Monday, May 31, 2010

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

“Do you know what you’ll think about when you can’t get to sleep in your double bed? Not of women… You will think of how every day, you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you from coming closer and closer to it every night while you try to sleep.”

Travels with My Aunt
could have been renamed Graham Greene’s Carpe Diem without doing injury to its themes and ideas. It opens at a funeral, where Henry Puller meets his long lost Aunt Augusta. Her first words to him are, “I was once present at a premature cremation.” After the funeral, they get together for a cup of tea and she convinces him to travel with her. The rest of the novel is concerned with their movement from one place to the other, as Henry tries to figure out exactly what kind of man he is.

Aside from a fairly obvious twist near the end, Travels with My Aunt isn’t terribly concerned with plot. It is, however, populated with some of Greene’s most memorable characters: the irascible Aunt Augusta, seventy-five and not ready to slow down yet; Visconti, the Italian lover who sounds like Al Pacino but looks like Danny DeVito; Wordsworth, Augusta’s black lover; the two Tooleys, father and daughter; and dozens more, some appearing in the main narrative, some existing only in the stories told to Henry by his aunt.

The real emphasis of the novel is the inner life of the protagonist, Henry. When the novel opens, Henry is a recently retired banker whose only hobby is raising Dahlias and whose only romantic interest is a somewhat dull, matronly woman named Ms. Keene. During his time with his aunt, Henry’s attitude turns from disbelief and disdain of his aunt’s dissolute and somewhat illegal lifestyle to admiration and, finally, embracing it. As he says near the end, “I have been happy, but I have been bored for so long.”

It’s interesting, then, to look at Travels with My Aunt in comparison with Greene’s other novels. In his most famous works, the Catholic books, his protagonists are driven by something higher than themselves. Whether they believe in God or not, their lives revolve around the bigger questions in life. In Travels, God hardly makes an appearance—though Aunt Augusta claims to be a Roman Catholic, she says, “I just don’t believe the things they believe”—and big picture issues are hardly considered at all. On the one hand, Travels is clearly a comic novel, and such themes might not work in context; on the other, Aunt Augusta and Henry are well-developed characters and share poignant moments. It seems somewhat disappointing then that the ultimate theme of the book seems to be the ephemeral “live for the moment”, when the themes of Greene’s best works could be characterized as “live for the world to come.” However, it’s these contradictions that make Greene such a fascinating man and author, and I’d recommend Travels with My Aunt to anyone wanting a lighter-hearted visit to Greeneland.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis

The difference between this situation [forgiving your fellow man] and the one in which you are asking for God’s forgiveness is this. In our own case we accept excuses too easily; in others, we do not accept them easily enough. As regards my own sins it is a safe bet that the excuses are not really so good as I think; as regards other men’s sins against me it is a safe bet that the excuses are better than I think.

C. S. Lewis is my favorite writer. Like John Updike according to the blurb on the back of my copy of The Weight of Glory, “I read Lewis for comfort and pleasure many years ago, and a glance into the books revives my old admiration.” Everything I desire in non-fiction is present in Lewis’s essays: a consistent but not overbearing authorial voice, a dry sense of humor, and the thoughts of a mind sharp enough to generate thought whether you agree with them or not.

The Weight of Glory is a collection of essays, some of which are adapted from radio addresses Lewis delivered throughout his life. They touch on some the subjects you might expect from Lewis: theology, mythology, Christianity, and some you may not, such as cliques and war. Although it’s true that all these essays end up tying into bigger theological concerns, the smoothness and logic with which Lewis lays out his arguments ought to be an inspiration for Kierkegaards everywhere.

The titular essay concerns itself with the afterlife and the Christian’s response to it. It’s quite powerful and moving, one of the best he ever wrote, and yet the shortest essay in the book, one titled “Forgiveness” was the most impactful on me, saying more in a scant 5 pages than many authors can say in an entire book. The excerpt that opens this review comes from it, and seems to me to be wonderful advice to keep in mind whether you’re a Christian or not.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

"I've always to see a Martian," said Michael. "Where are they, Dad? You promised."

"There they are," said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.

The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.

The Martians were there--in the canal--reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

The Martians stared up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water...

The oldest stories in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles were not meant to be part of a comprehensive mythology, and some of the seams show: The brown-skinned, golden-eyed Martians of "Ylla" and "The Summer Night" are conspicuously unlike the glittering jade mantis of "The Night Meeting," but Bradbury doesn't seem to find it necessary to detail why there are two sentient species on Mars, or how they interacted with one another. But for the most part, all the stories here seem to fit together into a larger whole, if not in testament to Bradbury's ability to go back and fill in the gaps, then definitely to the consistency of the themes that dominate his work: the passage of time on scales large and small, the vitality of small-town life, the hope for social progress that only science fiction can truly reflect. Bradbury imposes a larger arc on the stories he had already written in which, in roughly a thirty year span, man first reaches Mars, colonizes it (accidentally killing off the local population), and returns back to try to save an Earth dying from world war.

"The Night Meeting" is my favorite of these. In it, a man named Tomas Gomez encounters a Martian while traveling through a dead Martian town. Both are shocked at and fascinated by the others' presence, but when they try to shake hands, they pass right through each other. Eventually, Gomez and the Martian determine that they exist on different planes of time. When Gomez points out that his time-dimension must be the later one--he can see the ruins of the same great city that the Martian is from--the Martian dismisses the significance of this:

"Who wants to see the Future, who ever does? A man can face the Past, but to think--the pillars crumbled, you say? And the sea empty, and the canals dry, and the maidens dead, and the flowers withered?" The Martian was silent, but then he looked on ahead. "But there they are. I see them. Isn't that enough for me? They wait for me now, no matter what you say."


I love this for two reasons. First, it wonderfully expresses a theme to which Bradbury frequently returns, usually with less subtlety: the primacy of the moment, living and cherishing the here and now. Secondly, it affirms that Bradbury's chosen task, writing about the Future, ironically does the exact opposite. Here Bradbury uses the Future to tell us, as the Gospel says, "do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself."

But the episodic nature of The Martian Chronicles makes it uneven. Consider "The Third Expedition," in which an explorer comes to Mars only to land in what seems to be his hometown of Green Bluff, Illinois in the day of his childhood. The line between Green Bluff and the Green Town that provides the setting for Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes (mine, Brent) is nearly nonexistent. As such, the explorer's experience mirrors Bradbury's modus operandi. The explorer travels to Mars, only to find he is back in Green Bluff. For all his ingenuity, Bradbury seems incapable of truly imagining a world in which the small Illinois town he was born in is not the fulcrum of the universe.

This idiosyncrasy of Bradbury's turns The Martian Chronicles into something of a paradox. His investigation of Martian society can be strikingly creative:

Mr. and Mrs. K had lived by the dead sea for twenty years, and their ancestors had lived in the same hourse, which turned and followed the sun, flower-like, for ten centuries... Once they had liked painting pictures with chemical fire, swimming in the canals in the seasons when the wine trees filled them with green liquors, and talking into the dawn together by the blue phosphorous portraits in the speaking room.


I especially like the idea that the Martians are telepathic. This is how Gomez can communicate with the Martian, and in an earlier story an expedition crew is locked in a Martian asylum because the natives they meet assume their strange appearance and story are the mental projections of mental insanity.

But elsewhere, Bradbury seems trapped by his own perceptions. The worst offender here is "Way in the Middle of the Air," a story about how all the blacks in the United States decide to move to Mars to escape social oppression. A bitter racist named Samuel Teece is outraged that he is losing his hired help:

"I suppose you got names for your rockets?"

They looked at their one clock on the dashboard of the car.

"Yes, sir."

"Like Elijah and the Chariot, The Big Wheel and The Little Wheel, Faith, Hope, and Charity, eh?"

"We got names for the ships, Mr. Teece."

"God the Son and the Holy Ghost, I wouldn't wonder? Say, boy, you got one named the First Baptist Church?"

"We got to leave now, Mr. Teece."

Teece laughed. "You got one named Swing Low, and another named Sweet Chariot?"

The car started up. "Good-by, Mr. Teece."

"You got one named Roll Dem Bones?"

"Good-by, mister!"

"And another one called Over Jordan! Ha! Well, tote that rocket, boy, lift that rocket, go on, get blown up, see if I care!"


This story is set in 2003, but its depiction of race relations is culled straight from the year The Martian Chronicles was written, 1946. How is it that Bradbury is able to imagine a Martian society so unlike ours, but can't conceive how human society might have changed in almost sixty years? This story leaves a bad taste, and underlines an undercurrent of pessimism that sets The Martian Chronicles apart from most of Bradbury's other works.

Still, the stories that succeed outweigh and outshine those that don't. Strangely, Bradbury kills off the Martians early on (from chicken pox, sort of like The War of the Worlds), but it seems necessary to get them out of the way. At its heart, The Martian Chronicles is about human ambition and discovery, the possibilities afforded by a new frontier. For Bradbury, space travel seems to represent a fundamental challenge to the compassion and wisdom of the human race. His characters, sadly, don't respond to this challenge very well, but the last image of the book--a human family seeing their reflection in the rivers of Mars, knowing they are looking at true Martians--suggests a hope that Bradbury will be proven wrong.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

We drove in silence behind a motorboat being towed by a black pickup. I thought of his remarks about matter and being, those long nights on the deck, half smashed, he and I, transcendence, paroxysm, the end of human consciousness. It seemed so much dead echo now. Point omega. A million years away. The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters a body. All the man’s grand themes funneled down the local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not.

Spoilers.

I realized while thinking about this review that I’ve read more DeLillo books than any other author since the Fifty Books Project started. It seems strange now that I disliked DeLillo’s abstracted, distant prose and stylized dialog, but there it is. Now, I consider him one of my favorite authors even though I’ve disliked about as many of his books as I’ve liked. DeLillo, at the best of times, is only marginally interested in plot. Libra is the only book of his I’ve read that’s even slightly plot-driven, and even his characters, as enigmatic and interesting as they can be, generally aren’t the driving force in his books. Instead, it seems to me, liking or disliking DeLillo as an author comes down to appreciating his primary themes—the disconnection of the modern man and the difficulty or impossibility of reconnecting, the absurdity of everyday life, the vapidity of consumerism, etc—and his prose. DeLillo is, hands down, one the best stylists I’ve ever read and it’s that quality that makes even his mediocre novels, like The Body Artist, interesting to me.

Point Omega
, his most recent book, certainly falls closer to The Body Artist than Libra. It reads almost like two novellas, one nested inside the other, with no clear connection between the two. In the first, titled Anonymity, an unidentified man stands in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and watches a display called 24 Hour Psycho. This exhibit, which actually exists in real life, consists of a projection screen, viewable from both sides, playing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, slowed down so it plays through once every 24 hours. The man visits the exhibit every day and marvels at how changing the presentation changes the entire feel of the film, making each moment as banal as the last. In the second, postmodern documentarian Jim Finley travels to the middle of the California desert to film ex-Iraq War consultant Richard Elster. Things are uneventful until Elster’s daughter Jessica shows up, sent by her mother in an attempt to end her relationship with the mysterious Dennis. Circumstances change, however, when Jessica disappears, leaving behind all her possessions and sapping both Jim’s will to make the film and Elster’s will to live. The books ends by completing the story in the first section, such as it is: the unnamed man meets a mysterious woman, they discuss the film, and then leave. The only connection between the two stories is the exhibit itself—while trying to convince him to participate in his film, Jim takes Elster to see 24 Hour Psycho.

Man, this book was abstract. Jessica’s disappearance is the closest thing to a plot development in the entire novel, and even it occurs only during the last 20 pages of the second section and is barely explained at all. We (and Jim and Elster) never discover what happened. Possibilities are thrown out—lost in the woods, suicide, elopement with Dennis—but no evidence is given to weight one over the other. Much like The Body Artist, virtually all conclusions that can be drawn are equally valid, not that DeLillo had ever been particularly didactic. The themes are right there in the title and the excerpt above: the omega point is a term that describes the maximum level of complexity toward wich the universe seems to be evolving, but DeLillo seems to say that focusing on the advancement toward complexity isn’t as significant as the little moments—hence the fascination with Psycho when it’s broken down into its simplest bits, and the de-emphasis on creating the documentary once Jessica disappears. These ideas are hardly seamless, but on the whole, it makes sense to me. At a little over 100 pages, Point Omega is never particularly dull, thanks to DeLillo’s language, but it’s as stripped down as DeLillo gets, and sometimes feels a little unnecessary. At his best, DeLillo revels in complexity. I'd like to see him heading back in that direction.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

“Much is said in our age about irony and humor, especially by those who have never been capable of engaging in the practice of these arts, but who nevertheless know how to explain everything.”

I think it’s safe to say that I was not prepared for this book. I was drawn in by the premise—Kierkegaard, one of the fathers of existentialism, writing a treatise on faith, using the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac as his basis—and its length, a scant 95 pages. It sounded right up my alley, but I hadn’t counted on Kierkegaard’s writing style, which is intentionally dense and off-putting to discourage the casual reader (me). So it turns out that this little pamphlet actually took longer to read than the 400 page Robin Hood.

But anyway, on to the content of the book. As mentioned above, Fear and Trembling is a meditation on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as recounted in Genesis 22. I say Abraham’s sacrifice because, although God actually provided a ram to replace Isaac, Kierkegaard argues that, in the most meaningful sense, Abraham did sacrifice Isaac since he remained willing up until the final moment, when the ram appeared.

This is one of the most difficult stories in the entire Bible, and Kierkegaard doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions it raises. Interestingly, however, he doesn’t focus on why God would ask Abraham to commit the act, as many theologians do. He rather focuses on Abraham and what his reaction to the request reveals about him and, in the bigger picture, faith itself.

As the conclusions Kierkegaard reaches, I’ll share what I understand of them here, in greatly condensed form. Kierkegaard says that Abraham is the only example of true faith he knows of, and he defines faith in a very complex way which I’m going to try to communicate in a few points:

a) Faith requires a basic belief in the object of the faith. b) Faith requires complete resignation of the finite world into the hands of God, followed by c) a resignation of infinite matters as well, so that d) finite matters can again be appreciated. Further, Kierkegaard argues that true faith requires more than hope, since hope requires a belief that the event believed in will actually happen. Abraham’s faith was true, he says, because Abraham believed that God would restore Isaac to him even though he also believed it was impossible that Isaac should be restored. Kierkegaard points to faith as an example of the absurd: believing that things that will not happen are going to happen is the paradox of faith.

There’s a lot more in this book (the information I described is mostly in the middle third), including some interesting questions about whether or not ethics can be superseded by a divine command and whether or not it is possible to act both within the boundaries of true faith and ethics at the same time (Kierkegaard argues that for Abraham, the ethical choice—that of not sacrificing his son—was actually a temptation away from the absolute best choice of following God’s command), but to be honest, these sections were both interesting and opaque to me.

I don’t really know how to end this review. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’ve exhausted or even fairly explained Kierkegaard’s views in this short post. There’s a lot here, and I may return to it in the future.

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

Bunny gropes around on the bed until he finds the remote and, with a crack of static, the TV implodes into nothingness and he closes his eyes. A great wall of darkness moves toward him. He can see it coming, vast and imperious. It is unconsciousness and it is sleep. It moves like a great tidal wave but before it breaks over him and he is away, before he renders himself completely to that oblivious sleep, he thinks, with a sudden, terrible, bottomless dread, of Avril Lavigne's vagina.

