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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"American Pastoral" by Philip Roth

The protagonist of Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" should be listed as one of the great tragic figures of American literature.  Seymour "Swede" Levov is a literary character like many people I have met throughout my life.  His story is complex inasmuch as we understand quiet suffering and normalcy bias to be complex--like the type of people who come across as if nothing ever happened in their lives other than perfect success.  Internally, however, the story is incomprehensibly tragic.  As a young man, "Swede" Levov is Newark's super athlete, a young man whose success in the baseball/football field and basketball court is both record-setting and instant legend.  The Jewish community looks up to him as a cultural savior, and showers him with admiration often reserved for professionals or politicians.  "Swede" doesn't let it get to his head, the narrator tell us, and his calm demeanor, patient and collected posture assures everyone that his future is to be one full of success and greatness.

The narrative is driven by the voice of Nathan Zuckerman, the famous Roth protagonist/character.  Zuckerman is a few years younger than the "Swede" and looks up to him, admiring him just like everyone else in Newark.  But the years pass, and when "Swede" Levov and Nathan Zuckerman meet again, Zuckerman appears as a harsh critic, condemning Levov's seemingly "perfect" life.  Zuckerman seems to think that "Swede's" life was too bland, nothing that happened after his athletic career came to an end (military and business success, marries the beauty queen, etc.) is good enough in the eyes of the narrator.  Zuckerman walks away feeling that the famous "Swede" turned into a bland, mere mortal, not a fitting end to a figure of mythical proportion.  Later in the story, Zuckerman finds out what ails the "Swede" from Jerry Levov ("Swede's" brother, his best friend in school).  In addition, the narrative point of view is complex, changing and varying point of views appear throughout.  Zuckerman's criticism of "Swede" is more disappointment than character judgment, so the reader doesn't seem to take a stand either for or against him.  

Historically, the novel takes place through a stretch of years in which America was socially transformed; this adds to the upheaval and confusion the characters experience throughout the narrative.  From World War II years to the chaotic late 1960s/early 1970s, the chronological line doesn't seem that long, but considering the change and mutation of American values over the course of 20 to 25 years it appears as a lifetime.  The "Swede's" life is turned inside out by his daughter Merry, who goes from a sweet, little girl with a speech impediment, to anti-war activist and political terrorist.  Throughout the narrative, the superhuman effort by the "Swede" is to conceal his pain, hold his life together and run his business successfully.  This passage, I believe, carries the real meaning of the novel as it appears not only to "Swede" and Zuckerman, but to anyone whose heart was painfully squeezed by the story: 
"That people were manifold creatures didn't come as a surprise to the Swede, even if it was a bit of a shock to realize it anew when someone let you down.  What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would once have felt sorry for.  It was as though while their lives were rich and full they were secretly sick of themselves and couldn't wait to dispose of their sanity and their health and all sense of proportion so as to get down to that other self, who was wholly deluded down to that other self, the true self, who was a wholly deluded fuckup.  It was as though being in tune with life was an accident that might sometimes befall the fortunate young but was otherwise something for which human beings lacked any real affinity.  How odd.  And how odd it made him seem to himself to think that he who had always felt blessed to be numbered among the countless who had always felt blessed to be numbered among the countless unembattled normal ones might, in fact, be the abnormality, a stranger from real life because of his being so sturdily rooted."  

"American Pastoral" is not a lineal, traditional narrative.  I can imagine that many readers might feel disappointed by the end of the novel, but the "hold-your-breath-nothing happens" effect is not really what this novel is about.  There's a certain amount of inference required of the reader, not just your run-of-the-mill "trust the author on this one" type of reading, and this might present a challenge to the inexperience Roth reader.  Nevertheless, "American Pastoral" is one of those books whose lessons remain with you, a clear and classic example of how literature can help us understand the raw emotions of life and leave us better for it.

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

"Boredom" by Alberto Moravia

"Boredom" by Alberto Moravia is one of those novels that remains undetected until a big series of republications bleeps it out into the literary radars.  I picked it up at Barnes & Noble for $4.95 in a reprint from the New York Review of Books "classics" series.  I wasn't planning on reading it but after finishing "The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker I sort of fell into the "drone" of the hyper-introspective male narrator voice, and wanted more of the same highly intellectual, philosophical, hair-splitting story-telling.

The story revolves around a middle-aged artist who has decided not to paint.  He is filled with boredom, which he describes as his inability to have any connection to real things.  Most of the novel revolves around the definition of boredom with the action and descriptive pull of the story as the fuel to that drive for definition.  He becomes involved with a young model named Cecilia and uses her as a laboratory rat for his "travels" in and out of boredom.  What he doesn't count on is her extreme elusiveness.  The young woman is a master of the art of lying, and the long stretches of conversation among them (more like interrogations by the jealous artist) are an example of amazing artistry on the part of Moravia.  Here, as in the many long passages on the nature of "boredom," Moravia "splits hairs" about the seemingly most insignificant matters, but at the same time revealing the intellectual pleasure of delving deep into psychological and philosophical matters that otherwise would appear, well, boring (no pun intended) on the page.  The narrator eventually finds out that the young model is being "unfaithful" to him with another man, an actor named Luciani.  The narrator's drive to find out the truth appears to him as a deterrent to his boredom, but unfortunately it is entirely the contrary. The entire definition/redefinition/classification and reclassification of the story elements make the narrator appear as a very confused chess player trying in vain to make sense of a irrational match.


The narrator does not know where to find the truth, and even as his own eyes appear to deceive him, he resorts to his obsessive thought-process.  But the only thing of which I was not capable was resigning myself to Cecilia's elusiveness, accepting it, and, in short, calmly sharing her favors with Luciani.... so did I seek to console myself by telling myself that, while I knew that Cecilia went to bed with the actor, the latter did not know that she went to bed with me.  In other words, I now found myself, in relation to Luciani, more or less in the position of a lover in relation to an ignorant husband, and no lover was ever jealous of a husband, precisely because knowing, in certain cases, means possessing and not knowing means not possessing.  It was a wretched consolation, but it helped me to pass the time with calculations of the following kind: I knew about Luciani and Luciani did not know about me, consequently Cecilia had been unfaithful to him with me and not to me with him.  Finally there was the question of the money, as there had been with Balestrieri: I gave her money and Luciani not merely did not give her any but spent my money with her; therefore she was making me, not him, pay her, and consequently was in a way unfaithful to him with me.  However, it was not impossible that she was going with Luciani for love and with me for money, therefore she was being unfaithful to me with Luciani.  But Cecilia attributed no importance to money.  Money therefore had perhaps a sentimental significance between her and me, and since the actor did not give her any money, perhaps she was being unfaithful to Luciani with me.  And so on, ad infinitum."  

While the plot runs throughout with passages very much like this one, the novel is driven by a subtle amount of action that does not interrupt the inquisitive stream of consciousness-like thought process of the narrator.  This is where I believe the artistry of the novel resides... Moravia is able to (much like Nicholson Baker in "The Anthologist") straddle that line between the useless "hair-splitting" and the philosophical examination and get it down on paper in a very pure state.  To engage the reader at that level, and to get readers to continue passing the page while at the same time putting down these type of passages of deeply introspective ruminations that could potentially bore the average reader... well, to do that and to do it well is art exemplified.

There is no real revelation for the protagonist/narrator at the end.  Yet, having said that, this novel drives itself by the mere force of its art and its amazing depiction of the obsessive human mind at work.  Perhaps that is exactly where the core of existence resides... that we may struggle for meaning and definition while the continued examination never really ends.  "Boredom" is Alberto Moravia's "Ulysses" but with a far better and more traditional plot.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

"The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker is regarded by many people in literary circles as a quiet genius.  "The Anthologist" might just be the biggest proof of it.  Baker does not stand out outside of literary fiction circles as other massively popular writers; perhaps this is one of those immeasurable gifts to devoted readers of the genre.  I only knew Baker from a non-fiction perspective "The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber", despite having copies of "Vox" and "Fermata" that I have never gotten to.

"The Anthologist" is an intimate story.  Paul Chowder is a poet seemingly obsessed with proving to the world that the basis of all poetry is the four beat count.  He is struggling to write the introduction to an anthology of works that he believes will prove his theory.  Amid the daily ordinariness of his life, Chowder struggles with everything from procrastination to personal relationships, and the reader is taken for an intimate look at the psyche of a very (and I mean very) delicate individual.  Paul Chowder may be obsessed with his four beat theory, but he's one of those fictional characters that make us look at ourselves and the mass of inexplicable factors who make up personality and psychology.  The illustrations of absent-mindedness and never-ending rolling thoughts, the ease with which he branches off into a million different directions of distraction captures procrastination is like nothing I've ever read before.  This is just one of the many charms of this book, along with the numerous examples of poetry Chowder dissects to show his theories of rhythm.

