Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Review: "The War Prayer" by Mark Twain

The War Prayer (1905)
Mark Twain (1835-1910)

85 pages
To Dan Beard, who dropped in to see him,
Clemens read the “War Prayer,” stating that
he had read it to his daughter Jean,
and others, who had told him he must not
print it, for it would be regarded as sacrilege.

“Still, you are going to publish it, are you not?”

Clemens, pacing up and down the room
in his dressing gown and slippers,
shook his head.

“No,” he said, “I have told the whole truth
in that, and only dead men can tell the truth
in this world.

“It can be published after I am dead.”
From: Mark Twain, A Biography by Albert Bigelow Paine
Harper & Brothers, 1912 

This recollection serves as the Forward to The War Prayer by Mark Twain. (Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens; Dan Beard was an illustrator who work on several of Twain’s books.) Reading The War Prayer one can understand Twain’s hesitation. This powerful short story represents a carefully crafted indictment of the feverish righteousness and thoughtless jingoism that leads to the glorification of war, and that can bring forth cheering crowds of soldiers, their loved ones and also their envious “neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or failing, die the noblest of noble deaths.”

In the story, Twain turns the tables on these cheering masses as they gather in church before the troops head for the front, where the preacher beseeches God to watch over “our noble young soldiers and aid … them in their patriotic work; … [and] help them to crush the foe.” As the preacher finishes his rousing speech “an aged stranger” enters the church, and ascends to where the preacher stands before the crowd. After some moments silently staring down at the crowd, he announces to them “I come from the Throne --- bearing a message from Almighty God,” and proceeds to describe to them the “full import,” the “unspoken” in what they have asked of God. He lays bare for the crowd the gruesome reality behind their requests to God, the horror of the war for which they cheer so mightily.

Based on what I’ve learned, the story was originally written in 1905, but not published until 1923, after Twain’s death. The Perennial Library edition I have logs in at 85 pages, but the story is really only a relatively short text, spread out among many illustrations, with sometimes only a few words or lines per page. The illustrations were created by John Groth in 1968, and are hauntingly arresting ink drawings that complement the story perfectly; the book cover, pictured above, shows an example. One can easily imagine the impetus for these drawings, and the reprint of the book itself, arising out of the growing anti-war sentiment of the late 1960’s. The book is as brilliant and concise an anti-war statement as can be found.

Other reviews / information:

For another amazing anti-war piece, see the short story The Dog of Dürer in Marco Denevi's Falsificaciones (Falsifications).
A sentiment similar to that expressed by Twain in The War Prayer appears in a novel from 1938 by the German writer Erich Wiechert, The Simple Life (Das einfache Leben; my review here). In that story, a man who finds himself lost in an existential crisis in the wake of his experiences in the first world war seeks out a new life of simple labor in the countryside. Finding profound and compelling meaning in the work and natural surroundings of his new life, he begins to reconsider the meaning of the faith he grew up with.  Questioning the character of God, or perhaps more precisely, the commonly accepted image of God held by his fellow countrymen, he decides:

...I will find a different face [of God]. Not one that is to be beseeched, and not one that is to be thanked. Not one before whom people will begin shouting: “Now thank all ye God!”, if they have just beaten to death a thousand or ten thousand men. Because then must the others clearly be shouting: “Now curse all ye God.” (241)

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, January 24, 2014

Book Review: "Disgrace" by J. M. Coetzee

Disgrace (1999)
J. M. Coetzee (1940)

220 pages

In the New York Times Book Review a few months back, two essays appeared in the Bookends section that considered the question of whether it is important for readers to like the characters in a novel. I don’t recall how the two writers came out on the question, but I remember thinking that, for me, although I don’t feel that I need to particularly like the characters of a story, or agree with their world view or their actions, it would be difficult to read a novel built around a main character who I fundamentally dislike. Then again, if one believes Carl Jung’s claim, it may be that such a book is the best one to read: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Which brings me to J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, and its main character David Lurie, who I admit I found extremely difficult to like. Lurie, in his early 50’s and divorced, is a professor of literature at a university in Cape Town, South Africa. Early in the story he meets one of his students, twenty year old Melanie, while walking across campus, and in short order prevails upon her to have sex with him. Events quickly spin out of his control, and soon the university has expelled him. Shunned by the university community and his neighbors, he leaves Cape Town and heads across South Africa to the home of his daughter, Lucy, who lives on a small plot of land in the countryside. There she boards dogs and raises produce for the local farmer’s market. The transition for Lurie from his urbane, university lifestyle could not be more dramatic.

From my summary so far, Lurie is simply a character exhibiting his humanity, flaws and all. But then we turn to his personality. He arrives at his daughter’s doorstep “disgraced,” as he puts it, and yet immediately begins to judge her lifestyle and life-choices, as he does with everyone he meets in the novel, even those from his past who he only thinks about. And he doesn’t keep his opinions to himself; insufferably smug and self-righteous, he criticizes most everyone he meets, whether the university committee members who bend over backwards trying to find a resolution short of expelling him, or his daughter and her friends and neighbors. And he appears to wear his disgrace as a badge of honor, proudly describing to his daughter how he did not give in to the investigating committee, did not allow any compromise that would impugn on what he found to be the romantic and poetic beauty of his love for Melanie, irrespective of her being his student. Most disturbingly, though he at times recognizes the effect his actions or words have on others, this self-recognition at most moves him to pity them, not to hold back his pointed comments. Lurie is a difficult character to stand, and as a reader I often wanted to reach into the pages, grab hold of his shoulders and give him a good shake.

Which Coetzee then does for us, as South Africa’s post-apartheid history rides hard into the lives of Lurie and his daughter. The moment arrives with little or no warning for them, or for the reader, and it changes completely the physical and psychological trajectory of the story. As Lurie attempts to come to grips with what has happened, he first turns angry, trying to manage the aftermath with the overarching self-assuredness that comes naturally to him. But the incident has shaken him deeply; where he had earlier confidently justified to himself his coercion of a student into bed, or his high-handed disdain for his university colleagues, he now finds himself unable to make things right again, or even shepherd them in a direction he finds appropriate. Suddenly isolated and at a loss how to move forward, he struggles to recreate himself as he contemplates his now shattered self-confidence and emasculated wit. Moving between his old home in Cape Town, and living near his daughter to support her, he passes through a kind of wilderness of the soul as he seeks a new basis for his life.

Disgrace begins as a character study of a man deeply set in his rather pedantic ways, before becoming, in hardly more than an instant, the story of someone forced to recognize and confront his advancing age and abrasive personality. In that same pivotal moment Coetzee shifts the place of the novel under the readers feet, from a nearly generic anywhere to a harsh and bracing commentary on modern South Africa and its apartheid past --- a past that can seem like a distant memory only a heartbeat before it comes exploding back into the present. And the disgrace that opens the novel, the one that Lurie can appear to wear as a badge of honor: that disgrace suddenly pales before real disgrace, violently imposed, whether individually or collectively, leaving a stain difficult to bear.

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I have also reviewed Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians.

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, January 19, 2014

Book Review: "2312" by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 (2012)

Kim Stanley Robinson (1952)

660 pages

Science fiction stories tend to imagine one of two distinct futures for humanity: a collapse into dystopian chaos, or a transcendent shift into a more advanced phase of existence. Dystopian societies have been generally described as resulting from both unforeseeable events, such as an asteroid hit or alien invasion, or unsustainable choices, such as human environmental or political shortsightedness. More optimistic writers have shown us overcoming and moving beyond our self-induced difficulties --- often after teetering on the brink of disaster --- to move ahead together to explore space as a united world.

In 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson envisions what could be considered a third, middle path into our future, one in which humanity survives, and science and technology continue their accelerated development, but in which people are fundamentally little different from us today. Looking three centuries into our future, Robinson assumes that a too long delayed response to global warming has led to significant ice melt and so rise in ocean levels. Inundated coastal areas have either been abandoned or had their cities built up Venetian-style, with skyscrapers towering over flooded former streets, and people using built-up promenades and boats to get around. Looking for relief, and resources to use on Earth, mankind has moved out into the solar system, establishing laboratories and mining settlements on other worlds. On planets, moons and asteroids communities and eventually colonies have grown from these initial footholds; in some places terraforming has been done to create human-habitable climates, while in others covered cities have been built. Technological development in the areas of computing power and robots threatens to cross that difficult-to-define boundary into the dream (or nightmare?) of artificial intelligence. Perhaps most dramatically, scientific understanding and developments have led to radical changes in medicine and human biology, leading to significantly longer life spans, and the emergence of what can best be referred to as new varieties of people, with extremely small or tall body types say, or mixtures of male and female characteristics.

Yet despite all of these marvels, in Robinson’s imagined future human nature has not fundamentally changed from our present day. The science and technology that have allowed expansion into the solar system have not resolved Earth’s significant problems: it remains a densely populated world with extreme inequality and balkanized politics. The colonies, for their part, have largely resolved the inequality issues that plague Earth, but people have carried their tendencies toward nationalism and provincialism out into the solar system; even as the colonies have grown independent of the Earth-side nations that founded them, and trade and travel have flourished, they struggle among themselves for access to and control of the resources of the solar system. And although Earth and these off-world communities remain reliant on one another in significant ways, their interactions are marked by escalating tensions; Earth-bound societies envy the prosperity of the colonies, which, aided by the limitations inherent to the physical realities of their off-world existence, have been able to experiment with new, more effective economic and political regimes.

These rising tensions in the solar system drive Robinson’s plot, his novel being part vision of our future and part detective story. His main character is Swan Er Hong, an artist living in a city on Mercury, who finds herself thrust into the middle of a mystery as the story opens, when her grandmother dies of apparently natural causes. Swan discovers that her grandmother had been leading a system-wide group of people trying to find a way to counter what they see as the growing threats from balkanization of political power across the solar system. Though she initially hesitates to join the group, the need for action becomes clear to her when an attack destroys her city on Mercury. She joins her new partners as they move back and forth through the solar system over a period of years struggling to understand who is at the center of the Mercury attack and other similar disasters, and how to stop them. In the year 2312 events come to a head, as conflicting parties struggle to impose their will on events that will impact the future development of civilization on Earth and throughout the solar system.

Despite the plot that ties the story together, Robinson’s novel is not a simple action-adventure story. It develops slowly, moments of drama alternating with sections that introduce to us the outlines of this future world. Chapters that advance the plot are interlaced with several titled simply “Lists”, which itemize things or ideas, confronting the reader with the variety of this future world, and still others labeled “Extracts”, which contain a few pages of what appear to be brief passages from some far future encyclopedia, looking back at the events leading up to this pivotal year of 2312. 

All of these parts together present to us Robinson’s imaginative take on how our present day world will develop into the future, which can perhaps best be captured in his reference to “Jevons Paradox, which states that the better human technology gets, the more harm we do with it.”(348) Robinson makes clear that in 2312, the jury remains out on whether Jevons Paradox stands as an ineluctable destiny, or a fate that can be overcome; his main characters fervently desire to believe the latter, but events continuously conspire against their hopes. (William Stanley Jevons was an 1865 economist.)

Throughout the novel, Robinson leaves little doubt about where he sees our current choices leading us; in one of the Extracts chapters a future historian looks back, stating:
the space diaspora occurred as late capitalism writhed in its internal decision concerning whether to destroy Earth’s biosphere or change its rules. Many argued for the destruction of the biosphere, as being the lesser of two evils. (138)
 In a similar vein, his main character, as she struggles to provide aid back to Earth and its people, observes with frustration the plight of the masses at the bottom of the income ladder:
Humans were still not only the cheapest robots around, but also, for many tasks, the only robots that could do the job. They were self-reproducing robots too. They showed up and worked, generation after generation; give them three thousand calories a day and few amenities, a little time off, and a strong jolt of fear, and you could work them at almost anything. (350)

Enter Robinson’s world of 2312 not for the action and adventure, though his story also succeeds on that level, but rather to immerse yourself in a vision of what our collective future world could become. The detective story that drives the plot develops rather slowly through this book’s 600-plus pages, and ultimately the struggles and experiences of the characters as they uncover the dangerous forces at play in the solar system serve as only a part of the whole in our understanding of this future world Robinson imagines. What fleshes out his vision for us are the ideas and future-history Robinson details in the interludes and asides to the main story; in these we discover one of human kind’s possible futures, and how it will be driven by the consequences of the political and economic choices we are making today, and as well as our inherent capabilities and limitations.

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Maybe better to check-out after you finish reading the book, as I suppose it represents a very minor 'Spoiler', but there is an interesting representation of one aspect of the story at Orbit 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