Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

I read this in audio format – an excellent recording by Julian Rhind-Tutt.

Written in fits and starts during the 1930s and 40s, published in highly censored form in Stalin's Russia, and finally published in its entirety in the 1970s, this book takes on as many forms and plays as many roles as Satan and his entourage, who are, coincidentally, key characters in it.

It's political satire: Although the story's details are Russian through and through, Bulgakov's jabs could be aimed at any totalitarian state. It's a meditation on good and evil: Satan and his companions wreak havoc on their visit to Moscow yet still manage to set free some trapped souls. In another strand of the plot, Pontius Pilate, Jesus, and Judas meet in ways quite at odds with the Gospel's rendition.   It questions the nature of reality: When Muscovites try to explain the bizarre occurrences that they've seen (thanks to the shenanigans of the devil and his minions), the authorities commit them to asylums. In the epilogue, Bulgakov provides the government's prosaic, revisionist, official explanations for said shenanigans.

If all that sounds like too much literary high-mindedness, forget it all. Above all else, this book is funny. Whimsical, fantastic, ironic, and just laugh-out-loud funny. One of Satan's entourage is Behemoth, a fat, black cat. Behemoth is prone to walking on his hind legs, donning a bow-tie (and gilding his whiskers) for Satan's ball, and attempting to board the tram with ticket money in hand (or paw). He's a consummately Russian cat, of course – I adored the image of him sitting upright in a chair, a glass of vodka in one forepaw, and eating pickled mushrooms with a fork in the other. As I searched the internet for images related to The Master and Margarita, I came across several drawings of this scene, so I wasn't the only one who loved it.

Toward the end of the book, the police have finally decided to investigate the string of bizarre events, which are too numerous to ignore or disregard as the ravings of lunatics. They come to the apartment where Satan, et al., are staying, and here they find Behemoth:
In his paws was a primus stove. The visitors eyed the cat in complete silence for a considerable length of time.
'Hmmm, that's quite something,' one of them whispered.
'Not fooling around. Not bothering nobody. Just sitting here, mending the primus,' said the cat with a hostile frown. 'And moreover, I consider it my duty to warn you that the cat is an ancient, inviolable animal.'
'Exceptionally clean work,' whispered another visitor, while a third said loudly and distinctly, 'All right, come along, you inviolable ventriloquist kitty.'
A silk net unfurled and flew through the air, but to everyone's surprise, the man throwing the net missed and caught only the jug, which promptly smashed to pieces with a ringing noise.
'Forfeit!' bellowed the cat, 'Hurrah!' and putting aside the primus, he whipped a Browning automatic from behind his back. He instantly aimed at the man closest to him, but before the cat could fire, something flashed in the target's hand. To the sound of a Mauser shot, the cat flopped headfirst from the mantelpiece to the floor, dropping the Browning and releasing the primus.
'It's all over,' the cat said in a weak voice, sprawling languidly in a pool of blood. 'Leave me alone a moment, and let me say good-bye to the earth. Oh, Azazello, my friend,' the cat moaned, bleeding copiously, 'where are you?' The cat rolled his fading eyes toward the dining room door. 'You did not come to my aid in this unequal fight. You abandoned poor Behemoth, trading him for a drink (though a very good one) of cognac. Well then, my death be on your conscience, and I bequeath you my Browning.'
'The net... the net! the net!' the men whispered anxiously around the cat, but hell knows why, the net got stuck in someone's pocket and would not come out...
Never letting go of the primus (or the Browning) the cat leads the men on a crazy chase, swinging from the chandelier, shooting the place apart.  No one is killed, nor even wounded.
As for the cat's first wound, it had doubtless been no more than a ruse and a scam.
Hell knows why. 

Well, it's a start...

In an interview on BBC Radio's Open Book programme, American author Jay Parini spoke about the importance of a novel's opening line.

He has just published a book of biographical-historical fiction, The Passages of Herman Melville. (He is also the author of The Last Station, a novel about the life of Leo Tolstoy, recently made into a film.)  Like so many others, Mr. Parini thinks the first line of Moby Dick is hard to beat:  "Call me Ishmael."

One Malaysian, agog.  
He mentioned a friend and fellow American writer who had won a grant to write a novel.  The friend concocted what he thought was a stellar opening line for his work:  "All of Malaysia was agog."  He never got any further with the novel, however, because he could never quite conceive what all of Malaysia might be agog about.

