Cup of Rage

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Naduan Nassar’s 45 page novella “Cup of Rage” is a Brazilian classic from 1978 that was recently translated into English and was in 2016 Long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize. It is composed of seven sentences and seven chapters. Claire-Louise Bennett, author of “Pond” which I recently partially reviewed (I could not finish it) describes “Cup of Rage” as:

“Cataclysmic, insatiable and ablaze, Raduan Nassar’s voluptuous prose thundered through me from the very first time and shook me to the core.”

Brazil at the time was in the throes of a dictatorship. There is a political and social element to the novella, with a hint of hypocrisy elicited by considerably older upper middle class landowner and his young journalist lover whose rant about liberalism and reactionary tendencies overlook the two servants of the landowner upon which both depend with some disdain.

The lovers soft-core sadomasochism, is reflected more in the verbal invectives they inflict on each other, with the landowner’s misogynistic tendency coloring his narrative. His young lover’s viewpoint is only expressed through his lens, although her half of the dialog is equally vituperative. They are both dependent on each others rage, but the hatred may be of themselves.

Writing in seven continuous sentences sometimes challenges the reader in understanding who is speaking. On occasion I found some of the prose to clever, but I was not captivated by it as Ms. Bennett was.

“… (hadn’t I told her a hundred times that pious prostration and erection of a saint are mutually dependent)”

There is tension to the writing, but it was not compelling for me. The best part of the novel for me was the servants hiding in the bush to avoid being punished for no reason and having to listen and watch the vicious sexual orchestration between the equally spoiled elder boss and his lover being played out.

This was one of the two books Mr. Nassar wrote before retiring to farm life. The book was apparently turned into a film. It is not a book that I would go out of my way to read, but others feel otherwise.

Mischling

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Survival is fierce and so is vengeance. The “Mischling” is a fierce novel, because at its core the subject is pure evil.

It was painful for me to read this book. Not because it is poorly written. It is astonishly well written; but not fable-like or lyrical as some have described it. I would read ten pages and then not read it all for a couple of days. Not because it was graphic in its description of what Dr. Mengele did to the twin twelve-year-old girls, Stasha and Pearl, that are the principal characters of the novel. It was the thought that someone could torture children in the pretext of science or otherwise. Some children torture small animals as a form of entertainment. They might not know better (but should be taught).

Ms. Komar is of Polish Jewish descent. She knows that the venal anti-Semitism that existed within the confines of Auschwitz-Birkenau, existed outside the gates in Poland and among members of the Russian Army that would be their saviors. Surviving the camp and escaping the death march, the crippled children had to find means to survive and to avoid being killed by the local population.

In an analogy to the Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel and the Russian’s Baba Yaga, a local old woman entices the starving twin and her companion with food only to turn them over to those she perceives as Nazis soldiers. In a dramatic literary embellishment these Nazis ask the twin’s captor to sing one of their favorite songs: Zog Nit Keyn Mol. It is the song of the Jewish resistance which she belatedly realizes immediately upon her execution.

Never say you have reached the very end

When leaden skies a bitter future may portend;

For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive

And our marching steps will thunder: we survive.

Unlike the conclusion of the book which is needlessly sentimental, the resistance fighters are harden young people who realistically only offer what is minimally necessary for the twin and her companion to temporarily survive.

The twins divide up life between them. Stasha is responsible for the funny, the future and the bad. For her, unlike her torturers, Mischling meant she was one part loss and one part despair. Her twin Pearl is responsible for the sad, the good, and the past. On march with other twin survivors from the camp Pearl comes across a forest of mothers hiding behind trees. They are awaiting word of their missing children. It is a forest of love wrapped in hope and despair.

“The woman sprang from the trees and it was then that we saw that each trunk they had learned against bore a message, a name, a plea. They would have covered the whole forest with the words if they were able.”

I am well versed in both Holocaust literature and fact, but this fictionalized version of Auschwitz and of Dr. Mengele, as told from the perspective of children, was more gripping for me than non-fiction.

The twins play a  classification game by naming the animal kingdom from phyla on down. I don’t know where, if anywhere, Dr. Mengele would find a biological home. The sadness, for those lucky or unlucky to have survived this monster, is that they were children once.

You have to be in a certain mood to read this critically acclaimed book. Maybe I was not in this mood and this made it a harder, but very worthwhile read. You might find it less bothersome.

Pond

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This plotless debut quasi-novel received favorable notice from critics. The testimonials of Colum McCann, Molly Antopol and others on the jacket drew me to this book. Many readers also have liked it. I got a quarter of the way through the book and could not go further.

