Never Come Morning

BOOK REVIEW

While visiting the city of brotherly love I finished reading a novel about the city with the big shoulders. Of course I’m referring to Philadelphia and Chicago.

The novel was Never Come Morning and the writer was Nelson Algren.

Algren specialized in writing gritty tales of the denizens of Chigago’s underclass. For Algren, these individuals struggling to survive are all too human.

He wrote about the dregs of society, the convicts and the prostitutes as referred to in the Walt Whitman poem, Leaves of Grass: “I feel that I am all of them – I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself, and henceforth, I will not deny them, for how can I deny myself.”

Never Come Morning is the story about a street gang of Polish American immigrant kids always scheming always getting into trouble with the law, fighting, robbing, raping, killing, whoring, pimping, and dealing with crooked cops.

There is a whole section where one of the characters is picked up on suspicion of shooting a drunk in an alley off Chicago Avenue. He ends up doing time in the workhouse or “workie” as it is referred to in the novel.

This would be “Lefty” Bruno Bicek, who has ambitions of becoming heavy weight champion not of Illinois but from Illinois. When he gets out of the workhouse he takes up pimping at a whorehouse accross the street from the Broken Knuckle Bar run by a Polish barber, another small time crook always looking for a fast buck. Leftie did nothing to help his girl friend, Steffi, when she was gangraped by the boys and this weighed heavily on his conscience throughout the rest of the novel. She ended up working for the barber as one of the girls in the whorehouse while he was in the workie.

Lefty’s big ambition is to win a title fight and get enough money to take Steffi away from all this misery. He gets his big chance in the last chapter of the book, “Toward Evening Lands.” Here, Algren describes a fight scene between Lefty and a black fighter called Honeyboy Tucker, the sons of a Polish baker and a mulatto pig sticker. Lefty is referred to as a white hope. This chapter contains one of the best descriptions of a boxing match I have ever read. The fight goes on for eight rounds. Two minutes and 48 seconds into the eighth, Lefty is declared the winner by a knockout.

“The bleachers howled like wind through an empty shack.”

But, the victory was short-lived however, as police captain Tenczara enters the dressing room and whispers into Lefty’s ear, “Got you for the Greek, Left Hander, two witnesses.”

Lefty was led out through the middle aisles in manacles.

“Knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow,” he said.

He had won the fight but lost the battle.

Bell.

KAFKA

The Metamorphosis

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My step daughter Kim visited me recently. As is our wont to do we had a literary discussion about books and what books influenced us and why. Of course we talked about Hemingway and Camus. But then we landed on Kafka. What, she wanted to know, made me like Kafka so much?

Well, that gave me pause. I allude to Kafka a lot in my writing and in my conversations with people but is has been awhile since I last read his works. The best I could come up with was that I identified with his sense of alienation and absurdity and the bureaucratic nightmare that modern man seems to live under as depicted in his works. I got to thinking. Why else? Well, it had been about 40 years since I last read Metamorphosis, so I decided I would reread it.

I had it in my library. It was the original copy that I had read in the 1970’s. But the book wasn’t in very good condition. The pages had yellowed, there was mold or something growing on the frontispiece, and the spine was cracked and coming apart in the middle. I decided I needed another copy. So, I did what any respectable book buyer might do, I went on line. I found a book and ordered it. Not wanting to wait the two days for its arrival I decide to download a copy to my Kindle so that I could start reading right away.

Now, I remember the first time I read The Metamorphosis, as I say, some 40 odd years ago. I had taken the book along with me on a visit to the emergency room. I had just crashed my motorcycle and broken my leg. The attending physician looked at the book I was reading as I was waiting to be examined. He looked at the book, then looked at me, and then looked at the book again. “Pretty heavy reading isn’t it?” He asked.

Well that may give you an example of the absurdity of my existence up to that point right there.

As I remembered in the book, Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover he had been transformed into a gigantic bug. As I remembered it was a cockroach. I had already been disabused of that notion long ago and realized it was a beetle. Now when I stated reading my kindle edition it said “vermin.” Well that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to see “beetle.” So, I decided I’d wait for the actual book to arrive. It came and I started in to reading it. I came to the fateful passage and it read “verminous bug.” Still not good enough! But I read on. This could go on forever, I thought. I guess there was something lost in translation or in my memory. Speak memory!  Later on in the book there was a passage that referred to Gregor as a “dung beetle.” Now, feeling gloriously vindicated, I read the rest of the story in a condition of sublime justification.

Now that I have reread the story I feel that I can speak definitively as to what the book says to me. The story reflects thematically on feelings of alienation, anxiety, and guilt, which pretty well sums up man’s absurd relationship to the world in which he lives and one I have very much identified with ever since I can remember. The story operates in a random, chaotic, and absurd universe, as do we all. Do things happen for a reason or do they befall us purely by chance? That is the question Kafka seems to be exploring in this surrealistic story of transformation.

Another thing I like about Kafka is his take on the kinds of books to read and by extension the kinds of books to write. I also believe this can be applied to other types of art as well.

In a letter to a friend he says: “I think you should only read books that bite and sting you. If the book we read does not wake us with a blow to the skull, why do we read the book? To make us happy as you write? My God, we would be happy if we had no books, and such books that make us happy, we could write to the emergency. But we need the books that affect us like a misfortune that hurts us a lot, like the death of one we loved rather than us, as if we were going into forests, away from all people, like a suicide, a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.”

BLUE NIGHTS

Book Blurb

Blue nights

I loved this book. Wish I could write like Joan Didion. Blue Nights strikes a different tone than A Year of Magical Thinking but nonetheless it is a stunning read. It is a memory book and a book of loss. The loss of her child Quintana Roo. The loss of her husband John Gregory Dunne, and her own loss. Her perceived loss of her faculties and physical agency. She laments her frailty and the oncoming shocks that flesh is heir to. Although I must say she is in quite good form here.

The God of Small Things

A Book Review

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The God of Small Things is a novel written by Indian activist and writer Arundhati Roy. She has been on my radar for many years now, ever since I started watching her on panel shows on TV. I was impressed by her brilliance as a speaker and thinker on issues that I care deeply about such as inequality, social justice, and the environment. And I have always been fascinated by the Indian subcontinent.

When I learned she had written a novel I went out and purchased it right away. Sad to say it sat on my bookshelves for a few years before I got around to reading it. I am one of those “too many books, too little time” people.

What prompted me to go ahead and read the novel was the fact that 17 yeas after the publication of The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy wrote and published another novel, her second, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  I was very excited abut this and went out and purchased it also. I am now in the middle of that wonderful book. But, I get ahead of myself.

In the intervening 17 years between novels Miss Roy has written several other books. Works of nonfiction that reflect her other intellectual pursuits and human rights activism. These books include: Capitalism, A Ghost Story; Walking With the Comrades; Kashmir, The Case for Freedom; and Listening to the Grass Hoppers: Field Notes on Democracy.  She was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 1997 for Literature.

The God of Small Things is by far the best book I have read all year and I have only praise for it. Miss Roy is a master stylist and her prose reads like poetry. Her book is full of vivid imagery, symbolism, and metaphors. It is constructed like a sublime piece of architecture with each piece fitting into place like a jig saw puzzle.

The book is a bit of a challenge to read as it does not flow in a straight linear progression. Rather, it jumps around in time in flash backs and flash forwards. But stick with it, it is well worth the ride.

The novel is a story of an Indian family writ large on a grand scale. Some have compared Roy to Faulkner, but I think she comes closer to Gabriel Garcia Marqeuz. There is forbidden love, family drama, political unrest, and magical realism.

Estha and Rahel are seven year old fraternal twins, boy and girl, growing up in a small southern Indian town. They live with their mother Ammu and the rest of their extended family. Their uncle Chacko runs the family pickle factory. One fateful day their cousin Sophie Mol from England is invited to spend the Christmas holidays with them. Tragedy ensues and Sophie Mol is drowned in a boating accident.

In telling the story, Roy incorporates other larger issues taking place in India at the time, such as issues of cast, class, and political unrest.

There are many memorable passages in the novel, but this one in particular stands out:

“D’you know what happens when you hurt people?’ Ammu said. ‘When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

This was said to seven year old Rahel when she apparently said something carelessly which hurt her mother, which is something seven-year olds sometimes do. When Ammu said this to Rahel, “…a cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goose bumps on her careless heart. A little less her Ammu loved her.” This passage haunted me for the rest of the novel and it haunts me still.

This is a novel of life, love, fear, death, pain, and loss. It is wonderfully written and I highly recommend.

 

 

 

 

 

The Girl Who Played Go

 Book Review

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The game of Go has long intrigued me. I learned how to play years ago from a wizard who lived down the stairs. We wiled away the hours playing the game of Go. I moved away and never played again until recently. I took it up once again and discovered it had never really left me. I became reacquainted with Go because of a novel written by a young Chinese girl that sparked my interest all over again.

When The Girl Who Played Go first came out in 2003, I read a review about the book that was intriguing. I vowed to keep an eye out for it. In those days one didn’t just automatically add a book to one’s Amazon Wish list. One liked to find books the old fashioned way, serendipity. One liked to stumble across them by accident in some far flung and obscure bookstore in the Midwest, or northeast, or wherever. Years went by and I never saw the object of my desire. By then it was locked away in the recesses of my memory and I was no longer consciously looking for it at all.
Then one day in, 2007, in a crowded book store in Philadelphia, I ran across a book entitled, The Master of Go. To my imperfect memory I thought this must be the book I had long sought. I picked it up, took it home and put in a shelf where it languished a few more years. When I finally got around to reading it, I thought, this is strange. This doesn’t seem like the book I had read about all those years ago. This book, written by Yasunari Kawabata, was about a modern day Go player, in Japan. While I enjoyed the book very much, it was a realistic depiction of an elderly gentleman who was a Go master and the rigors of tournament play in Japan. I read the book and put it away and started a new book and didn’t give the Master of Go another thought; until the year 2012. I ran across another book on Go in Louisville, Kentucky at the Half Price Book store where I am wont to go. It was entitled, The Girl Who Played Go. Eureka! Sweet mystery of life, finally I found you! The Girl Who Played Go, written by Shan Sa, was my long sought after book. I immediately purchased the book and took it home and began reading. Friends it was worth the wait.
Go is a territorial contest. In Chinese the game is called, Wei Qi, which means, “surrounding game.” Go has roots in both China and Japan. Most Westerners are unfamiliar with the game of Go. It has simpler rules than chess but is far more subtle and takes longer to master. It is a game that is not structured around the theme of a small battle, like chess. Rather, it is more like a large scale war. In Go, every piece is identical: an ivory or ebony stone is played on a square grid by the contestants. Each piece has the power to turn the tide of a war. Go is powerful metaphor for the story told by Shan Sa in her novel, The Girl Who Played Go.
The Girl who Played Go is a wonderfully written novel set within the framework of the game of Go. It takes place in a small city in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1936. An unnamed Japanese soldier has been sent with his battalion to seek out the Chinese resistance movement within the region. Simultaneously, a bored Chinese schoolgirl finds solace obsessively playing Go in the local square eponymously name The Square of a Thousand Winds. In an attempt to infiltrate the enemy, the Japanese soldier joins the city’s Go players, and falls into a game and into love with the girl who played Go. The story of the soldier and the girl are told in alternating, short, chapters. Dramatic events in the lives of the protagonists are repeatedly brought together and interwoven.
The game of Go is a metaphor for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the resistance one young girl is able to mount by remaining undefeated at the game. Manchuria has been occupied by the Japanese for several years as the story opens, but there is an active insurgency movement. The girl, however, lives a relatively sheltered life. She is quickly maturing, and becomes sexually active during the unfolding events. The game of go symbolizes the play between man and woman, as well as the conflict between China and Japan.
The story is well presented with some scenes that are picture-perfect observations of life as illustrated by the following examples. “A carp pirouettes in a large jar that serves as an aquarium.” “The appeal of a prostitute has the transient, furtive freshness as the morning dew.” ” Prostitutes have no illusions and this makes them the soldier’s natural soulmates. Already damned, they dare not dream of eternity, and they cling to us like shipwrecked mariners clinging to flotsam. There is a religious purity to our embraces.” “The boys with white silk scarves around their necks, posture like tragic poets.” “In the game of Go, only aesthetic perfection leads to victory.’’ “He has the nobility of a man who prefers the turnings of the mind to the barbarities of life.” “It has taken many years for the game of go to initiate me into the freedom of slipping between yesterday, today, and tomorrow. From one stone to the next, from black to white, the thousands of stones have ended up building a bridge far into the infinite expanse of China.”
Shan Sa has an extraordinary background. She was born in Beijing, started writing at seven and enjoyed success as a teenage poet. At 18 she moved to Paris to study philosophy. She worked for a time with the artist Balthus. Writing in French, she won a Goncourt with her first novel. Her novel, The Four Lives of the Willow won the Prix Caze. In 2001, she was again awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for her novel, The Girl Who Played Go. Her works have been published in 30 languages worldwide. Since 2001, Shan Sa has continued to write literature and paint. Her works have been shown in Paris and New York, and Japan. In 2009, Shan Sa was awarded by the French Cultural Ministry, Knight of Order of Arts and Letters. In 2011, she was awarded by the French President, The Knight of National Order of Merit.

Demons

Demons

Upon my life, the tracks have vanished,

We’ve lost our way, what shall we do?

It must be a demon’s leading us

This way and that around the fields.

-Alexander Pushkin

Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is 700 page pamphlet detailing the rise of the Russian proletariat and presaging the revolution of 1917. It’s about nihilism, anarchy, and atheism. It is a complicated novel detailing Russian society as it descends into chaos, anarchy, and madness. The demons referred to are actually ideas, emanating from the west, that infect the characters minds and causes them to take extreme actions such as suicide, murder and arson. The action takes place in a fictitious small town in provincial Russia but is based on a true story that Dostoevsky took from the newspapers.

Pesky Dostoevsky. Every time I say I am not going to read another 700 page book I get pulled back in! I say pamphlet because that is how it is described in the critical literature.  Only thing is, last time I checked, there are not that many 700 page pamphlets lying around. A few manifestos, no pamphlets.

I had to read 500 pages before I got to the part that inspired me to read this behemoth in the first place. The part that Camus refers to in his Myth of Sisyphus. “If there is no God life is meaningless. And without meaning, men and women will go stark, raving mad.” Camus described the novel’s importance this way: “The Possessed is one of the four or five works that I rank above all others. In more ways than one, I can say that it has enriched and shaped me.”

According to Camus all of Dostoevsky’s characters ask themselves about the meaning of life. Kirlov feels that God is necessary and that He must exist, but he knows that He cannot exist. “Why do you not realize that this is sufficient reason for killing oneself?” he asks. “If God does not exist, I am God.”

The book title was originally translated as, The Possessed. This is not the title Dostoevsky originally had in mind. The Russian title, Besy, does not refer to the possessed but rather to the possessors. Therefore the new title, Demons, refers to some of the characters in the book (from the foreword by Richard Pevar) and is more in line with Dostoevsky’s thinking.

All the characters have three names and each name has three syllables and each time a character is mentioned or introduced all three names are used except when they aren’t and then they are referred to by their nick names or their shortened names which we the reader have not been given fair warning and have absolutely no idea who the author is referring to. I had to take to underlining each character’s name each time they made an appearance and by page 500 or so I finally figured out who was who. I must say, the last 200 pages were page turners and my eyes were so glued to each page I couldn’t look away. The novel had to be good or I would not have stuck with it to the end.  I did and I am glad I did.

There is a missing chapter in the book which was censored by the Russian authorities when it was first published due to it’s salacious nature. I almost didn’t read it as it was included in the appendix and I didn’t realize how important it was. It is absolutely key to understanding the central character Stavrogin. It is called at At Tikhon’s and in it Stavrogin confesses to a horrible crime.

One of the most important takeaways from the novel for me were the revolutionary ideas of the intellectual of the revolutionary group, Shigalyev: “My conclusion stands in direct contradiction to the idea from which I started. Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. Ninety percent of society is to be enslaved to the remaining ten percent. Equality of the herd is to be enforced by police state tactics, state terrorism, and destruction of intellectual, artistic, and cultural life. It is estimated that about a hundred million people will be needed to be killed on the way to the goal.” This is oddly prophetic of what actually occurred in Russia under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.

I see strains of some of these ideas in modern day writers such as George Orwell who admonished us that if we want you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. These currents have resurfaced again today in American politics and it is pretty frightening.

Like Camus, I can say that this novel has enriched and shaped me.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Islands in the Stream

Islands in the stream

 

Ernest Hemingways’s novel, Islands in the Stream, published posthumously, is the perfect counterpoint to his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was of course published during his lifetime. Hemingway takes his title, For Whom the Bell Tolls, from the poem of the same name by John Donne. The first line reads, “No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent a part of the main.”In both novels the protagonists die fighting for a cause larger than themselves that each believed in and that each felt he had a duty to fulfill. This is the Hemingway code of action that has lived with me so many years, ever since the first short story I read by him many years ago, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Hemingway comes full circle with this novel. From no man is a island to every many is an island. An island in a stream.

In the first case Robert Jordan is fighting fascism in Spain during the Spanish Civil War . In the other, Thomas Hudson is fighting fascism in Cuba during WWII. A German submarine has been damaged and the crew has come ashore and massacred a village of Indians and commandeered their turtle boat. The German crew are hiding out in the mangroves on the Cuban island. It is the duty of Thomas Hudson and his crew to hunt them down. This brilliantly written action sequence takes place in act three of the novel.

The novel is divided into three sections but the reads like three acts in a play. The first section is entitled Bimini. Here we are introduced to the isolated main character Thomas Hudson  who is a painter and lives in a house on the island of Bimini which is part of the Bahamas. It is summer and his three children, two by one wife and one by his first wife, come to visit him for the summer.  This is the happiest section of the book as the happy family interact and reminiscence with one another and go deep sea fishing together.

After the children leave, Hudson learns of a tragic car accident that has taken the lives of his two youngest children and their mother. This section ends with Hudson on a boat trip to Europe to attend their funeral. The tragic accident had a profound impact on Hudson driving him deeper and deeper into himself.

The next section of the book is entitled, Cuba. Most of the action in this section takes place in a bar in Havana called the Floridita. Hudson is knocking back frozen Margaritas (without sugar) and talking to a variety of motley characters who inhabit this world including an aging prostitute called Honest Lil. The conversations are often hilarious and the characters are well drawn and fascinating. Lil asks Hudson when was his happiest day? Hudson replies: “The happiest day I ever had was any when I woke in the morning when I was a boy and I did not have to go to school or work.” In this section Hudson learns of the death of his eldest son who was killed in action while flying over Germany. This was just about the last straw that does him in and he retreats further into himself. He soon receives his orders and goes once more back out to sea. He traded in his remorse for another horse that he was riding now.

The only thing Tom now has left is his duty. “Get it straight. Your boy you lose. Love you lose. Honor has been gone a long time. Duty you do. Sure and what’s your duty? What I said I’d do. And all the things you said you’d do.”

In this last section called, At Sea, Thomas Hudson does is duty. He is in pursuit of a German submarine crew whose submarine has been destroyed. They are hiding out in the mangroves of a Cuban island. The writing in this section is some of the best action writing I have ever read. At the climax there is a showdown between Hudson’s crew and the German crew. Hudson’s crew wins but Hudson gets shot it the process. As his ship cruises back to home port he realizes he is going to die. He thinks about sorrow. If it is cured by anything other than death, chances are that it was not true sorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She Came to Stay

She Came to Stay

I usually read 6-8 books at a time. I have been doing this for years and it is my modus operandi. But, every once in a while I will run across a book that is so extraordinary, so compelling, that I will stick with that one book to the exclusion of all the others.

I have found the to be the case with, She Came to Stay, by Simone de Beauvoir. This is the book I chose to take to Paris with me and I am so glad I did. I have found some delightful and delicious parallels with my own life and I am sure that is part of the allure.

It is a novel set in Paris near the beginning of WWII and is based on some true life events in the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre and the affair with a young girl that came between them. It is by turns philosophical and hilarious. It is Simone’s first novel and I love it!

One Hundred Years of Solitude

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One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is unlike any novel I have ever read. This is the third novel I have read by this author. From the very first line one is enchanted by the magical realism the writer imposes on the material. It is said that Garcia Marquez found his voice as a result of being raised by his grandmother in Aracataca, a small village in Colombia. This village is the basis for the mythical town of Macondo from the novel. His grandmother would tell him tell him the most fantastic stories in the most off hand way as if they were true. He adopted this style while telling the tale of the Buendia family. Marquez was also greatly influenced by Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Traces of surrealism can be found throughout the novel.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is not an easy novel to read. It is about the Buendia family dynasty that began with the founding of the small mythical town of Macondo. Marquez chronicles the rise and fall of the town and the family over a one hundred year period. Some of the characters actually live to be over 100 years old. What is so confusing is that each character’s name is a variation of the family name Buendia: Jose Arcadio Buendia, Aureliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio, Aurliano Jose, Ursula, Remedios, and Amaranta. Well, you get the idea. These names repeat over six generations. You really couldn’t keep them straight. My approach to reading the novel was not to even try keep all the characters and events straight in my mind as I was reading, but rather to let the words wash over me and by the end a tapestry was woven from them wherein I could make sense of the whole. The idea, I think was to represent the repetition and the cyclic nature of life. In fact the whole novel could be described as a metaphor for human society and a running commentary on human nature.

The novel is biblical in nature and scope. It mimics many characters and events from the Bible such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Moses in the bulrushes, and the great flood. One character even ascends to heaven.

The famous opening line of the novel is a good example of the style of the entire novel: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” This story is not revisited again until much later in the novel and in fact is two stories; one where Aurliano Buendia discovers ice and the other where he faces the firing squad. The novel careens back and forth between past, present, and future at will and with great ease, interweaving personal narratives of the characters and the epic sweep of the history of the town and the country. This includes a civil war between the liberals and conservatives, a banana company (United Fruit) exploiting the town, and a labor war resulting in the massacre of 3,000 workers.

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I wondered as I was reading the novel just what Marquez meant by the one hundred years was and what did the solitude represent? By the time I got to end I knew. As previously mentioned some of the characters actually lived 100 years. The sweep of history regarding the town and its inhabitants was roughly 100 years. Throughout the novel Marquez make numerous references to the solitude of the characters, from each other and from society at large. And, as John Leonard said in his 1970 review: “Solitude is one’s admission of one’s own mortality and one’s discovery that the terrible apprehension is itself mortal, dies with you, and must be rediscovered and forgotten again endlessly.” I am also reminded of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

I highly recommend this acclaimed novel written in 1967. In my opinion it is one of the best written in the 20th century and one that put Marquez firmly on the road to winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.