Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Books I Read In 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  
The following are the top books I have read since January 1, 2014. They are in no particular order. I highly recommend all of the following:

  1. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. This novel enthralled me with its chronicle of the lives of two working class Australian families who come to live together at One Cloud Street, in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, over a period of twenty years, from the nineteen forties to the sixties

  1. Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. I recently reread this classic of Science Fiction that was first published sixty years ago. It gets better with every reading.

  1. Collected Poems of Robert Frost. Reading the poems of Robert Frost reminds me of both his stature as an American poet and his intelligence. Every line has depths of meaning that bear reading and study. Ultimately one of the poets I truly love.

  1. The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary. This prize-winning novel won me over with its passion and beauty. The striving for freedom of its main character and the descriptions of Africa were superb.

  1. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. In this play the unexpected becomes what you expect and the absurd becomes the norm ; the story shows characters search for meaning in the nothingness of their presumed existence. 

  1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. The quintessential novel of ideas with philosophical debates central to the message of the novel raising questions and speculations that mirror our own. The world of Hans Castorp, upon leaving the sanatorium, becomes a mirror for ours. 

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. One of my lifetime favorites that I reread for the first time in the new century. It never grows old as Bronte's tale of Jane Eyre seems to inhabit my being more closely than most others.

  1. The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato. This was a mesmerizing story of a man who has lost touch with reality and his obsessions over a married woman who eludes his grasp. He is an artist who cannot abide this world so he creates a world of his own.

  1. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. What would my reading life be without some Shakespeare? And this is one of his best comedies with questions of identity and more.

  1. Kabloona by Gontran de Poncins. This is an extraordinary adventure of an encounter with the Eskimos.. It is a true example of sui generis writing and it is unlikely that anything quite like it will be written again. 

Some very good books I read this year that came close but did not make the top ten included:  Executive Suite by Cameron Hawley;  Straight is the Gate by Andre Gide;  and, Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Epic of a Cairo Family

The Cairo Trilogy
by Naguib Mahfouz

On this day in 1911 the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was born.

"Voices were blended and intermingled in a tumultuous swirl around which eddied laughter, shouts, the squeaking of doors and windows, piano and accordion music, rollicking handclaps, a policeman's bark, braying, grunts, coughs of hashish addicts and screams of drunkards, anonymous calls for help, raps of a stick, and singing by individuals and groups."  --from PALACE OF DESIRE (1957)

It is hard to overemphasize the beauty and intelligence of this family saga. Of course it is much more than that, being also an historical epic about Cairo and Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.  The first novel, Palace Walk, introduces the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad: his wife Amina, sons Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha. This family will be the center of all three novels as Mahfouz chronicles their experiences living within a Cairo neighborhood identified by the street, Palace Walk, home to the family. Prominent among the themes of the first novel is the freedom of the family (or lack of freedom) under the authoritarian rule of the father. Mahfouz slowly develops the relationships within the family and the novel builds upon events that epitomize the growth of each family member. Just as the middle son Fahmy excels in school he begins to seek freedom in the growth of nationalist fervor during the era of the Great War. Amina, who is present on the first page has the temerity to defy her husband and pays a price, yet demonstrates growth in stature within the family. Amina's life and personality is the lifeblood of the home life of the family, bracketed by the scenes of the coffee hour and Amina on the roof overlooking the city. As the first novel ends we find the family's peace and structure threatened portending more change in the novels that follow.

In my continuing traversal of this massive novel I find the pace of events quickening. The narrative, which started slowly as the author introduced Ahmad and his family, gradually picks up speed as the eldest son and daughters are married. The change seems to be a form of familial evolution as the members of the family interact. Just as slowly the world beyond the family's Cairo neighborhood begins to intrude into their lives with the growth of Egyptian nationalist fervor in response to the English protectorate. In addition, Mahfouz's philosophical background can be seen in both the descriptions ("a Platonic world. . ." in chapter five) and the narrative perspective. All of this impresses me as Mahfouz masterfully blends the psychological portraits of the individuals with the society that they encounter in their daily lives. The result is a type of suspense encountered only in the work of the best authors I have read. Mahfouz joins them.

The second novel of Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy is titled Palace of Desire. The family of Ahmad al-Jawad has expanded as the married daughters and son have children. Particularly touching and revelatory is a scene where Ahmad becomes the doting grandfather demonstrating a side of his character that we did not see in the first novel of the trilogy. We also see the permutations of love and desire on display as the family evolves through the maturation of the second generation. There is a particular focus on the development of Kamal, the youngest of the children, who has seen success in school and slowly leaves behind his youthful innocence as he develops into a thinker, a writer, and an admirer of the perfection of beauty as embodied in the young Aida Shaddad. His view of love is doomed to an unsuccessful search for perfection when the one he adores, Aida, rejects him and leaves Egypt with another. Kamal will eventually satisfy his bodily needs with girls from the brothel district while he lives an ascetic life of the philosophic writer and teacher. He also highlights one other theme of the novel with his popularization of western philosophy as Egyptian nationalism grows and the culture of Ahmad's family is buffeted by the new ideas. Perhaps the eldest son, Yasin, best represents the view of love as mere desire. Even in the first novel Yasin had demonstrated his inability to control his natural desire for women and this lack of control continues to complicate his life. Unlike his father, who could discreetly maintain his life with the singers of the night separately from his home life, Yasin blunders about, endangering both his home life and his career. Desire permeates this story even as the world of Ahmad, the father, slowly begins to lose the control that seemed to be his main characteristic as the trilogy began.

