“I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence.”
“The great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. Guilt that lay crouched behind every billboard which gave each man his commandments.”
Book? . . . The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren
What kind? . . . Novel
Be more specific . . . Literary fiction, realism, social issues, urban, slum fiction, anti-establishment, muckraking
About what? . . . Chicago, post-WWII, poor working class Polish neighborhood. A back-room poker dealer named Frankie Machine. Crooked cops, tough times. And brown stuff that nowadays we call Opioids.
Significance? . . . Some of the sharpest, smartest street-vernacular dialogue ever. How he did it I’ll never know. Characters are developed as well as you could ever ask for. Story gives you goosebumps, if you really think about it. Whitman-like eloquence, especially his use of similes comparing the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings with their surroundings. A great Chicago book, right up there with The Jungle, Sister Carrie, Native Son, and Saul Bellow’s stuff which I really haven’t read much yet.
So should I read it or what? . . . Hey, you’re not puttin’ that rap on me. Sure it’s fairly long and full of poetic language, and may be a little outdated in style and the way he weaves characters’ dreams into it. But Nelson Algren was a great writer and led an interesting life himself. Maybe his life and his books are a chance you don’t want to miss out on. What kind of gambler are you, when the chips are down?
You got anything else to add? . . . Well, it’s not easy to find his books. They don’t seem to be very common in libraries. Online, they’re expensive, even used ones. Probably mostly out-of-print. He was once very well-known, but then was sort of forgotten by time. Making a slow comeback, I think. That’s a good bet.
It’s clever and smart and creative in every way. Inspiring for all ages.
Operation Frog Effect, by Sarah Scheerger (https://www.sarahlynnbooks.com/) is a beautiful portrayal of young hearts and minds trying their best to cope with life’s problems and do the right thing when faced with hard choices. The novel is a “novel” look into the private thoughts of eight young students in a progressive classroom who are torn by conflicting friendships and rivalries. Each of these bright young people must overcome their self-concerns, along with family issues, to forge a cooperative culture in which together they can learn, solve problems, and even make a positive difference in their school district.
With deep insight into adolescent psychology, Scheerger has created a sweet, enriching surprise for any middle grade reader who sits down on the family room couch, puts their feet up on the coffee table, opens the colorful cover of Operation Frog Effect, and beholds the story that leaps from its amazing pages.
The Bailiff’s wife looked at him as if half expecting that he was about to ask her for something, whereupon the soul within her receded like a star, far out into the frozen wastes of infinity, and only the cold smile remained on earth.
Independent People, by Halldor Laxness (Nobel Prize winner, 1955), is one of the foremost sagas of rural family life. It is the life and times of Bjartur, an Icelandic peasant who becomes a landowner and a human metaphor for mankind’s struggle against nature, hunger, and human evolution itself. Written and translated with such poetic realism, the book makes its reader feel like an honorary Icelander—and not a city-dweller but a citizen of the endless, inhospitable moors.
Two fine feminist novels from two of the Bronte sisters. Both novels extraordinarily ahead of their time and written with that Bronte elegance of prose that is practically unmatched. And both novels relatively unknown, or at least unappreciated. And my reading both of them within a six month window (and usually within six feet of a window) was unplanned and unexpected. But I am quite unsorry.
Shirley was the novel that Charlotte Bronte (I don’t have those two little dots) published next after Jane Eyre. Naturally Shirley was a bit overshadowed by her older “sister”. And she was a less romantic novel, and less cohesive and way less compelling. Well, Charlotte had just lost a brother and two sisters to illness, which should account for some shortcomings in her written work product. But Shirley was, I think, a more feminist novel than Jane, which is saying something. Shirley, the title character, was a strong-willed independent and outspoken woman. Caroline was her friend, and Caroline was quiet and cautious. But not a pushover. They shared a romantic interest, Robert. Guess which one won. I’m not telling. You have to read the book. That’s not a heavy burden, it’s a beautiful novel, with plenty of themes besides feminism: friendship, love, political and economic struggle, human decency. It deserves to have the Bronte name on it.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was one of Anne Bronte’s novels (Anne was the youngest sister), and the title character could possibly be called the Mother of Modern Feminism. I don’t have the historical facts to back that up, that’s just my gut feeling about how amazing this book was for its time. The reason I got the book from the library is that my sister and brother-in-law loaned us a DVD of the movie and I wanted to read the book first. We haven’t watched the movie yet. Maybe Thursday. Anyway, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should have made Anne just as famous as her sisters, but it didn’t. It has romance, but that’s not the main thrust of it. It’s really a social and psychological study of three characters, this time two men and one woman. The romance isn’t triangle shaped, it’s a line. Helen, the woman in the middle, is the Tenant. And, though she doesn’t know it, for my money she’s a heroic feminist of the first order. The reason she doesn’t know it is that she’s too busy dealing with the Victorian male chauvinist system and a husband whose character was inspired by the dissolute life and death of Branwell Bronte, Charlotte and Anne’s only brother.
