Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Bastard of Istanbul

Here is an entertaining quote from Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel about a Turkish family and an Armenian family and their intertwined pasts. Amanoush, the Armenian-American beauty with no friends, meditates on the subversive power of novel-reading and can't stop talking about books on dates. (Novels do seem to be disapproved of by people who read only history, science or biography--they're considered light-weight--and perhaps that's why so few novels get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. And perhaps that's why Shafak includes a long chapter about Amanoush's reading ):

"Though books were potentially harmful, novels were all the more dangerous. The path of fiction could easily mislead you into the cosmos of stories where everything was fluid, quixotic, and as open to surprises as a moonless night in the desert. Before you knew it you could be so carried away that you could lose touch with reality--that stringent and solid truth from which no minority should ever veer too far from in order not to end up unguarded when the winds shifted and bad times arrived. It didn't help to be so naive to think things wouldn't get bad, as they always did. Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced. If as a child of survivors you still wanted to read and ruminate, you should do so quietly, apprehensively, and introspectively, never turning youself into a vociferous reader. If you couldn't help harboring higher aspirations in life, you should at least harbor only simple desires, reduced in passion and ambition, as if you had been de-energized and now had only enough strength to be average. With a fate and family like this, Armanoush had to learn to downplay her talents and do her best not to glimmer too brightly...."

And later Amanoush tells her aunt:
"'You see, unlike in the movies, there is no THE END sign flashing at the end of books. When I've read a book, I don't feel like I've finished anything. So I start a new one.'"

Friday, February 16, 2007

American Masterpieces, Not Read in Loserville

Maureen Howard’s Novels of the Seasons are contemporary American masterpieces, little read. Think of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time as written by an American Virginia Woolf. Yet who reads them? Very few seem to have heard of her. There are so few Catholic writers I really like. She lacks the masochistic streak of Mary Gordon. She is no Flannery O'Connor, but writes about the sweep of geography, history, art, and perhaps the end of Catholicism in America. (The end of civilization? No, I'm joking.)

Howard fuses the stories of several Catholic families, immigrants, refugees, Catholic commune workers, priests, stockbrokers, farmers, artists, computer guys, professors, Audobon's wife, and even an autobiographical sketch of Howard. Personally, I find these novels more eloquent and less sentimental than Alice McDermott's Catholic novels. Why do critics love McDermott rather than Howard? Because the critics can understand McDermott? (I don't mean to put down McDermott, who is very good in her way.) Yet Howard’s pyrotechnics of language and prodigious leaps back and forth in time are much more gorgeous and layered. Give this woman a National Book Award or Pulitzer.

A Lover’s Almanac is perhaps the simplest novel in the cycle: Louise Moffat and Artie Freeman, a young couple without a history at the millennium, learn their personal histories and invent their own life-style, rebelling against parents and grandparents who concentrated on American rather than personal history. Louise and Artie see themselves as more sophisticated and ironic, but these Generation X-and-a-halfers have not lived through wars or sacrificed for family or country and only partially, through photographs and letters, come to understand their family relationships (yet self-centeredly and without much knowledge of their country’s history). The second and third novels give us their 20th century families' viewpoints, as well as Audobon and his wife’s. The refugee family from Austria in World War II is Catholic, not Jewish: fascinating in itself, since the Catholics who died in concentration camps are largely forgotten. The novels are told in sream of consciousness, straightforward narrative, illustrations, almanac pages, and histories of Franklin, Edison, and other Americans.

Perhaps religion is missing from Louise and Artie's lives.

These novels are showy and magnificent, the story of America. Too flamboyant? I don’t think so. The fourth novel--Autumn-- is yet to come.

Where are the Modern Library editions?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Willa Cather, The Rolling Stones, and U2

Willa Cather’s fictional “lost lady” has something in common with The Rolling Stones and U2: all three bank with “shelters that pay handsomely.” Marion Forrester chooses to invest with Ivy Peters during “changing times” in the west, much to her old-fashoned friends' disapproval. And according to The New York Times (business, Section 3, p. 1, Feb. 4), the Stones and U-2 bank in the Netherlands. Bono and U-2 switched last year after Ireland did away with tax breaks for musicians, but the Stones have done it for 30 years.

Here’s why I like the Stones: they say “Hello, Detroit,” play, and collect their paycheck. They don’t suck up. They're businessmen. They don't pretend otherwise. After Captain Forrester’s death, Marion is a stony stone, stonier than the Stones. She doesn't care what anyone thinks. She needs money. It’s “Hello, Sweet Water” and then she’s out of there.

I'm prim about investments and tax shelters myself (not that I have any) but don't want taxes to support the war in Iraq. Give it to health care, etc. Marion, of course, was completely selfish. She had to get out of Nebraska. And that she did so by Ivy Peters's investments pulls her down in the readers' eyes.

A lot of people are criticizing U2 for banking in the Netherlands, trying to find hypocrisy in their actions. Bono has certainly done a lot of good for the world and I don't know where his taxes would have gone in Ireland.

Anyway, why was this in the New York Times? It's certainly "business lite."

If anyone wants to write about Cather’s women and banking...feel free.