I originally intended to award four stars to this book, which I'd read years ago to impress a professor who quoted Graham Greene at every opportunity,I originally intended to award four stars to this book, which I'd read years ago to impress a professor who quoted Graham Greene at every opportunity, but the thing kept working its way into my brain like an ethical earworm. Without a single character to admire, the book's strength is the nuance of thought and feeling evoked by its narrator, Thomas Fowler, an Englishman whose cynicism is profoundly depressing. Fowler is a man who can say - without absurdity - that "Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again for ever."
The backdrop is Indo-China, March 1952 to June 1955. What a quagmire, both politically and for the reader. Who is on whose side? Fowler says he is not "engagé," and is apparently without national bias with regard to the outcome of the military battles scarring Vietnam and its people. French and English colonialism is losing grip to the various Vietnamese forces (Communist and non) when American interventionism shows up in the avatar of Alden Pyle (what a god-awful name), a young man who is "impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance." He is some kind of OSS operative, working under the cover of the Economic Aid Mission, but he has read too many books and has no genuine life experience. Juxtaposed to Fowler, he is a jackass. Actually, all the Americans in this book are horribly obnoxious. Pyle is a devotee of a book on Asia called The Advance of Red China by York Harding, who advocates something called "The Third Force," a notion which Pyle has absorbed as gospel. As far as I can tell the Third Force is an attempt to bridge colonialism and communism with......ta da........democracy American-style. A style that can absorb Vietnamese tradition. Fowler - despite his internal scorn for Pyle - makes no real effort to educate him.
Pyle is extraordinarily irritating. He and his fresh crew-cut go about Saigon with Duke, his giant slobbery dog, expressing the most naive philosophies. Fowler mentions the "fanatic gleam, the quick response to a phrase, the magic sound of figures: Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day" when Pyle speaks of York Harding. But the horror is that Pyle is stupidly dangerous. His upbeat positivity in the face of child-deaths and maimings is a gross affront to intellect. ("In a way you could say they died for democracy"!) This kind of stupidity strikes me as more than relevant in 2017. During the course of the novel, Fowler begins to understand the true danger of Pyle and at one point (not related to Pyle), Captain Trouin tells Fowler: "One day something will happen. You will take a side."
Underneath all the political and military operations lies the subplot of Phuong, Fowler's extremely young live-in girlfriend. In an effort not to reveal too much, suffice it to say that this subplot is very much like the battle between nations. Phuong is loved by both Pyle and Fowler and the power-play over her female body is a mirror to the war being waged by the separate interests of countries. The parallel put me in mind of a chapter in Reinhold Niebuhr's book, Moral Man & Immoral Society, called "The Morality of Nations." In that chapter Niebuhr writes that the most heinous flaws of every nation include hypocrisy and "social ignorance." The "ultimate interests" of a nation "are always protected best, by at least a measure of fairness toward their neighbors, the desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests." To me, this seems a significant insight - especially with regard to this novel and its commentary on history. Fowler has Phuong to consider. His desire to keep her inspires him to become "engagé" and he rationalizes his actions against Pyle as designed to stop a lethal war combatant.
The great muddy Red River of a question then becomes one relating to motive. Does Fowler take action against Pyle because of Phuong or because he finally takes "a side" in the war? Did he "betray his own principles"?
There are so many aspects of this book that are worth discussion: the characterization of the female and Vietnamese characters, the English elitism, the spare, beautiful writing, and spear-to-the-heart sentences. I will leave off with one of my favorites: "It's not easy to live with someone you've injured."...more
Maybe it's just my blue collar family background crazy-talking me into thinking all these poems are genius - but there you go. The beauty of line workMaybe it's just my blue collar family background crazy-talking me into thinking all these poems are genius - but there you go. The beauty of line work, the creative existential flowering of factory cogs, foundry labor, Cuba, Detroit, Massachusetts..................America. Listen to Ed Ochester in your head:
The Miners at Revloc
Coal has entered their skin. A fine black salt drifts back into their meals. Every day the mills are fed tiny wafers of their flesh.
