Friday, August 18, 1995

Mapping the Farm, by John Hidebrand

A Review of Mapping the Farm,

by John Hidebrand

Originally published August 18th, 1995,

in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

By John Hidebrand
Knopf, $23

I must admit that when I started reading John Hildebrand’s new book, I was favorably biased, due to the subject. Chronicling four generations of Minnesota farmers (his wife’s family, the O’Neills) from immigration to the Great Depression to the current battle with expanding agribusiness, Mapping the Farm seemed to have all the elements of a great work of nonfiction. It’s generational, political, and very human, but I found something crucial missing in Hildebrand’s writing.

I was hoping for something along the lines of John Dos Passos or James Agee, and frankly Hildebrand just didn’t deliver it. Although the subject is one of the most important in America today, the book’s power sinks under the weight of the author’s leaden prose. This is a shame, because he’s got great material to work with.

At times I found myself fascinated with his family’s individual members, but the book never let me feel the fabric of their collective past. The episodes were so disjointed and rambling that none of it really fit together, denying the reader a chance to make sense of how the O’Neills came to their current crisis.

In a way, this book’s sense of fragmentation helps to serve a point. Never before has solidarity been so crucial for farmers, yet the O’Neills are breaking apart. Hildebrand describes them at the end of the book as a set of couples—no longer a single family. This dissolution may signify the end of the family farm as an American institution.

Although it galls me to say it, the book just wasn’t very effective. Even when I tried to look past its artistic flaws to find the humanity underneath, I was confronted with a sloppy, uneven mess. This story deserves much better treatment. At least there’s still Wendell Berry.

—David Wiley

Friday, August 11, 1995

The Liberty Campaign, by Jonathan Dee

A review of The Liberty Campaign, by Jonathan Dee
Published August 11th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

By Jonathan Dee
Washington Square Press, $10

Newly released in paperback is Jonathan Dee’s 1993 novel, The Liberty Campaign. Like in his first novel, The Lover of History, Dee delves into the meanings, both personal and political, of contemporary history, and with shattering results.

At the tender age of sixty-five, Gene Trowbridge strikes up a bizarre friendship with Ferdinand, a reclusive neighbor who may or may not be in trouble with the law. Having been confronted by a reporter with questions about Ferdinand, Trowbridge finds himself becoming obsessed with his friend’s past, as well as with his own.

As their friendship becomes more intimate, Trowbridge confronts Ferdinand about the reporter’s questions, and immediately both of their worlds are changed. As he reveals the truth (he was a torturer in the U.S.-supported regime in Brazil), Ferdinand slowly opens up a whole new way of thinking for Trowbridge.

What makes this novel especially poignant is that it dares to confront Americans with their own ignorance and complacency. As Trowbridge was working for “the man” (an ad agency), Ferdinand was torturing leftists, and knowledge of this brings up questions about whether or not there is any real difference between the two. They’ve ended up in the same place, so is it possible that Trowbridge could have become the same thing as Ferdinand?

In the end, this theoretical question is overshadowed by the immediacy of whether or not to help Ferdinand escape his persecutors. Facing his own moral obligations to history, Trowbridge must decide if this monster deserves the rights he denied so many others. Dee gives an answer, but ultimately the question goes unresolved, leaving the reader and a book that will resonate long into the future.

—David Wiley

Friday, August 4, 1995

An Unsentimental Education, edited by Molly McQuade

A review of An Unsentimental Education: Writers and Chicago, edited by Molly McQuade
Published August 4th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Edited by Molly McQuade
University of Chicago, $18.95

Edited by former University of Chicago student Molly McQuade, An Unsentimental Education is a collection of reminiscences by her alma mater’s greatest teachers and students. McQuade interviewed twenty-one U of C luminaries from the past and present, and what results is a fascinating portrait of one of our country’s most fertile intellectual centers.

First, both artistically and alphabetically, is Saul Bellow, who studied sociology at Chicago in the 1930s, returning years later to join its Committee on Social Thought with Hannah Arendt, among others. Bellow’s recollection is more nostalgic than revelatory, but the picture of the Nobel Prize winner staying in “gorgeously sleazy” rooms for three dollars a week is priceless.

