I read two of Fabre's books translated into English (GUYS LIKE ME, THE WAITRESS WAS NEW), both about the pleasures and difficulties of ordinary ParisiI read two of Fabre's books translated into English (GUYS LIKE ME, THE WAITRESS WAS NEW), both about the pleasures and difficulties of ordinary Parisian life. As all of our lives are "ordinary", or at least so between the bigger milestones (births, marriages, accomplishments, deaths), I found them interesting and looked forward to reading some more of Fabre's dozen novels. Unfortunately, only these two have been translated, so I read PHOTO VOLEES in French. It was enjoyable, although a good translation might have clarified some of the subtleties of Parisian slang that escaped me.
The novel concerns a 58 year old divorced man, no children, who is laid off from his job at an insurance company. At his age, the chances of finding another job are practically non-existent so he has to come to terms with being retired and determining what his life has meant so far, and where it is going to go now.
He has taken a lot of photos over the years, of his childhood, of places and friends, and in sorting through these, he randomly wanders back over his life - his friends, both male and female, his former wife, their divorce, the places in the Paris suburb that he has known and loved, a serious illness he has had. These photographs lead to speculation about all the days of his life that he doesn't have any record of, or remember. Where did they go? Did they have value, even if unremembered? He thinks about his dreams, what might have been. Here he is somewhat like the characters in Fabre's previous two novels.
But the novel is not just about the past - the present is interspersed as he comes and goes, undertaking the meaningless obligatory ritual of seeking a new job at an employment office, seeing and talking to old friends, mostly about the past, the changes they've undergone, on occasion helping a friend with a delivery job. Sometimes, he becomes philosophical, musing , "it seems to me that our life is an eternity before becoming a dream." But he adds that this may seem a bit silly and besides, who can he talk to about such things?
The book ends with a dream in which he is helping a nearly blind old man across a street. They take thousands of steps but do not make the slightest noise. And then he wakes up and the images of his dream disappear. "Ils sont pour toujours efface's." A poetic summing up of his life - small details but in the end, what do they amount to? Or perhaps there is no end - an "endless" crossing of the street. And the "crossing" which this novel describes , is an absorbing reality in itself. ...more
Pinker in his preface makes his thesis very clear: "This is a big book but it has to be. I have to convince you that violence really has gone down ovePinker in his preface makes his thesis very clear: "This is a big book but it has to be. I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media . . ."
But what about the 20th century and its wars that were responsible for the deaths of twenty million people? It's this kind of question that Pinker might say invites skepticism. He answers it by pointing out that in terms of overall population, the number of deaths from the wars of the last century are actually statistically small.
Violence of all sorts, according to Pinker, has in fact declined, whether it's societal, as in war, or individual, as in crimes of all sorts, not only in of assaults on individuals, particularly women and children, but in assaults on animals and lower forms of life. The causes are many and complex. Generally, they have to do the powerful forces of modernity - reason in the form of better education, and coexistent with that a greater emphasis on individual rights. Science and t technology play a huge role, making it clear that violence is disruptive, especially to economical development, a yardstick by which modern industrial societies measure themselves. Geographical mobility is important as individuals are no longer constrained by irrational village and tribal customs.
Pinker goes to great lengths to discuss any number of subtopics that in one way or another stem from Thomas Hobbes' theories about why humans ae violent. At the heart of them is always something that has to do with what humans hope gain from violence, rational or irrational Some of the topics that Pinker discusses that stood out for me were religion, notions of morality, self-control, revenge, honor, cruelty,authority, the list goes on and on, and concludes, finally, by Pinker stating, "I hope that the numbers I have marshaled have lifted your assessment of the state of the world from the lugubrious conventional wisdom [that violence int he world has gotten worse].
Okay, Pinker convinced me, but reading this book was like being choked to death by a python. Pinker backs up his points with endless graphs, statistics, summaries of behavioral experiments - to the point of tedium and these are what squeezed the life out of this reader. While I didn't disagree with much of what he had to say, it was mind-numbing reading. I gave up and did something I seldom do, just skim-read and relied on summary statements at the end of chapters.
I had never heard of this Edwardian crime fiction writer until a friend recommended him, so I thought on the basis of that recommendation, I'd give h I had never heard of this Edwardian crime fiction writer until a friend recommended him, so I thought on the basis of that recommendation, I'd give him a try. Freeman is a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle, and although it's been a while since I've read any Sherlock Holmes, based on what I remember of him, I'd say that Freeman's man, Dr. John Thorndyke, is right up there with Holmes as a super sleuth.
Thorndyke is a medical doctor who specializes in forensics, and in this novel, the first of many by the prolific Freeman, he uses his scientific knowledge of fingerprinting methods to help acquit an innocent man who is about to be found guilty in an apparently open-and-shut trial. Like Holmes' Watson, Thorndyke has a loyal assistant, Christopher Jervis, the narrator in this novel, and a second assistant, an equally loyal personal servant and lab technician, Polton.
The case revolves around a diamond theft from a safe. The alleged thief's fingerprints are found on a paper accidentally left in the safe, and he is a close member of the family. The police investigate, turn the fingerprints over to Scotland Yard specialists to identify them, the suspect is arrested and awaits trial through most of the novel. But he's a very reputable young man who swears he's innocent and has no idea of how his fingerprints were left in the safe.
Thorndyke believes him and goes to work on the case. Jervis is in awe of his intellect and deductive powers but most of the time has no idea of what Thorndyke is up to. His methods are sound ones, though, and in the course of the trial, he demolishes the testimony of the fingerprint experts by demonstrating how fingerprints can be fraudulently copied. It was all satisfyingly convincing to me.
It's a clever story that proceeds like clockwork, and has a few of what would come to be the conventions of the genre (tension between the police and private investigator, for example) but much of the pleasure of reading the book is enjoying the polite and formal way of describing the manners of Edwardian England. A subplot where this is particularly evident is the growing romantic attachment that Thorndyke's assistant, Jervis, feels for an attractive young woman. ...more
How do you come to read an author you've never heard of? I was at a book fair in France which had invited an American novelist, Douglas Kennedy, in adHow do you come to read an author you've never heard of? I was at a book fair in France which had invited an American novelist, Douglas Kennedy, in addition to dozens of French authors. He was presumably invited because all of his dozen novels have been translated from English into French, so obviously he's popular in France. I spoke to him briefly and asked which of his novels he'd recommend to read first , and he suggested THE MOMENT.
It's a long novel (500 plus pages), one I would like to say I liked better than I did. To begin with, I think it was 200 pages too long. It's a very clever book with narrative hooks designed to keep you turning the pages to find out what finally happened. For example, the novel begins with a middle-aged writer who is about to be divorced by his wife who complains that he is more interested in his writing than in her. At this point, a mysterious package arrives from Berlin, a place where the writer spent some time in his youth. Of course, the reader wants to know about the package, and gets a nudge from the author that "everything you have spent years attempting to dodge comes rushing back into the room. When is the past not a spectral hall of shadows?"
Then follows what must be a 300 page flashback to the shadows of the writer's younger days and how he always wanted to escape, beginning at the age of eight when he witnessed his parents constant wrangling. Among his "escapes" is an adventure in Egypt, the basis for a book he writes which becomes a further basis for more travel and a voyage to Berlin in the early 1980's. The wall has not yet come down, and the city is full of espionage and spying, engaged in by both the West (including the CIA) and East Germany (the secret police, the STASI).
What about this mysterious package that launched this whole story? It has to do with a love affair the narrator has with a young woman, an East German refugee. It is love at first sight, a love that flourishes and deepens as they move in together in an apartment that is being rented from a drug addict, another back story. By now I was becoming weary - I just didn't care that much about this couple, despite the author's elaborate efforts to make their affection REAL.
What was of interest, though, were the details having to do with how the intelligence apparatus of the STASI worked. It was vicious and all encompassing, and in the end leads to a discovery of agents and double agents which forces the narrator to leave Berlin and his girlfriend behind. This part of the book was engrossing.
What happened to the girl is a sad story, one her notebooks in the package reveal. Kennedy works hard again to make the sadness REAL, and if you buy into the story, he succeeds. If you're like me you'll just get tired of it. More nudges from the author about how we never escape the past: "you only begin to grasp the import of an event- and its large implications vis-a-vis your life - long after it has entered into that realm marked 'memory.' "
And the title? "The story can turn out well. The story can turn out tragically. But the road is always there . . .and amidst this, there is also . . . the moment. the moment that change everything. The moment that lies to us. Or the moment that tells us who we are, what we search for, what we want to unearth.. . . and possibly never will." And in this story, the "moment' came when the couple broke up, and it was elaborately built up to, much too elaborately in my view. An equally elaborate aftermath follows, so a reader cannot miss the significance of the MOMENT, especially with ponderous passages like the one I just quoted.
A final question - why do the French like this author so much? I have no idea; maybe he reads better in in translation ...more
After a first visit to Normandy last month, I realized I didn't know that much about the details of the Normandy invasion, only that it was successfulAfter a first visit to Normandy last month, I realized I didn't know that much about the details of the Normandy invasion, only that it was successful at enormous cost. Most of my sketchy knowledge came from movie versions of the landing, particularly SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and THE LONGEST DAY. More has been written about WW II than any other subject in history, I read somewhere, so not surprising that there should be numerous books written about this event. I have no idea which is the best one, but on the basis of other books Stephen Ambrose has written, including an account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition which I enjoyed, and the fact that he was Eisenhower's official biographer, I decided to start with him. Other readings may follow
Ambrose's version is, as I'm sure all D-Day histories are, fairly accurate about the facts.. He wrote his version 50 years after the war, so there were still plenty of veterans on both sides to talk to about their personal D-Day experiences. He uses these interviews to give human interest to his overall strategic observations. What emerges in his account is the incredible advantage that the Allies had, in both weapons and manpower. They controlled the skies over Normandy so the German Luftwafte was totally unable to mount any air defense, and that fact alone made an invasion feasible. The Germans were overwhelmed by a brutal full frontal assault.
But the Germans, under General Rommel, were expecting an invasion and had spent years building fortifications and had installed over a million mines, both on land and off the coast. The French had their Maginot Line, the Germans their "Atlantic Wall." It was just a question of where the Allies would land, and the German betting was on Calais because it was closest to England and the most direct route to Berlin. They were wrong, obviously, and didn't have as many defenses farther south where the invasion actually took place.
