Sunday, July 17, 2016

Speaking with the Spirits --Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad

Hubert Haddad. Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters. Translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz. Rochester: Open Letter Books, 2015. Published in France as Théorie de la villain petite fille by Zulma.


With Rochester Knockings, Haddad gives us an interesting look at the United States of the second half of the 19th Century. Haddad imagines the story of the historical Fox sisters, Leah, Kate, and Maggie, who through their communications with the spirits of the dead ignite the cross-continental Spiritualist movement. Haddad paints a United States still, as he describes it, under the influence of Puritanism, with a population naive enough and traumatized by the frequent death of children, spouses, and the great losses suffered in the Civil War to sustain a movement ascribed to by ardent believers and determined charlatans alike.

In Rochester Knockings, two young sisters have just moved with their parents to a small town, Hydesville, in New York State. The youngest, Kate, has recently witnessed the death of her much beloved younger brother. Sister Margaret is old enough to feel the loss of dear friends in the move to a new town. Both sisters are lonely; not yet accepted into the social circles of the community’s school and church. Kate dreams of her brother and feels a child’s responsibility for her brother’s death. She is a sleepwalker and seems especially in tune to her natural surroundings and alert to every noise within the house. Both sisters think of the house as a kind of living entity that will accept its occupants or not as it comes to know them. Left alone one night while her sister and parents attend to the birth of a calf, Kate hears strange knockings. When Margaret returns, Kate has her listen for the knocks and over time, both sisters make their mother aware of the strange occurrences. Soon the whole town knows about the knockings at the Hydesville house. The church’s strict pastor, lost within his own guilt at the loss of a young wife, excommunicates the family, who are then in jeopardy from the mob-like reaction of the townspeople. The girls are whisked off to safety with an older sister, Leah, in Rochester. Leah has plans for her sisters’ penchant for communicating with the afterlife. She drives them into a life of public demonstrations and seances. Leah shares in the role of medium to the spirit-world herself. Haddad’s Kate is the true medium of the three sisters. The two older sisters become adept at creating the proper atmosphere and simulating their conversations with the dead. Kate lives in a foggy world with no barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. Both Kate and Margaret are exhausted by Leah’s ambitions and only Leah, through marriages and prudent management of her (and the younger sisters') earnings, sustains her spiritualist activities and comfortable lifestyle.

Celebrities are dependent on the waxing and waning whims of the public, and as the competition grows from imitators eager to cash in on the spiritualist opportunities, the girls’ hold on their public fades. As wooers and supporters die or drift in different directions, Kate and Margaret are left alone and die in poverty. This novel is as much about the rise and fall of the Fox sisters as it is about an American population of immigrants and religious zealots eager and ready to believe not only the sisters who might or might not have been sincere in their exhibitions, but the many fakes who follow in their footsteps.

The narrative has a wandering style, characters appear, disappear, and reappear later only to disappear again. The sisters' stories follow sometimes separate, sometimes intertwining threads. I sometimes wondered if the translator got a bit lost in the translations —some of the sentences seemed unnecessarily long and convoluted, and the style a bit inelegant in places.

A word about Open Letter Books. This is the nonprofit imprint from the University of Rochester, with the mission of publishing English translations of exemplary literature from throughout the world. Look to Open Letter’s publications to discover writers new to the English speaking reading population.  We should hope that Open Letter will thrive. Their beautifully produced books each celebrate the collaboration between writers and readers, the work of the writer to provide creative insight into the human experience and the work of the reader to absorb, understand, and make the writer’s expression meaningful. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Man Who Loved Birds and his Dog

The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

A South Asian doctor moves into a small rural town--her office a former gas station; a priest, former draft dodger, now full of doubts lives in a fading monestary; a communal minded veteran, with plenty of love to share, makes a moderate living off of his marijuana farming; an ambitious, take-no- prisoners county attorney seeks his white whale; a vindictive policeman takes out his disappointment in life by beating his wife and son, his boy loves and seeks out stories, his wife, the boy's mother, loves and tries to protect her son, J.C., the dog roams the countryside freely along with his beloved master. 

The spiritual nature of this novel is clear from the title of its Part One,"The Earthly Paradise." Its opening epigraph a quote from Luke, "this scripture must be fulfilled in me: And he was counted among the lawless." The epigraph that opens Part Two is from the Bhagavand Gita, "Men will seek beauty, whether in life or in death." The novel revolves around Johnny Faye, the veteran turned marijuana farmer. He is a gentle man with a charismatic warmth that draws people to not only trust him but to love him. The vulnerable Dr. Chatterjee, a refugee of sorts, self-exiled in this isolated town unused to foreigners, first meets Johnny Faye as a patient. Later, she encounters him in a statue garden where she regularly goes for peace and solitude. He arrives just as she becomes aware of a pit of snakes just below where her feet are dangling. He, St. Francis like, "took his walking stick and thurst it gently into the coiling mass. 'Greetings, brother snakes. . . ."