I don’t mind the absence of plot. The fact that a young woman drawn to the remote Irish coast observes minute aspects of daily living I could also live with if she had something to say. There is nothing exquisite about the prose in my view. I find writing such as the following (which also appears on the front inside jacket) to be pretentious.

“I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words to say things. I expect I will have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.”

In an homage to Lydia Davis there are chapters such as “Stir-fry”.

“I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that,

so I put in all the things I never want to see again.”

I could not help thinking of the parody of Beats at a 1950s poetry reading, snapping their fingers and saying Daddy-O.

Sorry- it might have gotten better (doubt it). You might like it.

Absolutely, God awful.

America

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For those who were and are in selfless service of our country, both here and abroad, in support of liberty; and for the fourth estate that responsibly preserves those freedoms at home- a remembrance on this Memorial Day. May America Be First, always by example.

…”America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”

Miss Burma

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The Karen (pronounced KaRen) people are one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities composing about seven percent of the population. They are diverse culturally, with religious beliefs ranging from animism, Buddhism, to Christianity (predominantly Baptist). Most live in the Kayin State in southeastern Myanmar near the Thailand border where the geography is mountainous jungle. They have together with other minorities (Shan, Mon, Chin, Rohinga, Kachin) been waging a civil war against the majority Burmans whose military government has tried to wipe them out since the country’s independence in 1948.

Charmaine Craig’s family biographical novel Miss Burma traces the history of her family in the Karen revolution against Aung San and then Ne Win; the former being the assassinated nationalist Burman father of Aung San Suu Ki and the latter the Burman military dictator.

Miss Burma is the child of a Jewish father of Indian origin in the service of the Queen and a Karen mother. Out of love, her father adopts the Karen cause with dire consequences to him and his family. Louisa, the daughter, is of striking beauty, and in the service of her father becomes a beauty queen pawn between the military dictator and their families incarceration. As common in families racked by war, infidelities are common and both Louisa and her mother Khin develop both love and political relationships.

The novel begins with a quote from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which the novel mirrors in the context of Burma.

“Look at the history of Burma. We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren’t colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with the king and we handed him back his province and left our allies to be crucified and sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we’d stay. But we were liberals and we didn’t want a bad conscience.”

As a historical novel it educates the Western reader about a less known conflict, but it is not graphic. Familial relationships tend to predominate, although they have a historical context. It is a decent story, with the prose serving the purpose of story telling.

The Graham Greene quote continues to resonate with me as reinforced by this story and many later historical adventures which have left permanent scars on those who have assisted the greater powers with variable goals.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

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The metre of Madeleine Thien’s family and cultural saga of the Cultural Revolution is Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is a historical canon orchestrated by a family of gifted musicians and composers who like other persecuted intelligentsia were reconditioned, killed, or displaced by Mao and the Red Guards. Some family members kept a Book of Records that was copied by generations in secret because it revealed the misdeeds of the period. The theory was that the government could not squelch the stories of the dead.

“He would take the names of the dead and hide them, one by one, in the Book of Records, alongside May Fourth and Da-wei. He would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts. What new movement could the Party proclaim that would bring these dead souls into line? What crackdown could erase something that was hidden in plain sight?”

There is a universality to this that is reflective of ancient Asian belief systems.

“The things you experience’, she continued, ‘are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my life to the act of copying.”

The central characters are Marie (Jiang Li-Liling) whose mother found refuge from China in Canada with her father (Jiang Kai) a gifted composer who betrayed both family and his mentor, friend and lover, Sparrow, to survive the Cultural Revolution. Marie is forgiving towards her father, who abandoned his family to return to China.

“Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn’t render each variation false. I don’t believe so. If he were still alive that it is what I would tell him.”

Marie’s mother takes in Ai-ming the daughter of Sparrow, who like Shostakovich, composes a symphony that will go unheard, is denounced and reformed by manual labor.  Unlike Shostakovich, who denounced Stravinsky, Sparrow leads a life of quiet despair, the State stifling his music. The  novel’s plot traces the family’s and China’s history both in music and politics through these girls’ search.

The novel is within the genre that Richard Powers writes in. Music is elemental to both plot and theme. In Mr. Powers’ Orfeo, which I previously reviewed, the discordant modern music of Steve Reich and others parallel the principal character’s composition based on DNA, which the government suspects is a form of terrorism. Mr. Powers Gold Bug Variations is based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Ms. Thien’s takes the cue from the Goldberg Variations. The novel is like the repetitive canons (fugues or rounds) that mutate with each variation from the base. History is like music; you are condemned to repeat it, but not exactly.

The novel is both hopeful and cautionary. Its explanation of Chinese characters and the radicals that can create different meanings I enjoyed. One character can have different meanings. Some are fascinating. The character for “room” is the same as the one for “universe”.

