Sunday, May 30, 2010

357. The Riddle of the Sands – Erskine Childers

History: Published in 1903, this book is an early example of the espionage novel.
The book enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I and was extremely influential. As Childers's biographer Andrew Boyle noted: "For the next ten years Childers's book remained the most powerful contribution of any English writer to the debate on Britain's alleged military unpreparedness." Winston Churchill later credited it as a major reason that the Admiralty decided to establish some important naval bases.
Plot: Carruthers, a minor official in the Foreign Office is contacted by an acquaintance, Davies, asking him to join in a yachting holiday in the German Frisian islands. Carruthers agrees, as his other plans for a holiday have fallen through. He arrives to find that Davies has a small sailing boat, not the comfortable crewed yacht that he expected. Davies gradually reveals that he suspects that the Germans are undertaking something sinister in the area, based on his belief that he was nearly wrecked by a German yacht luring him into a shoal in rough weather. Carruthers and Davies spend some time exploring the shallow tidal waters of the area, moving closer to the mysterious site where there is a rumoured secret treasure recovery project in progress. They are watched by a German navy patrol boat, which warns them away from the area.
Taking advantage of a thick fog, Davies navigates them covertly through the complicated sandbanks in a small boat to investigate the site. They find that it is actually the centre of a German plan to invade England. The invasion plan is master-minded by a renegade Englishman, but Davies has fallen in love with his daughter and he does not want to hurt her by revealing her father's treason. In the end, Davies and Carruthers confront the English spy for Germany, attempt to flee with him back to England (and his dgtr), but he escapes and they never find him again.
Review: Containing many realistic details based on Childers’ own sailing trips along the German North Sea coast, the book is the retelling of a yachting expedition in the early 20th century combined with an adventurous spy story.
It was one of the early invasion novels which predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness.
Opening Line: “I have read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude--save for a few black faces--have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism.”
Closing Line: “From that point our personal history is of no concern to the outside world, and here, therefore, I bring this narrative to an end.”
Quotes: "By God, I’ll give you five minutes to be off to England and be damned to you, or else to be locked up for spies!"
Rating: Not good.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

356. Crome Yellow – Aldous Huxley

History: This book was published in 1921. In the book, Huxley satirises the fads and fashions of the time. Crome Yellow is in the tradition of the English country house novel, as practiced most notably by Thomas Love Peacock, in which a diverse group of characters descend upon an estate to leech off the host. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, and holding forth on their personal intellectual conceits. Huxley's novel, however, has slightly more actual events and far more delineation of character than Peacock's novels -- which is interesting considering Huxley's tendency in most of his other novels to lecture at great length.
Also of interest is a brief pre-figuring of Brave New World. Mr. Scogan, one of the characters, describes an "impersonal generation" of the future that will "take the place of Nature's hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world."
Crome is very much a reflection of Garsington Manor, a refuge for pacifists and refugees during the First World War, and the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. She was a great supporter of nascent literary talent, including Huxley himself, and liked to be surrounded by artists and intellectuals, so the fictional gathering at Crome is certainly autobiographical; often a fascinating aside to first novels. At a loose end after leaving Oxford University, Huxley moped around at Garsington hoplessly smitten by a very young Belgian refugee with lesbian tendancies, Maria Nys.
Plot: On vacation from school, Denis goes to stay at Crome, an English country house inhabited by several of Huxley's most outlandish characters--from Mr. Barbecue-Smith, who writes 1,500 publishable words an hour by "getting in touch" with his "subconscious," to Henry Wimbush, who is obsessed with writing the definitive "History of Crome". Denis's stay proves to be a disaster after his weak attempts to attract Anne, the girl of his dreams. The characters make the novel, and the history behind Crome, the festival, as well as the embarrassment Denis has to endure. In the end, Mary, an intellectual however emotionally devoid companion, talks him into leaving, because of his hopeless love and jealousy for Anne.
Review: A group of landed English aristocrats spend time in one of their mansions, taking walks, talking about history and politics, and trying to pair up. This particular mansion is called Crome, and it has some fun history. I especially liked the story about the three sisters who wouldn't eat in front of other people; one of them was blackmailed into marrying the man who discovered them gorging themselves in a secret room. The book is virtually plotless, but the characters are fun.
Opening Line: “Along this particular stretch of line no express had ever passed.”
Closing Line: “He climbed into the hearse.”
Quotes: "Perhaps, in the future, when machines have attained to a state of perfection--for I confess that I am, like Godwin and Shelley, a believer in perfectibility, the perfectibility of machinery--then, perhaps, it will be possible for those who, like myself, desire it, to live in a dignified seclusion, surrounded by the delicate attentions of silent and graceful machines, and entirely secure from any human intrusion. It is a beautiful thought."
Rating: Good.

355. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

History: A 6,000-word short story, published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, illustrating attitudes in the 19th century toward women's physical and mental health. As someone who was almost destroyed by S. Weir Mitchell’s “resting cure” for depression, it is not surprising that Gilman structured her story as an attack on this ineffective and cruel course of treatment. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an illustration of the way a mind that is already plagued with anxiety can deteriorate and begin to prey on itself when it is forced into inactivity and kept from healthy work.
Plot: Told in the first-person perspective as a series of journal entries, the story details the unreliable narrator's descent into madness. The protagonist's husband, John, believes it is in the narrator's best interest to go on a rest cure, since he only credits what is observable and scientific. He serves as his wife's physician, treating her like a powerless patient. She is forbidden from working, and has to hide her journal entries from him, so she can recuperate from what he calls a "temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency," a diagnosis common to women in that period, or the story hints that part of the woman's problem is that she recently gave birth to a child, insinuating she may be suffering from what would now be called postpartum psychosis.
While on vacation for the summer at a colonial mansion, the narrator senses "something queer about it." Confined to an upstairs room, she devotes many journal entries to obsessively describing the wallpaper—its "yellow" smell, its "breakneck" scrawling pattern, the various patches it is missing, and the fact that it leaves yellow smears on the skin and clothing of anyone who touches it. (Said yellow smears are found on her clothing, suggesting that all along it was she that was shredding the wallpaper). Obsessing over the hatred she believes radiates from the room, she supposes that it must have once been a nursery, and that the children who lived in it hated the wallpaper as much as she did. She notes a patch of wallpaper has been rubbed off at her shoulder height early in the book, and after lapsing into insanity confirms that she was the one who had done all the damage to the room, although she is oblivious to this fact herself. She describes how the longer one stays in the bedroom, the more the wallpaper appears to mutate and change, especially in the moonlight. With no other stimulus than the wallpaper, the pattern and designs on the wallpaper become increasingly intriguing, and a figure soon appears in the design. She eventually reaches the conclusion that the figure is a woman creeping on all fours behind the pattern, trying to escape the bars from the shadows.
After "realizing" she must try to free the woman in the wallpaper, she begins to strip the remaining designs off the wall. While working on peeling away the wallpaper, she tries to hide her obsession with it due to her paranoia and fear that John may re-diagnose her, and his sister will remain with them. On the last day of summer, she locks herself in her room in order to strip the remains of the wallpaper. When John arrives home, the woman refuses to unlock the door and tells him to go fetch the key from outside her window where she threw it earlier. Once he returns with the key and opens the door, however, he finds her creeping around the room, circling the walls and touching the wallpaper. She exclaims, "I’ve got out at last," her husband faints, as she continues to circle the room, stepping over his inert body each 'lap' around.
Review: This story has been interpreted by feminist critics as a condemnation of the androcentric hegemony of 19th century medical profession. The narrator's suggestions about her recuperation (that she should work instead of rest, that she should engage with society instead of remaining isolated, that she should attempt to be a mother instead of being separated entirely from her child, etc.) are dismissed out of hand using language that stereotypes her as irrational and, therefore, not qualified to offer ideas about her own condition. The feminist interpretation has drawn on the concept of the "domestic sphere" that women were held in during this period.
Modern feminist critics focus on the degree of triumph at the end of the story: while some may claim the narrator slipped into insanity, others see the ending as a female's assertion of freedom in a marriage in which she felt trapped. The emphasis on reading and writing as gendered practices also illustrated the importance of the wallpaper. If the narrator was not allowed to write in her journal nor read, she would begin to "read" the wallpaper until she found what she was looking for: an escape. Through seeing the women in the wallpaper, the narrator realizes she could not live her life locked up behind bars. At the end of the story, as her husband John lies on the floor unconscious, she crawls over him, symbolically rising over him. This is interpreted as a victory over her husband, notwithstanding that she lost her sanity in the process.
Gilman's interpretation: Gilman indicated that the idea for the story originated in her own experience as a patient: "the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways".
Gilman had suffered years of depression, and Mitchell had been consulted as a specialist. He put her on a rest cure, urging her to "live as domestic a life as possible." She was forbidden to touch a pen, pencil or brush ever again, and only allowed two hours of stimulation a day.
After three months and almost completely giving up, Gilman decided to go against her diagnosis and continue to work again. After realizing how close she had come to worse mental illness, she wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" with additions and exaggerations to illustrate her point of misdiagnosis. She sent a copy to Mitchell, but never received a response.
She further added that her purpose in writing "The Yellow Wallpaper" was "not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked." Gilman claimed that many years later she learned Mitchell had changed his treatment methods, but this claim has been discredited by book historian Julie Bates Dock. Mitchell actually continued his treatment methods and was interested in creating entire hospitals devoted to the "rest cure" so that his treatments would be more widely accessible. This was as late as 1908, 16 years after her short story was published.
Other interpretations: "The Yellow Wallpaper" is sometimes referred to as an example of Gothic literature for its treatment of madness and powerlessness. Alan Ryan, for example, introduced the story by writing "quite apart from its origins [it] is one of the finest, and strongest, tales of horror ever written. It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not."
Another interpretation is to doubt the veracity of many of the narrator's early statements. There may never have been a husband, sister, baby, or any other characters as described in the story, meaning the entire story (or a large part of it) is the product of a deluded mind, so the reader cannot know what is true and what is not.
Opening Line: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and
myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.”
Closing Line: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right
across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every
Quotes: "It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw — not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about that paper—the smell! ... The only thing I can think of that it is like, is the color of the paper! A yellow smell."
"For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow. But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way."
Rating: Good

354. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

History: This book was published in 1939, the first in his acclaimed series about detective Philip Marlow. One of the murders is left unexplained. Owen Taylor is found murdered in a car that has been pushed into the bay. Chandler was shocked to find later that he didn't know who the killer was
Plot: Private investigator Philip Marlowe is called to the sprawling mansion of the elderly and paraplegic General Sternwood. The date is mid-October 1936 (we know this from a reference in chapter 11 to a Dionne Quintuplets advertising calendar from that year gracing Marlowe's office). General Sternwood asks Marlowe to deal with a blackmailer named Arthur Gwynn Geiger, apparently a purveyor of rare books. Geiger is involved with the General's nymphomaniac daughter Carmen, and makes her sign promissory notes. Marlowe tells the general that he will persuade Geiger to stop. Before Marlowe leaves, Vivian, the General's other daughter, queries Marlowe about the nature of his visit. She is under the impression that he is being hired to look for Terence "Rusty" Regan (her husband), who had disappeared about a month before.
Marlowe visits Geiger's bookshop, where he discovers that the assistant, Agnes, knows absolutely nothing about rare books. While he is waiting to talk with Geiger, a customer visits the back room of the store and leaves with a book. After following him and taking the book, Marlowe deduces that Geiger loans pornography, and then blackmails his customers. Marlowe goes back to the store to see Geiger leaving, and follows him to his house, where he waits outside. After some time, he hears gunshots and a woman's scream. He breaks his way into the house and finds Geiger dead on the floor in front of a camera. Carmen is posing naked and drugged with "ether and something else, possibly laudanum". He takes Carmen home, but doesn't call the police. When he returns to the scene, he discovers that the body has been removed.
The next morning he is telephoned by Bernie Ohls, a policeman, who informs him that the Sternwoods' chauffeur, Owen Taylor, has been found dead in the harbor. He apparently drove off the pier and drowned, but the doctor suspects the cause of death could be a blow to the back of the head. Marlowe visits the bookstore again, and finds that the books are being relocated to the premises of Joe Brody, a former lover of Carmen who had been paid by General Sternwood to leave her alone. Marlowe then goes to his office, and finds Vivian waiting for him. She informs him that an anonymous woman is trying to extort her for the nude photos of Carmen. Visiting the crime scene a third time, Marlowe finds Carmen (who has forgotten the events of the previous evening) looking for the pictures. They are interrupted by Eddie Mars, a gangster who runs a local casino. He claims to be Geiger's landlord, looking for the rent.
Marlowe visits Joe Brody, whom he believes has the compromising photos of Carmen. Brody, along with Agnes, is trying to take over Geiger's business, including the blackmail. Brody admits to seeing Owen Taylor drive off the pier, but denies being the murderer. Marlowe eventually persuades Brody to give the photos to him, but Carmen arrives with a gun, extremely agitated. She shoots at Brody but misses him. Marlowe confiscates the gun and tells her to go home to her sister. Another caller knocks at the door and asks for Brody. Brody goes to the door but is shot dead before he can open it. Marlowe runs after the caller, captures him, and recognizes him as the other assistant from Geiger's store. The young man identifies himself as Carol Lundgren, and Marlowe deduces that he's Geiger's homosexual lover who shot Brody in revenge, mistakenly believing him to have murdered Geiger. Lundgren had moved Geiger's body into the garage and later to another room and laid it out with black candles. Marlowe drives to the district attorney's house and hands Lundgren over to Bernie Ohls.
Marlowe visits the missing persons bureau and discovers that Regan apparently ran away with Mona Mars, Eddie Mars's wife. Eddie Mars calls Marlowe to his club, where Mars tries to bribe him to stop following the case. Marlowe sees Vivian winning a large amount of money in roulette. He later realizes that the win is an act to make him believe that Mars is not involved with Vivian. He also deduces that Mars knows something that could be very damaging to the Sternwoods, and is blackmailing her. Marlowe asks Mars about the car following him, and Mars denies knowing about it. When Vivian leaves the casino with a large amount of money, Marlowe breaks up an apparent mugging of Vivian and drives her to a coffee shop and then to the beach, where she tries to seduce him. He refuses her advances and takes her home. When he finally returns home himself, Carmen is in his bed, nude. He throws her out in a rage.
Marlowe's tail turns out to be a man named Harry Jones who is now working with Agnes. After Marlowe outwits him and confronts Jones about following him, Jones offers to sell some information about Mona Mars to him. Marlowe agrees, and is told that she is being held at a secret location by Eddie Mars's hitman, Canino. He also learns that she never ran off with Regan, and is in hiding so that people will not think Eddie Mars killed Regan. Jones asks Marlowe to meet him at his office that night with two hundred dollars with the promise that Agnes will reveal the location of Mona Mars. Marlowe visits Sternwood and is paid $500 for his work. When Marlowe arrives to meet Jones, he hears Canino talking to Jones through a doorway. Marlowe sneaks in through another entrance and hears Canino coerce Jones to tell him where Agnes is staying. Jones lies to him and Canino suggests they have a drink to celebrate Jones's common sense. Canino poisons the drink with cyanide which kills Harry. As Marlowe examines Harry's body for a clue as to Agnes's true location, the phone rings and Agnes agrees to meet with him. She gives him Mona's location in exchange for the $200.
On the way to the safe house, Marlowe purposefully flattens his tire so he can get into the mechanic's shop and then make his way to the safe house. He recognizes Canino, who is in the shop with the mechanic and who does not initially recognize Marlowe. The mechanic knocks Marlowe unconscious. He comes to in the house where Mona is staying. When he wakes, he sees her, and she frees him.
Canino comes back and a gunfight ensues. Canino is killed and Marlowe goes to the police, who do not press charges. Marlowe visits General Sternwood the next day, who is initially upset that Marlowe tried to find Rusty Regan, which he had not been asked to do. On the way out, Marlowe returns the gun to Carmen and she asks Marlowe to teach her how to shoot. Carmen leads Marlowe to an abandoned oil field owned by the Sternwoods. He sets up a can on a tire for target practice. As he walks back to her, Carmen shoots at him in a rage, but the gun was filled with blanks by Marlowe. Carmen then has an epileptic fit. Marlowe returns Carmen to the house and visits Vivian and tells her his theory that Carmen killed Regan. Marlowe figures that Regan had thrown Carmen out of his bed, just like Marlowe, causing Carmen to hate him. She asked him to teach her how to shoot, and she shot him dead. Vivian admits that Carmen shot Regan and Vivian asked Eddie Mars to cover it up, but then he blackmailed her. Marlowe promises not to go the police as long as Carmen is institutionalized. The book ends with Marlowe ruminating on his adventures and the grim, sordid human comedy he has been thrust into.
Review: Throughout Chandler's book, The Big Sleep, he describes places so the reader develops a sense of the surroundings and feels like they are right there with Philip Marlowe, the Detective.
For example, when Philip Marlowe entered General Sternwood's mansion, Philip notices the "main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair." Chandler continues to describe the rest of the rooms and halls. The use of description makes the scene real. However, if a writer uses several passages to describe something, then it can become boring to readers, and they may discontinue reading.
Chandler uses several characters and describes each character, so readers can become acquainted with their personalities. For example, Chandler describes Carmen, General Sternwood's daughter, in such a way that readers realize she is immature. He does this through General Sternwood's conversation with Marlowe. General Sternwood says, ". . . she would suck her thumb and look coy." This description shows the reader that Carmen is immature because an adult wouldn't suck his or her thumb. General Sternwood also says that "Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies." He describes Vivian, his other daughter, as "spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless." Readers can tell that Vivian is more mature, but is more of an evil person.
Even though Chandler uses a lot of description, the story moves along and readers want to keep reading to find out who committed the crime that Philip Marlowe is trying to solve. However, sometimes it takes more than one time through to figure out the plot.
Opening Line: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain the clearness of the foothills.”
Closing Line: “All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again."
Quotes: "You know what Canino will do? Beat my teeth out and kick me in the stomach for mumbling."
“It’s not his dying. It is what he would be thinking right before he died.”
Rating: Not very good.

