Monthly Archives: October 2012

Book Review: The Evil Empire

This book almost gave me an aneurism. I mean…I don’t know that I’ve ever been so angry at the written word.  Of course, I’ve never read an Ann Coulter book, but I imagine it would have the same effect.  So why would an anglophile (like me) read this in the first place?

Well, I got it for free–reason one.  But more importantly, I wanted to challenge myself to see a grittier, more realistic book about the UK and it’s imperial history, which is filled with just as much shameful activity as our own. I freely criticize the American government and our unsavory history, so I should be equally hard on the U.K.  The book seemed like a good way to see things in a different light, and listen to the devil’s advocate.  And maybe if the book was coherent or logical, it might have shifted my worldview instead of just making me incredibly angry.

Here’s the problem with this book.  I’m not sure what it’s trying to be.  Like a boggart who turns into half a slug, it seems to be pandering to two genres and failing at both.  If it’s trying to be funny, it fails.  I’m sure Rush Limbaugh thinks he’s funny, and people who think exactly like him perhaps agree.  That’s the sort of “humor” this book is filled with.  I wasn’t even tempted to laugh even once.  Not even a smirk.

If it’s trying to be an honest book, it fails even harder. The worst thing you can do with a humor book is not be funny (check), but if you claim your book is in any way factual, you can apparently fill it with complete and utter lies and errors from cover to cover.  You can spread absolute bullshit throughout, and you can also make me not want to live on this planet anymore. Well done Steven A Grasse.

I wrote notes on almost every page. Partially I was making notes for this review, so that I could point out all of the inaccuracies.  But I also needed to vent some of my anger.  Here’s a shot of one particularly offensive and ridiculous page.




Notice that I was particularly irritated by Grasse referring to corsets worn during the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616) as Victorian. For future reference, everyone, Victorian means it took place roughly during the time of the reign of Queen Victoria.  Which was some 250 years after Shakespeare died.  Presumably he meant Elizabethan, which is more correct.  Grasse also goes on to explain that Americans would prefer a Tarantino film to the overrated works of the Bard ‘any day of the week’.  At this point my head and desk made abrupt contact.

I found a blog dedicated to all of the inaccuracies of this book.  The writer seems to have given up halfway through, and I can’t say I blame him or her.  This book, once you comprehend just how racist and hate-filled it is, even as a joke, is hard to slog through. It’s a chore. It’s depressing. It makes me hate America and Americans.  And I am one.  It makes me ashamed of us.  Can I say again how much I hate this book?

Back to the inaccuracies, because you need to comprehend just how bad it is.  I made notes on almost every page with all of my thoughts on what was wrong about what he was saying–not theoretically or ideologically wrong, but factually wrong.  The errors fell into a  few categories:

Logical fallacies:

In a chapter explaining how England created global warming, Grasse explains that England ‘designed’ the Industrial Revolution around engines that ran on coal, which ruined our atmosphere.  He says they could have ‘just waited a few years until solar power hit the scene’.  Were they supposed to jump in their coal-powered time machines so they would know that solar power was on the way?  Also, whose to say we would have developed solar technology without the advancements that coal tech brought?  I’m not a big fan of coal either, but it’s ridiculous to talk about it as if they could have known what would happen or would have stopped doing things like building railroads that brought fresh food to inland areas and allowed for quick transport throughout the country.  We certainly haven’t stopped using coal or oil.

Apparently, England ‘Sliced North America Across the Middle’ and are standing in the way of an alliance between Canada and the US by making us dislike each other.  I must have missed when this happened.  Also, I apparently missed when Mexico ceased to exist, because Grasse doesn’t mention it as part of North America.  Also, apparently, after we formed NAFTA, the Brits ‘formed their own special club–the European Union’.  Wrong!  NAFTA was signed in 1994.  The EU started as the European Economic Community (EEC) after WWII ended (first six countries signed in 1957).  Another problem is that the UK was not allowed in the first two times they applied (de Gaulle was a serious douche, in my opinion) and didn’t join until 1973.  But even that was twenty years before NAFTA.

Out-and-out nonsense:

Apparently, ‘They Relish Collecting Taxes’ based on the evidence that William the Conqueror created the Domesday book to tax his citizens.  Does Grasse know that William was French (Norman, technically)?

Grasse argues that the UK propagated the English measurement system which is, apparently, evil and is ruining the world.  No explanation is provided for why we are one of the few countries that still use it.  The UK does not use it anymore.  Also, he blames the destruction of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998 on the UK because some parts were made with metric specs that should have used English measurements.

Grasse spends a page attacking the Rhodes Scholarship.  For the record, Cecil Rhodes did some very evil stuff in the name of Queen and Empire.  The fact that a few US citizens are paid to go to Oxford does not make up for that fact, but it might do something to mitigate it.  It certainly isn’t a reason to attack England.  Also, Grasse seems to be unaware or to ignore the fact that there are a few awards that try to make up for the misdeeds of their namesakes.  Alfred Nobel, anyone? Part of his inspiration for creating his award was being described as ‘the merchant of death’ after he invented a kind of explosive and sold it to military organizations.  Same thing.  Where is Grasse’s book on the evils of Sweden?

Ridiculous factual errors:

Grasse has an entire chapter about how the Brits worship a ‘Giant Clock God’ as a symbol of state authority.  He calls Big Ben the Great Clock and claims the British worship it as a symbol of the state authority over their lives.  One problem.  Big Ben is the bell, not the clock.  Another problem, you make no sense, Grasse!

Grasse writes that the large stones in Stonehenge represent Scotland, England, and Wales while the small stones represent the rest of the world.  These countries did not exist when Stonehenge was created, so I really have no idea where he got this crap.

Grasse writes about WWII that ‘We all know the stories of how the British joined the rest of the Allies to fight fascism abroad in the second World War.’  Grasse is implying that we (the US) were actually fighting the war already.  This is utter bullshit.  France and Britain declared war on Germany two days after the invasion of Poland in 1939. We didn’t enter the war until we were attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Now, no one had declared war on Japan yet at that point, but we all declared it together as Allies.  Britain and France had already suffered a ridiculous amount of casualties and damages in the fight against Germany, while we were trying to ignore what was going on. This really offends me that Grasse implies that Britain was reluctant to fight.  He also claims Britain didn’t contribute as many soldiers to D-Day as we did, that they ‘didn’t do their share’.  Nevermind that it was a U.S.-led effort and nevermind the fact that their forces were depleted by being in the combat much longer and being a much smaller country. By the way, our troops (my grandfather among them) comprised about 70,000 men and the UK had about 60,000 that day.  Given the differences in population between the two countries I would say they did more than their share.

An apparently very different understanding of the word ‘evil’:

There are so many tiny things that apparently Grasse just doesn’t like that he seems to think are reasons that England is evil.  Evil is a serious word. You cannot apply it to your dislike of Cricket or Elton John, Oasis or the inability to dance.

On top of all of these errors and this misinformation, there is a pro-Christian, pro-heterosexual vein of thinking that makes me rather ill. This is the real problem with the book.  Even if none of what he is talking about is true, he is spilling hate-filled nonsense disguised as humor, and underneath it all is some really obvious intolerance and degradation of women, non-Christians, and homosexuals.

For example, one of the reasons England is evil is because ‘They Are Secretly Pagan’. Evidence?: Long after the Middle East was basking in the glow of sane monotheism, Druid priests led early Britons in pagan ceremonies.  Another reason is because of ‘Harry Potter, Boy Occultist’.

There is a chapter entitled ‘British Men are a Little Limp in the Wrist, if you Get my Meaning’.  Seriously.  It starts with this ridiculous paragraph:

I have nothing against homosexuals, nor have I found homosexuality to be any more prevalent in the UK than it is anywhere else.  I do, however, believe that upper class British males exhibit a peculiar chumminess and an aversion to hard work that could be characterized as, shall we say fey.

I see.  Nothing against homosexuals, except they have an aversion to hard work.  He goes on to blame the Stonewall riots in New York (in the 20th century) on Victorian laws against homosexual behavior.  Huh?  Sodomy was against the law (a felony, in fact) in the US until 1962, by the way.

I know that most of what is in this book is not intended to be taken seriously.  But Grasse spent all of this time writing it down, and you don’t spend this much time writing and editing a book filled with stuff you don’t believe.  I concede that he saved considerable time by not researching any of it or caring if his facts were even remotely correct.  But still.  He believes this deep down.

In the Introduction, Grasse more or less says that his inspiration for writing the book came from taking business trips to the UK and having people criticize the US to him.  Not only did they have the nerve to criticize the Iraq War, but they didn’t want to talk about the movie he came to promote.  How rude! So in a patriotic and egomaniacal temper tantrum, he wrote this book.  Well, now I’ve read it, so you certainly don’t have to.

I’ll leave you with one critic’s take on the book: It’s “as if every bar bore in Philadelphia, where the author hails from, got together one night and wrote down every half-assed insult they could remember about Britain, somewhat handicapped by the fact that none did high school history past sixth grade.

Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith hasn’t had a new novel since 2005, so I was anxious to read this book.  I read On Beauty for a Contemporary British Fiction course I took at university, and read White Teeth just a few months ago.  I really like her writing style. Similar to Salman Rushdie, who I just read, she teeters on the edge of stream-of-consciousness, without making that annoying jump.  She is playful and engaging, sometimes traditional and sometimes challenging. I always enjoy the process of reading her books.

I have to say, unfortunately, that I was very disappointed with this one.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  After all, I like her writing so I expected to enjoy the writing.  I did enjoy the writing, the word choice, the playfulness, the scavenger hunt of dropped clues that gave hints of context, setting, and time. Her endings were never great, but I still enjoyed her other books.  Plus, as with White Teeth, this novel is set in Northwest London (hence the title), which is where Smith grew up.  It is also where I lived while I was in London.  This shouldn’t particularly matter, but I must admit I get a kick out of reading about characters wandering down Finchley Road or through Hampstead Heath, because I can picture it precisely in my mind.  I lived off of Finchley Road.  That area of London, as Smith herself points out, isn’t mentioned much in the history of English literature.  I’m paraphrasing horribly, but she says something like ‘Occasionally, Dickens would wander into that area, and (as I recently discovered) Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White meandered past the Heath.  It’s different from reading about Regent’s Park or Oxford Street.  It’s not as common and for whatever ridiculous reason, it’s special to me.

So maybe my expectations were just too high.

But the plot!  Her previous books were both well plotted, though the endings were iffy to me.  She doesn’t like to put too neat a bow on her works at the end, because life isn’t like that.  I can respect that.  But the other two novels followed the basic tenets of novel-writing.  This one, not so much.

Most obviously in the form of structure.  There are four parts to this book.  The first is about Leah, a young woman living in a council-provided (i.e. government assistance) flat with her husband.  She is depressed and lonely and being pressured to have a baby she doesn’t want.  She has a dog, Olive.  Spoiler***The dog dies.  Do not read this part while on a train. Part 2 revolves around Felix, a man trying to get and stay clean and improve his life. He has no interaction with Leah or any of the characters previously mentioned.  Part 3 is about Natalie/Keisha, Leah’s oldest friend.  This part is the longest, and it covers a period from the girls’ early childhood through present day.  Natalie/Keisha grows up, becomes a lawyer, gets married, has kids.  She seems to have it together from the outside, but up close she is a total mess.  Part 4 weaves the other parts together, sort of.  It’s not wrapped up much at all, and I was left with a lot of questions.  Smith doesn’t lay everything out for you, and that’s fine.  But by the end, I was wondering why we were given this glance into Felix’s life, especially considering what happened to him later.  And why did that happen to him? Since I’m given an intimate look at his life, I feel I should be able to answer it. But I can’t.

There’s also the actual structure, as in the paragraphs and chapters themselves.  Part 1 is Leah’s world, and the narration of her thoughts is told in traditional paragraphs. Dialogue, on the other hand is inset and bolded, single spaced.  Maybe this signifies the fact that her obvious depression means she is swallowed up by her internal thoughts and conversations with others take up less of her mental space.  Interesting idea, but hard to read, to be honest.  Parts 2 and 4 are the most traditional and easiest to read for that fact.  Part 3, Natalie/Keisha’s story is the strangest.  Each little segment of her story (usually 1-3 paragraphs) is told in a numbered sub-chapter, and there are over 180 of them. In them are sometimes little clues to tell you how old Natalie is, and what year it is.  It might say ‘this is the year everyone started saying …’ and you remember (if you’re old enough) that it was the mid-nineties.  Often the title of the sub-chapter is the key to its meaning and place in time.  I have a hard time reading titles–they tend to just not register with my brain.  So I would read the paragraph, and then if it didn’t make sense, go back and reread the chapter.  One chapter was about a musician dying and teenagers being devastated. I looked up at the title to see it was called Nirvana.  Ah, Kurt Cobain then.  early ’90s.  Another sub-chapter was about an incredibly gifted British singer, a woman with remarkable talent.  Title was ‘Beehive’.  This took me a minute, but of course, Amy Winehouse.  It’s almost like a game, a scavenger hunt.  If you were alive, you can piece together the slang or the events that are dropped surreptitiously into the mix and figure out where the story is in chronology.  I enjoyed this part, like a puzzle.  But I found that I was enjoying the game more than the story.

