Sunday, February 28, 2010

Now in "The Jackdaw's Nest"

The 100th post: Twelve March Poems.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Brief Review: "Auntie Mame" by Patrick Dennis

Auntie Mame (An Irreverent Escapade) by Patrick Dennis, 1955

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale" Auntie Mame.

After 55 years, what is there to say that hasn't already been said? Very little if anything, I suspect, so I won't even try; I'll just state categorically that Auntie Mame may well be the funniest comic novel ever written by an American, or, if not that, still one of a very tiny handful which head any list of the funniest and best. Mame Dennis (later Burnside), woman of exquisite modern tastes and cultural refinement, strong liberal inclinations and fierce opposition to hypocrisy in all its forms, almost boundless optimism even if not always the most profound insight into others' characters, is one of the great comic creations of the 20th century who throws herself without hesitation or restraint into experiencing life and who is essentially unflappable even when things go seriously awry, as they sometimes do. I have the feeling that, were Mame seriously religious, she would undoubtedly choose to be Lutheran just so she could adopt as her own motto Martin Luther's dictum pecca fortiter -- "sin bravely," not because she's particularly a sinner, but because she commits herself totally to whatever she undertakes, without reservation (and sometimes without forethought).

The novel in fact focuses on the relation that develops between Mame and her nephew -- one Patrick Dennis -- who is committed to her keeping as his legal guardian when Patrick becomes an orphan at the age of 10 in 1928 and follows them and their adventures up until 1955. That relationship, as one might imagine, has its ups and downs, with Patrick at moments passionately idolizing his Aunt while at others driven entirely to distraction by her behavior; it's at those latter moments he is fully convinced that he is actually her guardian or at least has to act as if he were. But the very real love between the two never falters, not even when, on the eve of his high school graduation from a strict, stuffy private school, she imperils him by showing up with a young pregnant woman she's taken under her wing, insists that he sneak off campus twice a day to shop and take the mother-to-be for long walks, and registers her in the local hotel as -- of course -- Mrs. Patrick Dennis, a situation naturally discovered by the primmest and stuffiest of prim and stuffy headmasters.

The humor derives not only from the plotting and the complex, problematical situations which Mame (and sometimes Patrick) create but also from the writing itself, which is lively, witty, and masterful. When the newly-arrived Patrick informs Mame that he doesn't understand many of the words she uses, she's delighted at the opportunity of "molding a little new life!" and hands him a pencil and pad which he's to keep at all times and write down any words she uses he doesn't understand so she can explain them to him, thereby developing his vocabulary. Of course, she hands him the pad with her usual grand sweeping gesture which knocks over the coffee pot, whereupon "I immediately wrote down six new words which Auntie Mame said to scratch out and forget."

Auntie Mame is a work that comes the closest of any American novel I can recall having read to the work of P. G. Wodehouse; Wodehouse's intricate plotting, his ability to characterize stereotypical characters as individuals, and the wonderful humor of his prose are all attributes one also finds in Dennis's work. But Dennis differs from Wodehouse, as well, in his forthrightness in dealing at times with what were very controversial (and generally not publicly addressed) issues at the time the book was published; Mame's relentless and remorseless taking on of the antisemitism and racial bigotry of Patrick's prospective father-in-law at one point is one instance. Dennis, in fact, deserves recognition for his willingness to address such issues in the mid-1950s; he was one of the few writers at the time who did so.

But it is most as comedy that Auntie Mame stands out from so much other work, and it is as a -- possibly the -- superb American comic novel that it deserves to be remembered. And read.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Clover, Bee, and Reverie Poetry Challenge 2010

I have just discovered and will be participating in the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Poetry Challenge 2010; this link includes the rules. I will be participating at the "Sonnet" level, which means reading 14 books, with 2 groups of 2 books related to each other in some way and 1 group of 4 books related in some way.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Brief Review: "Maps" by Nuruddin Farah

Maps by Nurrudin Farah (Volume I of the Blood in the Sun trilogy), 1986

Maps develops the theme of identity in its many manifestations -- personal, family, and national -- through a simple story which is narrated through stylistically complex means, and in so doing explores the various aspects of its central theme in depth while raising significant questions about the multiple nature of identity.