I do love a catchy opening line, but I wonder if the first line should be the first priority, especially in the absence of a plot.  I also wonder if this fellow had to return the grant money.  The idea that a writer might receive a five-figures grant in US dollars for writing one line would certainly leave most of Malaysia agog.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Messiah, by Andrei Codrescu

I used to listen to Andrei Codrescu's essays on NPR and marvel.   His facility and cleverness with the English language left me shaking my head and wondering how a Romanian immigrant pulled it off. He must have had one hell of an ESL teacher.

The first of Codrescu's novels that I read, Wakefield, is also set in his adoptive home-town of New Orleans.  The title character, a motivational speaker, opens his front door to find Satan on the other side and proceeds -- of course -- to make a deal.  It's funny, surreal, off-beat -- the sort of view you'd expect a literary Romanian expat in New Orleans to take of American life.

Messiah was an earlier novel, published in 1999, and it's an even wackier, more Wallachian vision of the impending millennium.

There were a couple of passages which led me to wonder if Andrei Codrescu is himself a prescient, timeless messenger from another dimension.  In one scene, a manic televangelist imagines the spectre of a glorious, violent destruction of the World Trade Center towers in NY.  In another, Felicity, the protagonist, takes note of where she is:
She had known all her life that the city was below sea level, but she never stopped being startled by the sight of ships over her head. New Orleans was a bowl, hugged tightly by the Mississippi River. The levees that kept the river out were no match for a hurricane or a great flood. Felicity imagined herself floating like a gardenia in a porcelain bowl. It was only a matter of time before the people and buildings were washed away. 'We are doomed,' she said out loud; 'it's the only thing that keeps us going.'

OK, so Codrescu is not the only person to have observed that New Orleans was built in a stupid location, but this paragraph was still a bit chilling, considering that he wrote it 6 years before Hurricane Katrina hit.

The Devil makes a brief appearance in this novel, as do historical figures living in cyberspace, and angels, and they all seem every bit as real as their human associates on the pages.  The wicked televangelist conned Felicity's grandmother into handing over a $2.1 million lottery ticket.  Felicity, who refused to follow her grandmother down the road to Baptist perdition, went into the Catholic cathedral and prayed to the Virgin.  Not at all surprisingly, the Mother of God engaged her in conversation:

'All gone, all gone,' lamented Felicity, 'and me so young. And that preacher devil stole my lottery ticket!'
'Get off it,' said the Virgin. 'After what my son went through, the lottery sounds just comic.'
'Can I help it?' Felicity said, chastened, 'that I only have two modes? The despondent and the comic?'  

The story careens between New Orleans and Jerusalem as the millennium approaches and Codrescu's characters look at the state of the world, who or what might save it, and whether or not it should be saved at all.  He zooms in on the zaniness of several religions, umpteen ethnicities, the living and the dead.  I loved his jab at a fellow New Orleans author.  She may have a larger fan club and doubtless greater wealth, but not even the famous vampire novelist can escape the Romanian's impalement:

In front of Dead Star Books, a crowd of cadaverous youth dressed in black crinoline waited sullenly for Angelique Risotto, the queen of gothic. Her novels of bloodsucking had a huge following of pale, listless death lovers. She owned lots of real estate, including numerous churches, behind which she garaged the hearses that took her to book signings. The release of a new book was typically celebrated by an appearance in a coffin carried by pallbearers, from which she would leap in a red wedding dress. Angelique was as huge as a whale, and many of her starved followers looked as if they'd been half eaten by Angelique. Felicity crossed the street to give them a wide berth.  
A vocabulary addition:  sangfroid, from French, lit. cool blood:  equanimity, poise, self-control, nerve, courage, steadiness.   One of those words I'd seen, guessed at, and never before bothered to look up.

I relished the wit and the eccentricity of this novel.  It was not the Book of the Millennium, in my opinion, but I'm just a mere mortal.  Never been to Romania, don't care much for New Orleans.  Maybe that's the problem.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Bookface President

I just listened to an interview with Edmund Morris, British author of Colonel Roosevelt, the last of a biographical trilogy.

Theodore Roosevelt, best known for being a President, Rough Rider, hunter, explorer, naturalist, and for giving his name to Teddy Bears, was an extraordinary reader.

Morris claims that Roosevelt read on average one book a day.  He read with phenomenal speed -- about 3 pages per minute -- and retention:  "He was photographic in his memory."   He read English, of course, but also German, French and Italian.

How did he manage it? In addition to having servants to relieve him of mundane chores, Roosevelt believed that no waking minute should be wasted.  If his carriage was 3-4 minutes away, there was an opportunity to read half a chapter.  He sounds like a man who hardly ever stared vacantly into space.  "Well, yes, he was exceedingly erudite," Morris drawled.

At the end of the interview, Morris said that he was never "in love" with Roosevelt; he feels it's dangerous for a biographer to be in love with his subject.  He conceded, though, that it's unlikely he'll ever again write a biography of anyone of Roosevelt's stature.  I certainly don't know any readers of his caliber.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, by Charlotte Bell

MIndful Yoga, Mindful Life

Today I finished recording this for the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) library upon special request.  

When he initially handed me the book, Nicholas, the audio librarian (who is also blind) asked if it contained too many diagrams or photos.  I flipped through it.  It contains none at all.  I read the back cover and explained to Nicholas that the book discusses the spiritual aspects of yoga -- the mindfulness, awareness, the subtle links between the mind and the body.  "Oh, not just exercises, lah?"  he asked.  The misconception of yoga as a purely physical discipline seems to be universal.  

I approached this book with some reservation, fearing a lot of jargon, or worse, jargon in Pali.  Self-help books too often make me wish their authors would spend more time in writing classes.  

This one was quite all right -- sensibly organized, a gratifying mix of theory and application, and clearly written.  The author discussed each of Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga in turn, working from translations of the 2nd century BCE text.  She had about 10 translations at hand, quoting from all and giving a lovely glimpse at how widely they differ.  She also made connections to the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation where the two schools of practice overlap.  

Bell writes about being aware of our reactions to sense perceptions.  When we see something, do we really see it, or do we instantaneously label and judge it?  I've thought about this a lot over the years.  As sighted people, the vast majority of our sensory input comes through our eyes.  As I listen to my own inner chatter, a lot of it is hasty labeling and judging:  Ugh, new building.  Say, nice shoes.  Hmph, why is he scowling? Love that painting!  That t-shirt is hideous. And I don't spare myself this non-stop critique, either. And for what?  Buddhists talk about monkey mind -- a mind that leaps madly from one thing to the next.  Mine seems to be a nitpicky, fault-finding monkey, and realizing this has not been a pleasant insight.  That is, at least, one thing that blind people are spared.  They cannot make snap judgments based upon appearance.  Do they make snap judgments based upon other sensory input?  I'll have to ask Nicholas one of these days.  

Saturday, January 8, 2011

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

I first read this book in a freshman English Lit course at Wellesley.  I'd never read Faulkner before, and the professor, William Cain, advised us not to obsess about gleaning precise meaning from the stream-of-consciousness text.  Rather, we should let the language flow over us like water and simply feel it.  I was grateful for that direction as I started reading, because I found the narrative all but impossible to follow with my rational mind.  

Now, 30 years later, I'm reading the book again, but this time audibly.  I'm listening to a Random House recording, with 4 readers -- 2 men and 2 women -- reading the parts of the story's 15 narrators.  I've written often of my mixed feelings about reading audio vs. text.  There are a few books that I've preferred in audio -- maybe the narrators breathed extra life into them, or reading aloud emphasised the poetic beauty of the text.  Some books are definitely much better in hard copy.  And then there are the books that are just very different when read aloud than when in print.  Nabokov's Lolita is one, and As I Lay Dying is another.  

The struggle to follow the story, to comprehend, is surprisingly diminished.  I remember being vexed by the southern vernacular, the absence of punctuation, and the run-on and fragmentary sentences in the print version.  The multiple readers probably help, and they certainly eliminate the punctuation struggles.  Read aloud, the narrative is still not crystal-clear, but I don't feel as lost as I did with the text.  Best of all:  I still have that primal sensation, the feeling that I am right there in Mississippi with the Bundren clan as they transport their wife & mother's remains from their country home to the town of Jackson, where she'd asked to be buried.  

Anse Bundren, husband of deceased Addie, is generally an under-motivated man, so his stubborn determination to take Addie's corpse to Jackson puzzles some of his neighbors.  One of them remarks that there's nothing quite as implacable as a lazy man who's finally decided to make a move.  As the family meets with disaster trying to cross a flood-swollen river, I realise the stupidity and futility of the journey.  It's becoming clearer that Anse never treated Addie with much regard when she was living, yet he imperils the whole family to transport her corpse.  It's also become clear that, in Faulkner's Mississippi (as everywhere else, I suppose), race is not the only social division:  there are country people, and there are town people, and they are not the same.  Some of the onlookers suggest that this is not only a foolhardy venture but an arrogant one, taking Addie to Jackson for burial when the Bundrens are country people.  

Novelist Amy Tan once defined a classic as a book that you can re-read every ten years and have a notably different experience each time.  (Her own once-a-decade book is Lolita.)  As Faulkner's characters span the age range from 6-ish to dead, I think there are voices in this book that will speak up differently to the same reader over the course of a lifetime.  

