David Bjoerling Jensen

“The God of Small Things”

Roy, Arundhati.  The God of Small Things.  New York:  Random House, 1997.

Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” is an ominous and enigmatic novel with a pernicious tone that is set early on.  It’s like a dark and heavy fog at dawn, leaving the reader to guess whether the sun will eventually emerge to burn off the fog, or if it’s getting ready to drizzle and thunder and lightning all day.  Set in India circa the time of the Communist revolution, it is a tale of two lovers fatally attracted to each other (literally), and two children who are fraternal twins.  The story ends on a happy note, but doesn’t have a happy ending.  That is, the plot is chronologically disjointed in such a way that certain major events are foreshadowed, while subsequent chapters jump back to fill in the blanks as the story unravels.  The writing is extremely rich with detail, a lot of which is pertinent and revisited time and again, but a lot of which isn’t, and only serves to poetically bolster the language.  For example:

Years later, when Rahel returned to the river, it greeted her with a ghastly skull’s smile, with holes where teeth had been, and a limp hand raised from a hospital bed.

Both things had happened.

It had shrunk.  And she had grown…

Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now.  A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish.  It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furrowed brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater.  Bronze-winged lily-trotters walked across it.  Splay-footed, cautious.

Roy’s writing style is Rushdie-esque in at at least two ways.  Firstly, she takes excessive liberties with the rules of the English language, often combining words to make one, or breaking one apart to make two, and uses sentence fragments frequently to accentuate matters.  Secondly, her manner of storytelling is like an overgrown and untamed flower garden, splendorous but chaotic…naturally beautiful and organic, but a lot to sort through.  The tale unfolds with a quality of dream-like effluvia, held cohesive by the exaggerated use of repetition.  Lots.  And lots.  And lots of repetition.

While the content is eerie and the tone despondent, I very much enjoyed reading this novel.  My only critique is that sometimes the commandeering grammatical rule-breaking comes off as a touch self-indulgent.  But hey, for a first-time novelist to win the Booker Prize on her debut work, I’ll allow it.

The Gullah Bible–De Nyew Testament

De Nyew Testament:  The New Testament in Gullah Sea Island Creole with Marginal Text of the King James Version.  New York:  American Bible Society, 2005.

John 3:16-17

16 Cause God lob all de people een da wol sommuch dat e gii we e onliest Son.  God sen we um so dat ebrybody wa bleebe pon um ain gwine dead.  17 God ain sen e Son eenta de wol fa condemn um.  God sen e Son fa come sabe de people shru e Son.

Go ahead, take a moment to read through that once or twice more to see if you can make a plain English connection.  Now this…

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

After 26 years of translating, editing, checking, typesetting, and printing, the Gullah Bible was released in 2005.  What is Gullah?…As taken from the edition’s preface:

Gullah, also known as Geechee or Sea Island Creole, is a language traditionally spoken along the coastal area of South Carolina and Georgia.  While in the past Gullah was mistakenly characterized as poor English, today it is recognized as a distinct language.  It is an English creole, born several hundred years ago out of a contact language situation where Africans were taken from various nations and language groups to grow rice in the marshy lowcountry area along the Southeastern coast of the American colony.

A copy of this bible on display in the slavery exhibition at Fort Moultrie, Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina brought this to my attention.  I had been introduced to such language through the colorful narrations of Mark Twain (most notably in Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), but little did I realize that it was more than just an obscure regional dialect, but a codified lexicon with a formal name and all.  Just another fascinating tidbit of American history!

More information can be found at http://www.gullahbible.com/.

“A Prayer for Owen Meany”

Irving, John.  A Prayer for Owen Meany.  New York:  William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989.

On my block, there’s this person who seems to have a serious aversion to throwing out “perfectly good stuff.”  I’ve seen worn-in leather shoes, halfway used up makeup kits, tattered children’s clothing, and among various other “still useful” items, books.  So a few months back I was walking past and in a box of unwanted books, a John Irving title caught my attention.  Having read “The World According to Garp” a couple of years ago, I figured I’d pick this one up–“A Prayer for Owen Meany”–and put it on my bookshelf to get around to one day.