353. Germinal – Emile Zola

History: This book was published in 1885. It was the first major work on a strike, based on his research notes on labor conditions in the coal mines. Germinal was criticized by right-wing political groups as a call to revolution.
Plot: The novel's central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L'Assommoir (1877), a young migrant worker who arrives at the foreboding coalmining town of Montsou in the bleak far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior - Étienne was originally to have been the central character in Zola's "murder on the trains" thriller La Bête humaine (1890), before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise - he befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.
Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola's genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors' traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne's motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne's simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).
While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu's daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola's later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners' lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist's best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army, who repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, in a fit of anarchist fervour, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola's best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.
Review: This book is not really about the plot. It's about the premise behind the plot. It's about rich versus poor, about labor laws and selfishness and leadership and abuse of leadership and socialism versus capitalism and violence against women and child labor and human rights. That makes it sound like a political book, and it is, but it's not dry. All of this stuff is slipped in carefully, fitting in between the cracks of the plot to fill it up and fatten it with all this meaning. And Zola isn't one-sided. No. While it's obvious he cares more about the poor than the rich, he doesn't excuse the bad actions of the poor and doesn't give the rich worry-free lives. He shows them both realistically, both with problems and worries and pain, and in some places, has them working together, alongside each other, towards a single goal.
In the 19th century, women were viewed differently than they are now, and those differences really play a part in the roles women played in the literature of their time. It seems though, that general groups of women remain the same despite time differences. The way women cope with the working class, lower class, or generally difficult situations is by aligning their personalities with specific walks of life. In Zola's Germinal, the women usually fit into three general categories: the first and most important category is the maternal role of motherly conduct or at least maternal instinct, the second category is that of the tom-boy or the woman striving for equality/masculinity amongst the men, and the final category is that of the consort or the wanton. Each group of women has a unique way of improving their lives in relation to others through specific means that may be either demeaning or admirable in their difficulty
The darkness was pervasive and it just got worse. Even when the people began to strike, they also began to starve and made almost no progress in their strike. It was hard to bear, especially when they were contrasted with the wealthier mine owners. One of the managers even envies the poor people their freedom as compared to his restricted aristocratic lifestyle – I don’t think he quite understood the situation.
Opening Line: “Over the open plain, beneath a starless sky as dark and thick as ink, a man walked alone along the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou, a straight paved road ten kilometers in length, intersecting the beetroot-fields.”
Closing Line: “Men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing towards the harvests of the next century, and this germination would soon overturn the earth.”
Quotes: "Blow the candle out, I don't need to see what my thoughts look like."
Rating: Good, but sad.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

352. The Invention of Curried Sausage – Uwe Timm

History: This book was published in 1995.
Plot: Traveling back to his childhood neighborhood, the narrator meets with one of his mother's neighbors, who lived through WWII in Hamburg, one of the most devastated cities in Germany. Already as a child he bought curried sausage (Currywurst) from her - and by trying to unravel how this strange dish came to be, he discovers how one's woman life was changed.
In search of the primal recipe, the narrator finds the very same Mrs. Lena Brucker in a nursing home, where she agrees to tell him how her love affair with a young naval officer led to a series of cagey business deals, and to a culinary inspiration. With a husband and two grown children away in the war, Lena Brucker meets at the cinema a young soldier who, failing to leave her flat next morning, becomes a deserter secreted by her there.
Her story begins in 1945, on the day of Hitler's marriage to Eva Braun, which happens to be the day of her chance meeting (on line to buy movie tickets) with Petty Officer Bremer. An air raid forces the couple to seek refuge in a shelter; later they flee to the apartment where she lives alone, abandoned by her husband and closely monitored by nosy neighbors and Gestapo informants.
Soon the neighbors are discussing the mysterious footsteps that are heard in her apartment while she is away at work in the food rationing office. For Bremer has gone AWOL, at least partly in order to remain in Mrs. Brucker's bed. He passes his time doing crossword puzzles, compulsively cleaning the kitchen and worrying that he will be betrayed to the police. In the evenings, he and his hostess eat, make love, confess the truth about themselves -- and commit major lies of omission. Bremer is vague on the subject of his wife, so Mrs. Brucker feels less than obligated to tell him when the war ends and he is free to leave her apartment. Eventually though, after discovering the truth about the Jews and the concentration camps, she reveals that the war is over, in an emotional argument, leaves the apartment for a walk, and when she returns, he has left.
Eventually, her family comes back to live in the apartment, but she is restless. After forcing her husband out, she trades and bargains to open a food stand. After an accident, she mixes the curry with the ketchup, and this is the discovery of the curried sausage.
Mrs. Brucker dies, and leaves the author the remnants of the recipe, also the sweater she was knitting whilst she told the above story.
Review: A cherished German fast food sold at metropolitan kiosks, currywurst is sliced pork sausage slathered with a mixture of ketchup and curry powder. Popular legends hold that it was invented in Berlin or Hamburg or Essen, either by a bored hash slinger or someone who accidentally mixed ingredients. Timm's tale garnished the mastermind with a fictional identity and a backstory, earning comparisons to "Like Water for Chocolate" and other books and pics that link gastronomy with history and affairs of the heart.
Opening Line: “It’s been a good twelve years since I ate my last curreied sausage at Mrs. Brucker’s stand.”
Closing Line: “But there are still five complete words; capriole, ginger, rose, calypso, squirrel, and, slightly torn – even thought nobody will believe me – novella.”
Quotes: "involved in the invention of curried sausage: a naval petty officer, a silver equestrian badge, 200 squirrel skins, 24 cubic meters of lumber, a whisky-drinking, female sausage-factory owner, a British military commissary and an English beauty with red-gold hair, three bottles of ketchup, my father, choloroform, a laughing dream and much more."
Rating: Good.

351. Waiting for the Barbarians – J.M. Coetzee

History: This book was published in 1980. Coetzee is generally considered to be a postcolonial and postmodern writer who utilizes the nameless empire as an allegory. The magistrate is a figure searching for meaning on the outskirts of an unjust, cruel empire. His love for the barbarian girl is at once paternalistic, fetishistic and misguided. Ultimately, the magistrate learns he is too entrenched within his imperial breeding to make sense of the frontier (the plight of his own people and the barbarians).
Plot: A magistrate in charge of administering the law in a colonial town witnesses the torture of the invaded indigenous population. The colony or the place is unspecified. Most characters have no names, although the circumstances surrounding the events indicate that the colony is South Africa while the barbarians indicate the black population. The magistrate is of unspecified age although he refers to himself as approaching retirement. At first loyal and dutiful the magistrate becomes skeptical about the legal system he represents. He questions its effectiveness, but if he were to leave his successor could be more ruthless.
His rather peaceful existence on the frontier comes to an end with the arrival of some special forces of the Empire, led by a sinister Colonel Joll. There are rumours that the barbarians are preparing an attack on the Empire, and so Colonel Joll and his men conduct an expedition into the land beyond the frontier.
The magistrate is content with his life until the investigation to examine the alleged barbarian uprising occurs. Colonel Joll is sent to establish the extent of danger that the barbarians, who live behind the border may pose to the colony......
They capture a number of "barbarians," bring them back to town, torture them, kill some of them, and leave for the capital in order to prepare a larger campaign against the barbarians.
The Magistrate looks the other way while Colonel Joll interrogates the prisoners, assuming that the acts of the Empire, while excessive in force, are necessary for the security of the people. When the Colonel fills the settlement compound with vagrants as prisoners, the Magistrate finds it increasingly difficult to hold his tongue. He unwittingly reveals his true feelings to the Colonel. However, it is not this subtle insubordination that leads to his political demise, but his sincere relationship with a barbarian girl that causes him to become the new object of the Empire�s suspicion. The Magistrate becomes involved with a "barbarian girl" who was left behind crippled and semi-blinded by the torturers. They become lovers. Eventually, he decides to take her back to her people. After a life-threatening trip through the barren land he succeeds in his objective and returns to his town. Shortly thereafter, the Empire's forces return and the Magistrate's own plight begins. Malicious acts of torture are then administered to the imprisoned magistrate including binding and hanging from the wrists. He also gets punched in the chest. He witnesses horrible acts of violence on the barbarians captured, which are, in turn, committing acts of retaliation as well. Eventually, the magistrate is released, but only becomes a useless citizen, somewhat damaged, until the town is closed by the barbarians.
Review: The imagery, archetypes and situations which Coetzee uses to form his allegory are fairly obvious : the Empire stands for Afrikaner-ruled South Africa; the barbarians are the blacks of South Africa; the Magistrate, as evidenced by the ritual ablutions he performs, his time in the desert and his near crucifixion, is a Christ figure; and the Empire's officials, as evident in the final passage above, are as much prisoners of the repressive system of laws as are the barbarians. There are no evil monsters in a Coetzee novel, there are only humans who think, feel, and act irrationally, sometimes out of confusion, sometimes out of insecurity. The Magistrate, a man past his prime who seeks the sexual bliss of young women, is similar to the flawed David Lurie in Coetzee�s more recent novel, Disgrace. Neither makes apologies for what they have done or who they are, nor do they try to persuade their harshest critics that they should be given leniency.
By contrast, Colonel Joll and his sadistic henchman, Mandel, seem like devils incarnate, but they are only children, playground bullies with authority gone amok, afraid and insecure. Despite their horrible acts against the human species, the Magistrate sees in them only confusion, terror, an inability to understand.
Coetzee displays such masterful control of the medium that we never view any of the characters as caricatures. Underneath the harrowing description is a distinct compassion, which seeps through to every layer of the novel.
Opening Line: “I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire.”
Closing Line: “Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a mana who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.”
Quotes: “I did not mean to get embroiled in this. I am a country magistrate, a responsible official in the service of the Empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire. “
Rating: Good, but very very violent and gruesome.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

350. The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

History: Published in 1970, it is Morrison's first novel, written while Morrison was teaching at Howard University and was raising her two sons on her own.
Plot: Claudia and Frieda MacTeer live in Ohio with their parents. The MacTeer family takes two other people into their home, Mr. Henry and Pecola. Pecola is a troubled young girl with a hard life. Her parents are constantly fighting, both physically and verbally. Pecola is continually being told and reminded of what an “ugly” girl she is, thus fueling her desire to be a caucasian girl with blue eyes. Throughout the novel it is revealed that not only has Pecola had a life full of hatred and hardships, but her parents have as well. Pecola’s mother, Pauline only feels alive and happy when she is working for a rich white family. Her father, Cholly, is a drunk who was left with his aunt when he was young and ran away to find his father, who wanted nothing to do with him. Both Pauline and Cholly eventually lost the love they once had for one another. While Pecola is doing dishes, her father rapes her. His motives are unclear and confusing, seemingly a combination of both love and hate. Cholly flees after the second time he rapes Pecola, leaving her pregnant. The entire town of Lorain turns against her, except Claudia and Frieda. In the end Pecola’s child is born prematurely and dies. Claudia and Frieda give up the money they had been saving and plant flower seeds in hopes that if the flowers bloom, Pecola's baby will live; the marigolds never bloom.
In the afterword, Morrison explains that she is attempting to humanize all the characters that attack Pecola or cause her to be the way she is.
Ideas of beauty, particularly those that relate to racial characteristics, are a major theme in this book. The title refers to Pecola's wish that her eyes would turn blue. Claudia is given a white baby doll to play with and is constantly told how lovely it is. Insults to physical appearance are often given in racial terms; a light skinned student named Maureen is shown favoritism at school. There is a contrast between the world shown in the cinema and the one in which Pauline is a servant, as well as the WASP society and the existence the main characters live in. Most chapters' titles are extracts from a Dick and Jane reading book, presenting a happy white family. This family is contrasted with Pecola's existence.
Review: What’s it like to grow up in a society where the standard of beauty is dictated by a culture different from your own? This is the question that is central to the theme of this story; which recounts the life of a young black girl named Pecola Breedlove. Set in the 1940's, Pecola struggles for a sense of identity and worth against the backdrop of a blue-eyed, blond-haired “American ideal.” Along with her friends, Claudia and Frieda, Pecola endures the normal difficulties associated with being a young person, but must also struggle with the matter of race and her own deep longings for blue eyes and the acceptance and love which she assumes will follow. This is Toni Morrison’s first and probably most accessible novel, based on some of her own childhood experiences.
Opening Line: “Here is the house.”
Closing Line: “At least, on the edge of my town, among the garbage, and the sunflowers of my town it’s much much much too late.”
Quotes: "The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant."
Rating: Okay.