Chowder also injects an incredible amount of information about literature and poetry into just a few passages of the book.  Nicholson Baker is amazing this way.  The intricate details of poetry and any other literary variables come into play in the narrative with powerful displays of what appears on the surface as "useless information."  To the "trained" eye, of course, these passages are the building blocks of making a genius come to life on the page.  Baker fleshes out Paul Chowder in just this way, and the result is simply perfect.  In regards to the popular latin phrase Carpe diem, Chowder explains, "Horace didn't say that. 'Carpe diem' doesn't mean seize the day--it means something gentler and more sensible. 'Carpe diem' means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be 'cape diem,' if my school Latin serves. No R. Very different piece of advice.  What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day's stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things--so that the day's stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand. Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant--pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don't freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it. That's not the kind of man that Horace was."  Of course many people would read this passage and complain about the unnecessary splitting of hairs, but there is something deeper here, and Chowder (through Baker) hit the proverbial nail dead-center on the head.  What is represented here is the thought process of genius at work, and the difficulty of getting it down on paper again and again through the novel is just what makes this novel so amazing.

There are numerous passages like this one, and they vary with the ordinary moments of Paul Chowder's life.  The bulk of the narrative feels like a train wreck about to happen, for Chowder is facing a great deal of unknowns with each passing day he does not complete the introduction to his anthology.  His lover leaves him, he is not writing poetry or submitting for publication, and things simply do not look good for Chowder.  The reader, however, is not just rooting for Paul Chowder... the reader becomes (and is) Paul Chowder in many, many ways.

The novel is charming due to its lovable character, but there is an under-current of meaning and literary detail here that goes beyond its 243 pages.  It is the core of its simplicity--the flow of a narrative full of descriptive detail, literary insight and even psychological perspective-- that makes Nicholson Baker a master of the form and a genius of a curious and rare kind.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

"A Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo

The impact of a book like "A Rumor of War" is forceful in many intimate ways.  This is not just a "war story," but a story of a truth so devastating few of us would look at it directly without blinking.  The narrative is personal and its honesty so palpable as to leave the reader wondering whether (if given the opportunity) he/she would write so openly about a topic so profoundly wounding.  I am not sure if Philip Caputo set out from the start to delve into the deepest pool of honesty, or if the narrative was carefully constructed by hinting and tapping the ugliness of the experience just enough to get it down on paper... what comes across, however, is one of the most bare and sincere books I have ever read.  Philip Caputo opens up about his experiences in Vietnam in a way that leaves him completely vulnerable and naked.  The courage it takes to write it all down in this fashion is astonishing.  Few men would readily admit to even a microscopic fraction of what Caputo embraces as his reality and his experience.  "A Rumor of War" is simply the best book on the Vietnam war; its excellence is without equal.  I have had this book for years and just this past week decided to finally read it.  I am still trying to get over the remorse of not having done it sooner.

I was 14 years old when "A Rumor of War" was turned into a television movie.  The book had been published in 1977 (I own a first print copy I purchased a few years ago), just two short years after the fall of Saigon.  The movie left a bitter taste in my mouth due to the fact that we lost two family members in that ill-conceived war, and my father and mother watching with me that night were divided in opinion, going back at each other regarding the spectrum of politics.  I remember that was bothered me the most was not my parents' comments but the fact that the personal story was lost to both of them.  The movie was not about the shoot'em up, run-between-the-raindrops, dash and stab action of most war movies from previous conflicts.  "A Rumor of War" was the first narrative to come out of that war to embrace the personal, the emotional, the recognition that something had reached a higher-level of insanity in the ridiculously insane act of war.  There is, of course, little a made-for-television movie can do to convey the message of the book, but even at the tender age of 14 (when nothing was more important to me than getting to 17 so I could join the Marine Corps) I understood that the idealism behind what push men to die for God and country was a fragile idealism, a dangerously thin crystal that could shatter at the softest of air drifts or bumps.  I never forgot the experience of watching the movie, and even when the "barrage" of Vietnam movies began to flood the movie theaters in the mid to late 1980s, it was always "A Rumor of War" that stayed with me.  I did join the United States Marine Corps before finishing high school, and left for boot camp less than a week after graduation.

Caputo's story grows and branches out into vast realities.  The ugliness of the war is there, vivid, palpable and without compromise... so is the suffering of the men.  As a young lieutenant, Caputo is forced to lead men into the madness of seemingly suicide missions against an enemy they couldn't see or find, in an environment that would drive most people mad in just a few days.  What Caputo does best in this book is to balance that ugliness with how it affected him and the men around him.  There is a strand of the story that is clearly psychological and here Caputo captures it raw--it's as if we have been asked to look into a microscope and into the psyche of men at war.  The reader can't help to stop at points and ask "how is this even possible, how could someone survive this?"  The truth Capote exposes is that they really didn't.  The dead died horrible deaths (which Caputo retells in detail as he is sent to HQ to become "the officer in charge of the dead," responsible for writing the after-action reports for the killed in action and other casualties).  Men also died horrible emotional deaths, psychological wounds that are still bleeding to this day.  His bitterness boils over and the beginning of this shattering idealism takes a hold of him as one of his duties is to write the statistics on a board at headquarters so the higher-ups could decide which encounter with the enemy was successful and which one was not.  It all became a game of statistics and ratios--the entire war did.

Caputo shows how the entire machinery of war functions just like a private sector enterprise.  You have career-driven people who care about nothing more than advancing their own path, even at the expense of other people's lives.  You have these same people obsessed with liability, the ones who are always on the look out to make sure that the paper trail never leads back to them, that their names are never associated with any disaster... "What do you mean? I delegated that to so-and-so... I had nothing to do with that."  I think this was probably the most difficult part of the book for me to read, really, not because things like that happened to me in the Marine Corps, but because they certainly happened to me in the private sector.  The details of ground combat operations, of seemingly suicide patrol missions and the inconveniences of the environment (monsoon season, extremely hot temperatures, the variables of field pain-in-the-ass everyday bullshit) were not as painful to read as those parts where Caputo unmasks the "faceless high-command."

The last part of the book, the part dealing with Caputo's potential court-martial is excruciating.  I am not going to recount it here but only to repeat what I started with regarding the honesty of the narrative.  How could anyone write so honestly about something so damaging, so painful and make it be so unwavering and unquestionably true is frankly beyond me.  Philip Caputo's ordeal at the end of his role as a platoon leader in Vietnam, and his ability to recount what happened with such openness is mind-twisting.  I don't think I have ever read an author leave himself so completely open and vulnerable as this section of Caputo's book.  His integrity and his courage are without equal.  He's not asking for us to "forgive" him because, after all, it was the war that did it... the war made men do things they would otherwise never do.  Caputo takes full responsibility for his actions.  The fact that at the end of it all the military bureaucracy comes to the conclusion it does seems to me a fitting end to the bitterness and ugliness of what Vietnam was, and how the higher-ups played a bloody game of chess with the lives of so many young American men.

This is a brutal book, a book that will shatter many misconceptions about the historical reality of Vietnam.  Americans have a funny disposition to make things less terrible as time passes--the usual "oh-that-happened-so-long-ago-and-it-wasn't-as-bad-as-I-remember-it."  "A Rumor of War" is a book that reminds us it REALLY was that terrible and certainly we should NEVER forget.

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

"The Journals of John Cheever" -- Painful Truths as Enlightenment

My fascination with John Cheever's work and life began with a photograph of the author in "The Writers' Desk" by Jill Krementz.  The photograph shows Cheever at his typewriter and is taken at a strange angle, as if the photographer was standing above the writer perhaps taking leave from him.  At any rate, the photographs in the book by Krementz come with a little blurb by the writers regarding their writing habits and desks.  John Cheever's words impressed me and since I first read them I haven't been able to shake them off.  I later went on to read Blake Bailey's biography "Cheever: A Life" while visiting Japan in 2012.  It wasn't a cheerful book to read, but Bailey's style and amazing capability for the facts made it an excellent biography and introduction to a complex subject.

