Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: "Blue Angel" by Francine Prose

Blue Angel (2000)
Francine Prose (1947)

314 pages

A professor falling for a student in class --- practically a cliché for novels set on college campuses. It would hardly be surprising if real-life professors read such stories and imagine that many of their fellow colleagues engage in such behavior, while their own cautiousness or unattractiveness leaves them on the sidelines.

How refreshing then, author Francine Prose turning this literary trope on its head in Blue Angel. Set at the fictional Easton College, deep in the woods of northern Vermont, her novel follows the gradual but inevitable descent into infatuation of Professor Ted Swenson for a student in his creative writing class. Instead of falling for one of the more attractive women in his class, however, Swenson finds his thoughts and emotions roiled by a “a skinny, pale redhead with neon-orange and lime-green streaks in her hair and a delicate sharp-featured face pierced in a half-dozen places, [wearing] a black leather motorcycle jacket and an arsenal of chains, dog collars, and bracelets.”(8)  The attraction? He discovers her to be a quite talented writer.

As the novel opens, Professor Swenson leads a quiet and unassuming life, happily married, and a daughter who has just gone off to college; he has settled into a comfortable teaching position in an out-of-the-way liberal arts college after having successfully published two novels himself. Progress on his third novel eludes him, however, and his struggles to write mix insidiously with a growing dissatisfaction over the mostly lackluster students he has encountered over many semesters, and a developing, if not quite acknowledged, mid-life crisis. Into his brooding mood breaks Angela Argo, a student who has sat silently through the first weeks of his class, never joining into the discussions of the other student’s writing, until she one day asks to meet with him in his office hours, to discuss her work.

Swenson expects a dreary meeting in which he has to carefully lower the overheated expectations and false hopes of yet another under-talented student-writer. The eventual discussion in his office does not improve his opinion, and when he accepts Angela’s request to review the first chapter of a novel she has been working on, he secretly anticipates the worst. To his surprise, however, he discovers that not only can Angela write well, but that her piece captures his attention, making him eager to read further --- and to learn more about its enigmatic young writer. He suggests that she not bring her story into class to be reviewed and discussed by the students, and instead continue to do this in conferences in his office, but he almost immediately questions his own request; is he protecting her from the criticism of untalented peers, or enjoying the opportunity to spend more time with this blossoming young author?

Angela’s story deals with a high school student’s attraction to one of her teachers, which only heightens Swenson’s sensitivity to the situation developing between them. He has always been careful to remind his students to guard against the assumption that a fictional work is autobiographical, but he finds himself struggling with this advice as she increasingly opens up to him in their conferences on her work. His thoughts swirling also with the strictures of a broader college campaign to pro-actively protect itself in the face of a growing, nationwide awareness of on-campus harassment, and a confusing mid-life stew of doubts and regrets, Swenson becomes unsure of his own intentions.

Soon the line blurs between helping a gifted student writer, and an attraction for a talented co-ed, as he finds himself helping her beyond what he normally would do for a student, and hiding his activities --- though innocent enough on their face --- from his colleagues and even his wife. When Angela’s own behavior leavers her intentions unclear, his life devolves into a confused and swirling mess of contradictory rationalizations and self-loathing. He allows situations to occur that are increasingly questionable, but goes forward with in part to prove that what has happened so far has no deeper implications.

Prose has Swenson tell the story, which ordinarily might leave us with less faith in him as a narrator, since we only get his side of the story. But she balances this by including Swenson’s silent replies in many situations: we hear the answers or comments he desperately wants to give to his students or colleagues or even his wife, but doesn’t, holding himself back in the moment, as we most all of us do at times with the running commentary in our minds. She also has him actively questioning his own thoughts and decisions, as he tries to discern between true feelings and false justifications. This lays open more deeply for the reader Swenson’s concerns, frustrations, and confusions, and makes him a more sympathetic character. Not simply a thoughtless philanderer, we understand the human frailty and ten thousand tiny rationalizations that lead him down the path to his personal perdition. That Prose finally does in the end allow him some hope for a future beyond his failings speaks also to a welcome recognition in this novel of the complexity our human condition and its refusal to exist as black or white, in either the choices presented to us, or the outcomes of the choices we make.

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, November 23, 2014

Book Review: "Agostino" by Alberto Moravia

Agostino (1942)
Alberto Moravia (1907-1990)

Translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore

111 pages

The transition into adolescence can bring feelings of confusion and uncertainty, the sudden awareness that one is no longer a child, but not yet an adult: the games played with other children only a short time before feel uninteresting, if not inane, while forays into the adult world leave one struggling to understand rules of behavior that seem complex and arcane. Toss in the suddenly raging hormones, and it’s a wonder anyone makes it through.

In Agostino, author Alberto Moravia tells the story of a thirteen year-old boy abruptly entering this period. The title character’s father has died sometime before the story opens, but his family is well-to-do and so living comfortably; he has no siblings, living alone with his mother. As the novel opens, Agostino and his mother are spending their summer holidays at the sea, where they have their own house near the beach. Extremely close and affectionate, he and his mother spend their days lounging together in the sun, and each morning the two of them take a paddle boat out onto the water, where far from shore they swim and enjoy having the sea to themselves. Agostino looks forward to these daily trips, in which he has his mother all to himself; since the death of his father, Agostino’s mother has turned away any potential suitors, giving Agostino her undivided attention.

This blissful time for Agostino comes to a jarring end in the middle of the summer, however, when his mother suddenly accepts the invitation of a handsome young man to join him for a paddle boat ride. Agostino’s childhood innocence comes crashing down around him as he not only loses the exclusive attention of his mother, but also awakens to the recognition of his mother as a beautiful, desirable woman. Complicating matters, this realization awakens his own sexuality and, more critically, transforms his childish feelings of affection for his mother into a more disquieting direction for him.

Attempting to escape the physical proximity to his mother and so have space to work out these unexpected developments in his feelings, he ends up involved with a group of local boys, mostly older than himself. The boys in the group come from poor, working class families, and their coarseness and roughhousing, precisely the opposite of the children he has known in his life up to this point, both repel and attract him. He finds it difficult, however, to completely assimilate himself into their world of often brutish and thievish behavior. In his desire to achieve manhood, without precisely knowing what that destination entails, he gains little traction from observing either his mother’s world, or that of the group of local boys with whom he hangs out, and gradually becomes unmoored from any point of stability.

The focus of this short but affecting novel remains on Agostino; Moravia only somewhat generically develops the other characters, whether Agostino’s mother, or the group of local boys. Even with Agostino, we learn little or nothing about his past, his interests or his life in general. For Agostino the unexpected break with his childhood occupies him completely, and so also Moravia in telling the story.

In his young, main character, though, Moravia creates someone with whom the reader can empathize. Agostino is not someone you want to take by the shoulders and give a good shake to wake from a whining, self-centered pout. Rather Moravia’s story highlights the quite real complications of adolescence, and the loss of innocence that growing up entails. Any sensitive soul who has questioned their place among humanity when confronting the ugly and inhumane behavior sometimes present in the world will identify with Agostino’s feelings, when, out on a boat ride with the boys where he is the butt of their nasty jokes and coarse behavior, he realizes that
[his] sense of oppression and silent pain was made more bitter and unbearable by the fresh wind on the sea and the magnificent blazing of the sunset over the violet waters. He found it utterly unjust that on such a sea, beneath such a sky, a boat like theirs should be so full of spite, cruelty and malicious corruption. [It] created between sea and sky a sad unbelievable vision. There were moments he hoped it would sink. He thought he would gladly die, so infected did he feel by their impurity and so ruined.(66) 

Other reviews / information:

This is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.

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 Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: "Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone" by Eduardo Galeano

Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (2008)
Eduardo Galeano (1940)
Translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried

391 pages

History can often seem distant and disconnected from our everyday lives --- of little relevance to our understanding of ourselves. Even for recent events this can be the case: if they have not affected us directly, their impact seems to fade quickly from memory, leaving a muted remnant if lasting at all. Do we though really exist so separated from history, or do we perhaps disregard a bit too rashly the past that has led to our present?

In Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, writer Eduardo Galeano demonstrates that we have much to learn about ourselves in the history we ignore or may be ignorant of. Presenting short vignettes of histories that range widely across time and geographic location, he tells stories of events, people and peoples through which he invites us, compels us really, to discover more about ourselves. This compilation of some 600 stories, most less than a page long, recall a world history by turns wondrous and banal, melancholy and cruel. Reading them reminds us that people who lived in times and places far removed from us had hopes, dreams, struggles and disappointments not so different from those that color our own lives. At the same time, on the darker side, Galeano confronts us with a history teeming with examples of people exhibiting wanton cruelty, or at best a greedy, self-interested rationalization of the existence of such cruelty, leaving us to recoil in horror at what may lie buried in some corner of our own soul.

Galeano acknowledges in the ‘almost’ of his book’s subtitle that he cannot cover all the stories of mankind’s long past, but he nonetheless manages to embrace the broad sweep of our history. In one of the first stories in the book, Galeano makes clear in just a few short words the immense distance mankind has traveled since our earliest ancestors began to spread outward from the plains of Africa:
Maybe we refuse to acknowledge our common origins because racism causes amnesia, or because we find it unbelievable that in those days long past the entire world was our kingdom, an immense map without borders, and our legs were the only passport required.(2)
And, from those earliest beginnings, Galeano carries us through to our conflicted post-colonial present of borders often artificial and militarized, making the biting observation toward the end of the book that:
The war in Iraq grew out of the need to correct an error made by Geography when she put the West’s oil under the East’s sand.(353)

Along with stories that touch on more these more general themes of our past, Galeano focuses in many of the vignettes on the lives of particular historical figures; some are quite famous, such as Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill or Mark Twain, others much less so, such as an officer in the Argentinian army known as the Blond Angel, who tortured and disappeared several nuns and other women, or a Cuban teenager who attended one day of literacy class and was so inspired by the idea of reading that he went off to a remote mountain village to teach it to others, learning each lesson for himself in preparation for teaching it the next day to his students. In these biographies we come face-to-face with hopeful recollections of people who tried to change the world for the better as well as cautionary tales of the evil that others have committed.

Among these stories, Galeano creates beautiful, if haunting, moments, capturing in particular the strain of melancholy that runs through much of human history. To take just one example: in an anonymous story set in a quiet bedroom centuries ago a heart-wrenching scene plays out that we can just as readily imagine happening in myriad locations throughout our modern day world:

The Art of Drawing You
In a bed by the Gulf of Corinth, a woman contemplates by firelight the profile of her sleeping lover.
On the wall, his shadow flickers.
The lover, who lies by her side, will leave. At dawn he will leave to war, to death. And his shadow, his traveling companion, will leave with him and with him will die.
It is still dark. The woman takes a coal out of the embers and draws on the wall the outline of his shadow.
Those lines will not leave.
They will not embrace her, and she knows it. But they will not leave. (51)

For all the moments of hope and achievement captured in these stories, Galeano’s overarching theme lies in the inhumanity --- whether willful brutality or a willful blindness to brutalities being committed --- that mankind has perpetuated and continues to perpetuate on the poor, the weak, the other, as well as on the earth itself, its land, its water and its animals. If my experience reading these histories is any guide, there will be stories here that will describe such a level of evil that your first instinct will be to assume it cannot be true; but, when you query your preferred search tool, and investigate for yourself, I expect you will be as dismayed at what you find as was I.

Other reviews / information: A review by Neil Gordon of this book appeared in the New York Times Book Review.

Galeano has written a set of three books in a similar style that recount the history of the Americas from before Columbus to the present day.  They are titled Memory of Fire, with the three volumes titled, <i>Genesis</i>, <i>Faces and Masks<i/> and <i>Century of the Wind</i>, respectively.  I have read the first, so far, and can highly recommend it. Read quotes from this book 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 Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Review: "The Madmen of Benghazi" by Gérard de Villiers

The Madmen of Benghazi (2011)
Gérard de Villiers (1929-2013)
Translated from the French by William Rodarmor

260 pages

In 2011, as the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi raged on, Western governments anticipated a rebel victory and began seeking potential leaders to form a new, replacement government. Even casual attention to news reports at the time made clear the widespread destruction and chaos in Libya as the fighting continued, with daily pictures and videos of rebel militiamen in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns racing along streets and highways as they fought the Libyan army and occasionally one another. Throughout this period, Western intelligence agencies and Special Forces units were understood to be monitoring and participating in the uprising itself, and helping guide the transition to new leadership in Libya.

French journalist and author Gérard de Villiers used these events in Libya as the source material for his spy-thriller The Madmen of Benghazi. Written and published in 2011, the novel follows de Villiers’ pattern of turning the research and contacts he developed as a journalist into stories that appear to be pulled directly from the latest headlines, as described in a bio of the author at the front of the book. The novel stars a freelance secret agent for the CIA named Malko Linge, a character around whom based a long series of spy novels, stretching back more than four decades.

As the story opens, the CIA hires Linge to covertly protect Ibrahim al-Senussi, a wealthy Libyan ex-pat living in London who Western governments have identified as someone likely to protect their interests if placed at the head of a new Libyan government. Al-Senussi, having lived his life in comfort far from the dictatorship in his home country, naively agrees to this plan, grossly underestimating the forces arrayed against him in Libya, where fundamentalist groups loath both his Western connections and his moderate view of Islam. The CIA asks Linge to woo al-Senussi’s girlfriend, a gorgeous British model, in order to keep tabs on al-Senussi’s plans and contacts. As al-Senussi travels first to Cairo, expecting to meet with Libyans sympathetic to his rule, and then inadvisably goes on to Benghazi and so into the middle of the Libyan civil war, Linge follows him, trying to stay a step ahead of a fundamentalist rebel leader who wants al-Senussi, and eventually Linge himself, dead.

De Villiers' writing is fast-paced and focused on the action, with none of the characters very fully developed. Much of the action centers on the tense cat-and-mouse game between Linge and those who want both him and al-Senussi out of the way, but a faithful screenplay of The Madmen of Benghazi would struggle to get only an R rating, and not because of the violence: de Villier paints al-Senussi’s British girlfriend as someone men can’t keep their eyes off of, and who herself seldom keeps her clothes on when either el-Senussi or Linge can get her alone, in scenes that leave little to the imagination. Starting from the first paragraph, not many pages go by without things heating up again.

If you prefer your secret agents to have a more ascetic, or at least romantic, bent, you best look elsewhere. For a fast-paced, sexy thriller set in the events that fill the daily news, however, de Villiers’ The Madmen of Benghazi delivers.

Other reviews / information:

I've read one other of de Villiers' novels that's been translated into English: <u>Revenge of the Kremlin</u>, my review 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 Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: "Alex" by Pierre Lemaitre

Alex (2011)
Pierre Lemaitre (1951)

Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

376 pages

The set-up and plot seem clear enough.

Barely a half-dozen pages into Pierre Lemaitre’s crime novel Alex, the title character finds herself kidnapped off the street as she walks home from a restaurant. Brutally beaten, bound and gagged, she lies dazed in the back of a van as it speeds off into the night. As she passes out, her only thought is that she wants to live.

A page or two later we meet the detective assigned to her case, Camille. He has only recently rejoined the Brigade criminelle in Paris, after having taken time off to recover from the shocking death of his wife, who had been kidnapped and murdered. As he races against time to track down the missing victim, he cannot avoid mixing his thoughts and speculations on this new case with the painful memories of his wife.

For a reader of crime novels, the case seems clear enough: who has kidnapped Alex, where is she, and how will the detective find her alive?

Pretty straightforward, right?

Not so much. Lemitre soon turns this conventional kidnapping plot on its head, as the detective discovers that the real questions boil down to why. Like a parent whose child asks “why’” in response to every answer, Camille finds that each time he thinks he has taken a step closer to solving the case, a deeper mystery presents itself. The victim, who Camille at first so conflates with the bitter and raw images of his own wife’s death that he struggles to separate the two women in his mind, begins to take on her own personality, her own existence. The facts he gradually uncovers of her life up to the point of the kidnapping force Camille to focus on her as an individual, distinct from his memories of his wife, however similar the two crimes may have at first appeared to be.

This novel is not for the faint of heart, as the spasms of violence are shocking and extreme. But for those who can stand the grisly bits, Lemaitre provides an artfully created and entertaining page-tuner that will hold your attention through to the end.

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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: "Fear" by Gabriel Chevallier

Fear: A Novel of World War I (1930)  

Gabriel Chevallier (1895-1969)

305 pages
[Our enemies] are … the children of the same God [as we are]. And God, the father, presides over the fratricidal struggle of his own children, and the victories on both sides. He’s just as happy whichever army sings the Te Deum. And you, one of the just, you pray to him to ruin and annihilate other just men. How do you expect me to make sense of that? [116]
Jean Dartemont, a French soldier convalescing from shrapnel wounds suffered during a bloody and chaotic battle of the First World War, confronts a hospital chaplain with this question. The chaplain has come to ask the soldier to repent of his sins, but Dartemont, fresh from the horror of the front lines, can only focus on “the greatest sin, in the eyes of the Church and the eyes of man, [which] is to kill your brother [and] which the Church is ordering” him to do. (116) He finds himself unable to sway the priest’s views of the war as just and right however; and, as he talks to the hospital nurses, and later his family and friends, he encounters this same support for the war again and again. In this support he recognizes, and laments, the success that French political and cultural leaders have had in creating a patriotic fervor around the righteousness of the war, and an image of the fighting as the latest heroic adventure in a centuries-long history of French military successes. He and his fellow soldiers at the front, by contrast, have found that the slaughter and destruction they witness and participate in has quickly disabused them of these sorts of idealistic beliefs.

In the autobiographical novel Fear, author Gabriel Chevallier tells the story of his experiences as a soldier during World War I, both his time at the front lines and on leave back among the civilian population, through the character of Dartemont. The dichotomy between the image of the war among the general public in France and the reality of the war for the soldiers fighting it, plays a central role in the novel. More generally, the reader gets a first-hand account of the horrific destruction the front-line soldiers faced in the First World War.

The story opens with proclamations of war being displayed on walls throughout Dartemont’s hometown, unleashing a tidal wave of excitement and expectation. Dartemont finds himself put off by the aggressive frenzy of the public he witnesses in the sudden rush to go to war; he is convinced that the political leadership in France, as well as that in all the other countries involved in the conflict, have fed their populations lies and miss-conceptions in order to drum-up support for an unnecessary war. Despite Dartemont’s recognition of the propaganda that has created a false image and justification for the war, once conscripted into the army even he can’t help but succumb to the spirit of adventure that the public and his fellow soldiers view in the conflict. He buys into the idea that the war will not last long, and looks forward to what he calls his “baptism of fire.” (39)

Upon finally reaching the front, however, his excitement quickly turns sour, as he experiences first-hand the unimaginable devastation of the war. Looking out across the no-man’s-land beyond the front-line trench he stands in, he discovers
[a] new and greater horror: the plain was blue. The plain was covered with our comrades [in their blue uniforms], cut down by machine guns, their faces in the mud, arses in the air, indecent, grotesque like puppets, but pitiable like men….(62)
 Each day he watches as the body count rises rapidly with each ineffective and seemingly senseless attempt to attack the German trenches, successive waves of French soldiers mowed down by the German machine guns.

In place of the feeling of adventure Dartemont had brought onto the war, a new, almost paralyzing sensation grows: Fear. He finds himself struggling with and analyzing this fear, trying to understand how he --- how any soldier --- can go forward into the almost certain death of heavy shelling and machine guns that awaits them when they climb forward out of the trenches to attack. Then, when an injury sends him first to a hospital far from the front, and later on a period of leave before he returns to the front, Dartemont discovers to his dismay and frustration that talking about this fear, about the dominant emotion he has felt during the war, is impossible. The people back home, well-steeped in propaganda that has filled them with a blind patriotism and an unrealistically impression of the war as a heroic adventure, view Dartemont’s descriptions of the reality of the fighting and the emotions it triggers for the soldiers as simple cowardice on his part.

Dartemont’s disgust is not limited to the civilian public however. He struggles also to understand how he and his fellow soldiers --- on both sides of the front --- don’t turn on their superiors, despite the horror of the battles and the apparently senseless decisions of their commanders to continue to stage attacks, when each attack by either side simply re-validates the obvious: the advantage in the war is with those who defend. Chevallier, as expressed through Dartemont, clearly comes away from his experiences in the war with a dark and deeply cynical vision of mankind:
Men are stupid and ignorant. That is why they suffer. Instead of thinking, they believe all that they are told, all that they are taught. They choose their lords and masters without judging them, with a fatal taste for slavery.
Men are sheep. This fact makes armies and wars possible. They die the victims of their own stupid docility.
When you have seen war as I have just seen it, you ask yourself: ‘How can we put up with such a thing? What frontier traced on a map, what national honour could possible justify it? How can what is nothing but banditry be dressed up as an ideal, and allowed to happen?’(7)

Fear presents a powerful statement against the insanity of war. Chevallier has written a novel that gives us an up-close and intimate look at the fighting along the front lines during World War I, and its effects on the soldiers caught up in the maelstrom. The story also takes us back home with the soldiers, where they discover that even their eyewitness accounts fail to sway the public’s deeply engrained belief in the fundamental righteousness and inevitable victory that their government has promised in its propaganda. Not surprisingly, Chevallier recalls in a preface to the 1953 edition of the book that “its author was sometimes taken to task” for what he wrote, though he adds that “those who fought as infantrymen … wrote [to him]: ‘True! This is what we experienced but could not express.’” (xiv) In a sense these reactions together represent a further manifestation of the idea expressed in the book that the general public have a false understanding of the reality of war experienced by soldiers at the front.

In that preface Chevallier also points out that the tone of the novel now strikes him as containing the “arrogance of youth,” that his Dartemont is “still naïve enough to believe that everything is susceptible to reason.” (xiv) Certainly the story gives no quarter in its condemnation of people’s shallowness and muddle-headedness, as the ‘Men are stupid and ignorant…’ quote above makes clear. From the vantage point of a century later, one can question the certainty with which Dartemont broadly condemns any nation for going to war; should a country not go to war to stop a Hitler, for example? But remembering the context in which the book was written, the saber-rattling and bravado that allowed the European continent to move seemingly inexorably into the Great War (a process described wonderfully in Ken Follett’s historical novel of the First World War, Fall of Giants, which I reviewed in the previous post), and the willingness of political and military leaders on both sides to allow the fighting to slide into a grotesque war of attrition, the tone seems well-matched to what Chevallier apparently experienced.

For me this story provides a compelling sequel to Mark Twain’s The War Prayer, written just a couple of decades earlier, though I have no knowledge of whether Chevallier was aware of the book. In Twain’s story (more fully reviewed in this earlier post), a public has been whipped into a frenzy to fight and defeat their enemy. After a minister gives a fiery sermon to his congregation, proclaiming the righteousness of the war and praying for God’s aid in vanquishing the enemy, an old man enters the church and walks slowly up to the pulpit. He commands the people to listen to “the unspoken part of the prayer” that God also heard: the destruction, the death, the horror that they have asked of him. In Fear, Chevallier takes us forward into the actual execution of the war, and so into the truth of all that the old man described.

Other reviews / information:
*This novel is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.

*As I was reading this book, I stumbled across an article in National Geographic magazine, The Hidden World of the Great War, that describes the underground life of soldiers in the trenches, and recalls some of the challenges they faced beyond the fighting itself, as Chevallier describes in his autobiographical novel.

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, August 24, 2014

Book Review: "Fall of Giants" by Ken Follett

Fall of Giants (2010)  

Ken Follett (1949)

922 pages

Well-written texts on history can teach us about the events that occurred during a particular period, and be effective in making clear the motivations of a country’s leaders and even the range of public opinion during that time. History books generally struggle, however, to help us understand the complexity of conflicting emotions and desires of those people caught up in a historical moment, or to engage our sympathy and empathy for them, even those with whom we may not be naturally aligned politically or culturally.

For this level of engagement a reader turns to historical fiction, which when done well fills this void left by the history books. The best such works introduce us to people who trigger our imaginations and pull us into their lives, whether as fictional characters representative of the mood and opinions of the time, or imagined versions of real historical figures. Through them we achieve insights into the personal and interpersonal struggles of that moment in history, and the connection of these struggles to the larger events of the time; rather than just read about history, we enter into it at the intimate level of those directly experiencing it.

By these measures, Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants succeeds brilliantly, illuminating for the reader the complexity of the issues surrounding World War I and their impact at a personal level, in a way a history text could not do as effectively. His novel opens in a Europe of the early 19th century whose highly structured and carefully divided societies will soon be forever changed by the extent and brutality of the first world war; the story then moves to the dehumanizing and disastrous evolution of the war itself, before concluding with the vengeful peace that would set the stage for a new, and even more destructive and bloody world war only a generation later. Using the advantages of historical fiction, Follett brings home to the reader the effects and cultural impact of the war at a personal level on people at different levels of European society, including the frustration of many at the political steps and miss-steps that seemingly made war inevitable, and the conflicts that arose out of the disparate opinions about the war.

Follett makes this history palpable to us through the interconnected lives of a half-dozen families spread across four countries that played a central role in the run-up to and the fighting of the war. Beginning in a small, invented town in his Welsh homeland, Follett introduces us to a fabulously rich earl and his country estate, as well as to a family of miners who work the coal mines on the earl’s land and live in houses leased out by the mining company. The earl, ultra-conservative and married to a Russian princess, uses his wealth and status to influence the government as a member of the House of Lords, where he attempts to argue for the active defense of the honor of the empire and hold back what he views with dismay as the rising tide of anti-establishment and democratic fervor in both Great Britain and the world at large; in these areas he struggles even with his own sister, a passionate campaigner for women’s suffrage, worker’s rights and a peaceful resolution to the struggles between Europe’s political leaders. Toward the far opposite end of the cultural spectrum, the growing outspokenness of exploited workers finds voice through the father of the mining family, who leads the local union, and educates his son, who has followed his father into the mines, and daughter, who works as a servant for the earl, equally forcefully in the fundamentals of Christian religion as well as the need for workers to stand up and face down those who oppress them. In the months before the war --- and later as the fighting rages --- the live of these two families become inextricably linked.

A German military attaché, who has close ties to the earl and his family, works for the German consulate in London and watches in horror as the politicians in countries across Europe at best ignore and at worst encourage the growing signs of conflict. He argues even with his father, a German diplomat and part of the conservative German hierarchy who see war as both inevitable and better fought now when Germany’s opponents are relatively weak and unprepared. He struggles with the conflicting feelings he has of his love for his homeland, his ardent disagreements with its hawkish leaders, and a love affair that could threaten both his, and his family’s, status.

Two brothers in Russia, orphaned by the father of the British earl’s Russian wife, have ended up working in a factory in St. Petersburg. The older brother conscientious and caring, the younger a lady’s man and gambler, both have dreams of going to America, in order to escape the oppressive regime of the czar and be able to live and work in freedom. One finally does manage to leave Russia before the war begins, but both find that the events of the war overtake them, one in the rising tide of Bolshevism which culminates in the Russian Revolution, the other in the aftermath of mistakes that force him to volunteer for service in the American army.

Finally, in the United States, the son of a wealthy family from Buffalo works as an adviser to President Wilson, traveling before and during the war to Great Britain, Russia and Germany to help the administration understand the situation and eventually try and broker a peace. His dealings lead him into repeated contact with the British earl and his family, as well as the German military attaché, and even, in an odd twist of coincidence, to the Russian brothers.

Other families play smaller roles in the story, though linked closely to these main characters. As hinted at above, the coincidences can seem to run thick in the novel at times, as the critical roles the main characters play --- just under the radar of history --- lead them to regularly cross-paths with one another, often with a significant level of engagement. This can leave one at times with the feeling that the novel is on the verge of devolving into a simple soap-opera (it’s easy to see the future TV mini-series in this story). Follett’s approach, however, allows him to create a rich range of characters from various levels of society in countries at the heart of the political and military action in World War I, and so explore a variety of the key social and political movements impacted by the war, while still telling a cohesive and engaging story.

In the spirit of the best in historical fiction, a reader comes away from the novel with not only a better understanding of the dynamics that led to the outbreak of the war, but also the roiling social upheaval present in Europe during those years that lay just barely concealed below what was sometimes only a thin veneer of patriotism and national unity created by the war.

Additional Notes:
* The Prologue, entitled Initiation, could stand alone as a wonderful short story.  Follett movingly portrays the passage into of manhood for a miner's son in a small Welsh town, as he prepares for, and then experiences, his first day down in the coal mine shafts.

*Shortly after finishing the book, I stumbled across an article in National Geographic magazine, The Hidden World of the Great War, that describes the underground life of soldiers in the trenches, and recalls some of the challenges they faced beyond the fighting itself, as Follett does in his story.

*Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier, is an autobiographical novel that gives a first-hand view of the life of a soldier during World War I, and the horror and destruction of the war.

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, July 31, 2014

Book Review: "The Children's Story" by James Clavell

The Children’s Story (1963)
James Clavell (1921-1994)

96 pages

We pass down to our children the most important traditions and beliefs of our country through words and symbols which for us can be ripe with meaning and intention. But, asks James Clavell in his short tale The Children’s Story, what happens when we only teach our children to parrot the words and acknowledge the symbols, and we fail to take the time or make the effort to explain to them the significant of these revered words and symbols?

Clavell recalls, in the post-script to the story, his daughter coming home from her first day of school, standing in front of him, and blurting out The Pledge of Allegiance as quickly as she could. Successfully completing her recitation, she asks her father for a dime, saying that her teacher had told the class to learn it, and that if they did so successfully, their mom or dad would give them a dime. He gives her the hoped for money, but then begins asking her what some of the words in the pledge mean, only to discover that she has no idea --- the teacher has only taught the students to say it through, she has not explained its meaning. Reflecting on this moment, Clavell began asking others for their experiences as children, and found no one who had had the words of the pledge explained to them as children. His surprise and concern over this realization became the genesis of this short story.

The subtitle of the book is … but not just for children, and reading the book makes clear that it stands as a cautionary tale for parents and teachers. The action covers just 25 minutes at the beginning of a school day, taking place in a first or maybe second grade class. As the story opens, anxiety fills the classroom, the teacher afraid and the students picking up and reflecting back her fear. We soon learn that an unnamed foreign country has conquered the United State, and the teacher is soon replaced by a new teacher, “a beautifully young girl … [who] wore a lovely smile, and when she spoke, she spoke without the trace of an accent,” much to the anxious students surprise. Over the next few minutes this new teacher carefully, methodically overcomes the children’s mistrust and fear. With seeming ease, she subverts in the children’s minds the most sacred American symbols, symbols that were mere objects or memorized words for the children, and which carried no deep, clear meaning that might have given them pause before they, quite literally in one case, threw them out the window. >

Though it comes in at 98 pages, the story is spread out thinly through the pages, some of which are blank, some having only a few words or a sentence on them, this physical structure helping to pace the story. The layout adds to the tension, and, perhaps more importantly, helps convey the abrupt shifts in the children’s thoughts, as the teacher skillfully leads them to discard one not-well-understood symbol after another. Before reading the story it may seem implausible that it could be so easy to strip away these most fundamental symbols of American cultural in less than an hour; Clavell, however, presents a terrifyingly convincing demonstration of just how easy it could be.

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

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: "Desert Tracings" translated by Michael A. Sells

Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (1989)
Translated by Michael A. Sells (1949)

78 pages

Opening a book and finding yourself transported into a culture and period far separated from your own remains one of the most captivating and wondrous pleasures of reading. Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes , a collection of poems of the Bedouin tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia translated by Michael Sells, grants us just such an experience, allowing us a glimpse back into the lives of people in a distant time and place.

In the Introduction to the book Sells sets the stage for the six odes, providing the reader the context necessary to fully appreciate them. He notes that the odes included in this collection are said to be from among the winning poems in an annual poetry competition held near Mecca by Bedouin tribes in the centuries before the founding of Islam. The origins of the odes remains an on-going debate, according to Sells, as to whether they developed as oral stories before finally being transcribed, or were composed by the individual poets credited, and then passed into an oral tradition. He explains that each of the odes is divided “into three major thematic movements: the nasib or remembrance of the beloved, the journey, and the boast,” (4) and reviews the typical structure and content of each of these parts. He describes the extensive use the poets made of simile, analogy and epithet: in place of ostrich, for example, a poet might use the epithet red-legged clump-wing, or for the oryx might use wide-of-eyes, confident of their audience’s understanding.

Not surprisingly, despite the existence of a typical structure, each poet stamped their own unique style on their work. In order to help the reader better understand each ode, Sells includes a brief introduction for each of them, in which he provides more specific background information on the particular theme and structure of the work, and explains some of the similes and epithets used. Without this additional information it would be difficult indeed to bridge the wide gap in time and geography that we must attempt to cross in reading these works. In approaching the odes I took the suggestion Sells makes in a footnote of the Introduction: “some may find it preferable to read the poem first, then the introduction, before returning to the poem.” (10) I felt the approach allowed me to first meet the poems with few preconceived notions, then read them a second time with greater depth and understanding after reviewing Sells’ remarks. I can testify that my level of appreciation improved significantly in the second reading, with the details from the introduction at my disposal.

But at any rate, despite the epithets and unfamiliar place names, the universality of human existence comes shining through in these works. In the opening lines of the ode The Mu‘állaqa by Lapīd ibn Rabī‘a, to give just one example, we clearly hear the melancholy in the voice of the narrator as he reflects on the time that has passed since he last saw his beloved:
The tent marks in Mínan are worn away,
where she encamped
and where she alighted,
Ghawl and Rijám left to the wild,

And the torrent beds of Rayyán
naked tracings
worn thin, like inscriptions
carved in flattened stones,

Dung-stained ground
that tells the years passed
since human presence, months of peace
gone by, and months of war,

Replenished by the rain stars
of spring, and struck
by thunderclap downpour, or steady,
fine-dropped, silken rains,

From every kind of cloud
passing at night,
darkening the morning,
or rumbling in peals across the evening sky.

The white pondcress has shot upward,
and on wadi slopes,
gazelles among their newborn,
and ostriches,

And the wide-of-eyes,
silent above monthling fawns.
On the open terrain
yearlings cluster.

As I read these works, I found myself wishing I knew Arabic, to be able to appreciate the beauty surely there in the sounds and rhythms of the originals; a desire for more familiarity of the geography and wildlife that the Bedouin communities moved through also beckoned. But all of that, of course, would ultimately be insufficient --- the critical missing element remains a knowledge of the culture and times in which the poets who created these works lived. Through his translations, and the introductory material he provides, we have the benefit of Michael Sells’ dedication to first understanding, and then making available to us, this window into our distant past.

Other reviews / information:

I discovered this collection in a reference in the wonderful book on the Medieval period in Spain by Mariá Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002).

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: "Imagining Spain" by Henry Kamen

Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity (2008) 

Henry Kamen (1936)

 240 pages

Wherever it is we may call home, what are the stories have we grown up with about our nation’s founding and history, and how do they impact our impressions of its present and its future? Although our national identity is tied tightly to such stories, how conscious are we of them, and of how they were created and by whom? If, in fact, we stop to question their historical accuracy, what would we find?

In Imagining Spain, Henry Kamen examines how Spanish politicians, philosophers and historians in the early 1800’s began to create what he refers to as historical myths about Spain, recreations of the Spanish past which had their foundations in factual history, but which were embellished and refashioned by the authors to create a history that told a desired narrative. He describes how both the left and right in Spain over the past two centuries have imposed their particular interpretations on the early modern period of Spanish history to promote their preferred plans for political and societal reform. In addition, he argues that though these historical myths are largely unsubstantiated by the historical record, they have replaced the true history of Spain’s past, achieving the status of unquestionable canon.

Kamen has studied and written extensively on Spanish history over the past four decades, in particular on Spain’s early modern period, from roughly 1450 to 1800. As indicated by the subtitle of this book, Historical Myths and National Identity, he turns here from explaining Spain’s history to focusing instead on how the Spanish have viewed and understood their own history in the process of creating an identity for their country. In each chapter of the book, Kamen reviews a particular historical myth, describing how it was developed and the purposes it has served for its creators and promoters. Focusing on the origins and effects of these myths, he generally touches only briefly on the facts that undermine them, giving enough to make clear his argument, but leaving the reader to pursue the historical details in other sources.

Kamen examines seven historical myths he feels the Spanish have created about their country’s history: the myth of Spain as a coherent nation-state, the myth of the failed Spanish monarchies of the early modern period, the myth of a Christian Spain, the myth of Spain as an empire, the myth of the Spanish Inquisition, the myth of the reach of Spanish as a universal language, and the myth of Spain as having been in perpetual decline throughout the early modern period. These myths, he cautions, are not simply stories the Spanish tell themselves, but rather have largely become accepted both inside the country and abroad as the true and accurate history of Spain. Readers having some familiarity with Spanish history will find much of what they have learned about both the specific details and the broad arc of Spain’s past called into question by Kamen.

Taking Kamen’s set of historical myths together, the traditionally accepted, over-arching narrative of Spanish history lies in the idea that Spain once ruled the largest, most powerful empire in history, having spread its language around the world and brought Christianity through its missionaries to whole civilizations that had ignorant of it. From this greatness in the early 1500’s, Spain suffered a decline that lasted the next several centuries, as foreign-born kings squandered the riches of the empire and through the Inquisition stifled learning and progress in Spain until, in 1898, the last of the Spanish colonies was lost in the Spanish-American war. Though the details might vary a bit between the liberal and conservative views --- the liberals have blamed the church in part for the decline, while conservatives have promoted a return in Spain to the Catholicism of the 1400’s --- both groups substantially agreed on this narrative of decline. What Kamen argues in his book is that almost all of the elements of this interpretation of Spanish history fail to stand up to historical fact, whether it is the level of Spanish success during the Golden Age or the extent of decline that followed.

The history of the Spanish Inquisition makes for a surprising example of the difference between the commonly accepted accounts that Kamen defines as representing a historical myth, and what he claims is the true history. In that chapter he covers both the Inquisition and more generally the broadly accepted view that beginning in the late 1500’s with Philip II, Spain entered a long period of oppressive censorship and suppression of intellectual and artistic activity, eventually causing the Spanish to fall far behind the rest of Europe in scholarship and innovation. In the West the word inquisition itself seems irrevocably tied to Spain, its cruelty, repression and reach the stuff not just of history books, but also literature and film, and even a Monty Python skit. Citing more recent and detailed research into the specific effects of the Inquisition and related policies promulgated by the Spanish kings, Kamen claims that neither the Inquisition nor attempts at censorship and scholarly restriction had the broad powers or caused the extensive disruptions that have been attributed to them. More generally, he finds the claims of Spain’s intellectual isolation from Europe --- such as access to books or studying abroad at foreign universities --- unsubstantiated by historical fact. It is startling to imagine that such a seemingly well-established view of the Spanish Inquisition could be so rife with myths and exaggerations.

Kamen makes similar arguments to counter each of the historical myths that he examines. Even without going into detail in his counter-arguments, he makes a convincing case for the lack of hard evidence to support these myths, and for how they arose from the political circumstances and personal motivations of the authors who created and propagated them despite the evident lack of evidence. It is important to point out that he does not claim that Spain did not experience a significant decline from the height of its power in the late 1500’s; he in fact acknowledges that there are elements of truth in each of the historical myths. A facile counter-argument to his thesis on any of these historical myths would be to claim he is arguing the opposite extreme: in the case of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, to claim that he is stating that no repression or censorship occurred. What Kamen instead argues for in Imagining Spain is that Spanish history not be reduced to a set of simple, politically and culturally motivated explanations, but rather be understood in all its subtlety.

The history of Spain a reader might have been familiar with before reading Kamen’s book can seem a relatively straightforward story of decline from the height of empire in the 1500’s to becoming one of the poorest countries in Europe in the mid-1900’s. After reading his book it becomes clear that the true account is much more complex, and that the works one may read on Spanish history must be examined more critically. Indeed, reading Kamen’s book cannot help but make a reader consider what historical myths about their own country they may have failed to adequately question.

Other reviews / information:

Kamen’s title seems to play off of Julián Marías’ Understanding Spain from 1990, a book Kamen quotes from several times in his text.  I've read the book, but long before I began doing these reviews; follow the link to read some quotes from Marías’ book.
In particular, Marías has an interpretation of the Spanish Inquisition that has a subtle but important difference to Kamen's.  Similar to Kamen, Marías states that there was relatively little direct, physical violence exercised by the authorities of the Inquisition; instead, he argues, it was the indirect, psychological impacts of the Inquisition that were extensive and deep.  He writes:
I believe that the deepest damage produced in Spanish cultural life by the existence of the Inquisition was not whether it pursued or repressed great creative minds. There were some, a few of them --- only a few --- who were molested or persecuted, and not even that suppressed them entirely. What the Inquisition did do was to dissuade them from entering into certain questions that attracted its attention too much, which could be the object of troublesome scrutiny, which in its eyes were suspect. It almost never had to exercise real violence: its presence was sufficient, an undesirable vigilance that, even to being with and before the stage of fear was reached, cut off at the root the latitude, the spontaneity, that certain forms of creativity demand. It killed precisely those forms that are not combative or polemic, those that are not directed against anything or anyone, but consist of the serene, peaceful, and sometimes even playful search for truth. (252)

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

For more reviews of books on Spain and its history, click a link to my bookshelf of:
Spain and Spanish History

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: "The Ten Thousand Things" by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Things (2014)
John Spurling (1936)

354 pages

Chaos and uncertainty enveloped China in the 1300’s as the Yuan dynasty, founded only a century before by the leader of the invading Mongol army, slowly lost its grip on power. A succession of ineffective Mongol emperors opened the door in China for rebel movements to gain followers, and upstart warlords fought the Mongols and one another for control of the country. While farmers and merchants struggled to survive the physical destruction of the battles and wars that swept back and forth across the countryside, those who served as civil servants faced the additional risk of being seen as supporting the wrong side in a delicate and constantly shifting political environment. Some, of course, took on active roles in the government or with rebel groups, assuming the risk of making the wrong choice in exchange for their pursuit of personal gain.

What, however, of the artists and scholars who struggled over the decision of whether to withdraw from public and pursue a quiet, scholarly life, or to engage in the political sphere in the hopes of bettering the lives of the common people? Although they may have had their hearts in the right place, and not have considered themselves actual supporters of a particular regime, they often risked the wrath of skeptics who doubted their motives. These artists and scholars faced a dilemma common to people of conscience in similar situations around the world and across the centuries: How does one best live one’s life in turbulent times? How to balance the pursuit of one’s personal passion for art or scholarship with one’s public responsibilities as a human being to others?

John Spurling’s historical novel The Ten Thousand Things, explores these questions through the life of a historical figure of that period, Wang Meng, an artist of considerable talent who also occasionally served as a magistrate. Spurling includes a painting by Wang as a frontispiece to the book, which I’ve reproduced here, and which plays a role in the story. Other historical figures, including artists, scholars, and political figures, populate the novel as well. Though I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of all the details in the book, I did search out more details on some of the characters (an obsession my smartphone only reinforces), and what I did find mostly fit in with how they are represented in the story.

As the story opens, Wang sits in prison on (an unfounded) suspicion of conspiracy against the new emperor of China, the victorious warlord who, having defeated the other rebel Chinese armies, went on to oust the Mongols, end their Yuan dynasty and found the Ming dynasty. Confined to his cell, Wang reflects back on his nearly eighty years, and how the experiences he has had and choices he has made during the tumultuous period of the decline and fall of the Mongol’s Yuan dynasty and the subsequent rise of the Ming, colored and altered his understanding of himself and the world. The novel represents, in fact, an extend flashback of Wang recalling and writing about key moments in his life.

As a painter Wang doubts his own abilities, but his work is admired by friends, art collectors and other artists. Wang in fact wishes throughout his life for nothing more than to be able to retire off to a quiet spot in the countryside and spend his time improving his technique and painting the mountain scenes that he loves so much. Inevitably, however, the real world pulls him back again and again into the fray. Sometimes his involvement comes by force or out of necessity, but other times he finds his own conscience leading him to reengage with the outside world, to use his education and abilities to better the lives of the Chinese people as a civil servant.

Though his participation in the Mongol government lasts only a relatively short time, Wang comes to find his past as a civil servant a burden as the uprising against the Mongols gains strength: despite his claims of having had only the purest intentions in serving as a magistrate, he constantly faces questions about his loyalty. A similar dilemma arises for Wang when the rebel groups begin to coalesce into a few large factions which compete to be the one that will overthrow the Mongols and claims the emperorship; caught in a region controlled by one of these groups when he returns home to care for his father, Wang again accepts a position as a civil servant, deciding that he cannot remain on the sidelines:
 “Why? Because this was not so much a matter of assisting [the rebel leader] Zhang’s regime as of bringing relief to many ordinary people --- mostly farmers and traders --- in the city and district of his birth. Public order and justice, he told himself, were of more importance than the purely selfish question of his tangled loyalties…” (p. 221)  
When the political dynamic later shifts around him, his decision to serve comes back to haunt him again; whatever his reasons for becoming involved may have been, some among the new leadership in power are suspicious of his loyalties given his earlier willingness to serve other rulers.

Wang shares with many of the artists and scholars he feels closest to this dilemma about whether and how to help the wider public, and the risks that come with serving in government; it is, however, far from the only question that occupies his thoughts. In Spurling’s novel, Wang also reflects deeply on the inner world of his painting, as well as the works and methods of other artists he encounters or studies. Through his contemplation of his own work and that of others, and his discussions with artists and scholars about each other’s work, he develops his only abilities as a painter, as well as his appreciation of what he finds to be the wondrous variety of the world --- the ten thousand things of the title, a reference to the Chinese concept of all the parts that make up the heavens and the earth.

Through these imagined discussions between influential artists of 14th century China, Spurling reveals to us the techniques, subjects and meanings that Chinese artists were exploring in that period, as well as the importance they placed on a connection to --- or movement beyond --- their cultural and artistic traditions. For the uninitiated (such as I), and coming from a western perspective, Chinese landscape paintings --- while beautiful --- can seem to have little variation, one to the next. But through Wang and his artist friends we come to a better understanding and appreciation of the truly wide variety of themes and techniques that these paintings represent.

John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things succeeds splendidly in the way a historical novel should, introducing us to the culture and norms and concerns of a distant age and place, and through this journey, gives us a fresh understanding of our own daily world.

Quote from this book:
One of the quotes in the epigraph to the book particularly sticks with me:

“The empire, long united, must divide, and long divided, must unite. Thus it has ever been.”
--- Attributed to LUO GUANZHONG:
Three Kingdoms (?14th century)

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: "Bad Behavior" by Mary Gaitskill

Bad Behavior (1988)
Mary Gaitskill (1954)

204 pages

If someone wrote about your life, describing the drama and action in it, you might wish it could be more exciting or at least more interesting, but I expect you wouldn’t be all that embarrassed to have it appear in print. But what if that story, instead of focusing on the events of your life, captured the jumble of thoughts and images that flare up uncontrollably to disrupt your concentration at work, or keep you awake at night staring at the ceiling? Having those often chaotic and irrational mixtures of secret desires, fears and rationalizations appear in a story for anyone to read would be mortifying indeed.

Fortunate it is then for the characters in Mary Gaitskill’s collection of short stories Bad Behavior that they are fictional, and so incapable of suffering from the revelation of their most private thoughts and bitter realizations about themselves.

These nine stories in fact contain little direct action. Instead, most of the drama occurs in the character’s thoughts, as Gaitskill examines the psychological impacts on people of what are often seemingly minor events. In some stories, for example, a chance meeting triggers an avalanche of memories that carries characters back into a painful and buried past that they suddenly find haunts their present. In others, what might seem to be an encounter of little significance causes characters to suddenly question their most fundamental assumptions about themselves. Gaitskill lets us peer into the minds of her characters, revealing how quickly and easily memories and dreams can dissolve someone’s carefully constructed image of themselves into a roiling turmoil of uncertainty, doubt and regret.

In the opening story, Daisy’s Valentine, a married man whose world is organized around a three day drug binge he and his wife engage in weekly finds himself attracted to a woman at work who has moved from one disappointing boyfriend to the next. When the pair begin going out they find themselves mired in misunderstanding, connected by little more than their mutual desire to move beyond the dismal present of their lives.

A woman agrees to go out of town on vacation with a man she’s just met in A Romantic Weekend. Attracted to his forceful behavior, she has revealed to him her masochistic tendencies, and so triggered his sadistic fantasies. But when they finally head out on the trip, the two struggle to understand why the exciting plans they had each imagined for the weekend fail to materialize, and why the other has suddenly become so different from the person they expected.

Something Nice opens with a man visiting a brothel while his wife is out of town on a several week trip. When he chats up the prostitute during his session in the room, he finds her willing to engage in the conversation as if he had just met her casually somewhere. Returning to see her the following nights, he feels he is building a relationship with her different from the typical one between a john and a prostitute, and begins to imagine that she views the situation the same way, and that their relationship could carry on outside the brothel.

Despite a good job in Manhattan and an active dating life, the main character in An Affair, Edited begins to question the direction his life has taken when, walking a different route to work one day, he passes a girl he had dated back at the University of Michigan. Their relationship had ended badly, but after seeing her he finds his thoughts drifting back to memories of their time together and of his life back at school. Erotic fantasies of her mash together with others of girls he has met since, only to clash with moments of clarity about what he may have missed out on.

A woman momentarily mistakes a street beggar for an old girlfriend as Connection opens. The friendship had ended bitterly, but memories of their time together now coming flooding back to the woman, forcing her to reevaluate her assumptions about why it had ended at all.

In Trying To Be a woman who came to New York to be a writer instead drifts in and out of clerical jobs, which she occasionally quits out of boredom to work as a prostitute for brief periods. During one of her stints in a brothel she meets a john who seems genuinely interested in her; when they begin meeting outside of the brothel, he continues to pay her, leaving her confused and reflective about where her life is taking her.

In Secretary --- turned into a feature film released in 2002 starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader --- a young woman with a dim and uncertain view of her future begins a job working as a receptionist and secretary for a lawyer in a small, stand-alone office building. When the lawyer discovers errors in some of the letters she types up, his methods for punishing her take a startling twist, leaving her both appalled and aroused.

A woman runs into an old friend on the street, in Other Factors, someone she has not seen for a couple of years. He triggers unwelcome memories for her of someone she had thought of as a friend, but who she felt had unexpectedly turned on her, and with whom she had therefore abruptly cut off contact. Since that time she has built a comfortable life for herself, having found good work and a stable relationship, but when an opportunity to see her former friend comes up, she struggles with how to handle the sudden resurrection of past disappointment.

The lead character in Heaven is wife, mother, sister and aunt, with these roles sometimes bringing her joy and happiness, and other times buffeting her life with struggle and pain. Perhaps most challenging are the unexpected twists, the moments when what seemed to be going well suddenly turns bad, and through it all finding a way to keep moving forward.

Reading any of the stories in this collection is a bit like staring at a slow-motion accident: we are bewildered and disturbed, but we cannot look away. It can be a struggle to know whether to feel pity, empathy or outrage for the characters in these stories, and a part of deciding which of these feelings is appropriate can be recognizing in some of these characters our own weakness and failings.

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, April 20, 2014

Book Review: "Making American Foreign Policy" by Ole R. Holsti

Making American Foreign Policy (2006)  

Ole R. Holsti (1933)

390 pages

American public opinion has been characterized by some analysts as unstable and incoherent, and having little impact on foreign policy; but is such a view supported by actual evidence, or does it simply represent an unsubstantiated assumption? More generally, how has the foreign policy environment in the United States changed since the relatively strong consensus that existed during the first two decades after the end of WW II, when the Cold War focused the minds of political leaders and the public alike? And, Classical Realist models of international relations assume that nation-states are unitary rational actors, that is, that they can be considered as single entities that make rational choices; but should foreign policy decisions by the US government be made based on such a model of international behavior, ignoring the varied and particular characteristics of any nation’s leaders?

In Making American Foreign Policy, Ole R. Holsti, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Duke University, examines these and other questions concerning American foreign policy over the past half-century.

Holsti opens the book with two chapters in which he argues that the analysis and understanding of decision making in political contexts can benefit from considering the behaviors of the leaders involved; he refers to this as a cognitive approach to political science, and differentiates it from the unitary rational actor model mentioned above. To understand a leader’s behavior, he begins by characterizing their Belief System, which he defines as a set of lenses through which a person perceives the world, and with which order is brought to an otherwise unmanageable amount of information. In a data-driven approach that he follows throughout the remaining chapters of the book, Holsti parses, categorizes and analyzes the public comments about the Soviet Union made by John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State from 1953-59, in order to understand Dulles’ belief system. Holsti begins by developing a hypothesis that describes Dulles’ opinions regarding the Soviet Union, and then demonstrates the validity of the hypothesized belief system by analyzing Dulles’ public statements. Thus, Holsti does not simply rely on an arm-chair psychological evaluation of Dulles, he instead quantifies the nature of Dulles’ beliefs, and shows that a consistent pattern can be found in his public declarations.

Having established the importance of taking a cognitive approach to analyzing and understanding foreign policy behaviors, Holsti uses the next eight chapters of the book to examine how the beliefs and opinions of American leaders and the public have affected foreign policy decisions and behavior. Holsti begins from the premise that for the two decades after the end of WW II a fairly consistent, coherent and broadly-held consensus existed in American foreign policy, one shaped principally by the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He then uses survey data that he and his team gathered, as well as data from other researchers and organizations, to quantifiably chart public and leadership opinion in the US, as well as the trends in these opinions since the mid-1960’s, a period of dramatic change encompassing Vietnam, several rounds of détente, the end of the Cold War, the post-Cold War era, and the events and aftermath of 9-11.

Whether it’s the “Almond-Lippmann Consensus” (that American public opinion is volatile, incoherent and has little impact on foreign policy), the popular notion that Americans will not support foreign involvement once casualty figures begin mounting, or Arthur Schlesinger’s statement in 1995 that Americans are becoming more isolationist in the aftermath of the cold war, Holsti does not simply argue for or against these propositions. He instead goes back to the survey results and shows us what an analysis of actual data says about the validity of these assumptions --- or general lack thereof in the case of the three listed above. In doing so he is careful to describe the limitations of the survey results he presents, and also where the data do not allow a clear distinction.

To note just one of the intriguing results that comes out in these chapters: Holsti charts how the opinions of American leaders and the public have been affected and changed by the significant international events of the past 50 years. Analyzing the extensive survey data that he and others have collected, he demonstrates how Vietnam sundered the Cold War consensus that had existed since WW II, and from the data he demonstrates the quite divergent and highly partisan viewpoints that have developed, and how an alignment arose between domestic and foreign policy opinions on each side of that partisan divide. He also examines the trends in opinion over the past five decades, noting that even such dramatic events as the end of the Cold War and the 9-11 attacks have not led to the development of a new consensus, and that in fact the partisan and ideological divides in politics have only become deeper. Surely it would be difficult to argue with the impression --- even without data --- that in the decade since the book was published these trends have only intensified.

Holsti concludes with two chapters that discuss more broadly the analysis of international relations and foreign policy. In the first of these, he summarizes the main approaches, or models, used in the study and understanding of these areas, discussing their principal features, and some of the shortcomings critics have raised against them. One element of the discussion that particularly stood out for me was the realization that these models and their respective supporters tie back to Holsti’s opening chapters on Belief Systems and their impact on an individual’s perception and ordering of information about the world. Classical Realism, according to Holsti, is grounded in a pessimistic theory of human nature, and a focus on the causes of war and conditions of peace; it’s not difficult to see how a person’s view of the world could lead them to favor this model. Similarly, the model that Holsti lumps together under the title of Global Society, Interdependence, Institutionalism acknowledges that issues of war and peace are important, but believes too that nation-states can have other motivations for their behavior, which can lead to institution building between states, and so to a non-zero-sum structure; again, one can imagine that a person’s belief system might lead them to accept the validity of such a model. Other approaches, such as Marxism, World Systems, Dependency (built around the idea that conditions arising from modes of production, such as poverty and exploitation, are key elements) and Post-Modern (negating the idea that a general model for the international system can even be developed) fit the same pattern. As in so many areas of science, and beyond it for that matter, how one views the world --- one’s belief system --- inevitably affects how one imagines (models) it.

In the same chapter, Holsti discusses Decision Making structures, such as bureaucratic/organizational, small group and individual leader models. These approaches link back to a fundamental criticism of the Classical Realism (unitary rational actor) theory, that nation-states cannot be considered to act either as singular units or rationally because their actions come down to the beliefs and behaviors of individuals or groups. Holsti also points out that there has been a growing movement to consider multiple levels of models at once in order to more fully understand and make sense of international relations and foreign policy; so, for example, to use a classical realism or global systems model, but in conjunction with (more detailed) decision making-based models.

Holsti concludes with a final chapter that summarizes his take away from over forty years of studying American leadership and public opinion and its impact on foreign policy behavior and decisions. He states that “by conventional measures of power and status power” (p. 345) the United States continues to dominate the international arena, but that we have lost much of our ability to guide and influence foreign relations --- the soft power that helps a country to avoid having to resort to military force to further its interests. He also laments (perceptively one could say, from the perspective of 10 years on) the continuing trend toward an ever more partisan and ideologically driven foreign policy debate, from which our influence on international relation can only suffer. He finds that the United States continues to pay a heavy price for the way our government executed the Iraq War --- from its attempt to coerce allies into participating or lending support, to its misleading statements made to justify the war --- which he feels has been particularly damaging to our standing and influence in world affairs.

The chapters in Making American Foreign Policy consist of a dozen or so published papers from Holsti’s five decades of work in the field of analyzing international relations and foreign policy.  Their origin as stand-alone papers leads to some level of overlap in the results and discussion from one chapter (paper) to the next, which Holsti addresses in part by including an introduction in which he describes the overarching themes of the book, and provides a brief outline of the individual chapters and their place in the whole.  The choice of issuing the book as a collection of papers does have an advantage for the reader: with the chapters arranged in roughly chronological order, covering papers he published between 1972 to 2005, we can evaluate and understand the results and analysis in the context of the dramatic changes that occurred over that period.   In addition we benefit from an authoritative, data-driven analysis of American foreign policy over the last half-century.  This is not purely a work of one person’s opinion, like so many books on domestic and international politics can be. Instead Holsti summarizes and analyzes the results of several decades of surveys of both the American public and American decision making elite, to help us understand how their opinions have evolved, and to allow us to evaluate which popular assumptions about their opinions and beliefs stand up to scrutiny, and which are misguided, or worse, wishful (often for political purposes) thinking.

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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 Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review: "Don't Look Now" by Daphne Du Maurier

Don’t Look Now (2008; selected stories from 1952-1980)  

Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989)

346 pages

I must first admit that this was a book that I judged by its cover.

A stack of them lay on a table near the bookstore’s collection of publisher NYRB Classics books, and the cover caught my eye as soon as I walked up. When I found out that the cover photo is a still shot from the movie Repulsion, my curiosity grew. (For those not familiar with the film, Repulsion was released in 1965 by Roman Polanski, and starred Catherine Deneuve; it is a psychological thriller, a kind of nightmare-on-film that has one of the qualities I look for in a movie: it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, even once it’s over.)

When I opened the book and discovered that one of the stories was The Birds, which served as the source material for the Hitchcock movie of the same name, I was hooked. Back home, as I sat down to begin reading the book, I was ready for a set of stories that would grab me, ‘Repulsion-like’, and not let go.

And the title story didn’t disappoint. As it opens a couple is having lunch in Venice, where they are vacationing in an attempt to find a return to normalcy after the death of their daughter. They notice two old women staring at them from across the dining room; later the wife returns from the restroom saying that she ran into one of the two, that they are sisters, and that one of them claims to have seen the couples dead daughter sitting between her parents at the table. The husband tries to laugh it off, but his wife is convinced that the women have had a true vision. Soon after this unsettling news the wife learns she must return home suddenly to London, and leaves the hotel to catch the next flight out, with her husband planning to follow her later that day with the car. Hours after his wife’s flight was scheduled to depart the husband thinks he sees her on a passing ferry standing with the two old women, and finds himself drawn into a deepening nightmare of uncertainty that soon has him questioning his sanity.

The Birds, according to Patrick McGrath in the book’s Introduction, “is the masterpiece” of short stories, and it certainly stands out in this collection. The tension builds from the first lines, quickly reaching a fever pitch sustained through to the end of the story. McGrath notes that Du Maurier did not like Hitchcock’s movie adaptation of her story, which had significant changes to the setting and characters. In Du Maurier’s telling, a hired hand on an isolated farm along the English coast must fight to protect his family when winter winds bring a sudden end to fall --- and a deadly change in the behavior of the birds. He and his family hear radio reports of similar occurrences all over England, the newscasters implying that some man-made impact on the climate lies behind the fanatical behavior of the birds, though the exact cause remains unknown. As the days pass the man and his family realize that their neighbors have perished, the government will not be able to help them, and that they must fight on alone against a relentless enemy.

The remaining stories are engaging, but do not achieve the same undertone of unease growing into fear and finally terror as the initial two. Some come closer than others to creating that tension, but for the most part they are either more straightforward mystery stories (say, like “Ripley’s believe it or not” stories), or they build some suspense but then conclude with a kind of final trick --- unlike a story such as The Birds, which has no surprise ending, leaving you with the dread of the unknown future.

In the story Escort, a freighter crosses the North Sea on a trip from Scandinavia to its home port in England during the early months of World War II. In the middle of the trip, far from safety, the crew spot a German U-boat periscope rise up out of the water in the distance, and they begin maneuvers intended to keep the U-boat at a difficult firing angle. As their hopes for survival fade, a fog bank suddenly closes in around them, and brings with it an old-style British raiding ship whose captain offers his assistance. The captain of the freighter accepts the offer, though unable to understand where the old wooden barque has come from and how it will fend off the German torpedoes.

In Split Second, a woman in early 1930’s England tidies up her home and then goes out for a walk through a nearby heath. Returning home she is shocked to discover that her things have been removed and a handful of people claim that they are renting rooms in what has become a lodging house. She calls the police to arrest the burglars, but ends up in custody herself instead. Why can she not convince anyone that she is the rightful owner, and why can the police not track down any of her friends, or her daughter studying at a nearby private school?

A mechanic decides to catch a movie after work in Kiss Me Again, Stranger and ends up falling in love with the usherette who collects his ticket. When he follows her onto the bus after the show and chats her up, his sudden crush for her can’t quite blind him to her odd behavior, starting with the fact that she asks him, as she falls asleep on his shoulder, not to let her miss her stop, at the bottom of a hill, near a cemetery.

A woman lies in a hospital bed, having waited for weeks to have the bandages removed from her eyes in The Blue Lenses. The doctors who performed her eye surgery and the nurses who tend to her are all most friendly and helpful, and her husband dutifully stops to visit each day. When the doctor can finally remove the bandages, he explains that she still has on her eyes protective blue lenses that she will have to wear for a week, and that could make things look odd. The last bandage removed, she looks around the room, and the furnishings do indeed have a blue tinge, though this hardly detracts from her joy at being able to see well again. Looking at the doctor and nurse next to her bed, however, she is shocked to see them with animal heads, the animals corresponding to their individual personalities; she desperately awaits the arrival of her husband later that evening to help her deal with what has befallen her.

In a small village along the coast of Brittany, a young fisherman’s wife frets about her husband’s upcoming fishing trip in La Sainte-Vierge, her brother having died only a year earlier while out fishing on the Atlantic Ocean. Looking for divine intervention, she goes to the local chapel and kneels before the statue of the blessed virgin to pray for her husband’s safe return, and ends by pleading for an acknowledgement that her wish has been granted. When the moon moves out from behind the clouds in the night sky, she sees the longed for blessing through the chapel window, in the nearby grass.

A wrong word at the wrong moment wreaks havoc on three lives in the story Indiscretion. A man is invited out by his boss to lunch to celebrate the boss’s marriage, planned for the following day. When the subordinate explains that his reticence to congratulate his boss is the result of unpleasant relationships he has experienced, his boss goads him into telling more. The man finally gives in, and describes a girl he had run into just the year before, and who turned out to be not who she had said she was. Fate intervenes the next day when the man goes to the train station to see his boss off on the honeymoon.

The closing story, Monte Verità, has an almost mystical tone to it. Two friends grow up climbing mountains together; when one of the pair marries, and goes off on a mountain climbing trip with his wife, she disappears into mysterious monastery-like building near the twin peaks of the mountain. It his left to the man’s friend to discover what has become of her.

If you are looking for tense, disturbing, psychological dramas, you will find a few such stories here, but many of the others end up on the lighter, mystery end of the spectrum. That said, with one’s expectations adjusted just a bit from the dramatic cover picture that serves as introduction to the book, there is much to enjoy and be captivated by in Du Maurier’s writing and construction of these tales.

Other reviews / information:

This is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.

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