Holy Hell!

How do you tell someone who has solicited your opinion that their work is offensive and vile?

From time to time, I am asked by my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances for my feedback or editing of their work.  I have been a “freelance” editor in that respect for nearly a decade, and I am always willing to give my two cents and suggest revisions to make the writing stronger.

I also have cultivated a diverse set of friends and acquaintances over the years, and enjoy reading pieces that challenge me intellectually, or cause me to revisit or re-think my own perspectives.

Be very careful what you ask for, I learned again today.

Last week, I received an email with an attached manuscript.  The sender, an old college acquaintance, is an orthodox Jew who has written a novel-length work built around the premise that all violence in the bible is morally justified.  His intended audience consists of not only fellow orthodox, but non-orthodox Jews like me, and even non-Jews.  He wanted my perspective, to see if his writing had broad appeal.

After finishing a lengthy and involved trial, I sat down today to begin reviewing his work.  As I read, I started composing an email response addressing specific parts of the book: this part needs development, this part could use editing, please don’t assume that we all know what happens to David in Chapter 20- that sort of thing.

As you might expect, I found some of his arguments less than compelling, but his task to defend the bible from a modern moral perspective is intriguing, and I tried to help.  Then, nestled under the broader heading of “capital punishment in the Bible,” I arrived at the section about homosexuality.

Now, as most people know, the bible is not ambiguous in its treatment of homosexuals.  They are to be put to death, via the use of of large rocks thrown by the community, in public.  I was interested to see how he would raise a defense, how he would side-step and justify this edict, which most modern readers- even Republicans- will view as extreme and indefensible.

I was not ready for what he wrote next.

That section was, by a country mile, the most vile, despicable, and utterly offensive treatment of homosexuality I have ever encountered, and I was raised in Kentucky.  The author refers to homosexuality as a disease, a crime against life itself, and argues that the death penalty is appropriate because, like Down’s Syndrome, one day it might be cured.

One page into his treatment of homosexuality, I resolved to give up, to end my critique with something along the lines of “I made it this far, but cannot continue.  I find this terribly offensive.”  However, as previously noted, one of the reasons I read is to challenge myself, and I am not often exposed to views that differ so fundamentally from my own.  I forged ahead.

The writing got worse, the assertions bolder and more odious, and the ultimate argument- one of my favorites, for the record- came down to “homosexuality causes societal problems such as murder, because science cannot definitively prove otherwise.”

I shudder to think that this perspective might be indicative of acceptable attitudes towards homosexuality in the insular, orthodox community in which the author studied.  That community is in New York, the erstwhile crown jewel of diversity and acceptance.  Let me be clear that I am not referring to all Jewish orthodoxy, just the particular subset with which this writer associates.

To be frank, I have absolutely no idea how I am going to respond to this aspiring author.  I have deliberately omitted his name from this critique, but will show no such restraint should this vile work be made public.

For every step we have collectively taken towards equality and acceptance, this served as a shocking reminder just how far we have yet to go.  This is a topic on which I do not “agree to disagree,” and this author, who knows well my politics, has invited some rather blunt criticism and feedback.  He will not be disappointed.

~Andrew

Published in: on February 11, 2014 at 2:11 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , , ,

What?

The brief story of the liberation of a Dave Eggers classic.

My lunch breaks at the office can go one of two ways.  If I’m hungry, which invariably means I skipped breakfast, I either grab a sandwich from Subway, or participate in whatever ill-conceived delivery order my colleagues are assembling.  If I have had a substantial breakfast, however, I tend to use my break to take a walk.  There is a beautiful three-mile path that makes a large rectangle around my office, skirting the water, a park, and, less fortunately, a highway.

Today was one of those walking lunches, and on the erstwhile homestretch, I happened past a used bookstore.  My general approach to this stretch of sidewalk is to carefully avert my eyes, because they have an outdoor bargain rack, and a used bookstore is like flypaper; I get stuck, and have a very hard time leaving.

Resolved to pass by this tempting display without breaking stride, I permitted myself a brief glance at the rack, and that’s where I saw it.

Dave Eggers “What is the What,” one of my favorite books.  Sitting on the top shelf.  The shelf marked “all books fifty cents.”

