Redeployment

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The IED replaces the rock. Walking, breathing, soulless cadavers come home, missing their adrenaline fix and those who never made it back. Boys are numbed into fragile journeymen killers. The corrosive effect of the Sisyphistic Iraq war is masterfully explored from different vantage points in Phil Klay’s short story collection, “Redeployment”. Stereotypes are challenged.

The first two stories are so raw that they seem not to be stories at all. It begins:

“We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about it a lot.”

There is no sentimentality in this book. Rotating moments of terror followed by boredom. There is hatred, revenge, love, mockery, hypocrisy and a litany of military acronyms and slang. I am indebted to the blog Book Scribbles for compiling a glossary of the latter. If you did not serve in the military and particularly in Iraq, it is required reading before you read the third story in the book. The story is more glossary than a story. It may have been included to add cred to the book. https://bookscribblesbyjen.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/making-sense-of-redeployment-a-glossary/.

What earned this book the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction is its complexity. Humans are not a zero sum game and the characters are not one-dimensional. There is humor, cynicism and satire.

“There is a joke Marines tell each other.

A liberal pussy journalist is trying to get the touchy-feely side of war and he asks a Marine sniper. ‘What is it like to kill a man? What do you feel when you pull the trigger?’

The Marine looks at him and says one word. ‘Recoil’. ”

Phil Klay was a public affairs officer in the Corp during the surge in Iraq. He is a Dartmouth graduate. His satirical (or realistic) take on foreign service officers assigned to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis for the Congressional folks back home is sadly comical. In “Money as a Weapon System” a green foreign service officer is trying to get his Shi’a Iraqi counterpart to show up to meetings and to move his water project forward. He wants to know why the Iraqi missed their last meeting and is told he went to Iran, which makes his military escorts nervous. The Iraqi explains to get married and shows pictures. The foreign service officer’s Sunni translator explains that Iranian women are beautiful. The foreign service officer congratulates the Iraqi.

“On the drive back, the Professor explained the marriages to me in the tone you’d use to speak with a mentally deficient golden retriever.

‘Nikah mut’ah, he said. ‘Shi’a allow temporary marriages. Shi’a marry a woman for an hour, the next day marry another.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Prostitution.’

‘Prostitution is illegal under Islam,’ said the Professor.”

The Iraqi gets approval to replace a necessary water pipe for the water project after it is explained to the Shi’a hierarchy that the water pressure in the new pipe would explode toilets in the Sunni area.

“Prayer in the Furnace” is a test of faith. A chaplain who is informed about a perceived war crime has confront morality, religion, chain of command and kill scoring in a war zone.

Returning stateside is a separate war for veterans. Two great stories are “Psychological Operations” and “War Stories”. The author addresses the disdain for civilians; the hyperbole of the badass hero and the broken hero- all ploys to get laid. Some were fixing potholes and got shot up. “Thank you for your service” but with consequences.

” You’re angry with your father because people thanked you for your service?’ , she said. ‘ Or is he why you’re angry with those people?’

‘He’s part of it’, I said. ‘That sentiment.’

‘So should I thank vets for their service?’, she said. ‘Or spit on them, like Vietnam?’

I thought for a moment and then gave her a crooked smile. ‘I reserve the right to be angry at you whatever you do.'”

A Egyptian Coptic soldier attending Amherst College under the G.I. Bill has a confrontation with the only African American in his class. She comes from an upper class family and she has been a Muslim convert for a few months. She does not understand how he can fight for a Corp that exhibited bigotry towards him, even though he was not Muslim.

“You’re thinkin about it the wrong way,’ I said. ‘That shit is just people. It was alienating. This ‘- I waived my hand toward the college- ‘this is alienating. All these special little children and their bright futures. Look, if Travis was the type to die for his buddies, and he might have been, I think he’d do it for me just as soon as for anyone else wearing Army cammies. That he hated me, and that I hated the ignorant fuck right back, well there are circumstances that trump personal feelings’. ”

Humans and circumstances are different even in a war zone. Klay avoids a singular theme. I would really like to have comments from Vets who served or serving in Iraq or Afghanistan about what they thought about this book. Would it be helpful to Vets in counseling?