Although the St. Francis allusion seems powerful (and his dog's name, J.C. certainly invokes Christian sensibilities), Johnson, describes Faye's snake entwined walking stick as a caduceus, throwing the illusion much further back into spiritual and literary history. Flavian, the troubled priest, meets Johnny Faye during his first foray into a bar--a den of inquity. It is here that Flavian finds himself amidst a pit of metaphorical snakes. Faye protects Flavian from the snakes .He guides Flavian through a game of pool, while, from Flavian's perpsective, he remains a disembodied voice and a faceless body. Faye's caduceus, this time, is not a snake entwined walking stick, but a pool cue. Both Flavian and Dr. Chaterjee are seduced by Johnny Faye's gentle spirit and connection with nature; his ability to provide both physical and spiritual healing. Faye also has a bit of Robin Hood in him, literally stealing from the rich and anonymously delivering up what he has stolen to the poor.

All of this calm and beauty is at odds with the county attorney's war on drugs, his greedy ambition, and his willingness to rely on violence, police bruality, and vigilante justice. Economic disparity is also evident in this small town. The small farmers are no longer able to make a living legitimately and so have formed a marijuana growing cooperative, led by Johnny Faye. Economic downturn threatens the traditional ways of the Abbey, Flavian's home. Soon, the abbey's last vestige of self-sufficiency and connection with nature, their heard of cattle, will be sold off and butchered. The county attorney seeks, in his own way, to seduce, through money, promises, and threats. His aim is to destroy Johnny Faye and he easily persuades Officer Smith to help him. While the contrast of Johnny Faye's personally created microcosm of love and gentleness contrasts starkly with the great evils of the world, the plot progresses with both subtlety and sensitivity. The catharses are present but private. 

Johnson's plot whirls around the yearnings and doubts of both Brother Flavian and Dr. Chatterjee. They are connected through their mutual love for Johnny Faye.  They are also connected by their inability to protect the vulnerable. Dr. Chatterjee has saved the life of Officer Smith's son who he has beaten to the brink of death. Mrs. Smith brings her son to Dr. Chatterjee's office while Brother Flavian is visiting.  It quickly becomes clear to both Chatterjee and Flavian , that Smith's son has not tumbled into an accident but has been repeatedly abused. It is unclear how to protect the boy in this small town where action on their part could put both mother and son in danger and cost Dr. Chatterjee her job.

All of the characters make their choices for better and mostly worse. As Dr. Chatterjee makes her most significant choice, she is reminded by Flavian, that,  "this is America. You have choices," although her choice is coerced by threats. Still, she has reason to believe, that compromised as it her choice was, "She had chosen well." Hope survives despair.




Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Darryl Pinckney's Black Deutschland

Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Jed is black and gay and a disappointment to his achievement oriented parents. Their disappointment is either the cause of or the consequence of Jed’s ongoing struggle with addiction. A lover of words and books, Jed follows in the footsteps of Isherwood and Auden to seek a home, both literary and spiritual, in West Berlin. West Berlin is also home to his cousin Cello, an accomplished pianist, neurotic and unstable, and married into a wealthy German family. Jed receives temporary shelter with a reluctant Cello and her family as he works with the media hungry and controversial architect Rosen-Montag. Jed’s story moves backwards and forwards as Pinckney takes the reader back and forth between Jed’s history and his present. Jed’s aspirations in Berlin include liberating himself from his addictions, finding romance, and establishing himself as a writer, all of which he accomplishes to some degree. His books are his one constant as he moves back and forth across the Atlantic, in and out of Cello’s house, unexpectedly finds love and as unexpectedly loses it, and finds himself in and out of work. Jed’s differences with his Chicago family keep him from finding a home with them, but he never realizes the safe harbor, the embracing sense of belonging, he had hoped to find in Berlin. Jed never fully shakes the weight of his American past and eventually tires from his efforts to do so.  Pinckney vividly describes the Soviet-era West Berlin with its expatriates, remaining threads to its Nazi past, dark welcoming bars, and its dangerous criminal culture. The city’s cold winters and sombre tones reflect and reinforce Jed’s mindset and diminishing sense of self worth. Black Deutschland is ultimately a tragic novel. For Jed, the novel ends where it began. There is no homecoming in sight for him, no return to family, no private life of warm and accepting embraces.  For better or worse, he remains an American abroad in a dark and cheerless post-wall Berlin.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Not “But for the Grace of God,” But Because of It


In the Shadow of the White Pagoda by Clara Hausske
Review by Walter Giersbach

Historical memoirs are fraught with problems as reminiscences dim or are subjected to revisionism.  More problematic is that the farther back in time the commentator goes, the more the facts are distorted by the writer’s interpretation.  Because Clara Hausske recalled and kept notes on her work in China almost a century ago, the reader of In the Shadow of the White Pagoda is struck with unvarnished truth about the shattering poverty, malnutrition, sickness, chaos of war and banditry taking place far from the cities.  Yes, the writing is often simplistic and reportorial, but reading Hausske’s description of the challenges she and her husband faced in China in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s is as clear as looking at an unedited film.  There is a level of authenticity as she describes a life that’s hard to imagine — except that other parts of the world are undergoing these same difficulties and opportunities.

The Hausskes went to China sponsored by what is now United Board for World Ministries.  Their religious denomination was Congregational, now the United Church of Christ.  Their mission was located literally in the shadow of the pagoda where 20 years earlier Boxer rebels massacred Christians. 

Albert Hausske left the U.S., with his wife Clara and two toddler children, in 1920 to administer the accounting for a hospital in Taiku, Shansi Province.  This mission was two days’ inland from Tientsin by boat, railway and rickshaw.  The book, extremely well edited by her son, Albert Carol Hausske, was published in 1989 from Clara’s notes, photos and letters.

This was the back country that appeared on no one’s tour guide.  The Hausskes were missionaries not to convert some indifferent Buddhists, but to cure those on the verge of death, feed those protein-starved people who saw meat in their diet only on holidays, who were illiterate to the point of having to unlearn “folk wisdom” and embrace proven scientific diet, and to care for people so desperate they abandoned their children to the school as the only hope their progeny would live.  In that, they were lucky also to have served with  Dr. Wiloughby Hemingway, uncle of author Ernest Hemingway, who had arrived there in 1903.

Clara offers a positive, forbearing look at daily life with all the quotidian duties, communication obstacles (the Hausskes learned to speak Chinese), and hardship of moving from house to house under trying circumstances.  It is also an insider’s look at life as the Communists approached Nanjing in 1927, themselves emigrating to Korea as refugees, their return when Chiang Kai-shek recaptured Nanjing, and fears as the Japanese took over city after city in the years leading up to 1941.  That declaration of war forced the Hausske family back to the States (there had been occasional furloughs home since 1920) until they could return in the 1950s. 

She writes, “In 1940, only seven foreign missionaries supervised the care of about fourteen hundred inpatients, ten thousand outpatients, three hundred and fifteen boarding students in the schools, thirty student nurses, several Chinese doctors, and innumerable people in the countryside.”  Her commentary on this is enlightening: “Their lives were simple but very rich.  They were fortunate that there was always plenty of work to keep them in good spirits.  And it was also as well that they could adjust themselves to difficulties when it was necessary to do so.”  Was this a rosy-eyed view?  More likely it was the interpretation of a spiritually rich person who had seen much progress.

Surprisingly, Clara displays a total lack of irony or disbelief in her descriptions of children being carried to the hospital on a relative’s back, or a tearful father giving his child to the orphanage so the boy might live.

If there is one lapse for this reader, it is that Clara did not apply more subjective reporting and personal response to the political changes raging around them. Their work was threatened, as were the lives of the local population.  The relief work was halted only when the Japanese sent them out of the country and when the Communists refused to let them resume. 

Today, there often is a knee-jerk reaction to missionaries, seeing them as evangelicals out to corrupt the purity of native populations.  Witness what missionaries did to Native Americans and Hawaiians in the name of “civilization.”  Clara makes almost no reference to religious teaching in her memoir; there is continual detail of the Chinese lives they saved, the children and adults they taught to read and write, and the Western lessons in diet, nutrition and childcare they taught to extend and enrich their lives.

The book provides another interesting insight into the independence of this woman.  Clara was often alone when Albert was traveling to other missions.  She regularly traveled by herself or with her children.  She was emancipated years before women gained the respect they deserved.  In many ways, Clara mirrors the life of my grandmother traveling the U.S. on the Chautauqua lecture circuit during the same period.  Yes, there were women who became empowered in that period.

I need to disclose that Albert and Clara Hausske were friends of my father, Walter C. Giersbach when he was president of Pacific University, and of my mother.  I have a vague memory of their son, Trevor Hausske, graduating Pacific in the mid 1940s when I was six years old..  And the Hausskes were generous in their gifts of Chinese art to my parents, including their sale of two antique Chinese chests that are still with my family.

A few weeks ago I was inventorying the antiques my parents collected and decided to unravel the  mystery of who the Hausskes were, these shadowy people from my childhood.  Out of that detective work came the discovery of In the Shadow of the White Pagoda, now available only through a used bookseller. 



Published by Caves Books, Ltd., Taipei, Taiwan, 1989.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jim Harrison: The Ancient Minstrel

The Ancient Minstrel. Grove Press, 2016.

Jim Harrison died in March of this year at nearly 80 years of age. The Ancient Minstrel was published on March 1, just a few weeks before his death. Jim Harrison's last published work is the first of his more than 20 works of fiction and 18 volumes of poetry. His Wikipedia article says that he has been compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. If this is the case then Ancient Minstrel does not fit the norm. Certainly these two authors did not come to mind as I read the three novellas that make up this collection.

The Ancient Minstrel consists of three novellas, "The Ancient Minstrel," "Eggs," and "The Howling Buddha." In his introduction, Harrison calls them fictionalized memoir. He didn't write straight out memoir because his wife "insisted on being left out," and his two daughters echoed their mother's request. And so we have fictionalized memoir. The first and third novellas feature an aging alcoholic, lecherous man as their central character (two different men), and these two stories book end a very different novella which has a young single woman as its main character.

"The Ancient Minstrel" is the fictionalized memoir. It features an aging writer concerned with drink a flagging libido, and his farm in Montana. He is looking back over his life, which has been made easy by his lucrative film script writing. Despite the slow decay that comes with aging and excessive drinking, the hero enjoys his life on his farm, his friends, and his writing. He and his wife are separated, but see each other regularly and have a tolerant and amiable relationship--an important element in the story. The tension in the novella revolves around the writers purchase of a pregnant sow, his growing relationship with Darling and her litter of piglets and all things pig oriented. Harrison writes of this emotional fixation with colorful and humorous detail.

"Eggs" tells the story of Catherine, a girl who grows up with her brother in a household filled with matrimonial rancor. A family situation which is damaging for both brother and sister. Her brother runs away at an early age and stays away from the family, but Catherine finds relief and a certain amount of peace sitting with the chickens on her paternal grandparents' farm. The farm serves as a retreat for both Catherine and her mother. Her maternal grandparents are in England. Catherine and her mother move there before the second world war breaks out. Eventually Catherine's mother returns to Montana, but Catherine stays with her British grandparents, living through the blitz in all of its horror. Eventually Catherine returns to Montana to live on her grandparents farm, where she raises chickens and lives a carefully constructed, moderate, and intentional life. She becomes intent on having a child, and goes about planning her pregnancy with the same careful thoughtfulness and intention.

Finally, "The Howling Buddha," features Detective Sunderson, a long time Harrison character, whose level of alcoholism and lecherousness make the weakness of the hero of "The Ancient Minstrel" seem mild by comparison. Detective Sunderson likes all women, and, most fatally, he is attracted to underaged girls. While nominally about retrieving the daughter of a friend from a cult, the story is really about Detective Sunderson's last mistake and final act.

Where as the first two novellas have a certain sweetness to them, "The Howling Buddha" is dark and uncompromising in its conclusion.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Stella Gibbons: Pure Juliet

Stella Gibbons. Pure Juliet. Vintage, 2016. Taking my usual look through our Penn Libraries new book shelf, the name Stella Gibbons caught my eye. I associate Stella Gibbons with my childhood viewing of Cold Comfort Farm and the wonderful Alistair Sims. and my later reading of the novel, which I enjoyed even more than the 1971 (original broadcast date according to the Master Piece Theater Archive). Gibbons's Cold Comfort heroine, Flora Poste, is independent, optimistic, and pleasant but never deterred. She does get married in the end, or at least fly off with someone you think she might marry, but still, I think Flora is an early role model for independent women.

You might say there is some cultural hegemony in her approach to the farm residents, a bit too much of an imperialist mind set, or you might think of Flora as representing the still fairly new 20th Century and its slow but inevitable incursion on the remnants of the old century. You can think of none of that and simply enjoy Gibbons' wonderful style and humor. It is a book that sits well in the pantheon of British humorous novels. I'm not an expert, but I think of Wodehouse, and, another childhood favorite (thanks to my mother's love of books and reading), Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. These are all writers that I keep by my bed for late night rereading.

But, I digress! This is about Pure Juliet. As I was saying, the name Stella Gibbon caught my eye.  I picked up the book to investigate, and read that the manuscript "was brought to light by her family in 2014" and the 2016 Vintage edition is its first publication. A new Stella Gibbon novel! Gibbon was a fairly prolific writer, something, I am sad to say, I wasn't aware of until reading the inside cover of this volume. Pure Juliet  would appear as the 17th in a list of Gibbons novels. There is no date given as to when this manuscript was written, and the novel itself does not include references to any dates, but I'm guessing it is set sometime in the 1970s (Gibbon died in 1989). The character Juliet is another independent young women. She is determined and too intent on her single focus to be deterred. But she is very different from Flora Poste. Juliet lives in a world of mathematics and is in pursuit of the essence of coincidence. Today we might say that Juliet has Asperger's Syndrome, but Gibbons portrays her character without any mention of syndromes. She does not fit in and cares little for social niceties or making conversation.

Pure Juliet is a book of coincidences. Juliet happens to meet a rich old woman in the park who offers Juliet a place to stay after she leaves the comprehensive because Juliet's father won't allow her to go to University.  Juliet is intent on following her coincidences, and slips out of the house to go live with the old woman. An only child, Juliet knows enough to make a good case for herself and tells the old woman that she has no father and four siblings. While Juliet is not kind or loving to the old woman, she gives her enough attention to maintain her place. The old woman's nephew happens to be a kind man who takes an interest in Juliet's peculiar nature. Unlike most people he is interested in nurturing her genius and, unlike most people, accepts Juliet's lack of interest in men and romance. When the old woman dies, he makes sure that Juliet has a place to live and work. As the story takes its course, there are a few more coincidences, enough to lead Juliet to winning an important honor from an oil rich, math loving nation with a young open minded ruler. The ruler convinces the scholars at the ancient university to overlook the detail of Juliet's sex and to recognize her great work.