Gives me chills it does - that the miners have been incorporated into the sacrament of commerce. Many of my favorite poets are in this collection - Edward Hirsch, Philip Levine, Antler, Donald Hall, Jim Daniels - and writers that I don't usually associate with poetry like Gary Soto and Joyce Carol Oates.
And, because 3-25 (1911) is the ghastly anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, I'll type up a small offering from Part 2 of Mary Fell's "The Triangle Fire":
2. Among the Dead
First a lace of smoke decorated the air of the workroom, the far wall unfolded into fire. The elevator shaft spun out flames like a bobbin, the last car sank.
I leaped for the cable, my only chance. Woven steel burned my hands as I wound to the bottom.
I opened my eyes. I was lying in the street. Water and blood washed the cobbles, the sky rained ash. A pair of shoes lay beside me, in them two blistered feet. I saw the weave in the fabric of a girl's good coat, the wilted nosegay pinned to her collar. Not flowers, what I breathed then, awake among the dead.
Clearly, the theme of this anthology is the working lives of human beings, mostly gritty but often (and surprisingly) beautiful and elegant. The collection feels very 1940s, but many of the poems were written in the 70s and 80s. I'm not an expert on the state of the nation, but it seems to me that the country's factories are in the process of winding down, smokestacks are dormant. Poems on sweatshops and picket lines no longer seem so apt, but change the "mill's black heart" to corporate exploitation and you might still identify with the blood loss and suffering of working men and women. Better yet, apply globally and understand that "behind every device of recreation and leisure," "behind every laborsaving device" is a factory slave (Antler)....more
The plot is genius. The Underground Railroad is not simply a metaphor for escaping slaves in covert route to safety, but an actual metal, wood, and ruThe plot is genius. The Underground Railroad is not simply a metaphor for escaping slaves in covert route to safety, but an actual metal, wood, and running operation located beneath the surface of the earth. Up from the deep South and the pathological brutality of the Randall plantation, Cora and Caesar land in South Carolina, which has been re-imagined as a place of safety - but there's something terribly amiss there. I could smell the badness, but the characters seemed blind and deaf to the rottenness that lay beneath the white townsfolk's civility. Here's where it got weird and interesting. What happens in South Carolina in Whitehead's book didn't actually happen until the beginning of the twentieth century (I don't want to be specific and give away a plot detail that surprised me), but I've no doubt that if the racist whites of the North had thought up such a plan to eliminate the "niggers," they'd have certainly done it in pre-Civil War times. I really liked how Colson Whitehead conflates time in his fictional depiction of one woman's journey to escape the abuse, degradation, rape, and slow death of slavery.
The shadow of the slave catcher, Ridgeway, is ever-present. Extremely creepy.
Yet, despite my interest and admiration, the characters left me cold. I'm easily moved - as a general rule - by stories such as this and I did not feel enough for Cora as a human being. The other characters were also not drawn strongly enough. Even the white monsters, the Randalls and Ridgeway, felt just a tad too much like caricatures of plantation owners and slave catchers.
Nevertheless, I thought the book quite good. The story of Cora is juxtaposed again and again with the rationale(s) for American slavery. I particularly liked these lines: On a chilly evening last autumn, the powerful men of North Carolina convened to solve the colored question. Politicians attuned to the shifting complexities of the slavery debate, wealthy farmers who drove the beast of cotton and felt the reins slipping; and the requisite lawyers to fire the soft clay of their schemes into permanence.
Am I wrong or has the raison d'être of America remained unchanged? Money. Profit at any cost, even human decency. The cotton crops benefited more people than merely plantation owners. Even the blacksmiths made out. "The cotton gin meant bigger cotton yields and the iron tools to harvest it, iron horseshoes for the horses tugging the wagons with iron rims and parts that took it to market. More slaves and the iron to hold them. The crop birthed communities, requiring nails and braces for houses, the tools to build the houses, roads to connect them, and more iron to keep it all running."
