Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Color Purple

by Alice Walker
1982

Celie, just 14 years old when the book opens, tells God (or her diary, or herself), of how she has been raped, abused, and twice impregnated by her father. When she gives birth, he takes the children away, then marries her off to a man who is so cold and uncaring that he is referred to only as “Mr.” Her husband attempts to seduce, then drives off, Celie’s only friend, her sister Nettie. Celie becomes both unwilling wife and reluctant mother figure to Mr’s feckless son Harpo, but her life is as drab and lacking in love as a farm mule’s. Her life changes when Mr’s mistress, the singer Shug Avery, comes into her life. At first cold, Shug is later charmed by Celie’s kindness and shows Celie that she is also a woman deserving of love and respect. Celie is eventually able to say, famously, “I may be black, I may be poor, I maybe a woman, and I may even be ugly! But thank God I'm here." Her renaissance and new-found self-esteem throws the household into turmoil, but it also makes the men take a second look at how they run their lives. There are ups and downs after that, of course – this isn’t a book with easy resolutions – Nettie is found and lost again, Shug leaves to go on tour and finds new love, Harpo’s headstrong wife leaves him, then is imprisoned – but Celie now has dreams and hopes now, and can find the strength to face challenges and loss.

I found this to be a moving story, brilliantly told. Walker is telling a powerful story full of tragedy and redemption and heartbreaking loss, but she doesn't play cheap with the reader's emotions (I take some elements of the ending to be somewhat allegorical). Bad things happen to good people, and all the good people can do is find the strength to carry on. This strength comes, Walker seems to say, from deep love for one another, and (to a lesser extent) a network of friends and family who will fight for you. Celie is an astounding character, telling her story plainly, without complaint of the injustice, even with wry humor at times (especially when discussing the men in her life). She stands, I think, for the notion that one’s past doesn’t have to shape one’s present, or one’s attitude.

four stars

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Burglar In the Closet

by Lawrence Block
1978

Bernie Rhodenbarr, the debonair and non-violent burglar, is back, again implicated in a murder that takes place in the very domicile he is stealing from.  Bernie’s dentist knows he’s a burglar, and convinces him to rob the dentist’s ex-wife’s apartment, where she keeps a lot of jewelry.  She returns unexpectedly, and hiding in a closet, Bernie hears her death, but does not see her killer.  The dentist is not a likely suspect, since Bernie hit the place on a different day than the one agreed upon, but that leaves a list of possible lovers and acquaintances Bernie needs to look at to take the heat off himself.  It’s another charming, witty mystery; with his self-effacing yet urbane burglar, Block is as masterful at the comic caper as he is at the rough noir of Matthew Scudder’s world.  Bernie’s narration is highly entertaining, with zany plot turns and some offbeat characters to add to the lighthearted tone.  The main “reveal” of the killer’s name is less than ingenious, but on the whole it’s a clever book; it gets by on wit and charm.

four stars

[follows Burglars Can't Be Choosers] 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

American Shaolin

by Matthew Polly

As a high school student in Kansas, Polly discovered the intellectual world and began to apply himself, getting into Princeton, where he became enthralled with martial arts and Chinese studies.  After reading Mark Salzman’s Iron & Silk, Polly became determined to go to Shaolin to study kungfu.  This was in 1992, when there was little information available on Shaolin, and no World Wide Web to initiate global contact, so it took a bit of courage and a bit of temerity for Polly to fly to China, without an introduction or appointment, and ask to sign up for kungfu classes at the legendary temple – but that is exactly what he did.  Arriving in Beijing, he discovers that even the Chinese are not sure if Shaolin still exists, but he presses on anyway, and to his credit, he manages to arrive.  Not understanding the Chinese tradition of haggling (or extorting the foreigner), Polly agrees to an outrageous price to be taught kungfu at Shaolin, and his journey begins.

