Tag Archives: Books

A Drop in the River

IMG_0843The truly timeless tales are those that seem to be telling a localized story but are in fact about something greater, larger, universal. All stories are like a drop in the river of our humanity, but a really good story, to paraphrase Rumi, is not a drop in the river but is the whole river in a drop.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simple able to see any issue from both sides.

Thus begins The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen. Generally, when I write a blog post, I am pretty skimpy on plot details. My logic is: if one hasn’t read the book, why spoil it? and if one has, why repeat or rephrase what was carefully rendered by the author’s own purposeful style and pace? What I like to record for the benefit of my memory as well as for, hopefully, any interested person’s benefit is the effect a book has on me.

Maybe it says more about me than I’d like, but I have to admit that my favorite kind of humor is gallows humor. The narrator of The Sympathizer is just the sort I like and the structure of the novel, in which the narrator is telling the story to one particular person, allows a gullible reader such as myself to feel an intimacy with him. He is amusing, has interesting tales to tell, and unique perspectives to share.

Nguyen, I am hardly the first person to report (he received a pulitzer among many other awards for this book, after all), has written a beautifully affecting novel. The novel begins at the fall of Saigon in 1975, a double agent, The Captain, tells his story in a tone that evinces both a sense of fatalism and chaotic happenstance. From his own heritage to the international conflict at play, nothing is simple, everything is its own opposite. That tension imbues, colors, and complicates everything. Nguyen’s style however, is light.

All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilizations, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese may have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity (p 232).

The story weaves its web from the outside in. The sum is not seen until the very end. There is a clarity and power of message that I did not anticipate for at least the first 2/3 of the story, and that….sneakiness is a delight even while it leads to the greater theme which is heart-wrenchingly human, all too human.

Advertisements

Beauty is Lurking Everywhere

IMG_0646

“The most notable and revolutionary feature of Darwin’s theory of mate choice is that it was explicitly aesthetic. He described the evolutionary origin of beauty in nature as a consequence of the fact that animals had evolved to be beautiful to themselves.”
The Evolution of Beauty, Richard O. Prum

I once came across this wonderful sentence: “Beauty is lurking everywhere.” Damned if I know from where, but I latched onto the sentence, if not the author of the sentence, with a rare tenacity (at least as far as my mind’s usual light grip on factoids is concerned). If I was forced to guess I’d say Shakespeare…but given Shakespeare’s proclivity to produce delicious bon mots by the boat load, that feels like cheating—it’s like guessing a particular invention came from China.

I was prompted today to not be such a terrible blogger (it’s been about a year…) and get back to my purpose here which is to help me not forget all the books I read! And, as well,  make a good reading suggestion for others at the same time. What’s the fun of reading if you can’t share the fun?

So, back to beauty—Richard O. Prum’s fascinating book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—And Us asks the next logical question for a person who believes, as I do, that beauty is indeed lurking everywhere, and that question is: but why?

“Throughout the living world whenever the opportunity has arisen, the subjective experiences and cognitive choices of animals have aesthetically shaped the evolution of biodiversity. The history of beauty in nature is a vast and never-ending story.”

Prum focuses on Darwin’s book which followed Origin of the Species, Descent of Man. Darwin was not satisfied with the problem of beauty which his theory of natural selection could not adequately explain. The peacock’s gorgeous arrayment left Darwin feeling nauseated. Not because of the excessive pulchritude, but because those long ridiculous feathers can not really be much help in survival, not least of all of the fight or flight variety.

What is so wonderful about Prum’s book is his expertise in ornithology, his explanation of the null/ not null practice of data collection and how that suppresses a whole lot of data, scientific bias, as well as his promotion of the subversive nature of what Darwin was really getting at—female empowerment. At times the book feels like a feminist apologia. Why is beauty lurking all around us? Because the ladies like it like that.

“What was so radical about this idea was that it positioned organisms—especially female organisms—as active agents in the evolution of their species. Unlike natural selection, which emerges from external forces in nature, such as competition, predation, climate, and geography, acting on the organism, sexual selection is a potentially independent, self-directed process in which the organisms themselves (mostly female) were in charge. Darwin describes females as having a “taste for the beautiful” and an “aesthetic faculty.” He described males as trying to “charm” their mates…..”

