While Alex Kudera’s novel, Fight for Your Long Day, highlights the grave socio-economic injustices of a corrupt academic system, it is much more than a preachy manifesto. Cyrus Duffelman’s struggles are that of any of the economically repressed. But when college professors earn Walmart wages, it highlights a shocking disconnect between the hollow political rhetoric of the importance of education, and the true reality. Cyrus inhabits a world of increasing impoverishment. This is the landscape of essayist and cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. This is the time perhaps when we should be re-reading Steinbeck and Orwell.
It would be a cliché to call him a modern day Everyman. Cyrus is a real person with frailties and insecurities, yet with conviction and seriousness about what he does. His long day is his total reality. The past has not served him, so what can the future hold? He does represent a growing class of academic paupers in particular and the growing dominance of menial wages everywhere in America in general, whether the work is menial or not.
And, yet, it’s not little enough. Menial wages, that is. Another sad irony is that the adjunct is no lifetime indentured servant, but rather an endangered species as institutions of higher learning contemplate “satellite hookups and TVs in every classroom…with the finest Indian universities teaching virtual classes long-distance…The fifteen grand a year they were paying the graduate student [or adjunct] has become fifteen hundred for a hungrier South Asian.”
Cyrus is doubly invisible. No one “sees” him—just as the adjunct inequity is on no one’s radar—and because Cyrus wields no power or status, he hopes not to be seen. Even when he commits an error in judgment, there “is no one to beg forgiveness, so all he can do is correct himself.”
He continues on not in hope of reward or changing the system, but in adherence to his own personal code of conduct, and he is his own harshest critic.
Professor Kudera’s social criticism emerges from Cyrus’s quality of life conditions. Between classes, he kills time sitting in a train station, passing for one of the homeless ensconced there. Cyrus alternates between “ogling the ripe melons” of student Allison Silverman while anticipating a late-night tryst with said melons and contemplating Jewish writers in the 1920s who could “smell Hitler and Stalin in the air.”
Cyrus knows enough to ask “what kind of smell is in the air now?” In our current educational environment, knowledge isn’t important; it may even be a rotting corpse, which is perhaps what Cyrus smells. Despite his external invisibility, his inner hamster wheel is always turning. The time-worn expression “life of the mind” becomes the “life of the grind.”
So, ultimately, Cyrus’s fight is for his own standards and integrity in the face of humiliation and futility, a daily quest for survival and the strength to endure. In our “anti-progressive” age, Cyrus is emblematic of a devolving system: the itinerant medieval scholar traveling from one fiefdom to the next in tatters, hoping for a meal or bauble.
If only adjuncts read this book, they would nod and commiserate; as a work of fiction, strongly rooted in social criticism, the general public needs in on it, for one, the parents paying skyrocketing tuition costs, because they should know where the money is going. For it is certainly not in the pockets of the Cyrus Duffelmans of academia.
This was a sometimes difficult book for me to firmly get a grip on, mainly because something deep inside of me felt the pairing of Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) and Theodore Roosevelt in a book was odd, indeed.
Roosevelt, although considered by historians as one of America’s greatest presidents, for most of his life was a bombastic, bellicose war mongering imperialist. This was somewhat tempered by his progressive stand as President to protect wilderness areas, and curb the power of large corporations (called "trusts"). He also passed laws such as The Meat Inspection Act in 1906 and The Pure Food and Drug Act. The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 banned misleading labels and preservatives that contained harmful chemicals. The Pure Food and Drug Act banned food and drugs that were impure or falsely labeled from being made, sold, and shipped.
Still, he was someone who killed hundreds of animals for sport, where Clemens was appalled that anyone would kill just for killing’s sake, and not for the meat. Roosevelt also reveled in the Spanish American War, where he became a national hero for his exploits at San Juan Hill in Cuba. He later referred to that war, which cost Spain its last two colonies in the New World, Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as the Philippines—as a “splendid little war.”
Clemens, on the other hand, wanted no part of the Civil War, although he was highly sought after by both north and south because of his prized skill as a pilot on the Mississippi River. He sat the entire war out on the west coast, where his writing career began in earnest.
What both men have in common, however, and the reason why McFarland married the two in his book, is that both were perhaps the most well-known and influential people during this crucial time in America history.
