Let's see: We have rape, racism, lynching, rampant sex, hatred, murder -- this thing is so noir that it almost comes out the other side. Boris Vian's...moreLet's see: We have rape, racism, lynching, rampant sex, hatred, murder -- this thing is so noir that it almost comes out the other side. Boris Vian's I Spit on Your Graves is not a "nice" book. In its favor, it moves like a railroad train at full throttle, but you won't feel terribly good about enjoying it unless you are one sick puppy.
This edition was translated into English by Vian with the help of Milton Rosenthal. The particular edition I read was so full of typos that I was always in proofreader mode.
If you feel touchy about violence against women, I Spit on Your Graves may make you downright ill. Two rich young women who are sisters are murdered in a particularly gory way by the protagonist, Lee Anderson, who has a grudge against the white race. He is something like Faulkner's Joe Christmas from Light in August, as he is a black who can (and does) pass for white.
I had heard of Frank J Morlock from our joint participation in the Yahoo! French Literature Group. The Marquis de Sade's Justine is probably his most...moreI had heard of Frank J Morlock from our joint participation in the Yahoo! French Literature Group. The Marquis de Sade's Justine is probably his most approachable work. Morlock does a good job of turning it into a short play about a young woman who is pathologically virtuous in a world where everyone wants to use or abuse her, much like the old "Little Annie Fanny" comic strip in Playboy magazine. It was at one and the same time true to Sade and to its genre, though it might present difficulties to someone trying to stage the play.(less)
This is the fourth time I have read this great novel, though the first time in the excellent Lydia Davis translation. There are three sections in Swan...moreThis is the fourth time I have read this great novel, though the first time in the excellent Lydia Davis translation. There are three sections in Swann's Way: The first and third are of the series narrator, Marcel (whose last name is never given), first as a young boy in Combray, where he schemes to get a good-night kiss from his beloved mother, and finally as a slightly older boy in Paris, who falls in love with his playmate Gilberte Swann.
The middle is the heart and soul of Swann's Way: It is the story of a wealthy dilettante named Charles Swann who falls in love with the cocotte Odette de Crécy. At first, his love is receiprocated; but Odette is accustomed to the love of many men, and she cuckolds Charles with the Comte de Forcheville and possibly several other men. Devoured by envy, Swann finally admits:
To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!
Of course, that did not stop him from marrying her. In the third part of Swann's Way, we see young Marcel fall in love with the daughter of Swann and Odette. As yet, it is still puppy love, but Marcel is a very serious young man. We end the book feeling that the relationship between Swann and his wife could be repeated in the next generation.
Marcel Proust is perhaps the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. I feel as if I could read this book four more times, if enough of life were left to me.
This is a collection of Greek aphorisms sorted by subject (and by author), translated from the Abbasid texts in Arabic through which they came into th...moreThis is a collection of Greek aphorisms sorted by subject (and by author), translated from the Abbasid texts in Arabic through which they came into the Western world. At the very end is a set of roughly parallel aphorisms from Asian sources presented in a smaller type font -- all of which are excerpted from various Shambhala editions.
While some of the aphorisms are excellent, in both the Greek and the Asian sections, there is not much to tie them together. Granted that the original source comes through the Arabic, it would have been nice to cite the sources of Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's works; but this was not done.
Superintendent Jules Maigret has somehow offended his bosses in Paris, so he is sent out to the town of Lucon, where he is mightily bored -- until an...moreSuperintendent Jules Maigret has somehow offended his bosses in Paris, so he is sent out to the town of Lucon, where he is mightily bored -- until an interesting murder case turns up. Georges Simenon is one of my two or three favorite mystery writers, and I have now read over a score of his Maigret novels, plus a handful of his romans durs, which do no feature the great detective.
In the nearby oyster port of l'Aiguille, a man has been murdered and lies on the floor of a retired judge's house, and is noticed by two nosy neighbors. These, knowing the Parisian from one of his previous cases, go to Maigret and whet his interest. In Maigret in Exile, we have a body, a judge who doesn't know who the murder victim is, a somewhat mentally disturbed daughter who has been sleeping around with the locals, and a large and angry son who is estranged from his father.
As he is about to begin the interrogation which solves the crime, the Superintendent is like a vibrating wire:
Maigret switched on the lights, took off his coat and hat, and refilled the stove. Then he began pacing up and down the room, and, as he did so, a faint flicker of anxiety crossed his face from time to time. He paced back and forth, his glance resting on this object or that; he moved things about, smoked, and grumbled, and generally behaved as if he were waiting for something which eluded him.
And that something was inspiration, though he preferred to call it a sense of well-being.
It was that inspiration, that sense of well-being, that is this detective's modus operandi: Simenon's books are not tales of ratiocination, but of a very French sense of muddling through a forest of unrelated details until a picture emerges that leads to a solution.
