Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.

Happy birthday, William Faulkner! As much as I'd like to be re-reading As I Lay Dying right now, I'm swamped in work.

But, an homage to my favourite Faulkner quote (thus far):
“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know where he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

There wasn't really much else to do. Make something, and die.

AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Molly Lane, a flirtatious restaurant critic, dies from amnesia (inferred), her former lovers Clive Linely - a celebrated composer - and Vernon Halliday - editor for The Judge - reconvene at her funeral. Also at the funeral are George Lane, Molly's widowed (and detestable) husband, and Julian Garmony, who is running for prime minister and also once Molly's lover.

The memory of Molly trails Clive as as he works on his chef d'oeuvre, and accompanies Vernon as he struggles to save his declining newspaper. As the debut of Clive's symphony in Amsterdam inches closer, and while Garmony continues his campaign, Clive and Vernon encounter ethical dilemmas that force them to choose between what is 'morally right' - at the cost of their friendship - and what is 'best' for their personal objectives and careers.

Amsterdam is a thoroughly personal story; regardless of the scope of events its characters deal with, their each whim has its base on firmly grounded - and even depraved - personal desires. Both Clive, who struggles with writing his "Millennial Symphony", and Vernon, who attempts to save his newspaper, gladly dive into reprobate, degenerate waters to achieve their aims: the former does it to write the piece of a lifetime, and the latter does it for a return to glory.

Amsterdam is darkly humorous, well-structured and poetically written. Especially during McEwan's expressive, elegiac accounts of Clive's music do readers understand why The Times acknowledged him as one of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945." It is a quick yet thought provoking and plot-chasing read that will leave readers thinking about its beginning (spoiler) at its end.

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“We knew so little about each other. We lay mostly submerged, like ice floes with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man's privacy and turmoil, of his dignity upended by the overpowering necessity of pure fantasy, pure thought, by the irreducible human element - Mind. ”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Furious, wind-whipped flakes

Snow Falling on CedarsSnow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most astounding factoids about Snow Falling on Cedars is that its author, David Guterson, worked on it almost exclusively during mornings hours because he was a full-time teacher (it's tough to imagine Guterson sipping coffee and chewing donuts while chronicling the many death scenes in this novel). Guterson took 10 years to finish the novel but his perseverance paid off: Snow Falling on Cedars would later win the PEN/Faulkner Award (and other awards, too) and even be adapted into an Oscar-nominated film.

The story is set on the island of San Piedro in 1954, a time when Anti-Japanese sentiments were still extant. A Japanese American fisherman - Kabuo Miyamoto - is accused of murder, and his guilt depends not only on empirical evidence but also on the bias of the jury (imagine TKAM + L' étranger). His wife, Hatsue, is his witness and Ishmael Chambers, a marine corps veteran, is tasked with documenting the trial.

Guterson knows no limits in storytelling; he traverses time, distance and culture as he writes of Chambers and Hatsue's childhood romance, the eviction of the Japanese from San Piedro after Pearl Harbour and the agonizing, submissive taciturnity of the Japanese. In one chapter one will readof strawberry fields and yarrow tea and in the next, encounter foul-mouthed soldiers and trenches.

Written immaculately and poetically, Snow Falling on Cedars will appeal to anyone who has an appreciation of fine language and historical fiction. The exotic terms Guterson uses, although at times seemingly redundant, nonetheless add to the novel's prosody and complement Guterson's attention to detail.

Although snow may lay a blanket on the cedars of one's past, Snow Falling on Cedars reveals that it will always melt away and reveal fresh branches of a cruel war and past love that impinge on us all the same. And although the snow that falls throughout the court case is peppered by nature's hand, the separation of Hatsue and Chambers, the prejudice of the crowd and even Hatsue's mother's stringent disposition reveal that "accidents rule every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart."

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