Monthly Archives: March 2014

Silence: Read from March 25 to 31, 2014

As someone who is not religious, this was an incredibly insightful book into the complexity of Christian faith. Particularly of note is Shūsaku Endō’s restraint from taking sides on the issue even though he was a believer. This is quite remarkable since most religious books tend towards extreme bias, but Endō takes the advice of his own novel and does not fall prey to being blinded by his own beliefs.

While the most obvious theme of the book deals with the silence of God in the face of the most terrible suffering, there is another theme: pride. This pride of Christianity has been a troubling issue through much of history as it relates to other cultures, be it in the middle east, the far east, or the new world. Pride has meant missionaries full of blind zeal have traveled all over the world and forced their faith on other people without the slightest idea of the pain they are causing.

In this novel, Sebastian continually compares his missionary work in Japan to that of Christ – he even envisions a martyrdom of himself just as glorious as Christ. And it is the Japanese, Inoue specifically, who recognizes this lack of humility in the missionaries and uses it against them. He forces them to renounce their faith, to be cast out of the church like a Judas, in order to save the lives of the miserable peasants.

Yet it isn’t quite so simple, either. Inoue may think he has won, but Sebastian, even with his pride broken, knows that only Christ can be a martyr for the faith. Sebastian must trample on the face of Christ (the Fumie) and though he believes that damns him, in a way it also reinforces the power of his savior to forgive and protect the meek by offering up himself. In the end Sebastian is still able to hear the confession of Kichijiro, but the roles have almost reversed in that Sebastian is humbled far below the weakness of the strange Kichijiro.

Of course the title of the book, Silence, is the most important theme of the book and all through the book I kept thinking of all the periods in history when there was terrible suffering and yet nothing was done about it – for example the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Yet while God, in the novel, does seem totally silent, he does not seem absent either because Shūsaku Endō fills the novel with sound: we hear the rain, the children singing, footsteps, the sound of a sword killing a man, the moaning of the torture victims. And that sound is not for a God to hear, but for us to hear. Shūsaku Endō seems to be saying that only we can alleviate the suffering of each other.

But how do we alleviate the suffering of our fellow man while not making more trouble than we hope to solve? That’s the dilemma here. Had Sebastian (and Garrpe)never come to Japan how many people would have been spared? Inoue even says near the end that there are still Christians living and practicing in Japan unmolested because he knows the seed of the religion will soon die out on its own. Yet had a monk traveled to those regions then the story would have played out all over again.

But then what do you do when you know people are suffering? How can you save them? Should you save them? At what cost? How many Kichijiro’s would you make – wretched, tortured souls who wander around totally broken hearted because they are too weak to stand up for themselves and half wishing they were dead but also too cowardly to die?

There are no answers here, only very thorny issues. And that’s what makes this novel so brilliant because Shūsaku Endō does not try to answer them for you; you have to figure it out for yourself.

Stylistically this novel is very interesting. The novel begins as a series of letters written by Sebastian and then switches to a third person limited (of Sebastian) and then shifts again to a series of official log entries first from the Dutch and then from a Japanese official where we learn the fate of Sebastian. This final shift is very confusing at first because a lot of it does not seem pertinent to the story and I had to think a long time about why it was written this way. What I think Shūsaku Endō was trying to do was place the context of Sebastian’s (and also Kichijiro’s) life into a larger frame – the frame of all humanity.

The novel begins very personal and gradually becomes less personal until we get almost a list of very foreign sounding names. Shūsaku Endō seems to be connecting all these lives together in a very subtle attempt to remind us we are all connected as human beings. And by doing so, by connecting a Portuguese monk with that of a wretched Japanese peasant, we are forced to see the humanity in each of us, to take away the pridefullness of our faith and our position in life and only see the common humanity on each person. And it goes both way – it’s not just about Christians needing to see the error of their pride, but also the Japanese.

The Japanese are more than cruel to their own people. They keep nearly the entire population in servitude and the entire countryside is destitute and desperate. No wonder the peasants were so eager to latch into the religious idea of a paradise in the after life for the meek. Yet had the Japanese treated their people as, well, people, then their never would have been monks coming to their country to try and “save” them – and, of course, making more trouble than they realized.

In short, had their been respect for humanity, had the monks and the Japanese not thrown the rock, their hand would not have withered away (as the song goes at the end of the book “Oh lantern bye, bye, bye./ If you throw a stone at it, your hand withers away”. That song in not about throwing a stone at faith, but at your fellow man and how that hurts everyone.

This is a beautiful novel in every way, and perhaps one of the greatest novels ever written. It is complex, difficult, has no answers, and it forces you to come to terms with your own beliefs and the beliefs of other people. This is a very necessary book and were more people to read it, to really read it and take it to heart, could do the world a lot of good. Too bad the novel is so obscure; more people should read it.

33% done with The Windup Girl

I had started reading this book awhile back and for some reason forgot to finish it. Since I’m working a few overnight shifts at work I decided to audiobook this and finally finish it.

I love the setting – the oppressive heat, the wall keeping back the sea, calorie-men, post-industrial collapse, fleets of white clipper ships, treadle computers, teak gears.

It’s the most original sci-fi since Neuromancer.

37% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

When you think of Africa and living out in the bush you would probably think of local festivals as exotic as the people. Here, Huxley is still too small to discover much about that population so she can only witness how unusual her own family and the other white people are. Celebrating New Year’s is a strange custom to a little child (eating flaming candies) and the drunkenness.

That pony is hearty.

80% done with Silence

The hardest thing to fathom is that the reason why the Japanese peasants took to Christianity was because they had been so badly exploited and their lives so miserable that this new religion offered them some relief.

However, they were made to pay for the people who brought the religion to Japan. The Japanese were too smart to keep killing priests, instead they took it out on the weak.

53% done with Silence

Now this is an interesting trick: Endō changes the point of view from letters written in the first person to a third person limited (Rodrigues’ POV). I almost didn’t even notice at first, but it makes sense now that he’s questioning God’s silence at every turn.

Rodrigues does seem to take some prideful comfort in comparing his situation to Christ, but I get the feeling this won’t last.

The imagery is incredible

28% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

In Grizzly Man, Herzog said “I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature”. Here, Huxley is saying something almost the same. The people are absolutely un-nostalgic, everything is trying to eat everything else, and every action to improve the land is met with a thousand frustrations. She even talks about how there are no traces of any old civilization in Africa, it all gets lost to time.

Yet it’s not bleak.

40% done with Silence

I keep getting the impression that Endo is creating a beautiful apocalypse, a world utterly devoid of faith or compassion yet still naturally beautiful in the way nature is unsympathetic to all human suffering and joy.

God and nature are interchangeable in the book, they are both implacable (one of Conrad’s favorite words) capable of sustaining and killing.

Like Bulgakov’s novel we have another Judas: Kichijiro

18% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

It’s funny when you realize you’ve been reading a character wrong: Tilly is her mother, not her older sister.

Huxley writes in a very interesting way to make you feel as if you too are a child not fully comprehending everything around you from an adult point of view but from a child’s point of view. It’s a bit tricky to read at first but fun once you just go with it.

A High Wind In Jamaica is similar.

23% done with Silence

He’s very keen on faces – the face of Christ and how it’s not described in the bible, but also that of the Japanese: blank, emotionless faces, faces like folded paper. He’s trying to see their soul in the face.

With very few words, Endo creates beautiful images of the rain, the night, and the mountain shack. Helps that I’ve seen a lot of classic Japanese films, too.

Kichijiro is a wonderful character.

8% done with The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood

I vaguely remember watching the BBC/PBS series when it was on WAY back in 1980. I don’t remember any specifics other than what she does when she leaves the house at the end, but I do remember thinking how exotic it all sounded and how exciting it must have been to live there.

Huxley writes beautifully and can immediately create a character and whole dynamic with just a few words.

She calls her dad by his name.

13% done with Silence

I can already tell Martin Scorsese is the wrong director to turn this into a film; Mark Romanek should do it instead.

The first image we get of “a Japanese” is the drunkard Kichijiro, an interesting first encounter and not at all sympathetic. So far all we know is how cruel the Japanese have been to Christians.

The book is written like letters/diary entries and it makes everything feel immediate.


Oil!: Read from March 15 to 25, 2014

There’s no getting around the issue of talking about this book and not mentioning the film There Will Be Blood, so let’s just get all that out of the way: they have very little in common and the film is far, far superior to the book.

Anderson, who directed the film, has gone on the record saying he only really adapted about the first 150 pages of the novel before taking the story in his own, darker, more realistic direction. Anderson wisely focused his attention not on the son but on the oil baron father and not on the older brother Paul, but on the preacher boy Eli. Basically he fixes everything that is wrong with the book but manages to tell very much the same story but injects nuance and rejects the politics of Sinclair.

And the politics really are the issue and date this book so terribly. We live in a post-communist world and so all the naive ideals of Bunny, all the agonizing contortions of Paul at the end -mimicking the holy-rollers with his own language (Russian) and “shivers” – has been proven to be no better than the capitalism they were fighting against. Communism fell apart because it was just as corrupt as capitalism – capitalism has lasted only because it’s managed to “own” so much of the world.