Kurt Vonnegut describes himself as “a very fringe character” at the U of C, admitting that the school didn’t think much of him. His master’s thesis was rejected twice, so he found himself in 1947, after seven years of school (he had left Cornell as an undergraduate to go to war), with no degree whatsoever. Since he had no qualifications, he was unable to find a teaching job and was forced to try writing. Go figure.

Probably the most interesting entry is by the amazing Susan Sontag, who graduated from the U of C at eighteen. As a student, she married one of her professors, had a child right after graduation, and then attended graduate school at Harvard.

Like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, these interviews were edited and turned into a narrative, but unfortunately only a few of these writers have Malcolm’s gift for oratory, and most pieces end up reading like unfocused essays. Wisely, Saul Bellow and Robert Coover insisted on presenting their interviews in their original form. This lack of focus isn’t really much of a problem, though, because the book is more personal than formal, and its looseness makes its intellectuality much more accessible.

—David Wiley

Friday, July 28, 1995

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

A review of the restored version of Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (edited by Cheryl J. Plumb)
Published July 28th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Classic Novel Nightwood Improved in Restored Version

Edited by Cheryl J. Plumb
Dalkey Archive, $23.95

Djuna Barnes’ classic 1936 novel Nightwood has influenced everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Jeanette Winterson, but among the general public it remains largely unread. Why? Because like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s nearly impossible to read. For those who have made their way through it, it’s a life-changing experience, and for Cheryl J. Plumb, editor of this restored version, it was the foundation of an entire academic career.

Begun in 1927, Nightwood went through numerous versions until 1934, when Barnes submitted the finished book to editor T.S. Eliot. Eliot loved it but found much of it “unsuitable” for publication, and he proceeded to hack away considerable chunks of the text. After two years of editing, Barnes finally agreed to some of the cuts. The finished product has become a classic, but Barnes’ reluctance to the changes sparked debate over the artistic integrity of the published version.

Now, after years of studying the original texts, Barnes scholar Cheryl J. Plumb has restored Nightwood to its pristine version. In addition, Plumb has included twenty pages of annotation explaining Barnes’ literary and historical reference, as well as documented all the changes made in her own restoration. Plumb has also compiled seventy-five pages of original typed and handwritten drafts to illuminate Barnes’ creative process.

A work of art of the highest order, Nightwood is as groundbreaking in its content as it is in its style. It’s possibly the first lesbian novel to be published in America, and like Zora Neale Hurston’s centralization of African Americans, Barnes deals with homosexuals as normal people rather than as anomalies.

Of course Barnes doesn’t ignore the problems of homosexual life, but her treatment of them makes them seem universal, as immediate to the outsider as to the insider. This commanding presence gives her the freedom not only to write from a very central point of view, but also to disregard all existing notions of normality or centrality.

At the heart of all this is a love story. In telling Nora and Robin’s tale, Barnes re-examines love in a way that makes the reader think of it as a completely new idea. Her treatment of desire, memory, alienation, and fear all give love a new but frighteningly familiar face.

Nora’s obsession with the transient Robin reflects Barnes’ own battle to understand her past. Throughout Nightwood we see our own misgivings about the nature of love played out in this ill-fated relationship, and Barnes never lets the reader fall back on illusory notions of idealized romance.

Barnes never succumbs to misanthropy and cynicism, either. Her character are warped and often pathetic, but Barnes actually does care about them. They exhibit a rare humanity that lifts them above their awful crises (although it doesn’t necessarily save them), and even at their most grotesque, we recognize them as our own.

I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve been able to get the whole way through this novel, so be warned. It’s not easy, but the rewards for your effort are innumerable. If you’re willing to relinquish a large chunk of time (and sanity), this short book just might change the way you read novels.

