Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stories with or without animals: Life of Pi

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

I would like to be clever - but I'm falling asleep. So I'll just say "Thank you" to Pamela (from the dayton time) for guest posting with me today. And I'm not at ALL jealous that she was able to express herself so well in one page when it took three-and-a-half pages for me to (attempt) the same. D*mmit!

Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

He Read:

“…For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” Jesus said. "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" Pilate asked.
(John 18:37-38)
Once again the damnable burdens of Expectation have laid themselves upon a work of art under my consideration – with deleterious results. Well, to be fair, Life of Pi’s author, Yann Martel had a hand in placing this burden himself; by having one of his characters make the statement (within the first five pages of the book, mind you – in the Author’s Note!) that “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

I call that a tall order. Not that he had to convince me – I already believe in God. But even in the mind of a Believer, this places a thought that the story you are about to read is so amazing that it will alter your world-view (or, at least, your God-view). And, in that regard, Life of Pi came up well short in this reader’s view.

Not that there aren’t a great many things to enjoy in this book. In fact, although my initial reaction after finishing the novel was to feel a bit let down (for reasons, that I will not reveal in great detail – in deference to those who have not yet read the book), those feelings have softened considerably during my preparation of this review. On reflection, I would describe Life of Pi as a flawed masterpiece; a book of great ambition which, despite generally fine writing, a compelling central story, and some exquisite moments, doesn’t fulfill all its ambition.

The book tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, born in Pondicherry, India (on the southeastern coast near Sri Lanka), younger son of Mr. Santosh Patel, the owner and operator of a zoo at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden. The boy adopts the nickname “Pi” on his first day at secondary school (equivalent to a combined Junior & Senior high school) in order to leave behind the hated nickname “Pissing” that had dogged him in childhood. Pi’s father decides to relocate the family to Canada in the face of Indira Gandhi’s near-dictatorial policies during the mid-Seventies. The zoo’s animals are sold or donated to other establishments – and many share the ship that will take the Patels from India to North America.

The novel’s central story is set in motion when the ship carrying sixteen-year-old Pi, his family and the animals sinks without warning on July 2, 1977, somewhere in the North Pacific between the Philippine and Midway Islands. Pi survives the next 227 days in a life boat that he shares (at least initially) with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan – and a 450 lb Bengal tiger.

Or does he? Again, in the interest of trying not to spoil the book for those who haven’t already read it, I will say only that one of the Martel’s ambitions seems to be making the reader consider the nature of the truth – or, as Pi says it, what makes “the better story”. And the book is certainly successful in arousing such consideration (a worthy accomplishment in and of itself) – though I suspect that some readers will feel as Pi does following his long journey:

What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example – I wonder – could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less? I’ll tell you, that’s one thing I hate about my nickname, the way that number runs on forever. It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go Otherwise, you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.
This passage encapsulates both what I love about this book – and what troubles me. I love the language and perspective that Martel imparts to Pi’s first person narrative. But the “cleverness” of the surrounding presentation only detracts from his central story and themes. He actually separates the novel into exactly 100 chapters, but not in a way that demonstrates any particular belief “in form (or) the harmony of order” but almost like a trick. (As an illustration, the entirety of Chapter 97 reads: “The story.”)

Another troubling element for me is the abrupt shift of tone in the last section of book, where he introduces two characters from the Japanese Ministry of Transport in an attempt at Abbott and Costello comedy relief. Not only is the shift in tone unnecessary – but the stuff isn’t very funny. Although this section of the book is crucial to the overall impact of the story, the execution does not fit with the rest of the novel. It reminds me of a trap that many films seem to fall into these days; where the filmmaker wants to include the full range of human emotion within a story – even though some of those emotions don’t fit in (I call it the “Mrs. Doubtfire effect”). Even much of Pi’s dialogue in this section of the novel doesn’t seem to fit the character we have come to know in the preceding 350 pages. It’s not that the rest of the book doesn’t have funny moments – but the humor in this end section seems quite forced.

[Note: This next section is improved if you can easily lapse into a fake French accent a la John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.]

Despite these missteps, Life of Pi has wonderful moments – like the meeting of Mr. Kumar (Pi’s favorite teacher who both a Communist and atheist – take that you provincial American pig dogs!) and Mr. Kumar (the humble Muslim baker who introduces Pi to Islam – and again you capitalistic sniffers-of-other-person’s-bottoms!) at the zoo. It is the baker who firsts arrives on the scene at Pi’s invitation. There is a sublime section (that I will not attempt to excerpt) where Pi frets over trying to recognize Mr. Kumar in the crowded street outside the zoo – and he is greatly relieved once they make their way in.

It was with great pride that I waved the ticket collector’s hand away and showed Mr. Kumar into the zoo.
He marveled at everything, at how to tall trees came tall giraffes, how carnivores were supplied with herbivores and herbivores with grass, how some creatures crowded the day and others the night, how some that needed sharp beaks had sharp beaks and others that needed limber limbs had limber limbs. It made me happy that he was so impressed.
He quoted from the Holy Qur’an: “In all this there are messages indeed for a people who use their reason.”
We came to the zebras. Mr. Kumar had never heard of such creatures, let alone seen one.
While they are observing the zebras, the other Mr. Kumar arrives on the scene. Both Mr. Kumars feed a bit of carrot to a zebra.

Mr. and Mr. Kumar looked delighted.
“A zebra, you say?” said Mr. Kumar.
“That’s right,” I replied. “It belongs to the same family as the ass and the horse.”
“The Rolls-Royce of equids,” said Mr. Kumar.
“What a wondrous creature,” said Mr. Kumar.
Life of Pi is also filled with wonderful ideas. Martel eloquently contradicts much criticism of zoos (as prisons for wild animals) – with his argument that what animals desire most is predictability and routine. But, unfortunately, he undermines his own argument almost immediately with the following illustration:

If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chased the people who lived there out into the street and said, “Go! You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go! – do you think they would shout and dance for joy? They wouldn’t. Birds are not free. The people you’ve just evicted would sputter, “With what right do you throw us out? This is our home. We own it. We have lived here for years. We’re calling the police, you scoundrel.”
Don’t we say, “There’s no place like home”? That’s certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water.
Although this illustration is intended to show how wrong-minded people are who want to return zoo animals to the wild, isn’t the reverse true as well? Isn’t an animal, now living in the wild, being “evicted” from his house if he is captured and moved into a zoo – whether or not living in the zoo might be better or easier long-term? I bring this up, not because I believe zoos should be abolished, but because Martel’s desire to be clever once again blunts the overall impact of an idea that (I think) he wants to make in the book.

The novel does a better job dealing with its spiritual themes. As a boy, Pi is drawn to spiritual devotion. Not content with only his native Hindu, he goes on to practice as both a Christian and Muslim too. Martel shows respect for each one of these systems of belief – but Pi’s secret triple-life is finally exposed when the priest, the patel and the imam of the town all happen upon the Patel family during a Sunday afternoon stroll. The scene reveals how ridiculous it is when followers of these religions focus most of their attention on the superficial differences in their spiritual practice – rather than be reconciled with one another by greater devotion to the central truth they all share. When the young Pi is told that “he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim” and asked to choose only one, he responds:

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi on the esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do – love God.”
So I leave you with that thought (a mighty good one – maybe enough to justify reading a 400-page book). If that thought appeals to you, pick up a copy of Life of Pi and make up your own mind. If not, this may not be your cup of tea.