Nothing went as planned for the Allies (American, British, and Canadian forces). The advance preparations were meticulously detailed, but bad weather brought a combination of rough seas and cloud-filled skies and meant that nearly everything went wrong. Still, Eisenhower thought that postponement of the invasion would have caused even greater problems so he went ahead. Units landed up to a mile from their targets, communication was poor. Men, loaded down with heavy equipment, drowned. Paratroopers overshot their targets, bombers failed to hit the German entrenchments in advance of the invasion.
Front line American infantrymen who had been told that the Germans had been softened up and that the invasion would be a easy cakewalk, instead found themselves caught in murderous artillery fire from the gun entrenchments facing out to sea. The waste was incredible, ". . .hundreds of young men and boys, trained at enormous expense, were killed, many, perhaps most, of them before they could fire one shot. Equipment losses were staggering. Hundreds of tanks, trucks, self-propelled artillery, jeeps and landing craft of all types went to the bottom or were destroyed on the beach by German artillery. Thousands of radios, rifles, machine guns, ammunition boxes, K and D rations, bazookas, flame throwers, gas masks, hand grenades, and other material were destroyed, abandoned, or sunk."
So how did the Allies succeed? Aside from sheer superiority in numbers and equipment, the Germans were confused and disorganized themselves. A faulty command structure, with Hitler making all the final decisions, made it impossible for field generals to take any initiative such as strategic counterattacks which might well have turned the invasion into a failure. Many of the fortifications were manned by Poles and Russians who had been pressed into service and they tended to surrender quickly. In in addition to the sheer number of Allied soldiers who just kept coming, there were innumerable instances of Americans who just plain outfought second rate German soldiers. Crack German units were stationed elsewhere and couldn't be brought into combat position until it was too late. Heavy fighting, culminating in the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of l944 would continue in western Europe for another year. But on the beaches, the outcome was fairly quick, despite the hundreds of pages it takes to describe it. Even with heavy losses, Omaha Beach where Americans casualties were heaviest, was secured in less than a day.
Ambrose gives the last words to Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander who said in an interview two decades after the war, "But it's a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows twenty years ago were fighting for and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of our own. But to make sure that Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world . . . it just shows what free men will do, rather than be slaves."
It's hard to argue with those words of the victor, but the impression the book left me with was not of any patriotic sentiments, but the tragic loss of lives (including high civilian casualties among the residents of Normandy, about which little is said) and the unfathomable waste.
I had just finished reading D.H. Lawrence's THE RAINBOW when I began reading Shute's novel, and oddly the two make an interesting pairing. Lawrence'sI had just finished reading D.H. Lawrence's THE RAINBOW when I began reading Shute's novel, and oddly the two make an interesting pairing. Lawrence's young heroine, Brangwen, is full of angst as she contemplates her future in the world while Shute's young Jean Paget is too busy to have even any remote feelings of angst.
Lawrence's Brangwen has been disillusioned by her entry into the world of work as a teacher, but on the other hand she has no desire to subject herself to the deadening constraints of marriage. She says, "Modern life is a a machine, one that is a monstrous mechanism that held all matter, living or dead, in its service." At the polar opposite is Shute'ss Jean Paget who simultaneously throws herself into marriage and work. She is in essence a l950 capitalist who sees endless possibilities for consumer investment and growth in Australia's barren outback and if all goes well, the raw settlement where she goes to marry Joe, a cattleman, will become a comfortable little town with soda fountains, swimming pools, women's' shops, in short, a "town like Alice" and as close as you can get to comfortable England in Australia.
This makes the story sound bleak, actually, it's quite interesting, beginning with a elderly conservative lawyer in England who has to track down the heir to a considerable sum of money. He finds her to be Jean Paget, who is working in a leather goods factory. In getting to know her, he discovers that she had been in Malaya during WW II and had suffered horribly under the Japanese. That is where she met Joe, an Australian who befriended her. She assumed he had been killed by the Japanese, but it develops that he is alive. How they finally meet again and make their way to Australia makes up the bulk of what is a love story.
It's also the story, though, of how Australia came to be developed after the war and the role the British had in that development. The novel is told in an indirect way, supposedly through letters written by Jean to her elderly lawyer in England. The point of this rather awkward narration seems to suggest that it was the young, the adventuresome, who went to Australia. Others stayed home, and at one point, the lawyer, a widow, regrets his age that has made him into a cautious figure.
The novel builds itself into a minor epic by the accumulation of endless detail. Feelings are described in only the most general way. If there's a single metaphor in the novel, it escaped me. And yet, I have to grudgingly say the style is right for the novel. To survive the horrors of the war, and later to thrive in the harsh conditions of the outback, one has to be a person of action, doing, doing, doing. Introspection and the angst of a seeker like Lawrence's Brangwen have no place in this world.
This novel is the sixth in the Sam Dyke private eye series and shows the flexibility of the detective fiction form which can tell a good story and atThis novel is the sixth in the Sam Dyke private eye series and shows the flexibility of the detective fiction form which can tell a good story and at the same time point toward wider societal issues. In this instance, the issue is the extent to which government agencies contract out services to private companies. In the book, the services being contracted out are security ones, both cyber and physical.
