Sunday, July 05, 2020

Battling the Devil

The Devil All the Time 

The Devil All the Time

“Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.”   ― Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time

This is not a novel that I would recommend to everyone. That is not because this is a bad novel, for it is indeed a very good one; rather I hesitate in my recommendation because there are no truly good characters in this book, in fact the are several very bad ones. The best you can say about the central protagonist, Arvin Russell, is that his violent tendencies are reserved for some of the worst of the lot.

So what is there to recommend about this novel? The author has captured realistically a slice of America's underside and portrayed it very well with strong characterizations and a believable, if not somewhat improbable and very violent, plot.

Set in Ohio and West Virginia in the years following World War II, it tells the stories of various desperate characters, including a veteran suffering from PTSD, a pair of husband-and-wife serial killers, and both a preacher and sheriff who are corrupt.

The protagonist, Arvin, is presented in a prologue as a young boy. He sits in a clearing with his father, Willard, on an oak log, joining him in his evening prayer routine. Willard is borderline obsessive when it comes to prayer and expects the same from his son. While Arvin prays, however, his mind wanders and feelings of isolation bubble to the surface. He feels like an outsider at school, he is the victim of relentless bullying. Arvin recalls his father telling him to stand up for himself, but this is easier said than done.

Willard recalls the horrifying things he saw and did during the war. One memory haunts him in particular: that of a soldier he comes across who has been skinned and crucified. Willard shoots the man as an act of mercy, putting an end to his suffering. Upon his return home he had married a young woman named Charlotte Willoughby and together they have a son whom they name Arvin. As the years pass, Willard becomes obsessed with prayer. The obsession only deepens when Charlotte contracts cancer. Willard’s rituals become progressively more bizarre and upsetting, culminating in animal and even human sacrifice. Willard believes these acts of devotion are necessary to save his wife. Nevertheless, in the end, Charlotte still dies, prompting Willard to commit suicide. Traumatized by his parents’ deaths and his father’s behavior, Arvin moves in with his grandmother, Emma. There, he meets Lenora, an orphan girl whom Emma takes in after her mother, Helen, is killed, most likely by a traveling preacher named Roy who is also Lenora’s father.

The narrator moves on to tell of Carl and Sandy Henderson, a pair of murderous lowlifes who entertain themselves by picking up male hitchhikers and killing them. Their reign of terror is allowed to persist in part because Sandy’s brother, Sheriff Bodecker, is corrupt and incompetent. An unemployed photographer, Carl takes pictures of his victims, calling them models.
In the meantime Arvin and Lenora grow up and become very close. When Lenora is bullied at school, Arvin comes to her defense, fighting the bullies, but also demonstrating a violent side that will follow him throughout his life. In addition to further exploits of Carl and Sandy's we are told more about Roy, the traveling preacher who killed Lenora’s mother. Roy lives with his physically disabled cousin, Theodore. After moving on from the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, Roy is replaced by a new preacher, Pastor Teagardin, who lives with his much younger wife, Cynthia. Lenora believes Teagardin to be an exceptionally holy man, but Arvin has his doubts. These suspicions are validated when the reader learns of Teagardin’s seduction and sexual corruption of Cynthia. Teagardin then successfully seduces Lenora, getting the young girl pregnant. Furious, Arvin shoots Teagardin dead and flees Coal Creek.

These dreary yet interesting plot lines come together in the last part of the book. While there is no hero magically appearing on a white horse each of the characters reach an end that is fitting, considering the lives they have lived. Throughout the novel the author builds the suspense so that you are propelled forward in spite of the violence. That aspect, the realism of the story, and the insight into the demented psychology of each of the characters made this a very good novel which I would recommend, especially to fans of Cormac McCarthy or Flannery O'Connor.

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Violin and Murder

The Rainaldi Quartet 

The Rainaldi Quartet (Castiglione and Guastafeste, #1)

You expect the momentous events in life to provide some kind of warning. You expect to have some presage of what's about to happen, to be prepared for it when it hits you. But I wasn't prepared. None of us was.  - Paul Adam, The Rainaldi Quartet

This mystery involves a valuable violin and multiple murders in contemporary Italy.

