FICTION: The Song of Achilles (2011)

This intensely felt novelization of the Iliad and its preceding events works backward from the question of why Homer’s Achilles was so distraught over the battlefield death of Patroclus: there must have been a once-in-a-lifetime love between the two. Classics teacher Madeline Miller’s novel follows her narrator Patroclus from his socially awkward childhood, when he was first smitten with the golden-haired future hero and chosen as his confidant, to their teenage years on an idyllic mountainside where they blossom from best friends to happy lovers.

There is a poignant asymmetry between the goddess-born Achilles, so abundantly blessed with talent and popularity, and the diffident Patroclus, who would be an ordinary man destined for an ordinary life, if not for the force and purity of his grand love. We see him gift his companion with a sculpture which cost him hours to perfect, and the slight goofiness with which he says, “It’s you,” to which Achilles responds “I know”—and never gives him any similar gift in return, and yet it’s all right. It’s then breathtaking when Patroclus has the epiphany, upon their shared pillows, “I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.” That phrasing, again bespeaking the asymmetry between them, is so fresh and heartfelt.

Miller’s writing is extraordinarily lyrical, whether she is describing nature or bodies or thoughts, and Frazer Douglas’ reading of the audiobook manages to amplify the lush beauty of her every sentence. His accent is a treat: even the way he rounds the “o” in an utterance of “No” packs it with nuance. He captures our narrator’s vulnerability, makes Achilles sound suave, and gives a chilling gravelliness to the voice of Thetis, the sea nymph who hates seeing them together.

I immediately wanted to buy the physical book so I could read it again. What an eloquent, rapturous blend of Greek mythology and immortal romance.

FILM:  Les Misérables (2012)

Wow!  How did this not win Best Picture?  Having never seen the stage musical, I’d had no idea where Victor Hugo’s plot would go.  It started out painfully dark and gritty, then proceeded to engross me, delight me, and convert me to a fangirl by the end of it.

I already knew the lovely solo numbers “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own,” but hadn’t known what they were about.  What a revelation it was to hear both of these songs in their dramatic context, in particular the former’s wrenching lament from a soul-killing experience of prostitution.  Much of the soundtrack comes likewise dressed in beautiful lyrics, and happily these two melodies resurface.

The staging is sweepingly grand, from mountains of broken wooden furniture to urban labyrinths of uniforms and flags, and the cinematography is exquisite:  Éponine pines atop rain-slicked cobblestones, while lambent candle flames and languid lilacs frame Cosette’s profession of love.

Helmed by a larger-than-life hero, it’s an all-out feast for the Francophile and the Romantic.

FICTION: Sister Mischief (2011)

“The world’s first interracial gay hip-hop love story for teens,” written by an Ivy League grad who was in my sister’s high school class, is recommended for Edina alums, minorities, misfits, and anyone who appreciates an honest non-sugarcoated ending. On the most basic level, it’s tons of fun to pick out all the details about Edina High School, Minnesota, that are only barely or not at all disguised in this satire, which makes EHS more Christian-conservative than it really is but otherwise hits the nail on the head regarding the “cake-makeuped gaggle” and “IQ vacuum” who make up the Popular Crowd, the “hysteria over hockey,” the “shiny cars” and the “alienated smartgirls.”

Protagonist Esme, a Jewish girl raised motherless on the poorer side of town, writes and performs hip-hop with her three best friends: Marcy, a hard-edged tomboy drummer; Tess, a delicate liberal Christian; and Rowie, the straight-A’s daughter of two Indian doctors. The four come to lead an organized rebellion against the school administration, which has outlawed hip-hop due to its connections with drugs and violence. This plot is fluffy fantasy, but the other and more profound storyline has Esme falling in love with Rowie and getting hurt when Rowie’s conservative upbringing and personal hangups prevent her from publicly reciprocating. Sixteen-year-old Esme is reasonably comfortable with being gay — her dad’s reaction to her coming out was “Cool with me, kiddo. Eat a sandwich” — but Rowie doesn’t have that luxury, and as a fellow Asian-American I completely understand and am all the more moved by Esme’s plight.