The story itself focuses on the central character, Askar, who is born in the disputed African region of Ogaden of parents from that region, which is the scene of ongoing, sporadic conflict between Ethiopia, which was granted control of Ogaden following World War II, and Somalia which claims it as Somalian territory because it's inhabited by Somali-speaking people. Orphaned immediately at birth, Askar is taken in by Misra, herself an exile from Ethiopia and raised by her until about age 7 or 8. He develops an incredibly close relationship with Misra and comes to see her as his birth-mother, even though he know she isn't. Then, when full-scale war breaks out between Somalia and Ethiopia (in 1977-1978), he is sent to the family of his birth-mother's brother in Mogadishu where he is taken in and raised as his uncle and aunt's own child, they being childless; again, he comes to develop a close relationship with them, as well. His uncle wishes for him to receive a college education and become a teacher, but other family relatives want him to join the Ogaden resistance movement (in which his father had died) and carry on where his father left off in seeking to free the Ogaden from Ethiopia. On the eve of his decision regarding his future course of action, Misra arrives in Mogadishu and wishes to see him; this event complicates his life and his decision because she is believed to have betrayed a resistance cell to the Ethiopians and caused the deaths of 600 people. His final meeting with her and he subsequent fate lay the groundwork for his ultimate decision as to who he is in all its senses and to what he will commit himself.

The stylistic complexity of Maps reveals itself in a number of ways. Most obviously, the work employs three differing points of view -- first person, second person, and third person, all focused on Askar himself and each permitting him to be seen and understood from multiple perspectives., much more so than would have been possible in seeing him from a single point of view. (The justification for the multiple perspective is made clear in the closing paragraph of the story, and to my mind at least works.) The multiple viewpoints allow for a variety of interior views of Askar and his meditations on various aspects of the central theme of identity, beginning with questions about the relationship that exists between mother and child both physical and emotional, and opening out into questions of personal identity and later issues of family, "tribe," and national identity, as well. These interior meditations are really the center of the work, with the narrative serving to present occasions for Askar's attempts to understand his place in a complex world of multiple and often shifting identities. Another important element lies in the maps of the title, a subject which fascinates Askar and which come to embody in a number of ways the various concepts of identity.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Narah's previous trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, I was impressed to see how much Narah had developed as a writer by the time he wrote Maps, which represents a significant growth in his skill. I was impressed even more with Maps than with the previous trilogy, and look forward to reading the remaining two volumes -- Gifts and Secrets -- in the near future.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Now in "The Jackdaw's Nest"

Friday, February 05, 2010

Brief Review: "Bombay Time" by Thrity Umrigar

Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar, 2001.

Bombay Time shows us a small group of closely-connected people, all members of the minority Parsi community and all life-long (or near life-long) residents of a single apartment building -- Wadi Baug -- in turn-of-the-millennium Bombay. The novel focuses on a single important event, the wedding of a young man who has grown up in Wadi Baug, and reveals to us the life stories of almost a dozen of the residents, leading in every case up to each's participation in the wedding feast and, most important, a special gathering of this group following the feast for a gift for each prepared by the bridegroom's father. We learn a great deal about each of these individuals, following their lives in most cases over 30 to 40 years, and come to see their desires, their hopes, their successes and failures, and what they think of themselves and each other after a lifetime together as neighbors and in a sense as members of a kind of extended family. Reflecting on their own lives, some members of the group at least come to a better understanding of themselves and their own lives, particularly after Jimmy Kanga presents them with his gift, and some, although not all, are changed for the better as a result. However, at the end of the novel, the outside world of modern Bombay (now Mumbai, of course), the world of poverty, violence, hunger, and despair, breaks in upon them all in a forceful and unexpected way, and reveals that there is still a larger world which threatens the small, familial world of Wadi Baug, with the result that the novel ends on a rather ambiguous note.

I enjoyed the novel and the exploration of the individual characters who make up the community of Wadi Baug; it's another novel -- like A River Sutra I reviewed earlier -- which presents us with a cross-section of a portion of Indian society, here on a smaller scale than in A River Sutra and confined to a single ethnic group, but still pleasurable to experience. I recommend Bombay Time.