I haven’t mentioned Emily. I read her book in college. Even though this little essay doesn’t give equal time to her book, I don’t think we have to feel too sad about where she stands in the halls of literature. She’s right up there with her sisters.
The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye.
We are pawns and puppets. We are pawns of economic forces, we are puppets of misery and want. In his groundbreaking novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser writes about American capitalism and what it does to its subject citizens. We are pawns and puppets, we make choices but our choices are determined by capitalism and the steel grip it has upon our shoulders. We have basic urges that control us, we want what we see that others have, we want what we admire, what we think we need. We want things we cannot have, and once we obtain them they no longer matter to us. We worship idols, we are impressionable as lambs.
Dramatizing the power that money, or want of money, exerts over us, Dreiser’s novel, published at the dawn of the 20th Century, was one of the early American novels written from a working class perspective and focused upon the class struggle. Following in his footsteps were books like Jews Without Money by Mike Gold, A World to Win by Jack Conroy, Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, and the works of Steinbeck and John Dos Passos.
The story that Dreiser employs to dramatize his political theme is a love triangle—a young woman named Carrie and two established gentlemen. This sounds conventional enough in many ways but from Dreiser’s angle the love affairs are seen as economic more than romantic. They illustrate how the class struggle shapes our most intimate feelings, usually without our being aware. Dreiser takes us on a rags to riches and riches to rags journey. The bare plot sounds like melodrama, but it’s actually realism. The narration gives us in tiny detail all the circumstances motivating our three lovers, and even some of the minor characters. And, among those motivators, money is paramount.
Some of Dreiser’s prose may sound a bit stiff to our ears, and his characters’ frequent streams-of-consciousness tend to flow for many paragraphs. But his dialogue contains the rich, quirky vernacular of the times, and helps to counterbalance the above imperfections. There is great power in Sister Carrie, and its relevance as a working class novel is no less obvious today than in Dreiser’s own time.
In social situations, I often see myself as the last planet in our solar system. Like the theoretical Planet X, I revolve around the periphery, I take longer than anyone else to get around, and, even if I’m part of their system, no one else knows for certain whether I exist.
It takes three things to make a good memoir: interesting life experiences, deep insight (see above excerpt), and the ability to narrate with eloquence and honesty. In They Only Eat Their Husbands (a reference to a certain species of spider), Cara Lopez Lee gives us all three ingredients of great memoir.
Her early life, marked by parental neglect, abuse and abandonment, was one that few individuals could come through unscathed. In a sense, the memoir had to be written, if for no other reason then for the cathartic relief of getting all that hurt from childhood out and onto a printed page. But Cara Lopez Lee writes her story with such insight, eloquence and honesty that the finished product is a work of art, as well as a brilliant statement about life and love. There is humor in her writing (note the title), there is keen imagery. And ultimately this personal narrative, by an accomplished world-traveling journalist, author and editor, gives us an overriding truth. It’s the truth we need to know about confronting emotional pain and building strength of character upon it. And then getting to the part of life that brings satisfaction and self-acceptance.
Her gaze wandered over Paris, over the sky from which the light drained a little earlier each day, with an impartial severity which possibly condemned nothing.
We saw the movie, recently, about her, and decided we wanted to read one of her books. We had never heard of Colette. But it turns out that we were very familiar with her work. Gigi is one of my wife’s favorite movies. And when I was a kid and began learning to play the cornet, the title song of Gigi was one of the songs in my head that I longed to hear coming out of the bell of my instrument.