Smith hasn’t lost her ability to write, in any way shape or form. There’s beauty in all her writing, and there’s a fun in it that you won’t find in most writers of ‘literary fiction’. What I will say is that she’s taken another step toward being too-experimental to be comprehensible (to my limited abilities, anyway).  She’s venturing out of the Beatles and into the Plastic Ono Band, and if she continues, I’m not sure I can follow her.

Trip to Kew Gardens

I was very disappointed, when I lived in London, not to get a chance to go to Kew Gardens–or it would be more accurate to say that I didn’t make the time, and regretted it later.  So, when I went back to London this summer, I was excited to finally make time to go.

The first thing to know about Kew Gardens is it really isn’t far from the city.  It’s over near Heathrow (and there are planes going past constantly), but you can get there pretty quickly from the city center–the Kew Gardens Station (District line) is less than 5 minutes away.

The Gardens were originally royal land (like most of the parks in London). Most of the land and the structures are ridiculously old and there is even a castle on the grounds with characters in Jane Austen apparel.  Note–you have to pay extra to get into the palace, which I did not do, so I can’t tell you if it’s worth it.  The gardens are particularly famous for their cast iron hot-houses, all of which date back to the mid-19th century. They’re really beautiful and allowed to sort of decay a little in a beautiful way–something the British are really good at, in my experience, is embracing the beauty involved in age and dereliction.  The same is true of Highgate Cemetery–the iron is painted white, but rusting in places because of the humidity.  It adds to the charm of the place, in my opinion.

There are lots of structures on the grounds, but I didn’t manage to see them all. The park is quite big, and it makes a long walk. Bring comfy shoes! But some examples of the structures include the aforementioned palace and several hot-houses, such as the Palm House and the Temperate House (largest Victorian greenhouse in the world), and a Chinese Pagoda that dates from the 18th century. There is a cottage on the grounds that was a gift from George III to Queen Charlotte, that has been restored and is open for viewing. There is a Japanese tea house and garden, and a couple of restaurants located in really old beautiful buildings. There are also newer buildings, like the Princess of Wales conservatory and the Treetop Gallery.  That last one is pretty cool, though I must say my fear of heights flared up.  You take these ridiculous stairs up to the treetop height and you can see pretty far–probably even farther in the winter when there aren’t so many leaves on the trees.  Here’s what it looks like:

Though our view was disturbed by leaves, you could see the Gherkin building in one corner, and Wembley Stadium in the other.  –If you are a local you may want to entertain yourself by standing at that corner and watching tourists exclaim they can see the Eye. I heard more than one person make that mistake, even though the stadium doesn’t really look like a Ferris wheel.

I really loved my day at Kew, though my legs and feet were killing me by the end.  It didn’t help that it was my third (fourth?) day in a row walking 10+ miles.  Wear comfortable shoes–I am repeating myself because it’s really good advice.  Also, expect the hot houses to be…well…hot.  We went on a pleasant day, where the outside air was about 70-75 degrees and it was pretty sunny. Inside the greenhouses it was maybe 5 or 10 degrees warmer, but the humidity was ridiculous.  You can go upstairs in a few of the hothouses and get nice views over the park, but you can feel the air getting thicker with every step.  It was beyond uncomfortable, though obviously quite necessary for the plants they are cultivating.  Bring some water and wear some layers, if it’s cool outside.

Kew Gardens is a great place to take photos, from big open grounds to macro shots. Below are some of the photos we took, though of course I have no photographic talent, I did really enjoy finding good shots while I was there.

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Well, we now all know that my predictions (based entirely on rumor) from earlier in the year were completely wrong. This was, most certainly, not a crime novel.  I struggle to categorize it actually, except that it was very definitely adult.  More on that later.

The New Yorker did a (long) piece on JKR and the new book last week. They called it Mugglemarch, which is an obvious combination of Muggles and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I wasn’t crazy about the article, but that’s not really important. The name stuck with me. I read Middlemarch last year.  It’s considered a true classic, and is the most famous of George Eliot novels.  I have to say I didn’t love it, and even though it’s considered a classic I haven’t met anyone else who has actually read the thing.  Assuming you haven’t either, here’s a very brief description–Middlemarch follows the lives, marriages, and fortunes of a large ensemble of characters, all of whom live in the eponymous town.  There is room in the narrative for the poor and ignorant, for the wealthy and intolerable, and, mostly, for the middle classes.  There are lots of interweaving plots and themes, from the invasion of the railroad into the country to medical reform, from ill-advised marriages to scandals involving wills and estates.  It’s subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life” and that is very accurate–Middlemarch, the town, is the most important character of the novel.