Yet how Sinclair couldn’t see that another form of government was just as bad as any other, why he thought the Russians were onto some grand experiment destined to change the world for the better is just beyond me. Why he didn’t apply a rational, critical analysis of the Russian system, or even the socialist system that he applies to capitalism is the one (and major) bit of laziness in an otherwise very well researched and thought out book.

Sinclair does do a lot right in this book, however. He knows how the oil business works from the ground (literally) on up to the banks and on to Congress. He understands every handshake between oilman and banker, between every banker and political boss, between every political boss and campaigner, between every campaigner and newsman, between every newsman and socialite … and so on. No relationship in capitalism is left unexplored and all the ugly, dirty warts are examined. And while the book is horribly outdated concerning communism, that’s about the only thing out of place because nearly everything else he talks about here is a problem we still deal with in America.

The biggest issue that hasn’t changed since the book was written is the relationship between labor and management. Yes the Unions are nearly all gone thanks to the relationship between church and the republican party (a theme fully explored here in the book written 80 (yes, that’s right, 80!) years ago. Yet people are still struggling to make a decent living at the hands of rich big business – today we call them the 1% and the protesters are occupying Wall Street.

And I could go on about what hasn’t changed but that brings up an interesting dilemma: things haven’t really changed. The system is still pretty much the same and though it hasn’t gotten any better, it really hasn’t gotten any worse, either. While capitalist watched as communism rose and then fell, they kept on keeping on. Yes there is a helluva lot of inequity, a lot that isn’t fair, a lot of good people who should be doing better, a lot of corruption, but it hasn’t in the intervening 80 years fallen apart.

Now I’m not apologizing for capitalism, but it is an interesting issue to think about nonetheless because of this book that goes into such detail, drills so far down into the problems, but actually works as a better history lesson looking back on how the world was compared to now than it does as a book trying to tell a story.

And as a book, well, it’s not that good. It gets off to a great start but it falls apart at just about the point Anderson stopped adapting it for his brilliant film about greed and at what cost greed takes on a man. First of all the characters are flimsy – they exist just to get to the next journalistic expose masquerading as fiction. Ross Sr., is a nice guy and is all-together too nice to have ever been a successful oilman who can ruthlessly “play the game”. Bunny is so thin as to be transparent – he has no personality because Sinclair is too busy writing his as being objective long enough to become a good, pure, and honest socialist of the bright future for mankind and all civilization. Paul exists just for convenience sake and keeps showing up at just the right time to move the story along and teach us how terrible we are to the workers and the Russians.

In fact, Sinclair does a disservice to very important issues by writing such a flimsy book full of preaching and slanted points of view. There Will Be Blood does a far better job of showing us how greed infects a man and ruins his soul and even if that isn’t a financially satisfactory comeuppance, it’s at least realistic and might actually make a very wealthy man rethink his own life in a more contemplative manner than this book which would just cause a wealthy man to dig into his trenches deeper and fight against the working man harder.

But Sinclair wanted to bring to light EVERY issue and so the book had to suffer between laughable scenes so contrived and silly as to make you laugh between cringes and other scenes which are quite insightful and interesting. And I won’t fault Sinclair for at least trying to uncover all the problems because he does expose everything wrong with our system of economics and politics, it’s just too bad he couldn’t have been more artful about it because he only manages to make the characters he sympathizes with look weak and foolish and naive. In short, he hurts the very cause he believes in and wants to fight for.

This could have been a great book if he trusted his characters, if he didn’t lead them around the plot by the nose, if he trusted we the audience to get through to the deeper meaning by digging between the lines. Yet he treats us as uneducated boobs who know no better than to fall for a swindler preacher and don’t know any better to take care of ourselves under the thumb of a corporate oppressor.

Yet there is a lot of good going on here in the ideas of the book. Just because it’s bad art does not mean the ideas are all bad or what he exposes as corruption is false or invalid. Sinclair knew there was (and still is) great injustice and that our system is far from perfect. In a way his book is as flawed as our system.

87% done with Oil!

Not that it matters, but one of the key players in the real-life scandal (Teapot Dome), was H.F. Sinclair, who as far as I can tell is no relative, but still a fun coincidence.

This flight from America to Europe does feel authentic enough for a group of rich businessmen, even the dabbling in spiritualism seems in keeping with rich boredom. Too bad Ross Sr. isn’t a better drawn character – missed opportunity.

82% done with Oil!

Can’t decide if it’s sad how little things have changed or a good thing the whole crazy system has changed so little- an equilibrium Sinclair has done a heroic job laying out all the problems of business, politics, and economics. Problem is it’s such a massive issue it collapses the entire book under too much going on. He should have tried to do less to get more. He’s as guilty of greed as his oil men

75% done with Oil!

Sinclair did his homework better than he probably even needed to; his knowledge of how the oil industry works from the drill bits used to how the refineries work is impressive.

He also does a really good job at making up the names of movies and the sort of events that newspapers would write a story about, such as the bible marathon (though probably based on a real event).

He’s best when just telling the story.

67% done with Oil!

One thing the book does well enough is roadmap how America became so fervently anti-socialist.

But otherwise the book is almost too painful to go on with. The movie premier scene where Vee slaps Rachael is just dumb. I mean, the poor, socialist Rachael dressed nearly in rags confronting the glamorous movie star is just juvenile.

At least we get to see how complex the situation was and many points of view.

62% done with Oil!

The dinner party at the “monastery” is a really funny chapter and one of the best in the book. I feel as if Sinclair does capture the essence of what the Hollywood idle rich are like (at least based on what I learned from Robert Evans’ book)

V is one of the best characters so far in the book; she’s funny, sharp, witty, and is probably based on someone Sinclair knew because she feels real

The Greek scene was odd

57% done with Oil!

As much as I am enjoying the telling of the story, there are a lot of problems with this book. First of all the characters are thinner than a tissue- they exist solely to advance a set of ideas on a track as straight and long as the Trans-Siberian Railroad itself. And the politics are so overpowering that even when I do agree with points in the book it’s just laid on so thick it’s hard to swallow.

Fun, but tedious.

48% done with Oil!

I never before knew there was an American expeditionary force in Siberia running the Trans-Siberian railway after WW1 during the communist revolt. The general in charge, Graves, wrote book about it – I’ll have to look that up. Sinclair treads some interesting ground here with Bunny’s indoctrination into socialism and radicalism.

40% done with Oil!

I’m impressed that Sinclair plays both sides of the argument. He could have just run with Bunny’s POV, and to be fair that is the moral centet here, but Ross is a practical businessman and we get to see how business really does work from his side. It’s also funny (funny dad) how things never change, either. Business is still squeezing the little man until government steps in and forces them to play fair.

30% done with Oil!

Ross is a much simpler character than Daniel Plainview from the film. Here he’s just a no nonsense guy with good business sense and not a near psychopath like Lewis played him. Sinclair is much tougher on religion and simple folk and he doesn’t rail against Ross either by making him a villain. Overall it’s a ripping yarn. Love it so far.

10% done with Oil!

The highway is that all American symbol of progress and freedom. Here Lewis uses the speed traps to counter progress but also the speed to illustrate the sence of being above the law. The townsfolk are broadly drawn, but it works here to show how diverse Americans can’t ever agree and give anything up for themselves.

Victory: Read from March 01 to 15, 2014

This was a difficult book for me to read because of how personal it is. I felt myself identifying far too much to the main character, Axel, than I was comfortable with. Yet the very fact this book exists and was written a hundred years ago also tells me how I felt is not so uncommon – and in some ways that made it even more difficult.

The issue at heart here is isolation and insulation. Axel has nearly given up on the whole of humanity and has isolated himself from everyone believing himself to be safe that way. Yet this only made it easier for a man like Schomberg to spread lies and incite others against him. And so the very things Axel wanted to escape from causes greedy, vile men to come after him.

The entire book is filled with characters who have false impressions about everyone around them; nobody knows anyone in this book and all their troubles are caused by these misunderstandings. This is very much part of the human experience, however, it’s even keener here since the book was written on the very eve of WW1 where whole nations, not just individuals, who all mistrusted each other, resented each other, and did not understand each other at all decided to kill each other in staggering quantities.

And so when I fully related to the isolation of Axel and began to feel a little depressed that I could identify such a trait in myself, I could also take at least a little comfort in knowing what I feel is not unique. Nobody really can know anyone else and we can either make up what we want about others (as Schomberg does and, to a different degree, Lena does), or we can try to hide away and hope nobody comes looking for some treasure we don’t even possess.

Conrad goes even deeper by exploring the point of art itself as a means to bridge the gap between people when he shows the scene of Axel reading his father’s book: “The son read, shrinking into himself, composing his face as if under the author’s eye”. Conrad is showing us that even art, even with the author himself staring over our shoulder, will not help us at all know one other person any better than we could if we stranded ourselves on a lonely, volcanic island in the South Pacific.