Shortly after playing a short composition by Beethoven with his friends Tomaso Rainaldi, a retired professional musician and sometime violin teacher, and Antonio Guastafeste, a local detective; Gianni Castiglione, an elderly luthier (that is, a craftsman of stringed instruments), receives a suspicious call at his Lombardy countryside home from Rainaldi’s wife Clara. His friend hasn’t come home and he is soon found stabbed near his abandoned car. Guastafeste, a generation younger than narrator Castiglione or Rainaldi, returns when he’s assigned to the case. Because Castiglione’s technical knowledge makes him useful as a valuable resource, he accompanies Guastafeste on his investigation, which begins with Venetian violin collector Dottor Forlani. The curious collector lives in squalor but spends a small fortune on instruments. They learn that Rainaldi had contacted Forlani about acquiring a valuable violin known as the “Messiah’s Sister.” Not long after their visit, Forlani is also murdered by a nefarious and mysterious persona as ruthless as he is determined. The mystery’s trail, which includes old letters and older tombs, leads Gianni through a network of auction houses and black-market dealings across Italy and western Europe, reaching its denouement at Casale Monferrato, the cement capital of Italy.

Well-paced storytelling perfectly suits the subtle pleasures of this tale. The author offers plenty of European history and an immersion in a subculture of the classical music world as well as a pleasant mystery.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Heroic Retelling



“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done . . . ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world . . . Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak in time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, and not to yield.”  ― Dan Simmons, Ilium

Having fairly recently reread the Iliad of Homer this book is a good follow-up both as a change, in genre, and as renewing my knowledge of the Iliad helps in understanding Simmons' novel. For in his novel Homer's relevance is more than an opening prop or gimmick. It is the Iliad that initially provides a bearing, a compass for the reader upon which the rest of the narrative depends, and without which, it could be argued, the rest, at least during the first third or so of the book, would unravel. This is a complicated novel with regard to plot and it is the familiarity of the Iliad story line that initially binds the work together, serving as a sturdy foundation while the other two strands, at first seeming unrelated, gradually come together.

Part humor, part literary space opera (and perhaps part mind game for intellectuals), Ilium is fascinating in its grand scope as well as the way it reinterprets earlier works to conform to an entirely new epic type. Within it references abound, not only to literature but popular culture, current events, philosophy and recent concepts of physics. It can be difficult to keep one's bearings as the author's vision is so expansive that the scale of events, characters and themes so often touched upon or merely suggested, only to be later viewed from different circumstance or perspective. Much of what occurs throughout the novel is driven by anticipation of how the author will ultimately resolve and integrate all of his various plotlines, cast and speculation. Intriguing hints are laid, sometimes in opposition: Proust's exploration of time, memory and perception or the secret paths to the puzzle of life; the moravec Mahnmut's interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnets as a dramatic construct; the interaction and influence of will, represented by Zeus, the Fates, and chaos, upon events taking place upon the plains of Ilium; the fulcrum Hockenberry is urged to find in order to change the outcome of Homer; or the identity of "'A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.'" Cosmologies and ontologies, as well as metaphors, are borrowed, their identities and purposes remaining unclear or unexplained, as is so much else by novel's end, though suspicions are delectably stirred. 

This is a novel that provides a wealth of ideas and action which successfully entice the reader to continue the saga in the sequel, Olympos.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Eternal Man



“History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.”  ― Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo is a glorious romantic imagining of an episode from the year 1793, during the French Revolution and the year of the Great Terror. The setting is Brittany where counter-revolutionary forces have risen up to oppose the Revolutionary leaders. The leader of this group, the aged Marquise de Lantenac, is a romantic hero in the grandest sense. A Breton noble, he disguises himself as a peasant after landing on the western coast. His mission, which he pursues with ruthless single-mindedness, is to act as a leader to the rebels, harness them to the royalist cause, and contrive an opportunity for an English military invasion.

His fate seems to be determined by the Revolutionary forces which are led by his grand-nephew, Gauvain. Pitted against Lantenac, Gauvain, formerly the Vicomte de Gauvain, has renounced his noble heritage and embraced the republican cause. Gauvain commands the republican troops allied with Marat and tasked with hunting down and killing Lantenac.

The third protagonist is Cimourdain, once a priest and Gauvain’s tutor, now a fervent revolutionary. It was from Cimourdain that Gauvain first learned the political ideals he has adopted. Cimourdain has a secret, the one weak spot in his ideological armour, for he loves Gauvain, has loved him since childhood, like the son he himself never had. Cimourdain is sent by the revolutionary leader, Marat, as a special agent to the Vendée to ensure that Gauvain does not waver in his loyalty, for Marat has heard disturbing rumors that Gauvain may be capable of mercy, and revolutionary leaders view this as a cardinal sin.