The novel Sugar Street ends Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece bringing the story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad's family to a close. With the death of Al-Sayyid his wife Amina is all alone. In a moving chapter we hear her voice and see the world through her eyes as she feels more alone than ever before. The house and the coffee hour are no longer the same. But the focus has turned to the grandchildren, particularly Ahmad and al-Muni'm, sons of Khadija. Each is seeking new directions, mirroring the political and cultural changes in Egypt as World War II approaches. Kamal continues to pine for his ideal love, Aida, and almost finds it in her younger sister, Budur. His own indecision prevents him from making a commitment to her, turning away when she makes the slightest advance. Superficially his life resembles that of his nephew Ridwan, the beautiful son of his brother Yasin. Kamal meets his old friend Husayn Shaddad one final time, learning of the fate of Aida and the Shaddad family, but not with any sense of encouragement or satisfaction. As the novel ends family change occurs once again with the passing of Amina and the birth of Yasin's first grandchild. There is a hopeful sign as Yasin goes out with Kamal to buy clothes for the new baby.

Mahfouz's trilogy has epic sweep in its depiction of the changes to Cairo over the first half of the twentieth century mirrored in the growth and change of the Ahmad family. He presents ideas and demonstrates them with the actions and interactions of the characters as they love and learn and die. The outside world, first seen in the occupation of the British, grows throughout and looms ever larger as the final novel in the trilogy ends. Twentieth century ideologies are beginning to affect Egypt with the power seen elsewhere in the world and the portent is ominous. Yet with that Mahfouz leaves the reader with the possibility of hope and the encouragement that can only be found in a great literary achievement.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz.  Published October 16th 2001 by Everyman's Library (first published 1957)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tale of an Outsider

The White TigerThe White Tiger 
by Aravind Adiga

“So I stood around that big square of books. Standing around books, even books in a foreign language, you feel a kind of electricity buzzing up toward you, Your Excellency. It just happens, the way you get erect around girls wearing tight jeans.
"Except here what happens is that your brain starts to hum.”   ― Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

This first novel by Aravind Adiga reminded me of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. That is to say it is not your traditional Indian novel, but one that presents the hero as the outsider, a man who is both literally and figuratively underground and invisible.

The novel is narrated by Balram Halwai, "The White Tiger" who over seven nights shares his life story in the form of a letter to a Chinese official. In Balram the author has created an anti-hero who, with both charisma and charm, shares a very dark story about corruption, death and escape from the most extreme poverty into the wealth of successful entrepreneurship. The author uses the metaphors of light and dark to help us understand his traversal of a side of India seldom seen in most tales of that country. The theme of naming/identity also plays an important role as Balram takes on different names as he grows and changes from the simple munna to his eventual magisterial identity as "The White Tiger". The author has created a sort of modern journey, much as Ellison did where the hero overcomes his beginnings, and the corruption he finds everywhere, to create a new life for himself. It is, however, a new life that is strangely cut off from society so he remains an outsider to the end. The brilliant conception of the author impressed me as he presented believable characters, the realistic details about the best and worst of Indian society, and a clear depiction of the nature of the hero at the center of the story. There is black humor that is sometimes excruciatingly funny alongside true regret, and underlying it all hints of a fear (of the past) that cannot be completely eradicated. 

The author's voice is original and challenging as he takes you on a journey that, while seemingly straightforward, has many layers of meaning and leaves you with questions to ponder. One of these is why he is writing to a Chinese official; perhaps sixty years ago he would have been writing to a British official? Genuinely deserving of the Man Booker Prize of 2008, The White Tiger is both an engaging enjoyable read and a thought-provoking meditation on life.

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The Overlords

Childhood's EndChildhood's End 

by Arthur C. Clarke

“No utopia can ever give satisfaction to everyone, all the time. As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with power and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. And even when the external world has granted all it can, there still remain the searchings of the mind and the longings of the heart.”  ― Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End

There are reasons why certain books are considered great. Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Childhood's End, exhibits several of them. It is a lucid account of the meeting of "aliens" from outer space with the residents of earth. In describing this encounter and the aftermath, Clarke created a scene, the image of huge spaceships hovering over major cities of Earth, that not only impresses the reader but that had remained as an image for subsequent science fiction. But this book should be considered great as a work of literature, from the structure to style to characterization there is an economy that allows for a tale spanning decades to be told in a couple hundred pages. Clarke focuses on the essentials of the story and lets the reader imagine the inessential details. He also provides contrasts in character and ideas while providing just the right amount of suspense to keep the reader turning the page.

