**spoiler alert** A Man Called Ove: This Thing Called Love
Fredrik Backman, only thirty-three years old. You'll be surprised at his wisdom.
Love. I b**spoiler alert** A Man Called Ove: This Thing Called Love
Fredrik Backman, only thirty-three years old. You'll be surprised at his wisdom.
Love. I believe in it. In all it's forms. Pure, impure, fleeting, found, lost, unrequited. I am a master of love unrequited.
But I am absolutely stunned by A Man Called Ove written by Fredrik Backman. Only thirty-three years old. A former forklift driver. Read it. Perhaps you will love it (as in the impersonal sense, see below) as I did.)
Love. We yearn for it. Crave it. Give much for it. Think we have found it. Are often wrong that we have. It is one of life's great mysteries. Subject of the great works of literature, art, film.
Romeo & Juliet, Dicksee
Subject of very poor literature, art, film.
WHAT? You've NEVER had to say you were SORRY????
Just what is it, after all?
An Exercise in Cynicism
Flipping through the dictionary. AH! Yes! Very simple...See?
love ləv/Submit noun 1. an intense feeling of deep affection. "babies fill parents with intense feelings of love" synonyms: deep affection, fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, attachment, endearment; More antonyms: hatred a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone. "it was love at first sight" synonyms: become infatuated with, give/lose one's heart to; More a personified figure of love, often represented as Cupid. noun: Love a great interest and pleasure in something. "his love for football" synonyms: liking of/for, enjoyment of, appreciation of/for, taste for, delight for/in, relish of, passion for, zeal for, appetite for, zest for, enthusiasm for, keenness for, fondness for, soft spot for, weakness for, bent for, proclivity for, inclination for, disposition for, partiality for, predilection for, penchant for "her love for fashion" affectionate greetings conveyed to someone on one's behalf. synonyms: best wishes, regards, good wishes, greetings, kind/kindest regards "my mother sends her love" a formula for ending an affectionate letter. "take care, lots of love, Judy" 2. a person or thing that one loves. "she was the love of his life" synonyms: beloved, loved one, love of one's life, dear, dearest, dear one, darling, sweetheart, sweet, angel, honey
BRITISH informal a friendly form of address. "it's all right, love" BRITISH informal used to express affectionate approval for someone. noun: a love "don't fret, there's a love" 3. (in tennis, squash, and some other sports) a score of zero; nil. "love fifteen" verb verb: love; 3rd person present: loves; past tense: loved; past participle: loved; gerund or present participle: loving 1. feel a deep romantic or sexual attachment to (someone). "do you love me?" synonyms: care very much for, feel deep affection for, hold very dear, adore, think the world of, be devoted to, dote on, idolize, worship
Well. Quite simple. I've experienced love in all those forms...but it all seems rather...unsatisfactory.
Let's take a more scientific approach! Clearly, a more thorough answer to be found. Much to choose from...biology, chemistry, neurology....
The inimitable Dr. Fisher, also known as the "Love Doc." *ahem*
There, now. I have your attention, I think? Good. It's quite simple. Love is a very mammalian instinct, a veritable hunger, a thirst. Basically three stages. Lust! The interplay of testosterone and estrogen.
Also known as the "Big Bang," "The Earth Moved," "La Petite Morte," INDEED.
Which leads to Attraction! Oh, the increased production of dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, which makes the heart beat faster, leads to loss of appetite,sleep, and an intense feeling of excitement. It's almost like the effect of amphetamine on the body!
Which leads to more...
Birds do it, bees do it, even Albert Einstein did it...
Hmmm...meth addicts have told me that meth gave them the best sex they ever had in their lives. Of course, that is why they continued to use it, in the elusive attempt to achieve that same experience. But back to the illuminating work of Dr. Fisher.
Unfortunately, the attraction phase only lasts for one to three years. Bummer. Which may account for the phrase, "The honeymoon is over." Or, "The bloom is off the rose." Or, "The new has worn off."
So we come to phase THREE...Attachment! *ahem* Here's the kicker. Now you're dependent on the chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin. Uhm...believed to be important in pair bonding, maternal behavior, and some initial research indicating that oxytocin may be helpful in producing orgasm in women. Men are still reliant on pills, etc.,etc.,etc. In other words, either you go the long road through parenting or mutual interests. Good luck.
Thus spake, not Zarathustra, but Robert Browning
An Exercise of the Heart, Cynics May Exit Now.
Ove, pronounced "Oveeh" is a most unlikely object of love. To the outside world he is a curmudgeonly man, unlikable, grumpy to the core, a stickler for rules and regulations which he will call anyone on at any opportunity. A stingy man who will argue over the cost of every item down to the bottom Kronor. He will park his Saab at a distance to save on the cost of parking. His home is a cold place, the radiators knobs turned down tight, again, a matter of thrift. He once had a good friend, Rune. However, they fell out. He really can't remember the source of it all now. But, he sees Rune responsible for the coup de'tat that removed him as president of the Home Owner's Association of their neighborhood, with Rune taking his place. He has not seen his old friend for years. Ove has no friends. He has no job. He has been forced into early retirement.
Ove sees little point in living. Once he had loved. He had been married. Sonja. Sonja to whom he was married for forty years. She died. No one sees Ove when he walks to the cemetery to speak to her, caressing the stone that marks her grave.
These two were really nothing alike. He was not a reader. She was. She loved Shakespeare. All books. She was a teacher. When they met he was only a night cleaner on the rail line. However he wanted to build houses. She told him he could be anything he wanted. He got his engineer's certificate. He became a builder of houses. He did not become a reader. But he built her beautiful bookshelves.
"People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had."
My God. To love that way.
And, as Ove would survey his empty house, still filled with all Sonja's things, he would think.
"You miss the strangest things when you lose someone. Little things. Smiles. The way she turned over in her sleep. Even repainting a room for her."
The love Ove had for Sonja was not a one directional thing. It flowed equally from her. Her girl friends did not understand it. No one who knew her understood it. Everyone told her she could do better for herself. This is what Sonja thought.
"But to Sonja, Ove was never dour and awkward and sharp-edged... He believed so strongly in things: justice, fair play and hard work and a world where right just had to be right...Not many men of his kind were made anymore...So she was holding on to this one."
Love transforms us. It is a wondrous thing. Love makes all things possible. The loss of it can make life meaningless. So it was for Ove. Is it any surprise that Ove would take his life to be reunited with Sonja? Not for me.
Of course, Ove must make all things right. Leave no mess. All things in order. Proper instructions regarding all the property. A hole drilled precisely in the center of the living room ceiling. The proper hook to hold the rope. The proper noose. Kick the stool over. It's done. But the damned rope breaks. Ove lives in a world of incompetents. Idiots. You can't even depend on someone to make a decent rope anymore!
And slowly something begins to happen. Pushy neighbors insist on violating his privacy. Borrowing tools. Good God. They have children. The woman is a foreigner. And pregnant as a goose! Her husband cannot even back a trailer! Her name is Parvaneh. From Iran? And her husband this IT consultant. He doesn't get up till 9, 10? What is the world coming to?
Each day there is some reason that Ove cannot kill himself. He must save some idiot from himself. It is not a good day to die. Sonja. I am sorry. I know I am late.
And on Ove's story goes. An insistent cat. A boy alienated from his father. A child who wants to be read a story. An old friend whom social services wants to take from his home and put into a "facility." A beautiful story of love that exceeds the personal to a much deeper level the Greeks would have called Agape. Outside one's self.
This is a remarkable odyssey of one man's life and his experience of love. Do not be surprised if you shed a few tears, or more than a few. It is not surprising this novel has sold a half million copies in Sweden. Nor that it is selling so well in America. And the good news? Backman's second novel will be published this year. Watch for it. Get it. Read it. There is nothing wrong with a writer insisting that life is beautiful when he does so as eloquently as Backman.
1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
--Ecclesiastes, 3:1-8, Revised English Bible
Wendell Berry: Poet, Novelist, Essayist. Born August 5, 1934,Henry County, Kentucky
Nathan Coulter, First Edition, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Ma., 1960.
I have long loved the poetry of Wendell Berry. His The Peace of Wild Things is among my favorite poems. The man has a way with words that reveals his love of the land, the ways of nature, and his desire to preserve it. Here is his poem.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Those are fine words. But for all the poems I've read by this man, I have never read his fiction. Until now. I have discovered something else to love about Wendell Berry. Those are his stories of his fictional place, the Port William Community. The sheer joy of this is I have seven novels, thirty-eight short stories and seventeen poems telling the story of this wondrous place and the people who live there. It is a community. Or, as some of its residents refer to it, a membership. It is a place that one belongs to. You and all the others that live there are part of something, helping one another along the way from birth to crossing over.
Nathan Coulter: A Novel is the first Port William novel. It is the story of the Coulter family told through the eyes of young Nathan. This is Berry's developing theme of man's connection to the land, its sustenance of him, and his responsibility to preserve the land.
“Grandpa’s farm had belonged to our people ever since there had been a farm in that place, or people to own a farm. Grandpa’s father had left it to Grandpa and his other sons and daughters. But Grandpa had borrowed money and bought their shares. He had to have it whole hog or none, root hog or die, or he wouldn’t have it at all.”
Nathan's father is no different than his grandfather. He, too must have his land, even though he must pay for it, over time. A long time.
“He said that when we finally did get the farm paid for we could tell everybody to go to hell. That was what he lived for, to own his farm without having to say please or thank you to a living soul.”
Then there is Nathan's Uncle Burley, no farmer. Far from it. But he is no less tied to the land, hunting and fishing, captivated by the beauty of it all.
“Uncle Burley said hills always looked blue when you were far away from them. That was a pretty color for hills; the little houses and barns and fields looked so neat and quiet tucked against them. It made you want to be close to them. But he said that when you got close they were like the hills you’d left, and when you looked back your own hills were blue and you wanted to go back again. He said he reckoned a man could wear himself out going back and forth.”
I identify with Berry's rendering of the Port William Membership. I am a mixture of town and country. More town than country, as I was born in a middling size southern city, the product of a will of the wisp father who abandoned my mother and me when I was an infant. My mother thought eloping to Columbus, Mississippi, where the age for marriage without parental consent was younger than in Alabama, was a good idea at the time.
So I came to be raised in the home of my grandparents, just as young Nathan Coulter and his sibling Brother were. However I was and remained an only child. My mother chose never to remarry. Once burned, twice shy.
My grandfather was Robert Haywood McConnell, born in 1908 in Union Hill, Alabama. My grandmother was Mason Ovilea Beasley McConnell, born in 1909, in Salem, Alabama. Both communities, not even townships, were in the outskirts of Limestone County. The County Seat was Athens, Alabama. A high and mighty name for a small town.
As the Coulters were one of the principal families of the Port William area, so were the McConnells and the Beasleys in that upstate region of Alabama. Between those two burgeoning clans, who began tied to the land as farmers, they branched out into other professions over the successive years. The McConnells produced preachers, storekeepers, morticians, a judge here and there and physicians. The Beasleys produced storekeepers, business men, bankers, a sensitive florist who kept a huge portrait of Elvis over his bed. Everyone acknowledged he was sweet but a little bit funny. There was a circuit court clerk, too. She was married to a man named Homer Price. They had twins they named Sheila and Shaniqua. I was in love with both of them, though they did not give me the time of day. Rather they stared solemnly into one another's eyes. It was easier than looking into the mirror.
And there was the Beasley who made it big in chicken farming. Canned whole chickens. It's called Sweet Sue Chicken. The stuff's sold everywhere. He ended up raising race horses. We hit one of them that got loose on a Sunday morning. That horse ignored the stop sign at the intersection. Papa was flying our 1967 Buick Wildcat as he was wont to do. Stood up on the brake. The Wildcat nosed down and just lifted that horse right up on the hood. I was in the passenger's seat. Nothing looks bigger than a horse's ass sliding into your face straight up the sleek hood of a 1967 Buick Wildcat. The horse did not come through the windshield. But slid off. Disappeared for a bit. Then the steed raised his head and craned his neck around and looked at Papa and me through the windshield. Puzzled.
The point of this is that in Limestone County, between the Beasleys and the McConnells, they birthed you, sold you your groceries, your seed, your farming implements, married you, baptized you, doctored you, judged you, managed your money, buried you if the doctoring didn't take, kept the records of everything on file down at the court house and put the flowers in the funeral home that ended up withering at the burial site. Your neighbors probably brought you a chicken casserole made out of good old Sweet Sue Chicken, too. It was a community and a membership.
As a youngster, I was pretty befuddled by all of this. I was especially confused by who was who and how everybody was connected to whom and how. Over time all the pieces began to come together. I had a particular fondness for my Grandfather's mother, Mama Ora. She lived in a simple clapboard sided house with a dogtrot running through the center of it. During my visits there I learned my appreciation for the land in the country, the country life, the independent way Mama Ora lived and how my Grandfather came alive with his stories of growing up in Union Hill.
Mama Ora's egg custard pie was smooth as cream. It was rich with butter and eggs pulled from beneath the setting hens. No running water. It came from the well just a few yards from the house. Water was never clearer or colder than that drawn from the well and sipped from the tin dipper hung from a post in the well house. Summers never seemed hot at Mama Ora's. A box fan sat in the bedroom window pulling air through the screen door facing the dogtrot and blowing it out the window. You napped on handmade patchwork crazy quilts of indeterminate design. If the weather turned off stormy, the roll of distant thunder was a lullaby, nothing to be alarmed over. The leaves would whisper, then rustle, then shake as they waved in the stiffening wind. The house was a sanctuary of calm. Throughout it all was the sonorous ticking of a clock, an eight day wonder, with soft but authoritative Westminster chimes. No indoor plumbing. A damned mean rooster that waited for you to sit down in the outhouse. He would wait in ambuscade and peck your jewels or worse. Mama Ora would snatch your slingshot if you took it after her prize rooster. He wasn't going to be Sunday dinner.
Perhaps you have concluded I sprang from affluence in Northern Alabama. But my Grandfather was a poor relation. His father, who might have been influential, died young, making my Grandfather the man of the house at a very young age. He made it through high school. Was an excellent student. However, he helped tend the crops that went on the table fresh in season and that were canned for the winter. He hunted for squirrel and rabbits. Those were the main meats. Chicken was a delicacy. Hams were few and far between. The cow was for milk for younger sister Gladys.
He was given a job at McConnell Brothers Funeral Home after graduation from high school. It was a family favor. He learned the trade. Never cared for it. The explosion of a road work truck carrying dynamite was the end of it. By the time he finished picking up the pieces of the crew sitting around that dynamite, he was done.
Haywood they called him. He was handsome. He met Ovilea at Beasley's Drug Store. She was the baby of the Beasley family. She thought he was silly. But he grew on her. Her Daddy had died. Her mother had died. She lived with her oldest brother, Brother Charley, the Banker in a huge house over on East Pryor Street.
They married in a fence corner out in the country. A country preacher officiated. Brother Charley and his wife were not in attendance. Nor were any other Beasleys.
And, thus began my Grandfather's long life of professions. Insurance salesman. Storekeeper. Plumber. Steamfitter. Shipbuilder. Union Organizer. Union Business Agent. Politician. An arguer of Labor cases before the National Labor Relations Board against batteries of Attorneys. He never lost. A self educated man. A charitable man. Shot at. Called a Communist because he was labor. Successfully negotiated contracts satisfactory to Union Members and Management alike.
Who taught me how to plant pole beans, squash, okra, peas, tomatoes, butter beans. Peppers. Sweet. Hot. Eating thin curling pods of hot peppers until the beads of sweat popped out on your forehead, saying, "Eat it like a man," while the tears streamed down his face, as he laughed. The man I thought would never die, but did.
But before he died, the times we had. How he walked me along the bank of Sugar Creek where he used to put drinks to keep them cold. How to bark a squirrel flattened out along the top of a tree limb. Walking along the Elk River where his horse pulled him through the current as he hung to its tail and he learned to swim. The identity of trees. Snakes. The ones to worry about. The ones not to fear at all. All the birds. The smoothness of a Buckeye and how to keep it in your pocket, not for luck, but for the feel of it, the touch of it that took you back into the woods and out of a stressful situation when you'd rather holler.
