Thursday, May 28, 2020

Compassion and Knowledge

Regarding the Pain of Others 

Regarding the Pain of Others

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Two Lives in a Shadow War

The Nightingale 

The Nightingale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Two White Boys and the Blues

White Tears 

White Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Spoken Words

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

Those Winter Sundays

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Helpless in Amerika



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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Games, Names, and Shadows

Part I 


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Fantastic Odyssey

Washington Black 

Washington Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Woman at the Top

Top Girls 

Top Girls

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

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

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

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

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill.  Samuel French, 1982.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Migrants Through Time

Exit West: A Novel 

Exit West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A Time of Turmoil

Fruit of the Drunken Tree 

Fruit of the Drunken Tree

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

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

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

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

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

*niebla = mist

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Insight and Inspiration

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

The True Believer: 
Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

by Eric Hoffer

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

The Immense Journey

by Loren Eiseley

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

Man's Unconquerable Mind

by Gilbert Highet

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

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

by George Steiner

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

Sailing Alone around the World

by Joshua Slocum

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

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)