Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain – T.C. Boyle

Delaney is a writer living in southern California with his new wife and step-son. He calls himself a pilgrim because he moved from the east coast, and he sees himself as a transplanted person with a unique perspective to notice to local flora and fauna because it is all new to him. His life focuses on the patterns of nature, and his lifestyle in suburban California takes on the humanist liberal perspective that seems founded on everything equal, organic, and helpful. What the humanist liberal perspective actually means is challenged when the neighborhood he lives in considers the idea of building both a gate and a fence to protect those inside and keep all sources of trouble outside. These political challenges become a personal struggle when Delaney hits a Mexican with his car. Candido, an illegal immigrant looking for work, camps in the valley with his pregnant wife. Having left his village in shame, he knows he cannot return, but he also knows he cannot remain where he is without work. He struggles daily to find food for his wife, but the outside sources working against him – la migra, drought, and general racism – are almost impossible to overcome. Even when all hope is lost, he cannot turn away from his responsibility to those around him. Delaney and Candido lead parallel lives that occasionally intersect as they struggle with what it means to live in the world they inhabit.

On the surface, “The Tortilla Curtain” seems more concerned with binaries than anything else. Native plant species vs. invasive species. The dark uncertainty of the night vs. the light of day when everything can be laid bare. Inside the neighborhood vs. outside the neighborhood. There are plenty of metaphors to find and analyze, but the effect of all these metaphors is to show where the binary doesn’t actually exist and these opposing forces intersect. Delaney and Candido lead mirror lives, in that their lives are completely different, but ultimately they struggle with the same issues. As Delaney wrestles with his entrenched habits, Candido struggles to find certainty in a constantly changing world. The differences built into each character encompass the entire range of human experience, and Boyle incisively shows how the essential aspect of human experience is to incorporate change and difference. Boyle’s writing is unforgiving, unapologetic, and spot on, as he lays bare human emotions and motivations.

I absolutely recommend this book. Although it is horribly depressing, it is also heartbreakingly inspiring. It shows what the world really is, but also what it can be like when people do actually help each other.

The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett

Religion and politics are closely tied in 12th century England when the king dies without an apparent heir to the throne, and everyone wants to replace him with their own favorite choice. The consequences of this feud extend to all areas of life for everyone in the land, no matter their distance from the throne. Amidst the scheming, politicking, and fighting, Prior Phillip somehow manages to focus his energy on turning his priory into a thriving town. At the center of his efforts, he oversees the building of a new cathedral, which will replace the one that burned down on the same night a master builder took shelter in the monastery. Over the course of a lifetime, Prior Phillip struggles earnestly for peace and justice in a world dominated by shrewd, sinister men, and watches the walls of his cathedral rise to the heavens. Those building the cathedral suffer no small hardship either, as they face the poverty, uncertainty, and occasional joy of the life of a peasant. In a world so full of suffering and sadness, everyone helps each other to see the promise of a new day that might bring success, justice, or just a bite to eat.

“The Pillars of the Earth” is a very thoroughly researched, planned, and written book. The novel encompasses a lifetime, and somehow Follett finds a way to make the storylines compelling all the way through its almost 1,000 page length. It is also an incredibly complex novel, with multiple story lines competing for primacy and even more secondary stories filling out the background. There are more characters than I can count on my fingers and toes, but they are pretty easy to keep track of after the initial introductions. Follett portrays the lifestyle and hardships, or lack thereof, of the different characters in roundabout detail, so instead of telling the reader exactly what life was like, he demonstrates the drastically different standards of living. The heart of the entire novel, though, is the construction of the cathedral. Follett’s introduction to the book was a little long, but worth reading because it tells how the novel should be read. Although the detail Follett gives to the construction of the cathedral gets a bit technical (boring) at times, his genuine awe and wonder at the ability to construct such magnificent structures with such limited knowledge inspires such wonder in the reader as well.

In terms of lengthy novels, this certainly scores high on my list for maintaining interest. The story never really drags, although I wasn’t particularly fond of all the detail about the construction of the cathedral. I had a hard time visualizing the intercepts, clerestory, and the western wall of the nave because I’m not entirely sure what all those things are, but it did leave me with a greater appreciation for the skill of builders and the amount of work that goes into a construction project. For those who were intrigued by the religious side of the Da Vinci Code books, I would highly recommend this book because it gives more information on the inner workings of the Catholic Church in England. For those who aren’t so interested in that, it is also a great novel about the struggles of good vs. evil, and if even that doesn’t sound interesting, there are lots of great battle scenes.