For those of you unfamiliar, Dave Eggers is among the best writers still producing.  He belongs, loosely, in the Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides school of smart, witty, and engaging writers.  I own, and have read, all of his novels so far, and I am  yet to be disappointed.  “What is the What” is a story about one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” and explores his experience escaping Southern Sudan as well as his acclimation to life in America, his new home.  It is not just good- it is a future classic.

Now, for the past  year or so I have been on a very strict diet of “no new books,” a reluctant acquiescence driven by the twin factors of my lack of shelf space, and my current horde of over one hundred yet-to-be-read novels.  It has taken discipline, but I am slowly whittling down my to-read list, and hope to have it fully under control sometime this century.

For that reason, I resist the urge to purchase new books, even if they’re great, and even if I have been looking for them for a long time.  So ordinarily, purchasing a book I already own- in the same edition, no less- would be unthinkable.

That said, I had a funny reaction to seeing such a great literary marvel listed at such an absurdly low price: I became angry.  Angry at the store for undervaluing this important work, and even more angry at the throngs of people who must have passed by this same shelf and determined, through their inaction, that this book was not worth two quarters.

My brisk walk was at a full halt, my mind was processing these emotions of surprise, anger, and disbelief, when suddenly a single thought intruded to break my internal stalemate: the holidays are coming up in just a few weeks, and I haven’t begun my shopping.

With this realization, I resolved to liberate What is the What from its undeserving bookstore, and from the anonymous fools who failed to snatch it up at such an absurd price.  It is in my bag now, awaiting gifting designation.  Of course, there is always a chance its future recipient will have read this post, and will know that the precious gem I am giving them was acquired for half a buck.  To that future contingent reader, I say only this: “What is the What” is one of the best, most worthwhile stories out there, and it almost felt like theft to obtain it for such a ridiculous price.

And to the owner of the used bookstore on Bell Boulevard, who parted with this classic for so little coin, I have only a single question, nay, a single word to pose to you:

What?

~Andrew

Published in: on November 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Slower developing, but Irving on Top of His Game

A brief review of one of my favorite authors, John Irving.  

It has been awhile since I have heard from John Irving.  The author best known for Cider  House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany used to be fairly prolific, releasing an average of one book a year in the late 90’s.  Since that time, his production has slowed to a crawl, and for a few years I was concerned that he might have stopped writing altogether.

Fortunately, after a four-year hiatus Irving began releasing novels again with 2005’s “Until I Find You,” a remarkably well-told story full of familiar Irving subject matter: wrestling, lost parents, abuse, and the fallibility of memory.  It took another four years, but Last Night in Twisted River was worth the wait.  It represents a departure from Irving’s more familiar themes, and its humor and self-awareness propel the novel to among Irving’s best.

The novel begins set in a logging camp, in the first half of the twentieth century.  The story is focused on the cook and his son, Danny, living in the extremely isolated and undeveloped town of Twisted River.  The novel begins by presenting a trilogy of tragedies:  the drowning of a young boy on the river, the remembrance of a similar drowning of Danny’s mother, and the accidental killing of the cook’s love interest, who Danny mistakes for a bear.  This latter event leads to their departure from Twisted River, and a life of hiding from an obsessed former police officer (called “the Cowboy”) who suspects them of the killing.

During the next several decades, the cook and Danny move to Boston, and then to Canada, in an attempt to stay ahead of the Cowboy.  Their only tie to Twisted River is an old logger named Ketchum, a friend who stays in close contact with them over the years.  Danny grows up to be a writer, and several of his novels are described in ways clearly designed to invoke Irving’s own work.  As with many of his novels, there is an autobiographical quality that shines through, only this time, he does not try to conceal it through fiction.

Ultimately, the Cowboy catches up to the cook, and kills him.  Danny comes to the cook’s rescue and kills the Cowboy, but is too late to save his father.  He continues writing despite the tragedies in his life, and his final novel ends up being an account of his escape from Twisted River, with its beginning mimicking the first chapters of this book.

Irving has always been a strong developer of characters, and while his plots tend to strain credulity, they are entertaining and often humorous.  With the exception of his latest release, 2012’s In One Person, I have read all of his novel-length work, and in my opinion, Last Night in Twisted River is his best.  While its characters are not as memorable as Owen Meany, and its political themes do not rival Cider House Rules, this novel represents a strength and cohesion of writing that is a level above Irving’s earlier works.  I strongly recommend it, and am pleased that this author has kept sharpening his skills.  I look forward to reading him again soon.