The tension of the story is provided not only by the action, which is fiercely exciting, but by ideas. At one point Gauvain says to Cimourdain:
"Louis XVI was a sheep thrown among lions. He tried to flee, to save himself . . . But not everyone can be a lion who wants to. His feeble attempt was regarded as a crime."
He asks Cimourdain, "lions? What are they?"
"This made Cimourdain think. He raised his head and said, 'Those lions are consciences. Those lions are ideas. Those lions are principles.'" (pp 197-98)

While Gauvain is a man of action, a revolutionary for the republic, he is also a thinker and it is his thoughts about the humanity of men that lead him to his ultimate actions. 
The grandeur of this novel is superb, while Hugo builds suspense in every section. Some scenes are so vivid that you are unlikely to forget them. One scene that is sometimes excerpted from the novel is the great cannon episode; depicting a loose cannon on a ship of anti-revolutionary French Royalists sailing towards Brittany, to aid the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie rebellion. 
The whole of the novel is like this, filled with one astonishing experience after another, keeping this reader spellbound.

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. Bantam Books, 1962 (1874)

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Images of a Life



"Time Present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation."  - T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

George Washington Crosby died. That, in sum , is the plot of this short novel, but within that death there is told a story of a life, a family, and a world made interesting through the beautiful prose of Paul Harding.

The book could have been called As I Lay Dying, but that title has already been used; it could have been called Clocks, or Timepieces, for that is one motif that recurs again and again in the story of George and his family, especially his father.

"That was it, he realized; the clock had run down." (p 33)

As we count down the hours until his death we experience images of his dreams, of his life, and of nature. Harding's prose brings each small detail alive as he shares the wonder of a life lived full of things, of tinkering, odd jobs, family interests, and disinterests. It is written with details sure to bring personal memories to the mind of the reader. It did for me, not that the small town may have been similar to my own, or not that the incidents might suggest ones I experienced; but one reference, to a Cribbage Board, brought back fond memories of learning how to play Cribbage and playing it with my Parents, Grandparents, and family. I still have a Cribbage Board hidden away in a closet, behind my Chess set. George's memories were like that, hidden away in the closets of his past, behind events long forgotten until the last days of his delirium.

We find out that George could not, or at least felt he could not, fill his father's shoes. Yet we are not told, but shown how, in a dream, George goes looking for his father and puts on his father's old boots which are too big for his feet, requiring additional layers of socks to make them fit. That is the way of this story: "Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock's purpose is to return the hands back to that time . . ." (p 179) Thus the hands on the clocks go around and signal both the past and the present and, ultimately, the end.

Paul Harding has written a simple, subtle, and surely beautiful story about a man and his memories.  As a story of one man's death it reminded me of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil. Each story provides meaning, if that is possible, using exceptionally poetic prose to share the final dreams and thoughts of one man who has reached his end.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Compassion and Knowledge

Regarding the Pain of Others 

Regarding the Pain of Others

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do -- but who is that 'we'? -- and nothing 'they' can do either -- and who are 'they' -- then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”   ― Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

I read this as I was a participant in a discussion group at The Art Institute of Chicago. Many people view Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others as a re-examination of or a follow-up to her previous book, On Photography; although the two works do not view photography from the same perspective. Regarding the Pain of Others, which is generally an essay about war photography, primarily covers the theme of heartlessness, with a keen interest on the inhumanity and brutality caused by war.

First off, Sontag posits that there is a problem in the way people read pictures. As much as a picture unravels real events captured on camera, it also conceals some additional details that would help in getting a more unobstructed view of the identity and history of the real moment. Therefore, the manner in which individuals interpret images becomes an extremely subjective process, since personal understandings and beliefs will largely dictate the reading of these pictures. Sontag writes,
"Images of dead civilians and smashed houses may serve to quicken hatred of the foe."

Sontag also reconsiders her earlier position about the emotional implications of horrendous images on the viewer. In On Photography, Sontag maintained that images could make the viewer sympathize with the victim. In Regarding the Pain of Others, however, she revises her position, questioning whether a photograph can truly have such an effect in the modern media’s context.

Some would call this "atrocity photography," that sort of photography whose subject is the death or misery of other people. The book was, of course, penned in the shadow of September 11, and it seems, unfortunately, to bear a slightly burdensome responsibility to comment on the importance of things. This, however, has never been a problem for Ms. Sontag. While I appreciated her earlier essay collection, On Photography, more than this photographic excursion (perhaps because it is a better essay collection) I found the insights here worth considering. Perhaps I was put off by her beginning with a reference to Virginia Woolf's book Three Guineas which I did not find persuasive. However, I still found the essays in this miniature tome challenging and thought-provoking.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Two Lives in a Shadow War

The Nightingale 

The Nightingale

“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”  ― Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

The Nightingale, both well-written and plot-driven, is a story about the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol in World War II France. Isabelle is a rebellious girl and is kicked out of many schools. When she is kicked out of one last school, she is sent to live with her father, Julien. Isabelle and her father do not have a good relationship and when the Germans invade France, Isabelle flees Paris to go to her sister's home. On the way, she meets Gaetan, her future love interest.

