Category Archives: New York Times Book Review

Reading Lolita in Tehran

One of our two books for June 2009 was “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi.  The riots over the election results keeping President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power were happening as we read this book. The passage quoted below from the book struck me as particularly enlightening about Iranian culture.

When reading this book, I thought time and time again of the repression and brutality of George Orwell’s “1984″ against anyone who differed from those in power, and that power was maintained by violence and murder.  The revolution was a popular movement against the western-backed Shah, but soon it lead to repression of many of the people who supported it.  Women were greatly and still are suppressed, which is detailed in the book.

I’ve included a news story at the bottom of the post.  It describes funeral and mourning events that were repeated regularly.  People would be killed at these events, and then more mourning demonstrations would be staged to mourn those people. Even more deaths would occur. More funeral demonstrations. More deaths. And so on.

From “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, copyright 2003, The Gatsby section, Chapter 3.

In this section, Ayatollah Taleghani, a young, very popular, important and also controversial figures of the Iranian Revolution has died.

“Today is the day of mourning! Taleghani has gone to heaven today.” 

Over the next two decades, this particular chant would be used for many others, a symptom of the symbiosis between the revolution’s founders and death.  That was the first time I experienced the desperate, orgiastic pleasure of this form of public mourning; it was the one place where people mingled and touched bodies and shared emotions without restraint or guilt.  There was a wild, sexually flavored frenzy in the air.  Later, when I saw a slogan by Khomeini saying that the Islamic Republic survives through its mourning ceremonies, I could testify to its truth.

Additionally, I enjoyed this book because it gave me a new appreciation and a fresh perspective on books I have read, such as “Lolita,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Great Gatsby.”   Cathy

  Wikipedia Description of the Iranian Revolution.

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI (April 15, 2003)

“READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN”

A Memoir in Books

By Azar Nafisi

347 pages. Random House. $23.95.

Azar Nafisi’s remarkable new book, ”Reading Lolita in Tehran,” is a memoir of the author’s life in Iran from the late 70′s to the late 90′s, but it is also many other things.

It is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students. It is a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together and the unexpected parallels they drew between those books and their own experiences as women living under the unforgiving rule of the mullahs. And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction — on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.

For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Ms. Nafisi, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, held a reading group at her house for seven of her former students. In the past, she and her students at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University had been attacked by the authorities for many offenses: for not wearing the veil, for not wearing it properly, for refusing to espouse a hard-line ideological stance, for studying decadent Western texts and for embracing the ambiguities and conundrums of fiction. While the members of the group, who came from different religious and political backgrounds, were initially shy about sharing their views and experiences, they gradually came to see their weekly meetings as a kind of sanctuary, as a place where they might share confidences both literary and personal.

Though this might sound to the American reader like some kind of Oprah Winfrey tea party, it quickly becomes clear that for these Iranian women, who had so little freedom in their daily lives, the group provided a rare opportunity to converse freely, to talk and laugh about their relationships with men and to refract their own daily hardships through the prism of classic works of literature.

They soon formed a special bond, Ms. Nafisi recounts, with the works of Nabokov, most notably ”Invitation to a Beheading,” with its lonely, imaginative hero whose originality sets him apart in a society ”where uniformity is not only the norm but also the law,” and ”Lolita,” which Ms. Nafisi reads as a chilling story about ”the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” Her students’ identification with this Russian émigré’s works, she notes, went deeper than their identification with his themes, to a shared sense of the precariousness of life. ”His novels are shaped around invisible trapdoors, sudden gaps that constantly pull the carpet from under the reader’s feet,” she writes. ”They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality’s fickleness and frailty.”

She and her students find an analogy between Gatsby’s thwarted efforts to repeat the past and the Iranian revolution, ”which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream,” and they discuss the Jamesian heroines Daisy Miller and Catherine Sloper as women who ”both defy the conventions of their time,” who ”both refuse to be dictated to.”

