Thursday, October 30, 2008

Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules by Jeanette Winterson

This short book by Jeanette Winterson is part of The Myths series in which contemporary writers are commissioned to retell the ageless myths in contemporary ways.

Winterson takes the Greek myth of Atlas whose punishment was to shoulder the weight of the world apart from the brief relief given by Hercules when he took a turn with the globe.

The author writes with gusto and is eager to retell the story “that through the noisy din of life other voices might be heard, speaking of the life and the soul’s journey.” (pxvi)

This is a fresh retelling of a familiar story in which with freedom and license Winterson adds perspectives and conversation, questions and eroticism that will grip twenty-first century readers. The author speaks to the craving of contemporary readers:

“Right now, human beings as a mass have a gruesome appetite for what they call ‘real’, whether it’s Reality TV or the kind of plodding fiction that only works as low-grade documentary, or at the better end, the factual programmes and biographies and ‘true life’ accounts that occupy the space where imagination used to sit.” (pxv)

Winterson successfully satisfies this appetite by telling the story in a way that is real and which connects with everyday yearnings of modern people.

This book feels the load of Atlas by playing on the motif of ‘weight’. Winterson reveals some of the heaviest weights that people carry—the burdens of loneliness, tradition, freedom and choice.

Adopting the imagery of soil and stone, Winterson is not confined by chronos and moves freely between the strata of the Greeks to the level of the readers with links into the sediment of her personal story.

The myth is told in the first person—through the eyes and from the perspective of Atlas but with the additional emphasis and comments of the writer. However, at the third quarter of the story, Winterson gets autobiographical, telling how the myth connects with her life. She foreshadows this in the introduction, admitting that her aim is more for authenticity than autobiography:

“The writer must fire herself through the text, be the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements. I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real.” (pxv)

The transition from Atlas to Winterson is surprisingly clunky. While readers will enjoy the exposure and appreciate the transparency of the storyteller one wonders how essential or helpful this direction is to the theme and the aim of the book. Is the storyteller’s disclosure intended to serve as a model to help readers forge their connection with the story? This is not a big problem but one is left musing whether Winterson is offering an unnecessary application, like interpreting a parable or explaining a joke.

Winterson is thoughtful, playful, imaginative, and she sustains interest throughout the story. Her humour and enjoyment for pushing the boundaries is most apparent when Hercules gets the hots for ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Hera, to such an extent that “his prick kept filling and deflating like a pair of fire bellows.” (p41)

This book provokes and like all good stories it has a twist in its tail with the storyteller possessing many things up her sleeve that at any moment can appear and knock you flat.

Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules (Edinburgh, New York, Melbourne: Canongate, 2005).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 72.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules; Jeanette Winterson.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

This is the story of a journey made by Lev from the poverty and sameness of Eastern Europe to England in search of work and wealth. It is a journey of grief as Lev seeks to shed the crippling loss of his dead wife in search of healing and solace.

Tremain traces the journey of a migrant—an ‘economic migrant’ not an ‘asylum seeker’—who mentally lives in two worlds, amid grief and hospitality and one who experiences a generosity of welcome shadowed by loneliness, being different and disconnection. With acute observation the author paints pictures of the migrant—the aimless walking, the worry of having the right denomination of money, the exhaustion of doing everything in another language, the power of smoking to mask hunger pangs and falling asleep with the companionship of a vodka bottle. (p21)

The Road Home portrays the new migrant’s dogged determination to keep walking on the road without falling:

“Homelessness, hunger, these things just had to be borne for a while Lev told himself.” (p43)

Further down the migrant’s road:

“Then, before the cigarette was gone Lev knew that he was falling….falling helplessly into sleep. He had time to reach out, to extinguish the cigarette, and then he surrendered to the long fall. All he understood was that he had to try to rise up, to get free of his wooden cross, to resume his road.” (p44-45)

The Road Home is a journey of memory. The book reveals the crippling and haunting power of painful memories. It also pictures the positive sides of memory—how randomly and spontaneously places on the journey can return to thrill and people formerly encountered can appear and call in surprising and beneficial ways.

