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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

May Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

This 1999 second novel by American writer Janet Fitch is a moving coming-of-age tale of a young girl growing up in the American foster care system. Astrid is only twelve years old when her mother, famed poet Ingrid Magnussen, is imprisoned for murder, and the excitement, adventure, and courage which had heretofore bound the mother-daughter duo and maintained the momentum which had carried them across the world, abruptly comes to an end. Thrust into the foster care system, her contact with her mother limited to infrequent letters, Astrid is shuffled from home to home, seeking a semblance of familial normalcy but fated never to find it. Her first family, though seeming to promise hope at the beginning, ends with a predatory affair and violent exchange, which puts Astrid in the hospital and soon into a new home. Her second family treats her like a servant, and just when she befriends the next-door neighbor, they send her off to a new family, this time a scam artist who runs a home for girls but who deprives them of food and subjects them to emotional abuse. After managing to escape, Astrid is taken in by a former actress and her workaholic husband, whose irreparable marital issues foment a tragic event, which then propels Astrid into MacLaren’s Children Center, a facility tantamount to juvenile detention. But is here that Astrid, now 17 years old, meets a boy named Paul, and suddenly a breath of hope is blown back in Astrid’s life. But after the two are separated, sent to different homes, it seems their brief relationship has come to an end. Meanwhile, Ingrid may be getting out of prison, and Astrid is forced into a difficult decision, one to finally punctuate a childhood and adolescence founded on nothing but inescapable difficulty.

The novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club the year of its publication, and it was also adapted to film three years later. I read it over the course of a week, and the entire time I wavered between finish/don’t finish/finish/don’t finish. For me, there was an ambivalent edge in the novel created by the tension between content and form: the content, Astrid’s story, was compelling, and each chapter seemed to end, more or less, on a cliffhanger, enticing me to keep going; but the form, the writing itself, was completely underwhelming, bland, at times even corny. Surely, I’ve become jaded over the years, having had many similar reading experiences. I think I would’ve greatly enjoyed this novel when I was in middle school or high school, but reading it now in my late twenties, it definitely does not hit as hard I think it would have back then. But interestingly, while reading this novel, various chapters and scenes reminded me of many other novels, more recent ones of the 2010’s; books like A Little Life, My Dark Vanessa, Shuggie Bain, even Sally Rooney’s work. I think White Oleander is a staple in the long literary tradition of stories about growing up in awful circumstances, grappling with a dysfunctional, often abusive family (or families), coming to grips with one’s own identity, especially amid a callous, cold, indifferent world. And yet, beneath the pain and heartache, there’s usually a subtle yet ever-present note of hope, of love, of resilience. Such was the case with this one. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been more indifferent about a book, nor felt that one was too long for what it contained. And spanning nearly 450 pages, White Oleander falls into that category for me. I still love the cover though.

The Victim by Saul Bellow

This 1947 second novel by American novelist and short story writer Saul Bellow is a darkly comedic exploration into the nature of responsibility and the inevitability of victimhood Set in early twentieth century Chicago, the novel follows Asa Leventhal, a middle-aged copy editor whose tendency to over rely on his wife Mary to take care of him comes to light as she’s away for a few weeks. Asa finds himself wracked with unexpected obligations left and right: his boss is down his back about a new issue; suddenly, his nephew gets sick and, though his brother is out of town, Asa’s dramatic sister-in-law has roped him into the matter, adding unwanted stress to his life. But quickly, obligations give way to downright challenges and confrontations. One evening, Asa, while crossing through a park, is accosted by a man who accuses Asa of ruining his life. The man is Kirby Allbee, an old acquaintance of Asa’s, whose devolution into destitution and desperation, a grand and orchestrated set of events, he claims Asa has indeed fomented. Denial, disregard, and dismissal comprise Asa’s immediate reaction to this accusation, but as Kirby, unrelenting in his persistence, outlines the series of events which have led to the present, Asa is forced to confront his own insecurities, guilt, and the implications of his actions – all things which heretofore had never crossed his mind. What follows is a story of unlikely, perhaps undeserved redemption, one which reexamines the aspects of life that time weathers into routine, reliance, and disrepute.

This one was great follow-up to Bellow’s Seize the Day which I read last year and was my introduction to Bellow’s long list of work. And though I’d say that I enjoyed the other more than this one, The Victim was still a great, short novel with a lot packed into it. It’s a book about struggling and responsibility, cast through an antihero-like, disinterested, lackadaisical lead who, with each new turn of events, seeks out every opportunity not to rise to the occasion. Understanding why that is, is at the very heart of the novel, and spoiler alert, it is never truly revealed. Instead, what the reader gets is the forceful, uncomfortable push into overcoming those impulses to remain idle, still, stagnant, and taking on the responsibilities which fear has elevated into an aversion. It’s a story about breaking free from ennui, discontent, listlessness, however through means which are less than savory. Too, Leventhal is man of constant contradictions: he’s torn between his desire for redemption and his propensity for self-destruction. And it’s through this clash of forces that an elaborate allegory of the American Dream may be gleaned. For Leventhal, material success and routine breed hollowness and boredom, and despite that, it’s still what he yearns for. There’s an existential acquiescence at the heart of this novel–an inherently American one, at that–which sends the reader into ponderance of their own life, happiness, and values. I think I said this about Seize the Day as well, but The Victim would make a great assigned read for a college English class; lots of bang for your buck.