As for Jane Austen’s characters, Ms. Nafisi writes: ”Austen’s protagonists are private individuals set in public places. Their desire for privacy and reflection is continually being adjusted to their situation within a very small community, which keeps them under its constant scrutiny. The balance between the public and the private is essential to this world.”

Ms. Nafisi and her students themselves discovered — often after being warned, arrested or in some cases beaten and jailed — that there were no boundaries between the public and the private in the Islamic Republic of Iran: the government and its morality police told people what they could read, what they could wear, how they should behave. ”The colors of my head scarf or my father’s tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies,” Ms. Nafisi writes.

”Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture.” She adds that being accused of being Westernized in Iran in the 1980′s could result in years in jail, even execution.

Having grown up in Iran before the mullahs came to power, Ms. Nafisi writes of living in ”two different time zones simultaneously.” She had grown up in a prominent family (her father had been mayor of Tehran; her mother was one of the first six women elected to Parliament, in 1963), she had been educated in Switzerland and England, and she had lived in the United States. She returned to Iran in the late 1970′s, just as the revolution was cresting, and by the time her daughter was born several years later, ”the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother’s time”: the age of marriage was lowered to 9, adultery and prostitution were to be punished by stoning to death, and ”women, under law, were considered to have half the worth of men.”

Unlike her generation, Ms. Nafisi says, her students did not have a past to compare with the present. ”Their memory was of a half-articulated desire, something they had never had. It was this lack, their sense of longing for the ordinary, taken-for-granted aspects of life, that gave their words a certain luminous quality akin to poetry.”

In these pages, Ms. Nafisi, who had been part of the Iranian student movement in her youth, describes watching the revolution gather speed and run amok, and she blames ”the Iranian people and the intellectual elites” for ”helping to replace the Pahlavi dynasty with a far more reactionary and despotic regime.” She describes the purging of faculty members and students at universities and her own realization in the spring of 1981 that she had become irrelevant as a teacher.

Why did Ms. Nafisi stay in Tehran for another decade and a half? In part it was her devotion to her native country, her family and friends; in part it was the devotion of her husband, Bijan Naderi, ”to the idea of home.” In time many of her students also left, one going so far as to have herself smuggled out of the country overland through Turkey. Others stayed on in Iran and became teachers themselves. In this resonant and deeply affecting memoir, Ms. Nafisi pays tribute to all their lives and to the books that sustained them during some of the darkest days of the Iranian cultural revolution

 

Hundreds of Thousands Demonstrate in Iran; Mourn Dead
 
By ALI AKBAR DAREINI and NASSER KARIMI, Associated Press Writers Ali Akbar Dareini And Nasser Karimi, Associated Press Writers  June 18, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran – Hundreds of thousands of protesters wearing black and carrying candles filled the streets of Tehran again Thursday, joining opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn demonstrators killed in clashes over Iran‘s disputed election.

The massive protest openly defied orders from Iran’s supreme leader, despite a government attempt to placate Mousavi and his supporters by inviting the reformist, and two other candidates who ran against hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to a meeting with the country’s main electoral authority.

Many in the huge crowd carried black candles and lit them as night fell. Others wore green wristbands and carried flowers in mourning as they filed into Imam Khomenei Square, a large plaza in the heart of the capital named for the founder of the Islamic Revolution, witnesses said.

Press TV, an English-language version of Iranian state television designed for foreigners, estimated the crowd at hundreds of thousands and said the people listened to a brief address from Mousavi, who called for calm and self-restraint.

A Mousavi Web site said that the crowed exceeded 1 million.

Independent witnesses said that, based on previous demonstrations at the site, the size of the crowd appeared to be in the hundreds of thousands. Foreign news organizations are barred from reporting on Tehran’s streets.

The demonstrators had marched silently until they arrived at the square, where some chanted “Death to the dictator!” one witness said. Press TV showed protesters making V-for-victory gestures and holding pictures of Mousavi and signs that say “Where’s our Vote?”

