Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Contemporary Series Part 3: A Thousand Splendid Suns

For this third segment in my mini-series, I am taking an even bolder step and adding Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) to my list of Classics.  It's just a baby in literature years, and I know many people might say that I am too quick to make this assessment.  Perhaps they're right, but there are many qualities in this book that I believe have made it earn its right to be in the list.

Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, has thus far received more attention than his second piece.  Because of its popularity, (and the Hollywood movie I refuse to watch), I acknowledge that The Kite Runner may be placed on a list of "Classic Literature" instead of A Thousand Splendid Suns.  However, I believe that the latter novel brings in great themes and elements that the first one lacks, surpassing it in literary genius.

One of the primary features in A Thousand Splendid Suns is that it focuses on two women.  This is particularly interesting because the author is a man, and male authors do not often create female protagonists.  Yet I feel that his presentation of women is not only fair, but it displays important, third-wave feminist principles.  The first principle it presents is that women are socially oppressed.  This is particularly clear in Afghanistan from a Western perspective, but the key here is that this is NOT a Western perspective!  Earlier feminist theory would suggest that Afghanistan was in need of taking on Western culture to fix its problem of inequality.  However, the Afghan culture is maintained throughout this novel, despite the problems it presents.  In my reader experience, I did not feel that it was a condemnation of Afghan culture, but a condemnation of mistreating others.  The characters' solution was not just escape from the country all together, for - SPOILER ALERT - they returned to it after the fall of the Taliban, and they rebuilt their identity within their own culture.

The second feminist principle I see in this book is the affirmation of female sexuality.  Hosseini allows the women to have both positive and negative feelings about sex.  It's not a glaring motif in the story, for the point is not to stir up the readers' sexual emotions, but it's nevertheless important to acknowledge women's feelings in this way.  One of the characters also repeatedly experiences the heartbreak of miscarriage, showing readers the emotion in this situation that is not often seen.  I find this presentation of women to be very validating and significant in the novel.

A third feminist principle I identify is the strength of women.  Mariam and Laila cannot be narrowed down simply to the classification of "victim."  It is not just an oppressor-victim relationship, because they have strengths and courage throughout the novel.  They cannot be confined to social gender roles because they have too many depths and layers to fit in them.  There are reasons their lives came to this point, and although it is not their fault, it is also not because they were just a weaker species that succumbed to the greater.  For me, this is a refreshing perspective.

And all this coming from a male author!

Once again, I got too wrapped up in one idea to talk about the story itself.  The writing is fluent and interesting.  And the plot is absolutely compelling.  I desperately tore threw the pages, searching for some redemption in a despairing story.  I couldn't sleep until I knew whether or not there was going to be any kind of happiness for these two highly lovable and yet extremely miserable women.  I won't reveal the answer to that one for you, because I think it would take away your experience as reader.  The drama in the story is that very question: Will justice prevail??  For all these reasons and more, I think A Thousand Splendid Suns deserves to join the list.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Contemporary Series Part 2: Midnight's Children

I am ready to step into my next piece of uncharted territory and assert that Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) ought to and one day will be considered a work of Classic Literature.  Certainly, this book has received much acclaim on its own and does not need my encouragement, but I do think it should be able to join the ranks of Classic Literature now.

Rushdie is a unique and talented Indian author who writes in English.  Midnight's Children is more of a story of India than the story of Saleem Sinai, the narrator.  The culture of India shines throughout the story, bringing out the traditions, sights, foods, and personality of the nation.  He even maintains an Indian influence in his distribution of "gifts" among Midnight's children, naming them after Indian gods and influences rather than Western ones. In addition to these cultural idiosyncrasies, Saleem offers a history of India after it gained its independence from Britain.  Nevertheless, all of this is inescapably presented through Saleem's perspective, which makes all of the "facts" and "histories" subjective.

Readers should be careful not to consider this subjectiveness a flaw, for I think it is one of Rushdie's primary, postmodern messages of the novel.  Midnight's Children is a story about the story - about the way our lives are shaped by narrative.  As Saleem narrates, he frequently interrupts his story and breaks into metanarrative, in which the act of narration itself becomes a story.  There are thus two stories in the novel - the story of Saleem's development and the story of Saleem and Padma, his faithful scribe.  The interaction between these stories is often amusing, and yet it illustrates the control that the narration-story has over the narrated-story.  The main story of the Midnight's children must stop when the narrator and scribe stop and is explicitly shaped by their will.