In the last decade of the 19th Century, and the first decade of the 20th century, our modern nation was formed. Writes McFarland, ”An agrarian union of states from before the Civil War had given way to a postbellum industrialized nation. In 1893, the frontier was pronounced closed. In 1896, the Supreme Court decreed in effect, that relations between the two races, black and white, were to be kept socially separated—a decision that stood until 1954; remnants of that iniquity litter our lives still. In 1898, we fought a war that transformed the nation abruptly into a world power and made Roosevelt a national hero at age thirty-nine. In 1901, that hero was elevated to President of the United States.”
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest President ever, after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, only a short time into his second term.
Mark Twain and The Colonel alternates between the lives lived by Clemens and that of Roosevelt, giving the reader an in-depth portrait of the ups and downs of both men’s careers and personal life.
As always, when reading a book about this time in human history, one is once again stuck by just how delicate life was back then. McFarland’s book is filled with great physical suffering and untimely deaths. No one, young or old, was spared.
Modern medicine, as we know it today, was barely in its infancy, and money and being well born hardly protected anyone from a sudden, painful attack of something that could kill them, or at the very least, make them wish they were already dead.
At the end of their highly eventful lives, Clemens was noted for wandering the streets, wherever he was, in all kinds of weather, in an all-white suit, with a huge flock of white hair, and his trademark bushy mustache, glad to be recognized as the international literary lion he had become.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, came to deeply regret his lifelong cheerleading of the so-called “art of war,” as he witnessed the wanton slaughter of human life brought on by the carnage of World War One.
No splendid little war here.
This slaughter was brought home in a deeply personal way when
his son, Quentin, a daring pilot with the American forces in France, was shot down behind German lines in 1918. Quentin was his youngest son and probably his favorite. It is said the death of his son distressed him so much that Roosevelt never recovered from his loss. Another of his sons, Ted, was also wounded in that conflict.
Roosevelt died a year later in 1919, at the then old age of 60, profoundly chastened.
“The Old Lion is dead,” is what his son Archie telegraphed his siblings upon hearing of the death of his father.
I like stories told in a straight forward chronological fashion—sometimes I feel that authors and screenplay writers are being unnecessarily coy when they mess with a direct story line. Then there are stories that are told like the peeling of the layers of an onion—each new layer adds another layer of depth to our understanding.
Such is Deborah Baker’s The Convert, which is the true story of an American Jew, Margaret Marcus, born in 1939, a woman who because of her disaffection with life in the United States, converts to Islam, and moves to Pakistan at the invitation of a Muslim mentor, Mualana Sayyid Abul Ala Maudoodi, the leader of a fundamentalist political movement. Jamaat-e-Islami Mawdudi (alternate spelling) had read Margaret’s writings and felt they were in agreement with his own ideas, so he invites her to live with him and his family in Lahore and undertakes to become her guardian.
The story of Maryam Jameelah, as she was renamed, gives credence to the saying that the truth is often stranger than fiction. Its strangeness delighted me—in the battle between East and West, the lines are drawn. To strict Muslims in the East the West is corrupted by its decadence—its secularized society is godless—women’s liberation, gay rights, philosophy, and technology have only served to draw people from living upright lives as sanctioned in the Qur’an. To Westerners Muslims are barbaric terrorists without respect for human life. In The Convert neither side emerged triumphant though it was her Muslim family who continued to care for her.
Despite being a talented writer, Maryam is mentally unbalanced. This fact wasn’t immediately apparent, so when Ms. Baker described her incarceration in a mental hospital when she was still young and living in New York, I was astonished. Her fits and the difficulties her rather decent parents had in controlling her led them to this move.
When Mawdudi invited her to become a part of his family, her parents, Myra and Herbert Marcus, were probably relieved that she was being taken off their hands. Margaret was 23 when in 1963 she traveled alone to Lahore to join Mawdudi’s family. Mawdudi knew about her incarceration but assumed it was the result of a sensitive young woman being forced to endure Western society. She was a fairly gifted writer and her work gave no indication of her imbalance. They were in fact a powerful voice in favor of the same conservative values as he advocated for Jamaat-e-Islami.
To Maryam, Islam was the answer to the misgivings she had about living in the West. Every once in a while reincarnation plays a trick and births someone into a culture in which they are entirely misplaced; then they have to find their way to their rightful family. Maryam did not fit with the American, middleclass values embraced by her parents.
Soon after Maryam came to live with Mawdudi and his family, however, they found all was not well with her, that she was in fact insane. After she hit Mawdudi’s wife over the head with a frying pan, he took steps to remove her from his household and had her incarcerated in Paagal Khanaah, a Pakistani mental institution. He still provided for her needs, so she had her own room and several attendants. I found this development astounding.
