Tag Archives: novels

One Flew East, One Flew West

“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.”

Counterculture icon Ken Kesey

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.

Where have you been all my life?

“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.

To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway

“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.

“Released”

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.

Downtown Osceola: north side of courthouse square

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.

WHITE BIRD, by RUTA SEVO

“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:

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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.

When does the Depressive phase kick in?

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.

Princess Leia's characteristic hairstyle.jpg

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.

The Memory of Old Jack, selected quotes

[[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. . .

Sunset in Eminence

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.”

PATENT PENDING

“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.]

Song titles, gothic novels, and a famous director who lives in your neighborhood.

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.

ShirleyJack.jpg

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.

It just didn’t seem necessary

I started reading a book by Walter Mosley, whom I had heard about and never read. I liked the style, I liked the dialect, I liked the way he develops his characters. But then a few chapters in, I got turned off—by gratuitous obscenity. By which I mean graphic sexual description or language. And I’m not talking about realistic dialogue by characters who simply use obscene words habitually in their speech. These were sexual episodes described in some detail. It wasn’t the worst I ever read, but it didn’t seem necessary to the plot. Perhaps it was, I’ll never know. But it seemed, in the context of the story, to be thrown in as pure embellishment. For no legitimate reason related to the book as a work of art.

I’ve cast away books by other great writers for the same reason: Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis. Books that are probably terrific but, to me, are spoiled by stuff that seems out of place and purely prurient. It’s unfortunate, it makes me disappointed, whether in those writers or in me I’m not sure.

This is unlike Henry Miller, where sex is graphic and constant, but is treated in a matter-of-fact way without any highlighting and is absolutely essential to the plot, to understanding the character himself. The joys and hard realities of life (including sex, and other primal needs) are what his books are about.

And there are plenty of great writers who manage to tell fine stories without obscenity thrown in simply as a spice. If sex is germane, they manage to tell us all we need, or want, to know in artful ways. Those books I do not put aside. I get to read them to the end.

Three Billboards

It was violent. It was about violence. That’s why. And to me Three Billboards is probably the best movie since Crash.

I’m reading Song of Solomon (my daughter recommended it), and here’s something Toni Morrison said about anger, through one of her characters:

“Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. But look here, don’t carry it inside and don’t give it to nobody else.”

I think the whole country needs Anger Management. I think it should be a required class in high school.

More of Lawrence Durrell

I introduced my daughter to Justine (see https://chuckredman.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/learning-about-love-in-alexandria/ ) but she introduced me to The Dark Labyrinth. Though it’s not the artistic triumph that Justine is, The Dark Labyrinth is a fine novel of mystery and the search for answers, both factual and moral. Durrell’s prose is flawless and his characters sharply developed. Their lives and fates converge in what is essentially an allegory.

At a time (1948) when Europe was lost and groping in the post-war twilight, these English travelers sail to the isle of Crete on the ship Europa. They set out upon an excursion into a labyrinth of fabled caverns, where natives believe a deadly Minotaur lurks. Each of the travelers is escaping something and searching for something better. Durrell weaves their pasts, brings them together at a critical point in each of their lives, and then leaves them divided and lost in the labyrinth. The careful and powerful manner in which he does all this is the work of a great novelist. It is the work of a deep thinker, as well, who saw a stormy, uncertain future for Europe, with nations divided and searching for light, beneath an angry cloud of nuclear proliferation. Overshadowed perhaps by Justine and the rest of her Quartet, The Dark Labyrinth is nevertheless a book well worth reading for those who enjoy the vast sub-genre of twentieth century post-war fiction.

 

It Can’t Happen Here — Sinclair Lewis

“Aw, shoot, Dad—and you too, Julian, you young paranoiac—you’re monomaniacs! Dictatorship? Better come into the office and let me examine your heads! Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!”

I just read the most amazing book I’ve read since 1984 (the book, not the year). Possibly the most amazing since 1973 (the year, not the book). Actually, Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, which was published in 1935, predated 1984 (the book, not the year) by fourteen years. Which means that Lewis did not have the benefit of hindsight when he recognized what too few people seemed to recognize around the middle of the Great Depression. Sinclair Lewis saw what was happening in Europe. He also heard frighteningly similar rumblings in this country. His book, written half a decade before the true magnitude of European fascism could be witnessed and understood, was a chillingly accurate forecast.

So did Lewis also predict what we in the U.S. have just witnessed and are struggling to understand: the election as President of a populist demagogue, in the mold of Senator Buzz Windrip in the novel? Well, Lewis’s protagonist, liberal journalist Doremus Jessup, listens only half-concerned to the national radio broadcast of the nominating convention, but the similarity is striking:

. . . every delegate knew that Mr. Roosevelt and Miss Perkins were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.

Though Lewis begins his book in satirical tone, we’re not too many chapters in before we realize, along with Doremus, that this story—the rise of a political movement based on anger, hate and false rhetoric—is no joke. It is nearly, in fact, as powerful and sobering as Orwell’s 1984. Here is how Doremus saw Senator/President Windrip’s quasi-official partisans, the “Minute Men”, or “M.M.”, which protected Windrip’s surging popularity by terrorizing the general population and appealing to its basest impulses:

They had the Jews and the Negroes to look down on, more and more. The M.M.’s saw to that. Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on. . . . Their mutter became louder, less human, more like the snap of burning rafters. Their glances joined in one. He was, frankly, scared.

Could Lewis have had the Nazi SS in mind? Seems likely.

I just realized that, for better or for worse, many of my favorite books are about the oppression of large segments of society by vindictive, self-righteous governments or ruling classes. A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, Mother, Doctor Zhivago, Homage To Catalonia, Fahrenheit 451, and the two brave books discussed above. You should probably read these books, all of these books, while they’re still on our shelves. Before they start hurling them into big piles in our city squares and torching them. Which is what happened to Doremus Jessup’s personal collection of books. Which could happen here.

 

Follow-up to preceding post re: The Help

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”

He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.

I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.

Book, film, life

Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.

I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.

I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.

A way with words

Buddy Winkler was a preacher who needed a regular pulpit the way a toilet needed a regular flush. — Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All

In lieu of writing complete blog posts at this busy time, I’m going to just post occasional snippets from Tom Robbins. My daughter loaned me the above book, and I am still chuckling over his amazing wordplay. . . More soon.

 

Learning about love in Alexandria

“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.” 

I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.

Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.

Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.

I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.

A Tree Grows in London, too

You might say that Rebecca West’s 1956 novel The Fountain Overflows is more or less a British version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They do have much in common, subject-wise. But there is a difference: While A Tree Grows has more warmth and poignancy, more emotion and power, West’s novel has not only that wonderful British cleverness, but it has perhaps as much depth of perception and depth of character as anything I’ve read in recent years (which is about as far back as my dwindling memory goes). I can’t claim to have read much Proust, but it seems to me The Fountain Overflows is almost Proustian in its youthful but sublime sensibility.

The book is quite autobiographical, and Rebecca West was a leading feminist of her day. The mother she depicts is such a strong, loving person, regardless of constant adversity, that she will certainly stick in my mind for many Saturdays to come. Every child should have such a mother (I did, thankfully). And I felt so much in common with this family, their love of books and classical music, and refinement without superficiality. Given that Rebecca West wrote this fine book, and given that she and her real family were its inspiration, I have a pretty good hunch that she was at least as beautiful to know as she is to read.