She Read:

If we citizens do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams. (Yann Martel, Life of Pi)
A good author makes you want to believe what the author is telling you. A really good author makes you believe. The Life of Pi was easy to believe, too easy perhaps, and I was completely drawn in to the plight of Pi Patel. I read the entire novel in one day, which is really saying something, as I ought to have been taking care of my children, ages 6, 4, 2, and 7 months.

[Please note: They survived.]

There comes a point with some fiction, both written and spoken, when you simply cannot believe any longer. There are signs, of course, that you are approaching that point, but if you’re like me, you brush those signs aside, even without knowing that is what you’re doing. Eventually the burden of the indicators tips the scale and the reader is forced to reevaluate what is truth.

Incredible things happened to Pi; that is the truth of the story. It is a story of survival, adaptability, and strength; that is undeniable. But what really happened? Pi tells his story twice, the first version is bizarre and lovely, the second is crude and horrific.

Pi asks his audience which story is better to believe, and because some actions are less reprehensible when performed by animals, rather than humans, the audience prefers the bizarre and lovely version. In real life, we humans so often believe the crude and horrific over the bizarre and lovely. We do not take into consideration which is the better story to believe, and we are rarely given the opportunity to choose which truth to believe.

Martel finds truth in religion, and fortunately for him, there is no shortage of truth touted by religious folk. In the beginning of the novel, Pi hungers for God, diligently studying three religions, and practicing each with great reverence. A character in the book makes the claim that Pi’s story will cause a person to believe in God. My counterpart believes this statement to be difficult to achieve; I believe the statement to be an Agnostic antagonizer. Throughout the novel, Martel clearly takes issue with believing nothing, which makes the question “which is the better story to believe?” even more loaded.

I asked myself that very question about ten years ago when I realized I needed to make my mind up about God. I’m not really the kind of person to live in the grey area, I’m more of a black-or-white, it-is-or-it-isn’t kind of girl. I chose to believe.

Regardless of your religious beliefs or thoughts about God, Life of Pi is a fascinating, well-crafted novel chock full of beautiful imagery that will inspire your imagination.

[Hope you found today's reviews at He Read/She Read to be enlightening. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including any suggestions or constructive criticism.

Thanks again to the lovely Pamela for being my review partner today. Please take a minute to stopy by the dayton time and share some comment love.

Keep in mind that your participation is what helps make He Read/She Read a special place. If you:

- Have a book you would like to see reviewed on He Read/She Read
– Are interested in being a guest writer for one of our featured reviews
– Would like to do your own mini-review (100 words or less?) of a book previously reviewed here (I would love to offer a summary of feedback from readers as a complement to the featured reviews - and I KNOW some of you out there have already read this book.)

Then: Please use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above. Let your voices be heard!

Next time on He Read/She Read:

I have no idea.

If I can't find anyone interested in teaming up for a review, I may fill in with the Stories That Stick meme.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And helps you get a good night's sleep.]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"The horror, the horror...":
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

I am particularly excited about today's reviews - because one of my personal blogging heroes, Captain Dumbass from Us and Them, and my personal wifey heroine, the Middle-Aged Woman from Unmitigated, have joined forces today in a special Halloween Horror presentation. Sensing that I could not sustain the blistering of pace of posting here on three consecutive weeks without some help from (semi-)professionals, these Juggernauts of the Blogsphere are on-hand to take this thing up to a whole new level - with their reviews of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the Jane Austen classic - with some good, old-fashioned zombification added by Seth Grahame-Smith). I promised that today's post would include (little or) no Jim Styro content - so without any further ado, let’s see what…]

He Read:

A few months back Middle Aged Woman from Unmitigated asked if I would like to do a book review with her for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. I immediately jumped at the chance since I had been waiting for the book to come out and it gave me an excuse to go out and buy it. After setting aside everything else I was reading and quickly working through the book, I immediately ground to a halt. A book review? When was the last time I'd done a book review? Junior high? Elementary school? Panic set in, but it was quickly replaced by the relaxed absence of any thought at all. My mind is quite adept at making uncomfortable situations disappear. Tra-la-la-la-la. But then MAW kept emailing and Twittering and leaving troll-like comments on my blog. What the hell, woman? You're making it very difficult for me to ignore you. Sigh. So what can I say about this book? I think this one passage can best sum up Pride & Prejudice & Zombies for me:

She remembered the lead ammunition in her pocket and offered it to him. "Your balls, Mr. Darcy?" He reached out and closed her hand around them, and offered, "They belong to you, Miss Bennett."
Early 19th century angsty love, the crossing of social boundaries, sexual innuendo and the walking dead, what more could you ask for? I'm sure it's a close rendition of what Jane Austen would have written if not tied down by the rigid boundaries of society in the early 1800's. If you've never read an Austen book or seen one of the multitude of movie adaptations but felt that you should, this is a good place to start. Seriously. Author Seth Grahame-Smith has done a fantastic job of adapting the original book into something very entertaining and easily read. Aside from the additions of a zombie plague, Grahame-Smith kept to most of original text but cleaned it up in a way to make it friendlier to readers in the here and now. Not that the minutia of two hundred year old pre-Victorian romance isn't riveting, but this adaptation makes things a little more understandable and humorous for readers who would never have thought of picking up a Jane Austen novel. The thing I admire most about this work is the simplicity and adaptability of the idea. You could do this to literally ANY story. Granted, rewriting an entire book is a serious amount of work, still, at the same time it sings to the laziness inside me. For example, The Odyssey by Homer

"Sing to me of the zombie, Muse, the zombie of twists and turns driven time and again by hunger, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he ate and tasted of their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, starving once his comrades were but bone."
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy:

"Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than hellish estates of the un-dead. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Apocalypse (upon my word, I believe it is), I don't know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say for you will join them. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I'm scaring you, do sit down and talk to me."
And, from the New York
Fate of White House Counsel Is in Doubt After Bruising Fights
By PETER BAKER Published: October 21, 2009

"WASHINGTON — Every morning, Gregory B. Craig, the White House counsel, sits at the conference table of the Roosevelt Room with the president’s depleted senior staff. The one issue that does not come up? Mr. Craig himself. As President Obama’s top lawyer, Mr. Craig has been at the center of thorny decisions on halting the transfer of zombie plague victims (ZP's) to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, revising interrogation and detention policies and simply executing them, problems that have bedeviled the new administration and generated fierce battles inside and outside the White House. And for months now, he has endured a spate of speculation in print and around the White House about whether he himself has been infected by the plague."
Song lyrics, commercials, children's books... once you start, it's hard to stop. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say that as a book review, this would probably be handed back by the teacher with an awful lot of red ink and the sixth letter of the alphabet in prominent display, but you know what? That teacher can suck it. Bottom line, Seth Grahame-Smith has attached his name to a literary classic just by adding some zombie horror to it. I sincerely hope he's making a boat load of money off this.

She Read:

If you have long loved Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, you may rest assured that Elizabeth Bennet is still a thoughtful, strong heroine, mortified by her mother, Mr. Darcy is still brooding and proud, and Mr. Collins is still an ass.

Seth Grahame-Smith's transformation of the Jane Austin classic is absolutely seamless. It's as if the novel was written this way in the first place by a precognicient Austen to appeal to the early 21st century fascination with the undead.

