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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

Started 11/28, finished 11/30

I think Hem is everything they say he is, both good and bad. I love him when his characters are sitting around the bistros of Paris having drinks and being silly. I love him when he laments the fate of F. Scott Fitzgerald's career. I love him when he tries to explain the "tragic figure of the bull" to people who will never understand (I may well be among them). I love him when his Cuban fisherman doesn't understand that he can't win, so he does it anyway.

We say that writers are on a quest for truth, and that what "truth" means from one to the other is as different as could be. For some authors it's difficult to tell what truth they're after, but for Hem I don't know how much clearer it could be. Every word he wrote sought out the truth of courage in the face of futility. That's how I would put it. His characters led lives that far surpassed expectations of physical limitation and endurance, and yet they faced these odds without hesitation, with absolute faith in their abilities, even overriding what their intellect told them.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago knows he shouldn't go out so far. He shouldn't catch this fish, because the people who will eat it won't be deserving of its death. He shouldn't go farther than his food supply can reasonably support.

But he can't stop.

Once the fish is on the hook, only one will survive. Santiago is not Ahab. He doesn't believe the fish to be the great manifestation of evil (I'm sure a thousand essays have been written comparing the two), but his survival depends on its death. His respect for the fish outweighs his respect for most human beings, but he has no choice. He has to kill it in order to live.

This is a common theme in Hemingway's life as well as his work: Death in the Afternoon is 400 pages of non-fiction accounts of bullfights. Hem was an active hunter of big game and big fish, and he fought in every major war America was involved in, and a few that they weren't. The difference between Hemingway and Santiago, and I suspect that it's an important one, is that Hemingway volunteered for most of his quests, whereas Santiago didn't know how to live otherwise.

I've always tried to figure out what Hem is going for with all this, this death and violence. What question is he asking? He wasn't on a quest to spread truth but to discover it through tragedy, staged or not, as he went through his own adrenaline-charged life. I must admit I share his fascination with the question, even though I'm not prepared to participate to the extent that he did. Maybe he discovered it the day he sucked down a shotgun shell. Maybe it was exactly as grim as he had hinted at in this story as in many others. Maybe I need to live a bit longer before I can judge him in his decisions.

Predator vs prey, life vs death, man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself...

All of these conflicts raged in every page Hem wrote. Except, of course, the bookends to his career... those were more like "man vs his own willie": one because he can't use it, the other because he can't stop.

Book #25 will be Night, by Elie Wiesel


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Orhan Pamuk Sums It Up

I wanted to post Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize acceptance speech because I need to keep it with me. I don't want to have to wonder where I found it or try to remember parts of it. Anyone who wants to produce a genuinely good novel should read this and fairly memorize it. Pamuk's My Name is Red is on my stack of books for next year, and I may promote it after finding this.

The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write?

I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—just as in a dream—I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy.

I write to be happy.

Thanks to The Elegant Variation for bringing it to my attention.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Bleachers, by John Grisham

Yeah, yeah, I know. Street cred out the window. I'll hang my head in shame just after I put one more tick on the ol' book-o-meter. I won't apologize for reading it, but I will try to get to #26 instead of stopping at #25.

So, Lincoln was supposed to be next. What happened?

NaNoWriMo got in the way. Football season got in the way. The fact that its 600 pages are rather dense in content got in the way. It was a bad choice for a year in which I'm trying to read more for quantity than quality. The funny thing is that I post-dated my review of Lincoln to August 31 way back when I started it. I usually work on a review while I'm reading it, then play this little game with myself where I predict the finish date. This was my least accurate yet. By three months. I was on pace to read more like 35 or 40 for the year, but Mr. Vidal's rich prose and deep attention to detail (there I go giving away the lead) made me want to take my time and savor the experience. I'll pick it up again in January. I'm about halfway through, so it might take a while.

You read your second John Grisham ever. What was it like?

Well, given that I love football and that I HATED the other Grisham I read (The Chamber), it wasn't as excruciating as I had feared.

Any regrets?

It only took about 2.5 hours to read... it takes longer longer than that to watch three quarters of a lousy football game, so nah. Any longer and I might have.

