Book Rhapsody

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Weekend Book Review – Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Rabbit, Run is the first novel in John Updike’s critically acclaimed Rabbit Angstrom series. In the 2006 survey conducted by the New York Times, which asked for the best American novel of the last 25 years, the Rabbit Angstrom novels emerged as one of the runners-up. I’m more interested in the last two installments of the series, but I figure that if I want to read them, I might as well read the first two first.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was a basketball superstar in high school. Now at mid-twenties, he works as a sales and demo man of kitchen gadgets, and he’s married to Janice, currently pregnant and currently suffering from alcohol issues. They have a two-year-old toddler named Nelson and they all live in the suburban town Mt. Judge.

Rabbit is given this nickname not only because of his leporine face but because he is always running away and trying to escape the imminent judgment of the people. The town’s name is no understatement. There seems to be a pair of giant eyes over the city, an invisible lens that lets the townspeople see and judge him. He runs away from his wife Janice, twice, and he runs away from his mistress Ruth, twice.

He could have been named Rabbit Angst instead because there are parts that subtly deal with his quarter-life crisis. One such part details the first time he runs away. He is supposed to pick up his son from his in-laws. but decides to drive away. He does not have a destination. He just drives on and on, dropping by diners in the towns he visits and switching the radio from one station to the other. This listless driving perfectly captures the state of Rabbit’s mind and therefore sets the general mood of the novel.

The novel offers big themes, such as faith, love, sex, fear, guilt, and death. The minister Eccles befriends Rabbit to help him sort out his issues. During their conversations, one gets the feeling that Eccles is blaspheming the same God that he is leading the townspeople to worship. It’s like his undergoing a crisis like that of Rabbit’s. Are they doing the right things? What is the purpose of the things that they do?

There are extended passages on sex, but there is a gaping absence of love among the characters. The few moments where there could be love are usually tinged with either fear or anxiety. In a novel that is filled with guilt-tripping and blame-slinging, it’s not surprising to find the reader, at the end of the novel, asking whether or not Rabbit is capable of love. Should we care about what he feels? Does he know what he’s doing? Where is he going?

Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this is little side street is a wide river, and crosses. He wants to travel to the next patch of snow. Although this block of brick three-stories is just like the one he left, something in it makes him happy; the steps and window sills seem to twitch and shift in the corner of his eye, alive. this illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

I didn’t have an easy time finishing this as it tends to meander out of control, but the last quarter delivered. Besides, the writing is very good. I would continue reading the rest of the series.

[Read in February 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[284 pages. Mass market paperback.]

Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith

Weekend Book Review – Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith

Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams is a retelling of the myth of the eponymous god. This is part of the Canongate Myth series, an ambitious project where many writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Michel Faber, A. S. Byatt, and more, contribute their modern takes on various myths. Most of the entries are short novels. If you do not have any mythological background, in this case Angus’s, you will not get lost and you’d appreciate the melding of the myths into the modern setting.

The book is composed of ten chapters that alternate between the story of Angus and his interventions in the lives of modern characters. The anecdotal modern inserts have two intrinsic themes: the role of dreams in our lives and love in its many forms. If one has the notion of high and mighty language owing to the fact that this is work based on Celtic myths, squash that one.

The chapters about Angus are general information about his story. Instead of the academic tone that one can get from reference books, the reader is treated to Angus’s stories rendered in a folklorist voice. However, it doesn’t go that deep, so one cannot use this as further reference if you want to find extensive information on the god’s history.

The chapters about the modern humans can be a little jarring. It feels like you are dropped in the middle of nowhere and now have to find your way around the terrain. It’s easy to navigate though since the prose is simple and easy to get into. There’s nothing impressive about it but it’s neat.

In That Was Then; This Is Now, a newly married woman is visited by Angus as she tries to settle, or not, in the married life. My Brother, a coming-of-age story of two tightly bonded brothers, is a parallel to Angus’s childhood. Another Boy Finds Out That His Father Is Not His Father, also a parallel, begins as a domestic tragedy but deftly ends in a humorous note. The last two, Is There a Place for Pigs There? and I Dream of You, are stories of romantic love.

There’s a poem that acts as an epilogue after the last story. Reading it makes me think that the Irish and the Scots, in at least a part of their lives, waited for Angus to give them the dreams that they desire.

Will he bring me some sort of quietus,
Some form of understanding; will he break my heart;
Will he show me my love; will he give
Me heart’s contentment, the end of sorrow,
Will he do that for me; will he do that?

Dream Angus will do that, my dear,
He will do that; you may sleep,
For Dream Angus leaps light across the heather,
And the name upon his lips is our name,
And the gifts that he bears are gifts for you;
That is true, my dear, it is all true.

[Read in January 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[173 pages. Hardcover. A gift from Doc Ranee.]

