Sunday, April 30, 2017

Powerful Insights

Still Life: 
A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel 

Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel

“Life is choice. All day, everyday. Who we talk to, where we sit, what we say, how we say it. And our lives become defined by our choices. It's as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful. so when I'm observing that's what I'm watching for. The choices people make”  ― Louise Penny, Still Life

Both my sister and a good friend recommended that I read the mysteries of Louise Penny; so I decided to start with her first Chief Inspector Gamache novel. I was not disappointed.

The mystery is set in a small town in rural Canada.  The narrative introduces Armand Gamache of the Sorete du Quebec. The mystery proper begins with the discovery of the body of Jane Neal, a middle-aged artist, near a woodland trail used by deer hunters outside the village of Three Pines. Upon first investigation it appears she was the victim of a hunting accident. Soon Gamache, an appealingly competent senior homicide investigator, is summoned. He is able to determine that this was not an accident but the woman was most likely murdered. The narrative continues as clues are slowly uncovered while the residents of Three Pines are introduced. Some of them come under suspicion while the suspense builds with each piece of new evidence.

I enjoyed the author's development of a variation on the theme of the clue hidden in plain sight. She also introduces the bilingual, bi-cultural aspect of Quebecois life as well as arcane aspects of archery and art to deepen her narrative. Most of all there are memorable characters whose relationships make the mystery more compelling as they and their interrelationships are gradually revealed.

This is a mystery filled with intriguing insights that develops a good foundation for further exploits of Armand Gamache. I would recommend this author's first novel, which was the runner-up for the CWA's Debut Dagger Award in 2004, to all readers who enjoy a good mystery.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Doubled Solitude

The Confusions of Young Törless 

The Confusions of Young Törless

“The feeling of not being understood and of not understanding the world is no mere accompaniment of first passion, but its sole non-accidental cause. And the passion itself is a panic-stricken flight in which being together with the other means only a doubled solitude.”   ― Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless

Robert Musil is one of my favorite authors and his story of Young Torless, published in 1906, is one reason. The novel reflects an obsession in this period with educational institutions and the oppressive impact they exert on personal development. While it is in the tradition of the German Bildungsroman, the novel of education, it is critical of educational system and the institutionalized coercion portrayed in the novel. In my reading experience I compared it with the experience of Philip Carey in Maugham's Of Human Bondage or other traditional British school novels (see Tom Brown). In the American tradition, one thinks of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as representing a protest against a social disciplining that is also a disciplining of sexuality. Sexual disciplining can often become the standard for other forms of discipline.

The novel tells the story of three students at an Austrian boarding school, Reiting, Beineberg and the titular young Törless. The three catch their classmate Basini stealing money from one of them and decide to punish him themselves instead of turning him in to the school authorities. They start an abusive process, first physically and then psychologically and sexually, while also blackmailing him by threatening to denounce him. While the treatment of Basini becomes openly sexual and increasingly sadistic, he nevertheless masochistically endures it all.

It is the moral and sexual confusion of young Torless that leads him to join Beineberg's and Reiting's degradation of Basini; he is both sexually attracted to Basini and Beineberg and repelled by them. Even though he is a willing participant he tells himself that he is merely trying to understand the gap between his rational self and his obscure irrational self. In a modern way he is both a disturbed and despairing observer of his own states of consciousness. Basini professes love for Törless and Törless begins to reciprocate, but he is ultimately repelled by Basini's unwillingness to stand up for himself. His disgust with Basini's passivity ultimately leads him in a curious way to stand up to Beineberg and Reiting. When the torment becomes unbearable, Törless secretly advises Basini alleviate his situation by confessing to the headmaster.

While an investigation is made, the only party to be found guilty is Basini. Törless makes a strange existential speech to the school authorities about the gap between the rational and irrational: "I said it seemed to me that at these points we couldn't get across merely by the aid of thought, and we needed another and more inward sort of certainty to get us to the other side, as you might say. We can't manage solely by means of thinking, I felt that in the case of Basini too." (p 208)
After he had finished, "When he had left the room, the masters looked at each other with baffled expressions." (p 212)
They decide he is of too refined an intellect for the institute, and suggest to his parents that he be privately educated, a conclusion that he comes to on his own.