So, yes. I identify with Port William. I know Nathan Coulter. I have been Nathan Coulter. No matter how old I may get, I will not forget Salem, Union Hill, Athens, or any Beasleys or McConnells. Especially Papa.
“Grandpa had owned his land and worked on it and taken his pride from it for so long that we knew him, and he knew himself, in the same way that we knew the spring. His life couldn’t be divided from the days he’d spent at work in his fields. Daddy had told us we didn’t know what the country would look like without him at work in the middle of it; and that was as true of Grandpa as it was of Daddy. We wouldn’t recognize the country when he was dead.”
No, Nathan, that's not right. You will recognize it. The land remains. It abides. You're just waiting your turn. Just like I am. Someone else will come along by and by.
My wife and I traveled to Oxford, Ms., to one of my favorite destinations, Square Books, on September 11, 2013, to hear Daniel Woodrell discuss his latest novel, The Maid's Version. I eagerly bought my copy of the novel. Author readings and signings are handled at Off Square Books, just a few doors down on the Square. The store was filling up fast when Woodrell walked in.
I was surprised at his appearance. He had lost a great deal of weight. Oxford regulars surrounded Woodrell as he slowly made his way to the podium. Woodrell's discussion of his new novel was fascinating. He told us that this new novel was a change of direction from his previous works. He attributed his literary change resulted from his battle with cancer, colon cancer. The treatment had included surgery and chemotherapy. His voice was soft. One had to lean forward to catch what he had to say. It was an occasion that a public address system would have been helpful to the author and the audience. His reading was fast. It seemed to diminish his energy as he read.
In summary, Woodrell explained that his illness had prompted him to consider his stories in a more introspective view. He had turned to family history and a catastrophic event in his home West Plains, Missouri, which is represented by the town of West Table, Missouri, in his previous Ozarks works.
Woodrell had achieved cult status among readers in the know prior to the release of the movie "Winter's Bone." I've read a number of them. The Death of Sweet Mister. Tomato Red. Winter's Bone. Give Us a Kiss is cued up close to the top of my read stack. The novels have a definite theme of good and evil. The arching theme of those novels is whether Woodrell's characters have a way out of the situation in which they find themselves. All too often the answer is no. Darkness pervades the Woodrells I have read.
Woodrell is content with his new direction on the literary compass. He has said if his readers disagree with his new perspective it may not bring him affluence. However, he has found solace with "The Maid's Version. In fact, Woodrell's next work will be set outside of the Missouri Ozarks. I am eager to see where he takes us.
"The Maid's Version" is based on a community disaster that occurred in West Plains, Missouri, in 1928. A dance hall located over a garage exploded, killing 39 people. It has been a mystery without solution over the years. Was it an accident? Most residents don't think so. The suspected motives and wrongdoers have been discussed for years.
Woodrell changes minor details in his literary work. This is not a history. The date of the explosion is changed to 1929, an acknowledgement of a changing nation on the brink of an America on the brink of the Great Depression. For pure dramatic impact, Woodrell describes the monument erected to the memory of the victims as a black angel that seems to move in a macabre dance under circumstances I leave the reader to discover.
The Actual Dance Hall Victims' Monument
Where Woodrell has previously concentrated on isolated outcasts of the community, this is the story of a community facing an unexplained loss of individuals known to the community, members of it. Woodrell details the suspicions, the suspects, and lingering doubts of whether so many lives could have been lost as the result of an unexplainable accident.
The narrator is Alek Dunahew who is spending the summer with his grandmother, Alma Dunahew, in West Table, Missouri. Thirty-six years have passed since the dance hall disaster. Alma is the maid whose version this tale is. Alma carries a burning anger inside her that no responsibility has ever been placed for the explosion. She passes down the story to grandson, Alek, to keep the memory of the incident alive.
Alma lost someone precious to her in the fire, her sister, Ruby, a beautiful young woman, who drew many men to her as easily as a Siren. And Ruby took lover after lover until their gifts no longer inspired a continued relationship. Alma has exhibited her grief through her anger at the town's refusal to fully investigate the incident. For she is sure she has solved the mystery. In her angry pursuit for truth she has become an outcast of the community for whom the tragedy has only become an incident of history to be forgotten, or, perhaps hidden.
Alma reveals the town history to Alek on walks, pointing out various landmarks, ultimately coming to the town cemetery.
"On these rambles the cemetery was nearly always our final destination. We'd make our way through the wilderness of headstones, gray, brown, puritan white, glancing at some, nodding at some, Alma turning her nose up at others, until we reached the Black Angel, the sober monument to our family loss and a town bereaved. Standing in the shadow of this angel she would on occasion tell me about a suspect person or deed, a vague or promising suspicion she'd acquired with her own sharp ears or general snooping, and when she shared the fishy details with me it would be the first time she'd said them aloud to anybody in years. She'd repeat herself so I would remember."
A sudden summer storm prompts Alma to tell Alek of the town's disaster.
"Storm clouds were scored by bright lightning, and thunder boomed. Her dress was flapping, her eyes narrowed and distant, and she cunningly chose that raging moment to begin telling me her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929, how forty-two dancers from this small corner of the Missouri Ozarks had perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames, and why it happened."
West Table is a town of haves and have nots. Alma has lived her life among the poor. She has served as maid to the richest families in the town. She bristles at her services effect on her own family.
"She hated that she fed another man's children before she fed her own. She cleared the supper table, the plates yet rife with food in this house of plenty, potatoes played with, bread crusts stacked on the tablecloth unwanted, meat bones set aside with enough shreds on them to set her own sons fighting one another for a chance to gnaw them clean and white. Her own sons sucked cold spuds at home, waiting."
And, in Alma's mind it is the Haves who have quietly closed the investigation. Where is justice? There must be justice.
Interspersed through a narrative that grows more powerful with each page are vignettes of the couples "murdered midstep." They are people you like. They are innocent. And they are doomed. It is Woodrell's testament to life no matter how simple its quality may be.
Some critics have found the novel flawed by these vignettes. Their question is how could Alek possibly narrate these facts. I find no difficulty in following Woodrell's purpose or method. Alek learned of the slaughtered innocents through Alma's telling their stories. The presence of these dancers' stories strengthens rather than weakens this novel. There is great power in poignancy not laden with sentimentality.
By novel's end, reader, you will have the answer. You will know the who and the how and the why. Alma will guide you there, through Alek.
Woodrell continues to amaze me. It is a powerful change in literary direction. What's next? One can only wonder. But there's no question about this one. This is a FIVE STAR Read.
The Magic Mountain: Thomas Mann's Ambiguous Bildungsroman
Ah, Thomas Mann, you have held me captive from a hot summer's day in August until I have beguThe Magic Mountain: Thomas Mann's Ambiguous Bildungsroman
Ah, Thomas Mann, you have held me captive from a hot summer's day in August until I have begun to see the first hints of color tinging the leaves with a hue that will lead to their fall and ultimate decay. You have occupied my thoughts during long days and nights. I do not know whether to bless you or curse you, for I recognize how precious time is. At times the tick of the clock sounds ominous.
At its most basic level Mann tells us of the cultural and social development of one human being, Hans Castorp. Hans is not unique. For each of us is born a blank slate. Those that surround us shape us with their values and beliefs. We accept them at times. At others we reject them. Each of us is a walking, waking, living Bildungrsoman, the great majority of us never being the subject between the covers of any book.
Through various times in my life I have experienced illness. In a relatively short period of time, I recognized that I lived in a brief period of respite from life in a relentlessly care worn world. Indeed, in my youth, chicken pox, measles, infected tonsils, and suffocating asthma attacks, provided me with a short vacation in which I whiled away the hours reading my beloved books.
I have encountered my Circes, my Madame Couchats. I have reveled in the power of Dionysus, my Herr Peeperkorns. During my odyssey I have felt the lure of the lotus eaters. But more than anything else, if I accept Mann's character of Hans Castorp to be some wandering Odysseus, I also recognize that we are frequently caught between Syclla and Charybdis and must navigate between the two.
It was not until I became an adult with a responsible job, the responsibility of parenthood, that I felt the possibility of mortality. It was the fall of 1982. Each day I would begin with my customary energy only to become wracked with a fever in the afternoon and left in a state of listlessness and fatigue.
A visit to my physician was required. A battery of blood tests followed. I was to meet with my doctor to discuss the results of the tests the afternoon of the same day. He was somewhat irritable that my lab work had not yielded a diagnosis. He stared across his desk at me, tapping his temple with a forefinger. I caught the beginning of a wry grin. Ah, Hofrat Behrens, you would have recognized the look of incipient triumph. Another vial of blood was drawn from me by his nurse. We both waited for the analysis in his office.
Although we were separated in age by considerable years, we both shared a love of music. Both of us had been concert clarinetists in younger times. We discussed our favorite pieces of music.
The nurse entered after knocking, handing over the analysis. "By God, I love diagnostic medicine," my physician proclaimed with a great degree of professional satisfaction. "You have hepatitis!"
"How serious is that?"
"Oh, could be nothing. Could be sky's the limit!" He chuckled. I did not.
Of course, I was quarantined in an isolated room at the hospital until the type of hepatitis could be determined. It was "Non A, Non B" hepatitis. Type C had not even entered the medical vocabulary at that point. The source of my illness was and has remained a mystery. Nor have any symptoms ever returned, though I am screened annually.
However, that event over thirty years ago, was an important factor in the formation of my personal Gestalt of what it means to be a whole human being. While "Hans in Luck" enjoyed a seven year respite from responsibility, the pawn of Herr Sembretti and the absolutist Naphta, each of whom struggled over the young man's soul in a pedagogical exercise, I consider his story to be an ironic and imperfect Bildungsroman. I do not consider Castorp to have ever fully come to occupy his place in society as a fully developed human being.
To be sure, Mann's writing is breathtakingly beautiful innumerable times. But in Mann's afterward to his monumental work, he urges the reader to undertake a second reading to fully understand it. This, I cannot do. Time is precious. Mann's dark humor causes me to reject such an effort for I cannot endure the lingering naivete of his protagonist. Perhaps, there is too much of Joachim Zeimssen in my view of life. Perhaps I was born to be a flatlander. I am content with that.
Hans, requiescat in pace. May you have found purpose in your life. ...more
A Hunger in the Heart: Kaye Park Hinckley's Novel of Love, Forgiveness and Redemption
I am grateful to Kaye Park Hinckley having been gracious enough tA Hunger in the Heart: Kaye Park Hinckley's Novel of Love, Forgiveness and Redemption
I am grateful to Kaye Park Hinckley having been gracious enough to have provided me a copy of her novel for review. Kaye is a member of "On the Southern Literary Trail," a group I founded and moderate. She has also generously offered copies of her novel for our group's June Author Giveaway.
In the Summer of 1959 we packed up our 1958 Oldsmobile. It was my family's first air-conditioned car. It was a little square unit that sat under the dash that blew cool air through little round vents.
With my grandparents in front and my mother and I in the backseat, we headed to the land of dreams, Florida.
It was my first vacation. It was magic. I was seven.
I learned that there were such things as mermaids.
I picked my first orange from a tree in a grove. It was the best orange juice I ever tasted.
The scariest place I ever saw was an alligator farm. They were everywhere in concrete ponds. They would look at you and open their jaws wide, showing those rows of tremendous teeth. I hung on to the rails around the gator pits. I would have hated to have ended my vacation as a snack.
I suppose it was the beginning of a loss of innocence. It happens in degrees. In this case, the little box air-conditioner froze up on a regular basis. My grandfather would turn it off and let it defrost. The hot air would blast through the windows. Afternoon thunderstorms caused us to roll up the windows and we would sweat until the magic box emitted a weak stream of cool air for a short time.
I have long ceased to believe in mermaids. However, I still am fascinated by Alligator Farms. I do keep my car's air conditioning system fully maintained.
Kaye Park Hinckley brings that era of Florida alive vividly. It certainly brought childhood memories alive for me after many years, but A Hunger in the Heart is not a simple story of a Florida that was less metropolitan and more Southern.
As you read this beautifully written novel you may well find yourself finding similarities with the writing of Flannery O'Connor. Kay Hinckley does not wear her theology on her sleeve anymore than O'Connor did. However, Ms. Hinckley is a member of the Catholic Church. Just as you will find moments of grace, salvation, and redemption in O'Connor, so will you find them in this novel.
The novel follows three generations of the Bridgeman family. Coleman Putnam Bridgeman, the patriarch, is the Boss of Gator Town. No, Gator Town is not Gainesville, Florida, but a small Florida town in which some folks might be said to recognize themselves. The Boss has developed Gator Town with tourist attractions, such as an alligator farm. He is bringing tourism to the small town.
His son, known as Putt, served in World War II. He was a hero, saving one of his Sergeants lives. In the process, he suffered a head wound. Though it is the 1950s, for Putt, the war is still very real. Some men return from war forever changed.
Coleman, III, loves his father and his grandfather. However, when he plays war with his father, he doesn't understand that for his father, the maps he draws in the sand are actual tactical battle maps recreating situations he encountered in the Pacific.
The Boss, a widower, has moved Putt, Coleman, and Putt's wife, Sarah Neal out at the old cabin he once shared with his beloved wife Emma. It is Sarah's job to see that Putt stays out of trouble, takes his medication, and keeps him out of town.
Sarah's is a hard plight. Her faith is not enough to cope with Putt's condition. She bolsters her faith with booze. As the Boss bluntly tells her she has crawled into the bottle and she will drown there.
But on a bad day, Putt sneaks away from home. Down at the Piggly Wiggly, surrounded by customers, Putt believes he is back in the war. He believes he's on fire. He strips naked. The Boss must wrap him up and carry him home.
Something terrible happens with this weapon:
Putt's Service Side-arm
(view spoiler)[Upon learning that he is to be committed to a state mental institution in exchange for false charges of sexual assault being dropped, Putt becomes involved in a struggle over his weapon with Sarah Neal. Whether he kills himself, or Sarah Neal accidentally shoots him in an effort to take the gun away from him is left to the interpretation of the reader. A central question is whether young Coleman will ever forgive Sarah Neal for his Father's death. He believes she killed him. (hide spoiler)]
Ironically, Putt saved a native of Gator Town, a young black man named Clayton, an orphan raised by Aunt Aggie, known for raising homeless black children. Sarah Neal angrily blames Putt's condition on the Army for making him responsible for saving a no-account such as Clayton.
The truth is Clayton is a no account, a prisoner, in the state penitentiary for a theft. The crime for which he has been convicted is minor to what Clayton has actually committed. In Clayton, evil is a palpable force. For Clayton, Jesus is an entity with whom he can bargain. Escaping from prison, he carries with him, a Madonna he had stolen from Putt, the man who saved his life.
"'Remember how you saved me once? Okay, okay. So I fell out of your boat and got sent up the river again. You don't want me to spend another ten years in that prison do you?' Then he remembered the statue and felt for it in his pocket. See here? I got your mama. I'm gonna take care of her too, if you just come on, Jesus' and save me.'"
Ms. Hinckley addresses the issue of whether a life is so without value it is not worth saving. The resounding answer is no. Every life has value because each person has the possibility to change. It's a matter of choice.
Without any doubt, the moral center of "A Hunger in the Heart" is "Fig," a black man taken into the Boss's home as a child from Aunt Aggie's. For Fig there is no black and white. He is in a sense color blind, not only to race, but to all human frailty. He is the Boss's right hand man. He is the purveyor of forgiveness, the moral compass for young Coleman, and the ultimate key to redemption.
Fig serves as the perfect foil to Clayton, or "Sarge." They are respective representatives of good and evil.
In an especially effective structural device, Ms. Hinckley provides a five year skip in the action aging young Coleman five years. We watch Coleman developing into a young man. He is estranged from his mother because of her alcoholism and her attraction to her therapist who is attempting to cure her alcoholism. What is especially effective is his recognition of Clayton as the man whose life his father saved and his recognition of him as a conman and thief. The question is, will Coleman seek revenge.
Kaye Hinckley writes with a lyrical beauty, yet can shake the reader with a sudden jarring edginess. Her characters are memorable. They are human. Each has frailties and faults. Each needs the strength, love and forgiveness of others. Don't we all?
Winston Groom wrote, "Kaye Park Hinckley's novel, A Hunger in the Heart, is a story of hope, forgiveness, and redemption. It's a great read in the tradition of southern fiction."