Why am I yammering about Middlemarch?  There are obvious similarities.  It takes place in a small, picturesque town and revolves around the lives of locals. It features the terribly poor, a bit of the very wealthy, and a lot of the middle classes. The town, Pagford, is its own character in the novel–though in this case I found that the town was always described in terms of what others felt about it. Good or bad, accurate or not, their opinions and emotions were what defined the town, rather than the truth of the town.  There is a local election, just like in Middlemarch. 

Another big similarity: I am not sure I like it.

I was expecting to like it.  I was confident that I would like it.  I like to read, and very rarely do I dislike a book I pick up.  On top of that, I am a huge Harry Potter fan, as anyone who reads this would know.  I trust JKR as a storyteller, and I don’t limit myself to specific genres or types of writing.  I had no reason not to like this new book…unless it just wasn’t good. Which, to be honest, didn’t really enter my mind as a possibility.

I’ve been trying to pin down what I dislike about it.  Nothing. There’s nothing.  But it just pales so much in comparison to HP, that I find it hard to enjoy.

The writing is the same style, lingering between literary and popular fiction.  It sort of takes popular fiction and adds more depth, emotion, and strong storytelling.  But it never makes the jump to challenging, and that can sometimes mean it never takes on the role of being extremely meaningful.  When you’re in a world where fate and destiny play huge roles in the lives of your characters, that is less important.  Everything is meaningful and it’s easy to take allegory away from the characters and the stories. Everyone can see that Voldemort is like Hitler, without much prompting.  But when you’re dealing with ordinary life, and you have things like sex, drugs, child abuse, and banality, something is almost lacking.  The story is about ordinary people, and the writing never verges into the extraordinary.  Which means the whole novel feels a bit flat at times. I would still prefer this to pretentious stories about ordinary people (*cough*Jonathan Franzen*cough*), and if she hadn’t written Harry Potter first, then perhaps I wouldn’t be disappointed by this.  But she did, and I don’t think there’s any way to not be disappointed at something that doesn’t quite match that achievement.
Another thing that seems missing is the humor. I know that people described it as a ‘dark comedy’, but I think those people are loose a screw. This is a tragedy.  It even passes the “tragedy ends with a funeral, comedy ends with a wedding” test of ye olde dramatic categorization.  There are moments where particularly obnoxious characters are put in their place, but I did not find those moments funny.  Usually, in order to give those characters a much-needed ego check, someone else has to suffer.  In one scene, a pretentious council member is explaining that no government funds should go to treat drug addicts, because they are costing tax money when all they need to do is stop taking drugs.  His doctor then points out that if he thinks it’s so simple then why doesn’t he stop gorging himself on foods (he’s quite overweight) and asks if he knows how much his bypass surgery cost the taxpayer. There is a savage pleasure in hearing this man put in his place, and this scene made my jaw drop.  But at the same time, the hatred and anger everywhere is tiring and made me so anxious that my hands were shaking.  And of course, there were consequences for the doctor as she was breaking patient privilege saying these things in public.  Compare this to a scene in which Draco Malfoy or similar is firmly humiliated.  Of course, I found most of those scenes counterproductive and unrealistic.  But the realism of The Casual Vacancy was too much for me to feel comfortable with.  It made my palms sweat.

Much has been said about the sex scenes and the other explicit material.  I was a bit shocked by it, I’ll admit.  Then I asked myself, would I even blink if this wasn’t a writer I associated with a, frankly, sexless world.  No, I wouldn’t.  There was nothing so crazy or unusual in the scenes. It’s just that they were there that makes ripples.

As much as I feel conflicted about this book, there are parts of it that are so JKR and so well done that I would be amiss not to mention them.  Most obviously, her understanding of teenagers.  She has a great talent for describing any number of people and creating characters who are believable and tangible, but none more so than teenagers.  This book is no exception. They are all terribly visible, real, and easy to conjure in your mind. I don’t find that any of them reminded me of me, but I could see snippets of friends and crushes from high school in each one. I think much of it is her way of describing characters from their very first scene that lets you settle them in your mind as definite and tangible–never hazy or cloudy.  Even before you know much about them, you can see them.  She still has this ability.

She can also produce incredible emotional range in the audience (or, in me anyway).  I raged at times, I cried for sure.  I wish there had been more to laugh or smile about.

And so many of the characters are shown only as their worst possible selves, that there is little faith that they will really make things better.  It’s more realistic this way, but I apparently don’t read books for their absolute realism.  I just found it too depressing to want to read it again.

