Travels In The Scriptorium – Paul Auster

Warning: This whole review is a spoiler, so don’t come crying to me later all – “You ruined the ending for me and now I’m upset and you need to buy me cake.”  – because you’ve been warned and cake is expensive and you don’t deserve cake, what with the way you’ve been behaving.

Paul Auster likes a good twist and he likes to question reality and motive. His writing (at least the two novels I’ve read) also tends to reference the act of writing itself, or reading, touching on the position of Author-as-Creator or Reader-asParticipant. I like Auster’s writing, so I don’t mean this to be a dig, but in some cases, Travels in the Scriptorium in particular, he fits in my bookcase as a sort of Borges-lite.

Scriptorium is a beautifully written day in the life of an older man, dazedly attempting to figure out if he is being punished or protected in the strange white room in which he awakes. Auster excels at portraying confusion without actually being so confusing that you stop reading and rock slowly back and forth, back and forth in a tumult of mixed-up misery…sorry, back to it…Auster’s readers suffer with the narrator as he tries to understand how he has come to be in the hospital/prison room, and what role he has played in the lives of the visitors who come to berate, question and forgive him.

The twist when it comes, is not Auster’s best (The narrator is an author! The angry people are his characters. Your mind! It’s blown!)

So here’s the thing, really…I have thought about, and actually made mention several times in previous reviews (Kosiński, anyone?) of the excessive cruelty certain authors seem to inflict on their characters. My complaint is that often, this seems  above and beyond the requirements of the narrative, so I should be all in to the punchline of Scriptorium. I’m not though. Human nature, it’s unpredictable.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Review

Crash – J.G. Ballard

Gross.

It’s supposed to be, and it is.

Completely unrelated to the pandering, race relations film by the same name, Ballard’s Crash is about the relationships between cars and sex, sex and death, desire and murder, fear and attraction and semen and vinyl. Lots and lots of focus on semen and vinyl.

In today’s world of hypersexualized violence, it’s actually unusual to find someone capable of writing about sex in a way that’s a complete turn-off. Ballard achieves this through a cast of repulsive characters and a clinical vocabulary of body parts.

According to the introduction, Crash is about “societies dependence on technology as intermediary in human relations”. This may have made more sense in 1973, when the book first came out. In today’s world of dinner table conversations via text messaging, cars hardly seem the biggest threat to interpersonal communication.

So basically, reading Crash will seriously skeeve out anyone nosy enough to read over your shoulder and it will make you closely examine the dashboard of any car you’re traveling in. How much do you like that Jaguar emblem? Enough to want it permanently embedded in your forehead?

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Review

Guest Review by Rudy Benavides– A Child Called It – Dave Pelzer

When I was in school, Rudy was my special buddy in Spanish class. I liked him despite the fact that he repeatedly made me look bad by being smarter than me. Clearly, things haven’t changed much. His review has citations! All you high school kids looking to crib info from the internet instead of reading the assigned books (yes, I do look at the analytics for this site) just hit the jackpot.

Rudy sent me this review with the disclaimer that he had taken forever to finish A Child Called It because it made him so mad. Our initial conversation is below:

Elana : That book looks like some heavy reading. Did it piss you off because of the lack of authority intervention and the idea of shitty evil parents, or did the writing of the book itself make you angry?

Rudy : The story/writing is from the perspective of a young boy, so the writing isn’t supposed to be deep; however, it is detailed and graphic. No, what pissed me off was that the mother was never brought to justice, and she never repented. I read that many years later at her son’s graduation from the airforce, she slapped him. Because the story takes place in the 1960’s and 70’s, I understand that police, social workers, and teachers weren’t trained to look for abuse and deal with it. The sentiment of the time was privacy of the family.

A Child Called “It” is the survival story of David Pelzer in where he chronicles his years as a victim of various forms of abuse at the hands of his sadistic, alcoholic mother. David endures neglect as well as physical, emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse through a number of humiliating and degrading punishments for the amusement of his mother. Highly troubling is the fact that, throughout the story, David encounters several adults who could have rescued him from his plight, but for one reason or another, were unable or unwilling to intervene until much later when, after years of teacher and nurse reports, and several trips to the principal’s office, law enforcement was finally involved.