Maigret in Exile was written in 1940, just as France was to be invaded by the German army. Perhaps he author wanted to set this story in la France profonde because he had a sense of what was about to happen.(less)
It was oddly appropriate that I read Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses at this time because, like its hero Inspector Rebus, I have been contending in my...moreIt was oddly appropriate that I read Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses at this time because, like its hero Inspector Rebus, I have been contending in my mind about the meaning of the Old Testament Book of Job. At one point, he reads from a Bible while in the hospital after having blacked out:
When an innocent man suddenly dies, God laughs. God gave the world to the wicked. He made all the judges blind. And if God didn't do it, who did?
Knots and Crosses is about a serial killer who kills 12-year-old girls by strangling without having sexually abused them. It's all because he knows Detective Sergeant John Rebus, while Rebus himself is blocked from remembering him by a cruel amnesia that blocks out his experiences in the Special Air Service (SAS), an elite and secretive wing of the British military. That amnesia is the only reason I have given the book four stars rather than five, because I have always thought of amnesia as a literary gimmick.
There are a few other gimmicks, such as the taunting notes that the murderer keeps sending Rebus. But then, this is the first of the Rebus novels, and I suspect that Rankin has the talent to improve.(less)
Although I do not regard Kurt Vonnegut as belonging to the top echelon of American authors, I do regard his work as worth the effort to read, largely...moreAlthough I do not regard Kurt Vonnegut as belonging to the top echelon of American authors, I do regard his work as worth the effort to read, largely because he is wiser in the ways of life than many more talented authors who get by only with the help of liquor and drugs. Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations contains a number of interviews that largely overlap one another in several places, but which redeem themselves by Vonnegut's views on war, peace, and the grinding loneliness of American life.
He never trained as an author. In fact, he was a chemist when he went into World War II as a private. Even though he wrote many books, Vonnegut thought that
it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.
Perhaps the only problem with this book is that the interviewers did not ask mthe questions I would like to have seen answered by Vonnegut.(less)
If it involves Jorge Luis Borges, it's pretty much guaranteed to be five stars. Ever since I first heard about him in the late 1960s, the Argentinean...moreIf it involves Jorge Luis Borges, it's pretty much guaranteed to be five stars. Ever since I first heard about him in the late 1960s, the Argentinean has guided my reading and influenced my beliefs. Much of what I am today, such as I am, anyhow, I owe to Borges. His poems, essays, and stories continue to work through me like yeast in dough.
Believe me: The benefits of blindness have been greatly exaggerated. If I could see, I would never leave the house, I'd stay indoors reading the many books that surround me. Now they're as far away from me as Iceland, although I've been to Iceland twice and I will never reach my books. And yet, at the same time, the fact that I can't read obliges me ... to dream and imagine.
In the last decade or so before his death, there have been few new works from Borges, but there have been numerous published interviews. The three in this book run the gamut from the very simpatico and knowledgeable interview by Richard Burgin, to the rather scattered questions by three young men from Artful Dodge, an Ohio literary magazine, to the very last interview Borges gave, to Gloria Lopez Lecube from Argentina's La Isla Radio.
Because of his blindness, it was difficult for Borges to write anything original of greater than, say, five pages. He had to be able to edit new pieces in his head, from memory. When giving interviews, however, he was able to draw on his professorial persona and his prodigious memory of world literature. It is wonderful listening to him deal with a knowledgeable literary person such as Richard Burgin or Paul Theroux (in The Old Patagonian Express). Other times, there can be a touch of asperity in his responses, such as the one with Artful Dodge.
I am grieved that the voice of Borges has been stilled. I have read everything I could find of his in English, even the many interviews. In Buenos Aires, at a museum exhibition in November 2011, I saw a video of him speaking in English and Spanish: It was just as I had imagined it would be.
I had thought that, after three volumes of short stories about that intrepid priest/detective, Father Brown, G K Chesterton would tire of his creation...moreI had thought that, after three volumes of short stories about that intrepid priest/detective, Father Brown, G K Chesterton would tire of his creation, with a resulting diminution in the quality of the stories. But, no, The Secret of Father Brown is as fresh as ever; and its author has instituted some interesting changes.
First of all, the stories are framed within a story in which an American writer comes to ask Father Brown about his "secret." The priest's answer startles him: "You see, it was I who killed all those people.... So, of course, I knew how it was done." He did not mean that he had literally committed the murders: Rather, he had looked deeply enough into the heart of man to understand how and why the crime was committed.
You see, Father Brown's interest in crime is actually an interest in sin, in the psyche and soul of the person who committed the crime. This is perhaps shown to best advantage in "The Vanishing of Vaudrey," though at least three of the other stories also develop this theme.
My favorite stories in the volume were "The Worst Crime in the World" and "The Chief Mourner of Marne," in which Brown manages to penetrate particularly resistant knots to arrive at paradoxical truths.
Although I call Father Brown a detective, he really wasn't one. In fact, he has no interest in apprehending the guilty party and seeing him or her standing in the dock to receive sentencing. Once he has determined who and why and what, he leaves the rest to the police. There is only one policeman in this volume, James Bagshaw in "The Mirror of the Magistrate," and he is no more than a secondary character who doesn't have a clue. (less)
I had heard of Rabindranath Tagore for many years, but suspected that his reputation was of the bubble variety -- until I read Quartet. Now I suddenly...moreI had heard of Rabindranath Tagore for many years, but suspected that his reputation was of the bubble variety -- until I read Quartet. Now I suddenly feel as if I had missed something really precious for all those years. In a mere matter of 78 pages, Tagore takes up the subject how how spirituality interfaces with daily life. We have four main characters: the kindly atheist Jagmohan, his nephew Sachish (who follows his uncle until he becomes a sannyasi, one who has renounced the world), the supremely grounded young widow Damini, and the narrator Sribilash.
The name Quartet comes from the interaction of these four characters. The alternate title of the book is Chaturanga, which is the ancient Hindu game from which chess was derived. In a way, the book is a chess match between the spiritual life and the life of the "householder" (that is, married life). Who wins? No one does: The result is a stalemate.
Each of the four chapters is approximately twenty pages in length, and each is a small masterpiece in its own right.
Robert Barr was a Canadian author who moved to England during the heyday of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. While remaining a friend of...moreRobert Barr was a Canadian author who moved to England during the heyday of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. While remaining a friend of Doyle's he published several humorous detective stories mocking the British detective. And then, in 1906, he came out with The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont.
Valmont is a French detective who was made to leave the force when, through a mistake (explained in the first three stories in the collection, he arrests an English detective rather than the jewel thief. He sets up in London and, while shaking his head over the vagaries of English justice, manages to develop a clientele for himself. He is never quite so perfect as Sherlock Holmes, but he is at times amusing, though not always successful:
I hope I may never follow an example so deleterious, and thus be tempted to express my contempt for the stupidity with which, as all persons know, the official detective system of England is imbued. I have had my failures, of course. Did I ever pretend to be otherwise than human?
The only problem is that Valmont is too much the stage Frenchman. Compare him to, say, Flambeau in Chesterton's Father Brown stories, and you will see what I mean.
Still, these are amusing stories, though they never reach the level of excellence of either Doyle or Chesterton.(less)
When I saw Martin Scorsese's film version of The Wolf of Wall Street, I assumed it was an original script. Then I casually Googled Jordan Belfort and...moreWhen I saw Martin Scorsese's film version of The Wolf of Wall Street, I assumed it was an original script. Then I casually Googled Jordan Belfort and found out that it was more or less true. At least to some degree. I have never in my reading encountered a writer who took so much joy in being a crook, a drug addict, and a sexual deviant. At several points during his autobiographical book (or should I say novel?), he talks about his experience being Life Styles of the Rich and Dysfunctional.
Belfort had founded a brokerage company called Stratton Oakmont in the early 1990s and became fabulously wealthy by essentially not following the regulators of the SEC and NASDAQ. At the same time, he lived high off the hog, consorted with prostitutes, and conspired with his associates to drain his clients of millions by selling them dubious investments. At one point, he says:
How much had my drug addiction fueled my life on the dark side? As a sober man, would I ever have slept with all those prostitutes? Would I have ever smuggled all that money to Switzerland? Would I have ever allowed Stratton's sales practices to spiral so far out of control?
I don't entirely believe Mr. Belfort because of the book's acknowledgments. He could apparently afford to higher a lot of high-priced talent to make him look like the silkiest of silk purses. The book is well written, but doesn't pass my fingerspitzengefuhl ("hunting dog nose") test: He looks too much like he enjoyed every moment of his life, even when he was doing things that were truly reprehensible, if not outright criminal.
Perhaps I am a secret Puritan at heart, because I don't buy it. But the story is well told, and Jordan Belfort comes across like someone we would all love to have as our friend -- even while he was picking our pockets and rogering our wives, daughters, and girlfriends. (less)
Montesquieu may not be known to you, but he is largely responsible for the system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution between the Executiv...moreMontesquieu may not be known to you, but he is largely responsible for the system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government. The Founding Fathers of our country were deeply influenced by Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, which he wrote later in life.
The Persian Letters, however, was written a quarter century earlier and was one of the most popular books of its time. Montesquieu has, in effect, created an epistolary novel about two Persians who spend some ten years in Europe from 1711-1720, closely observing the strangeness of French institutions and customs from the point of view of Persians of the time.
It was a rough time in France, roughly comparable to our own recession due to the Mississippi Bubble and the "system" of John Law, who had been appointed Controller General of Finances of France under King Louis XV. Law was brilliant but exceedingly unorthodox, with the result that many fortunes were lost. In Letter 146, the narrator Usbek writes:
I saw contractual honour dismissed, the most sacred conventions annihilated, every law of the family overthrown. I saw debtors full of avarice, proud and insolent in their poverty, worthless instruments of the ferocity of the law and the harshness of the time, pretending to pay their debts, not doing so, but stabbing their benefactors instead.