Mark Childress said, "Kaye Park Hinckley is a writer with a sensitive ear and a keenly developed sympathy for her characters. Her debut novel, A Hunger in the Heart, marks the beginning of a promising career in the world of fiction.
The Fault in Our Stars: John Green's novel of living, loving and dying
“The marks humans leave are too often scars.”
This review comes with no bells,The Fault in Our Stars: John Green's novel of living, loving and dying
“The marks humans leave are too often scars.”
This review comes with no bells, whistles, or photographs. They are not needed.
We all face the inevitability of mortality. It is only a question of when and how we will meet it.
When the goodreads group Literary Exploration selected The Fault in Our Stars by John Greenfor our February, 2013, read, I approached it with considerable reluctance. This February marked the first anniversary of my Mother's death. Grief is a long process. I would like to say I have overcome this grieving, but I have not.
Hazel Grace Lancaster was diagnosed with Stage IV Thyroid cancer at the age of thirteen. She had her first period just a short time before her diagnosis. How great is that? Become a woman and die, she thinks.
The novel opens with Hazel having reached the age of sixteen. Cancer moves, you know. Now tumors grow in her lungs. It is difficult for her to breath. She trails a portable oxygen tank behind her when she outside her home. When at home, during the day, she is tethered to a constantly humming oxygen concentrator. At night she sleeps with the aid of a Bi-pap machine, a mask covering her entire face. She falls asleep to the sound of the efficient machine's dragon noises.
Hazel attends a support group for cancer survivors. Survivors isn't quite the right word. The group's membership ebbs and flows as they become memorialized by those who still live. Hazel and the others who can always take the stairs to reach the room where their sessions are held. Taking the elevator is an indication that life's candle is near flickering out. This particular day the kid with Leukemia takes the elevator.
Hazel coats herself in a shell of cynicism, quite realistic cynicism.
“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”
At this session, there is a new member.
“There were five others before they got to him. He smiled a little when his turn came. His voice was low, smoky, and dead sexy. “My name is Augustus Waters,” he said. “I’m seventeen. I had a little touch of osteosarcoma a year and a half ago, but I’m just here today at Isaac’s request.”
“And how are you feeling?” asked Patrick.
“Oh, I’m grand.” Augustus Waters smiled with a corner of his mouth. “I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.”
Isaac has lost one eye to cancer. The following day, his remaining eye will be removed. He will be blind.
Hazel is a bit unnerved that Augustus stares at her throughout the session. It would be awkward if he just weren't so hot. "Well," she thinks.
How can you know you are dying and allow room for love? In a short time Gus tells Hazel he loves her. She responds that the dying are hand grenades and when she explodes she would rather diminish any collateral damage. But Gus is not deterred.
“I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
Green handles the growing relationship between Hazel and Gus with sensitivity, grace, and gentleness. He affirms the preciousness of life even in the face of dying.
This novel is John Green's equivalent of Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn without the political rhetoric for the Young Adolescent audience. However, it is a book that has value for readers of all ages. It certainly did for me.
Just as Hazel worries about the effect of her death on Augustus, she worries about the loss her parents will endure.
"Much of my life had been devoted to trying not to cry in front of people who loved me... You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but a Sadness in their lives, and you must not become a mere sadness, so you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling, and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile."
During her illness Hazel has become a voracious reader. One book, more than any other has captured her imagination, An Imperial Affliction about a young girl who dies. The narrative ends in mid-sentence. Hazel thinks,
“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”
"The Fault in Our Stars" belongs among books as Hazel described. John Green's work is a gift for young and old.
I have pushed portable oxygen tanks. I have carefully monitored an oxygen concentrator. I can tell you exactly how a Bi-pap works. I remember my mother looking at the wild blaze of leaves her last autumn, saying, "I'll never see this again." I remember her smiles through clenched teeth, struggling to breathe, as her need for oxygen increased more and more.
Yes, each of us will ultimately leave scars. It is inevitable. Live well. Love well. Accept each day's gift of life. Seize the day. Remember.
You must understand that Harington did not write the novels in chronological sequence. We were first introduced to the town of Stay More in Lightning Bug, published in 1970, which was followed by Some Other Place. the Right Place.
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks is Harington's complete history of Stay More beginning with its earliest white inhabitants and carries us to the present. Here is the genealogy of Stay More beginning with two brothers, Noah and Jacob Ingledew who have left Tennessee because a man couldn't say "Darn" without being sermonized by some meddlesome preacher.
The story is told by an omniscient narrator, an unnamed architectural historian, who structures his tale through individual chapters devoted to the various structures erected throughout the history of the town. Now, how this historian knows the intimate details of the people who occupied each of these structures is not explained.
One might almost believe that this historian was there from the beginning, an observer so to speak. I leave it to the reader's own interpretation. I will only say that one of the consistent techniques that Harinton uses is a reference to the future in the concluding chapter of his novels. For Harington knows the disappointment of loving a book to the degree one doesn't want to see it end.
"A dissertation could easily be written on the parallels between the two books. But at the time I wrote TAOTAO I didn't know what "Magic Realism" was. For that matter, I'm not sure I yet understand it. I admired what Garcia Marquez had done and wanted to emulate it, but I took pains to make sure that everything which happened in TAOTAO was possibly conceivable, believable. There are no flying carpets in TAOTAO nor any blood running endlessly down the street. So the "magic" of Garcia Marquez might be missing.
Of course, Appalachia and the Ozarks are naturally akin to the Latin Third World in the strange things that happen, and the only way to depict them is a touch of surrealism. The tall tale, the ghost story, the folk ballad, and other forms of narrative in Appalachia and in the Ozarks have common unnatural events, weird people, a magical atmosphere that transcends 'reality.'"
Harington's novel of Stay More is a tour de force of folklore, myth, and legend that mingles with that of the United States. Brother Noah is visited by Johnny Appleseed who helps him plant an apple orchard. In the years that follow, Noah, the perennial bachelor, becomes the favorite of Stay More's children whom he treats with candy apples when they visit him to listen to his stories.
And wouldn't you know it? Jacob Ingledew invents baseball at the very moment Abner Doubleday is credited with inventing the game at Cooperstown, New York.
Yet, while the history of Stay More may parallel that of America, Stay Morons are content to live by the old ways. They are firmly against "PROG RESS," as they call it. As Harington tells us,
“'Stay More' is synonymous with 'Status Quo' in fact, there are people who believe, or who like to believe, that the name of the town was intended as an entreaty, beseeching the past to remain present.”
Yet, change is inevitable, appearing in the form of Connecticut peddler Eli Willard. Willard sells the Ingledew brothers the first clock in Stay More. Over the years he brings whale oil, leading to a decade of light. He brings scissors for the women, pocket knives for the men, resulting in the fine art of whittling.
But there is also sinister change on the horizon, when Willard shows up with all manner of firearms. While Stay More has been a type of Eden, the American Civil War is looming. Jacob Ingledew is sent to the State Capital to determine the issue of secession. Of course, Ingledew is the only delegate to vote against secession, knowing that war will destroy the harmony of Stay More.
Arkansas is divided. However, Jacob returns to Stay More and does not relay the fact that war is coming, successfully keeping his town at peace for two years.
The Confederacy has a unique way of recruiting troops, however. Virdie Boatwright travels the countryside "raising" troops, by rewarding free sexual favors to any men who enlist with the Confederate Arkansawyers. She is quite successful. Even Jacob, who is recruited twice by Virdie, is tempted to join the Rebels.
Harington swings from comedy to tragedy as Arkansas is drawn into the war of brother against brother, with Jacob remaining a Union Man. Noah joins the Confederacy. As we are told at various times, the tale of Stay More is not always a happy one.
We travel through the generations of the residents of Stay More, the Ingledews, Dinsmores, Stains, Chisms. They are all here, including characters from the previous novels. Harington captures all the foibles, joys, and sadness of life. Oh, yes. If this hasn't piqued your interest, just know that the men and women of Stay More are a hard loving, libidinous bunch.
He Died with His Eyes Open: Derek Raymond's Novel of Who Speaks for the Dead who Don't Matter
From the Reviewer
First Edition, Abacus Press, 1984
DerekHe Died with His Eyes Open: Derek Raymond's Novel of Who Speaks for the Dead who Don't Matter
From the Reviewer
First Edition, Abacus Press, 1984
Derek Raymond was the pen name of English writer Robin Cook, 1931-1994. When he began writing the Factory novels in 1984, he took the pen name to avoid confusion with the American author Robin Cook, known for his medical mystery thrillers. However, it remained a confusing matter because the European releases maintained the name "Robin Cook."
Robin Cook, AKA Derek Raymond
However, were you to pick up a European "Robin Cook" you would quickly realize that you had entered a different world. The only thing sterile in a Derek Raymond novel is the medical examiner's office. Consider this the creation of the English Noir Novel. Raymond's work depicts the down and out, the unwanted, and the unloved. The killers are brutal. The Sergeant of Raymond's "Factory" novels is capable of equal viciousness, though he does not readily appear to possess that characteristic.
The ends of Justice require the means to which Raymond's protagonist resorts. As we follow the Sergeant through his investigation, the question is whether it is a duty to enforce the law or has the Sergeant become an avenger of the dead. Raymond pushes our face into a rough version of John Donne's Meditation that, indeed, no man is an island, but a piece of the continent, and that any man's death is bound to be recognized by society, no matter his standing in it.
This is the first of five "Factory" novels. He Died With His Eyes Open was filmed as "On ne meurt que 2 fois" by Jaques Deray in 1985.
Oh, my...Charlotte Rampling, as Barbara
"Though Staniland had died at the age of fifty-one, he still had the innocence of a child of six. The naive courage, too--the desire to understand everything, whatever the cost.
This fragile sweetness at the core of people--if we allowed that to be kicked, smashed and splintered, then we had no society at all of the kind I felt I had to uphold. I had committed my own sins against it, out of transient weakness.
...I knew I had to nail the killers."
Meet the unnamed Sergeant of Division A14 of the Metropolitan London Police Department, better known as the Department of Unexplained Deaths. Well, it's a rather dead end position in law enforcement, don't you see? These unexplained deaths are of those people that don't matter. Their absence makes only the slightest ripple on the surface of life to justify their existence. You get tucked into A14, you'll not ever leave there above the rank of Sergeant. Nor will you be on the telly. And it's highly unlikely to find your case or your name in the papers.
A NOTE FROM THE SERGEANT
Don't you see, mate? It's quite simple. There's two kinds of dead people. Them that mattered and them that didn't. Now for those that mattered, you have the Serious Crimes Division. Now, there's the road to reputation and recognition, solving how a stiff that mattered got shuffled off his mortal coil. And you can be guaranteed that you solve those tough ones that's where you'll find your sodding promotions and your face on the telly and in the papers.
But sometimes, just sometimes, mind you, you find out there was a brain in that body that had some of the same feelings and thoughts you yourself had. You recognize him, you know? And this time it's all the easier to come to know Charles Stanisland. He was a writer. And when he wasn't writing he was recording his thoughts on life, love, the very nature of existence and whether there was any point to it at all. You listen and listen and listen, and it's almost as if you can become the man.
You know, if Charles Stanisland had got himself topped before he sold his inheritance to his younger brother Grumpian for pence on the pound, he would have been considered a serious crime. And there would be my fine colleague Inspector Bowman moving sharply up the ranks handling his case.
But there you have a fellow, down on his luck, in the bottle, in the rack with a woman, Barbara, who cannot or will not feel love and he keeps on and on trying to win something she can never give him. And there you have Charles Stanisland dumped dead, beaten to a pulp, and sliced with a blade. It took more than one to do for Charles Stanisland.
I really don't give a damn if I ever leave A14. It's a job, you know? A duty. To explain a death and wave the bloody facts in the face of the world whether it gives a fuck or not. You want to know my name? What for? You just call me Sergeant. That's what I do. You may not find my methods pretty or proper or conduct becoming. Come to think of it, I just may scare the Hell out of you as much as the ones that topped Stanisland.
THE REVIEWER WRAPS UP
Reading Raymond is akin to watching a Sam Peckinpaugh film completely in slow motion with every detail of violence flowing around the viewer to the extent the moviegoer checks his clothes for blood spatter evidence. There is a terrible beauty in the writing of Derek Raymond from which it is impossible to pull yourself away.
My thanks to the goodreads group Pulp Fiction for yet another stunning read. ...more
Something has spoken to me in the night...and told me I shall die. I know not where. Saying:
"[Death is] to lose the earth yo know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth."
Cash skilfully spins his tale through three distinct points of view: Adelaide Lyle, an elderly lady who provides the history and background of the story, serving as moral conscience of the story; nine year old Jess Hall, the portrait of innocence lost; and Clem Barefield, sheriff of Madison County, North Carolina for twenty-five years. First taking office in 1961, Barefield sets the events in the story in 1986.
Madison County is as far west in North Carolina as you can get, butting against the border of Tennessee. Marshall is the County seat. A patchwork of deep wooded valleys and steep mountains, tobacco farmers in the western region of the state produce burley tobacco on farms hewed out of land more reminiscent of a network of roller coasters than agriculture.
Marshall, NC, County Seat of Madison County
Folks in the Appalachians are God fearing. Passing through, if the Spirit moves you, you won't have a problem finding a church. But I'd recommend steering clear of churches in old grocery stores and gas stations, especially if the name of the church ends in the words "in Signs Following." Folks put their faith on exhibition by handling serpents, drinking strychnine, and handling fire to see if it'll burn'em.
Inside a Church of Christ With Signs Following
Now, you take the church in this book. It didn't start out that way. Once upon a time it was the French Broad Church of Christ in a real cburch with pews and a steeple, headed up by Pastor Matthews. But the cancer got him back in 75. Then along comes this fellow from out of nowhere, name of Carson Chambliss.
It didn't take long for about half the congregation to up and leave when Chambliss took over pastoring. Without half the congregation, the bank took the church and sold it to the Presbyterians. That was fine with Chambliss who moved the church down to the old grocery store and papered the windows so nobody passing by could see what was going on inside that building.
Chambliss put up a sign by the road at the edge of the parking lot and changed the name to River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following. Now, you remember what I told you about those churches ending their name in Signs Following. Underneath the name of the church he painted Mark 16: 17-18. That's those verses that say you got faith you can pick up serpents, drink poison, and the Holy Ghost will keep you safe.
"I'd seen people I'd known just about my whole life pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them. Holy people, too...that hadn't ever acted like that a day in their lives. But Chambliss convinced them it was safe to challenge the will of God."
I'm nine and my brother is eleven. His name is Christopher but everybody calls him Stump. He's never said a word. He's bigger than me but I'm the leader. We live with Mama and Daddy. Daddy grows tobacco. When he hangs it in the barn and it dries out it smells so good.
Stump and I get in trouble with Mama when we snoop. There's things we shouldn't know about. One day Stump and me were outside and heard the noises Mama and Daddy make sometimes when we're told to go outside and play. Stump climbed up on the rain barrel but it wasn't Daddy in there making those noises. I saw Mama's preacher leave the house and he looked at me and Stump. I didn't tell Daddy about the noises.
On Sunday Mama went down to the church like she always does. Daddy doesn't go. Instead of leaving us at Sunday School with Miss Adelaide, Mama took Stump with her. I wanted to go, but she wouldn't let me. Only Stump. She took him to night church, too. I don't know what happened. But Stump died. Daddy got so mad at the men from church that brought Stump home he hit them and hit them.
Twenty five years next month. That's how long I've been Sheriff here in Madison County. My grandfather was Sheriff over in Henderson County. And my father farmed apples there. Hendersonville, Flat Rock, they're little more than an hour away, but living here is as close to living in a different world as you can get, no matter how old you get.
People here are different. They're superstitious. Know the old mountain ways. Religion is so thick in the hills and hollers up here you can stir it with a stick. But I haven't had a reason to set foot inside a church in more years than I can count, especially after my son Jeff died. It's not natural for a man to outlive his son. Jeff and Ben Hall were friends, good friends. Ben settled down, married, became a good farmer, a good provider.
There's calls you get that don't amount to nothin'. Then there's those you get you can't forget. My wife Sheila handed me the phone and it was Robby, my Deputy, telling me Ben Hall's boy Stump was laying dead up at Adelaide Lyle's house. Killed in that damned church over on River Road.
