1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray

Hi, everybody. It’s Dave again. No worries, though. Kim will be back the next two weeks. Anyway, on to the book for this week.

I’ve run into a lot of books I was previously unfamiliar with in reading for this blog…but I wasn’t expecting 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray. I read the description and still didn’t quite get it, though the description didn’t convey much of the book as far as I was concerned. I was taken a bit by surprise to find a novel entirely contained within the thoughts of an aging alcoholic with a messed up life alternating between sadomasochistic fantasies and life introspection in a cheap Scottish motel room:

And I have placed this last bit of dialogue very carefully. Later, when Janine is trapped and trying to escape, she will remember that she was given a chance to leave and refused because of money. We all have a moment when the road forks and we take the wrong turning. Mine was when Helen told me she was pregnant and I said I needed a week and later the doorbell rang and, forget it, I opened the door and Mr Hume and his two sons walked straight past me and, forget it, stood in the middle of my own room, yes, my own room and FORGET IT. FORGET IT.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Madison Smartt Bell)

Yes, Jock McLeish is a nearing fifty drunk in a motel room out on the road where he supervises installation of security systems. His loves have crumbled over the years and he is lonely and unhappy. He drinks and fantasizes about women trapped against their will in humiliating and dangerous nonconsensual sexual situations. During this, sad memories of what has gone wrong in his life intrude.

The fantasies occupy much of the book at first, but more and more time is devoted to the sad things that Jock did in his life and things that were done to him. This began to humanize him for me and make me understand the fantasies more, though my reaction to the fantasies was still much more revulsion than titillation. Just how I respond personally to that kind of fantasy.

But there was a passage in particular that changed my reaction quite a bit:

I could not disagree. If I had not completely forgotten Obby Pobbly I wanted to forget him for I had started telling myself stories about a very free attractive greedy woman who, confident in her powers, begins an exciting adventure and finds she is not free at all but completely at the disposal of others. As I aged that story grew very elaborate. The woman is corrupted into enjoying her bondage and trapping others into it. I did not notice that this was the story of my own life. I avoided doing so by insisting on the femaleness of the main character. The parts of the story which came to excite me most were not the physical humiliations but the moment when the trap starts closing and the victim feels the torture of being in two minds: wanting to believe, struggling to believe, that what is happening cannot be happening, can only happen to someone else. And I was right to be excited by that moment because it is the moment when, with courage, we change things. Why should Janine feel helpless when she realizes Max has lied to her and is abducting her? He is driving a fast car along a motorway, his hands are occupied, if she removes on of her ridiculous shoes and threatens his eye with the heel he will certainly stop or change direction if he sees she is serious. But she is not used to acting boldly, she finds it easier to pretend Max is honest and decent, hoping her act will make him more so, and thus he drives her into the mire. My fancies keep reliving that moment of torture for Janine because I have never fully faced it in my own life and I am travelling in a circle again.

So, as you can see, 1982, Janine isn’t really about titillation or atrocities on other human beings. It’s more complicated. I still found much unsettling, but we get nowhere in life if we avoid works because they are unsettling. There is something being said here that needs to be heard over the stories of violation.

There are some interesting aspects to this book from a purely prose standpoint as well: meta-fiction, typographic manipulation, and other experimental techniques work in from time to time. However, there is only so much. For the most part, 1982, Janine is a strangely structured but mostly traditional narrative.

I found 1982, Janine to be an interesting mix of the disturbing and the mundane, the traditional and the experimental. There was a lot that pushed me a way and a lot that pulled at me, all adding up to a curious book. I’m still not sure quite how I feel about 1982, Janine as a whole, but it was well worth the read and more quietly human than I expected.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

You see a good number of books about the rich and powerful falling when the world around them changes. However, you don’t usually see it so quietly or calmly as it seemed to me in The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. A culture is lost in the depths of time, but it isn’t violent. It’s almost as velveteen and elegant as the prose.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Julian Barnes, 7th for Roxana Robinson, and 5th Jim Shepard.)

The Leopard centers on Don Fabrizio, a wealthy Sicilian prince with thousands of acres of estates a long, distinguished lineage. He is loyal to the Bourbon king. Unfortunately, the year is 1860. Garibaldi is about to land. The Bourbon king is about to go and the unification of Italy is coming.

Don Fabrizio sees this, he knows what is coming, but he doesn’t do a whole lot other than continue to live his life as he has. He doesn’t do much to stop it, or to aid it, or to come to terms with what is coming:

Never had he been so glad to be going to spend three months at Donnafugata as he was now, in that late August of 1860. Not only because he loved the house at Donnafugata, the people, the sense of feudal ownership surviving there, but also because, unlike other times, he felt no regret for his peaceful evenings in the observatory, his occasional visits to Mariannina. The truth was he had found the spectacle of Palermo in the last three months rather nauseating. He would have liked to have the fun of being the only one to understand the situation and accept that red-shirted “bogeyman” Garibaldi; but he had to admit that second sight was not a Salina monopoly. Everyone in Palermo seemed pleased; everyone except a mere handful of grumblers[.]”

Before Garibaldi, his nephew is a scamp for supporting insurrection, but Don Fabrizio still loves him. After Garibaldi comes, Don Fabrizio’s fortunes decline and a crass acquaintance gains more wealth and influence. Don Fabrizio would like his nephew to marry one of his daughters, but he knows that the marriage would be bad for the young man’s ambitions, as the match would not bring the young man much money or influence. Instead, he betrays his own daughter and encourages a marriage between his nephew and the daughter of the crass acquaintance.

Further, the new rulers court Don Fabrizio. They want him to help them rule. However, he declines. He instead recommends the crass acquaintance. He is declining, knows it, and is pretty ready for it to happen:

“I don’t deny that a few Sicilians may succeed in breaking the spell, once off the island; but they would have to leave it very young; by twenty it’s too late: the crust is formed; they will remain convinced that their country is badly calumniated, like all other countries, that the civilized norm is here, the oddities are elsewhere. But do please excuse me, Chevalley, I’ve let myself be carried away and I’ve probably bored you. You haven’t come all this way to hear Ezekiel deplore the misfortunes of Israel. Let us return to the subject of our conversation: I am most grateful to the Government for having thought of me for the Senate, and I ask you to express my most sincere gratitude to them. But I cannot accept. I am a member of the old ruling class, inevitably compromised with the Bourbon regime, and tied to it by chains of decency if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must have realized by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for wanting to guide others? We of our generation must draw aside and watch the capers and somersaults of the young around this ornate catafalque. Now you need young men, bright young men, with minds asking ‘how’ rather than ‘why,’ and who are good at masking, at blending, I should say, their personal interests with vague public ideals.”

Don Fabrizio is fading. He’s fading and he just proceeds along, letting it happen.

I don’t know how historically accurate The Leopard is, though it certainly seems to be to me. I just know how beautifully The Leopard created the time, place, and tone. It’s a beautiful work chronicling the slow fadeout of the life that Don Fabrizio represents.

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

First, for those of you that don’t know, I’d like to clear up something that I didn’t actually know until about five years ago. Evelyn Waugh is a man. I know, I know, confusing. Just remember, Evelyn is a man, George Eliot is a woman.

I am pretty ambivalent about Brideshead Revisited. At first, I was pretty excited. The story starts out with a 38 year old soldier in the British Army during World War II. I was excited because the book was copyrighted in 1944 and 1945. I thought the book would be about the actual War, and thought it was kind of cool to be reading a novel written about a soldier while the war was still happening. That turned out to not be the case.

The full title of the novel, on the inside page is “Brideshead Revisited The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder”. The story starts out with Captain Ryder’s unit moving to a new section of English countryside. One on which their command headquarters is to be an old estate called Brideshead.

