an american tragedy: pre-read

awesome danish poster of phillips holmes

On closer inspection, I regret picking Theodore Drieser’s An American Tragedy (1925). I dislike true crime ‘fiction’ -Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood bored me to tears. They are invariably less interesting than they first appear, especially when they become bogged down by extant media extracts, reworked ‘evidence’, and drawn out ‘fact-filled’ trials and executions.

But I’ve spent nearly three futile months on the waiting list at the library, crisscrossed the northern suburbs more times than I care to remember searching for a copy, and finally purchased the iBook version for 99¢, so I’m reading it! Even if it’s 1,347 ipages long!

Here are some semi-interesting facts:

  1. An American Tragedy is based on the real crime, upstate New York, 1906, possible accidental drowning probable murder of Grace Brown by one Chester Gillette.
  2. There have been numerous stage adaptations, including an opera.
  3. Match Point, my least favourite Woody Allen flick, starring Johnathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johannson, shares the same plot as the novel.
  4. The novel has been adapted twice on film: Austrian-born director, Josef von Sternberg made a 1931 eponymous version starring Phillips Holmes. It was vehemently rejected by American critics and Drieser himself, and faced a $150,00 libel suit from Grace Brown’s mother. The movie fared better in Europe and has been subtitled in several European languages.
  5. The other film, directed by George Stevens and renamed A Place in the Sun, 1951, had Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift as leads. It won 6 Oscars.

elizabeth taylor & montgomery clift in a place in the sun, 1951

beautiful horror

two words: thick love

I am reluctant to post on Beloved. It signals moving on…

I gobbled up Beloved over two nights, then downloaded Toni Morrison’s own incredible reading on my iPod and am now on my second listen. It is not enough. I could drink from this cup of horrific beauty the way Beloved did when she first came out of the water, endlessly.

Every word in Beloved competes for power, beauty and devastation. Sethe’s story is harrowing, but the telling of it, magnificent. Beloved proves,

the difference
poetry and
prose is


If Toni Morrison centred the page alignment and added random line breaks, this extraordinary novel would become an extraordinary poem, it is just so beautifully written.

choke cherry tree

Beloved‘s apposition of beauty and horror, in style and content, is pervasive: Sweet Home, a shamelessly lush patch of earth with stunning sycamore trees – is a slave plantation that hangs  and torches dissident slaves from said sycamore trees – it is “fire and brimstone, but hidden in lacy groves.” p.6; “it makes you wonder if hell is a pretty place too.”

Sethe’s  horrific scars from a merciless whipping are her choke cherry tree and “the decorative work of an ironsmith too passionate for display” p.17, not just dead skin on her back, or testament of unspeakable cruelty.

And Sethe loves her four children with a ‘thick love’. But she tries to murder each of them, succeeding with one, Beloved.

This is not a spoiler. We’re given this information in the blurb, if not Chapter 1. This story is about what happens before and after, as well as the moment Sethe takes to her children with a hacksaw.

Sethe, a 19 year old slave woman heavily pregnant with her fourth child, drags herself out of hell to escape Sweet Home. She is beaten, broken, swollen and near death, but she is free. Finally free! To love Howard, Buglar, Beloved ‘crawling already?’ and the newborn, Denver, because they can’t be “hanged, rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized.” p.23 Free.

For 28 days. After which the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride up to 124, having tracked Sethe down. She doesn’t run, or hide or offer herself up. She does the unthinkable, the incomprehensible.

So: How do you keep living after killing your own baby? How do you keep breathing after you’ve cut your own baby’s throat? Not well, especially if there is a powerful connection with the afterlife. Mysticism further inspires the lyrical beauty spread thick throughout the text and demands eager rereads, as Beloved’s ghost sets up ‘a mighty haunt’.

Is this killing something you can ever understand, forgive, justify? Is Beloved real, or is Sethe suffering from  a psychotic break? Will Sethe ever be rid of the ghost of her beloved?