What's up with that, by the way? When did reanimated corpses in search of brains become hilarious? You can find knitted zombies on Etsy now, for pete's sake.

My reviewing partner, Captain Dumbass once featured these on his blog.

Zombies used to be scary. Now they are the butt of our jokes. This one is by Dennis Culver.

Back to the review. Austen's tale is about the Bennets, a family in 19th century England who, because they have five daughters and no sons, will lose their estate and income, upon the death of their father. Mr. Bennet is a bit of an absentee father, as he is a very sensible man who has found it easier to withdraw to his study than to argue with his very insensible wife. Mrs. Bennet is very eager to see the girls married well (and by that she means to someone wealthy). Pride and Prejudice is the tale mostly of Elizabeth, or Lizzie, the strong-willed second daughter, who is sensible like her father, and her relationship with the cold, proud Mr. Darcy. Of course they start off disliking each other very much, and end up in love against their will, paving the way for the plot of every Harlequin romance ever written.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 19th century England is overrun with "unmentionables" whom Lizzie and her sisters have been trained to dispatch by Shaolin monks, at the insistence of the very sensible Mr. Bennet. In this version, the haughty Lady Catherine is admired, not for her connections at court, but for her martial abilities. The dreadfully absurd Mr. Collins refers to her this way as he proposes to Lizzie:

"...I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine De Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her powers of combat beyond anything I can describe; and your own talents in slaying the stricken, I think, must be acceptable to her, though naturally, I will require you to retire them as part of your marital submission."

There are occasional vignettes that are entirely added by Grahame-Smith. When the Bennet girls and Mr. Collins undertake the walk to Meryton where they will meet the villain Mr. Wickham, along the way they find trouble. The carriage of a young girl they know has been overturned in a gulley and set upon by zombies. To prevent the spread of the scourge, Elizabeth snatches the pipe from the mouth of Mr. Collins, "a gift from her ladyship," and tosses it down into the gulley, fire being one of the ways in which unmentionables are dispatched.

In a turn I found particularly satisfying, Lizzie's best friend Charlotte, who marries the insufferable Mr. Collins, is stricken, as she calls it, after having been grabbed and bitten on the ankle by a zombie trapped under the coach. Her words to Elizabeth, "I don't have long, Elizabeth. I only hope that my final months will be happy ones, and that I be permitted a husband who will see to my proper Christian beheading and burial."

What every girl dreams of.

With the successful transformation of Pride and Prejudice, one can only imagine the possibilities for other famous works in the public domain.
Dickens, anyone?

[Hope you were terrified by this special Halloween Horror edition of He Read/She Read. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including any suggestions or constructive criticism.

Special thanks to Captain Dumbass (from Us and Them) and the Middle-Aged Woman (from Unmitigated) for bailing me out sharing their thoughts on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. A little bird told me there are several other books which trash the classics spice up these musty old tomes by adding assorted monsters and mayhem - perhaps we can convince these two to join forces again some time soon. Please take a minute to visit their blogs and share some comment love. I hear that the Middle-Aged Woman is even giving away a prize to some lucky winner at Unmitigated!!

Please keep in mind that your participation is what helps make He Read/She Read a special place. If you:

- Have a book you would like to see reviewed on He Read/She Read
– Are interested in being a guest writer for one of our featured reviews
– Would like to do your own mini-review (100 words or less?) of a book previously reviewed here (I would love to offer a summary of feedback from readers as a complement to the featured reviews)

Then: Please use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

DON'T FORGET: Next week, Jim Styro returns - aided and abetted by

the lovely Pamela from the dayton time - to review
Yan Martel's Life of Pi

Spread the word.
Tell your friends. Tell your enemies.
Tell complete strangers.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And the more pages you turn, the more calories you burn.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Natives are restless:
Traveling The Powwow Highway

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome back to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

The lovely Rebekah from Waffles Waffles All Day Long was one of the very first readers here to step boldly forward and express a desire to join forces with me in presenting a book review. We picked one of her personal favorites, David Seals' The Powwow Highway, in the hope that some folks who might never had heard of this book might have their curiosity piqued.

Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

She Read:

(Disclaimer: Fortunately for me, Jim Styro is not my boss. Because he would fire me. Unfortunately for Jim Styro, re-reading a book I read in college apparently triggered some of my latent deadline avoidance. Jim, I owe you beer and/or many other beverages. And this apologetic, very much not-on-time review.)

Powwow Highway is a book I loved in college. LOVED. And re-reading it, I think my LOVE has maybe turned to ~love~. BUT it's still a very worth-it novel set in a realistic, if difficult, world on the borders of my own.

Superficially, Powwow Highway is a familiar caper/road-to-redemption/endearing-cons-triumph-over-the-man story. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid...If Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid were two somewhat life-battered American Indians on a road trip to rescue a drug-dealing damsel in distress - and her kids - in a burnt-out car full of beer, porn, and marijuana. And if they spent their road trip getting high and drunk, committing larceny, pissing off some white people, and taking a number of detours - both literal and metaphysical - on the road to heroism.

The main characters are reservation Cheyennes in the 1970's, and their experiences of poverty, tragedy, history, mysticism, casual sense of oppression (and anger at same) are core to the story, but difficult for me, a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, to observe without occasional, subjective little fusspot asides, like: a) bad personal accounting! and b) random-ass-kicking! and c) drug use! while driving!! and d) child neglect!!! But it also appeals to my rebel level. And my spiritual quest level. And even my romantic level. (I'm like an onion that way...)

The book centers around Philbert, the sweet heart (and, I guess, eventually the "sweetheart") of the novel. Philbert is an overweight, methodical, traditional young Cheyenne. A little drunk. A little gullible. And Buddy, an intense, well-educated, passionate, angry Vietnam vet who is the golden boy of their tribe. Together, Philbert and Buddy take off with some "borrowed" tribal council money in Philbert's battle-scarred Buick to bail Buddy's sister Bonnie from jail and rescue her kids, Sky and Jane. (And then get themselves back to Indian land when things go, as they will in this kind of tale, crazily, chaotically awry).

Most of the book takes place on the roads which loosely, meanderingly connect Lame Deer, Montana to Santa Fe, NM. Or, at least, in the effort of transition from one place to another. As a former road-tripper, I found myself captivated by Seals' demonstration of how a destination is only one of the places a journey may take you, even as I recognize the overuse of that metaphor. But, as with powerful folklore, sometimes a strong metaphor is part of the pleasure and familiarity of the story. And stylistically the book is laid out as a series of folklore vignettes: (The Origin of the Pony, The Warriors find the Princess).

There's a moment in the book which is simultaneously gorgeous, passionate, completely spiritual, and totally vulgar: On the way to New Mexico, Philbert ends up detouring into South Dakota to a mountain which holds special religious significance to the Cheyenne. Philbert climbs the butte, gasping and marvelling at the world and struggling his way to an epiphany, and then masturbates into the dirt in a sort-of blissed-out spiritual consummation with the earth. It's a great scene, and is the site of Philbert's rebirth as a stronger, more self-confident man. (But also, you know...sperm!) But I love it for the way in which it marries the crass and physical with the sublime and esoteric, and that, more than any other scene, has stayed with me over the years. Plus Philbert is just an endearing bear of a character.

All the players find haven at the end of the trip (and occasionally along the way). And resolution, at least of a kind. It's worth the time. And although there are other, slightly more mainstream and equally brilliant Native American authors (tip hat to my secret boyfriend, Sherman Alexie), I think David Seals is a master and have always been very sad that he only has the two books (this and a semi-sequel called "Sweet Medicine") which can be easily purchased. (Wikipedia lists a few more, but I can't find them for sale anywhere).

I guess this is as good a place as any to note that this is a PROFANE book. I'd forgotten just how much. Sweet, and surprisingly touching, but maybe not meant to read aloud to your grandmother (or, since I don't know your grandmother - not to mine).

He Read:

While known and beloved by Rebekah, The Powwow Highway was unknown to me until about a month ago. When, in the course of a few exchanged emails, it became clear to me how much more well- and widely-read my esteemed colleague was than myself, I made the quick (and smart, may I add) decision to let her pick the book we would review. On reflection, I think that having little or no expectations of an artwork (be it a book, a painting, a film or a piece of music) is quite helpful in being able to experience that work with a sort of purity, unburdened by expectations or preconceived notions. That said, let me get to my post-conceived notions.

David Seals’ novel is in many ways a modest little story that deals primarily with a 4-day road trip by Philbert Bono and Buddy Red Wing, which takes them from their hometown of Lame Deer (in southeastern Montana) to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Philbert and Buddy are on a meandering quest to bail Buddy’s sister, Bonnie, out of jail – but along the way they commune with nature (in a very special way), bond with old friends at a powwow, do battle with a dragon (in the form of a marauding snow plow) and, generally, raise havoc wherever they trod.

But Seals’ book is about much more than a road trip – because he sets his mythic tale within the unglamorous world of Native Americans in 1970s America. He shows us both the grandiose and grungy aspects of this culture and gives the reader a sense of larger-than-life adventure without losing touch with reality. In fact, the relationship between fantasy and reality, the mingling of truth and lies, is an idea which undergirds the entire story. Seals puts it this way:

There are two parts to every story: the part that is believable and the part that is not. It is impossible to determine which of the two is the truth and which of the two is a lie, for a lie is an extension of the truth and nobody knows what the hell the truth is. Perhaps it is a lie that is so exciting and preposterous that is has to be true.
But nobody really knows.
Later in the book, he introduces a chapter in the book by telling us that Philbert and Buddy have “come upon the most unbelievable episode they are to encounter on their voyage. Therefore it is the most authentic episode of the voyage.” On The Powwow Highway, you can never be too sure who to believe – but you can be sure that the characters who present themselves as trustworthy shouldn't be trusted.

It is Seals’ ability to portray his characters, even ones incidental to the major storyline, with a keen eye for detail (Buddy’s fragile ego, Philbert’s stoic sweetness, Bonnie’s steadfast shallowness) – along with his desire to provide a larger context for the tale (by opening the book with a complete history of Philbert’s car, for example; or weaving episodes from Native American history into the narrative, like the death of Crazy Horse in 1877) – which help bring the reader along on the journey. In the midst of this wild ride, Seals will frequently take a scenic detour – like the two pages which comprise Chapter 11. We makes a brief stop at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Lame Deer, where the 6 am Mass is always packed with Indians waiting to worship – the sunrise.

One of the most heartfelt passages in the book deals with the unexpected reunion of Buddy with two other Vietnam vets at the powwow in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. In the intertribal unit they fought with, Seals tells us, “they were the only three of the fifteen that enlisted together to come back.” One of the men, Jimmy Campbell, breaks down in the midst of their gathering – the war has left him with many scars, including a stutter that leaves him almost mute.

(Jimmy) couldn't finish his thought. He struggled fiercely, his face contorted and growing furiously scarlet…he started weeping pathetically. Buddy clasped him in his arms roughly.

“Shut up, goddammit, you don’t gotta say nothin’!” Buddy choked, his own tears bursting out from the nightmare they had shared together and would never escape. “Don’t say nothin’, Jimmy boy, don’t say nothin’.”

He rocked the soldier in his arms. Several kids nearby stared in wonder at the two men. The adults were all moved to thoughts of their own shame and ate buffalo stew.
But I fear that I’m making the trip sound far too serious and high-minded. This is not a book for those whose sensibilities are too delicate. It is filled with beer and drugs and sex; lawlessness, immorality and violence – and it makes all this seem not only funny – but fun! Where else can you find a writer will to devote 9 pages to the most hilarious tale ever regarding a car stuck in snow? Seals uses his punch lines to temper any tendency for the story to take flight into mythic mumbo-jumbo; he keeps it real – as in this passage when our heroes finally cross the border into New Mexico:

The border turned their thoughts to their impending task. The closer they got to their impossible goal, the closer Buddy felt to a sense of irretrievable failure that he had been fighting all his life. Perhaps he was self-destructive, he thought, summoning a psychological phrase he had learned in college. After all, success in a world that one despises is the highest form of failure.

No, analysis was foolish. Buddy was a jerk, that was all.
But it is Philbert who becomes the hero – “the fact that he knew he was a jerk…gave him hope. He knew their only chance for success was in foolishness.” Seals elaborates on this seeming contradiction at the crucial moment when Philbert announces (to the three children that help him carry it out) his plan to rescue Bonnie:

The air grew thick and ominous with Taku skanskan tawaiciyapi, to use the Lakota phrase, an untranslatable aura of unreal freedom, an Indian reality at implausible odds with the rational world of whitemen. Taku skanskan was a pure spiritual vitality that radioactivated the bejesus out of any foreign impurities. And Philbert would have driven a logical Geiger counter berserk with his illogical radioactivity…
And so this book is a unique mix of the profound and the profane, the sublime and the ridiculous. Reaching the end, some readers may wonder “What was the point of the whole journey?” I would respond – The Journey was the whole point. Some readers may feel that Philbert and Buddy are just as concerned with getting high as getting Bonnie (a point that would be difficult to argue against) – but, on The Powwow Highway, who says you can’t do both…simultaneously.

[We hope you enjoyed this edition of He Read/She Read. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including suggestions and constructive criticism.

Special thanks to Rebekah from Waffles Waffles All Day Long for sharing her thoughts on The Powwow Highway. If she can get over her deadline anxiety, maybe I can convince her to try it again sometime. Please take a minute to visit Rebekah's blog. Leave her some comment love and tell her Jim Styro sent you.

If you have a book you would like to see used as the basis of a He Read/She Read post – or if you are interested in being a guest writer here – use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

DON'T FORGET: Next week, we will have a new "first" here at He Read/She Read - book reviews with absolutely no Jim Styro content at all. (Of course, you can always stop by Speaking in CAPS if you miss me.)

Tell everyone you know that, next Wednesday, Captain Dumbass (from Us and Them) and the Middle-Aged Woman (from Unmitigated) will review Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith with all little help from Jane Austen (or is it the other way around?).

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And it always leaves plenty of room for dessert.]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Breaking news

After much procrastination and recrimination careful planning and prodigious effort, I am pleased to announce details on the upcoming schedule here at He Read/She Read:

Next Wednesday, October 21 -
The Powwow Highway.....reviewed by Rebekah (from Waffles Waffles All Day Long) and me

Read in rapt fascination as two middle-class white people offer their insights into this road-trip saga of a Native American odd couple, Philbert Bono and Buddy Red Wing, in the wild west of the 1970s.