I began "The Journals of John Cheever" as an experiment of sorts.  "The Stories of John Cheever" was a lengthy masterpiece; a book that ranks far above anything Cheever's contemporaries put out.  I knew that ahead of me were "The Wapshot Chronicle" and "The Wapshop Scandal" but these days are full of time-constraints and personal issues and the luxury of really delving into a book as these two volumes deserve seems like a distant memory.   So I "tackled" the journals instead expecting an entertaining and inspiring experience, sort of what I felt reading all three volumes of Christopher Isherwood's diaries.  The complexity of John Cheever "the man," far overshadows "the writer" throughout the journals.  It is not a book for the faint of heart, or even for someone with a propensity for melancholy or depression.  I do not say so in a negative way; rather, it is a sort of warning that this is a book to be approached seriously and with iron-like nerves.  It is inevitable to feel sympathy for the man.  Cheever's personality comes through not only because of the sincerity of his words but also because there is no way one could tackle the subjects he did, the way he did, while at the same time darkening and shadowing and covering up the "unpleasant" things of every day life.  I came to the journals hoping to learn something about the writing process of this magnificent genius, only to walk away thinking I sort of violated some mental health ethics principle by reading Cheever's psychologist/therapist's files on him.

John Cheever's son, Benjamin writes an extraordinary introduction in which he explains the process of how these journals were published.  He recounts the moment his father addressed him about the issue of publishing the journals after his death.  Candidly, Benjamin writes about the first reading of sections his father gave to him, and the tearful moments that followed.  "The Journals of John Cheever" explicitly follow the development of Cheever as a complex personality--not exactly from his youth (although he relates and philosophizes a great deal about how his past shaped him) but from the mature man struggling with his sexuality; with a marriage that was as complex as the two individuals involved; with the menacing presence of alcohol and his slow spiral towards alcoholism.  Throughout the journals Cheever tackles his sexual attraction toward men referring to it as homosexuality, despite many instances where he explicitly declares his preference for women.  He writes about sexual encounters with both men and women often times in great detail, and feels that generally his infidelity appears justified by his wife's coldness.  I don't really know what to make of this part of the journals because I don't have his wife's position on the matter.  A lot of these passages strike me so full of emotional pain that it makes me wonder why Cheever did not end up like Hemingway (a topic he refers to lightly as an enigma to be solved).  Of all the difficult passages to read regarding this matter, the one that moved me or reached me the most (in a painful way) was this one:  "I am the immoralist, and my failure has been the toleration of an intolerable marriage.  My fondness for pleasant interiors and the voices of children has destroyed me.  I should have breached this contract years ago and run off with some healthy-minded beauty.  I must go, I must go, but then I see my son in the orchard and know that I have no freedom from him."  I don't believe Cheever means anything negatively about his son in this passage; it's more like an acceptance of his own shortcomings more than an indictment of others.  There is another passage in which he compares his advances towards his wife in the marriage bed as trying to breach a castle under siege; a far more painful passage that I neglected to underline and cannot find presently.  It is difficult to point to Cheever's unhappiness in his marriage but the clues he gives are that of a man who is unhappy with the lack of intimacy in his marriage.  Whether it is because of Cheever's demands of his wife, or because his complex management of his bisexuality might remain unknown forever.  Of course this unhappiness, when combined to the demands of the writing life, leads to a painful alcoholism that robs Cheever of a great deal.

Then of the writing process there is very little.  John Cheever seems to have kept his writing process private, and whatever was left there by the editor of the journals (Robert Gottlieb with the assistance of the Cheever family) appears limited in scope.  There's more about "Falconer" in terms of the writing process and germinating of ideas, but even that is very limited.  What is on full display are Cheever's amazing powers of observation with the sharp writer's eye: "At the table on my right is a family.  The woman must have been pretty and is pretty no more, but she carries herself well and has her self-possession.  He is perhaps fifty, and there is no trace of what he must have been as a young man.  They order a moderately priced meal.  They have either agreed or been taught not to ask for the filet mignon.  Spaghetti and meatballs; the tuna-fish casserole.  They say almost nothing to each other during the meal, but they seem not in the least uncomfortable.  The daughter is pretty, but I can't see the fourth member, a son, until they leave the table, and when they do leave I see a cruelly crippled spastic whose smile is broad and maybe convulsive or maybe genuine.  Make him twenty.  Many of the other customers are women with children.  Does daddy teach a seven o'clock class?"  What we see here are the seminal moments of a story, a kaleidoscope turning and turning until it becomes the desired random design.  I got so much from this passage in terms of how one must approach observation and imagination and the creation of fiction that I wish I could find a way to train my eye in the same way.  But there is not methodology to this type of genius--you either have it or you don't.

"The Journals of John Cheever" are not for everyone.  If you are a literary history buff, you're better off with Blake Bailey's book.  If you are looking for the inside view of a complicated genius, for the way the mind of a tormented soul is able to operate and be fully productive despite its struggles, then the journals are for you.  Be mindful, however, that where the journals resonate with echoes of your own experience, the pages might become nearly unreadable.  I think that most of all the journals were a "literary experience" for me--a way of connecting with a man who, above all, fought for his artistic and human survival and won.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

If You Forget Me

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Robert Stone, 1937-2015

I read "Bear and His Daughter" in 1998, shortly after it was published.  It was the very first book I purchased the Saturday immediately after finishing graduate school, and one of the very first books I read for the pleasure after the "torturous" experience of writing a thesis.  Later I went on to read everything by Stone, among which "A Flag for Sunrise" is one of my great favorites.  I never failed to go to the "S" at the bookstore to see if I could find something by this great writer.  Rest easy, brother.


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Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Goodbye, Columbus" by Philip Roth

I didn't plan on reading "Goodbye, Columbus" this year.  This collection of short stories by the great Philip Roth wasn't even on my reading list, but finding a paperback copy in my local used bookstore for $1 changed all of that.

The title story is a touching narrative of a young man searching for meaning.  Neil Klugman's search for both identity and meaning seems a conventional one at the start.  He's a young man, and young men in 1950s America had visions driven by personal urges in a post-World War II America filled to the brim with the expectations of success.  He becomes involved with a young woman, Brenda, from a rich Jewish family.  Throughout the narrative, Neil navigates a confusing map of love, materialism, identity, race and gender roles.  This is what Roth does best by way of style.  He creates characters that walk a thin line between making the best of the lot given to them, their struggle to reject/change that lot, and ultimately the reemergence of an altogether new person.  Neil is the great observer of the Patimkin clan, Brenda's family.  In this process of observation, Neil's own struggle with identity and "Jewishness" is detailed with masterful strokes.  Neil recognizes these struggles, but remains objective, reserving judgment of himself while still giving others the benefit of confidence and intimacy.  There's a very touching scene with Ron Patimkin, Brenda's brother, in Ron's bedroom that reveals the source of the title in the story and is perhaps one of the most intimate and disarming scene written by Roth in his early career.  The story really shows a mature writer, a man with a great sense of style and the talent to bring it forth with a sense of realism and believability unmatched at the time.

The stories that follow the title-story are perhaps the source of Philip Roth's early notoriety.  In "The Conversion of the Jews," "Defender of the Faith," and particularly in "Eli, the Fanatic," Roth really straddled hot topics related to the Jewish faith and identity.  For this reason, Roth was labeled a "self-hating Jew," and call a number of other unflattering names.  I suspect that those judgments were made by people rushing to conclusions about the real meaning of the stories.  There's a level of artistry and literary sophistication in Roth's work that would elude the conventional reader.  I am not saying this to be a snob about literary matters, especially in defending one of my favorite writers.  Yet, I tried reading the stories from the point of view of a Jew, to see, if I could to the extent that I could, what the controversy and the hot-buttons were.  I failed not because I am not sensitive to the concerns of those who brought forth the charges of anti-Semitism against Roth, but I think there's a disconnect to the cultural and religious climate of 1959-1960, and with that disconnect (and in our post 9-11 world) it is impossible for us to see the reality of this fiction being NOT critical, but rather looking at these topics at a microscopic level.  "The Conversion of the Jews" in particular strikes me as just that, a satire of that very absurd understanding of what it means to follow religion and dogma.

Throughout the criticism and the "hard years," Philip Roth endured.  He announced his retirement from fiction writing not too long ago, and, while I knew I still had some of his books to read, I made a note of those I am still missing in order to keep them flowing at snail pace, to enjoy every drip of masterful writing and down-right genius.  Aside from his fiction, I read whatever he publishes by way of book reviews or social/political commentary.  I think Philip Roth is, like a handful of others I admire, a national treasure.  My next one is "American Pastoral" and I can't wait to delve into it with all I've got.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"The Strange Library" by Haruki Murakami

"The Strange Library" by Haruki Murakami is one of those little books that borders between short-story, novella or something else, and is, most of all, indicative of Murakami's vast genius.  The slim volume reminds me of "Pinball 1973" and "Hear the Wind Sing," both of which I have in the original Kodansha English editions (now collectors' items, Amazon.com lists Pinball 1973 at $249).  Recently, I read a report about "Pinball 1973" being "retranslated" and publish vastly by his new publishers.  I am sure those who enjoyed Murakami's most recent surrealist fiction (1Q84) will love both of these early works.