Nick Cave has two personae. The one I was first familiar with was the brooding, Gothic piano player of As I Sat Sadly By Her Side, but that was a later invention. The original Cave was the frontman for an Australian band called The Birthday Party, and that Cave is loud, brash, and quite filthy. It's that persona that Cave would return to for his Grinderman side project, who recorded this:



The Death of Bunny Munro was written by this Cave. It is a junkyard clattering of death and sex, as bitter as it is squalid. The titular character is a middle-aged traveling salesman with a sex addiction that has irretrievably alienated him from his wife, and when she commits suicide he takes their son, Bunny Junior, and drags him on a whirlwind tour of the south of England as he tries to hawk his wares and chase poon at the same time.

Bunny is a horrendous man. His need for constant sexual fulfillment puts him through mental and physical hardship and distracts him from his son, a prepubescent egghead who absorbs himself in his comprehensive (but somehow, single-volume) encyclopedia. Bunny Junior idolizes his father, but doesn't truly understand him:

His mother bought the encyclopaedia for him, just because she loved him to bits, the boy likes to remember. Bunny Junior thinks it is an elegant-looking book with a jacket the exact colour of one of those citronella-impregnated mosquito candles. Merlin was the son of an incubus and a mortal woman, and the boy looks up 'incubus' and finds that an incubus is a malevolent spirit who has intercourse with women in their sleep, then he looks up 'intercourse' and thinks, Wow, imagine that, as he gradually intuits the presence of his father standing in the doorway.


Bunny, of course, is defined solely by "intercourse." In turn, Bunny doesn't care to even try to know his son, and instead spends most of his spare time thinking on Avril Lavigne's vagina. This is a frequent conceit, and Cave even apologizes to Avril at the end of the book, but the pointed realness of it reminds me of similar complaints I had about J. G. Ballard's sexualization of Elizabeth Taylor.

Cave dangles a couple more limbs from his Frankenstein's monster: First, there is the Horned Killer, a serial murderer in a red cape and horns making his way south through England while flaunting the media. The Horned Killer is a metaphor for the promised death of the title (which, you will notice, may refer to either Bunny or his son), winding its fated path to Brighton. Second, the ghost of Bunny's wife insists on haunting both Bunny and his son.

Add this to the noisy, ostentatious prose--you can almost see Cave sweating from the effort--and it's all too much. Beneath the clutter, The Death of Bunny Munro is a simple tale about a man, too sad to be vile, whose subservience to his addictions destroys his relationships. Despite his attempts at misdirection, Bunny ends up exactly where you expect. It isn't necessary for Bunny to be redeemed, but there is little enjoyment in watching a distasteful man fail distastefully.

Aristotle tells us that a tragic hero must be neither wholly good nor bad, so that we may see ourselves in him and feel both pity and fear, but when Bunny walks into a client's home and rapes a near-comatose girl because she looks like Avril Lavigne (seriously), following him to the end becomes a bitter chore.

This is Cave's second book, after The Ass Saw the Angel, separated by a twenty-year gap. Clearly, his schedule in the last twenty years has been fairly full (besides his solo work and Grinderman he has scored several movies), but with that kind of time, you would hope Cave's creative impulse would have produced something so sordidly mean.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

“Beware the autumn people...For some, autumn comes early, stays late, through life, where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the only normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond.”

Somehow, I missed Something Wicked This Way Comes while I was scouring the children’s section of the library, and it’s probably a good thing. It’s hard to imagine how an avid Goosebumps reader would have dealt with a scary book that’s actually scary and substantial, not just for the grotesque images or the shocking twists, but for the themes it carries. There are spoilers in this review, mostly from the first third of the book.

The book opens on its dual protagonists, Jim Nightshade and Will Holloway. Both thirteen years old, they are inseparable sides of the same coin. Jim is rash and impetuous, always on the lookout for a thrill or an adventure; Will is more careful, although, as he says in the book, is often dragged into adventure by Jim whether he wants to be or not. The books opens in Autumn with the arrival of a mysterious carnival, populated by a diverse array of freaks and run by the Illustrated Man, Mr. Dark, a mysterious entity who exercises control over his freaks with his vast array of tattoos. The centerpiece of the carnival is broken down Carousel that nevertheless comes alive at night. It can spin either way, making its riders either older or younger. Soon after the carnival opens, Jim and Will see the carousel in action and make an enemy of Mr. Dark who, of course, spends the rest of the book trying to turn them into a couple of his freaks.

In addition to the boys, there’s a third, equally important character: Charles Holloway, Will’s 54 year old father. Married to a beautiful woman 20 years his junior, he struggles with feeling too old for her and too old to properly relate to his son.

Something Wicked
is surprisingly dense, and there are a lot of things I could talk about, but I’d like to focus on what seemed like the overriding themes: the elders’ fear of aging and death and the youth’s desire to speed the process along. The Carousel stands at the center of the novel, towering over even Mr. Dark in its sway over the protagonists. So let’s start with a laundry list: Will fears that, with time, he and Jim will grow apart. Jim fears that he will never grow up at all, and Charles fears that he’s already too old to relate to the people he cares most about. The thing is aging or de-aging on the carousel is no good. It rushes things, so young men end up with old men’s minds and old men are still children inside. It is the ultimate relationship breaker, because it makes relation with other people of your own age impossible—who wants to hang out with the 30 year old who still wants to play marbles, or the 16 year old who has all the worries in the world?

I don’t want to talk much more about the plot, but I will say that there are some very disturbing images, not so much because they’re graphic, but because being turned into a wax dummy is kind of terrifying. Anyway, this review is all over the place, but if you missed this as a child, it’s well worth reading. And I hear the film is pretty scary.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle

In merry England, in the time of old, when good King Henry the Second ruled the land, there lived within the green glades of Sherwood Forest, near Nottingham Town, a famous outlaw whose name was Robin Hood. No archer ever lived that could speed a gray goose shaft with such skill and cunning as his, nor were there ever such yeomen as the sevenscore merry men that roamed with him through the greenwood shades.

We all know the story of Robin Hood, the sober, humorless soldier, hardened by his battles during the Crusades, rounds up a band of sober, humorless men to fight beside him and, in a psychic flash, discovers the Magna Carta and brings Democracy to Medieval England after fighting an epic battle against the French. And now that we’ve covered the 2010 movie, whose authors apparently didn’t realize that there’s already a fictional character named Robin Hood, let’s talk about this book.

I admit it: although I’ve read Robin Hood before, I was inspired to read it again after seeing the essentially unrelated and joyless film. I knew the basic outline and I knew the source material was much lighter and more humorous, but I had forgotten how much. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is really a comic novel, written as a series of inter-related vignettes, which collects various folk tales of Robin Hood and put them into a coherent framework, codifying Robin and his Merry Men into something like an Anglo-Saxon mythology—but this misses the point. Robin Hood isn’t a dull academic exercise, and it doesn’t read, aside from the poetic King’s English, like it was written over a century ago. It moves quickly—I read the entire 350pp book in a little over a day—and rarely missteps.

What was surprising to me is how much of my idea of Robin Hood was missing from the book. Maid Marian warrants exactly two mentions, both times as passing thoughts in Robin’s head. Prince John, immortalized as a lion cub in Disney’s retelling, appears only at the tail end. And what’s included is sometimes surprising as well. Close to a quarter of the book recounts adventures in which Robin himself doesn’t appear at all, focusing on the Merry Men and, in one case, a knight given assistance by Robin’s band.

