Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: "Falsificaciones" by Marco Denevi

Falsificaciones [Falsifications] (1966) 

Marco Denevi (1922-98)











159 pages
Jonah and the Whale 

Jonah harassed the whale, insulted it, provoked it, told it that it fed on small fish but was incapable of devouring a man, called it a herring, a little bream and other offensive epithets. Eventually the whale, fed up with finding itself so vilified, or perhaps to shut-up this madman, swallowed Jonah without causing him the least injury. Once inside the belly of the whale, Jonah began running to and fro. He barked wildly, and punched and kicked the walls of the whale’s stomach. Within a few hours the whale, sick with nausea, vomited Jonah onto the bench. Jonah told everyone that he had spent a year inside the whale; he invented heroic adventures, and declared that the whale was afraid of him. Moral: if you are large and powerful like a whale, and some sort of Jonah defies you, don’t devour him, because you will vomit him transformed into a hero.

Marco Denevi turns the well-known parable of Jonah being swallowed by the whale on its head in his book Falsificaciones (in English: Falsifications), inventing a new version and moral for the ancient parable. In some seven dozen similar vignettes in the book --- running from a few lines to a few pages --- Denevi reaches back to mostly familiar scenes from mythology, literature and the Bible, and bends them to his will, creating idiosyncratic but enchanting alternative explanations for stories we assumed we knew and understood.

Falsifications has a similar structure and feel to Denevi’s book The Garden of Delights: Erotic Myths (in Spanish: El Jardín de las Delicias: Mitos Eróticos; find my review here). Whereas in The Garden of Delights Denevi focused on human struggles and whims in romance and loving, with Falsifications he takes on a broader scope, examining all manner of human foibles. Tales of eros of course have there place in these alternative narratives created by Denevi, but so too do stories of prideful vanity, grasping greed and blind hero-worship. In each case Denevi seems to humanize these old stories, introducing behaviors and motivations that make the original versions of the stories seem quaint and idealized.

In a brilliant several pages of imagination, for example, Denevi creates a story based on a famous old painting by Albrecht Dürer called The Horse, Death, and the Devil. Titled The Dog of Dürer, in reference to a hound that accompanies the knight in the painting, Denevi’s tale skewers jingoism and the supposed joy of battle, and lays bare the awful realities of war. He paints, in words, the future that lies before the returning warrior, forever changed from traumatic experiences incomprehensible to the society which awaits him. The story has a bit of the feel of Twain’s The War Prayer, but from the point of view after the fighting has, for that moment in history at least, concluded. I would argue that it represents as powerful an anti-war statement as can be made.


As with The Garden of Delights, I have unfortunately not found that there exists an English translation of Falsifications. But, if you know a little Spanish, and are willing to work through the book with a Spanish-English dictionary at your side, these stories are well worth the effort.


Other reviews / information:

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review: "The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes"

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554)  

Translated by W.S. Merwin











118 pages

Historical fiction, at its best, can transport readers into a past era in a way that a history book generally can not. When the historical fiction was also written during the time in which it is set, the benefits can be multiplied --- just reading a story written in a distant age provides its own special window into that time.

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, first published in Spain in 1554 by an anonymous author, satisfies on both counts by taking us back to life in mid-16th century Spain through both the story itself, as well as its writing and presentation. The book is apparently considered to be one of the first picaresque novels. (In case you have to look that up, as I did, Merriam-Webster defines it as “a type of fiction dealing with the episodic adventures of a usually roguish protagonist” --- think Huckleberry Finn; picaresque comes from the Spanish word pícaro, which can refer to a ‘crafty devil.’)

Lazaro de Tormes --- Lazarillo being a diminutive of Lazaro --- narrates the story, recounting his life as an itinerant worker in central Spain to someone he refers to as “Your Excellency,” who “has written to ask for a full account”(5) of his life. Lazaro states that he lost his father when he was eight years old, and his mother could eventually no longer support him and so gave him over into the keeping of a blind man who passed through their town. The blind man became Lazaro’s first master, and through his nasty and tight-fisted ways, taught Lazaro harsh lessons about the difficult life of the poor. Even as he suffered under the cruel treatment of the blind man, Lazaro watched him ply his myriad of tricks for defrauding people in town after town; as Lazaro says upon leaving him, “the blind sinner had taught me a great many things.”

After escaping the blind man’s control Lazaro wanders from place to place, finding jobs with masters each more miserly than the last, whether priest or squire, constable or seller of papal indulgences. Each of Lazaro’s masters represents an archetype of Spanish life in the 1500’s, and the anonymous author spares none of them his sharp pen. The novel stands as a scathing critique of clerics more worried about their own pleasure than the lives of their parishioner or the poor, and nobility more concerned about appearances and honor than in doing an honest day’s work.

History books on Spanish describe the disintegration that began in Spain and its economy in the 1500’s after the initial boom time that came from the silver and gold discovered in the New World. Much of these riches from the colonies ended up squandered on religious wars throughout Europe, while a significant part of the rest often found its way into the coffers of the church in Spain. Many people followed that money, entering religious institutions instead of working to earn a living; the Spanish have a disparaging expression for this that translates as these people having entered the contemplative life. The gentlemen class too had little interest in getting their hands dirty working, too busy worrying about protecting their honor. The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes depicts these times in a novel form, and the accuracy of the representation can be judged by how quickly the Inquisition in Spain banned the book after publication.

The story is a short 118 pages, and split into roughly one chapter per master for whom Lazaro works. The author skips any detailed description of the countryside or towns through with Lazaro passes, and also avoids full character development in the story. He focuses instead on describing the basest characteristics associated with various vocations at that time in Spain by representing the selfishness, greed and laziness that Lazaro observes in his string of masters. Clearly meant as a critique of his fellow countrymen in 16th century Spain, the anonymous author brings to us, centuries later, a tiny window into the world of his time.


Other reviews / information:
The cover is a detail from the painting by Francisco de Goya, Pilgrimage to San Isidoro.

This book is part of a wonderful series published by NYRB: New York Review Books.



Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book Review: "Dust" by Hugh Howey

Dust (2013)  

Hugh Howey (1975)











458 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the third book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the earlier books, Wool and Shift.  So, if you haven't read the first book, Wool, I suggest you jump back to my review here; if you haven't read the second book, Shift, I suggest you jump back to my review here.]

In his science fiction novel Wool (my review here), Hugh Howey launched readers on a wild ride through a wonderfully imagined, if horribly deformed, world: a silo that, rather than rising up to the sky, lies instead buried in the earth. Extending deep underground, the silo houses a community the size of a large town. Afraid of the poisoned landscape they can see only through cameras mounted on the surface, the people of the silo live, work, give birth and die all within their concrete home, the only world they know; curiosity about the outside and the silo’s past have become this society’s most fundamental taboos. For some, however, the desire to understand what guides their existence and what remains hidden from their view overcomes these prohibitions, with dangerous consequences for themselves and the stability of their community’s world. Howey’s sequel, Shift (my review here), continues the story, reaching back into the past to events leading up to the creation of this dystopia, even as the struggles in the silo’s present spin out of control.

The third book in the series, Dust, has now been released. Bringing together the threads begun in the first two books, Howey continues the thrilling pace in this sequel, the tension building with every page. In Dust the struggles of the characters in the first two books evolve into an escalating fight for survival, as opposing viewpoints on how this artificially created world should move forward become locked in a life-or-death struggle; decisions about the community’s future quite literally become the ultimate ‘game of life’. Ironically, even as the tension rises over the course of the three books, the focus of events moves down the silo, deep into the earth. It is those in the community most distant and disconnected from the surface who must lead the way back there.

As in the first two novels, though we come to know some of the history and motivations of a few of the main characters, the trilogy is not built around deep character development. Howey’s focus in Dust remains on the broader psychological aspects of the situation and its effects on this community living underground in their circumscribed home. How have these people, so seemingly similar to us in how they go about their daily lives, managed to adapt to what would seem to be from our perspective an inhuman situation? And even more critically, how will they adjust to the sudden revelations about their world, revelations that will shake the foundations of their beliefs and understanding?

This third book provides a satisfying conclusion to the series, an entertaining resolution to the taut story line that was created for the reader from the first pages of Wool. And though Howey seems to point at Dust as being the conclusion of this story, giving it the subtitle “Every Beginning Has An End,” the final pages of Dust create a new kind of beginning --- so we may yet find that three books are not the upper limit of this trilogy.


Other reviews / information:
 
(Mild Spoiler Alert:)
It’s difficult, particularly in a science fiction novel, to have everything ‘add-up’, to seem completely logical, and Howey generally does a fine job of that in these stories. One thing surprised me however: at the end of Dust, when those who have escaped their silo gather outside, and beyond the dead zone round the silos, they discuss where to go next, and there is no mention of the sky scrapers (of Atlanta) that they have seen and wondered at through the cameras of the silos. Even if it’s clear they wouldn’t want to settle in a destroyed city, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t be intensely curious about it, and at least go for a look…

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Book Review: "1493" from Charles Mann

1493 (2011)  

Charles Mann (1955)










690 pages

Two hundred and fifty million years ago the world contained a single landmass known to scientists as Pangaea. Geological forces broke up this vast expanse, splitting Eurasia and the Americas. Over [millennia] the two divided halves of Pangaea developed wildly different suites of plants and animals. … After [Cristobal Col´o;n’s voyage in] 1492 the world’s ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of spices to new homes across the oceans. (7) 
With these lines near the beginning of 1493, author Charles Mann sets the stage for a fascinating exploration of the dramatic, far-reaching and largely unforeseen changes that occurred in the time after this sudden linking of the world’s hemispheres, an era he calls the Homogenocene, a period --- still on-going --- of global homogenization of economics, ecology and humanity. As in his earlier work, 1491, which described the American continents and their inhabitants before Col´o;n first reached the New World, Mann enlivens his history by bringing in anecdotes and stories from the diaries, journals and books of individuals who experienced the many upheavals that came with the interconnecting of the continents. Thus he personalizes for the reader what might otherwise have become just a forced march through a series of dry historical events and facts; in this way we don’t just learn about the changes that occurred, we also experience a bit of the awe, and the trauma, of those who lived through them.

In 1491 Mann naturally focused mainly on the Indian societies of the Americas, communities that from a European, Asian or African perspective may as well have been located on another planet before 1492. In 1493, by contrast, the world abruptly contracts as Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas become linked together through a frenetic movement of people and goods, as well as plants and animals, across the globe. There is a delicious irony in the fact that although Col´o;n solicited funds for his proposed expedition based on a significant underestimate of the size of the globe, and the world was actually much larger than he claimed, in the end he did indeed take a major step in effectively shrinking it for mankind. The subsequent speed with which settlements in the Americas multiplied and expanded in the 1500’s seems astounding today, knowing that Col´o;n first reached the Americas in 1492 and that at the time a single crossing of the Atlantic took over a month to complete.

Mann opens the book by introducing the two key ocean crossings that established the links leading to our modern, interconnected world. The first, of course, led to Col´o;n making landfall on what he called Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean. The second expedition, some 65 years later, crossed the Pacific Ocean, as Miguel L´o;pez de Legazpi and Andr´e;s Ochoa de Urdaneta y Cerain made landfall in the Philippines and established the modern city of Manila (after leveling an exiting village whose ruler refused to make way for the Spaniards); though they were not the first to make the east to west crossing of the Pacific, it was Legazpi’s group who established contact and began trading via the Pacific route with the Chinese, whose junkets had long been coming yearly to the Philippines to sell their goods. As Mann summarizes: “[A] way to state their accomplishment would be to say that Legazpi and Urdaneta were to economics what Col´o;n was to ecology: the origin, however inadvertent, of a great unification.” (24)

Having established how the world was linked together by these two daring voyages, Mann goes on to explore the impacts of this new reality on societies around the globe, impacts that have continued to our current time. Instead of telling his story chronologically, Mann splits the book into geographic sections. He begins by describing the connections across the Atlantic, and the establishment of the early settlements in the Americas, which initiated a significant ecological exchange between the Old World and the New. The intentional transfer of particular plants and animals in both directions across the Atlantic had lasting economic and human impacts in the Americas and Europe, as did the unintended introduction of other organisms, including devastating diseases. Malaria and yellow fever, for example, arrived in the New World, and proved to be as deadly to the Indians as to Europeans; but West Africans showed a significantly higher resistance to these diseases, which increased their worth as slaves, with all the devastating consequences that implies.

From the Atlantic Mann moves in the next section to the Pacific, and the trade routes formed between Asia, the Americas and Europe. He describes the transformations in Chinese society that resulted from the sudden dramatic expansion of trade with Europe; new markets opened for Chinese goods, leading to new industries for Chinese workers, while the introduction of previously unknown crops fundamentally altered Chinese agriculture and diet. In this section he also examines the discovery and subsequent large-scale mining of sliver lodes in South America, and the key role that this silver played in growing European trade with the Chinese.

The third section highlights the impact on societies around the world of new forms of intensive agriculture developed to meet growing demands of especially the European market. As one example, he looks in detail at the nearly complete transition in 18th century Ireland to potatoes as a food crop, and the deadly consequences in the 19th century, when the large, monoculture fields of potatoes became an easy target for potato blight, which arrived in Europe from the New World via the same trading routes that had earlier brought the potato. As a second example, Mann examines the discovery of rubber by Europeans in the Brazil, and the subsequent development of a processing technique that led to vulcanized rubber becoming a critical part of so many products of the industrial revolution. He describes how the ever increasing demand for rubber drove the creation of large scale plantations of rubber trees in many parts of the world, and warns of the risk that threatens our modern world if a particular spore that has already destroyed vast spreads of rubber trees in Brazil crosses the ocean to the plantations of south-east Asia.

Finally Mann turns to the human side of the Homogenocene. The Americas became a “crazy soup,” as he calls it, of people from around the world. Europeans, Asians and, involuntarily, millions of African slaves arrived in the New World, joining those (few) Indians in the hemisphere who survived the many introduced diseases that burned through their communities. The western hemisphere became the first melting pot, in which these groups intermingled, culturally and genetically. Mann also dedicates a significant portion of this final section to the groups of African slaves who escaped their masters and then fought to maintain their freedom, in many cases succeeding in establishing independent communities that lasted for decades and even centuries, a fascinating history that I had heard little about before now.

Although the focus varies from one section of the book to the next, the fundamental story remains the same: increasing economic, ecological and human exchanges between far-flung societies led to consequences that were generally unplanned, and often unexpected and uncontrollable. In each region of the world that Mann examines, societies realized positive developments from the exchange that developed after 1493; but often too they experienced what could in modern times be referred to by the term blowback: the unintended consequences of policies that initially seem beneficial. The rewards and risks of the Homogenocene that Mann recounts from four and five centuries ago resonate even into modern times in the concerns we hear and read about in the daily news.

Among the clearest examples of the unintended consequences of the Homogenocene are found in the intentional transfer of plants from the Americas to the rest of the world. In particular, maize, potatoes and sweet potatoes --- domesticated in the Americas --- were exported and became important crops elsewhere in the world in the years after 1493. Able to be grown on relatively marginal land, and providing more nutritional value per acre than many other crops, these plants quickly spread to Asia and Europe, becoming in a short period dietary staples in regions that had never known them before. The advantages were obvious as populations boomed in these new areas of cultivation as a result of the increased caloric and nutritional yield. Only later came the downsides: Mann describes, for example, how potatoes became the main food for a majority of the Irish in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, and due to both the ease in growing them and their nutritional advantages, led to a significant increase in population. Then, without warning, the same trade routes that originally brought the potato from the new world in the 1500’s brought the potato blight, a disease which in the span of a few months in 1845 laid waste to Europe’s potato fields. In Ireland the effects were particularly devastating, given the significant part of the population that subsisted on potatoes; Mann points out that due to the famine caused deaths and emigration, Ireland’s modern day population remains less than it was in the mid-1800’s.

China too benefited --- and suffered --- from the plants it adopted from the new world, principally maize and sweet potatoes. Able to significantly expand agriculture with these crops into what had before been marginal, unused land, the population rose quickly. The planting of these crops continued to spread into ever more marginal land, to sustain on-going population growth. The newly planted areas, however, could often only sustain being cultivated for a few years before becoming unusable and pushing farmers to clear further new lands. As more and more of the countryside was stripped of its traditional, permanent ground-cover, a significant increase in the number of destructive floods began occurring, causing crop loss even in traditional agricultural areas, and leading to repeated periods of deadly famine, in a cycle that continued into the 20th century.

What can be most disturbing about Mann’s accounts of these and other effects of the Homogenocene is the seeming inevitability of events. In the case of the famines described above, societies had simply found a better, more stable food source for their people, and so naturally had taken advantage of it. In so doing, however, they had planted the seeds, literally, for future disasters they could not imagine.

An even more disturbing example of this in Mann’s book, the rapid expansion of plantation slavery in the years after 1493, seems saturated with the sense of unplanned inevitability. He explains how the roots of this brutal regime extended back to before Col´o;n’s first voyage, slavery having existed for many centuries, while large plantations of cash crops had begun to develop in the century or so before his trip. But the European’s discovery of the Americas opened an entire hemisphere to the creation of these plantation-oriented crops, particularly sugar and tobacco. With the dramatic increase in the need for labor, and the rapid spread of malaria and yellow fever from Africa into the New World, came a seemingly exponential rise in the Atlantic slave trade in the decades and centuries after 1493. As with the famines and other negative consequences of introduced New World plants, no one had specifically planned for this development.

Although Mann does not explicitly state this in his book, I find it difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion after reading it that the extractive and exploitive nature of the colonization that developed after 1493 was deeply tied to an inherently Western European view of the world during that era. When the Europeans came to the lands of the Americas, they seem to have primarily viewed it as a kind of bank, from which, by virtue of their having forcibly taken ownership of it, they could extract funds from it however they wished. (I am leaving aside the parallel interest of the church in converting the Indians to Christianity.) Especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans seem to have traveled to the Americas not to establish a new home, but rather in search of opportunities for making money --- and since it was not their home, in the most personal sense, it was as if they were under no constraints to operate as they might have done, or been legally and culturally forced to, in their home countries.

Aside from the mining of silver, which came primarily from what is modern day Bolivia and was shipped either to China to buy goods or to Europe to fund religious wars, a major focus for Europeans in the first centuries after 1493 was on growing tobacco, a crop discovered in the Americas, and sugarcane, a crop Europeans had only known as a very rare spice before the Crusades. To demonstrate the conclusion I mention above, I’ll pull in what follows from Mann’s detailed account of the spread of sugarcane plantations into the New World.

Mann points out that once sugar from the newly conquered Islamic plantations in the Middle East became more readily available in Europe, it became impossible to keep up with demand, and European sugar producers desperately sought out more regions in which to cultivate this crop that grows in warm, wet climates. According to Mann, growing and processing sugarcane is extremely unpleasant work, and he quotes studies that have shown that “Islamic sugar plantations kept their workers by paying relatively high wages. European-owned plantations initially followed the same strategy … [but] over the course of time Europe’s sugar producers reconsidered,” (373) a decision that would have far-reaching consequences.

Eventually running out of suitable regions for growing sugarcane in the Mediterranean, Europeans began looking farther a field in the early 1400’s, in particular to islands off of the Atlantic coast of Africa. On these islands the sugar producers created what would be recognized today as plantations --- turning entire islands into giant farm estates. By the middle to late 1400’s, sugar prices had fallen as production grew, and so to keep up profits the producers had to further increase the harvest while reducing costs: “With little evident reflection, some colonists made a fateful decision: they bought slaves.” (375) As the plantations spread to islands closer to the equator, the Europeans came into contact with malaria and yellow fever, which led to an extremely high death rate among both Europeans and many of their European and North African slaves … only the West African slaves seemed to have a much higher resistance to those diseases. Thus, those plantation owners who bought West African slaves were at an economic advantage: “The world of plantation slavery was coming, terribly, into existence.” (377)

With the discovery of the Americas, European sugar producers suddenly had a vast new expanse into which to spread their plantations. Of course, malaria and yellow fever traveled with them on the ships that crossed the Atlantic, and when Europeans tried to enslave the local Indians to work on the plantations, they found them extremely susceptible to these and other diseases, and so the plantation owners reached again for the labor force they knew already would more likely survive: West African slaves. The Atlantic slave trade quickly developed into a booming business, which would eventually bring millions of Africans across the Atlantic against their will, as first sugar plantations spread from the Caribbean down into Brazil, and not many years later tobacco plantations sprang up throughout the Americas.

Slavery, which had existed in Europe for centuries, took on an unrecognizable and much more brutal form in the New World, a form that would never have been acceptable in the home countries of most if not all of these plantation owners. In the New World during the first centuries after Col´o;n, whether in the silver mines or on the plantations, life was driven by economic forces with little or no serious thought for any other consideration. Thus was established an early view of the Americas as little more than gigantically larger versions of the early, uninhabited plantation islands along the African coast, that is, as lands that could be monetized in whatever way the colonizing Europeans wished. When independent countries developed in the Americas some centuries later, this terrible legacy of their birth would haunt their every step, and in many ways still does today.

As I mentioned above, Mann himself does not explicitly draw this conclusion in 1493; what he does make clear, however, are the dramatic and transformative effects on societies world-wide that resulted from Col´o;n’s expedition in search of an Atlantic trading route to Asia. In an engaging narrative that both spans the globe and ranges across the centuries since 1492, Mann reviews the latest understandings of the economic, biological and human exchange that has occurred.

Other reviews / information:
Interview with Charles Mann at Discover Magazine.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book Review: "Inverted World" by Christopher Priest

Inverted World (1974)  

Christopher Priest (1943)











322 pages

In the science fiction novel Inverted World by Christopher Priest, a city is gradually, moved across the landscape by its residents as they strive to keep it near a point referred to as the “optimum.” For the people of the city, the meaning of the optimum has been lost over many generations, and some are only dimly aware that it even exists or that the city must continue to stay close to its location. The responsibility for the critical task of moving the city onward falls to the members of a system of guilds.

A deeply secretive organization, the origins and even day-to-day function of the half-dozen or so guilds remain as hazy to the rest of the city’s residents as does the understanding of the optimum itself. Like the optimum, the guilds’ origins are shrouded in mystery, having been established in the city’s distant past. To ensure that the focus remains on the all important goal of keeping the city close to the optimum, the guilds have developed into a deeply entrenched political and social structure, responsible both for moving the city and for governing it.

As the novel opens the main character in the story, Helward Mann, comes of age and enters into an apprenticeship that will prepare him for a position in the same guild as his father. He begins this new phase of his life with a basic education, but only a most limited understanding of what the guilds do. The guildsmen perform most of their work outside the city, and only guildsmen are allowed out of the city, so the other residents remain largely unaware of what they do.

Helward must work through a series of assignments in each of the guilds before becoming a full-fledged guildsman. Once he takes up his work as an apprentice, he begins to slowly learn about and understand the reality of the city’s precarious existence, as well as the role of the guilds and the reasoning behind their seemingly dogmatic rules. As have apprentices for generations before him, he must experience first-hand the situation outside the city walls, in order to fully grasp the importance of the guild’s work.

Throughout his process of learning, however, he constantly struggles to square the preconceived notions he has carried over from his education and his life constrained within the city with the surprising reality he finds on the outside. What he cannot know as he works through his questions and doubts about the almost incomprehensible world he has been exposed to is that the future of the city is about to change in ways that will shake the foundations of all he has learned.

Built around the simple, single focus of the relentless need for the city to move forward, Priest has constructed in Inverted World an exciting story of adventure and discovery for Helward and for us the reader. With Helward as our narrator we develop our understanding about the strange world of this novel as he does, and we are limited as he is by the ways in which his preconceived notions and expectations color what he sees and experiences. Fascinating too is the social structure that Priest creates in the novel, and watching Helward deepen his understanding of it and of his place in it, his eyes finally opened by the broader base of knowledge he has as part of the guild system.

Our only advantage over Helward are the occasional facts that he mentions, but takes for granted, and that seem like they must be typo’s or mistakes by the author; but even these only leave us as readers in little better position than our narrator, uncertain whether to believe appearances. And when the whole becomes clear toward the end of the story, it comes as almost as startling a revelation for us as it does for Helward.

Other reviews / information: This is yet another wonderful book I have discovered through the series published by the New York Review Books (NYRB), which has searched out and re-published excellent fiction and non-fiction that had somehow slipped out of circulation.

The book includes an Afterword by John Clute that puts Priest’s novel in the context of his life and other work.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Friday, October 25, 2013

Book Review: "Children of the Days" by Eduardo Galeano

Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2013) 

Eduardo Galeano (1940)


Translated by Mark Fried










 423 pages


When we look back over the broad sweep of history, we can easily be left with the impression of a fast moving river: some occasional surface features --- an important general here or a prominent king there --- but mostly it’s wide and deep, with individuals lost in the jumbled flow of humanity. How different from the very recent history we have actually lived, in which particular people, beyond just the famous and powerful, stand out for us as we follow the daily news of the world. It may not be many, but we come to know about people who fight for what they feel is right and just often against losing odds, others who seem blind to the irrationality of their behavior, and generally a whole assortment of characters from the wonderful to the odd. Surely there were also such people in the past, people who were not presidents or generals or leaders of powerful movements, but who stood out in some way, positively or negatively, if only for a brief moment in time?

In his book Children of the Days, Eduardo Galeano introduces us to some of these people, pulling from our collective history, traveling from the earliest days of human existence in Africa to the first moon landing. Written as a series of calendar entries, from 1 January through to 31 December, Galeano captures a brief recollection of a person or event, writing sometimes just a few lines, never more than a page. Many of the entries are tied to the day under which they appear, though not all. Occasionally a few entries form a sequence of related history or context over two or sometimes three days, but for the most part these sketches are independent, one from the next, jumping far and wide in time and geographical location.

Focusing generally on the less famous, those lost to the dark corners of history, Galeano recalls the courageous and brave, who stood up and fought back against injustice and inequality, and too the nefarious and conniving, who deceived and exploited the gullible or powerless.

So, for the example the story of Juana Manso, who in the 1800’s worked to expand the reach of education in Argentina and Uruguay:
June 30
A NUISANCE IS BORN
Today in 1819 Juana Manso was baptized in Buenos Aires.
The holy waters were to set her on the path to meekness, but Juana Manso was never meek.
Bucking wind and tide she founded secular schools in Argentina and Uruguay where girls and boys studied together, religion was not a required course and corporal punishment was banned.
She wrote the first textbook on Argentine history plus several other works, among them a novel that derided the hypocrisy of married life.
She founded the first public library in the country’s interior.
She got divorced when divorce did not exist.
The Buenos Aires papers took great pleasure in mocking her.
When she died, the Church refused her a tomb.

Or, in the following century, a man who dedicated his life instead to intentionally miseducating the public:
April 2
MANUFACTURING PUBLIC OPINION
In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would enter World War I.
Four and a half years earlier, Wilson had been elected as the peace candidate.
Public opinion embraced with the same enthusiasm his pacifist speeches and his declaration of war.
Edward Bernays was the principal author of this miracle.
When the war was over, Bernays acknowledged that he had used doctored photographs and made-up anecdotes to spark pro-war sentiment.
This public relations success kicked off a brilliant career.
Bernays went on to advise several presidents and the world’s most powerful businessmen.
Reality is not what it is; it’s what I tell you it is. We can thank him, more than anyone else, for the modern techniques of mass manipulation that can convince people to by anything from a brand of soap to a war.

And the entries are not always tied to a specific person; witness the one for 12th April, which highlights the apparently timeless ability of people to rationalize their behavior in ways that seem blatantly contradictory to their own professed philosophies:
April 12
MANUFACTURING THE GUILTY PARTY
On a day like today in the year 33 --- a day earlier, a day later --- Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross.
His judges had found him guilty of “inciting idolatry, blasphemy and abominable superstition.”
Not many centuries later, the Indians of the Americas and the heretics of Europe were found guilty of those same crimes --- exactly the same ones --- and in the name of Jesus of Nazareth they were punished by lash, gallows, or fire.

The 365 histories in the book vary from what may be only apocryphal stories to factual and documented histories, but the absolute truth is hardly the point here. In these wonderfully captured sketches Galeano reminds us of the depth and variety of humanity, and the on-going struggle for what is right and good that people have fought and won, and lost, and won again --- or sometimes not --- throughout history.


Other reviews / information:

Galeano follows a similar style, if not tied to days and more chronologically sequential, in his three volume Memory of Fire series on the discovery and development of Latin America, of which I have so far read the first book, Genesis.


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Review: "Robopocalypse" by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse (2011)  

Daniel H. Wilson (1978)











397 pages

After watching a horror movie does your imagination go into overdrive? Do you find yourself spooked and jumpy when in a dark room or looking out the window into the dark night, certain something’s there, and repeating to yourself, unconvincingly, that ‘there is nothing there in the dark that’s not there in the light’? If so, you’ll want to be careful reading Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson: you may find yourself tossing your home computer out with the trash, and ripping the microprocessors out of any “smart” appliances in your house.

The title gets right to the heart of the story, an world-wide battle between humans and robots. The story opens with the war already over, humans having defeated the robots after several years of unimaginably destructive fighting. From this starting point, Wilson returns us to a year or so before the apocalypse occurs, when a scientist at a research facility creates an artificial intelligence named Archos that manages to escape the tight controls of the lab. Once out onto the web, Archos begins carefully preparing his (its?) attack, infiltrating intelligent systems that have, in this near-future world, penetrated most areas of society. All cars have been mandated to be “smart” vehicles that can communicate with one another to increase passenger safety, and humanoid and non-humanoid robots have been designed and produced that have become ubiquitous in homes and work places to simplify our lives. When Archos reprograms these machines with evil intent, and then unleashes them on their former masters, people find themselves ill prepared to fight back.

The novel is split into five sections, covering first the lead up to the robot attack, then the moment they launch their attack, the initial human struggle for survival, the galvanizing of a human resistance and finally the fight to regain control of the world from the robots. Wilson divides each section into a set of what could best be called ‘dispatches’ --- brief 5-20 page chapters, each covering a particular moment or incident in this ‘history’ of the robot apocalypse. These dispatches are centered around 5 or 6 groups of people, in different parts of the world, who gradually coalesce into a loosely connected movement that turns the tide in the war.

Wilson’s technique takes some getting used to for a reader. It’s a bit like summarizing three seasons worth of episodes of a TV show (thing Lost, for example) by taking a key ten minute clip from each show: if you pick the right ten minute segments, the story could still be complete, but it would lose a lot of character development and smoothness. Exactly that occurs here, as we never spend enough time with any of the characters, even the narrator, to build up a connection to them, to care much about them.

But the story is an entertaining ride, not unlike a roller coaster with lots of dips, rolls and twists. Wilson, who has a degree in robotics, brings such a realistic feel to the simple yet deadly capabilities of the robots that it will leave you looking sideways at your computer, with its little camera eye staring out at you, and its microphone listening to your every word…


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Book Review: "The Infatuations" by Javier Marías

The Infatuations (2013)  

Javier Marías (1951)

(translated by Margaret Jull Costa) 











346 pages
“…it’s so easy to introduce doubt into someone’s mind.” 
This reflection comes in the final pages of Javier Marías’ novel The Infatuations, but captures a notion that runs through the story: we cannot know the whole truth of an event, and so can easily be swayed to question what we think we know about it. Moreover, each new explanation we receive can often, instead of increasing our understanding, leave us only more uncertain.

The Infatuations takes place in Madrid, where María Dolz works at a publishing firm. María narrates the story, and opens by recalling a couple who she has seen for several years in a café at which she stops each morning before going to work. Despite never having approached or spoken with them, she has developed an attraction to the couple --- finding the husband handsome and the wife pretty, and the two apparently very much in love with one another. At times she sees their kids join them, before the father drives them off to school, and she begins to imagine the couple’s seemingly happy life together. Struggling at work with the various literary oddballs her firm publishes, she finds that these few minutes she vicariously spends with her ‘Perfect Couple’ each morning make her workday more bearable.

At one point the couple don’t show up for a few weeks she quickly begins to miss them, hoping they will come back soon to brighten her mornings. When weeks stretch into months she begins to wonder what has happened, fearing that their lives have taken on a different daily routine or that they have moved elsewhere. What she finally discovers is much more shocking: the husband was killed in a seemingly random act of violence by a street person in one of the better neighborhoods of Madrid. Some months later she sees the wife again at the café, somber and distracted, sitting either alone or sometimes with a male friend who ends up driving her kids off to school. Awkwardly, as they had never spoken before, María approaches the woman one day in the café to introduce herself and offer her condolences, only to learn that the woman and her husband had actually also noticed her, and had had a nickname for her: “The Prudent Young Woman.” What begins as a brief meeting to offer her sympathy ends up involving María in the mystery of the man’s murder; though the truth of the event must exist, she struggles to turn what she learns into a coherent explanation, as she finds herself mixing together her incomplete information with her assumptions about people’s motivations and rationalizations, including her own. We the reader are left in the same position, reliant as we are on María as our narrator.

By not providing us with “the truth,” by allowing us only into the thoughts of one character in the story, Marías leads us into a situation we encounter regularly in our every day lives: striving to make sense of what happens around us without having all the facts, never quite knowing whether we can fully believe what others tell us, wondering about their motivations and our own biases. We know that we ourselves rationalize, that we ourselves block out unpleasant or uncomfortable facts from our own thoughts, so we cannot help but realize that others do this too.

The actual physical action in the story could probably be boiled down into a few dozen pages at most. The real drama here, aside from the slowly revealed back story behind the murder, lies not in the physical action, but in María’s thoughts as she tries to interpret what she sees and hears, to make a plausible story out of it to satisfy her curiosity. For pages at a time we follow her thoughts as she imagines first one logical sequence of events or inner motivation of another character based on what she has heard, and then suddenly adapts it as she sees a new reaction or hears a new explanation. And we readers too cannot help but also interpret what we “hear” and “see” even if it is through María, as we try to divine for ourselves what has happened.

Woven into the plot --- as a kind of bonus that enhances the story and yet can also stand alone --- are Marías’ spot on revelations about our human condition. Some of these startle us to read because though we recognize immediately the fundamental truth, we find that we have never had it so precisely crystallized. Others, more pointedly, confront us with truths that had never occurred to us before, because, we are forced to realize, we have not allowed ourselves the honesty to actually think them consciously. Marías brings this wonderful engagement with his readers’ lives and thoughts to all of his novels that I have read, and it is in part this ability and technique that draws me so strongly to his work.

Take care if read you Marías’ novels: you may suddenly find the fog blown away from your fuzzy rationalizations and hazy motivations, and encounter realizations that challenge your thoughts and beliefs.

Read quotes from this and other books by Javier Marías

Other reviews / information:

Other works I have read by Marías, though I read all but one before I began this blog of reviews:
  • While the Women are Sleeping: A collection of short stories.
  • When I was Mortal: A collection of short stories.
  • A Heart so White: A novel of a man who upon getting married reconsiders his past.
  • Dark Back of Time: A novel written as a kind of imagined biography; a study of human nature that will pull you in deeply and force you to consider ideas and fears you had tried to leave buried in your subconscious. 
 You can find quotes from these works here.
 

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
A Natural History in Four Meals  (2006)

Michael Pollan (1955)











451 pages

Read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma at your own risk: you might learn more than you want to know about our food supply, and it may make the otherwise simple trip to the grocery store much more complicated for you.

In the title, Pollan refers to the fact that while most animals rely on a single food source or a limited number of foods, humans are omnivores; we can pick and choose from anything edible that we encounter; thus our dilemma, as we select among a range of foods, from the healthiest to the least so. This “anxiety” over what to eat has had far-reaching impacts, beyond one specific person’s diet choices. It has created an agricultural system in which an ever expanding variety of foods are created and provided for us to choose from. And this same agricultural system also dedicates significant resources to creating and disseminating large amounts of information, to assist --- or bias --- us in our daily selection of foods, information that can be driven by scientific, marketing and political motivations, and which often leads to confusing and contradictory conclusions.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Pollan structures his story around four meals. Each section traces the history of a set of foods, to the point at which they become a meal for him. The four meals include a fast food dinner, eaten for good measure in a moving car; an “organic” meal from his local Whole Foods supermarket; a second “organic” meal from a locally focused farm operation in Virginia; and finally a meal from food that he has foraged and hunted for himself.

The first section, which culminates in the fast food meal, deals primarily with corn and its impact on our diet and on our agricultural system. Pollan describes the shocking ubiquity of corn (or more properly, corn-derived-products) in the modern day food system. He covers the history and biology of the corn plant, the codependency between corn and humans that has developed, and the farm policies that we have supported that have driven up corn production while maintaining low corn prices. He describes how this abundance of corn has consequently led to the creation of a myriad of uses for corn, as it is broken down into its constituent parts and then reassembled into all manner of food and non-food products. Finally, he highlights the key role corn has played in the now nearly complete transition to industrial-scale farms dedicated to a single or at most pair of crops, or to raising a single species of animal.

Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s), often referred to as feedlots or animal factory farms, have developed largely as a result of federal policies that have encouraged increased corn production. These policies have led to a dramatic growth in the amount of corn produced by subsidizing farmers to grow corn --- including paying them the difference when the market price is too low, creating a glut of corn on the market, and thus holding corn prices low. This mass of available, low-priced corn has essentially demanded that our agricultural system find more and more uses for it. One such new use has been as animal feed, for cows and chickens, despite the fact that corn is not part of their natural diets. Pollan outlines how cows, for example, need to be fed significant amounts of antibiotics in order to ward off the illnesses that come directly from the fact that they are not adapted to eating corn. By concentrating so may animals in such a small place, corn having replaced open-pasture feeding, the CAFO’s also end up with huge lagoons of animal manure and urine, concentrated into a small area, and laced with the antibiotics and hormones fed to the animals.

And on the other side of the corn equation, most of this corn now being grown comes largely from industrial sized fields of corn, fields that look lush and green, but are unnatural monocultures --- essentially a bio-wasteland from an ecological point of view, inhospitable to most types of wild animals. These monoculture farms, no longer also raising cattle, must turn to artificial fertilizers for their crops; artificial fertilizers whose production is heavily dependent on petroleum.

Pollan’s detailed discussion on the large-scale industrialization that has developed in the areas of food production and processing can be summarized by a quote from another author, Colin Tudge, in his book The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact: “... the agricultural systems of the [modern] world are not actually designed to feed people.” The food industry has become like any other, a source of profit for investing corporations. That the competition inherent in such a set-up may have brought with it significant and important advances does not alter the fact that there is a dark side to treating the generation of food, whether animal or vegetable, as a profit focused activity.

In the next section of the book, Pollan looks at organic food, following its development from the initial, very small-scale farms created by idealistic young people in the 1960’s and early 70’s, to its almost inevitable industrialization, as large companies discovered a new market to exploit. That path is hardly surprising given the big corporation-driven development of food in general that Pollan describes throughout the book, but it is all the more dismaying in the area of organic food, whose initial growth came specifically from the desire for a new, healthier and sustainable alternative to food production.

Pollan shows how organic products have become a commodity, and so, in the drive to lower cost and maximize profit, have inevitably lost at least some of what made them special and desirable in the first place. As in other parts of the book, he does not shy away from the fact that there are not easy answers: is making organic foods more prevalent and available worth the loss of some of the advantages that existed when they were grown in a small scale environment? Pollan doesn’t settle on an easy answer, because there isn’t one. He leaves it to us, his readers, to carry on the investigation he has begun for us in the book.

The “organic” section also covers the inevitable backlash among farmers who try to develop sustainable farms outside the standard, corporate market place. By their very nature a loosely connected group, these farmers form a kind of guerrilla action, fighting the industrialized organic companies on a vast number of individual fronts. At the same time they must struggle against government policies that are prejudice against them, often intentionally due to the lobbying efforts of the large producers. Pollan demonstrates too, using as an example a particular farm that he visits and works on for a week, that the farmers in this movement are often not simply calling for a simple “back to nature” drive; instead they investigate and develop new approaches to optimize the use of their land and make their farms more successful, methods that compliment and extend ancient techniques.

Tying together what he learns about the industrial-sized farms of crops or animals, and the smaller scale mixed use farm which, like most farms up until a half a century ago or so, raise both crops and animals, Pollan comes to sudden realization: the move to industrial-sized, monoculture farming has broken in a fundamental way the natural synergies which exist on small-scale, mixed product farms. Just as one example, he reminds us that a mixed product farm is naturally self-sufficient: the animals provide fertilizer for the crops; the crops provide food for the animals. On an industrial-scale monoculture farm on the other hand, there are no animals to provide fertilizer, and so artificial fertilizer must be purchased. Similarly, on a CAFO the animal wastes have no where to be used, and so must be stored in huge lagoons near the animals; in reality the waste in these lagoons is not usable for fertilizer anyway, because it is a toxic brew containing the antibiotics and hormones fed to the animals. And these are only two of the natural connections now broken by an unnatural agricultural system.

While the sections on fast food and organic food are each impactful in their own way, the last section of Pollan’s book is perhaps the most dramatic. In this section he goes back to the original human lifestyle: hunter-gatherer. He talks about the challenges of forging for mushrooms without poisoning himself, but also of learning to shoot a gun and hunt, having come from a background in which he had no connection to guns or hunting. His experience of hunting and killing a wild hog --- the thrill of the chase and the kill, and the reflection later on about what he has done --- leads him to consider the ethics of eating animals at all. His does not argue this discussion from a preset point of view, content rather to describe how his thinking evolved on the issue, and the complexity of its various aspects. The psychological drama of having the most basic and fundamental possible relationship with his food source when he finally sits down to eat this last of the four meals makes for compelling reading, especially for anyone who shares his background as a non-hunter.

Pollan has written an engaging and fascinating review of our food and agricultural systems, and their impact on both our diet and our environment. While recognizing that these changes have brought us cheaper food and a greater variety of available foods, he also shows the less visible but equally dramatic effects the changes have had: significant petroleum resources going to the production of artificial fertilizers, disturbingly harsh lives for animals raised on industrial feedlots in terms of animal diet and living conditions, pollution of the environment from the toxic waste coming off such animal feedlots, and the dietary impact of the new foods being developed, for example the use of corn syrup as a sweetening agent in so many foods. He acknowledges that easy answers do not exist for many of these questions, but he encourages us to at least become more aware of where our food comes from, to understand the full impact of modern day agriculture and to begin to look at alternative methods of growing food and raising animals that may provide solutions to some of the worst of the impacts of our modern day food systems.

Read quotes from this book

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On a related topic: I've read Eric Schlosser's <u>Fast Food Nation</u> (2001), which is another wonderful, if also scary, look at the food industry, focused on the dietary aspect and its affect on our health.

In a lighter vein: I've read Michael Pollan's <u>Second Nature</u> (1991), which is about his attempts to begin gardening.  His tone throughout the book is an engaging mix of seriousness and humor, and most any gardener will find themselves nodding and laughing to themselves as they relive through Pollan their own trials and tribulations in the garden.


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Review: "Jakob der Lügner" ("Jakob the Liar") by Jurek Becker

Jakob der Lügner (1969)
(Jakob the Liar)

Jurek Becker (1937)











283 pages

In a community caught in a monstrous situation, hope can be a final barricade against despair. Someone seen as a source of hope in the midst of such desperation takes on a status and importance that can feel overwhelming. How does one carry such a burden, live up to such a responsibility?

Jakob, a Polish-Jew living inside a walled off ghetto in a town in German-occupied Poland during World War II, faces this dilemma in Jurek Becker’s novel Jakob the Liar. Jakob works at a railroad yard loading and unloading cargo, and also owns a small restaurant. As the story opens, he is walking home close to curfew time, when a German street-guard accuses him of being out after curfew and orders him to report to the nearby German police station. Though he is eventually allowed to go home, he happens to overhear a radio report while in the police station that indicates that Russian troops have advanced to within 400-500 kilometers of his town. At the railroad yard the following morning, in a moment of crisis as he tries to stop a friend from taking a life-threatening risk, he tells the friend the news about the Russian advance, information that carries tremendous importance for the suffering Jews of the ghetto --- that hope is on the horizon. His friend doesn’t believe him, however, unable to imagine how Jakob could know such a thing. Desperate to convince his friend by substantiating his information, Jakob blurts out that he has a hidden radio, though he actually has no such thing and even the hint of owning one could cost him his life if the Germans hear of it.

Before he can take it back, the news of the secret ratio spreads through the ghetto like wildfire, and Jakob suddenly finds himself the center of attention, the focus of everyone’s hopes. A steady stream of people begin approaching him for the latest news, and, without an actual radio, he is forced to invent Russian progress each night, to tell lies. Jakob at first tries to find ways to extricate himself from the situation he’s inadvertently created, but his friends and neighbors in the ghetto, so desperate for any hopeful news, and unaware of the reality, end up blocking his every attempt. Finally even Jakob himself realizes, as he notices the positive effect his daily updates have on his fellow Jews, that he won’t be able to bring himself to stop the charade.

In telling the story, Becker convincingly recreates the environment of life in the ghetto. Not surprisingly, the tense and always dangerous interactions between the Jews of the ghetto and the German overseers play an important role. When, for example, two German SS officers come into the ghetto looking for a particular Jew, Becker’s description highlights the fear and, on both sides, the hatred that accompanies them; the many different ways that the Jews in the ghetto react are as varied as the people involved. More central to Becker’s telling are the complex relationships between the Jews themselves, as they try to survive the daily dangers of their situation. Even the presence of the radio becomes a point of strenuous division in the population of the ghetto.

The basic story of the novel is simple, and as Becker sets it up in the first couple of dozen pages it is hard to imagine how it will fill out the rest of the pages of the book. But the key to the novel is not the story of the non-existent radio, or the lies that Jakob must invent because of it; what shines through in Becker’s writing is the psychological complexity of life in the ghetto, and the variety of personalities and attitudes that make up the population. He skillfully mixes moments of humor and mundane events in the lives of the residents, with periods of fear and despair they feel at the apparent hopelessness of their situation.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Monday, September 2, 2013

Book Review: "The Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye (1951)  

J. D. Salinger (1919-2010)











214 pages

Having seen the trailer for the new documentary about J. D. Salinger’s life several times in the last couple of weeks, I decided it was time to fill-in a hole in my reading list: I’d never read The Catcher in the Rye. I hadn’t been avoiding it all these years exactly, but it has remained one of those well-known novels that “everyone” seems have read except me. One concrete reason that may have contributed to this is that many years ago I read his book Nine Stories --- it was on my parent’s bookshelf and I had recognized the author’s famous name, and I remember being under-whelmed at the time. I no longer recall why, but I simply didn’t find the stories particularly engaging. So, I suppose I’ve just never been all that motivated to seek out The Catcher in the Rye.

I’ve rectified that now, having just finished an old edition of the book my wife has. And, at the risk of typing out a kind of blasphemy, I didn’t find it very engaging either, at least not to the extent I expected from what I’ve heard about it, especially recently again, from the famous authors and actors who comment positively on it in the trailer for the documentary.

For those who have not read it and are not familiar with the story, Salinger wrote the novel in the voice of Holden Caulfield, a boy in his late teens from a well-to-do family in New York City. Written as a kind of testimonial, Holden recollects as he says in the opening paragraph, “the madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas.” On the verge of being kicked out of his third prep school because of poor academic performance, and with Christmas break just days away, Holden abruptly leaves the school and takes the train to New York City. He has no firm plans, except that he does not want to arrive at home before his parents receive the letter informing them of his dismissal. He describes his many experiences and encounters over the few days he tries to avoid going home, as he bounces haphazardly around the city. It becomes clear from his telling of these days (and nights) that his failures in school are not due to a lack of intellectual ability so much as to the same alienation and aimlessness that drives his chaotic wandering through the city.

Salinger’s writing captures Holden’s voice brilliantly, and through Holden’s telling of his adventures in the city, and his recollections of earlier events, his confusion with the world and uncertainty over his place in it become clear. I suppose the struggle I had as I read the story may reveal more about me than the novel itself: I have trouble reading (or watching movies for that matter) about someone who is self-destructing at every turn due to fundamental misunderstandings of themselves and others. In his recent novel, The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes: “Experience, or what we call experience, is not the inventory of our pains, but rather sympathy we learn to feel for the pain of others.” Holden sometimes recognizes “the pain of others”, but he seems incapable of learning sympathy for it, of finding empathy for those he meets. For him, everyone is classified in some simple categories, mostly negative, and even most of those who he first states that he likes quickly come in for complaint.

Maybe this was the point for Salinger in writing this novel; if it was, he succeeded brilliantly, but for me it made for an extremely frustrating read.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Sound of Things Falling" by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things Falling (2013)   

Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973)

Translated by Anne McLean











270 pages

Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. … Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has.
For Antonio Yammara, a young professor of law teaching at a university in Bogotá, Columbia, and the main character in Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling, his “disillusion” comes suddenly and harshly. In its aftermath, his feeling of control over his life and his future are irrevocably shattered, and he struggles to make sense of how his “biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills.”

The novel opens in present day Bogotá, with news reports of a hippopotamus that has been shot dead after its escape from the abandoned zoo of former drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, a major figure in the drug trade that brought uncertainty and violence to Columbia. Watching the media coverage, Yammara is reminded of a mysterious acquaintance, Ricardo Laverde, he met some fifteen years earlier in a pool hall near the university. Though he knew Laverde for only a few weeks, it becomes a fateful meeting that alters Yammara’s life.

Over the course of the novel Yammara tells us the story of his struggle to make sense of what happened to him, and how his desperate search for answers led him to trace the path, through time and space, that brought Laverde into his life. From the late 1990’s, the story goes back to events in the 1960’s and early 70’s, when the drug trade in Columbia drifted gradually from a low level and uncoordinated activity of relative innocents to a highly centralized business of famous drug lords and cartels, with the War on Drugs organized in response against it. Yammara eventually comes to understand how apparently minor and inconsequential choices in someone else’s life led to an impact on his own that he had little hope of foreseeing.

Vásquez has written The Sound of Things Falling as a kind of mystery novel, though the questions here do not concern who done it?, but rather how did this happen?. We discover with Yammara, slowly, piece by tiny piece, the history that explains the dramatic moment that changed his life. The deliberate pace of the story reinforces Vásquez’s theme that there are “long processes that end up running into our life … [but that] tend to be hidden” from us, unseen and unexpected. When these slowly developing “processes” eventually run into our lives, they can catch us unaware, sending us spinning off into an unexpected future and, like Yammara, we have only imperfect memories and incomplete information available to help us understand what has happened to us. Finally we are left with the realization of the tenuous and uncertain path of our life, however much control over it we may like to believe we have.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review: "Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy

Before Time Could Change Them:
The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy
(2001)
Translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis











354 pages

We are told that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; but the beautiful cover and striking title of this book --- Before Time Could Change Them --- immediately stood out to me as I browsed slowly through the bookstore. Although I had never heard of the poet Constantine Cavafy, and haven’t read a lot of poetry, the title struck a chord, speaking in one short phrase to both human frailty and desire. Paging through the book and stopping to read several of the poems in this collection of Cavafy’s work, his mix of personal reflections on life and references to classical European antiquity drew me in.

In his poems, Cavafy does not focus on the beauty and wonder of nature; here instead we read about the mystery and depth of the human spirit: our hopes and our fears, our desires and our vanities. A deep melancholy courses through many of Cavafy’s poems, which explore unrequited love, lost youth and the tenuousness of success.

The title poem captures well Cavafy’s style well. Reflecting on the departure of a lover to a distant city, he concludes with the devastatingly poignant realization that the pain of parting may also contain a silver lining:
It was circumstances. --- Or perhaps Fortune
came on the scene as artist, separating them now,
before their feeling could vanish, before Time could change them;
the one will seem eternally what he was to the other ---
a twenty four year old; a young, handsome man. 

Other poems look back on the struggle against declining body and mind from deep in the fall and winter of life --- after time has changed them, as it were. The poem Melancholy of Jason Kleander; Poet in Kommagini; 595 A.D. opens
The aging of my body and my features
is a wound from a savage knife.
There’s no enduring it. 

And in another poem, An Old Man sits alone in a café
And he reflects on Temperance, on how it fooled him;
and how he always believed --- what madness! ---
that lying voice which said, “Tomorrow. You have lots of time.”

He remembers passions that he checked; and how much
joy he sacrificed. His brainless wisdom,
each ruined change derides it now. 

The poems drawn from history and legend also focus on the human element of the story, the emotional context of the moment: the vanity of rulers and scholars, and their fears as well. In Nero’s Term, the Roman emperor seeks out prophets to reveal his future:
Nero did not worry when he heard
what the Delphic oracle revealed.
“Seventy-three is an age he should fear.”
He still had time to be happy.
He’s thirty years old. The god
has given him a very ample term
in which to prepare for future dangers.

Now he’ll go back to Rome a little tired,
but tired gloriously from that trip,
on which all the days were pleasure---
at theaters, in gardens, in gymnasiums …
Evenings in Achaia’s cities …
Ah the pleasure of naked bodies above all …

That is Nero’s portion. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army,
the old man who’s reached his seventy-third year. 

But not all is lamentation and disquiet in Cavafy’s poems. He also writes of desire and love, such as in Blue Eyes, which opens
These vibrant spheres of light were not made
     for scorn, oh beautiful Circassian girl.
Not wrath’s, but joy’s and passion’s lamps,
     pleasure’s lavish donors,
     promise of sweetness in fleshly delight. 

This wonderful collection of poems includes a Forward by Gore Vidal and an Introduction by the translator, which together present a brief history of Cavafy’s life, and place his work in some historical context and literary style. Many of Cavafy’s poems, as can be seen in several of the selections I’ve included above, are almost prose-like in their structure, making his work very approachable. But the relatively simple structure can be deceiving, because his choice of just the right word and his slight turn of a phrase draw a reader effortlessly into the emotional settings he creates.


Other reviews / information:
 I’ve included the complete Cavafy poem Waiting for the Barbarians at the end of my review of the J. M. Coetzee book of the same name.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: "TransAtlantic" by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic (2013)
Colum McCann (1965)











307 pages

There are passages in Colum McCann’s novel TransAtlantic in which the suffering and loss the characters encounter tear at one’s heart. And yet in other scenes these characters experience wonder and accomplishment that fill one’s heart with hope. Here, condensed into a novel, are the vagaries of life.

Spanning the past one hundred and sixty some years, McCann builds his story around brief but critical times in the lives of several historical figures. These ‘real’ characters, otherwise unrelated, become linked together in his novel through the transformative effect they have on the lives of four fictional characters, one or another of whom they happen to come into brief contact with: four generations of women --- mothers and daughters, one to the next. Through his characters, historical and fictional, McCann explores the vicissitudes of everyday life, whether experienced by the famous or the unknown: from the dreams and passions that motivate us to push beyond what we already know, to the natural and man-made disasters that can threaten to destroy our hope and our will.

The novel focuses on each of the main characters in turn (if not precisely in chronological order), and is built around crossings most of the characters make of the Atlantic Ocean, between North America and Ireland.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the historical figures in the novel. In the mid-1840’s Frederick Douglass, then an escaped slave living in Boston, spends time in Ireland speaking on the need to abolish slavery and raising funds for anti-slavery groups in the United States, as well as receiving donations to buy his own freedom. Some seventy-five years later, in 1919, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown fly a modified World War I bomber --- a cloth-framed biplane --- non-stop from Newfoundland to Ireland, the first such plane flight across the Atlantic. Finally, another eighty years further on, in the late 1990’s, former Senator George Mitchell leads negotiations to end the “Troubles,” the long period of self-inflicted death and destruction in Northern Ireland.

The stories of these famous men become bound together, in McCann’s telling of their histories, by a woman who encounters Douglass during his time in Ireland, and then by the woman’s daughter, grand-daughter and great-granddaughter, who eventually cross paths with Alcock and Brown, and later Mitchell. Though the meetings are tangential to the lives of the historical figures --- unimportant to them really --- for the women these encounters provide a glimpse into possibilities for futures different than they had earlier imagined for themselves.

The second half of the book details the lives of each of these four generations of women. The men of the first half drift for the most part into the background, though never completely disappearing. Instead it is now several of the women who are inspired to make trans-Atlantic crossings and search out their destinies, as had before them the famous men they have met. Each in their own way, these women experience both the marvels and the pains of life, as they travel far from their origins.

In a note at the end of the novel, McCann thanks among others Wendell Berry, who, like McCann, has written movingly of the land and people’s place on it, and also forcefully on injustice and against violence. These themes appear through TransAtlantic: Douglass goes to Ireland arguing for justice for slaves; a century and a half later George Mitchell makes that same trip to try and bring peace to Northern Ireland; one of the primary motivations of Alcock and Brown to make their historic flight was to turn a machine of war, the WWI bomber, into one of peace. The women of the story, in their more private histories, also engage with the injustice and violence of the world, whether it is the struggle to work alongside men, the misery of the U.S. Civil War or the seemingly endless and random death of the Irish “Troubles.”

McCann’s powerful writing envelopes a reader in his characters; he does not so much tell us what they are thinking as form images of their emotional reaction to the world, as they reflect on their past successes and failures, try to make sense of their present struggles, and imagine their potential futures. The images he paints can sometimes amaze with their beauty and precision, but also in other passages break one’s heart when faced with the crushing depth of a character’s pain.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Book Review: "Shift" by Hugh Howey

The Shift Omnibus (2013)  

Hugh Howey (1975)











603 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the second book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the first book, Wool.  So, if you haven't read that first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review here.]

In Wool (reviewed here), Hugh Howey introduced us to a world of silos, deep underground structures home to thousands of people living beneath a poisonous surface. The story in Wool takes place during a critical couple of weeks in the life of a silo, as the elite of the existing order struggle against a revolution from below. The novel provides some hints at how this strange, future world came about, but we readers only come to know what the characters themselves can ferret out from the well-hidden information they discover, and we are constrained too in our understanding by the characters own biases based on their limited view of the world they grew up in. Shift, the second novel in the series, serves as a prequel to Wool, describing the origin history of this future world.

(If you have not yet read Wool, then you may want to skip the rest of this review until you have; I try to keep any of my reviews from containing significant spoilers, but it is not possible to review Shift without giving away some information that is only revealed well into the telling of Wool. Even my opening paragraph above reveals a subtle piece of information that many of the characters in the story only discover well into the action.)  

Shift tells the founding story of the world of silos. Spanning several centuries, the action begins just thirty-five years or so in our future, concluding at roughly the same point as Wool, though from a new point of view. In Shift, Howey describes all too plausible global dangers and political machinations during the middle of our current century that lead to the construction and operation of the silos. By transforming relatively minor extrapolations of current technology into deadly weapons, evil forces in the world threaten to destroy humanity even as powerful leaders aware of the danger struggle to put in place their solution to it. Once the silos have been built and populated, the remainder of the story takes place over the succeeding centuries, as the law of unintended consequences frustrates the careful planning, and many checks and balances, that the “founders” built into their system.

Whereas Wool reads as an adventure story of revolution and discovery set in a far, if dystopian, future, Shift adds to the mix a nightmarish reality of how the silos come about that feels too probable not to leave a reader scared for the future of our real world.

Like Wool, Shift was originally written as a set of e-books which have been combined here into a single print edition titled The Shift Omnibus. The approach Howey uses is similar in both novels: in each of three sections (originally released as separate e-books), the action is divided into very short chapters which alternate between two frames of reference, the two paths eventually coming together as the action in the section plays out. And, as in the earlier novel, this technique and Howey’s writing style in general give the story an urgency and ‘cliff-hanger’ feeling that make it hard to set the book down.

A quote from my review of Wool applies equally to this prequel: “Whatever you do, don’t read Hugh Howey’s novel Wool --- unless you are prepared to drop everything else you are doing and stiff-arm any interruptions. Once you have entered into his dystopian view of earth’s future, you won’t want to set the book down until you finish.”

Other reviews / information:

A third novel, Dust, will apparently be appearing soon.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION