Quick note on Three Cups of Tea: It is a damn good story about some guy who got it in his head to build schools for kids in the Middle East. Amazingly, he did it and still does it. He got obsessed and just did/does it.
I'm glad his story has made it so far into the North American mainstream. There are many racist people over here using up all the oxygen. If you are one of them (believing Afghani and/or Pakistani people to be generally inferior to you or generally predisposed to violence) this book may successfully cram a little factual information into your oxygen-saturated brain. Or, if you care about, but are relatively ignorant of (as I am), the sociopolitical situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan... this book may successfully cram a little factual information into your oxygen-saturated brain.
A final point. If you are a college-aged aspiring philanthropist, readying your oxygen-saturated brain for an anti-glamorous (yet en vogue), anti-missionary (yet value-laden) stint of volun-tourism in the Middle East: Let this story inspire you to save the world, but also let it challenge you to reconsider your methods for doing so. I'm skeptical (believe it or not) about North America's ability to produce many more authentic Greg Mortensons, and fearful that the illusion of aid (readily created by the droves of eager college-aged volun-tourists taking off to Africa, South America, and the middle East) is concealing our need to imagine more ways of providing it. While as North Americans, we are often in good positions to provide help where it's needed, our efforts often fall flat. Greg Mortenson and this, his publication of Three Cups of Tea, do not fall flat. This story is a lesson in the importance of generosity and compassion, but more importantly, personal education. Let's take this lesson and put it towards a refresher for North American philanthropy.
American Psycho Meets American Splendor: Devil in the White City documents two architects under higher powers
Erik Larson’s factual depiction of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and the serial killer who thrived parasitically alongside it reads like fiction, having all the suspense, dramatic irony, synchrony, and perversity that could be hoped for in a novel. As the saying goes, fact is stranger than fiction. But that Larson didn’t write this story, per se, shouldn’t detract from our image of his creativity; his thesis is unusual, and it surely took a unique eye to distinguish and assemble its strands. Not to mention the intimidating breadth and depth of his research.
Larson reveals late-1800s big-city Chicago as the mother of two legacies. Daniel Burnham was the first to realize American splendor through his design of the Chicago World’s Fair. H.H. Holmes’ was first to realize American psychopathy through his design of a series of barely-concealed, just-for-fun murders. While their paths appear never to have physically crossed, they worked in close geographic proximity and chronological harmony. Larson sets their stories beautifully against one another: the devotion of both men to their causes, ultimately much larger than themselves; beauty vs. evil; the crushing power behind the city’s ability to nurture both.
He also provides a great deal of delightful detail. His asides chronicle the introduction of shredded wheat and the Ferris wheel, as well as the origins of the blue-collar union, Walt Disney, Annie Oakley, and the Flat Iron building (to name a few). Anyone with an interest in architecture will find that the book centers satisfactorily on the logistics of constructing the Fair’s buildings, many of which were apparently of an unprecedented scale and stylistic beauty. As a certified history dunce I was quite entertained, and while I often lost track of names and dates, Larson tailored this book so that such information is non-essential to following the story. For those with more interest and a better grounding in this context, I’m sure there’s plenty here for you too; Devil in the White City is impossibly rich in detail, and, without giving too much away, Larson frequently draws various little connections between well-known events of the era. His attention to these historical intricacies is very much in the spirit of the novelty and wonder of the World’s Fair as he describes it, and I’d be surprised if anyone before him had managed to uncover even half of them. Well. Done.
This isn't technically a review, but I caught a CBC interview with Charles Wilkins, author of the upcoming In the Land of Long Fingernails: A gravedigger in the age of Aquarius and it sounds like it's going to be the best book ever (thanks in large part to the wild success of HBO's Six Feet Under series, which piqued the public's interest in the quirky details of mortality). Just wanted to throw a little love Wilkins' way in wild anticipation of this title.
I should preface this with the admission that I was a Smiley virgin. A quick search of Library Thing tells me that she has legions of tepidly devoted fans, but Good Faith has been my first foray into her body of work. My search also tells me that Good Faith might not have been the best starting point for getting into her body of work. Apparently her novel A Thousand Acres won a Pulitzer in ’92, whereas Good Faith receives mixed reviews at best, some readers feeling it was distinctly different from her other work. With this on the table, let’s get down to business.