Fundamentally this is a "novel of ideas" and that is what this reader took away from the book. It explores the wonder at the nature of the universe and the potential for man when encountering other residents of it.  The author makes this comment about man's relations to the stars.  Do you agree?

“In this single galaxy of ours there are eighty-seven thousand million suns. [...] In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the deserts of the world. [...] It is a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.”   ― Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Story About Two Brothers

Once We Were Brothers

Once We Were Brothers 
by Ronald H. Balson

“Find a reason to turn your nose up at a culture, to denigrate a people because they are different, and it's not such a giant leap from ethnic subjugation to ethnic slaughter”   ― Ronald H. Balson, Once We Were Brothers

This novel is as exciting and interesting as historical fiction can be. With a very public opening confrontation between a retired Chicago holocaust victim and one of the most powerful philanthropists in the city, Once We Were Brothers provides a level of suspense that continues through to the last pages of the novel. The story of why the former Park District employee, Ben Solomon, engages in this confrontation leads back to Poland in 1929 and through Ben's experience of the holocaust during the War.  It is his fervent belief that his story is true that leads him to seek out an attorney, Catherine Lockhart, and her story in turn and her own discovery of why she needed to help Ben is as inspirational as Ben's own journey from Poland to Chicago.

The novel narrates Ben's journey through flashbacks to Ben's life in Zamosc Poland that begins when he was growing up in a family that had taken in a young German boy, Otto Piatek, who would become as close to Ben as any real brother could have been.  In between episodes of this story are interspersed events in current day Chicago, 2004, where we meet Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart, her friend, who assists in finding evidence to support Ben's claim that the wealthy philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, is actually the former Nazi SS officer, Otto Piatek.  How these narratives come together and whether Ben is able to prove his claim provide for great reading.

This is not a typical story of the holocaust nor is it just about an old man identified as a former Nazi. It is much more and I would encourage anyone interested in what it means to be human and care about another human to read this novel. It is a fictional portrayal but it has aspects that impressed me as much as the best non-fiction I have read about the holocaust. In the end it was not the history that moved me as much as the character of Catherine and how she changed and grew to know herself in a way that made her a better person.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read In 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by TheBroke and the Bookish.  
The following are the top works of fiction I have read in 2014 whose authors were new to me. Some of these will be included in my top ten reads for the whole year while there are other new authors that did not make this list. I highly recommend all of the following:

1.  Tim Winton:  This is an Australian author I have read most recently (last month) and his book, Cloudstreet, will be on my ten best list for the year.  It is a family saga  that is both a paean to working-class Australians and an unflinching examination of the human heart's capacity for sorrow, joy, and endless gradations in between.  

2.  Romain Gary:  I had wanted to read  The Roots of Heaven for several years and did so as part of as part of the Romain Gary Literature Month sponsored by Emma at Book Around the Corner.   This French author won  the Goncourt Prize for his novel about freedom and elephants in Africa.

3.  Cameron Hawley:  A  friend of mine recommended this author and I read  Executive Suite last spring.  It is a suspenseful and inspiring novel about business.  

4.  Nurrudin Farah:  His novel Maps was a book group selection that we all enjoyed.  It is a moving and historical story about growing up in Somalia during its difficult transition to independence.  The author is  a chronicler of modern Africa's sociopolitical turbulence and growth who has lived in exile from his native Somalia since 1974.

5.  Ernest Sabato:  His short novel The Tunnel  is An unforgettable psychological novel of obsessive love, It  was championed by Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, and Graham Greene upon its publication in 1948 and went on to become an international bestseller. 

6.  Thomas Landolfi:  In his short novel An Autumn Story  the dramatic action of the narrative provides complexities sufficient to make this one of the most competent novellas of its kind. That is a story of adventure, Eros, and mystery combined with a deeper sense of the spirit of the unknown. 

7.  Danilo Kis:   The Attic  is a novel written by candlelight and it is in the shadows that the world creeps into the life of young Orpheus. His real life is in his mind and it is as interesting and beautiful as any imagined world could ever be. 

8.  Marcel Theroux:    Strange Bodies  is an often enthralling and occasionally maddening novel that expands the reader’s sense of possibility even as it strains credulity. 

9.  Jean Patrick Manchette:    The Mad and the Bad, first published in 1972, is a taut crime thriller which opens as wealthy Parisian architect Michel Hartog springs Julie Ballanger from a New Age mental hospital and hires her to look after his nephew. 

10.  Nicholas Mosley:    Accident  is allusive, controlled, and with ideas that are implicit. For those who love novels of ideas and their relation to human emotions this is a perfect short novel. 

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Running Haiku

Belmont Harbor 
in December

Running before dawn this morning I noticed the placid lake with boats no more.  They have migrated to higher ground making way for the ice to come.