Other subplots include Törless's experience with the local prostitute Božena, his encounter with his mathematics teacher, and his analysis of his parents' attitudes toward the world. The severity of the conditions makes one wonder about Musil's own experience. One important theme Musil also takes up is the Nietzschean idea of the dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus. This can be seen in the "two worlds" (p 45) in which light is contrasted with dark, the controlled and disciplined intellect with more spontaneous sensuality. 

Young Torless is an impressive short novel with a depth of meaning and character that often is not achieved in much longer works. It is a worthy introduction to an author who is one of the first modernists of the twentieth century. If you are a reader who is daunted by the size of The Man Without Qualities, his unfinished masterpiece, this would be a good place to start reading Musil.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Incredible Journey

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

“In that instant they felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition's original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.”   ― Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Yesterday was the anniversary of the date in 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out in a lifeboat from Elephant Island to get help for his shipwrecked Antarctic expedition. If ever there was a book whose title deserved to include the word "incredible" this is it. The voyage of Ernest Shackleton receives a well-deserved and beautiful portrayal in Alfred Lansing's famous book. One of my favorite adventure books, it is a detailed account of the events and the extremes that were encountered on the Antarctic voyage where disaster struck when his ship, Endurance, was trapped in pack ice and slowly crushed, before the shore parties could be landed.

The book recounts the failure of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton in its attempt to cross the Antarctic continent and the subsequent struggle for survival endured by the twenty-eight man crew for almost two years. The book's title refers to the ship Shackleton used for the expedition, the Endurance. In 1914 Shackleton led twenty-seven men on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The goal of the expedition was to transverse the Antarctic continent by dog sledge. The ship was beset and eventually crushed by ice floes in the Weddell Sea leaving the men stranded on the pack ice. All in all the crew drifted on the ice for just over a year. At the end of October, 1915, the Endurance finally succumbed to the intense pressure and was slowly crushed. The crew, led by Shackleton, abandoned ship and made camp on a huge floe of pack ice.  Shackleton then led a crew of five aboard the James Caird through the Drake Passage and miraculously reached South Georgia Island 650 nautical miles away. He then took two of those men on the first successful overland crossing of the island. Three months later he was finally able to rescue the remaining crew members they had left behind on Elephant Island.

Virtually every diary kept during the expedition was made available to the author and almost all the surviving members at the time of writing submitted to lengthy interviews. The most significant contribution came from Dr. Alexander Macklin, one of the ship's surgeons, who provided Lansing with many diaries, a detailed account of the perilous journey the crew made to Elephant Island, and months of advice. The narrative of the astonishing sequence of exploits, and an ultimate escape with no lives lost, would eventually assure Shackleton's heroic status. Lansing provides an account worthy of this epic adventure.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Unlikely Impersonator



"Somewhere in this world was a writer named Shriver who was expected at this conference, but it was not him.  What should he do?  He'd committed to attending, and had even been sent what looked like genuine airline tickets.  He checked the date on the itinerary---just three days away!" ((p 7)

What would it be like to be mistaken for someone famous? This novel explores that situation with the added attraction that the famous person is a reclusive writer (think of Salinger) and the person who is the subject of the mistake is also an author who, fortunately or not, has nothing in common with the reclusive celebrity other than his name. The unfortunate protagonist is invited to writers' conference and, against his better judgment, decides to attend. He appears to be succeeding in his unlikely impersonation, but just as things start to calm down he becomes involved in unexpected and certainly unintended episodes.  First, one of the other guest authors disappears, and he becomes the central subject of the investigation; second, a journalist begins to take an interest in him that makes him very uncomfortable; and third, to complicate his life further he begins to fall in love with the conference organizer.