Sheila told me not to let things get out of hand. There's some times though you can't keep from gettin' out of hand. Specially when that damned crazy preacher Chambliss is at the bottom of things. How the Hell does a boy get killed in a church? Why in the Hell do you kill a child who is incapable of speaking a word?
Wiley Cash can write. He can tell a story. Cash began A Land Before Time while a graduate student in Louisiana. His mentor, as he worked on his dissertation, was Ernest Gaines. What an opportunity!
Ernest Gaines--I love me some Ernest Gaines' Books
Everyone seems to love this book. Cash is one of the new darlings of the publishing world. His interview with Vanity Fair is entitled "Author Wiley Cash on Being the “Justin Timberlake of American Literature." http://www.vanityfair.com/online/dail...
The dust jacket gleams with blurbs to the point you'd think this book came wrapped in stars. Clyde Edgerton said it would knock your socks off. Gail Godwin said it was like stepping into a Greek tragedy. Ernest Gaines' blurb is a little bit more interesting. Although it begins with a glow it dims to a weak glimmer. "I think this could be the beginning of a long fruitful career."
In an interview with Brad Wetherell in Fiction Writers Review Cash said he got the basic idea of his plot from a newspaper clipping about a young autistic boy being smothered during a healing ceremony in a store front church in Chicago. Cash wanted to move it South to North Carolina. http://fictionwritersreview.com/inter...
I wish I could love this book as many reviewers and readers seem to. However, as well as Cash can cause the reader to keep turning the pages, he leaves some mighty big gaps in his story.
How was Chambliss chosen as the new minister at the ill-fated church? How did Chambliss manage to convert a Church of Christ into an unquestioning foot stompin', snake handlin' strychnine drinkin' fire handlin' bunch with such ease?
Sure, this is a work of fiction. But even writers of fiction might do a little research about an area in which so much documentation exists, such as the Holiness Church movement. Bottom line, there are few converts to serpent handling. These churches, found up through Appalachia, consist of small congregations which include descendants of the original founding members. They don't grow into practicing churches overnight. Cash should read Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington.
Cash is being touted as the next Tom Franklin. Sorry. Franklin never left so many gaps in a story. I think Ernest Gaines is right. This book could be the beginning of a fruitful career. Or it could turn into a series of incredulous stories. The choice is Cash's.
I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading this book. I rate it a 4 for the prose, a 3 for the plot with an over-all 3.5. Hallelujah!
Review to follow. On a book buying trip. Whooopeeeee!
And after some nice finds, it's back to business.
Music for Chameleons: New Writing by Truman CapoReview to follow. On a book buying trip. Whooopeeeee!
And after some nice finds, it's back to business.
Music for Chameleons: New Writing by Truman Capote Including Handcarved Coffins
Although Random House plugs Music for Chameleons as new writings by Truman Capote, when it was published in 1980, all of the pieces had appeared in the two preceding years in Capote's usual venues, "Esquire," "Interview," "McCall's," "New York Magazine," and "The New Yorker." Within four years, Capote would be dead.
The jacket photo revealed an older, perhaps more contemplative writer. There is no cigarette in his hand. As he indicated in one segment, he had quit smoking years ago.
In the final segment of the book, "Nocturnal Turnings," Capote interviews himself, looking back at his life--his fears, his faith, his faults.
"TC: What frightens you?"
"TC: Real toads in imaginary gardens.
"TC: No, but in real life--"
"TC: I'm talking about real life."
"TC: Let me put it another way. What, of your own experiences, hae been the most frightening?"
"TC: Betrayals. Abandonments."...
"And that's when I began to believe in God again, and understand that Sook was right, that everything was His design, the old moon and the new moon, the hard rain falling, and if only I would ask Him to help me, He would."
"TC: And has He?"
"TC: Yes. More and more. But I'm not a saint yet. I'm an aloholic. I'm a drug addict. I'm homosexual. I'm a genius. Of course, I could be all four of these dubious things and still be a saint. But I shonuf ain't no saint yet, nawsuh."
And while Capote seems to have begun to contemplate his mortality, the range and depth of the writing in this anthology is breathtaking. All but one of the fourteen segments of the book are claimed to be non-fiction, or perhaps as Capote invented the form, non-fiction fiction, in these examples, short vignettes, portraits of people he knew and met, killers he interviewed in addition to Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Only one story, "Mojave," Capote claimed as fiction, or in his own coy fashion as he said he wrote it as if it were.
Capote ranges from the mysterious, where chameleons dance to piano music played by an old woman on Martinique. Is it real or is it the influence of Absinthe laced in his tea? Fiction or non-fiction?
He reveals his humor while evading a subpoena to testify in the retrial of Bobby Beausoleil for the murder of Gary Hinman, the first of what came to be known as the Manson Family murders. He had promised what Beausoleil had told him would remain confidential.
When Beausoleil was granted a new trial, Capote was served with a subpoena. His sneaking on a plane, dressed as one of Pearl Bailey's musician's, his head pressed to her bosom as she wrapped her arm around his shoulder will leave you howling.
His meanness emerges in his portrait of Marilyn Monroe, whom he portrays her as "A Beautiful Child" who calls her competition cunts, pops pills and drinks way too much. "A Beautiful Child?" perhaps so, perhaps not.
But it is in "Handcarved Coffins" that Capote reveals his mastery in the depiction of true crime. An unknown killer has targeted nine different victims. Each has received a handcarved coffin in which the killer has placed a candid black and white photo of his intended victim. Capote is referred to investigator Jake Pepper to render his opinion of the killings and the evidence that is too scant to make an arrest. The killings are diabolical. A couple enters a car filled with rattlesnakes pumped up on amphetamines to make them even more aggressive than they are in nature. A wire stretched across the road decapitates another.
Will Pepper get his man, or not? Capote stretches out the tension at a nerve wracking pace, plummeting the reader to despair with each successful killing. This is a masterpiece. Pure and simple. Pepper and Capote put the pieces together, discovering the killer has a darkroom and prefers German cameras. Capote's interview skills are intuitive and directly on point.
However, subsequent research by London Sunday Times reporters Peter and Leni Gillman shows that no case containing the details in this short piece exist in any law enforcement file. In all probability it was based on an unsolved case of Kansas Bureau of Investigation Agent Alvin Dewy whom Capote met during his work on "In Cold Blood."
Capote was growing tired. There were no other novels. "Answered Prayers" remained unfinished. One Christmas appeared as a short story in "The Ladies' Home Journal" in December, 1982. Then a short article "Remembering Tennessee" appeared in "Playboy Magazine." There was nothing more.
Once more I think of "Nocturnal Turnings." Capote knew he was slowing down. He knew he was tired.
"TC:...Now let's knock it off and try for some shut-eye."
TC: But first let's say a prayer. Let's say our old prayer. The one we used to say when we were real little and slept in the same bed with Sook and Queenie, with the quilts piled on top of us because the house was so big and cold.
TC: Our old prayer? Okay.
TC and TC: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.
TC and TC: Zzzzzzzzzzzz."
For a final look at Truman Capote's last burst of creativity, this is the book to read, fiction or non-fiction....more
One of the benefits of having your favorite professor of psychology as your next door neighbor is learning that he is a very widely read man. We are an odd pair, I suppose. He is 76. I am 59. But through the years we have known one another we have become best friends. We frequently exchange books the other has not read.
It is safe to say that Howard is fond of literature that some might find "quirky." That's fine with me. That which is quirky can be quite fascinating. Howard can also be subject to a touch of hyperbole. So when he handed me his copy of The Hotel New Hampshire, declaring it the finest book written in the English language, I graciously accepted it, not revealing the grain of salt I reserved for his high accolade.
While I would not proclaim "The Hotel New Hampshire" the finest book written in the English language, it is a book I came to love with the passage of each page. Quirky? Oh, there's no question about it.
Iowa Bob Berry is the football coach of Dairy Prep School in Dairy, New Hampshire. The school doesn't quite make the top tier of preparatory schools in New England, but it serves its purpose for the wealthy whose children don't fall into the top tier of students that attend the top tier schools. It comes, then, rather a surprise that Iowa Bob's son, Win,is Harvard material. The problem is, that although he has been accepted to attend it's going to take hard work to earn the money to afford the tuition.
Now,Dairy Prep is an all boys' school. It comes as no surprise that Win's girl of his dreams is unknown to him although they live in the same town. However, after graduation, the two nineteen year olds spend their summer working at Arbuthnot by the Sea, a resort in Maine. Nor does it come as a surprise that the two fall in love over that wondrous summer.
There is definitely a fairy tale quality to the courtship of Win Berry and Mary Bates, the daughter of a very scholarly family. Another employee at Arbuthnot is Freud, not Sigmund, of course, but Freud a mechanic, who entertains the guests with the antics of pet bear, "State O' Maine" who rides a 1937 Indian Motorcycle. At the end of summer, 1939, Freud announces he's returning to his home in Vienna, not a wise thing to do. He sells the motorcycle and the bear to Win for $200.00 for Win's promises he marry Mary, attend Harvard, and one day will apologize to Mary for an event Freud does not reveal.
Win makes good on the first promise quickly. Win and Mary begin to be fruitful between the entertainment seasons during which Win is earning his tuition at various resorts with the use of the Indian and the Bear. World War II puts a hitch in Win's enrollment at Harvard. However, he returns safely, graduates from Harvard and takes a teaching position at Dairy, now a coed facility.
The Berry children are Frank, Franny, John Harvard, Lilly, and the youngest,known as Egg. John, the middle child, narrates the novel in first person.
Win quickly becomes dissatisfied with his teaching position. He buys the now vacant female seminary to convert it to a hotel as there is no other in Dairy.
I've mentioned that Irving's novel has a fairy tale quality to it. It's necessary to remember that there are the lighter tales of Hans Christian Anderson and there is the darker side of the genre by the Brothers Grimm. As the story of the Berry clan proceeds, it is evident that Irving has chosen to follow the Grimm route.
Frank is gay. He is targeted for humiliation by the backfield of the Dairy football team, quarterbacked by Chip Dove. The same backfield rapes Franny. She refuses to report that she has been raped, but minimizes the attack by saying she had been beaten up. Lilly has a rare disorder which prevents her from growing. Egg is practically deaf following a series of ear infections.
Win receives an offer to sell the Hotel. And who should appear to offer the Berry family a change of scenery but Freud, now the owner of a hotel in Vienna, Austria. Win is his pick to help improve his gasthaus to the level of a fine hotel.
Freud could use the help. It's an odd establishment. One floor is occupied by prostitutes, who may ply their trade legally in Vienna. Another floor is occupied by a group of radicals, despising the old order and anything smacking of tradition. Win has his work cut out for him.
Freud has obtained a smarter bear, Susie. She's considerably smarter than State O' Maine. She happens to be a young woman who does a divine impression of a bear, not only serving as an entertainer, but a body guard for the ladies of the evening upstairs. And, oh, yes, Susie was the victim of sexual assault as well. She considers herself ugly, and is content to hide behind the bear suit.
"The Hotel New Hampshire" was written and directed by Tony Richardson for the screen in 1984.
The radicals upstairs are a dangerous group. They plan to set off an automobile bomb which will cause a sympathetic bomb under the stage of the Vienna Opera House on the premiere night of the fall season. I leave it to the reader to discern whether the attempt is successful,or not, and who lives and who dies.
The Vienna Opera House
The Berry family return to the United States. Lilly has written a best seller "Trying to Grow." This deus ex machina allows the Berrys to live a comfortable life, though all of life's normal travails continue to follow them through out their lives.
As Irving tells us, sorrow, love, and doom float through each of our lives. It's how we each handle those unavoidable currents that determine the satisfaction of our lives.
Iowa Bob, training John Harvard to be a weight lifter, put him on a strict regimen of exercise. "You have to be obsessed. Obsessed. Keep passing those open windows." Having lived approaching sixty years, I'd have to say you can't live just standing still. Some dreams become wishes which are fulfilled. Some are not. Just persevere.
I have read a number of reviews of "The Hotel New Hampshire." You will certainly find its detractors here. Those unfavorable reviews note the dysfunctional nature of the Berry family. Similar reviews find Irving's emphasis on sexual assault unnerving. While I've noted Irving's fairy tale nature of storytelling in this novel, life isn't a fairy tale. The events described in Irving's novel happen all too frequently. As a bit of a post script, I have to say Irving did his research on the dynamics of sexual assault and its effects on survivors. Yes, sorrow also floats.
Extremely Loud and Incredbily Close: Jonathan Foer's novel of love, loss, and memory
There are events that leave an indelible stamp on us for a great pExtremely Loud and Incredbily Close: Jonathan Foer's novel of love, loss, and memory
There are events that leave an indelible stamp on us for a great portion of our lives. This happens from generation to generation.
Ask those living at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor where they were and what they were doing, they will be able to tell you the answer. Similarly, ask me where I was when I heard John F. Kennedy was shot, I can tell you.
Ask what I was doing when the attacks of 9/11 occurred, I can tell you. I had arrived at work at the District Attorney's Office. My chief side kick with whom I was working prep for a trial, ran into the grand jury room and said turn on the television. I did. What I saw was something I could not accept.
Jonathan Foer goes far past the point of remembrance. Foer drops you into the shoes of 8 year old Oskar Schell. For him, 9/11 is not simply an event which he will remember for its historical significance. It is an event he lives daily because he lost his father that day. And the event is brought home to him, for he has a cell phone with his father's messages sent from the twin towers that day. This is a secret he keeps from his mother, for he wants to protect her from the pain of those messages. It is an incredible burden for a child to bear.
Oskar is left with a gamut of guilt and fears, resulting in a state of vicarious traumatic response to his father's death. His grief is all the more palpable because he is extremely gifted and incredibly cursed with an intelligence far more gifted than children his age.
Oskar shared a bond with his father, who fostered that intelligence, by devoting great attention on his son, gently lulling him to sleep at nights by reading him the New York Times and circling the errors they found in red ink. His father challenged Oskar's intelligence by setting up questions for Oskar to solve, leaving clues amounting to a trail of breadcrumbs leading him to a solution of the problems he designed for him.
Or did he? Did his father actually do this? Or is this something which Oskar has perceived in his mind alone?
The action of this novel occurs a year after the fall of the Towers. Oskar is still dealing with the traumatization of his father's loss. In an effort to keep the memory of his father close, Oskar frequently hides in his father's closet where the scent of his father's shaving still lingers in his mind, if only in his mind.
A bundle of memories and his fears cripple Oskar in his dealings with others, especially his schoolmates, whom are not affected by the fall of the Towers as Oskar is. Nor does Oskar perceive his mother to be as deeply affected by the loss of his father. She has a new friend, Ron, who becomes a frequent visitor to the apartment. Oskar hears their laughter in the living room, as he hides in his father's closet. At one point, typical of a child, he tells his mother he wishes it had been her who died that day. It is something a child would say, intentionally hurting the remaining parent, then immediately struck with the hurt he inflicted on his mother whom he loved without question.
There are strong clues that while Oskar is undoubtedly a prodigy of intelligence far beyond his years, that Oskar just might suffer from more than childhood fears. Is it that Oskar is afflicted by Asperger's Syndrome? A look into the Diagnostic Services Manual--I believe we're in the fifth edition of that psychological cookbook, now, reveals that this is a distinct possibility.
Oskar is enveloped in a net of pattern and design, a characteristic shared by children with this diagnosis. He is awkward in his social interactions. Nor does he seem to grasp the results of his actions in social settings. Play on words which Oskar finds hilarious are lost and misunderstood by those around him. Oskar's behavior in filling daybooks with events that have happened to him, including other tragic events occurring before and after 9/11 take on a ritualistic quality, echoing some of the characteristics shared by those diagnosed with Asperger's, which is considered a sub diagnosis of autism. It is a matter of degree, not an exclusion from that diagnosis.
That Oskar is unaware of the consequences of his behavior on his teacher and his fellow students is clear. In graphic detail, he explains the results of the bombing of Hiroshima, sharing a video interview with a survivor of the first use of an atomic bomb against a civilian population.
That Osckar's last name is Schell is a clever device used to great benefit by Foer. For Oskar is a veritable Chambered Nautilus consisting of impenetrable chambers of secrets revealed only by gently bisecting the shell of a nautilus.