It very much makes me wish Eli Whitney had never lived....more
Enough has been written about the book's plot that I can safely avoid any in-depth discussion of Nazis, Japs, Jews, Black slaves, and minority whitesEnough has been written about the book's plot that I can safely avoid any in-depth discussion of Nazis, Japs, Jews, Black slaves, and minority whites - but let me say that none of the absurdity or the strange, clipped writing bothered me. I was fascinated the whole way through, despite the fact I had to pay close attention to the interweaving plots and their twists. Certainly, I couldn't keep the Trumpian sales-pitch of lies as authentic truth very far from my mind as certain characters dabbled in the "constant flow of forgeries of pre-war American artifacts" to their Japanese masters. The dependence on the I Ching to make decisions was also quite interesting, at least enough for me to purchase a reasonably priced copy of it. And now..........I can watch the television series with something more than a vague knowledge of its original source....more
I genuinely enjoyed this little book. A brief, occasionally hilarious, sometimes poignant story set in the Northern California of the mid-twentieth ceI genuinely enjoyed this little book. A brief, occasionally hilarious, sometimes poignant story set in the Northern California of the mid-twentieth century. There is not much traditional action. There is Granddaddy Jake - who makes and drinks a whiskey called Death Whisper - and his grandson Tiny. There is a duck. There is a wild boar. There are short philosophical forays regarding stillness and action, fences and openness, then life and death.
The writing is simple....and yet not. Despite the directness of the prose, there is an intuitive depth that I ascribe to exceptional observation of the natural world and the human character. Jim Dodge seems a mix of Mary Oliver and Mark Twain. The animals and the land reverberate with significance, and the wild pig - nicknamed Lockjaw - becomes the enemy of the big-hearted Tiny, a kind of porcine white whale. It's funny that Lockjaw is always rooting in the earth, destroying what he can, while the duck, Fup, has wings but will not fly. I've not quite sussed out what that means.
This was a good story, well told, and I think I'll remember it along with a few beautiful lines that I wrote down for keeps....more
A funny, lonely book about the boyhood of Henry Chinaski (fictional cover of Bukowski himself). It's horrible and compelling, repellent and poignant.A funny, lonely book about the boyhood of Henry Chinaski (fictional cover of Bukowski himself). It's horrible and compelling, repellent and poignant. Swaths of it involve Henry's gross sexual desires and his mean-hearted drinking. Yet, by God, the suffering he stoically endures at the sadistic hands of his father is enough to convince you that Henry's anger and despair is well-earned. His father's failures are visited on the physical body of his son in the form of beatings with a leather strop for the most minuscule of infractions - like missing a "hair" after mowing, edging, and watering the lawn. For good measure, the verbal assaults are nearly as bad, and there's not a single instance of love or affection exchanged between Henry and his father. Some of the language is reminiscent of my own childhood: "stop looking so unhappy or I'll give you something that will really make you unhappy." Childhood days strung together with threats.
After Henry comes down with the most god-awful case of acne in print, he discovers the La Cienega Public Library. While on leave from the high school to cure his boils, he starts reading the books that speak to him and one day he picks up a book by Lawrence. He writes: "It was about a man at a piano. How false it seemed at first. But I kept reading. The man at the piano was troubled. His mind was saying things. Dark and curious things. The lines on the page were pulled tight, like a man screaming, but not 'Joe, where are you?' More like Joe, where is anything? This Lawrence of the tight and bloody line. I had never been told about him. Why the secret? Why wasn't he advertised?"
He reads and reads and reads and I can't help but love him for that, even though he turns everything into an exhausted turd-like philosophy. Once, during the usual unpleasant family dinner, his father, screams out, "he can't work, he can't do anything, he's not worth a fuck!" and Henry remembers "what Ivan had said in The Brothers Karamazov, Who doesn't want to kill the father?" At this point I have to agree with Henry, but taking action would take too much genuine feeling and energy and Henry is exhausted. Numbness follows agony precisely because Henry Chinaski - observant, poetic, virgin, sickened, insecure, and mean - is tired of being crapped on. ...more
This book – a kind of sexual bildungsroman of the young man Leonard Breavman (Leonard Cohen) – is gorgeous and rather appalling simultaneously. To beThis book – a kind of sexual bildungsroman of the young man Leonard Breavman (Leonard Cohen) – is gorgeous and rather appalling simultaneously. To be formally accurate it’s written in the stream-of-consciousness style, but it’s bolder than that. The point of view is third person, but so close to Breavman’s consciousness as to give me the odd effect of perceiving things from two places at once. The images at the onset of the novel required some effort as I read because they leap from the death of Breavman’s father, to his best friend and sounding-board Krantz, to the games they play and stories they tell (often sexual), to his mother’s needling passive aggressiveness, to his first sexual encounters.
The scenes and images miraculously coalesce into a deep understanding of Breavman’s nature. Still in school, he lives an affluent life in a Jewish suburb of Montreal. He is intellectually interesting, attracted to beauty at the linguistic and physical level, and obnoxious in his objectification of women. At one point Breavman learns the art of hypnosis and uses it on Heather, his family’s maid. “She was a husky, good-looking girl of twenty with high-coloured cheeks like a porcelain doll. Breavman chose her for his first victim of sleep. A veritable Canadian peasant.” It works. He handles her naked body, “unbuttons his fly and told her she was holding a stick [. . . ] He was intoxicated with relief, achievement, guilt, experience.” From that point on, Breavman’s sexual obsession with women becomes more profound and - for me - more exhausting.
He begins a relationship with Tamara, who becomes his “mistress” for three years until he turns twenty. The scenes with her are interrupted by episodes with his mother and make for an interesting psychological effect. The sexual repetition got on my nerves but the descriptions are lovely. At one point he leaves Tamara after she falls asleep: “Her body was with him and he let a vision of it argue against his flight. I am running through a snowfall which is her thighs, he dramatized in purple. Her thighs are filling up the street. Wide as a snowfall, heavy as huge falling Zeppelins, her damp thighs are settling on the sharp roofs and wooden balconies. Weather-vanes press the shape of roosters and sail-boats into the skin. The faces of famous statues are preserved like intaglios. . . .” This vision causes him to return, and he quietly lets himself back into the apartment.
Later, “He saw the most beautiful person and pursued her. Shell.” In the third part of the book sexual desire does not abate but it does (finally) deepen, intertwining itself with beauty and spirituality. His comments about Shell still jar - in that they’re constantly objectifying – but his feelings for her are convincingly like love. By the end of the book, I feel the power that women had over Leonard Cohen’s own mind and memories – and the book deepened my appreciation for his song lyrics. I am reminded of his shortest poem from Book of Longing titled “The sweetest little song”: You go your way / I’ll go your way too.”
Not all the stories in this collection worked for me. (I simply could not get through "Seventy-Two Letters"), but on the whole I found the stories intNot all the stories in this collection worked for me. (I simply could not get through "Seventy-Two Letters"), but on the whole I found the stories intellectually interesting and emotionally moving. My favorites were "Hell is the Absence of God" and "Tower of Babylon." Ted Chiang's background as a technical writer for the software industry seems to have influenced the style and tone of his fiction. The stories (and I'm somewhat generalizing the collection here) are flush with scientific, linguistic, and literary allusions - yet the sentences he writes have a terse brevity to them. Perhaps I don't read enough science fiction, but the writing felt unusual, unique. In many of the stories, the scientific world is closely aligned with the magical or divine, and I very much liked that way of looking at the world. ...more
An exceptionally engrossing account of Magellan's (and crew) jaw-dropping feat of circumnavigation in a time where the unknowns were pretty much the oAn exceptionally engrossing account of Magellan's (and crew) jaw-dropping feat of circumnavigation in a time where the unknowns were pretty much the only thing a captain could count on. Just thinking about navigating a vessel prior to gps, satellites, and an understanding of longitude is enough to make me weak....more