I've spent so much time talking about the culture and metanarrative, and yet I have not mentioned the creative and compelling nature of the story itself.  The plot of Midnight's Children follows Saleem, his family, and his friends over a number of years.  He discovers that everyone who was born on the day of India's independence has inherited a magical power of some sort, and Saleem can communicate with them all through his power of telepathy.  There are many poignant and emotional moments, which enables the readers to have a real connection with the fantastical story.  The writing style, characters, culture, and philosophy in this novel propel it into the realm of genius.  It offers so much to literature, and I recommend it to everyone.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Contemporary Series Part 1: Blood Meridian

I cannot believe I let so much time slip by between posts.  To make up for it, I want to begin a series of posts about contemporary novels.  In an earlier blog, I mentioned in the comments section that there are some contemporary novels that I think should and will be added to our list of "Classic Literature."  If we do not allow for this, Classic Literature is obsolescent and in danger of being forgotten and/or dismissed.  Great literature is still being produced today, and yet we tend to venerate only the novels written 100+ years ago as "Classic."  With time, some of the 20th century authors like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot have been added to the list, which is relatively recent.  However, there are some living authors whose works I think deserve to join the ranks of Classic Literature.

I want to start with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985).  McCarthy has a very distinctive style, which is both unusual and fascinating.  He does not adhere to traditional sentence structure or grammatical rules; much of his writing is composed in sentence fragments.  By cutting out excess words in this way, he leaves readers with pure description, enabling them to see, hear, and smell everything in the scene without distraction.

Blood Meridian is particularly notable for its graphic violence.  This book is not for the faint of heart, and I hesitate to blindly recommend it to all readers because it is so powerfully graphic.  Some of the scenes in the novel are almost unimaginably gruesome, and if I listed them off to you, you might be horrified.  However, the genius of this book is the juxtaposition of this kind of brutal violence with some of the most beautifully written prose I have ever read.  I read several passages of the novel out loud so I could hear the marvelous ebb and flow of the descriptive words and the rhythm it creates.  His writing is just breath-taking, and it almost feels like Romantic poetry.  And yet the subject of the description is often very raw and disturbing.  The balance he thus creates in Blood Meridian between these contrasts is extraordinarily commendable.

When I finished reading the novel, I was unsure how I felt about it.  How could I use the words, "I liked it," to describe a story so brutal and heart-wrenching?  During my reading, I wasn't smiling or chuckling, nor was I wishing I could be a part of the story with the characters.  I don't plan on rereading this one over and over, nor can I even bring myself to list it as one of my favorite books of all time.  Yet I was undeniably moved.  McCarthy brought me to experience this unsettling contrast with emotions and thoughts I've never entertained.    For all of these reasons - its uniqueness, its brilliance, its disturbing content - I think Blood Meridian should definitely be considered a work of Classic Literature.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this novel.  I can imagine that it would produce different experiences for everyone.  If you are interested in reading more about this book, The Literate Man has a great review of it, which you can find here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Catch 22

I decided I should toss my catchy titles for the sake of readability.  I'm probably the only one who cared about coming up with a clever headline, and it will be easier for you guys to find the different books if you can click right on their titles.  So sorry to take away the suspense, but this entry is about Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

I want to talk about a very simple concept in reading this book because once I grasped it, my whole perspective on the novel changed.  When I started reading it, I had no prior knowledge of the book except for a generic understanding of the way in which popular culture has coined the title phrase.  I didn't read it for a class or with a friend, so I had to process it on my own, which is never ideal.  To be honest, I had trouble getting through it.  I found it funny, of course, and often chuckled at the unique writing style and ridiculous situations.  It was my first real exposure to this idea of "black comedy" and I found it poignant and interesting.  However, there was no driving plot that kept me turning the pages.  At the end of the chapter, it was easy for me to set the book down and forget about it for a while.  This frustrated me because I found myself progressing through the book very slowly even though I enjoyed the writing style.  Sadly, this effect made me think less of the book and resist admiring it as one of the great classics.

But not anymore!!  I was studying the genre of Short Story Cycles when it suddenly dawned on me that Catch 22 makes much more sense as a short story cycle than a novel.  Each chapter is a short story, a complete subunit on its own.  You can read the chapter without reading any of the others and understand what happened.  The characters are frequently introduced, and each chapter takes turns highlighting another person.  There is not a clear sense of chronological progression, for sometimes it seems to backtrack and return to a character who has already left the plot.  When the chapter ends, it reaches a feeling of conclusion, which is why I was able to set it down for a while without that urge to keep going.  However, there are a number of returning themes in all of them.

