Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Lost Poets Society

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano starts off with a young poet, Juan Garcia Madero, who is trying to become a part of a group of more established poets, the Visceral Realists.  The Visceral Realists want to change the course of Mexican poetry, and are full of idealistic visions.  Saying that the Visceral Realists are "more established" may be giving them more credit than they are due.  Most of them are published, but they are published in a magazine that they put out themselves.  There are other poets in Mexico at the time who are better known, who the Realists are rebelling against. 

The arbiters of the Visceral Realists in the 1970s were Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.  Lima and Belano decided who would be published and who would not; who was allowed to call himself a Visceral Realist, and who was not.  There was an aura of mystery that surrounded Lima and Belano, so that even the other Realists didn't know what they were up to.

On New Years Eve, Lima, Belano, Madero and a prostitute named Lupe, were held hostage in a friend's house by Lupe's pimp.  They take the friend's Impala, make a break for it, and leave Mexico City.  While they are on the run, they try to track down a Visceral Realist from the 1920's who they have heard of but don't know anything about, Cesarea Tinajero. 

This search is what The Savage Detectives is superficially about, with Belano and Lima serving as the savage detectives and Tinajero being the poet they are searching for.   At first, we are reading Madero's journal, and hearing the story only from his point of view.  After the Impala rolls out of Mexico City, we don't hear from Madero again, making him a second missing poet.  From that point forward, the story is all about Belano and Lima, as told in a series of interviews.  It is clear that whoever is conducting these interviews is searching for Belano and Lima (now the third and fourth missing poets), and is serving as another savage detective.

What Bolano conveys so well in The Savage Detectives is the optimism and self importance of people in their early 20s.  The attitude is that surely poetry can change the world, and obviously, the Visceral Realists are the poets who will write it.  As their contemporaries look back on the 20 year old Lima and Belano from their 30s and 40s, they speak not with nostalgia, but with a sort of impatient irritation mixed with a little awe.

When I bought The Savage Detectives back in 2011, I commented on the strange things that I found between the pages.  Specifically, I found a metro ticket from Paris, a peso conversion receipt, and a Chilean currency conversion chart.  At the time, I wondered whether the person who left the things in the book just had sloppy habits and left the items accidentally, if they left the items to brag about where they had been, or if the items had some relevance to the story.  After reading, I would say that they do have some tangential relevance.  The reader never needs to be able to convert pesos to other currencies, but all of the items were from places the characters visit or are from.  Now I also wonder if the items were left by only one reader, or whether several people had read the book, and each left a token.  I like that idea best.  My husband recently went to Spain, so I am going to insert a business card from a restaurant that he liked, and re-donate the book back to my library for its next sale.  If you happen to buy my copy, I hope you'll continue the practice.

At 648 pages, I'm calling The Savage Detectives a Big Fat Book.  I would recommend reading it on Kindle, so that you can search for names as they come up.  Bolano deliberately tries to confuse the reader by giving characters similar names, and I am sure that there are many connections that I missed which I would have found if I could have searched for them more easily.  The Savage Detectives was a NYT Notable Book for 2007.  It is also one that I read for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next up:  What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Still Listening to:  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Typical Book Group Report - 11

Last year, when The Typical Book Group met in March, we sat outside and enjoyed the 85 degree weather.  This year, we sat inside while it snowed, but at least we drank Mai Tais and talked about Hawaii.

This week, seven of us got together to talk about The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings.  Six of us read the book, and four of us saw the movie.  We spent a lot of time talking about how the two differed.  I didn't see the movie, but most of the people who did felt that the characters were better developed in the book.  Apparently the relationship between Sid, the daughter's boy friend, and Matt, the dad, makes more sense in the book than it does in the movie.

There were a lot of interesting pieces of this story that could be interpreted in different ways.  As a result, The Descendants is a good book for a book group to discuss.  It's still not my favorite, but I liked it a lot more after talking it over.

Next month we'll read What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.

Half Time Report:  I'm about half way through The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.  Going into the book, I had the impression that it was the story of two poets, acting as detectives, and looking for a missing poet.  At the mid point, I think that I have four lost poets, and I'm not sure who the detective or detectives is or are.  Am I the one who is lost?  I'm not sure.  I went so far as to pull out Nicole Krauss' book, Great House last night when one of Bolano's poets went to Israel, because it felt like the two authors had some strangely overlapping characters.  I think that's not the case, but I'll keep reading to find out.  There's something about Bolano's tone in this book that I am really liking.