~Andrew

Published in: on July 5, 2013 at 9:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags:

The Mystery of Robert B. Parker

This Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of joining Ms. Annie Rosenberg for the holiday meal.  She reminded me that a few years ago, when we first re-connected after 14 years, she had made a book recommendation to me, and I had written her a tongue-in-cheek review.  With her permission, I am sharing it below:

Dear Annie,

On the northwest side of San Francisco, tucked between the Chinese restaurants and little cafes on Clement and 6th Avenue, sits Green Apple Bookstore.  The establishment is everything a used bookstore should be: narrow passageways, tall wooden shelves, a labyrinth of nooks and crannies, three meandering stories tall.  Ashley and I love to read, and this is our favorite bookstore: we’ve been here more often than the grocery store.

Usually, I follow the same path through the aisles each time, browsing the literature section, fiction, new fiction, and even science fiction.  Living real life every day, I don’t feel compelled to read about it, too, much preferring a made-up reality.  The circuitous path I follow usually takes me about an hour to fully browse through, agonizing over how many books to purchase, and which.  For Ashley, the trip is much more straightforward: she walks straight back to the fantasy section, and there she remains, sometimes for hours.

This particular Thursday, however, was not for browsing.  We had chores to do, packing to begin.  However, I was compelled by a suggestion- or rather a demand- by an old friend (you’re not old, Annie, just of older acquaintance than most people I know) to find a book by Robert Parker, something about a “Spenser.”  My browsing and glancing and back-cover reading over the years has familiarized me with most popular authors, but this was a name I did not recognize.  When I didn’t find his name in any of my usual sections, I took drastic action: I asked the store clerk where to find his books.

The clerk directed me, not to fiction, not to science fiction, not to literature, nor non-fiction, not even to fantasy, though the proper section was tucked away behind fantasy, so I passed by Ashley as I walked to it: she gave me a funny look, a look that says “this isn’t your area of the store…”

Mystery.  I was seeking a book in the “mystery” department.

I am not a fan of mystery, which is to say I’m not a fan of the idea of mystery, since I have not, to my knowledge, ever read a mystery novel.  I associate the genre with older, barely literate readers, and airports, for some reason.  Mystery, in my mind, is just one step above romance, and not a very large step, either.  This was going to be difficult: Spenser and I were not off to a good start.

I selected “Now and Then” from among the dozen-or-so Parker offerings.  Flipping to a random page, I noted the names “Spenser” and “Hawk,” remembering a suggestion (though not a demand) that the book I choose incorporate Hawk in some way.  Five dollars lighter, I left the store with Ashley, my new book, and enough skepticism to fuel a marital conversation.

For three days, the book sat on my night stand, uncracked, staring at me with a mix of obligation and dread.  “Do I really have to read this book?” I wondered.  “Could I just tell Annie I read it, and move on to Ayn Rand instead?”  Many options were considered, nothing was off the table, except of course for the book.

Finally, on the fourth day after its purchase, I cracked the cover and decided to give Parker twenty minutes in which to impress me.  I confess to feeling no small amount of pride in myself for taking this course of action.  “Yes,” I thought (or maybe I said it aloud…I’ll have to ask Ashley), “I am willing to try new things.”

Now, 20 minutes for most books only gets you through the introduction and perhaps the first few pages.  For “Now and Then,” the combination of large print, small pages, and a large amount of one-word-per-line dialogue translates into roughly forty pages per twenty minutes interval.  The pages were flying by so fast I could feel a draft on my face.

After you mentioned that Parker wrote a paper on the literary form of the detective novel, I was on the lookout for scenes a faire and conspicuous generic elements.  I was not disappointed.  The book opens with a stereotypical meeting between PI and prospective client, complete with sharp, witty dialogue and enough clues about Spenser’s character to render my ignorance of his past twenty-or-so adventures relatively moot.  I never once sensed that I was being slighted for not knowing his background, or for the fact that this was my first Spenser novel.

The plot moved along as quickly as the pages.  Within two dozen pages, the “case” had been solved, and within another twenty two murders had occurred, one each for the client and subject of Spenser’s investigation.  Per the genre, the detective work uncovered clues about not just the case, but about the detective, and it was the intertwining plot-line of his own relationship with that of his nemesis-du-jour that made the book memorable.  My twenty-minutes trial period for Parker lasted an hour and forty minutes, and put me within reach of the end.  I finished it the next morning before work.

