Friday, January 15, 2010

Flashback Friday: Eighties Haiti

I posted about this on my main blog, too, but since it's a book I must share it here on the Literary Supplement (although "literary" is not one word I have often used to describe the Jennifer Green books). I have totally been reminiscing about In Another Land, the book that totally educated me about Haiti and put it on my radar.

It's part of a series, the Jennifer books by Jane Sorenson, a fairly cheesy series of twelve books about an eighth grader that I for some reason adored and devoured and read over and over back in the day. The weirdest thing about my reading and loving them, I think, is that they are super-Christian. What can I say? I used to be a different person. The main character is "born again" or "becomes a Christian" or whatever, but she also narrates all sorts of other things about her life, like moving to a new city, school, horseback riding lessons, friends, boys, and such.

I remember far too much about the mundane, goofy, and ridiculously sappy details of the books -- and believe me, there are many -- but one of the books actually taught me something useful. In the eighth book, In Another Land, Jennifer Green accompanies her grandmother on a trip to visit Haiti and meet the Haitian child that Grandma sponsors. They travel all around and Jennifer has all sorts of epiphanies about how lucky and rich she really is in her life back home. The thing is - it was a really interesting book! The author, Jane Sorenson, had obviously been to Haiti and been affected by it, and it is kind of cool, I think, that she wrote a book that would educate and possibly inspire adolescents to learn a thing or two about the world.

I have always remembered those books. Even my mom remembers the books; I forced her to read them and she still jokes about how silly some of them were. But the Haiti book was somewhat significant, I suppose. In the two decades since, I sometimes forget that not everyone read this random, obscure series of young Christian fiction books, that not everyone has all these vivid associations with Haiti described in Jennifer Green's trip. Needless to say, In Another Land has been on my mind this week. It's apparently long since out of print - maybe because no one besides me ever bought them?! - but I saw a few listings online for ridiculously cheap. You'll read the book in like five minutes, seriously. I'm not sure if I can recommend the series in good conscience as they are SO incredibly cheesetacular. But hey - people read a lot of crap in this world, so why not read about Jennifer Green and her family and friends? I think I related to her way more than I ever wanted to admit to myself.

And I was always very jealous of her trip to Haiti!

Friday, January 08, 2010

The things we do

now finished: Money by Martin Amis
now reading: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

"The telephone was a one-way instrument, an instrument of torture." - Money, p. 40

How am I not going to love the protagonist when he says a line like that? I don't even have to be in a drunk, drug- and pornography-addled haze to loathe the phone that way. John Self, the perpetually partying narrator of Money, says way too many things that I relate to. He's also really awesomely pithy, like when he says, "There are, at the latest count, four distinct voices in my head."- p.104 It happens. Drinking too much, going a little crazy? Hey, when you are thrust into New York City -- or New York City is thrust upon you; it can be hard to tell the difference -- it definitely happens.

The plot, roughly, involves him mostly roaming around New York trying to deal with the stars and producers of a film he is--making/about to make/starting once they can work out the script--but he also goes back and forth from NYC to London a couple times in there, and tries to figure out if his girlfriend is cheating, and tries to figure out if he is going to cheat on her, and so on. He also has to figure out if this movie, this script, these actors are going to work. There are lots of characters, restaurants, bars, cab rides, events, and streets of New York City.

John Self has a few problems with people. Sometimes it comes out in a complicated trail of who's with whom, and sometimes it comes out in lines like, "What are friends for? What are they for? I've often wondered." -p. 212 You're not meant to like him, especially, but how can you not have a little fondness for his blithe observation of and participation in all that nasty early 1980s Manhattan has to offer?

This book rubs some people the wrong way. The perceived "misogyny" and rampant pornography scare off some readers, or piss them off, or both. The character is maddening, sure, but I think they're missing Amis' satirical point. Everything is mocked in Money, especially the things on which people are willing to spend their money. Maybe it's too much for readers to ponder that people also "waste" money on going to the opera? I'm not sure.

Self does have his insights, such as "Normal girls, they aren't like the girls in the pronographic magazines. Here's a little known fact: the girls in the pornographic magazines aren't like the girls in the pornographic magazines either." -p.219 Eventually, he realizes he can't go on drinking like an alcoholic ("Only the alcoholics can. They're the only ones who can hack it." -p.250) But redemption will be tough for this one. We are just along for the ride, to see how it will all work out. He has an uncanny ability to describe all the wonderful horror of New York City, and reading this novel made me want to be back there more than just about anything else has since we left. The little New York descriptions are gems:

"Oh, for some of that New York spirit! Over there, you can look all fucked-up and shot-eyed and everyone thinks you're just European." - p. 65

"One of the subvoices of pornography in my head is the voice of an obsessed black tramp or retard who roams the Time Square beat here in New York. Incomprehensible yet unmistakenly lecherous, his gurgled monologue goes like this: Uh guh geh yuh tih ah fuh yuh uh yuh fuh ah ah yuh guh suh muh fuh cuh. I do a lot of that kind of talking in my head too." - p. 104

"New York was just how she'd always imagined it ... a stand in the Great Exhibition of the future that would one day be christened Money." -p.317

The "she" in question is his London ex-/girlfriend who has now arrived and "had been in Long Island for a week doing god knows what with god knows who: she looked tangy, rusty, with a salted sharpness of tooth." -p.317

You know I gotta love him for slipping a little bit about tangy Long Island in there! Of course, he has a line or two about California, too, including the thought as he ravaged his body that he "better get to California soon, while the transplant people still have something to work on." -p.121 Or, "In L.A., you can't do anything unless you drive. Now I can't do anything unless I drink." - p. 157 What can I say? I love this man.

The thing about the debauchery is that it's all written by Martin Amis, so it's a very literary, practically elegant, debauchery. And it's full of lots of wry commentary on media, pretension, and consumerism. The whole book asks what is going to happen to New York when the money bubble bursts. Hmmm....

"Sometimes life looks very familiar." -p. 136