Marry Me: A Romance by John Updike

This 1976 ninth novel by American writer John Updike strips away the veil of convention, contentedness, and complaisance which mark the lives of two married couples to reveal an entangled web of love affairs which at once strain the ethics of marriage and unearth the capricious nature of love. Set in the affluent New England suburbs during the Sixties, the novel follows Jerry and Ruth Conant, and Richard and Sally Mathias. The story is simple: Jerry Conant and Sally Mathias are having an affair and have been for a long time now, so long in fact, that their once physical-driven dalliances have since bloomed into an intimacy which has replaced the love each feels for their respective spouse. Jerry, an overzealous, over-pious, possessive and insecure thirty-year-old is married to Ruth, the benign but keen, comely, and attentive mother of their three young children, who deeply loves Jerry but is not oblivious to his obvious pulling-away. Sally is a whimsical, melodramatic romanticist whose immense impulsivity, and insecurity, she shares with her married lover. And, Richard, Sally’s husband, the pompous, arrogant, yet still gregarious despite his myopic point of view, remains in the dark all the while. What ensues is how the two lovers decide to handle their dilemma, and in the most trademark Updike style, both seem fated to make the wrong decisions, say the wrong words, do the wrong things, at each and every turn, snowballing the narrative into a grand adulterous mess of not simply tangled relations but tangled morals too.

The novel often gets lumped together with Updike’s longer Couples, which I read last November and absolutely loved. It’s certainly easy to see why: both novels revolve around the same conflicts, though one involves five times the amount characters as the other. However, while Couples is surely the more ambitious, the more consuming and sweeping (and, for me, the better) novel, Marry Me: A Romance was a wonderful reentry into the work of a master. Granted the space and length of a 300-page novel, focusing on fewer character struggling with no fewer issues than those in Couples, allows Updike, and subsequently the reader, to probe deeper into the intricacies of relationships, love, affairs, and marriage, especially when children are complicating factor. Updike, in his signature prose replete with extraordinary, bigger-than-life metaphors, acerbic wit, impelling and impaling dialogue, and wonderful italicized call-backs, draws the reader into a world which many are already familiar, either through personal experience with love or having witnessed the relationship of their parents during childhood. One walks on charted terrain, but soon the grounds become muddled, abraded, corroded, and beneath the loam of happiness and normalcy, one finds layers and layers of heartache, complexity, and regret. Few writers can do what Updike can so seemingly with ease: to untangle that knot tied on one’s wedding day, and not simply let the loose ends of love dangle but strip them into their tattered threads. And he does it beautifully, evocatively, and masterfully. For those hesitating to read Couples, start with Marry Me: A Romance; it’s sure to fuel the fire.

His Name was Death by Rafael Bernal

This 1947 second novel by Mexican novelist, journalist, and diplomat Rafael Bernal blends eco-fiction, sci-fi, and nihilism into a nightmarish allegory of colonialism, power, and impending earthly demise. An unnamed narrator writes his memoirs from his deathbed, documenting how, at forty years old, his disenfranchisement and utter disdain towards humanity drove him deep into the Mexican jungles, alone, to live out the rest of his days in solitude. Living in a makeshift hut along a riverbank, the man eventually encounters, and befriends, the Lacandon natives in whose primitive eyes our antihero is nothing short of a god. But peace eludes the man; mosquitos torment him day in and day out, their buzzing worse than their bites, slowly driving him insane. However, our narrator discovers that their buzzing is not random nor meaningless, that the mosquitos in fact have a language of their own, and by a painstaking process spanning multiple years, our antihero learns their language and begins communicating with the mosquitos using a wooden flute fashioned by one of the Lacandon tribesmen. A major step in insect-human communication, our narrator learns that the mosquitos, billions upon billions the world over, are as, if not more, sophisticated as humans: they have an intricate civilization, with have a system of government replete with tiers and castes defined by designated working roles, with the Supreme Council governing all. It quickly becomes evident that the mosquitos, under the direction of the Supreme Council, have amassed astronomical zoonotic power, and now that they leaders have an ambassador to his species, they propose an ultimatum: repent for millennia of subjugation wrought against our kind or face worldwide extermination. What unfolds is nothing short of a thrilling, chilling, darkly comedic, and fast-paced tale of a sinister inter-species standoff.

This novel is a thunderstorm in 150 pages. When I first opened it and started, I read seventy pages in one sitting, and then finished the rest the next day; I truly could not put it down. With 22 short-spanning chapters, written in brief, stark, yet brilliant prose–doubtless a testament to translator Kit Schuler–the pages turned themselves, I sat back and let the unbearably humid, deathly drenched, itch-inducing, viscid textually tactile atmosphere totally consume me, delighting in every minute of it. And the plot of the novel, insanely exciting and imaginative in its own right, is but a fraction of the rest. The surface simplicity and heady haste of the novel belies its thematic depths: below the active commentary on colonialism, salient in the plotline involving the anthropologists who slowly encroach upon the Lacandon peoples and the narrator, threatening to stain the pristine waters of their long-standing habitat, resides a sly critique of the narrator himself, who, despite spurning the inevitable barbarism of civilization which initially drove him into the jungle, in turn inevitably succumbs to it and wreaks his power-hunger towards the very people he vowed never to harm. It is the fall of man, not at the behest of the mosquitos, but of himself that, for me, propelled the short book into the greater echelons of literary brilliance. It is a masterwork, a novel teeming with imagination, intelligence, and iniquity, and one which I would recommend to anyone seeking a fast-paced, twisting narrative easily conquerable in a single afternoon.

The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

This 1960 second and final novel by American novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor is a dark tale of family, fate, and that centuries-old, time-honored holy sacrament which all devotees of the Catholic faith must at some point undertake: baptism. Set in the American South in the first half of the twentieth century, the death of Mason Tarwater, great-uncle to the fourteen-year-old Francis Tarwater, inaugurates the journey which the young boy must undertake: to fulfill his great-uncle’s spoken prophecy that the boy, blessed by the Lord, will rise into his bestowed role as a prophet to God and spread the word of Christ. But Francis’s fate is thwarted when his Uncle Rayber, a secular schoolteacher, attains custody of the boy. Rayber, who has a young boy of his own, Bishop, seeks to undo Francis’s religious upbringing, to cure him of the indoctrination impelled against him by Mason. However, such a feat proves harder than he believes. Francis spurns Rayber’s repeated attempts to connect with the boy, fueling first frustration, soon full-on fury, especially as Francis’s one goal is to baptize young Bishop, an act which Rayber vows to prevent from happening. As tensions rise, relationships strain–familial, as well as spiritual–what unfolds is a story that, like her first novel, sets forth a grand meditation on the fate, faith, and the inevitability of belief, in turn exemplifying the Southern Gothic tradition in all its heartache, violence, and grotesquerie.

Wise Blood, O’Connor’s first novel, was one of my favorite reads of last year, and when I began this one, her second and final novel, I held Wise Blood up as my favorite O’Connor work. But after reading The Violent Bear It Away, devouring its pages, seeing symbols, catching motifs, lingering on single words and realizing the depth and strength within it, now I’m lost in that wonderful void of ambivalence as to which I may favor, because, damn, this was seriously a novel. It's O’Connor at her best: stark, illuminating prose; lots of dialogue; natural descriptions that send a reader into reverie. And, as was the case with Wise Blood, the novel truly explodes with meaning. Firstly, Christian allusions abound across the text: from the overt Jonah and the Whale, and Elijah and Elisha references, to the more subtle images of multiplied bread loaves and fish–literary tilts towards the Feeding of the Multitude parables of the Synoptic Gospels, which, hiding in plain sight, carry worlds of meaning. Phrases like “the bread of life” and “over-leavened bread” spring up as often as the descriptor “fish-colored,” and behind such instances hide images of fire and water, further manifested in the forms of arson and immolation, baptism and drowning, and many more throughout the text. Moreover, regarding the fish and water images, I couldn’t help but compare Tarwater himself to a fish caught on a line, slowly being drawn towards his destiny despite his thrashing attempts to unhook himself. Such may be a reason why he seems always in a state of flight: he is constantly walking, running, or riding, continuously, yet, in a beautiful conjunction to the textual structure of the novel, Tarwater ends up just where he began, in Powderhead, Tennessee, unable to escape his upbringing, his prophecy, and coming full circle to yoke together the alpha and the omega of his fate. Other dualistic themes like hunger and thirst, silence and noise, victory and defeat, run rampant throughout the novel, weaving through one another in a tapestry at once invoking religiosity, as was O’Connor was wont to do, and also the clash of the external and internal, the fuel which spurs feet into action, and action into mistake. And the fact that O’Connor sprinkles such symbolic detail so casually that, unless one is looking for it, the reader is liable to pass over, elevates the work into a new light. It is a work which stokes no mere interpretation, but anagogy; it demands to be read mystically and mythically and must be so.

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