Vianne accepts Isabelle into her home reluctantly because she does not want her sister's rebellious attitude to influence her own daughter. Vianne is directly affected by the war when her good friend and neighbor is forced to wear a yellow star. She must also endure the presence of a Nazi officer in her home. Eventually her neighbor, Rachel, suffers a great loss when her daughter is shot and she is forced to go to a concentration camp. Vianne adopts Rachel's son, Ari, and she also begins to forge identity papers to help other Jewish children as her way of rebelling against the German occupation.

Isabelle joins the French Resistance and helps French pilots escape to Spain. Nazi soldiers are continually searching for this young woman whose efforts have earned her the sobriquet of "The Nightingale". As the war progresses both of the sisters suffer greater deprivation and more danger from the soldiers who occupy France. The denouement of the story is moving in many ways that lead me to discuss some of the themes of the book that include: love, power of women, and family.

Different aspects of love, based on romance, friendship, and familial love are explored. One example of romantic love is shown between Vianne and her husband Antoine, on whom she depends and subsequently struggles when he goes to war. Another example of Romantic love is the love between Isabelle and Gaetan. When the two meet, they are immediately attracted to one another. While this love does not flourish Gaetan proves his love for Isabelle by naming his daughter after her.

The power of women is demonstrated through the two main characters strength. Each rebels against the German army in her own way. Vianne rebels in a more subtle way by rescuing Jewish children by forging identity papers. She also takes in the son of her friend when her friend is sent to a concentration camp. Isabelle rebels more openly by joining the French Resistance. Both of these women demonstrate courage that was necessary far from the battlefields.

Each sister also fights to keep their family together, not always an easy task, in addition to helping their friends. The author's ability to demonstrate the contrasting nature of each sister was one of the best aspects of this novel. This combined with serviceable prose and an accurate depiction of the historical details made this a good read. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical novels centered on family relationships.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Two White Boys and the Blues

White Tears 

White Tears

Electricity is not digital. It does not come in discrete packets, but floods the air and flows through conductors and shoots from the hands of mad scientists in silent movies. If it is futuristic at all, it is a past version of the future, temperamental, unstable, half-alive.”
― Hari Kunzru, White Tears

Hari Kunzru's novel tells of a mysterious recording found by Seth, a tech nerd, and his best friend, a handsome slacker named Carter Wallace, both young white men. While Carter's love of music is enabled by his standing as heir to a family fortune, Seth is from a somewhat lower social strata. Seth operates a studio with Carter and is obsessed with recording the errant sounds found around New York, which he does with a handset device by walking through the city. Carter is solely interested in music by black musicians of the twentieth century. and also bankrolls the music audio engineering business that Seth and Carter run together. One day, using recordings that Seth made of different people singing and playing music on the street, they create a song called the Graveyard Blues and upload it to the internet, attributing the song to Charlie Shaw, a name that Carter picks at random.

Seth—the brainy, awkward one—is annoyed by this arrogance, but the accompanying perks are too fun to pass up. Who wouldn’t want to make a bunch of money by playing music? “You seem to have a very high opinion of yourself,” Cornelius, Carter’s much more responsible brother, tells Seth. “Of your importance in the scheme of things.” Seth definitely lacks power, or confidence; rather than tell a crush how he feels when they’re at a party together, he ends up literally watching her have sex with another man. But when his life is upended by a shocking turn of events, he has no choice but to involve himself more directly in the story.

The shock is created when a record collector tells them something unnerving: Charlie Shaw is real, and he has a history that Seth and Carter want no part of. Soon after, Carter is found beaten unconscious in a dangerous Bronx neighborhood. Carter’s wealthy and powerful family bars Seth from coming to see Carter at the hospital. They also lock Seth out of his and Carter’s recording studio. Carter appears to be in a permanent coma. Seth tracks down Jim, who tells Seth of his own connection to Charlie Shaw. In the 1950s, Jim and his friend Chester Bly traveled to Tennessee and Mississippi in order to swindle African-Americans out of potentially valuable blues and jazz records. They eventually arrived at the house of Miss Alberta, Charlie Shaw’s sister. She possessed the only known copy of Shaw’s Graveyard Blues record. Bly stole the record after Alberta refused to sell it. Soon after, Bly died in a mysterious fire. Jim decided that Bly’s death must have been a type of cosmic comeuppance for his acts of cultural appropriation. In order to avoid similar danger, Jim sold all of his own records.

