Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Cellist Of Sarajevo

I have always loved stories about war. I know that sounds a little morbid, but these are the stories that speak powerfully to the dignity and generosity of the human spirit while under extraordinary duress, and that is a beautiful thing to be included in. This weeks unforgettable book, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Canadian author Steven Galloway, is an elegiac, imaginative, and extraordinary novel, inspired by an actual event during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. It explores the brutality of war and the redemptive power of music. Crafted with unforgettable imagery and heartbreaking simplicity, this book speaks forcefully to the triumph of the spirit in the face of overwhelming despair.

The Cellist of Sarajevo captures with taut, painstaking clarity, the events and atmosphere surrounding the siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern warfare. The novel’s linchpin is the true story of a cellist who resolves to play Albinoni’s Adagio on the same square every day for 22 days in honor of the victims of a massacre that took place there. Everyone has a different perspective on the cellist’s motivation, as they wonder aloud what he is trying to prove, beauty having become mostly a source of irony in their desolate lives. But the cellist is more than a symbol of resistance; as one of the characters, Arrow, listens to him play, "she leans back into the wall. She's no longer there. Her mother is lifting her up, spinning her around and laughing. The warm tongue of a dog licks her arm." The Cellist unites the stories threads, as his music becomes the backdrop to each page.

Chapters alternate between the perspectives of three primary characters, acting almost like three short stories pieced together. There is Arrow, a young woman who has gone from university shooting champion to crack sniper, taking aim at the men in the hills who are besieging Sarajevo. When she is eventually ordered to commit a different kind of killing, she must begin to question who she is and why she kills. Listening to the cellist, Arrow "let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat.... Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. The men on the hills didn't have to be murderers.... She didn't have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that."

Kenan lives with his wife and two children, in a small apartment with no water and only intermittent electricity. He has struggled to avoid engaging in the conflict, but every four days must venture out to the old brewery and get water for his family and elderly neighbor, an undertaking that has him nearly paralyzed with fear, where each wrong step can lead to death, or worse, loss of dignity. "One moment the people are walking or running through the street, and then they drop abruptly as though they were marionettes and their puppeteer had fainted."

Lastly we meet Dragan. His wife and son have, he assumes, escaped safely to Italy so he is now living with his sister and her husband. As he takes circuitous routes to get to his work and food at the bakery, he recalls its past as he's faced with its present: "Every day," he muses, "the Sarajevo he thinks he remembers slips away from him a little at a time, like water cupped in the palms of his hands, and when it's gone, he wonders what will be left. He isn't sure what it will be like to live without remembering how life used to be, what it was like to live in a beautiful city."

With exquisite writing, this gripping novel transcends time and place. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a testimony of the strength of the human heart, and the possibility of the survival of the human spirit in the direst of circumstances. Galloway shows the reader the simple lives of his characters while defining the essence of what it means to be human, making the novel a universal story, and forcing the reader wonder what he or she would do faced with similar circumstances. As Galloway points out in his short introduction: “The themes and characters exist wherever ordinary people find themselves caught in war. Sarajevo could be Lebanon or Chechnya or Iraq or a half-dozen other places”.

Galloway’s style is spare and unadorned – a mirror to the skeletal city and its emotionally numbed inhabitants. “Arrow wonders what will be left standing when morning comes, whether there will be any noticeable difference in the appearance of the city. There must come a point where so much has been turned to rubble that ruining a little more makes no difference. It’s possible that point has already been reached.” Although Galloway’s characters weigh the value of their lives against the choices they must make, he effectively creates a fifth character in the city itself, capturing the details among the rubble and destruction that give added weight to his memorable novel.

While reading this book, I was traveling in Montreal for some dance workshops. One morning I walked into the studio to see everyone in the class warming up to Bob Marley. It was kind of an odd sight, seeing all of these graceful ballerinas singing and pulsing along to the music, but it was also a wonderful reminder of the power of music. In this single room were people from all over the world, including England, Spain, Russia, and Canada, and even though they all come from different places, speak different languages, and were raised differently, they were all brought together by this song.

“At once an expansion and a deepening of the thematic concerns that weave themselves throughout his work and a glittering testament to the power of art to counteract hatred and division.... Galloway’s novel, bursting with life, is a vivid reminder of the power of art to dispel the darkness.”

