The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe is a weird little book. Let’s just start out with that as an opener.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Kathryn Harrison.)

A guy disappears. A schoolteacher, who rails against ordinary life, goes on a little holiday collecting insects, about which he purposefully though without reason tells people almost nothing. He wanders into a little village on the seaside with all these homes at the bottom of pits in the sand dunes. Having made no plans for where to stay, upon being confronted he asks if he can be put up in a village house.

He can:

He was escorted to one of the cavities on the ridge of the dunes at one end of the village.

From the ridge a narrow path went down the slope to the right. After they had walked on awhile, the old man leaned over into the darkness and, clapping his hands, shouted in a loud voice: “Hey! Granny! Hey, there!”

From the depths of the darkness at their feet a lamp flickered, and there was an answer.

“Here I am! Here! There’s a ladder over by the sandbags.”

Indeed, without the ladder he could not possibly have got down. He would have had to catch hold on the cliff with his bare hands. It was almost three times the height of the house top, and even with the ladder it was still not easy to manage. In the daytime, he recalled, the slope had seemed to him rather gentle, but as he looked at it now, it was close to perpendicular. The ladder was an uncertain thing of rope, and if one lost one’s balance it would get hopelessly tangled up. It was quite like living in a natural stronghold.

What they omit telling him until later (too late) is that he cannot leave:

He wondered if he should say something to the woman before he left. But, on the other hand, it would only embarrass her to be awakened. Anyway, what should he do about paying her for the night’s lodging? Perhaps it would be better to stop on the way back through the village and give the old man from the cooperative the money—the one who had brought him here the day before.

Stealthily he went out.

The sun was boiling mercury, poised at the edge of the sand cliff. Little by little it was beginning to heat the bottom of the hole. He hastily turned his eyes away from the intense glare. In the next instant he had already forgotten it. He simply stared at the façade of the sand wall.

It was unbelievable! The rope ladder had vanished from the place it had been the night before.

The village intends to keep him in the pit forever with the woman (who is not a granny despite the quote above). They are to clear the sand that is blown into the pit. This is what they need to do all day, every day. Supposedly, this needs to be done so that the village survives and isn’t forever buried in the sand, there not being enough villagers to do it, but why keeping their particular cavity clear of blown sand helps isn’t ever really specified. They raise no crops or livestock, nothing else. They just have to clear the sand endlessly, which will be taken up in baskets by people who bring them food, water, and other necessities.

As one might expect, the man tries to escape. Repeatedly. As one also might expect, this does not go well. Eventually, he finds a way that he actually can escape. However, he doesn’t. He just stays there, doing what he’s supposed to be doing, planning on one day escaping after all. As with everything else except the sparse prose of the text, the reasons behind this aren’t explicitly specified.

The Woman in the Dunes is a very strange little book. The writing is crisp and the subject is pleasantly unusual. The protagonist can get a bit annoying, but I think that actually helps the reader accept what happens to him. It’s just such an odd thing, and there’s a great deal of meditation on the nature of living underneath a very simple structure. The Woman in the Dunes is intriguing to say the least.

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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.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

I know that writing the summary for the back of a book can be an extremely difficult job. An attempt must be made to distill an entire book into a simple, cursory paragraph. Still, the reading public relies on these summaries. Sometimes, some success is achieved. Other times, I wonder whether or not I read the same book as the person who wrote the summary. Some books are surely harder than others, and surely there can be debate as to what a book is really about, but sometimes the summary just seems to cover only a portion of the book with no real comprehension of the book as a whole. I reflected upon this in particular after finishing Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was for 9th for Kathryn Harrison.)

Considering Midnight’s Children, I suppose I should discuss a little of what the back of the book says. Most of the back details how the main character, Saleem Sinai, is born at the exact moment that the modern nation of India is born (i.e., freed from imperial British control). Because of this coincidence, Saleem develops telepathic powers and a connection to the 1000 other ‘midnight’s children’ (the other children born on this day). This is the bulk of the summary, only the last sentence discussing how Saleem is linked to the nation and how his story mirrors the “disasters and triumphs” of modern India.

Really, this made me think I was in for a much different story than I ended up reading. I suppose I should have known better after reading The Satanic Verses, but (like so often happens when I should know better) I didn’t.

Mind you, the above does describe an aspect of the book. It is true that this accident of birth, these powers, and the 1001 midnight’s children are focal aspects of Saleem’s identity. Indeed, Rushdie and Saleem spend a good amount of time talking about the children:

Midnight’s children!…From Kerala, a boy who had the ability of stepping into mirrors and re-emerging through any reflective surface in the land–through lakes and (with greater difficulty) the polished metal of automobiles…and a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish…and children with powers of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri Hills, and from the great watershed of the Vindhyas, a boy who could increase or reduce his size at will, and had already (mischievously) been the cause of wild panic and rumors of the return of Giants…from Kashmir, there was a blue-eyed child of whose original sex I was never certain, since by immersing herself in water he (or she) could alter it as she (or he) pleased.

All these children with magical abilities, with Saleem as the oldest and purportedly most powerful, telepathically connected to the rest.

However, Saleem’s powers (and indeed the midnight’s children themselves) are only a portion of Saleem’s life, and thereby his story. Saleem also talks about his family:

One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on his prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man.

and India (not to mention Pakistan and Bangladesh, as there is no way to discuss the birth of modern India without discussing Pakistan and Bangladesh):

The day of November 20th was a terrible day; the night was a terrible night…six days earlier, on Nehru’s seventy-third birthday, the great confrontation with the Chinese forces had begun; the Indian army–JAWANS SWING INTO ACTION! –had attached the Chinese at Walong. News of the disaster of Walong, and the rout of General Kaul and four battalions, reached Nehru on Saturday 18th; on Monday 20th, it flooded through radio and press and arrived at Methwold’s Estate. ULTIMATE PANIC IN NEW DELHI! INDIAN FORCES IN TATTERS! That day–the last day of my old life–I sat huddled with my sister and parents around our Telefunken radiogram, while telecommunications struck the feat of God and China into our hearts. And my father now said a fateful thing: “Wife,” he intoned gravely, while Jamila and I shook with fear, “Begum Sahiba, this country is finished. Bankrupt. Funtoosh.” The evening paper proclaimed the end of the optimism disease: PUBLIC MORALE DRAINS AWAY. And after that end, there were others to come; other things would also drain away.

In fact, though Saleem narrates the whole book as he supposedly writes it, he isn’t even born until about a fifth of the way through. Really, there is much more than supernatural powers, more than the midnight’s children, more than even Saleem.

In particular, I don’t think the magical powers are at the center of this book because Saleem and the other children never really get together and DO anything significant with their powers. The use them on an individual scale, but the same kinds of problems that face the entire region at this time manifest in the children. They affect their world, but their world also affects them.

If there is any accuracy in the summary, I would find it in that last sentence. Saleem leads a blessed life yet disasters occur with frightening regularity, just like the modern course of the entire region. There is an amazing amount of intelligence and incredible ability, but the complexity and history in which it is mired confuses everything to the point of chaos. Frankly, though, life goes on regardless.

Now, I really probably shouldn’t have spent this entire review bashing the summary. In reality, even though I don’t think it encapsulates the book too well, it isn’t bad. I certainly couldn’t have done any better. This book has thousands of narrative lines, just like India/Pakistan/Bangladesh. There just may not be a way of turning it all into a single cloth.

Truth be told, I just thought this discussion of the summary was a really good way of talking about the complexity and multifaceted nature of the book. Bashing the summary was just a vehicle and I mean no real malice against it.

In the end, I did enjoy this book a great deal. The story is rich and compelling, though difficult to hold in your fist at any particular moment. I did find it easier to understand than The Satanic Verses, but that isn’t necessarily saying that much. Regardless, whether or not it is one of the best books of all time, Midnight’s Children is certainly a good one. Thankfully, I don’t have to summarize it in a paragraph.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Devil went down to Moscow…he was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind and he was looking to make a deal. Okay, maybe not, but I decided to check out The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov for my first actual review here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books (in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title of the post).