"The Strange Library" is surrealist to the max.  I have described Murakami's surrealist style as sort of walking into a Salvador Dali painting, and nothing proves that point more clearly than this story.  A young man is bamboozled into the cavernous bowels of a library in Tokyo by a shady old man.  There is nothing much menacing about the old man other than his ability to dispense guilt in order to get others to do his bidding.  The young man suffers imprisonment but the narrative is cast between the borders of some dream-like state and realism and his concern for his worrying mother (not making it back home for dinner time, etc.) dissipates in the face of unpredictable actions in the plot.  There are few characters but those that are there echo back to Murakami's early surrealism.  There is a sheep man, and a young lady of incomparable beauty, and both help the young man escape.

Once the plot begins to sail under the eyes of the reader, the story ends.  I am certain it was designed in such way.  The illustrations are excellent and the typeset is Typewriter and enlarged to the point where it almost feels like a children's book.  I don't think this was done with any intention of creating a novella out of a short story to turn into book form, but the enterprise almost feels like a tease to something larger... perhaps we can expect a 800 page novel some time this year?  We can only pray and hope.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"We All Went to Paris: Americans in the City of Lights" by Stephen Longstreet

There are only a few bad reviews on this blog.  These are books I couldn't find a single positive thing to write about.  Some people say it is dishonest to try and "force" yourself to say something "good" about a "bad" book.  I'm not quite sure I agree with that.  While I was teaching, I used to give at least some partial credit (very low at that) to dismally written papers--an "effort grade" as opposed to a "real" grade.  Despite the fact that I have been out of academia for four years, I believe the tradition has continued unto this blog.  Of course, there will always be "those" books that break the mold, and authors who defy and challenge the most basic idea of literary decency.

I don't want to dwell too much on this book because since I have nothing (literally nothing) good to say about it, I will make it as brief as possible.  I didn't know who Stephen Longstreet was before I picked up this book years ago.  It has been on my list for a while, but I neglected over the course of a year or two to pick it up.  The volume is part of a "re-print" series by Barnes & Noble books titled "Barnes & Nobles Rediscoveries."  I am always open to suggestions, even the commercially driven ones by mega-bookstores, but this book in particular makes me wonder about that single person in that perhaps "under-populated" committee that went about selecting titles for this series.  At any rate, "We All Went to Paris" suffers from a distinct lack of coherence, both narrative and chronological.  Stephen Longstreet strikes the reader as Nick Carraway's self-description during the opening chapter of "The Great Gatsby" when in an effort to justify his activities and his move to the "big city" he calls himself "that most limited of all specimens: the well-rounded man."  Longstreet is just that--he changed his names numerous times (he was born with Chauncey as his last name, later changed to Weiner, Wiener, plus others) landing on Longstreet finally.  He had success as a screenwriter, an artist and a writer.  The Broadway musical "High Button Shoes" is based loosely on his autobiography.  Being multi-talented is not the issue here; the problem stems specifically from the way "We All Went to Paris" was written.  First, the book is not listed or credited to him on the various bio pages found during a quick Google search.  There's another volume titled "The Young Men of Paris" and I suspect that "We All Went to Paris" was a late "rehashing" of this original title.  If someone out there would like to put me in my place about this, please leave a comment and I'll correct the entry.

Americans have been traveling and enjoying the city of Paris since long before 1776.  I think the cut-off date of 1776 was a way to declare the title "American" as distinctly political--a tactic that allows Longstreet to begin with clarity and with a strong premise about who exactly he is writing about.  The book's chronology is lineal enough during the first 2/3rds of the book, but right around the period of World War I, the narrative begins a hopscotch labyrinth that is confusing and distracting.  The close reader can see through the confusion, but I must wonder about the "untrained eye."  The segments regarding aerial combat by Americans flyers during World War I doesn't seem to belong in this book (since most of the action does not take place in Paris) and one has to wonder whether it was pasted here from another volume.  Stephen Longstreet writes about his friendship with William Faulkner, and I wonder if this part of the book is not included here in order to cater to that connection (more on this later).  The disjointed chronology continues for most of the 1920s and 1930s, a period which has been written about extensively.  It appears Longstreet tried some type of experimental chronology, a classic case of "remember-this-because-it-is-going-to-show-up-later-and-without-the-reference-you-will-be-lost."  The problems is that he does not allow for enough cultural references to indicate to the reader where the narrative is going next.  Again, the segment on World War I aerial combat is the most clear example of this.

Stephen Longstreet preaches quite a bit on this book, and this preaching takes away from both the credibility and the enjoyment of the narrative.  Early on in the book, he writes about the horrors of war (during the Revolutionary War), injecting some quick Vietnam era "anti-war" lines that are unnecessary and misleading (the book was published in 1972).  He writes about the torment of napalm, of the massacre at My Lai, of how humanity continually fails to learn, etc., etc.  It immediately discloses to the reader that the bulk of the writing of this book was conducted during the late 1960s (all the while he's writing about Benjamin Franklin in Paris).  I am certain this kind and good message has a place in both our history and our literature; I am uncertain that it is here.

One cannot write about Paris without writing about sex.  In fact, one cannot write about anything in particular nowadays without writing about sex.  Longstreet varies between the very explicit and the very censored, and in those passages where his explicitness gives way to pseudo-pornography, one has to wonder whether this particular act or that particular escapade being so clearly detailed is not part of the author's own sexual preferences.  This is not troubling, really, but the fact that the reader can read through it as clearly as that (and I confess NOT to be such a close reader, really) is like opening the drawers of Longstreet's dark cabinet.  I don't want to go there, and I suspect neither does the general reader.  He writes a great deal about lesbianism in Paris in the 1920s but does so from the perspective of someone intrigued by it in a "laboratory rat" way--sort of as in "I wonder why Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein never went to be together, or while Alice and Sylvia and their partners didn't do a foursome."  He doesn't detail it that way in the book, but the suggestions and darkness of his assessments regarding lesbians are down-right eerie.

"The Lost Generation" of American expatriates what went to Paris in the 1920s should provide enough material here to yield a good account.  Longstreet manages to foul this part of the book as well.  First, it is during this part of the book that the chronology becomes confusing.  Secondly, Longstreet lashes out against the previous biographers of this era as overly-romanticizing it.  When not romanticizing it, he writes, then academics in their tall ivory towers ruin it by their pedantic, unwarranted ownership of the era and their characters.  This sounds a little too self-serving to me, personally.  Longstreet's long stretch of criticism of other biographers of "The Lost Generation" is childish and irrelevant.  He proceeds, without much caution or dissimulation, to do exactly the same thing in his writing that he blames others are doing in theirs.  The writing about Gertrude Stein is full of holes and misrepresentations taken from books and sources he previously criticized as unreliable.  He surrenders his objectivity to the "academic criticism du jour" of bashing Ernest Hemingway as too macho, too much a liar, too mean and ugly and drunk and (imagine that) not as big a talent as everyone claims he was.  I tried very hard to overlook this childish, schoolyard recess attack because I did want to continue reading the book.  Ernest Hemingway to me is a writer, just that... I am not a fan, or a cult follower, but this type of criticism is not based on objective reading or characterization.  I heard and was expose to a lot of it while in college and especially graduate school.  Longstreet really sounds like the bitter competitor who didn't grow as famous or known as his competition.  Again, this is very childish and down-right idiotic.  He also dedicates a chapter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in which he writes very little about Fitzgerald.  His bitterness shines through in such a poor way it is nearly impossible to tolerate.  Also, the mention of Ezra Pound is so little that if the reader blinks at the wrong moment, he/she might miss it.

The art/sketches that are spread throughout the book are his, I am sure, and just like the epigrams at the start of each chapter they don't seem to belong where they are placed.  The epigrams (often one-liners) have absolutely nothing to do with the chapter that follow it.  Again, if this was Longstreet's way of being experimental, then I'll have to say that it sadly does not work.

Finally, there's a long epilogue where Longstreet quotes extensively from William Faulkner.  The epilogue aims to answer the question, well, "why did we all go to Paris?"  If this is constructed from simple notes on the conversation, then I am (being sarcastically mean here) impressed by Longstreet's ability to reconstruct a conversation at such length.  The impression one gets is that either 1) there was a voice recorder on during the meeting which Longstreet later transcribed, or 2) he made up most of it (a tactic he blasts all of "The Lost Generation" expatriates for engaging in).  I wonder if Faulker (a failed World War I flyer) wasn't the source behind Longstreet's inclusion of the misplaced historical chapters.