 The harbor is clear
Boats and masts have disappeared
Soon ice will be here

 From "The Kingdom of Music",  2014
James Henderson

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Absurd Comedy with Delusions (at no extra charge)

by Blaise Cendrars

"Olympio is a large reddish, orang-outang. Whether he comes from Borneo or not, he's the most elegant creature aboard. It takes two Innovation trunks to hold his collection of suits and his under-finery. It is impossible to set foot on deck without immediately bumping into him." (p124)

Where do I begin? With the deranged doctor or the blue Indians? But how can I forget the orang-outang? We meet these characters in the second half of the book after reading about Moravagine escaping from a nightmarish boyhood and a strange castle in the earlier parts of the ersatz memoirs.

What we have with Moravagine (1926) by Blaise Cendrars is a novel that is difficult to summarize and, while written in the era of modern novels, seems almost post-modern in its organization. That is a structure I would compare with Nabokov's Pale Fire with its disparate sections of memoir, notes from the author, and other non-traditional bits of text, although the prose is nothing like Nabokov. Rather the prose is comparable to nightmarish narratives whether from Joris-Karl Huysmans or Franz Kafka.

The main narrative is in a picaresque style narrated by a young doctor who frees the mysterious Moravagine from an asylum where he’s been imprisoned for many years. “Moravagine” is an adopted name whose origin and meaning is never addressed, although a French reader would find a rather unavoidable pun on “death by vagina”. Moravagine himself is an otherwise unnamed member of the Hungarian royal family, a dwarfish intellectual psychopath with a bad leg who goes on the run with the doctor, first to pre-revolutionary Russia, then to the United States and South America.

The prose seems coherent only in the sense that your dreams (at least mine) seem rational until you realize that they are really absurd. The author may have been writing his narrative in reaction to his own experience of the senselessness of the Great War where he lost his right arm. He spent about a decade from 1917 to 1926 writing this novel and Cendrars himself appears as a character in the later chapters; he has his narrator lose a leg while Moravagine loses his reason altogether. At the end of the book he’s found imprisoned in another asylum where he believes he’s an inhabitant of the planet Mars, and where he spends his last months writing a huge, apocalyptic account of how the world will be in the year 2013.

This is a short novel that is in turns comedic and absurd, not necessarily all at the same time. If you enjoy experimentation in the books that you read you will like Cendrars memorable reflections on the meaninglessness of (fictional) existence.

Cover art is herehttp://www.wikiart.org/en/odilon-redon/death-it-is-i-who-makes-you-serious-let-us-embrace-each-other-plate-20-1896

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Three Nineteenth-Century Favorites

Three giants of nineteenth-century British fiction were published on December 1st: 
Great Expectations (serialization began Dec. 1, 1860), Middlemarch (the first volume published Dec. 1, 1871), and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (serialization began Dec. 1, 1891). They are all among my favorites.

Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens

“Now lookee here,” he said, “the question being whether you’re to be let to live. You know what a file is?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And you know what wittles is?”
“Yes, sir.”
After each question he tilted me over a little more, so as to give me a greater sense of helplessness and danger.
“You get me a file.” He tilted me again. “And you get me wittles.” He tilted me again. “You bring ’em both to me.” He tilted me again. “Or I'll have your heart and liver out.”   ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

His name is Pip and this is his story. Starting with the convict in the marsh we are swept away into the world of Pip with all of his friends, acquaintances and antagonists. The story is one of "the universal struggle", we are told, and this will be a motif for Pip's story. The first people Pip introduces are all dead, except his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery. He is in a churchyard and his family, father, mother Georgiana, and "five little brothers" are all buried there. The mood is set early with the sudden appearance of a convict who interrogates and terrorizes Pip. As the first chapter ends Pip is running home, running under a sky that "was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed", with the shadow of a gibbet in the distance.

What a beginning! This is the penultimate (complete) novel from Dicken's pen and it demonstrates all the skills that he had developed over his career. We gradually meet Mrs. Joe and Joe Gargery, Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle; but it is a visit to an old mansion to provide companionship to a young girl that is the one of the first turning points in this story. 

Miss Havisham, the bride who is frozen in time as she slowly ages with yellowing and gray, and the young girl Estella with whom Pip almost immediately is smitten. Poor Pip, so innocent one day and the next, the sad inheritor of the knowledge that he is a poor boy with "rough" hands who does not know the proper way to play and socialize. This realization begins to stir in Pip the yearning to leave this small village and his friend Joe and take up a better life, or what he believes would be a better life. It is not long after that he is provided the opportunity as the lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, presents him with "great expectations" from a mysterious unnamed person.
Work on Great Expectations commenced in late September of 1860 at what proved to be a peak of emotional intensity for its author. Two years before, Dickens had separated from Catherine, his wife of twenty-two years, and several weeks prior to the beginning of this novel, Dickens had burned all his papers and correspondence of the past twenty years at his Gad's Hill estate. This action, in retrospect, can be viewed as a sort of spiritual purge—an attempt to break decisively from the past in order (paradoxically) to fully embrace it, as he does so resonantly in this work.

