Category Archives: Reviews

Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: Read from March 1 to June 10, 2019

Of all the novels I have read, this one comes the closest to reading poetry. And I’m not just saying that because the language is beautiful, but rather because each line – sometimes extending for nearly an entire paragraph or even the whole page – is far denser than the line in a typical novel. Here the mere mention of a sip of tea at the end of the novel recalls entire passages of memory from earlier i the novel, each image and expression carries far more weight and does far more work than normal prose. And I also get the impression that I missed a lot as I read and that were I to go back and reread the novel I would discover whole oceans of thought that I failed to explore the first time around. In short this is a remarkable novel, but it’s also a remarkable experiment in modernism in that the author is trying to convey a way of thinking and feeling by playing with how language can communicate to us. I was not expecting a novel that deals so often with nostalgia for a lost time to be so radically modern.

Proust also explores something even more radical in this experiment, though perhaps without even realizing it. Years later the ideas of Saussure would create the foundation for structuralism, specifically the ideas of the signified and signifier. Proust seems to have intuited this concept and his image of the cup of tea causing a flood of memories to come flowing back into his mind is a perfect example of what Saussure was trying to explain. Yet Proust takes it even further (in the sort of direction the philosopher Bergson would be familiar with) by vitalizing the connection between signified and signifier as the essence of human experience which gives the real meaning to things. True, signifiers (mere words) are arbitrary and basically meaningless on their own, but it is we who give them their meaning, even if each of us has a different definition for what, say, a cup of tea might mean. We are, after all, creatures of language and the whole of our existence is a construct of language, so wouldn’t it be true that such a reality is only real because of how each of us experiences the universe, even if we’re all doing it differently?

There are multiple instances in the novel when Proust describes a person’s glance and then describes an observer interpreting what that glance means. Proust devotes pages and pages to just Odette moving her eyes a few millimeters, and Odette may have meant absolutely nothing by the way she moved her eyes, but for Swann (and us), there is more meaning in such a glance than could be contained by the Library of Alexandria. Meaning – meaningful meaning – is created by each of us in our own way, and often, as with Swann, can go too far, but it is the essence and vitality of our lives which we are creating every moment. Every glance, every word contains multitudes (Whitman) and our reality consists of parsing these meanings into something we can understand – or when it goes wrong we wind up like King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale who have lost our common social connection with other people and thus go mad. 

And like Bergson debating with Einstein about the nature of time, time for Proust is like an erosion that alters the past, and seems to work deeper the more time that passes. Events that were as clear to us as our playmates when we were children are almost unrecognizable when we are older. How did time do this? Why does time alter our memory? Why are we never fixed in any place or time, like Proust not wanting to ever leave Paris? Are we always trapped in that separation between Saussure’s signified and the signifier? Is the human experience a necessary part of the universe (as Bergson believed) or do our experiences remain forever relative and without “True” meaning (as Eisenstein believed)? 

Proust seems very much in the camp of favoring the human experience, and so do I.

Looking back on some of my favorite books it seems I really enjoy stories about people who long for a time that will never return, such as Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and now this. Maybe it’s because the older I get the more I can relate to characters whose interior life consists more and more of memory than it does of ambition for the future or because as time goes on each of us becomes more and more painfully aware of how much the world doesn’t actually make any sense at all unlike when we were young and everything seemed so simple.

The Pisan Cantos: Read from September 10 to September 19, 2018

ATTN: Lieutenant Colonel John L. Steele
7103rd Disciplinary Training Company
United States Army, Metato, Italy

June 15, 1945

 

Re: Ezra Weston Loomis Pound

 

After a thorough examination of Ezra Weston Loomis Pound’s mental state, it is my professional opinion that while the patient displays “no paranoia, delusions nor hallucinations” and there is “no evidence of psychosis, neurosis or psychopathy,” his “prolonged exposure in present environment may precipitate a mental breakdown, of which premonitory symptoms are discernible” (XIV). It is my recommendation that the prisoner be moved immediately to more suitable quarters and a “transfer to the United States or to an institution in this theatre with more adequate facilities for care” (XIV) be considered. I am basing my conclusion of the patient’s current mental state on several complicated factors that I ask you to consider.

First, the patient is highly intelligent and imaginative. The patient has granted me access to his journal which, though at first I found to be nearly incomprehensible, has provided valuable insight into his mind after a close and careful reading. For example, the patient is fluent in numerous languages, including ancient Greek, has a strong grasp of Chinese ideograms, and is able to maintain coherence of thought while abruptly switching from one language to the next. In one section of his Cantos, as he calls this journal, he writes of “a sort of dwarf morning-glory / that knots in the grass,” which he follows with the medical term for psychological injury, “sequelae” (37-38). The patient believes he has suffered great psychological trauma and is thus using this passage to express his pain through the image of a small, beautiful flower, which may represent himself, being tangled in a field of grass, which may be significant as he has been detained in cramped, exposed conditions. He goes on to write, in French, “Le paradis n’est pas artificiel” (paradise is not artificial) (38) which in my opinion is his way of expressing that he still has a hope for the future and that his happiness is attainable. He also seems to recognize that he is suffering tremendous psychological stress when he writes “States of mind are inexplicable to us” (38) but then follows, in ancient Greek, with “dakruon” (tears, or weeping) repeated three times as if he is painfully aware how his present psychological state is affecting him emotionally.

Second, the patient is a highly empathetic individual as evidenced in these Cantos with astute observations of idiomatic speech, such as his mimicry of the black prisoners, one of which he transcribes as saying “Hey Snag, what’s in the bibl’ ? /  what are the books of the bibl’ ? / Name ‘em! Don’t bullshit me!” (51), but also of his more obscure observations of birds sitting on electrical wires which he interprets and transcribes as musical notation, “with 8 birds on a wire / or rather on 3 wires” (63). Far from turning inward and morose, the patient is keenly aware of every sensation and stimulation around him, but like a SCR-300 used by our Signal Corps which is somehow tuned to every open channel, the patient’s mind seems to be like a new Signal Corps Private who is frantically trying to transpose everything coming in over that SCR-300 receiver faithfully but due to the sheer volume of information is experiencing enormous stress in trying to keep up. If I may be as bold as to sound poetic, it is as if the patient were tuned into the radio broadcast of all human civilization across all time and space and wants to make sense of it all not only for himself, but for everyone alive.

Lastly, the patient retains a firm sense of self in that he expresses very strong opinions about Jews, the economy, and has even requested a meeting with President Truman concerning the state of the Japanese campaign. While this may sound alarming and does seem to reek of arrogance and the grandiose, his opinions remain consistent, strangely coherent, and while often reprehensible and perhaps even treasonous, do not seem to, so far, present an imminent threat to himself or others. Therefore, it is my professional opinion that Ezra Weston Loomis Pound is not insane, he is just an incredibly talented poet. These two conditions are easily confused.

The Consolation of Philosophy: Read from September 5 to September 10, 2018

I have been reading this as part of a course on Chaucer as we explore his inspirations and attempt to gain some insight into why Chaucer wrote what he did. This book in particular was a huge influence on Chaucer, as well as medieval thinking in general, but it’s remarkable in just how modern and personal it still feels.

At the heart of any great work of prison literature is the observation of how humanity behaves (wickedly) while the prisoner (innocent) suffers. Boethius’ motivation is even stronger because he knows he will be executed and so we’re witnessing a person come to terms with their life in an attempt to find some sort of meaning to their own existence. In some ways he’s lucky because how many hundreds of millions of people never got the chance to assess their lives before meeting a tragic end, but he has left behind a document that can do some of the heavy lifting for us.

As with most cases of a person being accused he begins his story at the mercy of the emotional muses. How many people have been convicted – even just by a court of public opinion – because of public emotion rather than sound logic? Philosophy then appears to drive those “sluts” away and attempts to use the gift of humanity, reason, to help him make sense of life, specifically why the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper.

The most compelling argument I found in the entire book was Philosophy’s explanation about punishment. Philosophy tells Boethius that punishment is actually a form of goodness and so when a wicked person is not punished then they are not open to the goodness that punishment offers. This reminded me of the argument about hell and how eternal damnation is actually a form of mercy since to cease to exist would be the ultimate act of indifference. Even in hell the sinners are at least able to be punished for their crimes and sins.

However, Boethius is also concerned about what he believes to be false punishment. He believes he is innocent and that any punishment he is currently enduring is unjust, but this brought up an interesting point in that Philosophy tells him that we can never really know who is innocent or not. We may see someone who we think absolutely deserves to be punished for being wicked, but are we the ultimate arbitrators of justice? Do we know what really rests in the hearts and souls of every person?

Philosophy reminds Boethius about Providence and that while it may seem random and that there might not even be free will, it is only because he lacks the intelligence of the ultimate good (God) that he assumes what happens to him and to wicked men is random, but when in fact it is not. Ultimately the whole discussion boils down to faith, and while this final section of the book makes the most obtuse and obscure argument in the book, perhaps because Boethius was quite soon to be executed, it does reflect the difficulty of having faith, truly having faith, in something greater than ourselves.

We so want for our lives to have meaning and yet so often we feel as if life, the universe, and everything is totally random and indifferent, and perhaps it even is, yet what is remarkable is that this document exists, that a man on the eve of his execution was able to meet the end of his life with dignity and lay out a reasonable argument that could perhaps give comfort to even the most slandered innocent person. And he does so without growing overly religious because he constantly frames his arguments by talking about the good – the ultimate goodness of life, that form we all strive for no matter what we might call us. He is, in effect, showing us how there is goodness even in the darkest of places.

Tender Buttons: Read from August 29 to September 3, 2018

An Apology to Gertrude Stein

Reading you made me nervous. My professor assigned your book, Tender Buttons, as an introduction to modernist poetry and though I knew your poetry can be challenging I was eager to read you for the first time. Yet immediately I realized I was in trouble. I kept turning the pages hoping I would find a poem that resembled something I was familiar with: a narrative thread, a story, anything to wrap my mind around. Failing that I turned to my journal and for each of the 58 poems in Objects I kept detailed notes hoping I would find something that made sense.

Then I began to panic. I wanted so much to contribute to a conversation about you that I found myself getting angry that my fellow classmates would be the ones who would share insight while I who had spent hours and hours with you would only be able to sit mute and perhaps receive a failing participation grade for the day’s class.

But I need to apologize to you for getting our relationship off on the wrong foot. As I was waiting for class to begin my friend and I were discussing our opinions of your poetry. I lied and said I enjoyed your work, but I was angry with you. My friend, however, told me how much he loved your poem Careless Water because he understood you were talking about the art of kintsugi. Once he realized what you meant by your reference to the Japanese the world of your poetry opened up to him. And it opened up for me as well.

As class went along and I listened to my classmates discuss your poems I realized how wrong I was to think that I alone had the ability or even the right to understand your poetry in isolation. I realized that to understand you it took all of us working as a group to piece you together. Each of us were like a jagged and broken piece of pottery that wanted to be fitted back into place. As each person offered their unique observations about your poems I also realized that what we were piecing back together might not exactly match the original, that the shape might be a little distorted and that the repair seams would be visible, but that we were making your poems anew and we were adding to your story.