But, onto the stories themselves. They largely follow the same structure—Robin and his men get bored, hatch an elaborate prank, execute it, and improvise. This leads to Robin’s merry band getting their butts kicked a lot, and it’s this element of “Will it work or not?” that gives the book most of its narrative thrust. However, just when the repetition threatens to grow stale, Pyle switches formats, focusing on a side character or a more involved adventure, such as the elaborate plot to help newfound Merry Man Alan a Dale reclaim his love at her wedding ceremony. The final third of the book, however, abandons the format almost entirely and takes some surprisingly dark and affecting turns.

Ultimately though, Robin isn’t a gloomy slog. It’s joyous and raucous and funny, and the characters, thinly sketched as they sometimes are, are really likable. Like Sherlock Holmes (which also got a terrible movie adaptation recently), Robin Hood is well worth revisiting.

Some Legal History for the Lawyer Folk

To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right by Joyce Lee Malcolm

In this book Joyce Malcolm analyzes the British history of the right to bear arms. She focuses on the transformation in England from a duty to bear arms into a right to bear arms. Specifically, historically men in England were expected to possess a firearm so that they may join roving militias. If, for instance, a crime was committed, there was not really a person or organization in place to seek out and arrest the criminal. In such a situation the men were called forth and expected to serve their communities by helping to find the criminal, if necessary, by force. However, gradually expectations changed as parliament struggled against the monarchy to consolidate its own authority. As parliament and monarchs bumped heads against each other, the perception that the other had control of weapons was seen as a threat and two things happened. One was an extreme skepticism towards the efficacy of a standing army. The second was the development of a right to bear arms; this second development was seen as a way of curbing the threat of a standing army (it was thought that an armed populace could stand against an evil standing army).



Malcolm makes a convincing case for how the right to bear arms was understood during the framing era, and as such I have become convinced that Scalia's opinion in Heller more accurately reflects the historical understanding of the right (that is: there is an individual right to bear arms). Nonetheless, we might question the appropriateness of appealing to the history, given that the right to bear arms was primarily understood as a right to bear arms against a tyrannical government. Given the extreme (and just) condemnation of armed attacks against the government, I'm not sure that the historical basis for the right to bear arms is exactly what people want when they claim their entitlement.

Be warned, this was a terrifically boring read. Of all the books reviewed here, this is the one most meant for an academic audience (and thus least approachable for someone with a general interest in legal history). For all that, it's also the book which most changed my perspective. Before reading this book, I agreed more with Stevens' dissent in Heller, but now I'm more in line with Scalia's view.

(Pictured: A right bear arm, indicated by the arrow; not to be confused with the right to bear arms.)

Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution by Robert Cottrol (my history professor), Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware

Here, the authors placed the social/political/legal history of Brown within a context of caste. That is, they understand black history and the equal protection clause to be a protracted debate about whether the United States is or should be a caste system. Thus, slavery is understood to be the epitome of the American caste system, and on the other side of the spectrum, Brown is understood to be the rejection of the caste system. The starting and ending points, however, are the least interesting points of this book's analysis (the parallels between slavery and caste are somewhat obvious). What is most interesting about this book is the understanding of caste which the authors use to explain Southern antagonism to Reconstruction, and the broader understanding of the Reconstruction Amendments which Brown represents.

(Pictured: Barack Obama as a child (left), in a desegregated postage stamp.)

The Death Penalty: An American History by Stuart Banner

I have the least to say about this book. Like Brown (the book, not the case), this book gives the reader a social/political/legal history, focusing on (yes, you guessed it), the death penalty. Banner's history is devoid of any ethical or moral lessons about the death penalty, his intent is merely to lay out the cultural role of the death penalty in the U.S. Of interest is the changing nature of that role. In the 19th century, executions served as a kind of community entertainment and parable. Members across the socio-economic spectrum would attend an execution which came to be a spiritual ritual. Audience members would be made aware of the crime, often written versions of the crime would be sold at the execution. The accused would be given an opportunity to speak; in an ideal execution he would explain the errors of his ways and pray for the Lord's forgiveness. In this way the community would have an opportunity to show an example of improper conduct and its inevitable result.

As time passed however, it became vogue to feel repulsion at what was soon viewed as a mob's pleasure. Executions, an imprecise science, came under attack for their ineffectiveness (stories of failed hangings became more and more prevalent; apparently there are few things worse than watching a person suffocate to death while hanging). A science of executions developed (this is how we got such marvels as the electric chair, the gas chamber, and lethal injection), which was not necessarily more precise. Thus executions went behind closed doors and only certain political elites could gain access to them.

Interesting thing: Apparently the age-old debate about executions is literally age old; it hasn't changed in the 200 years of this country: deterrence and retribution have been the talking points the entire time. Yeah, bit of an interesting thing.

(Pictured: Another victim of hanging, condemned for inadequate spelling skills)

Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on Trial by Paul Kens

All law students who take Constitutional Law II read Lochner v. New York which is universally reviled as the worst Supreme Court decision, ever. (Yes, even worse than Dred Scott, which legally speaking isn't as absurd as high school history teachers make it out to be). It's considered the apex of judicial over-reaching, legislation from the bench. How dare the Supreme Court have the audacity to question a legislative judgment?!

This book focuses only a little on the legal history of the case and focuses much more on the political aspect, looking at New York politics and how the law regulating bakers' hours came to be passed. What's interesting about this book is that it doesn't focus on Lochner (the case) as a case of judicial over-stepping, instead it treats the case as a case about bakers and politics. A fun read for the story behind the story of Lochner.

(Pictured: A baker, or a victim of laissez-faire capitalism?)

Reconstructing the Fourth Amendment: A History of Search and Seizure, 1789-1868 by Andrew E. Taslitz

I hated this book. As such it is highly ironic that I spent the most time with it relative to these other legal histories (I wrote a paper on this one). The book purports to be a history of the Fourth Amendment (my favorite Amendment to read about) starting with the Founding Fathers and going through Reconstruction. Histories of the Fourth Amendment during the founding era are not remarkable (relative to other Amendments, the Fourth's history is well documented), but an ante-bellum history is hard to come by. After reading the book, I became convinced that such a history is hard to come by because the Fourth Amendment didn't really mean anything until the advent of the exclusionary rule (the rule by which illegally obtained evidence is inadmissible in court). Unfortunately, Taslitz focuses on all the different ways that slaves did not have privacy, freedom of movement, or property. The problem with his focus is that the Fourth Amendment did not really protect these things per se until the criminal procedure revolution of the Warren court. As such, the book ends up being a history of slaves with brief references to the Fourth Amendment. I think this is another book which takes a conventional history and tries to give it a novel treatment (in this case a racial treatment) even though the novel treatment does not give us any novel conclusions as to history. I would not recommend this book to anyone.

(Pictured: Kool-Aid Man, Oh Yeaahh!).

The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures from King John to John Ashcroft by Samuel Dash

This is another history of the Fourth Amendment. It's one of those awkward books that just doesn't have a market. In one way it's too academic: it's too abstract for most lay people to want to read (it goes into the drafting history of the Amendment and often analyzes the nuances of Supreme Court opinions). In another way it's not academic enough: the history of the Fourth Amendment and analysis is so dumbed down that no academic could confidently cite this work as an authority.

As such, though the book isn't bad, I probably wouldn't recommend it to anyone because I don't know who I would recommend it to. The thesis of the book is that the Founding Fathers intended, in the Fourth Amendment, to give us broad protections from searches and seizures; unfortunately the evil conservative rights-hating establishment (ie republicans) have systematically narrowed and chipped away at these rights, turning the Fourth Amendment from a gallant princess-saving white knight into a whiny little bitch with an inferiority complex (I might be paraphrasing a little). Dash particularly takes issue with the treatment of terrorists and the freedoms which have been afforded the Bush administration (yes, the work is a little dated) in seeking out terrorists.

(Pictured: The only thing worse than an liberal-yuppie-terrorist-loving ACLU lawyer is a criminal defense lawyer.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Note: I wrote this review a month ago, and saved it so that I wouldn't spoil anything for Brent. Any similarities between our reviews means that he cribbed off of me, and not the other way around.

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later.'

Sweet baby Jesus, I love Riddley Walker. I'm not really in the habit of re-reading books, but when I saw that the AV Club was doing their monthly book club on Riddley Walker in April, I encourage Brent to read this with me.

I am happy to report that it is as awesome as I remember. Riddley Walker is set approximately 2700 years in the future, in an England having advanced roughly to the Iron Age after a nuclear war that occurred around present day. England, now called Inland, is ruled by a shadowy government called the Ram, and order is maintained by the Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer (derivatives of prime minister and westminster) who maintain a traveling puppet show that tells and re-tells the culture's central myth, the Eusa Story. The Eusa Story is cobbled together from disparate parts; while it tells a broken version of the nuclear war that ruined society, it is also mixed with the story of St. Eustace, as well as government propaganda. Like most religious texts, various versions of it are told, and it is interpreted in wildly different ways.

When his father dies in a bizarre accident, Riddley becomes his community's conexion man, responsible for interpreting everyday events as well as telling the significance of the traveling Eusa show. Shortly after his initiation into this role, Riddley is drawn into a conflict between those who wish to seek the sort of knowledge that brought civilization to ruin and those who would stop them.

I have been thinking on Riddley Walker for a few days now, and it is a difficult book to characterize simply. It seems to me that it is ultimately a story about knowledge--what it is, how it is gathered, and what it is worth. In 2700 years language would surely have evolved into something much different from English, but the strange, broken idiom that Riddley speaks is representative of the perverse, askew version of Western culture and religion in which he lives. Knowledge, like language, has not been lost, but shifted, changed, twisted. Early in the book, Riddley is told the story of "Why the Dog Wont Show its Eyes," about how man and woman received the "1st knowing":

The man and woman seen the fire shyning in the dogs eyes. The man throwit meat to the dog and the dog come into them by the fire. Brung its eyes in our of the nite and then they all lookit at the nite to gether. The man and the woman seen the nite in the dogs eyes and thats when they got the 1st knowing of it. They knowit the nite the same as the dog knowit.


There seems to be a distinction being made between the "1st knowing," a sort of primal understanding of things represented by their shapes, and more advanced forms of knowledge. To understand the shape of something is to know it instinctively, to be able to feel it in three dimensions. In the legend, the man and woman become more "clevver," gaining the sort of knowledge that is represented by numbers instead of shapes, and they lose the 1st knowing.

Hoban presents this progression of knowledge without judgment. On the one hand, it is easy to lament the way that man has lost this primal knowledge, and it is easy also to sympathize with Riddley when he encounters the remnants of twentieth-century era machinery:

How cud any 1 not want to get that shyning Power back from time to time back way back? How cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and picters on the wind? How cud any 1 not want to see them shyning weals turning?


And indeed it seems that progress is inevitable; Riddley is unable to stop the Pry Mincer of Inland in rediscovering the secret ingredients that create gunpowder, and it is unclear as to whether or not he should. Riddley is set deep in this conflict, but he seems to be on different sides at different times, desperate to act but unsure what for or what against.

There is much that I would like to talk about but am unable to touch upon. Riddley Walker is a complex book that rewards revisiting, and I think that it would take many more times re-reading to fully understand it. Even so, I recommend it highly--this is one of my absolute favorite books.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

“I hispert back, "O, what we ben! And what we come to!" Boath of us were siffling and snuffling then. Me looking at them jynt machines, and him lissening to their sylents. Right then I didnt know where I wer with any thing becaws all on a sudden I wernt seeing any thing from where I seen it befor... Now all the sudden Eusa and Eusas head and the little shyning man had becom some thing woaly diifrnt in my mynd to what they were before. How cud any 1 not want to get that shining power from back way back? How cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and picters on the winds? How cud any 1 not want to see them shyning weals terning?”

Minor Spoilers Below.

If you didn’t make it through the excerpt above, there’s a chance Riddley Walker isn’t for you. Told entirely in a severely degraded form of English, Riddley Walker follows the titular protagonist through approximately two weeks of his life, from his Naming Day on his 12th birthday. The setting in which Riddley Walker takes place is post-apocalyptic in the extreme. Although it’s never made explicit, it’s implied that there was a nuclear war which literally blew England (and possibly the entire world) back to the Stone Age. There are no guns, no computers, no electricity, and only the vaguest traces of the modern world remain. The government, what’s left of it, spreads information through religious/political puppet shows called Eusa Shows. Eusa himself may or may not have been a real person, but is now remembered mainly from Eusa Story, a religious myth which tries to explain, in terms the remaining humans can understand, what the human race used to be capable of and how they’ve ended up where they are today.

Summarizing the plot itself, which revolves around the attempts of several factions to create gunpowder, is pointless, since the real beauty of Riddley Walker comes from the themes and, especially, the language. As mentioned above, there’s hardly a sentence in the entire book written in modern English, save a short story about a painting of St. Eustace which is immediately (mis)interpreted by Goodparley, the acting Pry Mincer. Words are respelled and repurposed, first, to create dual meanings (such as “oansome” for lonesome, which rolls “on my own”, ”lonesome”, and “one” into one word); secondly, as an easy way of world-building—it’s immediately obvious that things here are different; and thirdly, to draw us into Riddley’s world and viewpoint—We’re forced to slow down and experience the world at the same pace as Riddley.

There’s a lot to this book, which took me a couple months to get through in spite of being only a couple hundred pages long, but I honestly don’t have a lot to say. There are difficult sections, but there are also moments of transcendent beauty, like the passage above, and their sheen is that much greater as a result of the ruined world surrounding them.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man's necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.

Here is another meditation on control and authority from Muriel Spark, who delights in the supreme joke the author plays on her characters: no matter how carefully they plan their lives, they are as at the mercy of their creator as we are at the mercy of ours. The titular conceit of The Driver's Seat is not the subtlest in Spark's oeuvre. It is easy enough to understand what it means when the heroine steals a car; she wants to be in the driver's seat.

The heroine is Lise, a young Danish woman, who tries to carefully design one fundamental moment in her life--the last, her death. Lise flies from Denmark to a "foreign city" (ostensibly Rome) in order to make the perfect arrangements for her murder, from the right color necktie that will bind her ankles to the identity of the murderer himself.

What is conspicuously lacking is any sort of rationale. We are not admitted into Lise's psyche, and are not permitted to know why she wants to die, much less in this particularly gruesome fashion. The details seem haphazard--why this color necktie? Why does it matter, beyond the fetish for control? Why does Lise purchase for her murder an orange, mauve, and blue dress and a decidedly non-matching red-and-white coat? Why does she change her story for every person she meets, when her need for control should warrant a meticulously composed lie? It is as if she wants only this moment to be perfect, and throws every superfluous detail to the wind.

It is possible that this is randomness disguised as order. It does not necessarily follow that because we do not know Lise's rationale she must not have one; it may be opaque to us. In this way Lise models God, who is notorious for working "in mysterious ways."

Or is it a rejection on God's insistence on determining who Lise is? If all determinism can be traced back to God--if every human plan has traces of God's design, since God has designed each human--then the only way to reject God is to embrace chaos and incongruity. Perhaps the brightly-colored dress is an act of rebellion. If Lise rebels against God, she really rebels against Spark, always standing in for Him, but the joke is on her because she can do nothing that Spark does not intend.

