Thursday, January 16, 2020

Seeing Yourself Backward

A Scanner Darkly 

A Scanner Darkly

“I have seen myself backward.”
― Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly

This book tested my ability to follow the story of a protagonist with a deteriorating personality and relate to the culture of drug usage and addiction that led to that. I was unsuccessful relating to that culture in spite of the author's marvelous imagination and his ability to make the descent of the protagonist believable.

The protagonist is an undercover narcotics agent who poses as drug user Bob Arctor. Bob shares his house with two other users, Barris and Luckman, and has a girlfriend, Donna, who is a small-time dealer. Bob is addicted to Substance D—the “D” standing primarily for Death—and is ostensibly using Donna to find the source of this drug. Bob, using the alias Fred, is assigned to monitor the group at Bob’s house, but by necessity, that means he must monitor himself as Bob or blow his cover. The use of "scramble suits" that modify what others see when someone wears them, and allow Bob to masquerade as Fred, is the primary science fiction element in the novel.

When surveillance of Bob’s house intensifies because of suspicious behavior, so do acts of sabotage occurring against Bob. When the government installs monitoring equipment in his house, Bob and his housemates almost die from somebody tinkering with his car. As Fred, he finds himself reviewing the recordings of Bob and his friends, and in so doing finding himself in difficult discussions with his supervisor and fellow agents about the results. Fred also becomes disassociated from Bob, reaching a point where his/their mind is unable to guess each other’s actions. The title of the novel refers to the surveillance tool and the consequences when Bob/Fred cannot comprehend what he sees. It is also an allusion to the biblical phrase "through a glass darkly" (1st Corinthians 13:12).

The author is at his best in depicting how Substance D has damaged Bob's brain, splitting his personae and resulting in a decline into a state near brain death. Just as this process starts, Barris comes to the police and offers information that will get Bob busted as a major drug dealer-conspirator. Fred’s cover is blown, and he is placed in a detoxification program of "New-Path", where he takes on the name Bruce, his mental functions severely deteriorated.

The novel is loosely plotted, often going on tangents that help reinforce a sense of the drug community’s frame of mind (such as it is!). Along that line, the paranoia that Bob/Fred suffers is never confirmed. Was Barris the one sabotaging Bob’s belongings? Dick refers time and again to the capricious behavior of people on drugs and how one betraying whim does not necessarily link to others. Further, why is New-Path growing Substance D—outright greed and opportunism, or perhaps a means of gaining control of people who otherwise would resist being told what to do?

This is both a story about a community of drug users and one about the split personality of one man. The first chapter focuses on a friend of Bob who must cope with hallucinatory aphids, mirroring Bob’s own descent at the end. In an author’s note, Dick dedicated the book to friends from his own drug-using community, not condemning their choice but fully cognizant of the consequences they suffered. This is a book I would recommend only if you have already read some of Philip K. Dick's better novels like Ubik and The Man in the High Castle (my favorite).

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, 2006(1977)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

History, Family, and Chance



"History has failed us, but no matter."
- Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, (p.1)

Min Jin Lee's second novel is historical, centered on the saga of a Korean family which immigrates to Japan. While history, both of the family and the times in which they lived, is pervasive throughout the novel, this is also an intimate story of family relations and most importantly the element of chance in the lives of the characters. The importance of chance is epitomized by the titular game of chance, Pachinko, that plays an important role in the story.

Pachinko also is a novel that describes the struggle between two ethnicities, Japanese and South Korean, that are forced to co-exist because one country conquers the other. It starts off in Yeongdo, a South Korean fishing village. Here, the author introduces a poor fisherman, his wife, and their clever, disabled son, Hoonie. At some point, during Hoonie's adult life, Japan colonizes South Korea and life becomes more difficult for the natives. Despite the rise in the cost of living, the family of Hoonie and his parents still manages to make ends meet with their lodging business. Hoonie later marries Yangjin and they have a beautiful daughter without any deformities whom they name Sunja. When Hoonie later dies Yangjin is forced to take care of her daughter all by herself, managing to do so by continuing their successful lodging business.