And then I realized how incredibly brave each of us are when we read your poetry because we are bringing a piece of ourselves to your art. True, we might be a little jagged and sharp at the corners and we might not fit exactly, but you are allowing us to participate in your poetry by giving us the freedom to see your poems through our own eyes and with our own experiences. And as I revisited each of your poems I was liberated because I now had permission to work with you, and my classmates, and my professor to make a new meaning for your poems and to not be afraid that I might be “wrong” about what you meant.

Gertrude Stein, I apologize for being selfish and assuming you came in only one shape and with a set of instructions that would allow me to piece you back together again. You wanted to bring us together, to share your art with, and my first reaction was to hate you for it. I am sorry.

Frankenstein: Read from August 24 to September 1, 2018

The Onion’s Book of Known Knowledge says of Frankenstein: “You are probably looking for Frankenstein’s monster, you idiot.” While this is always a “fun fact” for that know-it-all friend we all have (certainly that’s not us, right) to trot out in an effort to make everyone around them feel inferior for not having actually read the book, I think there is something deeper going on here than just confusing the monster for its maker. The fact that even after having read the book – and I’m only discussing the original 1818 version, not the later revised edition – I still want to call the monster Frankenstein speaks to what I think Shelley was really going for at the heart of this novel.

A common misconception about this novel is the idea that she was writing about science gone amok. True, her revised edition 1831 edition contains far more musings that touch on this point, but her original intention, her original creation was about something far more interesting: relationships. When we first open the book we a reading the letters of Walton, a captain of an Arctic Research vessel who laments that he does not have a friend in which he can share ideas with and help him be a better man. Walton is smart enough to know that even at our best, we are always better when a friend can challenge us, bounce ideas off of us, and flat-out remind us when we’re being foolish. And so enters Victor Frankenstein and by the end of the novel when Walton’s crew seems near the verge of mutiny, Walton decides against pressing the adventure on and bravely turns the ship around. Walton, unlike Victor literally changes course rather than pursuing a course that could kill his crew and himself.

And this is what I believe is at the core of what Shelley wanted to explore: isolation breeds inhumanity. Think about how when Victor creates the monster he does so all alone and at the expense of all his relations. Later, when he first submits to create the monster a mate, he does so on an isolated island while his vacation partner and best friend, Clerval, is left behind. Or from the monster’s point of view, he is at his most humane when he is surrounded by the family he spends a year observing in secret. The monster gains insight into the best traits of humanity, but once he is shunned, he reverts into an actual monster that places no value on human life.

Shelley is not so much interested in “the dangers of science”, she’s interested in the dangers of isolation from humanity. She is telling a story about how we are at our best when we have companionship, when we have people around us who challenge and love us but when we turn from humanity, for whatever reason, we lose our humanity because our humanity is defined by the people around us.

Shelley spends a lot of ink in the novel describing how beautiful the landscapes are and how when Victor experiences nature with his friends and family he’s at his best, or at least not nearly as depressed, yet when he confronts the monster and then later chases after him the scenery is a blank ice sheet, a wasted void of nothing and devoid of all life and humanity. Victor keeps turning away from companionship and instead chases after his inner obsession. And by inner obsession I mean that the idea of the monster started out as just an idea that he was able to actually manifest physically – his inner thought literally were made manifest and were given their own agency. The monster is an avatar of his obsession to plumb the absolute depths of his intellectual abilities by isolating himself from all distractions until he was successful.

And perhaps this is why upon seeing the monster come to life he immediately turned away from it because what had been a beautiful idea in his mind (and he had thought he was creating something beautiful) he saw just how ugly the inside of his own mind was, just how ugly that absolute obsession turned out to be. The monster was a product of Victor’s sick, isolated mind and, like Gogol’s Nose, the two had to reunited, only here it wound up being tragic.

And so when we think of the monster as an unnatural abomination, what we are really reacting to is that the monster represents the inhumanity of isolation from humanity. It represents the dangers of shunning humanity while we pursue our obsessions. The monster does not, however represent the dangers of pursing forbidden knowledge since what Victor was initially attempting to do was not at all against nature. Victor wanted to cure death, Victor wanted to understand how life worked which are not unreasonable goals. Victor was applying good scientific principles to his pursuit by taking what he knew and actually applying it via real demonstration.

This is how science has always worked and the fact that what Victor created turned out horribly isn’t an indictment of science, it’s an indictment of pursuing something to such an isolated extreme that the result is perverted because the process didn’t take place as part of a community. Scientists work together when exploring the secrets of nature and the universe, they bounce ideas off of each other, they learn from scientists who came before them, and they allow independent scientists to verify (or falsify) their findings. The process does not happen in isolation and the results are always tempered with collaboration.

Victor’s failing was to think he could do this all on his own, that creating a human could be done without the help of other humans. When humans have children (biologically) it takes at least two people to create a child, and even in cases where someone can’t have children then there are doctors and adoption specialists and surrogates who make up the community of parenting. Victor failed to take into account the neighborhood of man, a line Shelley uses again and again in the novel, and when he tried to create a human being like himself, all he did was create a manifestation of his ugly obsession.

An Evening Out: Read on August 18, 2017

Oh my this was dull. Pointless, too. Also it seemed as if someone who didn’t know anything about a gay person was writing a stereotypical story about a gay person. And not only was this dull and pointless, but it seemed dishonest, too, like bad fan-fiction for an extra in an especially terrible episode of the dreadful series Sex and the City.

It’s been awhile since I’ve done my weekly New Yorker readings because I’ve been back in college working on my English degree (I mean, what ELSE would I be doing), but I also stopped because too many of the New Yorker stories are tepid and filled with overly self-conscious and self-absorbed idiots, like in this story. Nowhere is there any exploration of empathy for another human being, unless we’re supposed to feel something for our narrator here – which we don’t (even the dog just needs the narrator for a floor to sleep on). We even have to deal with the pretentious naming conventions here of N. and Z. By not giving them real names they are just turned into objects, which might be in keeping with how the narrator feels about them, but it does nothing for the reader. Why do we learn next to nothing about N. and Z.?

Give me a story about the disappointed mother who shows up twice, once as the mother, and again as the dog, though I highly doubt the author realized this and it’s a coincidence we have two mothers here. I’m so tired of self-absorbed idiots who have nothing useful tell us about anything except that they were turned on by someone’s uncircumcised dick in an overly bright and dirty club restroom. Who gives a shit? Are we supposed to be impressed that the characters are gay? I’m not. Gay people are human beings and I’m interested in human beings, not stereotypical cardboard cutouts pretending to be gay. How about some real emotion? How about a real, hard look into loss and desire, and passing up an opportunity for fleeting happiness instead of an alcohol fueled journey into Club Banality.

This story is all surface with an ocean of nothingness 1 millimeter below each word. I’d go as far as to say it’s total trash, but not the sort of trash that lingers because it stunk your house up and at least will stick in your memory, but the sort of trash you throw out having never even remembered what it was to begin with. That’s the worst kind because it means absolutely nothing to anybody.

Upside-Down Cake: Read on June 23, 2016

Disclaimer: I never look at the name of the author before reading a story in the New Yorker, I cover it up with my hand so as not to be influenced by gender, race, or if they’re famous already. I take each story as it is with no preconceived notions.

This was a lot of fun, evil fun, but the sort of fun you’d like to have to get back at people who have been making you miserable.

Basically this is all a set up for our narrator to get back at their family. We learn everyone else is a gossip and a backbiter and generally miserable, but we never learn why the narrator is – until the end. Once we learn the narrator’s secret everyone in the family who had been maybe not quite a real character, or a bit of a generic blob, snap into focus. And the narrator isn’t exempt, either. They are just as guilty of being a bastard (pun intended, I suppose) as everyone else.

I find this to be a strange story because a lot of it is pretty generic, though with some very clever writing in it: “We had betrayed one another too many times to be able to sit comfortably around the same table together.”, and “Every visit to an aged parent is in the nature of a farewell.” In fact I was starting to think this was going to be yet another New Yorker dud that paints broad strokes about people who the author stereotypes and speaks in cliches – that’s a popular genre in this magazine, unfortunately.

Yet I think the author senses how dull a lot of these stories are and plays us for fools. He gives us a generic set up full of Roz Chast cut-outs (except for Floyd and Granma) and then turns it on its head. When we learn who the couple are that arrives late to the party and we see how the narrator was testing everyone there to see if they’d give the newcomers a chance, we learn to not take everything at face value, to look a little deeper under the surface.

Don’t judge. That’s a simple moral lesson, but we never learn it.

The Bog Girl: Read on June 15, 2016

All I could think of was Tom Petty’s famous video where he dances with a dead Kim Basinger to his song “Last Dance With Mary Jane”. Also, Weekend At Bernie’s.

This story is really uneven. On the one hand it’s (maybe?) about how we fall in love with the idea of a person but then as we get to know them discover either we love them more or they horrify us and we dump them. On the other it’s comical and not very serious. And I’m not even sure what the story is really trying to tell us about anything.

I found the humor too detached and that didn’t jive well with other parts of the story that are really well written and (seemingly) headed somewhere interesting. But like the Bog Girl herself the story is impossible to really understand and in the end we have to toss it back into the bog.

There are also some editing choices that are poorly thought out. I’m guessing the New Yorker doesn’t suggest changes to a story but this could have benefited from some editing (rearranging sections and dropping unnecessary words) and someone should have challenged the author more to make a stronger point. What exactly are we supposed to take away from this tale? Just being strange is not enough to make it worthwhile.

I do feel that there is the possibility of a great story in here, I just don’t think the story is there yet – it’s sort of like Tim Burton’s later work that didn’t seem to have a strong theme. The characters are not very well fleshed out except for the mother but we don’t get enough of her to really know her.

Maybe if the author had given us a better narrator – maybe the mother? – then we would have a stronger story, something about a mother’s fear of another woman taking her son away. To me that seems to be the solution here if I were adapting this to a screenplay.

I did like this story, however, despite it’s weaknesses. There is some very good imagery and I feel as if a stronger story were floating somewhere just below the surface of another bog.

Trafalgar: Read from June 12 to June 14, 2016

A writer has to have a certain confidence to be able to tell a story about how everything was lost: a love, a friend, a life, and a battle. Yet in losing we get a glimpse at how Galdos perceived the Spanish character in all its forms. We have characters who are tremendous braggarts, old men still filled with the passions of youth, society women so wrapped up in fashion and gossip as to be beyond clowns. Galdos paints with a broad brush and though we never dig very deep into these characters, he, unlike any other writer I can think of, is both satirical and empathetic at the same time to everyone on the page.

The story is straightforward: our young hero is plucked from the streets and made a servant in a good home, falls in love with the lady of the hours, goes off with the master of the house to a glorious yet disastrous naval battle, comes home and decides to leave his adopted family and live a life of adventure at sea. The writing too is straightforward, Galdos had been a journalist and uses simple language to tell his story and sticks to the facts but never leaves out the appropriate time to add some color.

This is an adventure tale, the first of many in a series of “National Episodes” (a serial) and it sets the stage for what Spain had become. No longer was she the glory of Europe, she had become a relic, her court was not to be taken serious, her Navy lumbering and ill managed, her men full of false ideas of glory too late in life, and her women fed up with the men. A strange setting then to set an adventure story of a young man to learn about life, yet what Galdos does so well is to show us how people behave, for good or for bad. He wants the reader to take his Spain seriously, though he’s just as able to laugh at his country too.

