Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2013, pt.16: Vandana Singh

Reverberations: Books, Movies, Music
by Vandana Singh

This year I read more books than I can remember, but there are some that stand out. Below are my impressions of a selected few, some recently published, others veterans of the shelves.

Let me start with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. This is an ambitious work, detailing the life of a missionary who goes to the Congo with his wife and four daughters, during the time when the shackles of colonialism are about to be thrown off. The story is narrated in the voices of the five women, in a manner that seems impossible to pull off, but the book is very effective and very powerful. I dislike missionaries of any kind on principle, with exceptions for certain individuals, but Kingsolver takes a very complex and interesting position. And the language! It changes for every voice, very effectively.

Her 2013 book, Flight Behavior, is set in our own troubled times. Against a canvas of a world changing due to global warming, Kingsolver sets a young, bored housewife in Appalachia with her two kids, and a scientist and his team, as alien in the boonies as anywhere, and millions of monarch butterflies, who have strayed off course to land in this conservative, rigidly religious small community. Kingsolver does a wonderful job of detailing a very localized situation in a way that nevertheless conveys the global problem of climate change. She’s so much better at it than Ian MacEwan in his book Solar.

Then there’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. What to say about Karen Joy Fowler’s book except that it is extraordinary? I generally love her work, but this work exceeds her own standards. There are very few serious books out there that give a voice to the great voiceless beings of our planet, and do so in a small, localized setting of one particular American family. Told in the voice of a young woman struggling to come to terms with an event that devastated her family, the almost offhand style somehow manages to convey the universal theme of what it means to be human. A magnificent work that calls from its readers an answering intelligence and lots of tissues.

I read a number of Maureen McHugh’s short stories before I read Mission Child, which is a relatively old work. Her short stories are direct, to the point, and very effective. I am still shuddering from “The Naturalist,” for instance, which is about a zombie preserve. Mission Child is a novel that to me seemed somewhat incomplete because it engaged only half-heartedly with some larger questions that it raised. But what started off as the story of a young woman’s journey through a troubled land on a distant world became a surprisingly complicated, nuanced work. I do wish it had engaged more strongly with the notion of appropriate versus imposed technology in a world where a second wave of high tech colonizers have come to an already existing, pre-technological polyglot, tribal culture of original settlers. Still, well worth reading.

I have to see Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, since it is about quantum physics and history, but since that was not possible at the moment, I read instead his book Spies. It was well written but perhaps a little over-dramatic. One stand-out was the way the adult narrator realizes the significance of key events in his boyhood during the second world war – and how memory is so much more a collage of impressions than a chronological record. Interesting.

Incidentally I have to add Janet Frame to the list of mainstream writers whose works rely heavily on an appreciation and awareness of the non-human world. This is my complaint about so called realistic fiction – that it pretends there are only humans in the world, and rocks, trees, pigs, and wild geese don’t exist. Janet Frame’s stories are set in New Zealand, and in their sensitivity to place and to the living world, they are almost spec-fictional in feel. Some of her short stories (I haven’t read her novels) are in the fabulist mode, and her use of language is poetic and evocative. I read the collection Prizes and Other Stories although this was over two weeks ago. I’ve also read George Saunders’ The Tenth of December. So many of this writer’s stories are spec-fictional – reading his work, one gets a familiar jolt of anticipation, appreciation and recognition. His stories are unflinching, often disturbing, and his critique of unexamined capitalist norms in our society is timely indeed.

I finally finished reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I had read part of it before and then been distracted by life, but after I saw the movie I was moved to pick it up again. As is often the case, it was a lot better than the movie, although I did like the movie. There are two overlapping ways this novel is subversive. One, it manages to foreground a whole galaxy of characters, not only in space but also in time, thus going against the entire raison d’etre of the modern novel, which tends to follow linear paths describing the life of an individual, the most extreme form of which I call the ‘lone ranger’ model. Two, by doing what it does, it manages to make the case that everything is connected without being glib about it, and suggests that the idea of individualism, while useful in many contexts, becomes less useful and perhaps downright misleading in the big picture.

Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria is surpassing strange and wonderful. How a journey, and reading, and books, transform a young, naïve traveler is a tale beautifully told, in a language rich with detail. It would have been no more than a pretty travelogue except for the consequences of a chance meeting near the beginning of the book, which we (and the protagonist) have half-forgotten until we realize its consequences in the latter half. So like real life, where some small encounter we push to the back of the mind might return to disproportionately affect our lives.

I also read Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge, an incredible confection of the imagination, but with complex aftertastes and dark seasonings. Some aspects of it had a Miyazaki-like touch of the strange, and the inventions of place and character were fascinating. It did end rather abruptly, which makes me wonder if the sequel completes it in a satisfying way – it’s on my list for a winter read.

I have to mention, even if in passing (since I railed at length about its faults) Kim Stanley Robinson’s monumental 2312. I generally like his work quite a bit but this one was marred by serious problems, on which I have expounded at length elsewhere.

I am not a very adventurous reader in the sense that there are categories of books I simply cannot bring myself to read. No horror for me (I do need to sleep, that’s all, it’s nothing personal), in general no high fantasy either (I’ve read the classics, thank you, and I find most Eurocentric fantasy terribly homogenized and boring, with rare exceptions). Hard SF in the Campbellian style makes me nauseous. Probably the books I enjoy fall in a fairly narrow band. As I grow older I find myself drawn less to clever, brilliant stories than to stories that are complex, intelligent, and compassionate toward their characters. I prefer stories with layers, so that you can enjoy them at multiple levels; stories that speak simultaneously to the conscious and the unconscious, and leave you with reverberations long after the last page is turned. When I look back at many of the works I’ve praised above, they give me an immediate sense of place and character. I don’t think there is a word to describe easily that feeling of displacement and immersion – it is as though a sense other than the five familiar ones is awakened, and one simply knows where one is, and who the people are, and the smells and the noises as well – but also that one is changed for being in that place.

As for movies – I really enjoyed the special effects in the movie Gravity, and it was great fun seeing what the film-makers got right about the physics, and what they got wrong. In fact I took one beginning physics class to it and they had to figure out a bunch of stuff, calculations and all. The premise is just crazily improbable, and there’s practically no story, but what the hell, it was gorgeously done. Cloud Atlas, as I’ve mentioned above, was different as a movie compared to the book, and as often happens, the book is better. But the movie on its own was worth watching. I say this as someone who tends to have very little time for movies – I will stop halfway unless it is really quite compelling. This one, I watched straight through.

Although I saw it in fullness many years ago, I’ve also been watching clips from the Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots. What a great movie! About students from an engineering college, it is filled with classic Bollywood touches like singing, dancing, and melodrama, but also with wit, academic humor, and intellectual inspiration. There’s a little too much bathroom humor for my tastes, but other than that, this is a film that is thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable.

A recent rediscovery is a French film I first saw in college: Le Maitre de Musique. It was my first introduction to opera, thanks to my Korean roommate, with whom I saw it. I found recently that the entire movie is on youtube. Not a whole lot of story, but the music! Which brings me to the subject of music.

Ah, music. It’s hard for me to talk about it because either there is some playing in my head or outside it. I love everything from Indian classical vocal to Verdi to classic Hindi film songs, to Led Zeppelin to various kinds of folk. I’ve been singing since probably before I was born. Here’s just a sprinkling of what I’ve been hearing this year:

From the movie Rudaali – a song of desert rain and the lover who hasn’t yet come home

From the movie Lekin – more Bollywood folk

A folk song from the movie Dilli 6, which is fairly recent, and has some fantastic music from many Indian musical genres.

The Punjabi singer Rabbi ( ) sings a song by Sufi mystic Bulleh Shah.

The ultimate song of parting, so powerful I had to write an entire story (well, actually two) around it: Jagjit Singh, and his wife Chitra singing Babul Mora, a composition by Wajid Ali Shah, a deposed ruler from British colonial times.

Verdi’s Sempre Libera from Le Maitre de Musique

Vandana Singh is the author of The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (Zubaan, 2009), numerous fine short stories, and two novellas published by Aqueduct Press in the Conversation Pieces series: Of Love and Other Monsters and Distances, which won the Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Award and was on the Tiptree Honor List. She lives near Boston, where she teaches physics.

No comments: