Thursday, March 31, 2016

A German in America

The Master Butchers Singing ClubThe Master Butchers Singing Club 
by Louise Erdrich

"Delphine didn't know that there were times when Fidelis showed a certain tenderness to his sons, times he sang to them.  When they had trouble sleeping, when they were very small, when Eva asked him to, and when they were ill, he sang the old German lieder to them in a restrained voice that filled the room with a comforting resonance in which they felt protected." (p 290)

Four people are introduced in the first two chapters of this historical romance. Four people whose story will comprise the rest of the novel: Fidelis and Eva, and Cyprian and Delphine. Yet, the true center of the novel will be Delphine Watzka for it is her story that will intertwine with all the rest and it is her character that you as the reader will come to love and admire.

We meet Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper, at the end of World War I as he returns to his hometown in Germany. Fidelis seeks out Eva Kalb, the pregnant fiancée of his dear friend, Johannes, and after informing her that her fiancé has died in the war he shares his promise to Johannes that he would marry and take care of her. Fidelis, a butcher by trade, leaves Germany by himself to emigrate to the United States in order to escape the immense poverty brought on by the war. His limited funds and sausages take him as far as Argus, North Dakota. Working for the local butcher and then setting up his own butcher shop in Argus he is able to send for his wife, Eva, and her child, Franz.

Delphine Watzka is the daughter of Roy Watzka, the town drunk, who grew up in Argus, North Dakota. Delphine never met her mother and leaves the town to become a vaudeville performer soon meeting Cyprian, a World War I veteran, with whom she enters a unique relationship. The two make money from an act where Delphine performs as a table upon which Cyprian balances. After accidentally observing Cyprian engaging in sex with another man their relationship changes, but the two remain together, posing as a married couple. They eventually return to Argus and settle there. From this point on Delphine's life becomes intertwined with that of Eva and the family she is raising with Fidelis.

Louise Erdrich enriches the story with family mysteries and the inevitable observations of small town Midwestern life. As someone who grew up in a small Midwestern community in the 1950s I felt at home with the people of Argus. Delphine ultimately takes a job in Fidelis' Butcher Shop which demands hard work from Fidelis and Delphine as well. Delphine learns domestic skills from Eva and this proves useful as Eva contracts a cancer and in spite of treatments and help from her sister-in-law, Tante, she dies. Tante and Cyprian both leave Argus. Tante returns to Germany with Fidelis' youngest sons, the twins Erich and Emil. Cyprian returns to the life of the traveling performer. Both departures pave the way for a romance between Delphine and Fidelis, which eventually results in marriage.

These and other developments in the community leave Delphine and Fidelis together and eventually they marry, cementing a relationship that develops slowly with Delphine first becoming a replacement mother for Fidelis' four boys. Their story and the impact on their lives of the Second World War lead to a heartwarming denouement as the family enters the decade of the fifties.

The author demonstrates superlative story-telling skills in this sage of four decades in the lives of the four people we met at the beginning of the novel. Her character development and understanding of the psychology of relationships makes this a wonderful book. It was my introduction to the writing of Louise Erdrich and I only regret that I had not discovered the charms of Fidelis, the Master Butcher, and his Singing Club sooner.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016


Spring Pools
by  Robert Frost

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday. 

I will be studying some of Frost's poetry over the next month.  As prologue to that effort and in recognition of the beginning of Spring I have posted a poem that portrays the transformations from winter that had only just passed to spring, "flowers beside them chill and shiver".  The trees became bare over the winter and the water is filled with flower petals but now as it is spring the tree's are blossoming. Nonetheless there is a not too subtle hint of darkness in the nature that brings us the spring buds.  The poem exhibits some pleasant rhymes and ends with a particularly felicitous couplet. 
Harbinger of Spring!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Reading Life

Delphine's Books

"Delphine was reading and dozing over a thick Book-of-the-Month Club novel she'd got from the little lending library run by some schoolteachers out of the courthouse basement.  The plot was intimate, British, and safely romantic, one of those in which she had confidence she'd not be left for days with heartache.  She had always been a reader, especially since she lost Clarisse.  But now she was obsessed.  Since her discovery of the book hoard downstairs from her job, she'd been caught up in one such collection of people and their doing after the next.  She read Edith Warton, Hemingway, Dos Passos, George Eliot, and for comfort Jane Austen.  