"We All Went to Paris" simply fails to deliver, and, as entertaining as many parts of it are, I cannot recommend it as worthwhile.  Sorry.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" by Jean Paul Sartre

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" by Jean Paul Sartre is not a beginner's introduction to the philosophy.  I think it is at times confused by many as an "easy read" because its slim appearance.  Nothing is ever easy with Sartre.  The book is divided into six parts (seven if you count "The Desire to be God" for two since it is divided into segments), and offers a view into Existentialism directly from the horse's mouth.

The book might be misleading as to its readability (to the uninitiated) because Sartre begins with an explanation of what Existentialism is and is not.  He tackles three major misconceptions/criticisms by both the religious and the secular, and delineates clearly that Existentialism as he advocates it drives at the core of the philosophy itself.  That is to say, as he postulates it, Existentialism is the reality of man, a reality based of an incorruptible drive to be free.  The corruption is done by others, of course, because at the core of this drive, things are exactly what they are and behind them is absolutely nothing.  It all becomes muddled and infested when elements of the artistic or the religious infect human existence.  Man is driven to definitions, Sartre explains, without realizing the answers are in front of him if only he would accept them as they are and not flock to the meaningless.  As a result, we see Existentialism differently from what the general public makes of it even today.  The religious in particular, charges Sartre, have given Existentialism a negative connotation.  He dismisses the additional charge or claim that since one has to accept what is in front of us, that Existentialism is then a philosophy of inaction.  On the contrary, Sartre illustrates that the drive for definition is a drive to become free, and that our own personal freedom accentuates the freedom of others.

The rest of the book is more complicated and takes a greater amount of background information to know and make the connections necessary to understand fully.  Sartre challenges the religious principle because it denies the freedom for man to actively pursue his reality.  This seems contradictory to the common eye, but there's more to the idea than just a counter-argument against religion.  He illustrates the principle that it is actually religion that leaves man to inaction, since the acceptance of fate in the religious what leads to that inaction.  The charge that "if there is no God, then everything is permissible" is a flawed argument, since Existentialism does not advocates the rights on one individual over the rights of another.  This is, I believe, comparable to the culture wars in the United States today.  To not agree with a specific view of the world today seems to automatically categorize certain people to being hate-filled or intolerant.  Sartre presents Existentialism here as a model of tolerance; he is an atheist who challenges the idea of religion without wanting to ban religion.  The core of the argument is not, however, as simplistic as that.  The nature of religion and how it clashes against the secular philosophy and its principles is incompatible with Existentialism.  Sartre sounds conciliatory, but the truth behind these principles is that man cannot be free as long as he is exposed to the "mythologies" of religion, since they adhere to diametrically opposing premises.

There is much complication in "Existentialist Psychoanalysis," but this is not because Sartre obfuscates the matter.  Psychoanalysis is complicated to begin with, and Sartre proposes that Existentialism can break psychoanalysis' dependence on "deconstruction" and rather espouses the capacity for the individual to rationally see what's in front of him, assess it, and choose his own path of action.  On the surface, this part of the book seems unreadable, but a caution-driven reading concentrating on the definition of the terms used and Sartre's own didactic sermonizing can offer clarity.  Sartre is not so much dismissive or critical of Freudian principles as he is like a surgeon, cutting deep in order to make these premises palpable.  "The Hole" is connected to the principles of psychoanalysis, and much sexual-driven counter-arguments are made here.

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" has much to offer today.  In fact, I wanted to title this post "Understanding the Mess We're In: An Existential Approach."  Recently, it seems like every aspect of American life has reached critical mass at the same time.  In other times, issues of race, gender, religion, economic inequality, education and identity moved in and out of the center spot with regularity.  The pendulum always seemed to follow its left-right, liberal-conservative swing driven by the consciousness of the population.  It doesn't seem that way anymore.  Americans need to reassess what it means to seek an individual freedom.  As per Sartre, the freedom we seek for ourselves adds to the freedom of others.  For as much as Americans speak of freedom and liberty, they presently seem to be missing the point entirely.  We must see things exactly as they appear before us and accept our own part in the world.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War" by Evan Wright

I just recently posted a review on my re-reading of "Dispatches" by Michael Herr, far considered as the best book about war by a correspondent.  In the interest of full disclosure, I will make the following confessions.  My coming to "Generation Kill" with an open mind and a "detached" reader attitude was down-right impossible.  One of the negative/positive attributes about having been a U.S. Marine is that one never really stops being one.  Because of this, one is simply incapable of offering objective criticism; the love of Corps far outweighs objectivity or logic and any criticism offered by an "outsider" is like the criticism a teacher might offer you about your first born... one really wants to listen and take it to heart but ultimately it comes down to the proverbial "thanks, but no thanks... we're just fine the way we are."  Having said that, I commend Evan Wright for his portrayal of the United States Marine Corps.  There are many positives to this book, and the narrative is one that gives an honest and compelling look into the life of the "Grunt."  There are many painful truths here that should be required reading to both newscast "experts" and political pundits alike.  The story is told in one big continuous sweep (seamless even between chapters).  In terms of style, this not only adds to the readability, but it also embodies the furious charge the Marines and Wright were engaged in during the opening salvo of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The book is written with brutal tone that brings the conflict to life with every passing page.  Wright also captures the idiosyncrasies and peccadillos of individual Marines both while in action and during down time, although I think some of the dynamics are overplayed and non-constructive from a critical point of view.   The humor, of course, is another thing altogether.  It is impossible for outsiders to know with certainty what exactly Marines mean with their vicious language and over-the-top brutality.  Boiling it down to the mere action of men engaged in a job seems to take the whole meaning of Spirit de Corps out of focus.  There's much passion in a job that requires risking one's life, looking out for the lives of those around you, all the while dodging bullets, rocket propelled grenades, etc., and this is where I think books by war correspondents lack the "juice" that would make an active duty Marine (or a retired one) nod his head in approval.  This is very difficult to explain.  The best example of what I mean here is what most D-Day veterans of World War II felt when "Saving Private Ryan" came out to the theaters.  I remember watching an interview with a group of veterans regarding the opening scenes at Utah and Omaha beaches, and how all of them agreed someone had finally gotten it right down to the sounds and all of the sensory elements.  "Short of being there," one of them said, "this is the close you'd ever get to that abattoir."

I think over all Evan Wright achieves a level of credibility that digs deep and scratches the authenticity of the experience.  The voices are all there, the sounds and the visuals are outstanding in their descriptive weight.  The effort to bring life to the personalities concentrates a bit too much on the bickering between trustworthy/non-trustworthy officers and distrusting/trusting non-commissioned/enlisted men.  While that has been a part of the war narrative since the beginning of armed conflict, "Generation Kill" is fueled too much from the chemistry of these clashes and ultimately dooms the objective point of view.  Writing about this book has been a challenge for me.  I didn't want to come across as the bitter veteran who dislikes and mistrusts journalists and scream "bullshit" when anyone outside the Marine Corps tries to write about the experience of grunts at war.  I had the same experience with Anthony Swafford's book "Jarhead," even though it was written by a brother Marine because it was preachy and pushy in a way books about war need not be.

I enjoyed "Generation Kill" tremendously.  Some things were there, some others were missing.... some things remain incommunicable no matter what.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Evelyn Waugh: The Genius of Style in "Brideshead Revisited"

"Brideshead Revisited" is one of those classics that seems to slip through the cracks of our literary attention.  The novel is one of those perpetual books on our reading lists; the book that for some reason one avoids because (even as book lovers) it is easy to evade books in general.  I was determined to tackle this gem.  Even after a few false starts, it was hard for me to pin-point the reasons why I had abandoned the venture after only a few pages of the prologue.  I was surprised at my own inability to forge on, to persevere.  The narrative is delivered from a first person perspective so it wasn't the matter of grappling with a third person angle hard for the reader to identify.  Suddenly it was clear to me: this was a matter of style, a beautifully designed and masterfully crafted style that combines the power of description, poetry, lyricism and cadence in a fashion that only a Brit can pull off.  Even at his very best, F. Scott Fitzgerald (America's best stylist of the 20th Century) is a close second to Evelyn Waugh.