I participated in a book group discussion of this novel which demonstrated its popularity with all of the attendees showing more passion than typical for the group. Perhaps this is because everyone, myself included , seems to like this story, and in spite of his faults, the protagonist Pip. Perhaps this was because Dickens demonstrated a mastery of his novel-writing craft and, as he demonstrated in Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, he has restrained the prolixity of his prose and yet not failed to deliver vivid descriptions and dramatic scenes. There are moments as moving as any of Dickens, for example when Joe Gargery says goodbye to Pip in London as he returns to his home and the forge. Joe, who is portrayed as the "natural man", is naturally good as the village blacksmith and somehow his Edenic life is believable. Considered by many critics to be Charles Dickens's most psychologically acute self-portrait, Great Expectations is without a doubt one of Dickens's most fully-realized literary creations.

by George Eliot

“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion--a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.”   ― George Eliot, Middlemarch

George Eliot’s Middlemarch began publication on December 1, 1871 — the first volume of eight issued, the other volumes appearing at regular intervals over the following year. Eliot's "Study of Provincial Life" was immediately popular, on both sides of the Atlantic.  It is among my favorite novels ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago.  I have reread it several times since then and my enjoyment has always increased.  I find the intelligence of Eliot shines through on every page, from her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to the epigraphs for each chapter.  
Dorothea is introduced in Chapter One as a beauty in a plain dress, the dress the product of "well-bred economy," of knowing "frippery as the ambition of a huckster's daughter," and of her aspirations for some higher perspective:
She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.

Perhaps my enjoyment of the novel is because, as Virginia Woolf famously commented:  "Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people."  It certainly is that and much more.  It is a "A Study of Provincial Life," pursued by Eliot with a very broad canvas that includes multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic in the best way possible from the perspective of this reader.  Another earlier reader, Emily Dickinson, offered biblical praise as can be seen in the following excerpt from an 1873 letter:
""What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?" What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this "mortal has already put on immortality." George Eliot is one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the "mysteries of redemption," for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite…."

Tess of the D'Urbervilles 
by Thomas Hardy

“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”  ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess starts out as an emblem of innocence, a pretty country girl who delights in dancing on the village green. Yet the world conspires against her. Her travails begin when her family is in need and decides to seek help from relatives by the name of d’Urberville. They send Tess to ask them for help. Seduced by a duplicitous older man, her virtue is destroyed when she bears his child and her future life is shaped by a continual suffering for crimes that are not her own.

Cast out by a morally hypocritical society, Tess identifies most strongly with the natural world and it is here that Hardy's textual lyricism comes into its own. His heroine's physical attributes are described with organic metaphors - her arm, covered in curds from the milking, is 'as cold and damp ... as a new-gathered mushroom'. At the height of Tess's love affair with the parson's son, Angel Clare, Hardy describes a summer of 'oozing fatness and warm ferments'. When she is separated from him, Tess is depicted digging out swedes in a rain-drenched, colourless field, working until 'the leaden light diminishes'. Tess’ baby symbolizes Tess’ bad circumstances and innocence in the sense since this baby was innocent having done nothing wrong, but it was punished by society for coming from such an evil act. Having been raped, Tess was also innocent of the crime, but she was still punished and pushed aside by society. 

This book deals with the oppression of an innocent girl. Most of the consequences she faced were not consequences of her own actions which makes this story somewhat of a tragedy in that sense giving the book a mood that you can try to make for yourself a good life, but you do not determine your own outcome. 
Hardy uses a lot of imagery and describes the scenery in great detail. While each individual sentence may not be difficult to understand, it is the way the various sentences fit together to form a whole picture which separates him from other authors. His evocative descriptions are underpinned by a gripping story of love, loss and tragedy. According to Hardy's biographer, Claire Tomalin, the book 'glows with the intensity of his imagination'. It is this that remains the key to its lasting power. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Importance of Names

Song of SolomonSong of Solomon 
by Toni Morrison

"Milkman stood before his mirror and glanced, in the low light of the wall lamp, at his reflection. He was, as usual, unimpressed with what he saw. He had a fine enough face. Eyes women complimented him on, a firm jaw line, splendid teeth. Taken apart it looked all right. Even better than all right. But it lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self. It was all very tentative, the way he looked, like a man peeping around a corner of someplace he is not supposed to be, trying to make up his mind whether to go forward or to turn back. The decision he made would be extremely important, but the way in which he made the decision would be careless, haphazard, and uninformed." (pp 69-70)

Song of Solomon is a brilliant synthesis of a mythic journey, family drama and story of origin. "When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you die." And the scribbled no-name "Macon Dead," given to a newly freed black man by a drunken Union Army officer, has stained out a family's real name for three generations, and then we meet the third "Macon Dead," called "Milkman."