At the heart of the tale is a caution against allowing someone else to rule over us. Here the French tell the Spanish how to fight the battle, and lose (Napoleon says “I can’t be everywhere”), and our narrator too walks away from a life of service even though that means leaving the woman he loves and can never, ever have. He has to find his own way, a new way, even if that leads to disaster, as it did for his master.

And deeper still is Galdos showing us how important it is to know whom to believe about anything. On every page there are people telling him this or that, some of it true, some not, and it’s up to him (and us, ultimately) to learn to be discerning. Because to just rush off and act on emotion can lead to ruin just as bad information can ruin us, but there is also truth to be found between lies and being able to see that is a life-long lesson.

I believe Galdos was fascinated by what contradicts people. In one breath a character can be a buffoon and also wise. And as he ends the novel on a clear winter’s day, our narrator instead of seeing the world as it is, sees it as a summer day with the warm breezes, the orange trees, the roses in bloom: he sees the potential but also the contradictions between winter and summer, the contradictions that live inside each of us.

The Polish Rider: Read on May 31, 2016

My new bumper-sticker: “I’d rather be kissing Brezhnev (than reading this story)”

* Know that the majority of this review is me being about as cruel as possible to this pile of garbage and I also swear a lot.

Normally when I have an extreme reaction to art, good or bad but especially bad, I consider my anger and vehemence to be a good sign, a sign that the art did a job in eliciting a response from me. The worst response is none at all, and while I definitely had a reaction to this story, I can’t honestly take it seriously as a piece of art.

Had the point been for me to hate everyone here, say like Rob Zombie’s ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ then it would have been worth it. Sadly this is just another New Yorker cliche with cliche characters and luke-warm, half baked ideas about “modern life”. This is the sort of thing Donald Trump uses to make fun of those of us who read this magazine.

Everything about this story is pretentious and dumb. The author, with a straight face I’m sure, expects us to accept the juxtaposition of Uber as some modular metaphor for the modern capitalist world against the solid, but corrupt world of the police and taxi services. And I’m sure the author and the author’s teddy bear think this is all quite clever.

It’s not.

As Zoidberg once said, “Your [the author’s] metaphors are bad and you should feel bad!”

These are characters, and an author I assume, who is more interested in things than people. More interested in talking about the surface meaning of things than what the elicit deep down in our emotions. People who name drop without ever having experienced real art. Lazy assholes, in other words. This is like reading the transcript of a party from a college sophmore majoring in English where everything is spelled out for us, where the names of the actors in the TV show Taxi are literally spelled out for us.

This story is so bad I wanted to die. I wanted an Uber to crash into my apartment and flatten me in my reading chair before it got any worse. I longed for the days of the Soviet Union and Samizdat (the books copied on cheap paper) because at least someone was editing and something like this garbage would never have got in except maybe to hide the real art, a sort of literary birdcage lining.

And what is the author having a reaction to? Uber? Capitalism? Art? It’s a total jumbled and disorganized mess where on one page a character barely has condiments in their refrigerator and on the next a sleek espresso machine ready to dispense Bustelo. Where we’re told, for no apparent reason that a character has read Balzac in French.

Well these characters can fuck right off with their reading Balzac in French. They can jump right into the Seine and wash up along the banks of the Tiber where some Kafkaesque Uber driver can paint their bloated, espresso leaking bodies.

This story was torture. They should make ISIS read it. It’s fucking brutal nonsense from a psuedo-intellectual feather weight.

Two Men Arrive in a Village: Read on May 31, 2016

In the documentary “The Act of Killing” there is a scene where the men whom had torutured and killed their fellow Cambodian’s returned to a village and re-enacted their crimes. All around them were people – and I remember most of them being women – who had been old enough to remember the killings first hand, had probably never spent a night since without thinking about those horros and were now fafe to face with their tormentors.

Yet the look on their faces is what I remember the most because I don’t think there is a word to describe the emotion they were feeling. These men, the killers, we re-enacting their crimes for fun and were not there to kill anyone but these women wore a mask of entertainment for their “guests” but you could see the confusion, horror, and doubt in their eyes.

For me that was one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen.

This story captures a part of what those women felt, that fear but also that unity, even if they will come to a tragic end no matter how proud they stand.

At the end of the story we get images of the wind, and that’s how I imagine evil (the Devil here) works – the Devil all of a sudden appears and there is nothing we can do to stop him till he leaves. Even Bela Tarr used wind imagery in Satantango when we meet the Devil character, similar here as good looking with his impish friend. And that’s probably why the chief’s wife leaves the room before the name is spoken because to hear the name, even of a friend of the Devil is to invite him back.

But that last image of the small man who sort of confesses to the girl he just raped strips away the excuse that a Devil did something evil and places it squarely where the responsibility lay: with humanity. Monsters do not commit these terrible crimes, men (people, though usually men) do. To dehumanize these terrible acts is to look away and let the Devil get away with it, but to know that men do these terrible things means that they can be stopped because men are weak (the image of the men who only drink shows weakness and cowards).

This is a fantastic story.

E=mc²: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation: Read on May 30, 2016

What is the point of art? What purpose does it really serve? Can it build a bridge, feed the hungry, or put a telescope into orbit? As someone who, sadly, lacks any real STEM ability (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) I’ve always felt a little insecure about my passion for art, specifically literature. Aren’t I just wasting my time in imaginary worlds, dealing with problems only a person with a lot of free time, abundant food, and stable employment can feel free to worry about?

I’ve read many apologists on this subject, but nobody has offered me a satisfactory resolution between the world of STEM and the world of art. And when I look around at the state of the world – climate change, hunger, economic collapse – I sometimes feel my passion, my love of art, is an evolutionary dead-end, destined to secure me a job in retail for the rest of my life.

However, I’ve never honestly believed what I love is useless, but that I’ve only ever lacked the ability to span the distance between what people used to believe were the two sides of the brain: the creative and the logical.

In this book we are shown how Einstein bridged an even wider gulf: the relationship between matter and energy. It had never occurred to anyone that matter and energy were even related, that energy, and vast amounts of it, could be hidden deep within all the matter around us. Yet his genius was his ability to see relationships between two things nobody had bothered to put together previously. His genius too was in his ability to think about very complicated forces, in this case light, in a way that allowed him to see how strange the universe was, but also how much of the universe really worked.

The book then goes into great historical detail about all the people who came before Einstein whom had contributed to the main elements of his famous E=MC2 formula. We get a very diverse cast of characters, and not all of them men, and later, not all of them white, either. We see how the very fundamental workings of the universe allow everyone in it to contribute to discovering its secrets.

What I’ve read in criticism to this book is that the author, David Bodanis, is not very fair to some of the historical figures who played a part in this story. Some people are made out to be far more nefarious than they really were, but while this is unfortunate, and also a great opportunity for a reader to learn more on their own, my interest in this book has only a little to do with the science or the biographies of the people.

My interest lay in thinking about how people think, specifically what was it that allowed all these brilliant minds to be able to make leaps of logic that would advance our species understanding of the universe. Why are some people, such as Einstein, able to look at light and imagine what would happen if we were to hop a ride on a photon, whereas the rest of us would never even think to even think about light? Why would another person question if a bar of iron weighs differently once it has begun to rust? What is it that separates those people from people like you and me.

But when we think about art, aren’t we doing similar work? When we read, say The Wind and the Willows and we understand it to be not a story about cute animals, but rather about what it means to be a child, aren’t we making a similar, if smaller, leap of thinking? Can there be something in the way we think about art that trains us to be not only more critical, but also more aware of possibilities?

In this book Bodanis shows how if a person is raised to believe the Bible is the only and literal truth, but then when they go to school are then taught that science is the real truth, that some students will then learn to be skeptical of everything going forward? That having been burned once (and I’m not making a judgment on religion here, I’m only showing an extreme example), that the person will be more likely to not accept anything just on faith or authority, but to find out for themselves.

But how do you do that? Are some just born with the gift of better thinking? Are most of us then doomed to always take everything at face value and never consider how, for example sound works, or what happens when you ride on a sun beam?

My proposition then is simply that art is, in a way, the training we give ourselves to improve our thinking. That in order to be able to build a clever bridge, or solve an issue of feeding people in a desert, or putting a telescope into orbit, we have to be able to think differently than the next person.

STEM is great at teaching us that, say, 2 and 2 is 4, but just knowing that fact does not do you much good. Yet someone who is willing to think just a little differently will see that while 2 and 2 is 4, that 4 and 4 does not equal 8, but rather 16.

I believe that through art, all art including the art dating back to the very darkest caves in neolithic France, has been a way for people to work out the process of thinking about practical issues in ways that at first might seem to serve no real practical purpose, but that are really doing the work of training our minds to think better.

And I further believe that through studying art we actually improve the quality of practical fields. Instead of making incremental improvements to some device – say a battery that lasts 1 hour longer for our tablets – that perhaps a more well trained thought process could do away with batteries altogether in favor of a radically new technology?

Now I don’t want to get too pie-in-the-sky here, but I do believe that what makes a person a genius is not necessarily that they were just born that way, but that they just knew how to think better. They weren’t content to just know that 2 and 2 is 4, but that they wanted to know what does that really mean? What relationship is there between that simple equation to, say, the exponential increase of a nuclear chain reaction?

To just know facts does not do us any good, but to know how to use those facts is useful, and learning how to think about the facts we know in unique ways can be learned through studying art. A great novel or painting is like a gym in which we can work-out our critical thinking skills which can then be applied to other fields.

However, I don’t want to carry that analogy too far. Art is not just a means to a more practical end. Art does serve an aesthetic purpose and should not be looked at as just a tool that can be swept aside when it no longer serves a practical purpose. We are emotional beings too as well as being logical creatures and so having an outlet for our emotional selves is vital. Art also informs us on matters that are difficult to deal with, such as what Einstein thought about when he understood his great insight, E=MC2, lead to nuclear weapons. Art serves to explore the emotional, moral, and ethical aspects of our lives as much as it can help us think uniquely about practical concerns.

And so this book which explores what E=MC2 means, what led up to it, and where it led to, served for me as a book which helped me think more deeply about the relationship between Art and Science just as Einstein (well, not just as he did, but to a much smaller degree) thought about the relationship between Energy and Matter.

The Midnight Zone: Read on May 17, 2016

Though I’m not sure what our main character actually learns or if she changes at all (though maybe she actually dies?), I do love how we spend this concussed night with her as she drifts out of life and time, her children asleep around her.

We begin the story with some imagery that will come into play later in the story. First is the panther which represents stalking death. Later when she’s trying to stay awake the thought of that invisible predator is ever present at the edges of her life. And like the Alice in Wonderland reference, though it’s all a bit on-the-nose, it works to serve the story of someone who seems to be slowly disappearing.

The disappearing is important because we learn at the beginning she’s lost a lot of weight: “I loved eating, but I’d lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately, as if I’d gone transparent.” And the word ‘transparent’ is important here because that is what she becomes as the story goes on and she falls off the stool. Even the word itself is a sort of pun, trans (changing) and parent (as in literally a parent).

