Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
Okay, everyone. Listen up - especially you men out there. There's a common feeling among casual readers that certain authors are untouchable by the male mind - books that are filled with flowery descriptions and love and all that crap. Books by Woolf, or by either of the Brontes. Or Austen. Or Hugo.Hugo. Victor Hugo, the man who, without knowing, created a Broadway play, a handful of movies, one of which starred Liam Neeson, and penned one of the best character names - Jean Valjean, a name that, to me, ranks up there with Oakland quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo as a classic in pronunciation. Victor Hugo, the man who posed for this awesome picture, a portrait that somehow symbolizes all that being a male author in the 1800s (and, on into the 1900s, of course) was all about - namely, drinking and hangovers.Sorry. What were we talking about? Oh - these novels, these books that have been for years embraced by literary women, leaving us men to grasp to more masculine works of fiction, forcing us to "settle" for Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. What are they all about? Why do these books seem to radiate such femininity? Am I the only person who feels this?As part of my ongoing quest to collect reading experiences like a child collecting bruises, I cracked open Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and attempted to figure out what makes him so great. Sure, he had an amazing ability to write 600-page tomes, but was he actually something special? Did he deserve the romantic role he was put into - the writer who joined the ugly with the beautiful, the despondent with the wealthy?Well, yeah. He's good. For those of you who have read Hugo, you have to admit his ability to describe a scene is wonderful. For those who haven't, don't fret – it's not difficult to read a 600-page novel, not when you're absolutely positive you've lived its story before. That's what Hugo does, and it's an art that many don't always appreciate - including myself.Hunchback isn't about Esmeralda, the gypsy queen, or about Claude Frollo, an unsympathetic bishop, or even about Quasimodo, the hunchback himself. It's about the building. It's about the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It's about the scenes, and the story behind it, and the history it drives. What Hugo did in writing Hunchback was to create a story where location was king, where the protagonist was the building itself, whether it was under siege or simply biding its time.For the first 100 pages or so, very little happens plot-wise. Instead, Hugo spends the first sixth of the novel laying a foundation, describing every facet of the building, every road and every character, their motives, their feelings, their drives and fears. From here, the rest of the story nearly writes itself. You're sucked in. You have no choice in the matter, really, because after the first portion has described every detail of life in Quasimodo's Paris, you're part of the story, joined in exploit with the characters due to Hugo's ability to make everything seem real.Romantically, Hunchback isn't as obvious as one might think. Most of the relationships contained therein are either one-sided, gaining an almost "creepy stalker" quality, or are short-lived. In fact, the most romantic item in the book comes at the end, involves death, and is kind of gross. It's no wonder that the ending was sanitized for Disney audiences, much to the chagrin of true literary snobs.No, Hugo wasn't as pure or talented a writer as Dostoyevsky, or Flaubert, or even the aforementioned Austen. But he also doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the "girls like him because he's romantic" crowd. Instead, he should be recognized for what he did best - setting the scene, placing the reader into the story, and creating an entire world that can be touched, breathed, and lived in - even if only for a few hundred pages.Hi. My name is Corey. I'm male, and I've read Victor Hugo. And I enjoyed it.(All together, in unison:) Hi, Corey.Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct, Nov
With books that you planned to read this year still sitting on your shelf unread, and countless other recommendations swimming in your head, why should you even consider making room on your reading queue for a one originally published ten years ago in German and containing pieces dating back to 1970? But there is plenty fresh about Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square. Like the bulk of his work, this novel is musical, innovative, and difficult, not in a dusty academic way, but as a delightful puzzle, as a well-constructed argument, as a challenging game of chess. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, readers may now become acquainted with Gert Jonke’s work. Prior to Dalkey’s releases, Jonke’s books were unavailable in English. Having already published his Geometric Regional Novel and Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique, with this new edition of The System of Vienna, Dalkey has distinguished itself as the American purveyor of the work of one of Austria’s most important writers. Jonke’s The System of Vienna is a sprawling autobiographical novel (some describe it as a collection of linked stories) full of outrageous characters bustling through even more outrageous scenes. Beginning with a recounting of the narrator’s birth, and how his skin was tinged blue, the novel proceeds with descriptions of events that helped shape his personality, his consciousness, his obsessions: he encounters a man who thinks the French Embassy was built in the wrong place; he meets another who is unsure whether he is or isn’t the Chancellor’s confidant; he bumps into an eccentric stamp collector in the woods he thinks was imitating a tawny owl’s call; he meets another man (perhaps Jonke’s tribute to André Gide’s The Counterfeiters) who hands