With the addition of some other quirky characters including a stalker, the story is complex enough to provide the reader with entertainment and mirth.  While it is fairly lightweight, the spirited narrative has all the best characteristics of an off-beat romantic comedy and contains just enough whimsy to keep the reader focused through to the end.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


The Underground Railroad 

The Underground Railroad

“Cora didn't know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”   ― Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

This was the second novel by Colson Whitehead that I have read and it impressed me even more than the first (The Intuitionist). It is a blend of historical fiction and fantasy that I had not previously experienced. Needless to say, the combination was successful especially with the addition of a suspenseful story and an appealing protagonist.

The protagonist, Cora , is a young slave girl who is considering fleeing slavery from the opening sentence on the first page. "The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no." That she changes her mind goes without saying, but as the narrative continues her trek through the South on and off the "underground railroad" maintains the reader's interest. Along the way there are colorful characters, like Caesar and her grandmother and her nemesis, Ridgeway.

The first of these characters that we meet is Ajarry, Cora's grandmother. We learn how Ajarry took ownership of, and maintained control over, a small plot of land in the slave area of the Randall plantation in the Southern state of Georgia where she lived most of her life. Both Cora’s mother Mabel and Cora herself inherited that land, and took pride in maintaining it. Ajarry insists that attempts to escape were hopeless and, even after Mabel made a successful escape anyway, Cora refused the invitation from fellow slave Caesar to make her own attempt.

It is only after a series of painful incidents on the plantation that Cora changes her mind.  She joins Caesar in an escape attempt that leads to unexpected developments; however, Cora and Caesar make it to the first stop on the underground railroad. In the first of several fantastic episodes the railroad is portrayed as a sub-surface train network that takes them into the first stop on their escape route: a town in South Carolina. There, Cora and Caesar are given new names and identities, and start new lives in which they become increasingly comfortable, refusing a series of opportunities to take the underground railroad even further towards the North, and freedom. However this life does not continue when it is shattered by the appearance of Ridgeway, leader of an angry group of patrollers and slave catchers. He tracks them down but Cora manages to escape, taking the underground railroad to North Carolina, where she is given refuge with Martin and Ethel Wells.

This episode finds Cora held as a prisoner in their home. Eventually, she is discovered and turned over to Ridgeway, while the Wells are left to face the anger and violence of the community’s racist citizens. Her next stop is Tennessee, as Ridgeway journeys to capture yet another slave before taking Cora back to the Randall plantation where it appears that an even worse fate awaits her. As the novel continues this reader was held in suspense wondering whether Cora would escape yet again and, if so, would she ultimately reach freedom, if not complete safety, in a Northern state.

I especially enjoyed the fantastic moments and the irony exemplified in the following: "Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor--if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative."(p 80)
The slave owners followed this philosophy but they did not expect that Cora, the individual human being, would also follow the philosophy in her search for ownership of her person and her freedom.

The story highlights the indefatigable nature of Cora who always finds a way to survive. Throughout the narrative chapters are inserted as brief vignettes that explore the lives, backgrounds, and fates of several characters in the same way as the book’s first explored Ajarry’s life. The combination of historical detail, fantastic speculation, and suspense makes for an engaging read worthy of the awards it has received.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Philosophical Exploits into the Absurd

The Thought Gang 

The Thought Gang

"The publishers eventually tracked me down and asked me about the book, how it was, where it could be found.  I countered by asking for more money, simply so I had something to say apart from, I can't find the typewriter and even if I could find it, it doesn't have a ribbon, and the a and the z don't work. . . 
The thing about signing a contract is that it can mislead people into thinking something has been agreed." (p 74)

If you love philosophy and have an appreciation for the absurd you will probably enjoy this book. Tibor Fischer has written a novel that I found dependable in producing humor evidenced by my smiles and more often than not outright laughter.

The story demonstrates the sublime absurdity of a middle-aged philosopher who is running from his academic publisher and others;  and while doing so finds himself in France about to join with a semi-successful thief (the thief has recently been released from prison) ultimately entering into a series of adventures. Coffin uses a first-person narration (numbered in sections, like a philosophical treatise) that is not terribly mellifluous, but becomes fun through the use of wisecracks about Epictetus and Zeno--as well as Coffin's unexplained fascination with words that begin with the letter Z. The style gets to you (at least it did for this reader). He juxtaposes intellectual metaphysics and juvenile gangster fantasy as evidenced by the line, ``The thing about a gun is, it's like being on the right side of a Socratic dialogue."

The result of the philosophical and adventurous mish-mash is a delightfully wacky book that has echoes of Tristram Shandy and other books of that sort. Read it at your own philosophical risk.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

America's First Naval Hero

John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography 

John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography
"It was a misfortune for Paul Jones that, unlike Nelson, he never had a proper scope for his talents.  His zeal to improve himself as a naval officer, to prepare for a fleet command, makes him stand out from brother officers in the Revolutionary Navy, some of whom may never have been his peers in single-ship combat. . .
Thus, although Jones had it in him to be a great naval strategist, he found opportunity to prove himself only on the tactical level. There he was magnificent."(p 415)

John Paul Jones is a name that is part of American mythology. As an officer in the Continental Navy, he became the new country's greatest naval hero. Yet he often complained, was impatient with supervisors, and was haughty toward his peers and a tyrant among his crews. He prided himself on defending "the violated rights of mankind", yet after the American Revolution he went on a venture battling the Turks in the service of the Russian Tsar. He was in many ways a paradox and his idiosyncrasies made him one of the most fascinating figures in all American history.

Samuel Eliot Morison demonstrates his mastery of American history with this biography of the heroic sailor of the eighteenth century. Morison loved the sea, and this biography is a tribute to that love. The author goes beyond a narrow naval context to establish Jones as a key player in the American Revolution, something not done by previous biographers, and explains what drove him to his achievements. At the same time, Admiral Joseph Callo fully examines Jones's dramatic military achievements—including his improbable victory off Flamborough Head in the Continental ship Bonhomme Richard—but in the context of the times rather than as stand-alone events.

The book also looks at some interesting but lesser-known aspects of Jones's naval career, including his relationships with such civilian leaders as Benjamin Franklin. This is a great biography from one of America's finest historians.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Poem for April

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Perfect Elevator

The Intuitionist 

The Intuitionist

“What does the perfect elevator look like, the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks? We don't know because we can't see inside it, it's something we cannot imagine, like the shape of angels' teeth. It's a black box.”   ― Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist

This was my introduction to Colson Whitehead and he made a favorable first impression. The story is set in the middle of the twentieth century in a large metropolis, reminiscent of New York City, full of skyscrapers and other buildings requiring vertical transportation in the form of elevators. The time, while never identified explicitly, is one when black people are called "colored" and integration is a current topic. The protagonist is an African American elevator inspector named Lila Mae Watson. Watson is already marginalized by her race and sex, and her adherence to the Intuitionist method of elevator inspecting causes her to be further ostracized by her fellow inspectors, who are Empiricists. Intuitionists like Lila Mae assess an elevator’s “health” by listening to it and feeling its vibrations. Once in contact with the elevator, an Intuitionist just knows whether or not it is “healthy.” The competing school, the "Empiricists," insists upon traditional instrument-based verification of the condition of the elevator by getting into their shafts and checking the mechanisms to see if they meet specifications. Watson is the second black inspector and the first black female inspector in the city.

Lila Mae is very dedicated to her work and has an outstanding inspection record that earns her the prestigious assignment of inspecting the elevators in the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building. Then, disaster strikes. Elevator number eleven of the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building crashes in a free fall shortly after her inspection. It is an election year in the Elevator Guild, and the Intuitionists and the Empiricists have both put forth candidates for the position of guild chair. Consequently, Lila Mae is convinced that the Empiricist candidate, Frank Chancre, who has known connections with powerful underworld figure Johnny Shush, has had the elevator sabotaged. Discrediting her, an Intuitionist, will cause the Intuitionist candidate, Orville Lever, to lose favor.

The failure of the elevator inspected by Lila Mae also leads to a search for the roots of intuitionism. The result is a metaphysical meditation on the possibility of a perfect elevator. For those, like this reader, who are interested in history, science, and ideas this is a great read and was an auspicious start for the author.