Because this theory, Darwin’s theory of the evolution of beauty, is so hard for some to accept as it throws into disarray the parameters of how evolution functions (fittest, Yes! but prettiest too!), the final third of Prum’s book is more speculative than he, or I, would prefer. But it at least leads in a direction of discovery that says damn implicit/explicit misogyny! our evolution is fascinating, complicated, and positively dripping in implications whether some might like what is revealed or not! Prum is not afraid to apply facts and humor in order to recuperate Darwin’s controversial ideas in the service of science. And I like it like that.

Meanwhile…

IMG_0566.jpgIt’s been a while. It may be more still while I re-orient, re-work, re-read, and re-assess the fast-moving parts of my life. Meanwhile I read. And bake, of course.

Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience was an amusing look into a man’s account of his own life ironically lacking in much ‘conscience’ but instead, full of complaints, finger-pointing, and laments all culminating in the throwing-off of his psychoanalysis which he declares a dismal failure even “after having practiced it faithfully for six whole months!” (exclamation mark, mine). He is, “worse off than before” (402). The examined life, it would appear, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Translated by William Weaver, Zeno’s Conscience was originally written in 1923. As I read it I thought of Giuseppe Berto’s, incubus written in 1964 which I read last summer while in Rome. It’s nearly inconceivable to me that Berto did not know of Svevo’s book given the similarities. But, then again, we humans are so much alike in our obsessive monitoring of our psyches—which sounds bad until you consider the alternative group of humans who lack any sense of, or responsibility towards, self-reflection and contemplation. At least the former group is trying.

At any rate, thinking of Berto brought me back to Rome (I have always had the habit of connecting my memories to the book or books I was reading at the time). Coincidentally, my reflections on my travels to Rome this past summer were recently published in Smith College’s magazine, Global Impressions. I include the link below.

Although I haven’t written much lately here, I haven’t completely gone away. But the thing I always loved about keeping a blog is that there is no pressure. One can write, one can read—or not. It’s just a pleasurable thing to be obligation-free in relation to my most pleasurable habit: reading.

https://sophia.smith.edu/blog/impressions/2017/03/08/word-on-the-street/

In the Sweet

I have always been particularly attracted by happy lovers and attached to them: Lawrence and Frieda were more than twice as attractive to me together than they would have been separately. 
—David Garnett, from the forward of Love among the Haystacks by D.H. Lawrence

IMG_7984.jpg

The concluding book of my trip to Rome this summer was D.H. Lawrence’s Love among the Haystacks. I bought it in an English-language used book store in Trastevere. The book itself was appealing. A yellow paperback of old thick paper stock. It was published by Phoenix Public Co Ltd out of Berne and on the bottom of the front cover was printed, “not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.,” which I read on the tarmac of JFK, so maybe not technically U.S.A.?

During my time in Rome I took many photos. I was alone after all, and through my lens I relished being the observer and used my photos to communicated to my friends at home. When I read the above quote in the forward of Lawrence’s charming book, I realized that I too have always been particularly attracted to happy lovers. The proof was there to see in my photos.

IMG_7998.jpg

We were both still. She put her arms round her bright knee, and caressed it, lovingly, rather plaintively, with her mouth. The brilliant green dragons on her wrap seemed to be snarling at me (“Once” 173)

I had not thought I would get to this last book in my plastic bag, but events overtook me. We took off an hour late from Stockholm so landed at JFK at 9pm instead of 8:00. An hour before landing, the airline brought coffee and some packaged bread-like substance to wake us up. I was seated in the middle of the middle of the plane and when the steward reached over to put my coffee on my tray I had a moment of distraction and suddenly the cup was sliding down, off the tray, onto my lap. The hot coffee scalded my legs and I hopped (as much as one can hop while seated and pack like a sardine) and quietly (so as to not wake the baby sleeping in her mother’s arms next to me) cried out “oh! oh! oh!” But what could I do, really? I was trapped in my seat until everyone else was finished and had their trays cleared. So I sat in a literal hot mess for about 30 minutes.

There it was damp and dark and depressing. But one makes the best of things, when one sets out on foot (“A Chapel Among the Mountains,” 115).

Finally, I was able to get up and retrieve my bag. I went to the bathroom, changed my pants for a skirt, asked for a blanket to cover my wet seat and sat back down. It was at this point that I settled in with Lawrence. I thought I might just get a few pages in, but reading is my relaxation go-to.