The story follows Sunja, a Korean girl, through the vicissitudes of her life when she leaves Korea for Japan. Her family struggles to fit into Japanese society, because of the historical animosity between the two cultures. Koreans in Japan were viewed as second-class citizens, and they suffered discrimination. Sunja also personally struggles with her identity, because of the circumstances in which she left Korea at sixteen years of age. One way she preserves her Korean identity is by making and selling kimchee, the pickled cabbage condiment strongly associated with Korea. Kimchee lasts for a long time, providing a good metaphor for the struggle of someone trying to survive and keep their identity in a foreign land.

Throughout the story their lives are affected by random events. Sunja gets pregnant. The Second World War breaks out. Sunja’s sons become Pachinko parlor owners. All of these are chance occurrences without which the story would have been much different. The title of the book, Pachinko, is an indicator of just how important chance is to the story. The game of Pachinko involves watching a steel ball bounce around a pin-ball-like board as it falls through bumpers, holes, and traps before landing in point-scoring or prize-winning slots at the bottom. In the same way, Sunja’s life was influenced by forces outside her control. She made decisions in reaction to her circumstances, but the main events of her life seem like obstacles which she avoids or collides with at random.

The author uses a simple prose style, yet her prose is deceptive in that there are serious ideas that she explores through the history of the descendants of Hoonie. I found myself comparing the discrimination faced by Sunja and her sons with that experienced by many immigrants in America's history. All the while the force of historical events provided a profound backdrop for the family's story. Lee's novel was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction in 2017. It is a rewarding book to read and worthy of accolades it has received.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Courage and Perseverance

Death Comes for the Archbishop 

Death Comes for the Archbishop

“Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”  ― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather believed this novel to be her finest work. Like The Professor’s House, it is a novel that explores the life of a man and draws on the American Southwest for its setting. Here the similarity ends, however, as the tone of the two books is quite different.

The novel celebrates the life choices of its central characters, finding in the lives of Father Joseph Vaillant and Father Jean Marie Latour a simple dignity and extraordinary fulfillment. The narrative has frequent digressions, either in terms of stories related to the pair (including the story of the Our Lady of Guadeloupe and the murder of an oppressive Spanish priest at Acoma Pueblo) or through their recollections. There is an omniscient narrator, while interwoven in the narrative are fictionalized accounts of actual historical figures, including Kit Carson, Manuel Antonio Chaves and Pope Gregory XVI.

In the prologue, Bishop Montferrand, a French bishop who works in the New World, is soliciting three cardinals at Rome to pick his candidate for the newly created diocese of New Mexico (which has recently passed into American hands). Ultimately he is successful in getting his preferred candidate recommended by the cardinals. Cather describes the garden setting in great detail. It is carved into the mountains overlooking Rome. The setting is refined and cultivated, underscored by the cardinal's tastes for fine wine, gourmet food, and art. As the Catholic Church has become the predominant civilizing element of Europe, so too will it serve to civilize the American Southwest.

The story follows the two priests, Father Latour and Father Vaillantas, as they organize the disjointed religious structure of the southwestern missions. They face a formidable task, made more difficult by powerful priests long in control of the area who are loathe to abandon the corruption into which they have fallen. Working together diligently and with an unshakable faith, they eventually reclaim the region and bring its far-flung communities under the guidance of a single diocese.

The actual course its story takes, however, is less important than the novel’s moving exploration of the human spirit as it is revealed in the two priests. The priests, both men of deep faith and dedication, willingly sacrifice much in the way of personal desires for the sake of the mission they have undertaken, and the book shines with the integrity and nobility of their efforts.

Father Latour is described as a thirty-five-year-old French Jesuit missionary. The French Jesuits are believed by the cardinals to be great organizers. Ferrand predicts that the New Mexico territory will "drink up [Latour's] youth and strength as it does the rain." Latour also will be called upon to make great personal sacrifices, perhaps even becoming a martyr.