So from the library we got Colette’s volume containing her short story Gigi and her short novella The Cat. Reading this mere sample of Colette’s work does not make us experts. It only makes us fans. Here are some thoughts from a fan:
Gigi is a charming story, the movie tracked it pretty closely, just adding a few scenes and characters and a perfect musical score. With refreshing realism and sweet undertone of satire, Colette wrote a story of what one publisher refers to as “the politics of love”. That interesting phrase seems to be a good label for the story, which I would probably have called a comedy of manners. But labels don’t do justice to the story, which is a very special sketch of a very unique romantic entanglement created by the moral ambiguity of early 20th Century Paris. I finished the story with the sudden realization that I had just read a fine piece by a writer of underestimated talent. The Cat did nothing to dispel that opinion and only cemented it.
The Cat gives new meaning to the term “cat lover”. It is a sweet portrayal of human weakness and shortcomings, including awkwardness, jealousy and mistrust between lovers. Colette painted the portrait with a keen sense of observation. And, assuming that the translation is true to the original*, she wrote in language of such rich color and impressive depth that I will keep some of her work in the little gallery in my head where I try to collect bits of artistry, bits of intelligence that may not be masterpieces to others but are priceless to me.
*My brother-in-law could tell me. He used to teach French.
“What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.”
I was sitting in the backyard reading the closing chapter of a book. I sat under our dying apple tree where many flowers flourish and hummingbirds buzz right past your head. I looked up between paragraphs and there was a little bunny looking directly at me, not seven feet away. It was looking at me like it wanted to be friends but didn’t know how to start the conversation without sounding awkward. Neither did I. Before I could say something warm and endearing, it turned tail and scampered. The book I was reading was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t know if there’s any significance. Somehow it seemed like the right book to be reading at that moment.
And I hadn’t decided to finally read the book this year because of little rabbits or because I was only waiting for the point at which our political system turns into a national madhouse. No, sometimes I just like to save good things for later. Like a reward, sort of, for being patient.
So what can one say about Cuckoo’s Nest that hasn’t been said already, except “Yup, it’s a great novel. You guys were right.” And I already knew they were right, from having seen the movie when it first screened back in 1975. Jack Nicholson gave a performance like nothing else I’ve ever seen. But most of the credit goes to Ken Kesey. He created R.P. McMurphy, and if there’s a more unforgettable character in all of American literature, let him or her swagger forward. Or, to use his own words, “I’ll eat my hat.”
Another unforgettable character is the narrator. Chief Bromden, tormented by memories, fears and visions, plays a small and silent part in the plot, but is otherwise a keen fly on the wall of the mental ward. The Chief is especially obsessed with McMurphy and the social whirlwind he stirs up in the ward. The Chief’s own mental state, already vulnerable, is caught up in the whirlwind. His impressions, his sometimes streaming consciousness, are racked by machine imagery and terror of something he calls the Combine—a huge greedy corporate/police apparatus that seems to be his personal metaphor for oppression of the working class. Kesey, only twenty-six when he published Cuckoo’s Nest, came straight from a working class environment himself.
Politically correct Kesey is not: women and numerous minorities don’t come out looking too good in this novel. But Kesey isn’t asking you to judge them in a vacuum. He wants you to see everyone, all their cruelty, the pettiness, the weakness, as products of the Combine. And he wants you to see Randle Patrick McMurphy, his fearless individualism and his rowdy zest for life, as the last, best hope for shutting the ugly thing down once and for all.
In case I wasn’t clear before about how I really feel about this book: If you believe there’s an American novel that soars any higher or morally overshadows Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest, it better be something by Steinbeck.
“I’ve always thought,” I said, “that anyone who makes someone else doubt the foundations of his morals hasn’t lived in vain.”
Our daughter loaned us the book. My wife and I both read it. I had never heard of Marguerite Duras. I am glad to have crossed paths with her at last. The Sailor From Gibraltar is an odyssey of sorts, and a strange kind of love story. A nameless disenchanted bureaucrat becomes infatuated with a woman pursuing an endless voyage to find a lost lover. Both loves are one-sided, obsessive, and blind. At the deepest level, the novel is a study in philosophy and psychology. It charts the murky depths of love and, certainly, life as well.