—David Wiley

Friday, July 21, 1995

Independence Day, by Richard Ford

A review of Independence Day, by Richard Ford
Published July 21st, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Turning Point
Independence Day Chronicles an American Mid-Life Crisis
By Richard Ford
Knopf, $24

When Richard Ford’s wife asked him why he never wrote about happy people, he responded with Frank Bascombe, the “dreamy” protagonist of the 1986 novel The Sportswriter. Bascombe was proclaimed by critics and readers alike as one of the few truly decent characters in modern fiction, and now he’s back in a new novel, Independence Day, and he’s still happy.

In the first novel, I had difficulty understanding why Bascombe was so satisfied. His marriage had failed, he had a rotten love life, and his occupation as a sportswriter was profoundly ill-suited to his sharply progressive world-view, and still he was optimistic. I attributed this to a kind of early-’80s pragmatism in which real values took a backseat to dreamy contentedness. Like the rest of the nation, he had fooled himself into believing that everything was fine and that his own financial success signified a kind of peace.

In Independence Day, however, Bascombe seems to be coming out of his trance both personally and politically as he confronts the consequences of his successes and failures. After five years (the setting is 1988), he’s still unmarried, his love life still stinks, and he’s become, of all things, a realtor. To top it all off, his ex-wife has remarried, and his son, Paul, shows signs of becoming a delinquent.

In an attempt to deal with some of this, Bascombe takes an Independence Day excursion with Paul in which they “visit as many sports halls of fame as they can in two days.” Along the way, he blunders through the motions of fatherhood, trying to figure out who his son really is and rescue him from his imminent descent into adolescence.

There’s a feeling of impending doom in the background (the escalating battle between Michael Dukakis and the grimly laughable George Bush), as well as in the foreground (Bascombe’s floundering personal life), but Ford never lets his hero give in to nihilism or despair. Instead, Bascombe comes to terms with what he calls his “existence period,” in which he’d largely ignored reality. This is only part of the answer to his problems, though, and the novel portrays his small revelation as more of a turning point than a triumph. There is no evidence that things will get better for Bascombe, his family, or his nation as it opts for a four-year extension of the ’80s, but they’re all learning, slowly.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how Ford portrays real estate as the philosophy of the Reagan era. Everything can de divided, defined, and sold, including the American Dream, which close scrutiny reveals to be more like a nightmare. As Bascombe reflects on the meaning of the America around him, he finds himself appraising it rather than contemplating it. “Buy low, sell high” has replaced any meaningful kind of American ideology, and Bascombe seems to have become a living battlefield in which profits and humanity collide as he struggles to recognize his clients as something more than commissions.

Ford insists that The Sportswriter and Independence Day are two separate and independent books; that the first is not a prerequisite to enjoy the second—and he’s right. This novel stands wholly on its own. It’s funnier and maybe even a little wiser than its predecessor—which is a feat—and the richness of Ford’s prose evokes the very fabric of an America in search of true independence. This is a great novel.

—David Wiley

Thursday, May 25, 1995

Paula, by Isabel Allende

A review of Paula, by Isabel Allende
Published May 25th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Letters to Paula
Isabel Allende Devotes New Autobiography to Daughter

By Isabel Allende
Harper Collins, $24

On January 8th, 1981, Isabel Allende began writing a goodbye letter to her dying grandfather, a letter that eventually became her first novel, The House of the Spirits. Exactly eleven years and four books later, faced with her daughter Paula’s crushing bout with porphyria, Allende began another, very different letter. It began, "Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost."

Written in a Madrid hospital room and, later, from Allende’s home in northern California, Paula was originally intended as a reminder to her daughter of who she was and how she fit into the world. Paula’s condition deteriorated, though, and the letter started to take on a different identity as Allende slowly realized that her daughter would never read it.

What resulted was a memoir of astonishing power and grace. Allende’s first book-length work of nonfiction, Paula is both a personal history and an examination of mortality, her own as well as her daughter’s. Like her fiction, Allende’s life is peopled by ghosts, mad dictators, revolutionaries, and mysterious relatives, and this book is her attempt to reconcile with the demons as well as with the benevolent spirits of her past.

