Saturday, May 31, 2008

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

With a back story as compelling as this one, the novel could easily be overshadowed but Nemirovsky's writing and vision holds its own.

As World War II unfolded around her, Irene Nemirovsky, a successful pre-war author, conceived a massive oeuvre with which she planned to illuminate the times in which she was writing. Alas, her grand vision was never to come to fruition, a fact she became increasingly aware of, due to the fragility of her own circumstances. A White Russian Jew living in France without French citizenship, Nemirovsky was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942. In 1990, one of her surviving daughters discovered the novel which she had saved without reading as a mememto of her mother.

While most books which I've read about World War II dwell on the Holocaust, this book does not. Nemirovsky writes of the ordinary French and how their lives were disrupted by, first, the German invasion and, then, the German occupation. She portrays the venal and the heroic with equal objectivity. In the first half of her book, which reads more like a collection of short stories, we become acquainted with a number of Parisians as they flee in the face of the oncoming Germans. In the second half of her book, we are presented with more of a narrative about a small French town in the midst of an occupying army.

The book ends with Nemirovsky's transcribed and translated handwritten notes regarding her plans for the work and finally, with correspondence, both from the author and from third parties, regarding her situation, arrest and ultimate death.

A fascinating, poignant read.

Friday, May 30, 2008

New Essays on Catcher in the Rye

I just can't stop thinking about Catcher in the Rye so I picked up New Essays on Catcher in the Rye at the library. It's an intelligent collection of essays (not too pedantic or snobbish) that helped me get even more out of this classic.

Grace (Eventually)

In Grace (Eventually) Anne Lamott shares her thoughts and experiences on faith, motherhood, politics, and activism. I felt I got another glimpse into her life in Northern California and I got to know more about her son Sam, her friends like Fr. Tom and Anne herself. It's like sitting at a kitchen table listening to a witty friend, with whom I sometimes disagree, relate her ups and downs and review her hard times with bad boyfriends, drugs and alcohol that didn't harden her. (An example of grace, huh?)

I love how honest and perceptive she is. She doesn't buy the cheap generalities we can be spoonfed. For example, on parenthood she writes
Why did I, like many other single women, many gay men and women, many older women, and many other no-so-obvious parents, people who used to think they could never have kids, choose to do so?

Let me say that not one part of me thinks you need to have children to be complete, to know parts of yourself that cannot be know any other way. People with children like to think this, although if you are not a parent, they hide it--their belief that having a child legitimizes them somehow, validates their psychic parking tickets. they tell pregnant women and couples and one another that those who have chosen not to breed can never know what real love is, what selfishness really means. They like to say taht having a child taught them about authenticity.

This is total crock. Many of the most shut-down, narcissistic, selfish people on earth have children. Many of the most evolved--the richest in spirit, the most giving--choose not to. The exact same chances for awakening, for personal restoration and connection, exist for breeders and nonbreeders alike.

One essay that was especially interesting for me to read was about Anne speaking at a conference in Washington DC. I was at that conference and I was there during this scene. She describes a Q&A session with Richard Rohr, Jim Wallis and Anne. It was going along and then a man asked about Christian progressives and abortion, which he opposed. That was a dramatic moment. Quite tense in fact. Both Rohr and Wallis were fair. They acknowledged how contentious this issue was and that there were too many abortions. Neither stated an opinion on whether it should be legal or not. They were quite diplomatic.

Anne was to as she states and I recall. Then later after taking another question, she returned to the abortion issue and elaborated on how she had had abortions and how she felt they were necessary at this point of her life. It got real tense. She was clearly going out on a limb. She seemed surprised that progressive citizens might not share her beliefs on this. In this book she goes into detail about the experience and how she felt during and after. It is worth reading.

I do recommend Grace (Eventually) as a smart, humorous gift of Anne's views on life and God. I don't think one has to be a Northern Californian vegan who has smoked lots of dope to enjoy it. She's a welcoming writer.

An article on Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert at a recent conference.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Voice in the Wind

I received Voice in the Wind and the other two books of this Francine Rivers triliogy as a gift. That's the main reason I read the whole book--not because I liked the story or writing style. It's an okay book I suppose, but not my kind of book. I never connected with any of the characters.

Set in ancient Jerusalem, Rome and Ephesus in about 70ad Voice in the Wind tells the story of an early Christian slave, the family that owns her, and a Germanic gladiator. It was like reading a C.B. DeMille film, not his best one either. The emotions seemed stilted and dialogs contrived.

At times I felt the book was researched well in that it described various household items of the day, but that it got the zeitgeist wrong. In fact sometimes I got so doubtful of the accuracy that I sometimes stopped reading and went online to check out a fact. Not something one wants readers to do when reading historical fiction.

Rivers is a well known, successful Christian writer so she wants to tell a story and to illuminate some aspect of this faith. She wanted to show that Christianity is the Way. Yet I've studied Roman culture, philosophy and literature in college and do think this aim came into conflict with an accurate portrayal of life at the time. For example, one character gets an abortion and the Christian slave woman disapproves. I don't think that was a formal belief that Christians held in the early church. According to Wikipedia the earliest Christian writing against abortion appeared in 100 AD. From my studies, imperfect as they are, of Church history, the early church was not as highly formal and organized as it became after 1000 AD. As I understand it, the church was figuring out how to develop. There wasn't a clear blueprint.

Also, when I learned about the history of birth control in Western culture in a college course, I know we learned that Jews accepted infanticide up to age three. The slave woman is a Jewish Christian. Now I don't have my notes and I don't know when that belief was held, but this sort of thing and the way Rivers describes Epicureans (she seems to see them only as pleasure seekers, but that wasn't the case; they believed in taking a middle way between extremes) kept me from getting into this book. Yes, Rivers did a lot of research, but she didn't talk to a Classics expert and she did not read Lucretius' On the Nature of Things which is a wise book that Christians can certainly learn from.

A lot of the book seems to want to preach to modern readers about modern problems and attitudes. One character has an argument with her mother and she doesn't want to be "judged" and throughout she seemed completely of our era not 70 AD. Yes, there were similarities, but it wasn't a distant mirror.

What really irked me was that the book doesn't resolve any of the ongoing conflict. Rather it ends with a cliff hanger so you buy the next volume. Novels in a trilogy should stand alone somewhat, while carrying some themes forward.

I couldn't lose myself in this book. I did want to give it a try and made myself read 20 pages of this each day before I let myself read something else. That pretty much indicates my lack of pleasure.

I'm more of an Evelyn Waugh, François Mauriac or Graham Greene writer. I like their complexity and how the characters never come to easy solutions.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Catcher in the Rye

My online bookclub's May book was The Catcher in the Rye. I've read it twice before and wondered before I started it this time whether I'd think it was as good. It was. Salinger really captures the world of the prep school kids and their affluent and not so affluent parents. Holden is so observant, witty, sensitive, flawed, and even phony himself. (He lies to so many people unnecessarily and KNOWS its unnecessary.) All these dimensions and those that he notices in others make this a book I recommend to anyone.

It's so funny and real. The characters' dialog and behavior are absolutely on target. Salinger really gets us inside Holden's head and keeps us there through the whole book. It presents this real problem of how is Holden supposed to survive in these social environments that he finds so offensive. You completely see his predictament and really are engaged in wanting him to find a solution, for someone to find one, yet one knows that's unlikely. The other people in his life just don't worry so much about living in a world where gas mileage is a big topic.

Some might think that the kids are too smart. Phoebe can correct Holden on his misquote of "Catcher in the Rye" but I just met a woman who works at a private school here and all the kids in kindergarden can identify the painter of works like "American Gothic". Salinger captures this society precisely.

Sadly, I thought if Holden were around today, and we do have Holdens out there, he'd be put on medication early on. We want to solve our problems by medicating the people who notice that we should care about things other than then mundane.

I kept wondering if this could be made into a movie. I think it shouldn't because all the interior comments as voice overs would just be annoying. Giving him a sidekick is out because the problem is with Holden is that he doesn't have a peer who shares his point of view. I think as long as Salinger's alive there won't be a movie, but I do wonder if there's some family member out there who'd want the money after he's gone. Seems Salinger, whom I imagine is in a cabin where there isn't so much contact with the banal must be an awful lot like Holden. (I know one shouldn't expect it to be mainly autobiographical). I also wonder if this 89 year old recluse doesn't have a cabin full of manuscripts that we'll one day see - an American "In Search of Lost Time" perhaps.

Below I've added a link on the attempts to film this. Salinger did discuss it and wanted to play Holden himself. Billy Wilder tried to get the rights as did Spielberg. Imagine.

The jacket of my copy said that it took Salinger 10 years to write this. So he clearly rewrote and rewrote till he got something that seems like pure teen dialog, like a real kid telling us what happened before he went to the hospital or institution he's in. It's interesting how some information like where he is and what exactly led him there shortly before he arrived. Because when he's at the carousel with Phoebe he seems to be getting better able to cope. He thinks it's okay that kids "fall".

Online the group discussed how this book is so often banned. I wouldn't ban it, but I do see that since there's prostitution, homosexuality, inappropriate affection between a former teacher and Holden, abusive bullying that leads to suicide, underaged drinking and a mental break down that some parents and adults might have their own (midguided or just different?) take. I know that I'm not likely to imitate all literature I read. I do think this would be a good book to read to examine morality with young people.

I thought a lot about Mr. Antolini and how complex that character was. On the one hand, as Holden noticed he was the one guy to run to help the boy who committed suicide after some boys molested him and he offered Holden wisdom that seemed the sort of advice that really could help Holden, if anything could. Yet Salinger did add in the scene when Antolini starts patting the sleeping Holden on his head. I think Holden's instincts to get out of there were right. It's what we'd tell kids to do today. So this adult who Holden was wise to go to for help turns out to be someone Holden should listen to, but also, just to be safe, keep his distance from. Then afterwards Holden still sees the good in his old teacher and evidently forgives him. Few writers would have one character be both these things.

I did see that Catcher in the Rye has not gotten dated. It teaches writers so much about characterization. It reminded me a bit of Ordinary People in that the parents weren't "bad" nor was the son. Life just puts some people at odds with others, even those who try to help them.

It rains a lot in this book and one thing I was wondering about was why Holden even gets "rained on" by the radiator in the hotel bar before he goes home and sees Phoebe. It must have some significance because when he's on his way home he comments on his hair getting icy.

A Link: one person's assessment of the Bible's influence on Salinger

On film adaptation attempts: Attempted_film_adaptations

The Burns poem:

Coming Through the Rye
by Robert Burns
Coming thro' the rye, poor body,
Coming thro' the rye,
She draiglet a' her petticoatie
Coming thro' the rye.

O, Jenny's a' wat, poor body;
Jenny's seldom dry;
She draiglet a' her petticoatie
Coming thro' the rye.

Gin a body meet a body
Coming thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body -
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Coming thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body -
Need the warld ken?

It's like a foreign language to me

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Eat the Rich

If you want to understand economics better without actually taking any economics courses, read Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics. P.J. O'Rourke does the heavy studying for you. Or actually he gets someone else to. He does read some dense economics texts and pushes them aside deciding there are better ways to gain understanding.

So off he goes in search of answers. The results are chapters like "Good Capitalism: Wall St.," "Bad Capitalism: Albania," "Good Socialism: Sweden," "Bad Socialism: Cuba," "How to Make Nothing from Everything: Tanzania," and "How to Make Everything from Nothing: Hong Kong." In each country O'Rourke seeks to find the reason behind its success or poverty. He talks with experts, examines the markets, chats with the man in the street and makes sense of statistics. After reading, I feel smarter and it was a painless experience, quite unexpected when I think about economics.

America America by Ethan Canin

Yet another book which I received as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

This one, I can enthusiastically endorse.

Canin spans early 1970s through post 9/11 America, or more specifically western New York. But not as much the economically depressed western New York of Richard Russo novels (although it does play a role), as the wealthy, powerful, politically connected New York State which factors into national presidential elections.

Canin plays out his story in jumps and starts, switching between three periods in the life of our protagonist, Corey Sifter, his high school years, his college years and his present day. As we move between these three spans, Canin parcels out tidbits which in the end allows the protagonist and the reader to fashion a likely solution to the central puzzle of the novel.

Canin is often oblique in his development of the narrative but this refusal to lay it all out for the reader works to emphasize Corey's journey from impressionable young yard boy to powerful newspaper publisher.

Altogether, a gripping, thoroughly enjoyable novel about politics, power, noblesse oblige and tragedy.

From the back cover:

From Ethan Canin, bestselling author of The Palace Thief, comes a stunning novel, set in a small town during the Nixon era and today, about America and family, politics and tragedy, and the impact of fate on a young man’s life.

In the early 1970s, Corey Sifter, the son of working-class parents, becomes a yard boy on the grand estate of the powerful Metarey family. Soon, through the family’s generosity, he is a student at a private boarding school and an aide to the great New York senator Henry Bonwiller, who is running for president of the United States. Before long, Corey finds himself involved with one of the Metarey daughters as well, and he begins to leave behind the world of his upbringing. As the Bonwiller campaign gains momentum, Corey finds himself caught up in a complex web of events in which loyalty, politics, sex, and gratitude conflict with morality, love, and the truth.

America America
is a beautiful novel about America as it was and is, a remarkable exploration of how vanity, greatness, and tragedy combine to change history and fate.

About the Author
Ethan Canin is the author of six books of fiction, including the story collections, Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief, and the novels For Kings and Planets and Carry Me Across the Water. He is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Iowa, California, and northern Michigan.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Man Who Had All the Luck

The Man Who Had All the Luck by Arthur Miller tells the story of David who is cursed with tremendously good luck. It freaks him out. He's surrounded by friends and relatives who experience set backs. David never does. The universe seems to clear a path for him at every turn. He can't make sense of this. He feels that fate will eventually catch up with him.

Miller examines how people view fate, whether Americans can avoid the beliefs found in Asia and Europe that there's a Wheel of Fortune of some kind. This early play foreshadows how the playwright will develop, how he will continue to grapple with luck and a hero's view of his own success.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jorgy: The Life of Native Alaskan Bush Pilot and Airline Captain Holger "Jorgy" Jorgensen, as told to Jean Lester

I received this book as part of the Early Reviewers program on LibraryThing.

Otherwise, to be honest, I probably would have never even come across it, let alone bought it.

And yet, I started this book on May 8 and finished it on May 12. It was certainly not a chore to read.

The book is very earnest, if a bit amateurish. Told as a series of anecdotes, it reads like a book of short stories with a common theme.

Jorgy Jorgensen is definitely a remarkable individual who overcame long odds to rise to a well respected position in his chosen profession. The book conveys his laconic voice well although, to some extent, it is a victim of his accomplishments in that, even when Jorgy's not bragging, the book seems to be.

The book holds obvious appeal for fans of aviation and those interested in the behind the scenes stories of the Alaska bush. While I am neither of those, the book held my interest quite well too.

From Jean Lester's website:
This book is the autobiography of an Inupiat man, born in an isolated mining community, having only an eighth-grade education, who amidst a frontier mentality of conqueror superiority, surpassed the prejudice of his time to become a legendary aviator. Early aviation, the Alaska Territorial Guard, segregation, the DEW line, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline were part of this exciting and tumultuous time in Alaska's history. Boom and bust, exploration and exploitation to such an extent no one could have imagined or anticipated, was Alaska when Jorgy was growing up and flying. Jean Lester brings her talent for capturing the voices of her subjects to bear, vividly relaying Holger "Jorgy" Jorgensen's wry and laconic tales of his life in the northern air.
Photo Credit

Monday, May 12, 2008

Writers at Work

Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, Third Seriesis like sitting in a room listening to an interview between a reporter and a great writer. This edition featured interviews with Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Miller and others of their calliber.

The questions are pertinent, and serious; the responses trenchant and thoughtful. Readers can learn a lot about craft and how masters made the same early mistakes that novices do. Starting out Arthur Miller thought one could write a good play in six days. He soon learned otherwise. This book is like a 368 page MFA program. There are several others in the series.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Lapham's Quarterly

Harper's editor Lewis H. Lapham has created a new quarterly magazine, which focuses a theme like war or money and then gathers brief essays by writers from all periods of history.

This spring the quarterly features writings on money by the likes of Jane Austen, Juvenal, Satre, Karl Marx, Aristophanes, Lord Byron, Ralph Ellison, Ruskin, Ayn Rand, Chaucer, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Wolfe, de Tocqueville, W. E. B. Du Bois, Thorstein Veblen, George Orwell and other great thinkers. It's basically a collection of concise Great Books readings.

For a taste, check out On Chinese Beggars: 1930

Being Perfect

I grabbed this at the library and am so glad I didn't buy it.

Being Perfectis an ultra-fast read. It also lacks insight. Quinlen states the obvious in a breezy fashion. A perfect graduation speech for a bad community college. There were a few perceptive quotations, but 20 minutes on the internet at say Quoteland would net the same.

The Burden of Bad Ideas

The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society

A friend, a more conservative friend recommended Heather MacDonald’s Burden of Bad Ideas. Since he at least doesn’t like our current president (how refreshing to find a conservative who’ll step out of the flock on that one), so I thought why not.

MacDonald looks at and criticizes the influence of liberal beliefs on such areas as edu-cation, philanthropy, sex ed in schools, and foster care. In many areas I probably do agree with her. I can’t say that all liberal solutions are effective or sensible. Yet so often MacDonald uses hyperbole and ridicule to preach to her choir, that I found myself rolling my eyes. “Right, our schools are now ‘showering students with condoms.’” Such language might be considered clever by some, but a more accurate phrasing and the occasional concession that some "liberal" programs do work, would make me respect the author more and lead me to consider some of her criticisms.

There are several interesting chapters in this book. In “Behind the Neediest Cases” MacDonald describes how The New York Times’ Neediest Cases, which first started in 1912 began by describing the lives of diligent working families who faced terrible hardship. They were good people whom fate dealt a bad hand. Examples include a young girl whose parents died and she had to keep the family together. She worked in a factory all day and took care of her siblings, who also carried their weight by say a paper route or some such job. Even those with TB seemed to have a job. Then after the introduction of welfare the paper grappled with justifying their campaign. They shifted their emphasis from people who suffered from bad luck to those beset with psychological troubles that made it hard for their families to make ends meet. This trend grew and by the 60’s the cases the Times presented accented victimhood. Drug use and irresponsible behavior were featured in almost all the cases. The people in the stories MacDonald cites never admit full or partial responsibility.

Another chapter that really hit home was on Education School. Yes, I lived through getting a degree in Education and MacDonald does hit the target and describe what I experience. For the most part nowadays education courses are fatuous and overemphasize sharing and “reflection.” They’re low on content and challenge. They water ideas down and if you question or disagree with a popularly held belief, expect to be excoriated. Many classes are taught by professors who don’t tolerate dissent. These schools do discourage the bright from entering the field. Yet maybe they should as once you’re in a school there’s a good chance you’ll be surrounded by vacuous minds. One will probably be the department head.

MacDonald goes to town on compassion gone amok in her chapter on welfare. She focuses on New York, which made the section more local. Surely, not every state has the same poorly conceived system, while there are problems everywhere. While I’m sure there are abuses, MacDonald cites no successes, only failures. Moreover, she offers no solutions.

Still I think there’s value in reading people who hold opposing views, even when some passages irk one. I think it’s essential. It is a shame that as a society we are so entrenched in the Red State/Blue State dichotomy that we can’t civilly and intelligently read or discuss public policy without resorting to sarcasm, insults and exaggeration. If we could, I think we’d see incredible cooperation and achievement as a society. That’s the path to progress. If the liberals could, like Garrison Keillor, admit that whole language doesn’t effectively teach children to read and write and if the conservatives could like [please submit an appropriate example as I can’t think of one] then perhaps more children could read, fewer Americans would need welfare and charity, fewer teens would get pregnant, more people would work full time, our taxes would be at a sensible rate and we could transform America to Scandinavia without the national debt.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

This book called to me a few weekends ago when I was browsing at Tattered Cover in Denver.

I had forgotten my first encounter with Joyce Carol Oates.

When Steve saw what I had bought, he was surprised. He reminded me that I had read his copy of a Joyce Carol Oates novel (neither of us could remember what it was) and had not liked it.

At all.


As it turns out, the offending book was We are the Mulvaneys.

When I told Steve what the book was that I didn't like, he asked me what I thought of this one. I replied, "I liked it better than the last one."

Not a rousing endorsement.

Don't get me wrong. Black Girl/White Girl held my interest. I read it in 2 days.

I found a lot of truths in it about relationships between the races.

I was struck by how unlikeable the black girl of the title, Minette Swift, was.

I liked how the subplot about Genna and her father slowly took over and became the plot.

I found parts of it unreasonably obtuse. There was a little too much mystery and opaqueness surrounding Genna's memories of incidents during her childhood and her dealings with her parents while at the same time her memories of her time with Minette were crisply focused.

Black Girl/White Girl is not an uplifting book. Nobody in it is or ends up happy.

Yet, all that being said, I'm glad I read it. I guess that means I'd have to give it a thumbs up.

From the back cover:

In 1975 Genna Hewett-Meade's college roommate died a mysterious, violent death partway through their freshman year. Minette Swift had been assertive, fiercely individualistic, and one of the few black girls at their exclusive, "enlightened" college - and Genna, daughter of a prominent civil defense lawyer, felt duty-bound to protect her at all costs. But fifteen years later, while reconstructing Minette's tragic death, Genna is forced to painfully confront her own past life and identity . . . and her deepest beliefs about social obligation in a morally gray world.

Black Girl/White Girl is a searing double portrait of race and civil rights in post-Vietnam America, captured by one of the most important literary voices of our time.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Planetwalker by John Francis

John Francis stopped using motorized transportation after witnessing a 1971 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. He stopped talking several months later. As the subtitle says, 22 years of walking, 17 years of silence.

The book I read was the Advance Reader's Edition, published in 2008 by the National Geographic Society.

There's another book by the same name and the same author but a different publisher (Elephant Mountain Press). It was published in 2005 and based on what I found on Amazon, the beginning of the first chapter is the same in both. So, I don't know if I read the same book, a slightly different book or what.

This book is a conundrum.

I found it provocative. As I was reading it, it provided fodder for several interesting conversations, for example, as we took a roadtrip to Moab or as I considered Rachel's Vow of Silence day.

Francis is very matter of fact throughout the book. He readily acknowledges his detractors and his own doubts but then just moves on to the next topic. The book appears to be largely drawn from his journals so at times there are disconcerting gaps in time and places where the narrative simply fades away.

I found myself struggling with the question of how much is enough as Francis allows people to transport his pack for him on his treks and sends gear ahead via mail. Francis touches on these questions later in the book, in the form of recognizing but not resolving the issue.

Francis never pretends to have the answers but reading about an individual who managed to earn a bachelor's degree, a master's degree and a Ph.D. at three different universities, all while walking across the country and not talking, provides for some very thought provoking opportunities to question one's own journey.