Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Book Club goes local

The book club turns to a novel set in Washington DC to kick off the fall season. The Washington Post says of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears:

"One of the glories of the literature of exile is the sharp outlines a writer can bring to the contours of his adoptive society. For readers who were born in the writer's host country, such literature can uncover things that might otherwise be obscured by familiarity. Dinaw Mengestu's praiseworthy first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, draws upon this principle. Take, for example, this wide-eyed reflection by Sepha Stephanos, the Ethiopian émigré who narrates the story, on riding the Washington Metro: "The red-line train bound for the suburbs of Maryland is delayed. The trains of this city continue to marvel me, regardless of how long I live here. It's not just their size, but their order, the sense you get when riding them that a higher, regulatory power is in firm control, even if you yourself are not." Most native Metro users probably wouldn't greet a delay with such transcendental musings.
But Stephanos lacks an outlet -- aside from his friends -- to channel his thoughts. The novel underscores this element by contrasting his plight with that of the 19th-century writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who is a favorite author of a character in the novel. Unlike the blue-blooded Frenchman who returned to his homeland and was celebrated for his insights into American life, the struggling Stephanos seems unlikely to return to his native country or win admiration for his perspicacity.
As a teenager, Stephanos fled Ethiopia to escape fallout from the military coup that ousted Haile Selassie in 1974 and thrust the Dergue -- a junta that ruled the country until 1987 -- into power. Stephanos's father -- a prosperous lawyer in Ethiopia's capital -- attracted the ire of a government determined to snuff out all so-called counter- revolutionaries. After witnessing his father's brutal treatment at the hands of the Dergue's henchmen, Stephanos acceded to his mother's wishes and fled Ethiopia. Eventually, he made his way to Washington.
Mengestu's tightly written novel largely unfolds in alternating chapters of past and present. The story is structured around a period of unrest in Logan Circle when gentrification led to evictions. For Stephanos, the influx of moneyed white people into the predominantly black neighborhood where he resides and runs a grocery store is a welcome event. He hopes that his business might improve along with the neighborhood and that his loneliness might be alleviated by a white academic and her biracial child, whom he befriends.
Unfortunately, vandalism aimed at Logan Circle's new residents prompts the Tocqueville-loving scholar, with whom Stephanos is enamored, to leave the neighborhood. And so, while Stephanos mulls over the events that vaporized his hopes for a more fulfilling life, he finds himself in a self-reflective purgatory, searching for a new raison d'être. Indeed, the title of the novel comes from the last lines of Dante's Inferno, where the poet, emerging from hell, is granted a glimpse of heaven before he makes his way into purgatory.
Apart from its lean sentences, which very rarely overreach, Mengestu's novel benefits from his plausible depiction of characters caught on the seams between two worlds -- rich/poor, black/white, citizen/foreigner. This lends an urgency to their ruminations that believably cleanses their conversation of small talk. In other words, the big ideas of Stephanos and his two African friends about racial politics in America, the necessary accouterments for success, and why colonels make for better dictators than generals don't come off as stilted but as natural byproducts of their exiled condition.
With its well-observed characters and brisk narrative pacing, greatly benefited by the characters' tension-laced wit, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is an assured literary debut by a writer worth watching."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

In the Shadow of No Towers

If you enjoyed Art Spiegelman's Maus you may enjoy his latest book In the Shadow of No Towers.
Publisher's Weekly said of it "an artful rant focused on the events of 9/11 and afterward by a world-class pessimist ("after all, disaster is my muse"). The artist, who lives in downtown Manhattan, believes the world really ended on Sept. 11, 2001—it's merely a technicality that some people continue to go about their daily lives. He provides a hair-raising and wry account of his family's frantic efforts to locate one another on September 11 as well as a morbidly funny survey of his trademark sense of existential doom. "I'm not even sure I'll live long enough," says a chain-smoking, post-9/11 cartoon-mouse Spiegelman, "for cigarettes to kill me." The book is a visceral tirade against the Bush administration ("brigands suffering from war fever") and, when least expected, an erudite meditation on the history of the American newspaper comic strip, born during the fierce circulation wars of the 1890s right near the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan."

In the Shadow of No Towers is available in the Library at PN6727.S6 I5 2004.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Book Club Hits with Henry!

Current (and some previous!) faculty and staff gathered on Friday 18 April to discuss the adventures of Prince Hal, Hotspur and Falstaff. Discussion ranged from history to current politics to family dramas (both fictional and real-life!) to poetry and also films.

(above Falstaff, in Stratord-upon-Avon)

Some of us previewed My Own Private Idaho and enjoyed the adaptation of Shakespeare's dynastic struggle & coming-of-age story to the street hussler culture of 1990s Portland.

(above, Keaneau Reeves -- a modern day Hal?)

If the better part of valour is discretion, why is that line so often taken out of context? And why does it generate 286,000 Google hits? Do all those webmasters know Falstaff was referring to playing dead?

And how is that related to discrete mathematics? This is truly a multi-disciplinary book group!

Unfortunately, we didn't have any Falstaff Beer:

Thanks to Kaya Ford for hosting!