When I first put this down I assumed our narrator lived through the night, but the more I think about it I’m not quite sure. At the start her husband leaves to take care of a suicide and so at the end it’s possible we have another death, one he could have prevented had he been there. Then again, I feel it’s at most ambiguous as to what is going on at the end. We are told she opens her eyes, but we were told earlier about her floating about outside – what’s to say her spirit isn’t still aware though her body is dead?

And it’s the last line of the story that gives me pause: “… like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.” What does this mean, the “silk of my pelt?” For me I get a cold, deathly image, a pelt of fur, cold, mouring (it’s morning, too), black, the panther’s fur. Everything is transitory, fleeting, but ominous, too: her husband fills the door, and earlier her mother was “a person who had blocked out the sun.”

We also get a Blake reference (actually many poets are mentioned, though I’m most familiar with Blake so I’ll stick to him) and it reminded me of “The Tyger” (the panther here stands in for a tiger). With all the darkness of her world (the night blocked doors, the sun blocked) juxtaposed with the “burning bright” of the predator outside (the panther = the tyger), I feel a strong correlation between the images of life and death, the fear and wonder our narrator feels.

I don’t feel we learn anything profound, however and that is this story’s weakness. We have some very beautiful language and wonderful images to unravel, but it amounts to very little. It is sad and beautiful, but I don’t feel I learned anything very interesting about her situation, I don’t feel the narrator taught us something unique about her life and dying. I ask why are we told this story? Just so we can read this very beautiful scene where she slips around consciousness and are left with an ambiguous ending? Will she be a better, more substantial (not transparent) parent? We never know.

Still I did enjoy the beautiful moments of this story even if they don’t add up to a lot.

Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women: Read from April 08 to May 18, 2016

“There is no human being, no matter how despicable he may seem, who cannot stand out in something.”

This line from early in the novel is spoken in relation to the character Izquierdo, a useless man (up to that point), who is a braggart but also surrogate father to a little boy, the near feral Pitsuo. The line is interesting because while at first glance it might seem a positive statement – it could be an internet platitude – Galdós does not actually say that the something anyone can stand out in would be a good something. There is no judgment made here at all, in fact. And it is this lack of judgment which raises this novel from mere ordinary masterpiece to one of the 10 greatest novels ever written.

For a novel this long and with so many characters, summing it up is a challenge, however I think it would be fair to compare it to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. In Tolstoy’s novel Anna is a woman who wants to live life the way she chooses but continually is pushed back down by a society that refuses to accept her ideas. She is judged by society and family, and her fate is unfortunate. The same is true with Fortunata. Though unlike Anna she is not of the upper-class (in fact she is from the lowest class), her pride and stubbornness cause her an endless series of trials and devastations. She is a woman who wants to live how she sees fit to do so, but cannot and she pays dearly.

Another parallel between the novels is through the Tolstoy’s Levin and Galdós Guillermina. Both are held up as examples of the ideal life (as imagined by the author). Levin tries to be a peasant and Guillermina does the work of a saint through her orphanage. Both characters have their flaws (though Guillermina’s are more subtle and only once does she really stumble in the novel), and both characters act to balance the tide of the other major character (Levin : Anna, and Guillermina : Fortunata).

To continue the comparison, both novels invest the reader deeply into their respective cultures of the novelist. Tolstoy drops us headlong into upper-class Russian society of the mid to late 19th century, and Galdós recreates nearly every avenue, shop, and slum of Madrid around the same time period. We inhabit vibrant, breathing worlds full of color, noise, pettiness, sadness, and beauty as written only by authors intimately familiar with them in real life. Future archaeologists, armed with little more than these two novels could recreate a convincing simulation of Russia and Spain of the 19th century.

But we must leave Tolstoy and Anna at their train station in St Petersburg because while there are many parallels between the two novels, Galdós turns his attention not to how society affects the individual, but how individuals affect the society they live in. Galdós is interested in the worlds we create, either in our own minds (madness and fixation are key themes in this novel), but also in reality with the ever changing of the Spanish government of the time and the formation and dissolution of the various tertulia (gossip and discussion groups).

“Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women” has been called the second greatest Spanish novel – Don Quixote being the first. And both novels are interested in similar ideas: what is real? Don Quixote is, obviously, mistaken in his observations (we all know of his famous windmills), but Galdós is more realistic. He forces us to ask ourselves why Fortunata can’t, in fact, find happiness with Juanito. Yes, we know society would never permit such a thing since Juanito is married in the eyes of God and society to Jacinta, but that’s a much different construct than believing a windmill is really a monster. Galdós is asking us to question why we accept society as it is, he just does it more subtly than Miguel de Cervantes did. There no real reason why Juanito can’t just leave his wife for someone he might love more, it’s just a construct of society that prevent him (as well as the fact that he’s a “player” and doesn’t really love anyone anyway).

Guillermina, this novel’s Saint, is also asking these same questions, but in a much different way and does so much more proactively. Instead of sulking around wishing reality were better, she actually does something about it – she’s harasses anyone and everyone to give money, bricks, timber, fuel, even a hat or a pair of pants for her orphanage. Businessmen, clergy, the wealthy and even the poor with something to give are not safe from her alms requests, and if you don’t have something to give, she’ll put you to work. She shakes up the dusty, lazy masses and gets them onto something more productive.

And all the characters engage in their own world building, no matter how small (Dona Lupa’s fake, cotton breast), to Maximiliano’s lunacy, to Feijoo’s pragmatic (and very modern) world view and advice for Fortunata, and even poor Mauricia (who looks just like Napoleon) and her drunken delirium. One character, the above mentioned Izquierdo, finds work as an artist’s model posing as famous historical figures, and another, Ballester, sees himself as capable of truly loving Fortunata. Everyone here is possessed by their own demons and delusions, hopes and fears, and it all mixes up to create fabric of life where everyone is interconnected – a theme Tolstoy explores in War and Peace where every person contributes to and is affected by the tides of history.

As I read over my notes for this novel I realize I’m only touching the very surface here. This is a massive novel, not just in size (over 800 pages in my hardcover edition), but massive in its beauty, too. Though Galdós is not given to long, overly poetic descriptions of nature, there is still an enormous amount of beauty here, but it’s always countered by the reality of whatever given situation the characters find themselves. We may see a beautiful countryside one day, and over the next few weeks have that view blocked by a church being built. No image serves one purpose, everything here is working overtime to show us life in all its complexity and frustration.

On a personal note I was greatly moved by this novel. I feel as if I were to one day walk down to my mailbox only to discover the world’s largest and most perfectly cut diamond just laying right there on the sidewalk in broad daylight with everyone walking right past it and not seeing it. In fact I’m actually mad that this novel is not spoken in the same breath as Anna Karenina, or Don Quixote, or Ulysses, or Middlemarch, or Moby Dick. This is a novel of the same quality and greatness as the greatest of the masterpieces ever published, yet it is almost nearly forgotten – and is, currently as I write this, out of print in English. Madness.

And so now, like one of the characters in the novel, I feel as if I should become obsessed with the idea of telling the world about Galdós and his nearly forgotten masterpiece. I want to read everything the man ever wrote, then re-read it, and spend my life writing about what I’ve read, and go digging through academic journals for the handful of people who have written scholarly work on him so I can look them up, correspond with them, and start book groups devoted to nothing but Galdós! Perhaps this could be my new reality, like a character in the novel who chooses for whatever stubborn, mad, or illogical reason to do what he wants for reasons he’s not quite sure of.

And maybe I’ll wind up like Maximiliano who stands before his future where on one hand he’s entering a monastery because he’s seen the light or on the other he’s being committed to an insane asylum because the light he sees is only corrupting him.

A Life of Adventure and Delight: Read on May 10, 2016

There’s a scene in this story that could have been the entire story: in the new Indian restaurant where the owner is telling his patrons to pay what they think is fair but is worried about the Indian customers paying nothing. The tension between Nirmala and Gautama about if he’d pay or not and if he’d disappoint her could carry an entire story and have wound up exploring a lot more about these characters.

However, we have to consider the story we’re given and not the story we wish it to be.

As for what we have, I’m not sure what I think about it. On the one hand there is an awful lot of telling and very little showing. I know that sounds like something you’re taught in a first year creative-writing class, but good writing comes from including the reader and allowing the reader to contribute, not forcing the reader to just accept what we’re told. In this way the story is poorly crafted. Just saying Nirmala is a good person doesn’t make it true, it just means the author isn’t working hard enough to let us come to that conclusion ourselves.

Also, why do “… many foreign students who are living away from home for the first time” loiter on Craigslist and Backpage? This is never explained. We’re just told this and it’s dropped as if we who aren’t foreigners are intuitively going to know the reason why. Yes I get it that a lot of foreigners might be trying to meet people from their own country, but this is not a problem for our main character, so it doesn’t fit here.

Yet this is not necessarily a bad story, either. There are some interesting ideas floating around, but, unfortunately, we never get to explore them deeply. The most obvious theme is that of value and acceptance. We’re told about how the dowry is still a thing in India, how Gautama pays for sex (and haggles with the girls), how the restaurant owner leaves it up to his guests to figure out what the worth of his services are. Freedom is another theme explored, first with his being taken away when he’s arrested, and later when the prostitute at the end is both free and enslaved (her jumping up and down naked while he holds her breasts is both liberating and shameful somehow).

My biggest gripe is that we just never explore any one thing in great depth. The author wants to tell so much story that we’re actually given very little meal to eat. That’s why I wish the author had been more focused and narrowed the story down to just a scene at the restaurant. We still could have learned about his buying of prostitutes, about his epileptic sister, about his relationship with Nirmala, all while being much more immersed in Indian culture (a culture foreign to most people reading this story and whom I’m positive the author wants to educate us about).

All-in-all this is a good draft of a story, but it’s not clear what it really wants to tell us about these characters. We learn very little about Nirmala as a character other than she’s kind and normally self-conscious. And we learn even less about Gautama because even though we’re given a lot of information about him, we don’t really see him as a fully fleshed out character. Just because he likes sex and is having a hard time with his parents and girlfriend does not a unique character make – he’s like everyone else.

And in being like everyone else is where we do get this story’s only possible success. Change the race to a couple of white kids and this would literally be the most boring story on earth, but because the character’s are Indian we get to see them as being normal, as not being “Indian” but as being regular People (capital “P”) like everyone else. It shouldn’t be important that they’re Indian, it should only matter that they’re People, and in how boring these characters are the author succeeds in showing us any culture can be boring and have many of the same issues.

But that’s not enough to save this story because I never felt like the author was implicitly trying to make that point. In fact the ending could (and I say could because I just want to explore this possibility and not because I’m sure I fully believe it) be read as racist where the only happy prostitute is the black prostitute. She’s made to jump up and down like a National Geographic video with her breasts bouncing up and down as he touches them and she smiles. He’s literally bought a black person for sex and she likes it. So any ideas of racial equality are thrown right out the window. With so much of the story about the value we place on things, this could be read as a very loaded image.

Three Short Moments in a Long Life: Read on May 03, 2016

I think the worst reaction you can have to someone’s art is to be bored and have no reaction to it. This story bored me. I don’t think it’s bad, but it’s not very focused and can’t seem to settle on what it wants to deal with.