More shamefully still, I saw others buying notes for almost nothing, or rather picking up oak-leaves from the ground and putting them in the place of the subsistence of widows and orphans.
I saw an insatiable lust for money suddenly springing up in every heart. I saw the instantaneous development of a hateful conspiracy to get rich, not by honourable work and unstinting behaviour, but by ruining the king, the state and other citizens.
At the same time that Usbek is observing France, we are observing his seraglio back in Persia falling to pieces, as his prolonged absence from his wives results in the disorder of his married life.
This is an interesting book to dip into from time to time, not only to see what was troubling France in the early 1700s, but to see a highly original mind at work with a penetrating intellect in matters relating to culture and governance. (less)
As much as I love the works of G K Chesterton, I am forced to admit that A Short History Of England is not one of his best works. Chesterton just does...moreAs much as I love the works of G K Chesterton, I am forced to admit that A Short History Of England is not one of his best works. Chesterton just does not do well on more lengthy, sustained polemics. It is only when he can break his work down into individual essays, such as in Orthodoxy and Heretics that he shines.
Perhaps this work is best titled Some Thoughts on British Social History and Religion. He skips from Richard II to the 18th century Whigs, then zig-zags back to the Middle Ages until one's head begins to spin. I would have enjoyed this book much more if it were presented as a book of loosely connected essays.(less)
I have not read such an eye-opening book by a scientist since I used to read Loren Eiseley's work years ago. This short book of essays by MIT scientis...moreI have not read such an eye-opening book by a scientist since I used to read Loren Eiseley's work years ago. This short book of essays by MIT scientist Alan Lightman looks at the universe from several points of view, first from the point of view of its origin, its evanescence, the spiritual dimension, symmetry, size, the laws of nature, and ending up with our strange disembodied universe in which we use electronic tools that somehow mirror the discombobulation associated with quantum mechanics. At one point, he writes:
Evidently, our impression that solid matter can be localized, that it occupies only one position at a time, is erroneous. The reason that we have not noticed the "wavy" behavior of matter is because such behavior is pronounced only at the small size of atoms. At the relatively large sizes of our bodies and other objects that we can see and touch, the wavy behavior of particles is only a tiny effect. But if we were subatomic in size, we would realize that we and all other objects do not exist at one place at a time but instead are spread out in a haze of simultanous existences at many places at once.
This reminds me of Einstein's own problems with quantum entanglement, which he called "spooky action at a distance."
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is full of insights like these. What is more, it puts them together is a neat package that does not require mathematical formulas and complicated graphs and charts. Lightman deals with his subject matter using easily understood concepts and plain, simple language.
Serendipity strikes again. I just read an obscure Ukrainian crime story by Andrey Kurkov entitled Death and the Penguin. The narrator is one Viktor Ak...moreSerendipity strikes again. I just read an obscure Ukrainian crime story by Andrey Kurkov entitled Death and the Penguin. The narrator is one Viktor Akelseyevich Zolataryov who writes for publication what his editor refers to as obelisks. These are obituary essays written about living people so that, when death comes to them, the newspaper is not caught short for materials to publish quickly. Oddly, though, it seems that all too many of the individuals Andrey memorializes is deathless prose wind up … dead.
My favorite character is Viktor’s pet and companion, the King Penguin Mischa. When the zoo in Kiev was suffering a financial meltdown, they sold their penguins; and Viktor bought the one he called Mischa.
Mischa is very like the King Penguin at the right in the photo on my blog site, which was taken on the Isla de Pájaros on the Beagle Channel in Tierra Del Fuego. The largish penguin took a wrong turn into the Beagle Channel and wound up in a rookery consisting mostly of Magellanic Penguins and some Gentoos. It was obviously very lonely and disappointed. Every once in a while, he would try to mate with one of the Magellanic females, but caused uproars every time he tried.
Viktor’s Mischa shambles around the apartment, looking into the mirror, establishing a kind of hiding place behind some furniture, and displaying all the symptoms of a morose and puzzled disposition occasionally verging on depression. Even while Viktor worries that his writing job is connected with an assassination ring, Mischa slowly keeps getting worse. At the same time, he winds up taking care of Sonya, the daughter of one “Mischa-non-penguin,” who was associated with the editor who hired the writer, and who disappears after leaving money and a pistol. He also hires a teenage girl, the niece of his friend Sergey (who dies mysteriously) as a nanny for Sonya, who lethargically enters into a relationship with him.
I loved Death and the Penguin for its mellow strangeness. For a man surrounded by violent death, to which he may be contributing in some unexplained way, Viktor is relatively cool. Eventually, the situation changes rapidly. Mischa becomes ill and gets a heart transplant; and Viktor, well, let us say he takes action of an unexpected kind.(less)
But when Borrego Beginnings launches into descriptions of real estate transactions, constructions, and brief sketches of the earliest hotels/motels, shopping facilities, etc., the reader knows he is in for a lot of puffery and very little substance.