A participant told The Associated Press by telephone that the rally stretched for more than three miles (5 kilometers) through downtown Tehran from the square.

Photos posted online showed Mousavi talking through a portable loudspeaker, dressed in a black suit and dark blue shirt as he raised a hand to address the massive crowd. The participant confirmed the authenticity of the images.

He described watching “a sea of people” march across a bridge in a constant stream for three hours.

“I remember one old man talking about how the will of the people has started and no one can stop it,” he added.

The participant and the witnesses spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

On their way home, some demonstrators held a candlelit gathering in front of Tehran University, where Mousavi supporters have accused pro-government militia of attacking students in dormitories.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands turned out in a huge procession that recalled the scale of protests during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Seven demonstrators were shot and killed that day by pro-regime militia in the first confirmed deaths during the unrest.

After dark Thursday — as they have done on other nights this week — people went to their roofs and chanted, “Mir Hossein!” in support of Mousavi, and “God is great!”

Ahmadinejad released a largely conciliatory recorded statement on state TV, distancing himself from his past criticism of protesters, whom he has compared to angry soccer fans and “dust.”

“I only addressed those who made riot, set fires and attacked people,” the statement said. “Every single Iranian is valuable. The government is at everyone’s service. We like everyone.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has urged the people to pursue their allegations of election fraud within the limits of the cleric-led system. Mousavi and his followers have rejected compromise and pressed their demands for a new vote, flouting the will of a man endowed with virtually limitless powers under Iran’s constitution.

Trying again to satisfy the protesters’ demands, the main electoral authority invited Mousavi and two other candidates who opposed Ahmadinejad to a meeting. Iran‘s al-Alam Arabic television channel said the three candidates would meet with the Guardian Council on Saturday.

The unelected body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts close to Khamenei has said it was prepared to conduct a limited recount of ballots at sites where candidates claim irregularities.

Mousavi, who has said he won the election, says the Guardian Council supports Ahmadinejad and has demanded an independent investigation, as well as a new election.

The council’s spokesman, Abbasali Khadkhodaei, said Thursday that it received a total of 646 complaints from the three candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election.

The council provided few other details, but the large number of complaints raised the possibility that even a limited recount could turn into a far larger and messier exercise than the government desires.

The regime has blocked communication channels, such as Web sites and mobile phone networks, to make it more difficult for Mousavi supporters to organize protests. The mobile phone network in Tehran appeared to go down at the start of Thursday’s demonstration, as it has intermittently since shortly after the election results were announced. Text messaging has been blocked almost constantly since Friday.

There have been widespread accusations of nighttime attacks on Mousavi supporters by pro-government militiamen, and protesters attacked a militia building after one rally, but both sides have been restrained, with uniformed police and other security forces standing by as protesters march calmly.

Monday’s massive gathering was followed by three days of marches along main Tehran avenues, presenting one of the gravest threats to Iran‘s complex blend of democracy and religious authority since the system emerged out of the Islamic revolution that brought down Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The ruling clerics still command deep public support and are defended by Iran’s most powerful military force — the Revolutionary Guard — as well as a vast network of militias.

But Mousavi’s movement has forced Khamenei into the center of the escalating crisis, questioning his role as the final authority on all critical issues.

The wild card is former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts — a cleric-run body that is empowered to choose or dismiss Iran’s supreme leader. Khamenei is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini‘s successor, and the assembly has never used its power to remove Iran’s highest authority.

Rafsanjani was a fierce critic of Ahmadinejad during the election, but has not publicly backed Mousavi. It is not known whether Mousavi has actively courted Rafsanjani’s support or if they have held talks.

But Iranian TV has shown pictures of Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani’s daughter, speaking to hundreds of Mousavi supporters, carrying pictures of Khomeini.

A group of hard-line students rallied outside the Tehran prosecutor’s office Thursday, accusing Rafsanjani’s daughter and his son, Mahdi, of treason, state radio reported.