And I think that’s the real root of the problem. I suppose it’s a bit similar to Romeo & Juliet. The town is made stronger, but only through some incredibly senseless loss and tragedy. But even though it ends on something of an upswing, I find I’m too mired in the loss to move on and feel that it was worth it. The loss is too pointless and awful to make up for the meager offerings and motions toward a better world that are made in the last few pages.

TV Show Review: The Book Group

I found this show on my Netflix instant recommendations a month or two ago. I had heard good things from fellow bloggers, so I gave it a chance. I really enjoyed it, though it ended abruptly and that makes me very irritated when shows aren’t given a proper ending.

The show is really an ensemble, but the first episode at least centers around Clare (Anne Dudek, aka Amber from House), an American who has just moved to Glasgow and starts a book group in an effort to meet friends.  The first meeting is at her new flat, and she is rather shocked by the people who turn up.  I will say that none of these people would normally all be in a room together.  Claire is an intellectual (or she would describe herself that way, at any rate), and I imagine she expected people with tweed jackets and elbow patches to turn up, ready to discuss Jane Austen and do in-depth analysis of literature.  She does get one PhD student, Barney,  doing his dissertation on Garcia Marquez, and she immediately takes a shine to him, especially in light of the others in the group.  There’s:

Kenny, the wheelchair-bound aspiring novelist, who turns out to be the nicest of the group by far.

Janice, the footballer’s wife, who wants to be a TV anchorwoman.

Dirka and Fist, both of whom are vapid and superficial. One is from Sweden, the other Holland. Both are dating/married to footballers, if my memory serves.

Rab, who has zero interest in books it turns out, but is very interested in football (and the sexy men who play it).

None of them seem particularly interested in books, except Clare and Barney.  It’s obvious quite early that Clare looks down on the others in the group, but this fact is tempered by the fact that it is so easy to look down on her while you’re watching the show.  She is really rude, and despite hosting the book group at her flat doesn’t offer refreshments of any kind or attempt to be hospitable. She is rude and ignorant about UK culture, which makes me cringe.  Even worse, in the second season her sister comes to stay, and suddenly Clare seems to be worldly and wise, and the sister’s stereotypical ignorance is even more pronounced.  She says’ Edinburgh’ the way it’s spelled, and when a Scot corrects her, her answer is this:

“You say tomaaahto, I say tomaayto. But you’re wrong, because it’s tomaayto.”

No wonder the world hates us.

The show, unfortunately, only lasts 2 seasons, and it has its problems.  The plots sometimes pick up and let go in weird places, not following much through to fruition. Relationships among the book groupers are fairly incestuous, short-lived, and tempestuous.  But there are also really funny moments that equally mock the intellectuals and the athletes.  It’s a bit like if a couple of cheerleaders, the quarterback of the football team, a girl from the honor roll, the water boy, and a drug-addled student teacher got together to discuss books–to use a thoroughly American high school analogy.  Wait…did I just describe the Breakfast Club?  The point is, it’s a very odd group of people to be in the same room, and that makes for some really interesting and funny situations.

The downfall of the show, in my opinion, is that it is so farcical. The characters let their minds wander away into deep fantasy and I found those scenes jarring and weird, even when they were funny. And when one character dies in the series, the same actor comes in to play his brother, and stays for the rest of the show.

Just a note so that you won’t be disappointed like I was–they almost never talk about the actual books that they read. When they do, however, it’s pretty hilarious.  After watching this, I can comprehend why people hate it when English majors go to their book clubs.  I only hope I’m not like that!

In the end, it’s a fun show, if you don’t expect it to be deep or life-changing. It’s good for a laugh.

Book Review: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

After hearing about this book a few times through my life, mostly in connection with the fatwa and ensuing controversy surrounding its publication, I finally bought The Satanic Verses a few months ago.  In September, after the horrible attacks at the US Embassy, Salman Rushdie was in the news again. Firstly, because he has a new memoir that just came out, called Joseph Anton, all about the time he spent under guard once the Ayatollah announced the bounty on his head.  Also, because a religious group in Iran has somehow decided to blame all of the horrors connected with The Innocence of Muslims and ensuing violence on Salman Rushdie and his nearly 25-year-old novel.  I’m not sure how they came to that connection, but I am extremely ignorant about fatwas in general.  At any rate, they decided to increase the reward for killing Rushdie from 2.8 million to 3.3 million dollars.  If you’re going to kill someone for a crazy religious reason then money shouldn’t be that big of a factor, should it?  Also, if you’re going to kill someone for money, and 2.8 million isn’t enough for you, why would 3.3 million be? I mean, it’s a lot of money, but…I’m confused by their motives.  And their logic.  It does not resemble our earth logic.  Anyway, I decided now would be a great time to read the book and see what the fuss is about.