The thematic forces of the novel encapsulate everything from social awareness and criticism, to consciousness of self, to religious pragmatism and hypocrisy, to the ultimate revelation of deep psychological wounds.  These hold together some of the most "human" fictional characters ever conceived on paper.  The novel is distinctively British and there are numerous references to the Oxfordian ordinary, yet the balance of characters and setting makes for ease of reading.  The protagonist, Charles Ryder, is an Oxford student seeking the stability of a orchestrated life.  Sebastian, an eccentric contemporary works as a pothole to Ryder's well-paved life of inquiry.  Sebastian is not, however, a negative influence (despite the excessive drinking and poor decision making by both).  The relationship between the men develops and soon Charles Ryder is intricately involved with Sebastian's family members.  Therein lies the substance of the novel.

Sebastian's family is not the typical British "estate family."  For one, they're "devout" Catholics.  Yet, the devoutness of this Catholicism is put into question from the start.  Sebastian is "devout" in a way that strikes one as agnostic.  He is attached to the orthodoxy inasmuch as it remains the proverbial mythical.  Charles Ryder describes himself as a non-believer but he is quickly categorized as agnostic by Sebastian's family.  The family is under the close direction of the matriarch Lady Marchmain (Lord Marchmain long exiled to Venice and living with a mistress).  Sebastian's other family members include a much younger sister called Cordelia, a young sister closer to his age named Julia, and an older brother referred to as "the Earl of Brideshead" or "Brid" throughout the novel.  It is Brid that eludes definition/characterization the most.  Even at the end of the novel, it is hard to put Brid in place; he is far more than the simpleton Charles appears to make him, but that is for the reader to decide.  Julia, on the other hand, is quickly "dismissed" by Charles as a potential object of love interest and this makes for the masterful plot twist later on.  Other "minor" characters such as Lord Marchmain, Mr Samgrass, Rex Mottram, Celia and Boy Mulcaster, and others come across quite fleshed out and purely convincing.  They all offer a great deal to the narrative and leave the reader with a more compelling picture of the complexity of British upper class.

Then there's the issue of style in the literary sense.  Recently, I read "The Spooky Art" by Norman Mailer and he went on to great lengths to describe what makes a great style, a unique and exclusive sense of individuality in writing.  I thought about it the same way I think about cellists in general.  There was a time in my life when my ear was so very in-tuned to the cello repertoire and recordings/performances to the point I could (with a high degree of accuracy) identify certain cellists like Pablo Casals, Mitslav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Pierre Fournier and even Yo-Yo Ma by simply listening to a recording.  In the case of style as Mailer describes it, the feeling is much the same.  Evelyn Waugh created a voice in Charles Ryder that exemplifies the individual writer, the artistry behind the plot, message and voice of the characters.  There are numerous elements to this and some authors are better at one element or the other to some extent or measure.  Bringing ALL elements together in a consistent manner strikes me much as a level of perfection purely god-like.  Yet, some authors are able to do it.  I mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald earlier and he strikes me as good an example as any of this level of genius.  Who among us hasn't read "The Great Gatsby" and pondered how in the world Fitzgerald was able to put it all together so perfectly?  Gatsby is economically written, and that for all of its intricate plot and elements, the novel is just short of 50,000 words.  Consider description, dialogue, point of view, and then add poetic lyricism, symbolism, philosophical insight with the credibility of amazing major and minor characters--characters who become living right before the readers' eyes.  That is style.  Similarly, Evelyn Waugh is just a genius.  He compresses things into a neat package where both language and meaning meet without leaving the reader believing there has been wordy abstractions or unnecessary descriptive banter.  Some of my favorite passages follow:

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

“The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what's been taught and what's been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn't know existed.”

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.”

“But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

The philosophical angle of the novel seems to be in accordance with the corruption of idealism in the mid-20th Century.  While the novel takes places during the better part of the 1920s (when the world still felt the disillusion of World War I), the prologue serves as an introduction to the "retrospective" tale.  British officer Charles Ryder is telling the reader the story from the distance of memory and this establishes a world engaged in the absolute wastefulness of war once more... this time World War II.  The principles of Catholicism are offered in two very distinct plates.  One, there is the mysticism of the so-called "mysteries of the Church," the highly ritualistic discipline and the acceptance of that regiment of symbolism.  This Waugh displays in very economical language and injecting the presence of priests that reinforce the element of faith (blind or otherwise) in a top-to-bottom fashion.  Then there's Charles Ryder's take on the whole system of belief.  The fact that Ryder declares himself agnostic doesn't distract from the objective criticism--perhaps it even adds to it.  As Lady Marchmain dies, and as Lord Marchmain comes home to die later in the novel, the basic structure of regimental Catholicism wavers and shakes under the scrutiny and inquiry of our narrator.  The painful consequences, however, are exercised in the narrative when the narrator and the "Brideshead gang" seem to dissolve their unity in part because of the comforting/positive system of belief, and partly because of the fundamental incompatibility it serves in the reality of their lives (and the world in general).  This is more than just an analytical critique.  Evelyn Waugh was a Catholic convert and the thematic impulse of "Brideshead Revisited" proves that an author can be personally immersed into a narrative without ruining its content (or context) by poisoning the well with his or her personal beliefs.  Add to that a narrative that is artistically near-perfect and you have the makings of a novel that instructs and entertains and enlightens, with a style that should be the template for all literature.  I am not exaggerating when I say this is as near-perfect as it gets.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami's new novel, "Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage," suffers from a long title, one hard to remember and difficult to convey to bookstore attendants (unless they are familiar with Murakami's work).  The novel, however, proves to be as good as any of Murakami's great ones and, in addition, explores new themes of complex issues and does so with a mixture of the real and the metaphysical.

The novel follows the protagonist, Tsukuri Tazaki, sixteen years after being ostracized from a group of friends from high school.  There were five friends, two women and three men but in his narrative Tsukuri insists that the relationships were based on keeping the balance of the unit as a whole.  Sexual tension, he explains, or any other type of female/male relationship was out of the question.  As a master craftsman, Murakami shapes a story that leads the reader in interpretative directions that are not obvious but rather unconventional.  He doesn't mislead.  He's the professional provocateur offering the reader the opportunity to discover what is real or implied or both.  That tension, after all, is precisely what destroys the friendship circle and the source of Tsukuri's emotional turmoil.

There are some typical Murakami "tricks" in the novelistic bag, but for the most part, the novel is fresh and with a twist of psycho-analysis.  That is not to say Murakami hasn't employed these tools before, but here he does so in new ways.  For example, the protagonist develops a friendship with a college student just a couple of years younger than himself.  The homoerotic overtones are there, subtle but clear.  Nevertheless, Murakami disimisses the conventional, and the homosexual relationship occurs in a place where neither the reader or the protagonist can determine for sure.  That's the genius of Murakami's mastery of the metaphysical world, a world where disembodied yet real events occur, where the blend of time and space is mesh so perfectly it becomes an additional puzzle to the narrative structure.  Another example is the use of "color" in the names of the characters, and the symbolic/meaning behind the protagonist's own name.  This is on the more conventional level of experimentation, but still works as a whole and I enjoyed it wholeheartedly.

In the end, the story works as a "hero-gone-on-travels-to-discover-truth.  The experienced Murakami reader will delight on the new twists and turns, but the inexperienced Murakami, the reader bent on conventional structures or neatly packaged resolutions will no doubt have problems with the novel.  As I have described his work before, Murakami is best understood if looked at as if you were stepping into a Salvador Dali painting and fell right into an Alice in Wonderland practical joke of sorts.  If the psychoanalytical or travels into the metaphysical do not interest you, this novel (as much of Murakami's other work) is not for you.  For me, however, it is always a pleasure to read new works by my favorite authors (Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami) in those rare occasions when they both publish books only months apart from the other.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda

I have read every book by Michael Dirda.  While living in Washington, DC between 1996 and 2000, the Washington Post's "Book World" reviews were my Sunday morning treat.  "Bound to Please" was a Christmas gift from my students, and it was a book like no other; I felt my belief in literature renewed, as Dirda delved deep into the meaning of literature and how it nourishes (or should nourish) humanity.  The problem, of course, is the pace of humanity today, and our willingness to ignore the great themes of living for less time consuming tasks geared at total escapism.  I would admit that all literature can be escapism, but classics (as Dirda presents them) highlight the deeper emotions of the human condition.  That in itself should be enough for campaigns to encourage people to read the classics.  Instead, schools and even colleges have--over the course of the last thirty years--escalated an attack to all that which the "enlightened" ones deem archaic or out-dated or (heaven forbid) politically incorrect.

