Monday, March 29, 2010
The Front List title being reviewed today will be released tomorrow at respectable bookstores everywhere. I highly recommend it. It fits into nearly any reader's spectrum.
The Back List title is Aura by Carlos Fuentes, which recently came back into attention when the author accepted an honorary degree in a country that has banned the book.
Something that he rightfully grumbled about.
From The Front List
Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky. Translated by Tim Mohr. Fiction. Europa Editions. Trade paperback. ISBN: 9781933372969. 336 pp. $15.
Coming of age novels are often described as turbulent or chaotic. The more reserved expressions describing the "formative years" have seemingly gone by the wayside with doilies, chastity and fair play. The list of novels, short stories and fictive memoirs that deal with the chaos of those awkward (another cliche word) years before adulthood are legion, and not all are equal.
Legion of course is not a flattering image to conjure when describing a sub-genre of fiction, but it is apropos. It is also important to recognize that though there are many of these stories there are few successful modern attempts. There is a nostalgia found in the reminiscent writings of aging writers that can lack profundity, just as there can be a dated sense of life in more earnestly written books from decades ago.
Think of Salinger, Twain or Dickens.
That is precisely what makes Alina Bronsky's Broken Glass Park both timely and important. Published way back in 2008 to wide acclaim in Germany, Broken Glass Park is just now making its way to the US via the conveyor belt of works in translation that is Europa Editions. Europa has both impeccable taste and what apparently is a tireless work ethic. They're catalog is well worth a lengthy perusal.
In the case of Broken Glass Park the publisher had what amounted to a no-brainer to work with. It is a young author's first book, written with alarming narrative power and contains a heart-breaking tale that is sure to scratch even the most hardened of hearts.
Sacha Naimann is seventeen years old and extremely intelligent. She is devoted to her studies with a blinding sense of purpose. She is the eldest of three children, poor, Russian and living in an ethnic ghetto in Germany. Her stepfather is in prison for murdering her mother and the man who the mother had taken up with after him. Her entire life revolves around two furious engines. One is the motivation to excel and escape the life of the poor, alienated Russians in her housing development. The other is to violently kill her stepfather and avenge her mother.
Ah, not your ordinary coming of age novel. While many have described the book as dealing with "life on the fringe" or "life on the margins" I find these terms to be somewhat off mark, and well, cheaply convenient. Nor is there an element of "shock value" to the drugs and sex found in the book. These promiscuous scenes are rendered matter of fact, neither being particularly shocking or extraordinary in content or revelation.
What is extraordinary and what makes the book unique is the violence and anger that live inside of young Sacha. The violence of the "margins" is an external one. One you've read about and seen in books and movies, or perhaps have lived with yourself. The inward drive to slay your mother's murderer is hopefully not something you have experienced before.
It is precisely this dark nature that changes the book from merely being a rendering of the awkwardness of youth or the hardships of poverty. The book is about a talented young person whose growth has been twisted and perverted by the horror of their past. In some ways young Sacha has already outgrown her youth and in others she is cruelly atrophied, stunted and ill equipped to deal with life.
It is a book about life on the dark side of human emotion and perhaps what is most intrinsically evident in this wonderful debut novel is the fact that our darker motives are not as close to the margins as we would like to think.
Such dreadful realizations are what makes Broken Glass Park more than the sum of its parts.
From The Back List
Aura by Carlos Fuentes. Translated by Lysander Kemp. Fiction. Bilingual Edition. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Trade paperback. ISBN: 9780374511715. $13.
Last week the great Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of Puerto Rico. In his address he brought up the fact that his book, Aura, was still banned from educational curriculum and from schools throughout Puerto Rico. Irony of ironies.
So in honor of that ban I'd like to call your attention to this very uncommon book. Let me start by saying that it is supposedly notoriously difficult to translate. In order to create a sense of timelessness Fuentes employs narrative perspectives that essentially eliminate or marginalize the past, present and future tenses.
The novella is short and thankfully so. I don't mean to say that it is boring or poorly written, because the opposite is obviously the case. It is oppressive though, both in content and atmosphere. The story is unmanning and vertiginous and thus, a small page count comes as some relief to the astounded reader.
Felipe Montero is young, bookish and somewhat adrift. It is because of this situation that he throws himself headlong into the project of editing the memoirs of the late General Llorente. The stacks of papers and writings that he catalogs at the General's home is only the beginning of young Montero's problems. Enter the General's widow, Consuelo.
The novella quickly becomes a combination of ghost story, romance and paranormal thriller of an order that even the original Twilight Zone rarely touched upon. Consuelo's beautiful niece Aura enters the story and quickly she and Felipe fall in love. Meanwhile certain congruences begin to emerge between Felipe and Aura and the story of the General and his lifelong love, Consuelo, whose odd obsession with her lost youth seems to manifest in a odd affection for Felipe.
Worse for young Felipe is the fact that Aura is inconsistently present and seems to come and go, appear rather, in a manner that further unmans Felipe. The young historian navigates the claustrophobic corridors of the house in a stupor, which buys the fantastical elements of the novel some time. At times you begin to doubt Felipe's sanity, just as he begins to doubt it himself. As a reader you almost become upset at the notion that your narrator might be unreliable.
Really, you aren't sure what's going on until that first moment of horrific clarity.
Confused yet? Good. Intrigued? Even better.
Now go read it. It's banned so you should do something guilty while reading it. Like holding a copy of Lolita in your other hand.
Friday, March 26, 2010
The Week In Books: Reading Rainbow Returning, Kobo E-Reader, Obama Talks Hometown Bookstore, Is The Book Prize Bad For Writing?
Sorry for being so late with my post today. I'm in full roustabout mode at work and it kind of slipped my weary mind. Late than never. Late than never.
The Return Of Reading Rainbow "In The Works"
Per a GalleyCat post from earlier this week, Levar Burton tweeted this week that a new version of his classic kids book show, Reading Rainbow, is under development.
This is really positive news. As much as the earnest show has suffered at the hands of hipster kitsch and sarcasm, the kids program was was wonderful for promoting reading and a wide variety of children's literature authors.
There isn't enough book oriented programing on television, even considering PBS.
But you don't have to take my word for it...
I know. I know. Everyone who has posted about this story has said that already, but I can't help but want to do so too.
Kobo is producing an e-reader that will retail at half the price of the Amazon Kindle. That's about all that's being said about it, but this Hot Hardware article is worth the read.
Obama Nostalgic About His Old Bookstore
Nice article about the President shopping at one of his old haunts, Prairie Lights Bookstore. Per Washington Post.