IMG_8090.jpg

His lips met her temple. She slowly, deliberately turned her mouth to his, and with opened lips, met him in a kiss, his first love kiss (“Love among the Haystacks” 98)

I was very much mistaken however, because the night that I landed in JFK was the night that the terminals were shut down due to rumors of a shooter. We sat for hours on the tarmac before anyone even told us what was going on, although, as we all had half-dying cell phones we knew something was up.

The young woman looked at Geoffrey, and he at her. There was a sort of kinship between them. Both were at odds with the world. Geoffrey smiled satirically. She was too grave, too deeply incensed even to smile (“Love among the Haystacks 63).

I ended up reading the entire book. We sat in the plane for just under seven hours. Seven hours. Seven. Luckily, Love among the Haystacks is a collection of endearing love stories. Endearing, that is, in Lawrence’s usual strangled way. Lawrence’s lovers are never fully able to express the raging waters in and between them. Their attempt are often thwarted, frustrated, bitter, and even angry. But when the waters meet—it is sweet.

IMG_8106.jpg

All that and a bag of books

Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol she’d seen the other night in The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by the absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.
—Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (65)

IMG_6834.jpg

I brought Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 with me to Italy. It met all the requirements: it had spent way too much time on my book shelf unread, I had never read Pynchon and felt the need to remedy that situation, and my paperback copy was small and lightweight. This last point was actually the sine qua non of my reasoning as I had a 10 kilo limit on my carry-on and no check-in luggage in order to save a few bucks.

I left Rome at 5:00am on a Sunday morning. I flew out of CIA which is like a domestic airport except it does travel to EU countries. It was the day before fiere which is when the entire country takes a two week holiday. I had the feeling I was leaving in the nick of time as all the local stores I relied on for nontourist-trap foods (read—fruits and vegetables) were closing, but the airport was a madhouse which was lucky for me since the check-in man was so flustered he forgot to weigh my bag.

I didn’t get to Pynchon until I arrived around 11:00am in Gothenburg, Sweden. I was mildly surprised to find myself in Sweden because I had only paid attention to my airline: Norwegian Air, and so had figured I would be going to Norway first before my second layover in Stockholm. Needless to say, traveling produces a lot of anxiety in me and traveling alone is about 17 times harder than having someone to helpfully say, no idiot—we are on Norwegian Air but going to Sweden! Not that it matters much, one airport is like any other, although Swedish airports do sell a bevy of those cute orange horses and I am after all half-Swedish so I recognized my people straight away and was glad I was a proper Scandinavian and had not been tempted to be overly friendly or talk to my fellow travelers commenting about how beautiful Norway was! Lesson learned:look at other info provided on ticket besides flight number. So, it was there in Gothenburg, in a haze of acute travel panic suppression, that I began The Crying of Lot 49. 

Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (13)

I managed to make my connecting flight to Stockholm by sitting patiently in a glass box of a waiting room hoping that the glass wall which was standing between me and my departing gate would magically open. After about two and half hours, it did. I got to Stockholm around 2:00pm and upon disembarking the plane, stood in the middle of the terminal, which was in constant, steady motion with two thoughts in my head: 1) I have been traveling for 9 hours in the opposite direction to my final destination and that is depressing; and 2) Do I want food badly enough to justify torturing my shoulders and back with these over-packed and yes! I admit it and I am sorry! over-weight bags—it was so bad I had a third bag, a cheap plastic bag with five books in it that I figured I could sacrifice if called upon to do so. And I didn’t even buy that much stuff while there—true, I have five children so just buying them little trinkets at the excellent Porta Portese flea market did me in, and then, yes whatever—there were the few books I bought—but I had also LEFT books in Rome too (and that was a project! No one wants free books it seems!). My bags could not fit so much as a sewing needle by the time I was done, so the books were in the sacrificial bag. At least that was the plan. In reality I would have descended into a pit of madness without a book to read all the long hours of sitting and waiting for tubular flying machines to take me to the next sitting and waiting place. So it was a ‘no’ to food.

Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even only a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie. Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the forging of stamps and ancient books, constant surveillance of your movements, planting of post horn images all over San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional actors and Pierce Inverarity only knows what-all besides, all financed out of the estate in a way either too secret or too involved for your nonlegal mind to know about even though you are co-executer, so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond a practical joke. Or you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a nut, Oedipa, out of your skull (165/6).