How does Sam Dyke, a low level private eye whose bread and butter comes from catching up with welfare cheats, rent-skippers, bad check passers, and the like, get involved in what for him is a high level operation? In fact, he's quite reluctant to get involved at all, but when an elderly pensioner shows up in his office and guarantees him a hefty chunk of cash to find out whose following him, Dyke succumbs to temptation and takes the case.
The back story is that Frank Wallace, a pensioner, retired from a private security firm, Shoemaker Systems, a year ago and is very upset with the direction the company is headed. His good friend and partner died, and his widow , a Greek-born woman named Jocasta, has taken over the firm. Wallace says the ethics of the organization now disturbs him - it essentially sells its services to the highest bidder and has no scruples about using information it has gathered against clients it used to work for. Wallace claims, in essence, that he's a whistle-blower who has been writing articles publicizing the company's conflicts of interest.
He suspects Shoemaker Systems is following and harassing him, trying to intimate and shut him up, and he wants Dyke to confirm this suspicion. Dyke is not entirely convinced that this old guy isn't paranoid, but as I said, the money leads him to tell Wallace he'll do what he can to get to the bottom of what's going on.
In the course of his investigation, he contacts Jocasta, the CEO of Shoemaker Systems, and is initially impressed by her competence and intelligence. She dismisses Wallace as a disgruntled former employee and scoffs at the notion that he has anything of importance to reveal. Besides, she points out, Shoemaker Systems would never be so amateurishly clumsy as to physically intimate someone, even if what Wallace says is true.
At this point, Wallace begins to act strangely, and Dyke faces a conundrum - who to believe? He sorts out the truth eventually, a matter of some complexity and at considerable danger to himself, and the reader follows along trying to work it for himself. The ending is very clever, one that the reader will only appreciate retrospectively. If the reader is a film buff, he'll recall Hitchcock's MacGuffin technique where a seemingly unimportant detail surfaces in a surprising way at the film's conclusion..
Sam's last words at the end of the novel are "Next time, I thought, I'm going to be a damn sight more careful where I put my trust. It hurts too much when you get it wrong." True on a personal level, but there are wider implications as well - who do governments trust, and who trusts them? The real life Edward Snowden case hovers in the background of this satisfying latest Sam Dyke adventure.
Oddly, this novel made me think of the surreal writing of the Spanish author, Enrique Vila-Matas, in which authors become so involved in their fictionOddly, this novel made me think of the surreal writing of the Spanish author, Enrique Vila-Matas, in which authors become so involved in their fictions that they have difficulty separating their creations from exterior reality. Now, the external details of Hornby's character, Rob, is on the surface dissimilar. Rob, the proprietor of a used record store in London, is not a creative artist, but a consumer of art, specifically music. His relationship with women, though, have been entangled in what he listens to, so in a sense he is confusing his real life and his music-consuming life
He comments at the beginning of the novel that the unhappiest people he knows, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most. One reason may be that listeners crave new versions of the familiar themes and concerns of pop music, so that it is always a matter of comparing one song or piece with another. He and his friends have a compulsion to make lists of "top five" likes, whether they be songs, books, or films.
His employee, Barry, for example, "if he has seen a good film, he will not describe the plot or how it made him feel, but where it ranks in his best-of -year list, his best of all-time list . .. he talks and thinks in terms of tens and fives, and as a consequence, Dick [his other employee] and I do too."
The novel opens with a list, Rob's top five "most memorable split-ups" which are described in detail, leading up to his latest split-up with Laura, a woman he has been living with for a relatively long time and has just left him. You might think Rob would move on to another woman and add her to his lists, but he's 36 years old and is beginning to feel that his women list-making is finally going to run out.
As he says, "It's only just beginning to occur to me that it's important to have something going on somewhere, at work or at home, otherwise, you're just clinging on." That "something", Rob increasingly realizes, is a permanent relationship. Laura pinpoints why she left him, and it's essentially because he has been living a shallow life. His obsession with pop record and endlessly comparing them to determine which is better, is a waste of time in her view.
The same is true of people - there are always endless differences, and endless reasons for finding aspects of one person better or worse than another.. A death in the family, as well as seeing children of couples who are trying for a lasting relationship, begin make Rob rethink what he is doing with his life, and the second half of the book is about that struggle to change his life.
The book has a clever concept, and it was interesting for awhile to see how it was going to work out. But I began to feel these problems are essentially teen-age ones, and for me they went on too long. The ending where Rob finally stops feeling that real life is going on elsewhere seemed predictable half way through the novel. ...more
This novel made me think of Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays" with their uneasy mixture of light and dark themes . Hawthorne's third novel mixesThis novel made me think of Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays" with their uneasy mixture of light and dark themes . Hawthorne's third novel mixes satiric and tragic moods and they don't fully merge either. Here, the narrator, Miles Coverdale, a self-satisfied bachelor who likes his comfort and his drinks, sets out on a summer's sojourn to Blithedale, a back-to-the-land commune. But he can quickly become serious, looking forward to getting away from the "falsehood,, formality, and error, like all the air of the dusky city"
What does he expect to find? He's open-minded and mildly hopeful that this possible daydream of a better life might become a reality. At Blithedale, he meets an odd group of people. three in particular who become the central figures in the novel. Hollingsworth is a strong-minded individual who is more interested in reforming criminals than he is in communal utopias. He's attracted to Zenobia , a beautiful woman who puts fresh flower in her hair every day, as if to emphasize her beauty. She often teases Miles, telling him he is the poet who must do justice to the Blithedale experiment. The third is Priscilla, a waif-like pale young woman who comes from the city.