Well, I got around to it, and how glad I am that I did!  In my humble opinion, this might just be the illustrious “Great American Novel.”  That’s how I felt while reading it, anyway.  In this novel, John Irving demonstrates an uncanny ability to draw the reader into the story, with a Dickensian capacity to weave character development, plot,  humor, and social commentary into a fun but serious coming-of-age tale.  He demonstrates, also, a mastery over non-linear storytelling.  That is, the bulk of the narrative is told through the voice of the author during his childhood/adolescence/early adulthood in 1950-60s rural New Hampshire, while part is being recounted in the author’s present-day adult voice as an expatriate, private school English teacher in Toronto.  The storyline is kept cohesive through the element of repetition, as he continually returns to meaningful themes, events, and people.  And like the characters themselves, the names alone are full of life:  Tabitha Wheelright, Buzzy Thurston, Reverend Dudley Wiggin, Archibald Thorndike…Paul Owen Meany, Jr.!

Given that literary structure, one of the most pertinent themes in the novel is armlessness.  There’s the armless Chief Watahantowet, the stuffed armadillo from which Owen Meany removes the claws, the dressmaker’s dummy that belonged to the narrator’s mother, the statue of Mary Magdalene, and the culminating occurrence at the very end of the story.  None of this makes sense without having read the book, I realize, but it is all significant to a central motif.  Strange theme, I know, but if I may read into it, these figurative representations are meant to convey allegory at its finest.  Now this is just my take on it, but perhaps the symbolism is meant to express the author’s stance on another central theme, i.e., American foreign diplomacy in general and the Vietnam War in particular.  Pacifism…taking up no arms…armlessness.  You’ll see what I mean if you read the book.

As for a sidenote,  it felt appropriate reading this book during the holidays.  Set amid its sentimental New England imagery, there is quite a description of one Thanksgiving, and an even lengthier description of one Christmas.  The author devotes a couple of chapters to the annual Christmas pageant, with a lot of description about Owen Meany’s role as the little Lord Jesus in the creche.  Again, centrally symbolic to theme, and again, you’ll see what I mean if you read the book.

Every twist and turn along the way, each foresight and reflection in the plot of this narration are remarkably well crafted.  It’s almost as if no detail is unimportant, which makes for a very full-bodied work of fiction.  It’s nostalgic and heartfelt and clever.  And while it’s steeped in erudite references to the humanities and Biblical allusions, the tone is established in language that is soothing and straightforward and accessible.  As a novelist, John Irving’s light shines brightly in “A Praryer for Owen Meany,” a genuine marvel of literary genius!  Unquestionably, this is one of, if not the, very best novels I’ve ever read!

“Haroun and the Sea of Stories”

Rushdie, Salman.  Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  New York:  Viking Penguin, 1990.

This book first caught my attention as I was cataloging the Salman Rushdie portion of the Booker Prize Collection at the Morgan Museum & Library.  One particularly rare edition, replete with illustrations, beckoned a closer glance, which motivated me to read through a few pages.  I didn’t have time then, but I told myself that I would one day read this novel…and the time has come.

Reminiscent of “The Never Ending Story” or “Alice in Wonderland,” this work is quite unlike any of Rushdie’s other novels in theme, but quite similar in terms of imagination and descriptive creativity.  It is the story of Haroun, the protagonist, on a quest to preserve clever storytelling in the Kingdom of Gup.

So Iff the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun.  He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale.  Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe.  And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns.  It was not dead by alive.

Along with an accompaniment of a few other lively characters, Haroun ventures into the neighboring Kingdom of Chup in order to both rescue a captured princess and defeat  the evil cult master Khattam-Shud, whose aim is to poison the Ocean of the Streams of Story, thereby ensuring silence and glumness among all the land.  A fanciful battle unfolds–and you can probably guess who wins.  But to say much more would ruin the story…

As an eccentric fantasy novel, it is appropriate for children and adults alike.  That is, the story at face value is a fun, imaginative, dream-like tale to be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation of whimsical fiction.  But  when read between the lines on a deeper level, the author has inserted allegorical commentary on the prevailing political and cultural status quo.

By all means, I endorse this lighthearted foray into fantasy fiction as a recommended read!