Then came a third surprise. All along I supposed from what Ms. Baker had written that Maryam never wanted to marry. Even though Mawdudi urged her to do so, she found none of the suggested candidates acceptable. But when she was removed from the hospital to the home of Mohammad Yusuf Khan, an underling of Mawdudi’s, though already married with three or four children, offered to marry her. The offer proved to be her salvation, for it allowed her to live and be cared for in his home while she continued to write and his family looked after her needs. They were reimbursed by the income produced from the sales of her books and articles, which were popular with Pakistani youth.
I was further astonished to learn that crazy Maryam bore Mohammed five children, four of whom matured into adulthood. As late as 2009 Maryam was alive and still living in Lahore.
A great deal of correspondence accumulated over the years, letters between Maryam and Mawdudi, and between her and her parents. Much of this correspondence is now in the archives of the New York City Public Library. Ms. Baker has spent hours poring over these letters, some of which were adulterated to give a more positive view of certain events.
Ms. Baker traveled to Pakistan where she interviewed Mawdudi son, Haider Farooq, and Maryam herself: “I followed Maryam Jameelah up a narrow cement staircase to the second floor, my attention fixed on the hiss made by her cheap sandals every time her foot hit the stairs. She had the side-to-side gait of an arthritic. I had arrived at the house unannounced the day before to arrange an interview. Maryam immediately recalled all the personal details I had included in the letter I sent eight months before. She recited them to me.
“Maryam still lived with Mohammad Yusuf Khan in the old Hindu neighborhood of Sant Nagar. She shared the house with two stepsons, and their wives and children. Shafiqa had died in 1995, having raised nine children. Of Maryam’s own surviving children, her youngest son (named after Haider Farooq) now lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he owned a combination gas station and food mart. Her second son was in Pennsylvania. Her two daughters were still in Pakistan, but only one lived close enough to take her to the doctor. This was the only time Maryam left the house.”
I don’t know what possessed me to order this strange little book from Amazon but I’m glad I did.
Recently I read a writing handbook in which the author gave one edict: DO NOT BORE THE READER. It sounds so simple, but as any writer knows it can be oh-so-hard. Overly precious writing can be boring as can a voice that seems labored, and of course we all know that long descriptions can be downright deadly. I thought about this advice as I read Gone Girl, a psychological thriller by gifted writer, Gillian Flynn.
The plot of Gone Girl is fairly simple: Amy, a psychopath (really, she is) goes missing and all the blame (after the shortest of pauses) is placed on her husband Nick. Gillian plays with our sick curiosity here, and our voracious appetite for gore. And why do we find it titillating that those closest to home can do us the most harm? Amy’s gloriously good parents get involved, as does Nick’s subversive (at least this is hinted at) twin sister, Go. The book is a winding trail of “deceit” and “thrills.” And if this sounds like a cliché, well Gillian is playing with the mystery novel form here. And although I want to give away some of the cooler plot points, I won’t. It just wouldn’t be fair.
But I will say that there are so many twists and turns in Gone Girl that you feel as if your head is spinning (but in a thrilling, roller-coaster kind of way, where your hair gets wind-blown and you feel your stomach lurch). And there is also the deceit of the unreliable narrator in Gone Girl—actually there are two unreliable narrators, for both Amy and Nick who alternate as storytellers flip their stories and pull the rug from under the reader.
I thought one of the cleverest parts of the book involved the diary, Amy’s tart and poignant account of her life with her husband. The confessional tone of her diary reveals Nick as a narcissistic, inept poser who is also capable of murder, but again my lips are sealed.
Flynn writes in a boisterous rush (actually I read somewhere that she writes in the bathtub, but so be it, her words come across in a riptide of energy). She packs a remarkable amount of social commentary into “genre fiction.” Or is this really genre fiction at all?
It is genre fiction in the sense that Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction is genre fiction. I remember being horrified by Eliis’s book American Psycho about a Wall Street rapist/killer. The gleaming slickness of the writing made the warped outcomes all the more terrifying. I understood that Ellis was playing with satire and his protagonist (anti-hero) was a composite of what we are supposed to hate about greed and materialism. And yet I felt as a reader that I was participating in some voyeuristic act as I read about his killings. In essence, I had gone beyond what was critiquing an event into some other shaky realm. Not exactly like I was reading porn, but I felt strange anyway.