Protesters have focused on the results of the balloting rather than challenging the Islamic system of government. But a shift in anger toward Iran’s non-elected theocracy would sharply change the stakes and become a showdown over the foundation of Iran’s system of rule — the almost unlimited authority of the clerics at the top.

The Iranian government directly accused the United States of meddling in the deepening crisis. A statement by state-run Press TV blamed Washington for “intolerable” interference. The report, on Press TV, cited no evidence.

“Despite wide coverage of unrest, foreign media have not been able to provide any evidence on a single violation in the election process,” state radio said.

State TV on Thursday broadcast the purported confession of a man accused of conspiring with U.S. forces in Iraq to bomb targets inside the country.

U.S. officials shrugged off the allegation of interference. President Barack Obama said he shared the world’s “deep concerns” but it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling.”

The two countries severed diplomatic relations after militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution.

The government has blocked certain Web sites, such as BBC Farsi, Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites that are vital conduits for Iranians to tell the world about protests and violence. Many other sites, including Gmail and Yahoo, were unusually slow and rarely connect.

Mousavi has condemned the blocking of Web sites, saying the government did not tolerate the voice of the opposition.

In a statement, Google Inc.’s video-sharing site, YouTube, reiterated that its guidelines do allow clips depicting violence in Iran because of their journalistic merit. YouTube generally bans clips with graphic or gratuitous violence, but has made exceptions for video with educational, documentary of scientific value.

“The limitations being placed on mainstream media reporting from within Iran make it even more important that citizens in Iran be able to use YouTube to capture their experiences for the world to see,” the company said. “Given the critical role these videos are playing in reporting this story to the world, we are doing our best to leave as many of them up as we can.”

Iranian Press TV said Khamenei would lead the weekly prayers ceremony on Friday. There was no immediate word whether Ahmadinejad would attend, but attends the service whenever Khamenei gives it. Al-Alam said the three presidential candidates also confirmed they would attend.

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson

In February, our book club read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland).  Everyone decided that it was “just what we needed.”  We usually read literary works — national book award winners, etc.  But sometimes you just need to read a mystery.  And this is a smart mystery.  We admired the writing, the subject matter and the setting in Sweden as well as the suspense.  It’s a book you can’t put down.  It wasn’t the prefect book, employing some cliched situations, and it certainly wasn’t uplifting, but we couldn’t wait to find out what happened next anyway. We also can’t wait for Larsson’s next two books. Sadly, these two books will also be his last, because he died in 2004.  (Below is a review from the New York Times.)

Here’s what Chris wrote:  I really did like it.  It kept me engrossed; sadism is not, however, something I enjoy reading about.  I hated the ending but it made great sense and any other would have been hokey.  I thought the relationships were well done, especially for a detective/suspense novel.  I’d bought that book for Bill as one of top 100 (crime/suspense) novels I researched on the web and knew he liked that author….he’s reading it now, too late, every night…..

Judy reported: In fact, I’ve recommended “Dragon” to several people, including our librarian. It should delight computer nerds. In fact, I found a news report that detailed a similiar action recently. And it’s well written. I found the cadence particularly interesting and concluded it must be a “Swedish thing”.
On another matter I have just read a fascinating paperback which is the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and immediately following I read the screenplay for the movie. Since I have NOT seen the movie the juxtaposition is particularly interesting because the two are so different in tone and content. I  heartily advise reading this book front to back—-not two separate stories weeks or years apart. It shows so graphically what happens when a book or story becomes a movie and, moreover, why some changes are necessary for commercial success. Even to Fitzgerald!                                                                                                                               
Cheers—–

 

 

New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani, published September 30, 2008.

Combine the chilly Swedish backdrop and moody psychodrama of a Bergman movie with the grisly pyrotechnics of a serial-killer thriller, then add an angry punk heroine and a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist, and you have the ingredients of Stieg Larsson’s first novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a huge best seller in the author’s native Sweden, and a sensation in France, Germany and the Netherlands too.