As a dancer and dance teacher, I have studied many styles of dance and choreography. One of the things that you learn when choreographing is to use a certain sequence several times over. This helps the audience stay engaged, and refocuses the attention back to the main story of the dance. Within the first few pages of this book, there was a phrase that was repeated several times. “It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expended in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the first instant of things as they were. Then the visible world exploded.” It was poetry. It was so impacting and memorable that I couldn’t stop thinking about this phrase throughout the rest of the book. It was after reading only the first few pages that I fell in love with this story.

I find that when I read certain books, they spark an interest in something else that I want to know more about, as was the case with this book. Since I knew basically nothing about the siege of Sarajevo, I went online to find out a little more, and came across this very interesting article from the London Times. It describes Verdran Smailovics, the real cellist, displeasure at finding his photograph on the original dust jacket of this book. The article also includes author Steven Galloway's reaction to Smailovic's dismay at being the inspiration for a fictional character, while bringing up some very interesting points. “I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello. But if I do not get justice now I will burn it back in Sarajevo.” My Tip for this book is to indulge in topics of interest to you. Do a little research, find out more on the subject, and enjoy learning something new. Below is the link to view the article, and I suggest taking a look at it, for it brings a somewhat new perspective to someone affected by fame and their actions.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Golden Mean

I have been in a novel phase over the past couple weeks, but that's usually what happens over summer. Perhaps it's an old habit from school. All year we read our textbooks, learning about biology, history, and mathematics, so when the long anticipated summer finally arrives, and we have a choice in what we read, we jump at the opportunity to indulge in compelling stories, wondrous hero's, and intriguing protagonists. Which brings me to this weeks book, The Golden Mean, by Canadian author Annabel Lyon. Again, I discovered this weeks book resting on the bestseller shelf, but it was not the the awards plastered to the front cover that caught my attention, it was the cover itself. The picture is of a young man draped across the back of a white horse, as they walk through the water. I have never felt a particular attachment to a picture, painting, or work of art, but I unabashedly fell in love with this picture, and I wanted to know the story behind it. Within the pages of The Golden Mean the dusty dead are resurrected. Annabel Lyon brings Aristotle, flawed and brilliant and, unexpectedly, human, back into the world. It is an exhilarating reminder that we are not very far from history.

On the orders of his boyhood friend, now King Philip of Macedon, Aristotle postpones his dreams of succeeding Plato as leader of the Academy in Athens, and reluctantly arrives in the Macedonian capital of Pella to tutor the king’s adolescent sons. An early illness has left one sons with the intellect of a child; the other, who will become Alexander the Great, is destined for glory, but struggles between a keen mind that craves instruction and the pressures of a society that demands his prowess as a soldier. Initially Aristotle hopes for a short stay in what he considers the brutal backwater of his childhood. But, as a man of relentless curiosity and reason, Aristotle warms to the challenge of instructing his young charges, particularly Alexander, in whom he recognizes a kindred spirit, an engaged, questioning mind coupled with a unique sense of position and destiny.

Over the next six years, the worlds of this man and boy collide, combine, oppose, and complement each other. Aristotle struggles to match his ideas against the warrior culture that is Alexander’s birthrigh
t, so elegantly highlighting the plight of a lonely thinker in a world that prizes soldiers. He feels that teaching this startling, charming, sometimes horrifying boy is a desperate necessity. And that what the boy, thrown before his time onto his father’s battlefields, needs most is to learn the golden mean, that elusive balance between extremes that Aristotle hopes will mitigate the boy’s will to conquer.

Aristotle wrote much about happiness, but if we are to believe Annabel Lyon, his own lessons were lost on himself. The Golden Mean shows us life through the great philosopher's eyes, and the view is largely cloudy. Cursed with both “a freakish brain” and a wit “as dry as mouse droppings,” this is a man for whom contentment exists only in the abstract.

Aristotle’s narrative expands to include brief, delightfully realized diversions into history, biology, science, literature, medicine, politics, and philosophy. The novel is full of vivid descriptions and impressive imagery, as in Aristotle’s description of the season’s first snow, which “comes whispering late one gray evening.... It seems to fall from nowhere, bits of pure colorlessness peeled off from the sky and drifting down, thicker now.”

