It was the third death that set off the fireworks, even before the body was found. Samantha Donaldson disappeared from the fenced-in manicured front garden of her parents' three-and-a-quarter million dollar home in the hills above Palo Alto on a sunny Monday in February. She reappeared some hours later, quite dead, on Tyler's Road. Samantha was five years old and had shiny brown hair, and with her disappearance the low grade fear among Bay area parents, particularly those with brown-haired, kindergarten-aged daughters, erupted into outright panic. From Napa to Salinas, parents descended on schools, sent delegations to police stations, arranged car pools, and held hundreds of tight-voiced conversations with their frightened children about the dangers of talking with strange people, conversations which brought feelings of deep, inchoate resentment on the part of the adults at the need to frighten kids in order to keep them safe.
The Donaldsons were important people on the peninsula. Mrs. Donaldson, a third generation San Franciscan, was the moving force behind--and in front of--a number of arts programs and counted the mayor of San Francisco among her personal friends. So it was hardly surprising that within two hours of Samantha's disappearance Alonzo Hawkin's other cases were taken from him and he was put in charge of directing the investigations in all four counties. He was also given an assistant. He was not at all pleased when he heard the name.
"Who?" His worn features twisted as if he'd smelled something rotten, which in a way he had.
"Katarina Cecilia Martinelli, known as Casey. From her initials."
This book, King's first, was published in 1993; I looked it up, expecting something closer to 1981. The old-timer cop is grumpy at being paired with a female officer, and assumes she's an affirmative action hire. A detail about the female officer's off-duty life, something I haven't considered particularly important for years, is presented late in the book as though it is a shocking plot twist. Most of the suspects are presented as "Flower Children who don't know that the Sixties are over". All right, it's the San Francisco Bay area and yes, and I see aging flower children to this day, but still. 1993? Really?
For all that, it's almost more of a character study than a whodunnit. The killer is revealed about halfway through, at which point the story becomes chase and police procedure and buildup to final confrontation. The characters are very richly created for a work of this kind—detectives, villains, victims and minor characters alike (look for a cameo by someone delightful who I thought of as ten year old River Tam). I won't risk spoilers by saying much else, except that the main suspects are part of a hippie community with SCAdian tendencies, very likable, and it's a shame that one of them has to be a killer. Also--DO NOT READ THE COVER BLURBS! Good God! They tell you enough so that half the surprises are spelled out for you and you can guess most of the rest. I could see most of the surprises and the motive before I even read the book (right down to the character who claims to have been wrongly imprisoned saying, “I was convicted because I had a public defender. My family might have hired a real lawyer, one who knew what he was doing, but they just didn’t believe in me.” I soooo love it when characters in legal thrillers say stuff like that). On the other hand, that makes it maybe saying a lot that I liked it anyway.
Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh :
The annual Bollinger dinner is a difficult time for those in authority. It is not accurate to call this an annual event, because quite often the Club is suspended for some years after each meeting. There is tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been! This was the first meeting since then, and from all over Europe old members had rallied for the occasion. For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate young lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates torn from the London season and the indelicate advances of debutantes; all that was most sonorous of name and title was there for the beano...it was a lovely evening. They broke up Mr. Austen's grand piano, and stamped Lord Rending's cigars into his carpet and smashed his china, and tore up Mr. Partridge's sheets, and threw the Matisse into his water jug; Mr. Sanders had nothing to break except his windows, but they found the manuscript at which he had been working for the Newdigate Prize Poem, and had great fun with that. Sir Alastair Digby-Vayne Trumpington felt quite ill with excitement, and was supported to bed by Lumsden of Strathdrummond. It was half past eleven. Soon the evening would come to an end. But there was still a treat to come.
That “treat” consists of the British equivalent of the Omega Frat House knocking down third-year student Paul Pennyfeather and taking his pants, while faculty members turn their backs and decide it would be imprudent to get involved. Later, the University rejoices at the opportunity to fine the Bollinger people large fines, which are paid out of their pocket change, and Pennyfeather is expelled from the school in disgrace for "public indecency", which in turn causes him to be cheated out of his inheritance and disqualified from decent employment.
This book is a comedy.
The laugh track goes wild as Pennyfeather ends up working in a remote school in Wales, salary reduced because of his "indecent" past, kicked around and disrespected while another teacher gets away with pederasty. Ha-ha! I'm surprised Decline and Fall hasn't been made into a big budget Ben Stiller movie called Meet the Jackanapes, or maybe a Jeeves-and-Wooster adaptation in which Jeeves frames Wooster for prostitution so that he won't have to marry Honoria Glossop, at least not for the seven years he's in Newgate.
In fairness, Waugh does have a wonderful gift for irony and wit, and the situational disasters are over-the-top in a Candide sort of way, and things do eventually turn out all right for poor Pennyfeather, but...ugh. Laughs at the expense of some poor sap walking around with a Kick-Me sign and getting judged and condemned for things he hasn't done just isn't my kind of humor, in part because triggering that aspect from my own childhood makes me an Angsty McAngstypants. If you can stand it better than I, enjoy it.
The Bridge Over San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder :
Perhaps it was the pure air from the snows before him; perhaps it was the memory that brushed him for a moment of the poem that bade him raise his eyes to the helpful hills. At all events, he felt at peace. Then his glance fell upon the bridge, and at that moment a twanging noise filled the air, as when the string of some musical instrument snaps in a disused room, and he saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below.
Anyone else would have said to himself with secret joy, "Within ten minutes myself...!" But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: Why did this happen to those five?" If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off.
There follows the story of the five people who died, intertwined with the stories of some others whose lives crossed those of the victims, and of the priest's attempt to weave rhyme and reason out of those stories, to make them into tales of God striking down the guilty or calling the innocent to him, the usual platitudes uttered when "good" or "bad" people die. The answer is ambiguous, and my conclusions were very different from those of the priest.
Wilder, like me, chose the path of the Frosted Mini-Wheat, and the common thread of his works (he also wrote the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth) is that people are amazingly complex and contradictory tapestries, simultaneously unique snowflakes and all the same deep down. As with all of his works, the more you study the characters, the more you love them, even the dark and gloomy ones. Maybe especially them. A short and easy read of less than a hundred pages, I read it in one afternoon and wanted more.
Feed, by Mira Grant :
When the infected first appeared—heralded by screams that the dead were rising and judgment day was at hand—they behaved just like the horror movies had been telling us for decades that they would behave. The only surprise was that this time, it was really happening.
There was no warning before the outbreaks began. One day, things were normal; the next, people who were supposedly dead were getting up and attacking anything that came into range. This was upsetting for everyone involved, except for the infected, who were past being upset about that sort of thing. The initial shock was followed by running and screaming, which eventually devolved into more infection and attacking, that being the way of things. So what do we have now, in this enlightened age twenty six years after the Rising? We have idiots prodding zombies with sticks, which brings us full circle to my brother and why he probably won’t live a long and fulfilling life.
Zombies by now are campy mock-horror. People have fun dressing in torn dirty clothes and having zombie parades where they chant “Braaiins” and compete in the 100-meter shamble and “improve” Jane Austen by adding zombies. The last time I saw a zombie movie with my friends, we chanted, “Tastes Great! Less Filling!” during the parts that were supposed to be the most gruesome. Zombies are FUN, right? Something for the cool kids and doomed redshirts to poke with a stick.. Right?
Not here. Mira Grant is the zombie nom-nom-nom de plume of Seanan McGuire, who writes the October Daye urban faerie mysteries, and who knows her world-ending diseases. I figured zombie books wouldn’t be my thing as much as the urban faerie mysteries; I had no idea what I was getting into. Feed, for all its hipness, is true horror, with a great deal of attention paid to the pestilence that turns people into walking corpses and even more attention paid to the stress of day to day living in a world where at any minute, you may be required to put bullets into your own law enforcement partner, your best friend, your child, your lover, your mom. One fan described the ending as the kind that kicks your ass and takes your lunch money, and I can’t say it any better than that.
