A Reliable Wife

In ways, a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but with the added element of a taboo, nearly incestuous, sexual affair (or perhaps this should be plural sexual affairs). This book was recommended to me by someone at the library and was met with some approval when it was published last year.

Despite the (at times) overly melodramatic descriptions of winter in Wisconsin and the annoyingly deluded thoughts of the mail-order-bride-turned-reliable-wife, there is an interesting story about deception and love-- and every possible combination of those two themes. The book however is far from chaste, everyone in the novel is a sex crazed maniac and an inundation of violence and sorrow visit every character indiscriminately.


Beatrice and Virgil

I hurried to finish Martel's newest novel in time to decide if it would be a good birthday gift for a friend. The second novel written by the author of Life of Pi also casts animals as major characters, only this time instead of being face to face with a tiger on a raft, the narrator is face to face with animals in a taxidermist's store and work room.

The novel almost seamless integrates two seemingly unrelated stories about a  failed Holocaust novel written by Henry (the narrator who shares some resemblance to Martel) and a bizarre relationship that he later builds with a socially-outcast taxidermist who requests his writing advice.

Martel obviously and purposely shows of his skills of description by exploiting all of the senses while writing a scene where a donkey describes a pear to a howler monkey, and again when the narrator gives writing advices to the taxidermist-turned-writer of the play starring these two unlikely friends.

I say almost seamlessly because I found the ending of the novel somewhat abrupt and contrived after all of the beautiful descriptions of Beatrice and Virgil, as well as some of the other animals in the taxidermist's shop. The novel was saturated with metaphors about writing and human (or animal) interactions and relationships, but the final pages of the book shift gears entirely. Whether this is a shortcoming of the novel or a purposeful technique in juxtaposing the good with the bad, the beautiful with the ugly is unclear to me, but I did immensely enjoy the novel and Martel's writing style and look forward to seeing more of his writing. Or maybe I too just have a weakness for animals.


The Time Traveler's Wife


I heard about this novel some month back on NPR when they were doing a piece on a similar, but more recently published, biography titled Passing Strange: a gilded age tale of love and deception across the color line. Both books address the issue of individuals attempting to pass as another race. It later appeared on NPRs suggested reading list which I peruse periodically.

In Passing Strange, the author attempts the difficult job of piecing together a biography from letters and records in an effort to explain why a white man who worked for the US government passed as African American for 13 years. Nella Larsen's novel written 80 years before deals with the more commonplace occurrence of light-skinned African American passing for white for a variety of social or financial reasons.

The novel unfolds itself very simply by reuniting three female friends who went to school together but have lost touch after marrying and having children. Though each of these woman can pass for white, they have each decided to follow different courses in life. One marries a black doctor and lives her life as a black woman. The second marries a white man who is well aware that she is black but doesn't care. However, the third has found herself married to a rich white man who does not know about her heritage and is a bigot and a racist.


Franny and Zooey

After Salinger's recent death during the spring, I decided to tackle another one of his books. I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time last summer, but found this combination of two separately published short stories a tougher read. I was also struck by the parallels between the Glass family and Wes Anderson's 2001 Royal Tenenbaums, but on a superficial level: both are stories about precocious brothers and sisters who have recently entered adult-hood.

After reading the shorter half of Salinger's book "Franny," I was intrigued but also overwhemingly confused. "Zooey" did little to clear up this confusion for me, and it wasn't until a few months later after thinking about the novel and skimming a few critical reviews that I gained a better understanding of the two stories.

If Franny is facing two options in life while talking over a chicken sandwich with her Flaubert-fascinated boyfriend, her brother Zooey faces a similar struggle in front of his mirror. 

"Salinger's Zooey deplores the fake world of television work. Plath gives us the hype of the woman's magazine, Heller, the mutual- and self-deception of the corporate headquarters. Kesey and Pynchon render brief, nightmarish visions of factory and corporation.... Only Salinger, in what strikes me as a slight of hand, manages to retrieve a sense of wholeness... through the spiritual device of  the Fat Lady" from  Richard Ohmann's  "The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975" in Critical Inquiry 10.1

I like the idea of this novel being entered into the literary cannon of sixities and seventies literature because it fits in with the (at times) comical but (more often) depressing view of the world and the US.

The Moviegoer


Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938)

Risking becoming a crazy Fante-phile, I began reading my second Bandini book last week as a little break from working on finals. Like Bukowski's Ham On Rye (1982), the story focuses on childhood, dysfunctional families, and coming of age.

The story is mostly told from the younger Bandini's point of view, but shifts to his father's point of view-- showing that the generations are not so different. The novel also explores the hopelessness of love but with and interesting twist-- Bandini does not know whether to be mad at his father Svevo for cheating on his mother and leaving the family, or proud of him for being with the richest, blonde American woman in town.