This is his story, that of Macon "Milkman" Dead, heir to the richest black family in a Midwestern town, as he makes a voyage of rediscovery, travelling southwards geographically and inwards spiritually. In some respects, Milkman's story is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about the moral and psychological development of the main character. However, Milkman is thirty-two when he finally comes of age, unlike traditional heroes and heroines of the Bildungsroman. In part, Milkman postpones his adulthood because he is comfortable as the pampered only son of an upper-middle-class family. But Milkman also resists the sense of connection and commitment to others that are required of adults. We see him thinking for himself -- questioning his place in the world:
"As the stars made themselves visible, Milkman tried to figure what was true and what part of what was true had anything to do with him." (p 75)

Through the enlightenment of this one man, his quest for identity, the novel recapitulates the history of slavery and liberation. The novel's epigraph reads, "The fathers may soar/ And the children may know their names." The importance of names and naming for Morrison's cast of characters, primarily Milkman's family, seems to exist in a name's ability to intimate or uncover hidden truths about personal identity. Morrison's use of the flight metaphor to bookend the story is brilliant as well. I found the story both entertaining and educational in the sense that I learned about a culture that was very different than my own. The differences were submerged beneath the similarities in relationships of family and friends that were like those of everyone everywhere.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Brothers and Dysfunctional Relations

The Burgess BoysThe Burgess Boys 
by Elizabeth Strout

“In case you haven't noticed, people get hard-hearted against the people they hurt. Because they can't stand it. Literally. To think we did that to someone. I did that. So we think of all the reasons why it's okay we did whatever we did.”   ― Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys

I have often read about dysfunctional families but this book provides one of the best examples I have encountered in some time. I previously read and enjoyed Elizabeth Strout's story-like novel, Olive Kitteridge. I enjoyed it in spite of the unlikable title character whose presence held the book together, for it was well-written and the vignettes that comprised the book were captivating.

In her follow-up novel, The Burgess Boys, Strout tells a tale of two squabbling brothers who confront their demons, their crumbling love lives and a hate crime case that thrusts them back to their Maine roots. The titular boys of this story are Jim and Bob Burgess who seem to be similar in appearance; both are lawyers who have moved to New York to escape the Maine of their childhood. But under the surface they have very different personalities. Jim is a high-stress trial attorney who’s quick with a cruel rejoinder designed to put people in their place (especially his brother Bob), while Bob has been divorced and works for Legal Aid and can’t shake the guilt of killing his dad in a freak accident as a child.

The two are recalled to Maine when their sister’s son is apprehended for throwing a pig’s head into a mosque. This leads the story into a very contemporary culture-conflict between the local townspeople and a large and growing Somali minority who have recently moved into Maine. One of the supporting characters is a Somali cafe owner who is baffled by the arrogance, racism and cruelty of some of the locals. This aspect of the story serves primarily as a catalyst for growing turmoil in the domestic affairs of the Burgess Boys and their sister. The changes in their dysfunctional relationships provide the main action of the novel. It is how you read and interpret these changes that will likely determine your reaction to the novel. Jim and his wife have difficulties that, while interesting, do not depend on the crisis in Maine. Likewise, Jim and Bob's sister, Susan, had difficulties with her husband (he had left her before the events in the novel happened) and a resulting rough relationship with her son even before the incident in the Mosque. Nonetheless the story hangs together fairly well and is bolstered by Strout’s writing which is undeniably graceful and observant. She surely captures the frenetic pace of New York and relative sluggishness of Maine. But her character arrangements often feel contrived, archetypal and predestined; Jim’s in particular becomes a clichéd symbol of an over-inflated ego.

This is a novel that reminded me of the sort of story that you saw in the headlines of yesterday's newspaper, except it is not done as well as Tom Wolfe, for example in Bonfire of the Vanities or his other superb novels. That is not to suggest that Elizabeth Strout does not write with an elegant style and is able to craft an interesting novel of domestic relations.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Voyage to Remember

On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which immediately sold out its initial print run. By 1872, the book had run through six editions, and it became one of the most influential books of modern times.

"How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods. Can we wonder, then, that nature’s productions should be far “truer” in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?"
--from On the Origin of Species

One of the most influential books published in the nineteenth century, Darwin’s The Origin of Species is also that most unusual phenomenon, an altogether readable discussion of a scientific subject. On its appearance in 1859 it was immediately recognized by enthusiasts and detractors alike as a work of the greatest importance: its revolutionary theory of evolution by means of natural selection provoked a furious reaction that continues to this day. The Origin of Species is here published together with Darwin’s earlier Voyage of the ‘Beagle.’ This 1839 account of the journeys to South America and the Pacific islands that first put Darwin on the track of his remarkable theories derives an added charm from his vivid description of his travels in exotic places and his eye for the piquant detail. This Everyman's Library edition has an introduction by Richard Dawkins.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Top Ten Books On My Winter TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  
The following are books that I am planning on reading for the next few months.  There may be others that add to or supplant some on this list.

1. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout:  This is for our Thursday Night Book Group.  We read and enjoyed Olive Kittredge and this looks to be a good read also.

2. Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke:  This is a reread of this classic.  Our monthly SF Group selected this for December. 

3. Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges:  This is a great biography of one of the pioneers of the modern computer and more.

4. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars:  A comic cross between Celine and Beckett, this is an expressionist masterpiece.

5. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy: Iwill be reading a selection of his (long) short stories in January alongside the next item on the list.

6. The Short Fiction of Thomas Mann:  I plan to read and reread some of Mann's great short fiction like Tristan, Tonio Kroger, and other tales.

7. Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett:  This is a recent (2011) biography from an author who has just released a new translation of Anna Karenina.

8. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes:  This presents the history of science in the Romantic age from Captain Cook to the first voyage of Charles Darwin.

9. The Infatuations by Javier Marias:  I have read his The Man of Feeling and look forward to returning to this great Spanish author.

10. Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard:  Described as "A searing portrayal of Vienna's bourgeosie";  I expect this to be as good as Wittgenstein's Nephew.

Some other tbr books that are not in the top ten include:  The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa;  Complexity and the Arrow of of Time edited by Charles H. Lineweaver, Paul C. W. Davies and Michael Ruse;  Breath: A Novel by Tim Winton;  and, Talking to Ourselves by Andres Neuman.


Dark Future Visions 

“As Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.” 
― Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, The Road, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 and was hailed as the ‘the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation’. It is the story of a father and son walking alone through the ravaged landscape of a burned America to the coast.

The Road is many things, it is brilliantly-written, poetic, compelling and terrible in its beauty, but there is one thing that it certainly is not, and that is a fun read. It is, in fact, heart-breaking; playing strongly on the reader’s basic human instinct to protect their young at all costs and the father’s sense of desperation, dread and isolation are almost palpable.
The book is relentlessly bleak but it is also about love and as such utterly compelling and peculiarly life-affirming. I found it to be a both inspirational and cautionary tale and rarely have I experienced such a gamut of emotions whilst reading.

At just nigh of 200 pages it is a no more than a novella by today's standards, but this is due to McCarthy’s sparse prose, where he wastes not a single word and achieves more – and says more – than ninety nine per cent of books four or five time the size.  I highly recommend The Road;  it is one of the finest books of the last century.

The Road is a recent example of a genre with a long history.  Dystopian visions can be traced back to the twentieth century with examples like "Harrison Bergeron", a satirical, dystopian science fiction short story written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  A more famous dystopia from the first half of the century can be found in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  Huxley's classic prophetic novel describes the socialized horrors of a futuristic utopia devoid of individual freedom.  Whether the dystopia is a claustrophobic individual vision like "The Metamorphosis" of Kafka or a future world that has been turned upside-down like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, dystopian visions often present a dark future for humankind.

One exception to the bleakness of the post-apocalyptic future is presented in The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.  In his dystopic vision you are left with the hope for a possibility of a better future.  An even slimmer glimmer of hope may be found at the end of Margaret Atwood's distinctive dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake.  I have not yet read the conclusion of the trilogy for which this is the first part, so I may find by the end that glimmer of hope no longer exists.  Whether dystopias bode for a perpetually dark future or one that leaves room for some hope they present imaginative visions that I find both tremendously tantalizing and endlessly fascinating.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Harper Perennial, 1998 (1932).
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin, trans. by Harry Zohn.  Schocken Books, 1969 (1950).
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along: Week 10, Book Review

The following review represents the final commentary for the Jane Eyre read – along hosted by Maria at A Night's Dream of Books and Brian at Babbling Books.  I would like to thank Maria and Brian   for their questions and contributions.  The insights provided in the weekly discussion questions enriched my experience in rereading this great novel.

Jane Eyre 
by Charlotte Brontë

“I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”  ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

This novel continues to be one of my lifetime favorites. I have read it several times before, but this is the first time in the new century.  Many people have commented on reading this novel;  almost one hundred years ago Virginia Woolf wrote about an exhilaration she felt (a feeling which I share) of reading the opening scenes of the novel:
"There is nothing there more perishable than the moor itself, or more subject to the sway of fashion than the "long and lamentable blast."  Nor is this exhilaration short-lived.  It rushes us through the entire volume, without giving us time to think, without letting us lift our eyes from the page.  So intense is our absorption that if some one moves in the room the movement seems to take place not there but up in Yorkshire.  The writer has us by the hand, forces us along her road, makes us see what she sees, never leaves us for a moment or allows us to forget her.  At the end we are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Bronte." (Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, p 160)

Charlotte  submitted Jane Eyre for publication in 1846. It was rejected five times, and then she sent it to Smith, Elder, and Co., her eventual publishers. She sent it with a note that said: "It is better in future to address Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Brontë, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present."  They agreed to publish it, and it became a huge success, and, a little more than a century later it became one of my earliest favorites, a novel that I would read and reread my whole life.  I am not sure what my original fascination was although the mystery and sinister nature of the boarding school Jane attended was riveting, and later Thornfield Hall depicted a different world.
 The story told by Jane begins as one of her suffering, first under Mrs. Reed who treats her poorly and then at Lowood the boarding school she is sent to.  Yet,  from the beginning Jane develops a strong character and excels in her studies.  She develops friendships with her classmate Helen Burns and her teacher Miss Temple.  Throughout the opening chapters I was impressed with Jane's strength of will, her love of reading, and her attention to her readers.  For as she narrates the story she frequently pauses to share a thought with her dear readers.