It’s Mr. Larsson’s two protagonists — Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, a k a the girl with the dragon tattoo — who make this novel more than your run-of-the-mill mystery: they’re both compelling, conflicted, complicated people, idiosyncratic in the extreme, and interesting enough to compensate for the plot mechanics, which seize up as the book nears its unsatisfying conclusion.

Mr. Larsson — who died in 2004, shortly after turning in this novel and two companion volumes — was himself a journalist and a magazine editor, and his knowledge of this world enables him to do a credible job of recounting Blomkvist’s efforts to investigate the two biggest stories of his career: corruption, embezzlement and money laundering on the part of a big-shot Swedish industrialist, and the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl named Harriet, who seemingly vanished without a trace during a family reunion.

At the same time, Mr. Larsson uses his reportorial eye for detail and an instinctive sense of mood to create a noirish picture of Stockholm and a small island community to the north, showing us both the bright, shiny lives of young careerists and older aristos, and a seamy underworld where sexual and financial corruption flourish.

When it comes to explaining the mystery behind Harriet’s disappearance and the big reveal about her family’s secret, however, Mr. Larsson stumbles badly, resorting to every bad cliché from every bad serial-killer movie ever shown on late night TV — a pity since he’s done such a credible job of showing how Blomkvist has been piecing together clues from police files, interviews and old photographs. It’s as if the author had shown us how an intricate jigsaw puzzle had been put together — from border outlines and chunks of the picture, down to the last few missing pieces — only to pull back at the end to show us that the completed puzzle depicts not an interesting photograph or painting, but a garish slasher cartoon.

Blomkvist, we learn, is a disgraced reporter, who — for reasons that become clear only later — has just lost a criminal libel case brought by a Swedish tycoon named Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist’s magazine is now teetering toward financial ruin, even as Blomkvist himself is pondering how to pay his legal bills.

In steps another prominent industrialist named Henrik Vanger, who makes Blomkvist an offer he can’t refuse: investigate the decades-old case of Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet, who disappeared one autumn day in the 1960s; in return, Vanger will pay Blomkvist handsomely, and he will also provide Blomkvist with some revealing information about Wennerström, who got his start with Vanger’s company many years ago.

Harriet’s disappearance is a variation on one of those locked-room puzzles constructed by mystery writers like Dorothy Sayers. The teenager was last seen on the small island that the Vanger clan calls home one September afternoon in 1966; a spectacular accident involving an oil truck had closed the one bridge to the island for 24 hours, and when family members noticed her absence the following morning, search parties looked for her everywhere: going through every building, chimney and well, scouring every field and cliff, dragging all the spots where she might have drowned.

Vanger is convinced that Harriet was murdered, and that her murderer has been taunting him ever since. Each year, on his birthday, he has received in the mail a pressed flower in a picture frame, the same gift Harriet gave him when she was a child; the flowers always arrive in padded envelopes with no return address.

After studying the available evidence and meeting many members of the Vanger family (many of whom seem to harbor ancient grievances against one another), Blomkvist manages to turn up three new pieces to the Harriet puzzle. To put them together, he enlists the help of Salander, a freelance investigator for a security firm who once investigated Blomkvist himself. Salander, a wraith-thin waif with a ferocious, take-no-prisoners attitude and history of anti-social behavior, seems less like a conventional detective than like a loaded gun, waiting to go off. She and Blomkvist make a very odd pair indeed — picture Angelina Jolie teamed up with a young Robert Redford — but their peculiar chemistry is what fuels this novel, particularly as Mr. Larsson loses control of his messy, increasingly implausible plot.

In fact, it’s clear as the story progresses that Mr. Larsson has no idea how to create a credible villain, for the two people most responsible for Harriet’s disappearance turn out to be patched-together bad guys with none of the malevolent originality of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter or the manipulative perversion of Catherine Tramell in “Basic Instinct.”

It’s the detectives who are the stars of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and the reader can only hope that Salander and Blomkvist put in return appearances in the two other novels Mr. Larsson completed before his death.

