Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Personal Matter

by Kenzaburo Oe, Winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature

From Amazon: "Oe’s most important novel, A Personal Matter, has been called by The New York Times “close to a perfect novel.” In A Personal Matter, Oe has chosen a difficult, complex though universal subject: how does one face and react to the birth of an abnormal child? Bird, the protagonist, is a young man of 27 with antisocial tendencies who more than once in his life, when confronted with a critical problem, has “cast himself adrift on a sea of whisky like a besotted Robinson Crusoe.” But he has never faced a crisis as personal or grave as the prospect of life imprisonment in the cage of his newborn infant-monster. Should he keep it? Dare he kill it? Before he makes his final decision, Bird’s entire past seems to rise up before him, revealing itself to be a nightmare of self-deceit. The relentless honesty with which Oe portrays his hero — or antihero — makes Bird one of the most unforgettable characters in recent fiction."

From The Nicole Kline Experience: "Kenzaburo Oe’s novel A Personal Matter is one that is both private and traumatic. It details the life of Bird, a 27-year-old college dropout whose wife has just given birth to a deformed son. The child has a brain hernia, which means that even if he does live, he will most likely be a vegetable all his life. It would appear to Bird that the answer is obvious – let the child die, as opposed to dealing with the shame of having given birth to a monster. This sentiment is reflected in the view of his in-laws as well as the doctors at the hospital at which the baby is born. But then a divide occurs at the second, specialist hospital – those doctors want to keep the baby alive, and want to go so far as to perform an operation. Bird struggles with himself, trying to decide what to do – does he let the baby die? Or allow it to live, knowing it may never lead a normal life?"

Sunday, August 23, 2009


by Robert Nylen
From the NY Times Sunday Book Review, August 23, 2009: "It is haunting to read a memoir by a writer who was racing against incurable cancer to get his words on paper, and died in December 2008 shortly after completing his work. You open Robert Nylen’s book, “Guts,” with a mixture of sadness and curiosity, braced for the inevitable. Damn, he is going to make me care about him, and mourn his untimely death. I was torn between rushing through this absorbing and disjointed story or deliberately slowing the pace, aware that once the book ended, Nylen’s raw, funny, urgent voice would be forever stilled." Full Review.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Middlesex (2002)

by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Barnes & Noble Review
Jeffrey Eugenides kept a fairly low profile after his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, caused a stir in 1993. With Middlesex, a sprawling yet intimate novel that earns the turning of every one of its 500-plus pages, he proves that the time was very well spent. Imagine a cross between E. L. Doctorow's classic Ragtime and one of the multigenerational epics of James Michener. Better yet, don't approach this book with any preconceptions -- just have an open heart and mind plus a willingness to let a novelist who knows what he's doing break a few storytelling rules.

Raised as a girl by her second-generation Greek-American family, Calliope (now Cal) Stephanides is physiologically a hermaphrodite and is more male than female. That's not giving away much -- Cal explains it on the first page. What's remarkable is that a book can start with such a revelation and still manage to be full of surprises. Narrated by Cal, the story also shares the thoughts, feelings, and intimate details of the lives of Cal's grandparents, parents, and other family members. In this omniscient first-person mode, we get an epic family saga, a journey from 1920s Greece to 1960s Detroit to contemporary Europe -- one that leads to a remarkably satisfying conclusion. To understand anyone, Eugenides seems to be implying, we need to know not only his or her (or in this case, "his/her") inner thoughts, but also those of all the ancestors whose DNA has contributed to the mix that created him/her.

"Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times," begs Cal. But she/he has nothing to apologize for. It's exactly that willingness to take this rich and accessible story over the top that makes Eugenides' novel so complexly and wonderfully moving. Lou Harry

I read this a few years ago and it was memorable and moving. Well worth the time and effort. Middlesex was the winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. DJE