Cather’s love for the Southwest is evident throughout the book, and it reverberates in the love the two priests come to feel for the land and its people. Father Vaillant, in particular, is a man of the people—a dedicated priest who is happiest when he is able to minister to those cut off from the Church by distance or circumstance. Father Latour is a reflective man who sees his greatest dream accomplished in the building of a stone cathedral in Santa Fe, a building that combines the Romanesque architectural style of the Old World with the raw building resources of the New. In the novel’s moving final image, it is at the altar of this cathedral that Father Latour is laid after his death.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is rich in unforgettable set pieces and unique secondary characters. Among the book’s most memorable segments is the priests’ encounter with a dangerous man who offers them shelter for the night, fully intending to murder them and steal their mules. They are warned by his Mexican wife, whom they later assist after she, too, has fled. This event leads to an encounter with frontiersman Kit Carson, in an effective blending of fiction and history that typifies the skill with which Cather brings the past to life. Cather foreshadows the color themes she dedicates to the southwestern landscape by describing the dome of St. Peter's as bluish-gray with "a flash of copper light." Later, as the sun sets, Cather describes the sky as "waves of rose and gold." She will eventually use various shades of copper and gold to describe the terrain of New Mexico. In addition, her description of the "soft metallic surface" of St. Peter's contrasts with the hardness of the American frontier depicted by the bishop. Cather also describes the light as both intense and soft, revealing the relative easiness of European life in comparison to the lives of American missionaries.

Ultimately, Death Comes for the Archbishop is, like much of Cather’s work, a tribute to the courage and perseverance of those who settled the American frontier. What Cather evokes so well in her depiction of Father Latour and Father Vaillant is the depth of purpose that led these men, and so many others like them, to leave behind the world they knew and undertake a mission that would transform their lives into an act of faith.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Honoring Christmas

A Christmas Carol 

A Christmas Carol, and Other Christmas Books

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”  ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The Book of Proverbs includes this admonition: " The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding." (Proverbs 4:7)
By the final page of A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge has arrived at that place in his life with the help of the ghost of his former partner Marley and several spirits. These spirits take Scrooge on tours of his past to show him where he went wrong, of the present to introduce him to the joy of the holiday season, and of the future to warn him of what may happen unless he changes. Scrooge learns his lesson well and is transformed into a man with a conscience.

You probably know the story that begins on Christmas Eve: When Scrooge terrorizes his clerk, angrily dismisses two gentlemen collecting for the poor and repulses his nephew, Fred, who invites him to Christmas dinner. At home that evening, Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him against purely materialistic pursuits and tells him that he will be visited in the night by three spirits.

The first spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Past, gives Scrooge a series of visions of his childhood and early manhood. Scrooge sees himself as a neglected child at school, then as an apprentice of Mr. Fezziwig, enjoying warm festivities on Christmas Eve, and finally as a prospering entrepreneur whose fiancée breaks their engagement because Scrooge loves money more than he loves her. The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge out onto the streets on Christmas morning to see many happy families and, in particular, the love and warmth of Bob Cratchit’s home. Scrooge is concerned about their crippled child, Tiny Tim, and is informed that Tim will not live to see another Christmas unless circumstances change. Finally, the spirit deposits Scrooge into Fred’s home, where Scrooge sees good friends enjoying one another’s company and is reluctant to depart when the ghost tells him it is time to move on.

The final spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is shrouded in black, with only a hand showing. It first takes Scrooge to the stock exchange, he then witnesses a scene in a junk shop as two women and a man bring in objects plundered from the dead man’s house, even from the death bed, while his body was still there. The spirit then shows Scrooge his stripped bed, with his own body upon it, in his empty house. Upon asking whether anyone will feel emotion at his death, he sees a couple who owe him money; they are relieved and hope that their debt will be transferred to a less relentless creditor. Scrooge has another glimpse of the future: It is the Cratchit home, with Bob Cratchit as a broken man because of the death of Tiny Tim. As Scrooge has one final glimpse of the future—that of his own grave—he pleads with the ghost to assure him that the visions are of what may be, not what will be. It is a new Scrooge who appears to the world upon awakening from this final visit.

Although it was published in 1843, A Christmas Carol remains popular. Although the character of Scrooge is Victorian, his story highlights the importance of being kind, compassionate, and generous to others. These traits are timeless. No matter what era you live in, transforming your character to become a better person is just as important today as it was then. It remains relevant today because readers can identify with its portrayal of Christmas. Being surrounded by family and food, as we see in the Cratchits' celebration of Christmas in Stave Three, is very similar to how the holiday is celebrated today. Very little has changed, making it possible for modern audiences to relate to Dickens' portrayal of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Decade of Favorites

I have selected one book from my reading in each of the years of the decade ending this year. The list includes contemporary novels, plays, non-fiction, and classics. I had to make some difficult choices because I often felt more than one book that I read in a given year qualified. I also limited the list to one book for any given author*. If I had not done this both Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Mann would have been represented twice. All of these books are among those I would reread (and in some cases have already done so), but I am looking forward to the new decade with anticipation of meeting new great books by authors both familiar and not.

2010 Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

2011 The Double Helix by James D. Watson

2012 Walden by Henry David Thoreau

2013 The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy of plays by Tom Stoppard

2014 The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

2015 Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

2016 The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch

2017 Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

2018 The Divine Comedy by Dante

2019 The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

* Some of the books that almost made the list included Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Mc Carthy's Border Trilogy and The Road, Elias Canetti's Auto Da Fe, Mann's Doctor Faustus, and Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman.


Quotable Book Quotes -    
              - From some of my favorite authors

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
― Mark Twain

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
― Jorge Luis Borges

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.”
― Oscar Wilde

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”
― Ernest Hemingway

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles W. Eliot

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
― William Styron

“What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do.”
― Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ten Best of the Year

Top Ten Books I Read in 2019

The following are the ten best among the literature that I read since January 1, 2019. They are in no particular order but all of them I enjoyed and would recommend to all.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Life Class by Pat Barker

The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki 

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Character Tales

Winesburg, Ohio 

by Sherwood Anderson

“Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night,' he had said. 'You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft night winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly and the gritty dust from passing wagons gathers upon lips inflamed and made tender by kisses.” ― Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio 

I first read this book when I was in high school and have read and reread it since then. From the beginning it struck me as a serious work of literature but only upon rereading it and reading more extensively authors who were influenced by Anderson have I become to appreciate  his true greatness. Published in 1919 and sub-titled “A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-town Life,” Winesburg, Ohio exposed the desperation and loneliness of so many of the residents of a small, mid-American town. 

Rather than a single, well-defined plot, Winesburg, Ohio has a loosely interconnected set of stories with overlapping time frame and characters. Only when the town itself is considered the "main character" can one speak of an overall plot. Using this approach, the traditional small town life of nineteenth-century America comes to an end; its hard but stable community is broken into the dynamic but impersonal atoms of twentieth-century American society.

It was among the first books to take on what would become a central theme in American literature. In these tales you see the strange, secret lives of the inhabitants of a small town. In "Hands," Wing Biddlebaum tries to hide the tale of his banishment from a Pennsylvania town, a tale represented by his hands. In "Adventure," lonely Alice Hindman impulsively walks naked into the night rain. Threaded through the stories is the viewpoint of George Willard, the young newspaper reporter who, like his creator, stands witness to the dark and despairing dealings of a community of isolated people. Here is an example of the beautiful prose of such isolation:

“In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. "I have come to this lonely place and here is this other," was the substance of the thing felt.” 

