Linda29007's reading for 2012
This topic was continued by Linda29007's reading for 2012 - Part 2.
Join LibraryThing to post.
Hi. I'm Linda, live in the Capital Region of New York State, and am recently retired from a 36-year career in public human service delivery and administration. Having left long workdays and a long commute behind, I am looking forward to more active participation in Library Thing. Club Read is a group that I have watched during the past year and which has contributed greatly to my growing TBR list. I would therefore like to join in for 2012. My interests lie primarily in literary fiction, biographies, memoirs, travel and other narrative nonfiction, with the occasional mystery or other enticing read. Looking forward to a great year of reading!
Since I did no tracking, the following is my best effort to reconstruct my reading for 2011. Those starred were particular favorites.
*Desert by J. M. G. Le Clezio
*Ethan Frome by Wharton, Edith
*Great House by Nicole Krauss
*Matterhorn by Marlantes, Karl
*Rumors of Rain by Andre Brink
*The Bishop's Man: A Novel by MacIntyre, Linden
*The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
*The Cloud Atlas by Callanan, Liam
*The Darling by Banks, Russell
*The Farming of Bones by Danticat, Edwidge
*The Surrendered by Lee, Chang-rae
*The Wandering Falcon by Ahmad, Jamil
*Wolf Hall by Mantel, Hilary
*The Time of the Angels by Murdoch, Iris
Backlash: a Novelette by Fulda, Nancy
Brothers of Gwynedd: Sunrise in the West (Book 1) by Pargeter, Edith
Caribou Island by Vann. David
Clouds of Witness by Sayers, Dorothy Leigh
Son of the Wind byMankell, Henning
Going Wrong by Rendell, Ruth
Hecuba by Euripides
In the Forest: A Novel by O’Brien, Edna
Intuition: A Novel by Goodman, Allegra
Light at Dusk by Gadol, Peter
The Man from Beijing by Mankell, Henning
Red April: A Novel by Roncagliolo, Santiago
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan
The Help by Stockett, Kathryn
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
The People of the Mist by Haggard, Henry Rider
The Portrait of a Lady by James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw by James, Henry
Thirteen Hours by Meyer, Deon
Three Day Road by Boyden, Joseph
Whose Body? by Sayers, Dorothy Leigh
Winter Sea by Kearsley, Susanna
The Golden Mean by Lyon, Annabel
44 Scotland Street by Smith, Alexander McCall
*Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
*An African in Greenland by Kpomassie, Tete-Michel
*In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by
*The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by
*The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by
*This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Ehrlich, Gretel
*Travels in Siberia by Frazier, Ian
*When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: a Memoir of Africa by Godwin, Peter
A Little Journey Higher by Ford, Alex
Here Be Monsters: 50 Days Adrift at Sea by Finkel, Michael (Kindle Single)
Running in the Family by Ondaatje, Michael
The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Patchett, Ann
Wanderlust: a Love Affair With Five Continents by Eaves, Elisabeth
The following are my 2012 completed reads.
1. Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter – Book 2
2. Ghost: A Novel by Alan Lightman
3. The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks
4. The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
5. Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon
6. Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent by Ruth Gruber
7. The Broken Word by Adam Foulds
8. Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse
9. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
10. The Writer as Migrant by Ha Jin
11. The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West
12. Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe
13. Troubles by J. G. Farrell
14. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
15. Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
16. Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
17. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll
18. To A Mountain In Tibet by Colin Thubron
19. Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann
20. The Sadness of the Samurai: A Novel by Victor del Arbol
21. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
22. Eternity on Hold by Mario Susko (poetry)
23. The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail (poetry)
24. The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk
25. Mentors, Muses & Monsters by Elizabeth Benedict
26. blue has no south by Alex Epstein
27. The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller
Congratulations on your retirement, Linda! Some of your non-fiction books from 2011 look really interesting - maybe you are making travel plans? Looking forward to seeing which books you tackle this year.
Thank you for the welcome, Milda and baswood.
I do hope to do some traveling, but not starting with the places that I read about last year! I love visiting new places, but really don't care for flying and have yet to apply for a passport. So maybe we will start with the US and Canada. Although I would really like to visit Ireland soon and search out my relatives there.
I am currently reading Douglas A. Blackmon’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize/2008 American Book award winner Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, as well as Russell Bank’s The Sweet Hereafter and Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse.
Although I am trying to cut down on buying books by using the library more, I do plan to purchase The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel of North Korea by Adam Johnson, as soon as it is out next week. I will read that next, as I plan to attend a seminar that Johnson will present at the NYS Writers Institute (University at Albany) in February.
That's an impressive and interesting list from last year, Linda. Welcome!
Thanks theaelizabet. I'll look forward to following your reading this year.
It will be fun to follow your thread since I have read nothing on your list except for the Henry James. It is really quite exciting how rich and varied the interests are in this group.
Black Rain was one my favorites from last year, it'll be interesting to see what you think of it when your finished.
>10 Poquette - I agree with you wholeheartedly. LT is such a rich resource. By the way, I love the pictures of the library reading rooms on your profile page. And your list of favorite libraries is intriguing.
>11 stretch - Black Rain will be the first book I have read by a Japanese author. I hope to rectify that this year. I see that you have a particular interest in Japanese literature and yours is one of the threads I plan to follow for more recommendations.
It's a cold and windy day, so it feels permissible to hang out with books and LT, ignoring all of the chores that await me. Besides, I need to catch up with reviews of the three books I finished this week. Even after only a few weeks, I can see how easy it is to get hopelessly behind.
The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter -I finished Volume 2, but will hold off on a review until I have completed the full quartet.
Ghost: A Novel by Alan Lightman
The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks
Ghost: A Novel by Alan Lightman
Ghost: A Novel is the story of David, a divorced, recently unemployed man who accepts a temporary position at a mortuary, where he sees what he believes to be a supernatural event, described as a “vapor” entering or leaving a body. When word gets out, he becomes subjected to unwanted media attention and is drawn into a public controversy between a society of believers, who seek to demonstrate that he has special powers, and members of the academic community intent on disproving this.
This was a quick, unexpectedly light read that was enjoyable primarily in the flow of its language and the author’s creation of a strong sense of anticipation. However, I had mixed feelings and found it ultimately disappointing, as the characters and plot lacked depth. The main character struck me as insipid, with the owner of the mortuary, Martin, being of more interest. I also found the story line to be shallow and predictable. This book has been described by others as a compelling examination of the tug and pull between the supernatural and science and one man’s struggle to come to terms with his beliefs. However, I found this aspect of the novel to fall far short of this assessment. Rather, it spoke more strongly to me as a story of how an unexplained experience, subject to an unwarranted level of public view, can impact one’s life well beyond the significance of the event itself.
Alan Lightman is both a theoretical physicist and a novelist, perhaps best know for several earlier works: Einstein’s Dreams, an international best seller, and The Diagnosis, a finalist for the National Book Award. Given these credentials, I expected much more of this novel, the first of his works that I have read. However, Lightman is clearly a writer with some talent and I am not inclined to dismiss him entirely on the basis of this one book alone. I plan to attend a talk that he will give in early February, after which I will decide whether to invest time in reading another of his books.
The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks
The Sweet Hereafter tells the story of a school bus accident that occurs on a snowy morning in Sam Dent, an impoverished, rural Adirondack community. The accident and its aftermath are told through the voices of four characters, each of whom has suffered prior losses that ultimately determine their response to the accident, as they attempt to cope in isolation with the inevitable questions of cause, blame and how to move on with life.
The novel opens and closes with the voice of the school bus driver, Dolores Driscoll, a respected, life-long resident of the community whose days revolves around the care of her wheelchair bound husband and her responsibilities to the children she transports. Billy Ansel is a Vietnam veteran and widowed father of twins, who is haunted by unrelenting grief following his wife’s death. Mitchell Stephens, Esq., is a big city attorney who specializes in negligence litigation against government agencies and large corporations, driven by anger against the societal forces he blames for the estrangement of his drug-addicted daughter. Nichole Burnell, a popular and beautiful cheerleader, secretly struggles to cope with parental abuse and dysfunctional family relationships.
The Sweet Hereafter reflects on the reactions of ordinary people in times of personal tragedy. The setting and events of the novel are masterfully described. Banks presents his characters as fully realized individuals, whose inner thoughts and emotions are readily familiar to us, yet become extraordinary in their articulation. And while the aftermath of such an accident would be easily predicted in our litigious society, the reactions of Banks’ characters are at the same time both ordinary and unanticipated. Blame, guilt, grief, greed, anger and the underlying power of family and community come together in an unexpected conclusion. The humanity of the choices made by the characters in The Sweet Hereafter will stay with me for a long while.
Russell Banks is one of my favorite authors and I highly recommend The Sweet Hereafter. High on my TBR list is also Cloudsplitter, his fictionalized account of the abolitionist John Brown, which I plan to follow by reading Tony Horwitz’s non-fiction account in Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.
>Hi, Linda. Ghost: A Novel sounds like it has an interesting premiss, but apparently fails to deliver on it. I might try it in any case, but thanks for the review.
Excellent review of The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks. I will be interested to here what you think of the Tony Horovitz book on the John Brown raid
#16 Thanks for stopping by, Dewald. If you do read Lightman's book, I'll be interested in what you think. There are obviously many who liked it better than I, including other LT members and respected authors. The book jacket has glowing remarks from Joyce Carol Oates and Ha Jim, among others.
#17 Thanks, baswood. I have decided that it would be best to read the fictionalized account in Cloudsplitter first, but I am anxious also to get to Midnight Rising. I had the good fortunate last November to hear Tony Horwitz speak on the book and was quite impressed.
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Since this novel has been much reviewed and discussed on the Booker Prize threads, I will only briefly add my thoughts.
The Stranger’s Child, long-listed for the 2010 Booker Prize, is the saga of members of England's upper middle-class, literary community. Beginning in 1913 with the visit of Cecil Valance to the home of his friend, George Sawle, the story focuses upon Cecil’s identity as an emerging poet and the intimate relationships he forms with both George and his sister, Daphne Sawle. The narrative moves through five periods of time, from 1913 to 2008, recounting Cecil’s death in combat, the subsequent marriages and aging of Daphne and George, and the efforts of a biographer to uncover the secrets of their relationships.
I found The Stranger’s Child to be an enjoyable read, although not one that made me think much or introduced me to anything new. The author was adept in his use of language, description of the period and setting, and development of characters. Parallels and contrasts were subtly drawn between historical periods, principally regarding attitudes towards open homosexual relationships. Other interesting themes included the limitations of one’s ability to truly know another person and the difficulties of accurately reconstructing the story of an individual’s life.
Towards the end, I found myself wondering what Hollinghurst was trying to convey in closing, as the plot trailed off in a vague and inconclusive manner - for me, perhaps the greatest failing of this novel. ***1/2
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
The years following the Civil War did not bring an end to the subjugation of African Americans in the southern states. Rather, slavery was replaced by a system of forced labor that by some measures was equally or even more cruel and dehumanizing, ending only with the advent of World War II. Slavery by Another Name won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and is a powerful book that chronicles a period in southern history that is not widely known or acknowledged today.
The end of slavery left the southern states in social and economic crisis, with the plantation system severely disrupted by war and loss of its labor force. Newly freed African Americans were suddenly thrust into a world where they struggled to establish themselves as equals and to find ways of supporting themselves. Yet racial attitudes of whites towards blacks remained virtually unchanged, and the white supremacist mores and traditions underlying slavery were slow to dismantle.
"As the United States would learn many times in the ensuing 150 years, a military victor’s intention to impose a new moral and political code on a conquered society was much easier to wish for than to attain.”
Blackmon traces the widespread development of a system of peonage (i.e. forced labor to pay a debt) that replaced slavery as a source of cheap labor, in order to drive the industrial and agricultural economies, while continuing a culture of white supremacy. Under this system, African Americans were arrested for all manner of minor and non-existent offenses, of which they were invariably found guilty by local judges. In lieu of incarceration, fees were imposed upon the guilty party and paid for by companies, businessmen and farmers, who in turn obtained rights to the prisoner’s labor until their debt was repaid. Through this system, countless blacks were imprisoned and forced to work in deplorable conditions, far worse than those experienced under slavery. Their new “owners” lacked the motivation of slaveholders to protect their “investment”. Laborers were often punished harshly and many were ultimately worked to death. Their original crimes of vagrancy, gambling, riding the rails, talking loudly near white women and even eavesdropping effectively became death sentences.
Efforts to legally intervene in this system met with only limited success, as cases were ruled as falling under the jurisdiction of the local and State courts, which directly benefited financially from the system and argued that peonage was not a crime. In fact, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1865 to abolish slavery, did specifically allow for involuntary servitude as punishment for those convicted of criminal offenses. The control exercised by white sheriffs, judges, mayors and State officials in continuing and expanding this system was nearly absolute. Few whites were ultimately prosecuted and those convictions that were obtained resulted in only minor fines. Almost incomprehensible is that in the entire State of Georgia during the period 1877–1966, only one white man was found guilty of murdering a black man.
With few exceptions, federal authorities, including even presidents and U. S. attorneys general, lacked the will or interest to confront this issue and largely ignored those complaints that they received. Definitive federal action to put an end to peonage was taken only following President Roosevelt’s awareness, in the early days of World War II, that our nation’s enemies would exploit the shameful and violent manner in which America treated its black citizens. A new federal willingness to investigate and prosecute ensued and the legalized slavery being practiced under the guise of peonage was finally brought to an end in 1945.
“It was a strange irony that after seventy-four years of hollow emancipation, the final delivery of African Americans from overt slavery and from the quiet complicity of the federal government in their servitude was precipitated only in response to the horrors perpetrated by an enemy country against its own despised minorities.”
Slavery by Another Name is richly detailed, thoroughly researched, and supported by numerous references and documented instances. Interspersed throughout the narrative are the stories of individuals, both black and white, that put a human face to the events. Since reading this book, I have found myself struggling to reconcile how this could have happened in my country as recently as the 1940s, yet not be taught in schools or openly discussed in other forums.
This book is a must read for those seeking to understand the forces that have shaped and continue to impact on racial relations in our nation. *****
Note that a documentary of the same title, based on Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, is scheduled to air on PBS on February 13th.
Linda, Tremendous review of Slavery by another name. This was a whole new learning experience for me.
Fabulous review of Slavery By Another Name, Linda. I was aware of that statistic about my adopted state of Georgia and of this informal system of involuntary servitude, but your review makes this a must read book for me, as you said.
Thanks Barry. I learned a great deal from this book as well. Nobody likes to acknowledge that their country has such abhorrent events in its history. But to me it is even worse that these events are not taught or widely known. I doubt that I am alone in having believed that slavery ended in 1865. We can't change the past, but we should certainly learn from it. In my opinion, this book gives us that opportunity.
Thanks Darryl, deebee and Suzanne. It is an outstanding book. Sam Pollard, the director of the documentary based on the book, received a 2-minute standing ovation at its Sundance screening this week.
DieFledermaus - Unfortunately, I am going to miss Lightman's talk, as my mother has been scheduled for surgery the next day and I will be traveling to get there. But a friend might attend and I'll get her impressions.
I have finished Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent by Ruth Gruber and The Broken Word by Adam Foulds, but will be delayed in posting reviews as I will be traveling and without internet access. My list of unfinished reviews will probably have grown by the time I return, as I am deep into both The Orphan Master's Son and Black Rain, and nearly finished with Seamus Heaney's Human Chain.
I am back from being out of town, without access to the internet, and feeling hopelessly behind on LT! But on the upside, I did a great deal of reading and finished reviews of several books, which I will post soon.
>30 Suzanne, I had a feeling that I should have read Einstein's Dreams as my introduction to Lightman, as it was his critically acclaimed work. I don't know what made me decide to read Ghost: A Novel instead. I'll be by your thread soon to look for your review.
>31 Hi Linda — at the moment much to my surprise it is a Hot Review, but it's on the way down, so it may not be there for long.
Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent by Ruth Gruber
In Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent, Ruth Gruber recounts her first twenty-five years, including her early development as a writer and foreign correspondent. Born in 1911 Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents, Gruber from an early age exhibited an independence and intellectual curiosity far beyond expectations for females of the time. Opportunity to escape her tradition-bound future presented itself when she was granted a fellowship to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Cologne in Germany. It was here that she began achievement of a series of “firsts”. At age 20, she became the youngest person in the world to receive a Ph.D., all the more notable for being granted by a German institution to a Jewish American, during a period when Hitler and the Nazi party were building their power. In an increasingly dangerous political climate, Gruber placed herself at personal risk with a return trip to Europe, Germany, Poland and Russia under a fellowship for “creative research”, to study women living under fascism, communism and democracy. Her travels during this period ended with two trips to the Soviet Arctic, where she became the first foreign correspondent to visit and interview both officials and gulag inmates.