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Kathryn Harrison, 5th for David Mitchell, and 5th for Annie Proulx.)

This one is an interestingly layered story. Seemingly at the core is a story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Supposedly, the story is written by a man who calls himself the Master (see the title) and is intensely loved by a woman named Margarita (also see the title). However, his literary efforts were lambasted by the literary establishment and he was even hounded by the Moscow police. All that is in the past though, as the Devil descends upon an unprepared Moscow that has rejected religion.

Of course, Bulgakov’s Jesus isn’t exactly the Jesus you might be thinking of. Consider this portion from the interrogation of Yeshua Ha-Notsri by Pontius Pilate:

            “Well, all right. If you wish to keep it secret, you may do so. It has no direct beating on the case. So you maintain that you did not incite them to tear down…or burn, or in any other manner destroy the temple?”

            “I repeat, Hegemon, I did not incite them to any such actions. Do I look like an imbecile?”

            “Oh, no, you do not look like an imbecile,” replied the procurator softly, breaking out in a fearsome smile. “So swear that you did nothing of the kind.”

            “What would you have me swear by?” asked the unbound prisoner excitedly.

            “Well, by your life,” answered the procurator. “It is most timely that you swear by your life since it is hanging by a thread, understand that.”

Though this reminds me a little of Jesus’s trial before Pilot, it is certainly not how I remember the story.

Also, Bulgakov’s Devil, named Woland, is nothing like any Devil I’ve ever seen before. His antics in Moscow may have a serious edge for a few unlucky people, but he seems more interested in making the arrogant and money-grubbing residents of Moscow look foolish than in endangering their souls or taking their lives:

            “Do I note a touch of surprise, my dearest Stepan Bogdanovich?” Woland inquired of Styopa whose teeth were chattering, “But there is nothing to be surprised about. This is my retinue.”

            At this point the cat drank down the vodka, and Styopa’s hand began to slip down the door frame.

            “Any my retinue needs space,” Woland continued, “which means that one of us in this apartment is superfluous. And I think that someone is—you!”

*****

            And then the bedroom began to spin around Styopa, he hit his head on the door frame, and as he was losing consciousness, he thought, “I’m dying…”

            But he did not die. He opened his eyes slightly and saw that he was sitting on something made of stone. A sound could be heard nearby. When he opened his eyes properly, he realized that it was the sound of the sea and that a wave was, in fact, breaking at his very feet, that, to be brief, he was sitting at the end of a jetty, and that a blue sky was sparkling above him, and behind him was a white city nestled in the hills.

*****

            Then Styopa resorted to the following maneuver: he dropped on his knees in front of the unknown smoker and said, “Please tell me, what city is this?”

            “Are you kidding?!” said the heartless smoker.

            “I’m not drunk,” Styopa replied hoarsely, “Something’s happened to me…I’m sick…Where am I’ What city is this?”

            “Well, Yalta…”

            Styopa sighed softly, fell over on his side and struck his head against the warm stone of the jetty.

Regardless of Jesus or the Devil, or the Master or Margarita (who don’t really seem to be in a lot of danger for being in a novel with the Devil), Bulgakov has to be the strangest Russian writer of his time. I mean, he was only a generation after Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. This book is set in Moscow in the thirties, if you can believe it from the small chunks I’ve shared. Yet, if I didn’t know better, I’d really think he was writing just a few years ago. There is just something remarkably similar to contemporary prose in the way that Bulgakov wrote. It really makes the book interesting, considering its actual age.

And, all in all, the whole novel is a great deal of fun. Bulgakov may have been an anomaly in his own time, but today I found him delightful. The book is definitely weird, don’t get me wrong on that, but it was a good kind of weird. The Master and Margarita is a strange thing, living and breathing in its own little world.

– David S. Atkinson