Each of the tales shines a clear light on the character of an inhabitant and you come to know Winesburg almost as well as your own home town. Growing up in a small Midwestern town I never forgot the feeling this book gave me and the appreciation for the genius of Sherwood Anderson.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Viking Critical Library.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Reverie in a Maine Forest

The Country of the Pointed Firs 

The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories

“I now remembered that Mrs. Todd had told me one day that Captain Littlepage had overset his mind with too much reading.”   ― Sarah Orne Jewett

Jewett’s novel The Country of the Pointed Firs is the culmination of the regional characters, themes, and techniques that Jewett explored for so many years. It is a composite novel organized around alternating currents of separation and reunion, Jewett never wrote a conventionally-plotted novel, and in this tale a visiting writer-narrator from the city is slowly changed from an outsider into an initiated insider in the life of the largely female community of Dunnet Landing, a tiny seacoast village in Maine. The first chapter, titled “Return”, represents a reunion of sorts in that the narrator is returning to a place with which she previously fell in love. After that very short opening she is quickly drawn into the world of her landlady, Mrs. Almira Todd, the local herbalist who seems to possess a special spiritual outlook.

Soon the narrator feels the need to separate so that she can complete the writing project she brought with her. After listening to a strange tale about a limbo-like “waiting place” between this world and the next in the fog-bound arctic regions, the narrator reunites with Mrs. Todd, and they both discover that their relationship has improved in mutual consideration and empathy as a result of the separation. They have achieved a balance between the basic human needs for both connection and separation. This alternating pattern of separation and reunion continues in a number of different ways throughout the novel, ending with the narrator’s departure from Dunnet Landing.

Dunnet Landing and the surrounding country is populated with charming characters whose stories fill the spaces between the description of the lovely Maine north country. One of those characters, Captain Littlepage, had time for both sailing and reading. The latter activity was evidently also a pastime of the narrator who dotted the narrative with references to Shakespeare, Milton, and others. 

The scenery is captured in moments like this:
"We were standing where there was a fine view of the harbor and its long stretches of shore all covered by the great army of the pointed firs, darkly cloaked and standing as if they waited to embark. As we looked far seaward among the outer islands, the trees seemed to march seaward still, going steadily over the heights and down to the water's edge."(p. 33)

The chill in the air on winter nights was tempered by the heat from a Franklin Stove (no doubt very much like the one in my sister's home in the high country of northeastern Nevada). One of the best moments in the story was the Bowden family reunion that brought together many of the people from the area in a way that you can only experience in small out of the way communities like Dunnet Landing.

The Country of the Pointed Firs was greeted with strongly positive reviews. Indeed, a few years later, Jewett's friend Willa Cather would rate it as one of the three great classics of American literature (the other two being The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). I'm not sure I agree completely with Cather, but this is a fine short novel depicting late nineteenth century Americana.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Scenes from a Life

Time and Place 

Time and Place

“The Summer Garden, perhaps the most beautiful garden in Petersburg, had the particular advantage of being almost next to the Embassy. Originally laid out by Leblond, in the manner of Versailles, its most remarkable feature was a series of fountains, with statuary depicting scenes from Aesop's Fables.”  ― Alan Sheridan, Time and Place

This is a novel qua biography and an artistic charmer in the gayest sense of the word. The protagonist, young Mark Sheridan, is precocious both intellectually and sexually with an ability to charm most of the men he meets in this book that seemed longer than it in fact was.

The story is narrated in the first person as though told by young Mark himself; with a diary-like form relating his experiences both in the acting world and earlier, as the son of a diplomat based in China and Russia in the late nineteenth century. Much of the book is set in Peking, St Petersburg, Paris, and London with travelogue-style descriptions of the cities, as well as lengthy but slightly less orthodox descriptions of Mark’s many encounters with men. These encounters were usually brief and when he did develop a relationship they seemed somewhat flat and not as well-developed as the settings in which they occurred. His essays on the usefulness of public conveniences as pick-up joints at a time when homosexuality was still expressly forbidden across most of Europe are quite frank!