Laura Goode writes a smart, snappy portrait of these independent-thinking high-schoolers who discuss white guilt and Victorian poetry and who text things to each other like “U look like shit. Do u ever get any sleep anymore? Story??” with the response “Dbag, this is just what I look like.” Marcy’s “aborted attempt at a comeback,” when meeting an attractive Somali guy after their hip-hop show, is hilarious and true-to-life in its nonsensical awkwardness. However, it is the serious passages in this novel that really sing: I’ve rarely read such a gorgeous narrative of a first kiss, and I cried when Esme’s dad counsels her “You’ll only be able to be this uninhibited once.”

Sister Mischief is the kind of writing that can save lives, in an era of the Anoka-Hennepin school district’s “neutrality” and a rash of visible gay teen suicides. Not only is it a worthy debut outside of any political context, but the novel does much good by sharing the uphill battle that GLBT teenagers face. Homophobes’ hearts might be softened by the compassion that Esme’s story compels, while lonely struggling gay kids might take heart when they see a kid like them on the bookstore shelves — and see that Esme pulls through her personal tragedy, deeper, braver and still plenty able to love and find happiness.

NONFICTION: Beautiful & Pointless (2011)

Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry represents the effort of David Orr, the New York Times poetry critic, to make a case for why contemporary poetry is worth reading. It’s sad that such a book has to be written at all, but such is the failing of our public school system and our culture, I suppose? Orr defines his target audience and his motive when he states in his introduction, “A smart, educated person who likes Charlie Kaufman’s movies and tolerates Thomas Pynchon’s novels, who works in a job that involves phrases like ‘amortized debentures’ or ‘easement by estoppel’ or ‘nomological necessity’ — that person is often not so much annoyed by poetry as confounded by it.” He is going to try to explain to said person what poetry reading is all about. At the same time, he hopes his reader will be thoughtful enough to not always agree with him: “If you do, you’ll be preventing your own response, the most vital and disturbing faculty you possess, from fully developing its power. You want to become a reader of modern poetry, not a receiver of the verdicts of modern poetry critics.”

Orr’s project is divided in six parts, the strongest of which are “The Personal” and “The Political.” In part one, “The Personal,” he tackles the common misunderstanding that poetry is necessarily a window into the poet’s soul, an impression nowadays informed by the confessionalism movement associated with Robert Lowell and his contemporaries. Yes, the lyric tradition in poetry prominently features the use of first-person, but this “I” overlaps the poet’s real-life self by varying degrees. The pop singer Jewel’s maudlin Hallmark-like verses are quoted as an instance of the artless splaying forth of a private self that too often passes for poetry just because it intimately confesses. Relying on Frank O’Hara as his showcase example, Orr goes on to demonstrate that poems can be personal without being embarrassing like Jewel’s, through the skillful juxtaposition of different registers. Personal remains relative; you often can’t know what is true confession and what is fiction, but what makes a good poem come off as personal is its poise between seeming calculated and seeming vulnerable.

Part two, “The Political,” addresses the age-old relationship between poetry and politics. Is it in any way true that, as Shelley wrote in 1821, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”? Orr notes the ironic disconnect between poets’ fascination with politics, with its basis in moral vision and persuasion that often mirrors their own, and the fact that mainstream Americans don’t see their poets as relevant to political life. Still, poems can serve a political function both knowingly (Orr quotes a Gwendolyn Brooks piece about the 1960s civil rights movement) and unknowingly (as when Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was revived around September 11, 2001). The chapter gracefully concludes that poems “have their own realities, and the worlds they contain cannot be lightly dismissed. [A]s a maker of poems, a poet is always engaged in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and the victories and defeats felt far away, in different domains, by people other than himself.”

From its title, I expected part three, “Form,” to defend traditional form against the modern-day supremacy of free verse. Instead it sidesteps the entire debate about form, positing that the use of form is all about triggering a reader’s recognition and the associations that she has with prior works. Part four, “Ambition,” takes on an unexpected topic at this juncture: the desire of many poets to be great, or as former poet laureate Donald Hall defines the goal, “to make words that live forever…to be as good as Dante.” Orr reminds us not to be hoodwinked by a poet’s use of bombastic terminology, or by the grandiose acclaim of biased institutions, when evaluating poetic ambition or greatness. Ambition, he says, is only the conviction that one can produce poems that stand out and stick.