Wednesday, October 28 -
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.....reviewed by the Middle-Aged Woman from Unmitigated and Captain Dumbass from Us and Them

Experience bone-numbing terror as our international tag-team of reviewers spill their guts (figuratively) about this reimagining of Jane Austin's classic. It'll be "spill, or be spilled" here at He Read/She Read - just in time for Halloween.

and, tentatively, on

Wednesday, November 4 -
Life of Pi.....reviewed by Pamela (from the dayton time) and me

Find out how and why a mother of four young children devours an entire 400-page book in one day. Find out whether I can finish the book in a time-frame that will not make me look like a complete "book wimp".
Find out about "a story that will make you believe in God"*.

It just quicken the pulse, doesn't it?

[Remember - if you'd like to do a review for He Read/She Read, please leave a comment below or - better yet - send an email using this link (or the one in the "Contact Us" section).

*The author's words, not mine. You'll have to wait until Nov. 4 to find out whether I'm convinced. Of course, I already believe in God - so maybe that's cheating.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Coming Attractions

Lest that you think we are sleeping here in Düsseldorf*, I wanted to provide an update on what we have planned for you here at He Read/She Read.

Next week, Rebekah (from Waffles Waffles All Day Long) and I are planning to hold forth on David Seals' The Powwow Highway. Keep an eye out here, there and at Speaking in CAPS for details on when those reviews will be posted.

I am also now reading Yann Martel's Life of Pi so that Pamela (from the dayton time) and I can bestow upon you, Gentle Reader, all our accumulated wisdom concerning that tome...and stuff.

And, sometime soon, He Read/She Read will be proud (and relieved) to present to you our first Jim Styro-less review (please, please...hold your applause until all the names have been read) when Captain Dumbass (my personal hero, from Us and Them) and the Middle-Aged Woman (my personal heroine, from Unmitigated) will dazzle us with their insights concerning Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which takes Jane Austen's classic tale and, with considerable assistance from Seth Grahame-Smith, adds the brain-eating undead. Sounds like fun.

You don't want to miss a thing.
So remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you.

And you didn't really want to rake up the leaves anyway.

* Thanks to Jim Henson & Mel Brooks.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Unrequited Love: The Men and Women of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

My lovely wife, the Middle-Aged Woman at Unmitigated (and Unfocused), agreed to help me out by sharing her thoughts on a book that we both love, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. As usual, the man (in this case, me) is rather wordy - so I hope that both you and the Middle-Aged Woman will forgive my - expansiveness.

Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

She Read:

Larry Mc Murtry's Lonesome Dove is primarily the tale of two men; Augustus McRae (Gus) and Woodrow Call (Call or Cap'n Call). They met as young men, and together were Texas Rangers mid-19th century. As older men, they live on a dry wreck of a ranch on the Rio Grande in a town called Lonesome Dove. An old comrade comes back into their lives, and Gus and Call find themselves on a trip north to Montana to re-settle and run a cattle ranch.

While the narrative focuses on the events surrounding these two, nearly every major event in the story is precipitated by the interactions of a male/female relationship; husbands, wives, and lovers. At this point, you may as well get used to the term "whore." Three of the women we'll be talking about are prostitutes, but in the old west, they were called whores, and that's what McMurtry uses throughout.


The first couple we will meet is Gus and Clara. I start with them because they met as very young people and Gus courted Clara, though she would never consent to marry him. She felt he was too much of a wild 'un to settle down and raise a family. Clara instead married Bob, kind of a prosaic character who is comatose when the story takes place. Clara is taking care of him until he dies of his injuries from being kicked by a horse.

In this relationship, both parties like to think they are in control, but the truth is that neither of them is. They are equally hard-headed and stubborn, and probably would not have made a good match if they had married. Gus yearns for Clara outwardly. Inwardly, I think, he yearns for the days when he felt he was young and happy. Clara is fond of Gus, but longs for independence. She is an all respects a better ranch manager and businessperson than her husband was, yet as a woman in the Nebraska frontier she will never garner the respect she deserves.

In the course of the cattle drive north, Gus and Clara are reunited. Aware that Clara's husband will never recover from his injuries, Gus declares his very real love for her, which has rekindled as the miles between them grew shorter. But there are always complications aren't there? More on that later.


Maggie was a whore in Lonesome Dove, and the only woman in Call's very solitary life. Before she died, she bore a child, Newt, whom everyone but Call can see is Call's son. In the story, Newt is sixteen or seventeen years old. He lives with Gus and Call, who took him in to care for him after Maggie died.

By withholding his love, Call leads this quasi-relationship. At one point, Gus scolds Call for never referring to Maggie by name. She died broken-hearted, wanting to give her love to a man to a man who could neither accept it nor reciprocate.

The complication in this relationship is Newt. Gus tells Newt that his presence is always a reminder to Cap'n. Call of what he considers a past weakness. This painful reminder is why Call cannot bring himself to admit he is the boy's father.


July Johnson is the hapless sheriff of Fort Smith, Arkansas. His wife, Ellie, one mighty mean woman, is a former whore. She married July, though she still loves Dee Boot, a scoundrel with whom she has a history. July and Ellie's son, Joe, are on a mission to find a friend of Gus and Call's friend(Jake Spoon)and bring him back to town for trial for the accidental shooting of the town dentist. While they are gone, Ellie decides to leave to search for her true love, Dee Boot.

Though July is, in many respects, a good man, he is also a very weak one. He is blinded by his love for Ellie, though she rarely shows him anything but disdain. He is much too simple a man to realize that his love for her is not returned. He leaves on a nearly hopeless mission to find Jake Spoon at the insistance of his sister-in-law, Peach, and takes the young boy, Joe, along at the instance of Ellie.

When he learns that Ellie has left home, he abandons his original quest and begins hunting for her. On Ellie's trip to Ogallala, where she left Dee, she spares not a moment of thought for July or Joe.


Lorena Wood is a beautiful young girl who by one stroke of bad luck or naivete after another, ends up as a whore in Lonesome Dove. Xavier, who owns the bar where she lives/works loves her unrequitedly. Gus is a good friend to her, and all the young men around are anxious for her attention. Because she hopes to leave Lonesome Dove, she falls for Jake Spoon, who makes empty promises to Lorie. While Gus is her best customer, he is also one of the few people she trusts enough to open up to.

Gus could easily rule Lorie's heart and mind, though he chooses not to. After he rescues her from the vicious Blue Duck, she becomes doubly dependent on him, forming a bond with him that seems like love, but is borne out of fear of abandonment.

When Gus declares his love to Clara, she recognizes the attachment Lorie has to him, but Gus declares that he would "send Lorie to perdition," for the chance to love Clara once again (the complication I hinted at earlier).

In all of these pairings, the complications and conflicts outweigh or outlast the strength of the relationship. Clara tosses Gus aside for the steady, but boring, Bob. Maggie dies never having felt love from Woodrow Call. Ellie deserts July in favor of a man she once knew as a whore. Though Lorie does not lose Gus to Clara as she fears will happen, she still loses him in the end, and it nearly kills her.

Some see this story as a tale of the old west and an unwise choice, made on the spur of the moment, to take on one last great adventure. I see it as a story rife with unwise choices in life, but more often in love.