Born to Chilean diplomats, Isabel Allende’s history is as tempestuous and bizarre as that of her native country. She writes that Chile is a land of immense catastrophes, both political and natural, and that the supernatural takes an active role in daily life. Allende’s childhood was filled with hyperbolic oddities, such as a clairvoyant grandmother and a stern, unforgiving grandfather who was addicted to soap operas and professional wrestling. These unforgettable family members later resurfaced in her novels, as would a myriad of disappearing fathers, exploding uncles, and murdered dogs.

Even the everyday, supposedly ordinary events of Allende’s childhood were extraordinary by any normal standard. For instance, she was made to go to a gymnasium after school where she was hung by her neck by an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys in an ongoing attempt to make her taller. She writes that it didn’t work, that it just made her neck longer.

True to Allende’s style, her first two attempts at love, at the age of eight and again at fifteen, were thwarted respectively by murder and the possibility of incest. When she did eventually get married, to a conservative businessman, she discovered in herself the need to rebel against patriarchal Chile in general and against her own future in particular. She found work as a journalist, playwright, and talk-show host, and spent the next few years amusing, enlightening, and enraging polite Chilean society, gaining many supporters along the way, including the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Then in 1970, Chile elected Allende’s uncle, Salvador Allende, to the presidency. This was an amazing event, because Allende was the world’s first democratically elected president. For most, though, including Isabel Allende, life went on as before.

While Allende was making gains for the women’s movement in Chile, there was another movement that she, like so many other Chileans, was unaware of. This apathy made the events of September 1973 especially shocking: The U.S.-supported military toppled the democracy and murdered Salvador Allende. Isabel Allende personally witnessed the bombing of the presidential palace, which was a turning point for her and her nation. At this critical point, all Chileans had to make a decision: either comply silently or risk their lives helping refugees find asylum. Allende opted for the latter and was eventually forced to flee the country to save her own life.

With Paula, Allende has reached another critical point, and she deals with it the only way she knows how—through her writing. She says that writing saved her life in the 1980s, and now she draws once again on the spirits of the past to help her make sense of the present.

Although Allende in universally acclaimed as a master novelist, this work of nonfiction may be her masterpiece. Its structure, balance, honesty, and humor work perfectly to guarantee Paula a place among the best literary and historical memoirs. Paula is a great introduction for those new to Allende’s work and is a watershed for her veteran readers.

—David Wiley

Thursday, May 18, 1995

The Garlic Ballads, by Mo Yan

A review of The Garlic Ballads, by Mo Yan
Published May 18th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

By Mo Yan
Viking Books, $23.95

Mo Yan, author of the acclaimed Red Sorghum, has written a fearless new novel about the Chinese peasantry and its precarious relationship with the Communist government. In the vein of Isabel Allende and Milan Kundera, Mo combines the political with the personal to create a devastating vision of modern China.

The Garlic Ballads follows the tragi-comic consequences of the erroneously named Paradise Country’s oversaturation of its garlic market. Government officials have told farmers that their warehouses will buy and store all the garlic that the country can produce. This creates a massive glut, and the officials are free to lower prices and squash any competing buyers.

Mo’s portrayal of the peasants is intimate and convincing. He never simply uses them to convey his message; rather, he tells their story. The government punishes them for rebelling against the injustices, bringing them to the lowest possible level of survival, but their degradation only illuminates the intensity and complexity of their lives.

This is not a hopeful novel, but it is a necessary one. The exploration of the tension between the peasants’ humanity and utility is important both on a historical and a personal level. The Garlic Ballads succeeds in finding a nearly perfect artistic reconciliation of politics and aesthetics.

—David Wiley

Thursday, April 27, 1995

On Fire, by Larry Brown (my first book review!)

A review of On Fire, by Larry Brown
Published April 27th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

On Fire
By Larry Brown
Warner Books, $11.99

The all-new, affordable paperback version of On Fire, by former firefighter Larry Brown, is now out from Warner Books. The book recounts the author’s seventeen years as a firefighter in Oxford, Mississippi.

Much more than a nail-biting adrenaline rush, On Fire tells the story of Brown’s growth as a father, as a husband, and as a writer. Of course there’s plenty of action, but Brown’s eye and ear for the rhythms of life give this book a strong sense of balance.

—David Wiley