Oskar's mother carries her son to be counseled by Doctor Fein, who is anything but fine in his ability to reach Oskar and release him from all the fears held within him, brought about from his father's death.
It is only through Oskar's discovery of one last mystery he believes was left him by his father to solve, that Oskar begins to live outside himself and become engaged with people outside his immediate family that just might allow him to move forward from the prison of the loss of his father.
Quite by accident, Oskar spies a blue vase on the top shelf of his father's closet. Stacking his works of Shakespeare in his father's closet, Oskar stretches to reach the vase, only to tip it off the shelf, shattering it on the floor of the closet. It contains a key, with an envelope. Written on the envelope is the word "Black" written in red ink.
Oskar determines that the answer to his father's last mystery is the key and someone named Black. Although the number of locks in New York City is mind shattering, Oskar, a child of the internet, decides to track down all the Blacks in New York City in an effort to find the secret of what the key opens.
It is this journey, if anything, that will allow Oskar to move beyond the death of his father and live his own life.
Foer, in a display of brilliance, introduces us to Oskar's grandmother and the grandfather, Oskar never knew. Thomas Schell, for whom Oskar's father was named, also is trapped within the memories of another terrible incident in Human history, the firebombing of Dresden. The elder Thomas, although once capable of speech, can no longer speak a word, but communicates by writing in blank day books. He disappeared before the birth of Oskar's father.
We learn of the elder Thomas's history through his letters to his unborn child and through his life with Oskar's grandmother, who lives in an apartment building across the street from Oskar. Oskar and his grandmother communicate by walkie talkies at all times of the day and night.
It is through the writings of the elder Thomas Schell that we experience first hand the horror of living through one of the great acts of inhumanity against man--the fire bombing of Dresden during World War II by the Royal Airforce and the United States 8th Airforce from February 13-15th, 1945. Those events leave Thomas Schell a man forever changed.
The beauty of Foer's novel is the answer he provides in the resolution of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. We recover from the tragedies of our lives through the bonds we share with others. This is the ultimate beauty of life.
While some critics, and some readers, find Foer's novel, manipulative and cloyingly sweet, I find it an affirmation of life. To paraphrase Faulkner's Nobel Acceptance Speech, it is through reaching out to others that not only are we able to endure, it is the way we prevail.
This is a solid 6 Stars literary masterpiece. If it makes you cry, take joy for the fact Foer reminds us we are human, not only capable of acts of inhumanity, but also capable of acts of great love and forgiveness....more
It is 1974 in Butler, Pennsylvania. Arthur is fourteen. His older sister, Astrid is in military service, flying high over Russia, photographing bits and pieces of a very cold country in a very cold war. But the real war is back in Butler, on the home front.
Arthur's mother and father are splitting up. His mother explains to him that she loved another man and his father could not forgive her. She adds that she was not the villainess, Arty's father had his own women on the side.
At the same time, Annie Marchand, the perfect babysitter who had watched Arthur and Astrid while their parents lived out the motions of happiness in a marriage, has problems of her own. Life hasn't turned out well for the pretty babysitter, now grown, married, and the mother of a beautiful little girl, Tara.
Annie's problem is her husband Glenn. He's not a bad sort. In fact, he's so damned nice. He's the excited puppy, bouncing from job to job that he can never keep. No matter how good his intentions, Glenn finds reasons to be late for work. Too much booze. Too little interest. Another job hunt. Annie soldiers on as the family breadwinner, a waitress at the club, overlooking the golf course.
It is a cold winter afternoon. Mr. Chervinick has the band practicing out on the soccer field, preparing for the last half-time show of the football season. Arthur, in the trombone line, a highschool freshman, numbly marches through the drill routine, obliques and a whirlwind maneuver that Chervinick calls the tornado, a movement the band never can perform to their director's satisfaction.
As Jimmy Buffet sings, "There ain't to reason to hurricane season." A tornado is something that can't be controlled, nor can a high school band replicate its movements on a practice field.
During their attempt to swirl and twirl across the practice field, gunshots ring out. This is where our story begins.
From that point on, O'Nan deftly weaves the stories of Arthur and Annie's families. There is a terrible beauty in the symmetry of the death of two marriages. After stormy screaming matches between his mother and father, Arthur's family dissolves in a whimper. Annie's ends in those gunshots that reverberate over the practice field.
Moving between the voices of Arthur, Annie, her bad boy lover, Brock, and husband Glenn, slowly spiralling into madness, Snow Angels sings with the power of a Greek chorus in building to an unavoidably tragic conclusion.
While O'Nan weaves all the strands of a spider's intricate web of emotion, interspersed are moments of dark humor as Arthur suffers the consequences of his parents' divorce. No longer able to sustain two homes equivalent to their former household, Arthur finds himself living in the most efficient of efficiency apartments, a former retreat for ministers, now converted into family apartments. The chapel has been demolished, but its foundation stands as a reminder of its former role. It is a place Arthur and his bus mates laughed at on their way to school. It is the home of twin sisters Lily and Lila, also the butt of Arthur and his friends crude humor. Now Arthur waits for the bus with Lily and Lila, slowly finding himself attracted to Lila. He wonders what she would look like without her glasses and what her body might be like underneath the home sewn clothes she wears.
We follow Arthur through obtaining his learner's permit, his father's sporadic and awkward weekend visits. Arthur's father teaches him to drive in a battered car belonging to his paternal aunt. His mother, also a waitress, as is Annie, has kept the family Country Squire, the quintessential automotive image of the perfect family's perfect automobile, a reminder of family vacations during happier days. These days cannot be recreated. They can only be remembered.
Astrid appears as a distant voice on telephone calls from Germany. She is removed from the cold war at home. Although she asks Arthur if he would like her to take leave and come home as he doesn't seem to be taking care of their mother, clearly she has no intention of doing so. Arthur takes satisfaction in knowing where her secret stash of weed is, the pipes, the bongs, the papers. That will show her.
We watch as Arthur sets out on his trek to adulthood, desperately trying to arrive there in the arms of Lila. She's very nice without her glasses on. And, oh God, the bra is off. Oh, God, what is beneath that awful binding garment is beyond Arthur's wildest dreams. And the wheels on the bus go round and round. What a reminiscence--the opening of the old television show, "Ben Casey." Perhaps you remember it. "Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Infinity." http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=... That's O'Nan's marvelous novel in a nutshell.
Snow angels. I've made them as a child. I've watched my children make them. Giddy moments of the exhilaration of being a child and alive. In this novel, snow angels are not symbols of happiness but the bleak harbingers of unhappiness and a tornado of death and violence that will forever haunt the reader.
Yes, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This novel almost makes you wonder if there is such a thing as reincarnation.
Born in 1961, Stewart O'Nan took his MFA from Cornell in 1992. His short story collection, In the Walled City, was awarded the Druse Heinz in 1993. His manuscript of Snow Angels captured the first Pirate's Alley Faulkner Prize for the Novel, awarded by the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society of New Orleans in 1993. The novel was published in January, 1994.
O'Nan's latest novel is The Odds, out January, 2012. I'll have Mr. O'Nan sign that at the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood, Alabama on January 23, this week, when I'll also respectfully ask him to sign my copy of this novel and his award winning collection of short fiction, In the Walled City.
Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, A Reminiscence for the Living
It is slightly after 12:30 a.m. But I am not sleeping. I have just completed A PrStewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, A Reminiscence for the Living
It is slightly after 12:30 a.m. But I am not sleeping. I have just completed A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan. Rarely have I read a novel that I am compelled to review immediately upon completing it. But this is one.
Much has gone on in my personal life since a killer tornado passed through our town, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27th. Shortly afterward, my mother developed a serious case of pneumonia. Although the pneumonia was cured, she was immediately diagnosed with emphysema. A spot on the lung in an x-ray, which might have been a mere shadow was cancer. Next she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. The diagnoses were numbing. However the prognosis was good. She was released from the hospital on a relatively small amount of oxygen, small enough to allow her to travel about with one of those portable units that you've perhaps seen people walking around with, nothing more than what you might see in a stylish shoulder bag.
In August, my mother had her second bout of pneumonia. She came home with an oxygen concentrator delivering nine liters of oxygen per minute. Our traveling days were over. I promised her that she would remain in her home as long as possible. My wife and I moved into my Mother's home. From August till now, I put my law practice on hold. I am an only child. The duty of being the primary caregiver was mine and mine alone.
The oncologist said that it appeared the radiation treatment had done its job. When she returned the end of this month, she expected to find nothing but a small amount of scar tissue. We were all optimistic.
Last week, something was obviously wrong. The shortest walk, even tethered to nine liters of oxygen wasn't enough to keep her from being physically exhausted. I got one of those small flyweight wheelchairs to get her from den to bath and bedroom.
On last Thursday evening, my mother began to choke. She was gasping for breath. Although she had stubbornly insisted that she would ride out this long journey at home, she told me to call 911. The front of the house was reflected in reds and blues from the emergency vehicles that parked alongside the front of the house and filled the driveway.
It was a trip by ambulance to our hospital. It was a long night in the emergency room. About 3:30 am. she was admitted to the acute stroke unit. It was not that she had a stroke, it was the only monitored bed available in the entire hospital.
On Saturday, she was moved to a regular respiratory floor monitored bed. I was glad. So was she. Visiting hours were limited to only thirty minutes every four hours on the stroke unit. On the floor, my wife and I, my aunt and two of her grandchildren were able to keep her company.
But, I couldn't help but notice that what had been 9 liters of oxygen was now 15, an incredibly significant increase. Yesterday, about 8:25 am, mother was admitted to intensive care. The fifteen liters were not holding her.
The irony of the situation is that I had begun reading O'Nan's "A Prayer for the Dying" that very morning. I carried it with me to the hospital during the long visiting hours.
I read sporadically through the day. A day of hospital visiting is not conducive to uninterrupted reading. Most of the day passed in conversation with my mother as her breathing allowed. But when I came home that night, I was immersed in O'Nan's novel about a small Wisconsin Township called Friendship.
It begins on a beautiful summer day. It is 1866. The American Civil War is still fresh on the minds of the citizens of Friendship. Jacob Hansen, himself, a veteran, who fought extensively in the Kentucky campaigns, has returned to Friendship where, seen as a natural leader, he is the town constable, undertaker and deacon of his church, where he frequently fills in as preacher.
Jacob carries out his duties with great satisfaction over a job well done. He has a happy home life, married to the beautiful Marta, and the proud father of their young daughter Amelia, who has just gotten her first tooth.
1866 is a year when it is still not unusual to see veterans of the war looking for their next meal, or next place to sleep. When Jacob is summoned to a nearby farm of a bee keeper, his attention is first diverted to the drone of the bees and the keepers industry in gathering honey from the hives, raking the sweet from the combs rich with the golden treat. It is a beautiful day, blue skies, bright sunshine, with dots of clouds scudding across the sky in the hot summer breeze.
The bee keeper calmly tells Jacob that there is a deadman behind the hives down in the woods. One of his sons will carry him to the body's location. Jacob immediately recognizes him as one of the many wandering veterans homeless,bivouacking wherever he can find a spot. Jacob notes that his pockets have been turned inside out. One of his few belongings, a tin cup, frequently issued to troops is readily recognized by Jacob.
The farmer and his children all deny having touched anything. But Jacob suspects that the bee keeper who has lost his wife recently would not be above picking the pockets of a dead soldier to search for anythng of value. Jacob notes the odd coloration of the dead soldier's skin and the presence of blood about his nose and lips. Doc Cox must take a look at the dead man. There's not a mark on his body.
Jacob enlists one of the bee keeper's sons to carry the body into the Doctor's Office. Jacob drops the soldier's tin cup. The youngest child "Bitsy" politely hands Jacob the cup. On the ride into town, Jacob spies the body of a woman in a pasture. Upon checking on her, she is alive, but mad. She is obviously a resident of the Colony outside of Friendship, run by the Reverend Grace. Rumors abound around Friendship concerning the possibility of lewd behavior of the women residents there, with the Reverend Grace as their satanic leader in all possible improprities.
Upon arriving in town, the dead man and the mad woman are placed into the care of the local Doctor. The Doc rapidly diagnoses the soldier's deat as being caused by diptheria. At that time, diptheria was a dreaded disease, highly contagious, that spread like wild fire. The Colony resident also shows signs of infection as well. The Doctor cautions Jacob not to drain the body for preservation, but to bury it, not exposing himself to any possibility of infection. Yet, Jacob, out of his respect for the dead, properly drains the soldier's body, filling him with formaldehyde to properly prepare the body for burial.
Jacob continues to enjoy his idyllic life with Marta and daughter Amelia. However, it is evident that Diptheria is spreading rapidly throughout Friendship, its source unknown. Marta begs Jacob to allow her to take Amelia and seek safety with relatives in a nearby town. But Jacob reassures her that all will be well and cautions her that it would serve as a poor example to the Township were he to allow his wife and child to seek safety elsewhere.
Soon, Jacob is dealing with a full blown epidemic of Diptheria, resulting in the quarantine of the town--no one leaves and no one comes in.
What begins as an idyllic summer day turns Friendship into Hell itself. Although Jacob's personal life may disintegrate around him, he will continue to perform his duties as constable, deacon and undertaker.
Interestingly, each of Jacob's honorable judgments lead to more dire circumstances for the people of Friendship. Jacob's effort to do the honorable thing lead him from being beloved of the town, to despised, as he enforces the quarantine. Tension mounts as a wild fire burns out of control towards Friendship. Jacob must save those untouched by the sickness and leave those infected to the flames. It is a decision that will tear him apart.
This afternoon, I presented my mother's living will to the nurse's station directing a do not resuscitate order on her chart. My mother's primary physician met with us to tell us that all that could be done had been done. Mother reiterated no ventilator, that she did not wish to prolong her illness. I shared a special friendship with my mother. She always rode shotgun on my rambling day trips no matter how boring it may have been for her. Those trips ended in May of 2011. I will miss them greatly.
Any work of an author is a living thing. It serves as an interaction between author and reader. O'Nan will never have any idea of how he spoke to me of bravery, duty, responsibility, love and sacrifice. Nor will he ever know how I have come to appreciate the growing loneliness of Jacob Hansen. I am thankful for the comfort of the company of my wife. But I owe Stewart O'Nan a debt of gratitude. It is in this interaction between reader and author that books continue to live long after they have gone into print. It is this connection between reader and writer that gives life to books and causes them to breathe.
For my Mother, Ann M. Sullivan, August 27, 1935 till time stops. Prl...more
"Blood Meridian" is hellish nightmare of successive acts of violence. Based on the story of the Glanton Gang operating on boundary between Texas and M"Blood Meridian" is hellish nightmare of successive acts of violence. Based on the story of the Glanton Gang operating on boundary between Texas and Mexico in 1849-1850, McCarthy's novel focuses on an unnamed protagonist known only as "The Kid." The Kid is fourteen, a runaway from the hills of Tennessee. He finds himself among a group of Filibusterers bent on finishing what the Mexican War began. The band is attacked by Comanches. The Kid is among the few survivors. However, he survives only to find himself imprisoned by the Mexican government for his participation in the invasion of their territory. The Kid is released to become a member of the Glanton Gang to rid the Mexican populace of marauding Apaches. A bounty is paid for each scalp by the Mexican government.
Glanton and his band find themselves outnumbered and out of gunpowder. They are miraculously saved by "The Judge." The Judge seems to know of the gang's approach. He is waiting for them on top of a rock and witnesses their plight. The Judge ably mixes up a batch of gunpowder from nitre, sulfur, and urine. The powder is dried by the heat of the southwestern sun just in time to turn the massacre of the gang into a slaughter of the surprised Apaches.
If the Kid is the protagonist of "Blood Meridian," the antagonist is the Judge. At one time or another, each man in the gang has crossed paths with him, although they cannot remember just how the encounter occurred. The Judge is indifferent to the violence committed by the gang. He is also a participant and a killer of children. Violence is the nature of man, seems to be the Judge's estimation of humanity or the lack of it. At one point he says, “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”
In an interview of McCarthy conducted by Richard Woodard of the New York Times in 1992, the following appears: "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," McCarthy says philosophically. "I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous." See "Cormac McCarthy's Venomous Fiction" http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/05/17...
