David Bjoerling Jensen

Tag: book reviews

“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.

“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!

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.

“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.

“Jitterbug Perfume”

Robbins, Tom.  Jitterbug Perfume.  New York:  Bantam Books.  1984.

So this was my first introduction to a Tom Robbins novel, and I must say…WOW!  My, oh my…that man can write!  That man can write.

Admittedly, I spent the first 30 or so pages grappling with the idea of whether or not I would be able to get into this book.  But once I caught the rhythm of the language, I set sail on a whimsical literary journey that only a brilliantly conceived work of the utmost creatively crafted fiction can inspire.  Here’s a quick example:

The Middle Ages hangs over history’s belt like a beer belly.  It is too late now for aerobic dancing or cottage cheese lunches to reduce the Middle Ages.  History will have to wear size 48 shorts forever.  In the pit of that vast stomach–sloshing with dark and vinegary juices, kindled by a thousand-year heartburn–major figures stimulated acute contractions, only to be eventually digested, adding to the bloat.  Clovis, Charlemagne, Otto I, William the Conqueror, Rurik the Viking, Pope Leo, Thomas Aquinas, Johann Gutenberg, and a platter of other renowned generals, kings, philosophers, and popes fermented and dissolved in that mammoth maw.  Our little couple, however, our Alobar and Kudra, remained intact and indigestible, like the hard octopus beaks that sicken the stomachs of whales, causing them to vomit the ambergris that bonds the bouquet in great perfumes.  Like octopus beaks, our couple.  Or maraschino cherries, (172).

This is one of those books that you don’t want to end, simply because it just so fun to read!

And smart, too.  No, genius!  Cleverly interweaving four sub-plots, the overarching theme amounts to timeless (literally, read the book and you’ll understand) love story with a general ethos of lightheartedness.  Invoking profound ideas about the afterlife rooted in the world’s great spiritual traditions, allusions are made to Christianity (and the historical lineage of its pagan roots), Buddhism, Hinduism…as well as to the notion of truly experiencing the living, immediate present, which transcends all religious doctrine, anyway.  The characters are very entertaining and well developed, too.  I want them to be my friends, and we’ll get beers and talk for hours without realizing that the sun is about to come up.  One of the protagonists, Dr. Wiggs Dannyboy, reflects an Irish adaptation of Timothy Leary, if that provides any clue as to how lively and amusing they can be!

Tom Robbins is a literary virtuoso, and this novel packs a dense artistic punch!  By all means, I will read this one again, probably a few more times during life.  It’s that good.

“Anatomy of an Epidemic”

Whitaker, Robert.  Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. New York: Crown Publishing Group.  2010.

In this book–an exposé of sorts–the author has done an outstanding job of illustrating what can legitimately be described as a farcical paradigm of treatment surrounding those diagnosed with mental illnesses and the prescribing of psychiatric drugs.  Ranging from schizophrenia, to depression, to ADHD, to anxiety and bipolar disorders, Whitaker has conducted in-depth research among the outcomes literature in medical journals (a lot of which took place at Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine), which over and over again point toward one general conclusion: the long-term efficacy of the current range of commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs is negative.  Anti-depressants like Prozac, anti-anxiety meds like Xanax, ADHD meds such as Ritalin; all of these may serve some purpose in the short-term, but the medical literature does not and cannot show positive outcomes over the long-term, plain and simple.  In fact, the opposite is true, as his research documents “the astonishing bottom-line result produced by a medical specialty that has dramatically expanded diagnostic boundaries in the past fifty years and treated patients with drugs that perturb normal brain function,” (210).

Replete with facts and figures, the book contains many easily-digestible charts and graphs to quantify the data.  Also included are numerous testimonials espoused through case studies of patients themselves, almost all of whom attest to the fact that the drugs that are supposed to correct their said “chemical imbalance” not only don’t work, but often worsen target symptoms over the long run.  Many times, this results in higher dosages and/or a counterpart prescription to offset negative side-effects (which may have side-effects of their own, requiring yet a different prescription).  Patients often end up being put on “drug cocktails” and become dependent upon them for life.

How then, one might ask, is it that well-respected national organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the National Institute of Mental Health embrace this treatment scheme?  How come key opinion leaders in academia, such as Ivy League psychiatrists, continually tout the benefits of drugs that are shown to exacerbate long-term outcomes?  Well, not surprisingly, it has something to do with the astronomical sums of profit generated by the pharmaceutical industry and allied psychiatric practitioners who receive corporate kickbacks.

As the New England Journal of Medicine observed in 2000, thought leaders [in psychiatry] ‘serve as consultants to companies whose products they are studying, join advisory boards and speakers’ bureaus, enter into patent and royalty arrangements, agree to be the listed authors of articles ghostwritten by interested companies, promote drugs and devices at company-sponsored symposiums, and allow themselves to be plied with expensive gifts and trips to luxurious settings,’ (278).