“Mathematics has taught me that a small thing can become a large thing very quickly, and also that a small thing never entirely disappears. Or, to put it another way, dividing by zero equals infinity: you can take nothing out of something an infinite number of times.”

The last lines of the novel are more realistic.

“Tomorrow begins from another dawn, when we will be fast asleep. Remember what I say: not everything will pass.”

This novel was on the Man Booker Prize Short List for 2016. While at times I thought it could be a little slow and in need of editing, on the whole it was an interesting. It is a reminder that the “masses” can be mercurial for both good and evil.

 

BEYOND EARTH DAY- Space Debris

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The latest figures related to space debris, provided by ESA’s Space Debris Office at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Courtesy of: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Operations/Space_Debris/Space_debris_by_the_numbers

INFORMATION CORRECT AS OF JANUARY 2017
Number of rocket launches since the start of the space age in 1957:
About 5250

Number of satellites these rocket launches have placed into Earth orbit:
About 7500

Number of these still in space:
About 4300

Number of these still functioning:
About 1200

Number of debris objects regularly tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network and maintained in their catalogue:
About 23 000

Estimated number of break-ups, explosions and collision events resulting in fragmentation:
More than 290

Total mass of all space objects in Earth orbit:
About 7500 tonnes

Number of debris objects estimated by statistical models to be in orbit:
29 000 objects >10 cm
750 000 objects from 1 cm to 10 cm
166 million objects from 1 mm to 1 cm

Euroconsult in its report Satellites to be Built & Launched by 2025 estimates that in the period from 2016-2025 there will be 1450 worldwide launches of government and commercial satellites with a mass of 50kg. Added to satellites under 50kg (the micro and nano market), the number of total launches could increase to 9000, a nearly 6 fold increases from the period 2006-2016. This may be an understatement given plans by SpaceX and others (OneWeb) to launch thousands of low orbit satellites to provide internet service at a greater speed (speed of light is 40% faster in space than in fiber) and to rural areas.

Governments presently dominate the market, particularly in Europe, the U.S., Russia, India, China and Japan, but the spread and breadth of launches is accelerating. Most commercial offerings are in low (Low earth orbit- LEO) to mid-orbit (geostationary- GEO) as the focus is on communication and broadcasting. Historically, space debris as a satellite risk exposure has been minimal, but this will be changing. Small satellites kept within 650 kilometers as international guidelines provide usually do not pose a debris issue, as they fall back to earth and burn-up. In higher orbits, this is not the case, and some foreign launches have ignored the guidelines.

NASA believes that there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting Earth at speeds up to 17,500 mph. It is unlikely those objects will enter Earth’s atmosphere, but the odds that one will strike and damage functioning satellites and other spacecraft are increasing, according to the National Research Council. With increased orbital density, there will be increased risk of satellite damage from debris, that might even cascade.

Because there is no cost-effective way to remove debris, researchers want to better track objects to avoid potential collisions and are beginning to try to track debris and debris content to better design satellites.

Like the Law of the Sea, international space law is weak on enforcement relying on government channels. It also does not address commercial disruption, which given communication commerce from space is problematic. Space law was principally for territory, not for space debris. Industry, rather than governments, may prove more effective in resolving damage to the satellite, but not in legally resolving temporal pollution. Technological advances may be more fruitful if costs can be kept low.

 

the heart

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The movie “Heal the Living” has just been released. It is based on Maylis De Kerangel’s extraordinary French best-selling medical novel “the heart”. It explores the emotions of a heart transplant from the perspective of all participants: parents; surgeons; interns; nurses; recipient and family; deceased girlfriend; and the French bureaucracy. Each are narrators in an almost theatrical production, driven by character development and prose, rather than plot or anatomical analysis.

The author’s clinically observant clausal prose sets the stage, lighting each character.

“The ICU is a place apart within the hospital, a place for tangential lives, deep comas, terminal cases– for those bodies situated between life and death. A place of corridors and rooms, where all is suspense. Revol works in this twilight territory–the underside of the diurnal world, where life is continuous and stable, where the days pass in light, rushing toward future plans–the way you might fiddle around in the dark pockets and hidden folds of a large, old overcoat. This is why he likes being on duty on Sundays, at night– has liked it since he was a young intern.”

She exposes the frozen time of a mother’s grief over her son’s accidental death.

