Kristiana Kahakauwila’s debut collection of stories is a beautifully expressed bundle of unexpected, original, authentic offerings. (Full disclosure:...moreKristiana Kahakauwila’s debut collection of stories is a beautifully expressed bundle of unexpected, original, authentic offerings. (Full disclosure: Tiana, as I then knew her, was my student as a high school junior in 1997-1998.)
All the stories are set in Hawaii and its essence deeply, almost religiously, binds and animates the literature she makes. If you’re white, like me, and grew up on the American mainland from the 1950s onward, you, along with about 230 million of your current co-Caucasians, have a fairytale-idyllic-hula-swaying-Mai-Tai-sippin’-Don Ho-doomed entirely clichéd vision of what Hawaii and its people are really like.
Though I lived in Honolulu for two years in the early 80s, the stories in this book still exploded many of my (mis)conceptions about the people, their islands, and the often tragic political/historical past Hawaii’s descendants still mourn. In “Requiem for A Nun” William Faulkner wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That reality burns through this book like a terrible, if distant, blaze in the mind.
To be clear: Hawaii’s royal past, American takeover, and longing for cultural return are the background music, the melodies native Hawaiians hum in fragments even they can’t always recall the origin of. TK’s true, deep territory here is the human heart, what makes it, what breaks it. As Jack Kroll, a long-gone Newsweek critic once wrote in a line I’ve never forgotten: “The human heart is the only broken thing that still works.” TK grasps that idea to soul and bone – and it’s that grasp which pulses through these stories to give them such human weight and the density of real life as it is actually lived.
I loved all six of these stories, not least because they were each so different. But mainly because TK took me to places and times I’d never been, or even seen - and I don’t mean just geographically. She takes chances. She makes unpredictable moves, thematically, structurally, otherwise. She writes with an austere, graceful beauty, evoking the physical world in spare brushstrokes, and the inner world(s) with the same less-is-more psychological acuity.
She’s terrific at what I’d call human suspense – the rise, fall and minor shocks of daily life, of families, of people trying to figure each other out. The stories unfold with real narrative energy, their secrets, small and large, emerging as they often do in life, offhandedly, with the muffled echoes of hindsight reverberating. She knows how to be funny, and when not to be.
You can tell she’s trying (and, I think, succeeding) to be a real artist on every page. She’s trying to tell you something you don’t know, about people who have been or will be just like you, in ways that slide right through your defenses. She knows the profound, sometimes surreal, occasionally epic strangeness of life and people - and just what in the hell goes on with them. She shows how desperate our longings to be heard, touched, known, felt can be. She shows how desire connects to loss - and how even when we know that’s what’s going to happen (again), we can’t help it anyway.
She gets the high stakes and takes them on, open-hearted and ready for failure as the price youth pays for any ambition worth its name. She’s interested in the motives and meanings that drive people, what makes them move and act, decide to live or die, give up or give in. All the big questions. And even a few answers along the way.
When does a cult become...occult? Or is it,when does occult become...a cult? (Answers below.)
What's the difference between a cult and a religion? (Tim...moreWhen does a cult become...occult? Or is it,when does occult become...a cult? (Answers below.)
What's the difference between a cult and a religion? (Time.) Well, in mercantile America, the real difference is when you get tax-exempt status, but that's another story. (Also told here.)
This is a terrifically well-researched, riveting history of L. Ron Hubbard and the rise of Scientology. Reading it, one finally gets a sense of how this all happened and why it keeps happening. Of why some people are drawn so powerfully to the pie-in-the-sky promises of this self-extinguishing belief system - and why they stay with it. Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer for "The Looming Tower", a book on Al Qaeda, reports the hell out of this, meticulously researching Hubbard's monstrously effective sci-fi-infused hold on the credulous of his day and how that spaceship-enhanced force-field has retained its potency to this very day. Although Hubbard was described by various people who knew him as a "paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur", Wright is himself careful not to pass judgment, editorialize, or condemn. (The voice in your head takes care of that.) He reports, describes, unearths - and lets the reader decide. Eminently wise, considering that Scientology is one of the most aggressively (and successfully) litigious entities on the face of the earth.