Like Lise, frantically trying to find the right murderer, Spark lacks patience. She seems unwilling to linger on Lise's motives, partly because it develops her theme, but also because she simply seems not to care. Because Spark is always aware that Lise is a fictional construct, we are aware of it, and we cannot connect with Lise because Spark cannot connect with her. Not coincidentally, Lise seems to be barely able to connect with herself.

As a result, it is difficult to say, as Frank Kermode does in his introduction to Spark's Everyman's Library collection, that The Driver's Seat is "chilling and desperate." Lise is desperate, but The Driver's Seat is not, and not a single word is chilling. Instead, it represents Spark at her most unmoving and brutal, and those who would seek the kind of pathos found in good thrillers would be advised to look elsewhere. As I have said before, the most unnerving thing about Spark's God complex is how little she seems to care about her characters. Should we find we are characters in a divine novel, I hope we find Him a bit more charitable.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence

Then, one day, a lovely sunny day with great tufts of primroses under the hazels, and many violets dotting the paths, she came in the afternoon to the coops and there was one tiny, tiny perky chicken tinily prancing round in front of a coop, and the mother hen clucking in terror. The slim little chick was greyish-brown with dark markings, and it was the most alive little spark of a creature in seven kingdoms at that moment. Connie crouched to watch in a sort of ecstasy. Life, life! Pure, sparky, fearless new life! New life! So tiny and so utterly without fear! Even when it scampered a little scramblingly into the coop again, and disappeared under the hen's feathers in answer to the mother hen's wild alarm-cries, it was not really frightened; it took it as a game, the game of living. For in a moment a tiny sharp head was poking through the gold-brown feathers of the hen, and eyeing the Cosmos.

Connie was fascinated. And at the same time never had she felt so acutely the agony of her own female forlornness. It was becoming unbearable.

Lady Chatterley's Lover
is a kind of anti-Madame Bovary. The latter book is about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who takes refuge in adultery, patterning it after the romances she adores, but the adultery itself becomes a kind of cage and she is ultimately done in by her own profligacy and petulance. Emma Bovary shuns the reality of things for convenient fantasies of sex, but Constance, the titular Lady Chatterley, achieves the opposite result through similar methods: Instead of pulling the veil further down over her eyes, her affair with her husband's servant frees her from the drudgery of her existence and imbues her, like the chick she spies in the passage above, with "sparky, fearless new life."

The book was roundly derided as pornographic. No wonder, it is basically an extended paean to sex. Consider Lady Chatterley's husband, Clifford, literally deadened from the waist down by a war injury. He and his friends extol the virtues of a "life of the mind," divorced from the "sex thing," which is banished to a lower sphere of human activity. Clifford remarks to Constance that he wouldn't mind if she had a child by another man (they would just lie and tell everyone that Clifford's boy bits work every now and then), but the man she chooses is not the kind she can go back and present proudly to her husband. He is Oliver Mellors, the estate gamekeeper, of a radically different class.

Lady Chatterley's Lover is one of those strange books in which people make plans that are not torn horrifically asunder; Constance plans to be impregnated by Mellors and he obliges. His ability to engender life in her is two-fold: He gives her a child, but also their passionate love affair brings her an unbridled joy.

This may be, without exaggeration, the most well-written book I have ever read. Lawrence is a master of style--eminently readable, vivid, graceful. I dog-eared maybe a dozen sections to show this, but could have marked a dozen dozen. Here is one:

The hard air was still sulphurous, but they were both used to it. Round the near horizon went the haze, opalescent with frost and smoke, and on the top lay the small blue sky; so that it was like being inside an enclosure, always inside. Life always a dream or a frenzy, inside an enclosure.


How much more wonderful is Lawrence's "small blue sky" that lays on top than Malamud's "
cerulean ocean-sky"? One of Lawrence's most successful techniques is to repeat certain words five or six times in the course of a paragraph, moving them around syntactically, like a form of jazz:

There had been no welcome home for the young squire, no festivities, no deputation, not even a single flower. Only a dank ride in a motor-car up a dark, damp drive, burrowing through gloomy trees, out to the slope of the park where grey damp sheep were feeding, to the knoll where the house spread its dark brown facade, and the housekeeper and her husband were hovering, like unsure tenants on the face of the earth, ready to stammer a welcome.


How simple these words are, and their repetition ought to be irksome, but somehow the rearrangement of them gives them new life, enables their expressiveness. The drive is dark and damp, the sheep are damp, the house is dark--instantly we know what is preoccupying the mind of Clifford, the "young squire," reflecting on his homecoming with some chagrin.

Even the sex writing is terrific:

Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite, exquisite and melting all her molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to a culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last.


But then again, it's just that sort of thing that made Lady Chatterley's Lover impossible to publish in the United States until the 1960's. This didn't take Lawrence by surprise. It was his last novel, and he had been castigated for this sort of thing before. Naturally, it reads as sort of a response to his critics, who would do as Clifford and his friends would, and separate the world of sex from the "life of the mind." They talk, and talk of sex, and even talk of sex as a kind of talk, but this is a kind of subordination that seeks to describe the body on the mind's terms. When Constance is with Mellors, the sex is not like talking; what she receives from it is not knowledge but life, health, well-being.

It is this also, I think, that makes Lady Chatterley's Lover not as satisfying to read today. The sexual revolution has come and passed, and the idea that the life of the body and the life of the mind must coexist is, while not roundly accepted, a not very fresh idea. Sex as empowerment is old hat. Most of the critics that would suppress the book are gone, and unable to push against them, Lady Chatterley's Lover seems to me to lack bite.

But it was wonderful to read all the same. It is unthinkable that anyone ever considered it pornographic; any porno shot from Lady Chatterley's Lover would have to have absurdly high production levels to capture the clarity and nuance of Lawrence's descriptive prose.

I admit that there is something pornographic in the ethos of it--the extolment of the sexual act as worthy and fulfilling on its own. But to call it pornography, point blank? Laughable--after all, pornography generally serves one person alone, it only values the approximation of the sexual act, which requires two people. Lady Chatterley's Lover's message is far different: Go have sex! Speaking on its terms, the book seems to dismiss the idea that anyone might derive a purely sexual pleasure from it.

As a last thought, I leave you to consider how true pornography encourages the kind of character that Constance sees in Clifford:

He was remotely interested; but like a man looking down a microscope, or up a telescope. He was not in touch. He was not in actual touch with anybody, save, traditionally, with Wragby, and through the close bond of family defense, with [his sister] Emma. Beyond this nothing really touched him. Connie felt that she herself didn't really, not really touch him; perhaps there as nothing to get at ultimately; just a negation of human contact.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I am unsure of what to write. I read Lord of the Flies for the second time because I thought I had to; I thought that there would be a four-week space at the end of the freshman year with nothing to be read. As it turns out, that space is three weeks, which is not long enough to read anything like Lord of the Flies, or just about anything at all, except for Of Mice and Men, which, of course, they just read. No help there.

But enough about my issues. I liked this book only slightly more than I did when I read it last. I still agree with much of what I wrote in the review, especially about the characters. Ralph is nuanced, but he's boring; Jack and Piggie, the other two main characters seem awfully one-note. There is a fourth character I forgot to mention: Simon. Simon is caught in the conflict between Ralph and Jack for the allegiance of the marooned boys, and becomes the island's second casualty when Jack and his followers' bloodthirsty pantomime of hunting overtakes their senses and they rip Simon apart like a wild pig. (The first casualty is a boy caught in an unchecked fire in the book's first chapters. Metaphor ahoy!)

