Sunday, December 31, 2017

Love that Liberates



“Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you'd have a little love left over for the next one.”   ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

An ominous beginning: "124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims." The story of Sethe and that of Beloved provide some of the background necessary to begin to understand this beginning. It is a story of the pain of slavery and death in the family, but it is also a story of rebirth and love. It is a story dedicated to the "Sixty Million and more" who paid with their lives.

The narrative moves backward and forward in time, telling the story of Sethe and her extended family while also telling of their ancestors and how they survived, and how they did not survive. Place assumes an importance like a character: “Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place--the picture of it--stays, and not just in my memory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think if, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”
But one place, 124 Bluestone Road, haunts the novel and in turn is haunted by memories of dark deeds.

The story changed for this reader when, at the beginning of a chapter at about page fifty, Beloved appeared: "A fully dressed woman walked out of the water." Where did she come from? Was she a mere apparition? Probably not the latter, but from that moment on she becomes central to the story. She may be the ghost of a child who has suffered a violent death, and she haunts the house where her grandmother, mother, brothers, and sister live. The grandmother dies; the brothers disappear; the mother takes a lover; the sister grows up. The ghost grows up too, assumes a human form, and seduces and drives away the lover. Then she takes possession of the mother.

What was important for me was not these plot points, but the way the story was told. The poetry of Morrison's prose, the striking metaphors and shifting point of view; these and the way the story of the many who were lost in the past were brought forth in those who were living out the present time of the narrative. There were also the stories that were embedded in the narrative that became part of the world of Beloved and Sethe. 

The sum of all of the narrative astonished me -- at the stunning cruelty of slavery, at the death-defying endurance of love, at the sharp beauty of the natural world. Morrison’s style in this book, as in her other novels, combines the magic of Afro-American idiom, the density of poetry, and the specificity of the plainest prose. I will put this novel beside my copy of Song of Solomon and return again and again to savor the sheer beauty of their being.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Lover or the Beloved?

Call Me by Your Name 

Call Me by Your Name
“Most of us can't help but live as though we've got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between. But there's only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now there's sorrow. I don't envy the pain. But I envy you the pain. (p. 225)”   ― André Aciman, Call Me by Your Name

What is the difference between the lover and beloved, the watcher and the one watched? In his story of Eros and education the author, Andre Aciman, considers these questions and with his narrative demonstrates the answers. With emphasis on the erotic, he has created an almost Proustian meditation on time and desire, a love letter, an invocation in words that one must call simply "beautiful". His novel, Call Me by Your Name, is a wonderful tale whose dream-like qualities continually evoke the narrator's obscure object of desire which is, by definition, inexpiable, and indeterminate. The story is one of a young man, Elio, and a slightly older man, Oliver, for whom Elio obsesses with a passion that is filled with Mediterranean fire, yet mediated by a classical patina not unlike that suggested in the less accurate translations of Plato's dialogues. For further details of the story I recommend you read the book, not because it is banal but rather because it is too beautiful to risk spoiling.

This book constantly reminded me that it was fiction - the product of an imagination able to create an unreal dream world - yet I did not mind because it was simply, joyously readable. I was both entranced and intrigued by the narrator, whose name is withheld for much of the novel, but this is because, as the title implies, he is entranced and intrigued himself by his family's summer guest, Oliver, who seems to be nothing less than a Greek god. The subtle allusions to poetry and philosophy, the music of the senses, add to the magnificence of this short novel. Perhaps it will not effect everyone the same as it did me, but for those who appreciate the classical source of beauty this is a novel that ranks with Mann and Gide in its glistening presence. 

The book has recently been translated to film by Luca Guadagnino. Starring Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, and Michael Stuhlbarg.  It is a transcendent recreation of the novel that truly captures the heart of Andre Aciman's narrative voice.

A Lear for Our Time



“Why was he in this state? Or perhaps the question was why had he not always been in this state? Why had he not always found life so disturbing and so poignant?”   ― Edward St. Aubyn, Dunbar

Having read Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels I was not surprised that he would be able to present a thoroughly readable and enjoyable Lear for the twenty-first century. Henry Dunbar, the titular character, is a media mogul in decline. Like Lear he has divided his empire among his daughters and in doing so finds himself at the mercy of the two eldest of the trio . Not unlike many corporate men, his identity was his empire and his soul was at sea without it. As chapter three begins we find him questioning, "Who am I?" Imprisoned in Meadowmeade, a sanatorium in rural England, he finds himself almost beyond the possibility of life itself. But his intelligence takes over and he begins to makes plans to return to the world and just perhaps find his identity.

