So here's the latest (first) installment of Books I Haven't Finished. Below the jump: House of Houses by Pat Mora, Kids' Letters to President Obama (ed. Bill Adler and Bill Adler, Jr), The End by Salvatore Scibona and Sexology (ed. Craig Yoe).
House of Houses
by Pat Mora
University of Arizona Press, 320 pages, $17.95
A nonfiction novel (look, I made up a new kind of book) about her family history told through the voices of long-dead ancestors, House of Houses opens with a family tree and old family photographs of Mora's ancestors and goes from there. (I found out, when writing this entry, that this book was actually originally published in 1997, but the paperback version was released in 2008, hence its arrival on our "new books" table. Go fig.)
This one started out a little rough for me. For whatever reason, in the first few chapters. Mora decided it would be a great idea to quote random people very, very often. After a while it started to feel like name-dropping.
“...the one-story Mexican house and its central garden, hushed in snow today, not paradise, but a space, in Gaston Bachelard's words, of ‘protected intimacy.'” (p. 3)
“Jung, who understood the psychological implications of space shaping, referred to the house he built as “a confession of faith in stone.' Is this our adobe confession?” (p. 4)
“'Poetry in the raw... untranslatable,' Auden said of proper names.” (p. 4)
“Watching the white branches sway in the transformed garden, I recite John Greenleaf Whittier's ‘Snowbound' to myself...” (p. 7)
“Mother enters and rolls her eyes at words she has heard often, but at this time in my life I understand Pablo Neruda's longing in his Book of Questions, the sweetness of old names, ‘¿Dónde están los nombres aquellos dulces como tortas de antaño?'” (p. 15)
Maybe you're thinking, “Oh, Charlotte took all those quotes out of context, I bet they were important in the whole text.” But I would beg to differ. The quotes really do show up that randomly. If Mora had made a case that, in her family or in her culture, that quoting other people was a way of life and they always said things that other people had said, then I'd get it. It would have a point. But right now it just seems like Mora wanted to show off all this random crap she'd read and she sprinkled it totally uselessly into her manuscript.
I wish the annoying quotes didn't stand in the way of my enjoyment of the book so much, but they were just too distracting. But I'll do my best to talk about other things.
Mora's version of magical realism brings long-dead relatives back to the kitchen table, where four generations at a time sit together and talk about each other. It becomes quite normal for characters to talk to each other about one or the other's death (“'Do you remember, Nacha,' Aunt Chloe says, ‘I am the last person you talk to before you die.'”).
It's easy to fall in love with Mora's family, like her father, always scheming, talking about how the Moras could make a fortune with jojoba. Lobo, the spinster, a woman who never had children of her own but who treats Mora and her three siblings like her own, “a creature of contradictions who while she frowns at men's bodies, at touching between men and women, wanders through the house wearing only her white silk slip” (p. 5).
Whether the awkward name-dropping turns you off or not, it's impossible to deny that Mora has brought her poetry to the prose page. “Mother and I watch Lobo's face, but we don't see the same woman since sight, like language, is filtered by whom we are. I gaze at Lobo, the wrinkled face I love, that lures me to the elderly, makes me want to sit close to them hungry for some hint of her in them, a laugh, a turn of the head, the shape of a fingernail.” (p. 55)
My bookmark is at: page 151
Kids' Letters to President Obama
Ed. Bill Adler and Bill Adler, Jr.
Ballantine, 164 pages, $15
I was innocently standing near our office book swag table when our arts editor Patricia walked by and threw this book on the table in front of me with a decidedly disgusted vocalization. I immediately snatched it up in glee!
See, no one in the Editorial department of the Santa Fe Reporter has children. One of our freelancers does, and therefore she is always, without fail, assigned anything that has anything even remotely to do with children. Everyone else in these parts shies away from wee ones like they have some horrid communicable disease. Well, except me, that is.