The book finishes on a weaker note but with a fuller portrait of Orr’s subject. Part five, “The Fishbowl,” describes the tensions and controversies that define the contemporary poetry world, including the widespread observation that poets, their teachers, and their publicists have all receded into an inbred ivory tower. And part six, “Why Bother?”, examines arguments for why poetry is worth our time at all. “I can’t tell you,” Orr finally admits, “why you should bother to read poems, or to write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all the other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful. There’s little grandeur in this, maybe, but out of such small, unnecessary devotions is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident.”

This is a strangely modest conclusion, given the project that drove his book. We are reading this, after all, to find a defense for poetry. I prefer the conclusion he comes to later, toward the final pages: “Poetry…needs a history with its readers. It needs to have been read, and thought about, and excessively praised, and excessively scorned, and quoted in melodramatic fashion, and misremembered at dinner parties. It needs, in a particular and occasionally ridiculous way, to have been loved.” That is exactly what it comes down to. A person of faith does not believe because of irrefutable arguments but because of her personal relationship with God. Similarly, a person of poetry needs no arguments to take it up, because poetry has always been with him. I don’t know how many converts Beautiful & Pointless will make. I do know we could abolish the need for an apologia like David Orr’s if we made poetry a staple of our textbooks, our magazines, our newspapers, our rituals.

FICTION: Room (2010)

I wish I’d kept this blog going during medical school, back when I read more fiction. The two best books I discovered during that time are both criminally underpopular: John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra (1934) and John Fowles’ The Collector (1963). The O’Hara novel resembles The Great Gatsby in its setting and focus (the fall of a man of high society during the Jazz Age) but is better written, feels more real. The Fowles novel, like Lolita, accomplishes the astonishing feat of making the reader understand and empathize with a criminal sociopath. Fowles’ sociopath is a lonely clerk who kidnaps an art student and keeps her prisoner in his basement. When a very similar crime was exposed in Austria a few years ago, I was surprised that The Collector wasn’t mentioned by commentators, although I guess it just goes to show the book’s undeserved obscurity in pop culture.

The Collector came to mind when I saw the premise of Emma Donoghue’s Room, which has frequently been listed as one of the best books of 2010. A sociopathic rapist has likewise imprisoned the heroine of Room in his soundproofed garden shed for the past seven years, but the twist is that the story is told by the now-five-year-old boy who was conceived via this crime. The narrative technique is therefore a lot like the one in To Kill a Mockingbird: bad crimes and wrongs are made approachable by halfway seeing them through a child’s eye and leaving the rest to be inferred by an adult reader. Room takes on an extreme question about developmental psychology: what would life be like if you believed that the entire world consisted of an 11 x 11 foot windowless room and that you and your mother (and your occasionally visiting captor) were the only people in it? And how would your understanding unfold, if one day you were told it was actually otherwise?

Although the premise is offbeat, Donoghue doesn’t end up doing anything surprising with it. We learn that the child’s mind is plastic and resilient, whereas his mother is more deeply affected by the trauma. We learn that she better endures her ordeal because she lavishes love on her child and is able to pass her days in the shed by focusing totally on his education and entertainment. The gimmick of the narration gets a bit old as everything we see is filtered through his linguistic errors and limited understanding—for hundreds of pages. The note on which the book ends, when Ma has to do something very emotionally difficult so that Jack can have the closure he demands, is just painful. Sure, critics have noted that Room avoids the trap of journalistic exploitation and voyeurism by taking the unusual angle that it does, but I can’t help but feel that Ma is re-victimized at the end and without sufficient cause.

FICTION: Freedom (2010)

The New York Times loved it; The Atlantic hated it. It was lauded as the book of the decade, but garnered as many 1-star reviews on Amazon as 5-star reviews. Curious to see what the fuss was about, I tackled Jonathan Franzen’s 576-page novel via the most modern of media, my iPad. An excerpt from Freedom, the account of Patty’s parents’ trivializing reaction to her rape, had already been published in the New Yorker under the title “Agreeable,” and the short story had been so very good that I thought the novel might actually live up to the hype. It does in the Patty parts, but the Walter parts are so unabidably awful that the book is a mixed bag.

Patty is a lovable character, so coherently drawn that you can hear her speak out loud in your head when you read her lines of dialogue; you enjoy being with her and you root for her. Her Westchester County parents have endless energy for doing good in the world, as a pro bono lawyer and a state legislator respectively, but are unable to love or nurture their oldest daughter at home. Yet she escapes to Minnesota and, after developing self-esteem as a talented basketball player at the U, becomes widely admired in her St. Paul neighborhood as a hospitable and dedicated homemaker. Her ensuing carefully chronicled mistakes provoke sympathy, while you admire her strength and her capacity for self-renewal.

Franzen’s book is strongest when he focuses on Patty, because she’s the best character in it, and particularly strong when he gets inside her brain, as in the immortal narrative of what transpires at Nameless Lake when Patty finds herself alone with her husband Walter’s best friend Richard, for whom she’s had a thing her whole life. This is easily my favorite paragraph in the book: “There were very odd angles in her cutting of the potatoes. They looked like some kind of geometric brainteaser.” What a lovely way to convey the turmoil in Patty, between her desire for Richard, so close to finding its way out, and her imperfect but earnest moral conscience. The reader becomes deeply emotionally involved along with her.

However, it’s too much of a stretch to care in the same way about Walter, as the book would ideally require that you do. Richard is something of a caricature, yes (a rock musician?! for god’s sake), but Walter is just impossible to really understand. His fanatic passion for environmentalism—for conserving endangered species and limiting human population growth—is tiresome and absurd, and the way in which he goes about his aims, via the snootily named Cerulean Mountain Trust, is a drag to read about. This segment of the novel largely functions as a vehicle for name-dropping any number of contemporary American events and personages in order to look “relevant” and hip.

And the worst stain upon the story is Walter’s extramarital “love” for his assistant Lalitha, a cartoon of orientalism and paternalism which Franzen is irresponsible to perpetuate. It is not enough to introduce her as “Indian. Bengali. She grew up in Missouri,” but the author feels compelled to repeatedly describe her after that as “dark-skinned,” too many times, for no reason. She’s twenty years younger than Walter, “brilliant,” passionate (of course), has a cute accent (despite having grown up in Missouri?), and can’t wait to get in his heart and in his pants. Christ. The narrator’s own drooling over this oh-so-exotic, one-dimensionally nubile girl is revolting. I hate the fetishizing tone with which Lalitha’s character is sketchily and implausibly drawn.

It’s hard enough for us “minority” readers to navigate a world of books, movies, and TV shows in which the woman is always the love interest, the person of color is always the sidekick, and the gay person is always the friend (how rarely these people get to be the protagonist; and progress in society can hardly be made until viewers of mainstream media can get inside our skin, feel with our hearts, see with our eyes). But it’s a step backwards on top of that for Franzen to give us Lalitha, especially when his name carries cultural weight. Every page about her is offensive, and we know from the Patty passages that the author is capable of much better.

POETRY: Yellowrocket (2008)

I first saw poet Todd Boss when he gave a reading at the Barnes & Noble in Roseville a couple of years ago, as one of the finalists for the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. To its credit, the Borders store at Midway carries his book Yellowrocket. He writes revealingly about his childhood on a Wisconsin farm, the way his family loved the land and the way they were particularly vulnerable to cruelties of the weather. Among the poems about adult years, pictures of marital unhappiness stand out for the way they depict love even in the midst of discord. In “Mess,” the frustrated wife can find no more effective way to get through to her husband than to leave the kitchen sink on until it overflows on the floor, explaining: “Like this! … / You asked me how you should love me.” Alienated in his marriage, the husband retreats in another poem to the Longfellow Cafe in Minneapolis, only to realize that the people there frequently confuse him with another unhappy man who takes refuge at those tables.