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“Shadow Country,” book for January 2009

Published: April 27, 2008 in the New York Times

In 1898, 42-year-old Edgar J. Watson became a living legend when a book credited him with shooting the outlaw queen Belle Starr nine years earlier. The descendant of a prominent South Carolina family, the legal or common-law husband of five women, the father of possibly 10 children, a leading pioneer on the southwest coast of Florida and a man killed by a large group of his neighbors in 1910, the historical Watson has obsessed Peter Matthiessen for three decades. Between 1990 and 1999, the novels that grew out of that obsession — “Killing Mister Watson,” “Lost Man’s River” and “Bone by Bone” — were first published. In his author’s note to “Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend,” Matthiessen says his initial manuscript ran to more than 1,500 pages, which he was persuaded to trim and split into three books. “Shadow Country” is not a restoration of the original version but a substantial revision and the kind of rendering done in slaughterhouses, a reduction of the trilogy’s 1,300-plus pages to a more easily consumed 900 or so.

“Shadow Country” has three “books” that roughly correspond to the separate novels. Book I begins with a third-person description of Watson’s death and proceeds to the testimony of 12 first-person narrators, many of whom return several times. Except for Watson’s daughter Carrie, who writes a diary, they seem to be reciting their colloquial, digressive and sometimes unreliable memories for an oral historian. Most of these highly engaging tale-tellers are friends, employees, neighbors and relatives who knew Watson from the year — 1894 — when he first came to the region of Florida called the Ten Thousand Islands. They admire his gentlemanly manners and good looks, his hard and innovative work raising a sugar plantation from land that was little more than a mound of shells. They are also taken with his wit. He “looked and acted,” declares a woman named Mamie Smallwood, “like our idea of a hero.” But even his closest acquaintances fear Watson, sometimes for the qualities they admire, more often for his temper, his drinking and his ever present pistol.

Not long after Watson brings his wife and children to their new home at Chatham Bend, the community hears the Belle Starr story. Watson enjoys employing his reputation as a “desperado” to intimidate anyone he considers a competitor, but when a young couple squatting on his land are murdered, Watson’s history (or legend) works against him. The only suspect, he must flee his plantation, returning just for quick visits until, seven years later, he shows up with a new wife and children. Once again his past shadows him: while away from the Everglades, he beat a murder charge through the intervention of powerful friends. Now some relatives and friends shun him. Neighbors move away. Then three of his employees, one a woman, are found dead. Watson can’t prove his innocence, and when he aims his shotgun on his accusers they put 33 slugs into the man some call “bloody Watson.”

While providing smooth segues between speakers to form an essentially linear account of Watson’s rise and fall, Matthiessen uses his multiple narrators to create tantalizing ambiguities, not so much about the justice of Watson’s death or even about the facts of his life but about the contradictory attitudes of the poor “crackers” and mixed-bloods who called him “Emperor Watson.” Mamie Smallwood and her husband argue about Watson’s true nature; Mamie’s three brothers have shifting views of the enigmatic stranger. Add the Harden family and Watson’s relatives, along with the sheriff supposedly investigating him, and Matthiessen’s presentation of conflicting race, class, clan and personal loyalties is masterly.

With its historical and legendary uncertainties, this first book is a deeper South “Absalom, Absalom!,” possibly even an hommage. Like Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, Watson is a red-haired, grand-planning outlander who creates a plantation from nothing, then carelessly destroys it and at least one of his sons. From boyhood, Watson carried around a history of ancient Greece. In Book I, the far-flung shadow of hubris is revealed by a chorus of individual voices. To the tragic dignity of Faulkner’s novel, Matthiessen adds the ironic indignity of seeing Emperor Watson’s body buried and his life recounted by the laboring folk that he, like Sutpen, dominated.

