Raves and Rants

The link to this page says semi-regular reviews. Why semi-regular? Because, while I do intend to present new reviews now and then, past experience leads me to believe that work and sundry other distractions might get in the way. So why write reviews in the first place? Well, I read voraciously and, I am afraid, not very discriminatingly -- anything and everything: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, even religious and political tracts. And since I enjoy writing just as much, I figure reviewing books might be the only way of putting these two rather nasty habits to some slight use.

The observant reader might notice that this page, from time to time, contains reviews of comics. This, I am afraid, is somewhat of a personal agenda. Despite the general perception of comics as a medium catering to adolescent power fantasies, there are still a few that address themselves towards a more mature readership. Unfortunately, they all run the risk of being forced off the market by a glut of "superheroic" fare; hence my modest attempt at providing them with a little more publicity.



Tree of Heaven
by R.C. Binstock
Soho. 1995
ISBN 1-56947-038-3

Tree of Heaven is set in the Japanese-occupied China of 1938. Kuroda, a junior Japanese officer trained as a botanist and bullied into joining the army by his father, rescues a young Chinese woman, Li, from being assaulted and raped by his troops by taking her in as a servant. Li proves to be an educated woman who speaks Japanese, and the relationship between her and the alienated Kuroda deepens gradually into companionship and subsequently into love.

Both Kuroda and Li suffer the consequences of this intimacy. Kuroda is wracked with guilt at being unfaithful to his wife in Japan and finds his comforting illusions of being different from -- more civilized than -- the other Japanese soldiers threatened by taking Li as a mistress. Li, of course, has to wonder whether her actions are those of a traitor; the other Chinese she meets consider her to be one. Despite all this, they pursue their relationship with single-minded devotion -- it is the only thing sustaining them, their only shelter from the mindless carnage of the war that rages about them.

Using both Kuroda and Li as narrators in alternating chapters, Binstock is able to give his readers a deeper insight into the psychology of his protagonists. And with a sparse prose style that eschews sentimentality, the result is a hauntingly beautiful novel that explores the human urge towards survival and bonding against the backdrop of war. Recommended.

Rating: ** (out of four)

Still Life with Volkswagens
by Geoff Nicholson
Overlook Press. 1995
ISBN 0-87951-616-X

The protagonist of Still Life with Volkswagens is Barry Osgathorpe, once notorious as Ishmael the Zen Road Warrior. Concerned about polluting the environment, he has hung up the keys to Enlightenment, his one-of-a-kind Volkswagen Beetle, and spends his days sitting behind her steering wheel, reminiscing fondly about his wild days on the road, and losing arguments with a rather precocious young boy. However, the mysterious disappearance of both his ex-girlfriend's father and her current boyfriend (both obsessed with Volkswagens) and the arrival of a gang of Neo-Nazi skinheads who roam the countryside in customized Volkswagens conspire to put Barry back into the driving seat of Enlightenment for one wild and final ride.

Still Life is one of those books that I really wanted to like. It held out the promise of several interesting themes: the simplistic Volkswagen Beetle as an icon both for Neo-Nazi fascists and for hippies and the New Age rave culture, the lure of the open road, a Clint Eastwood-ish lone avenger out on a last wild ride. Unfortunately, the author failed to develop any one of these themes to my satisfaction, leaving at least this reviewer feeling cheated. Not recommended.

Rating: 0 (out of four)

Palimpsest: A Memoir
by Gore Vidal
Random House. 1995
ISBN 0-679-44038-0

Palimpsest may best be described as a Machiavellian attempt by Gore Vidal to manipulate the reader. Fortunately for us, he fails.

Vidal's goal in these so-called memoirs is simple: armed wilfully with hubris and misplaced elitism, he wants the reader to appreciate his greatness both as a novelist and as a man. To this end he drops more names than a social register: Gores, Kennedys, Roosevelts, Astors, the exiled Windsors, Tennessee Williams, Allan Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein, Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, George Santayana, Paul Newman and Greta Garbo make up his circle of acquaintances and kin. But it is not enough to merely mention them; anyone who could possibly pose a threat to his position in the literary firmament must necessarily be eliminated. And thus we see Anais Nin described as a liar (ostensibly because in her diaries he is mentioned as a lieutenant during their first meeting; apparently the slighted Vidal was then a warrant officer) and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as the court historian of the Kennedy administration (we can only surmise that, being related to the Kennedys, Vidal expected that position to be his by birthright). By far his worst demonstration of pettiness and spite, however, is reserved for his mother; more than two decades after her death, he remains still unable to forgive her for failing to recognize his genius.

While villifying one's rivals is obviously perfectly acceptable, it must be declasse to be seen as praising onself. How else can we explain Vidal's repeated attempts to wring sympathy from the reader? He complains eloquently about being savaged by the press for the 1948 publication of The City and the Pillar -- a story of a young man who becomes obsessed with another young man after a brief sexual encounter. The fact that the press currently treats him as a celebrity is conveniently neglected. There is also the recurring motif of Jimmie Trimble, the schoolmate that Vidal slept with as an adolescent, and who was killed in combat. And who, of course, has now been elevated by Vidal to the status of his one and only love. Had this rung even the slightest bit true, we could indeed have spared some sympathy for Vidal. But it does not, being heavy-handedly forced into almost every chapter, and sounding artificial and symptomatic of what it truly is: a transparent attempt by Vidal to manipulate the reader into empathizing with him.