The penultimate story “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” is about vets who try to reconcile living after the death of their heroic Sargeant. One “successfully” returns to civilian life as a lawyer who finds the civilian world to be meaningless. The other will likely return.

“Agamben speaks of the difference between men and animals being that animals are in thrall to stimuli. Think a deer in the headlights. He describes experiments where scientists give a worker bee a source of nectar. As it imbibes, they cut away its abodomen, so that instead of filling the bee up, the nectar falls out through the wound in a trickle that pours as fast as the bee drinks. You’d think the bee might change its behavior in response, but it doesn’t. It keeps happily sucking away at the nectar and will continue indefinitely, enthralled by one stimulus– the presence of nectar– until released by another– the sensation of satiety. But that second stimulus never comes– the wound keeps the bee drinking until it finally starves.”

This is a must read.

The Bell Jar

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In all published fiction there is the legal disclaimer “All characters and events are a product of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Sylvia Plath’s editor, Frances McCullough, in the prologue to the 25th anniversary edition of “The Bell Jar” affirms that this legal disclosure is substantially false. The characters and events in this American classic parallel the short life of the author. The novel was published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas eight years before its U.S. publication owing to resistance by her ex husband, Ted Hughes, who held the copyright. After Ms. Plath’s suicide he promised  her mother that it would not be published in the U.S. during her mother’s lifetime, but copies had leaked out, and the U.S. copyright had been lost.

Of greater interest to me is that the novel was twice rejected by editors. It was considered by them to be disappointing, juvenile and overwrought. Ms. Plath’s collection of poems, “Ariel”, had been well received and her suicide enhanced sales of that collection. The decision to publish “The Bell Jar” in the U.S. was not made by literary editors, but by one of Harper & Row’s sales managers, Frank Scioscia. He thought it would sell, and being the female bookend to Holden Caulfield of “The Catcher in the Rye”, it did. I agree with the literary editors although my perspective is not that of the 1950s and early 1960s when the book was an awakening for women and to a lesser degree, psychiatry.

The main character, Ester Greenwood, is a star student who suffers a mental breakdown that leads to shock treatment. Like the author, she is a writer, who wants to be a poet.  Unlike the author, publication of her works was not required to feed her and her children.

The novel is negative about the use of shock treatment. The opening paragraph is a premonition.

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers-google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”

I have heard about that weekend from my parents, because I came into the world the weekend that the Rosenbergs were leaving it.

This was a book that used to be read in American high schools. With the concern about teen suicide, I am not sure if it still is. Here suicidal tendencies evolve from young angst founded on intellectual pretensions. It predates drug induced suicide.

Although dated in my opinion, it still would be as worthwhile a read for young adults as “The Catcher in the Rye.” The latter remains a mystery to me, as it is still enjoyed by teenagers, although I never cared for the book. For adults, “The Bell Jar” is a period piece. The shock has worn off since the 1960s, so today the plot and characters are banal. It is a quick read, if you want to read what is considered a “classic”.

Cré na Cille- The Dirty Dust

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Imagine you are in a crowd. Everyone is having different conversations. You cycle between these conversations only catching snippets. Change the venue to the gossip of the interred in a Irish cemetery at the onset of World War II. A few of the characters, as if in an amnesic round, offer the same response under different circumstances.

“-Ah, come on, like, there was an ambush. The end of a dark night. They crocked Curran’s donkey from going into Curran’s field up his road.”

“- I remember it well. I twisted my ankle…”

“-… There was every single tiny drop of the forty-two pints lining my stomach when I was tying up Tomasheen…”

“- I remember it well. I twisted my ankle…”

In Alan Titley’s translation of  Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s Irish novel “Cré na Cille”, life after death resembles life. The spitefulness, jealousies, pettiness, and pretensions of a small Irish village survive disintegration of the body. For these souls news of the living arrives with each fresh burial.

This novel is not an easy read. It is almost entirely dialogue, and could, with editing, be adapted to theatre. Mr.  Titley provides a guide to the continuous dialogue, which is indispensable for the first two chapters.