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Weekend Book Review – Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a collection of essays that provides bookish conversations to bibliophiles. It’s also a literary memoir because Fadiman injects bookish anecdotes about her reading life, which includes her family. Some favorite topics include arranging books in one’s own library, classifying the kinds of readers, buying second-hand books, and growing up and still living in a world of books.

In Marrying Libraries, Fadiman discusses the various ways readers may arrange their books on their shelves. Shelf description is expanded in My Odd Shelf, My Ancestral Castles, and The P.M.’s Empire of Books, which is about the strict shelving habits of four times British Prime Minister Gladstone. Although such a political figure is mentioned in this book, it remains true to its subtitle: it’s still wholly confessions of a common reader.

What are the merits of writing and critiquing books right on their pages? What books have surprisingly made an impact on you? On what page should you write an inscription when you’re giving a book to a friend? How can your perception and experience change when you read a description of a setting while being right at that place? Why are some people obsessed with long words, pens, catalogues, and proofreading? Is there any benefit to reading aloud?

There are also topics on poetic attempts (Scorn Not the Sonnet), gender equality on print (The His’er Problem), originality and plagiarism (Nothing New Under the Sun), and cooking (The Literary Glutton). There’s nothing about ebooks and how the Internet revolutionized reading because this was published in the late 90s. The general tone of the essays is candid, which is just right for a fun book. Other sources are not abundant, but when there are any, references are drawn from her editor and writer friends, who also are big readers. In Fadiman’s tight literary circle, one can’t not notice erudite background, and this may lead one to suspect that she’s a snob and not a common reader after all.

But the common love that we all have for books makes her as common as any book lover, and this love can be felt right from the first page. It is hard not to at least like a book that is about books, the reading life, and bookish conversations, such as the one below:

“When I was leaving work that day, I noticed that the proprietor had put one of Clive’s books in the fifty-cent cart we kept on the sidewalk. It was an Edwardian compact Shakespeare with an ugly typeface and garishly colored plates. Inside, in a round adolescent hand that must have been dated from his teens or early twenties, Clive had written his name and the lines from The Tempest ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.'”

I asked Adam what he had done with the book.

“I bought it,” he said, “and took it home.”

[Read in January 2014.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[162 pages. Trade paperback. Borrowed.]
[A book club traveling book.]

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

A Love Story Framed Within a House of Horror – House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

It is a curious thing to have a chat with a book store manager who is ardently recommending a book to a customer. I was such a lucky customer, and upon browsing the book being recommended to me, I was amazed to see the text artfully laid out on the creamy pages. Mirrored text, inverted text, scattered text, text grouped in tight squares, text running at the bottom of the page, and text forming circles. This is what I came to know later as an example of ergodic literature.

It is a curious thing to see a single word printed in a different color. House, haus, maison, domus are all rendered in blue. Further scanning revealed footnotes on footnotes, extensive appendices, full-color collages, and index. I was sold, so to speak, but I didn’t manage to read this book after two years.

House of Leaves (2000) is popularly known as a terrifying story about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That is only one layer of narrative because that surface story is just as expansive as the story that happens outside of it, which is definitely bigger. Such stories upon stories, I feel, demand to be read with a support group. To be blunt about it, there are three main story arcs:

  • The Navidson Record, a documentary film that deals with the aforementioned house and the family that inhabits,
  • The story of Zampano, a writer who, upon his death, leaves behind the manuscript of an academic and critical study of The Navidson Record, and
  • The story of Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee who stumbles upon the aforementioned manuscript.

There are many references and parallelisms with the myth of the Minotaur and his labyrinth, which one might find really interesting. The Minotaur references are supposed to be not there, according to Johnny Truant, but even if the text about it were successfully removed, one would still detect them.

The narrative style depends on which text the reader is on. The Navidson Record reads like an expository report. It presents a lot of details that one might feel are irrelevant until the thesis is presented. An example is a discussion on the physics of sound. How fast does sound travel? How soon is an echo created? How far is the source of an echo once it reaches the ears? Once the formulas and the factors are presented, the reader, as a parent, will realize the horror of hearing his or her own children’s echoing voices, who are just playing at a seemingly nearby part of the house.

Additional story arcs are left for the readers for their own theories, which are best discussed with a support group. Although this book can be read alone like any other book, the urge to discuss this after is going to start aching, an ache that demands to be soothed with the balm of a book discussion.

The artistry of the text’s layout may strike the distrusting reader as gimmicky and pretentious, but this has its purpose. It serves as the cinematography of the book, creating images in the reader’s head and an illusion for the eyes. To illustrate, some text is cramped in a tight square at the center of the page, a square that gets smaller and smaller as the character crawls through a tunnel that gets smaller and smaller until he is squirming through it on his belly. This creates not only an illusory tunnel but a feeling akin to claustrophobia.

Another example is that as the characters get lost, the text runs on the top, bottom, or edges of the page, with footnotes jumping at each other, thus making the reader just as lost as the characters in this labyrinthine reading. One may dismiss it as drivel, but it does work.