Miles becomes impressed by the communal activity, saying, "We sought our profit by mutual aid, instead of wresting it by the strong hand from an enemy, or filching it craftily from those less shrewd than ourselves, or winning it by selfish competition with a neighbor," all of which sounds like a criticism of capitalism. He especially gets to know Hollingsworth well, but they come to a parting of the ways when Hollingsworth wants him to join him in his schemes to reform criminals. In fact,, he thinks Hollingsworth is not only mad, but in his obsession he's an "intolerable bore" as he allows for no opinions that don't match his own.
He also becomes exasperated with Zenobia who seems to have given her heart to Hollingsworth and worse, is taking advantage of the strangely passive Priscilla. Fed up with these people, he quits Blithedale, considering that this philanthropic scheme is folly, trying to transmit "a great black ugliness of sin. . . into virtue."' He returns to his comfortable lodgings in the city, but Miles has some quirks of his own. He can't help thinking about these people and wonders what is going to happen tot hem.
To this point, the plot has been fairly straightforward, but here the novel takes an odd turn and grafts a gothic back story onto the main plot. It involves a sinister mesmerist, Westerfelt,, who has had past dealings with both Zenobia and Priscilla. There is an old man who tells Miles a fantastic story about the pasts of of Zenobia and Priscilla The "noble-minded" reformer, Hollingworth, is not all that he has purported to be. A suicide ends the book on a grim note, with a kind of afterthought by Miles that his own fault was in being too passive and withdrawing from interaction with others. Most of the other characters in the novel took actions, yes, but out of motivations of pride and selfishness.
All of this, it seemed to me, was Hawthorne's way of extricating himself from a dilemma of his making. From what I've read of Hawthorne's life, he took a dim view of commune life based on the ideals of the French socialist, Charles Fourier (in fact, there's a specific discussion of Fourier's ideas in the story), but he never directly shows any shortcomings of Blithedale. What he does, though, is to point out with his gothic backdrop of greed and selfishness, that all individuals are flawed, and given these flaws, such an experimental community, based on unselfish sharing, could never work. The actions of the characters ar interesting enough in themselves, but they don't directly have much bearing on why the commune didn't work out. I think it's an awkward ending to an often interesting book.
I found this a fascinating history, centered around Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN and how it is a part of the context of the troubled history of the 1I found this a fascinating history, centered around Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN and how it is a part of the context of the troubled history of the 19th century in America, one that brought about the civil war. Each reader brings to Huckleberry Finn his own experience, and what Levy successfully does is expand that consciousness. The result is that HUCKLEBERRY FINN is a deeply ambiguous work, ambiguous both about the relationship between children and adults and between blacks and whites.
As to children, the question is always how they are to be raised, how are they to be educated? Twain presents Huck Finn as a wild child who chafes at conventional education and religion. His friend, Tom, is a product of that education and he is broadly satirized as having head filled full of nonsense, unlike Huck who despite having no mother, a drunken father, and spending most of his time with an uneducated slave, exhibits more common sense and creativity than does Tom. What does all of this say about what is really important in educating a child? Obviously, plenty of room for different interpretations here.
The other important, and I thought more interesting pat of the book, has to do with race relations. Levy finds a key line in the book to be Aunt Sally's forgiving comment (this after Tom has set up the ridiculously complicated scheme to "rescue" Jim from slavery, even though he knows he is already a free man), "Boys will be boys." Given the background of the recently fought Civil War and the withdrawal of federal troops in 1875 (Twain's book was published in l885), the book obliquely comments on the irony of the civil war being fought to abolish slavery, but in less than 10 years, the south was left to its own resources. A usually unfair crop sharing system, Jim Crow laws, and common lynchings of blacks were the result. Twain, a cynical man, might well have asked what was the point of the Civil War, if its ideals were not to be implemented?
Twain, though, was a complex figure who was ambivalent. When he went on the road with his performance shows, he imitated the minstrel culture of the 19th century where whites put on black face makeup and made fun of blacks. Twain had a very good ear and could do black dialect perfectly. At the same time, though, he had sympathy for blacks, something that comes out in HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Yes, Jim is unlettered, gullible, and superstitious, but he is a true father figure to the white boy, Huck, so here race doesn't matter.
Twain was on all sides, then, and it's difficult to know what to make of his masterpiece, or of 19th century American culture for that matter, as one mirrored the other. Huck is made up of bits and pieces of different genres (the minstrel show tradition, for one) and generations. Just as the North fought the civil war to abolish slavery, it didn't want to pay the price for bringing about full equality, at the end of Twain's novel, Huck, for all of his sympathetic feelings toward Jim, does not try to stop Tom from his foolish games that almost get Jim killed.
Levy concludes that Twain's vision was an "echoic" one that saw the past as repeating or echoing itself, and not being recognized in the present by those who were doing the repeating.