First a warning to everyone thinking of reading this book: It’s not an easy read.  I’m not saying it was unpleasant; I actually really enjoy Rushdie’s style, which verges on stream-of-consciousness without crossing the line into Joycean incomprehensibility. What the book does is demand a lot out of you.  You have to really pay attention. You have to remember and keep track of lots of characters from modern London, modern India, 7th century Arabia and a few other places, times, and people. It’s a lot of work.  There is slang, references, and symbolism that is not something the average American would know, and I think unless you’re intimately familiar with Muslim culture and Indian culture a lot is lost on you.  I spent half my time on the Wiki for the Ayatollah Al Khamenei, Muhammad, Rushdie, India, Mecca, etc. etc.  If you want to get even half of what he’s talking about, you have to either know it already, or look it up. You can’t just ignore a lot of it and hope it wont be brought up again.  On the other hand, even though I get the feeling that I only understood about 30% of the cultural references Rushdie makes, I don’t feel like reading the book was at any point a waste of time. It was a learning experience, and his writing style is rewarding enough on its own that you don’t feel bad for not knowing what the fuck is happening half the time.  Just know that he is, like the best college professors, going to talk fast and expect you to keep up. You have to put the work in with this book.

The story starts with two Indian men, both actors, falling from the sky. One (Saladin Chamcha) characterizes himself as an Englishman (right down to the bowler hat on his head as he falls), the other (Gibreel Farishta) is a Bollywood/Indian cinema superstar. Above them, a commercial airplane has just been blown apart by terrorists over the English Channel.  They fall to Earth and they live.

Just take in that beginning for a moment and you’ll notice quite a few things that characterize the book.

1-Multiculturalism.  This book takes place in different settings and times and deals with multiple religions.  Like London, and like Rushdie, it is an amalgam of different cultures and the struggles inherent when they coexist (or try to).

2-Magical Realism. I think Rushdie must be a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and similar writers.  This is not a realistic novel, and that’s obvious even from the tiny description I’ve given you.  The book also features a man transformed into an angel with a trumpet that shoots wrath-of-god fire and brimstone, a man transformed into a demon/satyr with hooves and horns, a woman clothed in golden butterflies, a ghost riding a flying carpet, a ghost of the first man to try to climb Everest solo, and the parting of the Arabian Sea.  I sometimes think magical realism is science fiction without the explanation.  If when strange and crazy things happen in fiction you feel you require an explanation, a logical reasoning, then this book is not for you.  You sort of just have to let go and accept that this main character is now sprouting horns and fur, or controlling the weather of London.  But at the same time, there’s never any real way of telling what is truly happening and what is just metaphor or allegory or schizophrenic delusion.

3-Struggling with immigrant identity. This is a huge part of Saladin’s story. He comes to England at a young age and hopes to be truly assimilated.  Throughout the story, though, he fails to become truly English. He isn’t treated as an Englishman, even though he feels more stereotypically and quintessentially English than a lot of others he meets.  After decades of trying to fit into this new culture and have this new culture embrace him (right down to marrying an English woman with noble connections), he finally realizes that it’s not working.  He has to acknowledge India as a part of him.  Other characters, English, Indian, etc., seem to struggle with accepting or rejecting the culture into which they have born. Rushdie does an amazing job of illustrating the constant remaking of our own identities.  Several of the English people (especially the women) want to distance themselves from English culture, seeing only the bad in it the same way that Saladin sees the good.

Other themes spread out through the book, taking on whole chapters, and then disappearing, only to resurface toward the end.  We drift in and out of time and space, reality and not.

The most controversial parts of the book were about Muhammad himself, only he is known as Mahound in this novel.  There are stories about his early life, and what seems to be an increasing corruption throughout his years.  There is another religious figure in the book, though I think she is purely fictional.  She is an epileptic prophet. Both of these characters claim that the Angel Gibreel (Gabriel) comes to them and speaks the word of God.  Rushdie makes it clear that what is happening is that their desires and their ideas pour into Gibreel and he echoes back what they want to hear.  Almost like they are demons possessing him, and when he has parroted back what they wanted the answer to be, they go skipping off and declare they have heard the word of God.  There is a particularly sacrilegious bit where Salman, a follower of Muhammad and the man chosen to write down these declarations from God, begins to alter them slightly to see if Muhammad will notice.  Surely he will notice if the written accounts don’t match what Gabriel has told him?  But he doesn’t, and Salman then knows that Muhammad is a fraud.  I can see why this would upset Muslims, though…overreaction much?