He Read:
“If you want one thing too much it’s likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk – and feisty gentlemen.”
--Capt. Augustus McCrae
Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, weaves an engrossing tale of adventure, love and loss around the central story of an epic cattle drive from Texas to Montana, and the life-long friendship of two Texas Rangers, Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, who undertake the journey; one with the dream of starting the first cattle ranch in that frontier territory, the other using the journey as an opportunity to be reunited with an old flame.

Nearly all of the tragedies, great and small, that befall the rich cast of characters in this book seem to arise from “want(ing) one thing too much.” The story is filled with couples who can’t connect with one another– and some characters who can’t or don’t want to connect with anyone. I’ll offer my thoughts on the book through a consideration of couples from Lonesome Dove – but first, a warning for female readers unfamiliar with the story.

One thing that is impossible to overlook in discussing Lonesome Dove is the “second-class” view of women inherent in a story of the America’s Western frontier in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Females are permitted to be one of the three Ws: wives, widows or whores. Other roles are not permitted – or at least, understood – by the inhabitants of the novel. Of the four female characters that drive McMurtry’s narrative, three are, or were, in this last category; in the course of the story, more than one of the women move from one role into another – sometimes by choice, more often by circumstance.

The woman who inhabits the novel from beginning to end is also the one who is dead before the narrative begins. Maggie is the proverbial “whore with the heart of gold”, the only woman ever to have captured, for a time, the attentions of Woodrow Call. And also the only woman unfortunate enough to have fallen in love with the Captain, only to be left behind when duty called – or when the urge to be away arose. McMurtry describes Call’s memories of Maggie:

“Over all those years, he could still remember how her eyes fixed on him hopefully when he entered, or when he was ready to leave. It was the most painful part of the memory – he had not asked her to care for him that much, yet she had. He had only asked to buy what other men had bought, but she had singled him out in a way he had never understood.

He felt a heavy guilt, though, because he had gone back time after time, and had let the need grow without even thinking about it or recognizing it. And then he left.”
Maggie wants one thing too much: the love of Woodrow F. Call. Following his departure, she bears Call the son he can never bring himself to claim as his own – and drinks herself into oblivion. The boy, Newt, is raised by the members of the Hat Creek Cattle Company (Woodrow, Augustus, another former Texas Ranger, Pea Eye Parker, and their black scout, Joshua Deets). But none of the men who had known Maggie (including Augustus and another former Ranger turned gambler, Jake Spoon, whose return to Lonesome Dove serves as a catalyst to the drive to Montana) will claim the child of a whore as their son.

July and Elmira Johnson are newlyweds from Fort Smith, Arkansas; he is the young sheriff of that small town and his new wife is (he believes) a young widow with a son, Joe, by her previous husband. Their story becomes intertwined with that of Lonesome Dove’s main characters when July must leave town to locate a gambler (Jake Spoon) who has accidentally shot and killed his brother, the mayor of Fort Smith. When we first meet the Johnsons, they have only been married about six months – and Ellie’s boredom with her married life is reflected in her domineering treatment of July. Against his better judgment, she convinces July to take Joe with him on the manhunt – and uses the opportunity to leave Fort Smith on a whiskey boat travelling north up the Arkansas River. As readers, we find out quickly what will only become clear to July after much heartbreak: his wife does not – has never – loved him.

July’s journey intersects with that of Gus McCrae at two critical points. First, they meet during Gus’ pursuit of Blue Duck, a half-breed Indian, outlaw and murderer, who has stolen a woman. The woman is Lorena Wood, the beautiful young whore, who has set out from Lonesome Dove with Jake Spoon on the promise that he will take her to San Francisco. July accompanies Gus on his final mission to retrieve Lorie from the gang holding her prisoner, in the faint hope that he will find his wife, Ellie, there as well. He watches as Gus annihilates the gang – though he never fires a shot.

They meet again in Ogallala, Nebraska. Ogallala has been Augustus McCrae’s primary destination on the cattle drive all along. Augustus and July meet at the home of Clara Allen, Gus’ old sweetheart, who lives there with her horse-trader husband, Bob, and their two young daughters, Sally and Betsey. In fact, the story brings Ellie, July and Gus all into Clara’s home at one point or another; and it is Clara who sees clearly what July cannot. At one point, she tries to explain to her daughters the folly of unrequited love.
“I know people ain’t smart and often love those who don’t care for them...I think it’s a sickness to grieve too much for those who never cared a fig for you...July don’t want to face up to the fact that his wife never loved him,” she said.

“She ought to have loved him,” Sally said.

“Ought don’t count for as much as a gnat when you’re talking about love,” Clara said. “She didn’t.”
July, too, wants one thing too much – but, although it comes close, it does not destroy him as Maggie’s desire for Woodrow destroyed her.

In the wake of her rescue, Lorena devotes herself to Gus and shuns all other human contact. In her mind, Augustus McCrae is the only person that can protect her from the rest of the cruel world. As they near Ogallala, Lorie fears that Gus will leave her – abandoning her for his old love, Clara. But her fears are unfounded as both Clara and Gus are both devoted more to the idea of the other than the reality.

Clara expresses it this way, speaking to Gus during a few moments alone, following their reunion:
“You’ve been my dream, Gus. I used to think about you two or three hours a day.”

“I wish you’d wrote, then,” he said.

“I didn’t want you here,” she said. “I needed the dreams. I knew you for a rake and a rambler but it was sweet to pretend that you loved only me.”
Gus expresses his views on women most honestly to Newt:
“I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country. It’s exactly what I was meant for, and Woodrow too…Now there’s women, of course,” Augustus said. “I do cotton to them. But I ain’t found the one yet that could hold me back from a chance like this. Women are persistent creatures, and will try to nail you down. But if you just dance on off, you’ll usually find them close to the spot where you left them – most of ‘em.”
Of all the couples in this expansive novel, Gus and Clara are the most honest with one another – and as a result, come the closest to connecting with each other, and appreciating each other for what they really are. They both seem to understand that they could never really be together in a permanent way – but can still appreciate each other in a way that the other couples – even those who do remain together to the end – aren't able to do. Clara and Gus seem to have avoided the trap of wanting one thing too much.

The inability to fully connect with others as portrayed in Lonesome Dove is not strictly a male/female problem. Call’s relationships with both Newt and Augustus are both troubled – primarily due to his guilt over the circumstances of Maggie’s end. The cattle drive is both Call’s attempt to start a new chapter in life and Newt’s journey to manhood; over the course of that adventure, Call comes finally to realize that the boy is his son – but steadfastly refuses to speak of it. Once they have reached Montana, Gus finally takes it upon himself to tell Newt the truth – to both reveal the identity and attempt to explain the nature of his father.
“What you have to understand is that Woodrow Call is a peculiar man. He likes to think that things are a certain way. He likes to think that everybody does their duty, especially him. He likes to think people live for duty–I don’t know what started him thinking that way. He ain’t dumb. He knows perfectly well people don’t live for duty. But he won’t admit it about anybody if he can help it, and he especially won’t admit it about himself."
Soon after reaching Montana, Gus is wounded in a skirmish with a small band of Indians while scouting ahead for the herd. Although he escapes, his untreated wounds are a death sentence. When Call locates Gus, he is beyond saving. Gus asks Woodrow to bury him in Texas – and Call foolishly agrees. Then once again, before the end, Maggie’s memory intrudes upon their friendship for a final time.
“I hope you won’t mistreat Newt,” he said.