This novel has all the aspects of the traditional bildungsroman and that is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading it.  Jane eventually takes position as governess and it is at this point that the novel develops into a Romance for she finds a job working for Mr. Rochester teaching a young French girl, Adele Varens,  at Thornfield Hall. As Jane teaches there a while, she falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and he falls in love with her. Needless to say there are several more changes in her life as she learns of secrets from Mr. Rochester's past and encounters aspects of her own past that impact her in unexpected ways.  The story seems to be one where Jane's fate is unfolding before her and her reader's eyes, but it never grows old as Charlotte Bronte's tale seems to inhabit my being more closely than most others.  This reading impressed upon me the important use of symbols such as colors and the weather that underlined the emotional life of Jane.  From the early example of the "red room" or the continuing motif of rain, these symbols enhance the vividness of the story.  Perhaps it is the complexity of a story that starts out to be a simple romance and expands into a Gothic mystery;  it is surely magical as Charlotte Bronte is able to combine this story of the growth of a young girl with a love story that has Gothic overtones.  Ultimately it is a triumph for the individual will of our young governess-heroine, Jane Eyre.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Flying Dreamer

The Dog StarsThe Dog Stars 
by Peter Heller

“Funny how you can live your whole life waiting and not know it... Waiting for your real life to begin. Maybe the most real thing the end. To realize when it's too late. I know now that I loved him more than anything on earth or off of it.”  ― Peter Heller, The Dog Stars

Flying in an old Cessna with his dog provides consolation for Hig the narrator of this engaging story of a not too distant future time on an Earth that is slowly dying. Hig has already lost his wife, his friends, and is marooned at a small abandoned airport in Colorado with his dog Jasper and his partner and friend (perhaps) Bangley. He relates, "I took up flying with the sense of coming to something I had been meant to do all my life."

Hig introduces himself as a flying dreamer. He compares the state of the world to that described in the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament: "deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. (Lamentations 1:1-2)

Somewhat reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the catastrophe that has turned the world into its cataclysmic state remains unnamed, but it involves “The Blood,” a highly virulent and contagious disease that has drastically reduced the population and has turned most of the remaining survivors into grim hangers-on, fiercely protective of their limited territory. Hig periodically takes his 1956 Cessna out to survey the harsh and formidable landscape. While on rare occasions he spots a few Mennonites, fear of “The Blood” generally keeps people at more than arm’s length. Hig has established a defensive perimeter by a large berm, competently guarded by Bangley, a terrifying friend but exactly the kind of guy you want on your side, since he can spot intruders from hundreds of yards away, and he has plenty of firepower to defend you.

Hig dreams of the loss of his wife, Melissa, but the one thing that keeps him persevering is the companionship of his dog. One morning, however, Jasper does not wake up. His death during the night affects Hig more than anything since the passing of his wife -- he cannot function for three days: "It is the third day. At daybreak I shift, feel him in the quilt and have forgotten and then a moment where I remember and still expect him to stir. . . And then I sob. Sob and sob. And rouse myself and carry him in the quilt curled, carry him just under the trees and begin to dig." (p 112)

During one of his flights Hig hears a voice on the radio coming from Grand Junction. Haunted by thoughts of what the voice may mean he takes off one day in search of fellow survivors. He flies alone and notes how "normal the absences" of life and sound are. He eventually lands at Grand Junction and comes across Pops and Cima, a father and daughter who are barely eking out a living off the land by gardening and tending a few emaciated sheep. Like Bangley, Pops is laconic and doesn't yield much, but Hig understandably finds himself attracted to Cima, the only woman for hundreds of miles and a replacement for the ache Hig feels in having lost his pregnant wife, Melissa, years before. He notes that it is "funny how you can live a whole life waiting and not know it." (p 215)Perhaps there is a possibility of a new life. Perhaps not: “Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains.”

Peter Heller's narrator intersperses Beckett-like dialogue with brief yet elegant descriptions of the land, his dreams, and his melancholy longing for a warming world that is dying around him. The dystopic scenery yields to Hig's generally positive attitude once he has recovered, as much as anyone can, from his losses. I enjoyed the novel's unique mix of realistic life in a bleak apocalyptic world while experiencing the leavening effect of nostalgia for love lost and a spirit that will not be denied.

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Poem for Today

When Will I Be Home? 

by Li Shang Yin

When Will I Be Home?

When will I be home? I don't know.
In the mountains, in the rainy night,
The autumn lake is flooded.
Someday we will be back together again.
We will sit in the candlelight by the west window,
And I will tell you how I remembered you
Tonight on the stormy mountain.

translated from the Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth and published in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.  New Directions, 1970.