Obsession. Delusion. Brain-washing. SELF brain-washing. These are the bright psychological threads running from founder Hubbard to the modern celebrity face of the movement, Tom Cruise. Both men had/have charisma to burn and the sort of arrogant certitude that gives self-confidence a bad name. But, of course, that's the way religions grow, isn't it? By replicating ever more true believers out of the hopelessly unhappy, those trying to hitch a ride to heaven on the comet-propelled coattails of "prophets" who can convince you they've already arrived.
Page by page, reading the book became an increasingly frustrating, paranoia-inducing experience. Not because of any failings on Wright's part, but because the question one keeps asking is: Why do people put up with such hideously bad treatment? Repeatedly, Wright shows how so many lost souls are cruelly punished by superiors in demeaning, humiliating, depressing ways, sometimes for years on end. What emerges as shorthand explanation is contained in the sub-title phrase "the prison of belief".
When you've been cut off permanently from family and friends, when you've given all your money to the organization, when all you've got left is fellow Scientologists threatening you with exile to a barren island of the mind unless you toe the party line...
Thom Jones comes at you like great boxers do when they've got you trapped on the ropes, twelfth round, thirty seconds left - full of exhausted fury, s...moreThom Jones comes at you like great boxers do when they've got you trapped on the ropes, twelfth round, thirty seconds left - full of exhausted fury, shadowy, unpredictable combinations, a swarming, relentless, impossible energy, desperate imagination, feints of all kinds, and the barking, savage voices of those who've felt more than once they were about to die...on the battlefield, in the ring, at three o'clock in the morning twenty years later, trying to figure out how the hell, exactly, am I going to make it through this night.
All eleven stories here deserve to be read (some many times), but, for me, three are indisputably superb. The first, "The Pugilist at Rest" (what a great title!)takes the hero from Marine training to the inferno of Vietnam to Theogenes (yes, Theogenes) to facing brain surgery in hopes of fixing what's broken. Of course he makes us see that what's really needed is soul surgery but, unfortunately, as we all know, even though each one of us is in that primal business the problem is nobody knows how to do it. The main beauty here, formally, is the story's gorgeous structure. Jones puts elements together that shouldn't really work, but do, because of his artistry (in fiction) and richness (in heart).
The second story, "I Want To Live!" follows, in first person, a woman dying from cancer. Again, it shouldn't work, but it does. Her struggle to live is heartbreaking, overwhelmingly human, and as real as it gets. I don't think I'll ever forget her revisited childhood memories, at the end, of the rooster and the decoder ring. Only the best writers can imagine such things - it's why we read them. (John Updike chose this for inclusion in "Best American Short Stories of the Century"; Updike, that elegant and patrician artisan, is not the sort of stylist one would normally associate with Jones - more proof of Jones's power here, I think.)
The third story, "Rocket Man", is an indelible work of art. It purports to be about two boxers, one young and one old, one dying and one just thinking about it, but it's really about the struggle to exist in the face of what we know and the pain that binds us. It's a platonic love story of two men united by the savagery and death-in-lifeness of boxing, and the savagery and life-in-deathness that is life. They're trying, each in his way, to keep the other alive, and the sight of it is a beautiful thing to behold.
When you finish reading this book, you may feel secure in the knowledge that you are not "them", or "him" or "her", and that you are, in fact, ahead on points.
But remember this, what every fighter who ever lived knows to be true - the punch that knocks you out, the one that truly, finally does it...we never get to see that one coming.(less)
I used to think Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" was the funniest serious novel I'd ever read, but Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad" at least makes me...moreI used to think Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" was the funniest serious novel I'd ever read, but Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad" at least makes me pause to ponder that ranking.
Speaking of rankings, in this near-future horror vision of where we're all headed as a disintegrating America/world, everybody's "fuckability ranking" is of supreme personal importance (at least if you're young or have any hope of becoming so - which means "Immortality" is also something within reach for those rich enough to afford it).
What's not within reach are privacy, intimacy, authenticity, real feeling, empathy, and any sense of life unrelated to consumerism-as-spiritual-cancer and a permanent state of pathological distractedness from the gaping abyss within...each and every one of us. GS has created a world which perfectly expresses that old line: "It knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
GS's antihero protagonist, Lenny Abramov, is a Russian/American/Jewish Everyman in the great tradition of shlubs, shlemiels, and shmucks brought to exuberant life by past masters such as Malamud, Bellow, Roth, Elkin, Friedman, Paley, et al. GS also consciously invokes Chekhov and wants us to see his Lenny as rooted in that beautifully, defiantly human soil as well. Lenny is in many worlds at once (including being about the last person on earth who still reads novels, or even cares about what they might mean about anything that can't be bought or sold), but what makes him so appealing to me is that in all of them what he really most profoundly is...is human/human/human. To the tips of his toes and the crown of his balding, book-stuffed head. He stumbles, he falls, he dreams. He fails, he wails, he swoons. He's just like the rest of us, in other words, at least the secret, private selves we admit to no one.
A passage near the end of the book captures the rich ethnic life-sustaining current that best expresses Lenny's ambivalent and divided heart in the dense, suggestive, multi-referencing, many-angled style that only the very best writers bring to bear:
"[My parents] stood in the morning, waiting for me by the landing with the same worried, submissive smiles that had carried them through half a lifetime in America, staring at me as if no one and nothing else existed in the world. The Abramovs. Tired and old, romantically mismatched, filled to the brim with hatreds imported and native, patriots of a disappeared country, lovers of cleanliness and thrift, tepid breeders of a single child, owners of difficult and disloyal bodies, monarchs of anxiety, princes of an unspeakably cruel realm, Mama and Papa, Papa and Mama, forever and ever and ever. No, I had not lost the capacity to care - incessantly, morbidly, instinctually, counterproductively - for the people who had made of me the disaster known as Lenny Abramov. Who was I? A secular progressive. Perhaps. A liberal, whatever that even means anymore, maybe. But basically - at the end of the busted rainbow, at the end of the day, at the end of the empire - little more than my parents' son." Great stuff. (A lesser writer would have turned that into a whole story or book. Many have.)
The above makes the novel sound TOO serious, really, when the truth is I laughed out loud at least twice on every page, and sometimes every paragraph. GS has a comic/satiric imagination working at full blast and the levels of invention are prodigious. Blood-drawing details embedded in lava flows of volcanic prose combine in stupefyingly clever ways to make us howl/cringe/cry, often simultaneously.
If you want to laugh uproariously while yet facing the beast within, read this book. As Lenny might say - maybe you'd even want to read another one. (less)
When I grew up in Washington, D.C. (50s, 60s) the streets were mean but manageable. You weren't under constant threat, exactly, but you had to have yo...moreWhen I grew up in Washington, D.C. (50s, 60s) the streets were mean but manageable. You weren't under constant threat, exactly, but you had to have your wits about you - if you didn't get street-smart you stayed home or moved to the suburbs. It was then a very high crime city (in the air, not the air-conditioning, the way it seems now) and usually vied with bigger urban names (Detroit, New York) to be each year's murder capital. De facto segregation had a strong hold and racial tensions were high. Though I left at 18, never to return, I still look back nostalgically on those pockets of pleasure the past provides.
This is what first drew me to George Pelecanos's crime novels, all of which are set in the working class neighborhoods I still recall well. I went to school with kids from those places, and they taught me how to be an American. It was (and is) an international city, among the first to look like what most of America is becoming - mixed, multilingual, the colors of the rainbow.
In "The Cut" GP introduces a new character, Spero Lucas, an Iraq war vet who's moved back home to be close to his aging widowed mother, Eleni, and high school teacher brother, Leonidas, and who's become a guy retrieving stolen property for a cut of its value. Although the novel has an engaging plot, bad guys who deserve what they get, and twists and turns of character, incident, expectation, what gives it real quality is its evocation of the city and city life and its showing us how the different kinds of family we belong to can help us survive not only the streets, but that larger, more dangerous battlefield known as the human heart.
Spero's Greek-American parents, Van and Eleni, had one biological daughter who moved away, and adopted three boys: Leo and Dimitrius, who are black, and Spero who is white. Dimitrius has been lost to drugs but Leo, Eleni, and Spero have survived and grown closer than ever. This family is the book's beating heart and its distinction. Another "family" Spero belongs to is made of vets of Iraq and other wars, some who've suffered visible losses, all of whom are damaged.
There are some weaknesses (a few pages of slack dialogue, some neighborhood descriptions more list-like than revealing) but nothing major.
This is a book suffused with human feeling, for the past, for the present, for the walking wounded - and that would be all of us. (less)