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.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Loneliness in the Modern Age



“I do not want your admiration now, because I do not want your insults in the future. I bear with my loneliness now, in order to avoid greater loneliness in the years ahead. You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.”  ― Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro

This is a classic of Japanese literature. It is the last novel Natsume Soseki finished before his death in 1916. Divided into three parts, it describes the relationships between the narrator, his Sensei, and a few other characters as they try to understand their selves and each other. While the title literally means "heart", the word contains shades of meaning, and can be translated as "the heart of things" or "feeling". The work deals with the transition from the Japanese Meiji society to the modern era, by exploring the friendship between a young man and an older man he calls "Sensei" (or teacher). It continues the theme of isolation developed in Sōseki's immediately preceding works. Other important themes in the novel include the changing times (particularly the modernization of Japan in the Meiji era), the changing roles and ideals of women, and inter-generational change in values, the role of family, the importance of the self versus the group, the cost of weakness, and identity.

As Kokoro begins, Soseki is a young man bored by life. He befriends the older Sensei, who believes the young man has sought him out of loneliness. He sees himself as unworthy of society and having no help to offer. Although Soseki is often confused by Sensei, he learns more about the old man by talking to Sensei’s wife, Shizu. The two become closer, and Soseki learns that a friend’s sudden death led Sensei to isolate himself from society. The narrator often feels like Sensei disappoints him. This has been compared to the attitudes of the Japanese people during the Meiji era, the narrator has hope that Sensei will ultimately bring change to his life: “Sensei frequently disappointed me in this way…whenever some unexpected terseness of his shook me, my impulse was to press forward with the friendship. It seemed too that if I did so, my yearning for the possibilities of all he had to offer would someday be fulfilled” (p. 10).
He returns home after graduation and helps his father in the garden, but soon his father takes ill at the same time that Emperor Meiji does. Soseki gets a letter from Sensei. He reads it and learns that Sensei has decided to kill himself. He races to the train, praying that both his father and Sensei will live long enough for him to help. He continues to read Sensei’s story, which reveals his life story as promised.

Sensei's story is one of bitterness and betrayal. He has a relationship with a woman, but he is not confident enough to reveal his feelings to her. Sensei is concerned about his friend K, a deeply religious man with an obsession with torturing the body to glorify the soul. Although Sensei and Ojosan marry and have many happy years together, both admit to Soseki in their private moments that they are not as close as they could be due to the barrier Sensei has erected. There is a lot that goes unsaid between them, and Sensei buries his guilt by losing himself in alcohol and books. However, neither gets rid of his pain for long. Seeing that the times are changing, Sensei decides it is time to share his life story and requests Soseki visit. However, Soseki cannot come due to his father’s illness, so Sensei writes down his life as a testament to his closest friend. He states that he hopes his life story will be a guide to those who have much to learn about life.

Natsume Soseki, born Natsume Kinnosuke, was a Japanese novelist, scholar of British literature, and composer of Japanese poetry. One of the most famous Japanese novelists of all time, his major works were released in an eleven-year period between 1905 and his death in 1916. Many of his works dealt with the modernization of Japan. For twenty years, he appeared on the Japanese one thousand yen note. His works are still widely read and discussed worldwide.

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki. Penguin Classics, 2010 (1916).

Monday, February 03, 2020

Family Difficulties

Degrees of Difficulty 

Degrees of Difficulty

"Maybe a full day of rest, without the kids, without Ben, soaking in the tub, without Perry, too, was what she needed. Maybe tomorrow she would kick into gear."

I literally could not put this book down. It is a truly memorable story of a family facing the difficulty of raising a child with special needs. More than just the story of this young boy, the book relates the impact on the lives of each of the family members. As they try to cope in their own way the story becomes one in which each member, two older siblings and their parents, find themselves breaking under the pressures of living with and caring for the very demanding dependent young boy.

The narrative follows the experiences of each member of the family: mother Caroline, father Perry, the two older children Hugo and Ivy focusing on each, chapter by chapter. Their lives and relations with each other are shared as they handle the every day and the added burden of the youngest boy, Ben, who is mentally-challenged and prone to severe seizures. At one point, after Ben has been rejected by yet another institution, Perry thinks to himself that it has been "one long and desperate road." That seems an appropriate metaphor for much of what each member of the family encounters in this story.

