Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review: "Thus Bad Begins" by Javier Marías

Thus Bad Begins (2016)
Javier Marías
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

444 pages

Why do we tend to react so harshly in response to relatively minor deceptions that happen to us personally, while often shrugging off or at least failing to generate sustained indignation over barbarous behavior that we learn has been perpetrated against others, even against friends? This feature of human psychology lies at the heart of Javier Marías’s novel Thus Bad Begins.

Though nominally set in modern day Spain, the story develops as an extended flashback of Juan de Vere, a young man just out of university in the early 1980’s. De Vere works as an assistant to the film director Eduardo Muriel, and, as the novel opens, Muriel has a special request for him: to begin observing closely a friend of Muriel’s, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten. Muriel has apparently learned some disturbing news about Van Vechten, and wants de Vere to help him discover whether it’s true. In answer to de Vere’s repeated attempts to begin his assignment with more details, however, Muriel will only say that he has heard that “the Doctor behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one,” (43). Thus Muriel leaves de Vere to perform his investigation in the dark --- leaving him at the mercy of his imagination in guessing what the truth might be.

De Vere works at Muriel’s apartment, eventually spending so much time there that Muriel provides him a cubbyhole room in which to sleep. As a result, de Vere gradually becomes a little noticed witness to life in the apartment, where Muriel lives with his wife Beatriz and their three kids, as well as a housekeeper.

De Vere’s intimate view into Muriel’s family life only heightens his curiosity at what Van Vechten could have done to inspire such misgivings in Muriel. Though de Vere generally finds Muriel “one of the most upright, charming, fair-minded men [he] had ever met,” (47), he also observes Muriel regularly behaving coarsely toward his wife in private, often disparaging and belittling her verbally. As de Vere begins his pursuit of the truth about Van Vechten, he struggles to square Muriel’s indignation over what he has apparently learned about the doctor’s “indecent behavior towards a woman”, with his dismissive and derogatory conduct toward his own wife.

Out of this seemingly simple mystery, Marías creates the kind of intriguingly intricate and thought-provoking meditation on human behaviors and idiosyncrasies that runs through so much of his work. His characters exhibit a convincing mélange of good and flawed qualities --- able to demonstrate kindness in some situations while succumbing to temptation in others --- and so provide fertile ground for Marías to elaborate on our human condition. And what Marías sees deep inside us, what he reveals to us about ourselves, can arise suddenly in his telling, a moment of self-awareness for a character that for the reader comes with a jolt of recognition, hitting far too close to home:
… one of those griefs that you put off because you don’t want to confront or plunge into it and which, nevertheless, always comes back, recurs, grows deeper with each attack, having failed to disappear during the period you were keeping it at bay or far from your thoughts. (14)
Characteristic of so many of his novels, Marías mixes fiction and reality to great effect in Thus Bad Begins, including historical figures and places throughout the story. Marías places the fictional director Muriel in a context of real-life members of the film industry; these include director Jesús Franco --- famous for horror and sexploitation films --- and his frequent producer, Harry Towers, along with several popular actors.

Though Franco and Towers may be known to some readers, the pair clearly don’t have the fame that typical real-life figures who appear in novels might; also, only Towers actually appears in the story, and then only for a brief moment. Rather than use his fictional characters to illuminate historical figures and their times, Marías’s inclusion of historical people into the novel seems intended to provide a degree of verisimilitude to the fictional story he tells. The outlandish and stylized films of Franco that Marías refers to, and the strange and immoral stories he describes from Towers’ life have the effect of making the fictional characters and their situations and actions feel more realistic, more plausible.

Marías’s approach also introduces ambiguity about where the fictional elements of his story end and true history begins. That uncertainty leads to surely the most unsettling part of the novel for a reader: whether Marías has drawn from historical reality the disturbing secret of Van Vechten’s past that de Vere ultimately uncovers. Early on, de Vere guesses that this secret might be tied to the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of the fascist victors; Muriel essentially confirms de Vere’s assumption, pointing out a weighty reality of Spain, particularly in the 1980’s:
Almost everything [in Spain] has to do with the [Spanish Civil] War. … A war like that is a stigma that takes one or even two centuries to disappear, because it contains everything an affects and debases everything. (37)

The roles in Spain of individuals and the actions of society at large during and after the war in fact play a central role in Marías’s telling. Given Marías’s style, one cannot help but fear that the uncovered details of Van Vechten’s past are historically accurate, even if he himself is a fictional character. More broadly, Marías’s story provides a look into the complicated, post-dictatorship social situation in Spain in the early 1980’s. Less than a decade removed from Franco’s death and the initially tenuous transition to democracy, Marías points out ways in which social behaviors changed much more rapidly than the political situation managed to keep up with, demonstrating the impact this had and some of the behaviors it led to.

Sometimes, admittedly, Marías takes the liberty to descend to more concrete commentary, offering through his characters pointed statements on mannerisms he dislikes. A bit like product placement in a movie, characters will suddenly make critical comments that seem likely to represent Marías’s personal views, such as de Vere pointing out while listening to a friend relating a story: “He made that awful gesture imported from America that people use to indicate quote marks”. (342)   Such comments pop-up up occasionally, and generally seem a bit gratuitous --- often not quite fitting the manner of the characters saying them.

That is a mere quibble, however: in exchange for such isolated moments, the reader is rewarded with Marías’s wonderful observations of our inner lives and complexities. In Thus Bad Begins, he examines the fluid range of justice people have, leading us to respond to perceived personal wrongs with harsh revenge, while being able to look past, ignore or simply not pursue knowledge about more brutal crimes committed against others. As readers, we are left to wonder about our own reactions in such situations --- though hopefully for all of us, with lower stakes than the characters here.

Other reviews / information:
The books title, Thus Bad Begins, comes from a Hamlet. The story also contains a long quote from Henry IV Part 2 on how easily rumors spread, that Marías later refers back to in a comment that seems particularly apt for our current environment:
… our level of credulity has reverted to what it was in the Middle Ages, with rumor stuffing our ears with false reports … and we refuse to ask for proof, accepting everything as credible because everything has already happened, or so we believe. (285)

Other works I have read by Marías, though I read all but three of them before I began this blog of reviews:
  • The Man of Feeling: An opera singer sees a couple on a train; they all disembark in the same city, and he meets them in a hotel, eventually falls into a complex relationship with the woman, who is unhappy in her marriage. My review here.
  • The Infatuations: A woman learns that the male half of a couple she has seen repeatedly at a café has been killed, and she becomes involved in trying to understand what happened to him; my review here.
  • While the Women are Sleeping: A collection of short stories; my review here.
  • When I was Mortal: A collection of short stories.
  • A Heart so White: A novel of a man who upon getting married reconsiders his past.
  • Dark Back of Time: A novel written as a kind of imagined biography; a study of human nature that will pull you in deeply and force you to consider ideas and fears you had tried to leave buried in your subconscious.
You can find quotes from some of these works, and from Thus Bad Begins 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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book Review: "Pond" by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond (2016)
Claire-Louise Bennett

195 pages

When I read or hear a review of a book that piques my interest, I add the title and author to a list on my phone, as a reminder for some future visit to a bookstore. Generally, even if months or years pass before I finally come across the book, reading the summary on its cover provides me a sufficient reminder of why it had caught my interest in the first place. Some entries on my list, however, have a question mark at the end of the title and author’s name: my notation for a review that intrigued me, but didn’t necessarily convince me. These are the cryptic entries on my list; when I finally encounter one of these titles in the bookstore, I have generally forgotten what had earlier caught my attention --- and, more importantly, what hesitations had tempered my interest.

So it was when I came across author Claire-Louise Bennett’s book Pond in the bookstore a couple of months ago --- it was on my list, but with one of those enigmatic question marks tacked on. Reviewing the summary on the dust jacket convinced me to go ahead and buy it, but left me with little clear notion of what I was wading into when I later opened it to begin reading. In particular, though I read the book as a novel, once I’d finished and sat down to write this review it dawned on me that perhaps it actually consists of a collection of short stories.

Ultimately it can be enjoyed either way, as a set of loosely related stories, or a kind of impressionistic and meandering novel. Bennett has structured the book as a series of vignettes, narrated by a young woman recalling and reflecting on moments in her life, from the mundane to the dramatic. Many of the woman’s recollections center on events in and around a small cottage she leases near the Atlantic coast of Ireland, a dwelling and landscape that she seems to inhabit deeply, with all her senses.

In one story she watches a storm pass over the mountains outside her window as she takes a bath, meditating on the storm’s relationship to the mountains which she imagines it to be revisiting. In another, after spending days sick in bed, she pulls on a coat over her nightgown and walks up a hill from her cottage to get some air; when, as she leans on a gate to enjoy the view of the countryside, a young man with the hood of his jacket pulled up walks toward her up the path, her initial, instinctive fear suddenly gives way to a fevered eroticism as she finds herself bridling again her natural caution and introverted passiveness.

These remembrances seem to pour out of the Bennett’s narrator --- stream of conscious accounts during which she veers off onto non sequiturs, gets distracted by details she can’t quite recall, and jumps back to fill in information that suddenly occurs to her, just as someone sharing a story with you over a cup of tea or a beer might do. In many of these recollections, she broods on the hidden meanings and implications in her relationships with neighbors, friends and boyfriends, meditations that verge on the obsessive as she sorts through her feelings.

In others, she paints lush, impressionistic portraits of the physical world in and around her cottage, exquisite and engaging descriptions that demonstrate an intimate and almost anthropomorphized perception of her surroundings and their impact on her life. Within her remarkable hyper-awareness, the boundaries between her inner musings and the world she inhabits can become fluid and uncertain:
There was a storm, an old storm, going around and around the mountain, visiting the mountains again perhaps after who knows how long, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere. And to begin with nothing, just a storm, nothing original, nothing I hadn’t heard before. I went about my business for a while until it struck me I should disconnect the cables and thus the lights went out on those small matters I endeavor to attend to and I didn’t mind very much because the matters were straightforward and already composed and yet were at the same time quite beyond me at that moment. It was of no great consequence really. I got into the water which had been waiting for some time, the temperature loosening, and then I had the idea about opening the window wide, which I did with no difficulty despite the rigid appearance of the clasp.

And then, from there, it was possible, unavoidable really, to listen to the storm going around and around, and I knew it was an old one that had come back --- it seemed to know exactly where it was and there was such intimacy in its movement and in the sound it made as it went along and around and around. Yes, I thought, you know those mountains and the mountains are familiar with you also. No --- it was not raging, it was not simply raging --- I heard no element of anger in fact. How loud it was and yet so fragile, stopping and starting for a long time --- it didn’t know where to begin, but it was by no means frantic, either, not at all. I moved a web of lather about the roots of my hair and became immersed in the body of the storm; I knew its structure, saw its eyes, felt its past, and I empathized with its entreaty. It had style, it was experienced; and it came back, and it came back again.

Going around and around, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere. And even though the mountain did nothing the mountain was not impervious to the storm and in fact dreaded its retreat and longed for it always to come back, and to come back again. (65-67)

Resist the temptation to try and tease a concrete plot out of Bennett’s tales in Pond. Instead, surrender to the meandering sensibility and colorful imagery of her story-telling, and so delight in her narrator’s keen, if often ambivalent, meditations on the fundamental ties that bind us to the natural world and the many people in our lives. And perhaps, as a reward, find yourself encouraged to look more deeply and intensely at even the most apparently quotidian details of daily life.

Other reviews / information:

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: "Death's End" by Cixin Liu

Death’s End (2016)
Cixin Liu (1963)

Translated by Ken Liu
604 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the third book in a trilogy, and it’s not possible to write about it without including some context from the first two books, The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest. So, if you haven’t read the first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review of The Three-Body Problem here; if you’ve read that, but not The Dark Forest, you’ll find my review of that second story here.]

Oh my.

In Death’s End, the concluding novel in Cixin Liu’s mesmerizing and mind-bending science fiction trilogy, Liu explores the full ramifications of the dark vision of life in the universe he introduced readers to in the first two novels. When looking up at the night sky, Liu clearly does not fantasize about potentially thrilling and enriching encounters with galactic civilizations in the vein of science fiction adventure stories such as Star Trek or Star Wars; quite the contrary, he envisions, to quote one of his characters from the second book,
the universe as a dark forest. Civilization [as] an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care … because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. (484, The Dark Forest
Popular, romanticized views of space exploration and discovery evaporate quickly in the searing heat of Liu’s all too plausible premise.

In the opening story of the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, humanity discovers that life in the universe is much more prevalent, and dangerous, than previously imagined. This revolution in humanity’s understanding of the cosmos turns out to be but the tip of the iceberg, however, and in the second volume, The Dark Forest, Liu lays out the harrowing logic behind his bleak vision of the universe.

Early in that second story, Ye Wenjie, the physicist who in the first book revealed Earth’s location to the Trisolaran civilization at our nearest neighbor star, cryptically suggests to young physicist Luo Ji that he study “cosmic sociology.” She briefly mentions to him two fundamental axioms of her newly conceived field: “First: survival is the primary need of civilization. Second: Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.” (13, The Dark Forest)

Ye Wenjie goes on to hint at “two other important concepts: chains of suspicion and the technological explosion.” (14, The Dark Forest) As readers, the importance of concepts such as life’s ferocious survival instinct and the inescapable conflicts caused by life’s exponential growth in the face of fixed space and resources, as well as the unpredictable timing and scope of technological revolutions, follow readily from our knowledge and understanding of the development of civilizations on Earth.

The cryptic chains of suspicion idea, however, seems to represent for Liu the crux of the danger when considering cosmic sociology: to put it simply, no galactic civilization can know a priori, upon discovering the presence of another civilization, whether it is benevolent or malicious. Given that uncertainty, together with the axioms of cosmic sociology, the unpredictable rapidity of technological expansion, and the challenges of the immense interstellar distances and cultural differences naturally in play, the only safe bet for a civilization is to remain hidden. And, if one cosmic civilization does discover another, the only viable option is to immediately destroy it, for fear of otherwise being discovered and destroyed first --- for Liu, the inescapable risk of hesitation is annihilation.

Luo Ji, introduced to the idea of cosmic sociology as the The Dark Forest opens, gradually comes to understand its implications, and in the end uses his new found knowledge to divert the Trisolaran invasion fleet, and so save Earth, by establishing a dangerously tenuous balance of mutually assured destruction. The stakes, though, rise dramatically in the final story, Death’s End, as events upset the delicate balance established by Luo Ji, and humankind must face the full consequences of becoming a visible presence in the dark forest described by Ye Wenjie’s theory of cosmic sociology.

The already expansive, if bleak, scope of Liu’s vision blossoms in Death’s End to challenge everything we think we know about the universe. In a scene set back in the time of the first book, Liu hints at his interpretation of the reality visible to us when we examine the universe beyond our solar system. Ye Wenjie’s daughter, Yang Dong, has found her cherished career as a research physicist in ruins as the Trisolarans have stopped mankind’s progress in the sciences by randomly altering the results of fundamental experiments in physics; Yang Dong finds herself adrift, at a loss to move forward with her life. In a fit of nostalgia, she visits her former lab, where she meets a scientist who has created a model that simulates changes in Earth’s physical environment over millennia, and that allows him to see how altering or removing various factors at a particular point in time can influence Earth’s subsequent development. When he demonstrates how dramatically different Earth would look if life had never developed --- not simply absence of roads and cities, but fundamentally different atmospheric and terrestrial conditions --- Yang Dong finds her life completely unmoored: what meaning has physics at all if everything can be altered by the presence of life? As the story proceeds, the full implications of this reality become clear.

Lest one think that the central themes in this trilogy simply represent an interesting plot line created by Liu, he makes clear in an Author’s Postscript to The Three-Body Problem that he considers the ideas at the heart of this trilogy as deadly serious:
There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligences exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.
I think it should be precisely the opposite: Let’s turn the kindness we show toward the stars to members of the human race on Earth and build up the trust and understanding between the different peoples and civilizations that make up humanity. But for the universe outside the solar system, we should be ever vigilant, and be ready to attribute the worst of intentions to any Others that might exist in space. For a fragile civilization like ours, this is without a doubt the most responsible path.

Turning on its head the typical vision of the universe found in traditional science fiction --- of a thrilling future expansion of humankind out into the cosmos --- this trilogy from Liu will leave readers looking up at the night sky with a newfound respect, if not also a shudder of fear.

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 22, 2016

Book Review: "Angels of Detroit" by Christopher Hebert

Angels of Detroit (2016)
Christopher Hebert (1973)

422 pages

News reports on Detroit’s decades-long decline and its citizens on-going struggle to climb up out of the resulting despair tend to include two dramatic facts about the city, stark realities that author Christopher Hebert works into the opening pages of his engaging novel Angels of Detroit:
a city of one hundred forty square miles, a third of it abandoned, the emptiness combined larger than the entire city of San Francisco. Boston. Manhattan. Almost two million inhabitants at the city’s height. Two-thirds of them now departed.” (9)
These facts, aside from highlighting the depth of the city’s fall, also reveal a challenge facing its recovery: Detroit is not simply a city down on its luck, it’s a city that’s been abandoned and left to whither. How can one hope to change the city's direction, and then construct a successful recovery, when so little remains in terms of people and industry to provide the necessary impetus and support?

Precisely this dilemma bedevils many of the characters in Angels of Detroit. Though not wanting to simply give in to the city’s desolate reality, they struggle to find effective ways to change its future for the better. In the face of the decay that surrounds them, each seeks ways, within their limited individual means, to change those surroundings: a young revolutionary doggedly pushes a small group of friends into resistance against what she sees as destructive corporate behavior; an old woman won’t take no for an answer as she co-ops people into helping her create an urban garden on a vacant lot; an executive of a corporate behemoth tries to prevent her company from giving up on Detroit even as she herself no longer recognizes the streets of her youth.

Hebert assembles a colorful mélange of characters in the novel, all of whom --- with the not surprising exception of the corporate executive --- live in neighborhoods where many of the homes are empty and decaying, if still standing at all. These are Detroiters largely invisible in news reports about the city, reports that often seem to describe a wasteland filled with a featureless mass of impoverished, listless unemployed, preyed on by violent, incorrigible criminals. Hebert, by contrast, gives faces to the lives of those just trying to survive in these collapsing parts of the city; he has created compelling characters with conflicting hopes and fears, dreams and delusions.

The novel is constructed around a handful of parallel plot lines, each with its own set of characters, and it can be difficult initially to keep all those characters straight, especially as we shift quickly from one context to the next. Overall the story has a bit of the feel of a handful of vignettes about life in the city that Hebert has interlaced to form a book; and though characters from the various plot lines begin crossing paths already early in the story, those meetings are often tangential, with the contact sometimes only by sight, from a distance. It comes then as no surprise when Hebert opens the Acknowledgements following the story by noting that he “wrote this book over the course of a number of years.” (421)

Hebert does not shy away from disturbing reality in his descriptions of the decay and detritus that fill vast tracts of once --- not so very many decades ago --- comfortable, working and middle class neighborhoods. And he makes clear the damaging impact of such conditions on those who remain, those who somehow find it difficult, however, to give up on the city completely. The beauty of “Angels of Detroit” lies in Hebert’s ability to give his characters complex personalities and motivations, to make us realize that behind the simplified image of Detroit we see from across the city borders in the suburbs or the larger world beyond, live real people, making the best of the city they call home --- hoping, struggling for a better future.

Other reviews / information:

In Detroit: An American Autopsy, reporter Charlie LeDuff provides a personal account of life in modern day Detroit, from the challenged neighborhoods to the challenging politics; my review of his 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 15, 2016

Book Review: "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" by Carlo Rovelli

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2016)
Carlo Rovelli (1956)

Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

86 pages

Though its origins lie farther back in time, a dramatic shift in mankind’s understanding of the physical universe occurred during the twentieth century: we passed from fundamental laws of physics that generally aligned with our intuitive, every-day experience, to models of the physical world that we find difficult to square with our intuitive understanding, models that can in the most extreme cases seem to contradict our common sense expectations of how the world works. And this transformation only continues to accelerate in the first decades of the 21st century.

The loss of this connection to our daily experience in the world has made understanding modern physics particularly challenging for those of us not experts in the field. As a consequence, we can be tempted to assume there is little to be gained by trying to learn about the new theories and models that have been developed, even as we enjoy the many benefits of the technological revolutions that have resulted from them. Have we, however, been perhaps a little too rash in deciding to remain ignorant of these ground-breaking developments?

Theoretical physicist and author Carlo Rovelli would answer that question with a resounding ‘yes!’, arguing in his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics that by not cultivating some familiarity with the recent work in physics we miss out not only on the dramatic ramifications these theories have for our understanding of the universe, but also on the beauty contained within their complexity. To help introduce non-physicists to what we have been missing out on, Rovelli has collected together concise explanations of each of seven key topics in modern physics, from established theories such as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, to some of the latest areas of cutting edge research on the structure of the universe and the nature of human thought.

With one exception, Rovelli uses no equations in his telling --- and the one equation he does include serves to demonstrate the remarkable and elegant simplicity with which Einstein was able to express mathematically his General Theory of Relativity. Otherwise, Rovelli uses straight-forward language and occasional sketches to introduce us to the fundamental concepts at the center of these topics, and to their dramatic implications. Perhaps equally important, his lessons demonstrate the transcendent beauty to be found in these visions of the world beyond our everyday experience.

In one chapter, for example, Rovelli describes a theory that leads to the conclusion that space is not a continuous, empty medium, but rather a dense mesh of incredibly tiny particles, which he refers to as “grains of space.” (39) He examines how this view completely alters our understanding not only of the behavior and evolution of black holes, but also the origins and future of the universe itself.

In another essay he outlines physicists’ evolving understanding of heat, including the critical discovery by Boltzmann of “why … heat pass[es] from hot things to cold and not the other way around: … it is sheer chance. … it is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of [a] hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little of its energy, rather than vice versa.” (53, italics in the original). Rovelli goes on to discuss the radical implications of introducing probability to physics, in particular for our intuitive understanding of time as flowing in one direction.

The final essay turns inward, as Rovelli reviews recent developments in our understanding of the complexity of human consciousness, and the challenging implications for the uniquely (among species on Earth) human concept of free will. He points out, however, that: “That which makes us specifically human does not signify our separation from nature; it is part of that self-same nature.” (76) Though we are integrally a part of nature, Rovelli concludes, our singular quality of consciousness does bring with it a terrible reality: we, uniquely as a species, have the ability to recognize and watch our own self-destruction from the “brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered.” (78)

Not being a theoretic physicist, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his descriptions of the physics in these essays, but Rovelli does seem to ably walk the fine line of simplifying his presentations without trivializing them --- a reader leaves the book having gained a better understanding of these theories and the stunning vision of the universe that they describe, while still retaining a respectful awe for the apparent complexity of the work physicists have done to develop them.

In Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Rovelli has condensed into engaging and poetic prose the remarkable beauty contained in mankind’s current understanding of the universe. This slim volume will whet your appetite to explore these ideas more deeply and intently.

Other reviews / information:

In The Meaning of Human Existence, renowned biologist and Pulitzer prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson also discusses the thorny concept of free will; my review here.  At the end of that review I include text from an interview with theoretical physicist Brian Greene on the radio program On Being with Krista Tippett, in which he describes his take on the idea of free will in a humorous exchange with an audience member who clearly fundamentally disagrees with him.

I have since also read Rovelli's Reality is Not What it Seems (my review here).  In the preface to that book he mentions that although Seven Brief Lessons on Physics appeared in English earlier, it was actually written and published in Italian a couple of years after Reality is Not What it Seems, which he describes as providing a more in-depth treatment of the topics; that book also goes back to review the historical underpinnings of the millennia long path over which the developments have occurred.

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, September 25, 2016

Book Review: "The Path" by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

The Path (2016) Michael Puett (1964)
and Christine Gross-Loh

204 pages

Like an invisible straitjacket, a host of deeply held but largely unexamined cultural mores constrain our assumptions and expectations for our lives according to Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, authors of the fascinating and thought-provoking book The Path. Puett and Gross-Loh argue that those of us raised in the West would do well to recognize and consciously reflect on these implicit cultural norms, and by so doing acknowledge how poorly they often serve us. As an alternative, Puett and Gross-Loh introduce and discuss the teachings found in a half-dozen texts of Chinese philosophy from the last millennium BC, contrasting the philosophies outlined in these works with established Western thinking on how to live one’s life.

Puett, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, has taught for some years now a history class on Chinse philosophy. His class has apparently become hugely popular, and in the book’s Forward, journalist Gross-Loh describes an article she wrote on Puett’s class in 2013 for Atlantic magazine, a piece that became a springboard for her to join with Puett to write The Path.

Puett and Gross-Loh open with a statement that should not be considered surprising, but that none-the-less provides a useful reminder, forewarning readers to be prepared to re-consider their assumptions as they read on: “A certain vision of history has become conventional wisdom.” (5) This “conventional wisdom,” according to the authors, represents an ossified Western view of history that serves to reinforce existing Western assumptions on how best to live life, while dismissing Eastern philosophies as antiquated and out-of-touch with modern realities. In a series of short essays, the authors then explore and explode some of what they refer to as “our most cherished myths” (7), unchallenged beliefs that have grown out of this particular Western view of the past.

Puett and Gross-Loh follow up in the second chapter by providing context for their subsequent examination of early Chinese philosophers, giving a brief introduction to the critical period of transformation that occurred worldwide in the final millennium BC, a time now referred to as the Axial Age:
In a revolutionary history shift, the Bronze Age aristocratic societies that had dominate Eurasia for two thousand years, passing power and wealth down exclusively through hereditary bloodlines, began to crumble. …religious institutions that had been embedded in the earlier aristocratic cultures fell as well. As a result, religious and philosophical movements flourished across Eurasia. (17) 
Among these movements were several initiated by Chinese philosophers; through the texts left behind by these philosophers --- generally compiled by their disciples --- Puett and Gross-Loh provide a window into an alternative way of understanding and living our lives.

The first of the philosophers discussed, Confucius (551-479 BC), felt that we should focus on our small, daily actions in order to not only change for the better the way we live, but also transform the world around us. Drawing from The Analects, a text compiling statements and actions attributed to Confucius, Puett and Gross-Loh examine his emphasis on carrying out our everyday activities and interactions with others through rituals --- patterned actions and reactions that we consciously create. Far from the commonplace view of rituals as contrived and artificial, Confucius saw rituals as enabling us to break free of our existing, unthinking modes of behavior, rote rituals that we follow without pausing to consider their origin or impact.

Instead of defaulting to these existing patterns of behavior, Confucius encourages us to consciously create new, “as-if” rituals --- behaviors that we perform as-if the world were the way we would prefer it to be; by then performing such rituals repeatedly, we will gradually transform ourselves, and so our world. The authors give the historical example of “please” and “thank you”, a ritual they describe as having developed centuries ago, as the market economy spread: in that market setting, people wanted to create a brief moment of pretended equality between participants who were not generally equal in fact ---- that is, an “as-if we are equal” ritual to smooth out the interaction.

A more concrete example the authors give relates to having a difficult relationship with a colleague, friend or family member. Rather than simply responding to them with the anger we feel, we can instead intentionally let go of our natural reaction and develop a new response --- create a ritual that will result in a more constructive interaction. Far from being contrived and artificial, developing such new rituals can slowly, over time, allow us to transform our relationship with that person, and so change a tiny part of our world. For Confucius, a series --- a lifetime --- of such changes will positively transform the world, bottom-up, one ritual at a time.

The second philosopher discussed is Mencius, who lived in the late fourth century BC. Puett and Gross-Loh open with a consideration of a contemporary of Mencius, Mozi, who held to the view of “a coherent and predictable world created by a good deity” (58). This made Mozi and his followers similar in many ways, the authors point out, to Protestants and our modern, Western accepted belief that behaving correctly will inevitably lead to success.

Mencius, on the contrary, found the world to be capricious. For that reason, Mencius felt that:
Hard work would not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds would not necessarily be punished. … [and he] believed … [that] it is only when we understand that nothing is stable that we can make decisions and live our lives in the most expansive way. (60)
By accepting a view of the world as capricious, we avoid the unhealthy rut of assuming that rational decision-making can lead us to the best life, or the opposite fallacy, that of giving in to the idea that we should simply follow our gut instinct. Instead, Mencius felt that we need to achieve a mind-heart balance, which can be done by using the mind to understand our emotional responses, and then cultivate those responses, over time, to become more aware of the complexities of the world. In doing this we are “honing our judgement: seeing the bigger picture, understanding what really lies behind a[nother] person’s behavior, and remembering that different emotions such as anxiety, fear, and joy will draw out different sides of people we tend to think of as rigid.” (76)

Another important aspect of recognizing the capricious nature of the world, according to Mencius, is that it enables us to get past the limiting idea that we can make firm, rational plans for our future. Realizing that both we ourselves and also the world around us will change unpredictably enables us to let go of the fixed patterns of behaviors and expectations about ourselves that we unthinkingly fall into and that limit our future development. Through the intentional cultivation of new and different interests, we give ourselves the ability to more easily adapt to the uncertain future that awaits us.

The third text the authors consider is referred to as the Laozi. They note that “Laozi, the Chinese thinker to whom the Laozi is attributed, is a mysterious figure,” (89) about whom little is known, even whether there was an actual person by that name. The Laozi describes the Way, which the authors state has been miss-represented in the West as an idealized past to be returned to, a time “when life was purer and simpler … [and a] natural perfection that exist beyond us and with which we need to come back into harmony.” (90) In reality, they say, the Laozi describes the Way as a state of being that existed before the Universe began, “an original, ineffable, undifferentiated state” (91); the key for each of us, according to the Laozi is to re-create the Way in our lives, by “recognize[ing] the degree to which the distinctions that pervade our experience are actually false,” (93) and so recognize and acknowledge the fundamental connectedness between all things. Thus we do not achieve the Way by, say, returning to some earlier idealized time or going off into nature or meditating; instead we do so through realizing the interconnectedness of all things, and using that understanding to guide all aspects of our daily lives, from our leisure activities to our work.

Puett and Gross-Loh provide concrete examples, such as dealing with a difficult supervisor at work, or squabbling children or a distant teenager at home. By learning to recognize the interconnectedness of everything, and seeing how others’ lives --- their personalities, histories, and present situations --- affect their behavior, we enable our own ability to deal with them differently, in a manner more likely to have a constructive outcome. As we accomplish this in our daily lives, through the multitude of interactions we have each day, we become the Way.

The Laozi addresses a second, related concept on how to properly turn a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of everything into a method of effecting change in the world. The key concept, as the authors quote from the ancient text, is that:
Weakness overcomes strength,
Softness overcomes hardness. (100) 
Puett and Gross-Loh argue that typical Western culture, which “places such a premium on strength and ambition,” (101) can mislead us in our understanding of the Laozi. Through statements such as “weakness overcomes strength,” the text does not advocate passiveness, rather it promotes the idea that while aggressiveness and brute force can sometimes be briefly successful, these approaches also generate a resistance which ends up undermining their success. On the contrary, having a deep understanding of the interconnectedness and relationships between things enables us to guide and influence events in the direction we prefer, in a way that bypasses such resistance by, in a sense, bringing everyone along with us. The authors provide numerous compelling historical and everyday examples, stretching from military conflicts to national political disagreements to personal interactions, to demonstrate the effectiveness of using the Way as described in the Laozi to enable us to effect a transformative impact on our lives and our world.

The fourth text discussed, Inward Training, consists of a set of writings that urge readers to reach for the “divine energy”. Again, the authors introduce the text by first examining the modern, Western concept of self-divinization, around which has been built up, they argue, damaging associations of asserting one’s self, of imposing one’s self on the world to change it. The Inward Training, instead, focuses on our ability to “alter the world by cultivating [ourselves] to take on divine qualities.” (123) The method differs significantly from Western ideas of self-divinization in that “when we reconceptualize action and agency as arising from connecting rather than from dominating, we become more divine in an essential way: We become more fully alive.” (123) In order to achieve this, the text emphasizes the importance of not allowing external events --- whether positive and uplifting, or negative and depressing --- to affect us too strongly. By seeing the connectedness of things, the Inward Training describes how we can achieve an inner balance and alignment, one that will build up and maintain our inner spirit or energy, and so bring us closer to the divine.

The authors next discuss Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher from the late fourth century BC. They note that the text attributed to him, the Zhuangzi, emphasizes the importance of the Way and the connectedness of everything, just as did the Laozi, but from a much different viewpoint. Unlike Laozi, for Zhuangzi: “You could never become the Way … rather … the Way was about embracing absolutely everything in its constant flux and transformation.” (143) We accomplish this, according to Zhuangzi, by not limiting ourselves to what we believe to be true; instead we must constantly be opening our minds through new experiences that broaden our understanding and recognition of the connectedness of the world, and so eliminate the rigid distinctions with which we view the world. “We think we know what is beneficial, what is large, what is virtuous, what is useful. Yet do we really understand how arbitrary the words and values we depend on really are?” (156) Thus, he points out, something that is large, or virtuous in one context (perhaps the context we naturally gravitate towards given our personal experience), may in another context not be those things; by recognizing the interconnectedness of all things, we enable ourselves to recognize that.

Another consequence of developing this level of understanding is the opportunity to achieve what Zhuangzi refers to as trained spontaneity in the activities of one’s life. Puett and Gross-Loh explain the concept of trained spontaneity as the achievement through training of a kind of “effortless competence,” the point at which “we just ‘know’ what feels right without having to think about it.” They note that when we act to achieve this level of training “in all spheres of our lives, from the mundane [such as ironing clothes] to the rarified [such as playing a piano] … we are changing our whole approach to life … [our] entire way of being in the world.” (149)

The final philosopher the authors consider is Xunzi, “who lived about two hundred fifty years after Confucius … [and who] synthesized the works of all the thinkers who came before him.” (166) They note that Xunzi most closely agreed with Confucius, believing strongly in the power of rituals. Unlike Confucius, however, for Xunzi all human progress towards taming of the natural world to our needs, and development of our civilizations, has consisted of the creation of rituals. Thus, for Xunzi, like the other Chinese philosophers discussed in this book, the goal of someone seeking to transform their own life, and thereby the world, is not to attempt to return to a more “natural” state. Xunzi in fact felt that such a state can no longer even be conceived of, given the long development of human civilization in all its aspects, effectively thousands of years of the creation of systems of being (i.e., rituals) relative to the natural world to improve our lives. “The real question should be: in each instance [in our world], are we employing artifice wisely and well.” (177) To improve the world, we must constantly strive to evaluate and improve on our rituals.

Puett and Gross-Loh emphasize early in the book that the Chinese philosophers they examine do not provide a radical, prescriptive plan for how to change one’s life. Instead, by learning about the philosophies associated with the half-dozen texts they examine, we can begin to free ourselves of the assumptions we have accepted uncritically from the Western culture we’ve grown up in, and, in examining them, make conscious decisions about which provide benefit, and which perhaps do not. In opening, and so broadening our understanding, we put ourselves in a position to transform for the better the way we live our lives, and thereby also put ourselves in a position to help transform the world.

Other reviews / information:

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh were interviewed on the Diane Rehm show, linked to 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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Book Review: "World of Trouble" by Ben H. Winters

World of Trouble (2014)
Ben H. Winters (1976)

316 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the third book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the first two books, The Last Policeman and Countdown City. So, if you haven't read the first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review of The Last Policeman here; if you’ve read that, but not Countdown City, you’ll find my review of that second story here.]

With but a week to go before the impact of an asteroid expected to largely wipe out life on Earth, former detective Henry Palace pursues his final case in World of Trouble, the concluding book in Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy. Following a cryptic trail of uncertain clues to a small town in Ohio, Palace goes in search of his sister Niko, desperately hoping to find her ahead of the now imminent apocalypse.

Niko’s involvement in a far-fetched scheme to save the planet appeared as subplots in the first two books in the trilogy (The Last Policeman reviewed here, and Countdown City reviewed here), in which it was revealed that she has become actively involved with a group of people convinced that a nefarious conspiracy lies behind the U.S. government’s lack of efforts to prevent the asteroids impact. The group believes that they have discovered a plan that the government has intentionally covered up, a way to deflect the asteroid; to foil the conspiracy, the group works to put that plan into action. Palace, though convinced that his sister and her comrades have fallen victim to wishful thinking in the face of the coming catastrophe, at the same time struggles to make sense of the extensive capabilities the group has managed to acquire in the otherwise rapidly disintegrating economic and political environment caused by the approaching asteroid strike.

Late in the second story, Palace watches Niko disappear in a helicopter; unwilling to follow her, he also does not try to prevent her from leaving to pursue the plan she believes will save the Earth. As the second book ends, Palace reaches a house in western Massachusetts that several of his former police colleagues have converged upon in the hopes of creating a location of relative peace and safety for their families to ride out the final months before the asteroid hits. As World of Trouble opens, however, Palace finds himself unable to abandon his sister to her fate, and feeling guilty that he had not stuck with her, he has left the safe house in an attempt to track her down.

Passing through the dystopian and chaotic remains of a pre-apocalyptic world, Palace casts about for even the smallest clues that point toward his sister. In what has been a hallmark of these stories, Palace finds that the perverted social and political situation confounds his analysis of what he learns, leading him through a dangerous and complicated labyrinth of miss-calculation and miss-interpretation as he doggedly struggles to uncover the surprising truth about his sister and the plans she’s been involved in.

Taken together, the three books in Winters’ trilogy form an engaging offering, providing both the thrilling drama of the best detective stories and a compelling psychological look at mankind faced with a sudden and inglorious end.

Other reviews / information:
In the post-script of my review of Countdown City, I likened Winters' trilogy to Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach (my review here). As I read World of Trouble, in which the end really has become imminent, another comparison came to mind: Lars von Trier’s movie Melancholia, in which a rogue planet enters the system on a collision course with Earth. Von Trier focuses entirely on the psychological impact of the coming apocalypse and includes a healthy dose of surrealism, while Winters, in his trilogy, uses the psychological implications more as a pungent spice for his gritty detective stories; there is, never-the-less, a strong overlap in how the two works examine the complex and varied reactions of different people to the imminent end of the world.

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, September 9, 2016

Book Review: "Naked Earth" by Eileen Chang

Naked Earth (1956)
Eileen Chang (1920-1995)

245 pages

A crushing claustrophobia envelopes a reader in the opening chapters of Eileen Chang’s powerful novel, Naked Earth, and continues tightening its dispiriting grip through to the end. Set in the People’s Republic of China of the early 1950’s, as the Communist revolutionaries have emerged victorious from the Chinese Civil War, Chang’s novel examines the effects on the Chinese people of the Communist Party’s aggressive consolidation of power. Her portrayal of the Chinese social and political milieu of that time most nearly resembles a nightmarish cross between Huxley’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trail, as the Party creates a suffocating web of mutual surveillance and fear. Perhaps even more haunting than the disturbing image of her characters caught up in the intricate and ultimately dangerous machinations in the China of the 1950’s, is the recognition of the all-to-common human traits that allow such nightmares to erupt anywhere in the world given the right conditions; “man’s inhumanity to man”, to borrow from poet Robert Burns.

The story opens as a truck travels into the Chinese countryside carrying university students mobilized by the government to carry out land reform. Led by a low-level, Communist party organizer, the group has been assigned to help party members in a small farming village re-apportion land from Big Landlords (in the novel, formal government terms and slogans are capitalized) to the local Poor, who are mostly landless day-workers. The village the student team arrives at, however, has no Big Landlords, and so the local officials, afraid of failure, go after even the Middling Farmers, grabbing all the land around the village for re-distribution. To justify the taking of the land for the poor, the officials condemn and demonize even lower class working farmers as Big Feudal Exploiting Landlords, subjecting them to brutal ‘denunciation’ meetings, and then imprisoning or torturing them to death.

Among the students watching the increasingly zealous and overheated mob is the story’s protagonist, Liu Ch’üan, who has arrived in the village with a passionate desire to support the Communist Party’s efforts to improve conditions. Liu quickly becomes disillusioned as he observes the local party officials, with the support of the party organizer, whip the villagers into a frenzied and increasingly gruesome mistreatment of the working class villagers. Under consideration for party membership, Liu is looked on by the party organizer directing the group as an unofficial leader among the students, and so feels some level of responsibility to try and guide events. At the same time, he hesitates to raise his voice in opposition --- the very slogans and mottos that had seemed proper and principled in the fervor of the student meetings back on campus he now finds turned, in the crucible of policy implementation in the village, into an ideological minefield; a small miss-step potentially ending one’s hope for party membership or even putting one’s life at risk.

When Liu does finally speak out against the abuse of the lower class farmers, the organizer quickly chastises him, saying that Liu has “taken the wrong Class Route,” and is due for some Self-Examination” by the group. Even after the meeting, when Liu talks briefly to a fellow student who shares his concerns, danger lurks; another passing student warns them in a whisper to stop their discussion: “If anybody should hear, they’ll say we’re Holding a Small Meeting.” (40) Every action, every word, can be twisted into an accusation of working against the Party.

Liu survives the situation in the village, saved in part by a sudden government-ordered transfer, along with the party organizer, to Shanghai. In what is effectively a promotion for the two of them, they are assigned to the Resist-America Aid-Korea Association, formed to prepare propaganda in support of the Chinese efforts backing North Korea against the US-supported South Korean army. Whereas in the countryside Liu had dealt with a small group of rather transparently corrupt party officials, in the big city he finds himself buffeted by a vast network of shifting conflicts and alliances among party members seeking advancement and warding off political threats. He also discovers the unforeseeable risks of sudden shifts in government policies that can turn someone who may have been in favor just the day before into a pariah, accused of being a villainous traitor, becoming toxic to even accidental acquaintances. For a person of conscience, such as Liu, just staying out of trouble with the party, much less achieving advancement through its ranks, becomes a virtually untenable proposition.

Chang has written a compelling condemnation of the authoritarian government that formed in China in the wake of the Chinese civil war of the 1940’s, and the vast and oppressing system of psychological and social control it imposed to maintain power. Through the trials and tribulations of her affecting main character, Liu Ch’üan --- a conscientious common-man who is neither a self-centered party member focused only on advancement nor a self-sacrificing idealist --- Chang demonstrates the pernicious ability of such systems to undermine and eliminate even principled opposition.

Other reviews / information:
This another wonderful selection in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics collection.

This NYRB Classics edition has an introduction by Perry Link (available on-line here), in which he mentions that United States Information Service (USIS) offered Chang a grant after she left China in 1952 to write this book, and another (The Rice-Sprout Song). He comments that:
This fact has been widely noted, and its significance sometimes exaggerated. It is far-fetched to imagine that the USIS distorted Chang’s writing. She is too powerful a writer for that --- too “immune from being tricked,” in [MaoTse-tung confederate] Tai Ch’ing’s phrase. (xii)

I have also read and reviewed (here) a set of short stories by Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City, another selection in 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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: "Countdown City" by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City (2013)
Ben H. Winters (1976)

2013 pages

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

Countdown City, the second novel in Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy, begins some three months after the first book ends, and only two and a half months before the day an asteroid is predicted to slam into the Earth with what are expected to be devastating consequences. Late in the first book, The Last Policeman (my review here), Detective Hank Palace lost his job on the police force, as government functions federalized and retrenched to focus exclusively on maintaining order; with the apocalypse imminent, criminal investigation is viewed by the authorities as having little value or purpose. For Palace, however, becoming a detective was his life-long dream, and as society collapses around him, continuing his work remains his way of dealing with the crushing reality of the looming asteroid impact.

The sequel opens with Palace taking notes as a woman who years earlier had been his and his sister’s babysitter describes the sudden disappearance of her husband, a former state police officer. With so many people leaving their families to pursue private bucket lists in the waning days of civilization, Palace initially pushes back on taking the case, skeptical that he can accomplish much. Eventually, however, she prevails upon him to search for her husband, and Palace --- reluctant to leave her with no hope --- agrees to give it a shot.

What follows, as in the first book, is a wild ride of miss-direction and complication, all spiced by the continuing and rapid disintegration of both civil and political administration, as well as peoples’ moral and social behavior. Though Palace encounters some kindred spirits --- individuals diligently going about their work as if the end of civilization was not a scant few months away, most people he meets exhibit motivations and behaviors clearly perverted by the coming apocalypse. Some focus solely on their own personal desires, others join up with one of a variety of religious and survivalist cults that have sprung up, and a few, like his own sister --- in a plot development begun in the first book, join groups that believe that a giant conspiracy lies behind government inaction against the approaching asteroid.

The whodunit aspect of the novel stands on its own as a great story, but what really makes this story (and the first book in the trilogy) shine is the pre-apocalyptic, dystopian twist that colors every step of Palace’s investigation: every conversation, every action and reaction of the people he meets. Most apocalyptic novels seem eager to get to the post-apocalyptic future, and build their stories around what that world might look like; The Last Policeman series, by contrast, explores deeply and seriously the psychological and social impacts of the collapse inevitably accompanying pre-apocalyptic end-times.

Other reviews / information:
I’m looking forward to reading --- and reviewing here --- the third and final book in the series, World of Trouble, soon.

It occurs to me that the psychological tension of The Last Policeman trilogy bears interesting parallels to Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach (my review here). Though Shute’s novel opens after a catastrophic nuclear war has utterly destroyed the North Hemisphere, it is set on the South coast of Australia, and the characters of his story initially believe they’ve been spared the worst. Gradually, however, they come to realize that the deadly radiation is drifting southward on the trade winds, and they recognize that their end --- their apocalypse --- is imminent, and unavoidable. As does Winters, though without the detective story, Shute examines a population experiencing and attempting to come to grips with the growing awareness that civilization, and probably humanity as a whole, is living in its final days. And, as in Winters’ story, some face the end-times by carrying on with what they see as their duty --- unchanged by the new reality, while others come undone in the face of the crushing finality advancing toward them.

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, August 20, 2016

Book Review: "Miller's Valley" by Anna Quindlen

Miller’s Valley (2016)
Anna Quindlen (1953)

271 pages

It's a wiggly word, "progress": a two-lane gravel road turned into four lanes paved that makes life a noisy misery for the people with houses there, a cornfield turned into a strip mall with a  hair salon, a supermarket, and a car wash.  Corn's better than a car wash.  We washed our own cars with a garden hose until our kids got old enough to do it for us. (5)
Over a period of decades the families of a tiny farming community in a secluded Appalachian valley of central Pennsylvania find themselves increasingly at the mercy of floodwaters in Anna Quindlen’s engaging novel Miller’s Valley. But despite requiring sump pumps that over the years come to be running nearly continuously, and enduring rain storms that sometimes lift the water level to their front steps, the townspeople long balk at and obstruct government representatives who frequent their town ever more often with proposals to buy out homes so that the area can be turned into a reservoir. Their families have lived in the valley for many generations, and they are loathe to give up their homesteads and their way of life.

The Millers, living on farmland that’s been in the family for some 200 years, give the valley, and the novel, its name. The story follows the life of Mary Margret Miller, Mimi, a young girl on the verge of adolescence in the mid-1960’s when talk of converting the valley into a reservoir begins in earnest. Her oldest brother already married and living near his job in Philadelphia, Mimi lives a bucolic life with her parents and her second, teenage brother, Tommy. The tranquil isolation of the valley has lent Mimi and her family, as well as their neighbors in the community, a sense of enduring permanence --- but this cherished stability begins to dissolve in the face of the reality of the steadily rising water table, as well as the dramatic social and political changes of the 1960’s.

For many years, the troubling inundation of water seems to be only another element of the natural world that can be, simply must be, accommodated; the water may win some battles, but with hard work and ingenuity the families expect to win the war. The increasingly invasive presence of the outside world, on the other hand, proves more ineluctable for the valley’s residents. The persistent and ever increasing pressure exerted by visiting government officials to convince families to sell their homes and relocate so that the reservoir can be created, serves as Mimi’s initial glimpse into the power of outside forces to penetrate into the heart of the isolated valley, and thereby affect her life as well as that of her family and neighbors. And while the government threatens to impose this radical change on the valley at some uncertain point in the future, the Vietnam War leaves its mark quickly and harshly, a dramatic reminder that the valley is no longer the quiet and secluded home it once was.  As Mimi passes through high school these outside forces compel her to begin thinking more intently and broadly about her own future, to reassess her relationship to the disappearing valley of her childhood.

An aspect of the story that I particularly enjoyed was the wonderful job Quindlen has done in creating the language and mannerisms of her characters. I grew up in a small town only a few hundred miles west of the central Pennsylvanian setting of the story, and though my hometown was less isolated than the fictional Miller’s valley, I was immediately transported back to the social environment of my youth by both the phrases the characters used, as well as the often curt and clipped, if still friendly, ways in which they interacted with one another.

Another more widespread characteristic associated with small towns also plays a role in Quindlen’s story: carefully hidden secrets, motivations and fears that can seethe just below the surface both within and between families. For the residents of Miller’s valley these become ever more difficult to hide in the face of the upheavals caused by the rising tide of both water and modernity, as young and old find their lives and friendships upended. Though some become nostalgic for the valley’s earlier isolated innocence, others find an opportunity to break free of smothering, small-town frictions and expectations.

Ultimately, Miller’s Valley is a powerful coming of age story, as Mimi, her family, and the community around them grapple with a dramatically and rapidly changing world.  As Mimi observes at a critical moment in her own life, one which offers radically different choices for her future : "I just sat there, amazed at the way the whole world had just tilted while we were sitting at the table." (202)

Other reviews / information:

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

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Book Review: "For a Little While" by Rick Bass

For a Little While (2016)
Rick Bass (1958)

471 pages
But other nights the storms would wash through quickly, windy drenching downpours that soaked us, and it was fun to sit on the rocks and let the storm hit us and beat against us. The nights were always warm, though cooler after those rains, and the smells were so sharp as to make us imagine that something new was out there, something happening that had never happened to anyone before. (31)
The deep and powerful connection between people and the natural world animates the 25 short stories by Rick Bass collected in For a Little While. Whether a pristine wilderness in north-west Montana or a refinery-polluted river emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, nature plays an indispensable role in his characters’ lives, grounding their thoughts and actions in something bigger and more enduring than themselves. Reading these empathetic and affecting stories reminds us to cherish the wonder and grandeur of the world, when we might otherwise pass through unawares, lost in our quotidian concerns.

As in his earlier collection, The Sky, the Stars and the Wilderness, (my review here) the rhythms of nature seem to guide Bass’ writing in these stories, with a meditative, almost reverent pace giving way to occasional moments of intensity and clarity for his characters. And the nature they encounter is not some simplified, picture-book ideal to be looked at from afar; rather, its true beauty reveals itself as one engages with it, enters into it with a spirit that seeks out its mysteries. It can be dangerous --- making one pay for ignorance of its ways, inattentiveness to its signs or just plain bad luck --- but if open and sensitive to its rhythms, Bass’s stories show how nature can also complement and deepen a person’s life in myriad ways.

The story In Ruth’s Country, from which comes the quote that opens this review, takes place in the open, desert scrubland around Moab, Utah, where a boy and his uncle herd cattle for a living. Unlike the majority of the town, the two are not Mormons, and when the boy develops a bit of a crush on a Mormon girl, he knows to be wary of crossing the strict defined, if unspoken, cultural rules that exist between the Mormons and the rest of the townspeople. One day the girl approaches him, however, and the two wander repeatedly into the vast, anonymous countryside, as they experiment with and in their new relationship. But the non-denominational power and beauty they experience in the nature they explore can only mask for a time the complexities of the human world against which they are pulling. Just as the cattle from different owners mingle together in the unfenced countryside before their masters periodically rounded them up into their respective herds, Ruth and the boy find it difficult to completely break free of the ties of their respective worlds.

The wonderful and moving story Her First Elk tells of “a young woman, just out of college --- her beloved father already three years in the grave.” (270) As the story opens, the young woman climbs up into the wooded mountains of western Montana in the pre-dawn. Her father had loved hunting, and she follows in his steps, seeking through this activity that he loved a connection to the father she misses so dearly. After she takes down a huge elk in the opening glory of the morning dawn, the implications and consequences of that one shot resonate forward, and eventually leading her to recognize a vast interconnectedness, between people and with nature, that has arisen from that one shot. Ultimately she discovers an even deeper connection to her father than she had expected or even hoped to find.

Though the woman in Her First Elk --- or at least her namesake --- appears in a subsequent story, the characters otherwise vary broadly from one story to the next, from high school students finding beauty in an industrial wasteland, to a dog trainer lost in the far northern wilderness of Canada; from loggers who love their work despite a stream of injuries, to residents of a decaying town who live in the nostalgia of their town’s past glories from a time before the Mississippi River suddenly one night shifted farther west. All of these characters share an intimate connection to the world they pass through, a recognition --- sometime only subconsciously --- of both its visceral wonder and its fundamental connection to their lives.

Bass does without sudden wild twists or dramatic deaths in his stories. Instead, this is writing to savor and delight in, writing that serves as an inspiration to get out and take a slow stroll through the woods or even just one’s local neighborhood. A reminder to not just pass through the world, but to observe its ways, and relish them; to recognize, in fact, our wondrous ability to do so, for, to recall Wordsworth
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Read quotes from Rick Bass' writings here.

My review of an earlier collection of short stories from Rick Bass, The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness, is here.

Used as a story preface in The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness, find a beautiful quote from John Graves reproduced here 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

Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: "Heroes and Beasts of Spain" by Manuel Chaves Nogales

Heroes and Beasts of Spain (1937)
Manuel Chaves Nogales (1897-1944)
Translated from the Spanish by Luis de Baeza 

303 pages

Much can be learned about the Spanish Civil War from books that detail the history of the conflict, such as Hugh Thomas’ now classic The Spanish Civil War. Particularly for civil wars, however, while history books may do an excellent job providing an understanding of the broad events of the war, they generally struggle --- and often seem to fail --- to convey the extent of the breakdown in civil order, and the resulting brutality that can occur at the level of the individual in society. For such an understanding one must needs turn to more personal narratives, such as (auto-) biographical or fictional accounts.

Thomas’ work, for example, covers the history of the war, including the military, political and social situation, and in that context, the violence that occurred within the Spanish population behind the front lines. He describes, for example, how authorities on both sides struggled to control a tendency among the Spanish population to use the war as a cover to violently resolve personal grudges, disappointments and hatreds that were at most only tangentially related to the larger conflict. He also goes into some detail on the fratricidal killings that occurred between supposed allies on the Republican side, such as between the communists and the anarchists, and even among various factions of the communists themselves.

But such high-level descriptions fail to convey the depth of what occurred during that war, the descent into violence that has left scars that have lasted across generations. For such an understanding, one must reach for more personal recollections of the conflict.

Certainly anecdotal histories can struggle to meet the standard of rigorous proof required by historians. Nonetheless, such accounts can play an important role in providing depth and completeness to the understanding of the history of a period, by telling the story of individuals, of individual experiences and acts, individual impacts. For the Spanish Civil War in particular, journalist and author Manuel Chaves Nogales’ collection of short stories Heroes and Beasts of Spain, fills that void, using fictionalized accounts that capture the barbarism and irrationality he witnessed in the first months of the war.

Chaves Nogales left Spain in November 1936, some four months into the conflict. As he makes clear in the Prologue, his goal as a writer was “to bring forward by means of works based on facts or fiction what I considered to be the paramount truth, namely, an insuperable hatred of all stupidity and cruelty.” (3) He was a strong supporter of the Republic, a confident in fact of the president of the Spanish Republic, Manuel Aza&ntilde, when the rebel uprising began.  (For an overview of the conflict, see my review of Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War, here.)

 Chaves Nogales had a visceral distaste for dictatorship of any kind, and so was equally disillusioned by both the fascist rebels, as well as the communist and anarchist revolutionaries who, for broader political and military reasons, took control of the Republican side as the war continued, displacing the more center-left elements of the government.  Finally leaving Spain in late 1936, Chaves Nogales wrote:
I was fully convinced that all was lost and that there was nothing left to save; terror had made life impossible … [I am leaving] not only because blood was spilled by gangs of murderers who brought Red terror to Madrid, but also because of the death sown in the town among women and children by Franco’s [Rebel] air raids. I was as much afraid of the barbarity of the Moors, the bandits of the Foreign Legion and Falange (the Spanish Fascists), as of the illiterate Anarchists and Communists. (5) 
A few lines later he adds:
The final issue of the present struggle does not interest me very much. I am not interested to know that the future dictator of Spain will spring out of one side or the other of the trench. It is immaterial to me. The strong man, the leader, the victor, who at the end of the struggle will plant a masterful foot in the pool of blood into which Spain has been plunged, the man who with a bloody knife between his teeth will keep his country in strict servitude for at least a quarter of a century, may emerge from either side of ‘no man’s land’.(7) 
How prescient he was: the leader of the Rebel side, General Francisco Franco, ruled over Spain as dictator for some 35 years after the end of the war.

The stories he has written are not, in terms of language and structure, crafted works of subtlety and nuance.  Raw and direct, they read as fictionalized accounts of scenes Chaves Nogales witnessed or heard about, characterizations of life in Spain during the war. They demonstrate the bloodthirsty irrationality that gripped both sides, the violence that people perpetrated against even others of their own side who they felt were not staunch enough adherents to their beliefs. Chaves Nogales’ stories represent a desperate cry for the mercy of liberty in the midst of an ugly and brutal conflict.

The collection consists of nine stories, the majority of which take place on the Republican side of the war, though several straddle the front lines, or are told from the Rebel side. Except for the names of larger cities, place names seem to be invented --- perhaps a method by which Chaves Nogales could emphasize that the barbarism and senseless violence he describes were not isolated incidents in particular towns, but rather commonplace events throughout Spain during the war.

Several of the stories describe aspects of the war-within-a-war that occurred between various revolutionary groups on the Republican side during the conflict, infighting that led to significant violence and death amongst the Republican forces, ultimately undermining their efforts against the Rebels. In The Iron Column, a group by that name has formed from Anarchists who revolted against the discipline that Republican leaders attempted to impose on their troops to put an end to the pillaging some of the troops were using the cover of the war to engage in. Splinter groups such as the Iron Column broke off ostensibly to root out and kill fascists hiding in Republican held lands, but in reality “under the pretext of ridding the country of Fascists these men went about the villages and hamlets [in Republican-controlled territory] killing and looting in the most brutal manner and without fear.” (109) In Hugh Thomas’ work of history, we can learn that such a group by that name did indeed exist, operating largely beyond control of local and national authorities; in Chaves Nogales’ story we confront up-close the dark reality of the chaos and death that they perpetrated on the towns they devastated. 

The Massacre tells a similar story of uncontrolled violence, by a group of thugs in Madrid calling themselves the Revenge Patrol. Feeling that the government was too timid, the group took it upon themselves to root out and kill anyone they thought might be a fascist and so a supporter of the Rebels. In fact, as Chaves Nogales writes:
Every army soldier [on the Republican side], from the rank of sergeant upwards, was a suspected Fascist. [Rebel] General Mola had said that, besides the four columns of Rebel troops marching on the capital, there was another column inside the town, the “Fifth Column”, ready to co-operate with the attackers. On few occasions in the history of mankind have such idle words been the direct cause of so many deaths. Each time the militiamen in search of suspects were confronted by proofs of innocence that might have spared a life, someone mentioned the Fifth Column and, proof or no proof, the suspect was dragged before the firing squad to be mowed down at down in the open spaces around Madrid. (178)
The Revenge Patrol certainly took Mola’s comment to heart, seeking out and killing anyone they found who could not conclusively prove conclusively their fealty to the Republican side.

In the final and perhaps most damning of the stories, two workers at a factory in Republican territory who are accused of being fascists desperately attempt to defend themselves and so save their own lives. The two are apolitical, and simply want to work to feed their families. One of the men had belonged to a so-called yellow syndicate before the war, a trade-union group organized by the factory owners; now, in civil war Spain, the revolutionaries viewed such people, who had generally joined the earlier organizations simply in order to be able to work, as suspected fascists, traitors to be eliminated. The second man, Daniel, has no particular political history that the revolutionaries can oust him on --- he is simply uninterested in any political parties or movements. Daniel finds himself in an almost Kafkaesque position as the story develops; as Chaves Nogales writes: “The delegates hated him even more … for the strong-willed and courageous Daniel was a more dangerous enemy to the cause than most the poor devils who were being shot every day. A man like Daniel was the worst enemy of revolution and of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (295)  Ultimately Daniel can only prove his loyalty by sacrificing himself to a cause he neither supports nor opposes.

And here was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the war for the centrist Chaves Nogales, who in the Prologue states that he was writing as “a citizen of a democratic and parliamentarian republic.” (2)   For someone for whom liberty was of overriding importance in human life an affairs, the fall of Spain in the Civil War was highlighted by the case of people like Daniel:
[H]e was condemned. Why? For the same reasons the bourgeoisie condemned during the old regime those who were not for them. Liberty was the enemy. Herein lay their weakness and their defect. For the day when the council expelled Comrade Daniel from the factory the cause of the people was lost. The Rebels’ guns were battering in vain against the trenches defending Madrid; the Italian and the German airplanes were killing in vain women and children in the city. The cause of the people had been lost simply because the Council of Workers of a factory had decided to expel a comrade for the sole crime of being a man who believed in the rights of individual liberty. (296)

Other reviews / information:

The book was originally written and published in Spanish, in 1937.  The English language version also appeared in 1937, and the translation appears to have been a quick work to get the book onto English-language bookshelves while the war still raged, with the English at many points a bit stilted and awkward.

 For some of the information on Manuel Chaves Nogales in this review, I consulted the Diccionario onomástico de la guerra civil (Onomastic Dictionary of the Spanish Civil War); my review of that work 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