Every time I get excited about an article like this I remember that books, and especially bookselling, is almost relegated to the level of being a "cause" these days.
The Booker Prize Is Ruining Fiction?
A somewhat passive question being asked by Gil Hornby in the UK Telegraph. While not exactly an original question, as writers have been protesting awards for years (See 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature), it is yet a bold one these days.
And with that I'll leave you with some inspirational music for your weekend reading.
Monday, March 22, 2010
At least to date... No telling what will be next.
Despite the fact that many progressives find the bill too weak and many conservatives find it, well, too hard on their lobbyists, the bill is still a landmark for the people of the United States. The freedom to chose between public and private is something that cannot be underestimated. It will now be possible to change jobs, start businesses or continue education without fear of losing health insurance.
The middle class, lower middle class and impoverished American will obviously benefit most. Those that have loved ones with dire illness an no insurance will no longer have to equate the hospital or doctor's office with bankruptcy court and those that have pre-existing conditions will no longer be unable to find an insurer. Uncle Sam will have their backs, so to speak.
So it is with this in mind that I wanted to do a special "all Back List" post and call forth a trio of short stories dealing with medical woes, the first of which should just about sum up why the bill passed last night is of utmost importance.
And demonstrate how long a time it's been coming.
All three stories should affirm in some small way the great progress made over the last year, which culminated late Sunday night. March 21st, 2010. Wonder how long the Texas State Board of Education can avoid including that day in history books.
Shall we begin? Welty, Xun and Kafka. In that order.
For the record, you can read all three of these short stories in less than two hours. The three add up to less than thirty pages.
A Worn Path by Eudora Welty. Published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1940. Best Available Format: The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Mariner Books. Trade Paperback. ISBN: 9780156189217.
"Throat never heals, does it?" said the nurse, speaking in a loud, sure voice to old Phoenix. By now she had a card with something written on it, a little list. "Yes. Swallowed lyse. When was it? - January - two, three years ago-"
Phoenix spoke unasked now. "No, missy, he not dead, he just the same. Every little while his throat begin to close up again, and he not able to swallow. He not get his breath. He not able to help himself. So the time come around, and I go on another trip for the soothing medicine."
"All right. The doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it," said the nurse. "But it's an obstinate case."
Obstinate case = Pre-existing condition?
The paragraph that follows the one above is among the most tender in literature. Phoenix Jackson, an ancient black woman who has lived through slavery and its uncertain aftermath, has a charge. Her grandson drank lye three years ago and now his throat will never heal properly and on occasion it begins to close up with fatal implication. The medicine required to save her grandson is found in a distant town, which requires old Pheonix to walk miles through swamps, woods and in the case of A Worn Path, all during a frigid December.
The story is a masterpiece. I love understated fiction, where exposition is achieved through implication, and perhaps there is no better story where this is achieved. A Worn Path story is taught in schools from grade school to college and is considered a "classic" of the form. It has been compared to the Odyssey because of its narrative device of repetitive journey then encounter, not to mention the wily, not altogether honest nature of Phoenix Jackson, which parallels nicely with that famously devious Greek.
The implications of the story, which play out in their most extreme during the moment when Phoenix arrives at the doctor's office, are what interest me most in the case of this post. The above quote comes after Phoenix fails to answer the nurse why she's there. Phoenix can't remember. She is extremely old and has just journeyed miles through a frigid wilderness, even falling in a ditch at one point. She sits there in the doctor's office, impossibly trying to remember her grandson and the medicine.
Phoenix cannot afford the medicine to begin with, and as hinted at in the selection, the arrangement between her and the doctor is a finite one. As long as she comes to get the medicine he will give it to her as charity, which Welty is careful to emphasize by including the nurse "writing off" the medicine in a ledger.
It does not explicitly end in tragedy, but you have to wonder about the small child, reliant on a remarkable but flagging grandmother to obtain life-saving medicine. There are no other family members and the trip will not get easier for old Phoenix. Let alone the fact that the doctor's arrangement ends when Phoenix dies.
Maybe Obama should have worked some Welty into his town hall meetings.
Medicine by Lu Xun. Written in 1919. Best Available Format: Selected Stories Of Lu Hsun. Trade paperback. ISBN: 9780393008487. NOTE: Quotes are taken from the Yang Xianyi and Gladys Wang translation made for the Foreign Language Press in Beijing.
Old Shuan looked in that direction too, but could only see people's backs. Craning their necks as far as they would go, they looked like so many ducks, held and lifted by some invisible hand. For a moment all was still; then a sound was heard, and a stir swept through the onlookers. There was a rumble as they pushed back, sweeping past Old Shuan and nearly knocking him down.
"Hey! Give me the cash, and I'll give you the goods!" A man clad entirely in black stood before him, his eyes like daggers, making Old Shuan shrink to half his normal size. This man was thrusting one huge extended hand towards him, while in the other he had a roll of steamed bread, from which crimson drops were dripping to the ground.
Medicine is sometimes compared to Eudora Welty's A Worn Path and there certainly are some major themes shared by the two stories.
In Xun's tale it is an old man who has saved all his money in order to make a trip to a folk medicine practitioner and purchase a cure for his son's terminal case of tuberculosis. The common theme is of course the selfless sacrifice made by a parent for their child.
The settings are obviously different, as Xun's tale takes place in pre-revolutionary China and Welty's upon the shaky ground of post the Civil War American south. Lu Xun was a physician as well as a writer, not to mention anti-monarchist and revolutionary. While race is a subtext in Welty's tale, it is class and economic status that hovers in the background of Xun's.
Medicine is a grim tale that manages to engage many issues that concerned the China of Xun's time and probably, unfortunately, today's China as well. Superstition, bourgeois elitism and the iron fist of suppression inhabit the ten pages of this masterful story, not to mention the tender relationship of parent and child.
There is a scene in Medicine towards the middle of the story that I couldn't help but correlate to the barroom aspect of the healthcare debate. It has to do with a false surety of the greatness of a situation. Think of someone deriding foreign medical bureaucracies with a certainty that belies their lack of ever experiencing said institutions.
Mr. Kang, a bloated blowhard from the upper middle class, takes over the small tea house that the Shuan's earn a living from with his bombastic talk of a executed revolutionary and the sureness of the cure Old Shuan has bought for his son. Kang is completely certain the cure will work.
"A guaranteed cure!" Kang says over and over again in between proclamations about the insanity of the young man who was executed that day. Xun carefully installs a sense of futility in the reader that somehow goes beyond mere skepticism and disdain. Of course the cure won't work.
Steamed bread soaked in the fresh blood of a human being is not a cure for tuberculosis.
A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka. Written in 1919. Best Available Format: The Complete Short Stories by Franz Kafka. Schocken Books. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Introduction by John Updike. Trade paperback. ISBN: 9780805210552.
I wanted to push open a window; but first I had to look at my patient. Gaunt, without any fever, not cold, not warm, with vacant eyes, without a shirt, the youngster heaved himself up from under the feather bedding, threw his arms around my neck, and whispered in my ear: “Dotor, let me die.”
Among Kafka’s more enigmatic offerings, A Country Doctor is essentially a fable of perceived versus actual confidence. What better profession to choose for such a parable than the doctor, whose practice concerns itself with our very well being.
The story opens with the old country doctor at a loss to procure a horse. His has just died and he must treat a gravely ill patient who lives far away. His servant girl is trying very hard to borrow a horse from someone in town and is unable to do so.
Enter the somewhat demonic force of action that seems to be ubiquitous in Kafka’s world. A groom, presumably unknown to the doctor or servant girl, climbs from a pigsty on the doctor’s property. The doctor had just kicked the door of the stall in a supreme act of futility. The groom meanwhile leads two heavily muscled horses, steaming with unnatural heat from the sty and into the courtyard. Before tending to the horses the groom savagely bites the servant girl on her cheek, clearly proving the young stable boy’s somewhat untoward intentions. Still, the doctor is unable to do anything and in short order finds himself climbing into the seat and preparing to set. It is to these horses that the doctor’s light gig is hitched and by these two tireless beasts his life is altered, or so claims the doctor.
Reality is a hard thing to gauge in a Kafka story. Sometimes the writer is very straightforward in his narrative and at other times he seems to purposefully leave out an important ellipsis that would have proven useful to the reader. In the case of A Country Doctor I believe it is a straightforward tale of, as I said before, the vantages of capability and requirements of competence.
The young boy who hugs the doctor seeks a merciful god and the boy’s family sees a competent and steadfast practitioner of the healing arts. The young servant girl sees a protector and provider and the doctor himself, well, he sees the contradictions. The groom sees a weak man waiting to be exploited.
While unable to admit his fallibility, the doctor yet blames himself and others for his current predicament, which is that of wanting to suddenly be back home and protecting the young girl from the groom’s lewd intentions. Yet at this same time, that inability to realize his limitations creates a problem for the boy and his family. His chief limitation is his inability to cure the boy’s infection and therefore his insistence that the wound where it dwells is not significant. In the end, the doctor has a complete mess before him. He owns now the loss of respect as a doctor because of his inability to cure the boy. Not to mention the loss of innocence because of his inability to protect the young girl and finally, loss of his viability as a person in society as his medical practice dries up.
Correlations anyone? Thankfully they’re more or less a part of the past now.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Haters, through and through.
The rare Sunday post is here and it is because I want to share with you an exemplary blog that a friend of mine recently put together. He is running it with meticulous precision and a special form of ire that is native only to those of Irish decent and the learned moviegoer, both of which he is counted among.
This isn't the run-of-the-mill cinema gossip blog or rarely updated crit-blog like many others. Scott (that's said friend's name) has framed the blog within a set agenda. The agenda is to watch and earnestly review the entirety of Time's list of the 100 all-time greatest films.
The approach is thorough and honest, which is to say that when Scott doesn't like something, like say The Awful Truth or any other screwball comedies for that matter.
It's a joy to read. Here's the link. Dig the Statler and Waldorf marquee.
Friday, March 19, 2010
The Week In Books: Barnes & Noble Strips Itself Of Last Shred Of Cred, Amazon Cowering & Dangerous, Between The Covers Rare Books
Barnes & Noble may not be having as much success with their nook as they'd like you to believe. Search "nook" via Goolge images and you end up with furniture.
Barnes & Noble
This should have been almost expected by most casual B&N observers. Steve Riggio, lone tie to B&N founder Leonard Riggio, has stepped down from the world's largest book retailer throne. In his place they have crowned William Lynch, who has been with the company for about a year, in Riggio's stead. Check out the pragmatic article by MarketWatch, if you want.
It's an American book business tradition, growing more corporate.
Lynch has a background in e-commerce including running the Home Shopping Network's online component. He is also the architect of B&N's e-reader the awkwardly named nook. On the surface the promotion of Lynch and receding of Riggio speaks of complete shift in the company's approach. Apparently Godiva chocolate and Starbucks coffee weren't going to cut it in the future.
Mitch Klipper, who has been promoted to the position of CEO of B&N Retail (those huge stores that sell chocolate and remaindered books) had this to say about the new king of nook, er, Barnes & Noble.
"I am excited to work closely with William as we reposition the retail business and create a more integrated operation that can better meet the growing needs of our customers."
Read: We are going to use our storefronts long enough to win the war for e-book supremacy.
I am a veteran of the Barnes & Noble retail experience, having once worked for the retailer (their term for their stores, which were once called bookstores). I won't say anything about Lycnh, as I know only about the feathers in his cap. I will say that Riggio leaving and a HSN guru taking his place leaves me very little confidence as a reader of literary books.
I won't be buying an iPad anytime soon. I just don't see the point. But then again I don't see a point in owning a Kindle either, as both platforms do not contain many of the books I read, and in any case, I am horrified by the slash and burn imperialism of these warring powers.
But here is a brief but interesting article from macnewsworld.com about Amazon and Apple's sprint to corner the publishers in order to corner you. One interesting thing to note is the absence of Random House in either company's corral. Random House is owned by Bertelsmann and Bertelsmann has been a longtime bedfellow of Barnes & Noble.
When B&N was subject to antitrust investigation in the early days of the new century they successfully unloaded half of BN.com to the German media company and was able to proceed with the deals that were too considered too monopolistic. In 2003, when the heat had cooled, Bertelsmann sold the shares back for the usual luchre and a special place in Barnes & Noble's distribution heart for their titles, in particular Random House.
So... No wonder Bertelsmann's Random House is not playing readily with Apple and Amazon. They know you can't have your cake and eat it too.
Bookstore Hat Tip: Between The Covers Rare Books
I had a difficult time obtaining a copy of Masters Of The Dew by Jacques Roumain, which I included in the two part piece on Haitian literature. It is Out-Of-Print and I realized that it would be slightly more difficult than usual, but I am a seasoned veteran of that trade and figured I'd be able to dig one up somewhere.
Using Advanced Book Exchange (ABEBooks) I was at firs amazed at the scarcity of the title. I found a reasonably priced trade paperback reprint from the 90's and ordered it. Two days later the order was canceled. Somewhat late for me to read it for the review.
I then sent out eight or so inquiries to other internet based used book dealers. Two retailers responded.
Kind of comical when just last week I had mentioned the closing of Baldwin's Book Barn and the decline of reliable used & collectible book dealers.
So how'd I get my copy? I called Between The Cover Rare Books, a respectable honest-to-goodness rare book dealer out of New Jersey. I spoke to a friendly bookseller who located the book, described its condition to me and shipped the book immediately so that I could have it by Saturday afternoon.
Sure, I ended up spending a little bit more for a first edition copy instead of a mere reading copy, but the experience and service was well worth it. Just wanted to give some love to the folks there for doing a fine job.
BTW: They have a slightly higher grade edition of Masters Of The Dew in stock. If you were thinking you needed a first edition of it...
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
At the bottom of this post is a link to the first review.
From The Back List
The Masters Of The Dew by Jacques Roumain. Translated and Introduction by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook. Reynal & Hitchcock. New York. Fiction. Hardcover. Published in 1947. Out-Of-Print.
Narrowing his eyelids as though he were watching a long road unfold before him, he replied, "It isn't time so much that makes you old, it's what you have to put up with in life. Fifteen years I spent in Cuba, fifteen years, every day cutting sugar cane, oui, everyday, from sunrise to dusk-dark. At first, the bones in your back get all twisted up like a corkscrew. But there's something makes you stand it. What? Tell me, do you know what it is?"
He clenches his fists as he talked.
"It's being mad - that's what! Being mad makes you grit your teeth and tighten your belt when you're hungry. Being mad's a great power. When we went on strike, each man stood in line, armed to the teeth with being mad - like a gun. To get mad, that's your right, your justice!"
-from Masters Of The Dew
It's an interesting contradiction, but in the Wikipedia article on Haiti there is a section dealing with deforestation that seems to ignore a history that both of the authors here take for granted.
In its place there is what seems to me to be a very modern assessment of Haiti's supreme ecological (and therefore also economic) issue. That of deforestation. Below is what can be found on Wikipedia.
In 1925, Haiti was lush, with 60% of its original forest covering the lands and mountainous regions. Since then, the population has cut down an estimated 98% of its original forest cover for use as fuel for cookstoves, and in the process has destroyed fertile farmland soils, contributing to desertification.
The statistic is obviously shocking. 98% is a lot of food being cooked, which I'm sure would bring an ironic smile to many Haitian faces. Cookstoves. Right. The hungry have burnt up all the trees while cooking their food. Let's just put that to the side for now.
In both Vieux-Chauvet's and today's work by Jacques Roumain there is a different accounting of where the lumber went and it is one that does not favor the United States so well.
In both of their books these two writers seem to almost take for granted the role of U.S. businesses in the ruination of their once lush farmland. Sure, both point to the bourgeois Haitian sellout of forest to US logging firms but both are also clear about the bribing and political manipulation that protected U.S. companies once they'd made their diabolical deals.
It goes something like this: A wealthy family owns 200 acres of land on a mountain. Forty percent of that land is cleared and being used to cultivate coffee and fruit. The other sixty percent is dense forest. A logging company comes along and offers a pretty penny for the virgin woodlands and since they produce no income for the landowner they agree to sell. One-hundred percent of the trees are harvested and shipped off for processing. Things go on as normal for a little while.
Season after season the rains come and without the protection of the trees the process of erosion occurs at incredibly fast rates. In less than a generation the lands are stripped of their topsoil, and as more trees leave from other lands, the weather patters shift and winds dry out the remaining soil. In time the land is as worthless as a desert.
Such is the situation that Manuel, the angry young man of Roumain's evocative novel of agrarian Haiti after the logging. Manuel comes from a proud tradition of Haitian farmers. He has spend his formative years in Cuba, being paid to harvest sugar cane. Upon his return to Haiti he finds the previously verdant land worthless and uncultivated. This does not improve his indignant outlook.
Roumain and Vieux-Chauvet both hail from upper class, mulatto families. Their approach to writing is similarly sober. The major difference in style is that Roumain slides heavily to the polemical. His moments of distilled clarity are purely argumentative. Roumain does not sing a dirge to the individual but rather sends a prayer message to the working Haitian. Stand up. Demand what you need. Be strong because there are those that would have you be weak.
While Vieux-Chauvet was fearful of her own writing, hiding and self-censoring the publications out of fear of retaliation from the brutal regimes it critiques, Roumain attempted to work from within the power structure. Not only was Roumain the leading literary figure in Haiti during his life (1907-1944) but also a political activist who advocated communism in his homeland and who served in many facets of the Haitian government.
Another key difference is that while Vieux-Chauvet wrote of mulattoes struggling with racial identity and the loss of their essentially inherited colonial status, Roumain writes of the black Haitian, of the farmers and agrarian culture. It is in that sense that you might call Masters Of The Dew a sort of Haitian The Grapes Of Wrath.
Roumain is of that romantic breed of social realist, which imbues the hero with remarkable strengths and passionate faults. The defeated natures of the generation previous to his own helps mark out his resilience and power.
Both books are filled with rage, but in Masters Of The Dew it is stitched into the banner Roumain had unfurled long before writing the book. It is, at least in this sense of repetition, the most contrived aspect to an otherwise very convincing story.
The final and perhaps most essential strength of Roumain's novel is that unlike Vieux-Chauvet, Roumain tries to prescribe a solution to Haiti's problems. Both books take place in the same period of time. One from the vantage of a beleaguered upper class and the other from a downtrodden lower one.
This has been a revealing process for me. The combination of French education and Haiti's turbulent history combine powerfully in its literature. I would love to hear about other Haitian writers, perhaps untranslated or less known. Just like Marques or Rushdie called to attention the modern literature of their cultures, so too do these writers proclaim their own.
Haitian Literature Part I - Marie Vieux-Chauvet
Monday, March 15, 2010
It has to do with Haitian literature. If you have any previous experience with Haitian literature (something I did not possess before this project) you know then how excited I am.
As the grave reality of the January earthquake in Haiti was being reported by increasingly sun-tanned (not sure what SPF make up has but apparently it works really well) reporters I had a somewhat disturbing thought. It was based on a personal experience.
I grew up in South Florida and my experience took place on a middle school basketball court. We had a decent game going, something like a four on four. I was eleven and had just missed an open layup.
An older kid I didn't know, a Haitian, laughed at me and remarked to the rest of the group about my inability to jump.
Laughing, he quoted the title of a movie popular at the time. "Ha! Ha! See? It's true... White men can't jump."
It didn't bother me really. I was pretty good at basketball (something I can't claim today). My middle school was racially diverse. Such slander was par for the course. I was however shocked when one of my teammates, another student I didn't know came to my rescue. Well, sort of.
"And Haitian men don't work." He said with a serious tone that I remember with chilling clarity.
The student was African-American. That's when I realized that skin color did not always denote racial identification. Later in life I would obviously experience similar situations. African-Americans and Jamaicans. Whites and Latinos. Blacks and Latinos. Indians and blacks. Cubans and Puerto Ricans.
So as I watched Anderson Cooper in his Bahama shirt talk about the need for aid and relief I had a chilling thought: They won't get it. No one likes Haitians. They live in a wretched country, with nothing to offer to the developed world and therefore will be ignored.
Most Americans probably know Haiti only as the scary neighbor next to the place their going to for their Honeymoon. Luckily I was wrong and people gave lots of money and time. I'm not here to talk about that though. I just wanted to explain what made me wonder about Haiti a little longer than the cable news prescribed mourning period for natural disasters.
The Caribbean has a wonderful literary tradition. But Haiti? Other than Edwidge Danticat I knew of no others.
So I set out to read me some Haitians.
What I found dropped my jaw and left me, in a word: amazed. Not because brilliant literature exists in Haiti but because literature this brilliant exists without enduring, widespread realization.
It also left me somewhat angry. Angry about the lack of additional translations of these writers and why it took so long to get translated in the first place. Angry about a seemingly insane glossing-over of what amounts to a brilliant book in this week's Front List selection.
Anger it seems is nothing new to Haiti. It may be the last national resource left to a people that have been thoroughly fleeced by modernity.
Because of the length of which I want to quote from the Front List title I will divide the Front List and Back List up this week. The Front List being Monday and the Back List on Tuesday. The first title was published by The Modern Library in late 2009, and is just now being released in paperback. Thus it still fits nicely into the prescribed category.
As far as the bio for the book here's what Random House wrote:
Available in English for the first time, Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s stunning trilogy of novellas is a remarkable literary event. In a brilliant translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur, Love, Anger, Madness is a scathing response to the struggles of race, class, and sex that have ruled Haiti. Suppressed upon its initial publication in 1968, this major work became an underground classic and was finally released in an authorized edition in France in 2005.
Okay. Now let's get to it.
From The Front List
Love, Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet. A new translation by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokur. Introduction by Edwidge Danticat. Trade Paperback. The Modern Library. ISBN: 9780812976922.
What possessed me to be demanding? Look how I am being punished! I angrily swallow my hopes and my love. There is nothing but hatred in me. Its roots spread, I feel them take hold of every part of my being. In every human being there is a blessed soul made miserable by the pursuit of happiness. All those who pray demand favor from God. But He's tired of it all and he gets His revenge by botching His work. We are merely the rough drafts Nature cynically employs in its quest for Perfection. Tormented creatures, a frightful mixture of the monstrous and divine, thrown pell-mell into an inhospitable world to wait for death! What choice do we have? But love must protect me from myself. I am afraid of finding myself alone with all this hatred. What would happen to me if I looked it straight in the face, if I gave in to it?...
I get butterflies just copying that paragraph. It's power is unmanning and its implications, even when removed from the narrative that lends it increased strength, are easy to fathom. "In every human being there is a blessed soul made miserable by the pursuit of happiness." If I were this book's publisher I would etch those words somewhere easy to find. How can you turn away from a concept as grim, as real, as that poison truth?
Would you believe me if I told you that such a paragraph occurs every ten to twenty pages? In one instance, a series of three such paragraphs occur in a mere five pages. The potency is astounding. Psychically, it is unbelievably convincing. And if you're writing of the hardships of an entire people, filtered through one amazingly conflicted human, it would have to be rendered such, less it be found wanting.
If comparisons are your thing then Love, Anger, Madness is Midnight's Children or One Hundred Years Of Solitude minus the magic. It is a book that allows little to no softening of the subject matter. There is nothing resembling humor in this book. Nothing resembling the whimsical. Do not misunderstand me. I love the two books mentioned above. It's just that there is something noble, or honest perhaps is a better word, in the stony gaze and set jaw of Vieux-Chauvet's brilliant prose.
The trilogy is not united by characters or familial ties. Instead it is a trilogy linked by milieu. It is a Haiti that is proud of its hard-fought freedom and yet also subjugated by its poverty and reactionary governments. Just as Western capitalism exploited, then crippled Haiti's economy and left it for dead (more on that in the Back List section) there was also the rise of militant "Black Power" politics that Vieux-Chauvet felt assaulted individuality and intellectual progress.
In the case of Love, Anger, Madness it is not so much the detailed revelations of Haiti's grim 20th century as it is the author's profound psychology of the personal that impressed me. Floored me, rather. Without a doubt the French colonial history has had at least one positive impact, namely a rich and defiant literary tradition that fits the island nation.
I do not want to detract from the notion of a Haitian literature. The formal approach may be very French, even existentialist in its nature. The storytelling and language itself are Haitian.
The first two stories involve upper class mulatto families and the last one deals with a lower class yet still racially mixed poet. Yet still. That is the essential verbiage, for polemically and psychically these are stories of race.
Race is what drives the beautiful protagonist of the first book, Claire, to live out a life of celibacy. Though she relishes her life as a confirmed "old maid" she covets her "white" sisters French husband. Claire is intellectual, secretly reading a library's worth of fiction, philosophy and history. She is the source of the brilliant quote above as well as the one I will close this section with, but yet she is also a woman who secretly masturbates to pornography she purchased via clandestine shopping. She coddles a plastic baby at night and makes love to another, man-sized doll.
Compounding her lustful second life is her keen eye for men. Though Jean Luze, the French husband of her sister, is her emotional love and source of admiration, there is another man who she cannot help but think about. He is the village's commandant and to accuse him of malfeasance is to say wolves are merely fond of eating lambs. His name is Caledu and his blackness defines him as much as their French heritage does the mulatto families. Caledu has brutally beaten and raped her friends, mainly because they are mulattoes and he despises their white skin. He is a monster in her mind and yet...
She despises him, tries to push him away, yet his powerful body and cruel eyes awaken in her a lust impossible to push away. Again and again, like a voluptuous nightmare he appears at the fringe of her desires.
One detail worth noting: Claire is black. A sort of accepted reality to the mixed race upper class, like the inevitability of a snake eyes when throwing dice. To her family and mulatto community she is almost an embarrassment and it is with this in mind that she has never dared approach a man of "good" family. It is precisely because of her black skin that Caledu has set his desires upon her as well. While he takes the others by force he desires her to submit willingly. What happens... Well, I'm not in the spoiler business.
So now that I've conjured for you this "sordid little beast" as Claire calls herself at one point, I want to restate the brilliance of this book. In her journal, again a secret affair, Claire writes in suddenly pedantic brilliance:
Freedom is an inmost power. That is why society limits it. In the light of day our thoughts would make monsters and madmen of us. Even those with the most limited imagination conceal something horrifying. Our innumerable flaws are proof of our monstrously primitive origin. Rough drafts that we are. And we will remain so as long as we lack the courage to hack a path through the tangled undergrowth of life and walk with eyes fixed on the truth. The hard conclusion to an ephemeral life on the road to perfection. One can't reach it without sacrifice and suffering. I would like to be sure that Beethoven died satisfied to have written his concertos. Without this certainty, what would be the point of the painful anxiety of a Cezanne searching for a color that escapes him? Or of the anguish of a Dostoyevsky grasping at God in the thoughts swarming within the hellish complexity of the soul! All of them proof of another life, mysterious and intangible, clamoring for its share of immortality. Each of us must find within ourselves the possibility to meet such demands. It is a matter of will and action. Of choosing to be puppets or to be human beings.
What could possibly follow that up with? How about this: Haitians can write...
Haitian Literature Part II - Jacques Roumain
Friday, March 12, 2010
The Week In Books: Baldwin's Closing, Edible Books, Amazon Slashes X-Men & Wolverine, Best Translation Award Announced
You can't take an image like this for granted. Nor a bookstore like Baldwin's.
Baldwin's Book Barn Looking For Patron Saint
In 1934, William and Lilla Baldwin established their used book and collectible business nearby and then moved to “The Barn” in 1946. The old milking house was converted into a residence for the Baldwin Family and the stone barn became the bookshop and, for some years, a country store museum.
It appears that Thomas Baldwin, Sr. is packing it in. A lifelong bookseller and proprietor of Chester County's legendary used and collectible book store is retiring. To say that Baldwin's Book Barn is an institution is a great simplification. There are few, if any, bookstores in the US that have the look and feel of Baldwin's.
Baldwin intends to try and sell the bookstore business and barn as a package deal. With land prices in Chester County being what they are, I find this scenario unlikely. Not a lot of used booksellers with a couple million to spare.
Speaking of poverty, Baldwin points to the expansive market for collectible books online as the culprit for the bottle-necking of the profitability of running a rare book business.
“If someone dies, his grandson will say, ‘I’ll post (his books) online,’” Baldwin noted last week in the historic, weathered book barn. “These people have no idea what those books are worth. You’re not just competing with the bricks and mortar stores anymore, but the whole world. That drives the prices down, not just in this business but in all businesses.”
I've heard many old hands complain about the falling prices of collectible books, particular modern first editions. The massive nature of print runs in the seventies and eighties have allowed for more first editions of "collectible" authors. In the past, when it was a walk-in, catalog or mail order system, the availability was of course limited and pricing was consistently higher. Since the advent of sites like eBay and ABEBooks the prolific nature of books with long print runs became evident and prices dropped.
Consumers win, sometimes, and booksellers lost, sometimes.
The sometimes comes down to that x-factor, increasingly hard to find (and sadly less valued), that a good collectible book dealer has. Namely they know what they're doing while that grandson mentioned above does not. All he knows is that he read a single John Grisham novel last summer at the beach and that his grandfather's first edition of Steinbeck's Travels With Charley could be valuable. Poor grandson and eventual book buyer failed to realize that it was a second printing.
Starting bid: $9.99. Final sale: $23.63.
Booksellers, thy life is woe.
Entries Being Accepted For International Edible Book Contest
What was it P.T. Barnum said about publicity?
I guess that this then is good for books.
I'm thinking a copy of Anthony Swofford's Jarhead made out of MREs could be in order.
Wolverine, X-Men Sold Out By Amazon
In the increasingly bizarre world of Amazon commerce a boon was granted to comic book readers over the weekend when Amazon
screwed up again had a pricing error with a single vendor's line of comics, which included Image, Marvel and Dark Horse Comics.
The error allowed titles to be sold at incredibly low prices (a $60 dollar item would be sold for $8 and change).
Amazon's solution? Remove the buy buttons from the distributor's line.
Why are metaphorical 800 lbs gorillas so much meaner than the real ones? Has anyone looked into whether or not Jeff Bezos is Magneto?
Three Percent's Best Translated Book Award
The annual award aministered by the University of Rochester was held at Idlewild Books on Thursday evening.
The winners were The Confession Of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven and published Melville House, and The Russian Version by Elena Fanailova and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.
“We’re delighted to receive this award on behalf of the author, Gail Hareven,” said Melville House co-publisher Dennis Loy Johnson, “as it represents what we see as part of our mission at Melville House: Not to publish both fiction and nonfiction in translation just for the sake of essentially preserving it, as if it were something on the verge of going extinct. That strikes us as a way of further ensuring its obscurity. Rather, we see it as our mission to trumpet that work loudly, and to work aggressively to get that work in the hands of as many people as possible, especially those who would not normally encounter translated literature.”
Warm fuzzies all around. Congratulations to both firms.
I'll leave you with that positive story this weekend. Good luck to Baldwin's in finding an heir. It would be a shame to see such a store leave the world.
Wait... That was a sort of sad ending.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Front List / Back List: Alcohol Week - Drunk By Paul Dickson and The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
I have always thought of March as a supreme drinking month. It is still cold and yet spring is beginning to show in its glorious return. It is a grand month for beer drinkers, a demographic I count myself among, as both the winter and spring styles are both accessible and acceptable choices. Not that I've ever worried about being "acceptable."
And really, is there anything better than a really good maibock on that first sixty degree day? The sun is bright, the wind slightly chill and you have nothing at all to do.
With this fiction in mind let us go ahead and begin the week with a front list/back list that will pay homage to one of mankind's more noble pursuits.
From The Front List - Define Drunk
Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary by Paul Dickson. Illustrated by Paul Rea. Melville House Publishing. Reference. Hardcover. ISBN: 9781933633756. $19.95.
Defendant: I was drunk as a judge when I committed the offense.
Judge: The expression is “sober as a judge.” Don’t you mean “drunk as a lord”?
Defendant: Yes, my lord.
Explanation of the expression, jober as a sudge from Drunk by Paul Dickson
Your initial reaction will be one of underestimating Dickson’s book. After reading the introduction and soaking in the first few entries, your next move will be to find a chair to sit in while you turn page after page, trying to commit to memory this supreme achievement of dipsography (I may have made up that word).
These two things completed you will of course have to go out and get yourself as drunk as forty billy goats. In which case you’d better have hands like rocks and a chin for eating punches.
Colorful post today, as you can see.
Dickson’s book is impressive and I suppose any listing of nearly three-thousand synonyms is going to be at least that. The subject matter is naturally what elevates this list to the sublime. Or to the SoCo and lime. Snare hit please. No? Whatever.
Paul Dickson, when not editing for Dover Publications or the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is known best for his books on Baseball and his record breaking lists of synonyms for being stonkered. Err… I mean drunk.
Record setting as in the Guinness Book Of World Records, of which he has entered and broken his own record setting list of sodden verbiage three times. The most updated of these registries contained in Drunk. The exact figure is 2,964 synonyms. It’s enough to make you go Baltic.
To “go Baltic” is a term, interestingly enough, that hails from Scotland. It refers to the lifestyle indulged by Scottish fisherman while working in Mediterranean waters. Needless to say it involves drinking, or to get drunk as a sailor, if you will.
Here are some of my favorites used in sentences.
For a belligerent drunk:
“In armor” or “In his armor.”
Be careful talking to Jesse; he’s in his armor again.
For the clumsy, uncoordinated drunk.
Don’t let Jesse go out the front door because he’s got a cut leg and the cops will see him a mile away.
For the passed out drunk.
“Stiff as a carp.”
I found Jesse in the bathroom, stiff as a carp.
For the drunk who’s back at it.
“Gone to the Devil.”
Jesse’s gone to the devil with his fuzzy tool belt.
I added the last part and yes, I have a friend named Jesse who is a notorious drunk. In any case you can see the entertainment value, let alone utility, of this reference work.
One of my favorite terms is absent from the list, or perhaps I’ve merely missed it in another form. In any case I’d like to humbly submit it for review here.
“With John Barleycorn.”
As in: “They went out with John Barleycorn.”
John Barleycorn being a demigod or demonic presence that represents both the harvest and production of alcohol. He is most notably rendered in the Robert Burns poem bearing his namesake and the Jack London memoir, which also is stamped by his name. The latter of which contains the above expression and many other charming ways to explain alcoholism as a disease.
All this talk is making me want to go get... How does the expression go? Ah. Hammered.
From The Back List - For The Lost and Lonely
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. Fiction. Vintage Crime. Trade Paperback. ISBN: 0394759893. $12.95.
How's this for an opening paragraph.
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
C.W. Sughrue is the private eye tracking down wayward novelist and sometime poet Abraham Trahearne. Fireball Roberts is not a nickname nor is the term bulldog a reference to anything other than the hirsute canine often associated with the British.
You can add to the above scene two roustabouts and a immense black tom cat who once upon a time was the Cassanova of Rosie's bar (the dusty shack where this all takes place). Again, by tom cat it is being communicated that the character is in fact feline and ostentatiously confident.
This is no fable however. Crumley is definitely not crafting post modern stories where a talking cat assists our down but not out private eye as he searches through a complex and impenetrable technocracy. No. Crumley writes it straight, even if it is somewhat fanciful.
That's what both makes The Last Good Kiss so charming and disturbing. The maudlin sentimentality of Crumley's drunks denotes an author that believes in moral fundamentals that bend but should not be broken. It is precisely because the "good" people in Crumley's story successfully navigate the thin red line between immoral depravity and decent living that we as the reader get a more profound sense of the cruelty and ignoble truth that exists in the "bad."
This is not so easy to do.
C.W. Sughrue is the perfect noir protagonist to navigate a sun bleached crime story that involves as much of Bukowski's dissipation as it does Chandler's slick operators. Sughrue hails from Montana, is hard drinking and listens to Willie Nelson as he drifts from job to job, mostly finding people who don't want to be found. He's one part Texas Ranger and two parts out-of-work roughneck.
Crime fiction, like all genre writing, is about creating a feeling, an emotion. A good crime story is like a good joke. You see where it's going but need to hear how the teller ties it off. The feeling is in how you feel about the man telling the joke.
In Crumley's case you have a man who you believe 100%, even if you know the tale is tall and involves anthropomorphic bulldogs and tom cats with insatiable appetites. It is with this in mind that you'll want to take some preparatory steps before indulging.
Before you pick up a copy you'll want to buy a case of Piels or something honest like that. After reading the book you'll want to have a couple beers on your back porch and indulge yourself, just once, in a romantic crumpling up and tossing of a can or two into your backyard.
You can pick them up in the morning. After the world of C.W. Sughrue and Fireball subsides.
Friday, March 5, 2010
Leviathan is an anagram of Google. Just kidding. And the DOJ doesn't have a holy glow about them either.
e-week Nearly Misses
Interesting article in e-week magazine (which by the way has not been the same since Spencer F. Katt packed up his litter and kibble) about the Google book monopoly debate.
It isn't interesting because of new material or particular stunning insight. It is interesting because it, like many tech journals, fails to see or comment on the effect such a single source for books would do to wholesalers. It seems the only thing people can get their head around on this one is the battle between the Authors Guild and Google with a little aside about a whimpering Amazon.
Authors On The High Seas
Cunnard Lines have put together an interesting program for their Queen Mary 2 cruise ship. A part of the Cunnard Insight program this year's intinerary will include discussions (I suppose interactive) with author's Kate Atkinson, John Berendt, Bill Bryson and Joanne Harris.
Now if only they could combine bocce with this somehow...
Dude, It Didn't Happen That Way
If you haven't been following the drama of Charles Pellegrino and his myriad of hoaxes and hustles then you've been denying yourself something very entertaining.
Hop over to MobyLives to catch all the action, which includes wonderful stuff about one of Pellegrino's (the man who probably did not discover the tomb of Jesus) biggest disciples. By name: James Cameron.
With this huckster being revealed for what he is, one has to wonder about how long a fate a book like Game Change with its 0 citations will last.
"Juicy details" apparently are not always as historical as they're made out to be.
The Duck Hunt Dog Is Laughing
If you haven't played Duck Hunt in a while I'll remind you that whenever you missed a bunch of those 8-bit mallards your trusty hunting dog would laugh at you.
Well, it seems Nintendo's first foray into the e-book market is in Fast Company's words, "Half-Assed."
Palin To Have New Book Penned
Sorry. Low blow on the first warm Friday of the season.
I'm off to the Philadelphia International Flower Show to help me forget the above statement.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Front List / Back List: Lydie Salvayre's Portrait Of The Writer As A Domesticated Animal & Lewis Lapham's Gag Rule
From The Front List: Tobold The Burger King
Portrait Of The Artist As A Domesticated Animal by Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by William Pedersen. Dalkey Archive. Fiction. 2010. Trade Paperback. ISBN: 9781564785572. $13.95.
The fact is that several times I'd caught Tobold, transfixed, contemplating his immense portrait hanging in the main hall. In it he had a huge neck, his pectoral muscles were abnormally developed under his shirt (pumped up from steroids?), and he donned the triumphant face of a man who'd just bagged a wild animal (or a competitor). There was the most anachronistic halo around his head, like an enormous fried egg, just like the aura over the saints' heads in religious prints. It was totally ridiculous.
Salvayre's writing possesses an amazing ability to portray situations that are both comical and nauseating all at once. Portrait Of The Writer is a twofold tale of materialistically motivated torpor and the iron will that wins the spoils.
The story of Tobold the Burger King is what would be called a rags to riches sort of affair. Born incredibly poor, Tobold intimidated, swindled and dealt (his greatest love is the art of the deal) his way to become the wealthiest man in the world. Starting with a fast-food chain named King Size, which provided him with a war chest to buy and sell, build and outsource, create and destroy an empire that included telecommunications and burgers in equal measure.
Tobold is revealed to us by the book's narrator, who has been hired to be his biographer. She is a progressive minded novelist and sometime poet who never would have believed herself capable of writing an "authorized" biography of the world's most aggressive capitalist. Tobold disgusts her. He is an uncouth, misogynistic blow-hard who stands for nearly everything she despises and who belittles nearly everything she believes in.
And yet she finds herself unable to leave his side. In order to successfully write his book for him he insists that she be unnoticed by others, which is achieved (his idea) by her playing the part of his full-time prostitute.
Nearly every page contains something about her desire to rid herself of the debasing job writing his vile book and yet she stays there, nodding her head and yessiring every whim of his.
There relationship is never sexual, though she is forced to watch and abide his incredibly cruel treatment of his wife and his boastful conquest and discussion of the many female (all blond) supplicants that throw themselves upon his billionaire's throne.
So why does she stay? The money for one. And her Bob (De Niro), whose charisma she was floored by at the first party she attended with Tobold. A list of dizzying celebrities flit through the pages and hang around the massive Tobold like so many remora fish. One particularly harsh treatment is leveled at Sharon Stone, whose IQ of 133 induces her to believe it is both useful and important that she meet with Tobold three times a year to discuss world politics and business.
Bill (Clinton) and Bill (Gates) also grace the pages, often in unflattering lighting. The breech of fictional contract between reader and writer is seamlessly made, and though it may be wrong in some schools to fictionally portray celebrities doing less than flattering things it yet makes the book more accurate, more astute. Sharon Stone does think a little too much of herself.
So enamored as our writer is with the money and the strange currency of celebrity face-time she finds herself unable and perhaps fully willing to craft what Tobold's deems less a biography and more a "Gospel Of The Free Market." To Tobold the french fry is the only true Eucharist.
Despite her increasing obsequiousness the writer yet maintains a connection with her previous morality. Her disdain for a religion based on a unfettered Free Market (Tobold often reminds her to be sure to capitalize those two words) manifests, often to comic effect.
How long could I pretend to applaud his delirious optimism for the Free Market, which he proclaimed relentlessly? His optimism made me think of the erections men get when they're hanged.
It is perhaps because of her awareness, and that she struggles and loses the battle to stand for what she believes in, that makes the narrator particularly craven. The truly difficult realization comes when as a reader you realize that it isn't merely her cowardice that is unsettling. It is also the notion that her moral beliefs are somewhat hollow. Especially when they're confronted by the zealotry of Tobold the Burger King.
The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia once observed in his novel Equal Danger that though it may be libertines that prepare a revolution it is always the Puritans who will complete it. See it through. Make the deal.
That is the most disturbing aspect to Salvayre's novel. The reason the writer caves before the Free Market and its high priest is because the will of the latter is stronger.
Portrait Of The Writer lives comfortably (no irony there) among the hard questions of ethics and will. It has more to do with Schopenhauer than it does Joyce.
Lucky for us, Lydie Salvayre has a biting but generous sense of humor and that at least consoles during those moments of supreme critique.
From The Back List: Tea Party Edition
Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy by Lewis Lapham. Penguin Press. 2004. Current Affairs/Political Science. Trade Paperback. ISBN: 0143035029. $13.
"The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
Reichsmarschall Hermann Wilhelm Göring
"Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, "the combination of different forms of belief or practice"; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth."
- Ur-Fascism by Umberto Eco
Political writing centered around current affairs is perhaps the most difficult form of writing to gauge. Ninety-nine percent of the time it will be largely worthless two years after publication (assuming it had value to begin with).
In some cases and in the hands of a master polemicist, like say Thucydides, Thomas Paine or Lewis Lapham, it can be a powerful statement that will contain intrinsic truths useful now as well as later.
Unfortunately for we U.S. citizens (and I suppose also the world), Lewis Lapham's somewhat briefly lived book about the erosion of civil liberties during the dark times of George W. Bush's presidency is again a must read.
The right wing of American politics is back to playing its ground game. Small government. Fiscal responsibility. Tax cuts. Historically Republicans have maintained the largest deficits. In fact George W. Bush accrued more foreign debt than the combined total of the previous 42 presidents. Yes, that includes Reagan.
When they're out of the house though, they're talking small. This time around we have a particularly nasty strategy being formed and utilized by many of the same people who invented a war in Iraq and drove the country hard while running on what was essentially fumes.
History aside, I know want to talk about growing strength of the "Tea Party" movement on the right.
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
- Thomas Jefferson
A quick google search of Tea Party slogans and posters will provide you with a quick introduction to the retro-themed nature of this movement, which of course applies to the Eco quote hovering above.
The Tea Party is increasingly drawing upon Revolutionary and Civil War rhetoric in order to paint a picture of both a nostalgic America that never was and a portrait of their patriotic authority.
Add in the jingoism of the above Jefferson quote and you of course have a dangerous mixture.
Lapham's slender essay (194 pages) is a wonderful reminder of the types of infractions made on the Constitution by many of the leaders of these would-be heroes. Less we forget.
It is disturbing to hear and see, but the frustration of some members of the right is beginning to increasingly resemble soccer hooliganism. This is doubly sad, because there are conservatives out there, those who for instance voted for Barack Obama or even John Kerry (or perhaps abstained from either election all together), who have become so disillusioned with a party that is increasingly capable only of belligerence and big budgets.
Lapham's erudite and thoroughly cited treatise, a sort of Common Sense for the modern political scene, is perhaps a unlikely friend for some of these folks too.
If you have your doubts just look to the Reichsmarschall's quote above and tell me who is trying to do what.