So, I've given a bit too much away, but this book is a pleasure to read. The writing style is understated and engaging. You see the coincidences as an after thought--Gibbons doesn't bludgeon the reader over the head with them. Her portrayal of Juliet is straight forward but tender. Juliet's nature is a gift and a curse. Gibbons' narrative suggests that it might take having what looks like Asperger's Syndrome for a woman to achieve a work of genius. In the world of this novel,  a woman is confronted with pressure to have boyfriends and children, to meet parents' expectations or to take on certain kinds of jobs.  Even in the world outside this novel, women don't tend to marry adoring men who make sure that all of their needs are attended to, but we know plenty of examples of men having just such a partner. Juliet, though, finds a benefactor who makes sure she remembers to eat.

In Pure Juliet, Gibbons also looks at difference. Juliet is an extreme example, but Frank, the rich old woman's nephew, is avidly opposed to unnecessary consumption, maintains a spartanly decorated house, is a dedicated vegetarian, and other than Juliet (and is large family), his interest, fortune  and time go toward promoting edible grasses. There are other quirky characters, characters who are less than satisfied, characters who are set on one thing or another, if not to the level of Juliet's single mindedness. She is the example at the top of graph and the others create the downward slope.

I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful and kind book. I am pleased to have the words of Stella Gibbons floating in my head, and to contemplate her nonjudgmental, unlabled look at the peculiarities, but also tendernesses inherent in human nature.

Let us hope her optimism and belief in kindness manifests itself in our 21st century and decade as well. We need a lot of kindness.

Read on.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Career Advice for Graduate Students @ Penn Libraries

The Carpe Career blog at Inside Higher Education recommends a handful of books that all Ph.D. candidates should consider reading. I thought I'd take a look to see what we have at Penn so that, should you be interested, you can get right to them.

"So What are You Going to Do With That?": Finding Careers Outside Academia  by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. University of Chicago Press, 2007. HF5382.7 .B374 2007
If you're wondering if you might find peace and contentment beyond academia, this book is a good place to start. (And be sure to check out the Alt-Acadamy Media Commons Project.

The Academic Job Search Handbook by Julia Vick and Jennifer Furlong. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. We have many copies and multiple editions of this book across the libraries. Seems like the editors at the Penn Press knew what they were doing when they published this book. Find the print here: LB2331.72 .H45 2008 and the electronic edition here (for you folks with a Pennkey that is). The Carpe Career blogger, Natalie Lundsteen, calls the advice in this book "tried and true," and recommends reading it from "cover to cover."

The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide for Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job by Karen Kelsky. Three Rivers Press, 2015. This one is so new, it isn't yet available in the library, but look for it soon. Some of our BorrowDirect partners do have it in, so if you'd like to get a head start, you can investigate that route. Lundsteen recommends pairing this title up with the Penn Press title. It rewards careful and critical reading, but hold on to your hat.

Give and Take by Adam Grant. Viking, 2013. BF637.S8 G6855 2013. Lund rates this title as one of her type five career books, although it is not just for academics. She recommends it especially for international students looking to become more effective networkers.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Crown Publishers, 2012. BF698.35.I59 C35 2012. Introverts, gather strength and succeed; extroverts, learn more about some of the people you may be working with. Check out Susan Cain's blog, Quiet Revolution for more. There is information and ideas there for introverts and extroverts, and those who fall in between. 

Networking for Nerds by Alaina Levine. Wiley Blackwell, 2015. Perhaps written with the science Ph.D. in mind, Lunsteen gives this out as a prize at the career talks she gives. HD69.S8 L475 2015

Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Laurence Boldt, Penguin, 2009. MIT and Harvard have this title in their collections. Penn will soon, so check back in a week or two. Perhaps something like the famous What Color is Your Parachute (Hey! There is a 2015 edition of this book--still going strong), Boldt seeks to help you find what will bring you the most joy. Lundsteen recommends this for Ph.D.s who like to "ponder and philosophize."

How to Negotiate Your First Job by Paul Levy and Farzana Mohamed. Lundsteen keeps several copies of this on her office bookshelf and it can be read in an hour. You may need to investigate your favorite bookstore to get your hands on this one.

Do you have a favorite career title that isn't on this list? Leave us a comment.  In the meantime, take a look at one of these books. These books are in demand, so be prepared to make use of interlibrary loan our your favorite bookstore.








Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story; Lee's On Such a Full Sea; Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr: A Comparison

Gary Shteyngart, Chang Rae Lee, and Lars Iyer

Shteyngart, Lee, and Iyer are authors of three very different books, but at the same time they share, to a greater or lesser extent, the theme of a society in decay … or society past decay. I’ll set Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr aside for the time being. Unlike Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, Iyer’s book takes place in the all too recognizable present. Shteyngart and Lee offer their readers an unsavory taste of the future, but as Shteyngart elucidated when he read at Grinnell College several years ago, the not too distant future.

I might not have drawn a connection between Shteyngart’s futuristic story of scanning instead of reading, credit poles, onion skin pants, äppäräts that assess the merits and prospects of potential hook ups, and Chinese and Norwegian dominance over the United States both economically (the currency is the Yuan) and militarily, with Lee’s futuristic story of upper class Charters, carefully controlled facilities and Mad Max infrastructure-free counties coupled with Chinese immigrant mass colonization of America’s abandoned urban neighborhoods, if I hadn’t been reading Shteyngart’s Little Failure at the same time that I was reading On Such a Full Sea. I discovered in the autobiographical misery that is Little Failure that Shteyngart had been a student of Lee’s at Hunter College. Very interesting.  Lee and Shteyngart write in very different styles. If you’ve read Lee’s The Surrendered you’ll know how unrelentingly bleak a Lee novel can be or at least how bleak they have become. Shteyngart’s view of human history and human destiny may not be any less bleak than Lee’s, but he can swaddle his tragic outlook in flawless and sometimes (painfully) hilarious satire (and no, whoever told you your first novel was your best novel, was wrong. Super Sad is one of the great American novels.) Two different novels share a similar vision. It is not unlike reading a contemporary novel with Homer’s Odyssey clearly in your memory. As the plot unfolds, it dawns on you that it was all pretty well laid out some 3,000 years ago. But Homer’s epic tale is a beautiful bundle of words worth living with, repeating, refining, ornamenting, and thoroughly examining. (Re: Iyer’s novel: it may be more of a riff on Socrates than it is Homer). 
   
Lee’s Fan takes such an Odyssean journey. She leaves her carefully cocooned “facility” (B-mor, neocolonial Baltimore) to search for a boyfriend who has disappeared through mysterious but official channels and a cousin who won a place in the well-heeled, well-protected, well-walled consumer haven of the Charters. She slips through a gate, picked up on the local vid, but otherwise lost enough to become a local legend and to inspire a brief period of unrest and rebellion. Fan has to make her way through the dangerous Counties, a sort of infrastructureless, lawless, and governmentless territory outside the enclosed facilities and Charters.  Like Odysseus, Fan has native wit and resiliency, but she is also kind and caring. She is determined, but she has a naïve unsuspecting saintliness about her as well. It is this saintliness that saves her; her kindness repaid with kindness when she needs it most.  Lee’s not too distant future has a well-established wealth disparity, a corporate like organization of society, with those in the facilities well cared for but also mesmerized into maintaining a just sustainable status quo. They comply with their carefully defined niche in society, producing the food and other goods for those in the Charters. In return, they have safety, shelter, and family. Because the climate has become unpredictable and hostile, and the environment has become dangerously depleted and poisoned, the growing conditions are artificial. Fan is a diver in an aquaculture tank—keeping the tank clean and nurturing the fish. Others grow vegetables. Everything is monitored and tested to limit the Charter community members’ exposure to C causing agents. Almost everyone is infected with C, but health care is rationed with none available in the Counties and only carefully allotted care available in the facilities. Charters have the best access and care. Similar scenarios exist for education and opportunities. But Charter life is about spending; Facility life is about family and routine and peace; County life is about wits and survival.

Shteyngart’s New Yorkers are also consumers. Credit is your most important asset. Credit poles are everywhere reading your credit score as you walk by. Students no longer read, but rather scan texts. Shteyngart’s hero is a book owner and a book reader, one of the many ways he is set apart from the rest of his social circle. He is hapless and hopelessly in love. We read his romance as it plays out via texts and emails. He works for a cryogenic lab, where people are frozen in pursuit of agelessness and eternal life. The Norwegians and the Chinese are always threats in the background, until the end of the novel when they are no longer in the background… but have taken control. Shteyngart’s New York is one of social disparity, mindless consumerism, shallow intellect and lack of curiosity. In Shteyngart’s novel, his protagonist, Lenny, is said to be, by his Chinese critics, “ a tribute to literature as it once was…” (327). Following the fall of New York, Lenny makes his way to “Stability-Canada,” finally ending his days in the “Tuscan Free State,” where there is “less data, less youth, and where old people … were not despised simply for being old…” (328). Despite this somewhat bucolic ending, the world is collapsing all around, the human race, according to the Italians, mere horse flies to the roiling climate’s fly-swatter.