“Have I ever mistreated him?” Call asked.

“Yes, always,” Augustus said. “I admit it’s practically your only sin, but it’s a big one. You ought to do better by that boy. He’s the only son you’ll ever have – I’d bet my wad on that – though I guess it’s possible you’ll take to women in your old age.”

“No, I won’t,” Call said. “They don’t like me…”

“…Women are goddamn right not to like you. You don’t want to admit you ever needed one of them, even for a moment’s pleasure. Though you’re human, and you did need one once – but you don’t want to need nothing you can’t get for yourself.”

Call didn’t answer. It seemed wrong to quarrel while Gus was dying. Always over the same thing too. That one thing, after all they had done together.
It is only after Gus’ death, once the new ranch in Montana has been established, that Call begins to see what Gus had long known. In the weeks before Call plans to leave Montana and return to Texas, he watches with “a keen pleasure” each day as Newt works to train horses:
He felt proud of the boy, and with it, anguish that their beginnings had been as they had. It could not be changed, though. He thought he might speak of it sometime, as Gus had wanted him to, and yet he said nothing. He couldn’t. If he happened to be alone with the boy, his words went away. At the thought of speaking about it tightness came into his throat, as if a hand had seized it.
When the time comes for Call to leave his newly-started ranch in Montana, he leaves the boy in charge, acknowledging in every way but words that Newt is his son. This parting, bitter and poignant, is one of the most memorable in a novel filled with partings.
When he turned back to look at the boy the choking feeling almost overcame him. He decided he would tell the boy he was his son… And yet, when he looked at Newt, standing there in the cold wind, with Canada behind him, Call found he couldn’t speak at all. It was as if his whole life had suddenly lodging in his throat, a raw bite he could neither spit out nor swallow…he felt that he was choking – choking on himself. He felt he had failed in all that he had tried to be: the good boy standing there was evidence of it. The shame he felt was so strong it stopped the words in his throat…All his life he had preached honesty to his men and had summarily discharged those who were not capable of it, though they had mostly only lied about duties neglected or orders sloppily executed. He himself was far worse, for he had been dishonest about his own son, who stood not ten feet away…He wished he had died…with Gus. It would have been easier than knowing he could not be honest. His own son stood there – surely, it was true; after doubting it for years, his own mind told him over and over that it was true – yet he couldn’t call him a son. His honesty was lost, had long been lost, and he only wanted to leave.
Call’s tragic flaw is not uncommon in men – his inability to express his true feelings when these are in contradiction with his own self-image. What does he want too much? To not need anyone, perhaps – or to be the person he imagines himself to be, instead of facing up to the person he really is.

Call and Clara are the two strongest characters to survive the tale – and in their final encounter, as Clara tries to goad Woodrow into abandoning the foolishness of returning McCrae’s body to Texas for burial, she summarizes the situation confronted not only by many of the fictional characters in the novel – but so many people in their daily lives:
“[Gus] wanted what I wouldn’t give. I wanted what he didn’t have.”
It is a truth so hard that many cannot face it. But in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, we can immerse ourselves in a place and time and a group of characters so vivid, that it can help us to remember – that by learning to like everyday things, we can better appreciate life’s journey and those who share it with us.

[Hope you enjoyed this edition of He Read/She Read. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including suggestions and constructive criticism.

Special thanks to the Middle-Aged Woman from Unmitigated for sharing her thoughts on Lonesome Dove. Maybe if I ask her very nicely, she will do it again sometime. I would even let her pick the book.

If you have a book you would like to see used as the basis of a He Read/She Read post – or if you are interested in being a guest writer here – use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

I don't know exactly when the next new post will appear at this site. If you want to stay in the know, please stop by Speaking in CAPS . I will be making announcements about forthcoming He Read/She Read posts there.

And don’t forget to visit the Middle-Aged Woman on her home turf at Unmitigated. You won't regret it.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And there are no additives or preservatives.]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Infidelity and
The World According to Garp

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to this inaugural edition of He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book (preferably the same one) and write their reactions to that book.

Jen from Sprite’s Keeper was kind enough to agree to kick things off by reading John Irving’s The World According to Garp (something she probably regretted later) and sharing her thoughts. Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

She Read:

Jim Styro over at Speaking in CAPS did a contest back in 2007 (or it could have been May, yeah...) in which the prize was "The World According to Garp". I entered, thinking I could have the chance to score a classic and finally read the book I've always heard in the background noise of the literary world. (I tend to stick to the light fiction/romance genres.) When I won, it was great! I scored a book! But this book came with homework.

Jim wanted to know what I thought of the book once I finished it. Poor guy, it took me almost 2 months to get through it due to the constant interruptions of life and raising a toddler. I read it everywhere I could, in the car (when we were stopped at a long light of course) (Oh, whatever. I'm sure other readers out there do it too.), while making dinner (which could be the reason why my cooking is so bloody awful) (reminder to self: never use the word "bloody" when referring to my cooking, it just makes the bad seem so much worse), and before bed.

So, Jim, here's what I thought.

This book pissed me off.

Everything in the book went swimmingly at first. I developed sympathy for the characters, Jenny, Garp, even his poor father who spent his last days reverting back to infanthood. (That part was brilliantly written by the way.) I followed Jenny and Garp through their years from the Steering School to Jenny's success at writing her memoirs, his marrying Helen, and popping out a few kids. I felt like a part of the story, a fly on the wall, watching these people move throughout life until Garp committed adultery. The first time. (Jerk.) (I'm still a bit upset about it.)

That one move on the author's part to have the main characters treat sex and marriage so nonchalantly just cast me right out of the story and left me there, catching my breath from how good the story had been prior to this bitter pill and how upset I was that I would not be able to read the rest of the book with the same level of commitment, considering Garp couldn't commit to Helen. So, I read on, determined to finish, but feeling sorry for Helen since she was obviously a victim in his sexual stakes. And then she had sex with someone else too.

Oh, come on! Her too? And she does it openly when they swap with another husband and wife who are lusting on them! That was when I just started reading the book armed with my mental red pen. Every time a major event happened, including when Helen's last fling ended violently, I just smirked, knowing I just didn't care anymore. I didn't care when Garp finally made it onto the Bestseller's List. I didn't care about his friendship with Roberta and how it evolved, I just didn't care. And that pissed me off.

The only time I DID care was when Jenny was assassinated. She was the only character that I felt was upfront about her thoughts from the beginning. But everything else? Meh. And that upset me. I don't like investing in a book and not getting back a return.

Sure, people can focus on Garp's fear of living life and how he chooses to take chances sexually as an outlet, but I can only focus on how I view these activities. Maybe I take books too personally, but I do develop a relationship with the characters in the book, because 1. I am choosing to devote my time to them and 2. I'm allowed to have an opinion about them. I put characters into categories, either I like them or I hate them. Work your way to the top of a company with your wits and talents? I like you. Murder someone? I don't like you. Turn your life around with deep insight and reflection? I like you. (I may not want to answer your call at three in the morning, but I like ya.) Cheat on your spouse? I don't like you. (And I hope your wiener falls off.)