Capt. Ryder has a history with Brideshead, starting when he went to Oxford as a wee lad of 18 and fell into a friendship with the younger Brideshead son, Sebastian. At the beginning, Sebastian takes him to Brideshead when no one is there, except the old nanny because he doesn’t want Charles to get involved with his family. Eventually, however, that’s exactly what happens. Charles becomes entangled in the family’s life. Sebastian, his older brother, his two younger sisters and his mother. There’s also the estranged father living overseas in Rome, whom the mother, a Catholic refuses to divorce. He lives quite openly with his mistress over there.

Time passes. Sebastian runs into some difficulty and it gets to a point where Charles has had enough and cuts ties with the entire family. Only to run into the sister, Julia on a sea voyage years later after he is married with children and a successful artist. He becomes entangled with the family all over again.

There are some interesting things to note about Brideshead. There are openly gay characters in here, well only one truly open one, a minor character. He warns Charles towards the beginning of the book about both Sebastian and Sebastian’s family. Charles doesn’t listen. Later in the book, he takes Charles to a gay club. He is definitely out in society as gay as well. It’s also hinted at strongly that Sebastian is gay, and that quite possibly Charles had an actual relationship with Sebastian. I thought it was really interesting for a book published in the 40s to actually have an openly gay character and so many hints elsewhere of it.

Waugh does a great job with dialogue and with helping us see characters not only through Charles’s eyes (first person narrator) but as they really are too.

One of the themes of the book is how strongly memories can take us.

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life–for we possess nothing certainly except the past–were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning. These memories are the memorials and pledges of the vital hours of a lifetime. These hours of afflatus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race for which centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, eating, sleeping, forgetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and new records won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.”

The reason I am ambivalent about this book might partly be my fault. For large portions of it, I just couldn’t bring myself to care all that much about what was happening. Which, I don’t fully blame on myself because books from this time frame, set in the era after World War I, in England usually fascinate me. So, there must be something about the material that I just couldn’t connect with.

This isn’t a bad book. And I’d recommend it to certain people, depending on what they like to read, but I still just am not that excited about having read it.

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

I hate picking up an edition of a book made to capitalize on the release of a movie version. It shouldn’t matter, but I end up looking at the recognizable actors and such on the cover and get an impression of them instead of the book itself. I had that problem when I looked at Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. My copy had Glenn Close and Keith Carradine on the cover and mentioned how it was now “a riveting CBS drama on the Hallmark Hall of Fame.” I tried not to think about that and let it color my impressions instead of taking the book as it was, but I have no way of knowing how successful I was. I just wish I’d gotten a non-movie related copy of the book instead.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Sandra Cisneros and 5th for Kathryn Harrison)

Stones for Ibarra concerns Americans Sara and Richard Everton who have done borrowed everything they could to come to a small Mexican village and restart a copper mine long ago abandoned by Richard’s grandfather. It’s a strange, inexplicable move. Of course, there is some pleasant clash between the couple and the villagers. Both seem to respect each other, but they will never ultimately understand each other:

The Acostas reported back to the village. “The señora cooks food from cans over a gasoline fire. It must be very expensive. While she stirs the pot, the señor is in the kitchen. A man in the kitchen and not to eat. He is pouring from a whiskey bottle into glasses. He adds a thimble of Tehuacán water and gives one glass to the señora. They lift their glasses and laugh. We saw it ourselves,” said Remedios. “The señora wearing her shirt inside her ranchero pants instead of loose outside, decently covering that part of her. And drinking alcohol as she cooks, while the señor, whose father was born in that house, sits on the table and lets his long legs swing.”

Though the village is somewhat quiet. It is still a harsh place to live:

It was now that the Palacio brothers entered the Copa de Oro and walked up to the bar. They worked in the concentrating mill of the Malagueña mine and carried with them like an aura the bitter smell of cyanide. José Reyes first approached Tomás, then Julián. He asked for a small loan of money to be repaid tomorrow and was refused. When the Palacio brothers tried to turn away, he held them back and said, “I am not as rich as you are with a week’s salary in your pockets.” When they refused a second time, José pulled from the wide belt under his denim jacket the machete he had used to strip twigs from the firewood and, as if they had attacked him, cut Tomás in the neck and Julián in the stomach. Then José Reyes was outside in the street, running faster than one so besotted should run, with thirty meters between him and those who came after. There were five who followed him, and two were Palacio cousins and one a Palacio son.