I love the concept of this book, however the outcome for me personally, was somewhat disappointing. I was not expecting a grand and over exaggerated tale of love, war, and relationships, but I found the story to be quite bland. Perhaps it is because I do not have a lot of knowledge when it comes to this era, but I found the story hard to follow and lacking in personality. For me, the book read more as a footnote to a history and geography already known, rather than as a story that could stand on its own.

If you decide to read this book, I would suggest taking the time to do bits a of research as you come across things you are unfamiliar with. This book had great reviews, and I fear that because I did not take the time to learn more about the people, geography, and general history, I may not have understood, or recognized some of the story and relationships. Besides, even if research doesn't help you understand the novel, at least you will be a little bit more educated about ancient Greece than you are now, and a little more knowledge in any area never did anyone harm. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The White Tiger

A couple weeks ago, while picking out Mister Pip from the bestseller shelf, I discovered a few other books of interest, including Aravind Adiga's debut novel, The White Tiger. The story is a funny and imaginative tour of a side of India not often highlighted in fiction. In refusing to wallow in superficial exoticism or South Asian family tensions, The White Tiger finds its own path to multifaceted success. It echoes masterpieces of resistance and oppression, and contains passages of startling beauty, making it both a riveting existential crime story, and an expose of social injustice.

"Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life -- having nothing but his own wits to help him along". Balram is from the Darkness, a region deep in the heartland, where India's downtrodden and unlucky are destined to rot, where brutal landlords hold sway, children are pulled out of school into indentured servitude, and elections are routinely bought and sold. However, after being hired as a driver for a wealthy landlord, he manages to escape this undesirable place and move to Dali. From behind the wheel of the Honda City car, Balram's new world is a revelation. While his peers flip through the pages of Murder Weekly, barter for girls, drink cheap liquor, and perpetuate the Great Rooster Coop of Indian society, Balram watches his employers bribe foreign ministers for tax breaks, barter for girls, drink English liquor, and play their own role in the Rooster Coop. Balram learns how to siphon gas, deal with corrupt mechanics, and refill and resell Johnnie Walker Black Label bottles. He also finds a way out of the Coop that no one else inside it can perceive.

Balram's eyes penetrate India as few outsiders can: the cockroaches and the call centers, the prostitutes and the worshipers, the ancient and Internet cultures, the water buffalo and, trapped in so many kinds of cages that escape is almost impossible, the white tiger. "And with a charisma as undeniable as it is unexpected, Balram teaches us that religion doesn't create virtue, and money doesn't solve every problem -- but decency can still be found in a corrupt world, and you can get what you want out of life if you eavesdrop on the right conversations".

Balram's appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations are laced both with a sardonic wit and a trace of sadness. Despite his scapegrace behavior and racist convictions, he somehow manages to win the reader over.

Adiga's existential and crude prose animates the battle between India's wealthy and poor as Balram suffers degrading treatment at the hands of his employers, or, more appropriately, masters. Balram is a clever and resourceful narrator with a witty and sarcastic edge that endears him to readers, even as he rails about corruption, allows himself to be defiled by his bosses, spews coarse invective and eventually profits from moral ambiguity and outright criminality. It's the perfect antidote to lyrical India.

The White Tiger is a vivid and penetrating piece of social commentary, attuned to the inequalities that persist despite India’s new prosperity and compromise modern India. It's a coruscating critique of contemporary rural India, but the real power of this book comes from its total lack of sentimentality and the consequent realism it thus manages.

The White Tiger is compelling, angry, and darkly humorous. Told with ambition, scope, and narrative genius, it has a mischief and personality all its own. It is amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, making it an unexpected and compelling journey into a new India.

I will hardly ever say no to reading a new book, however there are few that have made an everlasting impression, forcing me to read them over and over again. I must say, that although I found this book interesting, and am glad to have read it, it is not one that I will hold close to my heart. It kept me engaged throughout the chapters and the progression of the story, but I never felt a real connection to Balram, perhaps because I cannot relate to his life, ambitions, and desires. However, I am still grateful for the opportunity to discover a new character, and the invitation to enter a new and unfamiliar world. Even if I never read this book again, I have grown because of it, and I encourage you to do the same. Maybe not with this book, but challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and try new books, for you may be surprised at what you discover, in yourself, and in the world of literature.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Water for Elephants

When I was in elementary school we used to get scholastic book orders. Every few months you would get handed out a little catalog, where you could order a variety of books, then would receive them a couple weeks later. Looking through the colorful pages, staring, dog tagging, and highlighting the books I wanted, then waiting for the glorious day when the books arrived and got to take them home and add them to my book shelf, was one of my favorite things. Throughout the years this excitement for new books has continued, however it left me with a lot of unread pages on my shelves. Throughout the recent weeks I have been trying to not only read new books, but read books that I had bought previously, and never quite got around to.