– Beginning of Talk        -… Middle of Talk   … Conversation, or Missing Talk

An example:

” -…’The nettle-ridden patches of Bally Donough, you say

_ The little pimply hillocks in your town land couldn’t even grow nettles with all of the fleas on them…

-… Fell from a stack of corn…

By the hokey, as you might say, myself and the guy from Menlow were writing to one another…

_’… Do you think that this war is ‘The War of the Two Foreigners’? I says to Patchy Johnnny.

– Wake up, you lout. That war’s been over since 1918.”

Until you catch the rhythm and learn the characters and their lines, the novel may read as if it is a stream of consciousness. I am sure it was not an easy novel to write, nor to translate. The superb Irish author, Colm Tóibín, believes it is the greatest novel to be written in the Irish language. Irish heritage is a cultural and literary advantage in reading the book.

The central character is Catriona Paudeen who is newly buried. She is vituperative to all, but holds a special place in hell for her sister Nell, who married her perceived beau and who in Catriona’s mind cheated her out of an inheritance from their sister Baba and of a relation’s land, due to Catriona’s earlier demise.

For some reason the U.S. 1980s television program “thirty something” came to my mind while I was reading this. The show depicted self-absorbed baby boomer parents in all their angst. In the event you were lacking problems in your life, the show offered a litany of others. Reading “The Dirty Dust” was for me like listening to one long gripe. Satirical, or honestly reflective of a certain Irish town, it became tedious. It is not a flattering portrait.

To be blunt, I struggle to complete the book, hoping that it would evolve. As there is little prose beyond dialogue, it might be read as a play with a focus on the lilt of the Irish. The characters do not develop by intent, but this does not keep the reader engaged. The lines are telegraphed.

As ethnic literature it may be worth a go for those from Ireland or of Irish descent. If you have less familiarity with this part of island, you likely will enjoy other novels more.

 

 

Rules for Old Men Waiting

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I thought Peter Pouncey’s “Rule for Old Men Waiting” might be a bookend for “Nora Webster” which I just read and reviewed. Both are told from the perspective of spouses who had a very strong marriage. Nora Webster is a widow, MacIver, a Scottish history professor whose artist wife just died, is a widower.

There are differences. MacIver is near death and isolates himself to occupy his remaining time by writing a World War I short story. Pouncey’s book is more soliloquy and therefore less engaging than “Nora Webster” which uses well drawn characters to paint a picture of Nora Webster’s survival and growth in changing times. The intent of Mr. Pouncey’s book seems to be a version of war and remembrance. The biological and mental agony of those near death seems to me to be a writer’s ploy to disguise a novella principally about war. The chapters begin with MacIver having to deal with his current physical state. This usually entails about a page or two of narrative and then it is back to the war story. As this was Mr. Pouncey’s debut novel I felt as if he did not want to be judged on the war story, so nested it within a novel about a widower’s remembrances and end of life experience. The war story about a fragging is fine as is MacIver’s remembrance of his son who died in Vietnam. To me, the rest is a hurried distraction.

Unlike “Nora Webster” the writer “tells you” and not “shows you”. This is dictated by the novel being a remembrance, but for me it constrained emotional attachment to MacIver.

Mr. Pouncey is a classicist, so there are references and parallels to Greek mythology sprinkled throughout the book. The book has strong testimonials from good writers, which is what attracted me to the novel: Frank McCourt; Ward Just; Louis Begley; Norman Mailer and Shirley Hazzard.

It is a short book if you care to have a go. I mostly felt underwhelmed, particularly because the title of the book was not its center.

Nora Webster

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If I was not a fan of Colm Tóibín’s writing I might not have finished his most recent novel, “Nora Webster”. Unlike Jumpa Lahiri’s “Lowland” which I had just finished reading, it is not plot driven. It is a character study of an Irish widow in the early 1960s in a small town in the southeast of Ireland near Wexford. The novel moves at a small town pace capturing the fears of a sheltered widow thrust into economic and sole parenting decisions to support two young boys and teenage girls in a changing world. It is Irish in tribalism, petty grievances and grudges, Catholic upbring, family, and community. It captures the disruptiveness of Northern Ireland and the IRA on Catholic Ireland at a personal level. It is a novel that if you have or had a strong bond with your spouse you will relish.