Still, the book is competently written, but the Anza Borrego deserves better.(less)
A curse that lasts generations ... a curse that bedevils a whole people ... a whoremaster of a dictator who embodies the curse ... a nightmare of face...moreA curse that lasts generations ... a curse that bedevils a whole people ... a whoremaster of a dictator who embodies the curse ... a nightmare of faceless men and of a mongoose with golden eyes. These are just some of the things I will remember from reading Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The main character, of course, is Oscar himself. The Wao is a mispronunciation of Wilde: The 300-pound Dominican was compared to the Irish writer for his dissipated looks, though in Oscar's case, they are the dissipated looks of a life-long virgin and nerd who buries himself in a science fiction and fantasy world.
We start with Oscar and, like peeling off the outer leaves of an artichoke, go back generation by generation until we begin to understand the fukú of the de Léon family. And what is that?
Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú -- generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. Also called the fukú of the Admiral because the Admiral was both its midwife and one of its great European victims; despite "discovering" the new World the Admiral died miserable and syphilitic, hearing (dique) divine voices. In Santo Domingo, the land He Loved Best (what Oscar, at the end, would call the Ground Zero of the New World), the Admiral's very name has become synonymous with both kinds of fukú, little and large; to say his name aloud or even to hear it is to invite calamity on the heads of you and yours.
Of course, we know the Admiral's name -- you know, the guy whose holiday is celebrated (or not at all celebrated, except by Italians) on October 12. (less)
Rogue Male is a strange book, if for no other reason than we never discover the name of the hero. All we know is the first name of his solicitor, the...moreRogue Male is a strange book, if for no other reason than we never discover the name of the hero. All we know is the first name of his solicitor, the assumed name of his pursuer, and the last name of the character he calls The Second Murderer (after Shakespeare). Yet Geoffrey Household has considerable influence on Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, among others.
Rogue Male is pure adventure. The Hero walks from Poland into Germany, visits Berchtesgaden and draws a bead with his hunting rifle on Adolph Hitler, when he is jumped by one of his guards. (Of course, Household never tells us it is Germany and Hitler that was the hero's goal -- it's just that it could have been nowhere else and no one else.
Our hero manages to escape, but he is pursued, both by the police for a murder he had to commit by throwing one of his pursuers on the third rail of a tube station, and by "Major Quive-Smith," who is in the pay of the Nazis.
Oddly, he thinks the only way to survive is by digging a hole for himself in rural Dorsetshire. For almost half the novel, the narrator is either planning his underground hidey-hole or actually hiding there. His pursuers eventually catch up with him, but I have been sworn to secrecy about the ending. In fact, you don't know my name, what country I'm from, whether I'm left-handed or right-handed, and what my preference is in savory spices.
In any case, this book is enjoyable despite my thinking it couldn't work. If the story sounds familiar to you, it was filmed by Fitz Lang as Man Hunt starring George Sanders and for TV in the 1970s starring Peter O'Toole.(less)
Yuri Olesha wrote Envy in 1927, at a time when many of his contemporary writers were either shot or trundled off to the Gulag. My guess is that the GP...moreYuri Olesha wrote Envy in 1927, at a time when many of his contemporary writers were either shot or trundled off to the Gulag. My guess is that the GPU (predecessor to the KGB) couldn't quite understand Olesha's humor, and I tend to sympathize with them.
Envy is divided into two parts. The first part is fairly straightforward: A lowlife drunk named Nikolai Kavalerov is "adopted" by a party apparatchik by the name of Andrei Babichev. We see Babichev as a self-important buffoon, who sees his role as creative a gigantic communal kitchen named Two Bits in which the cheapness and wholesomeness of the food with compete favorably with home cooking.
Then, in Part Two, Nikolai meets with Babichev's brother Ivan who is fully as envious of Andrei as Nikolai is. Nikolai takes up with Ivan, who has a strange device called Ophelia, which he plans to use to destroy Andrei and Two Bits. But here things get a little confused: It is sometimes difficult to determine what is actually happening, and what is merely a delusion or figment of Nikolai or Ivan's imagination.
In the end, Envy is good for a few laughs, though decidedly second rank compared to Nabokov and Bulgakov.
We all have our strange little rituals. Mine is, at the beginning of every year, to read nothing but authors with whose work I am unfamiliar. (Occasio...moreWe all have our strange little rituals. Mine is, at the beginning of every year, to read nothing but authors with whose work I am unfamiliar. (Occasionally, I have sinned; but mostly, I keep to this.) A few weeks ago, I read a laudatory review of Michael Moorcock in the Times Literary Supplement. The only one of his books that caught my eye at the local library was The War Hound and the World's Pain, so I took it out not knowing quite what to expect.
How to describe it? Imagine something like Milton's Paradise Lost set in Europe during the Thirty Years War. A stout warrior named Graf Ulrich von Bek visits a strange uninhabited castle in a deserted wood where no birds chirp, no animals roam, and no insects ply their ways. Eventually, he meets a beautiful young woman who arrives at the castle with a strange guard detachment. Apparently she is a minion of Lucifer. The castle is Lucifer's. Anyone who comes into this wood and this castle can be presumed to have already lost his soul.