This early memoir was first published in 1991, many years later than the events that Gruber describes. During the intervening years, she was deeply involved with the plight of Jewish refugees, both as an official of the federal government and as a writer and humanitarian. It is therefore surprising that she does not delve more deeply into the growing Nazi threat that she observed or the conditions encountered in the Soviet gulags. Although she describes the fears of her Jewish friends and relates having witnessed some frightening events, Gruber seems to have felt distanced from the danger by her American passport. Her writing reflects this distance, seeming to lack the sense of immediacy and apprehension I expected from a witness to alarming world events. While I enjoyed this interesting book by a remarkable woman, I can’t help but feel that Gruber missed an opportunity to make it so much more.
The Broken Word: An Epic Poem of the British Empire and the Mau Mau Uprising Against It by Adam Foulds
The Broken Word by Adam Foulds is a narrative poem set during the Mau Mau uprising against British colonial rule in 1950’s Kenya. A young British colonist, Tom, returns from England on school vacation to his family’s estate just as the conflict encroaches. Tom is volunteered by his father to join the settlers’ Home Guard, where he is exposed to and eventually participates in gruesome acts of torture and killing of captive rebels. His response gradually transforms from naiveté to ambivalence to persistent fascination with brutality, inexplicably accompanied by feelings of respect for the strong, defiant rebels. Lurid visions of violence continue to intrude even as he returns to England, disturbing his efforts to reestablish a normal life.
The Broken Word is an astonishing and unsettling work. Foulds uses a straightforward style of verse and language to portray how a young man on the verge of adulthood is changed by immersion in a world of violence and fear. As a fictionalized account of a murderous conflict, it does not contain the elements of heroic acts that its subtitle as an epic poem would imply, but rather presents an ugly, yet complex depiction of human behavior. I found myself frequently startled by the progression of events, as Foulds skillfully reveals the emerging violent impulses that become part of Tom’s moral character, while at the same time offering glimpses into his underlying humanity.
The Broken Word won the 2008 Costa Poetry Award and the 2009 Somerset Maugham Award, and was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. At 61 pages, it is a fast, gripping read that begs to be immediately re-read for nuance. I highly recommend this award-winning poem.
Thanks, Dewald. I will be very interested in your reaction to The Broken Word, and particularly whether living on the African continent provides you with insights that I did not bring to its reading. I hope that Foulds publishes more poetry in the future, but in the meantime, I am definitely adding The Quickening Maze to my wishlist.
The Broken Word sounds interesting, but I should probably read a prose account first. I have some lingering interest in Kenya because I was there way back in 1976 on safari.
Excellent thoughts on The Broken Word Linda. This award winning poem has passed me by and so I will rectify that. More poetry please.
Suzanne - Although the poem was set in the Mau Mau uprising, I somehow felt it was less about the conflict than about Tom's responses to his involvement. It really doesn't require much special knowledge to appreciate, although I did find it helpful to my second reading of the poem to have read the Wikipedia summary of the rebellion. But that said, I do think it would be very interesting to read more of the actual history. as I'd like to learn more about the divisions within the native population between rebels and loyalists. I'd love to hear if you find any good nonfiction accounts.
Thanks Barry. My interest in poetry is being reawakened by LT threads like yours and some of my recent finds. Today I will be near a bookstore and want to see if I can find anything by Tomas Transtromer, the 2011 Nobel Laureate. Have you read any of his work?
Thanks, Linda for that further information. I did add it to my wish list.
Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse
In his beautifully written novel, Black Rain, Masuji Ibuse takes us into the experience of ordinary citizens coping with the after-math of the August 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. Set several years following the bombing, Shigematsu Shizuma, his wife Shigeko and niece Yasuko, temporarily residing in Hiroshima at the time of the blast, have survived and returned to their rural community of Kobatake. Acting as their niece’s guardians, Shigematsu and his wife are responsible to find her a husband, a duty that is rendered difficult by potential suitors’ fears that Yasuko has been exposed to the “black rain”. Shigematsu struggles himself with a mild case of radiation sickness, yet continues his factory employment, while joining friends in establishing a carp nursery. Throughout the story, recollections of the bombing and its aftermath are intermingled with the family’s concerns for every day life.
Ibuse advances his narrative in multiple voices, through an inventive use of four characters’ journal entries that move the story back and forth between the present day and the time of the bombing. Shigematsu dominates through transcription of his journal entries, from the day of the bombing to the day of the Imperial Majesty’s surrender, the copying of which he has undertaken both for donation to the school library and to disprove his niece’s illness. The first person perspectives of Shigeko, Yasuko and a physician, Dr. Iwatake, are brought in through their own personal journal entries. In writing this novel, Ibuse drew heavily from actual materials and interviews, and we are told in the preface that Shigematsu, his journal, and Dr. Iwatake actually existed.
Ibuse details the horror of the utter devastation and death that occurred in the aftermath of the bombing, with his writing made even more powerful by the absence of political commentary or overt emotionalism. The characters display remarkable emotional reserve and resilience, and struggle to continue on with their lives and traditional ceremonies, despite heart-wrenching encounters with death and suffering. Their lack of self-pity or hysteria, and initial incomprehension of the true nature and ramifications of the bomb, lends an almost eerie quality to the narrative.
Black Rain is one of few novels that I have read by a Japanese author and I found John Bester’s Translator’s Preface very helpful in understanding the ways in which it is uniquely Japanese. Bester’s insights into this brilliant work summarize its power far more elegantly than I ever could.
“…Ibuse, with infinite nostalgia, sets against the violent destruction of the city the beauty of the Japanese countryside and the ancient customs of its people. Against the mighty, brutal purposes of State, he lays the small human preoccupations and foibles. Against the threat of universal destruction, he sets a love for, and sense of wonder at life in all its forms…
Highly recommended. *****
Great review Linda! Black Rain has quickly become one of my favorites. I don't think a western author could achieve a book like this with so much emotional reserve. It is one of the things I have come to respect about Japanese authors, they are able to tell a gripping story about some troubling subject matter without being too heavy handed with the emotion.
Your review is doing bad things to my reduction therapy. I don't read enough from Japan and this would put me back on track. Also, there is nothing like a good introduction to help in these situations, so I am glad you mentioned it.
Thanks Barry, Kevin and SassyLassy. Black Rain has left me anxious to explore more Japanese literature.
Hi Linda, stopping by for the first time here finding lots of great stuff here. Black Rain is now on my wishlist (Kevin's comments last year (?) originally caught my interest). Enjoyed your other reviews too, especially about The Broken Word and Slavery by Another Name. Too bad Ahead of Time didn't work well.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
In The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson presents a fictionalized account of North Korea, as a country where the individual disappears and personal narrative is replaced by the Kim regime’s story of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as the most democratic country on earth, operating under the benevolence of its Beloved Leader. This is the story of Jun Do and his quest to create an individual identity and in so doing, find love and family.
Jun Do grows up in a North Korean orphanage, believing himself to be the son of the Orphan Master. His parentage at best ambiguous, he effectively becomes an orphan when the Orphan Master inexplicably disappears. As a loyal, conforming citizen, the young Jun Do is trained as an Army tunnel rat, graduates to conducting kidnapping forays into Japan, learns English and gains a post as an intelligence officer monitoring foreign radio transmissions at sea. It is here that he first experiences a sense of freedom and contemplates a larger reality, while learning to survive by inventing versions of events that are acceptable to the government authorities. Following the defection of a fellow sailor, Jun Do alternates between suspect and hero. He is assigned to accompany a "diplomatic" team to Texas, where a misunderstanding with the Americans regarding his identity leads to his impersonation of Commander Ga, the Minister of Prison Mines and renowned military hero, whose wife is Sun Moon, a beautiful actress with personal ties to Kim Jong-Il. This impersonation becomes the driving force that carries the story to its conclusion.
Through his characters, Johnson portrays a citizenry that knows no reality other than the regime’s propaganda, and who struggle to suppress their own personal ideas and emotions in a society where any display of individuality can lead to imprisonment, brutal indoctrination and death. He shifts between first person and third person narration, moving back and forth across time. Jun Do’s story dominates the early part of the novel, with two first person voices introduced upon the “departure” of the Jun Do character. An ever-present propaganda broadcast addresses the Citizens with tales of Ga's heroics, while a nameless member of the Division 42 Interrogation Team is determined to break the imposter and obtain his confessional story, yet ultimately becomes the source of his final liberation.
At a recent seminar, Johnson described his techniques in this novel as mirroring the ways that trauma victims distance themselves from the pain of their own experiences, using fragmentation, lack of chronology, and the past tense to tell their tales. This is a book that is at the same time dark and humorous, full of both despair and hope. Yet despite its many moments of torture and death, I did not ultimately find this to be a dark book, although friends have disagreed with me on this assessment. Johnson’s narrative style provided me, like his trauma victims, with the needed distance from the harsh conditions portrayed. While it feels nearly inconceivable to me that the individual spirit could prevail under such tyrannical circumstances, Johnson shows us that this is indeed a possibility.
****1/2 Highly recommended.
Revised 2/17/12 to clarify that this review is presented solely in the context of a work of fiction.
Great review of The Orphan Master's Son. On to the TBR list it goes. I can't remember if you said you'd read Nothing to Envy, a non-fiction book about people who escape North Korea? If so, did these books complement each other at all? I read and loved Nothing to Envy and it made me curious to learn more about life in North Korea.
Excellent review of the Orphan Master's Son Linda. It does make me wonder if Adam Johnson has taken a very extreme view of North Korea or whether it is just like he says it is in the novel.
>50 Thanks, japaul22. I haven't yet read Nothing to Envy, but it is on my wish list. For more of a historical perspective on how the Kim regime rose to power, I also want now to read The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam, which we own.
By the way, I noticed on your profile page that you are a classical musician. Can I be nosy and ask what instrument(s) you play? My mother taught piano, so you know what I play, but certainly not well enough, all things considered. I also had a short stint with violin. I love the instrument, but not when I play it! I love classical music, but worry about its future. We have season tickets to a very affordable chamber music series that brings in world-class artists. But every year the audience seems to get smaller, as the number of older, long-term attendees declines.
>51 Thanks, Barry. The book is clearly written as a work of fiction, but I have the same question and it's part of the reason why I am interested in following up with some nonfiction material.
At his recent author seminar that I attended, Johnson indicated that he had conducted 6 years of research, including reading countless defectors' accounts and North Korean propaganda that is translated daily by the Japanese. He mentioned that there are many, many defector accounts available on the internet and that South Korea records the stories of defectors, which I think he said totaled around 6000 in 2010. He describes the brutality of the gulag-like labor camps as being very real, the threat of which is the government's main way of controlling the populace. There is even a family camp, where your immediate and extended family members are imprisoned along with you. And if you don't have enough of them, they take your friends.
Johnson made his own trip to North Korea, although he was constantly in the company of five "minders", permitted no interaction with anyone else, and not allowed to see much. As it is illegal for citizens to interact with foreigners, Johnson said they won't even look at you, making him feel "transparent" (he's a very big guy and would be impossible to miss). Even the hotel where he stayed was on an island where no citizens were permitted and all of the staff were Chinese contract workers. One thing he said that struck me was his conclusion that "North Korea is the most difficult place to be human in the world".
Thanks for providing the background on the author; I was wondering about him. This sounds like another book for the list. Today is turning out to be a bad day for that as I just discovered two other books about China that I "need".
>52 Hi Linda, The Coldest Winter looks interesting. I'll put it on my list. As far as your music question, I play french horn. And yes, the music world is kind of scary right now. Even the big American orchestras are having contract negotiations where they are taking big pay cuts and changes to their pension systems. I play in one of the premiere military bands in DC and it's a fantastic and relatively secure job. We get great audiences to our concerts, but of course they are all free. It's hard to know what the future holds for classical music in general, but I think with some smart marketing and outreach things will be ok. Thanks for asking!
I am not an expert on North Korea, and I have not read any of these books, e.g. The Orphan Master's Son or Nothing to Envy, but based on the discussion above, I would like to contribute some general observations.
Following Linda's review of The Orphan Master's Son, I read the review by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/books/the-orphan-masters-son-by-adam-johnson-r...), which highlights the fictional nature of The Orphan Master's Son, and specifically points out that many things are exaggerated.
When a novelist (even one with a BA in Journalism) says they "investigated" something for six years, that means close to nothing, especially not when we are talking about, as in this case, an Asian country and its culture. Not that long ago, books about such countries were written by specialists. We now see journalists popping up everywhere publishing books, and what many of these journalists have in common is that even without a lot of specialist knowledge they are very self-assured, and I guess it is inherent to the journalistic style, prone to exaggerate. Their research methods, and their writing styles are unconventional, with too much emphasis on the value of witness accounts and observation.
The value of the reports by defectors is very questionable. I have spoken many Chinese people, both inside and outside China, who were students and witnessed the events in Beijing in 1989, while at the same time deriding the "defectors" who had escaped to Hong Kong and other countries. The (so called) student leaders who escaped to the West received asylum, refugee status and stipends to study: their witness accounts are biased towards what their hosts want to hear.
North Korea is (1) an Asian country, with (2) a Communist political system, which (i.e. the country), is probably the most backward in Asia. If you ascribe observations to all three categories at once, would be a clear case to total misunderstanding. Let me give you two examples.
Backward does not mean "stupid," it means the last to develop. If Korea is a "closed country" not allowing citizens to talk to foreigners, that is not a characteristic of a Communist country (although that may have been the case in other Communist countries, for other reasons). Several Asian countries, notable Japan, and China, were "closed to foreigners" at some earlier stage in their development.
Punishment of a "social group" rather than an individual has a very long history in many countries around the world. Ancient legal systems in China, a practice continued into the 20th century, was based on, for example, punishing all members of a family or even a village for a crime committed by one of its members. A former British colleague who is a historian told me that similar legal practice existed in European history in the past.
The concept of punishment as a group, where the good suffer with the bad, is not so 'outlandish'. Punishing the entire class for the actions of one student is an example of group punishment based on the same principle of sanctioning a group instead of imposing punishment on an individual (or a suspect). In fact, sanctioning a whole country, eg. North Korea, for the misdemeanor of its leaders is doing exactly the same.
#56 Interesting thoughts edwin. It's good to hear what could be quite a different view on the situation in North Korea. I am always suspicious of Western Journalists writing sensational stories about a country where they have little understanding.
I can understand N Koreans reluctance to let Adam Johnston loose in North Korea if he was a journalist who would be hostile to the way of life and the society there. (Linda's post #53). When will the West wake up to the idea that Democracy and its handmaiden rampant capitalism is not always the best solution to a Country's problems.
Edwin, thank you for your thoughtful comments. You raise very good points that provide some needed balance to the discussion of North Korea. One of the things that I truly value about LT is the opportunity to learn and grow through exposure to new information and perspectives.
The Orphan Master’s Son is a work of fiction and Johnson’s remarks in the seminar were presented within the context of his process as a novelist. In retrospect, I should have been clearer about that in my post and in the wording of my review.
But like all good discussions, this leaves me struggling with a few more questions.
To what extent and under what circumstances should a work of fiction be judged against “journalistic” standards? Are there situations where a novelist has the responsibility to avoid exaggeration and to fairly represent facts?
How should a non-expert seek to understand any country, and particularly one that is “closed to foreigners”? To what extent is it legitimate to view the limited, available information through the lens of one's own values, culture and experience? Recorded history, a country’s authorized public information, similarity to other countries’ culture and development, and the accounts of those who leave (in this case, defectors) are all sources that can be considered suspect to some extent.
I certainly do not have the answers, but these seem to me to be things worth contemplating.
You raise some very interesting questions. Obviously, I also do not have all the answers, although written statements, as made here and in other threads sometimes convey a false sense of certainty or conviction. I can only speak for my experience.
Countries that are 'closed to foreigners' want to be left alone. They don't want dialogue. You are nothing to them.
If you want to understand a(ny) country, reading one book about it means nothing. Just like eating a pizza tells you nothing about Italy. Reading globally is at best a quest to discover what universal themes are shared, but that is an open door because all of (wo-)mankind shares the same universal emotions. I only read within certain clearly marked language barriers, countries and cultural spheres, which I have experienced deeply through learning the language + prolonged exposure, for example living somewhere.
Naturally, not everyone can take this approach, but if your aim is to reach a truly deeper understanding of other people on the planet, it is probably much more rewarding to learn a foreign language and then read books in that language. Translations can never convey all meaning, and the greater the cultural divide, the less translations can render.
Many sources of information are biased, especially a country’s authorized public information and defectors' accounts. We can probably learn very little from these sources.
Journalistic writing is more likely biased than an academic monograph, but the latter is often not as readable. What I don't like about, what I call the "journalistic style" is that it starts from a particular pitch, that details used to describe distort rather than render a true picture of reality (a journalist's portrait is almost always like a street artist's caricature), and may contain certain other gross exaggerations included to create a certain effect.