There is no way I can explain this entire novel.  There is no way I even understood this entire novel.  There is a whole section about this Imam, an exiled leader.  Apparently this is a thinly-disguised portrait of the Ayatollah Al Khamenei, but I was eight when he died and can’t say that I know much about him. So I completely missed out on this entire reference.  I have the feeling I only ‘got’ about 20-40% of the references in the book.  So I’ll just share a few of my thoughts as I read:

-There are literary mentions and little tidbits everywhere. There are quite a few Shakespeare references (especially Othello, which fits with the various couples comprised of Middle Eastern men and white English women), and he is clearly a fan of 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights.  Rushdie assumes his audience is incredibly well-read, and he drops in lines and references that most people wouldn’t get.  It was nice that I got some of them, and it did give me a feeling of being in on a conversation that incorporated lots of literature written over the last 500 years.  Similarly, there seems to be an ongoing conversation with immigrant stories and myths, referenced throughout the book.

-Rushdie and Zadie Smith–I haven’t done any research to back this up, but I’m guessing Zadie Smith is a Rushdie fan. I found a lot of similarity to her work in this, particularly White Teeth, which I read recently. Both are tales of modern London and the immigrants and English people living there. Both have large ensemble casts and speed through time and space from WWII to colonized Jamaica to 1980s Willesdon Green.  White Teeth features two characters, brothers, that reminded me somewhat of Saladin and Gibreel.  One embodies many of the clichés of the English, and becomes an atheist intellectual (much to the horror of his father, who sent him to India to become a proper Muslim), the other becomes a strict Muslim and takes up with a group of bow-tied young men who burn The Satanic Verses in protest (without reading it).  Since I haven’t researched it, she may have included this in her novel because she hates him, for all I know.  Either way, there are similarities.  I also think there are similarities (in both White Teeth and The Satanic Verses) to Dickens, and other Victorian novels that feature a huge range of characters and the ever-evolving London.  As Dickens was to Victorian London, I think these two (and probably others that I am not familiar with yet) speak for and about London and all of the history (good and bad) that makes it what it is today–a wonderful, dizzying, terrifying place that can contain the best and worst of humanity, with immeasurable depths of struggle and tension constantly boiling beneath the surface.

And a last note on Rushdie and women.  I read a lot of women authors.  I find that a lot of male authors either marginalize women into a few overused tropes (the virgin, the whore, the bitch)  or write them as men with breasts and long hair.  Salman Rushdie’s female characters are not the center of this book, but in every one of them there is a depth, a humanity, and a vulnerability that makes them whole and unique human beings.  He treats them all with respect, and expects the reader to do the same. I know he’s been married something like four times, but if his writing is anything to go by, it is obvious to me that he respects women and sees them as they are, not as something other or different or in any way able to be categorized and pigeon-holed. So I am glad for that.

After this epic long post, you may be wondering something.  What the fuck are the Satanic Verses? What’s with the title?  I had to look it up before I started, but it is also sort of explained in the book.

Muhammad was in the habit of going to the top of a mountain to meet the Angel Gabriel/Gibreel and receive instruction/the Word.  He and his followers were very disrespected in the beginning, coming from a polytheistic culture and advocating the belief in one god.  A local big wig offered Muhammad a deal–he should acknowledge the three famous local goddesses as part of his religion. These goddesses would be declared the daughters of Allah and would still be worshiped alongside him.  If Muhammad did this, their religion would be accepted and cared for. Muhammad went up to the mountain and talked with Gibreel and decided that sounded good to him. He repeated the new edict to his followers, who thought it went against everything he had told them thus far (fair point).  Pensive, he went back up the mountain and asked Gibreel about it.  He came back and announced that everything he had said before had not come from Gibreel but from Satan, speaking through him.  So the Satanic Verses are those words declaring these other goddesses to be real and to be worthy of worship in Islam.  I believe in Muslim cultures it is more commonly known as The Story of the Cranes, but that makes a far less interesting book title.

Obviously this was a challenging book, and I am not well-versed enough in much of what was discussed to pretend that I ‘got’ it all, understood every reference or allegory.  What I will say is that I enjoyed reading it, I love Rushdie’s style, I like his humor and his truth, and I feel that even if I can understand 10% of what he’s talking about, I will still think he’s worth reading.  I will also say, however, that the ending disappointed me.  It didn’t pull everything together into a cohesive whole as well as I would have liked.  I don’t need a happy ending, but this seemed like there were just too many balls for him to juggle and he dropped a few at the end.  But I highly recommend it, if you’ve got the energy to keep up!