Classics for Pleasure is divided into eleven sections that cover varied themes dealing with imagination, heroes and their lives, magic, lives of consequence and the darkness of gothic regions.  Dirda is open about these not being "your father's or mother's" list of classics, although many of the titles are widely know, most are obscure enough to elicit a world-wide search if you choose to pursue them and read them--that is to say, a great deal of them are out of print.  However, the titles are not chosen for their mere eccentricity.  There are titles as well-known as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," while authors such as Prosper Merimee and Anna Akhmatova seem drawn from a very selective group known to specialized academics.

The books and authors are covered in short little essays, including anecdotal and biographical details that are, well, a pleasure to read.  Dirda shows command with authors rich in bibliographical content, while at the same time being able to write with worth on authors where myth overshadows fact.  Perhaps that is where the book strengths really are... Dirda is such an excellent writer!  His writing flows with such ease that it works marvels for inviting the reader to continue on the journey.  Let that sink for a moment... writing about literary analysis/criticism (and about not the typical/popular titles we commonly know) and doing so in a way that is readable and enjoyable at the same time.

Of particular interest to me was the entry on Ernst Junger and his memoir from World War I.  I've been reading a great deal about the "Great War" this year due to the 100th anniversary of the conflict, and I was unaware of this book and how revered it is among World War I scholars.  I've tried finding a copy without success at local used bookstores.  I am yet to look online.

I not only recommend "Classics for Pleasure," but I recommend everything Michael Dirda has written without reserve.  He is without a doubt one of America's literary treasures.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

"An Illustrated History of World War One" by A.J.P. Taylor

This year marks the 100th anniversary of World War One.  A few years ago, when the last of the American "dough boys" (Frank Buckles) died, the event went fairly unnoticed.  This year, the publicity surrounding the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing at Normandy (June 6th) stole the limelight from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia (June 28th) in Sarajevo and how that would send the world into its first wholesale slaughter of humanity.  Perhaps those 30 years make a difference, or perhaps the fact that only a handful of people from that era are still around (and even then back in 1914 they were newborns or toddlers at best) but the world really seems to look at World War I with a dry detachment that seems to border on the idea that the event must have happened somewhere else, in a parallel universe where Europe and American involvement was carried out by "other people," people not like us.

A.J.P. Taylor's "An Illustrated History of World War One" is not the best volume on the subject, but it is an instructive book nonetheless.  Lacking vastly in what academic circles call "historiography," the book reads like a history for the layman book along the same lines as Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization" and "The Story of Philosophy."  I can only provide the link for the "illustrated" version of Taylor's book, but I actually read the Berkley Medallion paperback edition which originally sold for 75 cents.  I bought it for a dollar.

The narrative is rich in detail when it comes to the interpersonal relationships of the leaders sending the young men to die, most of the time senselessly and over matters of personal pride, prestige and arrogance.  I am not quite sure how well researched these details are, but it does make for an interesting read.  If we look at the contemporary political scene with its vast numbers of personalities and drama queens, it is easy to accept Taylor's expansive revelations about the inner workings of the war leadership.  Some of the most devastating loss of life, the greatest blunders of the war that went over the four years of field action came as a result of personal animosities and child-like bickering among personages such as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Sir John French, Britain's Secretary of War Herbert Kitchener, among many others (and that's just on the British side).  These people stabbed each other in the back, reduced the necessities of the men on the field to chess moves on a play table and enrich themselves not only monetarily (and their many industrial friends) but also in terms of their political careers.  It was more of the same on the French and German side.  The struggle between Foch and Joffre (on the French side) and that of Schlieffen and Kluck (on the German side) shows how the generalship of both sides preferred a war of words, alliances and betrayals among themselves in lush boardrooms to the necessity of victory in the fields.  Much has been written about the consensus that, at the time, most people believed the conflict would be over in a matter of months.  When those short months became years, no one really knew (insert sarcasm here) why it had taken the turn it did.  This child-like bickering by political and military leaders cost humanity millions of lives.  Most of these people were the same idiots who did it all over again some 20 years later.  We never learn.

Taylor's writing delves into that "personal level" technique, especially when it comes to those inner relationships among the leadership.  Passage after passage show the lack of common sense and the idiocy of some of the decisions: "In Great Britain the doubts started higher up.  From the first, some members of the Cabinet questioned the ability of the generals to win the war.  The deadlock in France strengthened these doubts.  It was no unreasoning prophecy to say that the war on the Western Front would not be won by bodies of infantry, however large, battering against each other.  The events of the following years proved that this prophecy was correct.  The critics went further, particularly the two pre-war Radicals, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.  They questioned not only the method of fighting in France, in which they were right.  They questioned the wisdom of fighting in France at all.  This was more speculative.  They wanted to turn the German flank, to find a way around, a back-door into Germany.  The hard fact, not made in plain on the maps, was that there was no such back-door except Russia; and Russia could not be reached easily.  North-eastern Italy, Salonika, the Dardanelles led nowhere, or were, at best, doors firmly bolted by nature in Germany's favour.  The debate between Westerners and Easterners wan on, one way and another, throughout the war.  The critics said to the generals with truth: 'You will not win the war in France with these methods.'  The generals answered with equal truth: 'You will not win the war anywhere else.'....  All the projected 'side shows' of the First World War had this character.  They were 'dodges' in a double sense.  They were ingenious; and they were designed to evade the basic problem--that the German army could be beaten only by an antagonist of its own size.  Of course the side shows operated under unfavorable circumstances.  They were amateur in execution as well as in conception.  Since the heretical politicians could not directly overrule the generals, their projects had to be additional to the main offensive in France, not instead of it--at a time when there were adequate supplies for neither.  Nor could the politicians call on professional advice.  Everything was settled hugger-mugger.  There was no calculation, for instance, of the shipping needed to move men to the Mediterranean; no estimation of the equipment needed for an expedition to, say, Salonika or the Dardanelles.  None of the politicians looked at a detailed map before advocating their 'side shows.'  They were clearly ignorant that Gallipoli has steep cliffs, and Salonika a background of mountains.  All the side shows were 'cigar butt' strategy.  Someone, Churchill or another, looked at a map of Europe; pointed to a spot with the end of his cigar; and said, 'Let us go there.'"  And on and on... this is simply how wars are fought, historians say.  In contrast, Taylor offers an alternative: condemn the leadership even if it cost (and rightfully so it should) their place in history.

These so-called "side shows" were aimed at buying time, particularly in the Western front.  They also served another general purpose.  Great Britain was still in the midst of its imperial grandeur, and, by George, if they could use the war as an excuse or an advantage to expand that imperial sense of self, they were going to do so.  Hence, the tragic mistakes of Gallipoli and the Turkish front, Romania and other parts south, where so much devastation and pain was simply unnecessary and senselessly costly.

Another factor to add to the childish behavior of politicians and generals were the aristocracy's habit of giving themselves military titles and conducting war affairs instead of leaving it to the generals to do.  One particular idiotic case was the Czar Nicholas insistence in becoming Supreme Commander at a time when Russia needed experienced military leadership.  The results were far too obvious for even Taylor to bring up.  He sums it up to inflated perspectives of self and down-right idiocy.

As the war churns and turns, both sides continue their senseless planning both on and off the field of action.  Taylor describes the machinations one of the Allies offensive.  The main protagonists on the British side, George, Haig and Kitchener are positioning for career advancement or the retention of power--sadly enough, it simply comes down to that.  After the massive blow up at Ypres, "Haig could claim that he had improved his position decisively.  Now the Germans could not watch is preparations so clearly.  He was inclined to hint also that every offensive would be on the Messines pattern, short and sharp.  In mid-June 1917 the War Cabinet held prolonged sessions.  Haig came from France and was repeatedly cross-examined by Lloyd George.  Why should the offensive succeed when all others have failed?  Would the French support it?  What evidence was there that the Germans were, as Haig claimed, 'demoralized?'  Would it not be better to wait for the Americans or to switch Allied resources to Italy?  This last proposal, Lloyd George's old favorite, was in itself enough to drive Haig on.  He preferred an unsuccessful offensive under his own command to a successful one elsewhere under someone else's.  At each question, Haig grew more confident.  There was, he thought, 'a reasonable chance' of reaching Ostend; a little later, 'a very good chance' of complete victory before the end of the year.  The War Cabinet were arguing in the dark.  The vital facts were concealed from them.  They were never told that the Ypres offensive was opposed by the French and that all the British generals except Haig had doubts.  They were not told that Haig's own Intelligence Staff had advised against it, and Intelligence in London still more so.  They were not told about German strength, nor about the inevitable rain and mud.  Moreover, the War Cabinet had many other things to do.  Economic activity to plan; factory workers to conciliate; convoys to organize; politicians and newspapers had to be satisfied."  

