Tuesday, April 23, 2013

542. The Crow Road – Iain Banks

History: This book was published in 1992.
Plot: This Bildungsroman is set in the fictional Argyll town of Gallanach (by its description, reminiscent of Oban but on the north east shore of Loch Crinan), the real village of Lochgair, and in Glasgow where Prentice McHoan lives. Prentice's uncle Rory has disappeared eight years previous while writing a book called The Crow Road. Prentice becomes obsessed with papers his uncle left behind and sets out to solve the mystery. Along the way he must cope with estrangement from his father, unrequited love, sibling rivalry, and failure at his studies.
The estrangement from his father concerns belief in God or an afterlife. Prentice cannot accept a universe without some higher power, some purpose; he can't believe that people can just cease to exist when they die. His father dogmatically denies the existence of God, universal purpose, and the afterlife.
A parallel plot is Prentice's gradual transition from an adolescent fixation on one young woman to a more mature love for another.
Prentice's efforts to piece together Uncle Rory's fragmentary notes and the minimal clues surrounding his disappearance mirror his efforts to make sense of the world, love, and life in general. The narrative is also fragmentary, leaping days, months, years, or decades back and forth with little or no warning, so the reader must also piece things together.
Review: Lots of people take the crow road in this book as we follow the narrator, Prentice McHoan, a student from the fictional town of Gallanach in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. He’s the classic young man on a journey, and he’s got a quest - to find a missing person - but along the way he has lots of sex, drink and drugs, and has his heart broken and mended. Everything a growing boy needs, in fact.
Prentice is drawn into a family mystery involving the disappearance of his favourite uncle, Rory McHoan - a peaceable, bohemian, motorbiking travel writer. When we begin, Rory's been gone for years, but the mystery takes a new twist after the death of Prentice's grandmother brings him back to Gallanach from Glasgow, where he's been studying.
At the funeral, Prentice meets up with his auntie Janice, uncle Rory's partner at the time of his disappearance. After bedding her - and it wouldn't be an Iain Banks book without some form of taboo-busting smut - Prentice comes into possession of some of Rory's papers and a few ancient computer disks. This unfinished writing project is called "The Crow Road".
In deciphering it, Prentice lifts the lid on secrets that plague the lives of his family - including his father, Kenneth, a children's writer and committed atheist, his uncle Fergus, who owns the local glassware factory, and also his childhood friend Ashley, whose uncle Lachlan, you might say, has one eye on events.
There's a mystery story - two, in fact, if we separate the quest to find out what happened to Rory and the struggle to reactivate and decipher his wonky old computer disks - but it's not a mystery novel. And despite the bildungsroman framing, Prentice's journey isn't the sole driver of the plot, either. This book has otherworldly concerns on its mind; in examining very big things in microcosm through Prentice's family, we gain an understanding of sorts about the universe - or at least, we form a truce with our own curiosity as to what it's all about. We miss a lot of things, Banks says. Often the greatest truths are right there under our nose.
Opening Line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Closing Line: “I thought of Ashley, on the other side of that ocean, and wondered what she was doing right now, and hoped that she was well, and happy, and maybe thinking of me, and then I just stood there, grinning like a fool, and took a deep, deep breath of that sharp, smoke-scented air and raised my arms to the open sky, and said, ‘Ha!’
Quotes: “People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots; they can be politicians and idiots... in fact I think they have to be... a genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots; it is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement.”
Rating: Uninteresting