Eerily, at on point, the Judge proclaims, "Nothing exists without my consent." The Judge keeps a notebook handy, meticulously rendering drawings of antiquities and artifacts in his personal journal. After reproducing the item, making it his personal property, he destroys the original object, preventing its discovery by anyone else.
As the depredations of the Glanton gang continue to pile up, the Kid is an observer of the relentless violence, but is a relatively mute witness. It is only much later, after the demise of the gang that the Kid confesses to his participation in Glanton's murder of hostile and friendly Indians alike. To Glanton, a scalp was a scalp. Its origin was irrelevant as long as it produced a bounty.
Once the last page of "Blood Meridian" is turned the only conclusion to be reached is that evil exists in the world. One can react to it, participate in it, or be indifferent to it. In the final pages of the novel, the Judge dances to fiddlers in a brothel and saloon, proclaiming he will never die. And, perhaps that is true. Evil, not confronted never dies.
As to the fate of the Kid? By novel's end, the Judge refers to him as the Man and that he is sorely disappointed in him. What transpires in the Judge and the Kid's final meeting is ambiguous, subject to interpretation just as life will always be. That the Judge meant to possess the Kid is unquestionable. To the degree that the Judge took the Kid is open to question.
McCarthy concludes "Blood Meridian" with a curious epilogue. A lone figure treks across the desolate southwestern landscape, tapping holes into the ground, striking sparks with each blow. His identity is not revealed. But he is followed by a band of wanderers who observe him at his work. A symbol of fencing in the tractless wasteland, the bringing of civilization, or a matter of greed led by the Judge in his endless dance?
In another excerpt from the Woodard-McCarthy interview is McCarthy's observation: "The ugly fact is books are made out of books," he says. "The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written." His list of those whom he calls the "good writers" -- Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner -- precludes anyone who doesn't "deal with issues of life and death." Proust and Henry James don't make the cut. "I don't understand them," he says. "To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."
"Blood Meridian" is a kaleidoscopic portrayal of the inevitability and existence of violence. It brings to mind the swirling violence of a Sam Peckinpah film, the paintings of Heironymous Bosch, and Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as reconstructed in Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."
This may be the most disturbing book I've ever read. Yet, it will remain completely unforgettable.
Originally published by Olympia Press in two volumes in 1955, "Lolita" exploded on the American scene in 1958. Since then, Nabokov's novel, the memoirOriginally published by Olympia Press in two volumes in 1955, "Lolita" exploded on the American scene in 1958. Since then, Nabokov's novel, the memoirs of a pedophile named "Humbert Humbert," has appeared in list after list of the world's greatest literature.
The memories of a pedophile would seem to be curious material to climb to the top of highly regarded literature. However, it is a master work of comedy, tragedy, and an ironic look at American pop culture of the 1950s.
Humbert Humbert writes his memoirs as an explanation for his obsession for the taboo of his love of "nymphets" and "faunlets." These are words coined by Humbert himself. But nymphet has entered the dictionary of common English usage.
We know from the novel's academic foreword that Humbert is dead, that he has perhaps paid the price for his crime by spinning off this mortal coil, struck with a pulmonary thrombosis. Of course, by doing so, he avoids trial for his alleged criminal acts.
Alleged? Hardly so, as we are told Humbert's story by the man himself, in great detail.
Why does Humbert find pubescent "girl children" so attractive? His answer has been confirmed by many contemporary researchers who have studied innumerable cases of confirmed pedophiles. Humbert, during early adolescence, fell in love with a young girl his own age. The memories of his tempestuous love leave him fixed in a level of sexual development which he seeks throughout his life. While Humbert is perfectly capable of performing sexually with age appropriate partners, he is not satisfied with those relationships. And so it is with those individuals who find their sexual preference among children.
In fact, Humbert is cursed, so he thinks, that women his age find him an irresistible target. But it is this curse that leads him to his ultimate "nymphet," Lolita. Humbert finds himself a border in the Haze residence. Mrs. Haze is a widow, supplementing her income by renting out rooms. Humbert senses another unwanted adult entanglement until he happens upon Delores Haze, the landlady's twelve year old daughter.
Who is Lolita? She is Humbert's idealized image of Delores. She is "L." She is "Lo." She is "Lo-lee-ta!" If Humbert must pay the price of marrying his love child's mother, it is a small price to pay. But luck seems to follow Humbert in his pursuit of the taboo. Lolita's mother is conveniently struck down by a car, running across the street upon discovering Humbert's diary in which he details his lust for her daughter.
It is a child lover's paradise. Humbert finds himself the stepfather of the girl of his dreams. Lolita returns Humbert's affections, if we are to believe Humbert's memoirs. However, through slips of conscience, Humbert reveals his realization that he has stolen Lolita's childhood. After having his fill of her, night after night, he acknowledges he falls asleep to the quiet sobbing of Lolita. At times when his lust spurs him on to a repeat of the act he has just completed, the child resignedly says, "Oh, no. Not again."
Humbert's transformation of Delores to a highly sexualized Lolita is a mixed blessing, perhaps bordering on a curse. In his effort to woo her with travel, clothing and gifts, Humbert teaches Lolita that her favors have value, a concept she quickly learns and masters.
Humbert and Lolita embark on a cross country trek of seemingly every American tourist trap, colonial inn, cabin resort, and monument, famous or not. Lolita is entertained with comics, clothes, and stops at every gift shop where Humbert dutifully forks out the price for whatever Lolita asks. Restaurants are selected on the basis of being favored with "Huncan Dines" desserts. Nabokov skewers American culture in the process.
But Humbert's sexual education of Lolita leads to his losing her. Ultimately, Lolita abandons Humbert for another. Humbert will search for her for years until he finds her, no longer the nymphet of his dreams but a young married woman expecting her first child.
However, the tale is far from over. Humbert searches for the man who stole his Lolita. It is during this quest that Humbert emerges as a tragic anti-hero. Could it be that levels of pedophilia exist, with one being more evil than another? That is a decision for the individual reader.
Nabokov weaves comedy, pathos, and tragedy in a novel that envelopes the reader in a world of taboos, activities that that are culturally unacceptable, all the while beguiling the reader to turn to the next page. However, when Nabokov wrote "Lolita," children who were creations of the imagination of men such as Humbert were just that. Today, what imaginations are being fueled by television programs such as "Toddlers and Tiaras?" Flip over to The Learning Channel and decide for yourself.
I was led to Ian McEwan's "The Cement Garden" by Carmen Callil's and Colm Toibin's excellent book, "The Modern Library." Having formed the opinion thaI was led to Ian McEwan's "The Cement Garden" by Carmen Callil's and Colm Toibin's excellent book, "The Modern Library." Having formed the opinion that I was woefully "unread" after picking up that volume, I decided to take these two authors' advice and dive into those books selected as the most influential books written in English since 1950.
"The Cement Garden," written by McEwan in 1978, is a chilling little book about children living on their own without parents. Essentially, McEwan has constructed an urban "Lord of the Flies." Intermingled with themes of social isolation and adolescent sexuality, Freud's Oedipal complex looms large throughout an uneasy psychological tale of a family's dysfunction.
Jack, the fifteen year old son, one of four children, is the narrator. This is the opening sentence: "I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way. And but for the fact that it coincided with a landmark in my own physical growth, his death seemed insignificant compared with what followed."
That landmark in physical growth is Jack's first ejaculation which he accomplishes while Da is busily cementing over the yard out of a sense of efficiency. Perhaps if Jack hadn't been involved in that act of self discovery, poor Da wouldn't have ended up face down in a puddle of wet cement.
Jack psychically erases the existence of his father by smoothing his impression in the cement away after the corpse is carried away by ambulance. There is no grieving process that follows. Death is something that simply happens and must be accepted.
What follows is simply told in a straight forward manner. Shortly after the unnamed father dies of a heart attack, the mother dies of a lingering illness. To Jack and Julie, the oldest, it seemed so obvious at the time to hide their mother's death to remain together. The solution? Cover Mum in a trunk with cement down in the cellar.
Julie is seventeen. She is the obvious choice to become head of the family. Jack resents her assertion of authority. Sue, thirteen, keeps a secret diary, recording their lives, although the reader is only supplied with the briefest of glimpses when she reads a small bit to Jack. Tommy, only four, decides it would be better to become a girl. His sisters readily take to the idea, outfitting him with a wig, blouses and skirts.
As time passes, with no parent on the scene, Tommy regresses to being a baby once more. Julie puts up the old baby crib in her room, assuming the role of mother to the degree she is able, which isn't much, to put it simply.
Inevitably, Mum's death cannot be hidden. There's a crack in the cement covering her body. The sweet sick smell of death permeates the house.
When Julie brings home a boyfriend, Derek, things are going to fall apart. McEwan's gloomy tale skids to a tumultuous climax. This bleak novel is a precise portrait of the grotesque. This is not a book lightly read nor easily forgotten. The subject matter is not pleasant, nor is it meant to be. One turns the page with a degree of squeamishness, but also fascination, as the facts unfold through Jack's unblinking and unrelenting perspective.
McEwan's subsequent three novels in conjunction with the darkness of this story earned him the reputation of being "Ian McAbre." However, in "The Cement Garden," the reader sees the origin of the author who would win the Booker with "Amsterdam," and the writer of the widely read "Atonement." This is one to add to your read stack if you've not already done so. ...more
I confess I haven't read much of John Updike's work. About thirty years ago I flipped through "Couples" for the prurient interest it sparked at its puI confess I haven't read much of John Updike's work. About thirty years ago I flipped through "Couples" for the prurient interest it sparked at its publication. I laughed through "The Witches of Eastwick"--the movie, not the book. But I never read any of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom novels. My well read neighbor who is also a former professor of psychology who taught me History and Systems of Psychology recently told me I had missed out on some fine writing by neglecting Updike, particularly the Rabbit series.
So, since my friend and former teacher, has never steered me wrong on a book recommendation, I picked up "Rabbit, Run" and began to read it. As he usually is, my former professor is right. I've missed out on some fine writing, a matter that I will rectify by reading the rest of the Rabbit Quartet.
Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom did one thing well. He was a star basketball player in high school. Rabbit set records on the court. But those days are over. Now he demonstrates a vegetable peeler in five and dimes around his home town in Brewer, Pennsylvania. Updike introduces the reader to Rabbit Angstrom walking home from the job he hates to his wife, Janice. He will be late getting home. Angstrom comes across a group of kids playing basketball at a hoop mounted on a telephone pole. For a short time Angstrom becomes the star he once was. Updike's rendering of this scene is magical, his prose creating Rabbit's movements on the street court pure, simple, and full of a rhythm that urges the reader to speak the words to hear the lyricism of them.
The end of the game draws Rabbit back into the reality of the life he does not love. He walks to his apartment to find Janice drunk. Their child is not there. Neither is his car. Janice has spent the day with her mother and left their car at her parents' house. Nelson, their son, is at Rabbit's parents' home. The woman who had won Rabbit's love during long afternoons on the bed of a friend's apartment is not as pretty as she was on those sun filled afternoons. Now her skin is sallow. Her body has lost its suppleness in Rabbit's eyes. When he leaves to get his car and his son, Rabbit decides he has lost himself. He walks to retrieve his car and drives silently away from his in-laws' home. Rabbit imagines driving through the night to end up somewhere on the gulf of Mexico looking up into a perfect sky filled with brilliant stars.
Rabbit's getaway is unsuccessful. Driving into the hills of West Virginia, he ends lost on top of a mountain lovers' lane and wearily drives home, but not to his wife. Instead he seeks out his old basketball coach and asks to stay with him for a few days. His coach berates him for his immaturity but puts him up. Then, with complete inconsistency, his coach takes Rabbit with him to a date with a woman he stakes to a meal from time to time. His lady friend will bring a friend along for Rabbit, too. Rabbit's date lives in an apartment of her own, but tells him she does nothing for a living. He quickly offers to help her out with her utilities and within a day has wrangled his way into a new home, leaving his wife and son.
If there is one thing that Rabbit loves more than the exhilaration of his glorious moments on the basketball court it is sex, though he justifies his lust by insisting that it is love. Written in 1960, "Rabbit, Run" is a frank portrayal of male sexuality, predatory, manipulative and selfish.
Updike introduces the Episcopalian Priest, Jack Eccles, as Rabbit's conscience. Eccles will make it his mission to reunite Rabbit and Janice. An unobservant innocent, Eccles cannot see that Rabbit even sees the Reverend's wife as another woman who recognizes him as a man who loves women. The sexual tension between Rabbit and the minister's wife is palpable, whether it is real or only in Rabbit's egocentric imagination.
Rabbit's life is a train wreck waiting to happen. Tragedy is inevitable. John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom is the perfect portrayal of a man at odds with himself and the world in which he lives. Rabbit runs from responsibility but he is incapable of escaping it. John Updike created an excruciatingly moving novel capturing the sense of post-modern dissatisfaction and self absorption. It is a small wonder that Updike's four volumes detailing the life of Rabbit Angstrom appear on the New York Times twenty five item list of the most influential literary works of the twentieth century. ...more
An absolutely fascinating journey through history explaining the items in and around what we know as home. Bryson is a master of putting the ordinaryAn absolutely fascinating journey through history explaining the items in and around what we know as home. Bryson is a master of putting the ordinary aspects of life into context historically and culturally. Consistently entertaining....more
There are Gods in America. Our ancestors brought them here. They walk among us, almost always unnoticed. Gaiman is a master of imagination, weaving aThere are Gods in America. Our ancestors brought them here. They walk among us, almost always unnoticed. Gaiman is a master of imagination, weaving a tale of a man named Shadow hired by "Mr. Wednesday" to be his driver,performing whatever tasks he assigns him. Wednesday is a con man and a master grifter. But he performs his cons to finance the formation of an alliance of the old Gods against a coming war. Wednesday is Odin, the All Father of Norse mythology. There is an array of forces that believe there is no place in the present world for the old Gods. It is a time that is ruled by technology. It will be a war of secularism against belief and cultural identity. Shadow must determine who is good and who is evil. He is a man thrown into the midst of immortals he believed to be the stuff of fairy tales, but they are not. Laced between chapters in the present, Gaiman tells the stories of our ancestors' earliest arrival in America, bringing the Gods of their old lands through their continuing belief and worship of them. On a journey through America, Shadow will come to places of power where anything is possible and accept the reality that there are American Gods. The problem is that modern America is a bad place to be a God. An exceptional read. ...more
INDIGNATION,the novel, and an opinion regarding literary criticism
Philip Roth's twenty-ninth book "Indignation" is one of those novels about which somINDIGNATION,the novel, and an opinion regarding literary criticism
Philip Roth's twenty-ninth book "Indignation" is one of those novels about which some critics are a bit, well, indignant. They're indignant that Roth didn't produce another masterpiece of the same degree as "American Pastoral," "The Human Stain," or "The Plot Against America," to name a few.
They also are a bit indignant that Roth once again addresses the same issues he has repeatedly addressed in previous works, that is, overcoming the dominance of family, growing up Jewish, rebelling against family tradition to gain autonomy, the eternal quest for sexual initiation, love, loss, and inevitably death. Of course, Roth is dealing more frequently with death as he contemplates his own mortality. That's not unnatural considering the man is now seventy-nine, born March 19, 1933. You might check my math. I'm not getting any younger either.
Marcus Messner has a lot about which to be indignant. He is nineteen. Indignation is as prevalent for him as adolescent angst. He is the perfect student. He works part time in his father's Kosher butcher shop in New Jersey. But he yearns to break free from his family's restrictive life style. Doesn't every adolescent?
Marcus's father's love for him is boundless. But in his effort to protect Marcus from the rest of the world, his love is oppressive. Like Garp, who worries about the worst case scenario in every scenario, he frets that Marcus will unwittingly end up in a situation beyond his control. "You are a boy with a magnificent future before you," his father tells him. 'How do I know you're not going to places where you can get yourself killed?'
And, oh, God, Marcus is still a virgin. He doesn't want to be. Who does at that age anymore?
Marcus escapes the family ties that bind by enrolling in Winesburg College far from home in the Midwest. Roth's allusion to Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," is fitting, because there is much of the grotesque to which Marcus is exposed. It is a bit of irony that flows through Roth's dark humor in this little book.
