Sunday, September 23, 2018

Blinded by Her Vanity

or The Fortunate Mistress 


“Thus blinded by my own vanity, I threw away the only opportunity I then had to have effectually settled my fortunes, and secured them for this world; and I am a memorial to all that shall read my story, a standing monument of the madness and distraction which pride and infatuations from hell run us into, how ill our passions guide us, and how dangerously we act when we follow the dictates of an ambitious mind.”  ― Daniel Defoe, Roxana

Daniel Defoe published all of the great works of fiction that he is remembered for today in a span of a half decade between 1719 and 1724. Prior to this he was a noted journalist. This period began with the famous Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and ended with his final novel, Roxana or The Fortunate Mistress, in 1724. It is supposed to be a biography of one Madamoselle Beleau, the lovely daughter of French Protestant refugees, brought up in England and married to a good-for-nothing son of an English brewer.

Roxana's husband squanders his property and abandons his wife and five children. She enters upon a career of a mistress, first to the landlord in whose house she and her husband were renting, and then to a series of wealthy aristocrats and businessmen in three countries, England, France and Holland. She acquires her name of "Roxana," traditionally given to stage actresses, after she had returned to London from Europe, having become a famous courtesan.

She is accompanied in her adventures by a faithful maid, Amy, a very lively, attractive and intelligent woman. After many adventures with many men and women, most of whom amazingly, are good decent people who do not take advantage of a beautiful abandoned woman in distress (hence the title of the story—"The Fortunate Mistress"), she finally marries a Dutch merchant who has been her long time lover and friend and even the father to one of her sons. However, in a rather a hurried end to the story, the husband discovers the deceitful and immoral life his wife has led and dies shortly after leaving a her a small sum of money.

Interestingly, the ending of Roxana is shrouded in dispute. In Defoe's original version the protagonist does not die, but repents for the life she has lived, and that too—according to Roxana herself—only because she comes to an unhappy end after the death of her husband. However, the book, because it was published anonymously (as was often the case with fictitious histories in those days) and then went through several questionable editions, later interpolators gave the story various endings, all of which has the protagonist die repenting her life full of sins.

Even more interesting, and important for the future of fiction, is Defoe's focus upon the interior drama of Roxana's moral decay, the psychological turmoil of a woman who willfully chooses the glamorous life of a courtesan over the duller, but honorable, life of a married woman. The result of her decision leads to a downward spiral from which she is unable to escape. Thus Defoe's last novel is his one and only tragedy.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

"Harmless" History

The Plot Against America 

The Plot Against America

“And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as "History," harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”   ― Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

In 2004 Philip Roth, having twice won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer among many other awards, published an alternative historical novel starring none other than himself and his family. Set in Newark, New Jersey as were several of his earlier novels, including American Pastoral, this genre was a departure for the author. It is an alternative history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as antisemitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels. Roth based his novel on the isolationist ideas espoused by Lindbergh in real life as a spokesman for the America First Committee, and on his own experiences growing up in Newark, New Jersey.

In Roth's story, as the decade of the thirties nears its end, many Americans are so afraid that President Franklin D. Roosevelt is leading the country into the war in Europe that, rather than Wendell Wilkie, the Republican Party nominates Charles A. Lindbergh, the hero who was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo. Surprising many, especially concerning American Jews, Lindbergh wins the election. Jews are concerned because Lindbergh not only has admired the German Luftwaffe but also has accepted a medal from Adolf Hitler himself, a clear sign of his pro-German sympathies.

A nine-year-old Philip Roth narrates events centering on the Roth family -- his father and mother, Herman and Besse, and his older brother, Sandy. They and their friends in the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, are terribly upset by the election and fear the worst. They suspect that the kinds of anti-Semitism that Hitler has propounded and is rapidly carrying out in Germany and in the parts of Europe that he has conquered will, under Lindbergh’s administration, begin to happen in the United States. The first experience that they have of this intolerance comes during a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are expelled from their hotel despite their confirmed reservations. They are instead sent to a hotel that will accept Jews. This outrage is followed by a scene in a cafeteria where the family experiences anti-Semitic slurs.