Eventually Lucifer shows up in person. He is a very attractive person of great warmth, strength, and beauty, with gold and copper glints from his body. Apparently, he wants to use von Bek's services to reconcile himself with God. The way to do this is to find the Holy Grail, which would thereby end the world's pain and allow the Devil to negotiate with God.
Ah, but this is only the beginning. Von Bek rides through strange, magical lands scattered across the Earth, all parts of Mittelmarch. He is pursued by other demons who do not want him to succeed, because they do not wish to be reconciled to the deity.
Along the way, von Bek picks up two sidekicks, Grigory Sedenko and the hermit Philander Groot. Moorcock tells a brilliantly inventive tale that kept me in thrall. At one point, his hero ponders:
I had fallen into the habit of deriving a kind of joy from the irony of my position, from the paradoxes and contrasts of my Quest. It led me to contemplate the most horrible crimes which could be committed by me in the name of the Grail Search. Was I strong enough, I wondered, to commit them? What kind of self-discipline was involved in forcing myself against one's own nature, towards vice? My inner debates became increasingly complex and unreal, but perhaps they served to take my mind off unwelcome actualities.
I am not a frequent reader of fantasy, but I think that reading Moorcock can make me one.(less)
We all live in a world that threatens to make us depressed and anxious. So, too, did Chesterton. Anarchy and international socialism were at their apogee; and Germany and Britain were slowly sliding into a world war. Then, too, GKC was grossly overweight and uncertain about his own personal future. But he had a powerful weapon: He faced down the darkness and denied it the power to harm him: All the things that threatened were mere phantasms that we ourselves created to keep us down.
What better analogy was there than the great scourge of anarchism, which resulted in numerous assassinations of heads of state in the 1890s and early 1900s. A poet named Gabriel Syme is appointed to a sinister Central Anarchist Council, consisting of seven men, each of whom is named after a day of the week. In charge is Sunday. Syme gets himself elected as Thursday, and the fun begins ...
In a way, GKC gives it all away at the beginning, in a poem dedicated to his friend, the mystery writer E. C. Bentley:
This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells, And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells -- Of what colossal gods of shame could cow men and yet crash, Of what huge devils hid the stars, yet fell at a pistol flash. The doubts that were so plain to chase, so dreadful to withstand -- Oh, who shall understand but you; yea, who shall understand?
What I remember most, however, is this quote from Syme when confronted by an anarchist named Lucian Gregory:
"All the same," replied Syme patiently, "just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree."
And that is what Chesterton is all about: By repositioning ourselves, we see the lamp by the light of the tree. (less)
I was bemused by the fact that Lydia Davis, whose translation of Proust's Swann's Way is so excellent, is also likewise a superb writer of short stori...moreI was bemused by the fact that Lydia Davis, whose translation of Proust's Swann's Way is so excellent, is also likewise a superb writer of short stories. In Break It Down: Stories, some of the stories are very short indeed, often no more than a middling paragraph in length.
What struck me first, however, was the almost complete lack of dialog, it being one of the principles of the modern short story that the reader is drawn to come to his own conclusions by reading what the characters say to one another. One result of a lack of dialog is a growing feeling of dread: Instead of a Godlike narrator (a la Anthony Trollope), we frequently have a confused narrator who goes from bad to worse.
I am hard put to say which stories I like the most, but "Break It Down" must surely be one. It deals with the monetary value of love from both a male and female perspective. I can understand why Davis chose to name her collection as she did.(less)
I was born in 1945 and lived through everything that Tony Judt writes about in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, but from a slightly different...moreI was born in 1945 and lived through everything that Tony Judt writes about in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, but from a slightly different perspective. I was a Hungarian born in the United States, in Cleveland, which along Buckeye Road was fully as Hungarian as that ancient capital on the Duna. From my youth, I was surrounded by stories about Hungary, about the little farm in Felcsut that was "taken away from us" by the Communists.
Europe was always very near to me, even though it was many years before I was to see it with my own eyes. What Judt does in Postwar is fill in many of the blanks for me. In high school, I wrote papers about the Common Market (as the Euro Zone was called back then), and even about geopolitical considerations in a nuclear war with the Russians.
Even though I was looking at Europe, so to speak, through the wrong end of the telescope, from the point of view of a mighty postwar America that could do no wrong, I found myself following the late historian closely, saying to myself, frequently, "Yes, it must have been this way!"
... until ... until finally the whole thing came clear to me. World War II never really ended: It merely continued using "other weapons" until Communism came unglued around 1990 (and not because Reagan had outspent the Russians in the arms race, as our more dim politicos insisted) and Europe became a bright little economic island because, for once, its countries did not try to savage each other (with some exceptions, such as Yugoslavia and the Balkans).