“The street is silent too, as silent and colorless as the rest of the world. The catastrophe has spread through everything– places, objects– like the plague, as if the world were adapting itself to what happened this morning, the brightly painted van crashing at full speed into the post, the young guy propelled headfirst through the windshield, as if the surrounding landscape had absorbed the impact of the accident, had swallowed the aftershock, muffled the last vibrations, as if the shock wave had grown smaller, spread itself thin, weakening until it was a flat line, a simple line rushing into space and merging with all the other billions and billions of lines that formed violence of the world, this pin cushion of sadness and ruin, as far as the eye can see, nothing: no glimmer of light, no burst of bright color, no gold or crimson, no music drifting from an open window– no pounding rock tune, no melody to which you might sing along, laughing, happy, and vaguely ashamed at knowing the lyrics to such a sentimental song- no smell of coffee or flowers or spice, nothing, not a red cheeked child running after a ball or crouching, chin on knees, eyes magnetized by the progress of a marble rolling along the sidewalk, not a sound, not a single human voice calling out or whispering words of love, no newborn baby’s cry, not a single living being caught in the continuity of time, occupied in some simple, insignificant act on a winter’s morning.”

Illuminating for me, French law prescribes the principle of presumed consent in the absence of membership in the national organ donor registry. Transplant is a subtle, forced discussion immediately imposed on recently grieving parents, as time is of the essence. The intern is understanding.

“Thomas’s principle is absolute respect for the wishes of loved ones, and he also understands the indisputable nature of that which make the body of the deceased sacred for those who loved him. It’s his way of preventing an approach that risks becoming– supported legally and ethically by the letter of the law and shortage of transplant organs– a steamroller.”

Each character is given a story of their own, which makes the narrow plot more rewarding. The plot however is subservient to the prose, which is why I suggest you read the book in lieu of, or in addition to seeing the film.

Imagi e Me G ne

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“Imagine Me Gone” is a novel that invites discussion about families, mental illness, suicide, caregivers, and medication. Like bookends, it has a strong beginning, and a stronger ending, that sandwiches story line relationships of a family that has survived the suicide of their husband and father, John. Adam Haslett’s novel is told in first person by the wife Margaret, and the three children from oldest to youngest: Michael, Celia and Alec. Michael has inherited elements of his father’s depression. The others, in varying degrees are his caregivers. Celia avoids extended relationships with men, because of fear of separation. Alec does likewise with men.

“The inanimate world has such unimpeachable wisdom: no thought.”

This novel tears at the fabric of family when confronted with mental illness. However, except for John’s narrative, which superficially captures his declining mental capacity, this is not an examination of illness from the patient’s perspective. There are excessive medications and other fixations, but the story-line is principally about relationships. In some ways Michael is written for laughs. Relationship trauma, not personal trauma, is at the heart of this book. Caregivers are explored. It is their disruptive hope, exhaustion and resignation that like auto-immune T cells destroy. The caregiver becomes a passive-aggressive victimizer, out of need to save his or herself. Abnormal is an altered state of normal, not a negation of it.

“I had to give up my own need to cure if I was going to stand any chance of shepherding her toward acceptance of who she already was.”

This book would be an excellent choice for book clubs, particularly as mental illness is an increasing burden on many families.

This novel was longlisted for the National Book Award. The author’s short story collection “You Are Not a Stranger Here” was a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Finalist. His novel, “Union Atlantic” was a winner of the Lambda Literary Award.

 

The Year of the Runaways

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Desperate hope is crushing. Sunjeen Sahota’s Man Booker short-listed novel “The Year of the Runaways” is an unsentimental story of class, discrimination, prejudice, brutality, and gender bias that lies in the underbelly of England’s Indian legal and illegal migrant diaspora. Randeep is the product of a middle-class Punjab background whose father’s unemployment pushes his family down the economic and social ladder.  Avtar is the son of a lower-class Punjab family on the verge of destitution. Tochi is a chamar from a farming family from Bihar whose family tragically suffers from Hindutva- Hindu nationalism. Narindar is a religious young English Sikh woman whose wish to do a repentant good deed through a “visa marriage” is punishing.

The unrelenting story is third person narrated. While occupation is not the cause of Tochi’s family dalit (lower caste) status in Bihar, the social, economic and religious prejudice carries over to Sheffield, England where all the characters are ultimately deposited in search of survival work. Narindar suffers religious and gender prejudice as she temporarily disturbs the honor of her Sikh family. As is often the case, cruelty is meted out by one’s own, who have moved one rung up the ladder and step on those below them.

All the characters are strong. Coming from a middle-class background Randeep is the weakest in survival skills. Avtar is the most desperate. Tochi the most predatory.

The prose is unembellished. Mr. Sahota is a storyteller. A resident of Sheffield and a Sikh, he mines his locale. His first novel, “Ours are the Streets” was a well-received terrorism based novel. Although this novel was praised by Salman Rushdie, I was attracted to it by the testimonial of Kamila Shamsie, who I am a fan of.

Worth your time.