The not Kindle-friendly design demands some skill from the publisher, but more skill is demanded from the author, Mark Z. Danielewski. It actually requires a different kind of talent and intellect to put together this seemingly mashed up pulp and let the reader make sense out of it. One is always on the lookout for any coded text, suspicious misspellings, or any winking clues that are left at various places. One wonders if this indeed is a début novel.

As if that task were not daunting yet challenging enough, there are the appendices, particularly The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters, which all seem to push the story further and shed a different light when the story is supposed to have ended. The truth is it all might not make any sense but the reader is still left wanting to untangle the reality from the fiction.

Perhaps the attempt to do so is the point of the book. My support group and I might not have the best theories, what with so many questions still left hanging in the air, but we are quite happy to at least have unspooled our own threads of thoughts.

I do not know anything about Art with a capital A. What I do know about is my art. Because it concerns me. I do not speak for others. So I do not speak for things which profess to speak for others. My art, however, speaks for me. It lights my way.

This is the art of reading this book. In the end, House of Leaves will continually be that horror book with the unconventional text layout, but one must not forget that at the core of it is the story of a couple, a couple named Will and Karen, trying to save their relationship as they delve so deep into their respective psychological houses, houses which reveal something about the guilt of success, the trauma of the past, the depression that is never suppressed, the fear that we don’t know exists, and the complexity of human nature.

[Read in June 2014.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[709 pages. Trade paperback. New.]
[Read with Kristel, Maria, and Monique.]

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

A Search for the Meaning of Life – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse (1927) tells the vacation of the Ramsays and their guests at the family’s summer house. There is really not much of plot summary to offer. It is two days divided by a decade concluding in a trip to the lighthouse. The absence of a surface plot is accounted by the rich interior lives of its characters: Lily Briscoe, Mr. Ramsay, and Mrs. Ramsay, the central character who held everyone together.

[Read in August 2011.]
[Reread in April and May 2014.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]

The characters are based on Virginia Woolf’s own parents. Woolf explained that she could not get over her mother who died when Woolf was thirteen. She set out to write this novel to lay down deep emotions, and this helped her to stop hearing and seeing her mother more often than not. In a particular perspective, it is an ode to her mother, but true to her original intentions, she wrote the novel with her ruminations on life and death.

A popular question discussed among the readers of this book is about its title. Why “To the Lighthouse”? Why not “The Lighthouse”? “To” implies a destination and a journey. Hence, “The Lighthouse” does not suffice because the novel is not merely about the place the characters will reach, which is a “tower, stark and straight” and “barred with black and white”. They embark on their own journeys in search for some meaning, some yearning, something that seems unattainable, like the lighthouse, always present in its nearly insurmountable distance.

The characters go through their respective journeys in the way that they know how, which depend on how they view life. Mr. Ramsay fears that all life is doomed to oblivion. Man may be able to work his way from A to Z. He may be able to produce the most illuminating scholarly works but even a stone would outlast his reputation. This frustrates him and explains most of his outbursts and the tensions among the family members, but there is Mrs. Ramsay, always there to offer the sympathy that he wants.

Mrs. Ramsay, however, does not care much for the future or for reputation. She values the present. She doesn’t want her children to grow old, she wants to make things as perfect as they are for the moment. She uses her gift in maintaining social harmony to meet this, to make moments last for as long as they could. She reads to her son James, she knits a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s son, and she does so, she is observed by their house guest, the painter Lily Briscoe.

Lily Briscoe struggles with her artistry and the social conventions clashing against each other. The voice of a man repeatedly saying “Women can’t paint, women can’t write” drones like a bad headache. As if that were not enough, she can’t translate the fleeting visions that occur to her to paint and canvas. This would recur through the novel as she ponders on the purpose of art, wonders if art can truly keep a moment, marvels at the beauty of Mrs. Ramsay, and asks The Big Question:

What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

An important section of the novel is Time Passes, the middle part that has all the ten years between the postponement of the lighthouse trip and the real trip. As opposed to first and last parts, both written with much detail on the consciousness of every character, Time Passes relates the years with a detachment that seems to say that the war, the lives, the deaths, everything in this world, are inconsequential. Time may stretch to great lengths during painting sessions, a lively dinner, or the moment before sleeping, but it may also compact everything the world has ever cared for in a matter of pages. This dual nature of time, clocking so fast or so slow, is portrayed in such lush language that it is impossible to not at least stop and think about your own ticking clock.

The journey for the little daily miracles in this novel is never a smooth sailing. Woolf’s expansive use of the stream of consciousness narrative, of which this novel is considered to be a landmark, threatens to deflect the reader from the flow of the characters’ thoughts. It is easy to go astray, to get lost, or to drown, but when the matches are struck, they are, you will see, such illuminations, such visions.

[198 pages. Trade paperback. New.]