§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: July 2006

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The publisher set high expectations with blurbs that linked this book with Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, expectations that in my view it didn't come close to fulfilling. I'm tempted to say I'm not the reader this book is looking for, but Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca were cornerstones of my girlhood and Jane Eyre at least I've reread as an adult, without looking back on my unsophisticated younger self with distain. I understand why it has stood up for more than 150 years. What it has that The Thirteenth Tale doesn't have is a passionate statement of social criticism and a main character with a passionate nature tempered by reason and a sense of what is fair and what is right. Clearly, all three of these classics, though, have much more passionate characters and the characters are much more finely drawn and therefore memorable.

I found of The Thirteenth Tale to be muddy to say the least, with zillions of loose ends and the characters poorly drawn. Margaret herself is a colorless heroine, possibly intended to be as Jane Eyre portrays herself, but if Jane is passion tempered by reason, Margaret is reason tempered by passion—which is distinctly less interesting. I know Margaret is "meant" to be passionate about her experience because she too is a twin longing for her soul mate, but in my opinion that just didn't work. The fact that Miss Winter turns out not to be a twin somewhat negates that whole theme, but aside from that the theme is just not well defined and carried through. Particularly weak is the intruding knowledge that Margaret has no relationship with her mother and that that has been traumatic for her. But all we see are these hints, with no view of the mother at all and only a paragraph or so telling us the solution to the mystery at the end.

In short I don't care much about Margaret. I don't see her motivations clearly and I don’t find her passion compelling. I didn't care what happened to her so finishing the book for me was largely a matter of feeling obliged since I'd decided to review it.

I'd say also that there are too many characters and too many of them are treated superficially. For example, Aurelius is an interesting character who gets frankly shortchanged. He finds a long lost sister, who's not characterized at all except for her family tree. We know nothing about Karen and have a vaguely "feel good" sense when the two are reunited. I found Aurelius a potentially interesting character, but inconsistent. He seems like a slightly disturbed adult haunting the scene of his birth and then we find out that he's a successful caterer, known and heavily patronized in the area. Those two sides of him are never reconciled so I ended up wondering who he really is.

Also all interest is lost in Adeline the minute Margaret figures out she wasn't, in fact, Miss Winter. So we end up with no real psychological understanding of Adeline. All in all I'd call the "ghost child" solution to the mystery a sort of a deus ex machina. I was really curious how Adeline could in fact morph into Miss Winter who does become more sympathetic as the novel progresses and is probably the most sympathetic (and most realized) character. But the author simply abandons that thought and Miss Winter turns out to have far more sympathetic origins. And Adeline who is initially an interesting character is abandoned.

And Hester similarly disappears the minute Margaret recognizes that the bones found when the house is demolished are not hers. She is initially somewhat sympathetic, then turns into the villain of the piece, but once we find she's not been murdered, she's no longer worth following. Granted it would be a much longer novel if Setterfield had followed up every character, but it seems to me the plot is messy and there are too many characters to begin with.

I just don't see this novel as likely to be of lasting interest or merit. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor

Bitter Fruit was a finalist for the Booker for 2004 and also for that new Irish prize. It was first published in South Africa in 2001. Like his better-known countryman and two-time Booker winner, J.M. Coetzee, Dangor deals with post-Apartheid South Africa, but Dangor’s novel presents some barriers for the reader who doesn’t know South Africa. Conversations are sprinkled with Afrikaans words that are not always understandable from context and the reader may be perplexed by political references. The geography is strange too—I had to look up on a map to see exactly where Johannesburg is compared to Cape Town and the sea for instance. However, I only care about the map with books that give me an acute sense of place—and this one did.

The novel’s main characters are Silas Ali, his wife Lydia and their son Mikey (or Michael). Silas (son of a Muslim of Indian origin and a white mother) had been a member of the underground during the last years of Apartheid and now has a significant position as lawyer in the Justice Department, focusing on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s (TRC) report. Lydia comes from a family with strong ties from the black middle class. Mikey, now 19 and a university student, is the child of rape. Lydia was raped by a white police officer while Silas was arrested and beaten in a nearby van. At the beginning of the novel, Silas sees the man who raped Lydia in a local grocery store and when he tells her about the encounter, she drops a glass and walks on it—causing her to be rushed to the hospital where she stays for a considerable time, unable to walk. While she is there, Mikey, whose cousin had been sent to live in Canada after the two were caught “playing Gandhi” (lying together naked without touching) in his room, sleeps with the bisexual white colleague of Silas who volunteers to stay with him (since Lydia worries about him alone while she's in the hospital).