We start when the narrator is in elementary school – I wasn’t sure if it was a boy or a girl narrator, though that’s my own prejudices since for some reason I thought it was a girl – and we learn a little about death through a few characters. We also learn the character likes to follow the rules and is a smarty-pants: likes to be smarter than everyone, but also wants to fit in.

I liked this first bit.

The middle part I didn’t get. Jesus showed up, offered to help him with his novel, the narrator refused help but gave Jesus $10 and then regretted not asking for help. We learn the narrator is obsessed with writing about Jesus and guilt and we’re given a few clues in the first part about this (he prays that Beverly will die, and she does), but because the story is written in these short bursts that I don’t believe the narrator has earned us believing anything about them no matter how much the author tells us we should.

The final part is a little better, but the narrator is so glib about death and paints his wife as a saint that there’s no character growth here. There’s no growth at all, really. No emotions are earned, the jokes i the hospital are bland, and I feel nothing when the narrator dies. There’s no emotional core here, no character to empathize with because the narrator is too busy being judgemental. And since we learn more about other characters (unreliability) then nothing here rings true because we’re not given enough of the narrator to really know him.

This started off well, but it falls apart pretty bad. I didn’t hate it, but I was bored to tears, too. And this story seems to follow a trend (at least as published in the New Yorker) of stories that are unfocused, with no real point, but have a few very well written lines sprinkled throughout: “Saints are not the easiest companions.”, and “I was working on my novel – don’t even ask…”

But really, “don’t even ask”. There’s nothing here.

Choking Victim: Read on April 26, 2016

Disclaimer: I never look at the name of the author before reading a story in the New Yorker, I cover it up with my hand so as not to be influenced by gender, race, or if they’re famous already. I take each story as it is with no preconceived notions.

This story sucks.

Look, I get it, the author wants to tell a story about the isolation of a stay-at-home mother. And that’s a great subject to write about, but there is absolutely nothing of interest going on here. Nothing. This is the most boring and pointless story I’ve ever read. And it’s not just boring, it’s badly written. Very badly written.

Here’s an actual sentence in the story: “Karen didn’t trust the people of this city, the city in which she lived.” This was actually printed in the New Yorker. An adult typed that sentence, that sentence was mailed off to a posh New York office where other adults with fancy college degrees sat around a table and allowed it to be published for millions of people (well, maybe like a few dozen of us who actually read these short stories) to read.

Here’s the deal, and I’m going to give the author some benefit of the doubt: The narrator, Karen, is an unreliable narrator. She’s lost her sense of identity after having a child, “It’s easy to lose yourself in a kid, even easier if you love it.” and so everything we get here is the product of a lonely person who has lost touch of the world, of her career (writing), and exists in such an insular world of consumer products and loneliness, that she’s almost become like her infant daughter with no conception of how the world works or any ability to express herself in it. But the story is so poorly written that the writer absolutely fails to convince me that this was the intention.

I’m not asking for James Joyce here – that would be unfair to anyone – but is this really the best someone could come up with to explore how a stay-at-home mother might feel about her isolation? There is no character here for us to hang our hat on, even in flashback Karen is so dull, has no personality (sorting pictures in the library and wetting her feet in a stream over vacation is her favorite all-time memory) that I can’t give the author credit for giving us an unreliable narrator whose loneliness and disconnectedness is being explored and that we’re actually inside her mind.

But even worse the author is just plain lazy. At one point when Karen goes back to retrieve the stroller she drags it behind her. Has the author never pushed a stroller before? Even if the front wheel were to fall off, all you would do is tilt it back and push it on it’s two remaining rear wheels. Even a martian from Plan 9 would figure this out. But here the writer is having Karen drag it behind her.

Oh, but maybe that’s intentional?

No, sorry, don’t buy it. I don’t buy it because once Karen is freed of her baby (leaving it at the cafe) she sort of comes out of her shell, starts to feel a bit more like her old (though still boring) self. Freed of that anchor she can see the world right again, like her husband did after the baby was born and he started to come into focus more. Karen would not drag a two wheeled stroller behind her because nobody is that dumb, it’s just lazy, ill-thought out writing on the part of the author.

So I can’t give the author credit for immersing us into the lonely mind of Karen.

And what about her neighbor, what was that all about? Seemed like that was going somewhere, but nope, he’s just back to stealing her mail. The once place where there might be some conflict for the story just gets pushed aside.

There is no story here. I feel no sympathy with Karen because there is no Karen. And don’t tell me that was the point either. Yeah, the line about “her only living in a world of women where she is a new, incompetent employee.” is interesting and seemed to have a lot of potential to explore how a lonely mother navigates this strange new world of women always giving advice on how to raise other people’s children. That would have been a fantastic story. But Linda, our representative for this cult is just as dull as Linda. And then she’s just gone at the end of the story anyway. So who cares?

This whole story is a tepid mess. It’s lazily written (“She felt oddly good… “), has no point or conflict, contains no characters of any interest (except the neighbor who we never explore), and whose insightful contribution to arts and letters is the line “The past was just a place where uncontrolled freaks you had never consciously decided to include in your life entered it anyway and staggered around, breaking things.”

That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. No wonder Karen’s best friend took up heroin and stopped answering her calls. I’m considering picking up the habit myself after reading this nonsense.

Waiting for the Miracle: Read on April 21, 2016

Usually when someone tells us there are two types of people in the world they usually paint in broad or humorous stokes, not by observing one type of person sees the world as a series of still moments independent of everything around them while the other sees the movement from one state of being to another. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s story is about this difference in how people see the world, their place in it, and how they remember it.

The main character, Vadik, is someone who believes he can change his surroundings to influence his own experiences and life. He believes living in America will change his life and he’s eager to wander New York and sit at a cafe and read something intellectual as if he’ll become the image he has in his mind of a certain type of person. Yet he’s constantly disappointed, or at least challenged by what reality presents to him. Right away, before the plane lands at JFK, he’s unable to even see the city of his dreams as it’s covered in dense clouds hiding the skyline. Everywhere he looks the world is formless, “gray jellied mass of the ocean, across a foggy Verrazano bridge”, as if it waiting for someone to interpret it.

And Lara Vapnyar does a nice job of never imposing her own beliefs on the story. Yes Vadik is continually challenged by the people he meets as to what reality is all about to them, there is never an instance where we feel Vadik (or anyone else) is wrong to believe what they believe. Vadik’s friends have their own life that they may or may not believe is happiness: is the cemetery near the playground a portent or does it mean nothing at all? We’re never told what to think, though there is a lingering sadness to everything that makes you wonder if there is really only disappointment in everything.

Everything here is open to how the characters interpret the world around them: his friend sings a Leonard Coen song badly, someone is making a Nabakov video game (and I gleefully imagined a 3rd person action/adventure of Pale Fire like EA’s 2010 game, Dante’s Inferno), one of the many salads he could have bought is expired, the cheesecake is “disgustingly sweet”. We’re told “He just wanted to lead the life of an American for a while, whatever that meant”, and later we get the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and with it the many meaning symbol of the albatross (repeated again in the scarf Rachel doesn’t take off). Everyone is making some meaning of their life as best they can.

Ultimately we wind up with Vadik and Rachel and the night they spend together, a night that, according to Vadik’s friend may even have been dreamt, but that leaves us wondering about how if we’re seeing the world in the “right” way or if there even is a “right” way. Vadik remembers this night nostalgically, but how does Rachel remember it? All she’s left with is his note (though all he’s left with is still wet socks). Through her we learn every idea can be challenged, that even the lyrics to our favorite song can be seen by someone else as offensive.

We even go as far as to explore how can we even hope to make someone else happy if we can’t interpret what it is they want. Lara Vapnyar uses The King’s Breakfast to make this point, mirrored when the kid at the beginning gets a stomache ache from the Russian breakfast, and again when Rachel offers him a drink he does like.

We do get some resolution in Vadik’s note to Rachel, “You’re beautiful”, because at least he’s made a decision. He believes she’s beautiful, though what his idea of beauty means is unanswered. He just says she’s beautiful without qualifying it. Is she beautiful because she disagreed with him about everything? Because she took him for a night? Because he liked her runny nose? We never learn, and neither does she. Is she supposed to beleive everything about her is beautiful? What is it Vadik finds beautiful about her? Is it just the idea of her? Like a dream?

There is no resolution to all this, and I doubt there could be, but I was a little disappointed that we never get any sort of change from Vadik. Lara Vapnyar doesn’t really grow her characters and everything at the end is the same as it was at the beginning, but at least we the reader have been given something to think about if we’ve never really considered other people interpret the world differently than we do.

Everything in the story exists in a sort of milky cloud, as if the plane at the beginning never landed, and everything is formless and awaiting interpretation – though the one concrete image we get is everyone on the plane applauding when it landed, itself an odd image that makes you wonder how bad the flight had been, but is the only example where everyone in the story agreed on something.

This story made me think of one of my favorite novels, Alain-Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, a story with similar ideas. Yet in that novel the characters are disillusioned where as here I’m not sure anyone is willing to even think about the possibility they may be seeing the world poorly. Everyone here very much wants to be happy and are willing to live in a house where the children swing over the gravestones because at least they are working towards an even greater happiness.

Perhaps what Lara Vapnyar is trying to show us how is how we are constantly fooling ourselves into believing the reality we’ve constructed is going to make us happy but she’s also showing how difficult it is to change our views. Even becoming disillusioned is dangerous because it might turn out to be like a Visa that expires in three years and forces us to have to start all over again.

I loved this story for how hard it made me work, and how much I had to really think about it what it was trying to say.

Anhedonia, Here I Come: Read on April 12, 2016

This is, potentially, the worst short story ever written. It’s bad, it’s dreadful, it’s poorly written, it has no point, it’s not clever. This story is so bad it is an insult to the man who chopped down the tree that was turned into the paper the story was printed on. This story is so terrible the woman who drives the truck that delivers the printing ink to the New Yorker is considering holding the next shipment hostage until the editors apologize personally to her and her family for their incompetence. She works too hard, puts up with too much traffic and back pain to waste her time allowing the staff at the short story department of the New Yorker to waste all that ink on something this bad.

This story isn’t just bad, either, it’s irresponsible, too. This story gives permission to community college creative writing students everywhere to write stories with no point, no dramatic tension, that fills page after page of seedy, bleak, modern landscape descriptions which offer no insight into anything real and only serve to show how much angst the writer feels. Creative writing professors should immediately call their local union and organize a strike whose end can only come when the author, Mr. Barrett is stripped of his typewriter and is forced to go on Anderson Cooper and apologize to America for wasting our time.

Mr. Barrett should then be required to live as one of Tolstoy’s characters who must find meaning in working the land, freeing the serfs, and making some sort of amends for his sins through honest, hard work. He must swear to never looks at an urban landscape and describe how bleak everything is without having any concept of the people who actually live there. Mr. Barrett must be forced to actually meet the man who chops down the trees that are turned into books, learn how though this wage laborer never went to college spends his days off reading Joyce and hopes each tree, each branch, is put to use to bring some sort of artistic genius into the world.

Or perhaps Mr. Barrett can spend a week riding along with the ink delivery lady and learn how she put 4 daughters through college on her salary all by herself with no husband, and how they all turned out OK because they worked hard and didn’t spend all day judging people who have less or more fortune than they do.