I should point out, in all fairness, that my colleague wasn't necessarily disgusted by the fact that the book was related to kids; she was more exasperated by the omnipresent Obama Worship in our country right now, and I don't blame her. I mean, I voted for the dude. Definitely, no doubt about it. And that Shepard Fairey picture really is quite cool. But haven't we learned anything from giant images of Mao Zedong plastered all over China? His face on baseball cards? Little ceramic statues of him on mantlepieces? Creepy. I'm not saying Obama is anything like Mao, but the propagandistic display of his image all over everything, from necklaces to action figures, is getting overwhelming. And these letters from little kids saying how much they love him? Weird! Dude, you're, like, six. How can you possibly know what's going on in politics?
Anywho, I started reading this little tome, and oh my god. It is the funniest thing in history. I started reading excerpts aloud to Patricia, which she didn't really appreciate (partly because she doesn't like kids, partly because it was deadline day and everyone but me has a buttload of work to do. Wait, where's my work?)
Rather than read this whole book out loud to Trisha, then, I decided to add it into this blog entry to get YOU to go buy it and read it to your childless co-workers. There isn't really much critical analysis I can do about this one, so I'll just give you some super hilarious quotes. Ah, I love kids. They say the darndest things.
I would like no roads to have bumps in them because it is bad for cars to go on the bumps thank you. (Amelie, 6)
Why do small toys cost so much money? It is not right. (Adrian, 7)
I dont want garbage in the water. I want to help the dolphins. I wont to help the deers. (Melisa, 6)
I have a bunny. I think you are really smart. Also, I think you are sweet as cake. (Jendy, 9)
And, finally, the piece d'resistance, an awesome excerpt from a letter by Ellie (age 4¾)...
I feel good that you're the president and I hope you'll say good things and do good things for the whole wide world. You should ask people to do good things and things that are right and I want you to be good for the whole wide world like being nice and doing things that are nice for people that love you and I'm glad you are the president because I really wanted you to be the president because I really like you and I want you to play with us one day.
I want you to be the president for every world.
by Salvatore Scibona
Graywolf Press, 294 pages, $24
Okay, so this one probably shouldn't be going in the “Books I Haven't Finished” entry because I do, in fact, hope to finish it. But right now I'm just seriously stalled.
This little number was up for the National Book Award and won the Young Lions Fiction Award. We briefly covered this book in our end-of-the-year literary roundup (“A Year In Words,” 12/24/08) because it was, in fact, started when Scibona was a student at St. John's College right here in Santa Fe. After it was started here, it was written in Georgia, Iowa, New York, Massacusetts and Italy, but everyone knows that the starting place is most important. Or something.
What has me tripped up at the beginning here is the language, which is simultaneously frustrating and fascinating. Scibona writes about Italian immigrants in Ohio, and he has managed to write the prose in such a way that it mimics how a non-native English speaker would form his sentences. For example, from the very first page of the novel, on Rocco:
“The day's fifteen hours of labor he divided into three parts: six in the kitchen, solitary; six at the register in front, where he experienced the slow wringing-out of self exacted by the company of others not his own; three again in back, solitary once more unless one of his boys attended him. He was the father of three sons.”
The opening follows Rocco and tells the story of his wife (Christian name Linguina, known as “Loveypants”) and the sons and how they left him in Ohio to go to New Jersey. On August 14, Rocco receives word from the United Nations that his son Mimmo, a prisoner of war in North Korea, was to be released to come home; however, before the release date, Mimmo had contracted tuberculosis and had died. Rocco's narration declares: “What was going to happen was that Rocco and his wife were going to have to go to the government and look at the face of the body of this unlucky person and explain that it wasn't Mimmo” (p. 18).
The narration is often cut into with statements like, “Somewhere a bicycle bell was rung” or, “His secondhand suit was forty years old. He wore it carefully so that he could be buried in it,” imitating the way we live our lives and complete daily tasks: always noticing what is going on around us but not necessarily wavered, dealing with thoughts as they come into our heads but not necessarily pondering them for any length of time.