Of course, that harshness doesn’t seem to affect the couple much. Instead, is a hidden illness discovered after the couple arrives that puts definite boundaries on their time there. Leukemia. It seems strangely separate, evidencing both a common fate with those of the Ibarra village and a permanent separateness.

The book just kind of seems to go on in this way. Quietly for the most part.

There is a beautiful melancholy in Stones for Ibarra. Cultures clash, respecting but never quite understanding each other. The environment is harsh as the prose is sparse, but that seems almost secondary to the real danger. Fate is still fate, though, regardless of where it comes from.

Stones for Ibarra reminds me of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop in some ways, though it is quite different in others. Perhaps it was just the lonely southwest of the past, but perhaps it is more than that. Similar language maybe. Faith would definitely be different, since the Everton aren’t believers. Maybe Stones for Ibarra isn’t so similar and I just felt it was. I don’t know.

Regardless, I enjoyed Stones for Ibarra…though I found it’s goodness to be a quiet one. Unassuming. Take that for what you will.

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown

I will preface this with the statement that I don’t have much to say about Flat Stanley.

I don’t have much to say about Flat Stanley.

A. M. Homes listed this book as #8 in his Top Ten list.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, Flat Stanley is a children’s tale written in 1964. I found out when searching it on amazon that it’s since spawned a whole collection of Flat Stanley tales. Some were written by the original creator, but since his death was somewhere around 2003 (Wikipedia isn’t always the treasure trove of information you’d wish it would be and you have to obtain facts by contextual clues), this Flat Stanley book published in 2014, obviously is not written by Jeff Brown. Click on that link. Seriously. Do it. It confuses me that there would be 12 Flat Stanley books that are in addition to the original ones written by Jeff Brown and yet I’ve seriously never heard of anything beyond Flat Stanley. I feel that I need to turn in my “books of all genres nerd” badge and go home.

Flat Stanley is a book that if you have a child whether boy or girl, and if you can get said child to want to hear about something that isn’t Disney princesses or Bat Man, this would be a good selection to read. It’s a funny story. Basically Stanley is squished flat by a bulletin board that his father hung on the wall for Stanley and his brother to use to pin up papers and all sorts of stuff on (I envision a treasure map with a picture of Selena Gomez underneath).

Now, because this was the 60s and not the 2010s, no authorities were called when Stanley was squished to an inch wide by his father’s inexpert hanging of large bulletin boards next to little boys’ beds and the doctor in fact just marveled at it and said that there were some things even doctors didn’t know.

Stanley has a variety of adventures as a flat boy until

SPOILER ALERT

SERIOUSLY, I AM ABOUT TO SPOIL THE ENDING.

His brother blows him back up to normal size using a bicycle pump. Thereby ending Stanley’s adventures and heartache of being a flat boy.

If you read the author bio, you find out that Jeff wrote these after making them up as nighttime stories for his sons. You can tell sometimes, since there’s just the right touch of Cleaver morality thrown in (Cleaver, as in Leave it To Beaver, not cleaver as in the meat cleaver at Just Good Meats here in Omaha). Stanley’s mother tells off policemen for calling her crazy while Stanley is in the sewer finding her wedding ring and she is holding him by a piece of string (seriously!? these parents could get away with -anything-!!!!) and tells them that if they can’t say something nice they shouldn’t say anything. They tell her they’ll remember that going forward. There’s a couple of other instances like this.

It is cute. You should read it to your sons and your daughters. I do like that it could be for a boy. I feel like there aren’t a whole lot of books that are straight fiction written for young boys. It’s changing, but I know if you go look at children’s books, there’s usually way more for girls really. But, I also like that it’s funny enough and interesting enough that any kid, girl or boy would get into it.