Writing in ragged short lines with plenty of internal rhyme and slant rhyme, Boss tries on a variety of tones and themes with success. “She Rings Me Up” is a laugh-out-loud anecdote about a series of misunderstandings with a cashier. “Icicles” takes on Metaphysical conceit, as he argues that icicles are created by the act of melting as well as destroyed by the act of melting, and “On / that intersection / their existence / hangs—as hangs / a heart by how / and for how long / what’s felt is felt.” It’s a sophisticated metaphor, and it warms my heart to know that there are people in the Twin Cities who have these kinds of uncommon thoughts when they look at the all-too-common icicles around us.

Boss also does well to conceive of parenting as an act of praising God: in “My Joy Doubled,” driving his young daughter through a gorgeous pink and yellow morning, he muses, “She is so young. / If I can’t train her eyes / to love, how else then / praise the lapidary, / who cuts our days / like diamonds / from the carbon cold above?” It doesn’t matter that I’m not a believer; that’s beautiful. Near the end of the book there is a poem of romantic love, where the narrator breathlessly beholds a white deer for a precious few enrapt moments and feels so lucky to not have missed seeing her. “A Deer” perhaps represents the best of Todd Boss’s insight and his fondness for beauty.

NONFICTION: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007)

Thanks to Jordan Amadio for recommending this lush philosophical treatise on the meaning of literacy, written by a professor of French literature at Paris Huit. The title makes the book sound a little flip, but Pierre Bayard’s examination of such questions as “whether a book you have read and completely forgotten…is still a book you have read” is serious and relevant to anyone who cares about reading.

We learn that to be culturally literate is not so much about having checked off boxes on a reading list, but above all to be versed in books’ contextual relation to one another. There is not necessarily shame in not having read various canonical masterworks, Bayard argues, if one at least knows what they are about and why they are canonical:

I’ve never ‘read’ Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s quite plausible that I never will. …[But] I feel perfectly comfortable when Ulysses comes up in conversation…. I know, for example, that it is a retelling of the Odyssey, that its narration takes the form of a stream of consciousness, that its action unfolds in Dublin in the course of a single day, etc.

Would-be-voracious readers who are short on time are validated and emboldened to hear Bayard say, “My intellectual library, like every library, is composed of gaps and blanks, but…it is sufficiently well stocked for any particular lacuna to be all but invisible.”

He goes on to demonstrate the value of reviewers and critics. Although it seems there are many artists who bemoan the critic as somehow anti-art, I personally believe that critics give meaning to art, and am glad that Bayard isn’t in disagreement. “Besides actually reading a book, there is…another way to develop quite a clear sense of its contents: we can read or listen to what others write or say about it. This tactic can save you a lot of time” and is not a cop-out shortcut because “[a] book is not limited to itself, but from the moment of dissemination also encompasses the exchanges it inspires.” Yes!

Bayard then develops the argument that what we remember of books may bear little resemblance to the books themselves, but rather, we each retain a personal version of a particular book based on our own experiences and sympathies. The ravages of time estrange us even farther from what we have once attentively read; “[w]e do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies.” Although we as readers may have sensed that this happens when we read, and maybe felt less intellectual for it, Bayard does us a service to get this reality out into the open, so that we can stop feeling embarrassed and start truly having a conversation.

Later, he discusses the relationship between books and personal identity. We are, in a way, the sum of what we have read since childhood. (As a corollary, he says, two people might deepen their romantic relationship by having read the same books.) “Like language, books serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing…the missing elements of our personality.” By being anxious about books and about society’s expectations for our literacy, however, we fail to seize the best that literacy offers us, which is in fact creativity, self-knowledge, and freedom. Bayard makes the extraordinary move, at the end of the book, of liberating the reader from his library. Criticism, he suggests, is a way of being in touch with your soul, for which any one text is but a springboard. Reading is wonderful and necessary, but the higher good is to WRITE. “All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.”