The author invokes prose that is both suspenseful and beautiful in relating important moments in their lives. The difficulties mount, but there is more to the story than just hardships. Rather it is a complex tale in which their lives are not completely subsumed by sadness and strains as they also experience moments of joy and contemplation that ameliorate the pain in their lives. This is an exceptional first novel from the pen of Julie E. Justicz. Readers who enjoy well-written narratives of real people dealing with the vicissitudes of life will appreciate her novel.

Degrees of Difficulty by Julie E. Justicz, Fomite, Burlington, VT, 2019.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Great Books

Great Books 

Great Books
“Whether white, black, Asian, or Latino, American students rarely arrive at college as habitual readers, which means that few of them have more than a nominal connection to the past. It is absurd to speak, as does the academic left, of classic Western texts dominating and silencing everyone but a ruling elite or white males. The vast majority of white students do not know the intellectual tradition that is allegedly theirs any better than black or brown ones do. They have not read its books, and when they do read them, they may respond well, but they will not respond in the way that the academic left supposes. For there is only one ‘hegemonic discourse’ in the lives of American undergraduates, and that is the mass media. Most high schools can't begin to compete against a torrent of imagery and sound that makes every moment but the present seem quaint, bloodless, or dead.”  ― David Denby, Great Books

I have been reading and discussing the Great Books for more than thirty years with fellow readers in various groups and classes. I recently returned to a book I read more than twenty years ago by David Denby, a prominent film critic.  He had returned to the Ivy League classroom to consider the Great Books as a front-line correspondent on the culture wars. 

Denby spent an academic year attending Columbia University's famous "core curriculum'' classes in the great books, "Literature, Humanities, and Contemporary Civilization". He recreates his experience of reading, pondering, and discussing classic texts from the ancient Greeks (Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Euripides, and Sappho) to Nietzsche, Freud, and Conrad, all the time maintaining and meditating on his intensely cosmopolitan yet family-centered life. When Denby reads Plato and Aristotle, or for that matter Austen, he contemplates how the "media fog" to which he contributes as a film critic envelops his fellow students; when he reads Woolf, or for that matter Virgil, he considers the transformations wrought in his own lifetime by feminism. He makes a sensible, if gloomy, argument that the Great Books are too hard for today's underprepared and thus overwhelmed undergraduates. Needless to say, based on my own experience, I reject his epiphanies over a feminist critique of Aristotle's Politics. By recording his own intellectual experiences while glossing over his own cultural blindness he does a disservice to those texts he critiques. 

Rather than distilling some of the significant ideas of the great thinkers that he read he merely tosses off a rejection of "ideologues" in general with lines like this:"By the end of my year in school, I knew that the culture-ideologues, both left and right, are largely talking nonsense."(p 459) This conclusion may have a grain of truth, but I would rather hear what he learned about knowing and thinking, what lessons still have meaning in the twentieth  and twenty-first century, and what truths he discovered that our culture still adheres to with justification.

While he does put himself on the line as a student and as a person by actually reading the classics, his humility should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. At the risk of being too skeptical, based on my own reading of these texts, I found this an unconvincing look at the classics. I would recommend you read the original classics - the Great Books - with an open mind and then, if you choose to, consider Denby's book.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A Robot in Your Future?

The Coming of the Robots 
editied by Sam Moskowitz

The Coming of the Robots

"Helen's technique may have lacked polish, but it had enthusiasm, as he found when he tried to stop her from kissing him. She learned fast and furiously---also, Helen was powered by an atomotor." - Lester Del Rey, "Helen O'Loy"

Sam Moskowitz has gathered an anthology of robot stories with the classics "I, Robot" by Eando Binder  and "Misfit" by Michael Fischer, among others. My favorite was "Helen O'Loy" by Lester Del Rey -- a story of a female robot who falls in love with her owner.

All of the stories provide entertainment that you wish would not end. Overall a great introduction to some of the great science fiction authors of the early days that will leave you searching for their other books.

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.