Not all Jews believe as Herman Roth believes in the growing danger. A rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, supports the new administration and soon becomes head of the Office of American Absorption. This new office is established to promote Lindbergh’s plan to disperse Jews from enclaves, such as the one in which the Roths live in Newark, to other parts of the country, presumably promoting their assimilation into the American mainstream. After years of working for an insurance company in Newark, Herman Roth is reassigned to Danville, Kentucky under this plan, but rather than accept the assignment, he resigns and goes to work instead for his brother’s produce business. Sandy Roth, meanwhile, is enticed into a program called “Just Folks,” another attempt to foster Jewish assimilation, and spends the summer on a farm in Kentucky with a typical “American” family. He comes back with a southern accent and views quite opposed to those of his father. A neighbor’s family, the Wishnows, is forced to accept the reassignment and also goes to Danville, Kentucky. Later, Mrs. Wishnow is killed in a violent attack against Jews as she tries to drive home one night.

The novel includes several noted historical characters: Father Coughlin, the extremist Catholic priest who fulminates against Jews; Walter Winchell, the Jewish newspaper reporter and media celebrity whose Sunday night radio broadcasts the Roth family and their friends dutifully listen to each week, and who at one point runs for president against Lindbergh, only to be assassinated for his efforts; the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who is honored by a state dinner at the White House by President and Mrs. Lindbergh; Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, who is an eloquent spokesperson and a champion of civil rights; and many others. The picture of the United States under the Lindbergh administration is a very grim, even terrifying one. Although Roth insists he intended no allusion to politics in the twenty-first century, his novel clearly posts a warning for what might happen should American civil liberties suffer increased depredations.

Roth even brings into The Plot Against America the notorious kidnapping case of the 1930’s, in which the Lindberghs’ infant son was stolen. In his imagined reconstruction of events, the baby is not killed (as he was in actual fact) but taken by the Nazis and brought up in Germany as a good member of the Hitler Jugend. Events at the end of the novel culminate with the disappearance of Lindbergh himself and subsequent anti-Jewish riots in many cities across the United States in which 122 Jews lose their lives. Lindbergh, however, has not been kidnapped but has fled to Germany, using the Spirit of St. Louis for his escape, and is never seen again. Eventually, law and order are restored (thanks in part to the efforts of Mrs. Lindbergh), the Democrats take over Congress, and Roosevelt wins his unprecedented third term as president.

Using young Philip as narrator and central character in the novel gives it a compelling perspective. The care with which his confusion and terror are rendered makes the novel as much about the mysteries of growing up as about American politics. I thought the narrative presented a realistic portrayal of the fears, both psychological and physical, of the close-knit Jewish community. However the themes of confusion and a fear in the face of the growing evil in Europe heightened by the isolation and change within America are universal as they mirrored similar feelings during our own very real history of Cold War and subsequent events. This is a very good novel from the pen of one of the great literary lions of our lifetime.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Dreamer and Healer

The Hummingbird's Daughter 

The Hummingbird's Daughter

"Dreamers, Huila said, held great knowledge, and much medicine was worked in dream time. But it was hard to learn to dream, or at least to dream beyond the confines of the peasant's dreams. . .  Huila was talking about something wholly other, some dream that no one could explain. Where you could walk into tomorrow, or visit far cities." Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird's Daughter

This compulsively readable novel buzzed with family drama based on memorable characters and engaging historic events. The author has an expansive style that I found reminiscent of the larger novels of John Steinbeck, like East of Eden, based on detailed depiction of character and family juxtaposed with adventures that were sometimes brutally realistic augmented by a lyrical depiction of nature.

The author uses the historical information he gathered over years of research to form the framework for a beautiful and lyrical story of a young girl’s coming-of-age and self-discovery during the politically unstable period in Mexican history preceding the revolution of 1910. Urrea fleshes out the characters, the period, the locations, and the trials and tribulations of daily life. He vividly depicts a time and place that was unfamiliar to this reader.