The change in my perception of the novel began with Chapter Eight, about half-way through the book. Religion is more than a faith when practiced well. It offers both comfort and guidance in various dosages from those who know their flock very well. Like politics, religion is local. It is a wonder anyone would give confession in Nora Webster’s town as Sister Thomas is as good as a bookie at a turf parlor. As Ms. Webster appreciatively notes “that in any other century, Sister Thomas would have been burned as a witch.”

The book makes a passing reference to the theologian Thomas Merton, who I know the author takes an interest in. He had spoken on a panel about Mr. Merton last year in New York City. What I found most revealing about the panel discussion was his Irish ability to tell stories that are both funny and sometimes deprecating. As a social people the Irish offer plenty of characters and caricatures. It is no wonder that gifted writer such as the author finds a treasure trove to write about.

There is however, universality to this book: marriage; widowhood; community; parenting; sibling rivalry; women’s rights; and economic and culture class. Those who speak with a Dublin dialect are to be mocked. Classical music and opera are pretensions. Politics is argued about openly by men, not by women. Ms. Webster is not the meek person that she appears to be outside of her family and with the help of supportive family and community she becomes an individual.

From one character, and that character’s thoughts and relationships, a whole canvas of the times is painted by the author. It is a great gift to be able to write with but shadow and light, but Mr. Tóibín is highly gifted.

I would definitely recommend this book; particularly for older readers who have lived through and will continue to live through the joys and tribulations of daily life.

Lowland

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Jhumpa Lihari’s 2013 short-listed Man Booker novel is her last exploration of her Indian émigré experience. The transitional culture influences and pressures are layered over the larger theme of single parenting within broken families. The historical backdrop the Naxalite student uprising in Calcutta in 1971 who were supporting the sharecroppers revolt that the West Bengali police crushed in the late 1960s. The Naxalites are and remain followers of Mao and continue to destabilize Kashmir.

The novel traces the lives of two Hindu boys who grow up in Muslim Calcutta initially under British rule. Both are the first in their families to attend university. The younger, more independent Udayan falls into the student Naxalite movement, the older, submissive Subhash, is more respectful of his parents, but emigrates to the United States for graduate study. Sudhash tries to repair family damage after Udayan is killed, notwithstanding that others are more selfish or constrained by their beliefs or culture.

I do not want to reveal the plot because this is a fast paced story. Ms. Lahiri writing conveys the atmosphere in Calcutta and Rhode Island through characters that are developed. While some novels draw their plot from their characters, this is a generational epic sweep, so plot takes precedence. Years are skipped, so the reader is an interloper on events during different periods and at different locales.

It was an enjoyable read that is hard to put down. It is not a literary masterpiece. The prose is competent and apart from some history of the Naxalite movement, it imparts no new knowledge to those who do not know recent Indian history. From an educational standpoint Sudhash’s wife, a philosophy major, says that her study group argues about praxis, immanence and absolute.

I  have long listed the book if I was judging, as other 2013 short-listed works were superior.

Orfeo

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Richard Power’s most recent novel “Orfeo” intertwines minimalist classical music and bioterrorism paranoia in an ironic homage to Orpheus. For those without musical training or knowledge of the history of avant-garde classical music composition a multi-media version of this novel linked to orchestral performances, or end notes about musicology, would have been a beneficial supplement. Monteverdi’s opera, “Orfeo” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ma4OelX45I) , though capturing the theme of music and death in the Orphic-Eurydice Greek myth is too melodic for Richard Power’s protagonist, Peter Els. The Nouveau Classical Project Kamea string quartet’s interpretive performance of Richard Power’s “Orfeo” edges closer. (http://centerforfiction.org/calendar/notes-on-fiction-orfeo-by-richard-powers). Unfortunately there is no score for Mr. Els dissonant compositions. Unlike Orpheus’ lyre, Mr. Els’ works are the risk of artistry: works never to be heard. The novel is a chronology of the modern classical music genre and its influences that for better or worse Peter Els borrows or revolts from: the polyphonic Pérotin; Bach; Mahler; Bartók; Shostakovich; Messiaen (see my earlier review of the novel “Quartet for the End of Time” and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYpBHc8px_U); Stravinsky; the indeterminate John Cage (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4); Terry Riley (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hy3W-3HPMWg); serialists Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and George Rochberg; Jon Gibson; Steve Reich; Philip Glass ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Stu7h7Qup8and); and Pierre Boulez’s Orientations. This novel is “In C”.