He and Leonie, Carter’s Boho artist sister, venture down South to solve the mystery of Shaw, who like many other obscure blues musicians known to us only through a song or two, exists on the margins of history. What they find takes on the texture of a ghost story, as Seth and Leonie bond in sweaty motels indistinguishable from each other, on the trail of a man who might not exist but might be implausibly real. “With each mile we are heading further into the past,” Kunzru writes. “This is what I made her understand, that night in her apartment. That we had to repeat something, to go back to meet the force that is reaching out towards us from history.”
“Shock of white hair, thick black eyeglasses that scanned as fashion until you checked the raincoat with the grubby collar, the unpleasant-looking scab on his forehead,” Kunzru writes. “Exactly who I did not want to meet. Very slowly, he raised an index finger and pointed to me, a gesture like firing a gun.” The man, who Seth only knows through his internet avatar, is sort of a decrepit weirdo. But what else could Seth have expected from someone who’s dedicated his life to compiling the arcane and unglamorous?

White Tears seems almost hallucinatory at times as the past and present blend together to create a nightmare for the duo. Seth’s rationality diminishes as the book paces toward its violent conclusion, with Kunzru’s prose rising to a hypnotic, entrancing level. The book cuts across time periods and perspectives, sometimes in the same chapter, as Seth falls further into the horror of the 20th century, for which Charlie is just a proxy. The mixture of disparate themes including the blues musical heritage, black cultural appropriation, and the threat of billion -dollar conglomerates provides for both an endlessly interesting and sometimes exciting novel.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Spoken Words

Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath
Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath 

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

This is a wonderful collection of poetry with the added attraction of spoken verse. Each poet reads their own poetry as recorded on three CDs. The poets included range from the early nineteenth century with Tennyson, Browning, and Whitman to the late twentieth with Ginsberg, Sexton, and Plath. 

Some of my favorite poems are included from poets like Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. The introductions and commentary by some of our finest poets complement the verses making them all the more valuable and perhaps just a bit more understandable. The above poem, by Robert Hayden, is just one example of the great poetry included in this volume.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Helpless in Amerika



"A movement without end, a restlessness transmitted from the restless element to helpless human being and their works!" (Kafka, Amerika)

Franz Kafka broke off writing his first novel, Amerika, on January 24, 1913. Though one of the most famous stay-at-homes in literature, Kafka read widely including travel books. His absurdist novel Amerika begins with young Karl viewing the Statue of Liberty and feeling "the free winds of heaven” on his face. Within moments he is lost in the maze of the multiple levels of the ship looking for an umbrella he left behind. While this reminded me of Alice's initial fall into the rabbit hole it also alerted me that I was in a Kafka novel, albeit a slightly different type than I had read before. 

The United States that Kafka depicts is more based upon myth than any real experience of the place. Certain odd details reveal one Continental impression of this land at a time when so many Eastern Europeans were emigrating. Drawing on a host of sources—including Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and the poetry of Walt Whitman—and calling to the reader’s mind an even more formidable array of literary analogues—from William Shakespeare’s one play set in the Americas, The Tempest, to Henry James’s international novels, Kafka conjures an America more fabulous than factual. Appropriately enough, in Kafka’s America much of the action takes place in the deepest night, at the deepest levels of the subconscious and of the spirit.

Kafka seemed to intuit that being someone, or anyone, in the geographical vastness of America was not altogether different from the problem of being someone in the bureaucratic vastness of German-dominated Prague. Establishing an identity was, moreover, a problem compounded by the question of home, a question that was important both to the immigrant and to the Czech. “I want above all to get home,” Karl points out early in the novel. By “home,” he literally means the house of his Uncle Jacob but, figuratively, he is referring to that dream of a familiar place where he will feel secure, understood, accepted: the garden from which Karl, like Adam, has been banished. Because of his original sin, he has been condemned to wander the earth in search not only of a home, or refuge, but of justice and mercy as well. As he comes to realize, however momentarily, “It’s impossible to defend oneself where there is no good will.” What this sudden revelation suggests is that the absence of mercy, whether human or divine, makes justice impossible. Just as important, this situation renders all Karl’s efforts not only existentially futile but—and this is Kafka’s genius—comically absurd as well. The chance encounters that characterize the novel, the arbitrary exercise of authority by those who are in power (parents, uncles, head porters, and the like),the uncertain rules and regulations, and the various characters’—especially Karl’s—precarious status constitute Kafka’s fictional world.