The novel is filled with beautiful lyricism, particularly in the first half, as in this passage describing the journey from Sinaloa to Sonora: "And in the trunks of the oldest trees, among the stones in the creek beds, buried in the soil, lying among the chips of stone kicked aside by the horses, the arrowheads of long-forgotten hunters, arrowheads misshot on a hot morning, arrowheads that passed through the breast of a raiding Guasave, gone to dust now like the bowman and scattered, arrowheads that brought down deer that fed wives and children and all of them gone, into the dirt, blowing into the eyes and raising tears that tumbled down the cheeks of Teresita."

Passages such as this one reveals Urrea’s background as a poet, as well as the extent of his research. The narrative is filled with descriptions of scenery and plant life: “Desert marigold. Threadleaf groundsel. Paleface flower. Texas silverleaf. Sage. Desert calico. Purple mat.” Food also figures prominently; many meals are described in full, such as the following: “[Don Tomás] ate chorizo and eggs, calabaza and papaya, a bowl of arroz cooked in tomato sauce with red onions sprinkled over it, coffee and boiled milk, and three sweet rolls.” To enhance the ambiance, Urrea throws in a mix of Spanish words and phrases: Don Tomás calls the men such uncomplimentary names as pinches cabrones and pendejos. There are exclamations of Por Dios! and lamentations such as Qué barbaridad! When a swarm of bees descends on a local cantina, the people cry Muchas abejas! When Don Tomás flirts with a local girl, he utters piropos, or compliments to flatter her.

Through Teresita’s eyes, the simple, traditional lifestyle of the Indians is contrasted with the more modern lifestyle of the wealthy whites. As a little girl, she is amazed by the grandeur of Don Tomás’s house; she gingerly climbs the steps, something she has never seen before leading up to the front door, then she tries the porcelain doorknob that allows her to enter into the equally amazing interior: the floors of polished wood (not dirt), the beautiful furnishings, a library full of books that only the educated white men (Don Tomás and Aguirre) can read, the grandfather clock, which she thinks is a tree with a heartbeat. This unauthorized first venture, like Alice’s into Wonderland, is what leads her aunt to beat her. Nevertheless, Teresita is eventually welcomed into the house permanently once her father realizes that she is his daughter.

Teresita, who adopted the name because she admired the Catholic Saint Teresa, blossoms into a beautiful young woman, sympathetic, kind, and with a unique sensibility which is the result of her dual upbringing. Don Tomás allows her to continue her apprenticeship with Huila as a curandera at the same time that he indoctrinates her in the ways of the Europeans. What Teresita learns about plants and other natural cures is combined with a peculiar dose of Catholicism as practiced by Huila and the rest of the native population, who still offer up a glass of tequila or a bolillo to God as their ancestors had done for their native gods. As with Saint Teresa, Teresita wishes to “ease suffering.” Hence, even before her miraculous arising from the dead, she has entered onto the pathway of her life’s work.

The narrative is an intriguing mix of horrific tragedy and Magical Realism. The brutality of the era figures constantly in the background, where whites slaughter Indians and Indians slaughter whites. There are mutilations, tortures, kidnappings. The People are starving, working under grueling conditions for their white masters, yet there is hope.

The book’s title derives from a nickname for Teresita’s mother. Cayetana was known as the hummingbird. The hummingbird was believed by the People to be a messenger of God. As with other messengers of God, Teresita is persecuted and driven from her home. The initial move of Don Tomás from Sinaloa to Sonora foreshadows their last and final move, from Mexico to the United States. The whole of the book blends historical fiction, family saga, and magical realism, all blended with a lyrical style that made this a great read.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Scheherazade and Her Tales

The Arabian Nights 
translated by
Sir Richard Francis Burton 

The Arabian Nights

“Scheherazade had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”  ― Richard Francis Burton, The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night 

This is the selection of tales of The Arabian Nights as translated by Sir Richard F. Burton and published by The Modern Library. The story of Scheherazade's ingenuity is of Persian origin and its origin has been traced back to 944 AD. However the tales are more Arabian than Persian in flavor. Over the centuries the tales multiplied and eventually comprised an convoluted form that has been a source of admiration as a miracle of narrative architecture. While Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are similar to them in construction, in that they are collections of stories within stories, the Arabian tales is infinitely more complicated.