For example, a few years ago I read Jan Wong's Beijing confidential. A tale of comrades lost and found. The basic outline of the book is that the author came to China during the Cultural Revolution and feels that she betrayed her classmate. Apart from the fact that Wong shows herself to be an extremely narcissistic writer, constantly emphasizing her (supposed) naivete, she weaves a tale of lies and deceit. The emphasis on naivete is a ploy to shrug off culpability. She is clearly deceiving readers with her claims of being the first foreign student in China. She only went there to do a language course. There is no actual moment she lies about it, but her writing is never straightforward, and creates a particular, purposeful impression. There are two details, I want to high-light.
At some point, half-way, she described a scene at the reception office of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), in Beijing, saying that visitors and reception staff are separated by a glass screen, and communicate by screaming at the top of their voice. This is a clear exaggeration that creates a negative, supposedly typical and derisive image of China, calling post offices, banks, and any other number of service desk situations to mind. Wong knows that nobody of the general readership will ever in their lives enter that particular office, and be able to verify the (un-)truthfulness of her description.
At the end of the book, she describes a scene in which her friends see her off in a taxi. She describes how her friend hails a taxi, then scrutinizes the driver through the window, and rejects the taxi. Wong claims that this is standard practice in Beijing, that Beijing citizens can judge the reliability of taxi drivers at a glance, and that this is an essential procedure to guarantee a safe trip home, and avoid rape or robbery. This is a totally preposterous claim, and an absurd story.
The problem with journalistic writing, especially about countries 'closed to foreigners' is that many of these writers are not objective guides. They have a pitch (Wong clearly has a chip), and a purpose to lead the reader to think in a particular direction. This, however, is not clear to the general, non-specialist reader. This is one reason why the Chinese government keeps foreign journalists on a short leash.
Note that I have slightly revised my review of The Orphan Master's Son above (#49), feeling a responsibility to clarify that it is presented solely in the context of a work of fiction.
To what extent and under what circumstances should a work of fiction be judged against “journalistic” standards? Are there situations where a novelist has the responsibility to avoid exaggeration and to fairly represent facts?
A good question. I tend to read either non-fiction (to learn about a subject) or light fiction (to de-stress). In an effort to expand my horizons, I've been reading some cultural / historical fiction too, and I get queasy when I suspect that a line between dramatization and distortion has been crossed, or when a place or person becomes too much a symbol. I was bothered, for example, by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet because it began, seemingly, as an historical novel, then shifted into a bizzaro temple cult that exploited the Otherness of Japan. I was bothered by Remarkable Creatures because it maligned the reputation of a man who had actually existed, attributing actions and motivations that were contrary to evidence, for the sake of adding romantic turmoil to the story.
58: How should a non-expert seek to understand any country, and particularly one that is “closed to foreigners”? To what extent is it legitimate to view the limited, available information through the lens of one's own values, culture and experience?
Another good question. Legitimate or not, one _does_ view information through a lens, and I'd say the attitude to take is tentative: this is a glimpse, not the definitive word. Which is difficult to do; we all form opinions, and realistically, with limited time in a vast world, many of those opinions are superficial.
59: written statements, as made here and in other threads sometimes convey a false sense of certainty or conviction
Is LibraryThing a formal publication, or a casual social gathering?
I can spend several hours composing a few paragraphs, paging through a book to be sure I got the facts straight, revising sentences for clarity. And still, I consider what I post to be a rough draft. I'm not here for scholarly or professional reasons; I'm here partly for motivation and partly for conversation. Sometimes I merely jot impressions so I can move on. I try to be responsible, but I often don't know enough to go beyond what an author told me. I am aware that I may be wrong or limited in my understanding, but I don't want to become so cautious that I say nothing.
The "false sense of certainty or conviction" refers to my own statements, and was added to depolarize. In a face-to-face discussion one is better able to indicate nuances, which are sometimes lost in written communication, such as email or bbs.
With a few small shifts, (The story of the Dutch-British skirmish is based on a true historical event, but displaced in history by about five years), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet seems quite accurate, and since it is clearly a novel, a reader taking everything for fact would be a real dunce. The interesting thing about Mitchell's novel is that it could stimulate curiosity, to look up and learn from the background and apparent sources. I think that's how it works with fiction. I think neither David Mitchell nor Tracy Chevalier in Remarkable creatures, which I have but haven't read, make a particular claim to truthfulness. The risk lies in authors who claim to have done a lot of research, reassuring readers that they don't need to check facts, or write about things which are hard to check, and readers feeling confident to trust them.
With a few small shifts, (The story of the Dutch-British skirmish is based on a true historical event, but displaced in history by about five years), The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet seems quite accurate
Yes, and he does note the date change, and this is not what bothered me. It was the shift between this researched historical section, and the next one that bothered me.
The interesting thing about Mitchell's novel is that it could stimulate curiosity, to look up and learn from the background and apparent sources. I think that's how it works with fiction.
Yes, often this is how it works. But I don't look up _everything_, and impressions remain even if what is known for sure is rather less than what was dramatized.
make a particular claim to truthfulness
So... a story has a character with my name, who resides on my street, who graduated with my class... coincidences pile up, this character is clearly "me". And then the character in the story behaves despicably. I would be seriously distressed, even if the author stated this part was completely manufactured for the sake of drama.
Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion, Katherine. It’s probably time to move on to other topics, but since you and Edwin have been so generous and forthcoming with your thoughts, I will share some of my own, with the caveat that they are personal reactions and far from being well-reasoned positions. I would like to do some further thinking and reading on these issues. I'm particularly interested in the opinions of those who make their living as novelists or editors and would welcome anyone's suggestions for sources.
I am definitely willing to allow writers of fiction a wide degree of latitude in how closely they represent facts. The very definition of fiction seems to demand that. I do not expect novelists to be journalists or to meet the same standards of research or representation. And I believe it to be my responsibility as a reader to always understand that a work of fiction will involve elements from the author’s imagination that may exaggerate or even ignore reality. Making distinctions between those works where one agrees with the fictional depiction, versus those where one does not, only opens the door to censorship. Whose "truth" is represented and who decides?
I do think that a novelist’s “social” responsibility should extend at least to fairness and accuracy when writing of an actual individual, and particularly one who is currently or recently living. In such cases, the lines between fiction and nonfiction become too blurry, the reader no longer knows which set of standards to apply, and the potential for personal damage becomes too great. But I feel less strongly about this in the context of individuals who have put themselves forth as public figures, or who are long-deceased and officially "belong" to history.
I read fiction primarily for the emotional response that it elicits, and to enlarge my general understanding of the world. Although fiction can certainly impact my opinions and impressions, it does so to no more of a degree than would any other single perspective or interpretation, whether fictional or factual. I can still value that one representation as part of a larger understanding. For example, I am currently reading Cloudsplitter, a fictionalized account of the abolitionist, John Brown. In an author’s note, Russell Banks repeatedly emphasizes that the book is a work of fiction and should be read only as such. In reading this work, I will probably still form impressions of Brown, his family and actual events, but should I need such warnings to know that I am not reading history? It seems to me quite reasonable to apply different standards to Cloudsplitter than to Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.
To bring this back to where it started with discussion of The Orphan Master’s Son, in my opinion, Adam Johnson did not go beyond the acceptable boundaries of fiction in writing this novel. His style at times borders on magical realism and it would be hard for a reader not to understand that it is a work of fiction. Johnson made a considerable effort to conduct “research”, sufficient to if not surpassing what would normally be expected for a work of fiction. He was limited to the sources available to him and I give him credit for the effort he made to visit North Korea to see for himself, at a time when this was very difficult to do. The North Koreans were fully within their rights to limit his interactions, but Johnson can hardly be blamed for not accurately representing, much less through a work of fiction, what he was not allowed to see or know.
Did this book influence my perceptions of North Korea? Yes, it undoubtedly did, although not in a way that significantly changed my existing impressions, nor in a manner than diminishes my responsibility as a "citizen of the world" to keep an open mind to other information. Is there value in the publication of this book, despite its possibly exaggerating or distorting conditions that exist in North Korea? In my opinion, yes, not for the purpose of presenting facts, but rather for encouraging awareness and interest in the broader global conversation that is occurring related to North Korea.
Now I feel like I need to go read a nice light mystery!
Thanks Barry. The process of writing it down always helps me clarify my thoughts.
The Writer as Migrant by Ha Jin
Ha Jin’s The Writer as Migrant was not at all what I expected. I sought this book out after attending a recent lecture given by Ha Jin at Skidmore College. Himself a “migrant” writer, Ha Jin grew up in China during the time of the Cultural Revolution and as a teenager served in the People’s Liberation Army. While attending college on scholarship in the United States, he made the decision not to return to China following the Tiananmen Square incident. Originally a poet, his career as a novelist has flourished in the United States, where he has chosen to write in his non-native language of English.
The Writer as Migrant is a short volume, consisting of three Rice University 2006 Campbell Lectures that present various perspectives on the migrant writer’s identity, audience, choice of language and relationship to country of origin: “The Spokesman and the Tribe”, The Language of Betrayal” and “An Individual’s Homeland”. Despite his first-hand experience as an immigrant and exile, Ha Jin illustrates his viewpoints primarily by referencing the lives and works of other authors who left their native lands, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lin Yutang, V.S. Naipaul, Vladimir Nabakov and Joseph Conrad.
Although Ha Jin does not directly address his own experiences, it is relatively easy to discern his views. As an author who did not return to his country of origin, Ha Jin argues that the writer’s physical return is not necessary in order to gain acceptance of his work, as “Only through literature is a genuine return possible for the exiled writer.” His discussion of choice of language feels very personal. He describes an author’s decision to write in a non-native language as often being seen as the ultimate betrayal of his native country. However, he presents convincing grounds for such a decision, concluding that great literature is universal.
“For the creation of literature, a language of synthesis is necessary to make sure that one’s work is more meaningful and more authentic. One principle of this language is translatability. In other words, if rendered into different languages, especially into the language spoken by the people the author writes about, the work still remains meaningful.”
Ha Jin’s principal theme is that in making crucial decisions, the migrant writer must resist various pressures and be guided only by the goal of staying true to his art.
“The writer should enter history mainly through the avenue of his art…Whatever role he plays, he must keep in mind that his success or failure as a writer will be determined only on the page. That is the space where he should strive to exist.”
This collection of lectures reads like the academic essays that they are and will likely appeal only to a limited audience. I found them interesting mostly for the way in which Ha Jin weaves the lives and works of various authors into his themes, choosing anecdotes that reveal something of their personalities. Although I was highly disappointed that he chose not to include examples from his own experiences and writing, I will bring to his books and those of the authors he discusses, a deeper appreciation of the challenges encountered by the non-native writer.
Very thoughtful comments on The Writer as Migrant. Just thinking of writing in a non-native language is mindboggling and insights to that process would indeed be interesting, as you suggested.
There are thousands of members on LT who write in English, which is a non-native language for them
Thank you, edwin. I should have been more precise. Was thinking in terms of writing for publication, and specifically the creative writing process. I know, all writing is creative, but producing a sustained piece of writing such as a book and passing muster with a publisher elevates the process beyond letter-writing and reviewing books.
Useful addition. I publish in English, but most of my books (text books) and articles are either professional (education), or non-fiction (literary criticism, various other topics).
I will eventually try my hand at fiction, but will most likely write Dutch. My feeling on that issue is also, exactly, that I would feel closest affinity with the Dutch cultural sphere (including Flanders).
Recently, I have been reading some works by Rabindranath Tagore. He started out by writing in Bengali, and later wrote some works directly in English. Then, he also translated the works he had originally written in Bengali into English.
Tagore has repeatedly expressed his doubt about his ability to write well in English. Nonetheless, he won the Nobel Prize.
I did not know that Ha Jin had emigrated and settled in the US, and writes in English, so his works should be regarded as Chinese-American fiction. Knowing that, I may have a look at some. The Writer as Migrant sounds very interesting.
Enjoyed your thoughts on The Writer as Migrant Linda, looks like you have started an interesting debate.
> 70 Thanks Suzanne. I do not have a talent for languages and can only imagine how difficult it must be to publish in a non-native language. But Ha Jin's English seems flawless to me and he has been in the US for many years now. He has also translated two of his own story collections into Chinese and in a local newspaper interview said, "When translating, I often feel Chinese is still my first language."
> 73 Edwin, would you read Ha Jin's work in English or Chinese? Are you able to read Chinese? At the lecture I attended, he indicated that Waiting and Nanjing Requiem are officially published in China (translations, I assume) and all of his fiction is published in Taiwan. He said that "private" editions are also available from Tibetan publishers, but that they are badly produced and contain many errors.
> 74 Thanks Barry. Interesting debate is always welcome here!
65: It’s probably time to move on to other topics
Appreciate your thoughtful comments. There may be no absolute one-size-fits-all principle; authors are writing for a variety of unknown readers, and readers have different prior knowledge and different goals.
I prefer reading in the original language, so I would read Ha Jin in English. My Chinese reading skills are only at lower Intermediate, which means I can only read non-fiction in my own professional fields (Education and Literature). So, I can read introductions and literary criticism with about 80% understanding, but not catching all the details. It will still take a few years before I can fluently read other materials, let alone novels.
>76 You are absolutely right, Katherine. And I doubt we would want it any other way.
>77 I am envious of your language abilities, Edwin. It must be particularly challenging to learn a written language based on ideograms, when your native language is based on phonetics. In April I am going to attend an intro-level lecture on the Japanese writing system and how it evolved as a combination of both phonetic and ideogrammic systems. Should be interesting.
The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West
Set in Europe during the early 1900s, Rebecca West’s story of Russian exiles and terrorist revolutionaries is told from the viewpoint of an eighteen-year old woman, who while strong and astute, suffers from the naiveté of having lived a protected and privileged life. Her father is an English Member of Parliament and an aloof, distant parent and her mother the indulged daughter of exiled Russian nobility. While visiting in Paris, she makes a trip with her grandfather, an imposing and deeply religious Russian Orthodox who remains fiercely loyal to his homeland and to the Tsar who has exiled him. They are approached on the train by a member of a Russian revolutionary terrorist group, from whom they learn the identity of an “agent provocateur” who plans terrorist attacks, then informs on his comrades to the Tsar’s secret police. Knowing this individual to be a close associate of her grandparents and fearing for her life, the young woman is drawn into acting as an accomplice to an assassination plan.
The Birds Fall Down was Rebecca West’s last work of fiction published during her lifetime. In the book’s foreword, West describes the story as being based on an actual historical incident and most of her characters as actual involved persons. While West does not reveal their identities or her sources, it is widely assumed that the novel was inspired by the activities of Yevno Azef, a Russian double agent who worked both for the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Tsar’s Imperial Secret Police.
West’s characters are splendidly developed and her writing richly detailed and atmospheric, capturing the tradition-steeped lifestyle of Orthodox Russian exiles of privilege. While incorporating elements of psychological thriller, historical fiction, mystery and spy novel, this book in the end defies simple classification. West skillfully builds suspense throughout the story, but the ending lacks the unexpected and the reader is left with only the slightest of unresolved questions. The novel’s effectiveness as historical fiction is also limited, as only vague hints are provided of the significance of its events, explained in the foreword as paving the way for Lenin’s rise to power by undermining the terrorist wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. In my opinion, this novel succeeds best as a psychological thriller and portrait of an ideology and way of life lost to time, revolution and war. It was a pleasure to read, its details to be savored, and has left me interested in seeking other works by this author.
Hi Linda, intriguing review of The Birds Fall Down. I have not read any Rebecca West at all — one of those embarrassing gaps in my reading — but this one sounds very interesting indeed. Adding it to my wishlist.
Great review! I LOVED her book, Return of the Soldier, but I've not gotten around to reading any of her other works. I'll keep this one in mind!
Excellent review of The Birds fall Down with some intriguing historical background.
> 80 Suzanne, this is the first by West that I have read. Although I have seen it written that this is her best novel, I don't think that it is her best known and I am anxious to read some of the others. You think that you have embarrassing gaps in your reading? That's impossible for me to imagine, with all of the wonderful authors, books and reviews that I have been introduced to on your thread!
> 81 japaul22 - This weekend I downloaded an audio version of Return of the Soldier from LibriVox, as I needed something to listen to on a walk. Although I usually have difficulty with audiobooks (my mind wanders terribly), I am very much enjoying it so far.
> 82 Barry, I wish that West provided more to go on in following up on the historical background. But maybe the "mystery" of it was part of her intent. She also cites a poem at the close of her foreword which contains the title of the book. After unsuccessfully searching the internet for the author and work (thinking I had found a wonderful new poet), I finally found a site that indicated that West was herself the author, having made up the rest.
"We are all bowmen in this place.
The pattern of the birds against the sky
Our arrows overprint, and then they die.
But it is also common to our race
That when the birds fall down we weep.
Reason's a thing we dimly see in sleep.
-Conway Power, Guide to a Disturbed Planet"
Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe
“Father, father, where are you going
K is a famous Japanese author, residing in Tokyo with his wife and three children, and obsessed with the work of William Blake, the 18th century English poet and artist. His oldest son, Eeyore, is severely disabled, having had surgery as a child to remove a non-functioning second brain growing on the exterior of his skull. Eeyore is a musical savant, who as a child requires constant care and supervision, and becomes the focal point of the family’s life. As he develops and strives for greater independence, his behavior moves through disparate and unsettling periods of tenderness, engagement and withdrawal, defiance and physical aggression. K is a devoted father, who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and ambivalence, and turns to the work of Blake in an attempt to reconcile the realities of his life. Frustrated by the challenges of understanding and communicating with Eeyore, K sets out to explain the world to his disabled son by compiling a book of “definitions”, vignettes drawn from memories he associates with such words as feet, river, death, dream and violence.
This is a story of parent-child relationships and a father’s efforts to honor his own history and inner life, while facing overwhelming responsibilities for which he feels unprepared. It is the story of a profoundly disabled youth who struggles to form an independent identity and to interact with the world on his own terms. And it is the story of how one individual seeks to understand and impose meaning on his life through studying great works of literature and art.
The author reveals gradually that this is autobiographical fiction. Occasionally slipping into his own voice, Oe seamlessly merges his identity with that of the narrator, K. Although Eeyore is a fictionalized, more capable and communicative representation of his own disabled son, Oe seems to ultimately unite their identities, concluding the novel with Eeyore discarding his childish nickname in favor of Hiraki, his given name and that of Oe’s real life son.
Oe’s novel is also a tribute to the poetry and art of William Blake, whom he quotes and discusses extensively. In the final chapter, K describes the book as a “…chronicle of William Blake superimposed on my life with my son…”. I came to this book with little prior knowledge of Blake and have left it more curious, particularly regarding his art.
Kenzaburo Oe’s Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is an unusual and challenging novel. There is no question that Oe is a skilled writer who brings a unique perspective to his fiction. When K is relating events from his own life and that of his family, the story is touching and universally relevant on both experiential and emotional levels. However, as the novel advanced, K’s digressions into discussion of William Blake became more dense, interrupting the flow of my reading. I hope eventually to return to this novel with a greater knowledge of Blake, as this seems necessary to its full appreciation.
>83 You think that you have embarrassing gaps in your reading?
Oh yes, and you've just uncovered another one — non-Western literature. I am hopelessly Euro-centric. There are many Asian novels that sound interesting to me, but it may be a while before I actually get to them. Am intrigued enough by your review of Kenzaburo Oe to make a note of it.
>84 Wonderful review of Oe! Like Suzanne, am also Occidental in my reading, although I try to give African fiction a look every now and then. Asian literature is to me a bit of an elephant in the room - I am aware of the pachyderm, but not completely comfortable with him!
Excellent review of Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age and one I will definitely read when I get to working through Blake's poems.
>84 Excellent review of Oe! It's interesting that there was more of a emotion expressed in this novel. I haven't found that to really be the case in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. But it's also much earlier in his career as an author and deals with a totally different and less personal subject matter. I'm not sure if I really like Oe's writing style yet to be honest. It seems a bit more western to me, if that makes any sense.
Thanks to all.
>85 & 86 Hi Suzanne and Dewald. This was my first book by Oe and only my second that I specifically recall being by a Japanese author. The year-long Author Theme Read on Japanese authors, organized by lilisin, has inspired me, as have other members like Kevin (stretch) who have posted some excellent reviews. I would recommend taking a look. Just think, a whole new group of books and authors to explore!
>87 I hope you do eventually work your way through Blake and this book, Barry. I would be interested in an opinion from someone with your skills at analysis and a deeper knowledge of William Blake. I have not read much of his poetry, but have browsed some of his paintings and etchings, and found them very interesting.
>88 Hi Kevin. I want to go back and read some of Oe's earlier work. This one was clearly a very personal book, first published when he was older (51), which probably explains some differences in style, particularly the freer emotional content . I also wonder to what extent the translation impacts an impression of his style being more western and how someone reading in the original Japanese would see it? There was for me still a "Japanese" feeling to this work, both in the way he weaves his thoughts on Blake into the structure and in his portrayal of parenting styles and interpersonal interactions.
I am quite excited about the next few days. We have season tickets to a fabulous chamber music series and tonight Yefim Bronfman will be returning to perform sonatas by Haydn, Brahms and Prokofiev. He is not only a great pianist, but also generous with his encores and just seems to be having a great time. (I hate it when performers scowl at the audience like they are angry that you are there.)
Then tomorrow, two interesting author events. An afternoon Q&A type seminar with Masha Gessen (The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin) and an evening lecture by Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin and others). I will try to post some follow-up comments over the weekend.
>92 Thanks Darryl. My next Oe read will probably be A Personal Matter, as I already own an edition of that which also includes The Silent Cry and Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. I'm anxious to see a broader range of his work.
>93 The concert was great, Barry. But I need to go practice my piano now! I couldn't play the Prokofiev if my life depended on it. Well, maybe at a hundredth of the appropriate speed.
I attended two author talks last Thursday. The following are a few highlights that stood out for me.
Masha Gessen – NYS Writers Institute – University at Albany
Masha Gessen is a journalist who was born in Russia, emigrated to the US as a teenager, and returned as an adult to live in Russia, where she is actively involved in the protest movement. Her most recent book is The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. The session I attended was entirely Q&A. Gessen was on Charlie Rose the day before this talk and many of the points she made were discussed more fully in this interview: www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12210
Gessen’s most interesting comments were related to her belief that Putin will not serve his full 6-year term, but rather will be deposed (perhaps sooner than later) and have to negotiate in order to avoid prosecution. She believes that the government is beginning to disintegrate on the ”bottom rung”, which will eventually lead to the current regime’s sudden collapse. She describes the current protest movement as being broad-based and vigorous, and focused on demanding the creation of public institutions, destroyed under Putin’s regime and necessary for public debate to occur.
In response to a question, Gessen spoke extensively about the October 2002 siege of a Moscow theatre, filled with around 800 people, and taken hostage by a group of armed Chechen terrorists, some of who reportedly had explosives strapped to their bodies. Government forces used underground passages to fill the theatre with gas, then stormed the theatre and shot the terrorists. In the process, 129 hostages died from the effects of the gas. Many questions remain regarding this incident, how the terrorists got past multiple checkpoints to enter Moscow, and the government’s decision to gas the theatre and shoot even the unconscious terrorists.
Gessen indicated that she has learned to be skeptical of "objectivity in journalism", speaking on the difficulties of meeting journalistic standards of objectivity in a country where the government is a closed system and access to public records is prohibited. Social media also functions differently than in the West, as users communicate mainly within unconnected circles of their own friends, rather than the overlapping, interconnections we experience. Protest movement sites are quickly taken down by the government. However, Facebook has just recently become available and may result in some changes, as it is impermeable to this type of action.
Gessen's response to questions about the LGB community's involvement in the protest movement was eye-opening. She indicated that many Russian cities have passed laws banning "LGB propaganda", the definition of which encompasses almost anything, with sanctions strengthened for "propaganda" aimed at children. As simply a lesbian with a child, she indicated that she could herself be subject to severe punishment under these laws.
Based on this talk, I am now anxious to read The Man Without a Face and other books by Gessen, including Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century and Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace .
The second talk from last week: Colum McCann – Siena College
Most of the evening involved McCann reading from both a work in progress and Let the Great World Spin, with some commentary and Q&A. In my opinion, he is a very interesting author and these brief comments will not at all do him justice.
The novel that McCann is currently writing is entitled Transatlantic. It will tie together visits made to Ireland by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass whose 1845 visit coincided with the beginnings of the potato famine, Senator George Mitchell who brokered the 1998 Northern Ireland peace process, and the little known Alcock and Brown who actually made the first transatlantic flight in 1919, starting from Newfoundland and ditching about 16 hours later in an Irish bog.
In discussing his inspiration to write Let the Great World Spin, McCann shared a personal experience of his father- in-law having been in the first tower hit, but able to get out and walk to McCann’s apartment. Although he initially intended to write only about Philippe Petit’s high wire walk between the Twin Towers as an allegory of 9/11, he wanted also to talk about fate, war and theology. His development of the characters Corrigan, based on Daniel Berrigan, and Claire drove the story forward from there. McCann also spoke of the challenges of converting books to film, revealing that he is currently working on a film script of Let the Great World Spin. He spoke of it sometimes being necessary to make changes to a story for a screenplay (I won’t reveal his “spoiler” on this), and that what is important is to “stay true to the texture of the message, rather than being slavish to the facts of the material”. I loved this book and cannot wait to see the movie.
It was interesting to learn that McCann has met with both Senator George Mitchell and Philippe Petit. Writing fiction about living individuals must be a very difficult and delicate challenge. I wish he had spoken more on this.
Thanks for sharing those author talks, very interesting.
I wonder if Gessen is going to be right about the future of the Putin government.
I know a little about Philippe Petit because we are friendly with his sister who lives not far from us. I have never met the great man though.
How interesting that you know Petit's sister, Barry. I imagine that he must be a fascinating individual. I saw one of the documentaries of his walk (can't remember the name) and it was riveting.
I have finished Troubles but will hold off on posting a review until the end of the month, as I am participating in a 75ers group read of the book and am trying to avoid any spoilers.
I have started The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant and from the very first page, was drawn in by Vaillant's writing. Funny how we just connect immediately with some authors. I'm glad that I own and have yet to read his other book, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed.
In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I indulged my desire to learn more of the history of my Irish heritage and downloaded three books to my Kindle: The Irish Americans: A History by Jay P. Dolan, The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People by Neil Hegarty and A Popular History of Ireland: from the Earliest Period to the Emancipation of the Catholics - Complete by Thomas D'Arcy McGee. Luckily one was free, one was $.99 and only one was a new, overpriced e-book edition that I rarely indulge in.
I'm looking forward to your review of Troubles, Linda. I read about half of it last year or the year before, and gave up. I'm wondering if it just wasn't the right time, and if I should give it a go again. So many people seem to love it.
I loved Troubles, Cait, so I am obviously biased, but I think it would be worth another try. Do you know what it was about the book that put you off?
We had a wonderful day yesterday. Perfect spring weather and a great concert by a young, very talented Armenian pianist, Nareh Arghamanyan, playing Clementi, Schubert, Rachmaninoff and Balakirev. I understand that she will be at Marlboro Music in Vermont this summer, should you be in the area and interested in such things. She also has a new recording of solo Rachmaninoff due out next month.
This week should also be a good one for author talks: Margot Livesey (The Flight of Gemma Hardy) and John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer: Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father and most recently, The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography.
I appreciate you jotting down your thoughts on the author talks you attended. And it sounds like a full week of more! I missed Margot Livesey when she was in nearby Concord; it just completely slipped my mind. And Matteson should be interesting. I've been tempted to get his book on Louisa and Bronson, but I think I may be saturated with Alcott family biography and I can't imagine he would have that much new to say to me. Louisa did write the spoof of their time at Fruitlands:-) Good that she could back and laugh.
>105 I'm glad you enjoyed them Lois. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to hear such great authors and I'm happy to share if folks are interested in reading them.
Enjoying reading about the author talks. I saw Gessen on The Daily Show and thought her book sounded interesting as well.
>107 Glad you enjoyed them, DieFledermaus.
I attended two more talks this week, both informal, Q&A style seminars.
Margot Livesey , author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy participated on a panel with another local author, known mostly as a columnist. Unfortunately, I felt that this format somewhat inhibited the depth of her response to questions.
Livesey is a very engaging person, funny and with an infectious smile and laugh, quite in contrast to her childhood in Scotland, which she described as having a Dickensian quality. Both of her parents worked for a Scottish school, her father as a teacher and mother as a nurse. Her father was 50 when she was born. Her mother died when Livesey was 2 ½ and her father married the school nurse hired to replace her. So at age 5, she was being raised by two 55-year olds. Her father smoked, never walked when he could drive, and had two sayings: “A good child is seen and not heard” and “Tis sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child”. Her stepmother adopted a military approach to parenting. She was also sent briefly as a day student to a private school where she was very unhappy. She acknowledged some “recasting of her autobiography” in her writing: “What was misery at 5 became material at 55”.
In response to a question of how she balanced her own narrative voice with the influence of Jane Eyre in The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Livesey said that she thought the larger question was how to be more positively influenced by other writers, without mimicking them. She noted that many classic poems and novels “write back” to other works. She encourages writing students to learn by first imitating other writers and then moving beyond that.
Livesey was asked about the recurring supernatural motif in her works. She indicated that in Gemma Hardy, the porous membrane between this world and the next reflects the longing that many have to believe in something supernatural. She added that her own mother regularly saw dead people. Her discussion of the setting of the novel seemed to incorporate similar themes. She described Orkeny, situated off the north coast of Scotland, as a mysterious, evocative place having a megalithic history, including a stone-age village, stone circles and the oldest continually roofed cathedral in Europe. Her choice of Iceland as a second setting was influenced by its shared history with Scotland as part of the Viking Empire, and its great tradition of family and awareness of lineage. She also took delight in describing her experience of driving in Iceland’s lava fields, where even roads built recently suddenly detour around certain rocks, left intact because they are still believed by many to be the homes of elves.
Livesey spoke of the importance of having “hard-hearted” readers to give you feedback. When she was just starting out, the Irish Canadian writer Brian Moore, reviewed multiple drafts of a short story she was writing, giving her invaluable feedback. Even today, she exchanges all of her work with Andrea Barrett, who provides her with “ruthless” feedback, but “in a polite way”.
This week's second seminar:
John Matteson won the Pultizer Prize for his biography, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. He has most recently published The Lives of Margaret Fuller, a biography of a little known and according to Matteson, under-appreciated 19th century feminist. Matteson is a Harvard-educated attorney whose doctoral studies were in English. He responded to questions with in-depth explanations and his injections of humor had the audience frequently laughing. I left most interested in reading Eden’s Outcasts.
Matteson indicated that he strongly disagrees with the notion of objectivity as a key feature of biography. He believes that if you look below the surface, you will find that “all biography is in one way or another autobiography.” His choices of Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller as subjects support this, reflecting his interest in writing about families, parenthood and fathers. In Fall 2001, Matteson published an article that caught the attention of a literary agent, who contacted him and encouraged him to write a biography. Matteson had an interest in 19th century utopian communities, which led him to studying Bronson Alcott, whom he initially intended to be the subject of the biography. However, as a graduate student with a working wife, he had been the primary caretaker for their infant daughter. His parenting role and strong relationship with his daughter was what ultimately inspired him to focus on Louisa May and her relationship with her father. His family background as the child of Christian Scientist parents, who believed in faith healing as a type of “transcendental power”, may have fueled his interest in Margaret Fuller, who was closely associated with the American transcendentalism movement.
In response to the question of “for whom did he write his books”, Matteson responded that he probably wrote Eden’s Outcasts as a means of reconciling with his own father, who was highly accomplished, a compulsive perfectionist, likely had mild Asperger’s, and later developed dementia. He found it helpful and therapeutic to achieve an understanding of someone else’s father, if not his own. The Lives of Margaret Fuller was probably written for Margaret Fuller herself, whom he believed to be a truly well-rounded, self-educated individual who was light years ahead of her contemporaries. Fuller also had a strong relationship with her father, who was largely responsible for her early educational achievements, such as her ability to translate Latin fluidly by age 9.
Matteson spoke at length about Margaret Fuller, her upbringing, aspirations, and relationships with such figures such as Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Horace Greeley. One anecdote that I found interesting was that despite her strong advocacy for women to have education and employment opportunities, she was a latecomer to supporting abolishment of slavery, having earlier described abolitionists as tedious and rabid. She spent a number of years in Italy, involved in the revolutions of 1847-48, and there met her husband with whom she had one child. She died tragically at age 40, along with her husband and child. When trying to return to the US, their ship ran aground on Fire Island, was hit by a freak July hurricane, and her body was never recovered.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
On a bitter cold day in December 1997, deep in the taiga of the Russian Far East, an encounter between a tiger and a man ends in tragedy. Other than his clothing and the bones of his extremities, little remains of Vladimir Markov to be gathered for his funeral. Yuri Trush, squad leader for the territorial government’s Inspection Tiger unit, and his teammates are left to decipher the scattered evidence, to reconstruct and understand the events.
“Save for the movements of the dog and the men, the forest has gone absolutely still; even the crows have withdrawn, waiting for this latest disturbance to pass. And so, it seems, has the tiger. Then, there is a sound: a brief, rushing exhale - the kind one would use to extinguish a candle. But there is something different about the volume of air being moved and the force behind it - something bigger and deeper: this is not a human sound.
…A conversation of sorts has been unfolding in this lonesome hollow. It is not in a language like Russian or Chinese, but it is a language nonetheless, and it is older than the forest. The crows speak it, and so do the men - some more fluently than others. That single blast of breath contained a message lethal in its eloquence.”
The Primorye Territory, located in the Russian Far East, is a thickly forested, mountainous region bordered by China and the Sea of Japan. Unique in the breadth of its biodiversity and characterized by Vaillant as “boreal jungle”, it is home to many large mammals, including bears, wild boars, musk deer, moose, leopards and a dwindling population of Amur tiger. The region’s human inhabitants are extremely impoverished, living in isolated villages and supported by logging, beekeeping, hunting, gathering and trapping. Highly dependent upon the natural resources of the region for their daily survival, many of necessity turn to poaching,
Native human populations in the Russian Far East have long lived in proximity to the Amur tiger, with encounters traditionally marked by respectful withdrawal of both man and big cat. Tiger attacks on humans are rare occurrences here, yet the evidence is clear that this tiger has deliberately singled out Markov. In recounting the Inspection Tiger unit’s investigation, Vaillant constructs a fascinating, enlightening portrait of an incredibly powerful and intelligent creature - an ambush hunter that lives in tentative accord with humans, yet when injured or provoked, is capable of purposeful and deadly revenge.
“What is amazing - and also terrifying about tigers - is their facility for what can only be described as abstract thinking. Very quickly, a tiger can assimilate new information - evidence, if you will - ascribe it to a source, and even a motive, and react accordingly.”
The tiger is an ancient animal, dating back to the Pleistocene Epoch (1.8 million to 10,000 years BCE), the Amur tiger being the largest subspecies and the only one adapted to arctic conditions. As the population of the Primorye region has increased, the numbers of tiger have dropped precipitously due to poaching, tigers being highly valued in the Chinese marketplace. Vaillant reports estimates of fewer than four hundred tigers remaining in the Russian Far East, with similar declines seen throughout Asia. The potential consequences are unthinkable, as the tiger seems poised to become the largest carnivore to go extinct in the wild since the American lion, ten thousand years ago at the end of the Pleistocene era.
“The difference between the extinctions at the close of the Pleistocene and the bulk of those taking place today is one of consciousness: this time, however passively they may occur, they still amount to voluntary acts. Simply put: we know better. This is not an opinion, or a moral judgment; it is a fact.”
I loved this book and found it riveting from the first lines of the prologue to the last words of the epilogue, and further enriched by an extensive bibliography. Vaillant takes the reader into an unfamiliar world, a harsh environment where men and animals coexist and daily survival trumps “living” as the foremost concern. His elucidation of the historic, economic and ecological forces that have converged to create this world is seamlessly interwoven with descriptions of tiger behavior. Not satisfied with simply writing an informative and suspenseful narrative, Vaillant has taken us on a journey to the Russian taiga and has given us a glimpse into the soul of the region and its inhabitants, both human and big cat.
I highly recommend this as both an entertaining and important book for anyone concerned with the future of our ecosystems.
Excellent review of The Tiger: A true story of Vengeance and Survival. I have added this to my list of books to buy.
Enjoying your notes on the author talks, thanks for posting them here.
Thanks Barry. I really enjoy attending the author talks and writing the summaries helps me to think about their remarks in the context of "craft".
Thanks Rise and DieF. I hope you have the chance to read The Tiger and that you enjoy it as much as I did.
This sounds like a very interesting book, Linda. I read Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind by David Quammen a few years ago, and, though I didn't like it as much as you liked The Tiger, I did find the information concerning predators and environments fascinating. Thanks for the review!
You make The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival sound very interesting. I never would have heard of this book, Linda. It's way outside my current reading interests. Maybe someday . . .
Hi Suzanne. Now how many times has LT tempted you with a book that you've never heard of and was way outside of your current reading interests, but that you ended up loving?
Troubles by J. G. Farrell
The 1919 Ireland of J.G. Farrell’s Troubles is a country that seems poised to unravel, with tensions growing between the Protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the Catholic Irish Nationalists. Against this background, WWI veteran Major Archer, arrives at the Majestic, a faded, crumbling hotel with a glorious history, occupied by the owner, Edward Spencer, and his family, and an array of quirky staff and elderly tenants. The immediate purpose of the Major’s visit is to rectify a misunderstanding with the owner’s daughter who mistakenly believes herself to be his fiancé. His purpose in staying on becomes a jumble of romantic attraction, obligation and a seeming lack of anything better to do. After months sleepily witnessing the decline of his romantic hopes, the Majestic and Edward Spencer, Archer’s sudden departure is forced by jarringly unanticipated violence committed against both edifice and individuals.
Farrell is a masterful creator of character and setting, who infuses even the most painful moments of the story with an understated humor. The Majestic and its residents come fully alive, despite being exaggerated caricatures of an entitled class, whose privileged lifestyle of elegance and leisure is vanishing, transformed by the times into a preposterous, crumbling existence. And there is prophetic irony in Archer’s near-doom and Farrell’s own final fate, at too young an age.
“People are insubstantial. They never last. All this fuss, it’s all fuss about nothing. We’re here for a while and then we’re gone. People are insubstantial. They never last at all.”
Farrell approaches the book’s title subject, the Troubles, with extreme subtly. Snippets of newspaper articles, written in a simple, folksy tone, are scattered throughout the narrative, introducing the political events that form the backdrop to the story. The articles serve to place the story's events in time, location and tradition, while revealing some of the early history of Sinn Fein, the similarities between Ireland and India in contributing to the dismantling of the British Empire, and the parallels between Sinn Fein and the Bolsheviks as revolutionary movements.
As farcical as the residents of the Majestic are, I could not help but feel that this novel presents a somewhat one-sided view of the conflict. The Irish in general are described as an unruly, troublesome lot, whose women are all plump. Although members of the occupying British Army are obnoxious, destructive drunkards, it is the anonymous “Shinners” who commit the most sadistic and inhumane acts, without regard to the victims’ guilt or innocence. Yet the poverty and hunger of the populace, left to starve at the whims of the privileged, are alluded to only lightly.
In the end, I was left wondering about Farrell's own political leanings and puzzled as to whether or not he was taking a political position of sorts in this novel, understanding that he was of both English and Irish ancestry. But I believe that the best literature leaves us with more questions than when we started, sending us off to pursue new areas of inquiry. As a window into my scant knowledge of Irish history and my own little-known Irish ancestry, Farrell’s Troubles succeeds brilliantly at that.
This past week has been an interesting mix of literary events. An author talk by Lauren Groff (notes below), two lectures on the archaeology and meaning of The Dead Sea Scrolls, and a finally, a wonderful lecture/dramatic reading of the speaker's own retellings of seven tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Between this and the influence of several Club Read members, I plan to purchase Charles Martin's translation.
This past week I attended a Writers Institute author talk by Lauren Groff, author of two novels, Arcadia and Monsters of Templeton and a short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds. I may read Monsters of Templeton as I own it, but probably not the others, as my interest in her is primarily as an upstate NY author, raised in Cooperstown, NY, although currently living in Florida. Groff described spending whole days as a child in a willow tree (by the lake?) reading, and she tries to get back here by revisiting upstate in her writing. Having been to Cooperstown, I have a vision in my mind of that wonderful moment.
Groff’s writing methods are interesting and seem somewhat incongruous with her relatively young age. She writes in longhand on legal pads for at least 2-3 drafts before transferring the work to the computer. The purpose of her first draft is for her characters to come alive and “tell her who they are”. When she is finished, she puts the first draft in a box and starts all over again. She is very secretive in her writing, isn’t a big fan of “workshopping”, and does not share a book or its subject with anyone until near completion, as she finds it “kills” the work if she talks about it prematurely. Eventually she gives it to her husband, then friends, and finally her editor.
She described borrowing an idea from Alice Munro that “stories are houses she can walk into and know what is under the bed, in the drawers”. By knowing enough about it, she can then write the story. In order to move from two to three-dimensional stories, Groff draws maps of the physical setting and relationships among characters, “building a structure that she can walk around in.” She tends to “over-write” and when having a problem, will sit down and write 10-20 pages on a specific character until she knows them thoroughly.
In terms of why she chose to write Arcadia, she described having recently moved to Gainesville, Florida, being pregnant with her first child, lonely and sad and as a writer, spending her time “alone in the dark”. She decided she wanted to research happiness and those who try hard to be happy, which led her to utopian communities. She mentioned the lack of quotation marks and use of the present tense in the book, saying that she "wanted to pull the reader in close". But I wasn't sure if she was referring both to the quotation mark issue and the present tense, as she followed it with something to the effect that because she was skipping between time periods, she wanted the distance between the reader and the story to stay the same throughout.
Groff said that for her, writing is overall a joyful experience, with “happy moments of pure epiphany.” She feels that reading poetry is particularly important to a fiction writer, although she noted her favorite authors are short story writers. Her advice to aspiring writers? Don’t get an MFA if you have to pay for it. Take risks, don’t be safe, and accept pain and fear as part of the process for all writers. And approach editing as requiring a balance of humility and arrogance. She specifically mentioned Stephen King’s On Writing, which Mark (MSF59) and others on LT have praised, as containing excellent advice on revision and editing.
Next up this coming week: Joseph Lelyveld, author of Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.
I had never heard of Lauren Groff, Linda. It is always fascinating to read about the writing process. Very interesting comments.
Excellent review of Troubles Linda. J G Farrell was a fine writer and he knows how to tell a gripping story. Although I have not read Troubles I have read The siege of Krishnapur and I felt that his stance on the whole was on the side of the Establishment.
>123 I don't have a strong interest in reading Groff's books, Suzanne, although I will probably read The Monsters of Templeton, just for its setting in Cooperstown. But it was very interesting to hear her discuss her writing process. I frankly always prefer that to authors reading from their books, which I can always read for myself.
>124 Thanks Barry. I do recommend that you read Troubles. There is a scene towards the end that I think I will never get out of my head, which I am sure is exactly what he intended. I am definitely going to read the rest of the trilogy, despite any issues I may have with his political leanings. A shame that such a great writer died so young.
125: But it was very interesting to hear her discuss her writing process. I frankly always prefer that to authors reading from their books, which I can always read for myself.
Me too. Her books actually look intriguing, but not quite enough for the already too long wishlist.
Hi Katherine. I know what you mean about wishlists. And now LT has me saving other people's wishlists also, especially Suzanne's (Poquette) wonderful monthly post!
And now LT has me saving other people's wishlists also
That made me chuckle out loud, Linda! There's no telling what LT will cause us to do! ;-)
Joseph Lelyveld, NYS Writers Institute
This week’s Writers Institute seminar was with Joseph Lelyveld, whose background is as a journalist, having been a foreign correspondent, managing editor, and executive editor for the New York Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for Move Your Shadow: South Africa Black and White and has published a memoir, Omaha Blues. His most recent book is Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.
Lelyveld was a Times correspondent in both South Africa and India. It was while in South Africa that he first became interested in Gandhi, who lived there for 21 years and developed his value system before returning to India at age 44. While in South Africa, Gandhi founded the Phoenix Settlement in the area of Durban, where there was a concentration of Indians, who represented the smallest ethnic minority in South Africa with a population totaling approximately 100,000. Lelyveld felt that there was considerable “un-mined” material from Gandhi’s South African period that provided a different point of view than other existing biographies.
While most biographers have approached Gandhi from the perspective of his struggles on behalf of India, Lelyveld’s viewpoint has been Gandhi’s struggles with India. He portrays Gandhi as having been very discouraged and plagued with feelings of failure – that he had not been sufficiently pure and focused in his moral strivings, and as a result India had not fully embraced his teachings on non-violence and addressing the needs of the poor. So deep was his disappointment that he did not attend India’s celebration of Independence, refused all interviews and spent the day fasting. Lelyveld wrote primarily for an Indian audience, expected it to be somewhat controversial, but was surprised that what caused an outraged reaction was a relatively minor aspect of the book, where he discussed Gandhi’s relationship with a male architect with whom he lived at one point in South Africa, apart from his wife.
Lelyveld expressed concern about how India has used the time since it gained independence. This discussion reminded me of LT conversations regarding recent books on India that focus on the different economic classes, including Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. At Gandhi’s time, there were around 350 million people living in India, 60-70% of whom were very poor. Today, one-third of the world’s poorest people live in India. While the total population has grown and the size of the middle class increased significantly, the number of very poor has remained the same. Now representing only 25-30% of the total population, the very poor have become a “special interest” which is off to the side except at election time. In describing the excesses of today’s India, he mentioned one Indian family where two brothers are billionaires, one of whom has built a new 26-story residence, with 3 helipads, some outrageous number of cars that I didn’t catch, and 100 servants, all to support a family of 6. He was quick, however, to note that this and other countries have plenty of their own examples of excess.
Lelyveld spoke of his views on where journalism and publishing are going in the next 5-10 years, feeling that there would always be good, serious writing and journalism in both hard copy and e-book form. However, questions of intellectual property will plague the future of newspapers and magazines, as more entities become only disseminators, rather than gatherers of news. This issue is being compounded by the fact that major newspapers are all retrenching and of necessity shifting resources to web-related functions that have little to do with news-gathering (ex. the need to put videos up on the web).
As an aside, Lelyveld spoke of legislation that has been proposed by South Africa’s ANC government, although not yet enacted, that would broadly define national security in such a manner that the government could charge authors, newspapers etc. with a violation simply for writing something negative about the ANC. Lelyveld commented that this and the way the ANC is governing are somewhat discouraging and unfortunately reminiscent of administrations under apartheid. Although I am not sufficiently informed to have an opinion on this statement, I was thinking about his comment in a seminar yesterday where the speaker was addressing the development of one’s personal “worldview”. He cited Glenn Tinder’s Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions, which addresses issues of political theory from the perspective of beliefs regarding the “extent and origins of evil in human beings” and the existence of an after-life. This is a book I have not read but will look for, as it sounds thought-provoking, posing crucial questions regarding ethics and the nature of governments.
Thanks for this, Linda. I have always been interested in Gandhi's time here in South Africa, and will try to look into Lelyveld's book. Obviously, I am very interested in the proposed legislation of the ANC government - you might say that I'm invested in it. It is certainly a worrying development, exacerbated by the ANC's continuing avowals of innocence and goodwill.
Dewald, is this proposed legislation something that is being widely discussed? I thought of you when Lelyveld made his comments, as I do not know enough about the policies of the ANC government to really understand what is happening now in South Africa.
Yes, it is causing a hell of a ruckus over here, among people of all races and denominations. There's even a Right to Know Campaign, if you're interested in reading more about reactions to the so-called Secrecy Bill.
Very interesting comments about Lelyveld who I obviously had never heard of. Your reporting skills are excellent, Linda.
>132 Thanks for the site link, Dewald. I will find some time next week to read its contents more closely. The issue of restricting citizens' access to information and freedom of expression should be a serious concern for all of us.
>133 Thanks Suzanne. The authors do the hard work. I am just a compulsive note-taker.
Last week's NYS Writer's Institute event with two Palestinian poets, Ghassan Zaqtan and Fady Joudah, was cancelled, hopefully to be rescheduled in the fall. Zaqtan experienced delays in securing a visa and Joudah, who is Palestinian-American and already in the country, experienced travel delays. So I assuaged my extreme disappointment by purchasing Zaqtan's newly released Like A Straw Bird It Follows Me: And Other Poems and an unmentionable number of other poetry books. (Someone please protect me from the TBR Therapy group!)
I have been quiet over here, as I am trying to finish the multiple tomes that I am immersed in, while also having one of those very busy months. But I hope to be back soon with my short story challenge update and notes from a talk by Anne Enright this upcoming week.
I attended two author events this past week.
Anne Enright – NYS Writers Institute - RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)
Ms. Enright gave an enjoyable reading from The Forgotten Waltz, but most of the questions asked were specific to the book and her responses were generally brief. The following is what I found most interesting and relevant to understanding her writing process.
Enright indicated that she obtains her ideas from her characters, which once she has "two people in one space...look for their own stories". She tends to not give much physical description of her narrators, as she wants the reader to inhabit them as real people who are living inside themselves and looking out. She is interested in the intimacy of coming to grips with a character and tries to get on paper particularly the things that women think but don’t say aloud. For example, she described The Gathering as “an indictment of the Irish culture of secrets”, dealing with “how the mind approaches the unsayable of sexual abuse”. She also described children as being “great carriers of the uncanny”, as with children and cats alike, we don’t know what they are thinking when they look at us.
Enright described the writing process as “like a tide coming in and going out”, a continual process of adding, revising and adding more, and a part of understanding what is being written. She prefers writing on a computer, as the “external” appearance of the words helps her to get the rhythm of the voice. She also spoke of the endings of her novels as being open and the beginning of the narrator’s real life, and expressed that she herself wonders what happens to them next.
I am among those who actually liked Enright’s Booker-prize winner The Gathering. But as I am not convinced I want to read the Orange-listed The Forgotten Waltz, I will wait for some of my favorite LT reviewers to report first.
Bob Woodward – Union College
Bob Woodward is a preeminent investigative journalist and author, who along with Carl Bernstein, is best known for his reporting for the Washington Post on Nixon’s Watergate scandal. He has since written many books on modern-day presidencies and the Supreme Court, the latest being Obama’s Wars, and currently has a work in progress on Obama’s economic policies. I simply cannot do justice to Bob Woodward’s talk. He was compelling, informative and intelligent, full of humorous anecdotes with great delivery, and generous with his time, speaking for about 45 minutes and responding to questions for another full hour. Anything I say will suffer in its presentation by comparison to his talk.
Woodward described the media as being often driven by impatience and speed. He had high praise for Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post during the Watergate period, for providing them the resources and pushing them to dig ever deeper in verifying their facts, despite having crossed into uncharted territory by accusing a sitting president of criminal behavior. He used a wonderful phrase to describe her leadership style: “mind on, hands off”.
Related to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on “Obama Care”, Woodward cautioned against making assumptions of the outcome on the basis of the oral arguments. Woodward’s observations have been that oral arguments are pro forma and less important than the behind the scenes discussions. He cited as an example the case of Mohammed Ali’s conscientious objector case, where the Supreme Court fully reversed its initial opinion, as the justices one by one became concerned about appearances and public reaction if they were to issue a ruling that would send Ali to prison.
On the subject of the upcoming presidential campaign, Woodward stated that the contest between the actual candidates may be overshadowed and defined by a second “campaign” of Super PACS versus the news media. As a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, he anticipates that advertising will be consistently negative, with some truth and much that is not true, and that if the media does not sort this out for the voting public, we will be in a “garbage dump” of misinformation.
Woodward described the challenge of reporting in an environment where news sources change their accounts daily, as necessary to serve their purposes. He told a humorous story about sitting behind Henry Kissinger at a conference where participants were given a health-related “self-test” to determine how many years they had left to live. Peeking over Kissinger’s shoulder, he saw that his first score indicated that he had died four years ago. Obviously very unhappy with this, Kissinger erased and re-scored his test, coming up with a result of having 8 years to live. Kissinger was a master “re-scorer”, but far from holding a monopoly on this.
Woodward indicated his feelings that of all the major problems that confront us, what we should worry about most is secrecy in government, feeling that this has been a major issue in all recent presidential administrations. He emphasized that there is an almost immeasurable concentration of power in the presidency. But he also believes that while they are all very different, all of the presidents after Nixon have in fact made a good faith effort to act in concert with the national interest.
He illustrated this with an account of Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon, suspected by many to have resulted from a deal that would gain Ford the presidency. Woodward interviewed Ford years later and asked him why he had issued the pardon and whether he had been offered such a deal. Ford responded that in fact there had been such an offer, but that he had refused it. He said rather that he had “pardoned Nixon for the country”, feeling that we were experiencing serious problems related to the economy and the Cold War, and could not afford to remain under the cloud of Watergate for several more years. Ford felt that in order to move on with the country’s business, he needed to establish his own presidency and Watergate needed to be brought to an end. Woodward came away from this interview with a new understanding that what had appeared to be dirty was actually the opposite, and very gutsy. Even Ted Kennedy, who had opposed Nixon’s pardon, twenty-five years later acknowledged that Ford had done the right thing and awarded him the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award. The lesson from this, as described by Woodward, is to be cautious about having “too much certainty about things you can’t be certain of”.
Fascinating comments, Linda, especially those made by Bob Woodward. Thank you for taking the time to do this!
Great reports on Anne Enright and Bob Woodward, Linda. I have not read any of Enright's books but now at least she is on my radar screen, thanks to you.
Sorry I missed the talks, Linda. Thanks for writing up these comments.
Oh I like the thought that you need to be cautious about having "Too much certainty about things you can't be certain of"
>138 Hi Darryl. I think Woodward may have been the best speaker I have heard in recent years. I can only imagine what his dinner table conversation must be like.
>139 Suzanne, I'm not sure that I would recommend Enright to you, although it's probably not a good idea to try to predict people's reading reactions (case in point, our differing experience with Alan Lightman). I was somewhat disappointed in her talk and while I did like The Gathering (many did not), I am not really interested in her latest book.
>140 Welcome to LT and my thread, swprof!
>141 Hi Barry. Woodward was only 29 when he started reporting on Watergate. I imagine with all he has experienced and observed over the years that he has gained some wisdom!
Very interesting - and entertaining - writeup on Woodward.
Peeking over Kissinger’s shoulder, he saw that his first score indicated that he had died four years ago. Obviously very unhappy with this, Kissinger erased and re-scored his test, coming up with a result of having 8 years to live.
Ha ha ha!
>143 Thanks DieFledermaus. Woodward was very funny - something I was not expecting. He quite often had the audience breaking out in spontaneous laughter and applause.
I participated in the Short Stories: 30 Days of April challenge. Because this is a very busy month for me, I chose the option of reading only 10 stories. While I originally intended to sample a broader variety of authors, I became enthralled by two, both Irish but from very different periods: Colum McCann and James Joyce. I plan to finish both of these wonderful story collections and will reflect on them further in my reviews.
From Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann
"Sisters" – A woman, bitter from years of promiscuity following the tragic death of her mother, illegally enters the United States to visit her dangerously ill sister, a nun who suffers from severe anorexia and self-abuse.
"Breakfast for Enrique" – A man decides to report late for his job as a fish-gutter in order to prepare breakfast for his very ill, gay lover.
"A Basket Full of Wallpaper" – A teenage boy finds summer employment with a quiet Japanese émigré to Ireland who is obsessed with hanging wallpaper. Unable to learn the man's history, the boy invents stories about him being a survivor of Hiroshima.
"Through the Field" – Two maintenance workers at a State School for juvenile delinquents plant a field of klein grass to supplement their income. One of the men reacts in an unusual, and to me puzzling, manner after learning that a resident who committed murder turned himself in because he was afraid of being alone in the dark forest.
"Stolen Child" – An Irish immigrant, working as a counselor at a NYC children’s home, develops a surrogate-father relationship with a blind resident and struggles to accept her plans to marry an older, disabled Vietnam veteran.
"Step We Gaily, On We Go" – An elderly boxer who is slipping into senility, steals articles of women’s clothing, imaging them to be gifts for his wife.
From Dubliners by James Joyce
"The Sisters" – A young boy mourns the death of a priest with whom he had an unlikely friendship that was discouraged by his family.
"An Encounter" – Skipping school for a day’s adventure, two boys encounter an eccentric and vaguely threatening old man.
"Araby" – A young man longs to attend a bazaar to buy a gift for a desired young woman, but arrives late and encounters disillusionment.
"Eveline" – A young woman plans to elope to Buenos Ayres with a sailor, wishing to escape a hard life to which she is bound by a promise to her deceased mother.
Shalom Auslander – NYS Writers Institute
Every now and again I attend a talk by an author that I don’t expect to want to read. But the events are free and I always learn something from them. Shalom Auslander falls in that category for me.
Auslander referred often to having been raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in Rockland County, with depression, anger, rage and rebellion being the result of his dysfunctional upbringing. Attending very conservative schools that focused on learning Hebrew and Yiddish, he was taught that writing was sinful and foolish, as it was “the finger of God” that moved the pen. His path to becoming a writer started with accidentally discovering literature as a youth, which he smuggled into his house to read: Kafka, Beckett, Lenny Bruce and Leonard Michaels, whose I Would Have Saved Them if I Could was the first book he purchased. He lasted only three weeks in college, quitting when a literature professor made him realize that he would be expected to respond in a prescribed way to the works being studied. He started writing to deal with his burning anger, figuring that his choices for doing so were either standup comic or author. Interestingly, he says he now rarely reads, as he either “gets angry - because I didn’t write it first, or tears it apart - because I didn’t write it first”. (His deadpan delivery doesn’t translate well on the page. Believe me, it was funny.)
Hope: A Tragedy is the third of Auslander’s books and his first novel. It will also be opening as a play this Fall in London and has a movie in progress, with both involving differences from the book, as plays require more dialogue and films are more visual. He describes his memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, and collection of short stories, Beware of God: Stories, as being about “how to get rid of the God idea” and then “how to deal with now only having people left to blame”. He has also been on several episodes of NPR’s This American Life. Auslander noted that the processes of writing fiction and nonfiction are quite similar, with the difference being mainly where one gets their material.
Auslander describes Hope: A Tragedy as being not far from memoir, having been written to deal with messages given him as a child – you will die, everyone hates you, fate is harsh. His protagonist needed a fatal flaw, his own being a bad streak of optimism, so he started the story with a guy whose past weighs heavily on him and whose biggest problem is an inability to give up. He moves his family to the woods. Auslander moved his family to Woodstock, NY. His inclusion of Anne Frank in the story was an idea that emanated from having been every year, starting at age 6, shown film clips of the Holocaust and Anne Frank. Yet he feels the book is not about the Holocaust, but is rather about history, and contains more elements of Christianity than of Judaism. He described its humor as coming from futile hope and elements of the grotesque, with the main character’s struggle to hide Anne Frank and get her out of the house being funny from an outside point of view, but not from that of the character. He wrote 3 or 4 versions of the book that were awful and offensive even to him, before finding the right way to tell the story.
I am still somewhat puzzled by Auslander. He was very funny, although in a way that sometimes left me feeling sad for him, and his gratuitous use of swear words wore thin for me after awhile. I can't decide whether I was seeing the real Auslander or what has become a well-honed persona. His most revealing moment was when speaking of Kafka as going into the dark depths of a joke, with the first chapter being very funny, the second chapter no longer funny, and the third even worse. “There’s something funny on the surface that really isn’t – sort of like life.” I think that this perfectly sums up my reaction to Auslander’s talk.
Shalom Auslander sounds like he is quite untypical of most authors. I note his latest book has received "mixed" reviews on LT.
Untypical may be too mild, Barry. I really have no desire to read any of his work. His humor seems to be the element that draws some in.
What a crazy life. And what is this strange ultra-orthodox Jewish enclave? Very curious. I would be interested in seeing what his books are like, but not sure I would want to spend a great deal of time with them.
>149 Auslander grew up in Monsey, New York, which is a hamlet in Rockland County with a large population of Orthodox Jews. I believe there are similar communities in other counties close to NYC. I have a sense that their residents may live more as a true community than many of us are accustomed to, tied closely together by their religious beliefs and practices.
149, 150 - I believe there are many of these communities in the NY area that are very separated from the general population. I find it fascinating, but it seems a hard way to grow up.
I believe there are many of these communities in the NY area that are very separated from the general population.
Someone told me recently that communities such as Kiryas Joel in Orange County even have their own "underground economies" of sorts, using mostly a barter system in lieu of cash (contributing to high official poverty rates) and some form of a communal banking system to support major expenses, such as buying homes.
To A Mountain In Tibet by Colin Thubron
Colin Thubron’s account of his trek, from the most remote regions of Nepal to the sacred places of Manasarovar Lake and Mount Kailas in Tibet, conveys the sense of a deeply personal and otherworldly experience. His descriptions of the terrain and its people are mesmerizing and seamlessly interwoven with details of the region’s history and spiritual beliefs. A strong sense of place and its mysticism, combined with glimpses of the author’s own memories and emotions, makes this a truly absorbing travel narrative.
For the one fifth of the world’s population who are Buddhist, Hindu and Bon, Mount Kailas, known in ancient Hindu scriptures as Mount Meru, represents the center of the world. It is also of great ecological significance, being the source of India’s four great rivers: the Indus, Ganges, Sutlej and Brahmaputra. Protected by its sanctity, topography and strict Chinese controls, Mount Kailas has never been climbed.
“We are gazing on a country of planetary strangeness. Beneath us, in a crescent of depthless silence, a huge lake curves empty out of sight. It is utterly still. In the plateau’s barren smoothness it makes a hard purity, like some elemental carving, and its colour is almost shocking: a violent peacock blue. There is no bird or wind-touched shrub to start a sound. And in the cleansed stillness high above, floating on foothills so faded that it seems isolated in the sky, shines the cone of Mount Kailas.
Traveling mostly by foot in an area without roads, Thubron is accompanied only by a guide and a cook, and occasionally a horseman. Many of the local people are excruciatingly poor in a material sense, their access to education and even rudimentary health care extremely limited or nonexistent. Yet their lives are embedded in a richness of spiritual beliefs that date back to ancient times, populated by a vast array of spirits, demons and deities who seem to still exist amongst them. Monasteries are scattered throughout the landscape, the monks serving as caretakers for the Buddhas, goddesses and bodhisattvas who are enshrined as statues deep within monastic caves. Thubron devotes substantial portions of his narrative to these belief systems, including some fascinating descriptions of Tantric practices.
“Guided by his guru, the novice selects a tutelary Buddha or divinity – a yidam- and by an intense practice of identification achieves an imagined fusion with him…Over months and years of rapt visualisation, the adept starts to assimilate to the yidam, enthroned, perhaps in his mandala palace. As his mind awakens, he experiences the mandala as real. Sometimes the god himself may be conjured to inhabit it. In time the yogi can summon or dissolve the picture at will. And slowly, at will, he becomes the god. Mentally he takes on his appearance, his language (in oft-repeated mantras) and even his mind. He experiences his own body as a microcosm of the secret body of the universe. The world becomes a mandala. Seated upright, in union with Meru-Kailas, his breathing regulates and stills. At last, he feels his body thinning into illusion, he merges with the Buddha, and it is time to depart.”
Death is a recurring theme of Thubron’s journey. The Hindu God of Death, Yama, dwells on Mount Kailas. Both Indian and Tibetan pilgrims venture to the region to circumambulate the lake and mountain in a quest to erase their sins and gain merit towards reincarnation. Some practice their deaths there, while others actually die, being poorly acclimated to the altitude and ill-prepared for the exertion and extreme conditions. Sky burials are performed here – the bodies burned or fed to vultures - and a litter of bags, boots, socks, hats, human hair and fingernails left strewn over the terrain as offerings. The Buddhist belief in the transience of all things sharply contrasts with the author’s mourning of his own immediate family members, his mother recently deceased and his sister having died tragically as a young woman in a skiing accident on another mountain.
“And you? Why are you doing this, traveling alone?
As he is approaching 73 years of age, Thubron’s years of active travel writing are likely limited. Fortunately, he has compiled a wealth of works to be explored and I am very much looking forward to reading them.
Highly recommended. 4 stars
I am not so fond of Colin Thubron, but this seems a book, I will have to pick up. Great review!
Thanks Dan, Edwin, Jane and Suzanne!
Edwin, I am interested in reading some more of Thubron's travel narratives and am wondering if there are specific ones you didn't care for.
I was surprised to learn that Thubron has also written seven novels. A Cruel Madness won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award in 1985 and To The Last City was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2002, although the only LT review posted for that one may be the first "half-star only" rating I have seen. In my experience, that seems to be a theme with travel writers. I greatly enjoy Paul Theroux's travel writing, but can't stand his fiction.
Brilliant review of To a Mountain in Tibet I love good travel writing and so I wll add this one to my to buy list. Fascinating writing about grief and loss in an otherworldly landscape.
Thanks Barry. I appreciate the compliment and hope you enjoy Thubron as much as I did.
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
What I expected from Cloudsplitter was historical fiction about the famous abolitionist, John Brown. What I found was a masterful exploration of the relationship between two men, an extraordinary father and his ambivalent son, and their unrelenting struggles - within themselves, with each other, and with a nation that allows the enslavement of human beings.
Cloudsplitter is narrated by John Brown’s third son, Owen, who chronicles his life with his famous father for a biographical researcher. In an Author’s Note, Banks emphasizes that this novel is “a work of the imagination” and “should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a version or interpretation of history”. Although following the main historical threads of John Brown’s life and anti-slavery activities, there are moments of divergence from fact and much added that is speculative and pure invention. But this seems largely irrelevant to Banks’ broader purpose.
John Brown is a complex figure whose single-minded opposition to slavery is both driven and marred by contradictions. Married twice and fathering twenty children, only eleven of whom survive to adulthood, Brown is devoted to his family, but extreme in his expectations of them.
Compared to the rest of us, no matter how hotly burned our individual flame, Father’s was a conflagration. He burned and burned, ceaselessly, it seemed, and though we were sometimes scorched by his flame, we were seldom warmed by it.
Highly religious, Brown imposes his own interpretation of God’s will in a harsh and severe manner. While intolerant of those who do not meet his strict Christian standards, his own version of faith inexplicably justifies the use of violence to advance his abolitionist cause. Historians have long debated whether John Brown was insane or simply a religious fanatic, a terrorist or a hero. But regardless, at the core of his character is a massive egotism that drives his failed ambition to amass great wealth and ultimately leads him to sacrifice his family and martyr himself to his abolitionist cause.
By comparison, Owen Brown is plagued by doubts. He lacks the unquestioning religious faith of his father and exhibits a rebellious temperament, driven by a desire to find a place and purpose in life that is missing for him. Despite these conflicting emotions, Owen is unable to separate from his father, eventually embracing his fanaticism and becoming his closest advisor and co-conspirator in their final acts of battle. Yet he secretly bears the guilt and responsibility for the accidental death of a freed slave and friend, and carries the crushing knowledge that he is himself not without prejudice and bigotry. And of all the family members, it is Owen that is most aware that his father is flawed, and not the prophet that his followers believe him to be.
They all thought me shy, inarticulate, perhaps not as intelligent as they, as they always had anyhow, and they were not wrong. But that did not mean that I did not know the truth about Father and why he did the great, good things and the bad, and why so much of what he did was, at bottom, horrendous, shocking, was wholly evil.
The storyline focuses on the decades prior to the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, exploring in-depth the development of John Brown’s abolitionist rage while only tangentially addressing the historical significance of this seminal event and its aftermath. Intricately plotted, the narrative follows the Browns through years of harsh conditions and hard work, marked by births and deaths. The family’s 1850 move to North Elba in the Adirondack Mountains is a turning point in their lives - a time of active participation in transporting runaway slaves to safety across the Canadian border, while evading slave-catchers and federal authorities. John and Owen Brown travel extensively during subsequent years, both for business purposes and to seek the support of wealthy abolitionists. During one such trip to Boston, Owen’s sense of faith and purpose are ignited by the excitement of danger and he is “brushed by an angel of the Lord”. His father’s resolve for militant action is strengthened by what he sees as the passivity of Boston’s prominent abolitionists and he develops elaborate plans to establish Kansas as a slavery-free state and to cause the collapse of Virginia’s economy by promoting an armed insurrection of slaves. But in the end, John Brown commits and condones horrific and wholly unnecessary acts of violence, culminating in a failed, armed attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry.
Russell Banks has a gift for creating multi-dimensional characters and placing them in real settings and situations. In Cloudsplitter, he reveals the complexities and contradictions inherent in the story of John Brown, while touching on important questions regarding the nature of faith, family, and the ways in which we are enslaved by our beliefs and ambitions. Banks writes in a voice that is both lyrical and stunning in its realism, using language consistent both with the period and with the religious fanaticism of John Brown. Never straying from Owen’s voice, Banks brings the reader into the mind of his narrator with an intensity that sustained my interest through the more than 750 pages of this incredible novel.
Highly recommended. 5 stars
Thanks for the suggestions, Edwin. I own the Styron book and also read it many, many years ago. But my memory has faded, so I think I may revisit it. I do want to follow up with some non-fiction on John Brown and will look for the Du Bois biography. I own Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War and hope to also get to that soon.
Intriguing review, Linda. It is probaby not a book I will ever get around to reading but it sounds like it is very well done.
Agreeing with everyone here that Cloudsplitter sounds very intriguing. I don't know this history very well, though I am acquainted with it through some nineteenth-century American poetry - Whitman, Melville, etc. - so this might interest me. Thanks!
Although Russell Banks is one of my favourite authors, for some undetermined reason, I have always resisted reading this book. Perhaps it is because I feel I don't know enough about this period. Anyway, your review has convinced me to find the copy in my TBR pile and read it. Thanks for the motivation!
Thanks Suzanne, Dewald, SassyLassy and Barry!
Sassy, I have loved all of Russell Banks' novels that I have read so far, with the exception of The Reserve, which I abandoned about half way through. Of those I have read, Cloudsplitter is in my opinion unquestionably his best. I'll look forward to your thoughts on it.
Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
“Had I Not Been Awake”
I love this opening to the latest collection of the Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Human Chain. These are verses imbued with the memories that have often been the subject and inspiration for his poetry, yet they feel differently than those of his younger self. Viewed now through the losses brought by age, infirmity and death, these reflections are clearly the venue of the older poet.
Heaney uses a deceptively simple language and form that seems a suitable testament to the everyday nature of his subjects, presented in concrete, concise and often masculine imagery. He shares moments that are both foreign to me in their representation of rural Irish life of an earlier age, while still feeling strongly familiar in their universality. I am not qualified to critique poetry, much less that of a Nobel Laureate. So there is nothing I can better do than to let the words speak for themselves.
“Album” witnesses, through the memories of childhood, the strength and partnership of his parents: “Too late, alas, now for the apt quotation / About a love that’s proved by steady gazing / Not at each other but in the same direction (10-12).”
In “The Butts”, memories of the changing relationship between an elderly father and his son are revisited:
And we must learn to reach well in beneath
In “Uncoupled”, the foreshadowing of a father’s death: “Shouting among themselves, and now to him / So that his eyes leave mine and I know / The pain of loss before I know the term (22-24).”
Others are written in memory of friends lost. From “The Door Was Open and the House Was Dark”: “The door was open and the house was dark / Wherefore I called his name, although I knew / The answer this time would be silence (1-3).”
A powerful and highly recommended collection. 4 ½ stars
Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll
Out of the many books written on the poetry of Irish Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, I selected this as one that might provide a broader context to my reading of his work. O’Driscoll’s book consists of an extensive series of interview questions, organized by chapters that mainly correspond to Heaney’s poetry collections, beginning with Death of a Naturalist (1966) and ending with District and Circle (2006). Published in 2008, it briefly touches upon his August 2006 stroke that features prominently in his most recent volume, Human Chain. Stepping Stones took seven years to reach publication, with Heaney responding to O’Driscoll’s questions primarily in writing through the mail. In his introduction, O’Driscoll describes the book as biographical, but it is more accurately a blending of biography and autobiography, with the guiding hand of O’Driscoll as interviewer and the true content found in Heaney’s response.
This book does not pretend to be an authorized ‘reader’s guide’ to Seamus Heaney’s poems, but rather a survey of his life, often using the poems as reference points. It offers a biographical context for the poems and a poetry-based account of the life. It reviews the life by re-viewing it from the perspective of Heaney’s late sixties…
Born in 1939 on a farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, Heaney’s family was part of the Catholic minority. The interviews trace in detail his life and the influences of people, places and events on his poetry, including his school and college years, his marriage and family life, university lectureships and readings at home and abroad, and his receipt of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature. Themes of rural life, early childhood, family life, and the Troubles are recurrent throughout. Heaney also devotes considerable attention to the many poets, both predecessors and contemporaries, whom he admires and was influenced by, crediting Ted Hughes with having inspired his earliest interest in poetry. While not intended as an analysis of his works, Heaney does frequently reference both collections and specific poems in the context of their settings, sources and inspirations. In the end, I am left with the impression of Heaney as a man, who while extraordinary in his literary accomplishments, is refreshingly quite ordinary in his origins, daily life and sources of poetic inspiration.
This is a book that is dense with detail and reflection. I read it in its lengthy entirety, although I was several times tempted to give up. While I would not hesitate to recommend it to admirers of Heaney’s poetry, I found the question-answer format wearisome for a book of nearly 500 pages (including addendums), and its full appreciation seemed to require a knowledge that I did not have. Although including a brief glossary of terms, several maps, and more extensive chronological and bibliographical glossaries, it otherwise lacks supplemental explanations and presumes an understanding of Irish culture, vernacular, traditions, politics and historical events, as well as a close familiarity with Heaney’s work and a broad background in poetry.
I am highly ambivalent about my rating of this book. Torn between the limits of its accessibility for myself as an unprepared reader and its merits as an enlightening account of Heaney’s life and literary contributions, I have chosen to emphasize the latter, despite having done no justice to these virtues here. My hope is to someday return to the relevant chapters of Stepping Stones, having spent more time with Heaney’s poems and ready for a deeper understanding of their origins in the author’s life.
Super review of Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney Linda. It is a book I will read when I sit down with a collection or two of Seamus Heaney's poems. He is a great poet, but I have only read his poems in other collections or in review journals.
I am very tempted to add Human Chain to my collection. I love "Had I not Been Awake"
Excellent review of Stepping Stones, Linda. I haven't read anything by Seamus Heaney, so I'll look for his work on my next book buying jaunt.
Thanks Barry and Darryl. I find that I need to spend time with Heaney's poems, to dig through the layers. A great excuse to read and revisit.
Nice reviews of both Heaney books (it's so rare to have reviews of poetry). And I think it can be so instructive to focus on the work of one poet as it is when we make studies, informal or formal, of authors. I'm prone to picking up books that are interviews or "conversations with" - but 500 pages!
It occurs to me that we are both reading Irish poetry.
Thanks Lois. I have greatly appreciated your reviews of poetry and agree about the rarity. It would be nice to drum up more interest. I think it is easy to be intimidated when you don't understand a poem and to just give up. I consider myself very much a novice at poetry, but I'm very interested in learning and am enjoying the experience immensely.
Fine review once again, Linda. I have a rather checkered relationship with poetry and so I probably won't get to this book anytime soon, but I do appreciate knowing about it.
Thanks Suzanne. A rather checkered relationship sounds a bit ominous, but hopefully someday a verse will tempt you again!
I only mean that I like some of the poetry I understand and sadly I seem to understand very little of it. But I may not have given it the time it deserves.
Early Reviewer Book
The Sadness of the Samurai: A Novel by Victor del Arbol
This Early Reviewer book, the first of the prize-winning Victor del Arbol’s novels to be translated to English, was described as a literary, historical thriller. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver on each of these points.
Maria Bengoechea is an ambitious prosecuting attorney who, having successfully imprisoned a police inspector for corruption and torture of an informant, is drawn into an effort to reunite him with his kidnapped daughter. Isabel Mola is an aristocrat in pro-Nazi Spain of the 1940s, who is betrayed by her illicit lover while attempting to escape her powerful and abusive husband. Congressman Publio, a former “watchdog” for Isabel’s husband, Guillermo Mola, is consumed by his lust for power and will use any means to promote himself and a planned coup against the democratic government. The fates of these three individuals are tied together by events that begin in 1941 and culminate in the failed fascist coup of February 23, 1981.
Victor del Arbol has missed an opportunity to craft what might have been a truly intriguing historical thriller. Having chosen a fascinating period of Spanish history as the setting for his novel, he fails to take advantage of this rich historical background and incorporates actual events to only a limited extent. He populates his story with an array of potentially complex characters, then presents them as stereotypes, poorly developed and difficult to care about. The storyline moves smoothly back and forth between historical periods, but perhaps too much so, as there are few loose ends to engage the reader’s mind. And while the subplots provide the requisite twists, full of corruption and intrigue, they are lacking in suspense and generally felt formulaic.
In fairness, the book was not altogether terrible. It made for an easy, relaxing read that succeeded in vaguely holding my interest, as I was certain that the major plot twist must be just around the corner. But alas, it ended as clearly foreshadowed in the first chapter, and without surprises.
2 1/2 Stars
Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann
These are tales heavy with loss, grounded in life’s heartbreaking moments, yet buoyant in their inherent hopefulness. The twelve short stories in Colum McCann’s Fishing the Sloe-Black River are a true achievement of imagination and poignant effect. Ranging from harshly realistic to magical, the language and dialogue are deceptively simple, yet evocative. McCann is equally at home with settings in his native Ireland and his adopted United States, and creates characters that we know, ordinary and flawed, yet unfailingly dignified in the face of life events that are both familiar and unimaginable.
Some perform simple, personal acts of courage and remembrance. In A Basket Full of Wallpaper, a reclusive Japanese émigré to Ireland, imagined by his young employee to be a survivor of Hiroshima, finds peace in his obsession with hanging wallpaper. Breakfast for Enrique conveys a quietness of waiting, as a man employed as a fish-gutter prepares breakfast for his very ill lover. In Step We Gaily, On We Go an elderly boxer, slipping into senility, steals articles of women’s clothing, imagining them to be gifts for his wife. The small, daily acts undertaken for loved ones are portrayed in A Word in Edgewise, as a woman rambles on while helping her sister with her hair and make-up, one final time. And in the book’s title story, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, mothers fish in a futile effort to catch sons who have drifted away, while their aging husbands play football on a team in need of younger recruits.
Others struggle more outwardly. In Sisters, a woman bitter from years of promiscuity, illegally enters the United States to visit her dangerously ill sister, a nun who suffers from severe anorexia and self-abuse. In Along the Riverwall, a bicyclist who is confined to a wheelchair after being hit by a bread truck, disposes of an unwanted gift. And in From Many, One, a woman’s obsession with painting quarters leads to her husband’s discovery of a disturbing secret.
Employees and residents of institutional settings find solace in their commonalities. In Through the Field, a maintenance worker at a State School for juvenile delinquents reacts in an unusual and puzzling manner after learning that a resident who committed murder turned himself in because he was afraid of the dark. Stolen Child is narrated by an Irish immigrant, who while working as a counselor at a NYC children’s home, develops a surrogate-father relationship with a blind resident and must accept her plans to marry an older, disabled Vietnam veteran. And in Around the Bend and Back Again, a maintenance worker at a psychiatric facility becomes involved with a patient, unwittingly assisting in her final, destructive act of revenge and freedom.
The closing story, Cathal’s Lake, is simply heartrending. A farmer’s lake is overflowing with swans, as he is cursed to dig these stately birds out of the soil, one for each person dead from sectarian violence.
This is one of the most consistently excellent short story collections that I have read. What I loved the most was that each story, while complete in itself, leaves a space to be filled by the reader’s own imagination, interpretation and memories.
4 ½ Stars
My Early Reviewer copy of Herta Muller's The Hunger Angel arrived today. A nice hardback that is obviously not an ARC. I was new to the ER program in March and am thrilled to have won this. I will certainly bump something else out of the way to read it. It has to be so much better than my first ER book. :)
Sounds like an excellent collection with a lot of food for thought.
Congrats on the Herta Muller!
leaves a space to be filled by the reader’s own imagination, interpretation and memories.
That's a collection of short stories I'd like to get my hands on!
Thanks Sassy and Barry.
I hope you do get your hands on a copy, deebee. McCann became a favorite of mine with Let the Great World Spin and I thought these stories were equally excellent.
Inspired by PaulCranswick of the 75ers, I have developed my list of top 10 favorite fiction published originally in the 2000s. It is likely to change considerably during 2012, due to books that I am either currently reading or have on the top of my TBR pile. I also realize that much of what I read is a bit older, so I may also develop a second list from the decade of the 90's.
In no particular order:
Desert by J. M. G. LeClezio
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
The Broken Word by Adam Foulds (narrative poem)
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
No Great Mischief by Alister MacLeod
Great House by Nicole Krauss
Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Kenzaburo Oe
Interesting list, Linda. I haven't read any of those but Wolf Hall is on the pile and a couple others are on the list. Top 10 books of the 2000s might be a fun separate thread or another question for avaland.
Thanks DieF. I think it might be particularly interesting to see what the Club Read members come up with as favorites from the 2000s, as so many seem to be reading works from much earlier periods.
I have only read Wolf Hall from your list, but I am very tempted to get Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes.
#193 - I've read three of those and loved each of them (Desert, Wolf Hall & The Known World). I might put my own list together except my sample to chose from won't be all that large. That, and for 2 or 3 years now I haven't read much new fiction.
ps- I didn't receive The Hunger Angel until yesterday...
Interesting list, Linda. Of the books you listed I have only heard of three of them and have not read any of those. In reviewing my fiction reading over the past few years, I have read almost nothing published since 2000. Wow! Am I behind the times or what?
>198 I agree that a top 10 thread would be fun, japaul, but I'm not sure how to structure it for a group whose reading interests are so extremely diverse and scattered across the full history of literature. The 75ers, where this list thing started, tend more towards current/recent literature. Maybe it would be better if people simply posted on their own threads, if they are so inclined? I would love to see them.
>199 I actually had to struggle a bit to come up with a 2000s list myself, Dan. I always mean to read more newly published fiction, but you know how that goes... The letter that accompanied my copy of The Hunger Angel was dated 5/29 and the book arrived 6/1. I assume it was mailed from NYC, so that would be about right. I'm not surprised it took longer to reach you in Texas. It is very good so far - very depressing but wonderfully written.
>200 Don't worry, Suzanne. That seems to be a common state of affairs with the members of this group. But I know that your knowledge of literature from earlier periods - like that of others in Club Read - could rival anyone's! It certainly leaves me somewhere in the dust and the muck.
>200 + 201c
For years I tried to keep up with what was appearing new, often much disappointed. I fully agree with the debate last year, arguing that a lot of modern literature promoted by the Booker Prize is in fact rather trashy. There are definitely good books among the stacks, but a lot of it is fairly substandard.
I feel quality standards for literature were perhaps higher in the past, and what writers write about, even in the period 1950s - 1980s simply seems more interesting than the period 1990s - 2010.
Most of my current reading falls in the period 1910s - 1970s, and I prefer writers before that period more than writers after that period.
I also feel there is a big difference between mainstream authors (which are plugged by the publishers & media) and writers on the fringe.
Finding good books is never that easy.
I agree with much of what you say, Edwin, although I do think there is excellent, current literature also to be found. Translated works are one source I hope to explore more, as they open up a more diverse range of authors and literary perspectives. I am envious of those who are multilingual and have the option of reading in several original languages.
Overall, I feel that I should be working towards a goal of reading broadly across all of the periods, but I admittedly have some work to do in reaching back to earlier times. This group is such a rich resource that I certainly do not lack for recommendations to pursue.
>202 I'm not sure I agree that quality is lower now than in the past. I suspect there are many more books being published now than ever before, and I say the extra numbers tend more towards "trash" than books that will become classics. However, I think that it's just hard in the moment to sift through all the books being published to find the really good ones. In 20 years, I think the ones still being read will stand up to books of the past. Think how many contemporaries of, for instance, Dickens there are that we never read because their work hasn't stood the test of time. That being said, everyone has their favorite time periods and it is certainly legitimate to want to spend your time reading books that you enjoy most. Being on LT has really helped me to find the best of the current books being published and I've gotten much more enjoyment out of current books than I would have without the LT grapevine.
Your list is going to act as a reference for me. I've only read two of the books, No Great Mischief and Wolf Hall, but since these would also be on my list, I will keep the rest in mind. Matterhorn is on my TBR pile. I think there is quite a bit of good recent literature out there, especially in translation, however, it will be interesting to revisit these lists in ten years or so.
>204 You make excellent points, Jennifer. Both the publishing industry and what readers demand have also changed tremendously over the years. But LT certainly provides proof that there are high quality books from all periods available for all reading preferences.
>205 I hope you find some others from the list that you enjoy, Sassy. Lists are fun and interesting as sources of recommendations, but they don't stay static for long. I expect that if I looked back in a few months, I would be struggling with decisions on what to bump for new favorites.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
‘…who are you then?’
This exchange between Faust and Mephistopheles sets the stage for a novel that is at the same time marvelous fun, a satirical criticism of the Soviet Union of Mikhail Bulgakov’s era, and a provocative commentary on the nature of good and evil.
The book unfolds through three intertwined storylines, each taking place between Wednesday and Saturday night of the Christian Holy Week. Set in “present day” Moscow of the 1930s, the story opens with the poet, Ivan “Homeless” Nikolaevich and his editor, Mikhail Berlioz, in conversation regarding the existence of Jesus Christ. They are joined by a mysterious stranger, Woland, who insists he was present at Jesus’ crucifixion and predicts Berlioz’s imminent death by decapitation. Later revealed to be the devil, Woland proceeds to wreck merry havoc on Moscow, accompanied by a bizarre and dangerous group of assistants, including an immense tomcat named Behemoth that talks and walks upright. Unable to convince anyone of what he has witnessed, Ivan Nikolaevich is taken to a mental institution and diagnosed as schizophrenic. There the second storyline emerges, as Ivan meets the Master, who tells him of his beautiful but married lover, Margarita. In return for being reunited with the Master, Margarita allows herself to become a witch and presides over Woland's satanic ball. The Master is the author of an unfinished novel that provides the third storyline, based on the familiar biblical account of Pontius Pilate as he condemns Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth) to death by crucifixion. The three storylines converge at the end, with Woland orchestrating the final fates of the Master and Margarita, who in turn set Pilate free from his purgatory of insomnia and return Ivan Nikolaevich to a peaceful, scholarly existence.
The Master and Margarita can be read and appreciated on many levels. It contains more hidden references and symbolism than any other book I recall having read, much of which I would have missed if not for the translator’s introduction and notes, various websites and the support of a group read. But to Bulgakov’s credit, it is a joy to read even in the absence of expert analysis. In fact, I found it most captivating when I allowed myself to be swept along by the narrative, reflecting on its meaning only in retrospect.
Despite the pervasiveness of biblical references, the most obvious of Bulgakov’s purposes is to criticize Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy. He accomplishes this indirectly through the use of magic realism and fantastical imagery, touching upon issues of shortages, foreign currency, government terrorism, and official corruption. The ideas presented in Pontius Pilate’s tale parallel the “present day” issues, while also introducing the much repeated theme that 'cowardice is the most terrible of vices’. According to translator Richard Pevear’s introduction, Bulgakov struggled with his own sense of guilt for compromising with the Soviet bureaucracy. He therefore likely identified strongly with Pilate, who had also made compromises that he regretted. In this context, I found it is interesting that Bulgakov forgives Pilate in the end and sends him off to his greatest reward.
Integrated throughout the novel, and of greatest interest to me, was an overarching premise that is timeless and applicable to all societies – that good and evil are coexistent and that both are necessary in our world.
Kindly consider the question: what would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it? Shadows are cast by objects and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. Trees and living beings also have shadows. Do you want to skin the whole earth, tearing all the trees and living things off it, because of your fantasy of enjoying bare light? You’re a fool.
To label this a review feels wrong as it implies that I have a much deeper understanding of Bulgakov and his masterpiece than I actually do. This is a book that begs for another read, deeper and more analytical, and I hope someday to return to it.
Great review, Linda, and, yes, it is a review! I am about half-way through The Master and Margarita, on my second read-through, and enjoying it immensely. Behemoth is such a literary coup that everyone seems to rave about him - you seem to have the only cover that doesn't have him on it - but the book is about so much more.
Thanks Dewald. This is one of very few books where my reaction upon finishing was that I should immediately start it again. Are you finding that you understand and notice significantly more on the second read?
Excellent review of one of my all-time favorites. I'm long overdue for re-reading The Master and Margarita. I read an older translation, and didn't realize that Pevear and Volokhonsky had translated it now. I loved their translations of Dostoevsky.
Thanks Steven. There was a diversity of translations represented in the recent Group Read and I would be curious to see the differences.
Linda, agreeing with Dewald, yours is indeed a review of The Master and Margarita, and an excellent one. This book is on my Hope To Read list for this year, and so I appreciate your cogent introduction, which I am saving for future reference. My edition is from Everyman's Library (Knopf), translated by Michael Glenny, is clothbound and without a dust jacket, so I shall look elsewhere for an image of Behemoth. ;-)
Thanks Suzanne. I think you will absolutely love it! The two recent Group Read threads contain some great thoughts and links that might also be helpful to you.
Great review of The Master and Margarita. I particularly liked your summary of the novel and how the three story lines worked. I lurked in on the group read threads and found myself puzzled by some of the posts on there. I will get to this book one day, but not anytime soon I fear.
Thanks Barry. I probably wouldn't have read it now except for the group read, but I'm very glad I did.
>209 - I read it about six years ago, so I'm not sure how much I missed the first time anymore, Linda. It was a Penguin edition without notes, though, so I'm sure that I missed a lot of things, especially Bulgakov's oblique references to the Stalinist secret police, etc.
Enjoyed your review or whatever it is you want to call your post. I need to get my own thoughts written down sometime.
Thanks Dan. I am glad to have the writing of whatever that was behind me! I'll look forward to seeing your thoughts also.
The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail
Born into the tyranny of Ba'athist Iraq in 1965, Dunya Mikhail grew up in a period of severe repression, worked for the Baghdad Observer, and fled her country after being placed on Saddam Hussein’s enemies list. Emigrating to the United States in 1996, Mikhail was awarded the 2001 UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. The War Works Hard, translated from Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow, won the 2004 Pen Translation Fund Award and was short-listed for the 2006 Griffin International Poetry Prize.
The poems in this collection were written between 1984 and 2004, both while Mikhail was living in Iraq and following her arrival in the United States. The language and images are straight-forward and simple. While not subtle or sophisticated, these poems clearly portray the emotional experience of living in a country torn by years of wars, and later observed from a distance as an émigré. Mikhail's personal reactions are always present, sometimes gentle and sometimes harsh.
Three major wars have been fought in Iraq during Mikhail’s lifetime and one can trace her growth as a vocal critic of war, through the subtlety or directness of the imagery in her poetry. The earliest poems included in this collection are for the most part quiet and subdued, as in Pronouns.
He plays a train.
Her later verse is filled with irony and seems to condemn equally all parties to war. Her criticism of America as her adopted country is evident in America - “What good is it to gain the whole world/if you lose your soul, America?” - and in An Urgent Call, based on the case of Lynndie England, an army reservist involved in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The title poem, The War Works Hard, written but not published while the author lived in Baghdad, confronts directly the devastating effects of war.
How magnificent the war is!
The pain of leaving one’s country is clearly visible in those poems composed following Mikhail’s emigration to the United States, such as I Was In A Hurry.
Yesterday I lost a country,
One of the most moving poems in the collection is Bag of Bones, composed in the United States following the fall of Saddam Hussein, but having the immediacy of what feels like personal experience.
What good luck!
I deeply respect Mikhail for her courage as an Iraqi woman who used her poetry as a vehicle to express dangerous political views. But as much as I enjoyed parts of this collection, I also found it overall to be somewhat simplistic and obvious. I generally prefer poetry that makes me work a little harder.
3 ½ Stars
Excellent review Llnda and plenty of examples of the poems. I am not inspired to read this collection.
Thanks Barry. I was surprised and disappointed, given the accolades and prizes this collection has received. But I assume that was strongly influenced by Mikhail's criticism of Saddam Hussein's regime and the personal risk she experienced.
I have been inspired by Darryl (kidzdoc) and other completists to undertake a personal challenge of reading at least one book by each of the 108 winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, assuming the availability of translations. This will take me a few years, as I will not read exclusively from this list, but I do have a slight jump-start on the process. I will be setting up my list in the next few days and am excited to get started.
Sounds fun Linda. I would love do this sometime, but not likely this decade.
That sounds like a fun challenge. I love doing stuff like that, though I rarely finish it because I get sidetracked onto something else.
You said you have a jump-start, so I assume you are going to count books that you've already read?
Chiming in to say that this sounds like a great idea! I'm not sure that they were all really the greatest writers of their times - the Nobel can get a little too political for my taste - but I'm certain that it would still be interesting to read at least one book by each.
>226 Well, it may take me a decade to complete, Dan. I'm not the fastest reader in the group and I don't plan on reading the Nobel Laureates exclusively.
>227 I am going to count books I have already read, Steven. It will keep me from feeling totally overwhelmed. Some I have read just within the past few years and others long ago. But I do also plan to read more than one book from some authors and to re-read some where my first reading was many years ago. And I have a good number already in my TBR backlog. And there are a few authors, such as Steinbeck, that I read so long ago that I'm not sure I even remember all that I read.
>228 I agree, Dewald. It will be interesting to also read their Nobel Lectures, see who else was nominated (available for 1901-1950) and give some thought to why they were chosen.
Eternity on Hold by Mario Susko
the end is not where we want it
Mario Susko, a survivor of the Bosnian War, bears personal witness to the horror of that conflict in Eternity on Hold. The recipient of three Fulbright scholarships, Susko attended college at SUNY Stony Brook during the 1970s and returned to the United States in 1993, after war broke out in his home country. Susko is a prize-winning poet, translator and editor, has published prolifically, and is the recipient of the 1997 and 2006 Nassau Review Poetry Awards, the 1998 Nuove Lettere Premio Internazionale di Poesia e Letteratura, the 2000 Tin Ujevic Award for the best book of poems published in Croatia, and the 2003 SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.
Although published more than a decade following Susko’s return to the United States, the poems in this collection mostly look back at his life in Bosnia. The collection begins with remembrances of parents and grandparents, and a child’s uncomprehending pain of their loss.
My grandfather died
These youthful memories give way to highly personal images of wartime terror and death, and their lingering permeation of post-war life. The realism of the moments Susko captures is arresting and frightening. I sometimes found myself holding my breath in anticipation, as in “Beyond”, where a man seeks to learn if his lover has safely escaped a city’s checkpoint.
Eternity is God’s oblivion, you said,
At other times I was simply overcome with sadness at Susko’s portrayal of man’s capacity for cruelty and violence, and the burden borne by those who have survived. “Conversion”, short-listed for the 2004 Guardian Forward Poetry Prize, is a powerful poem that finds a distraught father in an encounter with a heavily armed man, while seeking his son in a field of dead bodies and grazing sheep.
I came upon a man in black who sat on a tank,
I highly recommend this outstanding collection, both for its literary value and its importance as testimony to events that should not be forgotten. (4 1/2 stars)
The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk
In 2009, Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk joined an illustrious group of writers, artists, architects and musicians, invited by Harvard University to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, established as a lectureship on “poetry in the broadest sense”. In six essays based upon those lectures, Pamuk presents his theory of the novel, exploring the interaction between the creative contributions of both the author and the reader. As a framework for his theory, he borrows from Friedrich Schiller’s distinction between the “naïve poet”, whose writing is effortless, spontaneous and unrestrained by awareness of technique, and the “sentimental poet”, who is fully conscious of technique, reflective, self-aware and analytical. Pamuk contends that the most effective novelists and readers are those who are able to achieve a balance of being both naïve and sentimental.
”Novels are second lives”, the experience of which requires an interplay between the author’s words and the reader’s imagination, forming a mental image based on the written word. While character and plot are often viewed as being the most essential elements of fiction, Pamuk instead emphasizes the importance of the setting and the link between the objects described and the characters’ thoughts and feelings. He contends that a protagonist’s character is best revealed through how they view their environment, similar to how we come to know individuals in real life.
Pamuk recognizes that even great authors may be either more verbal or more visual in their writing, with fiction fulfilling an archival role related to language and speech, culture, feelings and attitudes. He argues, however, that art and fiction are ultimately both visual in nature, although the experience of viewing a painting and reading a novel are essentially different. Art is real and immediately understood, existing in space as a “frozen moment”. The fictional world exists as a series of connected moments, understood only in the unfolding of “dramatic time” and the interaction of the reader’s imagination with the author’s imagery. In this way, it is the reader who actually completes the story.
Pamuk disputes the contention, oft-repeated by authors and teachers of creative writing, that it is a novel’s characters that come alive and dictate the course of the storyline. Rather, he argues that what directs the novel is its “silent center”, the deeper purpose, meaning or insight that informs and enlarges upon the reader’s understanding of what it means to be alive in this world. The best fiction reflects a center that is distant from the story line and which continually changes, becoming more refined as the book develops, both for the author and the reader. “…Borges reminds us that the real subject and the center are something entirely different: ‘Page by page, the story grows until it takes on the dimensions of the cosmos’.”
Pamuk observes that“…the art of the novel draws its power from the absence of a perfect consensus between writer and reader…”. Each reader will experience the book and its center differently. “The power of a novel’s center ultimately resides not in what it is, but in our search for it as readers…. Both the center and the meaning of the novel change from one reader to the next. When we discuss the nature of the center…we are discussing our view of life.”
Pamuk presents his ideas in a very accessible fashion, describing his own development as a reader and novelist, and making frequent use of examples from the great classics, as well as from his own work. He also scatters captivating personal anecdotes throughout the lectures. For example, in the essay entitled “Museums and Novels”, he reveals his efforts to establish a museum in Istanbul, to house the enormous collection of objects he acquired as inspiration for writing The Museum of Innocence. And for anyone who has wondered why their own lives are not as rich and deeply felt as those depicted in fiction, Pamuk has a straightforward response.
Since I believe that the essential aim of the art of the novel is to present an accurate depiction of life, let me be forthright. People do not actually have as much character as we find portrayed in novels, especially in nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels. I am fifty-seven years old as I write these words. I have never been able to identify in myself the kind of character I encounter in novels – or rather, European novels. Furthermore, human character is not nearly as important in the shaping of our lives as it is made out to be in the novels and literary criticism of the West. To say that character-creation should be the primary goal of the novelist runs counter to what we know about everyday human life.
I found this book to be a delightful glimpse into the thoughts of a Nobel Laureate, whose views on writing fiction are refreshingly distinctive and resonated fully with me as a reader. Highly recommended. (4 ½ Stars)
Two excellent reviews Linda. The Naive and the Sentimental novelist sound very interesting. I found myself agreeing with much of the thoughts you expressed in your review. I have not read any of Pamuk's novels, but I will try and find space to read one before the end of the year.
Good extracts from the Susko selection, its not a book that I would want to read at the moment, but I have noted your recommendation
Great reviews. You have made me want to read Susko, and Pamuk's ideas are fascinating.
This topic was continued by Linda29007's reading for 2012 - Part 2.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.