I am admittedly still at the beginnings of this book; at the point at which my bookmark rests, Rocco is at a street carnival in Elephant Park, Ohio. Plot synopses of this book say that all the big action is on the verge of happening now. Some major crime is about to be committed and soon the story will follow seven decades' worth of characters, all of whom are in the crowd at the carnival. But I've not gotten there yet, so let's keep reading, shall we?
The only obstacle in the way of my continuing this book is the convoluted language. It's virtually all narration, it's very cerebral, it's abstract and confusing. Rocco is at a carnival in Ohio but he will suddenly talk about a moment in his childhood when he was helping to pull a carriage that held the undecayed remains of Saint Agatha. Wait, what?
Everything melds into one. Once you get into the flow of this stream-of-consciousness-like writing, it is easy to follow, but you can't read a few pages then put the book down, read a few pages and put the book down, et cetera and so on (which is usually my MO).
My bookmark is at: page 53
The Best Of Sexology
Ed. Craig Yoe
Running Press, 480 pages, $14.95
I guess this isn't really a book that one would finish, necessarily, since it's a collection of excerpts from Sexology, “America's first sex magazine.” Sexology was founded in 1933 and did, in fact, not just say “no” on every page. Sure, a lot of the information is horribly outdated and a lot of the assertions are downright amusing, but it was hardly a prudish publication.
Along with articles like “A Doctor Looks at Self-Relief” and “Priapism...Uncontrollable Erection,” the magazine covers other subjects a little less overtly sexual in nature, like phantom pregnancies, polymastia (multiple breasts), homosexual chickens and nudity in fine art.
Other features include “Curiosities,” where generally reader-generated photos show indigenous fertility statues and medical oddities, or “News of the Month,” which includes brief tidbits of strange things going on in the sex world (for example: “Grandma Prostitutes”).
For anyone who may be gasping and daintily covering their gaping mouth, fear not. The book is not pornography. In fact, at times it's so sciencey that it gets boring. When a reader writes in and asks why his testicles are about twice the size of a normal man's, and asks, “If both testicles were removed, would sexual desire or ability be absent?” the response is, in part: “It is not desirable to have the testicles removed.”
While the book is amusing on its own, it enters an entirely new realm when compared with today's sex writing. The above example of the reader's question is best juxtaposed with Dan Savage's popular syndicated column, “Savage Love.” The kinds of questions Savage deals with every day range from bestiality to fetishes for bodily fluids to homophobia in politics.
Imagine what this writer, who wrote into Sexology in 1935, would think of Savage's readers?:
“I have a problem I have been wanting to write about for some time, but I am afraid to put it in writing for fear I might be arrested for misuse of the mails. Just what words or terms am I allowed to use that won't be considered obscene? I just the subscribers writing to you are very careless about the words they use.”
So why does a book like this matter? I think that, while it can show us how far we've come, it also contains timeless ideas that point out that we still have a pretty long way to go. An excerpt from a 1959 installment of “So They Say...”, a collection of timely quotes about sex, communist Jim Bishop is quoted as writing, on the subject of a minister who was punished for teaching teenagers about sex: “Sex is a source of trouble only to those who do not understand it... To my way of thinking, this holy man deserves alcolades, not censure. He is trying to lift the veil of mystery from a subject that becomes evil only when it is suppressed.”
That was March, 1959. Fifty years ago on the nose. How is it that a columnist in what was, in some circles, regarded as one of the most prudish decades in modern American history, expressing a timeless opinion that many religious zealots today would do quite well to listen to?
At the same time, in an article titled “Sex Oddities” from 1939, under a picture of an African tribal woman with huge discs stretching her upper and lower lips, it reads: “Pretty, isn't it?” Oh, snap! Take that, anonymous African oddity! The fact that it is called an “oddity” at all is bad enough (maybe it's not what you do to get a date in Akron, Ohio, but who are we to call anything an "oddity?").