D. H. Lawrence has some powerful moments of insight about the condition of men and women at the beginning of the 20th century, and many of them applyD. H. Lawrence has some powerful moments of insight about the condition of men and women at the beginning of the 20th century, and many of them apply equally to the beginning of the 21st century, but having said that, it was a slog to get through more than 500 pages. What bothered me most was an absolute lack of humor in Lawrence. He has to be one of the most unrelentingly serious novelists of all time, and that's what made the reading of the novel a slog.
A central conflict in Lawrence is the struggle between men and women - they seem to be locked in death struggle which only one can win. From the man's perspective, "how can a man stand, unless he ahve something sure under his feet. Can a man tread the unstable water all his life and call that standing? And upon what could he stand, save upon a woman?"
And a spokesperson for the early Women's Movement says, "The men fuss and talk, but they are really insane. . . As if I will be betrayed by him, lend him my body as an instrument for his idea, to be an apparatus of his dead theory. But they are too fussy to be able to actg; they are all impotent. . . they are like serpents trying to swallow themselves because they are hungry."
Modern life is a a machine, one that is a "monstrous mechanism that held all matter, living or dead, in its service." The principal character in the novel is Ursula Brangwen who hates the mechanization and routine that modern life condemns most people to. She tries school teaching, for example, and finds herself expected to be a cog in this machine which enforces conformity and destroys true creativity and initiative in children. School had "no perception of pure learning. It was a little apprentice shop where one was further equipped for making money. The college itself was a little slovenly laboratory for the factory."
She nearly falls into a trap and marries Skrebensky, thinking she is in love with him, and initially thinking herself pregnant, But if she had followed through with this marriage, her role would have been limited to subservience to Skrebensky who is about to embark for India and military service. She asserts her independence and rejects him and his proposals. Where does she go.? Lawrence in visionary prose has her awakening to a new dawn, a "fresh glow of light. . . the unknown, the unexplored, the undiscovered, upon whose shore she had landed alone, after crossing the void, the darkness which washed the New World and he Old.." She is going to become a liberated woman, free to view a rainbow of possibilities, one that can potentially "quiver to life" in anyone's spirit [once] they cast off their horny covering of disintegration, that new clean, naked bodies would issue to a new germination, to a new growth, rising to the light and the wind and the clean rain of heaven".
There are no limits in Lawrence. If he were to try to describe them, then he would be limiting human beings and defeat his purpose. This is the writer who looks forward to the future. Most of the book describes the limitations that the world would impose upon a free spirit like Ursula.
It takes up three generations of the Brangwen family, beginning with Ursula's grandparents and depicts in detail the compromises that each generation had made, or had forced upon them. Her grandfather and grandmother struggled against each other, stopping with Tom's immersion in the running of the farm while his wife retreats into herself. Ursula's parents similarly work out a kind of compromise where the mother becomes a brood mare for many children while her father works and satisfies his aesthetic urges by escaping into wood carving and becoming an elder in his church. Nothing wrong with these activities except that they are limiting for the oldest child, Ursula who wants more from life.
Her explorations take the form of friendship, study and independence from home, passionate sexual love, both for male and females, and ultimately, what does she find but the "rainbow", an ancient biblical promise of fulfillment and happiness.
One final question - why a female protagonist instead of a male. The answer may be that woman are closer to the life-fulfilling forces of nature than men who are more prone to be dominated by the intellect, a "dead owl" that one boy dreams of.
At the beginning of the book, a husband, says, "There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the oAt the beginning of the book, a husband, says, "There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes trouble, this other we long to see." Viri and Nedra are happily married, a couple who seem to have every thing that's good in life - health, wealth, two lovely daughters, he a well-paying job in the city, a home on the Hudson. They are intelligent, cultured people who enjoy friends, conversation, good food. That is the surface life, the "other" examines what causes this marriage to slowly dissolve.
Light years are paradoxical; it takes an very long time for the results to be seen, but on the other hand, they have been traveling at an incredible speed. This contradiction is embedded in the novel, the fault lines in the marriage show up early and take time to develop, but after the marriage is over, Yiri, now in his 40's wonders how it went by so quickly and is feels himself sinking into an "underground river" of old age. By the end of his rather bleak life, he has lived too long, has seen and experienced more than was good for him.
It may be a melancholy book, but it is constantly and surprisingly insightful. . Yiri, while he has experienced loss and is now knowledgeable, learns "life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside. Passion, energy, lies; these are what life admires."
Both Viria and Nedra live vicariously. Nedra reads biographies and asks herself "how can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?" Nedra is not specifically discontent with her life, but she wants more from it than being a wife, attentive mother , hostess. She want to travel, to know how she would interact with other men. As she puts it, "He [Viri] is a marvelous father, but it's terrible. I can't explain it. It's what turns you to powder, being ground between what you can't do and what you must do. You just turn to dust."
Nedra faces a dilemma that she feels dries her up creatively. If she stays with Viri, she does what she should do, what she must do, but it is limiting and confining. She has affairs, as does Viri, for much the same reasons, and when they finally part, they maintain the illusion that they are friends.
Salter's novel raises the question of whether this quest to arrive at one's full potential is worth it. Nedra tells one of her grown daughters that she has to go further than she did. She has to become "free" but again she cannot explain it very well. "The freedom she meant was self-conquest. It was meant only for those who would risk everything for it, who were aware that without it, life is only appetites until the teeth are gone." Iironic, I think, because the distinction between fulfillment and appetite is a dubious one, and in the end, Nedra has not found the happiness she sought. .
