Tag Archives: book review

Trouble’s Troubles

“He was a man who considered himself easygoing and of gentle good nature, but it was not the sort of gentle good nature that had stood up well, even once, to being tested.”  – Anna Burns, No Bones

What does a fractured people, in a fractured society, in a fractured family, in a fractured person look like? It’s not pretty. Although Anna Burns tells the story from the perspective of the snappy brightness of a youthful protagonist, with all of its dead pan and unintended black humor- the story is brutal. The coming of age tale takes place in Ardoyne, Northern Ireland circa 1960-90.

“There’s ignoramuses and there’s ignoramuses, it seems.”

Ach, poor Amelia. Poor poor Amelia. The world is mad and the accident of birth has brought her into the  full frontal epicenter of the insanity. The incredible thing that Burns leaves the reader with, besides a numbing trauma, is the feeling that the crazies are not to blame. There is a point far beyond blame. Every one in this book is a victim of this tragedy we refer to as human life. Whywhywhy? At a certain point nobody even bothers to get out, get better – can’t remember if there is such a thing anyway.

The sickness of oppression is fatal to all sides. Burns’ story stands witness to the bare bone of a truly disturbing life. Amelia’s story reminds us that if you get to the bare bone too often – soon enough, there are no bones left.

Wasteland of an Otiose Love

An inner voice seemed to be saying to him: “Sleepwalker, open your eyes, see what you are doing; your embrace is a hangman’s noose, your scruples make you odious; your solicitude is worse than angry rage.” –  Machado de Assis, Helena

My hands may have trembled slightly as I turned the last few pages of this incredible book written by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a turn of the century Brazilian writer, the powerful story, Helena, translated by Helen Caldwell,  left me weakened with emotion.

“What thread of logic could tie together his broken, scattered ideas? He did not speak, he did not dare raise his eyes, he sat in a lifeless stupor.”

Something of a mystery story, hopeless love, capitulation to senseless societal expectation, and the bonds of family regard, the story is told by de Assis in such a way that my own doubts, suspicions, trust, and logic were strung along at his bidding. I tried to maintain an indifferent rational to puzzle out the truth, but I could not. I suspected where the author willed, I trusted at his word, and was struck down by the final revelation- I was, I confess, perfectly played.

“But where did reality cease and appearance begin? Had he been dealing with an unlucky wretch or with a hypocrite?”

The book is not very long but has many wonderful observations –
concerning love and affection: “There is no use arguing with sentiment: one loves or one hates, as the heart wills.”
Doubt and suspicion: “When suspicion germinates in the mind the least incident assumes a decisive aspect.”
Poverty and Wealth: “‘ I believe that a strong, young, intelligent man has no right to sink into penury.’ ‘Your remark,’ said the young man, smiling, ‘has the aroma of the chocolate that you drank, no doubt, this morning, sir, before going to hunt.'”

The aroma of chocolate- I love that. What a beautiful summation of entitlement and an inability, not from stupidity so much as from sheer ignorance,  to comprehend the ill fortune of destitution.

“Do not speak,” the priest continued. “To deny it is to lie; to confess it is idle.”

But it is of course the multilayered love stories that intertwine to the point of strangulation that is the heart of the book. Parental, fraternal, incestual, romantic: it’s a tangle that de Assis unwinds and tightens with divine mastery. Wonderfully told, it’s the sort of book I have to let be still in my heart for a while before I can contemplate another.

“Even now that he abandoned me with the sole purpose of not taking away my happiness, he has wrested from me the last resource in which I had placed my hope…”   – Machado de Assis, Helena

The Persiflage of Pretend

“Her decision, painful as it was, was taken: to pretend to forget Fabrizio; after this effort, everything was a matter of indifference to her.”
– The Charterhouse of Parma, 

I regularly peruse the book shelves of one of the women I work for when I have nothing better to do. We must have similar taste because I’ve read a fair amount of them, but it is good for inspiration. She had a pretty copy of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma that I coveted. I requested it from my library. The translation by Richard Howard was published in 1999.

Stendhal’s books (granted, I’ve only read this and Scarlet and Black, but from what I have read…) are very densely packed with all the intensely unimportant twist and turns of the bourgeoisie. It is highly amusing to get sucked into the minutiae of his worlds. It’s the blah blah blah made vivid and comic. Stendhal keeps a cool distance from the the heart of the book, his voice is there, mocking, but he never gets swept away by the story. I am never sure whether or not I should completely believe in the love story until the very end when it is too late for me and for the lovers.