Silas telling Lydia of his sighting of the rapist DuBoise opens up cracks in the family that cannot be papered over. He becomes more depressed and discouraged, with the political situation as well as with his personal life. Lydia quits her job as a nurse to work in an AIDS awareness program, buys a car, becomes sexually active for the first time in years (on a billiard table at a party in the presence of her husband and son). Mikey reads his mother’s diary while she is in the hospital and learns of the rape. Ironically, it triggers his interest in Silas’ late grandfather, a well-known IMAM at a local mosque. He gets involved with “cousins” who are undoubtedly part of radical organizations who help him get weapons and encourage him to live underground.

The novel blends the racial, the sexual and the political or maybe when politics involves race it then automatically involves sex as well. There’s a character who tells Mikey that conquerors win ultimately by bastardizing the children. There are suggestions that the blending of the races produces beauty and sexual attractiveness as well as diverse sexual practices. Mikey is described a beautiful in a particularly sexual way and he learns his power over women early, attracting older women particularly, including his university professors and even his mother. A girlfriend who’s half Afrikaans and half Indian, confesses she’s had sex with her father since she was 14, and is angry with her father only because he’s found someone else. Lydia’s beautiful young man on the billiard table is also of mixed race. Silas on the other hand seems cut off totally from sex and the same time as he’s being cut out of government (as a new President prepares to take office). All his former underground associates, a mix of races and colors, seem to have missed the promised land in spite of their success. I haven’t quit worked out how all this adds up –possibly an inversion of TRC’s goals? Possibly though it just isn’t all connected—Mikey’s involvement with terrorists is believable enough but seems to be taking the novel is an entirely extraneous direction. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, July 15, 2006

See No Evil by Robert Baer

The movie Syriana is based on this book (also I think on Sleeping with the Enemy which is about “deals” the US made with Saudi Arabia for access to oil.) I haven’t seen the film but my sister said it was hard to follow. I thought reading the book might make it easier.

Robert Baer was a CIA officer working in the Middle East, one of the first who traced Middle Eastern terrorists, one of very few Arab speakers in the field. He spent the mid-80ies in Lebanon, was stationed in a satellite office when 7 CIA officers were blown up in the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983. He worked on finding US hostages that were kidnapped in that period. Even after the CIA gave up on finding out who was responsible for the Embassy bombing, he persisted and finally discovered that it was ordered by Iran and carried out by a branch of Fata, though possibly without the knowledge of Yassar Arafat. He also worked among Russians and Mujahideen in Tajikistan and in Northern Iraq with Ahmad Chalabi and Jalal Talabani in 1995 when the US refused to support a military coup against Saddam. He was ordered home because someone (he thought Chalabi) had put out a rumor that a US agent named Robert Pope who helping (against US law) in a plot to assassinate Saddam. The FBI was sure he was Robert Pope.

Back in Washington, Baer had to dodge impossible political situations and saw the Agency and the Government deliberately ignoring information that tended to reflect badly on the politics of the day—even if it would yield more information about terrorists. Baer thought the CIA was not taking enough chances or putting enough human officers in the field where they could identify and run agents among those dedicated to destroying the US. Without more people doing the kind of work he did, he thought US intelligence would be doomed not to understand the enemy. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Drop City by T. Coraghessan Boyle

I can’t say that I liked this one. The only other Boyle I’ve read is The Road to Wellville which I enjoyed because I used to live near Battle Creek, Michigan and I remembered my grandmother talking about going to the sanatorium there—in the heyday of women who crisscrossed the country in search of “cures”.

The novel starts in a commune called Drop City in Northern California in 1970. Norm Sender has opened his farm to hippies and dropouts who need a place to live outside of what they all see as a valueless society. They look and act like typical hippies—into long hair, free love, acid in the kool aid and hanging breasts. They are also a community that eschews the values of the outside world but has no core values of their own—they profess to hate the plastic society they’ve dropped out of but depend heavily on the commerce around them. They do have goats for milk, but their farming and trapping seem like careless hobbies for people who still depend on a grocery store within easy reach. They believe in free love but allow a young teenager to be sexually brutalized without real consequences. Male and female roles are pretty traditional and women it have less freedom than in the outside world of “expectations”. Drop City is dirty in many senses of the word—they don’t plan sanitation and are finally cited by the state of California for feces all over the place, human, dog, and goat. Living quarters, clothes, their persons are dirty. Their philosophy—if you can call it that—is sham. There are no clear cut goals for the community and no community understanding of what Drop City is all about—except a place to drop out. Norm’s philosophy is to let anyone in.

I remember this period of time and cared about or involved myself in some of its movements—the women’s movement, Civil Rights and to some extent opposition to the War in Vietnam, but critical as I was of what we called “the establishment” in those days, I didn’t feel any attraction to the “flower children” nor have any desire to drop out and live off the land. (From farming states, I’d somehow grown up thinking the point of the farm was to escape it). I also didn’t do drugs—or not more than a few experiments. Because I was asthmatic and had lung problems from childhood pneumonia, I wasn’t into inhaling anything—though I did try. I may be the only one of my generation who never tried any recreational pills, let alone injectible substances. (I’ve always been suspicious of drugs—even the ones doctor’s prescribe.) So I had no prefabricated interest in the subject matter of this novel as I did in The Road to Wellville. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’d be incapable of enjoying the novel. I’ve enjoyed—even loved—many novels whose subject matter was uninteresting or even repulsive to me.

I hated the first half of the novel. I found the community distasteful and the people shallow. Few knew what they were dropping out of—or into either for that matter. Somewhat understandable was a character like Marco, a draft dodger seeking a refuge and seriously willing to learn how to “live off the land”. I hated the women’s willingness to be exploited for housework and sex. I cringed at LSD-laced orange juice for the children—appropriated named, by the way, Sunshine—maybe the most popular Hippie name—and Che. If Boyle’s purpose was to expose the cracks in the community, he did that with energy and verve.

When the state with all its health regulations closes in on Drop City, Norm’s answer is to move the whole community north to Alaska where his uncle left him a cabin—the beginning of a new Drop City. They take off in a bus and a couple of cars for Boynton, Alaska. In the second half of the novel, not only do Drop City residents come up against the necessity to “live off the land” for real, but Boyle creates a community of trappers who are living off the land—and close to the bone—in a countryside that demands some discipline and hard work to survive. At temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, you can’t live in a treehouse nailed together with a few beaten up pieces of plywood.

The Alaskan version of drop outs, Sess and Pamela, were somewhat more admirable than the hippies because more disciplined, but Sess’s escalating feud with Joe Bosky puzzled me. It, of course, provides the denouement of the novel, but always seemed to me extraneous to the themes Boyle had been developing. That underlay of violence in the trapper community contrasted with the “peace and love” philosophy of Drop City, but what it added up to except an explosive ending I couldn’t be sure.

Early on we are introduced to two pivotal characters, Star and Pan, both of whom change significantly as the novel progresses. They came from the same upstate New York town and drove all the way to California together, intending never to return. They are lovers but not committed to each other and at Drop City Star drifts away and hooks up with Marco. Star is the only woman of Drop City that we come to know well. She seems more disciplined and responsible than the rest—taking responsibility for the goats and much of the cooking as well as expressing her outrage at what amounted to the gang rape of the 14-year old girl. Pan is seduced away from the commune once they get to Alaska, partly because he let the community down but also because he admires the violent, hard-drinking trappers, but by the end of the novel, we know he planned to go home at Christmas, having evidently stolen Star’s stash of cash. Star too finds the Alaskan version of living off the land much more attractive than Drop City, makes friends with Pamela and by the end of the novel was also planning to go home—until she discovered her cash gone. Then she muses that everyone probably had exigency plans to drop out of Drop City. Possibly, though, she and Marco—who had apprenticed himself informally to Sess Harter—stayed on in the Alaska bush. They at least have the potential of surviving.

I have to say, though, that amid all my doubts about this novel, I did admire Boyle’s energy and language. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

That today's generation is living with real demons—not trivial ones like Holden Caulfield's—is as true as that the generation before him (“the greatest generation” etc. etc.) also had real crises. Holden was not supposed to have any problems as a pampered rich kid who lived in Manhattan and summered in Maine. He's the first in his family that didn't have to deal with the war (though an older brother did).

But I think there's a different kind of burden for those who are not called to deal with a crisis and of whom nothing much is asked. I see this novel as in part a dealing-with-peace-and-prosperity novel. A expose of the 50ies in a way.

I’m curious about what Holden Caulfield has to say to today’s young people. I suspect that while there are some universals, his situation may not resound. But I don't see that the novel's audience should be seen as in any way limited to young people. The day-in-the-life-of-a-16-year-old style was not chosen to attract 16 year-olds so much as to warn everyone else. Holden first saw light, after all, in The New Yorker, not in The American Girl (or rather, in whatever the equivalent mag was for boys).

Clearly, there’s a similarity between Salinger and Jack Kerouac, for instance; both see hypocrisy in the post-war world, but deal with it differently. Kerouac's message is the one that really appeals to the young; Salinger's is more “about” the young, with the message—one of warning as I see it—for the whole culture.

Sixteen-year-old Holden seems to be getting relatively little guidance from anyone. That his history teacher tries suggests that he sees Holden as a lost soul. We get practically no picture of the parents—except their disapproval and disappointment when Holden gets kicked out of one school after another. Holden's siblings are his mainstay and one of them has died and another moved to Hollywood (an outpost of “phoniness” according to Holden). We get the sense that the parents didn't do much to help him with either the death of Allie and D.B.’s absence. Nor were they able to help—even to find out about—what troubled him at school.

Holden struggles with sex in a repressive society which has gotten across its message about sex being dirty and shameful, but still everyone his age talks about it constantly and strives to get experience and sexual suggestions and innuendos permeate the adult world Holden samples when he leaves school and goes back to NY alone. And what Holden knows about women he seems to have learned from his little sister!

He senses the hypocrisy that so permeates the society, but doesn't know what to do about it—especially since no one else seems to recognize it. It literally incapacitates him and keeps him from taking anything seriously. When his roommate has a date, he borrows Holden's jacket (which he stretches out) and plans to make it in the coach's car with a girl Holden cares about, and he asks Holden to write a descriptive essay for him. Holden doesn't want to lend the jacket (but does) and wants to scream that Jane is too good to be treated as Stradlater intends (but doesn't), but he wants to write the essay, probably because, though he doesn't realize it, writing actually helps him sort out his confused feelings. (Remember the only subject he passed was English.) Stradlater, however, cautions him not to make it “too good”. He just wants to get by and not be singled out. Holden abandons writing about a house or a room as Stradlater suggests and writes about his dead younger brother's baseball glove which had poetry written on the fingers—Allie read it to keep himself amused when the game was slow for him. One senses that this is the only way Holden can talk about his brother's death—or perhaps, given the requirements of the novel’s point of view, the only way Salinger can have Holden introduce the subject honestly. But when Stradlater comes back and is disappointed that the essay is about a "goddam baseball glove", Holden's fragile ego collapses again—without the closure he might have got from talking about the essay. He tears into into tiny pieces and trashes it.

The hypocrisy (what Holden calls phoniness) message is, I think, what probably does (or at least can) come across to young people (at least that's what I identified with reading it at 19 or 20 when I was convinced that the establishment was seriously off balance in its values). But Holden has no answers. He's immobilized by the phoniness he sees because he sees it everywhere, even in the people he likes, even in himself. And he's cut himself off from anyone who could help him find a way through the maze. The last refuge, Mr. Antolini, who used to teach at one of his schools, ends up at least seeming to want to seduce him.

How powerful the phoniness message is to today's young people is hard for me to judge. It was powerful to my generation. I've always recoiled from retrospective yearning for the 50ies--that's my legacy from my own questioning of the establishment. The 50ies was a time for getting and spending and forgetting that bad things happened to good people. Ultimately, though, questioning the ethos of the 50ies was worthwhile, for me personally, and for the country as a whole, though when I look around me today I wonder if anything really stuck. I see so many—including educated and prosperous friends and neighbors—with no sense of irony about themselves and their lives at all. That may not be as immobilizing as Holden's total immersion in irony, but I don't find it completely healthy either. There’s a great deal of value in Holden’s nose for phoniness.

We learn at the end that Holden’s writing from some kind of psychiatric hospital where he’s been sent to sort himself out. He’s fairly cynical about that, but what’s hopeful is that he’s using what he does well—write—to deal with his problems. We saw that possibility in the essay about the baseball glove….

POSTSCRIPT: “I like it when someone digresses; it’s more interesting and all,” Holden says to Mr. Antolini, whom he respects because he was the one who dealt with the dead body of the boy who jumped out of a dorm window to escape his tormentors at one of Holden’s many schools. Holden was explaining why he failed an oral expression class. They had to give extemporaneous speeches and the class was supposed to yell “Digression!” when they strayed from the topic. I like digressions too. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Everyman by Philip Roth

Clearly Roth is writing the contemporary equivalent of a medieval morality play, confronting the deterioration and death of an ordinary man. The book starts with the burial of the hero. Apropos of the title, we don’t even know his name. It’s an old, not-very-well-kept-up cemetery by a freeway near Elizabeth, N. J., the typical Roth milieu—New Jersey, that is, not the cemetery. In the last episode of the novel before his death, the hero visits that same cemetery. His parents are buried there. He looks for them. He engages a gravedigger in conversation and learns some particularities of the business of digging graves—largely done by hand because the cemetery is no longer popular, but he also learns that the gravedigger takes pride in his work and is glad to know who dug his parents' graves. And of course every morality play worthy of its salt has a gravedigger.

After the internment, the novel goes back to the time when the boy goes to the hospital with his mother to have a hernia repaired. He is 8 years old. The child in the bed next to him dies. He is frightened to sleep without his parents. Thereafter every serious illness is recorded in the kind of detail one gets when one falls into the clutches of doctors and hospitals. The deterioration of the body is recorded in some detail. So are the major events and people in his life. How, you’ll ask, in 192 pages? That probably is the genius of this work, that, not intending a family saga, Roth selects so wisely that the reader nevertheless sees Roth's hero with all his warts—and also with all his humanity.

What Roth does that medieval morality plays don’t do is deal with humans confronting death in the absence of religion or a belief in an afterlife. Our everyman stopped going to the synagogue immediately after his bar mitzvah. Posted by Picasa