Life may well be a matter of accepting limitations, and in those limitations finding a kind of peace. At the end of the novel, Viri is walking in the woods and finds a tortoise. He wonders how it has survived, and escaped the dangers that come from the eyes of children and dogs. It moves slowly and when he picks it up, he reflects that his life has seemed to happen in an instant, to have been one endless afternoon It has sped by, now stopped. . Yiri does not identify with the tortoise except in one respect. Both have survived a lifetime of experiences, one embracing them, with all of their "dangers" and disappointments, the other pulls into its shell. In the end, though, both are in the present, of "light years." ...more
Why do we change? Different experiences, the effects of time on our perceptions, many reasons, but in the end they become mysterious and the more we tWhy do we change? Different experiences, the effects of time on our perceptions, many reasons, but in the end they become mysterious and the more we try to explain them, the more elusive they become. Per Petterson explores this territory and while his characters gain glimpses into themselves, that's all they are, and that's what the reader has to settle for. Fiction may clarify life, or in this case, it may make it more opaque, and the attempts to see into the darkness are as interesting as any clearly grasped objects.
Petterson's story begins with two close boyfriend friends, Jim and Tommy, who accidentally encounter each other after having not seen each other for thirty years. What fractured that friendship and their tentative attempts to restore it are what makes up the narrative. It's tentative because they are now men in their fifties, immersed in their present lives, and there's some uncertainty about what it is they want to restore after thirty-five years.
Originally, they grew up together in a small town in Norway and their lives revolved around school, a meeting place at the gas station, and the fields and meadows along a river. Tommy's mother deserted the family suddenly, and he and his three sisters were beaten by their father until the day that Tommy grabbed a baseball bat and shattered his father's ankle. Then the father deserted the family, and the children were split up to live in different foster homes. Jim, on the other hand, was raised by his mother who consciously tried to create a "Christian" environment. What did they have in common besides living in proximity to one another? Perhaps not too much, but then what does anyone have in common with another person? Isn't it a question of not wanting to be alone, and with these two boys, aloneness was a given until they found each other.
But friendships are fragile at best, even when they seem solid, and this one begins to break up with an seemingly small incident. The two are ice-skating when they hear the ice cracking beneath them. It was nothing serious, but Jim seems to panic and shoves off from Tommy. Was it a primitive urge toward self-survival, an unconscious act of saving the self at the expense of another? Or just an instinctive move to gain momentum. Jim, who will spend time in a institution for mental disorders, is stricken by guilt Tommy brushes it off as nothing, but does he really believe his own words? The reader never finds the answer but sees the results, an increasing distance between the two.
The distance between individuals is everywhere in the novel. Tommy's mother deserted the family, and never saw the children again. The father abandoned the family as well and much later when Tommy has a chance to forgive his father now a pathetic old man, he refuses that forgiveness. Tommy and his three sisters drift apart, raised in different households. Tommy and Jim both have relationships with women that ultimately unravel. All of this is revealed in short reminiscences , mostly Tommy's first person ones, but Jim and Siri, his sister, reveal their memories in shorter third person narratives. It's as if the novel is suggesting that there is no single point of view that can be trusted.
Titles, good ones anyway, are always important. Who "refuses" in this novel? What are the "refusals"? There are many, all of which have glancing reference to others. Tommy and Jim "refuse" to admit their friendship is dead, even though to revive it is going to be incredibly difficult. Tommy "refuses" to forgive his father.. Jim, suicidal at one point, "refuses" to die (although at the end, it's possible that he "refuses" to live), Siri, the sister, "refuses" to give up, as she could have good reason to, and becomes an international aid worker, and at the end of the book, the mother, who has died, had in her possession cut-out pictures of three girls and a boy. Could this be, a faint remnant of a "refusal" to forget her family?
At one point a character says, "we weren't supposed to talk about it, that was the truth." Petterson' s melancholy, at times bleak, novel, does talk about realities that most people would rather ignore. He does it in a challenging and truthful way that redeems staring into this void. ...more
The "waitress" in the title of this novella is surprisingly unimportant. She is filling in for a absent employee and is only around for two days untilThe "waitress" in the title of this novella is surprisingly unimportant. She is filling in for a absent employee and is only around for two days until she quits. She's insignificant except as a harbinger of the change that is coming to the 56 year old narrator's life. He has been a bartender for years and is comfortable in Le Cercle, a bar and lunchroom restaurant in a working class suburb of Paris. He gets along well with the boss, the boss's wife, the cook, and in a casual way with the regular patrons who come by for coffee, a drink, or a quick lunch.
He's divorced, no children, is beginning to feel his age, and has no ambitions beyond working a few more years until he can collect his social security. He ruefully asks himself at one point where all the time has gone, but on the whole he's adjusted to his life, not particularly happy, but not unhappy either. The boss disappears for several days, and at first it's suspected he's having an affair with the absent waitress. The new waitress fills in very well, and for several days the staff, short-handed without the boss around, works frantically to keep the restaurant functioning. Then, a phone call from the boss reveals that he has sold the restaurant. Everyone is out of a job.