349. In Watermelon Sugar – Richard Brautigan

History: The novel was written four years prior to its first publication in 1968, between 13 May and 19 July 1964. The concept of iDEATH is subject to various interpretations. It can be seen as a new Eden in a post-apocalyptic world, with the old destroyed world represented by the Forgotten Works, connecting the narrator and his new lover to Adam and Eve. The novel alludes to communal experiments of the 1960s, involving the intersection of nature and technology. For example, the iDEATH building seems to have been constructed around nature, rather than displacing it; the building houses many trees, rocks, a creek, and a trout hatchery. Brautigan himself said he based the book on his life in Bolinas, whose inhabitants were at that time known for their semi-communal and insular ways. A possible inspiration for the "Forgotten Works" may have been a Sears Department store across from Brautigan's apartment at 2546 Geary Street.
Plot: The narrator remains un-named throughout the book, and through his first person account we hear the story of the people and the events of iDEATH. The central tension is created by Margaret, once a lover of the narrator, and inBOIL, a rebellious man who has left iDEATH to live near a forbidden area called the Forgotten Works. It is a huge trash heap where the remnants of a former civilization lie abandoned in great piles. Margaret, a collector of such 'forgotten' things, is friendly with inBOIL and his followers, who explore the place and make whiskey. In the violent climax of the novel, inBOIL returns to the community along with a handful of followers, planning to show the residents what iDEATH really is. The residents know only that "something" is about to happen -- for all they know, inBOIL could be plotting to kill them all. Many suspect that Margaret knew and did not reveal details of inBOIL's real plan, thus "conspiring" with the evil men. She is semi-ostracized from iDEATH, and at the beginning of the novel the narrator reveals he had ended their relationship because of these events.
Review: Maybe the only interesting thing here is the question of how the book views communal living. The members of iDEATH all seem to be quite happy, living their simple lives in which not very much happens. But they also seem to pass their lives in a curiously anaesthetized state: they are unconcerned by the gruesome deaths of inBOIL and his gang, and Margaret's brother reacts to her suicide by saying, simply, "It's for the best. She had a broken heart." Perhaps only Margaret, who shares inBOIL's interest in forgotten things, is capable of suffering a broken heart. Her former friends react to her death by bricking up her room, filled with forgotten things, according to their custom. They're unemotional and ahistorical, and do what thou wilt is the whole of their law. Although this book is viewed as a hippie tract, it seems perhaps to be more skeptical of its times than one might expect.
The community of iDEATH is the embodiment of the 1960’s hippie dream - set in a environmentally friendly community, where the buildings are built round, and from (watermelon sugar), nature, the inhabitants live, eat and sleep communally. The life is slow and easy, work gets done when it is needed by who wants to do it. Brautigan also incorporates aspects of Eastern philosophy such as living with ancestors – in iDEATH it is almost literal, as the dead are buried in glass coffins at the bottom of the river so that they are always there.
Despite the bucolic nature of iDEATH acts of violence lie at the heart of the novel. The narrator and others mourn the loss of the Tigers’ beautiful singing, while acknowledging that the community had to hunt them to extinction as they preyed on its members. Then inBOIL and his followers commit suicide by cutting off their thumbs, ears and noses, bleeding to death on the floor of the trout hatchery, after he promises to reveal the truth about iDEATH. As he lies dying he states, “I am iDEATH”. Margaret, who is questioned about her obsession with the Forgotten Works, hangs herself.
Are the deaths of inBOIL and Margaret, and the name of the community itself, suggesting that in order for iDEATH to succeed certain aspects of individual personality must be lost? It is interesting that inBOIL and Margaret both are obsessed with the Forgotten Works where there are buildings, books and objects belonging to a previous civilisation. (Watermelon is nominally a post-apocalyptic novel). For the rest of iDEATH these items should be left to decay or disappear – they are at worst dangerous; at best pointless.
In the majority of utopian novels the suppression of the self and acceptance of things as they are is portrayed as bad but Brautigan appears more ambivalent. If the community members remain happy and contented does it matter? The unnamed narrator is puzzled by the deaths of inBOIL and his followers, saddened by the death of Margaret but also believes that they these deaths may have been for the best – that inBOIL and Margaret made iDEATH a less happy place to be. It is the same with the Tigers – the community made the decision to be safe at the cost of losing beauty. People miss the songs of the Tigers but they don’t dispute the necessity of the killing them all.
Is Brautigan really saying that it is acceptable to lose some aspects of human behaviour in order to reach a placid middle place of acceptance? The characters that we are expected to empathise with in the book certainly suggest that. These characters however are completely naïve; they don’t question the world the way an ordinary person would do. To a large extent they are philosophically and intellectually empty – they don’t accept the world of iDEATH because it is the best possible world, they accept it because it is their world.
There is always the possibility that iDEATH is a personal utopia for Brautigan. He suffered from mental problems throughout his life and perhaps iDEATH is a fictional manifestation of what he would have given up in order to achieve some level of inner peace. (He later committed suicide, aged 49, after talking about it for years – he was not discovered for a month).
In the end, In Watermelon Sugar is your typical Richard Brautigan novel – full of lovely descriptions of sunsets and rivers and the colours of watermelon sugar but empty of the many of the attributes that make up a good novel. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth reading, there are worse ways to fill a quiet Sunday afternoon or a lazy summer evening than relaxing with Brautigan’s prose.
Opening Line: “In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.”
Closing Line: “It would only be a few seconds now, I wrote.”
Quotes: "I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant."
“We take the juice from the watermelons and cook it down until there’s nothing left but sugar, and then we work it into the shape of this thing that we have: our lives.”
Rating: Very good and original.

348. Cakes and Ale – Somerset Maugham

History: Published in 1930, it is often alleged to be a thinly-veiled roman à clef examining contemporary novelists Thomas Hardy (as Edward Driffield) and Hugh Walpole (as Alroy Kear)[citation needed] -— though Maugham maintained he had created both characters as composites and in fact explicitly denies any connection to Hardy in his own introduction to later editions of the novel.
Plot: The story is told by a first-person narrator and well-to-do author, William Ashenden, who, at the beginning of the novel is suddenly and unexpectedly contacted by Alroy Kear, a busy-body literary figure in London who has been asked by the second Mrs. Driffield to write the biography of her deceased husband, Edward Driffield. Driffield, once scorned for his realist representation of late-Victorian, working-class characters, had in his later years become lionised by scholars of English letters. The second Mrs. Driffield, a nurse to the ailing Edward after his first wife left him, is known for her propriety and interest in augmenting and cementing her husband's literary reputation. Her only identity is that as caretaker to her husband in life and to his reputation in death. It is well known, however, that Driffield wrote his best novels while married to his first wife/muse, Rosie, who seems similar to James Joyce's character, Molly Bloom.
Amy Driffield requests that Alroy Kear write the biography of her late husband. Kear, who is trying to prove his own literary worth, jumps at the opportunity to ride the coat-tails of the great Edward Driffield. It is Kear, knowing that William Ashenden had a long acquaintanceship with the Driffields as a young man and as a young writer, who contacts Ashenden to get privy information about Edward's past — including information about his first wife who has been oddly erased from the official narrative of Edward's genius.
The plot revolves around how much information the narrator will divulge to Driffield's second wife and Kear (while exposing it all to the reader), who ostensibly wants a "complete" picture of the famous author, but who routinely glosses over the untoward stories that might upset Driffield's surviving wife. It is William Ashenden who holds the key to the deep mystery of love, and the act of love, in the life of each character as he recounts a fascinating literary history of creativity, infidelity and literary memory.
Review: Maugham was not known as a bomb-thrower, but scandal erupted in bookish London when the novel appeared in 1930. It was believed to include flimsily veiled portraits of Hugh Walpole and Thomas Hardy. Maugham denied the charge in a letter to Walpole, claiming, “I certainly never intended Alroy Kear to be a portrait of you. He is made up of a dozen people.” After the fellow writer’s death, though, he admitted that Walpole was the model.
The odd thing: Kear is important only for getting the story started, he couldn't be a more minor character.
Opening Line: “It was as a short story, and not a very long one either, that I first thought of this novel."
Closing Line: "I'll tell you," said Rosie. "He was always a perfect gentleman."
Quotes: "It must be that there is something naturally absurd in a sincere emotion, though why there should be I cannot imagine, unless it is that man, the ephemeral inhabitant of an insignificant planet, with all his pain and all his striving is but a jest in an eternal mind"