Matthiessen cut about a hundred pages from “Killing Mister Watson,” some of them unnecessary fake news items. “Lost Man’s River” has been reduced by 300 pages, many of them first-person narrations, so Book II of “Shadow Country” is much more conventionally plotted — the story of Lucius Watson’s obsessive quest for the truth about his father. A Ph.D. in history who travels the South in the late 1920s doing archival research and conducting interviews, Lucius joins up with his long-lost half brother, Rob. These two resemble the Harvard boys, Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon, who try to put together the Sutpen puzzle. Lucius manages to get answers to some questions: Did Watson kill those two squatters? Did he murder black cane cutters he couldn’t pay? Was Watson shot first (and appropriately) by the mulatto Henry Short? When Matthiessen occasionally allows Lucius to “record” the old folks, Book II has the down-home authority and vernacular appeal of Book I. But too often this third-person narrative of the educated Lucius’ search for his father reads like the educated author’s research for his book.

At the end of Book II, Lucius breaks free from his past and his biographical project. But Matthiessen does not. In Book III he burrows farther back by imagining Watson’s own account of his whole life, which runs about the same number of pages as “Bone by Bone.” Because Watson narrates right up to the moment of his death and because he reads or refers to poems he was unlikely to have known, this final book feels like a literary contrivance. Since his “autobiography” isn’t a deposition — or any other kind of document — that Watson could use to deceive an audience, we can presumably trust his account of the facts, if not his interpretations and rationalizations. We learn that Watson was severely beaten as a boy and thinks he suffered brain damage because he has, you see, this split personality: Edgar, the family man, and Jack, the raging killer. It’s hard to know if it’s Watson or Matthiessen who makes Watson into a case study of pathology, a victim of child abuse. Either way, it’s a diminishment.

For readers who want all the earlier dots connected, the chronological back story offered by Book III — with its Reconstruction youth, Western adventures and North Florida misadventures — will be a welcome resolution. But as in Book II, Matthiessen often includes history lessons, presumably from research, that neither Watson the man nor Watson the fictional character would have needed to provide. And Matthiessen’s dead man talking sounds, unfortunately, like the sententious and oblivious Thomas Sutpen. Faulkner knew better than to let Sutpen tell almost half of “Absalom, Absalom!,” but that’s the share Watson gets in “Shadow Country.”

Watson lived in a massive swamp bordered by numerous islands. “Killing Mister Watson” and “Lost Man’s River” were appropriately tangled archipelagoes of fact-based storytelling. By reducing his Watson materials to one volume, Matthiessen has sacrificed qualities that gave those novels their powerful reinforcing illusions of authenticity and artlessness. Book I still has that Ten Thousand Islands quality, but “Shadow Country” as a whole is like the Tamiami Trail that crosses the Everglades. It offers a quicker and easier passage through the swamp, but fewer shades and shadows.

 

Tom LeClair has just finished the third novel in a trilogy. The first two are “Passing Off” and “Passing On.”

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The Story Behind Edgar Sawtelle

This field of a vast crop of sunflowers is a tribute to Henry Lamb, one of the characters in "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle."

This is a book mostly about dogs and their people, but I posted this photograph of this field of a vast crop of sunflowers as a tribute to Henry Lamb, one of the characters in "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." Lamb's choice of sunflowers as a crop made Lamb unusual in a life he said many described as ordinary. (Also, I thought it was a gorgeous scene when I drove past this field on September 19 near Quapaw, Oklahoma.)

Here is the link to David Wroblewski’s the story behind “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.”  Our book club read this book as our September choice and we unanimously agreed we would recommend it.  Seldom are we all in accord!  Oprah now has decided to jump on our bandwagon and has recommended it for her book club, too.

David Wroblewski’s website is www.davidwroblewski.com, which has biography information and reviews.

David Wroblewski, author of "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle."

David Wroblewski.

 Janet Maslin’s review of the book from the New York Times: Talking to Dogs, Without a Word

 A story about the author in the New York Times: This Summer’s Dog Days Suit One Novelist Fine  It also includes links to other articles.