This is true of every conflict, but what adds to the tragedy is the fact that once Woodrow Wilson got involved, the sheen of ideology doubled or even tripled.  American idealism in this war ran high; that is not to say that Americans bought into it blindly.  No one really cared about "unrestricted U-boat warfare" out in North Dakota.  The war in America had to be sold on grander ideological terms.  Wilson's statement that this was was "a war to end all wars" might have done the trick, but it did little to cover up the main reasons why this war (or today's wars for that matter) was fought.  To be realistic one has to create a balance between the ideological aspects of conflict and the objective truth behind the not-so-clearly-seen economic variables.  To fight strictly on ideological terms ("To make the world safe for democracy," another Woodrow Wilson doozie that even George W. Bush evoked after September 11th) is to set yourself up for disappointment.  Wars are not fought for ideological reasons, at least not since the establishment of dynasties and political organizations.  Even going back to the "modern" European annals of history (roughly after 1500 and the "expansion" of the known world, conquest and the economic benefits of said conquests) wars were fought to settle economic/political accounts.  King Henry V invaded and conquered the crown of France under the advice of a wickedly shrewd Bishop of Canterbury which held nothing more than a flawed theory of why Henry should make that claim.  George H.W. Bush "liberated" Kuwait in 1991 and "returned a country to its rightful owners" only to claim a year later while running for reelection that if Saddam Hussein hadn't been stopped and evicted from Kuwait, Americans would be paying $5 a gallon for gas.  But I digress.

Taylor misses the mark when it comes to American involvement in the field of battle.  Practically nothing is written about the tactics at places like Saint Michel or even the Argonne, or Belleau Woods, where the U.S. Marine Corps distinguished itself beyond anything else achieved by the U.S. military on the world stage.  Rather, Taylor takes the reader through a sketchy last few battles and rushes into the peace negotiations and ultimately the Versailles debacle.  The book seems very rushed after the summer of 1918, and I can only assess that perhaps it suffers from an issue of abridgment (although that is not specified on the cover or anywhere else in the book).  All in all, this is a "comfortable" read, not the best but insightful and intelligently written.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Literary Detours: Ernest Hebert's "A Little More than Kin" (Re-Read)

"A Little More than Kin" by Ernest Hebert is one of those novels that stays with you.  I first read this novel back in 1993 after I found it on a discount rack for $1.00.  It was (and it remains to this day) one of the greatest literary buys of my life.  I devoured the novel over Spring Break of that year and even went as far as trying to contact Ernest Hebert to express my gratitude for his work.  I savored this book like it was ripe fruit and enjoyed every angle of it.  I even took the book with me to Japan the summer of 1994 and re-read it a little over a year the first read (I hadn't touched it again since).

What is still clear to me now as it was then was how little I knew (and still know) about the Darby Series and about Ernest Hebert's work overall.  "A Little More than Kin" is the second in a series called the Darby Series, which include "The Dogs of March" (Hebert's debut) and "The Passions of Estelle Jordan."  I read the series out of order, and surprisingly felt no ill-effects for it.  Not only do the books stand on their own, but even in the case of chapters the reader can appreciate how any of them can actually be published as stand-alone short stories.  I believe that is the masterful genius of Ernest Hebert.  He gives us the pieces to put together and doesn't go cheap on detail and connectivity.  It is truly a work of art to see how characters and events flow from one book or chapter to another.  Technically speaking, that is one of the greatest talents of a master storyteller.  Ernest Hebert is such a master, a true American master writer and probably the best known kept secret in American letters.  I say this not because he's not widely known, but just like many other literary fiction writers he's not a household name that rolls off the tongue of housewives book clubs.  He's in good company, I might add, since many of my other favorites (like Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami) fall in the same category.

The story centers around the Jordan clan, a family of social misfits that claim roots to the New Hampshire backwoods.  Ollie Jordan and his idiot son, Willow are the protagonists of "A Little More than Kin," and they share the stage with the town's dramatis personae in a way that is charming, entertaining and "addictively" readable.  Ollie has been evicted from the land he occupied, his shacks bulldozed to the ground.  While the Jordan family is not known as setting permanent roots anywhere, Ollie suffers as his world is rocked and his stability shattered.  His wife, Helen, had (according to Ollie) been seduced by the Welfare Department, and his fear is that the government agency was now after Willow.  He fears they might try to "teach" Willow and "destroy" him by doing so.  Ollie Jordan believes his son just needs time, that in due time Willow would blossom out of a cocoon and exercise his genius.  As a result, Ollie takes to the woods with Willow.  Spread across the narrative are characters as alive as the reader himself.  The people of Keene, New Hampshire are picturesque without being typical, honest, not stereotyped and given a natural opportunity to come about in the story and find their own way into it.  This is the masterful stroke of technique in fiction.  Very few writers know how to allow characters to ebb and flow into a narrative like Ernest Hebert does.  It is truly magnificent how the pieces simply link and flow together.

The only negative criticism is that of Ollie Jordan's many philosophical meanderings.  I am not saying that a character that is uneducated, prone to emotional impulse and dependent on instinct more than brains cannot have his or her philosophical moments, but Ollie's epiphanies are kilometric in length, and, as a result, they take away credibility from Ollie's nature.  There are far too many of these, long renderings of Ollie's thoughts that turn into pedantic ramblings of existential inquiry.  In this scene, Ollie is inside a Catholic church, and while I can see the function behind having the character ask questions about his surroundings, it is the lengthy philosophical tertulia that does the damage:  "He touched the Christ carefully, discovering something unusual on his head.  At first it seemed like some simple hat such as cousin Toby Constant had worn before they sent him to Pleasant Street in Concord.  But after testing the hat with the tips of his fingers, Ollie determined that it was made of something like barbed wire strung tightly around the skull, an instrument of torture.  He pondered this evil.  These Romans, they like to hurt the head.  So did the Welfare Department.  However, there was a difference.  The Romans only wanted to dish out some pain, probably just for the drooly fun of it.  The Welfare Department wanted you as stove wood to keep stoked the fire in their own private corner of hell.  They made hats so pretty you would want to put them on, and they put things in those hats--devices--which removed information from the mind, planted ideas and clouded memories.  He figured that Christ had pulled a fast one on the Romans, getting himself killed all spectacularlike, knowing his death would serve as a kick in the ass for his followers, that for him to die was to live forever through them."  It goes on for a while, and Ollie's perceptions are not too off track with the real story of Christianity.  A few paragraphs down, Ollie's meandering continues: "Another question that popped into Ollie's head was whether the Romans finished the crosses with anything, some kind of varnish or stain, or whether they left the wood raw.  Certainly, they would have to season the crosses because a green cross of any wood would be too heavy to carry.  That raised some interesting questions.  Was a cross used only once, perhaps buried with the man who had been hung on it?  Or was a cross used over and over again until it just wore out?  The latter idea excited Ollie.  He could imagine nothing grander to look at than a cross that had been up and down countless of hills, laid across the backs of countless Christs, the wood aged by the sun, stained with blood, sweat, tears and dirt.  If such a cross could know, it would know everything.  No wonder these Christians hung their imitation crosses everywhere.  The cross was a story of a human pain revealed in the beauty of wood.  The Romans must have put fellows in charge of the crosses--crosskeepers--men who picked the wood right from the tree, cut it down, shaped it, dried the wood so it did not split or check, and then fashioned two pieces in a cross with wooden dowels and glue.  Course now and then a fellow would cheat, as workmen will out of anger or boredom or laziness, and join the pieces with mahaunchous bolt.  The crosskeepers would store his crosses in barns when not in use, keeping them away from moisture so the rot wouldn't get to them.  Later, when the crosses were retired from active duty, the crosskeeper would buy his old crosses at auction from the state, or maybe steal them if he could, cut them up and make them into coffee tables, selling them to the rich who lived down-country, or whatever they called down-country in those days.  He bet those crosses lived long lives, longer than the poor bastards who were hung upon them."  

Inasmuch as the seemingly countless passages like this one represents the meanderings of a "simple-minded" character then much of the narrative works; nevertheless, I am inclined to point out (not without a little pain) that passages like this one are far too many in the novel.  They are correctly constructed behind the idea that Ollie simply lets his mind wanders (bold for emphasis in the quoted passage) but the reveries of the mind are far too many within the novel.  I am reminded of the television detective from the 1970s series "Columbo" whose constant line was "And one more thing..."

"A Little More than Kin" is simply a classic of American literature, unknown but crafted like the widely accepted classics of the canon.  It is truly a shame that this novel (along its Darby companions) do not list right up there with Mark Twain's work as illustrative of "the other America."

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