This book was a page-turner, fully enthralling, and I’ve had trouble remembering why. The narrative meandered so mellowly along through the book that I can hardly believe I arrived, somehow, at its conclusion. Right up until the book’s final chapter, life is good for our protagonist, Joe, and his gaggle of extremely likeable, off-beat friends. And without giving too much away, while we constantly sense that something could go wrong, and indeed things occasionally do go wrong (to varying degrees of “wrongness”), we’re never left with that “something just went wrong” feeling that say, David Adams Richards is so fond of imparting. Instead, the 80s, sub-rural, plaza-scape setting and off-beatyness of the characters makes everything look a little surreal. Just surreal enough that we don’t really care when something goes wrong. Kind of like having a perpetual buzz. Kind of like the 80s?
I’ll further confuse that last confusing paragraph by adding that this surreality is punctuated with strikingly genuine, beautiful & tender moments framed within Joe’s (surreal) affair with a close, married, long-time friend and surrogate sister. I really don’t know how Smiley managed it. From time to time her language gets a little steamy for my taste – I find novelists usually navigate the language of sexuality awkwardly, mixing together words like “cock” and “love-making” – but Smiley rarely trespasses here. Her incorporation of achingly real detail into the love affair overshadows what awkwardness exists in its language. It conjures our best feelings (like the ones from good dreams) without ever becoming sentimental.
So although this was my first Smiley, and apparently not her best, I enjoyed it greatly. I’m a fan of her craftsmanship and I’d say even more than just a tepid fan... I’d say - a warm fan.
In Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk makes us voyeurs, peeping into the consciouses and minivans of our most hideous demographic, and we will be forced to stay awhile. She forges a narrative to hang suspended in a blank afternoon in English suburbia. It is laborious and restless and often boring; you are likely to feel burdened by the prospect of accompanying the story’s protagonist-housewives through the motions of daily life.
And while Cusk unravels her thesis in a merciful two-hundred and forty-eight pages, she employs the detail-orientation and resultant time-stretching effect of Ian McEwan (a la Saturday) as well as the tortuous, stream-of-consciousness depressive rambles of the late David Foster Wallace. The first half of Arlington Park - the characters’ morning - takes forever. With every new player introduced we’re praying she’ll be interesting...
or different from the others.
Smack in the middle of the book though: a crumb of inspiration. It's the undoing we’ve been waiting for. The final new character, another assumedly shitty housewife, privately reminisces about her former lodger, our sexy italian Paola. We fall in love with her. She’s beautiful, mysterious, smells good, and she’s left her husband and son behind in Italy, fleeing from the banality of the type we’ve been enduring for the past hundred-or-so pages. And just as she rescues us, she seems to have rescued our (maybe no-longer) shitty woman during the course of her stay. We’ll never quite know, though, because the chapter ends without giving us a peek at the woman’s current situation.
We trudge on through a mindless, anchorless afternoon at a playground in Arlington Park, and then descend into evening. Husbands coming home/getting food into the kids/getting the kids into bed/company coming for eight/dressing & grooming/I look fat/dissatisfaction/cooking/mom's on the phone/passive aggressive domestic dispute/etc. Everyone hates each other, everyone hates them selves, we hate everyone.
After a few glasses of wine, one character seems to find some conclusion in her restlessness... and it appears to be acceptance. Cusk is providing a bitter pill. This character is still pathetic, as are the rest of them – now more than ever. Our apex was illusory, our descent into night proves as monotonous and stiff as our morning ascent towards prospective undoing. We made a mountain out of a molehill.
But returning to McEwan and DFW for a moment, let’s not forget that they’re fucking geniuses (especially DFW). Their excruciating styles give rise to their crafts. From cover to cover, the forms of their words on their pages, the gatherings of these words from the unique subconsciouses of our own minds, create masterpieces set between two covers. These compositions cannot be accurately transferred to film (I’m looking at you, McEwan) or iPod. They are indivisible whole things. In this way, Cusk is probably a genius too. Arlington Park is a boring and shitty place, and we feel boring and shitty reading about it. Cusk captures perfectly the building quiet of a horrible generation of women (and men). We ache with middle-aged angst, hope feverishly for a lesbian affair or character’s sudden explosion to grace the pages of our book.
Freidan, step aside: Cusk may be the voice of our latest generation of dissatisfied, shitty women.