Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #62: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

With each chapter written from the viewpoint of one of 15 different characters, and much of the writing done in the form of “stream of consciousness,” Faulkner broke new literary ground with As I Lay Dying, which he reportedly wrote in six weeks, with nary a word changed in the final published work.  It is the story of Addie Bundren, who lays dying as the book opens, forced to hear her eldest son Cash building her coffin below her window. Her husband Anse, a dirt-poor farmer in the Mississippi backwater, promises to take her body for burial to her home town of Jefferson, across the river and some 40 miles distant by wagon, and her five children ranging from Cash to little Vardamon will accompany her coffin on this odyssey as well.

As black a “comedy” as one can imagine, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. First, Addie is put in her coffin with her head where her feet should go, because the dress she is buried in bells at the feet and needs the extra room. Cash insists the coffin is thus imbalanced, but Anse ignores him. Then Vardamon, convinced his mother can’t breathe in the coffin, drills holes through the top and inadvertently drills into his mother’s face. Heavy rains cause the river to flood and washes away not one but several bridges. Anse insists on crossing the river anyway, having already lost several days and with Addie’s corpse starting to smell. The coffin floats off the wagon, the mule team drowns, and Cash not only loses his beloved carpentry tools, but also re-breaks a recently-broken leg. At risk of their lives, sons Jewel and Darl dive for the wagon and the tools, and rescue the coffin. Anse sells Jewel’s beloved horse for a new mule team, and the family moves on, but Cash must spend the rest of the journey lying atop the coffin, smelling a decomposing corpse and watching the buzzards gather.

And that’s just the beginning. Everywhere the Bundren family goes, people urge them to bury the corpse out of respect, but Anse insists on going to Jefferson, invoking his solemn promise to Addie and before God. That he has another agenda is revealed only at the very end.  The voice of the traumatized little boy is nearly impossible to comprehend, while the family’s only daughter—secretly pregnant—is angry and sullen, secretive and bitter. Jewel, we learn, is the middle son who was born of a liason between Addie and the local minister. Addie, we learn from the one chapter written from her (post-mortem?) viewpoint, hated her husband, her children, and her life, and Jewel was her only comfort. Darl, the second eldest son, is considered “strange,” but is perhaps the most sane among them.

As I struggled to figure out who the characters in this Greek tragedy were, why they were going on this odyssey from hell, and what the various currents were that were driving them, I was constantly discovering ironic little twists of fate that Faulkner enjoyed burying within this grim and depressing tale. A challenging work, to be sure, and perhaps the hardest I’ve ever had to work to read a book. Was it worth it? You tell me.

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review#31: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

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After reading a novel about an old lady with Alzheimers who might have murdered her best friend, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel provided a much more lighthearted and welcome perspective on growing older and the possibilities that lie ahead before death comes. The writing is often funny, making fun of Brits and Indians, the young and the old, but with an underlying kindness that takes away the bite.

The plot is simple: an Indian doctor in London, married to an Anglo woman, is sick and tired of his crass and randy father-in-law’s presence in his home. Norman has been kicked out of several homes and Ravi is at the end of his rope. After confiding his desperation to his businessman cousin Sonny, Sonny and Ravi develop a scheme to build an old folks home for Brits in Bangalore. The story follows the first year of the hotel/home’s operation and involves a colorful cast of characters — pensioners of varied backgrounds, hotel staff with their own problems and frustrations, and the country of India, which seems to have a hypnotizing allure for those who visit.

The introduction of the elderly Brits is sometimes funny and sometimes poignant. Norman is initially uninterested in moving to India until he hears that the hot young women are plentiful and accommodating. Evelyn is somewhat estranged from her children and lonely. Muriel is a feisty cockney woman who has been mugged and is desperate to find her son, who is on the run from the law. The Ainslies seem to have an enviable marriage and make the most of the opportunities the India affords them. But of course, as we see through the unfolding of the tale, there is so much more to each of them. The crass and bigoted fogeys can be sentimental and kind, the unassuming lady who fades into the woodwork can be bold and daring, and those who seem to have it all may have problems, too.

There’s a lot of “the grass is always greener” theme in this book. The Brits  come to appreciate the Indian ways of revering family and approaching life with joy and acceptance. The Indians seem to want to leave for England and escape the suffocating effects of familial obligations and lack of opportunity. In the end, it’s a sweet story about appreciating the golden years, accepting mortality and being ready to try something new, no matter what your age. This is not great literature, but using the General Maximus standard from Gladiator, I must say, I was entertained.

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #27: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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Gavin Extence has written a superb young adult novel dealing with some rather mature themes: secular humanism, Kurt Vonnegut, growing cannabis, and death/end of life decisions. I think this may turn out to be my favorite novel of the summer.

Alex Woods, our narrator, is 17 when we start and all of the action of the story has happened. Alex is returning to England from Continental Europe with the ashes of his neighbor Isaac Peterson and a glove compartment full of marijuana. Alex is detained at customs and brought in for questioning. From this point, Alex tells the amazing story of his life and his friendship with the reclusive Mr. Peterson.

Alex is already famous by the time we are introduced. At the age of 10, he survived being hit by a meteorite, was in a coma for several weeks and then developed epilepsy, which caused him to miss school for most of a year. He is the only child of a single mother who runs her own shop and reads tarot cards for clients. Alex is drawn to math and sciences, particularly astrophysics and neurology.  Unfortunately, bullies are drawn to Alex for these same reasons. Alex’s path and Mr. Peterson’s cross as a result of a bullying incident. Peterson is an American veteran of the Vietnam War who writes a lot of letters for Amnesty International and whose favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut. Over time, a strange but beautiful friendship develops between the two. Alex matures, learns to manage his epilepsy, and actively pursues his interests as well as action that seems right to him. I found him to be a thoroughly interesting and admirable character, although I suspect that those who are more politically conservative might find him to be immoral or, at the very least, misguided.

An overarching theme is about us and the universe — is there a God? Where do we fit in? Can we know the universe? I like that the title is The Universe Versus Alex Woods and not the other way around — that it’s not Alex who is trying to mess with the universe, but rather the universe seems to have taken on Alex. Throwing a meteorite at his head is only one example. He and his mother have no idea who his father is; he is a target for bullies; he has epilepsy. Yet for the most part, Alex faces it all in a calm, rational way. The one exception, when he calls a bully an especially offensive word in front of the headmaster, makes him feel powerful in the short run but is regretted in the long run. Alex is patient and a planner, and this serves him well (although it makes him seem odd and is sometimes frustrating to those close to him).

I think what I find most impressive about the novel is that while I don’t necessarily subscribe to the same view of life and the universe as Alex, I understand why he thinks as he does. I can’t help but like him. Gavin Extence does a marvelous job of presenting Alex’s point of view in a reasonable and convincing manner. The writing is humorous and intelligent, and would appeal to the high school crowd. Mature themes and some crude language might make it inappropriate for those younger.

 

nelsonmilum’s #CBR5 Review #05: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, By Mary Roach

Image of the cover of the book, Stiff, by Mary Roach

The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach is a non-fiction exploration of what happens to a person after death; not in the sense of what happens to the self, but what actually happens to the body. The book, and this review, may not be for the squeamish.

Read it here