A young Peter Els begins his odyssey for musical perfection by trying to impress his first love, Clara Reston, whose critical ear isolates sound and discards conventional musical form. He alters his career choice from chemistry to musical composition; the fascination for underlying notation interlocking the two. She discards him for London and a husband and he finds a substitution in his monetarily supportive vocalist wife, Maddy and their emotionally supportive daughter, Sara. The “happenings” of U.S. in the 1960s catalyze him to discard both for his music; an addiction orchestrated by his manipulative colleague Richard who commissions him for his mostly uncompensated operatic librettos and modern dance pieces. He discards their fifteen seconds of fame achieved by inadvertently reinvigorating Meyerbeer’s Le prophète. Both are operas that memorialize the later socialist hero Thomas Münzer who in 1534 at the behest of the Reformation’s Martin Luther is massacred with 30,000 Anabaptist families. On the heel of Waco, for moral reasons, Els precludes encores of his piece. He becomes reclusive, but in middle age finds sanctuary and a little income teaching at a college. Ever the perfectionist in his own mind in this 70s he seeks perpetuity of his unheard score by encoding and mutating a bacterium’s (Serratia) with elements of his compositions. Federal agents, paranoid about bioterrorism, brand him one and he becomes a fugitive. A temporal cult hero on Twitter his pieces finally find an audience.

Mr. Powers employs music in some of his other works, so I first thought that the novel only employed the currency of security paranoia for commercial reasons. The novel can be a little slow at the outset, particularly if you have no musical background. A 2014 long listed Booker Prize novel, it is far more engaging than the plot and is worth pursing to its conclusion. For book clubs that read challenging literature it is an excellent choice.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” Are sound and music synonymous? What is the music in things and the pauses between sound? Is conventional music a mathematical construct that begs to be unconstrained. avant-garde music extends the reach beyond limited tonality, but Els is venturing into nanomusic.

“A year of reading, and the scales fell from El’s eyes. … Microbes orchestrated the expression of human DNA and regulated human metabolism. They were the ecosystem that we just lived in. We might go dancing, but they called the tune.”

Steve Reich’s Proverb (based on Wittgenstein’s “how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5lgAUHVFC4) is a relativistic beautifully melodic inversion that hauntingly chants through Els, until he learns that the thought is love, not music.

“To call any music subversive, to say that a set of pitches and rhythms could pose a threat to real power… ludicrous. And yet, Plato to Pyongyang, that endless need to legislate sounds. To police the harmonic possibilities as if there were no limits to music’s threat.” Els’ tells the history of Shostakovich’s Fifth. Compelled by Stalin for him to be more melodic, the composer had to abandon his acclaimed inventive Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldRJQfES8hA). Censorship is a chill that leads to a putinesca score. Els buries is dog Fidelio, who unlike Beethoven’s heroine of the same name, will not be able to free him from political prisons.

“He goes on writing, of music converted into a string of zeros and ones, then converted again into base four. He writes of Serratia’s chromosome ring, five million base pairs long. He tweets how he divided those two numbers to produce a short key. ”

“People now make music from everything. Fugues from fractals. A prelude extracted from the digits of pi. Sonatas written by the solar wind, by voting records, by the life and death of ice shelves as seen from space…. String quartets were performing the sequences of amino acids in horse hemoglobin. No listener would ever need more than a fraction of the music that had already been made, but something inside the cells needed to make a million times more… His own music had no corner on obscurity. Almost every tune that the world had to offer would forever be heard by almost no one.”

Mr. Powers is a musician, and although he attended college for physics, he became a literature major. He worked as a computer programmer and was an adjunct faculty member at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. His novels are a blend of these skill sets, although weighted more to biology than physics. In short, he is interesting and thought-provoking. Make the effort.

In Paradise

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“In Paradise” is the last book of the multiple National Book award-winning author Peter Matthiessen. In baseball parlance, it is a walk-off. Mr. Matthiessen was a co-founder of the famed literary journal The Paris Review. He was a renowned naturalist and former CIA agent. The Paris Review was created to be his CIA cover.

In 1996 a cast of characters attend a week-long ecumenical retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenhau to pray and “bear witness”. As in good theatre, the ghosts of the dead bring out the skeletons in the closet. The plot centers around Professor Olin Clements, poet and historian, who as a child of a patrician Polish family came to the U.S. in the late 1930s. He attends the retreat facially for research purposes; secondarily to uncover the history of his mother whom his father left behind. The plot, though deftly handled, is the palette for various themes on the Human Condition, genocide, and religion. More Devil’s advocate than Socratic, it raises but does not try to answer these questions. The novel challenges perspectives and prejudices and is a great choice for a book club.

Like Hannah Arendt’s “Eichman in Jerusalem:A Report on the Banality of Evil” it takes no prisoners from the temporally coven of Israeli, German, Polish, Canadian, American, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, and Italian witnesses. It mocks those who “bear witness” that were not survivors, as it challenges the ethical fiber of those who found a means to survive. Earwig the most inflammatory of the author’s voices for piercing hypocrisy. There are no delusions about the role of class. An uneducated local Polish woman, who grew up seeing the smoke from the camp, like survivors of the camp inexplicably continues to return to it. Her viewpoint is not compassionate.

“I think… I am a natural oppressor. I know I am. I would be good at it.”… She declares that she has no sympathy for the people killed here except for those who fought back.”

Is Auschwitz for the educated.  A shrine over which the Ashkenazi hold a monopoly while the mass graves outside of and within the more deadly Treblinka, represents the Eastern Europe and of Catholic Polish experience. Mattiessen’s characters do not give the Poles nor the Vatican a pass. It is not just Jews. At the retreat a gay priest is vilified and then attacked. Tadeusz Borowski’s suicide note, is in part a rebuttal against a “German” or “Polish” condition.

“.. there is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself. And, having saved himself, he will commit crimes for increasingly trivial reasons… first out of duty, then out of habit, and finally– for pleasure.”

Is Auschwitz a metaphorical “paradise?

“Footsteps on the bare wood floor resound too loudly. A stifled cry and many weep. Still, they do not look at one another. Like the first sinners fleeing Paradise in a medieval painting, hands clasped to their errant genitals, they cannot in this moment face the shame they see reflected in the eyes of other human beings.”

How innately evil are humans.

“Anders says he has always been embarrassed by Jews who insist that their suffering was more terrible than other people’s. Sitting motionless on their platform all day long in winter weather, it has seemed to him more and more idle to judge whose ordeal has been worst. Or whose guilt, for that matter. Germans, Poles, Romanians, Croats, Ukrainians– are these ethnicities intrinsically more cruel, historically ‘worse’ human being than the racists and torturers in other lands? If so, does ‘worse’ signify simply signify ‘inferior’? And if so, do these peoples remain inferior in perpetuity? Or should all Homo sapiens  be given the benefit of the doubt by reason of incurable insanity? Accept that we can’t help ourselves, were ‘only human’.”

The author describes the Auschwitz home life of Rudolf Hoess, one of the Kapos at the camp.

“The Hoesses and their four offspring, waited on by emaciated slaves, inhabited a brute heaven of gourmet delicacies, silks, furs, jewelry, and assorted loot stripped from doomed prisoners. His wife would sigh, ‘I want to live here till I die”, according to one slave…”

The much older Professor Clements is infatuated with noviate Catherine who is with other nuns and priests on the retreat. She is bound to the Church but uncomfortable with the orthodoxy.  He mentions to her the apocryphal parable of her namesake, St. Catherina of Siena, a Dominican of the fourteenth century.

“Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief, in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside. ‘I beseech you, Jesus, take me with you this day to Paradise!’. In traditional gospels, Jesus responds, ‘Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,’ but in older texts-Eastern Orthodox or the Apocrypha, perhaps?- Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, ‘No friend, we are in Paradise, right now.'”

Before leaving Poland Dr. Clements goes to a Franciscan church to see a modern stained glass window that a survivor recommended to him. The survivor is an artist who is representing the suffering of those in the camps in a cave in the vicinity. How should art represent the evil of genocide for it to be impactful?

“The only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it. And the only way to reimagine it is through art, as Goya knew. You cannot portray it realistically.”

Yet the stained glass window at the Franciscan church is not abstract.

“Lifting his gaze, he eventually locates Malan’s stained glass window. A thunderous Jehovah brow, a torrent of white beard, cascading downward from on high; the white is soon lost among the livid greens and blues of sun-filled Evil emerging out of chaos. And there it sits, crouched in the swirl of colors–a gray claw with long stiletto nails and carmine veins like lethal wires under the rotting skin, the dead had of an aghast Almighty withdrawn from His Creation.”

This is a masterful work of literature that I highly recommend that you read.

The Book of Duels

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I am half-way through Michael Garriga’s debut collection of stories and I am thinking Michael Garriga, the name of the author, is nom de plume. His biography reads shrimp picker, bartender, soundman at a blues bar and writing teacher at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. I never heard of the school, so I looked it.  Mr. Garriga is now an assistant professor of English teaching undergraduate creative writing at the University. There are no professional Writers’ Workshop; no the graduate writing program. The latter is limited to teaching education. The book is published by Milkweed Editions, a small press  located in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.  The front cover has a very engaging pen and ink drawing and other such illustrations by Tynan Kerr and presumably Mr. Garriga’s wife, grace the book. Milkweed Editions is promoting the illustrations in the book. The book and Mr. Garriga have received favorable reviews. The back cover has a testimonial by Robert Olen Butler, a short story writer who was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. The testimonial in part reads, “‘The Book of Duels’ is one of the most extraordinary first books of fiction I’ve ever read.” I second this.

The title is a little misleading, as these are not all duels in the traditional sense. The book sets the stage with quotations about traditional duels. Mark Twain’s is among the best.

“I thoroughly disapprove of duels. I consider them unwise and I know they are dangerous. Also sinful. If a man should challenge me now, I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot, and kill him.”

Mr. Garriga triangulates the dual. The stories are 4-5 page vignettes, with three perspectives: the two protagonists and the second; a witness; a relative bystander; or a peripheral victim. As expected the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is included. The perspectives and other protagonists are unexpected. The language is at times sermonic, poetic, streetwise or historically vernacular, and Faulknerian in cadence. These are soliloquies, the prose is confessional in search of a period. Stripping the vignettes to excerpt would not be representative of the whole. Both style and emotion would be diffused. You have to take my word about the quality of this writing.

Mr. Garriga is a storyteller of Southern Creole origin. I could as easily hear these stories on The Moth or at a story telling venue as read them. In my opinion, it is rare, even in well written literature, to be both visual and aural. Authors at book readings often fail to grasp this.

For short story writers you wonder if they have a novel in them. The same may be asked about Mr. Garriga- does he have longer short stories in him. It is the wrong question, although I think he has the skills and imagination to write both literary forms. He invents and inhabits the minds of the protagonists in revisiting historic and allegorical events. It is not unlike what Colm Toibin did in “The Testament of Mary.” Mr. Garriga has taken a vise grip to the short story form and compressed it to its essential elements. These compressed stories may be the new form of short story for an impatient age.

The range of “duels” is expansive. He categorizes them into Offense, Challenge, and Satisfaction. The weapons are varied: instruments of death, words, art form, children, labor, roosters (cocks), and vehicles. The “duels” are confrontations and contests. The historic periods covered extend from Biblical times until today.  Abolition and slavery are well represented, as is the Creole experience.  Broadly the subject “duals” include:

David and Goliath

Abel and Cain

Don Quixote and the Windmill (a.k.a Argus Nicholas the Giant)

George and the Dragon

Musashi  and Kojiro (Samurai and Founder of the Kenjutsu School)

Custer and Ptebola Ska (White Cow Bull)

Fuego (Miura Bull) and Ignacio Lopez Avaloz (matador)

Jacques Le Gris and Jean de Carrouges (last trial by combat in France, Charles VI in attendance)

Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tuttle, Jr.