This book graphs the journey of a dream. It reveals the capacity of a dream to resurrect and give a firm footing. Lev develops what he calls his ‘Great Idea’ which urges him forward on the road as the details are disclosed and the dimensions worked out. Yet there is always a realistic ambivalence as Lev wonders if his ‘Great Idea’ has substance or whether he is merely “gawping at shadows.” (p296)

Through achieving targets and milestones on the journey Lev becomes hopeful, enthusiastic and filled with ardor for his project. Whether the dream materializes or not Lev learns that a great dream gives something to cling to and helps to quell his tormenting memories. Later and looking back, he is able to testify that “dreams are what’s got me by!” (p348)

Lev draws sustenance for the journey from other sources. Reading the Shakespearean play, Hamlet, he sees some parallels in his own life and he comes to affirm that “Words written long, long ago could travel beside you, and help you at moments when you could no longer see the road.” (p313)

Rose Tremain writes with an effortless style in descriptions that are captivatingly detailed and often humorous. In introducing Lydia, a fellow-traveler to “a separate future in the unknown city” of London, the author describes her as “a contained person with moles like splashes of mud on her face.” Later Lydia is referred to as the “mole-flecked woman” with Lev studying “her face with its martyrdom of moles.” (p6)

Like a talented musician, Tremain uses words and phrases to play a wide range of emotions. She expresses the searing loneliness of the migrant, the inadequacy in a new culture, the unbearable abandonment and the volcanic rage that burns away many opportunities. In particular, the author is masterful when picturing Lev’s sense of losing touch with where he was, the instability of a migrant’s life and the dread that mars normality by the thought that a crushing catastrophe is just around the corner. Her clever arrangement reveal how tiredness, bad dreams, black thoughts and the feeling of being adrift all contribute to a inescapable blanket of heaviness and misery. The different themes of love are described from the love that is poisoned by unfaithfulness to the innocent and uncomplicated love of a liaison.

Rose Tremain, The Road Home (London: Vintage Books, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Road Home.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

This octave of short stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is connected by its focus on Indians who move from the sub-continent to different countries. The book states what many have observed, that “Indians are everywhere these days.” But how do they survive and do they succeed?

This book examines Nathaniel Hawthorne’s thesis penned in The Custom-House and from which Lahiri obtained her title:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

Lahiri does not swallow Hawthorne’s argument hook, line and sinker but she allows her readers to consider its validity through the characters whose stories she tells. Lahiri looks at Bengalis who become replanted and raised in the soil of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and those who visit Italy and Thailand. She looks at representatives from different generations and subtly asks what is happening to them through their journey of migration, the seesawing of the heart between India and the new homelands, their movement through the predictable stages of life and the kaleidoscope of grief, memory, lament and celebration.

For instance Ruma’s father is an elderly man who pops up in several of the stories. Now based in the USA he visits Ruma (who is married to an American) and her family. His grandson asks his mother why Grandpa takes his shoes off before coming inside the house. This custom is one of many examples about which readers ask, “In this transplantation process what customs do they retain in the new soil? What do they shed? What do they miss? What do they gain?”

The author is a traveler who has gained much from her journeys for her descriptions and drama draw heavily on close observation in such Italian locations as Volterra and Siena. Lahiri’s exquisite detail is attractive and adds charm to her writing. She writes not about whiskey but about a bottle of Johnnie Walker, not about sitting in front of the television but watching The Brady Bunch, not about perfume but Chanel No. Five (whose fragrance readers can recognize), not about cooking but the heavy smell of curry on the kitchen stove.

In addition to her observation powers is Lahiri’s depth of reflection. Consider the wisdom in this cameo:

“There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.” (p27)

Ponder these thoughts of Ruma’s father who had been invited to stay permanently with Ruma and her family but who at the end of his visit was coming to this conclusion:

“Being here for a week, however pleasant, had only confirmed the fact. He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter’s life, in the shadow of her marriage.” (p53)

Like delphiniums or hydrangeas, whether these representative characters fail or flourish depends upon their commitment to personal care, the tending they receive from others and the harshness of the elements that make up their new sphere.

But what is the mark of successful transplantation? American university degrees framed and hung in the family gallery? Possessing a well-paid job with a reputation that others admire? Getting married and nurturing your growing brood? Will an Indian (or Italian) who has successfully negotiated the migration process feel at home in the new country or is it an achievement and an advantage to feel like Edward Said always felt, ‘out of place’?

Lahiri writes of Bengalis who have moved from Calcutta to Chicago where they spend much of their time attending ‘Bengali cultural circles’, and their American-born grandchildren who like KFC more than curry and who cannot speak more than a greeting in Bangla. But beyond the more noticeable customs of language, food and removal of shoes Lahiri grapples with how the transplantation affects morals and values. She writes of a Bengali-American family whose children do not stay at home until they get married but who leave home to go to College. In this new rite of passage there is anxiety and excitement for the young men and women as they encounter much consumption of Budweiser and sexual experimentation. The delight and dread and the love-hate feelings of the older generation in America are expressed by Sudha’s mother:

“That’s the problem with this country. Too many freedoms, too much having fun. When we were young, life wasn’t always about having fun.” (p143)