Written and translated in tough, lean prose, the book is a search for something that doesn’t exist. The story and its characters are full of contradictions. They don’t know their own minds—or hearts. And that’s what ultimately touches ours.
“If he wanted us he would have signaled us. If he don’t want us it’s none of our business. Down here everybody aims to mind their own business.”
“All right. Suppose you mind yours then. Take us over to that boat.”
It’s Hemingway at his hard-boiled best. It’s a tough and ready rum-runner named Harry, who smuggles booze and criminals between Cuba and the Florida Keys during the darkest days (and nights ) of the depression. It’s just a tropical storm away from Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools.
And, using post-modernist devices like shifting narration between characters and then into third person, Hemingway nails down the misery, the desperation, that the Great Depression left in its wake. He adds a final section to this short novel, providing stark social commentary through several characters who have little or no connection to the main story line. But, though the book’s structure may be flawed, “Papa” Ernie’s insight into the suffering and cruelty of the times is right on course.
I have a weakness for fiction set in small towns. I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone. Look at the popularity of Peyton Place.
Well, the small Nebraska town in which author Bonnie Lacy set her novel Released is a bit of a Peyton Place itself. It’s a battleground, in fact, for the ceaseless clash of good and evil. And as that battle plays out, Lacy unwinds a powerful story of the humanity that resides in even the most hardened or sickened of souls. She gives us deep insight into the mind and feelings of an abused child—one of society’s saddest secrets—as well as the mind and heart of the abuser, all with a sensibility that is rare.
Clarence is an elderly convict full of bitterness. Bea is an abused child living in terror. Katty is her abusive, addicted mother. Their lives intersect, and a decades-old mystery is re-awakened. Told with wit and realism, the mystery grows into a nail-biting life or death struggle. The combined strength of unselfish love and religious faith is the only alliance that can champion the good side of that struggle.
Released is the first book in Bonnie Lacy’s Great Escapee Series. I am anxious to pursue whatever truths are yet to unfold.
“It’s an adventure you haven’t had yet, Thomas. Sit.”
Thomas smiled. He was thinking of his dog Sally.
For a long time I’ve had a fascination with westerners who expatriate themselves to remote places in the Asian Subcontinent. The way they make full and rich lives for themselves, steeped in eastern tradition, and yet often accomplish great things for the welfare of the local inhabitants, somehow intrigues me. I’ve heard some pretty amazing stories. Well, here’s a pretty amazing book:
In her novel White Bird, writer-scholar-translator Ruta Sevo skillfully explores the unusual demographics of present-day Nepal and the clash of cultures that confronts an American visitor and raises some very fundamental questions about what life is, or ought to be, all about. Thomas Rusak, the American, has come to Nepal with his brother’s ashes in search of the most meaningful spot for scattering them to the wind and rain. This mission turns, necessarily, into a search for his brother’s mysterious past in Nepal, a past that Thomas feels he must unearth in order to finally understand his brother and the lifelong complexities of their relationship. And Thomas cannot open up that past without intruding intimately into the lives of two extraordinary women.
As it turns out, Sevo tells this story with such pungent detail, such a “sensory onslaught” of Nepali life and landscapes, that it becomes more than just a story about individuals. It becomes a story about cultures. It becomes the equally mysterious search for the essence of that great magnetic pull that eastern philosophies have over westerners, who sometimes chuck it all for the rustic spiritual life in places like Nepal. Thus, White Bird is a dazzling, swooping mystery that lifts itself to different altitudes. Like all good mysteries, there may be answers for every question on one level, but ten questions for every answer on another.
Go to: https://stores.barnesandnoble.com/event/9780061944122-0 for information. The booksigning will be for the benefit of TreePeople, the leading Los Angeles area tree-planting and conservation organization.
BOOKS ARE SEEDS. PLANT ONE.
It’s kind of a mania: this book thing. I’m sure for people who are on their second or third book it’s easier to keep things in balance. But I’m a bundle of obsessive thoughts and impulses, with this debut book of mine. It’s out, it’s actually out. It’s listed. It’s on the market. It can be bought and, interestingly, it can also be sold.