The sense of place, then, was beautifully suggested. I felt I knew the avenues of Paris, the gardens, canals, and underground toilets of St Petersburg, and the compounds and back streets of Peking.  It was if I was there with Mark as he explored, rutted, and trod the boards.

One difficulty I had with the book was with Sheridan’s handling of the time-scales involved. It opens in the early twentieth century with Mark as a fully fledged actor but soon flashes back to China and Russia of the 1890s when he was still a child, and from then on it progresses or regresses from the 1920s to the 1900s to the 1890s in a seemingly endless series of flashbacks. Each section was complete in itself and each one nicely presented the time in which it was set, but I soon felt that the continuity of narrative was confused at best.

Overall, however, I found the book rather enjoyable; written well enough to encourage the journey through the flashbacks. The beautiful locations also helped, but I would hesitate to recommend this book to an impatient reader.

The Sacred Trust

Paradigms Lost: 
Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline 

Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline

"Language is a sacred trust: we should nurture it, polish it, encourage it to grow new branches; instead, we kick it around, blunt it, and smash it at the peril of our very souls." ("The Sacred Trust", p. 69)

This is a collection of essays on language by one of the greatest critics of the twentieth century. Few writers can compare with the knowledge of language and the way with words demonstrated in John Simon's trenchant essays. This compendium is a delight for all readers who enjoy virtuosity in the use of language to defend the best writers who pursue the best words.

These essays span such topics as writers, linguists, the performing arts, the media, and more. His comments are biting and to the point; here is an example:
"In the beginning was the word, But by the time the second word was added to it, there was trouble. For with it came syntax, the thing that tripped up so many people. And they're tripping up more than ever today."("Authors Without Fear or Shame", p. 111)
It is an eclectic collection of elegant prose that will leave you wanting to read more criticism from the pen of John Simon.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

A Little Person in The Troubles



“People always said you'd better be careful. Though how, when things are out of your hands, when things were never really in your hands, when things are stacked against you, does a person - the little person down here on the earth - be that?”  ― Anna Burns, Milkman

Milkman is a unique historical novel told from the personal prospective of an unnamed young female narrator. Walking while reading, a girl - Middle sister - is pursued by the Milkman. This original sometimes mesmerizing narrative made me successively fascinated and bored with the dizzying rapidity of thoughts that connected - somehow, sometimes and ultimately. 

 The history is the setting of the novel during the time of the "Troubles". This refers to the conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century. It was also known internationally as the Northern Ireland conflict and it is sometimes described as an "irregular war" or "low-level war". The conflict began in the late 1960s and is usually deemed to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Among other awards it won the Booker Prize in 2018.

What makes Milkman unique, among other things, is that the narrative portrays the "Troubles" without using such terms as ‘the Troubles’, ‘Britain’ and ‘Ireland’, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’, ‘RUC’ and ‘British army’ and ‘IRA’. On the other hand, the narrator’s personal, first-principles language, with its phrases coming at you so frequently with inverted commas and sudden changes of register, is also used to describe the inner world of a young woman ... 
“I used to puzzle over the extent of this anger, of all of ma’s blaming and haranguing and complaining. It was only much later that I came to realize that this was a case of her not forgiving him for many things – maybe for all things – and not just for not cheering up.”

It’s a brilliant rhetorical balancing act, and the narrator can sometimes be very funny. The tonal changes are subtle and the plot has some absurd moments, yet, while it is easy to overlook on a first reading, at least until the final stretch, there is a density and tightness of plotting behind the narrator’s apparently rambling performance. What’s more, the comic unfolding of the plot runs counter to the narrator’s tight sense of what can and can’t be said and done in her neighborhood, and, after a chilling final encounter with the milkman, the ending is a surprise and perhaps a relief.