541: Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison

History: This book was published in 1977. The novel has faced several challenges and bans in schools throughout the U.S. since 1993. As recently as 2010, the novel was challenged and later reinstated at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, IN. Shortlist.com listed Song of Solomon as Barack Obama's favorite book in its list: "40 favorite books of famous people".
Plot: Macon "Milkman" Dead III, derives his nickname from the fact that he was breastfed during childhood (Macon's age can be inferred as he was wearing pants with elastic instead of a diaper, and that he later forgets the event, suggesting he was still rather young). Milkman's father's employee, Freddie, happens to see him through the window being breastfed by his mother. He quickly gains a reputation for being a "Momma's boy" in direct contrast to his (future) best friend, Guitar, who is motherless and fatherless.
Milkman has two sisters, "First Corinthians" and "Magdelene called Lena." The daughters of the family are named by putting a pin in the Bible, while the eldest son is named after his father. The first Macon Dead's name was the result of an administrative error when Milkman's grandfather had to register subsequent to the end of slavery.
Milkman's mother (Ruth Foster Dead) is the daughter of the town's only black doctor; she makes her husband feel inadequate, and it is clear she idolized her father, Doctor Foster, to the point of obsession. After her father dies, her husband claims to have found her in bed with the dead body, sucking his fingers. Ruth later tells Milkman that she was kneeling at her father's bedside kissing the only part of him that remained unaffected by the illness from which he died. These conflicting stories expose the problems between his parents and show Milkman that "truth" is difficult or impossible to obtain. Macon (Jr.) is often violently aggressive towards Ruth because he believes that she was involved sexually with her father and loved her father more than her own husband. On one occasion, Milkman punches his father after he strikes Ruth, exposing the growing rift between father and son.
In contrast, Macon Dead Jr.'s sister, Pilate, is seen as nurturing—an Earth Mother character. Born without a navel, she is a somewhat mystical character. It is strongly implied that she is Divine—a female Christ-in spite of her name. Macon (Jr.) has not spoken to his sister for years and does not think highly of her. She, like Macon, has had to fend for herself from an early age after their father's murder, but she has dealt with her past in a different way than Macon, who has embraced money as the way to show his love for his father. Pilate has a daughter, Reba, and a granddaughter named Hagar. Hagar falls desperately and obsessively in love with Milkman, and is unable to cope with his rejection, attempting to kill him at least six times.
Hagar is not the only character who attempts to kill Milkman. Guitar, Milkman's erstwhile best friend, tries to kill Milkman more than once after incorrectly suspecting that Milkman has cheated him out of hidden gold, a fortune he planned to use to help his Seven Days group fund their revenge killings in response to killings of blacks.
Searching for the gold near the old family farm in Pennsylvania, Milkman stops at the rotting Butler Mansion, former home of the people who killed his ancestor to claim the farm. Here he meets Circe, an almost supernaturally old ex-slave of the Butlers. She tells Milkman of his family history and this leads him to the town of Shalimar. There he learns his great-grandfather Solomon was said to have escaped slavery by flying back to Africa, leaving behind twenty-one children and his wife Ryna, who goes crazy with loss. Returning home, he learns that Hagar has died of a broken heart. He accompanies Pilate back to Shalimar, where she is accidentally shot and killed by Guitar, who had intended to kill Milkman.
At the end of the novel, Milkman leaps towards Guitar. This leap is ambiguous, it is not explicitly stated that either or both is killed. However it brings the novel full circle from the suicidal "flight" of Robert Smith, the insurance agent, to Milkman's "flight" in which he learns to fly like Pilate
Review: Toni Morrison’s first two books -- ''The Bluest Eye'' with the purity of its terrors and ''Sula'' with its dense poetry and the depth of its probing into a small circle of lives -- were strong novels. Yet, firm as they both were in achievement and promise, they didn't fully forecast her new book, ''Song of Solomon.'' Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives. The result is a long prose tale that surveys nearly a century of American history as it impinges upon a single family. In short, this is a full novel -- rich, slow enough to impress itself upon us like a love affair or a sickness -- not the two-hour penny dreadful which is again in vogue nor one of the airless cat's cradles custom-woven for the delight and job-assistance of graduate students of all ages.
''Song of Solomon'' isn't, however, cast in the basically realistic mode of most family novels. In fact, its negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory are so organic, continuous and unpredictable as to make any summary of its plot sound absurd; but absurdity is neither Morrison's strategy nor purpose. The purpose seems to be communication of painfully discovered and powerfully held convictions about the possibility of transcendence within human life, on the time-scale of a single life. The strategies are multiple and depend upon the actions of a large cast of black Americans, most of them related by blood. But after the loving, comical and demanding polyphony of the early chapters (set in Michigan in the early 1930's), the theme begins to settle on one character and to develop around and out of him.
His name is Macon Dead, called ''Milkman'' because his mother nursed him well past infancy. He is the son of an upper middle-class Northern black mother and a father with obscure working-class Southern origins. These origins, which Milkman's father is intent on concealing, fuel him in a merciless drive toward money and safety -- over and past the happiness of wife and daughters and son. So the son grows up into chaos and genuine danger -- the homicidal intentions of a woman he spurned after years of love, and an accidental involvement with a secret ring of lifelong acquaintances who are sworn to avenge white violence, eye for eye.
Near midpoint in the book -- when we may begin to wonder if the spectacle of Milkman's apparently thwarted life is sufficient to hold our attention much longer -- there is an abrupt shift. Through his involvement with his father's sister, the bizarre and anarchic Pilate (whose dedication to life and feeling is directly opposed to her brother's methodical acquisition of things), and with Guitar, one of the black avengers, Milkman is flung out of his private maelstrom. He is forced to discover, explore, comprehend and accept a world more dangerous than the Blood Bank (the ghetto neighborhood of idle eccentrics, whores, bullies and lunatics, which he visited as a boy). But this world is also rewarding, as it opens into the larger, freer sphere of time and human contingency and reveals the possibility of knowing one's origins and of realizing the potential found in the lives, failures and victories of one's ancestors.
Although it begins as a hungry hunt for a cache of gold that his father and Pilate left in a cave in Virginia, Milkman's search is finally a search for family history. As he travels through Pennsylvania and Virginia, acquiring the jagged pieces of a story that he slowly assembles into a long pattern of courage and literal transcendence of tragedy, he is strengthened to face the mortal threat that rises from his own careless past to meet him at the end.
The end is unresolved. Does Milkman survive to use his new knowledge, or does he die at the hands of a hateful friend? The hint is that he lives -- in which case Toni Morrison has her next novel ready and waiting: Milkman's real manhood, the means he invents for transmitting or squandering the legacy he has discovered.
But that very uncertainty is one more sign of the book's larger truthfulness (no big, good novel has ever really ended; and none can, until it authoritatively describes the extinction from the universe of all human life); and while there are problems (occasional abortive pursuits of a character who vanishes, occasional luxuriant pauses on detail and the understandable but weakening omission of active white characters), ''Song of Solomon'' easily lifts above them on the wide slow wings of human sympathy, well-informed wit and the rare plain power to speak wisdom to other human beings. A long story, then, and better than good. Toni Morrison has earned attention and praise. Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wise and spacious novel.
Opening Line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life insurance agent, promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three oclock.”
Closing Line: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Quotes: “She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it's there, because it can't hurt, and because what difference does it make?”
Rating: Good

540. Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

History: This book was published in 1989.
Plot: Set in 17th century London, Sexing the Cherry is about the journeys of a mother, known as The Dog Woman, and her protégé, Jordan. They journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits such as bananas and pineapples; and across time, with glimpses of "the present" and references to Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell. The mother’s physical appearance is somewhat "grotesque". She is a giant, wrapped in a skirt big enough to serve as a ship’s sail and strong enough to fling an elephant. She is also hideous, with smallpox scars in which fleas live, a flat nose and foul teeth. Her son, however, is proud of her, as no other mother can hold a good dozen oranges in her mouth all at once. Ultimately, their journey is a journey in search of The Self.
Review: The central relationship is between Jordan and the Dog Woman. It is a savage love, an unorthodox love, it is family life carried to the grotesque, but it is not a parody or a negative. The boisterous surrealism of their bond is in the writing itself. By writing the familiar into the strange, by wording the unlovely into words-as-jewels, what is outcast can be brought home. I have also thought of myself as an outcast, but I have made myself a territory by writing it. Sexing the Cherry is a cross-time novel in the same way that The Passion is cross-gender. The narrative moves through time, but also operates outside it. At the centre of the book are the stories of the Twelve Dancing Princess, each only a page long, written as a kind of fugue. The stories aren't just parachuted in there, they are integral to the whole, in just the same way that the Percival stories are integral to Oranges. That is, they tell us something we need to know to interpret the book.
Opening Line: “My name is Jordan.”
Closing Line: “Empty space and points of light.”
Quotes: “The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has had a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can't describe myself I can't ask for help.”
Rating: Okay.