Sellers vs. Sellers (a marital dispute)

Donatello vs. Michelangelo vs. da Vinci

Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery and King Henry II

Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”) and Charles Dickinson

Arthur John (Jack) Johnson (World Heavyweight Boxing Champion) and Gregori Rasputin

I admire Milkweed Editions in bringing attention to this book and Mr. Garriga. I am not sure if it has the resources to appropriately promote both and this would be unfortunate. For me, I think this is what appropriation editors and literary agents dream of. This is a diamond in the rough. It would be a lost opportunity if someone does not help polish this stone.

This is a definite read. You are not likely to find it in a library (save for the great Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library). I will be buying a copy, and I would suggest you do the same. It is available on Amazon (it got great reviews) and through Milkweed Editions (http://milkweed.org/). A MUST read!

In the interest of full disclosure, I have no conflicts of interest. I was not asked to write this review; have no affiliation with Milkweed Editions, Amazon, the Garriga’s or anyone affiliated with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Rain

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Takehito Miyatake photo of hime botaru (princess fireflies)

Photo of hime botaru by Takehito Miyatake.

“I did love your mother, you know, he said. People thought I had gone native, the way so many do. But they didn’t understand what she and I felt for each other.” …

“We would row downstream, and she would lie in my arms, and we would wait in our boat for the fireflies to appear in the trees along the riverbank. There were thousands of them, lighting the darkness for us, showing us the way.” …

“A few weeks after we were married, I came home late one night. The house was dark. I ran inside, convinced something terrible had happened.” ….

“She had let the mosquito netting drop over the bed, covering it completely. And in the darkness, between the creases of the net were hundreds of fireflies she had collected from the river.”…

“We spent the night beneath a shower of light. That was the night you were conceived.”

Philip Hutton is a half-breed of two influential families in Malaysia. His father, Noel, is the scion of one of England’s powerful trading families. His mother, Noel’s second wife, dishonored her influential Chinese family by marrying outside of her race. Like Philip she is an outcast. He is taken under the wing of his father’s Japanese diplomat tenant, Hayato Endo (Endo-san), who becomes his sensei in aikijutsu.

This is a World War II novel about family, honor and prejudice born of race and history. The Japanese occupation of Malaysia is principally told from the British, Chinese and Japanese perspectives. There is only passing reference to fleeting support by the Malays for Japanese ouster of the colonial British. This limitation does not detract from the novel, which is a proverbial page-turner.

The Gift of Rain was Malaysian native Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel. It garnered a nomination for the Man Booker Prize. The author sprinkles cultural references throughout this epic novel. Having a first-dan ranking in aikido, the author educates the reader about this style of martial arts. “The Garden of Evening Mists”, Tan’s second novel, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It too is set in Malaysia during the Japanese occupation.

There is a ying-yan to “collaborate”. In a positive sense it is encourages working together to produce or to create something. In a negative sense, it is cooperate traitorously with the enemy. Tan avoids the latter simple view. It is shaded by the life of half-breeds and by conflicting goals. In this sense, collaborate means to compromise. This does not diminish, nor excuse, the brutality of the product. For Endo-san and Philip, family and honor constrain choices, with fatalism and free will being the operative cultural debate between them. Each are emotionally scarred as the middle ground is the hard choice between extremes.

Both of Tan’s books are published by the indie press Weinstein Books ( http://www.weinsteinbooks.com) . It is a partnership between The Weinstein Company and The Perseus Books Group (http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com), which publishes The Economist and other non-fiction imprints. The Weinstein Company is a multimedia and distribution company that was launched by the Weinstein brothers who founded Miramax Films. There is commercial value to this book, as it could readily be turned into a film or cable series, as Herman Wouk did with “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” with TV. James Clavell’s Asian series books have the same feel, although based in part on Jardines in an earlier historical period of Hong Kong and Japan.

You will enjoy reading this book.

 

 

 

 

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