My only disappointment with this novel (mysteries are considered novels, right?  I’m very new at this genre…) was the treatment, or rather non-treatment, of Hawk and the other “assistant” characters.  Hawk was presented as a stereotype rather than a round character.  The depiction of the Mexican (though not authentic Mexican, as repeatedly noted) bordered on impropriety through the excessive use of stereotyping.  The book was not intellectually challenging: it was just a good read, plain and simple, a clever story told with talent and conciseness, unlike this review of it.

It was somewhat jarring to transition out of Parker’s world into that of Ayn Rand, since I have been meaning to read “the Fountainhead” for many months, but overall my first experience with mystery was satisfying and enjoyable.  I have become a fan of Robert Parker, and intend to read all of his Spenser books.  It is still a bit disconcerting to be reading books classed as “mystery,” but I think I’ll adjust.

Thanks for the book recommendation.  It was a good one.

All the best,

~Andrew

Published in: on December 5, 2012 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment  

An Annotated Story of Dinah

Reviewing Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent

One of my favorite weekend activities is finding garage sales, especially ones advertising books.  It is simply amazing how many wonderful books one can acquire for just a dollar or two each by taking a few minutes to select them from boxes, shelves, and mats in people’s driveways.  There have been a few garage sales over the years that dramatically filled my shelves; one particular estate sale comes to mind in which Ashley and I could barely carry the boxes full of fifty-cent-each books.

Then, there are the other garage sales.

I think everyone who attends garage sales at some time or another has found themselves in this position: you drive up to the sale, and you’re the only ones there.  The offerings can be charitably described as “another man’s treasure,” but the eager owners are just so thrilled that you are there, and so eager that you find something you like.  It is at the same time awkward and sad, and as a buyer, I feel so much pressure to find something, anything, to buy, so we can move along while sparing the owners’ feelings.  Ashley and I have actually worked out a secret code for these situations, amounting to an S.O.S.;  if one of us starts whistling Tom’s Diner, it’s time to hit the road.

It was at just such a sale that I found Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.  The garage sale ad had listed “lots of books,” which always piques my interest.  I understand that “lots” is not a particularly specific quantitative description, but it does put an idea in my head of boxes or shelves full of literature, with a few choice gems hiding, just waiting to be plucked out and added to my collection.  To this particular garage sale proprietor, “lots” meant four books.  Four.  We were there early, so it wasn’t that they had been sold already.  He literally had four books, and one of those was a decades-old school textbook.

As I always do when perusing any quantity, or lack thereof, of books, I started reading the back covers for a sense of whether the book would be interesting.  The Red Tent purported to be a different take on part of the bible story, fleshing out the story of Dinah, who is mentioned only briefly in the old testament’s “founding fathers” narrative (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc.).  Frankly, my first impression was not great, and I was preparing to put the book back, when the unmistakable whistled notes of Suzanne Vega’s only hit reached my ears.  I had two choices; pay a dollar for this book of questionable merit, or see the disappointed face of this homeowner as his only two prospects left empty-handed.

I’ve got to tell you, that was a very well-spent dollar.

The character of Dinah grows up in a world of women, which is represented by the red tent.  In biblical times, the red tent was where women gathered and lived during their monthly cycles, and when giving birth.  It was a place forbidden to men, and was at once a place of camaraderie, pain,  sisterhood, and storytelling.  The opening chapters narrate events that take place before Dinah is even born, but are described as the oral history she has been told about her family and its place in the world.

The time period of the novel starts with Jacob coming to Laban for a bride.  This is the famous biblical vignette in which he wants to marry Rachael, pays a bride price of a year’s labor, and then gets duped at the wedding and marries Leah instead.  The bible presents this as Laban’s trickery, but in The Red Tent it is the women driving the events, and a conspiracy among the women leads to this deception.

That device brings to mind The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  In both stories, the authors have taken a fairly well-known legend and have re-narrated it from the female perspective.  Not only are the women the main characters in each story, but the famous events that take place and have been traditionally ascribed to men are shown to be directed by the women.

Dinah’s life story begins with her birth.  She is the only daughter of Leah, and only surviving daughter of Jacob.  She grows up with the siblings who will later become the tribes of Israel.  Diamant richly weaves details about the everyday life of women into her story, and the result is both compelling and believable.