The climax in this transition from boy to man for Bandini is affected by having to decide which of his parents is right and which is just weak. His father Svevo works (sometimes) as a bricklayer, smokes cigar stubs, and gambles and drinks away his family's money, and of course his mother is a saint-- white, pure, and scrubbed clean. I think Bandini does realize that both of his parents are strong individuals in very different ways, but he also begins to see that undeniably he is his father's son.

The title comes from Bandini's love for baseball-- he wants to begin playing as soon at the snow melts from the grass on most of the field, but the other boys roll their eyes and tell him to wait until spring.


The Mysterious Stranger (1916)

Mark Twain’s last novella The Mysterious Stranger, published posthumously, addresses a lot of themes, especially focusing on the meaning of human life. In the novel, Satan, who claims to be only related to the Devil, chooses to interact with people in the small village of Esledorf. Oddly enough, this angel also chooses to visit three young teenage boys and performs magic for them including transporting them to distant countries. This presence of travel in the novel serves two purposes: the first to set Satan apart as different from humans since he is not restricted by space and time, but also to reveal to the boys that humans are the same everywhere.

After first meeting Satan, Theodor admits that he and the boys feel “secretly ashamsed” about the way that Satan “was talking about men and women here on earth… his manner showed that to him they and their doings were of paltry poor consequence…. they were dull and ignorant and trivial and conceited” (159). Satan, though he is spending spends a lot of time with humans, feels little sympathy for them, comparing angels to elephants and humans to ants (199), and is adamant about how angels are far superior. Of course, one of the ways Satan is superior is his “mastery... over time and distance” which allows him to take the boys to the “most distant parts of the globe with him, and stayed weeks and months, and yet were gone only a fraction of a second” (223).

The people in Esledorf do not travel, so Satan transporting the boys instantly to another country far surpasses the notoriety of “Bartel Sperling, who had such a great opinion of his travels” to Vienna (197). Early in the story, the narrator Theodor relates that Satan not only came to visit the boys, but also to whisk them away to places outside of their home village. Sometimes Theodor does not elaborate on the events that occur while they are traveling; when Satan takes Theodor to China, little is revealed about their trip or “why Satan chose China for this excursion instead of another place” since “it would interrupt [Theodor’s] tale” (198). Even without the knowledge of what happened while they were in China, Theodor does reveal that Satan chose this country for a reason.

During a later trip with Satan to India, however, Theodor does elaborate on the events that happen there. Satan and the boys “stopped at a little city in India and looked on while a juggler did his tricks” (236). The boys beg Satan to compete with the juggler by growing a tree. Satan grows a fantastic tree that bears “fruits of many kinds and colors” (237) that is enjoyed by the natives who carry the plentiful fruit away in baskets. However, the foreigner who owns that land becomes greedy and claims that the tree is his since it is on his land and that no one can take the fruit. This story about the tree in India is very similar to a story about greed back in Esledorf. Back home, Father Peter who has been falsely accused of stealing money from the greedy astrologer. In both cases, false claim of ownership is punished. The foreigner must treat the tree as if it is his own life or he will die and the astrologer is sent to the moon.

The first time Satan transports the boys outside of their village they visit France so that they can see how “Moral Sense” can be perverted and used against people. While in the French village the boys see factory workers of all ages who are paid “just enough to keep them from dropping dead from hunger” (181). Satan tells them that these people have done nothing to deserve such treatment “except getting themselves born into such a foolish race” (181). This trip to France creates another parallel to the scene that the boys just saw inside the jail in Esledorf where a man is being tortured because he was suspected of being a heretic. Satan blames both of these occurrences on “Moral Sense” which is supposed to help human’s choose between right and wrong, but “nine cases out of ten he prefers the wrong” (180). In both cases, the people in control think they are doing the right thing but in fact are punishing people who had done nothing wrong except being born a human.

Satan’s intentions in the novel are to clearly demonstrate to humans that their race is “always lying, always claiming virtues which it hasn’t got” (180). He does this by showing the three boys including the narrator examples of greed, violence, and mistreatment that occur, not only in their village, but all over the world. Unrestricted by time and space, the angel impresses his three admirers with his abilities to transport them to distant places, but he also uses this time to lecture them on their race’s shortcomings.

Very weird clay-animation version of The Mysterious Stranger 


Connecticutt Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

Though there are other cases of extreme violence in Mark Twain’s novels, two instances of graphic violence in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Violent episodes such as Huck Finn and Jim stumbling upon a body in house that is later revealed to be Pap and the Grangerford episode from Adventures in Huckleberry Finn stick out in my mind the most, but they still do not register against the violence that Hank Morgan sees during his time in King Arthur’s Court.