In this book,the main character, Fabrizio, is an Italian version of Julien from Scarlett and Black – the same ingenuous simplicity envelopes their character. The questions they are always asking themselves are: Am I in love? How will I know? I am. I’m not. Why not? and so on, until finally a passion of previous unknown depth and breadth is their ultimate downfall.

Fabrizio spends much of the novel being loved by his young aunt, she spends most of the novel pretending she is not in love with him. He loves her but then falls passionately in love with Clélia who is also in love with him:

“Her intention was to avoid any compromising avowal, but the logic of passion is urgent; its burning interest in learning the truth forbids all vain pretense, while at the same time its extreme devotion to its object allays any fear of giving offense.”

But, compromising avowals will of course transpire, despite best efforts:

“She was so lovely just then, her gown slipping off her shoulders and in such a state of extreme passion, that Fabrizio could not resist an almost involuntary movement. Which met with no resistance…”

Stendhal has a unique ability to express with complete sincerity all the burning passion of love, and yet his tone always leaves a smile on the reader’s face.

While everyone is busy pretending to live lives of upright but basically meaningless conformity and advancement, plots and intrigue keep the boredom away, but to a few, possibly a very few, true happiness is possible. Unfortunately in Stendhal’s books it is the possible made impossible that is the cause and ruination of his characters.

“The kind of misery which a frustrated love creates in the soul makes a cruel burden of whatever requires action or attention.”

But he is deeply sympathetic. Stendhal reaches out a hand of commiseration. There is a slight bitterness in his humor and one sense that his obsessive interest in understanding the subject of love stems from his own experience and frustrations. He wants to work through it somehow. His grudging wish at the end of his novels is pointed and yet, poignant:


Abscissa and Ordinate

To make it plain and simple, you can kiss my arse a hundred and twenty-seven times. – Heinrich Böll, Billiards At Half-Past Nine

Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards At Half-Past Nine is a portrait of the horrors of mankind at its worst, and best. The rhythm of Böll’s prose expresses the full trauma of surviving the incomprehensible. Within three generations that hover around and in the aftermath of Germany’s two wars, the reflections of muted rage, and defeated hope by the men that are left are heart wrenching. The story is a tightly wound ball that tangles and crimps under the duress of the telling.

‘He’s harmless.’ ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘but you’ll see what harmless people are capable of.’

whywhywhy, is the sad refrain of one woman reduced to a mere lament. What’s the use? We live in a world, as the book tells us again and again, where you can be killed for raising your arm. And we still live in that world- we are simply, many of us, lucky enough to not live in that town or that country for the time being.

‘Haven’t you been around long enough to know that only a new religion can cure their boredom? And the more stupid it is, the better, Oh, go away, you’re too stupid.”

But from whence does this stupidity stem? What are we to think of one family that produces four children, two that die in their sweet youth, one that tries to avenge all of the sins committed against the lambs of the world, and another that turns his own family in? Whywhywhy?

Böll does not know the answer, but he does know that life…goes on. We carry on. The persistence of blind devotion, or blind disaffection is a present and very scary danger. I may have no real idea of the exact coordinates of the horror of humankind, but I certainly know the chill: of the unkind, of people who say they care but do not, of individual and mob cruelty, of the unloved – I know it well.

That human beings, such as Böll, are capable of such moving literature of the kind that seek to find the axis of these feelings and so clearly express the hollowness  in the pit of our hearts that the horror produces, makes me at once proud but also ashamed, because – we never learn.

I’m afraid of houses you move into, then let yourself be convinced of the banal fact that life goes on and that you get used to anything in time.

Avoid Vocatives

“She realized how difficult it was in  these circumstances to reason logically, to develop simple, smooth, elegant plans, when everything within her was screaming and raging.” –Vladimir Nabokov, King, Queen, Knave

above the penumbra

For all the outrage that Nabokov yields in his novels with his frank and off kilter expressions of passion and lust, one can almost see the tips of his fingertips delightedly tap tap tapping the keyboard (or, as it turns out- dictating to his wife) as he wickedly sets out his visions of warped sexuality slapping against the banality of life: if nothing else, his books are very funny, his delight- infectious.

“He was a bachelor with a beautiful marble wife, a passionate hobbyist without anything to collect, an explorer not knowing on what mountain to die, a voracious reader of unmemorable books, a happy and healthy failure.” 