In Feed’s world, civilization does not collapse with the zombie outbreak. As we’re told in the exposition, a lot of wilderness and other uncontainable areas have to be abandoned, the gated communities become more gated, and the ubiquitous security checkpoints and blood tests required to go anywhere make air travel look like a stroll to the corner grocery.
And who do you suppose it was who saved the world all those years ago, when it all began? Why, bloggers, of course! Those Meddling Kids broadcasted information about survival tools and the location of outbreaks while the fuddy-duddies in business, big media and the government were still conspiring to tell everybody that nothing was wrong. And 26 years later, what are the bloggers up to? Why, they’re covering the Presidential campaign, of course! Complete with enhanced security, dirty tricks, and debates about the new political issues, all reported via the internet by a sister-brother team with more edges than a bathtub full of razor blades. The title refers not just to hungry zombies, but to the video feed of the bloggers.
The zombies are believable. The disease is believable. The new way of life is believable. What isn’t believable? A major Republican politician with a fully functional brain, heart and soul. THAT, I can’t swallow. Seems to me the last Republicans who fit that description were Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter, and they were thrown out of the party by teatards. And yes, it occurred to me several times while reading that the zombie outbreak was a pretty good analogy for the rise of the “Tea Party”.
Feed is the first of a trilogy. Give serious thought to whether you really want to read it before the other two parts are available. UPDATE Published this year, and already on an NPR list of “The Greatest Thrillers Ever Written”, sharing space with IT and Psycho. Go Mira!
The Journal of Andre Gide :
Impossible to get Mius to admit that, in order to assure selection, it is not enough to prefer the delicate and rare variety, that its difficult victory over the commoner varieties must be assured by suppressing the latter in its vicinity.
To avoid argument, he pretends to clear my garden of them, but I find them a little later, transplanted in some corner, just as rugged as the rare variety is fragile, and infinitely prolific. In less than two years they have won back their place; the exquisite has disappeared, stifled by the commonplace. Because for flowers too, “the exquisite is as difficult as it is rare”; and however beautiful the most modest flower of the fields may be, one’s heart weeps to think that the most beautiful always has the least chance of survival. It is at one and the same time the least gifted for the struggle and the one that arouses the most appetites and jealousies. Oh, if only man, instead of so often contributing to the spreading of the vulgar, instead of systematically pursuing with his hatred or his cupidity the natural ornament of the earth, the most colorful butterfly, the most charming bird, the largest flower; if he brought his ingenuity to bear on protecting, not on destroying but on favoring—as I like to think that people do in Japan, for instance, because it is so very far from France!...
Were a miracle to produce in our woods some astounding orchid, a thousand hands would stretch to tear it up, to destroy it. If the bluebird happens to fly past, every gun is sighted; and then people are amazed that it is rare!
The journal of the author of The Immoralist and The Counterfeiters (both in bookpost June 2008) spans five decades and is valuable for the literary bon mots (as in most unexpurgated journals, you’re panning for gold among a lot of dust here, with the great insights lost among complaints about how Diddums had an afternoon tea that was dreadfully dull, etc.), as a fascinating peephole of French history from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war to the Dreyfus scandal and both World Wars before, during, and after), and the growth of a man from brash youth into intellectual old age.
More than anything, the man reads books! Heck, he translates the best of English literature into French, and reads for pleasure every French classic from Moliere to Sartre. Gide’s pithy commentaries on dozens of great, good and disappointing books, both the ones I’ve read myself and the new additions to my pandemically growing to-read list, is a fun bookpost in itself.
I’ve been grazing through the four volumes of this one for most of the year so far, and only finished it this month. I’m told Gide is considered something of an icon in the gay community, like Oscar Wilde. Really, other than the use of the male pronoun to refer to his relationships, there’s not much in his journal about “what it means to be gay” and the like, other than the lesson many have yet to learn, that people who love members of the same sex are otherwise not much different from heterosexuals in their basic character. Highly recommended for those with good gold panning equipment.
The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius :
I tore off my clothes, and plunging my hands into it scooped out a generous portion of the ointment and rubbed it all over myself; then I flapped my arms up and down in imitation of a bird. But no down or feathers appeared; instead my hair became course and shaggy, my soft skin hardened into hide, my fingers and toes lost their separate identity and coalesced into hooves, and from the end of my spine there protruded a long tail. My face became enormous and my mouth widened; my nostrils dilated and my lips hung down; and my ears became monstrously long and hairy. The only redeeming feature of this catastrophic transformation was that my natural endowment had grown too--but how could I embrace Photis like this? In this hapless state I looked myself over and saw that I was now no bird, but an ass; and when I wanted to complain about what Photis had done, I couldn't speak or point like a human being. All I could do was to let my mouth hang open and my eyes fill with tears and look at her sideways in silent reproach.
Blog friends who remember me from a certain Usenet group way back when may remember a pointless pie fight over what was the first novel. Here’s a contender from the Rome of the Antonines, that influenced Shakespeare and Cervantes and probably the compilers of The Arabian Nights. It’s about 50 pages of the adventures of a Roman traveler who gets changed into a donkey, expanded to 200 pages by adding several stories he hears along the way, including a version of Cupid and Psyche that takes up about a fifth of the book.. There’s some bawdiness and some parable wisdom, but mostly it’s a disjointed journey-adventure, to be read more for classic literary value than for actual enjoyment.
Be Quiet, Be Heard, by by Susan R. Glaser, PhD and Peter A. Glaser, PhD :
Throughout this book, we'll be asking you to perform a number of behaviors that are counter-intuitive. At various times, as a part of the process of unraveling the paradoxes of persuasion, we'll ask you to:
Lean forward when you want to pull back.
Make eye contact when you want to look away.
Ask for more information from someone who is criticizing you.
Embrace your fear of speaking in public rather than trying to "overcome" it.
Draw out the shyest or most recalcitrant person in a group.
Accept a "thank you" without responding, "Oh, it was nothing."
Such behavior might feel phony--indeed, they couldn't feel any other way--to someone who has spent decades doing the opposite. The good news, though, is that they will not feel phony for long. After several attempts at what feels like "putting on a show", these new actions will begin to feel...merely uncomfortable.
Never mind that most of the "expert advice" in this book on communication skills is stuff I've heard before. Most of success is doing the things you already know you should be doing and not doing the things you already know you shouldn't be doing. It's good to remind yourself of the basics from time to time.
If you've read #5 of the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" (Seek first to understand others, and only afterwards seek to be understood), you've read the essence of this book. If you've read Robert Anton Wilson on The SNAFU Principle (People on the low end of hierarchical structures reflect what they think those at the top want to hear, and therefore those at the top get faulty information coupled with a burden of omniscience, which results in Bad Things happening), this book offers a way out of the problem. To the extent that I've been doing some of this at work, it's made my lifetime of dealing with problem people easier. At home, I tend to have the last word with The Redhead regardless, which is usually, "Yes, honeybunchkins."
It's full of hilarious Goofus-&-Gallant examples of people who fail at good family and work relationships by not doing what the authors suggest (They have the "Gallant" say "Can I talk to you about something I've been concerned about?" while the corresponding "Goofus" opens with, "If you ignorant fools would only shut your traps long enough to listen to me for once, then maybe I could...") Or at least, they'd be more hilarious if I didn't encounter so many real life internet comments that illustrate the "Goofus" behavior. Come to think of it, maybe there's a lot of people out there who have never heard of "active listening" and could benefit from what the Doctors Glaser have to say.
A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeline L'Engle :
Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted grey. Each had a small, rectangular plot of lawn in front, with a straight line of dull looking flowers edging the path to the door. Meg had a feeling that if she could count the flowers there would be exactly the same number for each house. In front of all the houses children were playing. Some were skipping rope. Some were bouncing balls. Meg felt vaguely that something was wrong with their play. It seemed exactly like children playing around any housing development at home, and yet there was something different about it. She looked at Calvin, and saw that he too was puzzled.
"Look!" Charles Wallace said suddenly. "They're skipping and bouncing in rhythm! Everyone's doing it at exactly the same moment."
This was so. As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball. As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball. Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.
Then the doors of all the houses opened simultaneously, and out came women like a row of paper dolls. The print of their dresses was different, but they all gave the appearance of being the same. Each woman stood on the steps of her house. Each clapped. Each child with the ball caught the ball. Each child with the skipping rope folded the rope. Each child turned and walked into the house. The doors clicked shut behind them...
In front of one of the houses stood a little boy with a ball, and he was bouncing it. But he bounced it rather badly and with no particular rhythm, sometimes dropping it and running after it with awkward, furtive leaps, sometimes throwing it up in the air and trying to catch it. The door of his house opened and out ran one of the mother figures. She looked wildly up and down the street, saw the children and put her hand to her mouth as if to stifle a scream, grabbed the little boy and rushed indoors with him. The ball dropped from his fingers and rolled out into the street.
This is one of those Newberry winning books, nominally for children, that has plenty to say to adults. It's one of The Redhead's all time favorites, and I must have read it three or four times. For some reason, I keep forgetting most of what happens after the halfway point, which is when things get really exciting.
Meg and Charles Wallace are children of two scientists, whose father has gone off to work with the government on something and, later, stopped writing to the mother. The kids, and their friend Calvin, are quirkily smart and awkward in different ways, and suffer socially as a result. Three strange women show up and tell them it's time to go find Meg's missing father, and there's a Black Thing that causes Bad Things to happen, and...and...they have an adventure of allegories where conformity battles individualism, hearts are at odds with brains, and the perfect is the enemy of the good.
My path is the Path of the Frosted Mini Wheat, forever trying to erase the divides that tell us that wholesome cannot be fun, that logic and emotion are enemies, and that you must choose between being a grasshopper and an ant, and so the choices faced by the characters would raise my hackles if I were not able to put certain values aside and just enjoy and learn from the tale. Then again, I have no problem with the lessons of extremes not to go to. Highly recommended.
An Oxford Tragedy, by J.C. Masterman :
We both got up, I feeling abashed and irritated at the collapse of my negotiation. Of course Maurice was right, but I could not help feeling that in some indefinable way I had been made to appear small and ridiculous. On the way to the door, I made another effort to assert my dignity.
“I hope”, I said, “that you’ll unload that revolver. To leave loaded weapons lying about is unpardonable.”
“On the contrary”, he replied, “I shall put it exactly as it is just here,” and he laid it on a large octagonal table, which stood close to his door. “The malefactors can then hardly fail to see it when they come into the room at nine o’clock tomorrow morning, and I shall begin by explaining to them the extreme danger involved in their conduct..”
You can tell where this is going, can’t you?
This is a pretty good murder mystery in which a group of dusty, tweedy Oxford dons is told about the loaded revolver in the Dean’s office, goes their separate ways after dinner, and sure enough, somebody gets shot with the revolver in the Dean’s office before the night is half over. Your mission is to figure out the murderer and the motive before the visiting professor from Europe, who just happens to have a criminology background and several quirky deductive habits.
It’s a classic from the Britain between the wars era. It kept me guessing for a while, but I nailed it. If you want to as well, stop and work it out at the end of chapter 12.
Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, by Jorge Amado :
For Dona Flor, as a result of the excitement the news had produced, half curious, half abashed, hadn’t the slightest resemblance to stale bread and less to meat that was not quite fresh. On the contrary: her delicate skin with a coppery sheen that came from her Indian blood covered a fresh, engaging face, her flesh was young and fragrant, smelling of Brazilian cherry, a real hunk of woman. Leftover, to be sure; she had had a husband; she had gone to bed with him, and they had had a time of it; more appetizing, however, than many a cosseted virgin, for a maidenhead is not everything, not by a long shot, in spite of all the to do that has been made over it. When all is said and done, it is nothing but a fragile membrane, a drop of blood, a moan, and above all, an old prejudice, and if it is rated so highly that is because it has been in the hands of public relations agents for centuries, and they have been backed up by the army and the clergy, the police and the whores, all of them making of this pellicle the be-all and end-all. But how can a virgin, silly and unskilled in her desire, be compared to a widow, whose longing is compounded of knowledge and absence, of restraint and lack of satisfaction, of hunger and fasting, and is clear and unequivocal?
Damn! This one takes a while to really get going, but stick it out. Part V erases any bit of doubt you have during Parts I through IV, and gives you three of the more memorable characters to be encountered in literature.
Husband #1 walks away with the show. He is the “grasshopper”; a hairy chested spitfire who won’t stop giving the warmth of spring in bed, and who won’t stop wrecking everything he touches once he gets out of bed. He drinks lakes of booze, gambles away dozens of family fortunes, wenches entire villages, and withers the crops with his flatulence. B-movie victims scream and run in circles when he approaches. He is awful. And yet, because he’s so charismatic and full of life, a regular Zorba the Brazilian, nobody stays mad at him for long, not even when they cosign for loans he inevitably defaults on. And then, he obligingly drops dead in the middle of a carnival, leaving everyone for miles around sighing with relief—everyone, that is, except the pretty, long-suffering Dona Flor, who misses his antics in the sack.
Dona Flor then turns to Husband #2, the “ant”, a kind, gallant, handsome, hard working, responsible doctor who provides for the family, invests prudently, is impeccable in his word and in all things he does—and who provides all the bedroom excitement of a runny nose.
At the center is Dona Flor herself, alternately and ironically commiserated with and congratulated, trying to do the right thing, publishing recipes in the text among the narrative, and trying her best to keep her frustration to herself.
As someone who has spent a lifetime trying to combine the best qualities of both men, with mixed results, I was fascinated and delighted, especially with the marvelous turn things take in part V. Heck, why choose between two incomplete partners when you can have both?
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahaeme :
The car stood in the middle of the yard, quite unattended, the stable helps and other hangers-on being all at their dinner. Toad walked slowly round it, inspecting, criticizing, musing deeply.
“I wonder”, he said to himself presently, “I wonder if this sort of car starts easily?”
Next moment, hardly knowing how it came about, he found he had hold of the handle and was turning it. As the familiar sound broke forth, the old passion seized on Toad and completely mastered him, body and soul. As if in a dream, he found himself, somehow, seated in the driver’s seat; as if in a dream, he pulled the lever and swung the car round the yard and out through the archway; and, as if in a dream, all sense of right and wrong, all fear of obvious consequences, seemed temporarily suspended. He increased his pace, and as the car devoured the street and leapt forth on the high road through the open country, he was only conscious that he was Toad once more, Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night. He chanted as he flew, and the car responded with sonorous drone; the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not wither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.
This one was on that BBC book list you might have seen on line, the one that lists both Hamlet and The Complete Shakespeareand suggests that we’re all mostly philistines who haven’t read more than six on the list. I’m somewhere between 70 and 80 titles by now and counting, and going a bit slow because so far the titles I’ve read through the list are mostly outside my interest zone.
Here, however, I was lucky enough to read The Wind in the Willows at the same time as Dona Flor, and had philosophical fun comparing the characters, particularly the first husband and Toad of Toad Hall. Toad is the “grasshopper” and the object lesson they tend to put into children’s books—all Id, completely impulsive and irresponsible, always getting into trouble through thoughtlessness, but good-hearted underneath and always resolving to do better. Kids have to learn to grow out of that phase, but we do lose a little something when they stop being exuberant and get down to learning about income tax deductions. Fortunately, Toad has a seemingly endless means of support and isn’t likely to have to come crawling to the ants for food in the winter. The ants—pretty much all the other characters, Mole, Rat and Badger--are good natured in an antish way. They are cozy, hobbitish and house proud, always keeping their word, and helping Toad out of jams without too much fuss.
The chapters are self contained, interrelated or unrelated stories, alternating between chapters of warm friendship and conversation and strange adventures where they suddenly run into Pan the Greek God or have to battle armies of stoats and weasels. Overall, it’s...cute, and a good thing to read to young ones.
1984, by George Orwell :
The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they need not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.
The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labor power without producing anything that can be consumed. A Floating Fortress, for example, has locked up in it the labor that would build several hundred cargo ships. Ultimately it is scrapped as obsolete, never having brought any material benefit to anybody, and with further enormous labors another Floating Fortress is built. In principle the war effort is always planned so as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life, but this is looked on as an advantage. It is deliberate policy to keep even the favored groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another. By the standards of the early twentieth century, even a member of the Inner Party lives an austere, laborious kind of life. Nevertheless, the few luxuries that he does enjoy—his large, well-appointed flat, the better texture of his clothes, the better quality of his food and drink and tobacco, his two or three servants, his private motorcar or helicopter—set him in a different world from a member of the Outer Party, and the members of the Outer Party have a similar advantage in comparison with the submerged masses whom we call “the proles”. The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty.
The last time I read this, it wasn't even 1984 yet. My friends and I were going through the motions in school, completely certain that we would all die in a nuclear war with Russia before ever getting a chance to see the year 2000. Orwell's dystopian world of Newspeak, Thought Police, constant electronic surveillance, Two Minutes Hate, Ministies of Truth and victory gin was just the slightly less unpleasant alternative to the end of the world. Was it any wonder I became a cynical brat? The events of 1989-91, to my generation, were the equivalent of a call from the doctor that last year's stage four cancer diagnosis had been wrong after all. It made me love life for the first time since I was too young to know what war was.
In more recent years, I watched political bloggers compare the Cheney-Bush government with Orwell's Big Brother, and I cynically just went along. It took rereading the book to realise that they weren't kidding and that Orwell's warning was the neoconservative manifesto. They copied everything! The constant unnecessary war; the deliberate "shock doctrine" economic meltdown; the artificial encouragement of various xenophobias and hates; the war against intellect; the war against sex; the mangling of English; the intrusive surveillance; the stratification of society; the proudly claimed right to torture; the constant assertions, unchallenged by the media, that past statements had never been made. It's all there! 1984 is the wet dream of every fringe rightie from James Dobson to Dick Cheney himself.
If you doubt me, read the book. It's chilling.
Seems to me, the thing that has most prevented Orwell's nightmere from happening has been the availability of the technology to anyone with an internet connection or an iphone. We the People can photograph the police violating human rights, and can broadcast footage of the politicians saying the things they subsequently claim never to have said. As long as that condition continues, they can't get away with it. Maybe Mira Grant was right and the bloggers are the ones saving the world right now. Them and Jon Stewart, anyhow.
This is a book everyone needs to read at least once, maybe more than once, with particular attention to the book-within-the-book, explaining how it happened and the motives of the Inner Party. Very high recommendations.
Stories from Odessa, by Isaac Babel :
Only the King did not laugh.
"They will be saying in Odessa," he began in a serious tone, " in Odessa they will be saying the King was tempted by his friend's earnings."
"They will say it only once," Shtift said. "No one will dare say it twice."
"Kolya." the King continued in a solemn, quiet voice. "Do you believe me, Kolya?"
And here the gangsters stopped laughing. Each of them was holding a burning lantern, but laughter wormed its way out of the Justice store.
"What do you want me to believe you about, King?"
"Do you believe me, Kolya, that I had nothing to do with all this?"
And the King sat down sadly on a chair, covered his eyes with a dusty sleeve, and began to cry. This was how proud this man was, he should burn in hell! And all the gangsters, each and every one of them, saw their King crying because his pride was hurt.
This is a strange, short collection of Russian stories that seems to combine the atmospheres and styles of Checkhov, Puzo, Brecht and Fiddler on the Roof, if you can imagine it. Maudlin pathos, simple peasants with rags and huge beards, fat landlords, even fatter aurochs-sized landladies, awkward parables, and a lot of wailing and fighting and drunken shouting at God. You know...Russian stuff.
The central figure is Benya “the King” Krik, the leader of the Jewish crime families who operate (mostly) under the radar in the ghetto neighborhood of Odessa on the Black Sea. Krik reminds me of the Michael Gambon character in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, without so much grossness; he philosophizes and weeps with sentimentality about his family and homeland while murdering someone or setting fire to a police station. Other characters half-whimsically spend most of their appearances in the stories trying to figure out the twisty paths of Krik’s sense of ethics and honor so as not to have something nasty happen to them. Sometimes the stories are narrated by an old Rabbi figure, as if teaching a moral lesson involving a subculture huddling together for power and comfort, a figure who rules and oppresses within a culture that is itself oppressed by the larger world, a figure who will take care of you if you take care of him, and who will take care of you in a different sense if you don’t.
Stalin evidently panned the book; Babel was killed in a purge, probably the 300th victim that day.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus :
I tried to listen again because the prosecutor started talking about my soul. He said that he had peered into it and that he had found nothing, gentlemen of the jury. He said that the truth was that I didn't have a soul and that nothing human, not one of the moral principles that govern men's hearts, was within my reach. "Of course", he added, "we cannot blame him for this. We cannot complain that he lacks what it was not in his power to acquire. But here in this court the wholly negative virtue of tolerance must give way to the sterner but loftier virtue of justice. Especially when the emptiness of a man's heart becomes, as we find it has in this man, an abyss threatening to swallow up society." It was then that he talked about my attitude toward maman. He repeated what he had said earlier in the proceedings. But it went on much longer than when he was talking about my crime--so long, in fact, that finally all I was aware of was how hot a morning it was.
As with Sartre's Nausea (Bookpost, July 2009), I would have been completely fooled if you had told me that this was written by a conservative theologian attempting to argue that Man without God is miserable, alienated, nihilistic and criminally dangerous. It would have made sense. And yet, Camus, and apparently most of his favorable critics and readers, seem to be arguing that the state of mind of his anti-protagonist Meursault is somehow praiseworthy, a sensible way to come to terms with an irrational world. Or maybe I just don't get it. When it comes to philosophies that urge the impossibility of joy or rational thought, there's a lot I don't even want to get.
Seems to me, Meursault is an overgrown Holden Caulfield without the anger. Where Caulfield likes to piss people off by rubbing their noses in their perceived phoniness, Meursault just refuses to play the game, with the result that he has a few friends and a lover and a job, and otherwise just sort of bumbles through life, not really concerned about ethics or pleasure or advancement. And then one day he impulsively murders a street punk because--oh, why not? He doesn't care why, and neither do I. The trial described in The Stranger is a farce presented as a real trial, in which the rules of evidence are either way different in mid 20th century France than they are in modern America, or are just disregarded. The court pays very little attention to the proof of the crime, or to the motive, and a good deal of attention talking to the jury about Meursault's irrelevant, allegedly impious behavior at his mother's funeral. Oh yes, and he is blinded and disoriented by bright light, especially sunlight, which struck me as a metaphor for being alienated from goodness or God. Is Camus saying that murder is an acceptable manifestation of angst? Or that we live in a sick world where people like Meursault are to be expected?
What it said to ME, anyhow, is that the Meursaults of this world may not be "without a soul", but they're missing some part of it, an interest and joy in simply living, in enjoying and being grateful for good food and drink, for good companions, nice days, sex and love, thoughts, stories and civilization. You don't need a religion or philosophy or even much of an education for that, and who says the world has to make sense? Sometimes it's the sheer craziness of it all that most makes my soul bubble over with laughter.