347. Humboldt’s Gift – Saul Bellow

History: Published in 1975 and won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and contributed to Bellow's winning the Nobel Prize in Literature the same year. throughout much of the book, Bellow analyzes, through the voice of Citrine, his concerns about spirituality, poetry, and success in America.
Plot: Humboldt's Gift begins with a brief review of Charlie's childhood in Chicago, when he first reads The Harlequin Ballads by New York poet Von Humboldt Fleischer. Charlie is so impressed by Humboldt's work that he borrows money from his teenage sweetheart and sets off to Greenwich Village to find and follow his new idol. Humboldt takes the young man under his wing, and they begin a life-long relationship that begins with the excitement of living as Marxists through the first years of the Cold War, decrying the establishment, cursing capitalism, drinking red wine and living the lives of poets and scholars.
Flashing back to the present - that is, Charlie's present in the mid-1970s - the now-middle-aged man awakens in his Chicago apartment to the worst day of his life. His ex-wife is suing him, and the IRS is after him. Also, he has been receiving threatening phone calls from a petty Chicago mobster named Rinaldo Cantabile. When he goes down to street level, he discovers that someone has destroyed his new Mercedes with baseball bats and hammers, and he knows precisely who it is - Rinaldo Cantabile. Rinaldo has been threatening Charlie because he stopped payment on a check written to the mobster to cover a poker debt. Charlie stopped payment when his friend George Swiebel informed him that Rinaldo and his cousin were cheating at the game George hosted. Charlie calls Rinaldo and agrees to settle up, but Rinaldo demands payment in a public forum to satisfy his pride. He takes Charlie through several comedic episodes at various Chicago landmarks, finally accepting payment on a girder of a skyscraper under construction on a windy Chicago night. Rinaldo now declares himself Charlie's friend and haunts him through the next approximately twelve weeks, even following him to Europe.
In the midst of mid-life crisis, Charlie is involved with Renata, a beautiful young woman with a voracious sexual appetite, deep knowledge of sensual delights, a love of expensive things and a longing to become Charlie's wife. Through flashbacks in Charlie's memory, the reader learns that Charlie was married to Denise and fathered two girl children with her. She has already taken much of the wealth he earned with a successful Broadway play that was turned into a movie, but she seems determined to take every thing he owns. After his marriage to Denise, Charlie falls in love with Demmie, who dies with her parents in a plane crash in a South American jungle.
Charlie is obsessed with the nature of death, fully believing that the spirit does not perish when one dies. Throughout Humboldt's Gift, Charlie spends many hours contemplating this and other metaphysical questions. By the conclusion of the novel, Charlie has developed the habit of talking with and reading to the dead. Bellow artfully and humorously weaves this particular anomaly of Charlie's into a well-textured tapestry of a neurotic man growing old in America.
Charlie is also dealing with the sexuality of an aging man, and the trauma and rite of passage associated with growing older. Being dumped in Madrid by his young lover devastates Charlie, but he emerges from the experience with a more mature, more settled attitude toward sexuality. Concurrent with these themes is the ever-present issue of struggle of artists to survive in a capitalist culture, which looks askance at serious writers and other artists as entertaining anomalies and cultural ornaments. While Charlie carries the main story line with his internal emotional and intellectual gymnastics, a host of secondary, minor and cameo characters add depth, breadth and countless witty insights into life in America, as defined in Chicago and New York.
Review: The narrator is Charlie Citrine, and his friend Humboldt has just died in a fleabag New York hotel. Citrine uses his relationship with the doomed poet as a springboard for meditations on the relationship between the artist and society in America, on women, on marriage, on contemporary life, on pretty much anything, in effect, that interests or obsesses his creator, Saul Bellow.
But "Humboldt's Gift" is, too, the story of artistic friendship and rivalry. Citrine, when he first meets Humboldt, is filled with spunk and ambition. He travels from the Midwest to New York to gain access to literature and to try to take the world by the throat; by the time, many years later, that he sits down, or rather, lies down (on a couch) to reconstruct Humboldt's life, Citrine has written a Broadway hit and a host of books. He's dined in the White House and flown in a helicopter with Bobby Kennedy above the gleaming towers of Manhattan. Yet the success for which he yearned, and achieved, has now turned to ashes. He's in disarray. His wife is divorcing him, and he feels himself to be merely a "higher-thought clown." Further reality instruction is arriving in the shape of a low-level Chicago gangster and a poker debt. The gangster's name is Cantabile, and his goons smash up Citrine's pretty Mercedes with baseball bats.
He knows everything he's supposed to know and nothing he needs to know. His meditations on his dead friend help him take stock, and a further jolt arrives in the shape of a bequest in Humboldt's will, the "gift" of the title. Humboldt has bequeathed to Citrine the rights to a crazy screenplay written long ago. Will this prove to be the kind of gift the Greeks brought, or indeed an opportunity for Citrine's renewal? That's the question the novel's plot poses, and Bellow is always a bit more interested in plot than many suppose.
Bellow famously based the Humboldt/Citrine story line on his own relationship with the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died forgotten in the gutter at just about the time that Bellow was achieving worldwide fame. Bellow closely cannibalized his own life, and those who passed through it, a tendency that he repeated throughout his career and one that makes him seem especially modern.
And the key to Bellow's prose is that it does, indeed, live and move so closely in the world. Unlike, say, Martin Amis (a disciple of Bellow's and a wonderful campaigner on Bellow's behalf), whose ornate style creates fictive universes that tend to feel remote and hermetic, Bellow's verbal pyrotechnics spin the reader closer to the reality of stuff. Life bursts from the page.
Opening Line: “The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit.”
Closing Line: “Search me,” I said. “I’m a city boy myself. They must be crocuses.”
Quotes: “I was vain, and I hadn’t reached the age of renunciation. Whatever that is.”
"We lived like bohemians and graduate students in a mood of fun and games. Maybe America didn't need art and inner miracles. It had so many outer ones. The USA was a big operation, very big. The more it, the less we."
Rating: Did not like at all

346. The Unnamable – Samuel Beckett

History: Published in 1953, it is the third and final entry in Beckett's "Trilogy" of novels, which begins with Molloy followed by Malone Dies. It was originally published in French as L'Innommable and later adapted by the author into English.
Plot: The Unnamable consists entirely of a disjointed monologue from the perspective of an unnamed (presumably unnamable) and immobile protagonist. There is no concrete plot or setting - and whether the other characters ("Mahood" [formerly "Basil"] and "Worm") actually exist or whether they are facets of the narrator himself is debatable. The protagonist also claims authorship of the main characters in the two previous novels of the Trilogy and Beckett's earlier novels Murphy, Mercier and Camier, and Watt. The novel is a mix of recollections and existential musings on the part of its narrator, many of which pertain specifically to the possibility that the narrator is constructed by the language he speaks. Other 'characters' (a stretch to call them distinctly different than the narrator) serve as the passive recipient of the dialogue and in many places (as the narrator suggests) the dialogue's genesis. The novel builds in its despairing tone until the ending, which consists mainly of very long run-on sentences. It closes with the phrase "I can't go on, I'll go on," which was later used as the title of an anthology of Beckett works
Review: Beckett's theme is what his publishers call "the search for his self." But the search for the self is, inevitably, the search also for the not-self. One's existence is demonstrated to one by outside objects which define one's contours: tables, and people you bump into, Godot, who does or doesn't wait at the end of the long night's journey.
"The Unnamable" is the conclusion of an unconcludable series which began with "Molloy" and was continued with "Malone Dies." "The Unnamable" is a novel about the hero whose identity is unproved, dying, or being born--it could be either. In her memoir Miss Guggenheim describes "Oblomov" telling her one day that "ever since his birth he had retained a terrible memory of life in his mother's womb. He was constantly suffering from this and had awful crises, when he felt he was suffocating."
The I, the narrator, of "The Unnamable," seeking to chart out for himself his physical geographical position says: "I of whom I know nothing, I know my eyes are open because of the tears that pour from them unceasingly. In know I am seated, my hands on my knees, because of the pressure against my rump, against the soles of my feet? I don't know. My spine is not supported. I mention these details to make sure I am not lying on my back, my legs raised and bent, my eyes closed."
Thus Beckett uses the foetal position to describe life, all the life of his unnamable non-heroes. He jumps, as it were from the childhood to second childhood, because his metaphor works best when it describes the search for identity of the about-to-be born, the loss of identity of the senescent.
Opening Line: “Where now?
Who now?
When now?
Closing Line: "You must go on.
I can't go on.
I'll go on."
Quotes: "If I have said anything to the contrary I was mistaken. If I say anything to the contrary again I shall be mistaken again. Unless I am mistaken now. Into the dossier with it in any case, in support of whatever thesis you fancy."
Rating: Like free jazz, or abstract art?

345. Dispatches – Michael Herr

History: First published in 1977, Dispatches was one of the first pieces of American literature that allowed Americans to understand the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. At a time when many veterans would say little about their experiences during the war, Dispatches allowed for an experience and understanding of the war like no other source to date. The book is noted for a visceral, literary style which distinguishes it from more mundane and accurate historical accounts. Several of the fictional (composite character) soldiers mentioned in the book were used as the basis for characters in the movies Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.
Plot: He covers two major operations, the siege of Khe Sahn and the recapture of Hue, the old Vietnamese capital, plus several other field operations. He meets many Marines, several officers, and fellow correspondents while gathering the impressions and experiences contained in his dispatches. The author prefers field operations over work in Saigon and its relative safety, but in reality no place is safe in Vietnam. The enemy owns the night with mortar attacks and continues the terror tactics with secretly planted bombs that explode anywhere in the city.
Review: The author was a journalist in Vietnam between 1967 and 1969, with the troops in action, on "shore leave" in Saigon or Danang. The "grunts" – the Marines doing the dirty work – accord the journalists a warm welcome, imploring them to tell it like it is, sure that the real story isn't getting through. And Herr knows the stories can be found among the soldiers. We soon share his ironic distance to press conferences where drastic situations are described in optimistic, veiled terms, to insipid warnings "against losing pay vouchers and currency-exchange slips" on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
Macho facts of life like fear, bravery, foolhardiness, and the thrill of machinery are described in a plainspoken and thus affecting way. The language is crude, death never far away. We're not spared disgusting details, from the bleakness of makeshift barracks to jungle decay to stumbling over corpses. The writing is more of a prose poem than a journalistic description or explanation of events.
It's interesting to read this book now.. the same deluded American people are at it again. "They worked in the news media, for organizations that were ultimately reverential towards the institutions involved: the Office of the President, the Military, America at war and, most of all, the empty technology that characterized Vietnam."
Opening Line: “Going out at night the medics gave you pills.”
Closing Line: "Vietnam. Vietnam. Vietnam. We've all been there."
Quotes: "Something almost always went wrong somewhere, somehow. It was always something vague, unexplainable, tasting of bad fate, and the results were always brought down to their most basic element – the dead Marine. ... And you knew that, sooner or later, if you went with them often enough, it would happen to you too."
Rating: Good, but harsh.

344. The Kreutzer Sonata – Leo Tolstoy

History: published in 1889 and promptly censored by the Russian authorities. The work is an argument for the ideal of sexual abstinence and an in-depth first-person description of jealous rage. The novella also inspired the 1901 painting "Kreutzer Sonata" by René François Xavier Prinet, which shows a passionate kiss between the violinist and the pianist. The painting was used for years in Tabu perfume ads.
Plot: During a train ride, Pozdnyshev overhears a conversation concerning marriage, divorce and love. When a woman argues that marriage should not be arranged but based on true love, he asks "what is love?" and points out that, if understood as an exclusive preference for one person, it often passes quickly. Convention dictates that two married people stay together, and initial love can quickly turn into hatred. He then relates how he used to visit prostitutes when he was young, and complains that women's dresses are designed to arouse men's desires. He further states that women will never enjoy equal rights to men as long as men view them as objects of desire, but yet describes their situation as a form of power over men, mentioning how much of society is geared towards their pleasure and well-being and how much sway they have over men's actions.
After meeting and marrying his wife, periods of passionate love and vicious fights alternate. She bears several children, and then receives contraceptives: "The last excuse for our swinish life -- children -- was then taken away, and life became viler than ever." His wife takes a liking to a violinist, and the two perform Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin, Op. 47) together. Pozdnyshev complains that some music is powerful enough to change one's internal state to a foreign one. He hides his raging jealousy and goes on a trip, returns early, finds the two together and kills his wife with a dagger. The violinist escapes: "I wanted to run after him, but remembered that it is ridiculous to run after one's wife's lover in one's socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible."
Later acquitted of murder in light of his wife's apparent adultery, Pozdnyshev rides the trains seeking forgiveness from fellow passengers.
Review: Born into an aristocratic Russian family, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was able to enjoy a life of luxury from the very first. Throughout his life, however, and perhaps inspired by personal losses from which even his financial comfort could not protect him, he remained intrigued by philosophical questions about the nature of human existence. Through military service and well into his career as a writer, Tolstoy sought higher truths and found the materialistic lifestyle of many around him to be quite empty.
Opening Line: “Travellers were entering and leaving our carriage whenever the train stopped.”
Closing Line: “People should understand the true significance of the words of St. Matthew as to looking upon a woman with the eye of desire; for the words aply to woman in her sisterly character – not only to another man’s wife, but also, and above all, to one’s own.”
Quotes: "Ask an experienced coquette who has set herself the task of entrapping a man, which she would prefer to risk: being detected in falsehood, cruelty, even immortality, in the presence of the one whom she is trying to entice, or to appear before him in a badly made or unbecomig gown,---and everytime she would choose the first."
“Every husband can rule his wife, he has the power in his hands.”
“And yet the first rule for the wife should be fear."
Rating: Good, I love Tolstoy.

343. The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole

History: Published in 1764, It is generally regarded as the first gothic novel, initiating a literary genre which would become extremely popular
Plot: The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and his family. The book begins on the wedding-day of his sickly son Conrad and princess Isabella. Shortly before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that falls on him from above. This inexplicable event is particularly ominous in light of an ancient prophecy that "That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it." Manfred, terrified that Conrad's death signals the beginning of the end for his line, resolves to avert destruction by marrying Isabella himself while divorcing his current wife Hippolita, who he feels has failed to bear him a proper heir. However, as Manfred attempts to marry Isabella, she escapes to a church with the aid of a peasant named Theodore where Manfred cannot touch her. Manfred orders Theodore's death while talking to the Friar Jerome, who ensured Isabella's safety in the church. When Theodore removes his shirt to be killed, Jerome recognizes a marking below his shoulder and identifies Theodore as his own son. Jerome begs for his son's life, but Manfred says that Jerome must either give up the princess or his son's life. They are interrupted by a trumpet and the entrance of knights from another kingdom who want to deliver Isabella. This leads the knights and Manfred to race to find Isabella first. Theodore, having been locked in a tower by Manfred, is freed by Manfred's daughter Matilda. He races to the underground church and finds Isabella. He hides her in a cave and blocks it to protect her from Manfred and ends up fighting one of the mysterious knights. Theodore badly wounds the knight, who turns out to be Isabella's father, Frederic. With that, they all go up to the castle to work things out. Frederic falls in love with Matilda and he and Manfred begin to make a deal about marrying each other's daughters. Manfred, suspecting that Isabella is meeting Theodore in a tryst in the church, takes a knife into the church, where in fact, Matilda is meeting Theodore. Thinking his own daughter is Isabella, he stabs her. Theodore is then revealed to be the true prince of Otranto and Matilda dies, leaving Manfred to repent. Theodore becomes king and eventually marries Isabella because she is the only one who can understand his true sorrow.
Review: There is no doubt that Manfred mistreats the women in his life, in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. When Conrad dies, he demands a divorce from Hippolita, and then tells Isabella that he will marry her to produce an heir, no matter what she wishes. This is a vile act on Manfred’s part, as Hippolita has just watched her son die, and Isabella has lost her future husband. Manfred lowers himself even further as Matilda (analysis of her character is can be found here) is traded away in an attempt to win the hand of Isabella.
there are three very different relationships between fathers and their children and the way in which the fathers react when their children are endangered. Manfred the King is Conrad’s father, however, when Conrad is crushed beneath the giant helmet, Manfred is too worried about finding another heir to mourn Conrad’s death. However, when Father Jerome works diligently to save Theodore from certain death at Manfred’s hand, only to be rewarded in the end with the knowledge that Thomas is actually Manfred’s son.
Opening Line: “Manfred, Prince of Otranto, had one son and one daughter: the latter, a most beautiful virgin, aged eighteen, was called Matilda.
Closing Line: But Theodore's grief was too fresh to admit the thought of another love; and it was not until after frequent discourses with Isabella of his dear Matilda, that he was persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could for ever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul.
Quotes: “Fredric accepts Matilda’s hand, and is content to wave his claim, unless I have no male issue”-as he spoke those words, three drops of blood fell from the nose of Alfonso’s statue.”
"The gentle maid, whose hapless tale,
these melancholy pages speak;
say, gracious lady, shall she fail
To draw the tear a down from thy cheek?"
Rating: Not good.