This week I decided to read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Like Eat Pray Love, I had begun reading this book, made it a couple chapters, but for some reason could not get into it. However, going along with the idea of actually reading all the books I have bought, I decided to give it another try, and am so thrilled that I did. Water for Elephants was beautifully written, illuminated by a wonderful sense of time and place. It tells a story of a love between two people that overcomes incredible odds in a world in which even "love is a luxury that few can afford".

In chapters that move flawlessly back and forth in time, from the rowdy circus atmosphere to the antiseptic corridors of the assisted living home, the world is viewed through Jacob Jonkowski, a ninety-something-year-old man's perspective, as he rages helplessly against the decrepitude of old age and the secrets of the past. In prose both poignant and infinitely tender, Jacob dwells in both worlds, revealing the wounds of the past and the sorrows of the present.

Stripped of everything after his parents’ untimely death, the twenty-three-year-old Jacob fails to sit for his veterinary exams at Cornell. Grief-stricken and robbed of home and future, he jumps onto a passing train, only to discover in the morning that it belongs to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It's here that Jacob enters an atmospheric, gritty world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town.

When Jacobs veterinary skills are discovered, he is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie, where the animals are mangy, underfed, and abused. He develops a guarded relationship with August, the head trainer, who is obsessively jealous and given to unspeakable cruelties, and his wife Marlena, the star performer and equestrian, with whom Jacob falls in love with.
"Caught between his love for Marlena and his need for belonging, Jacob is freed only by a murderous secret that will bring the big top down." Uncle Al, Benzini Brothers circus impresario, is a ruthless businessman who cares little for man or beast, engaged in a quest for fame to rival the great Ringling Brothers circus. With his training in veterinary medicine, Jacob does his best to protect the animals from their harsh existence, especially Rosie the baffling elephant, and new edition to the circus, who he shares a deep kinship with, truly evoking the magic a circus can create.

Among a train filled with a raggedy tribe of miscreants and lost souls, friends and foes, skillfully humanized by Gruen, Jacob, the self-appointed protector of the downtrodden, is the only person who has a handle on a moral compass, and as his reward he spends most of the novel beaten, broken, concussed, bleeding, swollen and hungover. The circus, a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder, pain, anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

The story is related in the somber tones of the Depression, the hardscrabble and often unscrupulous business of a traveling circus and the heartless despots who make their fortunes on the backs of men who must do anything to survive. Gruen spares no detail in chronicling the squalid, filthy, brutish circumstances in which Jacob and the circus find themselves. One of the many pleasures of this novel is the opportunity to enter a bizarrely coded and private world with its own laws, superstitions and vocabulary. Water for Elephants is a well-researched adventure into the weird and charming universe of the Depression-era circus, where the magic of the story and the writing convince you to suspend your disbelief.

Circuses showcase human beings at their silliest and most sublime, and many unlikely literary figures have been drawn to their glitzy pageantry, soaring pretensions, and metaphorical potential. Unsurprisingly, writers seem liberated by imagining a spectacle where no comparison ever seems inflated, no development impossible. For better and for worse, Gruen has fallen under the spell. With a showman's expert timing, she saves a terrific revelation for the final pages, transforming a glimpse of Americana into an enchanting escapist fairy tale.

Black-and-white photographs of real American circus scenes from the first half of the century are interspersed throughout the novel, and they brilliantly evoke the dignified power contained in the quieter moments of this unusual brotherhood. The grainy photos capture the unexpected daintiness of an elephant disembarking from a train, the symmetry of a marching band, a gaggle of plumed showgirls stepping gingerly across a patchy lawn, and the haunting solitude of an impeccably dressed cook, allowing for a very real image to form in your mind.

Water for Elephants was poignant, superbly plotted, and utterly transporting. It is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air. I am hopelessly, unabashedly in love with this book, and my only tip for you is to simply read it.