What I appreciate a bit more this time around is the way that Golding balances the political with the psychological. I said that "the symbols are hit too hard," but that's uncharitable. Yes, Jack might represent fascism, but that's reductive; this isn't Animal Farm with its clear analogue for the proletariat, and its Trotsky-pig and Stalin-pig. Instead, Jack, Ralph, and Piggie represent psychological and behavioral impulses that pull at the strictures of society. Lord of the Flies isn't an identifiable political allegory--it doesn't become a history lesson when you read it in class, like Animal Farm does so easily--but an investigation into the way that society is strengthened and dissembled by our inmost natures. (In fact, if those three fit any symbols too neatly, it is that Jack is the id, Ralph the ego, and Piggie the superego! I am embarrassed that this escaped me the last time around).

So, that's all that I have to say about Lord of the Flies. Though it's not my favorite, I will admit that it is better than every single book I have to teach my freshmen this year. That's me--instilling a distaste for literature, one student at a time.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith


This may date me a bit, but this book reminds me of an old classic (and I use classic loosely here) from the 80's, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure with Keanu Reeves (I swear he deserved an Academy Award for this one, for his hair alone) and some other "dude" whom no one can remember (and do we really want to).













Anyway, those two go back in time in a phone booth time machine....(good grief, was it really this dumb) to ace a book report, you know, because they're the get good grades type of students, obviously, and end up bringing back famous people from history. One was Abe Lincoln, looking remarkably like the real thing by the way, his voice was like..a grumbling, deep canyon of manliness, if that makes any sense. That's the voice that kept playing though my head during the diary portions of this book. "Let us have faith that right makes right..." or "A house divided against itself can not stand," and lest we forget "I want to kill vampires until every ounce of blood is drained from their bodies.." Er, yeah..some of the greatest lines in history were uttered by this man. I guess.

This book will make a fine companion to the biography of Mary Todd Lincoln I'm reading in June for book club. Hopefully Mary kicks some serious vampire booty too. And she'll do it all while hand sewing a handkerchief. Of course.
3 stars

Saturday, May 15, 2010

God's Grace by Bernard Malamud

What might please God would be some sensible arrangement of the lives of the apes on the island into a functioning social community, interacting lives; and with Cohn as advisor and protector to help them understand themselves and fulfill the social contract. Maybe start with a sort of small family and extend into community? You are not the chimps your fathers were -- you can talk. Yours, therefore, is the obligation to communicate, speak as equals, work and together build, evolve into concerned, altruistic living beings. Not bad if it worked. How could Cohn know unless and until he tried? On this island more seemed possible than one might imagine.

My then-girlfriend Liz gave me this book to read, cautioning me that it wasn't necessarily a good book, but had a very interesting concept. Malamud, I said--interesting? I can't think of many books that I would describe as less inherently interesting than The Assistant, which is the only Malamud book I had read.

But Liz was right on both counts. God's Grace is just the kind of bizarre nugget I love: Its protagonist, Calvin Cohn, is the last man on Earth, having survived a nuclear holocaust by being in a pressurized chamber at the bottom of the sea when the nuclear bombs destroyed everyone else. God is dismayed:

...[T]hat you, Mr Cohn, happen to exist when no one else does, though embarrassing to me, has nothing to do with your once having studied for the rabbinate, or for that matter, having given it up.

That was your concern, but I don't want you to conceive any false expectations. Inevitably, my purpose is to rectify the error I have conceived.


But God does not say where he will strike Cohn down, or when. Fearing his imminent end, Cohn prays for mercy and heads off to a vacant island with a chimpanzee previously owned by a fellow scientist. He names the chimp Buz; serendipitously, Buz's former owner has surgically bestowed upon him the gift of speech. There Cohn and Buz try to recreate some measure of civilization.

Liz was right also that it is not a well-written book; Malamud's style can be graciously described as inelegant:

One day when the sun shone golden, and a summer breeze blew an armada of long white clouds through the cerulean ocean-sky...


But I found my affection for the book growing. The broad strokes that Malamud begins with become slowly finer: Buz discovers another group of chimps living on the island and teaches them--almost miraculously--how to speak. Cohn tries to build a society among the chimps, but his efforts are less obviously parable-like than the book's early chapters, though certain elements of strife within the group neatly mirror broader social issues. One source of tension is that Cohn, having once studied to be a rabbi, tries to instruct the chimps in Judaism, but Buz was raised a Christian by his former owner.

Is God's Grace an allegory for the relationship between Judaism and Christianity? A chimp named Mary Madelyn expresses a romantic interest in Cohn, and although at first--ahem--"Cohn observed her flabby, wilted flower, and the sight of it made him slightly ill"--he begins to wonder if a human-chimp offspring might not represent the redemption of the world and the cornerstone of a new, more altruistic society. They name their child Rebekah, after the ship from which they came.

(I will issue a spoiler alert here.) The associations seem clear: As father, teacher, and provider, Cohn emulates God in his relationship with Buz. When Cohn and Mary Madelyn (simultaneously Mary the virgin and Mary Magdalene, the prostitute) engender Rebekah, it is the Jewish god ushering in the Christian era. If Rebekah is Christ, then her sacrificial death should be no surprise. Esau, a violent chimpanzee resentful of Cohn's authority, sparks a mutiny among the group, some of whom take the child by force and drop her from a great height. Buz plays Judas.

All of which leads to three conclusions about the nature of Christ and Christianity in God's Grace. First, Rebekah's existence is purposeless; though Cohn expects her to found a new race and redeem the old, there is nothing redemptive about her birth or death. Second, the passage from the Jewish era to the Christian era is the cause of the violence of the book's final chapters, since it is Cohn's intimacy with Mary Madelyn that incenses the jealous Esau and Buz to murder. Finally, though Christ is the offspring of God so he represents the death of God; in return for his actions the chimpanzees slit Cohn's throat.

It seems to me that God's Grace is a lament of the way that Christianity both springs from and threatens Judaism, the son that devours the father. It is no mistake that Buz is depicted as a Christian; Christianity is given to the Judases. After the murder of Rebekah, the chimpanzees revert and can no longer speak. Wisdom is forsaken.

Is this too strong a reading? Perhaps, but it is the one that makes most sense to me. I would love to hear others, if I ever encounter someone else who has read this book.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

What more is there to say about Of Mice and Men that I didn't already say, much more snarkily than I recall, in this review? It wasn't my intention to repeat books--in fact, I am not very fond of re-reading in general--and it certainly wasn't my intention to repeat this book. But it is the last book for my freshmen, and so I was obligated.

I have very few fresh insights, and I blame this on the book itself. It is not a book that wants to be reconsidered. Consider the too-neat symbolism: In the book's middle section, an old dog is put down to spare it suffering. At the end, the novel's protagonist, George--spoiler alert, if you need it--does the same to his friend Lennie, to save him from a crueler lynching at the hands of the other migrant workers. (Lennie, exceedingly strong but with the mind of a child, has accidentally killed a woman because he wanted to pet her soft hair.)

The only real question of significance Steinbeck offers is this: Does George make the right decision? I believe that Steinbeck wants us to think so ("Slim said, 'You hadda, George. I swear you hadda.'") But I do not think it is in keeping with George's wily, calculating character to give up so easily. As such, the premise of the question strikes me as faulty, and invalidates the question.

I noted in my old review that this final scene has "great resonance," and that remains true (though I might excise great). Like George, we are meant to understand that Lennie has been somehow spared, and so George himself receives the brunt of our pity. Lennie was the only constant in George's life:

George went on, "With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowing in our jack jus' because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us."

Lennie broke in. "But not us! An' why? Because... because I get you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why." He laughed delightedly.