And I think that pretty much sums up international travel on the cheap these days. As I mentioned, I have had this book hanging around for years waiting patiently, as books do, to be read. So the fact that I eventually read it in Sweden—or better—in that never-never abstraction and parody-land of international airports—was so brilliant on my part I could not have actually planned it. The craziness of the Pynchon perfected a loop in my head which was struggling mightily to make sense of the mystery, quagmire, and relentless conspiracy to frustrate and discomfort beyond human endurance—that thing we prettily refer to as flying. Trying to solve Oedipa’s puzzle was a highly entertaining and magically perfect thing to do at the moment I was doing it.

By 6:00pm I was on the plane waiting for take-off to New York. I finished The Crying of Lot 49 and decided a little sleep (such as it was crushed between a nice woman and her near tw0-year-old baby on my left and a man and woman who had presumably said goodbye to his mother, perhaps for the last time judging from his tears, to my right). What happen next, I’ll save for the last book I had yet to read in my pseudo-sacrificial book bag.

*photo is actually taken over England on my way to Rome, but since I was in the middle of the plane, on all three flights coming back from Rome, this photo will have to do.

 

 

In the Minds of Others

so I argue within myself whether to take my shoes off or not, and of course I could not ask him if I’m to take them off or not however it doesn’t seem right to me to begin analysis proper with a question of this sort especially since I have trouble becoming intimate with people, even with my father there was no intimacy, and in conclusion since hesitating any longer could also look insulting to him while he waits and perhaps doesn’t understand I resolutely take off my shoes…
—Giuseppe Berto, incubus (269)

IMG_7998.jpg

While I was in Italy a friend of mine posted a Facebook game in which all participants were to reach for the closest book, turn to a certain page, and write down the fifth sentence they came upon. I did not even need to decide if I wanted to participate because the book I was reading at the time, Giuseppe Berto’s incubus doesn’t do sentences. Written in 1964, and leaning hard on the conceit of a session at the analyst’s office, the exposition of the central problem of the narrator’s life (father issues) is very nearly a 383 page stream-of-conscious work. It is a tour-de-force of a study in modern angst as well as a fun and fascinating read.

my God I’m not fourteen yet and already I have such a great longing to die, what am I doing in this world what am I doing, I love love love so wretchedly and immensely that I don’t have the courage to decide on an object for my love, and then mine is love in bitterness love in renunciation, now houses and human beings are far away and I can sing without anybody hearing me Lovely liar beauty of an hour your lips are like a poisoned flower….(304)

The protagonist, a writer living in Rome, tells the story of his life and consequences of being the son of a father unable to show any love towards him. It is at once funny and tragic. A sort of Italian Catholic Woody Allen flinging himself from one illness to another, some real and some imagined.

he wants me to dig up in the Gospels or some sacred text or other article of faith whereby a person that has nobody to weep for him on earth cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and for the hundredth time I explain to him that such an article of faith doesn’t exist because it isn’t in accord with the ethical principles of our religion, nor of any other religion in the world I’m sure, however I believe he needn’t worry about this since it’s a film he’s making and not a theological treatise, and since the gimmick involving Gennerio is poetically valid according to me he can proceed freely with out articles of faith, but since I have used pretty obscure words like ethical principles and theology and poetically valid he looks at me like I’m trying to put something over on him…  (186–7)

I found this book in a used-book shop in Trastevere and I was happy to discover it. It kept me company when I took breaks from walking and looking and thinking. Although my trip was truly wonderful, I was also quite alone (when I wasn’t working, and even much of the time then) and as in all lonely periods of my life books afford me time out of my own incessant internal dialogue. This book was particularly interesting to me not only because it was set in Rome, the city I stayed in for over a month, but also because it took place in someone else’s mind. Someone else’s fears, foibles, and fables mercifully quieting my own; giving me someone besides me myself and I to listen and talk to.

Throughout all of the struggles of the unnamed protagonist in this tale, one thing becomes painfully clear to both reader and hero—while there may indeed be no article of faith that prohibits a person from entering heaven if no one weeps for him, the knowledge that no one will is the most wretched sort of life one could endure. My loneliness was temporary. The disorientation of being in a foreign country with middling fluency in the language gave me the freedom and a silence created by the remove of social interactions to fearlessly examine my past and my future hopes. Berto’s hero was not so lucky. He worked himself up into a froth of incurable isolation. It was heartbreaking to witness.

*Published in Italy as Il Male Oscure. This Penguin Books edition translated by William Weaver.