Unaccustomed Earth is about soil and sunlight, flowers and weeds, uprooting and replanting. This is a book to relish, an octave that stretches and twangs the emotions, an open-ended thesis that calls readers to provide the answers, a mirror to observe one’s growth and vitality.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth (New York, Toronto: Alfred A Knopf, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 90.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Jhumpa Lahiri; Front cover of Unaccustomed Earth.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

This reprinted book illustrates the power of publicity. In the preface to this 2004 edition Barack Obama said that when the book was first released in 1995 the sales were ‘underwhelming’. Since he became US Senator and Vice Presidential nominee the book has become the ‘No. 1 International Bestseller’. The author’s honesty about the weak impact of his newly published book, his assessment that the volume is a little long and his recognition that the telling of the story left him feeling ‘exposed and even slightly ashamed’ are examples of his honesty and transparency.

As Joan Didion acknowledged that she writes in order to learn what she is thinking, Barack Obama’s journey in ink fulfils a similar purpose. After finishing law school at Harvard University he took time to write a book about the current state of race relations in America. He later said: “I found my mind pulled toward rockier shores. First longings leapt up to brush my heart. Distant voices appeared, and ebbed, and then appeared again.” (xiv)

This book became the record of a sacred search—his search for his father, his search for his identity, his search to understand his mixed heritage amid broken and lost relationships, his search to understand what it means to be black and in particular, a black American. The author says that the book is not strictly autobiographical in the sense of ‘summing up’ but more the beginnings of a literary family album and a book of questions. Among many questions in this book Obama asks:
Who am I?
What does it mean to be black?
Where do I belong?
What am I to do in life?
Who is my family?
Where does faith come from?
What sort of faith do I need?
Where is home?
What does it mean to come home?

These are personal questions yet most of them are universal questions. His answers are therefore helpful to readers, not because Obama provides ready-made answers but for his helpful pointers as people make their own journey. His loneliness and perplexity about his identity and the lack of help from others finds candid expression when he writes:

“Away from mother, and away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.” (36)

The author is appreciative of the sacrifices made by some of his family members and is frank about the somewhat messy, scary and at times disappointing process of meeting family members for the first time, yet the sharing of these stories gives him a sense of place and purpose.

This book is indirectly a guide to personal pilgrimage, an invitation to consider one’s own story and join the dots, to begin filling in the gaps and find the jigsaw pieces that gradually reveal a picture that is a mixed blessing and one that is never finished. An example of a practical pointer about making a journey of one’s heritage comes from the lips of Barack’s African grandmother when she says to him, “A man can never be too busy to know his own people.” (377)

Obama demonstrates what it means to explore one’s history as the book shows him on a visit to Africa, searching, yearning, observing, listening, discovering and collecting. About his African grandfather he says, “If I could just piece together his story, I thought, then, perhaps everything else might fall into place.” (372)

The book records not only a gathering of family information but a journey from aimlessness to the development of strong convictions. As his mother said to him while he was young, “If you want to grow into a human being you’re going to need some values.” (41)

The author of this book is a wordsmith who searches for the right word, delights in his discovery and comes to realize the sheer power of words. During a visit by his father to the USA and to his school young Barack was amazed at the way his father spoke and captivated his classmates. This set the boy on another journey that began with these words: “If I could just find the right words…” (106)

A glimpse into the way Obama has found the right words and possesses the eye of a poet is found in this record of his safari in Kenya:

“And there, on the other side of the rise, I saw as beautiful a land as I’d ever seen. It swept out forever, flat plains undulating into gentle hills, dun-colored and as supple as a lion’s back, creased by long gallery forests and dotted with thorn trees. To our left, a huge herd of zebra, ridiculously symmetrical in their stripes, harvested the wheat-colored grass; to our right, a troop of gazelle leaped into bush. And in the center, thousands of wildebeest, with mournful heads and humped shoulders that seemed too much for their slender legs to carry.” (351)

One of the few unsatisfying things about this book is the epilogue and the way Obama crams many important life events and his feelings about these into a few lines. His changing attitudes, his marriage to Michelle and the death of her father are dealt with in mere headlines. Realizing that his is an unfinished story it may have been better to omit these references altogether.

This is an important book for understanding the person who has and will continue to make a vital contribution to the stories of America and our world. Dreams from my Father is a valuable story that may serve as a mirror in which readers will see themselves and will be helped by the author’s courage to take an interior journey, to ask the questions and confront the answers that we both seek and fear.

Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1995, 2007)

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 68.00.

Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, is posted at this link on Reviewing Books and Movies.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front covers of two editions of Dreams From My Father.