This sounds like pretty sketchy material on which to base a story, but the details of the narrator's life are oddly interesting. He listens to peoples' stories, as a good bartender should, and is mostly noncommittal in his responses. He works hard at the restaurant helping with other tasks when needed, besides tending the bar, he meets with a friend or two, remembers affairs he has had , goes home to his apartment, has some vague concerns about his health. Work, friends, home, health, an occasional vacation, memories - the kind of existence that most people lead, and I suppose the details of this existence are what gives the book interest. At the end, he tries watching the news, gets bored, takes a hot shower and goes to bed.
One telling contrast to his life is provided by a book by Primo Levi that he sees a customer reading. Levi, is a Jewish Italian who was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, returned to Italy and wrote a number of survival books about his experiences. He died in a fall down a staircase, possibly a a suicide. The narrator reads the book and comments that "I'm no Monsieur Primo Levi. I was just a barman, and an out-of-work one to boot." An very ordinary guy living a very ordinary life; I think readers identify with him and that's why the book has been popular enough to be translated into English. Life in Paris is no different from the lives of "quiet desperation" that Thoreau identified Americans leading a century and a half ago. One qualifier, though - I don't think the narrator is" desperate" at all; "resigned" is a better word. ...more
What possessed me to read a 750 page biography of a long dead president? A couple of things. My great aunt always claimed the family was related to thWhat possessed me to read a 750 page biography of a long dead president? A couple of things. My great aunt always claimed the family was related to the president, but that was never substantiated (my father, for unknown reasons, would always snort that IF we were related, he wouldn't advertise the fact). So I had good reasons for feeling I should learn more about this man about whom I knew little.
The second reason was mere chance. I was walking in our neighborhood and stopped to look at one of these ubiquitous book boxes that have sprung up like mushrooms, where people help themselves to books and replace them with ones they're finished with. There was a copy of WILSON, a "sign", I thought, that I couldn't ignore, as if it were saying "read me."
I did, and surprisingly found it quite engrossing. It's a pretty favorable biography, emphasized by chapter headings that refer to Biblical happenings, and quotations from the Bible, obviously there to evoke a Wilson-Christ comparison. Is Berg being ironic? Wilson was far from perfect and made serious political mistakes in his dealings with Congress and in his dealings with European leaders in the aftermath of World War I? I don't think so - in the last of four sections with chaptre headings like with "Gethsemane" and "Passion", the low points of Wilson's life and futile hoped-for accomplishments are chronicled. It's true that Wilson was a devout Presbyterian Christian who read his Bible daily and saw any advances in civilization as being predicated on Christian principles, but a parallel with Christ is far overblown.
Wilson was an idealist who began his early life as a brilliant intellectual and became an academic, culminating in his presidency of Princeton. He proved to be a highly capable administrator, , one of his major reforms being the division of college studies into major and minor fields, a system that is still commonly practiced by colleges a hundred years later.
Wilson had always been interested in politics and wrote extensively about its practice, so in l910 he was seen as a fresh new face in the Democratic party and was catapulted from the Princeton presidency to the governorship of New Jersey. After two years as a successful governor who was able to push through progressive reforms, he was nominated to the 1912 presidency. He ran against two former presidents of a badly divided Republican party, William Taft, and Bull Moose Teddy Roosevelt, and won with a minority of votes cast.
One of President Wilson's major accomplishments was the creation of the Federal Reserve banking system. He was always concerned about what he considered to be an enormous concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy and the creation of huge monopolies. The author contends that he had a Jeffersonian belief in the power of the people, and in some ways he was a continuation of the populist policies proposed by William Jennings Bryan.
What Wilson might have accomplished as a reformer went unrealized as two years into his presidency World War I broke out and took up more and more of his political life He was determined to keep the United States out of Europe's wars, and was re-elected in 1916 largely due that pledge. But repeated violations of Unites States neutrality led to a painful reversal of that position and he successfully urged American intervention in the war.
At the Paris Peace Conference in l919, Wilson was one of the four principal leaders, along with Britain's Lloyd George, France's Clemenceau, and Italy's Orlando, and was instrumental in drafting the peace treaty with its chief provision being the creation of a League Of Nations which aimed to prevent future wars through the physical and moral force of a "super" body of nations.
He ran into difficulty, particularly with Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of New England who bitterly opposed this concept, arguing that it meant giving up national sovereignty. The Senate offered amendments and compromises, and Wilson felt it had been watered down and weakened so much that it was meaningless, and in taking this stand he exhibited a real stubborn streak. He took his case to the nation, crossing the country by train and giving innumerable speeches. He felt he was making real progress, but suffered a debilitating stroke which left his partially paralyzed.
Here, the tragedy of Wilson's later life began. His second wife, Edith, felt it was vitally important that he be sheltered from all stress, and with the cooperation of his personal doctor, kept him in seclusion, giving as little information as possible about his condition. Consequentially, all kinds of rumors about his condition proliferated. When Wilson partially recovered, the impetus for his League of Nations was gone, and he was in no condition to run for a third term in l920.
Wilson's potential accomplishments as president, were hijacked by World War I, although his vision, overly idealistic as it might have been, of a peaceful world organization would be realized a quarter century later with the formation of the United Nations. As to why my father disliked Wilson so intensely, I was too young to have asked him then, now he's gone, so I'll never know. ...more