Postwar is a superb work of history. It is never easy to write about one's own time (and the period of the book is exactly my own time, too). I almost feel as if it had been written for me. (less)
I had read this many years ago, remembering nothing after the passage of time. Upon rereading, I find it is an interesting comment on our own times. U...moreI had read this many years ago, remembering nothing after the passage of time. Upon rereading, I find it is an interesting comment on our own times. Unlike most of William Shakespeare's history plays, the eponymous king, Henry VI, is a mere stripling who has not yet come into his own. Most of the action takes place in France, where England is losing many of its territories won in the Hundred Years War as a result of divisions in the ranks: between the White Rose of the Duke of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster (here represented by Somerset), and between Bishop (later Cardinal) Winchester and everyone else.
Henry VI, Part 1 is not one of the Bard's major plays, yet it is a well crafted study of how disunity leads to loss. I can almost imagine the U.S.'s own culture wars as I hear these words from Gloucester:
Confounded be your strife, And perish ye with your audacious prate! Presumptuous vassals, are you not ashamed With this immodest clamorous outrage To trouble and disturb the king and us? And you, my lords, methinks you do not well To bear with their perverse objections, Much less to take occasion from their mouths To raise a mutiny betwixt yourselves. Let me persuade you to take a better course. (IV:1.123-132)
Another item of interest is the character of Joan of Arc, here called Joan la Pucelle, with its pun of the meanings of virgin and whore. Shakespeare deals with her as if she were one of Macbeth's Weird Sisters, with inspiration more from below than from above.
A real find! It was a sales clerk at a long closed bookstore that recommended James Sallis to me, and I casually picked up a copy of Black Hornet. Now...moreA real find! It was a sales clerk at a long closed bookstore that recommended James Sallis to me, and I casually picked up a copy of Black Hornet. Now, some years later, I read Sallis story about Lew Griffin's attempts to track down a sniper in mid-Sixties new Orleans.
There's something different about this book: At the same time, it's hard-edged like Chester Himes (who actually makes a guest appearance in the book) and yet literate as all get-out. Griffin reads some really good stuff while he's trying to get a bead on the sniper without getting done in by the police or any number of tough guys who come knocking at his little place while he's trying vainly to get some sleep and recover from his last concussion and broken ribs.
Sallis, whose photographs make him look white, throws me for a loop. As I read the book, I was certain that he was Black -- but I have been wrong before, and often. He has an edgy style that cuts through anything that could slow down the story. I love his writing:
It takes a while for us to realize that our lives have no plot. At first we imagine ourselves into great struggles of darkness and light, heroes in our Levi's or pajamas, impervious to the gravity that pulls down all others. Later on we contrive scenes in which the world's events circle like moons about us -- like moths about our porch lights. Then at last, painfully, we begin to understand that the world doesn't even acknowledge our existence. We are the things that happen to us, the people we've known, nothing more.
I think I'm going to like reading more of his books. It seems he's also published poetry. An interesting guy, well worth looking into.(less)
Essentially, Mike and Psmith is about old chums, old school ties, and cricket. Sounds like it could be dreadful, no? But it isn't, because P.G. Wodeho...moreEssentially, Mike and Psmith is about old chums, old school ties, and cricket. Sounds like it could be dreadful, no? But it isn't, because P.G. Wodehouse could even make something out of tiddly-winks. Our heroes, Mike Jackson and the inimitable Psmith, his roommate and bosom pal. Both are at Sedleigh, a second-rank school, instead of Wrykyn and Eton respectively, from which the two have been "sent down."
At first, the two stand apart from the pull of the new school, but get drawn into tussles with Downing, the headmaster of another house, and Adair, Sedleigh's cricket captain.
Because this is a Wodehouse novel, all ends well. Along the way, there are some great laughs and some wonderful humor, such as this realization by the villainous Downing:
There was almost a wail in the headmaster's voice. The situation had suddenly become too much for him. His brain was swimming. That Mike, despite the evidence against him, should be innocent, was curious, perhaps, but not particularly startling. But that Adair should inform him, two minutes after Mr. Downing's announcement of Psmith's confession, that Psmith, too, was guiltless, and that the real criminal was Dunster—it was this that made him feel that somebody, in the words of an American author, had played a mean trick on him, and substituted for his brain a side order of cauliflower.
This is by no means one of Wodehouse's better-known outings, but it is definitely worth a read and a few giggles.(less)
Re-reading this book in the Ian Patterson translation is my Christmas gift to myself -- and what a gift it has turned out to be! Marcel Proust is to m...moreRe-reading this book in the Ian Patterson translation is my Christmas gift to myself -- and what a gift it has turned out to be! Marcel Proust is to my mind one of the three or four greatest writers of the last century, and In Search of Lost Time: Finding Time Again: Finding Time Again v. 6 is the capstone of a mighty arch that stands on the road to the discovery of what it means to live as a human being in this world.
Never mind that In Search of Lost Time is approaching its centenary: Proust's observations from his own life are universal. It is because his mind was more penetrating by far than those who wipe their brains clean every two minutes by manipulating a smart phone or an automobile. All that we have accomplished in the last hundred years is diverting ourselves in such a way as to eliminate even the possibility of introspection.
