut-wrenching character sketches and anecdotes, but rich histories. Three generations of the Stephanides family saw great changes in the world and Eugenides documents these changes and events in believable and lyrical ways. From violence between Greece and Turkey in the 1920’s, to Black Nationalism in Detroit, and the Gay Rights movement in San Francisco, Eugenides’s plot unwinds like a ball of yarn to create a something beautiful, mythical, believable and real.

4.5 darts out of 5.