FILM: Happy Together (1997)

As recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hera gets her revenge on one of her husband’s lovers, Semele, by getting her to make a certain request of Zeus the next time they are alone together. He agrees to grant Semele a wish whatever it may be, and then is dismayed to hear her ask, “Make love to me the way you do to your wife.” He protests that as a mortal she would not be able to take it, it is too glorious, too much. But she insists, and in the ensuing act she is destroyed. When I encountered this story in high school, I was captivated by this idea of beauty so rapturous that it is incompatible with life. On certain summer nights, sitting alone contemplating the moon, I had vaguely apprehended this kind of beauty, and it felt like a burden because it seemed that most people live lives that have nothing to do with it. (Another exquisite rendering of this idea is Lois Lowry’s The Giver.) I feel this pain still, when I dream dreams at night that have so much more emotional and intellectual depth than I ever experience when awake, dreams which I so quickly forget. “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” There is a dimension I am able to experience, intense and beautiful, that is so otherworldly I wouldn’t even know how to live it. And that is why I connected with Wong Kar-Wai’s film, Happy Together. He has to go outside the normal methods of story and character development to do it, but he manages to evoke exactly those barely survivable moments of divinity.

I’d seen three of Wong Kar-Wai’s other films. His Chungking Express is one of my favorite movies of all time. In the Mood for Love, his best-known work in the circles I run in, I could never get into, and 2046 I found visually pretty but lacking in substance. Some say Happy Together is Wong’s best film. It’s about the co-dependent romantic relationship between two Hong Kong men living in Buenos Aires, Ho Po-Wing who comes and goes as he pleases and Lai Yiu-Fai who lets Po-Wing walk all over him. We watch as Yiu-Fai slowly learns to break free of the relationship. How difficult it is for him to do the right thing and get out; after all he loves the guy, and isn’t love supposed to be a force of good, something to hang on to? That is the sad paradox of love sometimes—that doing the best for someone else can mean doing the worst for yourself. But there is a selfish angle for Yiu-Fai too. When the freewheeling Po-Wing gets beaten up and Yiu-Fai takes him in to nurse him back to health, he muses: “I never told Po-Wing, but I hoped he would take a very long time to get better. Those were our happiest days.” In other words, on some level he can’t empathize with Po-Wing’s physical suffering, can’t truly love him, because he is so invested in what he can get from Po-Wing’s being vulnerable and infirm—the chance to take care of him. Isn’t that another kind of love? A broken and ironic but altogether human love?

FILM: The Princess Bride (1987)

For personal reasons, I sought this film out for a third viewing. The first time I ever saw it, I watched it with my family and we were all completely unimpressed, especially given the hype. Romances were by far the choice genre in our household, and since the character development and the depth of interaction within this particular romance were unsatisfactory, so was the whole film. The second time, I was halfway through college and watching with friends one summer, and conceded that it was more entertaining when watched on a social rather than cinephilic basis (the same thought I had about Moulin Rouge). But that was all; I couldn’t empathize when people quoted obsessively from the script.

I liked it a lot more this third time, responding with not just tears but cathartic sobbing at the end. What had I picked up that I hadn’t noticed before? Firstly, I’ve begun to think about how to raise children, and the film’s idea of giving young children (i.e. the Fred Savage character) this myth of true love as the highest value in life surprised me with its appeal. It seems like such an unlikely value to advertise compared to all the ennobling motives out there: God, country, virtue, public service, helping the unfortunate, science, art…against all this, what do two little people matter? “A hill of beans,” right? Yet the movie makes a postulate out of true love, as shown by all the characters verbally celebrating it no matter how mean or out-of-touch they are, and the concept of shaping innocent minds in this mold is oddly beautiful and illuminating. Better yet, the movie allows you to become one of those innocents yourself while you’re watching it.

Secondly, I’d always resented Buttercup for her passivity while Westley does all the work (though I guess you can’t fight if you insist on wearing an impractical dress instead of pants), but tonight I noticed something to credit her with: while Westley is running around with incredible strength and dexterity, she is standing still with incredible faith. This is a word or virtue I’ve never much thought about before, but now I see that Buttercup enacts Milton’s words, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” It takes more than desire and action to see these lovers safely through; it takes belief that it will all work, and in fact something stronger than the mere word belief implies. When Westley promises “I will come for you,” he is not just stating his desire and then later deciding that he will do as he said. He is, in speaking that promise, in fact creating the future, and Buttercup’s faith creates it along with him. From this we learn a lesson in shaping our own destinies.