Still Listening to:  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Nothing I Do Better Than Revenge

I'll put it out there:  Junot Diaz is now the Taylor Swift of literature.  Taylor is said to date a lot of boys, so that they can dump her, so that she will have something to write her hit songs about.   Junot Diaz' main character gets dumped so many times in his book of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, that Diaz is worthy of the same reputation.  Of course, his little ditties are a lot dirtier than Taylor's.

In the nine stories of Lose Her, Diaz revives his character, Yunior, from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Yunior tells the tales of his sexcapades, in a way that somehow becomes literature.  While I found the use of Dominican words without translations really annoying in Oscar Wao, the Dominican in Lose Her is not as bothersome.  Maybe I've just warmed up to him. 

I listened to Lose Her on audio book.  Diaz read it himself, and his voice for Yunior was perfect.  I loved how he talked about his "boys", and how his pauses and pronunciations gave another meaning to the plain words.  There was only one story where Diaz read as a woman, "Otravida, Otravez".  At first he sounded self conscious. When another character accused the first of sounding like a man, I wondered if the book really included those words (it does) or if Diaz said it to explain his discomfort.  By the time the story was finished I thought that his voice for this character was also just right.

After listening to the audio book, I checked the real thing out of the library.  Looking at it, I am really glad that I listened instead.  Diaz chose not to use quotation marks, and without them I found the characters' voices harder to imagine, even after hearing them.  There's something about Diaz' telling of Yunior's sexual conquests that makes them charming or at least excusable.  Reading the same stories on paper made me realize that I don't want my son, or my dad for that matter, to read this book.

The stories included lots of  sex and breakups, an affair with a high school teacher, a story of a woman trying to ignore the fact that her boyfriend has a wife in the Dominican Republic, a story of a brother dying of cancer, and the most-likely-to-be-mostly-true story of Diaz's five year attempt to get over his ex. 

There were a ton of great quotes.  Here are two of my favorites:

". . . arms that are so skinny that they belong on an after-school special." from "Alma"

"Both of you are smiling.  Both of you blinked."  from "Miss Lora"

It doesn't make for a great quote, but I also loved this from "The Cheater's Guide to Love".  The Dominican tough guy, Yunior, says about his "boy", Elvis, "He's going to yoga five times a week now, is in the best shape of his life, while you [Yunior] on the other hand have to buy bigger jeans instead."

When Yunior wonders why all of his ex girlfriends are sending him invitations to their weddings, Elvis' wife explains that it is because living well is the best revenge, and they want to show that they are over him.  In the end, Yunior finds his own way to live well, even if it is his ex who deserves the revenge.

It is hard not to think that Yunior is a thinly veiled Junot Diaz.  But then, I had to wonder if Yunior wasn't like a superhero version of him instead.  It was sort of funny to imagine Diaz with no swagger; a guy who can't get laid even with a Pulitzer.  Somehow that seems unlikely.

This is How You Lose Her was a NYT Notable for 2012.

Next up on CD:  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  My ears need some cleansing after all of Diaz' b*tches and ho's!

Still reading:  The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

POSTSCRIPT - August 15, 2013.  I admit it - I deleted a quote from above.  Normally I don't edit my posts after they have been published, except to correct  typos or misspellings.  But tonight, while I was paying bills I had the TV on in the background, and I heard the quote that I deleted come out of Charlie Sheen's mouth on Two and a Half Men, a show that I never watch.  That Charlie Sheen's character said the words that I thought Yunior was clever for saying caused me to rethink my impressions of the book.  Yes, Yunior is supposed to be a sexist jerk.  But if I wouldn't watch Two and a Half Men because of the outrageous sexism and dumb humor, why would I praise the same behavior in a book?  Still thinking about that one.  It also makes Diaz seem unoriginal.  Sheen was fired from Two and a Half Men in March of 2011, and This is How You Lose Her wasn't released until September of 2012.  In Diaz' defense, he said that the quote was an old saying, but still.  Come up with something new.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Unbelieveably True

So, if you were a publisher, and someone pitched you a novel about a boy who was smoking cigarettes at age 5, competing as an Olympic runner at 20, a World War II war hero before he was 30, and a downhill skier in his 90s, how fast would that manuscript hit your circular file?  My guess is immediately.  It just isn't believable.  But, in this case, it's true. 