him a book called The System of Vienna; and he meets a paranoid fish merchant who believes that he masterminds Austrian politics from his stall. Jonke is adept at blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. And he ably navigates metafictional and musical composition elements with comedic and fabulist registers while also experimenting with language, with unique syntactic strategies that convincingly depict a person’s psychology, particularly one that is in crisis, on the page. The reading of the novel is hurried along by expressive hyphenations like “wrinkled-lined-shriveled” and “sheen-glinting,” and brimming with portmanteaus like “eveninglikemorningishly afternoonnight” and “opendoorclosedoorslyness.” These neologisms visually capture the speed in which the character experiences his rush of thoughts and sometimes even threaten to take over the narrative: And were you not then actually inside the bakery and suddenly seated on the padded red plastic chair, and did you in all likelihood not even really take notice of the closingtheglassdoorbehindyou, your enteringthecoffeehouse-aroma, lookingforandchoosingaseat, goingovertooneofthosepaddedredplasticchairs and the seating of your person in such a way that it seemed to you as if nothing like this had ever occurred before… And the rush of cumulative sentences, insane, qualifying and self-correcting sentences that collapse upon each other, perfectly mirror the narrator’s decreased confidence, his fragmented consciousness, his quickly devolving sense of self: Therein was to be sought the reason and the cause why things are sometimes, mostly sometimes, rather often, sometimes rather often, mostly sometimes rather often, mostly rather often, sometimes mostly mostly, mostly mostly not as they should be. As the novel progresses, the narrator falls into endless repetitions. It reaches its apotheosis in “Philosophy of Household Management”: Since that time I don’t put flowers out onto the hallway window any more; I’ve given up putting flowers onto the hallway window, because it makes no sense to put flowers onto the hallway window, no, it’s not just senseless, but impossible, for that matter, since it’s not a common thing to set flowers onto hallway windows, and setting flowers onto hallway windows can even be grounds for having your lease canceled. And so it continues for pages. In less accomplished hands these repetitions would prove tiresome, but the voice here perfectly meshes with the narrator’s desire to get things right, captures his tendency to get lost in mundanities and life’s day-to-day minutiae, and also reflects his mind’s slow dissolution. As much as the novel is a series of progressions from one trolley-stop to another, many of its encounters are driven by digressions, that is, characters are likely to deliver tangent-filled monologues that go all over the place. Jonke’s meeting with the sculptor in “Furniture Show—Main Promenade in the Prater” is as stunning as it is baffling, where the sculptor’s speechifying is marked by constant qualifications, apologies, and all kinds of circuitous asides. The narrator is plagued by his dreams. At one moment he dreamed he saw his great-aunt flying over hills “powered by two gigantic wings of a nose out of her shoulder blades.” But as bizarre as his dreams are, his waking life is sometimes just as vivid and overwhelming: I look down at the dark spots with which the sidewalks and streets here are strewn, as if I were being drawn to the ground by these faint patterns of glinting mica eyes in the paving material. At first I believe they are the remaining marks of large raindrops fallen out of the night onto the sidewalks and streets. But when the spots have not been absorbed by the heat of midday, I can only think that the sidewalks and streets are constantly being spit on in profusion by the burning sky of the given day or much likely, by the good people of Vienna themselves, the latter speculation making it no surprise at all to me that these blotches never disappear. We find the narrator increasingly losing control of his hold on reality, where at one point he asks: Is it not altogether possible that the course of our life in its entirety is determined by nothing other than an unremitting and regrettable or even lamentable captivity founded on a curious aggregation of altogether ceaseless and incredibly unremitting post-hypnotic suggestions? But it is the novel’s penultimate chapter wherein we observe the fullness of Jonke’s imaginative, visionary writing. In “Caryatids and Atlantes—Vienna’s First Guest Workers,” the narrator discovers that he is able to commune with stone sculptures. He learns that they “apprehended” time “as a physically concrete reality” and that they “required eternity-dimensional masses of time clouds” in order to exist. But their relationship isn’t one-sided: he teaches them about sleep and dreams. His “sleep performances came to be esteemed” by the stone sculptures as a wondrously exotic, serenity-inducing form of Gesamtkunstwerk or all-encompassing work of art matchlessly flung high aloft by [him], in all its incalculable vastness, into the air of those day-nights and night-days, aided by the sheer force of [his] individual personality. It is an imaginative end to a highly experimental and visionary novel. And this hasn’t even covered the narrator’s grappling with suicidal thoughts, his synesthetic experiences where he often feels like he were hearing with his eyes, his repeated anthropomorphizing of the elements and inanimate objects, or how the narrative, even with its many bifurcations, still closely resembles the structure of the hero’s quest wherein the hero meets and overcomes numerous challenges and emerges victorious. The System of Vienna, with its commanding cadences, self-absorbed insistence, and entrancing repetitions, not to mention its childlike surrender to fantasy, is boundless fiction that both puzzles and entertains.