David’s ordeal takes place in the mid 1960’s through the early1970’s when things like traditional family roles were the norm and when institutions such as schools and its teachers typically had no business in the lives of students outside of the classroom. This helps explain why David’s abuse was allowed to go on for so long and why, even after David’s rescue, his mother was never held accountable for her actions.
The period before and during David’s abuse was marked by major social events such as the Women’s movement, the Civil Right’s movement, and several smaller yet significant events, which brought new awareness to victims and child abuse. According to Pecora, Whittaker, Maluccio, Barth and Plotnick, 1992:
In 1961, with documentation from 71 hospitals, a University of Colorado team headed by pediatrician C. Henry Kempe found 302 battered-child cases in a single year; 33 of the children died, and 85 suffered permanent brain damage. That same year, professional and media interest in child maltreatment was sparked by the publication of C. Henry Kempe and associates’ “The battered child syndrome” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (p. 126-7).
Kempe coined the term battered-child syndrome, which he and his colleagues defined as “a clinical condition in young children who have received severe physical abuse, generally from a parent or foster parent (Crosson-Tower, 2008). By the mid-1960s, in response to public concern that resulted from this article, 49 U.S. states passed child-abuse reporting laws (Pecora et al., 1992, p.126-7). Further, the first child abuse reporting statute was explored in 1962 at a conference held by the Department of Health, the Federal Department Education, and the Children’s Welfare Bureau (http://essortment.com, 2002).
Although child abuse victim advocacy was beginning to gain momentum among researchers and the medical community during this period, it is obvious that there was much work to be done. By the time David was in grade school, mandated reporting by all school staff should have been protocol, especially in severe and chronic cases as David’s. While teachers and nurses did document David’s injuries and pattern of stealing food, an attempt to understand why these things were happening to David was likely never followed through. Additionally, the social worker who visited David’s home should have never asked David if he was safe in front of his mother.

As Hilary Clinton wrote in 1973, “children’s rights” is a “slogan in need of a definition” (http://en.wikipedia.org, 2010).
Had the school staff been properly trained to look for signs of abuse, examine and understand David’s injuries, and notify the proper authorities sooner, David would not have had to endure for so long. Fortunately, battered child syndrome has become better known among today’s human services professionals and is even defined by the U.S. Department of Justice. If David’s story took place today, (I am sure it does all the time) I would like to think it would not go unreported. Education about child abuse is widespread among our society and people seem more vigilant and ready to take action than in the past. Intervention would occur and the children would likely be temporarily placed with family while the parent(s) get help. Reunification would be ideal, because children will always love their parents and want to be with them, but the safety of the children comes first.
Unfortunately, the book does not give the reader further insight into David’s mother’s actions or motives except for her alcoholism, which likely played a major role in her abuse of David; however, certain theories may explain why David’s mother was violent towards him. For instance, the Social Learning Theory assumes that the type of behavior most frequently reinforced by others is the one most often exhibited by the individual (Wallace, 2008, p. 10). In other words, David’s mother was probably violent toward David because that is how she was probably raised. However, this theory does not apply to everyone as one can make the decision not to perpetuate the cycle of violence. On the other hand, someone who was never abused as a child might become a violent person simply because he or she chooses to be.
Another possible explanation is the Frustration-Aggression Theory, which is based on the premise that human beings display aggression toward objects that impede their achievement of certain goals (Wallace, 2008, p. 11). In the book, it was stated that David’s mother intended to be a nurse before she met her spouse. Perhaps, David did not fit into his mother’s picture of an ideal family, so he consequently became a scapegoat. Then again, there is the issue of alcoholism, which can cause individuals to behave madly. It is probable that David’s mother suffered from a combination of issues, which no one around her, including herself, understood.
A Child Called It makes anyone familiar with the plight of victims and child welfare reflect on how much progress has been made in the past 35 years. However, we should not and cannot conform to our past accomplishments, because the world is continually changing, and our future, in my opinion, does not look bright. If we insist on bringing new life into this world the way we have been for the past 40 years, then we must take better care of our children. Otherwise, life will always just be a violent and vicious cycle.

Leave a comment

Filed under biography, Guest Review, non fiction, Review

The Distant Land of My Father – Bo Caldwell

My favorite moment in Caldwell’s novel of political upheaval in China during the 1930s, and the corresponding personal upheaval in a small American family living there, comes late in the story. The heroine, Anna, is a young adult living in Pasadena, and has a job at the Huntington Library ( a real place for those of you who aren’t in Los Angeles). Anna’s job is to read letters and documents from local estates that have been left to the Huntington, and make notes of information relevant to Pasadena’s history. If I were to invent the most perfect job in the world it would be no different from Anna’s.

Caldwell clearly feels similarly, because The Distant Land of My Father reads like a story created from journals and correspondence. The narrator focuses in and out, from micro images of a mother’s hairclip or a Chinese wax seal that seem pulled from an attic inventory to factual historical events, straight from newspaper clippings or soldier’s letters.

As a lover of details, I found The Distant Land of My Father’s slow pace and quiet tone soothing, although I could imagine more active readers growing restless. Caldwell describes Chinese breakfast menus and South Pasadena gardens with the same tone as she depicts the horror of political prison camp and Japanese bombing. It’s slightly disconcerting. In the end, the story of personal forgiveness is less interesting than the details surrounding it, but this is worth a read for any fans of Pasadena or Shanghai. It’s really a story of cities.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, recommended to me by someone, Review

The Elephant Keeper – Christopher Nicholson

The Elephant Keeper’s main human character is Tom Page, a stable boy turned elephant expert in 18th century England. Tom’s story starts with the arrival of two half-dead baby elephants on a boat returning from India. Tom grows up with the elephants on a village estate and becomes the only person able or willing to understand the mighty beasties.

As the Fates (in the form of increasingly nasty people) try to manipulate and abuse the elephants for various reasons, from ivory farms to 18th century rapemobiles, Tom ties his own fate ever tighter to the lady elephant, Jenny. Jenny is the true star of the novel and Nicholson writes her with quiet, noble humor. Of all the characters in the book, Jenny is the only one you would wish as a friend. She’s portrayed so lovingly it becomes totally believable that Tom would sacrifice human interaction to stay by her side.

Tom himself is a bit of a washout, Jenny really deserves better. Nicholson’s depiction of Tom is of a man not quite gullible enough to be a lovable naif but too dumb to be an appealing hero. Still, Tom does his best to keep Jenny safe, and considering the sad end most menagerie animals faced during the 1700s, and even today, the story would have been far shorter had the elephant been without a keeper.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Review

World Without End – Ken Follett

Much like In the Woods, World Without End also starts with some children of the British Isles having an intense experience in a forest. The similarities end there. World Without End is a much more externally based bit of story telling.

Ken Follett is a writer of historical fiction based in the middle ages. He’s most well known for The Pillars of the Earth, which tells of the building of a cathedral, from the  structural details to the social consequences.

World Without End is a sequel to Pillars, taking place two centuries after the building was completed and following the lives of the people in the town as they plot, scheme, build and romance against a backdrop of plague and warfare. The dialogue is awkward and the characters are cartoonish. One can easily see a casting agent perusing weaselly mustached cowards and meat faced bullies  to play the villains in the movie version. The heroine is so good as to be almost irritating and everyone in-between is a bit of a sheep.

There is a love story, (several in fact) and lots of medieval sex, with Follett taking the time to work a bath in to the story each time. Apparently he’s concerned that all his detail of moist clefts and engorged shafts might not be as appealing if they weren’t both freshly washed.

The building and fighting facts are good even if the sex scenes are not. I feel much more prepared should I find myself facing the challenge of rebuilding a stone bridge in a fast moving river so that the fleece fair can take place as planned. I also have a much more coherent plan to fight the French. Now what’s this painful swelling in my armpit?

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Review

In the Woods – Tana French

Oh Lord, that’s a terrible decision! Don’t go up those stairs! Don’t trust her! Don’t go in the woods!

In the Woods isn’t a horror movie, but the main character repeatedly chooses the wrong path. If to the right are roses and unicorns, and to the left a reddish sky and the twisted remains of those who have gone before, Detective Rob Ryan always chooses the left. It gets painful, because you want to like him but he’s an idiot.

Tana French starts out with a gloriously creepy premise. Two decades before Rob ignores the unicorns, he was the sole survivor of SOMETHING MYSTERIOUS which happened in the suburban woods outside Dublin. The story is contemporary, and Ireland is free of snakes, fairies and Druids…or is it?

No, it seems to be a relatively unmagical place, full of sloppy cops, child molesters and corrupt politicians. As Rob and his endearing partner Cassie Maddox try to track down the molesters while avoiding the slop and corruption, tendrils of  Rob’s past come winding in, blurring the line between plot and coincidence, past and present.

If you enjoyed Warner Herzog’s version of The Bad Detective, you’ll enjoy a similar self destruction in In the Woods.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction