Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Pearl: Read from November 27 to 28, 2015

Steinbeck’s greatest achievement was to give voice to the poor. Steinbeck’s critics could say he romanticized his subjects by making them all good souls who always had the high moral ground and earthy common sense, but so many of his subjects had been marginalized their whole lives that they were nearly invisible and so, I believe, deserving of a champion.

Yet many of Steinbeck’s stories end badly for the main characters, they are almost always defeated by the forces they hoped to struggle free from. For a time each character in a Steinbeck has hope for the future only to succumb to the cold reality that the rich and the powerful will remain rich and powerful and the poor will remain poor and exploited.

Yet still he gave a voice to the poor and he showed his audience how difficult it was for the less fortunate to rise out of their situation, how desperate they could be to change their lives, and how terrible it was for them to fail. Steinbeck imparts on the reader a great empathy for his characters because it is vital for us to feel the pain of these people. This is why, I believe, Steinbeck’s characters are almost always “good, honest people” because we believe ourselves to be people like his characters. And so when we see these characters struggle and fail we also struggle and fail and for a moment we empathize with these people.

Had Steinbeck’s characters been more like Tolstoy’s, full of faults and failings and hubris, he would have been less successful to get us to actually feel the pain of poverty and hopelessness because we would have had an excuse to blame the characters for their failings. Yet when the characters are a sketch, when we see only the good and watch how the bad washes over them, we understand, if only a little, the plight of people who cannot escape from their situations.

This was Steinbeck’s greatest achievement: he got us to actually care about people we might otherwise never even notice. Steinbeck didn’t need to create realistic characters like Tolstoy’s because he knew his readers were full of faults and prejudices; his job was to get those very people to not be selfish for a few hundred pages and show them how our insensitivity to the less fortunate could be devastating.

This story, like almost all of Steinbeck’s stories be updated to our own times with very few changes. Replace the pearl of the world with a lottery ticket, move the setting to an inner city or desperate country, and the truths would still be the same: the poor will be taken advantage of by the powerful and any resistance on the part of the poor will be dealt harshly by the law, no matter the justification.

And so when we ask ourselves “Why did Steinbeck never offer any solution to these problems”, then we should look in the mirror because he was actually asking us that question, he only gave us the tools to recognize there was even a problem to begin with.

33% done with The Pearl

I’ve always loved Steinbeck, his language is straight-forward, and a little romantic, and his characters can be thin, but he, like Tolstoy, get to the heart of a subject. Yes, Tolstoy’s characters were vivid and real, and he was unflinching in his realism, but he, like Steinbeck, captured the soul of something, the golden, gleaming, wet light of wonder.

And Steinbeck’s cinematic writing, so visual, like a movie.

First Love: Read from November 23 to 26, 2015

The final image of the novel, of the old lady in rags and dying on a hard floor with a sack under her head as she fights to stay alive despite a lifetime of misery gives the novel a greater perspective than just a young man sadly in love with a woman he won’t have. The novel speaks to a greater need for people to live, at all costs and at any price, no matter the amount of pain it inflicts.

I have to admit to not feeling as close to Vladimir as I would have liked. Not because I didn’t share any of his experiences – what young man hasn’t – but there was a strange formality in him that seemed at odds with his age. I understand he was well bred and that his manners contrast beautifully with the situation of his love, but even when he was most mad, in the garden at midnight, I never really felt like I was with him. Had this been a slightly more modern novel – say written in the 1910’s or 20’s – there might have been a needed sexual undercurrent that is sorely missing here. I can’t blame Turgenev since we have to consider when the novel was written, but still it’s an element of human nature that is important.

Zinaida, however, though we never get the novel from her point of view, I felt much closer to. Her character is the real strength of the novel because we learn so much about her through her actions and the actions of everyone around her. She is a flirt, she is manipulative, she is poor (having once been wealthy), but she is not a bad person. In fact I felt more empathy to her than I did towards Tolstoy’s Anna – they were similar women, but Zinaida felt more … within reach. She wanted to be in love, not just be loved. And who doesn’t want that? All her suitors were dolts, except for the one man who did have her.

I liked the image of his father’s horse, the near wild Electric. This mirrored the father quite poetically and gave substance to his feelings in a way we could understand.

All-in-all this is a very sad novel, but it does speak to how we struggle in life to live and how imperfect we are. Yes we may know the right things to do, but passion is almost always stronger than logic.

60% done with First Love

I might be missing the mark, but I assume because the family is in such dire economic straits that the princess must marry in order to save the family but she’s been given a degree of freedom to choose a suitor, though probably not as much freedom as she would like since it will have to be someone with money. His First Love will be for someone who will not have any love at all.

23% done with The Russian Peasantry 1600-1930: The World the Peasants Made

The way the tsar kept power was: A) Tsar owns all the land B) Tsar granted land to nobles in exchange for military service C) Tsar tightened the rights of peasants because labor was scarce and land is useless if it’s not worked D) Nobles were able to make money and collected money and labor from the serfs.

Peasants became serfs as their rights were eroded to enable the land grant process to nobles.

33% done with First Love

I’ll have to think a bit more about why the narrator needed to first write down his story, but somehow intuitively I understand.

She’s using him because she doesn’t want any of them and he’s the perfect excuse to toy with everyone. Funny how girls always know how to navigate men.

The lightening storm so far away – a Sparrow Storm – is how far away from love he really is, but the energy is there in him.

Heart of Darkness: Read from November 21 to 22, 2015

This is the third time I’ve read this novella: once when I was in the Navy and had just watched Apocalypse Now, and again in college where we discussed the racist and colonial aspect of the novel. I have to admit each time I “enjoy” the novella just a little less each time, perhaps because I know the story so well from a few different points of view. The language is still beautiful, the racism still troubling, the theme is still inscrutable, but for whatever reason I don’t feel as if the novella speaks to me as it did when I was younger.

I’m by no means old, but at 42 I am, hopefully, more mature, more settled, and more unwilling to dash off into the world and rip every treasure out of the ground I can get my hands on. I am, such as the “intended” in the novel, a bit more willing to be lied to but only because I’ve seen the truth (at least a little bit) about how the world really works and am getting weary of “the horror” of it all.

A younger me would have been glad to drop everything, rush off into the proverbial jungle and conquer as much as I could all the while looking past the pain I was inflicting on the world around me and being quite arrogant in my actions. I would have said what I was doing was for the better of the world at large. That’s probably why I joined the Navy when I was 18 because I wanted adventure and didn’t much think about who would be at the receiving end of a giant marine cannon or how my own country’s national policy might be seen as arrogant by another sovereign nation.

The older me sees it as all a terrible game that can never be stopped because you can’t impart that wisdom to a younger generation. Young men will always want to rush headlong for glory, be it for money or extremism and nobody, especially the old, will tell them otherwise.

And this is what so much of Western Civilization is based upon: brute, youthful, arrogant force imposed on the bewildered and weak. And this is what, I believe, Conrad, at least in part, was trying to tell us: that the “civilized west” is terrible. It is terrible because it is based on lies. And that lie is that we have somehow conquered something, have driven out the darkness, that we are somehow better than people who live in grass huts.

But Conrad takes pains to show us we are not better, in fact we are the oppressors who are brutish and cruel and who lie to each other at every turn. We never see the natives act this way to each other, even the cannibals seem downright civilized. The white men gossip and can’t even manage to get a parcel of needed rivets from point A to point B. The white men are mad, mad with greed, hatred, and jealousy.

This is the way of the West, this is what drove the Romans to conquer Britain, and it’s what drove the Colonial Empires to conquer Africa and South America.

But what drives this greed? Perhaps this insatiable desire to kill and conquer is because, as Kurtz recognized, the “horror” of the darkness is so close at hand, lives right along the bank of the river, that the only way to keep from reverting to an animal state is to continually fire a cannon into its depth, no matter how absurd the outcome.

And perhaps we’d be happier if we just gave up civilization, gave up the lies and the greed, took up a bow and arrow and lived off the land? Seems far fetched, but every native in the novel who gets a little too close to Western Civilization dies.

But here lies the problem: is then the novel racist because it says all the black people in it are simple savages? This has been Chinua Achebe’s (and many other’s) argument against the novel because it does not elevate the native black Africans to the level of white compassion. But why would they want to be? Look how terrible the white Westerners behave! Why is a more “primitive” way of life less dignified than the man who in the middle of a steaming jungle still keeps a starched color and a pure white petticoat? I’d argue the Westerners are the real savages.

Now this is all very extreme and I’m not advocating a return to the Savannah, but it’s important to keep in mind how silly we all are, how improbable our culture is, and how useless it really is in the end of all things. That’s why the lie at the end of the novel is so important because it speaks to how we manage to live everyday knowing we are all going to die and our cities will all crumble, that lie is the lie we have to tell ourselves to keep living otherwise we’d go mad like Kurtz.

And that’s why I didn’t quite enjoy this novella as much as I did previously because I found thinking about the futility of beating back the heart of darkness to be depressing and civilized men to be more savage than the hungriest cannibal.

66% done with Heart of Darkness

The racism of the novel is as complicated as the matted, brooding jungle. I think the novel quite accurately describes how close we all are to a darker nature: London could just as quickly revert back to darkness as the huts are overtaken by the jungle. And I believe he’s saying that civilized men are not so civilized, that’s it’s a pretense, a mask 1 shade away from a death mask. We are not different or better.

10% done with The Russian Peasantry 1600-1930: The World the Peasants Made


The first real general census was Jan 28 1987, before that were poll taxes (head counts). 3/4 of Russian population were peasants (as defined). Birth rate 49.7 in 1840’s (2014 Niger 46). Infant mortality 25-30%; 50% by age 5. Avg life expect at birth mid-late 20s, though if you got to your teens you would prolly live to 50-60.

33% done with Heart of Darkness

I never before made the connection between London and where ever it is that Kurtz was. London was once a dark place, too and the men who settled it were brutes intent of ripping all the treasure right out of the ground. In this way all men are connected and for as easy it is to claim this novel is racist, it makes the case for the settlers to be far more savage and insane than the unknown “natives”.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West: Read from August 17 to November 20, 2015

There’s an old New Yorker cartoon depicting a novelist sitting down for a television interview. In the author’s lap is his latest novel, a massive 1000+ page tome. The caption reads the question by the interviewer who asks the author to sum up his novel in just a few words. The joke being that if the author could do that he wouldn’t have needed t write a 1000+ page novel. However, the joke implies the author is competent enough to actually need all those pages to tell his story.

Blood Meridian is a long fever study of violence in a sun-baked void. Death isn’t just everywhere, it is everything. Violence is inherent in every action of men, in every breath they take (their’s or another’s). The strong devouring the weak is the natural state of the universe of the novel. Yet there is a strange beauty to all this violence that even the most craven cannibal can appreciate: it is unromantic and perverted and deadly, but it has an attraction that is impossible to deny. Some men are more tempted to its beauty than others, some men actually revel in the violence while others flee or take refuge in the mud, but all men sense its power one way or another. This is what the novel, at least in my mind, is about. It is an evening – not as in the time of day but as a leveling or accounting thereof – of the violent animal nature which boils in all men and which they are to be held accountable for.

Blood Meridian is also very boring, over-written, and there is no dramatic tension what-so-ever. Plenty “happens” (at least in the parts where there is more than just page after page of simile description of staring at the sky), but there is no real danger for any of the characters, it’s just a continuing downward spiral of depraved murder headed by a character, the Judge, who I can only assume is the Devil. Whether the Judge is the Devil is hard to say since McCarthy is not one to go in for superstition and the supernatural, but I can’t describe the Judge any more than as the Devil himself. The Judge is everything violent and terrible in man (and in the universe), he is the reckoning, the evening of all men. He comes for blood and he is always just over the horizon. He probably doesn’t even actually exist in the novel but is just a placeholder for the violent tendencies of men personified as an enormous, hairless infant. He’s the imaginary friend of a psychopath.

The Kid we never get to really know because he’s at the mercy of everything going on around him – he barely seems to have any say in the events of the novel at all. The Kid is just led around for a few hundred pages while we watch. I had no sympathy for the Kid because there is nothing to be sympathetic towards. And maybe that was the point, but I can’t subscribe to a philosophy that says it’s okay to not empathize with human beings nor will I believe I have no say in who is in control of my own actions.

I will say that I’m not really sure what I was supposed to take away from the novel. I wasn’t particularly moved to reevaluate my opinions of violence or of savagery or of the cold nature of the universe, I didn’t spend my hours away from the novel contemplating the deeper meanings McCarthy thought he was expressing here, I was, much like the characters in the novel, unmoved by almost everything that wasn’t a beautiful simile of something and found most of what the Judge said to be obfuscated jibber-jabber.

Maybe McCarthy wanted the reader to feel numb and unsympathetic towards violence by the end of the novel? Maybe that’s why we shoot the dancing bear so we can feel grief for at least one dead thing? I don’t know. The book was long, but it doesn’t resonate. McCarty could have just said “The universe is beautiful with or without us”.

