Monday, April 25, 2011

Week 16: Serena: A Novel, by Ron Rash

I was prompted to read this book when a Facebook friend of mine posted a news article stating that Darren Aronofsky was in talks with Angelina Jolie to create a film adaptation of Serena with Jolie as the title character. Being an avid fan of both Aronofsky and Jolie, this piqued my interest and I added Serena to my “to-read” list. (Of course, because of this article, it was impossible for me to not visualize Jolie as Serena after starting the book.) The book’s tense, compelling tone is set immediately in its first few pages. It opens with the dramatic encounter between George Pemberton, timber tycoon, and the father of the girl carrying his illegitimate child. Pemberton arrives at a train station in North Carolina in 1929 after spending three months away in Boston. He is joined by his new wife, Serena. The mother of his child, Rachel Harmon, is merely 16 years old and watches haplessly as her father challenges Pemberton to a knife fight to defend his daughter’s honor. What ensues is the first of many bloody, merciless scenes that will take place in this story. Pemberton and his wife, in their quest to acquire as much timber as possible to expand their empire, exemplify a greed and disregard for nature that typifies big business even today. The newlyweds settle into the logging camp, where the reader learns more about the dangerous, and often deadly, conditions that befall the workers. Pemberton and Serena attempt to purchase more land and fend off conservationists attempting to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Simultaneously, Serena is revealing herself as a force to be reckoned with. She quickly earns the respect of the workers by winning a wager based on eyeballing the amount of timber in a particular tree. Her business acumen is equal to, if not surpassing, her husband’s. She is cold and calculating, physically strong and intimidating. She verbally destroys anyone who dares to contradict her; she tames and trains an eagle; she saves her husband by shooting down a bear that has attacked him. She transcends gender and cuts down anyone who does not recognize this. However, Serena begins to unravel when she is faced with the reality that she is unable to bear children. This misfortune is exacerbated by Pemberton’s lingering interest in his young son with Rachel. Serena’s burgeoning ambition becomes uncontrollable – she has already begun to dispose of anyone in her way, and she begins to focus her attention on Rachel (in many ways, Serena’s polar opposite) and the baby. Comparisons have been made between Serena’s character and Lady Macbeth, and one reviewer even asserts that Serena speaks in a loose iambic pentameter. She’s rather frightening, and the sense of dread she creates builds throughout the novel. Rash portrays both Serena and the less-educated timber workers with elegance, and the reader comes to appreciate all of the characters in this dark tale. I really enjoyed this novel, which I classify as a “stay up late reading” type of book, because I didn’t want to put it down. Epic in scope, it’s brutal, but also subtly beautiful in its examination of good and evil.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Week 15: Deliverance, by James Dickey

Deliverance is the story of four city men who embark on a camping trip to the backwoods of rural Georgia. It is a book that I have eloquently classified to my friends as "wicked scary". It is told from the perspective of Ed Gentry, a middle-aged commercial artist. His three friends, similarly, are middle-aged, married, and work in offices. One of the men, Lewis, is more athletic and adept in the outdoors. It is Lewis’s idea to get away for a weekend, to rough it and get in touch with nature once more via camping and canoeing. It is a sentiment that many can relate to and a fairly innocuous idea. Once they arrive in the country, however, they quickly find that they are not welcome amongst the locals. They are looked upon as outsiders from the city and their actions are interpreted as condescending. It is perhaps the men’s poor behavior that sets them up to be victims of all that follows. The group becomes wrapped up in a series of horrible events (which, thanks to the successful movie based on this book, have become well-known nuggets of pop culture) that I will not recount here in the spirit of not revealing too much. The alacrity with which the book moves from a simple camping trip to a terrifying disaster is stunning. The reader observes a Lord of the Flies-esque evolution of events that creates a pecking order among the men, designating some as leaders and others as followers. Ed in particular, described as “bald-headed and fat”, undergoes a transformation. His bland, urbane persona is cast aside like a chrysalis and he emerges as a strong, assertive outdoorsman. It’s fascinating to watch his instincts guide him, when at times, he himself is marveling over these newfound instincts. He seems to appreciate this new side of himself, this new outlook on the world, even as his life is on the line. His character serves as a challenge to the societal conventions that we all set up for ourselves, and makes us ask ourselves if there is more to our own personalities that we have yet to realize. That was the essence of Deliverance for me – the concept of unearthing hidden aspects in one’s self and reverting to that primal nature to survive, despite any refined culture that one might hail from. The story is frightening and thrilling, but I can’t help think that the fear I felt while reading was a tiny taste of the thrill Ed must have experienced when fighting for his life. Great book.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Week 14: Alias Olympia, by Eunice Lipton