The first of these episodes that I found the most violent or disturbing was when Queen Morgan le Fay effortlessly “slipped a dirk into [her page] in as-matter-of-course a way as another person would have harpooned a rat” (102) after he accidentally bumps into her. Nobody dares to do or say anything and the Queen, as if killing a boy is like spilling a little milk, instructs her servants exactly how to clean up the mess. Later in the chapter when the boy’s grandmother arrives cursing the queen, again her only reaction is to get rid of the nuisance, presumably by tying her to a stake.

The second scene that felt very violent and almost like it does not fit in with the rest of the novel are the “smileless” pilgrims, who are in fact slaves in chains being marched along the same road towards the Valley of Holiness. Hank’s description of their “sores which were ulcerated and wormy” (139) and situation that he witnesses where a young mother is first hit and then held down by other slaves while she is beaten, only to later be separated from her husband after being sold to a blacksmith. Hank “wanted to stop the whole thing and set the slaves free, but that would not do” (141), so instead he just watches the entire episode along with the other pilgrims, even though he obviously affected by the scene and says “I knew I should never get [this] picture out of my mind again, and there it is to this day, to wring my heartstrings whenever I think of it” (141).

Part of the reason these two episodes are powerful is the narrator’s response to the situations. In previous novels, frequently characters seem coolly unconcerned by violence, in Puddn’head Wilson dueling is an acceptable sport for men and women to watch and in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many violent scenes that young Huck encounters are only briefly mentioned in passing. Even in A Connecticut Yankee, other characters in the novel are not as affected by these violent events as Hank Morgan is. Hank notes that after the slave girl is beaten and the other pilgrims on the road just watch, “this is what slavery will do, in the way of ossifying what one may call the superior lobe of human feeling” (141). These scenes I think are powerful and dramatic not only because they illustrate inhumane conditions, desolation, and pain, but also because Twain reworks themes like cruelty and brutality and sets them in a new time period making the situations more objective. Mark Twain is setting events such as a slave beating in a more exotic setting for dramatic effect in order to outline some of his personal beliefs.

After reading this section of the book I found an article by Henry Nash Smith that was helpful in pulling a lot of these ideas together for me. In his article “Pudd’nhead Wilson and After,”* Nash takes a look at Twain’s work and chronological order and highlights a pattern that appears beginning with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Nash also focuses on the scene where Queen Morgan le Fay stabs the young page who “fell lightly against her knee” (Twain 102) as well as the story of the husband being tortured on the rack. Nash claims that after these episodes there is “a paragraph curiously out of tone with the immediate context and with the book as a whole” (234). The reason for this is because “it contains the gist of Mark Twain’s ‘gospel’ the philosophical treatise called What Is Man?” (235) and focuses on Twain’s theme of training in this novel, and in others. Both scenes that I mentioned earlier fall into this category of training, what Nash defines as “the shaping of the personality by society,” which makes the institutions of the feudal system and slavery acceptable. I agree with Nash that some of Hank Morgan’s statements and opinions in the book are a little out of place but I think, like “Puddn’head Wilson’s Calendar” quotations, I see it as Mark Twain folding in some of his own views on the world with a work of fiction.

*Smith, Henry Nash. “Puddn’head Wilson and After.” The Massachusetts Review 3.2 (1962): 233-253.


Ask the Dust (1939)

I first heard about John Fante and his alter-ego Arture Bandini on NPR. His son, Dan Fante, who has recently published another novel was being interviewed one evening about his life and his fathers. From memory, while trying to hold back tears, he recited this quotation from Ask the Dust:

"Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!"

I was already interested in the novel because of the way Dan Fante was describing his father's work when the interviewer on NPR mentioned that this novel had gone out of print, but when Mr. Charles Bukowski found out about this he immediately rectified the problem. In the Black Sparrow reprinting of the novel, Bukowski writes the introduction and states "Fante was my god." In the biography and letters published at the end of the novel  about Fante's life, there is also included a poem written by Bukowski about Fante's struggle with diabetes and loss of his legs.

I hate to admit that part of the reason I loved this book so much was because I have already devoured almost everything by Bukowski and I needed something new. Fante, like Bukowski, does write in a similar type of style, maybe a gritty realism, but truthful even when the truth is dirty. However Fante is more human and more naive, but also more relatable than Bukowski. He doesn't spend all day taking beershits and sleeping with women with nice legs and big butts and puking in pianos. Both authors also write in a picaresque style, however Fante's seems to have more of a central theme, or a few central themes. Being away from home and struggling to become the writer he knows he can be is an important theme that runs through the entire novel and even makes him question his religion and his ethnicity at times. But his neurotic relationship with Camilla also runs tangentially to these themes. Here lies another difference, Fante writes women better than Bukowski.

It was later made into a film with Selma Hayek playing Camilla. Nothing against Hayek but I don't think the movie would live up to the novel.

Transcript of the interview that I heard on NPR.