Fatwa!

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There is so much going on these days that one feels whipsawed by the turn of events. While I don’t comment on everything, even though it is tempting, I feel that I would be remiss not to comment on the recent savage stabbing of author Salman Rushdie. In 1989 Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the famed author for alleged apostasy in his newly released book, “The Satanic Verses.”  A fatwa is a sentence of death and a bounty of several million dollars was placed on Rushdie’s head. I protested then and I protest now, 33 years later. Also involved in the fatwa was anyone associated with the book including editors and publishers. At the time bookstores were afraid to display Rushdie’s books in their store windows. I called them out on their cowardice. I have my copy proudly displayed on my main bookcase in the living room of my home alongside my other “good” books.

To say this was a barbarous act of cowardice on the part of the would-be assassin would be an understatement. It deals a powerful blow to the right of free expression and free speech. It is anathema to our way of life in the free world and puts a chill in the air of artistic freedom. It demonstrates the complete absurdity and insanity of religious fanaticism. I hasten to add that it is a perversion of Islam and does not represent the mainstream which is by far more tolerant.  

I believe in freedom of religion, and I respect everyone’s right to believe what they choose. But you don’t have the right to impose your belief on me or anyone else. You certainly don’t have the right to kill me if I don’t agree with you.

It looks like Mr. Rushie is going to pull through despite his many injuries. For that, I am very grateful and wish him the best and a speedy recovery, although there will be lasting effects from his injuries including the probable loss of an eye.

I condemn this senseless act of violence in the strongest possible way, and I trust his assailant will be held fully accountable. Meanwhile, “The Satanic Verses” is soaring on the charts.

I can’t go on, I’ll go on

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I am doing a deep dive into Samuel Beckett, and I feel that I must come up for air. I can’t go on, but I must go on.

I just finished reading The Unnamable, the third novel in the trilogy after Molloy, and Malone Dies. There have been about 20 years intervening between each reading and I have read a lot of other books since including other works by Beckett.

The Unnamable is the story of the self that strives for silence but is obliged to go on. It is about three things: The inability to speak, the inability to be silent, and solitude. It is full of internal contradictions, doubt, and paradoxes.

I keep coming back to Beckett because something about his work resonates.  Not only that but I came across an interesting tome by Paul Foster that analyzes Beckett’s work in terms of the “dilemma” presented in his work through the lens of Zen Buddhism. Wow! That is what I said. So, I read The Unnamable in preparation for Beckett and Zen, by Paul Foster.

One of the dilemmas alluded to in Beckett and Zen is the doctrine of grace: grace given, and grace withheld. St. Augustine tells the story of the two thieves that are crucified with Christ, one is saved, and the other is damned. How can we make sense of this division Beckett wants to know? There is a scene in Waiting for Godot where this theme is played out by the characters Vladimir and Estragon.

Then there is the dilemma of human reason confronted by an outrageous relentless irrationality, a universe giving birth to the spectacle of life, of which the main feature is suffering and death.

There is the problem of time which leads to decay and into the abyss. Personal identity and isolation and need I say, alienation?

Distress is at the heart of Beckett’s work which arises from a mental and spiritual confusion resulting from the recognition of the dilemma of existence.

The problem of God. Does God exist? If He does is He an all-loving God or a monster? And what about the Silence of God? Why don’t we hear from Him?

Beckett refers to a fundamental sound resounding in the universe that can only be described as a howl of pain.

That is enough for now. I think I have caught my breath and can now emerge from this rabbit hole that I seem to have fallen into and get about my day.

Thanks for reading.

Book Review – Nelson Algren’s

Somebody in Boots

Image courtesy of Goodreads

The miners came in ‘49
The whores in ‘51
They jungled up in Texas
And begot the native son

-Old Song

Somebody in Boots was originally titled Native Son, but Nelson Algren gave this title away to Richard Wright who used it to his great advantage.

Boots were a symbol of power, status, and authority. When someone in boots was approaching, you knew you were in trouble: “Someone was coming. Someone in boots. Cass heard his boots moving faster and faster. Such boots were two despisers of small things. They were high heeled sharp pointed, embedded deeply with sharp pointed spikes, shining with sun or bright with rain wet.”

This was Nelson Algren’s first novel and it has all the raw power and awkwardness of unrefined prose. Algren, himself, did not much care for the novel and would rework some of the material into a much better book, A Walk on the Wild Side. He wrote Somebody in Boots in 1936 and didn’t write another novel until 1940. By the time he got to The Man with the Golden Arm he was writing masterful prose and he made his words sing. But, he never lost his edge.

And this is an edgy novel to say the least. Personally, I loved this book and was in its thrall all the way through to the end. It has unforgettable characters and vivid situations and opens a window onto the events occurring in this country almost 100 years ago during the great depression, or the “great trouble” as it was described by one of the characters. The novel ends in Chicago during the 1933-34 World’s Fair. It is a novel of casual racism, police brutality, sexism, and misogyny. It might also be considered an anti-capitalist screed. It details he lives of hobos, homeless, and the haunted.


Cass McKay was a poor young man from the hills of West Texas. He lived in a one room shack with a dirt floor with his brother, sister and a brute of a father. He left home after a savage fight broke out between his brother and father and started riding the rails at the tender age of seventeen. First he went to New Orleans where he got his throat cut by a pimp in whore house. He then went back to Texas for couple of years the hit the road again drifting back and forth between Chicago and Texas, and all points south. He had a lot of adventures along the way.


“Wherever he walked that winter, whether in New Orleans along icy docks or on Railroad Street in Baton Rouge, he saw the vast army of America’s homeless ones; the boys and old women, the old men and young girls, a ragged parade of dull gray faces, begging, thieving, hawking, selling and whoring. Faces haggard and hungry, and cold, and afraid; as they passed, booted men followed and watched.”
In Chicago “He walked up and down West Madison Street every day one ragged bum among ten thousand ragged bums.” He met a girl there by the name of Norah who was down on her luck. She had been working as a seamstress in a sweat shop and lost that job for mouthing off to the boss. She then started working a strip club called Little Rialto after seeing an ad in the Chicago Tribune: “WANTED: DANCER. EXP. PREF. APPLY HAUSER’S RIALTO.-S. STATE”


Cass got involved with her and they started knocking off drugstores together. One night they got caught and Cass end up doing 10 months in the joint. Norah got away.


Racism and police brutality quite often make an appearance on the page and sometimes they intersect as they do in the following passage illustrating once again that the more things change the more they stay the same. Black lives mattered then about as much as they do now.


“One Sam Phillips, black as ink and Alabama born, was in Chicago only two days when he got picked up on South Prairie Avenue by Sergeant M___ of the South Park Police. Sure the boy looked suspicious-he was in rags, and he had no place to sleep and he was a nigger. So what ? So M___ says, “Run eight-ball, or I’ll put you in for vag.” Sam Phillips didn’t know very much, he’d only been in town two days, but Sam did know that he didn’t like jails, and that he could run pretty fast all right. Two hundred yards I’ll give you,” the sergeant offered-and black Sammy Phillips just took it on the lam. He ran 20 feet; M___ dropped to one knee in the proper manner and let her flicker, one through the legs and five to the belly- but he got his promotion so, I guess it’s all right.”


I think it is interesting to go back and read the earlier works of authors you love, like I love Algren. That way you can see their development over the years as an artist. I wouldn’t recommend Somebody in Boots to the newbie Algren fan, but if you have read all his other work, this is a fascinating read. I would recommend, rather, The Man with the Golden Arm, or Never Come Morning. Both excellent.

Aftershock

The first thriller in a new series

Courtesy of Goodreads

Andrew Vachss writes like an avenging angel who has just been through hell.

I have long been a fan of Vachss and have read all the Burke series. He is sort of a guilty pleasure for me, not exactly literature, but a compelling read nonetheless. The man can write!

I ran across this volume in my favorite bookstore in Philadelphia, Molly Bloom’s, and I just couldn’t resist. Apparently, it is the first book in a new series featuring Dell and Dolly. Dell is an ex-legionnaire who was orphaned at a young age and has no idea where he came from. Dolly was a nurse with Doctors without Borders and their paths crossed when Dell was wounded in action on a mission somewhere in Africa. They fell in love, left their pasts behind, and moved to a small coastal town in Oregon. That is where the story begins.

The star softball player at the local high school walks into school on the last day of class and shoots to death a boy for no apparent reason. She also wounds two others. Why did she do it? Was it justified? That is largely what the book is about. But along the way, we meet some pretty onery characters inhabiting the dark underbelly of the town. We also meet some of the good guys. A small-town lawyer who rises to the occasion and puts on a masterful defense and a colorful expert witness from Kentucky.

The book culminates in a riveting courtroom scene that produces a satisfying denouement.

All in all, a good read. If you like thrillers, this is the book for you. Highly recommend!

WORD OF THE DAY – DECIMATE

Kill One in Ten.

Originally from the Latin: decimatio (decem – ten). Historically decimation was a form of military discipline used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences, such as cowardice, mutiny, desertion, and insubordination, and for pacification of rebellious legions.

It has since come to mean to kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of, as “the project would decimate the fragile wetland wilderness.” Or more recently, “the hurricane decimated everything in its path.”

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Graham Greene wrote about this concept, in the historical sense, in his novel, The Tenth Man.

A group of Frenchmen were being held hostage in a Gestapo camp. A German officer enters the cell one afternoon and announces that there were three murders in the town last night. He is ordered to shoot one in ten of them in the morning. There are thirty men in the camp, therefore three men must be shot. He doesn’t care who. They choose. They chose by lot. Louis Chavel was the tenth man.

Things get tricky from there, but Greene supplies a heavy dose of irony as the plot unfolds.

EXIT GHOST

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With the passing of Philip Roth the world has lost a lion of literature.

All my favorite writers are dying off. John Updike, Saul Bellow, Edward Albee, and now Philip Roth. Who will take their place? No one. There is literally no one who can  fill the shoes of theses giants.  With the passing of Philip Roth follows the death of the Great American Novel.

No more….

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.