this is my space to review the books i'm reading. and basicly to show off my extensive knowlege of literature and elitism founded there on.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What is the What - Dave Eggers

This book was amazing. Now anyone who knows me is not suprissed by this declaration. Mr. Eggers could spit on a piece of notebook paper and I would think it was one of the most stunning thing ever written. With my initial declaration aside I will defend my position (though there are those out there who have already made the inverse opinion of Mr. Eggers and who find him to be pretentious and obnoxious, I don't entirely disagree, I just find that I have a certain appetite for his brand of literary neurosis) so on to the novel it's self.
as you may have read elsewhere this is a fictionalized (though I feel not so much in content as in arrangement and wording of it) account of one of the "lost boys" of Sudan. It follows his sojourn as one of the many unaccompanied boys fleeing Sudan's civil war and his experiences in the various refuge camps. It also, though to a lesser degree, follows his experiences in the US, both positive and negative. I'm going to critique the two elements separately, first and much more briefly the content, and second the style and structure, in an effort to separate the contributions of the subject and the author.
first of the subject Valentino Achak Deng, his story is one that could definitely be called harrowing. His experiences as a victim of the Sudanese civil war are heartbreaking. Both because of the terrible things that happen to him and because of the lack of control he has on his situation. Both sides of the civil war raging around him seam to take things from him and add to his struggles while claiming to be either fighting for him or to be his governmental protector. His and the rest of the boys long trip is filled with starvation, death, and uncertainty and a host of other tortures. But one of the things that make this story even more interesting is the small moments of fun and happiness that Valentino is afforded, it turns this from an overwhelmingly depressing tale to one where even in the face of grulling struggle we can see a few of the familiar joys of childhood, adding a small lining of hope onto what could other whise be a tale of almost complete despair.
as for Mr. Eggers treatment of the story. I think he takes the elements of Vaentino's story and arranges them quite effectively. The majority of the story is told as a silent declaration to the people in Valenitno's life in Atlanta. The initial encounter in the book is of Achak being robbed, and while bound on the floor with a child guarding him, he starts to tell us his story. He tries to absolve the criminals and later the unaware and unhelpful by telling them that they would not add to his suffering if they knew what he had seen. This format really works to combine the two deferent stories, the trials in Sudan and experiences in the US. It weaves together the tragic journey with the struggle to make something of it here, with meeting and committees and phone calls and organizations. Also Mr. Eggers does a great job of hillighting those small moments of Achak's childhood that weren't terrible, he shows us that beneath the awful treatment there were still moments where things were possable, a feeling that makes the struggle less tortures.
I feel like this is the book that he was trying to write when he wrote "You Shall Know Our velocity" but didn't have the plot for. A work to both apologize to the world for being as well of as he is and a way to try and take that liberal guilt and make something of it. But with this book he not only has the desire to but also the story, something that makes this book work as both a great work of fiction and as a vital work of journalism. Rather a nifty post-modern trick.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem

i really enjoyed this book. the writing style is amazing, he uses very creative metaphors and his use of point of view is very skillful. he can bounce from following the main character to a beautify detached and poetic voice following the two fathers in the story or one of the other boys. the story follows a boy named Dylan (yes named after that Dylan) growing up in the 70 in a less then nice section of Brooklyn (one not that far from where i live now, and on that is much more upscale then it was back in the 70s). we also see his relationships with his father and the other kids in his neighborhood most of whom are black or Hispanic, there is also the relationship between him and his father a very emotionally distant artist and his vanished mother. the most important relationship and the one that is the driving force of the book is the relationship with the half-black son of the former soul singer who moves in on his block near the beginning of the novel, Mingus Rude. these two boys have a relationship that transcends the black/white border in a time when that was a real challenge and is Dylan's most important relationship with anyone in his life.
what i like is that the three boys that Dylan interacts with the most are really good symbols for groups of people without becoming stereotypes or caricatures. they also remind me a lot of the people i knew growing up in a mostly minority area. of course it wasn't the 70 so there was a lot more integration and less obvious racism when i was growing up, but many of the same kinds of reactions to race relations were around when i was young. there were a lot of kids who were like Robert the tough kid who is on his way to becoming the bad example of what can happen to kids who are preemptively treated like the criminals they could become. he terrorizes Dylan and corrupts Mingus. there is also the character of Arthur the white kid who starts to fall into black culture to protect himself. kids like these were why my elementary and middle school years were so bad, kids who are tougher then kids should be at that age and feel the need to prove it. guys like Arthur were in some ways worse for me, they felt the need to take out there rage on me and never let me live down the fact that i couldn't blend in like them. but for Dylan there is Mingus who acts as a safety net and protective barrier between the two others. Mingus represents an in between space, an idea that helps tie the novel together.
along with the deft portrayal of youth and race there is an element of fantasy worked into the novel in the form of a super powered ring. an object that as it enters Dylan's life is a sort of emblem of the terrible situation of the Brooklyn in the 1970s. it is originally the possession of a homeless and possibly mentally ill man. the only object the man has left he gives to Dylan who uses it throughout his life to explore and try to effect the world around him especially in relation to race and drugs. it is also the thing that connects him to Mingus, even when time and situation separate them. the ring seams to have powers, early on it allows him to fly (and Mingus as well as Robert) sequences that skim the line between reality and fantasy. incorporating a child like belief in superheros and the ability to overcome your position in life to find or make a better place for yourself.
ultimately this is the central theme of the novel. these places that exist between extremes, the mini glimpses of utopia that pass like the eye of a storm. the idyllic space between poverty and gentrification, the line between R&B and Punk that Dylan dances on. and of course the relationship between white and black boys from Brooklyn.