That the Statue of Liberty holds aloft a sword instead of a torch and that a bridge connects New York City and Boston unsettle the reading by placing an essentially realist novel close to the realm of fantasy. Much of that fantasy is dark and disturbing, but by the end — first editor Max Brod says Kafka quit while on his intended last chapter — Karl has reached the wide open West, where he seems reborn as a bit actor in “The Nature Theater of Oklahoma.” Kafka would go on to write better and more labyrinthine tales, but his first novel is an intriguing vision of America.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Games, Names, and Shadows

Part I 


When we consider how to share our thoughts and ideas with those around us we turn to the abundance of language to express ourselves. If we have taken the time and made the effort to develop a command of our language, we believe we can say those things that we think and feel with the precision of expression that will leave some trail of meaning among our community.

How is it that our playing is like naming? A game of words becomes the life we live—or is it the reverse? So often our lives seem to be merely games with words—our conversations veer into debates over both the ideas represented by our words and the objects that our words seem to signify.

Is not this play a form of education? Education: from the Latin ducere, meaning to lead. Educate—out from ignorance. This is the movement from the shadows into the light (The Republic, 514a - 520a).

To learn, for Socrates, was to gain knowledge—to achieve wisdom (sophos). (Theatetus, 145d) Learning can be considered the “right use of words”, which is the way it is put in the Cratylus (277e). He also refers to the notion of learning as a game (278b). In the twentieth century the general use of language has become a game according to Wittgenstein (1989, para. 67).

When we are learning we put what we know into words. We name the thing as we play the game leading ourselves onward toward understanding (Theatetus, 146a)

Plato, Complete Works. John M. Cooper, ed. Hackett, 1997.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations. G.E. M. Anscombe, trans., MacMillan, 1989 (1953)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Fantastic Odyssey

Washington Black 

Washington Black

"What did I feel? What would anyone feel in such a place? My chest ached with anguish and wonder, an astonishment that went on and on, and I could not catch my breath. The Cloud-cutter spun, turned gradually faster, rising ever higher. . . The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous." (p 105)

The story of George Washington Black is one of the odyssey of a young boy through his growth to manhood. In this case the young boy is a slave on a plantation in Barbados. Born on that plantation and raised by his mother Big Kit, young Wash, as he is called, is presented with a unique opportunity when Christopher Wilde, the brother of the Master of the Plantation, chooses Wash to be his assistant in his ventures exploring the natural world. Soon Wash enters into a world where the possibility of his escape from a life in chains changes from fantasy into reality. The reality he experiences includes many adventures that seem to be closer to the realm of the fantastic than that of the everyday.

The novel opens in 1830 where the English family named Wilde owns Faith plantation in Barbados. Wash narrates the story and is a slave who was born on the plantation in the year 1818. The master of the plantation is Erasmus Wilde, who is cruel and sadistic towards the slaves. Kit, "Big Kit" to Wash, is a female slave who takes care of Wash—says that she and Wash will be reincarnated in Africa after they die. One day, Erasmus’ younger brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde—arrives on the island. He is a scientist and inventor, and he hopes to test his new hot air balloon design on a nearby mountain. Titch is an abolitionist and finds the methods of his cruel brother abhorrent.

Titch enlists Wash as an assistant, and he teaches Wash to read, write, and draw. Wash is fascinated by drawing finds he has a special ability to sketch images of the natural world. Titch continues working on his hot air balloon, but, due to an accidental gas explosion from the balloon, Wash suffers burns on much of his face and body that will stay with him for life. Titch and Erasmus’ cousin Philip comes to visit, unfortunately Philip suffers from depression and soon kills himself. Titch believes that Erasmus will likely accuse Wash of killing Philip and will kill Wash as a means of spiting Titch. So Titch and Wash escape using the hot air balloon and then gain passage by boat to Norfolk, Virginia. There, a kind sexton gives them temporary shelter. In the meantime Erasmus hires a bounty hunter to retrieve Wash. Titch next takes Wash with him north to Canada, where they meet with James Wilde, Titch’s father, who is on a scientific expedition. After James refuses to help secure Wash’s safety from Erasmus, Titch devolves into a frenzy of despair and wanders off into the wilderness.

With Titch gone, Wash travels to Nova Scotia to hopefully live and work in peace. He is about 16 years old by that time. The British Empire abolishes slavery, but he still witnesses and experiences instances of racial tension and persecution. Wash befriends a young woman named Tanna Goff, who is from England. Her father is the renowned marine zoologist Geoffrey Goff, who is in Canada collecting specimens for an exhibition in London. Goff hires Wash as an assistant and illustrator, allowing Wash to further develop his talents. Unfortunately, the bounty hunter catches up with Wash; however he escapes only after learning that Titch is alive and in England. A romance begins to develop between Tanna and Wash. Wash conceives of having an exhibition of live sea creatures in London. Wash and the Goffs return to London to execute this plan.