The author uses imaginative language and her limited use of proper names creates a sort of distancing effect. The style of the novel is demanding, but as a reader your perseverance is rewarded in the end. I would compare the difficulty I encountered with its style to a similar difficulty that I experienced reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2004). While very different in many ways both of these difficult reads are worth the effort required.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Peripatetic Reader

Books on the Bus
an update 

I always have a book with me including when I ride the bus. When I am out and about I prefer to leave the heavyweight tomes at home so my current reading that includes: The Symposium, a dialogue by Plato;  The Brothers Karamazov;  and the Essais of Montaigne, all of which are left on a table next to my comfortable reading chair.

On a recent morning I was reading the short novel The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett as I rode the bus headed downtown.  Similarly, some years ago,  when I rode downtown and back to meet some former coworkers for lunch I took along Gene Smith's slight but fascinating biography of Woodrow Wilson's last years, When The Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson.  Now what do these two disparate books have in common? They are both lightweight and easy to carry and it also takes a little less concentration to read them than that required for Dostoevsky or Plato.

While I enjoy reading as I travel I equally enjoy noticing what my fellow bus riders are reading. There are always a few readers on board any bus with more than a handful of passengers. Call me a biblio-voyeur if you will, but I cannot deny my interest. Usually the books are not worth the glance, for the buses are filled with people reading Twilight or its clones, the latest romance novel or some Ludlumesque thriller-chiller (all of which I personally find unreadable - but that's just one reader's perspective).

Not to long ago just after I had finished reading the novel Less by Andrew Sean Greer I was riding the bus headed downtown and the fellow who sat down next to me pulled out the same book - needless to say a brief genial conversation ensued.  This reminded me of previous occasions when I encountered people with various reading material including  Knowles' A Separate Peace, and Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande. Now those are both books worthy of consideration, in fact I've read A Separate Peace more than once. They provide evidence that there is a bit of gold among the dross of the many books being read on the bus. 

It reminds me of yet another time several years ago that I struck up a conversation with someone who was reading No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I had recently read it myself and could not help sharing the joy of the experience by discussing the book with a fellow reader - no stranger, for we were connected by our shared reading. While that does not happen often since I usually have my nose buried in a book, there is nothing like taking books with you and reading them on buses -  enjoying them while traveling to and fro.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Journey of Beauty and Love

The Bridge of Little Jeremy 

"In the epoch of Lutetia, there used to be a wooden bridge there, the only bridge that connected the Roman quarters on the Left Bank to their administrative offices on the Ile de la Cite. That bridge has been replaced several times since, but, among the dozen bridges that ornate the two isles today, the Petit Pont has always been my favorite, and I've never attempted to paint it yet." (p 52)

This is the story of a boy and his dog. But it is much more than a simple tale like that, for as the narrative grows the reader finds himself on a journey of discovery with Little Jeremy. It turns out to be a variation on the mythical journey of a hero and as it develops the sometimes dreamlike quality of the story draws the reader forward with the intensity of a mystery, the bounteous beauty of Paris, the suspense of unexpected events, and a joyousness that can only be found in the love of a boy for his mother.

The setting is Paris which underlies the beauty of the story - a beauty that is enhanced by young Jeremy, who even at his age has the budding eye of an artist:
"I see the sinuous streets and the steep staircases of Montmartre that I haven't seen for a long while, and then I see how the works of Nature and Man have come together to sculpt the beauty of our city."(p 136)

Not only is the beauty of the setting framed by the eyes of young Jeremy but the narrator limns the setting with descriptions like that of the "Jardin-des-Plantes" where Leon, Jeremy's trusted and loving dog, is seen chasing butterflies. As the story develops the intricacies of the city and its spaces add to the mysteriousness of Jeremy's journey.

Little Jeremy narrates the story, and we learn he has a  medical condition - a weakness of his heart due to a faulty valve. As a result he does not attend school and often spends his days scouring the city with Leon. His encounters with the city and the world beyond his small apartment during the arc of the story are both interesting and exciting - he becomes a hero for a time. His mother, unfortunately faces a serious financial debt due to taxes. Ultimately, Little Jeremy's desire to help his mother leads him to a discovery that with the application of his artistic skills and help from some friends may provide the funds that are essential for their survival as a family.