The frame of the work consists of a whimsical plot arrangement that depends upon the jealousy of Shahriyar, King of India, for his wife and her wanton ways; after executing her he vows to take his revenge on wall woman-ways. Night after night he marries some beautiful girl, only to order her beheaded the next morning. That is until he meets Scheherazade whose wile and intelligence is more than a match for the King. She manages to spin a bewildering number of yarns and, by suspending the ending of each, eludes the executioner. The tales she tells include such stories as "Aladdin's Lamp" and "Sinbad the Sailor" and many more that, while less famous, are equally entertaining. 
"the most marvelous article in this Enchanted Treasure was a wonderful Lamp with its might of magical means." (p 712, "Alaeddin; or, The Wonderful Lamp")

The resulting compendium of stories has been popular ever since inspiring many translations and different forms. This translation by Richard F. Burton may be the most entertaining of all. In 1888 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed "Scheherazade", a tone poem in four movements, capturing the elemental emotions on display in the original collection of stories. The composition is a brilliant demonstration of Rimsky-Korsakov's superior skills of orchestration resulting in wonderful listening; it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child (Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev).

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Conspiracy in the Near Future

Lock In 

Lock In (Lock In, #1)

“Heads could be heavily customized, and a lot of younger Hadens did that. But for adults with serious jobs, that was déclassé, which was another clue to Schwartz’s likely social standing.”   ― John Scalzi, Lock In

Reading Lock In was a comfortable experience as it had many of the hallmarks of a John Scalzi novel and it was the fourth of his novels I have read - hopefully not my last. Lock In relates the consequences of an incurable disease; however the cause of the virus or as it is known in Lock In “Haden Syndrome” is irrelevant. Lock In is a futuristic conspiracy thriller. The pandemic that led to the spread of this virus killed many millions, but also left many with "locked in" bodies that could be maintained even while immobilized.

The main character in Lock In is Agent Chris Shane, who is starting his first week as a full agent for the FBI. Agent Shane is one of the Locked In, he gets around by using a Threep, an artificial body that connects to his mind so he can interact with people that are still able-bodied. Agent Shane’s first week also coincides with a strike being held by the Haden community, as a bill has recently been passed by the government that will cut funding significantly from subsidies and programs that support Haden sufferers.

Through Agent Shane and his partner Agent Vann - whose work specifically deals with those who have Haden Syndrome - different perspectives are demonstrated between the people affected with Haden’s and the people who do not understand them. In their daily routine, as they're called to the scene of a murder, we instantly see that there is misunderstanding and discrimination between Haden’s and normal humans which is escalates throughout the story. Scalzi develops his characters well - though Agent’s Shane and Vann at the beginning of the book have only just met there is a good camaraderie between them, it feels like an odd couple pairing, but you can see the trust building between a veteran agent and the rookie.

This book also focuses on the differences between the rich and poor in society. John Scalzi poses the question - what makes us human? When a virus has rewired 5 million people’s brains in the US alone, allowing them to do things that the un-afflicted are unable to do, does this make you more or less human? With access to Threeps, for some travel is now instantaneous, while for others race and gender are no longer an issue. This has a concomitant affect by also causing tensions where previously there were none. I felt that this sociological aspect really grounded the characters in their reality. They also became real as Agent Shane demonstrates emotions that one would not expect from a machine.

This is an inventive sci-fi story, with so many ideas floating around (another Scalzi specialty) that you should feel disorientated and yet it is so well written that you never feel frustrated or lost by what has not yet been revealed. This reader felt the technology levels were not beyond my comprehension; they appeared to be reasonable given the current direction of technical progress. The political and business aspects that are based on power struggles work really well in this context. If you have never read anything by John Scalzi, this is a good place to start; and if you have read some Scalzi I can reassure you that he is on top of his game in this novel.