So, yeah, that's what I think about The World According to Garp. One great ride until it derails at the junction of staying faithful versus diddling with someone else other than the person you're married to. And then I just can't get back on track after that.

And that pisses me off.

He Read:

“And if you can't be with the one you love honey
Love the one you're with”
- Stephen Stills
When the paperback edition of John Irving’s third novel was released in the spring of 1979, I was a sophomore in high school. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I worked bagging groceries at the supermarket just down the street from my house. I would soon lose my virginity to a married woman twice my age. And although I had experienced little of The World and the experiences that Irving brings to life in that book, I fell in love with Garp’s World all the same.

Love, sex and marriage are central elements in the rich tale of T.S. Garp, a writer with three novels, two children, one wife and no father or first name – just initials denoting the rank (Technical Sergeant) of a soldier who died without knowing he had fathered a son. It is a book with strong ideas and opinions on traditional male and female roles, the feminist movement and the impact of infidelity on marriages. It is this last idea that Sprite’s Keeper and I decided to make the focus of this inaugural “He Read / She Read” post.

And what better topic to bring out the potential for explosively divided male/female opinions than infidelity! I started out with the lyric from Stephen Stills because – although the tune is quite catchy and I will sometimes sing along in spite of myself – I hate the idea behind this song. The casual depiction of marital infidelity in many novels, films, songs & TV shows has made me uncomfortable for as long as I can remember. It seems somewhat hypocritical to me in retrospect – since I had entered into a sexual relationship with an older, married woman before my sixteenth birthday. [I can rationalize all I want about the fact that I was not the driving force behind that relationship – but it’s still just rationalizing. Nobody had to hold a gun to my head – I was just one big walking hormone…]

Anyway, the thing is I’ve never been a fan of the “Love The One You’re With” philosophy. So why do I love a book that spends so much of its time and space on the depiction of marital cheating? Because (as the character, Jillsy Sloper, says in the book) “it feels so true.”

Irving’s basic premise seems to be that infidelity is the inevitable result of uncontrolled lust – a condition to which men seem to be uniquely susceptible. The first signs of this inclination in Garp are revealed in his very first sexual encounters with a girl he has known since childhood. He loses his virginity with Cushman Percy (known to her family and friends as “Cushie”) despite the unrequited love he has for his wrestling coach’s daughter, Helen Holm; the girl he hopes to – and eventually does – marry. Garp hasn’t been unfaithful to Helen since they’ve made no commitment to each other. But, in a way, he has been unfaithful to himself. He knows that his feelings for Helen are far stronger and more serious than for Cushie; but he is willing to compromise in order to satisfy his lust.

After he and Helen wed, Garp’s struggles with lust continue. During the first seven years of their marriage, he strays with two babysitters, taking advantage of these young women who are attracted to him. It is clear in the novel that neither of the babysitters is important to Garp – or that he turns to these girls due to any dissatisfaction with his wife or their marriage, but rather out of an unreasonable need to be adored uncritically. Another important factor is the circumstance of Garp and Helen’s marriage, which Irving describes in this way:
Many couples live together and discover they’re not in love; some couples never discover it. Others marry, and the news comes to them at awkward moments in their lives. In the case of Garp and Helen, they hardly knew each other but they had their hunches – and in their stubborn, deliberate ways they fell in love with each other sometime after they had married.
While uncontrolled lust may be primarily a male problem. Irving’s novel does not show women as being pawns in a sexual chess match. The two more significant episodes of infidelity from the book are triggered primarily by Helen’s decisions. About two years after the birth of their second child, Helen initiates (and Garp goes along with) a spouse-swapping arrangement with their friends, Harrison and Alice Fletcher. Although Helen’s avowed purpose in this arrangement is to get Harrison to end an affair with one of his students (both Helen and Harrison teach at the same college), it is seems clear that she is also motivated in some way by her knowledge of Garp’s previous infidelities (this information being passed from Garp to Alice to Harrison to Helen). After six months, Helen also brings an end to the madness (“This is the last time I try to save anyone’s marriage except my own,” she says). Both marriages - and the couples’ friendship –survive; in part because the Fletchers must relocate when Harrison loses his job. Irving writes: “They all settled into being the kind of friends many old friends become: this is, they were friends when they heard from each other – or when, occasionally, they got together. And when they were not in touch, they did not think of one another.”

The final act of infidelity in the Garp’s marriage is also undertaken – if not altogether initiated – by Helen. Having grown tired of Garp’s self-centeredness and egotistical need for praise (during a severe case of writer’s block following the publication of his second novel), Helen does not turn away the advances of a student, Michael Milton. The scenes which portray the revelation of Helen’s affair and its aftermath seem to carry all of the pent up emotion from all the cheating that has gone before (which had been handled in a fairly perfunctory, “we’re all adults here” manner) rolled into one. And yet, it is interesting that Irving gives both Garp and Helen reactions that are at their core quite similar (dare I say, compatible?). For example, this passage gives us Helen’s perspective:

“I suppose you feel you’ve handled this very decently,” Garp said.

Helen, to a point, did feel so. She didn’t say anything. She felt she had never lost sight of Garp and the children during this indulgence; she felt justified in handling it her way now.
And later, Irving describes Garp’s emotions in dealing with the situation in this way:

He was at that point in his feelings toward Helen where he felt betrayed but at the same time honestly loved and important to her; he had not had time enough to ponder how betrayed he felt – or how much, truly, she had been trying to keep him in her mind. It was a delicate point, between hating her and loving her terribly – also, he was not without sympathy for whatever she’d wanted; after all, he knew, the shoe on the other foot had also been worn (and was certainly thinner). It even seemed unfair, to Garp, that Helen, who had always meant so well, had been caught like this; she was a good woman and she certainly deserved better luck.
The tragic consequences of this last indiscretion seems to finally break the cycle of lust fueling their infidelity and force both Helen and Garp to regard their marriage with greater care and consideration. Although it is no excuse, the Garps are still quite young (around 30) at the time this finally sinks in. And they pay a great cost in this lesson – but I won’t give more away for any who are still interested in reading the book for themselves.

So what is the overall male conclusion regarding infidelity and The World According To Garp?

We’re against it, of course.

But Irving’s writing is so vivid, so true in portraying the frailties of the human race – and the deep wells of love and forgiveness that allow us to move on from our hurts, our disappointments, and try again – that we keep reading. So we can find out what will happen to us.

[Hope you enjoyed this World Premiere of He Read/She Read. (I guess this time it was: She Read/He Read; ladies first and all that.) Whether you did or not, please leave us a comment and let us know what you think of the idea and of this inaugural post.

I can't thank enough my partner in crime today, Jen from Sprite’s Keeper , for taking time to read the book, share her thoughts and help me get this thing off the ground. Whatever credit there is for today's effort, I gladly share with her. Any blame is mine alone.

If you have a book you would like to see used as the basis of a He Read/She Read post – or if you are interested in being a guest writer here – use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

I am still working out how often new material will be posted at this site. If you want to stay in the know, please stop by Speaking in CAPS . I will be making announcements about forthcoming He Read/She Read posts there.

And don’t forget to visit Jen on her home turf at Sprite’s Keeper . She’s the bomb.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And very low in calories.]

Next time on He Read/She Read:

The Middle-Aged Woman and I share our thoughts on Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Check your local cable listings for the date and time.