A quick jump to Iyer’s Wittgenstein, Jr. Iyer has an oddly repetitive writing style that you either sink into comfortably or become very annoyed with (or both!). In addition, he makes heavy use of italics so that in your head, you continually lean on words. Iyer becomes a voice in your head. If you’ve read his Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus trilogy, with twin heroes as "Madmen" of philosophy, you’ll be familiar with it. I admit that I read right through Spurious and Dogma, but stumbled part way through Exodus, never quite finishing it. The theme of a humanities phobic academy is continued in Wittgenstein, Jr. The interesting difference is that the tale is told from the perspective of a student rather than from that of the philosophy professor. The students have decided that their professor reminds them of Wittgenstein, and thus his name. “He dresses like Wittgenstein…and he behaves a bit like Wittgenstein too . . . . And of course, like the real Wittgenstein, he has come to Cambridge to do fundamental work in philosophical logic.” The professor leads the class in a Socratic fashion, asking questions but never explaining. The class dwindles down to a loyal few who are interested to varying levels. The remnant make up a a microcosm of student stereotypes. The students party heavily, indulging in alcohol and drugs as they re-enact ancient drama and relive ancient debates. Through the theatrics, the posturing, and the increasing distress and weakening sanity of W., Iyer takes us a little distance into questions of being and nothingness. The students are in pain and confusion, party wildly, play like children (there is a brilliant scene where they form a human orrery), do their homework (I think). The narrator, Peters, is in love with Wittgenstein, but this only unfolds in the final section of the book. Peters stays behind during the winter break to take care of Wittgenstein, who is in a fragile state. Peters as caretaker to Wittgenstein has a different narrative voice from Peters as hilarious hijinxing student. He demonstrates a tenderness and maturity not otherwise revealed in Iyer’s characters. And in a similar way Shteyngart sends his protagonist to a thoughtful but dark retreat in the Tuscan Free State, Iyer’s novel moves from black, chaotic humor to bittersweet reflection. Iyer's novel, like Shteyngart's and Lee's, surprises by being a sad love story. But, while Lee and Shteyngart portray the demise of society and the earth’s ability to sustain human life, Iyer focuses on the life of the mind and the world of the academy. But this life and its world are crumbling as well. 

All three novels leave us thinking about the future or maybe trying not to think about the future. If anything, the world is even bleaker than when I finished each of these novels. Surely something will turn around? Lenny, visiting friends in a rustic villa, listens to them talk about “global warming and the end of human life on earth . . . . I could not understand how, as parents, my friends could even begin to imagine the extinguishing of their son’s world . . . .” (330). This is a question I continuously ask, especially of our elected officials. Are none of you parents? Have you no desire to see a future for your children? Your grandchildren? Are you kidding me—this is all okay with you? Let no one say that the novel is an unimportant genre or that we’re better off with nonfiction. By shedding a fresh light on our world, by adding another dimension to Homer's truly timeless epic, we become able to recognize aspects of ourselves and our world that might have been ignored, overlooked. We may not like what we see, but we benefit from the revelation. The revelation may leave us confused and uncertain, but as Socrates suggested, knowing how much we don't know (or understand) is to be that much wiser.

If you are having trouble finding novels that seem to be worth dedicating the little undistracted time you have, I would recommend that you sit down to give a good read (no scanning) to these three novels. You will laugh and you will cry and you will contemplate and consider. You may also want to take more naps or set out to read (or re-read) all of P.G. Wodehouse as respite and escape.

Find these at your local library!
Shteyngart, Gary. Little Failure: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2014.
Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2010.
Lee, Chang Rae. On Such a Full Sea. New York : Riverhead Books, 2014.
Iyer, Lars. Wittgenstein Jr. Brooklyn, NY : Melville House Publishing, [2014] 

By the way: Melville House is an awesome publisher--go to their Web site, see the cute hamster and check out their catalog of books. There is much to indulge in! www.mhpbooks.com

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Holling C. and Lucille Holling: The Book of Indians

From Walter Giersbach. You may also want to read Giersbach's essay on Holling and his Paddle to the Sea from April 2008.

The Book of Indians:
Working from Points of Authenticity

I’ve eagerly anticipated reviewing The Book of Indians.  But first I had to buy the book ($12, used, through Amazon).  And read it, pushing aside other commitments.  And doing some background investigation.

It’s necessary to begin by repeating that Holling and his wife Lucille were, among all their other qualities, authentic writers, illustrators, naturalists and historians.  After marrying in 1925, they traveled extensively throughout the Southwest.  (Holling’s first exposure had been a year-long stay in New Mexico after graduating college in 1923.)

Their work reflected their knowledge, as described by Hazel Gibb Hinman in her Master’s thesis in 1958.  She reports that in 1929, they stayed at the Nine Quarter Circle guest ranch northwest of Yellowstone Park, helping design the buildings.  Traveling that winter up to Alberta, Canada, they took a tepee for camping.  (Going to search for tent poles, they came back to find tribeswomen had already set up their tent.)  After returning to the ranch to finish their work, they went on to Lubbock, Texas, to paint murals.  Then it was out to California, sketching and writing, with their Coleman stove, tent and camping equipment.  Never staying overlong in one place, they drove back to Phoenix at rodeo time where they drew and painted, selling their work to finance their travels.  (Ms. Hinman notes that in 1934 Holling demonstrated his fire-making skills at a luncheon lecture, starting a fire with two sticks in just seven minutes and so impressing a club member that he asked Holling to design his restaurant.)

That was just the winter of 1929, and all the while Holling and Lucille were making notes and sketches for two collaborative landmark books, The Book of Indians, (published in 1935 by Platt & Munk) and The Book of Cowboys (published a year later).

The Book of Indians attempts a grand perspective on North American tribes people in 13 chapters:  An introduction into the “types of Indians living in different kinds of country,” four chapters about the home life of children and eight chapters relating their adventures.  The book is essentially divided geographically among People of the Forests and Lakes, the Plains, the Deserts and Mesas, and the Rivers and the Seas

There are six beautiful colored illustrations in the plein-art style of the Southwest, plus many, many  sidebar illustrations of children, their homes, tools and weapons, graphic artwork, and animals.  The sepia pen-and-ink style drawings make a reader linger and digest each detail of the small pictures in the margins.

A critical element of this children’s book is the cultural and historical distinctions made by the Hollings.  The Native American nations were as different as the European countries, and this is explained in the first chapter.  Most dramatically, the Plains Indians changed radically from planters to hunters when horses were introduced in the 1600s.  The horse might well have been the cultural equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

I believe we can forgive someone writing in the 1930s about misconceptions that today would be viewed as culturally suspect.  Columbus did not think he had arrived in India.  (The Spanish term might originally have been hijos in Dios—children of God.)  And when a tribes person died it’s insensitive to say “He went to the Happy Hunting Ground.”  But these lapses are rare in comparison to the facts that abound: how teepees are constructed and how they evolved, tool-making, housing adapted to the environment, and plant life that forms lifestyles.  Happily, the Hollings provide a glossary of 31 words any pre-teen child should be familiar with.

The Book of Indians is first and foremost educational — and of particular value to home-schooled children.  The writing is generally expository, with touches of drama to make the lesson more amiable.  The narratives of the children, who are the main characters driving each of the geographical sections, are somewhat two-dimensional.  In this, Holling’s narrative ability developed tremendously in the decade until Paddle-to-the-Sea was published.  However, the Indian children’s plotting and personalities do grow toward the end when Raven joins the whale hunt and almost drowns (pp. 109-110) and when the slave child Cedar Bough negotiates her freedom by finding a great cache of copper (pp. 115-118).

The success of Holling’s writing also lies in its simplicity.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea has a Fog Index of 6.9, meaning 91% of everyday words we use are more difficult to read.  His Flesch Reading Index score is 75.2, meaning 90% of other vocabulary is harder.  (A Flesch score of 90-100 means the writing is understood by an average 11-year-old.)  And no one complains because something is too simple.  Or because it lacks entertainment.  So generations return to Holling Clancy Holling’s remarkable writing — and his wife’s collaborative illustration — year after year.

July 7, 2014


Graham Greene's The Tenth Man

Walter Giersbach reviews Graham Greene. You can (will be happy to) find more writings by Walter Giersbach at http://allotropiclucubrations.blogspot.com/

What Would You Trade for Your Life?

Graham Greene is a truly amazing writer for having “outlined” a novella — 30,000 words — that lay fallow from 1948 until it was discovered at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1987 and finally published.

“The Tenth Man” takes place in wartime France.  Thirty men have been imprisoned by the Gestapo, who insist three must die — the prisoners are to choose which.  Jean-Louis Charlot, the lawyer, trades his marked ballot in return for giving another prisoner his house and all his belongings.  Upon being released, Charlot drifts back to the home he once owned to find young Thérèse and her aged mother (the dead man’s sister and mother) occupying the estate.

Never admitting who he is, Charlot receives all the anger the young woman has for the man who bargained away her brother’s life.

Without reprising the plot — the criminal who appears claiming he was the rightful owner of the estate and who accuses Charlot of being the charlatan and two other characters who are simply plot devices — this story offers a tight examination of guilt and the search for absolution.  Greene presents a deep examination of remorse and redemption within a tightly written plot of accusations, deception and lies.  The writing is extremely tight, with no extraneous description that doesn’t move the plot forward.

A specific time period frames the story, when the Nazis still occupied France, but it is a universal story of fear and cowardice that leads to spiritual emancipation.

You will remember Greene, probably, for his “Our Man in Havana” and “The Quiet American,” both of which were made into movies with, respectively, Alec Guinness and Michael Caine.  It was while Greene was working on “The Third Man” under contract with MGM that he remembers dashing off the story line of “The Tenth Man.”  Thirty-five years later, MGM (which owned the copyright) had the book published, with Greene’s revisions.  Is it too late for MGM or another studio or film maker to put this story on the screen?  Like much of Greene’s writing, it is a timely story for our times.