Having slipped loose those familial bonds, Marcus seeks his independence and to lose his virginity. He does so, much to his surprise, to the lips of lovely Olivia, a troubled young woman with the scars of a failed suicide on her wrists and some time spent in a mental health institution. She tells Marcus, "I did that because I like you so much." Olivia has her own poignant reasons for pleasing Marcus, leading to a very complicated and moving relationship.
Having kicked over the family traces, Marcus becomes a rebel on a very conservative campus. He can't win. It is not a good time to be expelled. It is 1951, the second year of the Korean War when the most intense fighting was occurring around the 38th parallel.
Historically, this was a period of escalating Chinese involvement. Mao had called upon Stalin's aid for equipment and materiel, to which Stalin agreed. McArthur was considering using nuclear weapons against Chinese and North Korean troops prior to his being recalled by President Truman.
Marcus had included ROTC in his schedule. He is nobody's fool. It would be safer to go to war as an officer. However, Marcus is foolish enough to push his campus issues to the point he is expelled.
Marcus is drafted. The next stop is the 38th Parallel.
I leave it to the reader to find what happens to Marcus Messner.
However, as noted in Roth's subsequent short novel, "Nemesis," it is the last of four short novels beginning with "Everyman in 2006, followed by "The Humbling," and "Indignation." Those four short novels complement one another on the unifying theme of mortality. "Indignation" clearly belongs in this quartet that constitutes a remarkable literary dirge.
Roth's detractors bash the old man for rehashing the same themes throughout his works. Some refer to it as cannibalizing from his previous works.
The simple fact of the matter is life is a process much the same for every individual. You are born. You have a relationship with your family, sometimes with two parents, sometimes with one. Sometimes even none.
Depending on what part of the world you live in you go to school. You interact with your fellow students or village mates. You are socialized. As a child becomes an adolescent, he pulls away from his family.
During the process of gaining autonomy there is conflict with your family.
You may or may not have spiritual values. If you do, you most likely will lose your religion should you be fortunate enough to attend an institute of higher education.
You will become politicized. Per Paul Simon,"You will be Lou Adlered, Barry Sadlered, and Beatled till you're blind."
At some point you will become initiated into the mysterious realm of the great secret of sex. It will be pleasant or it will be unpleasant. You will feel guilt or not. You will pursue the sexual union for its intense gratification or not.
You will fall into lust, once or more. If you're lucky, you'll find something that you identify as love. It will last or it won't. It may be marriage or not.
You may choose to have children or not. You will bear children or abort them. If you have children you will subject them to the same pressures you felt from your own family as an adolescent or not.
Your children will love you, hate you, or become indifferent to you.
If you are fortunate, you will never go to war. If you are not, oh, fortunate son, you will go to war because you are no Senator's son. You will kill or be killed. You will live or you will die. You have some degree of control over this depending on your skill at killing others or saving yourself through cowardice.
If you go to war and you live, you will come home a different person. It is unlikely you will ever be the same. If you are the same and you are unaffected you are amoral. You have a choice to be moral or amoral.
You may live to a ripe old age or you may die in the next moment through events completely out of your control.
The only universal truth is you will never get out of this life alive.
Through each phase of life there will be conflict. You will have good days. You will have bad days. Some days you will be the windshield. Other days,you will be the bug.
How many variations are there on what it is to live as a human being, no matter your culture, your parents,your community, your values?
I may have missed a few sub-issues here and there. But have I missed that much?
For those critics who accuse writers of rehashing the same themes, I ask how many different themes are there from the dawn of time. Their belief that an author has developed a formulaic work is a futile effort on their part to say they are different, that they are unique, that their lives be different from that described above. They are wrong. One day they will be dead wrong.
Ernest Hemingway may have said it best in A Farewell to Arms.
“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
The question is does a book stand completely on its own, separate and apart from every other book. I think not. I think what James Baldwin said is true. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
People read books. They are influenced by them. Writers write from their lives and the books they have read. Books breed books. In short, there are only so many variations on a theme.
So, not only is this a review of Roth's "Indignation, it's a review of reviewers and critics. I'll express a little of my own indignation over the ethics of critics and critiques, or rather the lack of simple ethics in tanking a work by a major writer while wearing a gleeful smile.
Michiko Kakutani is a primary example of the critic who will shred an author's work--the greater the author the more brutal the shredding.
In the words of George Bernard Shaw, which might be considered a bit mean spirited, too: "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches. You may find this in "Man and Superman: Maxims for Revolutionists," written in 1903. Not to say that literary criticism isn't writing, those who do not write literature, critique or criticize it.
I will be among the first to say Kakutani earned her chops as a literary critic for the New York Times. She got her B.A. in English Lit at Yale in 1976, mentored by author John Hersey. Subsequently she began her career as a reporter, first for the Washington Post and then for Time Magazine. She began reviewing books for the NYTimes in 1983. She won the Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism in 1998. None of these things are small accomplishments.
However, at Wikipedia, we find the following, all precisely documented and referenced:
"Salman Rushdie has called her 'a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank.' In a June 2005 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, author Norman Mailer criticized Kakutani as a 'one-woman kamikaze' who 'disdains white male authors' and deliberately 'bring[s] out your review two weeks in advance of publication. She trashes it just to hurt sales and embarrass the author.' Mailer also said that New York Times editors were 'terrified' of Kakutani, and 'can't fire her' because she's 'a token,' 'an Asiatic, a feminist.' Jonathan Franzen called her 'the stupidest person in New York.'  Franzen has also called her an 'international embarrassment.'  Moreover, in recent years, Kakutani's particularly harsh reviews of books by famous authors (for example, John Updike's The Widows of Eastwick) are followed by usually milder or openly positive reviews of the same titles by other Times reviewers.
On July 19, 2007, The New York Times published a pre-release story written by Kakutani about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. An account of the ensuing controversy, including the critical comments of some Harry Potter fans, can be found on the Times Public Editor's blog."
What I find particularly refreshing here on goodreads is the recommended practice of posting a spoiler alert,to hide spoilers, thus allowing the reader of the review to determine whether or not they want the key plot points revealed or not. To me that's the way to write a review.
I leave it to the reader of this review to determine whether they would like to have the punchline of "Indignation" destroyed by the very title of the review, and hammering the nail down on the coffin with a one sentence paragraph lead in to the remainder of the review. The line begins, "The narrator of Philip Roth’s new novel is a..."
Norman Mailer was never at a loss for words in response to an unfavorable review. He was no knight in shining armor. Some of his opinions regarding Ms. Kakutani are past demeaning. However, he stooped to her level and engaged in a tit for tat. The bottom line is Ms. Kakutani on more than one occasion spoiled a novel for the prospective reader by unveiling the turns and twists of an author's work. Yes, she was the divine wind in her treatment of "Indignation."
It is a simple question to ask at this point. Would you buy a mystery if the reviewer had already told you who done it? Well, if it were an author I regularly read, the answer is probably, yes. For many readers, though, the answer is "What's the point?"
While Ms. Kakutani may have her Pulitzer, is it ethical to torpedo a novel using a technique to discourage the work finding a readership. I say it is not.
In Disney's "Bambi," the little rabbit Thumper was constantly reminded by his mother, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." That is NOT my theory regarding literary criticism. But the only point to spilling all the beans by a reviewer is hitting below the belt. It is a nasty form of preemptive censorship committed for reasons lacking honesty or honor.
Reviewers and critics have joyfully taken pot shots at every author of any merit with relish. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, O'Connor. However, I am always amazed that critics of that sort may critique, but have not written a literary work. In the present case, the score is Roth:
1960 National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus 1975 National Book Award - finalist for My Life As A Man 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for The Professor Of Desire 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - finalist for The Ghost Writer 1980 National Book Award - finalist for The Ghost Writer 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for The Ghost Writer 1984 National Book Award - finalist for The Anatomy Lesson 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for The Anatomy Lesson 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Counterlife 1986 National Book Award - finalist for The Counterlife 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony 1994 PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - finalist for Operation Shylock 1995 National Book Award for Sabbath's Theater 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - finalist for Sabbath's Theater 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for American Pastoral 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for American Pastoral 1998 Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I Married a Communist 1998 National Medal of Arts 2000 Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (France) for American Pastoral 2001 Franz Kafka Prize 2001 PEN/Faulkner Award for The Human Stain 2001 Gold Medal In Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters 2001 WH Smith Literary Award for The Human Stain 2002 National Book Foundation's Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters 2002 Prix Médicis Étranger (France) for The Human Stain 2003 Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Harvard University 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for The Plot Against America 2005 Sidewise Award for Alternate History for The Plot Against America 2005 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction for The Plot Against America 2006 PEN/Nabokov Award for lifetime achievement 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award for Everyman 2007 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction 2010 Paris Review's Hadada Prize 2011 Man Booker International Prize
1998 Pulitzer Prize for Literary Criticism Novels--0
Game. Set. Match.
When Roth was awarded the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, the following is noted in the Wikipedia entry- regarding the award:
"...Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for achievement in fiction on the world stage, the fourth winner of the biennial prize. One of the judges, Carmen Callil, a publisher of the feminist Virago house, withdrew in protest, referring to Roth's work as 'Emperor's clothes.' She said 'he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe... I don’t rate him as a writer at all ...' Observers quickly noted that Callil had a conflict of interest, having published a book by Claire Bloom which had criticized Roth. In response, one of the two other Booker judges, Rick Gekoski, remarked: 'In 1959 he writes Goodbye, Columbus and it's a masterpiece, magnificent. Fifty-one years later he's 78 years old and he writes Nemesis and it is so wonderful, such a terrific novel ... Tell me one other writer who 50 years apart writes masterpieces ... If you look at the trajectory of the average novel writer, there is a learning period, then a period of high achievement, then the talent runs out and in middle age they start slowly to decline. People say why aren't Martin [Amis] and Julian [Barnes] getting on the Booker prize shortlist, but that's what happens in middle age. Philip Roth, though, gets better and better in middle age. In the 1990s he was almost incapable of not writing a masterpiece – The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, I Married a Communist. He was 65-70 years old, what the hell's he doing writing that well?'"
The Optimist's Daughter: Eudora Welty's Celebration of Life and Memory
"But the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought.
The Optimist's Daughter: Eudora Welty's Celebration of Life and Memory
"But the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought. Outliving is something we do to them. The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all."--Laurel McKelva Hand
It is bittersweet to write about this little gem. It comes with no frills, no literary allusions, no photographs.
My mother died on February 1, 2012. She gave me this book for Christmas, 1973. I was twenty-one, had never lost a loved one, nor even a close friend. I had nothing ahead of me but the future. Memory was reserved for college examinations. And mine was very good.
But over the passage of time, as we all have, or all will, we will view memory with different eyes. There will be less plates to place on the dinner table. There will be fewer birthdays to celebrate, a package or two less to wrap at Christmas. I attend more funerals these days.
Welty portrays the classic Southern funeral with perfection. Everything is there. The exaggerated and loud voices nervously chatting up the good qualities of the deceased. The tables heavily laden with hams, vegetables, casseroles. The odor of flowers. The subsequent emptiness, and the loneliness.
I know Laurel. We could walk hand in hand. I imagine we could talk for hours about love and the loss of it. Some may find her too prim, too reserved. But perhaps tears are better shed in privacy, as opposed to Fay's widow's breakdown, perfectly timed and very public, though I suppose there is a place for that, if the feelings are true.
Welty puts this story together in layer upon layer as carefully as my grandmother put together a coconut cake at Christmas. Laurel's past is slowly disclosed. The meaning of the group of bride's maids becomes clear only well into the story. Laurel is a war widow. Her husband shook hands with a Kamikaze in the Pacific. She still dreams of him. She has remained a widow by choice.
But now she has suffered loss for the third time. Her mother, her husband, her father. But she was an optimist's daughter.
Her father, Judge McKelva, had weathered the death of Becky, Laurel's mother. In his seventies, he married Fay, younger than his daughter, and he weathered that marriage, though Fay did not have the intelligence of his wife or daughter, nor have his place in society. She was young and someone to protect, a factor never to be underestimated in any man. Perhaps he did not see her love of the material, her coarseness, her shallowness, or vulgarity. But he moved forward where Laurel did not.
I can't put my hands on that Christmas gift from years ago. It is packed somewhere among the many books boxed away along with photograph albums of three generations. But I will find it. Each day I look at all those boxes, and with few exceptions I say, "No, not today." But I will find it. And when I do, I will read that gift from a Christmas so long ago.
As Miss Welty said,
"It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world...calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears. It will never be impervious. The memory can hurt, time and again--but in that may lie its final mercy. As long as it's vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due."
For my Mother, Ann Sullivan, August 27, 1935-February 1, 2012
"It all began, as I have said, when the Boss, sitting in the black Cadillac which sped through the night, said to me (to Me who was what Jack Burden, the student of history, had grown up to be) "There is always something." And I said, "Maybe not on the Judge." And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."
There is always something, even on the Judge. Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, John Ireland as Jack Burden, and Adam Greenleaf as Judge Stanton from the 1949 film. The film changed the identity of Judge Irwin to Judge Stanton. A slight problem with the object of Jack's romance.>
First Edition, Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1946
If you're expecting a fictional recounting that serves as a short cut to T. Harry William's masterful biography of Huey Long this isn't it.
But Williams does have something to say that pointedly echoes the themes Robert Penn Warren wove into a masterpiece of American politics.
"I believe that some men, men of power, can influence the course of history. They appear in response to conditions, but they may alter the conditions, may give a new direction to history. In the process they may do great good or evil or both, but whatever the case they leave a different kind of world behind them.", p.ix, Preface, T. Harry Williams, Huey Long,Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
That Willie Stark is a stand in for Huey Long, Robert Penn Warren frankly admits. I was fortunate to find the Thirty-Fifth Edition of the novel, published in 1981. It contained a new, and very informative introduction by Warren.
Warren did not originally envision this work as a novel, but as a tragic drama entitled "Proud Flesh." Warren ended up putting that manuscript away. He realized that he had focused on a man of power rather than those few people who are always surrounding that man of power, and in writing All the King's Men, Warren focused on the "Greek" chorus to whom he had not given proper voice in his originally conceived work.
So, there we have the title, "All the King's Men," the chorus that relates the rise and fall of Willie Stark. For all great men have an inner circle, some of whom are as vague as phantoms, performing the will of the King and they will perform that will whether it be good or evil. But all the King's Men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again should the King fall.
Warren proposes the question of whether those minions are mere pawns or whether they recognize the consequences of their actions and accept responsibility for them, and if so, can they find redemption for the evil they do, even when it is couched in terms of doing good. Willie Stark, the Boss, is a practical man. So, politics is a dirty business. He tells us,
"Dirt's a funny thing, come to think of it, there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt.">
Jack Burden is a one man Greek Chorus that tells us the story of Willie Stark. And it is Jack Burden who provides the moral center of the novel. In one long narrative voice, Jack, a child of privilege, intrigues us relating the present and the past, not only Willie's but his own. Willie's rise is rather straight forward. As Williams tells us in Long's biography, Willie appears on the Louisiana scene in response to conditions of the Great Depression, which seemingly provided the fuel for Populism common to that era.
Jack comes from a level of society that comprised the previous leaders of Louisiana, a class who would forever be opposed to a man of Willie Stark's origin and philosophy. He is the friend of Adam and Anne Stanton, the children of the governor preceding Stark. His mentor is Judge Irwin who advised and influenced Jack from his youth. His father, Ellis Burden, the "scholarly lawyer" is a good friend of the Judge. His mother is beautiful, poised, and confident.
So, why would Ellis Burden walk out of his law office one day to become a street evangelist? But Jack's mother has no problem keeping a stream of husbands in her bed. It's enough to make a fellow a little cynical. Rebellious, too. Rebellious enough to go to State University and study history.
Jack has a future. He's working on his doctorate, studying the papers of an ancestor named Cass Mastern. The papers of Mastern serve as a mirror of Jack's life. But Mastern, who betrayed a friend by having a love affair with his friend's wife, lives the rest of his life with the knowledge of that betrayal. It is Cass who writes in his journal,
The world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping."
The long and the short of it is that our actions have consequences and we owe a responsibility for the consequences of our actions. This is a premise that Jack would rather reject.