 

The Common Good

Momina was younger than I, but not by much: she dressed very well, a gray suit under her beaver coat, her skin massaged, her face fresh; she took advantage of her nearsightedness by passing it off as detachment. I recalled her violet dress on the first night and looked at her naked ring finger.
—Cesare Pavese, Among Women Only (207)

IMG_8082.jpg

The final two stories in The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese are similarly structured: the first “Among Women Only” is told from the point of view of the solitary Clelia: a dressmaker returning to her hometown of Turin to set up a shop for her boss back in Rome. All of Pavese’s stories touch on issues of class and money in post-war Italy. Clelia, an independent working woman, tries to balance the necessity of tending to her clientele, with a mild disgust for the upper-class in which she navigates through the story.

Mariella was by no means a fool; she was the presiding hostess and had been born to such talk. I wondered if she would have known how to make out if she had begun at the bottom like her grandmother (200).

The story is unusual for several reasons, not least of which is that it is compellingly told from a female perspective. I don’t simply mean that the protagonist is female—that is easily enough done for many good writers male or female—but it is a distinctly female perspective. It matters that she is a woman. The nuances of a woman traveling alone, of being single (particularly for this era—although an era with a distinct loosening of conventions), of simply being in a female body. Without being ham-fisted in any way, Pavese tends to the details of that reality.

Like all of Pavasese’s stories, not much in the way of action happens, although this story does center its emotional tone around an attempted suicide by one of the young women traveling in the “fast” crowd. Pavese manages, through sober character studies— from the inside out—to touch upon issues of class, depression, sexuality: both heterosexual and homosexual, as well as his abiding theme of psychological isolation.

If you thought about it, it was terrible to have her with us this way and talk this way, terrible but also ridiculous, comic. I tried to recall what I was like at twenty, at eighteen—how I was during the first days with Guido. How I was before, when mother used to tell me not to believe in anyone or anything. Poor thing, what had she got for it all? I would have liked to know what advice her father and mother gave to that only daughter of theirs, so crazy and so alone (270).

We never do find out exactly who Guido was, but Clelia’s references to herself in terms of before and after Guido are telling, and, to this particular reader at least, very moving.

I could not help thinking, while reading this story, that it may have been the most personal and revealing of Pavese himself. His power of observation, his ability to express isolation both externally imposed and internally, and his ability to create richly nuanced glimpses into the lives of complex but ordinary people is quite astounding.

The last story in the book is “The Devil in the Hills.” This one focuses on a group of young men, or boys really, wandering the hills. It is told from the perspective of one (unnamed—I think) boy who is still young enough to simply crave the hills, swim naked, and enjoy long aimless exploratory walks.

“That’s one thing,” I said, that can’t be done—stripping naked in the woods and filling up with wine.”
“Why not?” Oreste said.
“No more can you make love in the woods. In real woods. Love and drinking are civilized things. when I went boating…”
Pieretto interrupted: “You’ve never understood anything.”
“When you went boating…” Oreste said (334).

Pavese never attempts to make his protagonists the smartest or most insightful or most reliable narrator—but in this way he engenders enormous sympathy for the figure that is telling the story—after all, who among us is all that?

As in his other stories, the “devil” seems to refer to the festering money-ed class: the nouveau riche as hanger ons to the old riche. The lack of guile with which the young protagonist finds himself in a very different world from his former cloistered student-days is endearing. Pavese is gentle with his characters, never hurried to tell the story, always tender and subtly told. He has a way of dropping seemingly insignificant details to signal changes in his characters:

I’d forgotten the blond honey of the head, her bare, sandaled feet, and her air of always being on the verge of leaving for the beach” (348).

The woman being observed is Gabriella, wife of the degenerate Poli. The boys are transfixed by her and also fascinated by her relationship with their husband which they struggle to understand. Pavese seems to deeply understand and communicate the ways in which people are often misunderstood, as well as the ways in which people often misunderstand themselves.

Except for the work in the library of The American Academy in Rome I have been doing here, I have been alone for my time in Rome and that may be why these stories have so strongly affected me. As I walk the labyrinth streets, observing all the people and their interactions with each other,  it is very much like the experience of reading: a solitary, and even isolating, activity, and yet, one that makes me feel more connected and empathetic to others.

In one of the early stories of the book Pavese writes something like, I like Italians; I don’t like Italy. It is a line that stays with me. I read it in its larger sense and see it as a mark of a true humanitarian. Someone who clearly wants to understand others and who can’t help loving people. Not countries, or religions, or politics or any other tribal designation: just people and a common goodness, a common struggle, that unites us all.