George's act of questionable kindness is perhaps cruelest to himself, as it leaves him alone--and after all, the migrant workers of the novel work near the California town of Soledad, Spanish for "loneliness." But it is also possible that soledad is a state that George and Lennie have always occupied, given their natural isolation from each other and inability to connect. Can George and Lennie possibly understand each other; can they know each other, or sympathize with each other in any meaningful way? In this way their relationship mirrors the chaotic, deracinated lifestyle of the Depression-era migrant worker, in which all relationships are by nature transitory and any connection impossible, whether it be to man or to place. We find an echo of this in the ranch that Lennie and George dream about, which will go unrealized: another abortive attempt to form a bond.

This would be a cruel reading, and I have serious doubts that it's the one Steinbeck intends. But I think it would be a hell of a lot more interesting.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

I begrudgingly concur with the department lead at my school who recommended that we read Black Boy as the final book of the senior year instead of what he calls "the pink book"--since our copies of Pride and Prejudice are the color of Pepto-Bismol. Surely he is right when he says that Pride and Prejudice is not a book that teenagers would find inherently interesting, and its feminine appearance doesn't help (though I leave the irony of judging this particular book by its cover to the reader to notice).

But I also admit that I was secretly pleased to find that there were only enough copies of Black Boy to be read by one class. I love Pride and Prejudice. This puts me in good company, since it seems that in recent years sequels to Pride and Prejudice have become sort of a cottage industry.

But why? What is it about "the pink book" that has made it such an enduring work?

I think part of its popularity has to do with the fact that it is sort of an ur-text for a very familiar type of story: the romantic comedy. All romantic comedies are structured essentially the same way: Two people of very different stations or perspectives meet, and at first their natural opposition makes them hate each other. Inevitably, despite all odds, their mutual antipathy turns to love.

Surely Pride and Prejudice wasn't the first to do this, but it does it so well. Elizabeth Bennet's cleverness and disdain clash immediately with Mr. Darcy's prim elitism, but the reader sees what they do not, that their intelligence and discernment (or even snobbishness) make them perfect for each other. As I've been teaching it, I try to get across what might be lost on a young, modern audience, that Darcy and Elizabeth's love forms across class boundaries, and that Darcy's love for Elizabeth represents a non-trivial social risk.

Furthermore, I think that Pride and Prejudice taps directly into that well of human feeling that romantic comedies exploit repeatedly, the desire to find one's soulmate. Darcy and Elizabeth are drawn just broadly enough to allow the reader to live vicariously through them; Darcy is handsome, well-mannered, eloquent, but also appealingly aloof. Likewise Elizabeth is clever and strong-willed. Not only is it easy to imagine ourselves in a relationship with (or someone like) one, it is easy to imagine ourselves as (or like) the other. We love the story because it affirms the archetype of finding "the One."

And, like romantic comedies ought to be, it's funny. This is especially lost on my students, who fail to pick up on the humor underneath the language. In this scene, Mr. Bingley's sister Caroline betrays her crush on Darcy, who earlier had remarked how he appreciates a woman who reads frequently:

Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy's progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, "How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than a book! When I havea house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library."

No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement...


I think the image of Caroline saying "How much sooner one tires of anything than a book," and then tossing her book aside when no one responds, is pretty amusing. But you know what they say about what happens to a joke when you explain it. Much of the humor is subtle, and based on changes in register that modern readers have trouble picking up on:

Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. It had given him a disgust to his business and to his residence in a small market town and quitting them both, he had removed with his family to a house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world.


The humor here lies in the diction: Lucas' house, "denominated from that period Lucas Lodge," his "tolerable fortune," all endowing the passage with a false grandiloquence that shows exactly why Lucas has felt "the distinction... too strongly." Lucas is a pompous ass, and has given up any useful contribution to society to "occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world," enamored of his own fortune and relatively paltry social status. But to recognize the different shades of meaning here requires a much more sophisticated sense of vocabulary than even the brightest teenagers possess.

Still, I hope to kindle in at least one student an appreciation of how good Pride and Prejudice is. If I can do that, then I will count this semester a grand success.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Gunslinger by Stephen King


The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Despite the fact that it was really slow at the beginning and frustrated me to anger for the first two thirds or so, it has a much better aftertaste. Also, as Jim pointed out, it has one of the baddest ass opening lines (quoted above) of any book I've read in quite some time.

The Gunslinger is the first book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series and follows the gunslinger, Roland, as he chases the man in black, searching for answers. The frustrating part of the beginning of the book is that not only are we in the same position as Roland, desperate for answers, we don't even know most of the questions. This book intrigued me because it was so different from anything else I've ever read by Stephen King (which is at least 18 books, btw). It was much more serious, much more focused on character development than his other novels. Like I said before, it takes awhile for anything to really happen. Eventually, however, King reveals some of the puzzle pieces, even if he doesn't necessarily show us where they go. It is enough, though, that I downloaded the second one and am going to bring the third and fourth books in the series back to DC with me (I think I might have read one of them out of order at some point, but I can't remember). Also, once the frustration from the beginning of the book sort of melted away, it became easier to focus on the fact that Roland is a straight up BAMF, and that's awesome/makes me want to read more about him.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Though I have not been posting for a while, I have been reading: This is one of about five reviews I have in my backlog. As it turns out, teaching in an actually functioning school has certain demands and some things have fallen by the wayside--reviews being one of them. I apologize, and promise never again to sacrifice my blog stewardship for something as trivial as the education of American youth.

In this case, the two are not exclusive--I read Black Boy because I thought it was going to be the next book I would read in my senior class; but when we discovered that there was only one full class set I had to turn my attention (not without some pleasure) to Pride and Prejudice.

Which is not to say I didn't like Black Boy--I did. But I didn't connect with it like many do. Why not, I wondered? I briefly considered that it may be because I simply don't have a point of reference for Wright's narrative; I can't relate to it, as my students often say.

It is the quintessential outsider narrative: Wright grows up in the Jim Crow South, a place and time not amenable to the ambitions of young blacks. Richard is fiercely intelligent, but his poverty means that his schooling is intermittent and he never connects with his classmates. Work is scarce and demeaning, and usually involves submitting to the tyranny of a white boss who fails to even imagine that a black child may have aspirations, or can write. At home, things are not much better: Richard fails to grow into the religious mold his grandmother and aunts and uncles expect of him; his father is absent from his earliest days. Wright subtitled the memoir American Hunger, and recalls that he is perpetually starving:

Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant. Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night with hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly.


First he associates the hunger with the absence of his father, but it is more; it is the starvation of all that it means to be human, the deprivation of the things which sustain life and thought. He survives meagerly, snatching at scraps of knowledge as he does scraps at food.

But I am not an outsider. I am not so progressive to admit that, in the great scheme of things, I am a have and not a have-not. Though I thought this, I rejected it: I had forgotten that relatability is one of the great smokescreens of reading. (As if we should never stoop to understand what we do not recognize as like ourselves.)

Instead, I think that Black Boy failed to resonate with me because I suspect there is some measure of airbrushing in Wright's accounts of himself. It isn't a self-hagiography; he hardly paints himself as a saint, but his sins are sins of youthful ignorance. For example, he takes a job delivering a newspaper because he likes the serials printed on the back, but fails to notice that the paper itself is militantly pro-Jim Crow. Contrast the scene in which Richard, desperate to please his grandmother, tells her that he would believe if he saw an angel--which she mishears as fact and tells the church that her grandson has had a vision. These misunderstandings lead to Richard being beaten, but always through the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of his family; he admits to no malice or ill intention. This pattern continues into the book's restored second half, which traces Wright's dalliances with the Chicago Communist community, which finds his free-thinking suspicious and seeks to eradicate it as his family did.

Ultimately, I think we are meant to see Wright as a victim. Not a victim to be pitied, but to be championed because of his ultimate success, but a victim all the same. I think this is the source of ambivalence for this book--yet it makes me want to read Native Son, whose protagonist seems more conflicted. That's the kind I like.