In Vidal's defence it must be said that he is not completely unaware of the failings of Palimpsest. Why else would he make that futile pre-emptive attempt to forestall criticism -- describing the book as a memoir, "how one remembers one's own life," instead of as an autobiography, a work that "is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked"? The act of remembering has certainly taken on an extremely subjective cast in Vidal's hands -- so subjective indeed that even Vidal cannot bring himself to barefacedly deny the charge.

We expect better of a writer of the calibre of Vidal, the man who brought us Myra Breckinridge, Julian, Burr, Lincoln, and yes, even The City and the Pillar. Not recommended unless the reader is inordinately fond of gossip columns.

Rating: 0 (out of four)

The True Subject
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
(translated by Naomi Lazard)
Princeton University Press. 1988
ISBN 0-691-06704-x

Poetry is difficult to translate. It becomes particularly difficult when the translation is that of Urdu poetry into English, and even more so when it is the delicate verse of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that is being translated. There is first the issue of voice -- Urdu is an incredibly passive tongue, whereas in English the most forceful statements tend to be active constructions. And then one has to cope with the entire subtext of connotations and metaphor, words that conjure up the appropriate imagery to a native Urdu speaker, but mean little or naught to the average English reader. To do justice to Faiz's work requires more than a mere translator, it needs a poet in her own right.

Fortunately, that is what we find in Naomi Lazard. A poet of no mean ability herself, she appears remarkably free of that arrogance that girds so many of her peers. Each of the translations in The True Subject is a consequence of long and arduous collaborations between Lazard and Faiz -- Faiz would first provide Lazard with a literal translation of the poem, Lazard would then interrogate him on each and every aspect of the text to understand every nuance, every image, and every metaphor before beginning its English incarnation. The final result is remarkable: a reader familiar with both languages cannot fail to realize that the verses in both incarnations are the work of the same poet.

Of course, this would not be a proper review without some discussion of Faiz and his poetry. In the Indian sub-continent, few indeed are the native Urdu- and Hindi-speakers, even amongst the illiterate, who would not be able to recognize the more famous verses from Faiz's poems. In terms of accessibility and influence, Faiz is the equal of his contemporaries, Nazim Hikmet of Turkey and Pablo Neruda of Chile. And like both of them, he was strongly influenced by the Marxist ideology. His political poems are a testament to this, affirming his solidarity with the downtrodden, and reflecting his antagonism towards the colonial and feudal values of the ruling elite. So effective in fact was his poetry in arousing the passions of the masses, that he was put in prison repeatedly during both the colonial and postcolonial regimes. And then there are his love poems, as appealing in their own right as his political poems. Easily comparable to the best that any language has to offer, these are considered to be primarily responsible for shaping poetic diction in contemporary Urdu poetry.

As for the poems themselves, they are characterized by an air of delicate fragility. About most of them there is an aura of sweetness and generosity of spirit, but it is a raw and natural sweetness, one that has no truck with sentimentality or melodrama. And while some of his poems, chiefly the political ones, are bleak, it is a bleakness once again marked with that very same generosity of spirit, a bleakness without rancour or despair. And it is a testament to Lazard's skill that each of these characteristic aspects of Faiz's poetry, all of them unique and so very essential to his work, shine through in the translations. Highly recommended.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Strangers in Paradise
by Terry Moore
Abstract Studio
Homage Comics

Strangers in Paradise is the soap opera-esque tale of Katina Choovanski (Katchoo) and Francine Peters, two girls who have been friends since high school. The first installment of this story (a miniseries subsequently collected in the form of the graphic novel Strangers in Paradise) focused on the collapse of the relationship between Francine and her boyfriend Freddie Femur brought about by Francine's refusal to sleep with him -- a refusal made all the more poignant since Francine had wanted to sleep with him but had been afraid that Freddie would leave her if she did.

This led Katchoo, who has her own crush on Francine, to wreak her own brand of humiliating vengeance on Freddie, in the course of which she met David, the third major character in this narrative. David, of course, had to fall in love with Katchoo, who claims to hate all men. And Francine, getting over Freddie, began to find David attractive.

Complicated, implausible, soap opera-esque? Yes, Strangers in Paradise is all that, but the interactions and dialogue between the characters are handled with such a deft and light touch that one cannot help but be drawn into their plight. And Terry Moore does one last thing that endears him to this reviewer -- he draws realistic women, women who can be plump and still appealing, not the pneumatic spandex-clad "Barbies" that populate most male teenagers' fantasies.

The second installment of this comic (regular issues #1-9, collected subsequently as the graphic novel I Dream of You) is far less lighthearted. It takes more of a film noir approach as it delves into Katchoo's shadowy past -- child abuse and her subsequent role as a high-priced call girl. I found this episode much less compelling than the previous one; while Moore excels at his portrayal of complicated romantic relationships, his forays into the noir genre lack believable villains. Fortunately, he appears to have realized this; subsequent issues are focusing more on the relationships between the trio. Highly recommended.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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Revised: June 27, 2007