The plot provides suspense as the two eldest daughters, Abbey and Megan, plan to complete the divestiture of his estate and ensure that he never returns. Dunbar has only an alcoholic comedian by his side as he drifts through the wilds of the rural British countryside. Will he survive the ordeal? Will he escape the clutches of his elder daughters? And will the youngest daughter, Florence, who has never given up on him, be able to assist in his return and reconnect with her father?

The book's best passages come when St. Aubyn is alone with his central character. When he engages the brutal reality of nature with only his own purposefulness to guide him the story takes on a mesmerizing character. "He was locking into his walking stride, preserving his energy, refusing to disperse himself in speculative chatter, absorbed by a single objective: to get to London and somehow take back control of the Trust." He sounds like the man who had built an empire, not given it away. He engages with nature; "The leafless trees, with their black branches stretching out hysterically in every direction, looked to him like illustrations of a central nervous system racked by disease: studies of human suffering anatomised against the winter sky." I found my reading rapt with the tension of Dunbar's mind and his engagement with the world. The secondary characters were not as well drawn, although even when bordering on caricature they provided enough believable evil to suggest that they might prevail.

"Dunbar" is part of a series of contemporary novels based on Shakespeare's plays and published by Hogarth Press. His five Melrose novels, which dissect with savage and beautiful precision the agonies of family life, made him a perfect candidate to update King Lear, Shakespeare’s most devastating family story. In doing so he has translated much of the power of Shakespeare's great play into an agonizingly tense and metaphorically astute novel for and of our times – an examination of power, money and the value of forgiveness. Edward St. Aubyn has been able to create a work that is worthy of his reputation and also respectful to the source of this Shakespearean tragedy for our times.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Commonplace Book

'Book by Book'

“'Tis the good reader that makes the good book; a good head cannot read amiss: in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakeably meant for his ear.” 
 - Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a fascination, interest, perhaps passion in which I indulge my eclectic interests. The commonplace book seems to suit my peripatetic mind.  It is a writer's personal collection of quotations, observations, and topic ideas. Called florilegia ("flowers of reading") in the Middle Ages, commonplace books were especially popular during the Renaissance and into the 18th century. For some writers, blogs serve as contemporary versions of commonplace books. The classic is Auden's A Certain World, but I was lured into exploring this genre by Michael Dirda's own contribution, Book By Book. It is a book-lover's delight and has led me down many trails that I will share another time. 

While Dirda recommends Auden, of course and Cyril Connolly's An Unquiet Grave; I have taken up the challenge of one of my favorite authors, D. J. Enright. So it is with delight that I am exploring, slowly savoring, his own " kind of a commonplace book", Interplay. It is here that I will be able to meditate on the pleasures of reading, mulling both thoughts and words - perhaps cogitating some new ones of my own.

Book by Book by Michael Dirda.  Henry Holt & Company, 2006.
Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book by D. J. Enright. OxfordUniversity Press, 1995.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Man of the Party

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping 

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping

"Looking into the eyes of Xi Jinping, you look into the eyes of the Party itself -- the personification of its ambition and spirit, its most faithful and truest servant, and someone like Pope Francis, who, for all his outward exemplification of influence, persuasion and force, would almost certainly object to the claim that he is pursuing his own interests and indulging the narcissism of power."

CEO, China is a unique book with its combination of biography, history, and contemporary political analysis of The People's Republic of China. The main thrust, as indicated by the title, is the story of Xi Jinping and his rise to power and a position in which he was just reaffirmed for another five years.

I found the background about the source of power in modern China and the structure of the Chinese Communist Party provided useful insights into a mysterious country. The book also  provides information about Xi's path to power while discussing his ideological justifications for his rule. The politics of the party and Xi's position could be compared with the politics of the Roman Catholic Church in its monolithic state and hold on power in China.

The author comments on page 120 that "Yu Zhengsheng is the ultimate modern Chinese man without qualities..." suggesting that Chinese governance might share a nebulousness with Robert Musil's literary description of the Austrian Empire at the twilight of the nineteenth century. I found that while I learned much about modern China and Xi Jinping I also was left with many questions unanswered - challenged by the differences between their culture and ours. What is clear is that the Chinese economy has grown immensely over recent decades and is on a trajectory to overtake the United States.

There are interesting aspects of Xi, like his celebrity wife, who is unusual for someone in his position. It is noted that "..she unleashes the political capital that can be gained from having a glamorous celebrity wife..." (pp 109-110). It is not clear how or whether this broadens his appeal as a leader. More important to his position are his leadership of campaigns to root out corruption (particularly useful in eliminating political opponents) and his overseeing an authoritarian control over the Internet and social media that is described as "Web lynching", a phenomenon not unheard of in the United States.