Rather, Jack grasps on to the theory of the "Great Twitch," a world in which the actions of people are no more controllable than the muscles of a frog's leg twitching in response to an electrical impulse. However it is Cass Mastern who was correct. In rejecting his ancestor's journal, Jack becomes the cynical, wisecracking news reporter assigned to cover Willie Stark's first gubernatorial election. It is Jack Burden, along with savvy political advisor Sadie Burke who tell Stark he's been duped into running to split the vote of the opposing candidate to bring about the win by yet another politician.
Jack Burden and Sadie Burke telling Willie he's been had.
It is that campaign that transforms not only Willie Stark into a Kingfish lookalike, but transforms Jack into Stark's most trusted fix it man. "Maybe not the Judge." Oh, yes, even the Judge. And so it is that a chain of consequences begins to be unveiled, each the result of a deliberate, undeniable action.
Even the death of Willie Stark is a consequence of one of the Boss's improvident decisions. As Warren wrote,
"The end of man is knowledge but there's one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can't know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn't got and which if he had it would save him."
Do the ends justify the means? Can Willie Stark find redemption?
Willie's death comes about, not from an assassin who believes him to be a dictator, but for a very personal reason. Nor will I even resort to a spoiler alert. I'm simply not going to tell you, because I want you to read this book.
And what of Jack? I will share the final sentence, and I remind you that Jack is the narrator.
"Go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time."
Perhaps Jack Burden has come to terms with his ancestor, Cass Mastern.
To say this is a masterpiece about American politics is true. But it goes much further than that. It is a reminder that the past is the father of the future. They are inevitably inseparable.
Recently, I reviewed Patrica Anthony's lost classic, Flanders, the story of a young American, Travis Lee Stanhope and his experience as a young man who volunteered to fight with the British prior to America's entering the war against Germany in World War I. It's a great book. However it had a great predecessor, Company K, by William March.
The difference between these two books lies in the difference of the authors who wrote them. Patricia Anthony was born in 1947, in San Antonio Texas. William March was born William Edward Campbell on September 18, 1893, to a dirt poor itenerant farm family near Mobile, Alabama. His father spent the majority of his working life in the logging industry. March to his name from his mother, Susan March Cambell. It was his mother who read to March and his nine siblings, although his hard drinking father was prone to recite the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe when he was in his cups.
As one of ten children, March received no special privileges in the family home. March made his own way in the world. He obtained a job as a law clerk in Mobile, Alabama. He went to The University of Alabama School of law, but left in 1916 because he could no longer afford the tuition. That same year, he traveled to New York, New York, obtaining a job as a law clerk with a firm there.
A few days after the United States entered the War, March entered the United States Marine Corp, and trained at Parris Island. He emerged as a Sergeant, assigned to March reached France in March 1918, serving as a sergeant in Co F, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 4th Brigade of Marines, Second Division of the U.S. Army Expeditionary Force.
March fought in every major American engagement during the war, first at Verdun, then Belleau Wood, the assault on Soissons, the Battle of Sant Mihiel, and alongside the French at Mont Blanc. During the course of his fighting, March was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.
As so many other soldiers who saw action in the first great war, March returned to America suffering from acute episodes of depression. March lived with his family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama prior to taking a job at a law firm in Mobile, Alabama. Shortly thereafter, March became the personal secretary of the CEO of the Waterman Steamship Company, eventually becoming vice president of the company.
In 1926, March traveled to New York, taking writing courses at Columbia University. His personal experience of encountering a young German Soldier whom he bayonted through the throat continued to haunt him long after the incident occurred.
In New York, March finished his first extraordinary novel, Company K. The novel was originally serialized in the Forum Magazine. It was published in 1933.
March covers his experiences from training through combat in a series of 113 different vignettes, each chapter devoted to an individual marine. However, the episode that haunted March, the bayoneting of the young German soldier was attributed to a marine named Nate Burt.
Company K contains all the horror of war. From the execution of the wounded enemy and prisoners, to the frantic chaos of mustard gas, and the fragging of officers sending their men on suicidal missions, March's novel emerged as the American anti-war novel of World War I. Change the setting to the humid jungles of East Asia, you can easily find the imbroglio of the Vietnam War.
March did not win acclaim for his novel. The most favorable criticism came from the British, including Graham Greene and Christopher Morley.
Writing for The Spectator Graham Greene wrote:
"His book has the force of a mob-protest; an outcry from anonymous throats. The wheel turns and turns and it does not matter, one hardly notices that the captain of the company, killed on page 159, is alive again a hundred pages later. It does not matter that every stock situation of the war, suicide, the murder of an officer, the slaughter of prisoners, a vision of Christ, is apportioned to Company K, because the book is not written in any realistic convention. It is the only War-book I have read which has found a new form to fit the novelty of the protest. The prose is bare, lucid, without literary echoes, not an imitation but a development of eighteenth-century prose." William March: An Annotated Checklist (First ed.). University of Alabama Press. p. 120 , Roy S. Simmonds (1988)
Morley added his kudos to that of Greene:
"It's queer about this book--it suddenly made me wonder whether any other book about the War has been written in this country. It's a book of extra-ordinary courage--not the courage of hope but the quiet courage of despair. It will make patriots and romanticists angry--yet it is the kind of patriotism that is hardest and toughest. It ranks at once with the few great cries of protest. It is a selected, partial, bitter picture, but a picture we need. It will live. None of the acts of bravery for which the author was decorated during the War was as brave as this anthology of dismay."
This is not quite the lost American classic. However, published only by the University of Alabama Press, this is another novel of the caliber of All Quiet on the Western Front, deserving the same readership. This is a book with the staying power of any novel written on the horror of war. Find it. Read it. You cannot forget it.
Sartoris: William Faulkner's Creation of Yoknapatawpha County
William Faulkner at the University of Virginia, 1957
"No man is himself, he is the su
Sartoris: William Faulkner's Creation of Yoknapatawpha County
William Faulkner at the University of Virginia, 1957
"No man is himself, he is the sum of his past.” Faulkner in the University, University of Virginia Press, 1995
February 7, 2012
I graduated from the University of Alabama in 1973. I went there intending to become a professor of history. I changed my mind during a lecture my second semester in the History of Western Civilization when a college athlete began snoring behind me as one of my favorite professors was earnestly addressing the closing days of World War II.
When I completed college, I had a BA with a major in psychology and a double minor in English and Latin. Two beloved Classics Professors were urging me to enter the Graduate program at the University of Mississippi. I had been awarded the W.B. Saffolds Classics award for three years. I would have probably taken it the fourth year, but I finished my degree requirements a semester early. As I had decided not to be a history professor, I also decided I didn't want to be Mr. Chips.
I also decided I didn't want to be a psychologist. The vagaries of youth and the arrogance of it can be astounding in retrospect. I became a lawyer instead. Damned if I didn't try to be Atticus Finch and Gavin Stevens all rolled into one churning burning trial attorney. And I did that as a prosecuting attorney for almost twenty-eight years.
I drove home today from Oxford, Mississippi. I visited the Classics Department I didn't attend and felt a slight tug of regret. Actually, it was more than slight. As everyone experiences at one time or another, I wondered, "What if I had..."
Before I left, I went to the Faulkner Room in the John Williams Library on the Campus of the University of Mississippi. There, in a beautiful wooden case, was the Nobel Prize awarded to Faulkner in 1950.
Beneath that were shelves of pristine first edition, first printings of all his works. My eye was drawn particularly to a beautiful red volume with bold horizontal black stripes. In a blank field of red in bold letters was "Sartoris." In a smaller field, in smaller letters was the name "William Faulkner."
Sartoris, First Ed., Harcourt Brace, New York, New York
There is nothing to indicate what appears within the pages between the covers. There is nothing to judge by it. Nor, I imagine, could any prospective buyer of that book in 1929 anticipated that what was contained inside it was the creation of a new world.
Horace Liveright, had first dibs on Faulkner's novel. Faulkner's title was Flags in the Dust. Liveright's firm had published Faulkner's first two novels, Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes. However, Flags in the Dust logged in at nearly six hundred pages. Liveright read it, didn't like it, rejected it, and advised Faulkner not to seek publication anywhere. Liveright's criticism was it was too big, too diffuse, it lacked an overall plot. Forget it. Trash it. Faulkner was crushed.
Horace Liveright of Boni & Liveright; looked good in a suit, but don't ask him to spot a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
Faulkner's attempt to introduce the world of Yoknapatawpha County became a struggle of frustrating rejection. After Liveright's stunning refusal, Faulkner turned to his agent, Ben Wasson in New York. The news wasn't good. Eleven publishers. Eleven rejections.
Ben Wasson, William Faulkner's friend, agent, and one of many biographers
However, Wasson was persistent. He showed the manuscript to Harrison Smith an editor at Harcourt Brace. Smith liked it, showed it to Alfred Harcourt who agreed to publish it provided it was edited into a manageable size and that Faulkner wasn't the editor. Wasson agreed to do the editing for Fifty Dollars. Faulkner came to New York. The contract was signed. Faulkner kept his nose out of Wasson's editing. He passed the time working on a new novel, again set in Yoknapatawpha County. It would be The Sound and the Fury. Flags in the Dust became named Sartoris. Who or how they came to pass has been lost to literary history.
Faulkner dedicated Sartoris to Sherwood Anderson. "To Sherwood Anderson through whose kindness I was first published with the belief that this book will give him no reason to regret it"
Each year I am drawn to William Faulkner country. I have been there so many times. With each visit, I discover a little more about the man and the people of the land that held such influence over him. Walk into Rowan Oak and I still feel his presence. How can you not? There is his study, his library. The books on the shelves he built himself when he bought what was known as the old Bailey Place in Bailey's Woods, down the Taylor Road. The double rows of towering cedar trees almost obscure the house from the entrance to the old house.
When reading Faulkner, it is hard to tell where the history, the legend ends, and the fiction begins. That is especially the case when considering Sartoris, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1929. Nothing could be truer than the words of William Faulkner at the University of Virginia when he was the writer in residence there.
What a debt of gratitude the world owes to Sherwood Anderson who met the young William Faulkner in New Orleans. Basically he told him his first two novels were failures because he had attempted to write of a world of which he was not a part. It was Faulkner who created Yoknapatawpha County, but it was Anderson who planted the seed that yielded the crop of Faulkner's Canon.
You cannot find Faulkner's County just walking the Square in Oxford. His grandfather's bank building is still there, now a clothing store called Duvall's. The old man conducted business from a chair, leaned back against the wall by the bank's open door during the hot Mississippi summer afternoons. Mack Reed's drugstore, where Faulkner checked out his mystery novels is gone. Even the sign over the store front that now houses a trendy boutique leaves no evidence that Reed or Faulkner were ever there.
Down Jefferson street there is the cemetery where Faulkner and some of his family are buried. Their deaths outgrew the original family plot. Faulkner, wife Estelle, a stepson, and daughter Alabama are some distance away. Nor is there any evidence that his infant daughter lies near him, her marker stolen years ago.
But in the original family plot, there is Dean, killed in a plane crash outside Pontotoc in 1935. There is brother John, also a writer. There is mother Maude, father Murry, his grandfather and grandmother J.W.T. and Sallie Faulkner. His grandparents' obelisk looms over that plot. And it is in that image that the ghosts of Faulkner's past begin to take shape in the pages that tell the story of Yoknapatawpha County.
Yet, that is not enough. You must go further. You must walk the streets of Ripley, Mississippi, the home of his great grandfather. Here, too, is a statue of a man. Twenty two feet tall, the Old Colonel William Clark Falkner stands in formal attire.
The Grave of The Old Colonel William Clark Falkner, Ripley, Mississippi
Falkner, who killed a man with a Bowie knife when he was twenty-three. Falkner, who shot and killed a man when he was twenty-five. Falkner, gunned down in another courthouse square by a political opponent he had bested in an election. Falkner, who had been a cavalry officer for the Confederacy. Falkner, who built a railroad across northern Mississippi.
The origins of Faulkner's County are there. The patriarchs of the Sartoris family begin there.
Even Faulkner knew he had begun the creation of an entire world when he submitted the manuscript of Sartoris for publication. He knew it was special, something new, something not ever seen before. Faulkner wrote to his publisher, Horace Liveright, "At last and certainly, I have written THE book, of which those other things were but foals. I believe it is the damdest best book you'll look at this year, and any other publisher". Joseph Blotner,Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes, Random House, New York, 1974.
Young Bayard Sartoris returns to Jefferson after World War One. He and his twin brother John had been fighter pilots. John didn't make it home. Young Bayard lives in the shadow of the Old Colonel Bayard Sartoris who had fought in the Civil War. Old Bayard, his grandfather, runs the bank in Jefferson.
Whether it is the death of brother John, or the folk heroism of the Old Colonel that serves as a ghost of the past whose challenge he could not meet, whether it is the death of his young wife and child, Young Bayard is a member of what will become known as the "Lost Generation." Young Bayard lives wildly and recklessly, courting death with increasingly dangerous behavior. Without question Young Bayard is not only the sum of his past, but the past of his forefathers.
Young Bayard's return to Jefferson cannot last. Not even his marriage to Narcissa Benbow and the upcoming birth of another child will hold him at home. Perhaps the only way he can escape the past is with his own death which he increasingly seeks in his destructive behavior.
Yet, Sartoris is not just the story of one family. Faulkner weaves in character after character with whom we will become more familiar as Faulkner returns to them from short stories to novel after novel.
Beginning with this novel, Faulkner uproots the cornerstone of the aristocracy following the American Civil War. Faulkner maps out a changing South, caught in the past, but always trying to escape it. This is the turning point of Faulkner from fledgling writer to Faulkner, the Modernist, on his path to Sweden and a Nobel Prize, two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, and a Legion of Honor for good measure. Cleanth Brooks rightly compared Sartoris to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, New Haven, The Yale University Press, 1963.
This year marks the 100th Anniversary of William Faulkner's death. The Annual Faulkner Conference will begin on the precise date, July 6, 2012. I plan to return to Faulkner Country for this conference. Not only will I attend, I'll be a student this year, enrolled in a class devoted to teaching Faulkner to High School Students.
Will I become a teacher? I'm not sure. There's a lot to think about. But I hear Gavin Stevens whispering in my ear, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Edit: This review is shared for the benefit of goodreads group "On the Southern Literary Trail," and to draw any other readers to Faulkner's first Yoknapatawpha County novel.
Mike Sullivan Founder and Moderator "On the Southern Literary Trail"
April 6-May 23, 2014
My goodreads friend Sue Drees and I became involved in a discussion about William Faulkner and whether to read Sartoris or Flags in the Dust. Random House finally published Flags in the Dust in 1973. Finally, Faulkner had gotten his wish, though dead since 1962. We decided on a buddy read of the manner in which Bill Faulkner intended we be introduced to Yoknapatawpha County. Neither of us was disappointed.
Flags in the Dust is an incredibly rich reading experience. There is much more for the reader to consider and discover. I've read twiceSartoris, and Flags in the Dust once. Should I return to the beginning of Mr. Faulkner's County, it will be as he originally intended
I've often been asked where does one begin reading William Faulkner? My original answer was Sartoris. Now, it is Flags in the Dust. Today, Faulkner's original creation is considered the standard version. That's the version you'll find in the Library of America.
The Rest of the Story
December 28, 2014
I did not become a teacher in the formal sense. It is an ironic commentary on the values our society places upon things. Having lived a life of public service, I earned a State Employee's retirement. To become a teacher in my home state, I would have to give up my State retirement as a career prosecuting attorney. I could not live on a teacher's salary, as much as I would like to teach. I believe I would be a good one. However, the good people of my State do not believe in fighting for the worth of a teacher's services, though they believe in their children's receiving a good education. Life's funny that way, isn't it? A simple matter of self interest on my part as well as grown ups with children. Folks my age who've done their time as parents. All the legislators who promise no new taxes. A state with the lowest property taxes in the country.
Oh, I suppose I could practice private law, but that's not where my heart is. So I am done with apple picking time. I maintain a "Special Law License," which allows me to return to practice should I decide to do so.
However, I am content. And in my own way, if I should happen to place a book in the hands of some reader through the words I write, why...I have taught a little something. And that's quite enough for me.
It's about time for a trip to Faulkner Country. It's good for the soul. ...more