Unbroken:  A World War II Story of  Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand is the biography of Louis Zamperini.  And yes, Louie did all of those things, and many, many more.  Louie first became famous when he was a part of the US Olympic team that went to Berlin in 1936.  Another member of that team who Louie befriended was Jesse Owens.  Although Louie didn't medal, he set a new American record. 

When World War II started, Louie considered himself lucky to get stationed in Hawaii.  He was a member of a B-24 flight crew that quickly gained recognition of one of the best crews in the air.    Since this is on the book's cover, I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that Louie's plane went down, and he and other members of the crew found themselves floating in the Pacific Ocean, battling sharks, starvation and enemy fighter planes.  What happens after that is just as unbelievable and amazing as Louie's life up to that point.

While I've read a lot about World War II, almost all of my reading has focused on the European part of the war or the Holocaust.  Only Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris addressed the Japanese.  When I read Scarlet Leaves, I thought that McMorris may have been mentioning some of the worst things that were supposed to have happened to prisoners in Japan.  Hillenbrand reported many more atrocities, and has the documentation to support her claims, giving credibility to her story and McMorris'.  In fact, McMorris sites Louie's autobiography as one of her sources.

There was so much that I learned about World War II that I somehow never knew before.  I never knew why Japan attacked Hawaii, seemingly out of the blue.  Hillenbrand explains that on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese also attacked other countries all throughout the Pacific, in an attempt to gain control of the Pacific, and if that went well, all of Asia.  I had no idea that 37% of American prisoners of war who were held in Japan died in captivity, compared to only 1% of those held in Germany.  And I was shocked to learn that the Japanese charged with war crimes were granted amnesty and released from prison less than 10 years after being sentenced, as part of an American political plan to make an ally of Japan.

This was the best biography that I have ever read.  Part of what made it so good was that all of the information is so detailed.  I've always heard that people who survive a war hate to talk about it, but in Louie's case, because he was famous going into the war, he was giving interviews before he even returned to the US.  Hillenbrand spent 7 years researching the book, and interviewed Louie 75 times.  Although there are footnotes throughout the paper version of the book, as an audio book listener, I appreciated not having those read to me.  For the most part, the footnotes are documenting sources, and not providing additional information, so I don't feel like I missed anything by not hearing them.  A good reason to read the book instead of listening, however, is that Hillenbrand includes tons of pictures in the paper version. 

If you have any interest at all in World War II, Unbroken is a Must Read.

One more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up on CD:  This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Still Reading:  The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Party Crashers

While the Torrington-Swift family was in the midst of preparing for the daughter, Emerald's, birthday party, they got quite a shock.  There had been a train crash on a branch line near their isolated old mansion in the English countryside, and the survivors were walking to the family home for shelter.   Thus the title of Sadie Jones' novel, The Uninvited Guests.

There is one uninvited guest who stands out from the others, and who works to ingratiate himself with his hosts.  This survivor, Charlie Traversham-Beechers, seems to have some relationship with Emerald's mother, Charlotte, which Charlotte is not eager to explain.  As time goes on, the Torrington-Swifts begin to think that there is something strange and a little frightening about the uninvited guests, and Charlie Traversham-Beechers in particular.

The Uninvited Guests is a ghost story, set in a crumbling estate in 1912.  The Torrington-Swifts are in danger of losing the home, and can no longer afford to heat a whole wing of it.  There are three children in the family, Clovis, Emerald and Imogene, who is more often referred to as "Smudge".  The guests who are actually invited to the party include Emerald's friend, Patience, Patience's suddenly handsome brother, Ernest, and a wealthy neighbor who seems to be interested in Emerald, John.

When I first read of the train crash on the local line, and the passengers needing a place to stay, I thought of Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, where the travelers found shelter in the Lake of the Coheeries when their train broke down.  In The Uninvited Guests, Jones worked to create the mystical, other worldly feel of  Winter's Tale, but the story was going in so many directions, that it didn't really work.  Why the kitten?  Why the pony?  Why the paternity question? Why, while we are at it, did we need an unused wing of the house?

If you are interested in reading a ghost story set in an old mansion, I would recommend that you try The Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters or Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  If you read and loved all of those and still want more, then give The Uninvited Guests a try.

Next Up:  The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

Still Listening to:  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
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