In the concluding section of the novel we find Wash with the Goffs in London. However Wash still desires to try to find Titch. His further adventures take him to Amsterdam and Morocco as the novel ends. 
I found the novel endlessly fascinating with both the story of Wash's growth into a successful young man and Titch's search for meaning in his life compelling narratives. The plot at times bordered on the fantastic, but the strength of the characters overcame any weakness in the story-line. This novel from the pen Esi Edugyan is worthy of consideration by all who enjoy historical adventures.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Woman at the Top

Top Girls 

Top Girls

"MARLENE: We’ve all come a long way. To our courage and the way we changed our lives and our extraordinary achievements. (They laugh and drink a toast.)"  -  Caryl Churchill, Top Girls

Churchill's play is a mix of drama and comedy, with elements of fantasy and Freud thrown in for good effect. I enjoyed seeing a performance of the play more than I enjoyed reading it. This was primarily because the acting and the direction of the play brought out its best moments.

Top Girls is the story of one woman’s rise to success and of the other women in her life (as well as those in history) whose experiences call hers into question. Its all-female cast speaks from a wide variety of cultural and political positions in dialogue that is orchestrated on the page almost like musical lines and themes, with numerous interruptions, dual conversations, and simultaneous speeches which undercut or highlight one another. The resulting development of the play shows success for the assertive Marlene who has reached the top of the hierarchy at an employment agency, along with the price that she had to pay to achieve that success. The darker side of the play portrays her sister and niece who are living a more proletarian lifestyle.

The mixture of the two with the addition of a lengthy fantastic dinner scene to open the play provides more questions than answers about what the message of the drama is. Since it was first produced in 1982, the play may be a little dated, but much of the drama seems timely enough. It is the somewhat confusing delivery of that drama over the space of two acts and five scenes that left this reader slightly less than satisfied.

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill.  Samuel French, 1982.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Migrants Through Time

Exit West: A Novel 

Exit West

“Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”  ― Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

This is a dream-like book that blends realism and fantasy in a magical way that makes it all seem possible. Early in the book the narrator observes that "one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying." (p 4) 
The narrator tells of a young couple who manage to meet and kindle a love that transports them through life and time to a place where they can live as each chooses in spite of the vicissitudes of the world around them.
In an unnamed city on the brink of civil war, Saeed and Nadia meet while taking an adult education course. The following day, Saeed can’t stop thinking about her while he whiles away his time at a local advertising firm.

Before continuing the story of Saeed and Nadia the narrative cuts to a vignette of a white woman sleeping in her bedroom in Australia. As she dozes, a dark-skinned man slowly emerges from the darkness of her closet, a darkness that is blacker and more absolute than the rest of the lightless room. After he emerges from this mysterious door, the man walks quietly through the bedroom before slipping out the open window. This seemingly unrelated incident will prove a portent of events later in the lives of Saeed and Nadia.

The narrative shifts back to Saeed and Nadia and as it continues, shifts back and forth between them. Saeed lives at home with his parents in a small apartment that used to be quite elegant but is now somewhat tired, a “crowded and commercial” neighborhood having grown up around it. Nadia grew up in a deeply religious household, but she never felt drawn to this kind of faith. When she decided to move out on her own even though she wasn’t married, her parents and sister were incensed, and because she was unwilling to compromise, their relationship was destroyed.
As Saeed and Nadia’s begin a modern sort of courtship, the city plunges inexorably into turmoil, as militant radicals overtake the neighborhoods, killing bystanders and government officials in order to establish dominance. Nonetheless, Saeed and Nadia manage to live somewhat normal lives. One night, they sit on Nadia’s balcony and eat magic mushrooms before drawing close and becoming physically intimate for the first time. This intimacy continues in subsequent meetings, but Saeed stops Nadia each time before they have sex, telling her—to her disappointment—that he wants to wait until marriage.

Before long, the government shuts off all cellphone service in an attempt to make it harder for the militant radicals to control the city. As a result, Nadia and Saeed are cut off from one another, unable to communicate until Saeed finally shows up at Nadia’s house. Not long thereafter, Saeed’s mother is hit by a stray bullet that kills her. When Nadia sees how distraught Saeed and his father are after the funeral, she decides to move in with them. Tensions escalate quickly in the city, and Saeed, Nadia, and Saeed’s father find themselves unable to lead the lives they once enjoyed.
Also, about this time, rumors start circulating about black doors that can transport people from one place to another, taking them far away. Apparently, these doors simply appear in the place of regular doors, and many of the city’s inhabitants actively seek them out as a way of escaping the violent radicals. In spite of the danger of using these doors to leave Nadia and Saeed eventually do so. Their experiences in Greece, London, and northern California comprise the remainder of the story.