I felt the same way when I read the novel In the Cut by Susanna Moore. I cannot remember the exact scene that made me pause and wonder what am I reading here? I just felt strange when I suggested a friend read it. Ellis talked about American Psycho this way (in an interview in Paris Review): “American Psycho is a book about becoming the man you feel you have to be, the man who is cool, slick, handsome, effortlessly moving through the world, modeling suits in Esquire, having babes on his arm. It’s about lifestyle being sold as life, a lifestyle that never seemed to include passion, creativity, curiosity, romance, pain…”
It is good that writers play on the edges, that there are writers who give us a glimpse into worlds that are not easily understood or easy to moralize about. I think of Ellis and Moore, and Chuck Palahniuk.
This is not to say that Gone Girl is as intense (in my humble opinion) or probing socially as some of these other books, but it reminded me of the others in some ways. It packed in social commentary (sometimes disguised as disingenuous rants from Amy). In these rants Amy (and therefore Flynn) acerbically reflects on courtship, city living, writing for a living, the housing bust, and other contemporary themes. She also dissects our precarious high expectations of ourselves and almost constant need for attention.
One of my favorite “nuggets of truth” in the book lies in Amy’s riff about “Cool Girls.” In this tongue-and-cheek denunciation, Amy describes the burden of being the “cool girl to date.” The cool girl is the chick that all other women hate: she serves a man’s need by being unclingy, by being convincingly low maintenance. In fact, the “cool girl,” the chick who doesn’t complain, doesn’t require anything—she’s always willing to go in casual t-shirt and sweats, a makeshift boyfriend for the boyfriend.
Does this person really exist? This sort of mock-female who rolls her eyes at the uptightness of all other females? It’s the kind of gal portrayed in movies who is a sidekick as well as lover. This kind of woman doesn’t demand flattery or jewelry. She’s happy with nada. She’s cool. And no, she probably doesn’t exist. Gillian says this much better than I do and in a hilarious way. Gone Girl is filled with these kinds of insights.
Sometimes these rush of insights—so dead-on, so familiar, yet I wouldn’t have thought of them in a million years, can get tiring. The tone of the book sometimes works against itself. In other words, while Flynn is revealing another curve ball in the plot, she is also elaborating on Amy’s psychology. The depth of the characters is not elaborate. These are not exactly stock characters, but they do fall into type—the perfectionist, hyper, super annoying alpha female (Amy); the lazy, cumbersome, cloying Nick; and the bumbling police. I felt that in the end, Flynn was trying to say something about marriage, about the hazardness of our choices, about the way we cling to one another when we shouldn’t. But it was more fun when the novel was rocketing about at a furious pace.
Lets face it: this novel has true energy and a sugar-spun giddiness. There’s deliciousness about the heightened fabrication. Flynn is having fun. Flynn takes some of the best features of mystery novels—strange clues (reworked here in a bizarre, anniversary treasure hunt), murder by weapon, murder by poison, guts of steel to be able to commit these murders, and loony detectives. This book makes me want to return to Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew. There’s a reason people devour good mysteries and I’m glad there’s a clever woman out there writing them.
Orson Scott Card continues his literary success with the first of a prequel trilogy to Ender’s Game in Earth Unaware. Ender’s Game, so I’ve been told, is a timeless classic, and Card does not disappoint in this introduction of the alien Formic race that brings about the need for Ender Wiggin.
In Earth Unaware, the reader is introduced to Victor Delgado, Lem Jukes, and Witt O’Toole. Victor is a member of El Cavador, a free mining ship stationed in the outer reaches of space. His younger cousin presents him with data that suggests there is a starship traveling at near light speed even further out in the universe. “But that’s impossible,” everyone thinks, but what’s worse, is that the anomaly is heading for our solar system, Earth in particular. Victor knows that the information must reach others no matter what the cost. As more about the aliens becomes known, El Cavador realizes how right Victor has been.
Lem is the son of the richest man in the universe and is always trying to prove himself to his father. He’s out testing a prototype “glazer” that produces an antigravity field that blows asteroids apart and will revolutionize asteroid mining, if only Lem can return successfully. With time, money, and the approval of his father at stake, Lem is prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed and cover his methods, but the arrival of the Formics changes everything.
Witt, Captain O’Toole to his men, is the leader of an international strike force, MOPS, that defends the innocent without boundaries. Throughout this novel, he is always trying to improve his unit, unaware of the threat heading their way. And the question becomes apparent of whether he can prepare them for an enemy as advanced and unwavering as the Formic.