Why writers like Barrett think stories like this interest anyone is only slightly less of a wonder than why the editors who sat around a table said to each other, “Yes, this is the perfect story to be published in our venerable publication”. The editors are also to blame for they enable this garbage. At best, they are such a timid flock of under-talented dropouts that none of them had the courage to stand up and say, “This story is not good” because they didn’t want their peers to think they weren’t “edgy” or “modern”.

Well, New Yorker editors, you know what’s “edgy” and “modern”? Good writing and characters that aren’t so thin that theoretical physicists could mine their substance to study the smallest building blocks of the universe.

But I want this story to serve as an example. I want this story to be held up as an example of how low we fell as a civilization so that we can finally begin the slow climb back up out of the refuse heap that has born authors such as Mr Barrett. I want our ancestors to look back at this piece of garbage and say, “This was a turning point in all civilization where the stupid of the world were finally stripped of their power!” And this story will be enshrined next to the law Code of Hammurabi as evidence of how we rebuilt the world into a better, more just place. A world where we don’t write about shallow teenagers selling pot because they’re mad at their rich parents, where characters don’t have to constantly wash their hands with that stupid pink soap found in schools, where we don’t get descriptions of refuse blowing around in the breeze. In short where we don’t get the same lazy, dishonest, and idiotic ramblings of someone who has no concept of how real people actually live in the world.

War and Peace: Fourth Reading from December 5, 2015 to April 11 2016

Why is War and Peace the greatest novel ever written? In my heart I know it is, but to actually explain why, even after four consecutive annual readings, feels as elusive to me as understanding what lies beyond death. For every other novel I’ve read I have sat here on my computer and have been able to summarize my thoughts and ideas, even for difficult novels such as Nostromo and The Brothers Karamazov and even Tolstoy’s other masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Yet War and Peace challenges me to throw a rope around it, drag it to the ground, and wrestle one or even two “meanings” from it. Perhaps the novel is, in some way, a literary manifestation of Tolstoy himself: brilliant, and difficult.

On this most recent reading I kept a journal for each chapter, a total of a little over 360 single paragraph summaries, ideas, and observations. I had hoped this would help me grapple with my inability to explain what it is I love so much about the novel and what it is that draws me back every year to it. I had hoped I could read through my notes and discover, “Yes, here is the reason why this novel is the masterpiece.” But not only have I been unsuccessful here, I can’t really tell you what the novel is even about.

Now don’t mark me an idiot, I know what the novel is about, but to actually summarize War and peace into a few sentences is not only impossible, but it would be unfair to the novel to even attempt it. I mean, why do you think Tolstoy (and his poor wife) spent all those years and over 1200 pages if we could boil his masterpiece down to a blurb? Had he been able to make his point in a paragraph he would have.

Some people have said the novel is about life itself, and while that is quite true, it doesn’t really explain what’s going on between the pages. Another novel, Ulysses, has also been described as being about life itself, however, you can also say it’s the story of a man, Bloom, and one day in Ireland. And while that doesn’t do Joyce’s work any justice, it does at least give you a description you can tell your friends when they ask you what it’s about. Yet we can’t do this with War and Peace. We could say it’s about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, but since most of the book deals with the effects of the war, not the war itself, it would be disingenuous to describe it this way.

However, we can start by saying the novel is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 to give us something of a starting point.

When Tolstoy began work on the novel he had envisioned writing about the Decembrist uprising in 1825, but every time he started on the subject he had to keep going back in time to find a place to even begin the telling of that story. War and Peace is the result of Tolstoy wanting to tell the story of the men who rebelled against Nicholas I and what happened to them (they were all either killed or exiled to Siberia), but to know why they rebelled against Nicholas I he realized he had to tell us about how Alexander I defeated Napoleon and what happened to Russia in the opening years of the 19th century.

We can begin to see the problem in pinning down War and Peace when even the author couldn’t figure out how to tell the story – and even wound up writing a whole other book!

And things get even more complicated because to understand the men (and women) of the Decembrist uprising, why they rebelled and why some even stayed in exile in Siberia decades after those events, we have to know about Russia herself, how Russians felt about their country, how they felt about each other, about Europe, and about life itself. To fight the Tsar knowing you could be killed or exiled, knowing if you did live you would give up everything you and your family owned, facing possible poverty, and absolutely a loss of your social standing. To understand all that we have to know about what is in the heart of men and women, and in this search for meaning is what War and Peace attempts.

For me the most interesting, and important character in the novel is Fedor Ivanovich Dolokhov. Dolokhov is a cold, calculating, tough, independent, street-smart, brave, vindictive, and passionate man. He will milk his friend out of a fortune at cards because he was spurned by love, but is the most caring and loving son and brother a mother could ask for. He will fight with the most passionate bravery for his country, but will also get drunk and tie a policeman to a bear causing Dolokhov to be reduced to Private in the army. Dolokhov is a man of extremes and he is almost impossible to understand.

Dolokhov reminds me a lot of Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov. Smerdyakov is described by Father Zossima (in a prediction early on) that suicides deserves the greatest pity. How is this related? Smerdyakov is shown as being a very bad person, yet we never get the novel from his point of view, we only ever see him through another character’s eyes. In the end when he does kill himself, we are left to ask why? Was he consumed by grief, remorse, or what? We never learn, though an empathetic person can assume.

And so the same is true of Dolokhov. We never get his point of view, we only see him through another character. We could say Dolokhov is a “bad man”, and he certainly does some bad things, but is he really a bad person? We know almost nothing about the man except for how his actions impacted those around him. We never learn why he really bilks Nicholas of all that money, or what he really thought of Petya, or Pierre – we only see what he does.

This, like Smerdyakov, is Tolstoy’s test to us to see if we’ve learned anything about human beings in the novel. Just as we understand why Natasha nearly threw away her life for Anatole Kuragin and why Pierre married Hélène Kuragina, we get no explanation for what was in Dolokhov’s mind, but we have to be empathetic towards him and perhaps even forgive him the way Andrei finally forgave Anatole.

And why is this important? Why should we care at all about Dolokhov, a character who only pops up every few pages here and there in a novel over a thousand pages long? Well I believe it is because Tolstoy wants us to spend our energy on being emphatic towards our fellow man while not worshipping any man. Tolstoy spends many pages (many, many pages) telling us how we should never worship any man.

He holds up Napoleon as the horrible example of hero worship – entire nations fell under his sorcery – because we learn how men like Napoleon are not great, in fact they have hardly any influence at all. “Great” men are at the mercy of everyone and everything around them, more than simple men like Dolokhov. Napoleon’s march towards Russia (and flee from Russia) was not because Napoleon was great, but because a billion circumstances and chances led to those events taking place, not because Napoleon desired it and made it happen. Napoleon made nothing happen, he was merely the face of responsibility. He was no more or less important than a cloud, “how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky!”.

We never say Dolokhov caused anything to happen as we do Napoleon, we only see how people reacted to Dolokhov, usually for the worse. Dolokhov controlled nothing but only took advantage of whatever situation he was in. Had Nicholas chose not to play cards Dolokhov would never had won all that money. Had Anatole listened to Dolokhov Natasha never would have threw away Andrei, and had Dolokhov not been so “cool” Petya never would have been so inspired to run into battle and get himself killed.

And so why does Napoleon get all the credit for the actions leading up to 1812 but Dolokhov gets no credit for being the center of War and Peace? Because neither statement is true, Tolstoy only uses these two men as an example to prove his points: no person should be worshiped, no person can ever know what is in another man’s heart, and all people should find empathy with everyone else exactly because we can’t know their heart.

And so just as the novel is not about Dolokhov, we understand why it is so difficult to discover what War and Peace is really about exactly because it is about Dolokhov. All people are connected via an infinite number of spider web connections, invisible threads all pulling and pushing on each other from all sides like so many vibrations in a piano string, making a music we call life and history. These threads are invisible and the reasons why someone may pluck a string at any given time may be impossible to understand (and even may anger us), but it is all part of a greater symphony, a piece of music we all write, but that no person is in charge of. This is what, I believe, Andrei actually saw on his deathbed, those ephemeral and tenuous threads just barely perceptible above his head as if a marionette had suddenly became aware it was being controlled by a conductor upon whose lap he sat.

The reason why War and Peace is a masterpiece isn’t because of the beautiful writing (though it is beautiful), the realism (though it is the ultimate example of realism), or even because of the riveting story (and it is a great tale). The reason why this is the masterpiece and why I keep returning to it year after year is because we actually experience the meaning of the universe, we actually see the infinite as if we were looking through a lens that starts off narrow but gradually opens up to infinity until the entire world beyond is visible to us until the entire frame is filled with that beautiful blue sky above:

“How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…”

Saint Petersburg in 1840

The Tartar Steppe: Read from April 03 to 06, 2016

Being in my 40’s the idea of leaving a decent paying job, taking out loans, and going back to college to finish my degree is, honestly, scary. The possibility I might just wind up in a lot of debt with no good chance to put my feet back under me, starting over as I near 50 feels like it could take more energy than I feel like I have in me. Yet after finishing this beautiful and sad novel, I at least have something I can look to and say, “I don’t want to be Drogo from The Tartar Steppe.”

From what I’ve read about other people’s perception of this work is that it is an anti-war novel, that it exposes the futility of military life and how such a life can lead to nothing worthwhile since all military life can rest on is the possibility of killing someone someday. Tolstoy would agree, too. He would tell us to go live on the farm, free our serfs, and harm no person. The military is a lot of hurrying up to wait for something that can never come: glory, because there is no glory in killing or dying.

However, that’s not what this novel is about. Yes there are elements that deal with how pointless the military life is, just as there are some passing similarities to Kafka’s The Castle, but what The Tartar Steppe is really about is missed opportunities.

Drogo (and doesn’t that name just sound like the work drudgery?) has done nothing but wait and expect something good to come to him. Drogo is not a hard worker, and he’s not particularly clever, either. Drogo trades in his youth for the hope it will be repaid to him at some future time when something great will happen to him, or at least he’ll be well recognized and his life put all in order. And so he waits. And he waits. And he waits.

Drogo does nothing, however, to actually live. He takes the word of the men around him, men who have their own interests and ploys, and believes that if he just does what he’s told that he’ll be rewarded. But they see he’s an easy mark, tell him stories of Tartar’s on the wild over the desert’s horizon and he buys it all. He isn’t curious to find out if any of it is true, he just accepts it.

Now we could say that this is why the military is bad – nobody questions authority and orders – but this happens all the time to most people, it’s not unique to the military. We believe if we go to school, get a certain job, buy a certain house, that life will reward us in spades. We pass the time watching TV (or reading books), we “run and we run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking, racing around to come up behind you again”. We stay at some dead-end job for too many of our best years until it’s too late to start over.

This novel is about the dangers of not doing anything, of going along with what we think other people, or even society wants from us. And then when we’re old and sick and tired, what then? What can we say we lived for? For a job? For a mortgage? Why didn’t we take those opportunities when we had them?

Halfway through the novel the POV shifts and we get the sad adventure of Angustina. This whole section takes place with not a word from Drogo. Why? Because he missed a chance to go out on patrol with them. And every other time the only time he learns about an opportunity is when someone else tells him or shows him. The General tells him the Fort will be reduced, Simeoni tells him about the road: he never discovers anything for himself. Even his one chance for love he failed at because he didn’t take any chance at all to tell her his heart, he just kept making excuses for why he shouldn’t take that chance.

Drogo was a coward. This is why he’s whisked away to the Inn at the end. He’s not a real military man, and so he won’t even get to see what he thinks he wants. Fate took it away from him because he was undeserving. And so we too would be cowardly if we chose the easy path everyday, if we didn’t go out and see where some strange road leads to.

I know this sounds a little cliche, but Dino Buzzati is telling us not to waste our lives. He may have meant don’t waste it for some Fascist regime in Italy, but this is a brilliant work of art and it transcends just one reading. He’s warning us against not standing up and taking charge of our own lives.

And so as depressing as I found this novel, it is also inspirational in it’s warning: don’t let time get away from you because nobody will help you and they might even take advantage of you to get where they’re going.

The Burglar: Read on April 05, 2016

I have no idea what the author was going for here. Was this all a plan for a TV episode? Were we supposed to ponder the racial stereotyping that goes on in media? Was this an examination of shallow, suburban lives? A sci-fi yarn about time travel?

I had hoped we were at least going to get a good twist at the end, but instead we get a whole bunch of exposition about what Emmett couldn’t possibly know (we’re even told he can’t know any of it), and then he just sees the boy go away with the satchel.

So?

This wasn’t even fun, it literally serves no purpose. And it feels more as if the whole story is an idea for a story that was never fleshed out. Maybe the writer is trying to parallel the artistic struggle of the writer character – the episodic structure of the story mirrors how TV shows today are a series of multiple story-lines edited together fast enough to make you forget there’s no substance to any of them – but there isn’t enough in the story to convince me that there is anything really all that deep going on here. There’s no character “real” enough to feel like we can identify with any real struggle, be it race, or time travel issues.

Maybe I missed something, but just because the New Yorker publishes something doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.

I did like the line, “The warm commotion of a party.”, but that’s all this story felt like: “The warm commotion of a party”, heard from far away.

The World of Yesterday: Read from March 06 to April 02, 2016

There are two stories near the end of Zweig’s book that stood out in their sadness and frustration. The first involved his attending a debate between George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Zweig, who is not a native English speaker, listens in to these aging intellectuals as they debate something, the theme of which he can’t quite figure out. He knows there is something brewing between those two minds, but he’s a stranger before them. The other story is of his elderly mother and how she was no longer able to rest during her walks on the public benches in Austria because Hitler stripped Jews of this basic right.

The story of how Zweig, and all of Europe got to the point where he was no longer part of the conversation and Jews were humiliated is what this book is about. We do not get the why, however.

Zweig begins the account of his beloved Austria and Europe as a child living in the strict and ordered German society that only the old were truly allowed to master. Even someone just turned 40 was still considered, in those days, to be too young to be really trusted with important work. A person had to spend their whole life working at a set pace, each year or decade moving up the ladder as if there was a checklist. But society was secure, there was safety, reliability, predictability in everyday life. Even the unpredictable could be managed with insurance and savings.

But Zweig had an artist’s mind and an artist’s youthful enthusiasm. He longed to break through those solid walls that had been mortared up generation after stoic generation, he wanted to be free, free to study art and music and think freely. And for much of his life he did. He rubbed shoulders with nearly every influential artist and thinker of his day. The book is an encyclopedia of who’s who.

But what we don’t get, and what he never saw, was what was happening off stage. While he was reading poetry, young people in the Balkans were planning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Everywhere there was injustice and poverty, only a select few, like Zweig, could really enjoy the lifestyle he so loved and longed for. When WW1 breaks out it’s almost a surprise for him and he is nearly ignorant of the suffering world:

“Why should we be concerned with these constant skirmishes with Serbia which, as we all knew, arose out of some commercial treaties concerned with the export of Hungarian pigs?”

But I’m not going to be too harsh on Zweig because though he was thoughtless, he was naive in a good-natured way. His life was art, and thinking, and all that is good in the world. Were everyone only concerned with poetry and coffee shops how magical would the world be? How free of pain and suffering? Yet the real world does not take artists very seriously. Someone might make a few headlines with a propaganda poem, such as Ernst Lissauer’s “Hymn of Hate”, but then have to flee after the war because nobody wants to associate with and are ashamed of such hateful rhetoric.

Maybe this is a reason why he killed himself (his wife too, though she is barely mentioned more than four times in the book so her story is obscure)? Maybe he saw himself like the old woman who once lived above him, a woman who once knew Goethe, but the link between them is ephemeral, dry, and dying. She was an old woman dying in her room and he only saw the link between her and a great artist. What of her? What of her suffering? We learn nothing. So perhaps his blindness to the greater evils of the world was what did him in. Maybe he knew that his silence on politics was a mistake, but he might have also known it wouldn’t have mattered anyway for who could have stopped either war? Who could truly oppose Hitler and those who followed him?

And this is why I wanted to read this book now, because of the current political climate here in America, specifically with the candidacy of Donald Trump. Someone like myself who tries to stay away from politics, who sees that man as a buffoon, is reminded how Zweig saw the rise of Fascism. He saw it and was unable to do anything about it until he had to flee his country where he becomes a stranger and outsider everywhere and leaves his elderly mother behind to be humiliated by not even being allowed to sit on a park bench.

All of it is absurd, really. From him sitting in Switzerland with food but drink not 5 minutes away from Austria where everyone starves, to the Belgians using dogs to pull guns on little carts, to men drinking all the beer in one country because it was cheaper than in another and they’d become so drunk they had to practically be rolled back across the border, and where in a war economy when cakes of soap are more valuable than real estate.

And after the first World War he could see how the world had been fractured, where artists like Dali and Joyce rewrite the way we interpret the world through art, where instead of free passage between nations one needs passports and fingerprints and interrogations just to move across a line on a map.

The world went mad, and then went even madder when Hitler began his march. Zweig had become an alien, not just from his country, but from all humanity. He might have as well been from another planet considering how much the world had changed from when he was born. From beautiful, ordered Vienna, to the crazed heat of Brazil as the world tried to blow itself up once more across both oceans.

And the worst part is to be helpless. What good can art do against such forces? Where in the world is there a place for music and literature and the visual arts? How many mouths can an oil painting feed? How much clean water is a poem worth? How many books can save an infant from dying of disease?

And so now we stand on the other side of this question where engineering and practicality and a total lack of empathy for ‘those people over there’ is considered a virtue. Entertainment is ok, but not art, art is a waste of time. Artists should be put to the factories to make computers and ring cash registers.

And I can’t say I disagree with Zweig in not wanting to live in a world where function reigns over art, where a mind must conform to only one way of thinking and that energy is only directly applied to utility.

So where do we go from here, those of us who have lived on after Zweig? What is left for us? What good can art do? What use is an artist?

I hadn’t intended to grow so pessimistic by the end of my review, but it does parallel Zweig’s feelings on the state of the world. And while I have no intention of doing myself in, I do have a great sadness for his world of yesterday, too.

God’s Work: Read on March 29, 2016

Aside from two images which I felt were not very strong (the laughing portraits of the President’s in his dream, and the final “shaft” and “penetrate” (we get it, just trust your reader), this is a wonderfully crafted story.

Canty uses language, not as a blunt instrument, but finds words that can take on many, confused meanings. My favorite was “Yolked” from the hymn song title: I imagined eggs, reproduction, fragility, runniness, eggs in a basket. He then repeats the egg imagery by calling the congregation “hens and chicks”. Later we get the word “stalky”: Sander “hangs around the edge of the room like a curtain, a piece of furniture…”, like a stalker with shady intentions, but also like the growing yellow flowers his mother planted: unsure, unready, green. And he later mentions planting seeds (of faith) but implying sex, too.

One line that I wasn’t able to interpret was when Sander says to his mother about Clara and her father, “But the two of them… ” What does this mean? I immediately thought incest, but it’s left unresolved.

I loved this messiness of language, of confused faith in Sander who Clara turns to for genuine help but who can’t help her. He’s helpless, as is she, but at least she can have pleasure.

And in the end I felt as if he had been cast into that oblivion his faith believes in: “Still eight weeks of summer left”, and without Clara. An eternity for a 15 year old.

My Purple Scented Novel: Read on March 23, 2016

This story is what the play and film Amadeus would be if, instead of composers, Mozart and Salieri were writers and all the while Salieri was stealing Mozart’s work. Or you could say he imagined John Williams (the writer, not the composer) and blended it with Gone Girl.

I’m not sure if McEwan has anything to say here about plagiarism, friendship, hard work, or where ideas come from, but he’s written a fun story about someone who is more patient than talented and uses this “gift” to take something that isn’t his: fame.

The breezy style the story is written in works well because what is popular is usually effortless but we all feel just a little guilty that we don’t take “better art” more seriously and so Mr Sparrow takes advantage of our lack of paying attention to the more “serious” arts. Nobody in this story reads anyone else’s work, it just sells a ton of copies and gets made into movies starring famous actors.

But McEwan is also satirizing the serious artists too by saying they might be a bit too stuffy to be worth reading. John Williams was forgotten until long after he died, and though he was a great artist, nobody is probably ever going to read him (thought they’ll all want to and maybe even buy the Kindle edition but never really get around to it). Nobody is paying attention to art and so Mr Sparrow, our “hero” and thief who lives the most average of middle-class lives can take full advantage of the process and launch him to a height he could never reach by talent alone.

This is why I subscribe to the New Yorker because every once in a while you come across a fun little story like this.

Three Days in the Village: Read on March 21, 2016

Over the course of three days Tolstoy shows us what life is like for him and, more importantly, the incredibly poor peasants who come to him for help. He listens to each of them, gives most of the 5 kopecks, and tries to help those whom he can.

One of the issues he addresses – though a secondary issue for him in this essay – is how these poor are perceived. Many are intelligent, some are drunks, quite a few are rough and rude. Each of them has a story that, as each one tells it, makes them the victim to circumstances they have no control over. For plenty this is actually true, and for a lot of others, however, they are themselves to blame, at least in part for their varied predicaments.

The point here, then, is that these circumstances that afflict many of these poor are, as Tolstoy sees it, immoral. He sees the majority of people working hard for the comfort of a few. And he sees how the few have arranged things so that the law is on their side and that these poor people will never be able to compete. Their sheep are taken away, the husbands are driven into the Army, and the once strong are quickly taken by Death (as evidenced by the man with the lung infection).

And at the heart of all this is what Tolstoy sees as the most immoral law there is: land slavery. He believes that land ownership is no different than the owning of human beings. He believes that if everyone had an equal share then many of the problems of the poor would be solved.

And he would get his wish soon enough because since this was written in 1910, it would only be a few years later (after the War) when Communism would take over. And we all know how that worked out, though the failing of Communism actually still proves Tolstoy’s point in how the few will always live at the expense of the poor and exploited “many” (see Animal Farm).

What I feel like us readers could still take away from this 100 year old essay on poverty in a modern society is how we see the poor. To me there seems to be a strong divide over the issue. On one side are the people who wish to help support the poor, and on the other the people who believe the poor need to lift themselves. And I don’t think either side is totally wrong or totally right.