Each of the episodes are presented very realistically with their lives buffeted by competing claims of both the need to maintain a daily life and the emotions of their personal relationship. Their story is told in a way that gradually builds the reader's interest up to the last page of the novel. I found myself agreeing with the narrator that "We are all migrants through time." (p 209) The fantastic element allowed one to meditate on the migration of people throughout the world and what it means to leave your family behind and join a new community of people - both natives and others.

Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books, New York, 2017. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A Time of Turmoil

Fruit of the Drunken Tree 

Fruit of the Drunken Tree

“War always seemed distant from Bogota, like niebla* descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like a fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us.”  

The narrative of Fruit of the Drunken Tree shifts between the perspectives of two young girls. Chula is a seven year old child of an upper middle class family who lives in a gated community in Bogota. While Petrona is a teenager who works as the family's housekeeper and lives in a hovel in a poor neighborhood. The use of dual perspectives creates a more complete picture of the environment in Columbia in the Escobar era where  bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations were commonplace.

During most of the novel, Chula narrates her story as a child. This provides a freshness and naivete in the face of sinister news; it helps to  build the suspense as their environment gradually becomes more and more dangerous. Throughout the story the author creates believable characters that this reader could empathize with as events turned worse for the family. It did not help them that there was class prejudice in their neighborhood based on the presence of "Indian blood" in Chula's mother.

Supernatural elements (witches, ghosts, tarot cards) permeate the narrative in Fruit of the Drunken Tree. These provide a more comprehensive experience of the atmosphere where Chula and her family lived. Several incidents in the story raise danger and combine to lead Chula, her sister, and Mother to emigrate to the United States. This experience, while difficult for the family, is accomplished with great strength as they stay together as a unit even while reacting in their own individual ways.

The young girl, Petrona, says early in the story that "I want to be normal for once, why can't I?"(p 140). This is something that all the characters in this story face, for there is no "normal" for them during a time of turmoil. One of the most emotional moments was when Chula realized she would never see her home again as she left with her family. Anyone who has had to leave their childhood home, never to return, has at least some idea of how this feels. Contreras' novel is an exceptional story of growing up in a time of turmoil and ultimately creating a new life in a world you never dreamed of.

*niebla = mist

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Anchor Books 2019 (2018).

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Insight and Inspiration

Here are five of my favorite non-fiction books, all of them short but overflowing with quality.  They have provided continual insight, ideas, and inspiration for my life. I present them in approximately the order in which they entered my reading life.

The True Believer: 
Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

by Eric Hoffer

I have read this book several times over the years, starting the summer before I entered college when it was assigned reading for the incoming Freshman class. It is a classic in the sense that it both retains a freshness upon rereading and succeeds in challenging the reader with the thoughts that it presents. Insightful regarding the nature of those who join mass movements, Hoffer's observations are timeless.

The Immense Journey

by Loren Eiseley

While studying the History of Science as an undergraduate I was introduced to the writings of Loren Eiseley.  In this small but profound book he shares personal notes and we slowly come to realize that Eiseley is not just talking about his own life’s journey. Eiseley’s narrator creates a metaphor for the journey of all humankind through the vast dimension of time and space—a journey filled with perplexity, delight, and impermanence. 

Man's Unconquerable Mind

by Gilbert Highet

I also discovered the thoughts of Highet while in College. He explores the power, capabilities, and limitations of the human mind throughout the ages, highlighting the wonders created by the great thinkers of the ages, all the while keeping in mind the tortures that Prometheus endured for giving Man the gift of fire.

In Bluebeard's Castle:
 Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture

by George Steiner

George Steiner was (he died this month) a protean thinker writing about tragedy, the classics and more over his career.  This short book is an intellectual tour de force, that  generates both a profound excitement and promotes a profound unease…like the great culturalists of the past.  Steiner uses a dense and plural learning to assess his topic: his book has the outstanding quality of being not simply a reflection on culture, but an embodiment of certain contemporary resources within it.

Sailing Alone around the World

by Joshua Slocum

More than one hundred years ago at the end of the century prior to the last a fifty-one year old man set sail for a trip around the world. Joshua Slocum capped his sea-going career with this trip in a sail boat, named "The Spray", that he built himself and, upon his return, he memorialized his trip by writing this narrative. His career had waned with the gradual demise of large sail-going ships and he put all of his years of experience on them, plus some help from friends and strangers along the way, into this voyage. The story he told about it still has power to grip the reader's imagination yet today. The result is one of the most inspirational books I've ever read.