Yossarian is the strongest common thread among them.  The story subtly centers around him, showcasing his friends and fellow soldiers in their interaction with him.  The concept of "Catch 22" also appears in several of the stories, bring unity and black humor to the pieces of the book.  There is also a list of returning characters whose stories we learn more about bit by bit.  The way a short story cycle works is that each story can be read on its own, but when you read them all together, you gain a much greater appreciation for the text as a whole.  Each story reveals something of another one without depending one another.  It's a cycle rather than a series, so they can be read in any order and still make sense.  Then when you read them together, you get a fresh understanding of each part and discover some recurring ideas and messages.  Once I viewed Catch 22 in this way, I suddenly had great admiration for the book.  In fact, it's one of the best short story cycles I've read because the overarching bond of the stories is so strong, it disguises as a novel.  But since each chapter intentionally acts as a unit, there is not necessarily supposed to be a pushing, driving plot running through them all.  If I don't expect there to be a novel plot-like feeling, then I can't get frustrated for the lack of one.

So I urge you to try it.  Pick five chapters of the book at random and see if they make sense on their own.  Read the stories out of order and see if they reveal more to you in that way.  They interact with each other in a twisting, complicated, and brilliant way.  I haven't found other scholars classifying Catch 22 in this way, but I think it is an important distinction in interpreting and interacting with this book.  And even if no one else agrees with me, this interpretation has helped me appreciate this great classic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Great Russian Authors, 19th Century

One of my readers requested that I make a list of whom I consider to be the most influential Russian authors of the 19th century.  So here goes!

1. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
 This one almost goes without saying.  I've made it clear that I think he is a brilliant, influential, and significant figure in all of literary history, let alone that of Russia.  You can read about my thoughts on Crime and Punishment here.

2. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
It is undeniable that Tolstoy is an incredibly significant figure in Russian literature.  He writes on an epic scale, with beautifully crafted language.  He was one of the most important figures on an international stage.  However, at the risk of offending the Russians who love him, I feel that Tolstoy is a bit more British in his style than Russian, which is a noticeable loss of flavor for me.  I added an entry about Anna Karenina here.

3.Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
Although it is not my personal favorite, Eugene Onegin by Pushkin is undeniably an incredibly significant piece of Russian literature.  With this work, he launched Russian writing to a public spectacle and began a brilliant tradition.  He has been crystallized in Russian memory forever as a literary hero.  Even today, almost every Russian student has read Eugene Onegin and many have memorized it.

4. Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)
Primarily a poet, Lermontov produced just one novel - A Hero of Our Time, which I discuss here.  He was the first major author to emerge on the scene after Pushkin, and his themes inspired dozens of writers who followed him.  He brilliantly introduced a psychological dimension in his characters that sparked a literary movement. (I had to add him after a suggestion by Ingrid from The Blue Bookcase).

5. Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)
I am a big fan of Gogol, as you can see in my previous entry about Dead Souls here.  He captures what became an iconic writing style of wit, satire, and meaning early on in the literary tradition.  Don't miss out on Gogol!

6. Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)
An outspoken fan of Gogol, Turgenev is an appropriate author to list next.  He immigrated to Europe, so his novels reached an international stage as well.  His book Fathers and Sons is often recognized on lists of popular "classics," although I feel that he too is missing a little bit of the iconic Russian flavor.

7. Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891)
Goncharov, on the other hand, absolutely embodies the Russian style.  His book Oblomov was highly popular in Russia, but it may not capture Western audiences.  In effect, it is the story of a man who never gets off the couch.  How can an entire novel revolve around this small idea?  Read Goncharov to find out.  It is full of the Russian sense of humor and narration, in which the plot itself is not the main focus.  You can read more about Oblomov here.

8. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
I cannot list important Russian authors in the 19th century without Chekhov, even though I wasn't a huge fan of his writing.  He wrote plays and short stories almost exclusively, which I feel lack some of the depth of the novels of the time.  However, the Russians loved him and he was quite popular and influential in this era.

I have merely covered the authors I consider to be the most influential in the 19th century only.  There is a great list of Russian authors during the Soviet Era as well as other times. Let me know if you think I missed anyone significant!  I would love to add another to my repertoire.