The evidence pinpointed in this book only corroborates a long-held presumption of my own.  There may be more than one way to describe this perplexing situation, but on certain levels there is undoubtedly subversion of moral integrity at play.  Yes, the drugs have a place in psychiatry’s toolkit.  And yes, some people may respond well at first and may stabilize over the long run.  But legions of psychiatrists would be looking for new jobs if it were widely acknowledged that the biological causes of mental disorders remain largely unknown…that the overly prescribed drugs muck up the feedback loops of normally functioning neurotransmitter pathways rather than fix chemical imbalances…that longitudinal studies regularly reveal that the medications are worsening long-term outcomes and creating chronically ill patients with a lifetime dependency.

The most heartbreaking part of it all, though, is that this diagnostic/treatment paradigm extends in equally valid measure to our nation’s children.  Two year old kids being diagnosed with bipolar disorder?  Oh, please.

The implications of this epidemic are far deeper and more wide reaching than what I’ve described here, which the book covers in detail.

Robert Whitaker has also authored numerous articles on the mentally ill and the pharmaceutical industry, as well as a previous book on this topic entitled Mad in America:  Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill.

Also, FYI, there is a credible advocacy group out there calling the bluff.  They’re called MindFreedom, and they present a lot of worthy critique regarding the psychiatric establishment’s current state of affairs.

“The Sense of an Ending”

Barnes, Julian.  The Sense of an Ending.  New York:  Aflred A. Knopf.  2011.

The Sense of an Ending

The opening passage for this novel goes like this:

I remember, in no particular order:

     –a shiny inner wrist;

     –steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

     –gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

     –a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;

     –another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

     –bathwater long gone cold behind the locked door.

This isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

Intrigued from the get-go, I delved deeply into this provocative work by author Julian Barnes.  This novel recounts the story of a man’s life, as he is forced to recollect his past in order to make sense of an unexpected and mysterious turn of events in his present.  To say much more would give it away.  Unmistakably British in tone, his sentences are very sharp and pointed.  He breaks the rules of grammar with sentence fragments and indulges in conjured-up misspellings.  Sometimes one paragraph will convey what occurred over a period months, while at others it takes numerous pages to depict what took place in just a few minutes.  As the reader is drawn into the story, the mystery behind what it all adds up to only gets deeper. Not until the last couple of pages does it all coalesce.  At which point, upon returning to the opening passage, everything makes sense.

At 163 pages, this is the type of book that deserves to be read in a single sitting.  Under a blanket. On a cold, grey day.  Over tea.  Remarkable read!

“The River of Doubt”

Millard, Candice.  The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.  New York:  Doubleday.  2005.

Hands down, this is one of the most palpitating non-fiction books I’ve read in some time!  Blending biography with natural history with action thriller, Millard provides a riveting account of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition in 1914 down a tributary of the Amazon River. As the first “civilized” men to navigate this tributary deep in the Brazilian jungle, their effort was to survey the river and officially put it on the map.  This is a harrowing tale of what the men and their team encountered along the way.  Among the hardships they faced–and this list is by no means exhaustive–are suffocating heat, torrential downpours, disease-carrying, poisonous insects, piranhas, cannibalistic native tribes, impassable rapids, starvation, and so on.  After barely making it out alive, Roosevelt was greeted upon his return to the United States by incredulous adversaries, claiming his story to be embellished.  If I may say so myself, much of what the men survived to tell is truly hard to believe!

Upon beginning this book, I expected an account of perilous adventure during the Golden Age of Exploration, and not much more.  But the author makes a number of digressions that are pertinent, engaging, and educational.  For example, she spells out the geologic forces that, over the eons, created the Andes to the west, and the Amazon basin to the east, which was once an inland sea before ages of erosion created a drainage basin, and thus, the great river.  She speaks eloquently on why the first European explorers christened the river the “Amazon,” with its roots in Greek mythology.  Pouring over pages and pages, she explicates many of the amazingly advanced evolutionary adaptations and symbiotic relationships among the flora and fauna of the Amazonian rain forest.  In no way distracting, these tangential descriptions imbue the book with a well-rounded sense of appreciation for what these explorers had gotten themselves into.

As an intern at the American Museum of Natural History, I found this book to be particularly enjoyable, as I was able to supplement the reading with the exhibition on display in the Hall of South American Peoples.  Furthermore, in the photographic archives in the research library, there is an entire drawer marked “Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition, 1914,” containing hundreds of prints from the expedition.  Those visual stimuli really helped bring Millard’s remarkably detailed verbal descriptions to life.  In fact, much of her research was conducted at the AMNH research library.

No question about it…5 out of 5 stars!