So, reading Bleachers was better than three quarters of a lousy football game?

Did you watch that Seattle-Green Bay game Monday night? It should have been called The Old Man and the Seahawks (get it? Because Brett Favre is about to retire, and... nevermind). Any more like that and I may have to buy Grisham's entire catalogue. Thank God they haven't cancelled Studio 60 yet. Oh yeah, I read over a hundred pages of Bleachers during the 4th quarter.

Let's segue into the book, while we're talking about football. Isn't that what Bleachers is about?

I guess. It's a tender story about a man reuniting with his high school football team on the eve of their head coach's death. He hasn't been back to the school in 15 years, since the night he won the state championship and broke his hand in the locker room at halftime. The reason is a little mysterious.

Sounds intriguing.

Yeah? Well, you'd think so.

So, what was good about it?

The description of "The Game" was good. The former players gather at their high school stadium and sit in the bleachers as they await word on the old man. One of the players from the state championship team of '87 brings a tape player along and they listen to the broadcast from the winning game. The pacing is good and it's pretty easy to follow. You probably need some knowledge of football in order to get the most out of it, like the significance of the coaching team's absence--if you were a soccer fan this would be nothing. Soccer managers sit and get drunk with the fans. You'd also need to know why it's so unusual that a team wouldn't throw a single pass in two quarters.

Why is it unusual?

Here, let me help you. I could explain it, in fact I could probably have a whole blog about football, but there I see it: street cred whittling away by the word...

So, back to Bleachers, the players are sitting on bleachers listening to the game and waiting for the coach to die. What happens?

They win. He dies.

Is that it?

Well, they have a nice memorial service for him. They even get a former player of his out of prison on a 24-hour pass to attend the funeral.

Awwww, that's sweet.

Ain't it?

What was he in jail for?

Who cares?

Does it explain about the quarterback's broken hand and why the coaches aren't on the field after halftime?

Sure. It's riveting.

Seriously, though, the best part of the book was another mystery where the QB goes to see his old high school girlfriend. Why did he break up with her all those years ago? What does he hope to gain with this reunion? That was good because it afforded the main character a point of humanity--he screwed up because he was a stupid kid and he wants to apologize. And no, they don't get back together. That was handled pretty well.

Any complaints?

Have you read a Grisham before?

A couple. C'mon, they're good!

Whenever I read something that makes me turn the pages, but where I'm constantly griping about the writing style, I can't quite bring myself to call it "good". The Chamber was another example. As is anything written by Dan Brown. When people display no care or love of the language they use, they piss me off. They do it moreso when they employ cheap tactics and tricks to keep me turning pages. Yes, I bought it. Yes, he got me. Yes, I think he accomplished everything he set out to accomplish, but what I'm saying is that I can't respect him as a Good Writer.

You take Roth or Franzen or even Chuck Palahniuk. Take Rushdie or Vidal or even Greg Iles. For God's sake, take Nabokov. They write stuff that harpoons you through the soul, and they do it with "love of language" as a foundation. Not like Clancy or Brown or Grisham, who most likely regard the actual writing as a by-product. That is the trunk from which their every branch emanates. How many more metaphors can I throw at it? All the energy they have for the story they write--it's injected into a universe where every word matters. They don't rely on cliche or archetype. They assume that you don't want everything explained to you. No, they refuse to explain everything to you. That's the way I write, and that's why I don't have all that much respect Grisham, and I don't like reading him.

This is not to say people shouldn't read Grisham. What the hell do I care what you bring on an airplane? What I'm saying is, it's not for me. I dip into this pool once or twice a year, and I never regret it. It gives me a chance to see "what's selling", it clarifies my own views on the kind of writing I want to do, and it gives me something to talk about over lunch with my father. I once recommended The Alienist by Caleb Carr and I still haven't heard the end of it. Imagine if I recommended Atonement!

Well, nice to know you're not a snob or anything, your highness.


What's next?

Book #23 will be The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway.

Oh, wow. I could never get into Hemingway.

And *scene*.