Card sets up the suspense to come and all the resources that it will take to repel the Formics in this entry. The characters driving this first book of the trilogy are empathetic and engaging. The listener is free to love and/or hate them, all the while sensing that there is something more to them. And indeed there is because the adventure will continue in the next book, and Earth Unaware leaves the listener wanting more. Stefan Rudnicki and the cast of readers add personality to the characters, and I have to say that I’m a fan of the multiple reader format. Cumulatively, Earth Unaware is a great start to Card’s new prequel trilogy. I ran, walk, rode, and slept listening to this audio book, trying to push through, enjoying Card and Johnston’s story and the break from life it allowed.
I still remember the thrill of darting across Old Route 17 in Masten Lake, NY, where my family spent a week every summer, and going into the little rundown store. I’d slide a magazine from the rack, fish the money out of my shorts pocket, and run back across 17 to my room, breathless. There, in the quiet of the afternoon, I had True Confessions all to myself. Talk about guilty pleasures! Every dark, garishly illustrated tale featured teens running away from home, teens hitching along deserted highways, abducted teens, teens somehow turning up pregnant, teens falling in love with their dark brutish hairy captors. Bobby Darin sang Dream Lover on the little red transistor radio perched next to me. For this 13 year old in 1960, this was as close as I could get to (soft porn) heaven.
Turn the time machine dial to 2012. Somehow, reading The Singles brings this scene back to me as I stop to wonder why people (ok, women) want to read books like this. Could it be as addictive as those tales were? Sure, it’s not taxing, it goes down easy; it’s the kind of thing women bring to the beach or on vacation. It’s reasonably well written with characters who come equipped with lots of backstory (disclosure: I can never get enough!), characters who confront decisions that Gen X and Y’s can relate to (choice of careers, lovers, spouses, carving out identities separate from their parents, and so on). But it’s certainly not sexy or titillating the way True Confessions stories were and it’s certainly not falling into the literary fiction category. And why don’t I care what happens to these guys?
Well, for one thing, everyone is white, upper middle class, city folk come to town to reunite for the wedding of a college friend. (Calling Hallmark movie of the week!). The roster reads like this:
Women: Bee, a lawyer marrying another lawyer; Vicki, interior designer manqué, depressive over love life and career; Dawn, control freak beauty pageant organizer; Hannah, our protagonist, fledgling casting director, pining for ex-boyfriend, too blind to see true love is within her reach.
Men: Phil, mama’s boy; Joe, underachiever; Jimmy, brainless stud muffin; Rob, a bit too passive about declaring his passion. There’s lots of drink and a little sex, or rather, soulless hooking up. Did I mention that everyone is extremely beautiful and talented? – There’s not one Plain Jane or average person in the bunch. And in case we are challenged in the imagination department, the author tells us which Hollywood star should play each of her characters.
The action revolves around Hannah surviving the wedding. Her ex-boyfriend is there with his new girlfriend. She hasn’t seen him in 2 1/2 years. That’s it. The whole enchilada. Nothing notable really happens (unless you count a little drunken sex).
Another disclosure: Sex in the City was never my cup of tea either though I loved Bridesmaids. This is like Bridesmaids without any of the humor, Bridesmaids Lite. The author references VC Andrews several times and, as I said, I understand a teenager being infatuated with those scenarios (i.e., incest in the attic), but grownups?
So, here’s my shout-out to Meredith Goldstein, the author. You can write and create believable characters that we care about. Trust yourself to put them in situations that really test their mettle. I know you have interesting things to observe about college friendships and romances and how things change in the years that follow:
“Back in college, when they were all single, healthy, attractive people with no commitments, everyone talked to each other like this – intensely and full of confidence and hope. They laughed uncontrollably and never got bored of each other . . . even though they coupled off by twenty . . . it always felt as though the twosomes were just part of a greater whole. Like it was one just one big romance, no matter who shared the same bed when they all went to sleep” (p.182).
Time, Meredith, to tackle some tougher material. I know you have it in you. Really.
Readers, if you think you’d enjoy a chick-lit Hangover, no need to be furtively poking around little rundown stores on Old Route 17 – just pick up this book and be there when Hannah finally figures out where her dream lover is hiding!
Every night I hope and pray
A dream lover will come my way
A girl to hold in my arms
And know the magic of her charms
'cause I want (yeah-yeah yeah)
A girl (yeah-yeah yeah)
To call (yeah-yeah yeah)
My own (yeah-yeah)
I want a dream lover so I don't have to dream alone
~ Bobby Darin~