And there is nothing very optimistic here, either. The final word of the novel is “nothing”, the absolute negation (and very unlike Ulysses whose final work is “yes”, the ultimate affirmation in life). But the irony is that by writing this book, by telling and showing us how we can never know another person Conrad manages to soothe us somewhat by letting us know we all have this loneliness in common. He may be saying there is nothing to be done about this condition, but he shows us it’s not uncommon and in a way this knowledge makes us feel a little less lonely.

Victory is a Möbius strip of the human condition, of sorts.

And what of the title, “Victory”. Why that word when the last word of the novel is “nothing” and all the characters float about like shadows ready to evaporate into the heat of noon? What is the victory over? Lena for sure finds her strength and her purpose as her victory but on top of that the victory is in achieving an understanding of something we all share in common as human beings but can’t do anything about. Just the fact that we know we are all alone is enough to bring us together.

Of course the other issue here is misunderstanding. In place of actually getting to know each other, how often do we just make assumptions about another person’s behavior? How often do we look at a person who is distant and aloof and assume they are hiding something or that they disdain us or think they are better than us? Why do we make these assumptions instead of asking ourselves if there is something we can do for that person because they may have been hurt, or are shy, or have any number of issues that have nothing to do with us? Instead of always thinking the world is against us, maybe the problem is just that we don’t see the world correctly because we are too wrapped up in ourselves? That seems to be very much the problem for all the characters in this book until Lena figures out what she wants – she is not guilty of not having loved.

This is a very complex book even if the story is incredibly simple. Very little happens over the course of the novel in terms of action but there is so much “going on” here. I feel you could spend a lifetime unfolding this novel (and I use the term unfold rather than the more typical term unpack because it feels more appropriate when dealing with Conrad). The novel also leaves me with a lot of competing emotions, so much so it took me nearly a week just to write this review because I had a hard time wrapping my brain around what I had just read.

If only every novel could be this good.

82% done with Victory

One of my favorite films is Key Largo; this novel reminds me a lot of it.

Heyst is really paying for having left society; he’s in trouble now and there is no one to help him, not even Wang anymore who, wisely, has joined back up with the savages on the island since there is at least some safety in numbers.

These 3 seem to pray upon people who have given up on men, they are the plague sent to collect the rent.

74% done with Victory

Lena is a total mystery, just like Schomberg’s bizarre wife. And I suppose that’s the point since so much of this book is about what we don’t and can’t know about other people. The three men are unknowable, the “Chinaman” is unfathomable, the women are impenetrable, and Heyst is totally adrift. In fact, only Schomberg seems to have place in both time and space and he’s the one setting everyone against each other.

66% done with Victory

Knowing which parts of the story not to tell is just as important. It never would have occurred to me that these three would run into any trouble finding the island, but that Conrad set them up as cunning men and then turned the tables on them “off stage” was tremendous.

And now I keep hoping they’ll go easy on him for being a sort of rescuer, however, there’s only one way this tale is going to end: tragically.

51% done with Victory

It took me until just right now to realize Conrad wrote an entire novel on the premise of “no man is an island”.

Heyst really does resent the false things said about him; he’s more worried about his reputation even though he doesn’t care to live among people at all. It’s like he’s the curator of his own ghost.

I can’t decide if the women here are poorly written or Conrad writes them like this on purpose.

42% done with Victory

It’s unnerving to understand there’s a similarity between myself and Heyst. His detached, floating quality where he goes through life not even realizing anyone might even be speaking of him when he isn’t present in the room is perhaps, at best, a naive trait and here a dangerous one with these three steering by the glow of a volcano towards him on his deserted outpost.

We never know our own influence on others.

33% done with Victory

No doubt about it, Conrad does not like the Germans.

Mr. Jones and Ricardo are quite the pair. Everything about them is menace and using Schomberg as the lens with which to learn about these two only adds to their seriousness.

This is Conrad’s great gift to literature: he understands how to create an unreliable narrator to build tension, use another to relieve the tension, and a third to remake everything.

22% done with Victory

The description of the concert in chapter 8 is one of the most incredible passages ever written. “a grand piano, operated upon by a bony, red-faced woman with bad-tempered nostrils”.

Conrad’s way of describing things, such as comparing the way a tall man walks to that of a compass (calipers) opening and closing is unlike the way any mind has ever operated in the history of imaginations.

I love the mystery.

12% done with Victory

Reading Conrad is like watching a master watercolor painter – first they apply a wet wash on which everything will stick or run down, next are splotches of color seemingly at random and of no distinct shape. Soon a detail may appear over the vague shapes of transparent color and everything seems quite pretty until you realize the painter is exploring the darkest recess of human psychology.

It’s such genius.