As often happens, I had stopped by Lorem Ipsum (the used bookstore near my apartment) after work one day when I saw this book. Immediately I recognized the woman on its cover. She is the star of Edouard Manet’s masterpiece Olympia. I love Manet and consider him one of my all-time favorite artists. I remember being an art student and first learning about Olympia; I was fascinated by the piece. It was considered incredibly controversial. In fact, when it first debuted in the Parisian Salon in the late 19th century, an angry mob armed with umbrellas and walking sticks attempted to destroy it, and it had to be cordoned off. Why? Because details of the painting indicate that Olympia is a courtesan or prostitute. Equally notable and perhaps even more striking is Olympia’s confrontational, almost glaring look back at the viewer.  Olympia is not a passive, idealized figure of a woman to be fawned over. She flips the male gaze on its ear with her proud, blunt stare. Back in the day, this was unheard of and considered extremely vulgar. For Manet to choose such unseemly content for his painting was very provocative; one could say that it was revolutionary that Manet deemed the reality of street life to be worthy of any depiction at all. Manet’s model for Olympia was a redheaded beauty named Victorine Meurent. He used her as the model for several of his major works (including another controversial painting, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe). In each of the paintings that she is featured in, she showcases the same bold presence. Eunice Lipton’s book, Alias Olympia, chronicles her quest to learn more about the intriguing and enigmatic Meurent. A feminist art historian, Lipton travels to Paris to find out what became of the model, and in the meantime, she learns more about herself and becomes inspired by Meurent. One major detail that she unearths is that Meurent was not just simply a lower-class street girl, she was also an accomplished painter herself. As Lipton hunts down the facts, the book almost takes on the feeling of a mystery novel and the reader becomes swept up in her search. It’s not just an art history book, it’s filled with engaging personal accounts and stories. Add in the beautiful backdrop of Paris, and the tale truly becomes enchanting. Lipton is the type of woman that I would love to meet. She is a bold feminist, sharply intelligent, and someone who adores art. I became emotionally invested in her story and was rooting for her the entire time. I finished the book smiling, even more in love than before with Meurent, Manet, Paris and art in general.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Week 13: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

This might be the most fucked-up book I have ever read. I suspect that the entire time that I was reading, my face was scrunched up in a painful grimace. Even now as I type, my face is making the expression that one might take on when stumbling across open-heart surgery on the Discovery Channel. Most people know the premise of this classic story: Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man, falls in love with Dolores “Lolita” Haze, a twelve-year-old girl. What is stuck in my mind is a spoof cover of Lolita that appears on the website Better Book Titles – the spoof is entitled “Likable Rapists”.  It’s perfect, because Humbert is truly a likable character. He’s self-effacingly hilarious, and saturates the book with black comedy. He has a long-standing predilection towards pre-pubescent girls, or “nymphets”, as he likes to call them. The reader gets the sense that he genuinely loves Lolita, although to classify his emotions towards her as love is another can of worms. The story follows Humbert and Lolita’s relationship as they begin as housemates. Not long after, Humbert is marrying Lolita’s mother in order to have unrestrained access to the girl. When Lolita’s mother dies suddenly, Humbert is left in full control of her. You can imagine where this leads. It becomes apparent that Lolita is more…“advanced”, shall we say, than most girls her age, but is still a child. Humbert soon takes Lolita on a road trip across the country and their relationship further deteriorates. The book is entertaining and beautifully written, but difficult to read at times simply due to the subject matter. It’s not so much the sex (all of the erotic moments are presented gently and elegantly) that is so jarring. It’s the intersection of Lolita’s childlike nature with her very adult relationship with Humbert. For example, Lolita has sex with Humbert but also runs into his room at night crying because she misses her deceased mother. Humbert manipulates her further by threatening to send her to an orphanage if she does not remain compliant. Their journey inevitably comes to a sad end, and we witness Humbert’s unraveling. Not more than halfway through the book I started wishing for it to end. Then I realized what a feat it is for a book to conjure up such visceral emotions and I realized I was selling the book short. With that in mind, I eventually came to really enjoy this great tale.