Between Dreyer’s abortive half-hearted attempts to bed Martha, his icy wife, and her affair with the nephew Franz, there lays a story, set in Berlin, of three people floating in and out of emotionally dead lives. “You no longer exist, Franz Bubendorf.”  Martha and Dreyer both veer wildly from  the shallow euphoric pride of the bourgeoisie to dissatisfaction and preoccupying schemes of advancement, while Franz is exposed as a man with no core – that the above line is delivered by a naked man holding a fan, is…perfect. Franz of course barely notices. Franz! Bitte!

“You’ve always been thoughtless, Kurt, and in the long run you’ll always be what you’ve been, the perfectly happy egoist. Oh I have studied you carefully.”
“So have I,” he said.

Oh yes, we do love to make studies of ourselves. Socrates may have been a bit off on his declaration that the unexamined life is not worth living. At the very least he needed some sort of qualifier. As the reams of self-help book shelves will attest, we examine the hell out of our lives. It seems to me that the obsessively examined life is a pretty strange existence. Quality – not quantity, maybe that’s the trick.

Franz enters the lives of Martha and Kurt Dreyer blind. Literally. In a hilarious section he loses his eyeglasses on his way to the first meeting, and then he is of course blinded by a passionate attraction to Martha whose, “Love helped Franz to mature.”  A mature lover perhaps, but poor Franz, he cannot gracefully extricate himself from the events that are planned and plotted obsessively by Martha. The (at long last) sexually satisfied Martha can not see that Franz disappears, if he ever was at all, into himself.

“Thus he mused, vaguely and crudely, unaware that his thoughts were spinning along from the push given them by Martha.”

But, are we not our own personal revolving series of King, Queen and Knave? Some of us get stuck, a worn out record – the needle jumps, king, king, king for a bit, or knave, knave knave, but we just play out our song, round and round.  How ridiculous it all is. The genius of Nabokov is his ability to pull the rug out from under our own pretensions-  the “spectables” of our “respectacles” are an illusion. And we might as well laugh as not.

“Oh, keep nodding…keep playing the fool…it does not matter now.”

*title from line in book in which Franz advises himself.

Pellucid Prose

“Two thirsts that cannot be long neglected if all one’s being is not to dry up, the thirst to love and the thirst to admire. For there is only misfortune in not being loved; there is misery in not loving.” – Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa

Lyrical and Critical Essays by Camus, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, is a book that sheds a limpid, lovely light on the world. Camus, the “sad and pessimistic” philosopher is really not after all, as anyone who has read The Myth of Sisyphus can attest. The first half of this book is comprised of lyrical essays on travel. Camus’ ability to recover one’s deepest feeling of love and admiration for the environment, city or country, is unsurpassed. In particular his love of Algiers expresses a universal passion of place that strikes the core:

When Algeria is concerned, I am always afraid to pluck the inner cord it touches in me, whose blind and serious song I know so well…No, you must certainly not go there if you have a lukewarm heart of if your soul is weak and weary! But for those who know what it is to be torn between yes and no, between noon and midnight, between revolt and love…a flame lies waiting in Algeria.” – A Short Guide to Towns Without a Past

The effect that Camus’ writing has is to reawaken a passionate love of love and passion. As he writes, “It is futile to weep over the mind,” and “Too many people confuse tragedy with despair. ‘Tragedy,’ Lawrence said, ‘ought to be a great kick at misery.'” Of course my heart always perks up at any mention of D.H.Lawrence, but the point is – the absurdity of pertinacious pessimism. We can despair at the state of the world only when we truly love the world simultaneously. If all of one’s sensibilities are dead – that is tragedy.

The second half of the book consists of critical essays and interviews. One of the books Camus critiques is Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone. I happened to read this book a few years ago right after I read The Stranger, and was well into it when I noticed the back cover describing it as a book considered as a trio of sorts along with 1984 and The Stranger. I had inadvertently read them all back to back and taken as a group there is much to consider about the state of the world then and now. What authors such as Orwell, Camus and Silone try to tell us, warn us, remind us of…is the preciousness of feelingBread and Wine is a wonderful book in its own right as a novel with an anti-fascist heart that breathes with a humanitarian’s sorrowful love of the world.

“The anguish that grips the Italian revolutionary is precisely what gives Silone’s book its bitterness and somber brilliance.” – On Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine

For Camus, the beauty of the world is what holds us to it. Although he grew up in poverty, he acknowledges his advantage of spending those years under the sky of the magnificent Mediterranean sun. As an adult he sees with perfect clarity that poverty is never as debilitating as when it is accompanied by a lack of beauty, “Everything must be done so that men can escape from the double humilation of poverty and ugliness.”  