The pleasure of this sort of life---bookish, she supposed it might be called, a reading life---had made her isolation into a rich and subversive thing.  She inhabited one consoling or horrifying persona after another.  She read E. M. Forster, the Bronte sisters, John Steinbeck.  That she kept her father drugged on his bed next to the kitchen stove, that she was childless and husbandless and poor meant less once she picked up a book.  Her mistakes disappeared into it.  She lived with an invented force." (p 301)

from The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Dystopian Destiny

The Last Starship from EarthThe Last Starship from Earth 
by John Boyd

"Rarely is it given man to know the day or the hour when fate intervenes in his destiny, but, because he had checked his watch just before he saw the girl with the hips, Haldane IV knew the day, the hour, and the minute.  At Point Sur, California, on September 5, at two minutes past two, he took the wrong turn and drove down a lane to hell." (p 1)

Reading Science Fiction written in the past (in this case the late 1960s) creates a situation where what was posited as a story of the near future becomes a story of an alternate history. In this case  the novel is set in a dystopian society in the very near future. In the world of this story, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was killed leading an assault on Rome. He was the Messiah that people expected. The government of John Boyd’s world is a global government run by Christians along “scientific” lines, where psychologists and sociologists in conjunction with the Church and an AI Pope rule the world. People marry and mate because of their genes, reminiscent of the film Gattaca. The central character is Haldane IV, a mathematician, in a caste-based society. Unfortunately Haldane meets and develops an attraction for Helix, a mere poet. By law and social custom Haldane is expected to have nothing to do with her, but as you’d expect he falls in love with her.

Haldane IV also becomes interested in investigating Fairweather, a famous mathematician who lived shortly before his time. He has lengthy discussions about Fairweather with his father learning about his son Fairweather II, whom he discovers led a rebellion, which was defeated. Eventually Haldane IV is given a show trial and deported to another planet, where he meets Fairweather II.

This story presents a society that is displays totalitarian characteristics. For example Haldane is betrayed by his roommate who tells the authorities about his illicit love affair with Helix. The caste system is extremely rigid and the government is unforgiving. Haldane compounded his criminal behavior by impregnating Helix. The society is gradually developed through conversations and allusions while the deportation or banishment, if you prefer, is the beginning of a denouement that is somewhat amazing in its revelations. I cannot predict whether you will enjoy the way the story ends or feel that the prologue was not worth it. Fortunately this is a slight read of less than two hundred pages, or not so fortunately for those who would like more detail about yet another dystopian future for mankind.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Ineffective Satire

Riotous Assembly (Piemburg, #1)Riotous Assembly 
by Tom Sharpe

"Piemburg's mediocrity was venomous  and waited gently on events." (p 4)

I usually try to find something good to say about a book that I have read. It was difficult with this novel by Tom Sharpe. The book is humorous for about one chapter and the rest is downhill as the satire becomes so heavy-handed that is loses its effectiveness. The rest of my review must of necessity be a litany of problems. From the lack of character development to a plot that is notable only in its weakness this novel is a bit of a disaster.

I spent several weeks in South Africa in the late seventies and I thought I learned a little about the country. However the setting of Riotous Assembly, the fictional town of Piemburg, did not resemble the country I visited. I am unable to come up with an excuse for the caricatures that inhabit Riotous Assembly. It is with almost no reluctance that I suggest you avoid this book.

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A Mote with Imagination

An Unnecessary WomanAn Unnecessary Woman 
by Rabih Alameddine

"Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life?  I remain a speck in the tumultuous universe that has little concern for me." (p 159)

Sometimes the voice of the narrator enchants the reader with her life and that of those around her. That is what happens in Rabih Alameddine's captivating novel. The narrator is a woman named Aaliya. She is a book-lover in her seventies who runs a book store and translates books. She is an obsessive translator of books, a vocation that was spurred by reading about a criminal, Raskolnikov, in a book, Crime and Punishment, that she remembered as "the first adult novel I read, or the first with a fully developed theme." (p 102) That memory is one that she shares in one of her many asides that in this case last for several pages and included a discussion of the translating abilities of Constance Garnett, the Edwardian woman who introduce the English-speaking public to the wonders of Russian literature.

This is a book made up of her asides which intersperse her story about a life lived in Beirut. Beirut becomes a character in the novel as she shares her love for the city. This love does not prevent her from warning the reader that, "Every Beiruti of a certain age has learned that on leaving for a walk you should never be too sure of returning home, not only because something might happen to you personally, but also because your home might cease to exist." (p 175) There are other characters who drift into and out of the story including her friends Fadia, Joumana, and Marie-Therese. Most important in several senses is Ahmad who enters her bookshop as a young boy and matures on the streets and in the battles of Beirut city.

The most interesting of her friends for this reader are her books. Anything and everything brings her back to her books. Nostalgia for the city of Beirut reminds her of the smell of jasmine floating in, the colors and patterns of sheets in the dark" which leads her to Proust:
"But then I feel nostalgia for the walks by Swann's Way, as well as by Guermantes Way, for how Charles Kinbote surprises John Shade while he's taking a bath, for how Anna Karenina sits in a train." (p 129) 
She tosses off one-liners with the gift of a literary charmer. You may have noticed how she added references to Nabokov and Tolstoy while waxing about Proust. These and other riffs on the life of reading through quotations and asides warm the heart of any reader and challenge him as well. Her favorite book is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and I could not think of a better choice.

She also loves music and Chopin becomes another character as his music wafts through her mind and life, especially when performed by the great Sviatoslav Richter. Yet she is mainly a homebody, "No matter where I've been or how long I've been away, my soul begins to tingle whenever I approach my apartment." This is a place that is no longer new and cold in the winter but it is warmed by the heart of Aaliya the book-loving translator. She says near the end of her story that "In order to live, I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe." (p 277) Nonetheless she is not "unnecessary" as the reader finds that laughter and tears and wonder are all part and parcel of the wonder of reading about her magical life.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

From "A Factless Autobiography"

I know no pleasure like that of books, and I read very little. Books are introductions to dreams, and no introductions are necessary for one who freely and naturally enters into conversation with them.  I've never been able to lose myself in a book;  as I'm reading, the commentary of my intellect or imagination has always hindered the narrative flow.  After a few minutes it's I who am writing, and what I write is nowhere to be found.

From "Text 417" in The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Monday, March 07, 2016

Technology of the Middle Ages

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle AgesCathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages 
by Frances and Joseph Gies

"Philosophy in the early Middle Ages was in fact virtually indistinguishable from religion, and science was indeed its handmaid.  Medieval theologians would have been surprised to learn that there was any difference among the three spheres of thought." (p 76)

For more than a century following the publication in 1776 of  Edward Gibbon's massive tome, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages were indicted as "the triumph of barbarism and religion".  In doing this he coupled the two bête noires of the intellectuals of his day, with the Catholic Church especially complicit in its rejection of change in science and agriculture. Yet in the present book the authors proffer evidence that the dark ages were not nearly so dark as assumed by many. They demonstrate this by chronicling the developments in technology over the centuries preceding the Renaissance. Some of these included the magnetic compass which would enable the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century, water power for industry, and new designs for ships with full rigging. Europe did not develop ideas in isolation but was able to adopt ideas originating in the civilizations of Islam, India and China.

The book's scope is the thousand years from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the discovery of the New World. The authors divide the book into seven chapters into which they arrange most of their material chronologically.  In the chapter on "The Not so Dark Ages: A.D. 500-900" the authors debunk the notion that little happened in those four hundred years. The authors discuss warfare, textiles, agriculture, and the ways in which long-distance navigation and trade spurred urban growth in northwest Europe. Using archaeological research published as recently as 1990, the authors describe how "specialized trading settlements called 'emporia' and 'gateway communities' sprang up near the North Sea and Channel coasts" in the seventh and eighth centuries (p. 43).