While China, with a population of 1.3 billion people, appears to be a juggernaut there are issues that may be insuperable. On page 176 it is noted that "The party, Xi has said many times, must keep close to the people." This may be possible only with the advent of technological change that requires control and may just as likely be turned against the party. Xi's political program seems to mimic that of left-wing politicians in Western countries (eg. USA) with an emphasis on reforming state-owned enterprises and taxing the rich, some of whom have been milking said enterprises.

This is a book with a wealth of information, but in spite of that it leaves the reader with more questions than answers. There is power in the Chinese Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping that seems to be in control; however there is the shadow of both Mao's brutal reign and the failed example of Soviet Communism that is ever present in the background. There are also continuing international tensions with India and other border states. Kerry Brown has provided a good primer on the state of Xi Jinping, China, and issues that will determine their future.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books of 2017

These are my favorite reads since January 1, 2017.  They are primarily fiction with three great non-fiction books.  If I had to pick my favorite of the year I would choose Suttree by Cormac McCarthy.  But the list is in no particular order.  Several very good books just missed my top ten including A Midsummer Night's Dream by Shakespeare,  Civil Disobedience by Thoreau, Phaedrus and other dialogues by Plato, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.  

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

The Idiot  by Fyodor Dostoevsky

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Two Years Before the Mast 
by Richard Henry Dana

The Varieties of Religious Experience 
by William James

Responsibility and Judgement: Essays 
by Hannah Arendt

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Settings I’d Love to Visit 

I’ve been to two of these locations (but only through reading about them since one is fictional and the other historical).  However, the rest are real and remain in my mind's eye as places to travel to – but wherever I go, I try and stop in a bookstore or library while I’m visiting! What bookish places do you like to visit?

The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, California

Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

State Law Library of  Iowa, Des Moines, Iowa

Library of Alexandria

Library at Seikei University, Musashino, Japan

Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France

Zhongsuhge-Hangzhou bookstore, Hangzhou China

 Copenhagen Library, Denmark

State Library Victoria, Melbourne

Monday, December 04, 2017

No Happy Memories

The End of Eddy 

The End of Eddy

"I remember less the milk still warm from the cow's udders, brought by my mother from the farm across the way, than I do the evenings when we didn't have enough to eat, and when my Mother would say Tonight we're having milk, one of poverty's neologisms." (p 141)

The End of Eddy is a first novel by Edouard Louis, a young French author. The book presents a semi-autobiographical story about a young boy growing up in a small town in northern France. The tone is set in the first sentence of the novel. "From my childhood I have no happy memories."

This is a dark book filled with violence and the worst side of humanity, but in spite of that the eponymous hero of the story, a ten-year-old Eddy Bellegueule, manages to survive and eventually escape the home and small town that provide so few happy memories. Louis organizes the book into brief chapters with such titles as “A Man’s Role” and “A Good Education.” The violence the novel examines — though also structural and symbolic — is above all bodily. Eddy's father is a violent man as demonstrated by bar fights, killing new born kittens, and domestic violence. Yet Eddy could not escape this violence at school for "The schoolyard obeyed the same rules as the rest of the world: the big guys kept away from the little ones." This was true except for a couple of the "big guys" who regularly picked on Eddy, not the least because of his effeminate traits in addition to his small size.  At home there was poverty as well as violence, although one chapter begins with the observation that Eddy's family is not the poorest in the village -- small consolation.

Eddy's effeminate mannerisms were evident as soon as he learns to speak, his voice takes on feminine inflections. His girlish bearing is involuntary: “I had not chosen my way of walking, the pronounced, much too pronounced, way my hips swayed from side to side, or the shrill cries that escaped my body.” As a teenager, he yearns to be straight. He orders himself to have orgasms to photographs of naked women, rubbing himself until he is raw and blistered. Each morning in the bathroom he chants: “Today I’m gonna be a tough guy.”

The novel is structured in three parts. The first makes up two thirds of the book and presents the village, school, and family in relentless and dispassionate detail. The second part continues Eddy's travails till the point where he makes an unsuccessful attempt to run away from home; an attempt that is made all the more poignant because he enlists his younger brother to tell his parents ensuring that he will be found. The novel concludes with a short epilogue in which Eddy is able to attend a boarding school for the arts. This is a moment that leaves the reader wondering if his life will turn out for the better. In one of the concluding scenes he destroys a jacket that his parents had given him, symbolically breaking the connections with his old life.

The End of Eddy is brutal yet brilliant in portraying the life and inner feelings of a young gay boy who experiences psychic and physical violence on a daily basis. It is a cautionary tale that critically portrays the class system in France as well as the rampant rage, racism, and homophobia. Yet, through it all the author is able to evoke a sensitive portrait of boyhood and sexual awakening. This is one of the best first novels I have read.