The major biblical event involving Dinah, the massacre of her new husband’s village by her angry brothers, leads to a break between her and her family.  She leaves for Egypt in the company of her mother-in-law, and becomes an accomplished midwife.  Much later, she is surprised to find that the new chief adviser to the pharaoh is none other than her brother, Joseph.  With him, she travels back to Canaan to visit her father on his deathbed, where she learns that her story was not forgotten.

The best part of this novel by far is the period of time before the massacre.  Diamant has worked backwards from the one tragedy we know about Dinah and has created a richly-textured biography that is full of pain, joy, loss, pride, accomplishment, and satisfaction.  The latter part of the story, while not bad, does include a few Dickensian coincidences that help the author advance the plot; this comes across as somewhat sloppy.  However, it does not diminish the overall merit of the novel.

It was a bargain at a dollar, and worth far more.

~Andrew

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Pleasure of Reading Dorian Gray

Wherein I explain why Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is my favorite novel so far

Reading a book in public can invite querulous snippets of conversation.  This alternatively welcome and unwelcome truth can interrupt the flow of a good book, but does result in human contact in such unlikely places as, say, a MUNI bus.  Often, the interrupting stranger simply inquires as to the title, nods or grunts in satisfaction at the reply, and rejoins the anonymous scenery of the city’s background.  Other times, the question and answer spark the tinder of a real conversation.

One question I have been asked countless times in those conversations always catches me off guard: what is your favorite book?  I have learned not to respond with what comes naturally, which is “favorite book of what kind?”  That tends to confuse people.  So, I have accepted that it is socially aberrant to be unable to identify the one book that stands out among all other and is worthy of the title “favorite.”

For about two years, my favorite book was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  For anyone unfamiliar, he is the author best known for The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask.  The Count of Monte Cristo, much different from these other stories, details the protagonist’s careful, meticulous, and ultimately gut-wrenching revenge on his former lover, and the friend who betrayed him.  The revenge tale is brilliantly conceived, indulgent in detail, and very satisfying.

When I first picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only novel written by playwright Oscar Wilde, I was underwhelmed.  The publishers of my particular copy used such brilliant literary devices as small pages, unnecessarily long chapter spacing, and courier new font to buff the book out to its still modest 164 pages.  My previous knowledge of Oscar Wilde consisted in large part of witty quotations, and the overall impression that if one looked up the old noun “dandy” in an illustrated dictionary, his image would appear.  However, the book had found its way into my hands, and I figured that reading it would be a one-sitting venture, and would add another so-called classic to my list.

As it turned out, the book took me nearly a week to read.  The reason is not that the book is difficult to understand, or dense, or confusing.  Rather, I found on every other page a passage or excerpt that was so amusing, so insightful, or so profound that I would stop reading, mark the page, and seek out my wife so I could share it with her.  I quoted it to my parents, to my friends, even to some of my coworkers.  The writing was so good, the ideas and observations so on-point, that I simply could not read it quickly.

The plot of the story is a good one.  An artist paints a portrait of a young man, Dorian Gray.  The subject believes it is a great work, but he remarks sadly that it is a shame that he will grow old and his good looks will fade, but the picture will remain young and handsome.  He laments that it cannot be the other way around.

Of course, the story’s device is that things do become the other way around.  The picture ages, and Dorian does not.  As he becomes morally depraved, it is the features of the picture, not his own, that show the signs of a hard life.  The face in the picture becomes cruel, older, withered; Dorian remains young and unblemished.

There is a particularly good representative scene in which a man confronts Dorian for wronging a female relation of his some years past.  Faced with being beaten or killed by the angry relative, Dorian insists that he be taken in front of a streetlight.  When the man sees his illuminated face, he remarks that this must be the wrong person, for nobody who committed such a cruel act so long ago could still be so young and innocent-looking.

Throughout the short novel, Dorian struggles against a life of depravity, though he outwardly expresses his desire to be good.  In the end, he destroys the picture, and it returns to its original, youthful state, while his body is transformed into the monster he has truly become.

Though the guilty pleasure of The Count of Monte Cristo is superior in many other technical respects, I have never thoroughly enjoyed reading a book as much as I did The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It is a refreshing, thought-provoking, and worthwhile read.

~Andrew

Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 3:54 am  Leave a Comment