Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2004) 390p.
I have read ‘The Devil in the White City’ as a trilogy, together with ‘Nature’s Metropolis‘ and ‘The Jungle’, and the overlap and synergies between the three works is so insightful to understand the roots of modern America, which sprouted in the Gilded Age of Chicago. Americans in general have perhaps a short memory and a shallow desire to understand their history or present, as they are so energetically working to build their future, but as they strive thus forward, they fail to see the straight trail they leave behind. The history of Chicago is interestingly also transcending the contemporary spleen of American culture. ‘Nature’s Metropolis’ more than any other work perhaps, gives a more comprehensive insight into the shared destiny of the northern East Coast and the Great West and South. The history of Chicago is the stitching between the common descent, by opening the gap between the White City and the Black City, between the amazing wonders and creative forces of the American Dream on one hand and the devastating destruction and humiliation of the American Psyche on the other, by describing a meticulous history of the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition‘ of 1893 and a portrait of America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes.
Looking forward to the feature movie with Leonardo diCaprio by Martin Scorsese.
Henry Miller, The Time of the Assassins: a Study of Rimbaud (1946/1956), 163p.
The book starts uninspired but by the epiphany that the life of Rimbeaud contains the blueprint for genius, emphasizing the parallels between Miller and Rimbeaud. Did I mention Miller is a pretentious prick? Only after he made that first point of life and the formation of exceptional psychologies, does he enter the waters where the streams of Miller’s lyrical poetry grasp you and pull you under. It is when he talks about the end of the world, about the assassin of youth, the escapes and boredom, the venomous poison of a poet’s visions that entered the unknown, that Miller’s study becomes inspiring.
Willa Cather, My Antonia (1918) 286p.
Since having moved to the US, I have been searching to understand the American soul. Of course, there is no single archetype that represents all Americans. But there are some books that capture an essential part of it, like Roth’s The Great American Novel. My Antonia is another one of those books that puts in place an element of the American puzzle.
Willa Cather writes in a descriptive style that is mostly void of existential reflections. In general this is typical of American literature, but what lacks is filled by sentiment, a sentiment of loss and sacrifice, of striving and resilience. Continue reading
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) 411p.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an easy to digest story about Michael Pollan’s attempt to trace the ingredients of three dinners back from table to origin. His quest is written in a largely anecdotal style and discusses the food chain of the average American dinner, an organic meal and a meal consisting of products that were hunted and foraged from the wild. The first two parts of the book about the products from the American food industry and the organic sector are still interesting enough and mixed with enough revealing stories and facts to compensate for Pollan’s essayistic style that dominates the book at the cost of factual information. But during the last part which re-counts Pollan’s experience hunting for wild boar and foraging mushrooms and morsel, I had to struggle through the last hundred pages.
The most revealing part is the part about the American meat and corn industry. It not only reveals convincingly how the whole agricultural system, from government to commercial farming, from the military-oil industry to the food sector, has been driven to the same disastrous monoculture of corn in America, but also how monstruous American food-production has degenerated into an contra-natural method. The implications of this system and its complex dependencies from the petro-chemical based fertilizer industry, the pharmaceutical industry, to the fast food industry, all these elements form part of the same interdependent whole that constitutes the American meal.
William Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915) 607p.
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss (2006), 357p.
Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize as best novel in the UK and not without reason. The novel is fabulously written and deals with a theme that is dominant in and unites Western and Indian culture: cultural identity. The literary magazine Szirine, which I co-founded together with Charlene Caprio and James Shivers, deals extensively with the importance of culture in a world where individuals are increasingly separated from their traditional ethnical bounds. The diffusion of cultural identity and the transformation from a closed society to an open society, from societies where individuals depent on the community to societies where communities depend on individuals, is not only creating new dreams and hopes but also confrontations with old values that need to be overcome in order to succesfully integrate in modern times.
Desai’s antagonists deal not only with the diffusions of our time, but also with the diffusion of history and the present, with regional, national and internation identities, with the diffusion of classes, and with inidividual and social identities. Although the plot of The Inheritance of Loss is thin, the diversity of the characters is close to realistic.
“This way of leaving your family for work had condemned them over several generations to have their hearts always in other places, their minds thinking about people elsewhere […]” Continue reading
“On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: a Story of Wall-street (1853)
David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999)
I loved Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or at least the first five minutes of the many times I picked his book up again, in a renewed attempt to finish it. Eventually, I yielded to my disinterest in the stories, and let my dithyrambic enthusiasm dissolve in the rambling mist of words that spit at the reader’s eyes. So, I might not share the shallow taste for fast food, the quick satisfaction of mental onanism in Wallace’s writing. If anything is beyond discussion, it is Wallace’s talent for writing, he has a magic pen for words, but like so many talents, they come with deficiences, and Wallace’s is that he has trouble developing interesting characters and plot in his Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which is in all honestly a collection of short stories. But despite that fact I am still undecided if I should risk picking up his 1000 pages long novel, feel the same excitement in the first 50 pages, before the fire dies out, and leaving me struggling through the remaining 950. But maybe, just maybe, his rambling thoughts were overthought well and he might have succeeded to create layer upon layer of meaning, instead of chaining words together like a soap-opera of observations of our time, to dig en develop into a character’s subtle humanities versus its obvious vulgarities, and to come up with a complex structure and plot versus the straightforward, downward run down the hill.