342. The Man with the Golden Arm – Nelson Algren

History: This very dark novel won the first National Book Award in 1950.
Plot: Twenty-nine-year-old Francis Majcinek, known as Frankie Machine because of his skill in dealing cards, was wounded in World War II, deployed to a hospital with shrapnel in his liver, and sent home for discharge. During his hospitalization, large doses of morphine controlled his pain. He became hooked on drugs, which he had to take regularly in order to function.
Frankie’s relationship to his wife, Sophie, was never a healthy one. While dating her, he told her that he needed his freedom. In order to keep him, Sophie lied that she was pregnant. A guilt-ridden Frankie, nineteen years of age, married her. The marriage deteriorated dramatically when Sophie incurred injuries in an accident caused by Frankie’s drunk driving.
Sophie was an invalid from that time on, suffering from paralysis that her doctors said had no physical basis. Frankie, again guilt-ridden, was trapped in a loveless relationship. Seeing no way out, he endured a life of futility, scrounging for drug money, and dealing cards at Zero Schwiefka’s establishment, where, before his military service, he had gained a reputation as a top dealer.
Sparrow Saltskin, who steered gamblers to Frankie’s table, had great admiration for his deftness with cards and, during Frankie’s absence in the service, longed for his return. He did not know, when Frankie came home, that Frankie was addicted to drugs.
Frankie’s supplier, Nifty Louie Fomorowsky, was dedicated to helping Frankie’s monkey grow. Nifty Louie used every possible ploy to feed the monkey. He helped Frankie graduate from morphine to a broader panoply of drugs. Frankie’s frustration and the guilt that defined his relationship to his wife made him an apt candidate for a huge monkey.
Among those occupying Frankie’s world were Stash Koskoska and his wife, Violet, a sexy woman considerably younger than her husband. Stash labored in an icehouse so he could bring Vi bread and sausages that were on sale. While Stash was working, Vi stuffed these goodies into Sparrow, with whom she was having an affair. Vi also attended to Sophie, cleaning her apartment for her and taking her on outings to double features at the motion picture theater.
Among the neighborhood bars was the Tug and Maul, a gathering place for a variety of motley characters. Across the street from the Tug and Maul was the Safari, a sleazy club with an upstairs room in which Nifty Louie gave the community junkies their fixes, regularly adjusting the dosage to make the monkey grow and keep the addicts coming, and paying, for ever-increasing hits.
Molly Novotny, approximately twenty years of age, was the nubile girlfriend of Drunkie John, a never-sober habitué of the Tug and Maul, until he dumped her. She then fell into the welcoming arms of Frankie Machine, with whom she formed a continuing relationship. It took a quarter-grain fix to feed Frankie’s monkey at this time.
The Sparrow-Stash-Violet love triangle grew increasingly complicated. Sparrow spent as much time jailed for petty crimes as he spent free. Frankie’s life took an ugly turn when he caught Louie cheating in a card game with the Umbrella Man, a Tug and Maul fixture. He exposed Louie, who retaliated by upping the price of the drugs Frankie needed to stay steady enough to deal.
The bad feelings between the two grew until, in a back alley, Frankie, badly in need of a fix, interlocked the fingers of his hands to control their shaking and, in an impassioned moment, brought them down on Louie’s neck while he was bending over to pick up Frankie’s lucky silver dollar, which Sparrow had dropped deliberately. Louie died instantly.
Frankie and Sparrow concocted an alibi that shifted suspicion from them. Others in the neighborhood fell under suspicion when they showed unexpected signs of affluence. Then Frankie and Sparrow stole some electric irons from a department store. Sparrow fled, but Frankie was caught and imprisoned for the theft.
While Frankie was incarcerated, a feisty prison doctor got him off drugs, helping him to make the long trip “from monkey to zero” as Frankie called it. When he returned to the street, however, he reverted to his old ways, even though Molly Novotny, to whom he had confessed murdering Louie, intermittently helped him to control his drug habit. He needed drugs to give him the steady hands dealers require.
Police captain Bednar was setting up a sting operation in which Sparrow would sell drugs to Frankie while hidden police officers watched. When the drugs were passed, both men were arrested. Frankie, as a user rather than a pusher, was released. Sparrow was detained.
Frankie hid out for three weeks with Molly, whom Drunkie John had been blackmailing. When John came to the apartment, an angry Frankie ordered him to leave. An equally angry John called the police, who shot Frankie’s heel as he fled to a flophouse where, cornered by the police and realizing the futility of running, he hanged himself. Molly Novotny, Antek Witwicki, and the investigating officer offered the final report on Frankie’s life and death, presented as a Witness Sheet of the State of Illinois in a question-answer format.
Review: Nelson Algren graduated from college during the depression, went to Texas, rambled around with “fruit bums,” tried to run a gas station, and spent three weeks in jail for stealing a typewriter. Later, three weeks was remembered as six months, but one day in captivity can be enough to make a dent in a person; there seems to be a jail scene in every book he wrote. He was obsessed by the paradoxical guilt of those who have nothing, in a postwar America where having mattered a great deal. The men, Frankie and Sparrow, are all action and hustle, and their thoughts are dominated by plans, constantly modified. The women—Zosh, Violet and Molly-O—are more dreamily cut off from their environment, like the limp, white curtain, a singular image of freshness, that hangs in Molly-O’s window.
Frankie Machine is "The Man with the Golden Arm." The arm is both a blessing and a curse--on the one hand, it makes him the best stud-poker dealer in Chicago and an aspiring, Gene Krupasque drummer, on the other, it is the vessel he uses to shoot heroin and, ultimately, to accidentally punch and kill his pusher. Thus, there are multiple layers of meaning and irony when Frankie says: "It's all in the wrist, 'n I got the touch."
For the most part, this inaugural winner of The National Book Award reads like an American take on Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Like Jean Valjean, Frankie's crimes are relatively minor, his addiction for instance is a result of morphine dependency he developed after being wounded in WWII. He even has his own Inspector Javert in Captain Bednar, who has spent twenty years doing his "honest copper's duty" but is now tormented by guilt, having come to believe that the people he has pursued are no more guilty than he. But this does not stop him from pursuing Frankie through the seamy underside of Chicago, just as Javert pursued Valjean through Paris.
It is not surprising then that Algren shares Hugo's greatest weakness, that occupational hazard of the Intellectual, a romantic reverence for the poor. Algren's Chicago is an enormous prison, the iron railways that bound the city becoming figurative bars on a cell. And the poverty and squalor that the characters live in creates an oppressive atmosphere from which there is no escape. It is a world we are overly familiar with from such literature, where the junkies were just unlucky, the hookers have hearts of gold, the murders are accidents or acts of desperation and the cops who keep order realize in their secret hearts that the "bad guys" are really good guys. It never ceases to amaze me that writers like Hugo and Algren (and Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis and so on) are credited with being realistic, humanistic and compassionate.
Opening Line: “The captain never drank.”
Closing Line: “To rustle away down the last dark wall of all.”
Quotes: "Frankie sat on the curb with his army shoes in the gutter and his combat jacket ripped below the shoulder halfway to the overseas stripes below the elbow. Dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief and wondering how to get the booze off his breath in a hurry."
Rating: Good, but depressing.