On the helping side we believe that if we offer assistance and money and free services that the poor will utilize all these resources for their betterment. But the problem with giving too much (and Tolstoy only ever gave 5 kopecks at a time) is that it cheapens the person you’re helping. Adults are not children, adults have to help themselves. And that is the opinion of the other camp who believe hard work and effort alone can rise a person up, but this point of view fails to take into account that the world a poor person lives in can very quickly hinder any progress with even just one accident – a sheep taken for taxes or the death of a spouse can ruin an entire family and send the children to the orphanage.

And I got the feeling in the first 2 days of the essay that Tolstoy often felt overwhelmed by the whole situation. He seemed to spend all his time trying to do something but it was far more than one person could do, not to mention being exasperated by his fame as a writer which always drew attention.

So what can anyone do?

Well, I do believe we have to help each other, but I also believe we have to help ourselves. But I also believe that the “system” is rigged against us. I don’t believe that all the land should be given away free, or really anything should necessarily be free, but I think the world we live in where we have so many laws and rules designed to insulate us from the morality of our decisions, and so many more rules which allows a very few people to control so much, that we should rethink the entire game.

But above all, having empathy for people, no matter how crude they are, is the best place to start. It’s easy to say (on the left hand) “Here, let me give you a bunch of stuff”, or (o the right hand) “You’re poor because you’re lazy” is just belittling from both sides. And I think the more we feel squeezed by the very game that a lot of people are losing at, the more strongly we take a side on the debate.

But maybe not taking a side is actually the answer. Maybe just treating everyone as a human being and being empathetic to everyone, including their weaknesses, we might come up with a better way of doing some good.

Tolstoy basically ended his life by running out the front door in the middle of the Russian winter which, of course, killed the old man a few days later in a train station, probably because he had grown so frustrated with ever finding a solution that it drove him mad. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer.

The Russian Peasantry 1600-1930: The World the Peasants Made: Read from November 21 to December 17, 2015

This is an incredibly well balanced overview of the Russian peasantry, that is divided up into 10 main chapters covering each of the following headings:

Population, where we learn about death and birth rates as well as how geography plays a major role in population;

Environment, where we get a deeper look at the geography of Russia and how that played a part in migration of peasants as well as how Russia grew during this period;

Exploitation, in which Moon attempts to balance the assumption that serfs were very badly treated (something the Communists were attempting to teach) against the more complicated reality of the interplay between landowner and serf;

Production, where we learn what was grown, harvested, and sold as well as why Russian peasants never advanced beyond the technology level of 16th century peasants in the rest of Europe;

Households, where we learn about the large, multi-generational households that were common and why they persisted;

Communes, wherein we learn about how the community of peasants was a vital factor in managing the estate, keeping order, and keeping everyone alive;

Protest, where we learn about the 4 major rebellions that took place before the 19th century;

Consumption, What the peasants ate and bought, and by inference how they lived day-to-day and what their interests were;

Continuity, where we learn not what changed for the peasants but how their culture survived, thrived, and was kept intact even when families were split apart, or entire communities moved thousands of miles;

Change, where we take a closer look at the myth that peasant society was static (see Production and how the peasant farming techniques did not change much).

This is a book designed for someone who wants a good introduction to Russian peasant society, overall Russian history, and a look at how different political influences can shape how we look at the data present. Moon does an excellent job of being very fair to not only the peasants, but also to the landowners (and even the tsarist’s government itself) by presenting the complexity of the issue of serfdom. While there are a few “evil players” here and there – Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, for example – the interplay of power between the serf and the elite was dynamic, subtle, complex, and not nearly as black and white as the American slave plantations.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about this period in history, especially if you are a lover of Russian literature and wish to gain a keener insight into the novels of the great Russian masters who so often included serfs in their stories.

Animal Farm: Read from December 01 to 04, 2015

I had never read this novel before and though I knew what it was about I had never even had any of it spoiled for me so the entire experience was new. In some ways the novel is what I expected: a simplistic look at how a totalitarian regime can take power, but what I hadn’t expected was how correct, and even a little frightening it was.

While there is nothing new I could hope to add to the analysis of this novel, I did walk away with some very strong feeling that I must have spent over two hours here typing out as part of my review. Yet I keep deleting everything I write about this novel because of how politically charged it is and how my political opinions are just that: political opinions. Not only can I add nothing new to the analysis of this novel, I can add nothing new to the discussion of politics.

And maybe that’s the answer to the age-old problem of political systems: stop having such strong opinions about everything. The world needs less extremism, anyway.

So I’l just say this is a great book and I really enjoyed it and otherwise I’ll keep my opinions about it to myself.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Dervish House: Read from March 28 to April 23, 2015

In many ways this was the least science-fiction sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – and that made it even better.

This novel succeeds in all the ways that many of William Gibson’s later novels have fallen flat. McDonald, like Gibson, is interested in exploring the world we currently live in (and are just on the cusp of living in) but he goes much further and deeper than Gibson by creating characters who are tied emotionally to the place they live in, who inhabit a world that is believable in its backwardness, whose problems are mainly their own doing. McDonald is just a better character writer than Gibson and it improves the overall story.

All of McDonald’s characters in this novel are trapped, trapped either by greed, a rare heart condition, their past, or their religion. They are also all trapped by their geography, the great city of Istanbul that straddles the East and the West but in many ways has been corrupted by both instead of gaining the benefits of both. McDonald’s Turkey is full of racism, of religious dogma, of superstition, of old ways of thinking, and all the while strives to be more modern too. The city, of the novel and probably much like in reality, is a mess. The city is stifling hot, over-crowded, full of gossip and noise, and with very little real opportunity. Yet even among all the chaos of this city, people will still do what they can to get ahead, to make a life for themselves.

McDonald’s goal here is to show us in simplified strokes the crossroads the entire world has always seemed to be at – to either follow religious authority and the respect of one’s heritage or the road of technology and individual pursuits. And he shows us the successes and failures of each way of thinking, of how a priest can lose his way in the shaming of a poor woman who can find no other way to survive than to be a prostitute, or how a businessman can find no success without selling out his firm and his professional future. In this novel everyone is corrupted because they can’t live in both worlds at the same time. In fact one character nearly goes insane trying to see the djinn swirling around him in the city.

The novel also touches on the cruelty of how the dominant culture of a nation can impose itself on the weaker minorities either through subtle racism to outright murder. McDonald doesn’t make this a front-and-center point of the novel, but it’s always there in the background – either through how the Kurd’s are seen to how the Greeks were treated in Turkey. And it’s this never-obtainable national purity that seems to be an obsession that holds the Turkey of this novel back from being a true power, from being united through its shared culture and heritage. Turkey is like the mellified man of the novel, but one that never will turn into life giving honey, but just dust.

Everyone in the novel has a dream that is never fully obtained, they all have to settle for something less. And in this point I think McDonald makes his strongest case in how futile the effort is to try to change the world, or even to be as successful as we want in our own little lives because we’re too bust fighting prejudice, fighting greed, fighting economics, fighting superstition, and we;re all fighting it from different sides. He paints a world that is fractured not just through geography, but as a species. At one point he tells us that the body of water separating the two sides of Istanbul looks very much like any normal river, but it is in fact the sea itself flowing through the strait, not just some stream. And buried in the muck is 2000 years of forgotten human civilization.

Structurally the book is incredibly well thought out and executed. You can feel the lives of all these characters, the entire city too, folded on top of each other, breathing the same hot, dense, noisy, polluted air. Even in minor details – such as the man in red who fishes for a catch that no longer lives in the water there anymore, or the image of an unworn wedding tuxedo juxtaposed to the observation that young men will always kill young men – is much more literary than I was expecting. Though a science-fiction novel, there is very little sci-fi: this novel is more of an allegory for human civilization and how we can’t quite seem to get our act together because there are many truths, many ways of looking at the world, and many people willing to kill and die for those myriad beliefs, both the spiritual beliefs and the worldly.

This is a fascinating novel and one of the very best science-fiction novels I’ve ever read because it is so full of ideas and observations about what we are as a civilization and how primitive and advanced we are all at the same time.

The Wind in the Willows: Read from March 08 to 25, 2015

When I was 10 or 11 my family became acquainted with a very old, and very wealthy lady named Mrs. Marsh. Mrs. Marsh lived in Duxbery Massachusetts all alone in a very beautiful English style home that looked out over the harbor. She had a fine garden, a library stuffed with books floor to ceiling, a large kitchen you could cook anything you wanted in for as many people as you knew (and all the people they knew, too), but she was blind and couldn’t much take care of herself anymore since her husband had died many years before. So my family helped her out with taking care of the house, the shopping, and some basic work for the house. We also read to her since she loved books but because she could no longer see, requested that she be read to.

Upstairs, through a concealed passage connecting to a room above the garage, was a room set up as an old school room. There was a chalkboard and desks, and even books for children to read. The room hadn’t been used in decades and was dusty and everything old, but it reminded me of the scene near the end of this novel where Toad sings his final song about himself to himself. One last act of selfish bravado before “growing up”.

Just a year later I would find myself having to move out of the home I grew up in, having to leave the valley and the river I had played along everyday since I had been born. I remember doing what Elspeth Huxley did in her novel, The Flame Trees of Thika, and kissed all four walls of my childhood home hoping that would mean I would one day get to come back – but I never did. My childhood stopped (a little bit) that day, and I physically left behind the first part of my life.

After that was Jr High, bad grades, worse friends, and a steady decline in any innocent childhood until I was shipped all the way out to Colorado. In fact I haven’t been back to Massachusetts except once since leaving – and that was over 20 years ago.

But this book reminded me of those days, of those comforts that you have as a child – those attachments to things, the attachments to people you cared about, the attachments to long, lazy days along a river, or laying under the sticky pines, or playing baseball in the spare lot. Days where friendships, and battles, and adventures where almost common, where everything was wondrous and sometimes even a little frighteningly mysterious.

Being a child is a lot like being one of the animal characters in this book. I think that’s why the animals seem to occupy a world with real people in the book, even interact with them, because they are living side by side, yet seeing the world so differently. This is why Toad can operate a car and not operate it well at all just as a child would crash it into a lake at high speed. This is why they can spend all day on the river or have everything seem to be provided for them – because it is being provided for – by the parents. Mole, Ratty, Badger, Otter, and Toad – along with all the other animals, are the neighborhood kids and the only time we meet a person is when they are in positions of authority or responsibility. That’s the only time we care about adults.

I think you could make a parallel between my interpretation of the animals here and how Richard Hughes creates his children characters in A High Wind in Jamaica. The kids in that book occupy their own world, and while not totally indifferent to the adults in their world, they see the adults as some distant land of foreigners, quickly forgotten and somewhat mistrusted.

And yet we do end with the growth of one of the characters, Toad, who sees that he will have to grow at least a little, become a grown up, think of others more often, and put aside his own foolishness and selfishness and pride. And it’s a sad ending too because for as much of a pain Toad is, we can’t help but not only like him, but want to BE him, too. Because we were all Toad once.

Though I’m not 90 and not blind like Mrs. Marsh, I do find myself having more in common with her than with my younger self as I think about this book. That wondrous world of willows and a magical Piper at the Gates of Dawn does not exist for me anymore, it’s nearly as dim as it is to the blind. And the old schoolroom is just as empty for me, full of dust as it had once been full of children. The desks all lined up still, but not for me.

We all have to grow up, but we can at least remember.