In a week or two I’ll officially announce it. They tell me that timing is critical when it comes to PR. Yes, I must personally promote and PR the book. I don’t have a problem with that except my brain wants to work on PR strategy during the night when I should be sleeping so I get up at 3:30 and eat some Cheerios and turn on my computer and do book stuff until my brain starts to shut down around 6 and I can try some more sleeping but it’s never enough to catch me up and so I end up writing sentences like this. I think I’m losing my grip on reality. Maybe it wasn’t such a solid grip in the first place.
It doesn’t help that I’m reading Postcards From the Edge, and thereby seeing and hearing how messed up brains can get. What a powerful book, by the way.
Wait. I feel a random nap coming on. So I must seize the moment. Before my brain realizes it’s time to start in obsessing again about sundry matters: like the precise date and time to announce my book and the precise wording to use that will strike that perfect balance. You know, that perfect balance between obnoxious and apologetic. Somewhere between gangster and Gandhi.
[[It may be sad and slow to read but The Memory of Old Jack really is a beautifully written, conceived and executed story about more than just Americana — a story about life’s trauma and how the scars never leave. Here are some excerpts.]]
Smiting the edge of the porch sharply with his cane as if to set hard reality on the alert, taking careful sight on the stone steps, he lets himself heavily down. . .
Old Jack goes to his accustomed place at the end of the one of the long tables that is occupied, the three others being bare. Thinking to remove neither his coat nor his cap, he sits down in his chair at the angle at which he has drawn it out from the table, and he keeps his left hand gripped onto the crook of his cane. His attitude thus communicates a most tentative and passing relation to the table and the assembled company. . .
He walks with the effort of a man burdened, a man carrying a great bale or a barrel, who has carried it too far but has not yet found a place convenient to set it down. . .
“Well,” he said, “time will finally make mortals of us all.” And Burley said: “Yes, if we don’t die first.”
“All problems were insignificant compared to Lola saying, ‘I love him.’ With Lola, everything was solvable. She was my independent variable.”
Books are usually copyrighted but this one should be patented. It is a dynamo of satire. An engine of irony. In his 2011 novel Machine Man, Australian writer Max Barry invents and launches a roaring, soaring weapon against runaway technology and corporate tyranny. For fuel he uses existential philosophy, bioethics, and any other kind of ethics you can think of. Love is a secret additive. Who knew? That’s where Lola comes in. While he’s busy designing marvels of modern science that are also instruments of modern destruction, Barry’s protagonist Dr. Charlie Neumann becomes attracted to Lola and the attraction is magnetic: literally, figuratively, allegorically, you name it. It might just be one of the strangest romances of modern literature. But in the reality of the world in which Machine Man lives and works, their love is the least bizarre phenomenon.
Barry’s literary apparatus may be a little wacky, but when it hits its target you smile. And it hits its target dead on. Grab ahold and hang on. It will blow you to pieces.
[Thank you to my daughter and her friend who is an engineer and owns the book, which I borrowed.]
Now I know where the title of Watercolor Paintings’ song “Shower of Stones” came from (see prior post, review of their album When You Move). I had gotten a Shirley Jackson novel at the library. Four pages into The Haunting of Hill House, there it was: a mysterious “shower of stones” that solves the mystery of the title of Watercolor Paintings’ dark and ominous rock classic. Interesting. Then I continued reading the book.
The book is part of a series of horror literature by Penguin Books. It has a very cool, scary cover and black-tipped pages, and a brilliant erudite introduction by the series editor Guillermo Del Toro who just won Best Director and Best Picture for The Shape of Water, and who signed the piece at Thousand Oaks, Ca.
The Haunting of Hill House is a story about exactly that, except the title might be more accurate if the “of” were a “by”. Anyway, Shirley Jackson wrote with the dreaminess and imagination of an adolescent girl and the wit and drollery of a sophisticate. She had a special soul. This story is perfectly gothic, in that the setting and many of the key characters have that strange broken quality. What make the book so fascinating to read are Jackson’s little nuances. I’m not even sure what nuances are but whatever they are, this book’s got ‘em. They will make you smile as you shudder.