One of the most valuable chapters is "The Asian Connection." The authors remind us that although the revival of the European economy and the re-urbanization of Europe are often described as a "Renaissance" of classical antiquity, some of the most crucial technological innovations came from beyond Europe.  These imports include the trio of gunpowder, the printing press, and the magnetic compass. The physical configuration of early-modern cities, the nature of their intellectual life, and the potential of Europeans to begin a program of overseas expansion depended more upon inventions borrowed from Asia than any revival of Roman technology. 

The book also chronicles the onset and expansion of the commercial revolution and the consequent growth of cities. The authors explore the environmental impact of land reclamation and deforestation. They note that "the growing pressures of construction and industry brought Europeans for the first time to a consciousness of the forest's limits" (p. 171).  The book concludes with the voyages of Columbus and the products of the genius of Da Vinci as the dawn of the Renaissance was on the horizon.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Surprising Discovery

The Deeps of the Sea and Other Fiction
The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. 
in The Deeps of the Sea and Other Fiction 
by George Steiner

"Yes,  I know they've been hunting for him.  They've never stopped.  Started almost immediately after the war.  Small parties sworn to get him.  To give their lives.  Never to rest until he was found." (p 19)

In 1981 George Steiner wrote a literary and philosophical novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.. In it Jewish Nazi hunters find Adolf Hitler (A.H.) alive in the Amazon jungle thirty years after the end of World War II. It is a daring fictional endeavor that is as much a philosophical rumination as it is a political thriller. It is the longest work in this compilation of short fiction by George Steiner.

From his base in Tel Aviv, Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Lieber directs a group of Jewish Nazi hunters in search of Adolf Hitler. The hunters believe that the former Führer is still alive, and following rumors and hearsay, they track Hitler's movements through the jungles of South America, until after months of wading through swamps, a search party finds the 90-year-old alive in a clearing. Lieber flies to San Cristóbal where he awaits the group's return with their captive. But getting the old man out of the jungle alive is more difficult than getting in, and their progress is further hampered by heavy thunderstorms.
Meanwhile, broken and incoherent radio messages between Lieber and the search party are intercepted by intelligence agents tracking their progress, and rumors begin to spread across the world of Hitler's capture. Debates flare up over his impending trial, where it will be held and under whose jurisdiction. Orosso is identified as the nearest airfield to the last known location of the search party, and aircraft begin arriving at the hitherto unknown town. But when the search party loses radio contact with Lieber, they must make a decision: do they sit out the storms and deliver their captive to Lieber later, or do they try Hitler in the jungle before their prize is snatched from them by the world at large, who they know will be waiting? Lieber warns "You must not let him speak ... his tongue is like no other". A trial is prepared and surprisingly the attention Hitler is receiving, however, renews his strength, and when the trial begins, he brushes aside his "defense attorney" and begins a long speech in four parts in his own defense.

Hitler claims he took his doctrines from the Jews and copied the notion of the master race from the Chosen people and their need to separate themselves from the "unclean". "My racism is a parody of yours, a hungry imitation." Hitler justifies the Final Solution by maintaining that the Jews' God, purer than any other, enslaves its subjects, continually demanding more than they can give. He claims that he was not the originator of evil and his atrocities were dwarfed by those of others. He even maintains that Zion owes its existence to the Reich. Throughout the rant there runs an underlying theme of the persecution of the Jews in history.

Steiner demonstrates both insights and an imagination of major proportions in a small space.  In an interview he told New York Times editor D. J. R. Bruckner that this book arose out of his lifelong work on language. "Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment ... that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate." *   The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. was a 1983 finalist in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. 

*Bruckner, D. J. R. (2 May 1982). "Talk With George Steiner". The New York Times.

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