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.