Maybe if I cared to I could read up on other people’s interpretations of the novel, but I think I know what I’m going to find there – a lot of hand waving and summary of the language of the novel with a few tentative stabs at what we think the novel is actually about. Maybe McCarthy really did have a point to make, but I feel like he summed his ideas up better in No Country For Old Men with the story of the father carrying the fire in the night. Blood Meridian is a cauldron of ideas McCarthy explores with more deftly (though perhaps not as beautifully) in his other novels.

23% done with The Big Green Tent

Olga is interesting. She is raised to be a good little Soviet girl, lover of the party, and communal first. Yet when she is “indoctrinated” at college, she is honest and forthright in defending her teacher even though he is a dissident. The very values the party required worked against everyone, including her parents who never saw it coming. We now see Ilya as an outsider would – neat literary trick.

96% done with Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

I’m now convinced that all the people who go on and on about how great this book is have never read it – they just say it’s great because they’ve heard it’s great but if they sat down and actually read it they would put it down after 50 pages (at best) and never speak of it again. And not because it’s “bad” but because it’s not a novel, it’s one long fever description on violence in a sun-baked void.

11% done with The Big Green Tent

The stampede in the streets: I wonder if that really happened when Stalin’s death was announced? But even if it didn’t, as a literary device it works well to describe the Russian people and state of mind – a leaderless flock in chaos where each person is probably grateful but unable to stop the stampede anyway. Add this the confused sexual feelings of his friend and there is a brilliant mixing of ideas here.

Dubliners: Read from November 27, 2014 to November 15, 2015

Much like Eastern Europeans, the Irish seem to have an uneasy relationship with “the continent” Europe. Yes they are economically and geographically part of Europe but they always seem to be outsiders looking in. The Irish, like the Russians and the Hungarians do not have the perceived cultural heritage of, say, the Italians or Greeks with all their glorious Ancient History. That’s not to say Ireland and other nations do not have a vibrant history, but when we think of “refined Europe” we immediately think of England, or the French, or the Spanish Empire, or the German kings and their castles.

And so when reading Joyce I always get the feeling he is doing everything he can to make the case for Ireland and the Irish people to be noticed, to be taken seriously, to include the Irish as equals among states who have looked down on them for centuries. Joyce shows us a people just as deep in thought and sensitivity as any other people, but who are also afflicted by the oppression of the Church, of England, of their own poverty and shortcomings. Joyce shows us the art of his people to be just as rich as that of an English gentleman or tragic Greek hero.

This, I believe, is the aim of any artist: to be noticed. Not in necessarily for selfish vanity (though that often happens), but to force other people to take notice of what the artist is trying to teach us. Here Joyce is trying to teach us – show us – the lives of regular Irish people with all their hopes, fears, failings, humor, love, vice, and beauty. And Joyce isn’t trying to make the Irish to be better than any other people but he is trying to say “We are people, too”.

I suppose it might seem odd to think the Irish would need a cultural champion when there are peoples in other places in the world who have been prosecuted and murdered for millennium, but from another perspective that belittling attitude is eternally frustrating, it’s like being invited to the ball every year, but you’re made to sit at the kids table and wear a bib. Yes you’re “included” but its patronizing and belittling.

This is the power of any great art, to force us to empathize with someone we never would have otherwise even thought about. And this was Joyce’s gift to art in his ability to take us into the mind of so many different people in an absolutely realistic way. All his characters feel as if they could step right off the page and take up residence in our own lives and so we are forced to deal with these people. We might not like all of them, or even understand all of them, but we at least now know them and if we do a bit of work on our side and try to look at the world through their eyes then we might learn something and be just a little less selfish and self-centered.

9% done with The Big Green Tent

Each of the boys has a need to express himself as individuals, but living in Stalin’s Russia makes that dangerous. One boy is a musician, but his hand his cut and thus his career. The other boy skates, but that ends in a tragedy. Yet another is a photographer and tragedy befalls his father.