Oprah copies our book club:  Oprah Makes Her Pick  Cathy

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Filed under Authors, Blather, Book Club, Books, Dogs, Humor, Life, Literature, New York Times Book Review, Oprah's Book Club, Random, Reading, September 2008 Book, Uncategorized, Writers

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe was recently featured in the Sept. 8, 2008, Time Magazine.

In 1998, we read Tom Wolfe’s recently published “A Man in Full,” a heavy tome that I’ve just gotten from the shelf and dusted off. I remember it was hot enough off the press then that I had to buy the thing. The waiting list at the library was too long. 

Mostly what I remember about the book was a scene at a horse stud farm.  It starts on page 301 in the 1998 first trade edition.  This is a G rated blog, so I’m sorry I can’t share it with you here.  There are four audio and seventeen print copies available at our library,  and probably some copies at your own library, if you’re curious.

We read another horse-related book, Jane Smiley’s “Horse Heaven,” which I liked better.  From Smiley’s book I learned about calming ponies and companion animals for race horses, which can also apply to humans just as easily.

In Time Magazine, Wolfe answered Ten Questions.  Here’s the link. The ’60s classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test celebrates its 40th anniversary.    He talks about New Journalism and Hunter S. Thompson.  I wrote about Wolfe and Thompson in a post called There Will Be Blog. 

I didn’t read the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I did take on Bonfire of the Vanities even before the movie came out.  In 1987, while traveling, my husband chose a seat next to Wolfe in the Boston airport. I would have chosen to sit farther away, since Wolfe looked so spiffy in his customary white suit, and I looked so scruffy after a day roaming the city on foot and on the T.  Wolfe was on a book tour plugging Bonfire.  In the book, Wolfe mentions scruffy travelers at airports.  Apparently, I wasn’t the first or even the worst one he’s ever seen.

Spoiler Alert: The concept of “Bonfire of the Vanities” has been used in a number of books, including The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, which we read in 2004, the year it was published.  In 1497 in Florence, Italy, Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican priest, and his followers gathered up thousands of items of what they considered moral laxity, such as musical intruments, wordly art (including works by Michelangelo and Botticelli), mirrors, chess pieces — you get the picture– and had them burned.  The following year, Savonarola and a two of his followers were condemned, tortured and then burned on the same spot.

This is the link to a New York Times review about A Man in Full.  It doesn’t say anything about horses.     A Man in Tune With His Heritage; In His New Novel, Tom Wolfe Unearths His Southern Roots 

 Here’s a link to a review of The Rule of FourBOOKS OF THE TIMES; Deciphering a Mysterious Text and Puzzles of the Soul You’ll have to find a Bonfire of the Vanities review on your own. Cathy

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George Orwell is in the news again! (with Evelyn Waugh)

George Orwell

George Orwell

Some people just can’t keep out of the news.  I recently wrote in this blog about George Orwell’s new blog, which is on the blatherblog blogroll – that’s a tongue twister! 

Now Orwell is the subject of a new book along with Evelyn Waugh.  The book, The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War, is by David Lebedoff.  The book sounds like a fascinating history of their times as well as a discussion of the work and lives of these two literary giants. They both had widely different views on a number of issues, such as religion, the Spanish Civil War and economics.

Here’s are two New York Times book reviews.  The book must be worth reading, since it merits TWO reviews in the Times.  Here’s Michiko Kakutani’s review: Literary Soul Mates or Authors Who Were Polar Opposites?  Here’s what Jim Holt had to say about the book: Two of a Kind

If this isn’t enough about George Orwell, you can go to my blog post Newspeak   Cathy

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh

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The House on Fortune Street

 

Here are links to two reviews of “The House on Fortune Street.”  The first is by a woman, the second by a man.  They are interestingly different in how they describe the characters and the story. Cathy

Romance Languages

Home as a Power Base and Balm to an Arid Heart

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (September 2008 book)

This is the September book.  Here’s a link to a New York Times book review about “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” Talking to Dogs, Without a Word

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