The account of Polly’s time in Shaolin is both hilarious and informative; it’s a coming-of-age story blended with a travelers-abroad tale.  Polly experiences all the shocks that China gives the Western traveler (I was interested to see that he describes his personality as splitting in two, an American Matthew Polly and the dopey, grinning Chinese version, always struggling to process what was going on – a phenomenon similar to that described by Peter Hessler in River Town; he also describes the same resentful, helpless feeling in the face of emotionless, unspeaking, staring crowds), but takes them in stride.  Eventually he is quite at home in Shaolin, distinguishes himself in kungfu tournaments, meets a few wastrel and pretender Westerners who follow in his footsteps, and even does the unthinkable: he dates a Chinese woman.  Polly’s memoir is a terrific read, but it’s also valuable in two main ways.  One, it documents the training process and some outstanding martial arts techniques studied at Shaolin, such as the Iron Forearm or Iron Head or Iron Dong (they all involve focusing qi through breathing and then punishing the specified body part daily until it is as tough as steel), which are fascinating.  Two, in addition to all the cultural mores that Polly diligently records (the little rituals of polite language that I find enthralling), because Polly revisits Shaolin ten years later, he is able to document how China has changed – not just in the ease of transport or shopping opportunities, but the emerging confidence and higher expectations of the Chinese people.  It’s an insightful, first-rate memoir.

five stars

Friday, April 12, 2013

Fraud

by David Rakoff

A collection of humorous essays, both autobiographical and based on journalistic assignments. A homosexual and a Jew, Rakoff plays up his neuroses and fears as he discusses his early career in publishing as the bottom rung of the assistant ladder; the cancer that forced him to leave Japan where he worked as a translator; his work as a bit actor in television. He’s self-effacing and funny, but also startlingly perspicacious; his insight on how teachers think (in his piece on Austrian cultural-exchange teachers in New York City) is full of empathy and understanding. He comes off as a far more erudite David Sedaris, name-dropping writers, classic movies, Freud’s Dora, and characters from literature, all with wit and √©lan (of a bluff old retired pilot who fixes up houses: “there’s a sad whiff of mortality… like watching ‘This Old House’ hosted by Beaudelaire”).

An actor, writer, spoken-word performer and not-too-bad draftsman (he did the chapter illustrations for this book), Rakoff comes off in this book as a talented man weighted down by fears and neuroses, the classic over-educated person whose very learning causes distress by revealing the complexity and indifference of the vast world – which made it all the sadder when I learned that he died of cancer last year. All of the pieces in this book have humor, pathos, and poignancy; they really do evoke a sense of being alone in the world. I enjoyed “In New England Everyone Calls You Dave,” an account of hiking up a small mountain in New Hampshire and how it brought to mind Rakoff’s ill-fated time on a kibbutz, and “Christmas Freud,” in which Rakoff plays Freud for a Christmas window at Barney’s, the most. They’re easily the funniest stories, and let Rakoff explore the absurd in the quotidian, and self-reflection in the absurd.

four stars

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power Of Expectations

by Chris Berdik

A collection of studies on how expectations and belief can control our performance, even our very biology. Investigating the fields of sports psychology (especially the reasons for top athletes’ “choking” in the clutch), medicine (with its use of placebos and their lesser-known opposites, nocebos), wine tasting (breaking down not only the experts’ claims for superior sensory discrimination but also their consistency), and others, Berdik shows the many and varied ways in which what we expect, even what we are explicitly told to expect, can influence our perception and ability. From actual fear reactions during virtual reality experiences to being rated as more leader-like simply after striking a certain pose, these studies confound and delighted me, as they do all those interested in how we can use the hard-wired functions of the brain to improve our everyday lives.

I don’t like reviewing a book for what it is not (which is like saying “this cupcake is bad, because it is not a donut”), but I was expecting there to be a practical aspect to all these studies: now that we know, for example, that studies prove that most people are overconfident about their abilities, what do we do? How does can we adapt these findings – such as that people who play taller, handsomer avatars in video games act more attractive in real life – to our work lives? Instead it was study after study, with no conclusion or general thesis. Fascinating, but not particularly cohesive or utile.

three stars