Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Emma Donoghue's Room

I just finished Emma Donoghue's Room last night. I would have finished it sooner but a stomach bug really floored me over the last couple of days. I didn't feel like reading, eating, or doing anything other than groaning. Groaning was good. I became a good groaner, a world-class groaner, while I was sick.

I guess the other reason I didn't finish until last night was because the book is so absorbing and so emotional. The story is of a mother and son, trapped for seven years in an 11x11 foot room by a crazy man. Five year old Jack was born in the room (son of the man who continually rapes his mother) and narrates the story. He has never been outside and has never spoken to anyone else. His mother (Ma) has told him that what they see on TV (supplied by their captor), is all fantasy, other worlds, not real. The only reality for Jack is what is in this room. Ma fills their days with routines, like Gym, Reading, and all sorts of games, despite having only five books (which they read again and again) and very few other ways of occupying themselves. Jack sleeps in the wardrobe, but peeks out to see their captor when he arrives in the dark.

The novel could have devolved into horror or exploitation but it doesn't. Donoghue makes a point of satirizing our culture's obsession with fame, with investigation, with the next horrible story, with the need to find heroes and inspiration. She could have easily written Ma's character as a perfect heroine, able to raise her boy and keep him safe in ridiculously perverse, difficult circumstances. Instead, Ma unravels once she is free of their captor. Her desires for people, for normalcy, for the way things were conflict with her need for isolation and a return to the safety of rules and schedules with Jack.

And, as Jack confronts the real world, we see him facing things we don't even think about, e.g. that oncoming cars in the other lane aren't going to hit you, that rain falling from the sky won't hurt you. What could have been an annoying device (having a 5 year old narrator for the duration of the book) is not. It never feels contrived but always fresh and new. His observations and language are always a 5 year old's (that waiting for something always takes hundreds of hours) and never feel forced. Our understanding of what is going on is seen through Jack. The only variation of his voice comes a result of a game he and Ma call Parrot, where Jack is supposed to spit back the exact language he hears on TV, from nature shows, news reports, and movies. Later, you realize he is playing Parrot when he relays the details of overheard adult conversations—a neat narrative trick which may be the least believable part of the book.

So, in the end, an engaging read, one that made me think of nature vs. nurture debates and the relationship between parents and children (what do kids need beyond their basic human needs?). Have you read this book? Care to comment below?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Doctorow's Homer and Langley

I finished Doctorow's Homer and Langley last night. I wasn't intending to read a novel which would fit into our American Experience theme; it just happened. Since I've read almost everything Doctorow has written, I'd had this on my bedside table for a while. I guess I've grown increasingly frustrated with good old E.L. over the years and I wasn't particularly eager to start the book.

But then again, there is something strange and alluring about the real-life story the book is based on. The title refers to a pair of wealthy hoarders who lived in an expensive 5th Avenue brownstone. The brothers (one was blind) were hounded by the press and rock-throwing kids, and eventually died in their boarded-up mansion in 1947. More here at wikipedia.

Doctorow took the bare bones of this story and expanded on it, changing the birth order of the brothers and lengthening their lives to the 1970's. Certain elements of the real brothers' lives stayed the same (e.g., that Langley had attempted to use a Model T which he'd installed in the dining room to electrify the house once the power and gas had been shut off), but others Doctorow tinkered with to suit his own purposes. Homer, blind from adolescence on, narrates the story and he takes us through all of the changes and major events in US history in the 20th century, as seen by this musical (he plays his beloved Aeolian piano throughout the entire book, almost as a soundtrack to the action), lonely shut-in. Homer's highly dependent on Langley, for food, direction, and guidance (his older brother, though sighted, was injured in a mustard gas attack as a soldier in WWI). You get the feeling that Homer tolerates his brother's crazy hoarding and his attempts at creating an uber-newspaper, one that would show the incessant repeating patterns of history and society. They were both nuts.

Doctorow can be a wonderful writer but parts of the book were just sloppy. Since it is the first person narration of a blind man supposedly using a braille typewriter, how much can we attribute the mistakes in grammar and punctuation to that and how much can we attribute to Doctorow's editors' unwillingness to change anything of the master's? It doesn't matter. There were some scenes of beauty and poignance, like an early scene where Homer's 16 year old piano student describes what is happening on the screen to him so he can play along on the piano with the film (we're supposed to believe that he needed the job at a movie house). Or the clannish gathering of hippies inside their brownstone and the last supper they prepare for the brothers.

But those scenes of brilliance are few and far between as the reader seesaws between Langley's cynical, seen-it-all view of the world and Homer's blind tolerance. The book is not a masterpiece and is certainly redolent of other Doctorows, particularly Billy Bathgate, in which a gangster takes centerstage. This time, the gangster intuitively trusts the brothers, offering them prostitutes who arrive at midnight bearing champagne. The gangster reappears years later during the organized crime hearings of the late 50's and yet again one more time.

So...in essence, not a brilliant book, but certainly a Doctorow.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer Reading Time!


Thought I'd make a blog to empty out some of the contents of my brain. What are you planning to read this summer (other than Huck Finn, of course)? My first couple of entries are in the list below. Click on the Comments section below, then Post a Comment to tell me what you're reading and I'll add it to the list. If you don't see that option in the upper right, then you are not signed in. If you don't want to sign in or create a new account, just email me what you're reading and any comments you might have and I will post for you.