Cold Spring Harbor, by Richard Yates

No, I did not steal it from a library.  The Pasco County Library in Holiday, FL gave it to Better World Books, who sold and shipped it to me in Kuala Lumpur.  As the loan card is as empty as a plain girl's dance card, I assume that Richard Yates doesn't appeal to Floridian readers' tastes.  As for me, I am relishing the physical aspects of this book -- the clear cellophane cover, the typewritten library card, the hard cover and gorgeous paper.  The mere thought of a lending library.  [insert deprived sigh here]  Another thing I love about used books is that they often come with previous readers' bookmarks in them.  An Aspen ski pass.  A receipt from a Buenos Aires book shop.  A Turkish railway ticket.  This book didn't come with one -- that's one of my Malaysian Philharmonic tickets marking my place. I'll leave it there, tucked into the pages for the next reader, wherever in the world he or she might be.

I read Yates' Revolutionary Road before the film came out.  Yates has an almost cult-like following amongst contemporary American novelists, and it's well-deserved.  Whether or not you saw the film, and no matter what you thought of it, read the book.  The back-story gives a psychological depth to the characters that the film could not; it made their actions more understandable, more tragic, more appalling, and more recognisable as ordinary.  The book also turned me into a Yates cult member.  I ordered four more of his novels from Better World Books.

Cold Spring Harbor is his ninth novel.  I've not yet finished it, but it's another example of his insight into the thwarted, frustrated, entrapped psyche of some American men in past decades.  (Has it changed?  Probably not.)  In the case of Evan Shepard, passivity seems to have set in early:

He was twenty-three now, still working in the factory and living in his parents' house, and his father had long suspected he was following the course of least resistance: to break out of it would have required ambition, and there didn't yet seem to be a trace of that quality in his character. Delinquency may once have threatened to possess the boy, but now a pure lassitude was gathering to engulf the man.  
I adore the last sentence -- the image of lassitude as a menacing force which will drag a helpless, hapless Evan into a life of ennui.

Yates doesn't spare his female characters.  Evan's mother-in-law is a fifty-ish divorcee, prone to unfortunate bouts of garrulous flirtation after one sherry too many.

And she gave him a loose smile of lipstick and stained teeth.  There was probably nothing to be done about a woman like this. Dying for love might be pitiable, but it wasn't much different, finally, from any other kind of dying.

My friend Rose and I used to assure each other that our next book -- yes, our very next book -- would have a pink cover.  Chick lit, in other words, where the girl gets the boy,  and the credit card is never maxed out.  Richard Yates novels do not have pink covers.  They are the antithesis of chick lit.  They're undeniably gloomy, but they are insightful and scathing and relentlessly real.

Anti-social networking

I disagree.

I have no use for Facebook.  I did explore it for a couple of days, found it useless and cancelled my account.  Call me a curmudgeon.

'Mah Jong' literally means 'the twittering of the sparrows' in Chinese, and it refers to the sound of the shuffling game tiles.  On weekend nights that lovely clattering sound wafts down from the Clan Association upstairs.  That's the only Twittering I need in my life.  So call me a Luddite curmudgeon.

I've reconsidered the idea of a blog, though, et voila -- I'm launching this one:  Bookface.

My face is stuck into a book -- either literally or figuratively, as I often listen to audio books -- for much of each day.  Like many readers, I underline passages that resonate with me, or fold over the corners of pages, or jot a few lines down on scraps of paper or on the kitchen wall tiles.  When I listen to audio, I most often just have the fleeting thought, Oh, say, that was profound, or eloquent, or clever... but I rarely take the time to stop and rewind.  Besides reading my own print and audio books, I'm recording audio books for the blind, which gives me another 6-8 hours per week of face-in-book.  I've tried keeping a notebook and pen with me when I read, but that has not worked well because my handwriting is slow and laborious.

My friend Charlene started her blog, the Life of Blackie007,  primarily to record the places that she and her husband have gone out to eat.  It's an historical record that they can return to when they struggle to recall where they had that fantastic char kuay teow or sumptuous lala beehoon.  I love that she's keeping this food diary in a blog, because the rest of us can benefit from her restaurant reviews, and it also gives me a glimpse at her life, as she sneaks in tidbits about her cats, her Adam Lambert fetish, and her frustrations with Malaysian politics.

In the same vein, I'd like to keep a record of what I've read, whether the entries are verbose or just a title and author when a book leaves me cold.  I could keep a private book diary, of course.  My purpose in making it public in this way is to invite comments, contradictions, recommendations and curses from other people whose faces are often buried in books.

So, welcome!