I imagine one of the reasons The Great Gatsby remains so popular today must be because it taps into something deep inside the human literary soul. A man rises from obscurity, wins all the battles (throws all the parties), and ultimately falls in a tragedy of his own making. How long has that essential plot been with us? The answer, as anyone who’s taken a world history course could tell you, is a very, very long time. Even today, several hundred years after the divinely appointed monarch became an anachronism in the West, we can’t stop telling stories about that great man, the king. In The Secret Chord, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (March, 2006) goes way, way back into that tradition to bring us a novelistic retelling of the biblical King David, the man who killed giants, composed the Psalms and united the tribes of Israel into a kingdom. Brooks’s David is a man of contradictions. “He could be a predator at noonday and a poet by dusk,” says Natan, Brooks’s narrator. He’s extraordinarily touched by the divine and a great hero to his people, but he commits many acts of brutality and benefits from even more to achieve his crown. Though his life (if he truly existed, it was maybe 3,000 years ago) was chronicled in a 2,500-year-old book, in Brooks’s hands David feels both timeless and fully alive, as charismatic and dangerous as any of our modern Chosen Ones. She presents a hero who “dwelt in the searing glance of the divine, but who sweated and stank…built a nation, made music that pleased heaven, and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unknown.” Who doesn’t want to read about someone like that? Brooks’s fifth novel takes its title from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and revolves around the famous tryst described in that song. David sees Batsheva (the names are spelled from their Hebrew originals) bathing on the roof and, overthrown by her beauty in the moonlight, commits adultery and a murder that bring about the near downfall of his dynasty. Woven around this thread is David’s whole life story, as recounted by his lifelong prophet, Natan. The story doesn’t stray from its source material in the books of Samuel and Kings in any significant way. As a young man, David is pulled away from tending his sheep so he can be anointed the new king of the Israelites by the prophet Samuel. He slays Goliath, joins the court of King Saul, and loves Jonathan, Saul’s son. As king, he marries many women, fathers many sons, wins many battles. In punishment for the Batsheva affair, David’s horrid sons turn against him and each other, spurring several years of family and dynastic strife. In Brooks’s previous novels, she has taken a very specific moment in history and turned it outward to examine a host of concerns. Here the scope seems both larger and more personal. The details of daily life in Iron Age Israel, outside of war and food, are sparse, as they have to be. There are few primary sources to consult when you go back this far. But the characters never feel foreign or unknowable. The story takes David’s faith and Natan’s prophecies at face value, but it never feels overly pious. Natan’s express mission is to make his king known to readers “as a man.” There are times when Brooks’s decision to relate the entire story of a very eventful life in 300 pages feels like a series of missed opportunities. Natan recounts events from a distance -- some scenes are related by other characters in dialogue, some are seen from afar in visions and others are recalled years after they happened. We get moments in summary that cry out to be part of a living, breathing scene. Take this line: “I was at the audience, and I sensed his manipulation, but I did not grasp where it was leading.” A different novel might spend pages leading up to this kind of realization; The Remains of the Day makes an entire book out of it. Later, distraught by David’s hand in Uriah’s death, Natan takes to the desert. While wandering there, he has visions of how the remaining years of David’s life will play out. For all this, arguably the most key passage in the book, we get two pages. Natan is a prophet, a true seer. As such, he takes a vow of celibacy and lives apart from other people. “The truth is, the people abide my kind, but no one loves us,” he realizes at age 10, after his first vision. “We grow used to the turned shoulder, the retreating back, the bright conversation that sputters to a murmur when we enter a room, the sigh of relief when we leave it.” And so what other way, he might ask us, would a man such as him tell a story such as this? The form suits the storyteller. Still, at times I couldn’t help but wish for the “simple joys and intimacies” Natan holds himself apart from. In their place, we gain a breadth of knowledge that lets us see how everything is connected. We understand how being unloved as a child makes David too permissive with his own children; how after being so blessed during his rise to power, he can callously abuse that power later in life. It’s rewarding, to feel like we know this man as well as Natan does. The book holds both coming-of-age tale and classic tragedy. Fans of Brooks’s previous books may be surprised by how overwhelmingly male The Secret Chord is. All of her previous novels have central female characters. The Secret Chord stays firmly focused on David, Natan, and, later, Shlomo (Solomon). This is not to say an author must always write the same kind of book or isn’t free to choose her subjects. Several women do appear throughout the story, most notably David’s famous wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and all live and breathe as characters in their own right. But for the large majority of the book, we’re in a men’s world of war, chieftainship, and brutality. Brooks’s past books are mostly about ordinary people who push against the circumstances of their time to make their lives extraordinary. The characters in The Secret Chord are extraordinary from day one and spend the rest of their lives struggling to maintain the great responsibility that comes with it. But Brooks treats these characters with the same good will and strong narrative she did with the others. David can be quite harsh and misguided, yet enthralling and charming for all that. Natan’s outsider status may place him in kinship with the women of Brooks’s other novels, and he draws our sympathy with his clear-eyed confessions. Is it escapism to read about such a powerful figure when most of us lead lives of quiet inconsequentiality? Or is reading this book a way to hear that ancient chord in the chorus of literature, linking us to humanity throughout the ages?