Beloved is a story of love, of the unloved. It will break your heart. It will heal your heart.

toni morrison

Toni Morrison is a poet in weak dissemble. She uses her breathtaking scope of word, imagination and passion to tell the story too few tell, and too few want to hear; of the Sixty Million and More who died in the slave trade, and of the ones who survive, so beautifully. So beautifully.

anyone’s ghost-the national
strange fruit-nina simone
i loves you porgy-nina simone


ys falls, ja

If I could take five books with me – forget ‘on a deserted island’ since we talking about favourite things here – at YS Falls, way down from the noisy water, in the sweet dappled pools of frangipani shade, they would be:

  1. Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980) Erna Brodber
  2. Myal (1988) Erna Brodber
  3. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) Jean Rhys
  4. Song of Solomon (1977) Toni Morrison, and
  5. Beloved (1987) Toni Morrison

These are my sacred texts, my genesis, my exodus, my revelations. They beckon viscera, ancient sorrow, longing, joy in the lyrical pulse of their prose. They testify and prophesy. They plug me into life. Exquisitely.

They also explain the massive chasm in my reading experience, one I’m trying to bridge by taking on the TIMES list.

Reading Beloved yet again reveals that while I have a restricted reading palate, it is a fine palate indeed, but I must resist this tender trap. I will not skip to Wide Sargasso Sea and forget the rest. I will not read Beloved more than twice this week. I will read the other books on the list.



bogarting the big sleep

two words: marlowe neophyte

I am thoroughly initiated.  Chandler had me at clock socks and ‘Victorian hypocrisy’ p.14.

As for Philip Marlowe, I love that drunken misogynistic homophobic philandering shamus like a woman loves a project. He sling-slanged his way right into my heart. His combination of inmate charm and desperate need for a home-cooked meal and warm bath is irresistible; he is the male equivalent of the hooker with a heart of gold. He is the knight who tossed his armour, now he protects us from ourselves with his  scoundrel smarts and peculiar but incorruptible code of honour, asking only for whiskey and an ice-cold kiss in return.

In all seriousness, this novel is written by a man for men, but the rest of us can get in on the joke.  It reads like a brilliant screenplay,

-She has a beautiful little body, hasn’t she?
-You ought to see mine.
-Can it be arranged?
-You’re as cold-blooded a beast as I ever met, Marlowe. Or can I call you Phil?
-You can call me Vivian
-Thanks, Mrs. Regan.
-Oh go to hell, Marlowe p.54

with equally brilliant snippets of prose,

It was about 10:30 when the little yellow-sashed Mexican orchestra got tired of playing a low-voiced prettied-up rumba that nobody was dancing to. The gourd player rubbed his finger tips together as if they were sore and got a cigarette to his mouth almost with the same movement. The other four with a timed simultaneous stoop, reached under their chairs for glasses from which they sipped, smacking their lips and smacking their eyes. Tequila their manner said. It was probably mineral water. The pretense was as wasted as the music. Nobody was looking at them. p.116

The novel is fast-paced and witty,  and as full of twists and suspense as it is of cigarette-butts and empty highballs. It’s heavy on caricatures and light on consequence: a great toilet read, but one you want to hang on to. It is as disposable as it is collectible.

bogart and bacall in the big sleep

The Big Sleep has wormed its way into my subconsciousness leaving me utterly conflicted, like a Lady Gaga song. I wish I could get it out of my head, that I could stop thinking and posing like I’m in a noir flick. Giggling femme fatales make me and Marlowe both ‘sick’, but goddamn they’ve got style! Their capers, like a grown woman thumb-sucking, are unforgettable, and try as you might, you just can’t get enough of them.

As for me? I’ll be snapping up any Marlowe that comes my way.  I am as sweet on Chandler as Owen was on Carmen. But look where that got him.

don’t smoke in bed-nina simone
telephone-lady gaga feat. beyoncé

the big sleep

The Big Sleep, (1939) -a wisp of a book compared to some of the heavies I’m reading- according to Wikipedia is a hardboiled whodunit starring Phillip Marlow, a no-nonsense detective once played by none other than Humphrey Bogart in the classic  1946  film noir adaptation. This little story has inspired the comic genius of the irrepressible Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski, 1998, and a 2007 (yet to be fulfilled?) collaboration between the legendary Frank Miller and Clive Owen, set to play the intrepid sleuth.

miller directs owen as marlowe (?)

I’m typically not a fan of detective stories, except maybe Sherlock Holmes since it’s so camp, can’t bear the suspense, but with credits like these I can’t go past The Big Sleep. So I’ll suffer the stomach churns and heightened paranoia for you, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, have I mentioned it’s a short book? I got some catchin’ up to do.

the blind atonement

two words: déjà vu?

i been here before

Two sisters. One betrays the other. The betrayed one dies young with a love unfulfilled. The traitor lives to a ripe old age and writes a self-reflexive novel to atone for her deeds. Sound familiar? I certainly smell a rat.

I read Atonement three weeks ago – I hated it. I’ve also just finished The Blind Assassin, eerily familiar, nested narrative and all – I didn’t mind it so much and I rue that my sentiments had been hijacked.

There are a few reasons I prefer The Blind Assassin. For one, Iris is likable. She doesn’t pretend to be anything but a bitter and lonely old bitch, and I like her for it. Her tragically-earned toilet cubicle wisdom is witty and cutting. It attests to the devastating calls she made in the past due to her mercurial switches between docility and unfettered vindictiveness. Now, her memoir is rendered in her obvious creativity, her intimate knowledge of loss, and her acerbic sense of humour.

She is not just a self-absorbed old cow, like Briony, trying to feel better. Iris honours her guilt. Here’s how. Spoiler alert!

There’s blood everywhere in The Blind Assassin, from Laura’s death in the opening line, to Iris’s in the end. Children are blinded to make dazzlingly intricate rugs and throats slashed for perverse glory and profit in Sakiel-Norn. In a parallel universe, young men die brutally in war (also in Atonement) so mercenary industrialists like Richard Griffen/Paul Marshall (both paedophiles) can prosper. Laura sacrifices her body for Alex’s freedom. Iris turns a blind eye to this and willingly morphs into a Snilfard, sacrificing her younger sister to Richard for what amounts to fancy clothes and tenuous status -Laura astutely recreates this transformation in her hand-tinting of the wedding photographs. In full-circle, Iris then offers her own sacrifice by forfeiting everything she has, including her daughter, to destroy Richard. She gives Laura posthumous credit for The Blind Assassin, and dedicates her life to preserving her memory wanting nothing in return, not forgiveness and certainly not accolades, just a selfless laying out of the truth without worry over libel or being dethroned. This is how she honours her sister in the end.


Another reason for preferring The Blind Assassin is the plot, even though it repeatedly depicts the same events from different paradigms just like Atonement. The Blind Assassin simply covers a more vast range of events and I don’t mean the two world wars as opposed to one. There’s a degenerating love-affair between a wealthy heiress and a fugitive; the rise and fall of a button dynasty; and the destruction of multiple alien civilizations – which in turn means seedy joints and public fornication; cannibalistic social-climbing; and marauding hot zombies! Hot zombies make everything awesome. I, for one, appreciate not being subject to the angst of a lone anile coot whose imagination stretches only as far as her pinocchial nose.

Speaking of which, both novels have an involuted  first-person author/narrator who constantly critiques the narrative process. The inherent existential question is astoundingly similar in exposition and resolve. I can’t stop thinking they’re the same goddamn novel. But take a wild guess which book was written first. The Blind Assassin has two years on Atonement.

So, here’s a third reason I prefer The Blind Assassin: It’s original! Either Ian knows Margaret extremely well, they may have gone to a philosophy/writing seminar together perhaps, shared long walks, synchronized their authorship crises even. Or this rat is beginning to stink.

déjà vu-teena marie
love dog-tv on the radio
fuck you-cee-lo
rabbit heart-florence and the machine