Most of the essays in this book were written at the inception of Camus’ career as a young man, but this edition compiled in 1958, proves the inspiring passion and simple truth of his philosophy. It shines through, and remains –  true.

“Once you have had the chance to love intensely, your life is spent in search of the same light and the same ardor. To give up beauty and the sensual happiness that comes with it and devote one’s self exclusively to unhappiness requires a nobility I lack.”  – Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa

atavism vision

Flowers Through Swim Googles – photograph by Augie Accardi (age 10)

Synchronicity is an appealing idea. Very likely it is simply an egoist’s fantasy. In reality, everything is already there, just hanging and waiting patiently, until one day we simply look up. Naturally, we mistakenly feel in tune or specially designated. It’s all about ME! I knew it!

Case in point- while I was furiously studying the ins and outs of DNA transcribing and RNA transcription for summer session college, I happened to catch a radio interview with author Sam Kean whose book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb has recently been published. Much to my delight, I understood what he was talking about as he enthused about RNA, DNA, Apoptosis and the like. What are the odds? The very week I am invested in comprehending DNA I happen to hear this interview…oh it’s all too much. Me, universe, we are one.

But the truth is, hundreds of books on DNA have been written and just because I finally noticed one is really not that interesting in the scheme of things, that admission out of the way, I can say – the book is interesting.

The Violinist’s Thumb is  – but this is only a guess because, as I mentioned, I did very recently memorize the mechanisms of protein production and DNA transcription- I think I would have understood the book just as well without this primer, but I can’t know for sure now can I? Too late, I’m already…educated.

Never the less, I think this is the sort of book that is meant for us none to middling scientific comprehension types. It is very readable and fills your heart with a kind of joy to ponder the wonder, complexity, and mystery of the universe- of our personal universe, which is ever the microcosm of the universe. It’s so beautiful. See? It is all about me! I knew it!

“It turns out that universal music does exist, only it’s much closer than we ever imagined, in our DNA”  – Sam Kean, The Violinist’s Thumb

Kean very astutely understands his average reader and early on connects the concept of literacy (musical as well as linguistic) with DNA. Or at least he knows my preference- sitting in class I would often get very excited by the literary-esque nomenclature of the whole process taking place within our bodies. My mind would rapturously start picturing a sort of tRNA His Girl Friday news room with the tick tick tick of the polypeptide news ticker tape – read by Cary Grant of course, “Yes, What? Blue eyes you say? Reddish brown hair, that’ll be just fine. Hurry up with that MHC*. Hold on, this just in, you are not infected with the Toxo virus as the smell of cat urine still repulses you. Right, got it. Here Darling, pass this on to Golgi, that’s a Dear.”

DNA is a news reel, a language. It can be read and understood in exactly the same way as a book or sheet music. To that end not only has DNA actually been turned into music by some clever person, but someone has also turned music into DNA code with nothing lost in…literacy. Perhaps we make sense of the world through stories because that is what we are:  books to be read or sung…kind of a lovely thought.

Kean easily explains all sorts of mysteries you may have not known you were dying to know. Why do we have DNA and RNA? Why will eating a polar bear’s liver kill you? Why do we fall in love with some people and not others (put the blame on MHC), Why doesn’t the female body attack and kill the virus (otherwise known as a baby) growing inside her? And how does said baby share its own cells with the mother? I’m kind of fascinated by that last one- my children’s cells in me, how wonderful!

My son Luke was onto something when he said recently, “Maybe we are the viruses of the universe”  Well- we do have more virus DNA than ape DNA in our code. That explains a lot. If actual viruses make up controlling portions of my DNA, the very story of who I am, then who am I?
There is no me. Damn it. I knew it.

But wait. What about epigenetic change, you ask? Altered DNA after the first draft so to speak? Yes, there is that, (according to Kean it explains why the personalities and physiology of identical twins become more distinct as the years accumulate, why our own personality changes…) but it seems to me that the changes are mostly stress induced, which is depressing – that’s our effect on our own DNA. Oh geez. I wish it weren’t all about me.

*MHC is a busy gene, but one of its functions is to make you smell like you, (the pheromones theory- that an auxiliary nose , the VNO, that in animals fully functions, but while we still may have one after age 16 weeks gestation, whether or not it functions is debated)  the part I find fascinating is that we are wildly attracted to people who have the opposite MHC (or, smell) as our own, which Kean says is one reason why incest is so unappealing. Maybe dating websites should just focus on DNA to accurately predict attraction….