It is the innocence and loving nature of Little Jeremy contrasted with the realities and difficulties of living that makes this a mesmerizing story. There is great suspense leading to a denouement that demonstrates the magic of the search for an ideal. That combined with the importance of love for those that are close to you and a need to nurture the genius within you makes this a wonderful novel.

Friday, October 25, 2019

An Attitude of Humility

The Road to Serfdom 

The Road to Serfdom

“The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful tools human reason can employ, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from doing better.” ― Friedrich August von Hayek

This is one of the foundation books for my personal philosophy. Along with his other works, the thought of Friedrich von Hayek is basic to my own individualist world view. In this book Hayek contends that liberty is fragile, easily harmed but seldom extinguished in one fell swoop. Instead, over the years “the unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.” He asserts that liberty has developed from an a posteriori recognition of humans’ inherent limitations – particularly the restrictions of their knowledge and reasoning. Most importantly, no planner or group of planners, however intelligent and well resourced, can possibly obtain and process the countless bits of localized and tacit information required such that a government plan meets its objectives. Only price signals emitted in an unhampered market enable harmony and efficiency to arise spontaneously from many millions of individuals’ plans. Hence government intervention in the plans of individuals, even if undertaken by men of good will, inevitably leads to loss of liberty, economic stagnation (at best) and war and impoverishment (at worst).

While much of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom focused on correcting erroneous ideas and sloppy thinking that misled (and still mislead) many to support socialistic expansions of government power, that is not all it did. It also reiterated the case for individualism and its economic manifestation—free markets. Since convincing careful thinkers requires such an affirmative case as well as defensive debunking, the book’s diamond 75th anniversary is a propitious time to remember what only individualism provides, so that we will not continue to follow a path of “replacing what works with what sounds good,” as Thomas Sowell described it.

The essential features of…individualism…are the respect for the individual man qua man…the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere…and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents.
The attitude of the liberal toward society is like that of the gardener who tends a plant and, in order to create the conditions most favorable to its growth, must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions.

The holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully. The successful use of competition as the principle of social organization precludes certain types of coercive interference with economic  life.  Planning and competition can be combined only by planning for competition but not…planning which is to be substituted for competition.
It is the very complexity of the division of labor under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such coordination can be adequately brought about.

Nobody can consciously balance all the considerations bearing on the decisions of so many individuals…coordination can clearly be effective only by… arrangements which convey to each agent the information he must possess in order effectively to adjust his decisions to those of others…This is precisely what the price system does under competition and what no other system even promises to accomplish. The economist's plea is for a method which effects such co-ordination without the need for an omniscient dictator. Recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends…that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions…forms the essence of the individualist position.

What are called “social ends” are…merely identical ends of many individuals…to the achievement of which individuals are willing to contribute…Common action is thus limited to the fields where people agree on common ends. The clash between planning and democracy arises simply from the fact that the latter is an obstacle to the suppression of freedom which the direction of economic activity requires. The more the state “plans,” the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life…it is the control of the means for all our ends. To believe that the power which is thus conferred on the state is merely transferred to it from others is erroneous. It is a power which is newly created and which in a competitive society nobody possesses. So long as property is divided among many owners, none of them acting independently has exclusive power to determine the income and position of particular people.

Contrast…two types of security: the limited one, which can be achieved for all, and which is therefore no privilege but a legitimate object of desire; and absolute security, which…if it is provided for some, it becomes a privilege at the expense of others. Individualism is thus an attitude of humility…the exact opposite of that intellectual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process.

Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom defended the individual—the only ultimate locus of choice, responsibility and morality—as the appropriate focus of efforts toward human improvement, at a time when failing to keep that focus threatened the entire world. That is a lesson we need to remember now as well, when many do not remember the horrors that can lead to, and so support constantly expanding government powers over its citizens.