At the end, the book is about Marcel's motivating himself to write this book and its predecessors:
Yes, the idea of Time that I had just formed was telling me that it was time to apply myself to the work. It was high time; but, and this was the explanation for the anxiety which had beset me as soon as I entered the dressing-room, when the made-up faces had given me the idea of lost time, was there still time, and was I in sufficiently fit condition? The mind has its landscapes and only a short time is allowed for their contemplation.
I have well-read friends who are unable to read Proust: It is just too dense and requires too much concentration. The only way I can do it is by setting down the book every few minutes and walking around, letting what I had just read sink in. The experience of sticking to it, however, is infinitely precious.
Sometime next year, I will begin my fourth reading of Swann's Way, hoping that enough life is left to me to finish the whole six volumes of the greatest of all twentieth century novels at least one more time -- who knows? Perhaps two more times. (less)
European Communism came to a fairly abrupt end around 1990. It was a heady time, but it was no stepping from the darkness into the light, just like th...moreEuropean Communism came to a fairly abrupt end around 1990. It was a heady time, but it was no stepping from the darkness into the light, just like that. There were steps forward, and retrograde steps as well. As a Hungarian, I recognize that the whole experience was a sword that cut both ways.
Of all the Eastern European writers, the one who comes closest to the truth is the Czech novelist Ivan Klíma:
Recently he'd begun to think that without even leaving the country he'd become an alien. It wasn't that all the familiar faces had disappeared; it was that from behind those faces different people had appeared. Butterflies had emerged from their unsightly cocoons and, with growing astonishment at their new appearance, were looking around for places to alight.
Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light looks at the life of a middle-aged news cameraman named Pavel Fuka who dreams of love, of having a son, of writing a screenplay with the same name as this book, but who never really connects.
When freedom comes, it begins to twist in the wind. In an alcoholic fog, he sleeps with women whom he sees as being interchangeable. He ends up running a company that films commercials and pornography. All the women whom he thinks he has loved have either rejected him or fallen by the wayside.
By way of contrast, he presents the aging President of Czechoslovakia, modeled perhaps after the long-ruling Gustav Husak, who is in his seventies and has a tenuous grip on life. He keeps seeing his offices filling up with the bodies or sometimes just the biers of the victims of his socialist state. He suspects his chamberlain, his valet, and all the people around him are impostors. In a word, he is as much a prisoner of the system as Pavel.
Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light is a somberly honest work. As Klima writes near the end:
What was death?
You live for as long as you still see some meaning in being alive. You can live less than your allotted time, but not longer. It's not important whether you're still breathing or not.
Death is the moment a person, as an alien, falls among aliens and they surround him like a clinging layer of damp earth.
Cornell Woolrich is one of the glories of American noir literature. And I Married a Dead Man is one of his best books. Unless you've spent the last ha...moreCornell Woolrich is one of the glories of American noir literature. And I Married a Dead Man is one of his best books. Unless you've spent the last half century cowering under your bed, you've heard of such films as The Bride Wore Black, Rear Window, Phantom Lady, The Leopard Man, and Mississippi Mermaid. Not once, not twice, but scores of times, Woolrich's stories have been turned into films.
I Married a Dead Man tells the story of an abandoned young pregnant woman who takes a cross-country train trip, on which she meets a pair of newlyweds the wife of whom is likewise pregnant. The train derails, but not before Patrice Hazzard asks Helen Georgesson to try on her wedding ring. Both the real Patrice and her husband perish in the wreck, but Helen awakes in a hospital with the ring still on her finger. It turned out that the dead Hazzards came from a rich family which thinks that Helen -- whom they had never met -- and her newly delivered infant son are all that is left of their family.
Helen decides to act the part of Patrice, though not without a sense of dread. Sure enough, complications begin to emerge. First, the late Hugh Hazzard's brother Bill falls in love with "Patrice"; and the lowlife who had seduced and abandoned Helen figures out what happened and comes a-blackmailing.
The blackmailer is killed -- but by whom? "Patrice" thinks she did it. Bill says he did it. The dying Mrs. Hazzard, his mother, writes a legal confession that she did it.
Despite the absence of any legal pursuit, the thought of murder begins to wear away at Bill and "Patrice's" relationship. This is an interesting twist, as pure guilt and the sense of mutual recrimination is so horrible of and by itself.
Woolrich writes his novel with a deft hand and a brilliant style, such as when "Patrice" is driving with the intent to confront her blackmailer:
Outside, the street-lights went spinning by like glowing bowls coming toward her down a bowling-alley. But each shot was a miss, they went alternately too far out to this side, too far out to that. With herself and the car, the kingpin in the middle that they never knocked down.
She thought. That must be fate, bowling against me. But I don't care, let them come.
I think it is time that Woolrich and the other great noir writers of the Thirties and Forties -- men like James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, and William Lindsay Gresham -- be recognized side by side with the academic standards of the same period.(less)