Graffiti, History of Printing Style

Aldine by Rebecca Romney

Think bibliography is too stuffy? There are plenty of scandalous tales in the history of printing. One of the most infamous is the story of the Uncle Silas plate in the first edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

 

 

Twain expected Huck to be a major hit, and the huge number of advance orders strengthened his opinion. To prepare for demand, the first printing alone contained 30,000 copies. In order to print that many copies so quickly, Twain’s printer had 50 pressmen working on the project, who produced 690,000 sheets in three months.

 

It is because there were so many pressmen who had access to the printing plates that the perpetrator was never caught, despite a $500 reward.

 

Like Tom Sawyer, Twain’s previous book about boys, this work contained a great number of illustrations. One of those illustrations is an engraved plate that depicts Huck…

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Subway Libraries

Here again, another post regarding literary enrichment while riding the rails of the New York City subway.  As the rise of electronic reading devices has begun to change the way we consume literature, three students from the Miami Ad School have come up with an ingenious idea to encourage readers to visit NYPL branch libraries to check out books.  That is, utilizing near field communication (NFC) technology, information portals are placed on certain metro cars that allow commuters to freely download the first ten pages of selected titles to their smartphone or tablet.  If further interested, the device will provide information on which nearest branch currently holds the title upon surfacing above ground.

This is a concept in the making, yet to be endorsed by the NYPL…

Poetry in Motion

photo

So I was riding the New York City subway the other day and a certain poster caught my eye.  I read through a poem (but not the one below), simple and elegant in language and structure–as most of his are–written by Billy Collins.  The poster is part of the recently relaunched Poetry in Motion series sponsored by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Poetry Society of America.  It got me thinking that I own a copy Sailing Alone Around the Room, a collection of selected poems by Collins, which was given to me by one of my favorite people (you know who you are!).  I thumbed through the book on this uneventful Sunday, reading a few poems here and there, and found this one, which I felt inclined to share.

“Marginalia”…taken from Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins.

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,

skirmishes against the author

raging along the borders of every page

in tiny black script.

If I could just get my hands on you,

Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,

they seem to say,

I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

 

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive–

“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!”–

that kind of thing.

I remember once looking up from my reading,

my thumb as a bookmark,

trying to imagine what the person must look like

who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”

alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

 

Students are more modest

needing to leave only their splayed footprints

along the shore of the page.

One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.

Another notes the presence of “Irony”

fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

 

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleechers,

hands cupped around their mouths.

“Absolutely,” they shout

to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.

“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”

Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points

rain down along the sidelines.

 

And if you have managed to graduate from college

without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”

in a margin, perhaps now is the time to step forward.

 

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own

and reached for a pen only to show

we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;

we pressed a thought into the wayside,

planted an impression along the verge.

 

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria

jotted along the borders of the Gospels

brief asides about the pains of copying,

a bird singing near their window,

or the sunlight that illuminated their page–

anonymous men catching a ride into the future

on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

 

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,

they say, until you have read him

enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

 

Yet the one I think of most often,

the one that dangles from me like a locket,

was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye

I borrowed from the local library

one slow, hot summer.

I was just beginning high school then,

reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,

and I cannot tell you

how vastly my loneliness was deepened,

how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed

when I found on one page

 

a few greasy looking smears

and next to them, written in soft pencil–

by a beautiful girl, I could tell,

whom I would never meet–

“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Billy Collins is the author of six collections of poetry, as well as a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York.  He was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States for 2001-2003.

 

Utopia

More, Thomas.  Utopia.  1516.

Originally published in Latin in 1516, this work is a fictional discourse on political philosophy in which a traveler, Raphael Hythlodaeus, has discovered an island where the ideal society smoothly operates, and delivers a first-person lecture on its social and political customs.  Broken down into a series of short treatises regarding the various particulars of an integrated society, chapter titles include “Of Their Towns,” “Of Their Magistrates,” “Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life,” “Of Their Traffic,” “Of the Travelling of the Utopians,” “Of Their Slaves, and of Their Marriages,” “Of Their Military Discipline,” and “Of the Religions of the Utopians.”  Each section constitutes a general overview of the ethics and social mores which govern the manifold aspects of an ideal, harmonious commonwealth among the “Utopians.”

Given the historical context of the time period in which Sir Thomas More wrote this book (the European Renaissance was in full swing, the Americas were newly discovered, the printing press had gained a solid foothold as an information technology), it seems only natural that philosophers and humanists of the day were discussing such ideas.  Although relegated to its era, many of the idealistic concepts remain pertinent today, particularly those regarding the ruling elite class, the grossly inequitable distribution of wealth, and the resulting social stratification and societal discord as a consequence.

Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws; yet these wicked men, after they have, by a most insatiable covetousness, divided that among themselves with which all the rest might have been well supplied, are far from the happiness among the Utopians; for the use as well as the desire of money being extinguished, much anxiety and great occasions of mischief is cut off with it, and who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are, indeed, rather punished than restrained by the seventies of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world?

Ideas such as these must certainly have influenced Marx and Engels in their writing of The Communist Manifesto.  A classless, egalitarian society in theory sounds great.  But on the massively populated scale of today’s capitalistic, post-industrial world, this idealism simply won’t function, will it?  In practicality, it must be imposed top down, which led to the fascist dictatorships attempting to institute socialism during the Cold War era, and we all know what a dismal failure that was.

The underlying philosophy of the above passage sounds awfully familiar, too, to the general rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street 99%.  Who is to say that the greed and rapacious desire for inordinate wealth bred by unchecked, global capitalism won’t ultimately prove to be equally catastrophic?

My only point is this:  16th century or 21st…a lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

As part of the public domain, a digitized version of Utopia can be freely accessed via Google Books here.

Books in Bed

Anyone who follows this blog will know how much I enjoy posting about ways to repurpose old, unwanted books.  Here’s the latest that I’ve come across:

Wouldn’t it be neat if you could use the works of Proust and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen and Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Lord Alfred Tennyson–the list goes on–that you just won’t get around to in this lifetime, and sort of subconsciously absorb it all while you sleep?  Just a thought…

Click here for directions on how to make your own.

“Midnight’s Children”

Rushdie, Salman.  Midnight’s Children: A Novel.  25th anniversary ed.  New York:  Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006.

This is one of my favorite passages from this novel:

Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence; I must be guided by the memory of a once-glimpsed file with tell-tale initials; and by the other, remaining shards of the past, lingering in my ransacked memory-vaults like broken bottles on a beach…(491).

I like this quote because I find it poetic, but also because it encapsulates the reading experience I had while involved with this detail-rich, densely-packed story.  That is to say, my memory of the essence serves me well…but the inexhaustible character development and twisting deepening turning plot leave me a touch evaded…like a dream from the distant past that you still remember, one that was profoundly symbolic and stuck with you for days after it occurred, but is now somewhat amorphous not in theme but in detail, as imagery has gently dissipated with time, while its fundamental gist still remains.

Rushdie, the marvelous teller-of-tales that he is, has descriptive capabilities easily on par with Charles Dickens.  Told in a first-person narrative, this fictional autobiography is set in the turbulent time period directly after India gained independence from Britain’s imperial authority in 1947.  The intent of this review is not to recount the storyline, but rather, to elaborate on what makes Rushdie such a unique and exceptional novelist.  His sentences are complex, while he breaks bends distorts rules of punctuation and syntax in a dynamic and creative way.  He uses repetition brilliantly…a perforated sheet, a silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli, saffron-and-green, the blue of a Kashmiri sky; these are a few themes that poignantly, yet casually, emerge again and again, which make you smile each time because of how deeply couched they are in context and meaning.  Moreover, his marvelous vernacular usage truly breathes life into this novel.  Certain place names, terms of endearment, or other colloquialisms were completely unfamiliar to me as a Western reader.  But that’s what gives this book a whole other level of depth.  I mean, I loved the story because it was complex and imaginative and emotional.  But for an English-speaking Indian audience, on top of its literary refinement, it must certainly carry cultural overtones/undertones and historical frame of reference that  hit home more so than I can even begin to imagine.

Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1981.  It also won the Booker of Bookers Prize in 1993, which was judged as the best novel among all previous winners in the 25 year history of the prize at the time.  A similar prize known as The Best of the Booker, was awarded in 2008 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the prize. A shortlist of six winners was chosen and the decision was left to a public vote. The winner was again Midnight’s Children.  So, yeah, if you like ingenious storytelling and have the wherewithal to stomach a substantial 533-page work of fiction, then get on with it…this one is well worth your time!

And for what it’s worth, the Hollywood film adaptation is due out in early November of this year.