Photos from Slate’s Early Soviet Photography Was Surprisingly Avant-Garde

Shaikhet; Light Bulb in a Hut; 1936
Georgy Zelma, Military Parade on Red Square, 1933
Arkady Shaikhet, Express, 1939
Georgy Zelma, Meeting at the Kolkhoz, 1929
Arkady Shaikhet, Red Army Marching in the Snow, 1927–28
Alexander Rodchenko, Horse Race, 1935
Arkady Shaikhet, Greeting the Chelyuskin Men, 1934
Left- Arkady Shaikhet, Assembling the Globe at Moscow Telegraph Central Station, 1928 — Right- Arkady Shaikhet, The Parachutist Katya Melnikova, 1934
Left- Alexander Rodchenko, Girl with a Leica, Portrait of Evgeniya Lemberg, 1933 — Right- Georgy Petrusov, Asiatic Sailor, ca 1935–36
Left- Georgy Zelma, Three Generations in Yakutsk, 1929 — Right- Alexander Rodchenko, Sports Parade on Red Square, 1936

90% done with Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Cormac repeats many of the central themes of this novel in No Country For Old Men: a universe ruled by chance alone, and the relentlessness of pure evil in the Judge and Chigurh. The apocalyptic setting is repeated in The Road and the South West is always a character in all his novels. And so this novel is like a cauldron of ideas that his other novels are ladled out of: this is the dark broth of the cooking.

99% done with Dubliners

The Dead

The characters in this story are a bit different than the preceding stories in that they are more affluent which allows the central character to think about the beauty of life. Not that the poorer characters don’t or aren’t capable of same thoughts, but here we can linger on a more refined concept in a more refined setting, a comfortable setting, a place we will one day all have to exit stage from.

93% done with Dubliners


This is one of those stories that represent my struggles with Joyce: the story is so realistic it doesn’t feel like a story and its weight becomes tedious. Yes we get caught up in the lives of these characters, but on the other hand I don’t feel like I’m reading a story. Yet it’s great art, too. It’s absolute realism, but why does art have to be so real? Do we learn anything from this? Is it just a mirror?

80% done with Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

I do enjoy the interludes where the Judge expounds his philosophical and scientific theories. His audience is little more than savages of one degree or another and yet he lectures them as if they were in Harvard. Though what he teaches is so esoteric as to be nearly incomprehensible with a few nuggets of real insight tossed in here and there. And of course nobody agrees with him though they seem to understand it all.

75% done with Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Cormac is well known as having a scientific mind. He’s not someone who believes in superstition or the supernatural, and so his writing reflects his views. Trouble is that it’s so bleak at times that he makes a case for bettering our current life with a bit of the unexplained. Yes everything is death, but who wants to live like that? Why be so savage? Unless he’s making a case against religion, but I don’t see it.

70% done with Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

This is one of those cases where you’re reading something everyone says is brilliant but you don’t like/get it and you’re kinda afraid to raise your hand and say “Uh, I don’t get it”. Because you’re worried everyone is well versed in T.S. Elliot and James Joyce allusions and metaphors and symbolism and you’re the only idiot in the room. But honestly, I don’t see the point of this book, it’s just endless nothing.

86% done with Dubliners

A Mother

I really liked this one. Everyone here is flawed but they are all acting in their best interests no matter how imperfectly. This story might say a lot about how the Irish at the time viewed their place in higher society against England. They want to fight for their due, but they are too disorganized and not quite as talented as they think and the audience doesn’t care that much anyway. It’s sad.

55% done with Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

They killed a lot of people. They rode on. They killed these other people. They rode on. They got into bar fights then rode on.

It’s boring. I’m only keeping on because the language is beautiful, but there isn’t much else here. Metaphor? I don’t see any. Symbolism? Perhaps, but I’m not putting in that much work for a book that’s otherwise dull. And I get this is poetry, but I’m just not “into this”.

80% done with Dubliners

Ivy Day in the Committee Room

I had no idea who any of the real life people being referenced were (other than the King of England) so along with also not being Irish there is a lot of cultural texture I’m missing out on. However, what’s not lost is that you have a room full of (mostly) old men talking about how the younger generation is no count, how they were more lively in their day, and things used to be better

50% done with Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Well something finally happened – the killed about a thousand Indians and rode back in triumph.

So I feel bored reading this book but I wonder if maybe the lack of anything happening is part of the method here – to lull you into an acceptance of the violence? We’re basically riding around with the Devil and the only “heroic” act (pulling out the arrow) is chastised. The ultimate of earthly pleasure with no morals

45% done with Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

I like the location of the Anasazi ruins and the difficult story of the traveler and the old man who dressed up as an Indian. But this is also the problem I have with the book: it’s nearly impenetrable and very dense. The book is like a poetic rorschach test designed to plumb the depths of your violent tendencies and where every ink blot is the many faces of the Devil.

I’m not sure if I like the book.