The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

By Ursula K. Le Guin

This is one of the most profound stories I have ever read. It does a lot in five pages. I read it first in 2006, and it has stayed with me ever since. Le Guin creates a city called Omelas, a place were people are very happy. But, although they were incredibly happy, they were not simple:

They were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

She describes this beautiful city of joy and then asks her readers: Do you believe?

She decides that we can’t yet believe, not without one more detail of the life in Omelas.

What she then describes is what I found so incredibly profound because at first the whole story seems like pure fantasy, but after further consideration, it struck me that the second part of the story (be warned this is only my interpretation) accurately describes what is happening to the animals on this planet (other than humans). It struck me so forcefully and so completely.  And so sadly. I doubt that Ursula meant for me to take it that way, but once the idea formed in my mind, it’s been unshakable.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there…”

The end of the story seems to leave us with a choice.

What a fantastic job Ursula has done.

Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

paint setBy David Bayles and Ted Orland; Image Continuum Santa Cruz, California and Eugene, Oregon; @ 1993; 122 pages.

I read this book a while back and then again a little more recently. As I was organizing my files and papers, I came across my notes:

  • Becoming an artist means learning to accept yourself. This makes your work personal. Following your inner voice makes your work distinctive.
  • The flawless person wouldn’t need to make art.
  • Our flaws and weaknesses are a source of strength for art. In fact, they are critical.
  • “Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap…between what you intended to do, and what you did.”
  • “Artists don’t get down to working until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.”—Stephen DeStaebler
  • Fear of not being up to the task of making art can feel dangerous and revealing.
  • “Making art precipitates self doubt, stirring deep waters between what you know you should be and what you fear you might be.”
  • Vision is always ahead of execution. Knowledge of materials is your contact with reality. Uncertainty is a virtue.
  • “Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending.”


SulaBy Toni Morrison; Penguin Books USA @ 1973; 174 pages.

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sula is the tale of an independent young black woman who lived before World War II, roughly (1920-1941). The story revolves around her personality, her friendship with her childhood best friend, Nel, and around their town’s reaction to Sula’s independent attitude.

So how can one friend betray another? I think that’s the question here. The answer is disappointingly elusive, for both the betrayer and the one betrayed. It isn’t made any easier when the course of a whole life is at stake. Morrison asks the question of who truly is morally wrong or right. It’s common knowledge that your friend’s lover is off limits, especially if they mean nothing to you. Friends who break that rule are not friends. And yet, there remains that tie. When something significant happens, you want to tell your friend, but now, and forever, they are gone. They can’t hear you. Or, you realize that you no longer want to tell them anything. There is that absence. That terrible loss. That forever. And then, who do you miss, really?

This book was loaned to me by a friend at work who found out I was reading Beloved. My friend prefers Sula to Beloved, and I am just the opposite. And while I typically can’t stand notes in the margins of a book, I appreciated the marks of my friend, which have added quite a bit to my understanding of the story, for Sula is full of symbolism that I might have otherwise missed.

I love Toni Morrison. She is an excellent writer with tremendously creative ideas and an unflinching ability to write about those hard, messy areas of life. (A little depressing.) Here is a sample from Sula:

In the back of the wagon, supported by sacks of squash and hills of pumpkins, Shadrack began a struggle that was to last for twelve days, a struggle to order and focus experience. It had to do with making a place for fear as a way of controlling it. He knew the smell of death an was terrified by it, for he could not anticipate it. It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both. In sorting it all out, he hit on the notion that if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free. In this manner he instituted National Suicide Day.”

I was all fired up thinking that the story would be about National Suicide Day, but it wasn’t. Now that I write this, it seems bad that I was a wee bit disappointed, but what finally happened with this seemed to symbolize what can quickly and without any thought go terribly wrong.

The God of Small Things

Cover of "The God of Small Things"
Cover of The God of Small Things

By Arundhati Roy; Random House; @ 1997; 321 pages.

Do not give books that you have not read to friends, relatives, strangers, etc.

Don’t do it.

I could almost stop my little book report here. Literature, it seems, is a beautiful way to talk about horrible things. Take if from me, if you must give a book, give a book of jokes by Reader’s Digest.

I first became aware of the book The God of Small Things during a bout of insomnia. Flipping channels at 4 a.m., I landed on PBS and saw Arundhati Roy interviewed. I was so impressed by her that I became obsessed with buying her book.

Following my oh-so-flawed pattern, I purchased the book right away, but did not read it until now. And, so sure was I at how great this book would be that I bought a copy and gave it to an acquaintance/friend several months ago. (Curses/embarrassment.)

Arundhati writes her story using the omniscient narrator. This way she can tell us the thoughts and motivations of all of her characters. The story’s theme focuses on the Love Laws of India: “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” This is all very foreign territory for me, since sadly I know next to nothing about India.

Of course, India is not the only country (or culture) that has taboos about love. We all do, and taboos are just that: taboo. It sounds like ewwww, and that’s what they are for us, big ewwwwws. Some taboos are larger than others. Some are no longer so taboo. Arundhati starts us out with taboos that are bad for Indian culture, but for Americans, eh, not so much. Her story becomes a gradient of taboos, introduced so gradually, you barely notice what’s happening, until you’re in her scene where her characters are in the theater watching The Sound of Music, and then blammo. Then it levels off for a while as you are fed information and are trying to figure out what exactly happened, for about 100 pages. The finale features a fireworks of taboos.

Arundhati is one of those authors who delivers hugely in the area of craft, and The God of Small Things could be read as much for the story as for the craft used to tell it. Information is portioned out, like strands of yarn. Strand by strand, she tells us about her characters’ problems. We’re too close to each strand to really understand what’s happening, until eventually everything is woven into place.

The story begins in Ayemenem, India, with Estha and Rahel, dizygotic (two-egg twins), who after a tragic turn of events are separated at the age of seven. Now at 30, Rahel has returned to India to find her brother Estha damaged, changed, broken. To know their story, we find out about their family members.

Their mother Ammu, for instance, made a terrible life-altering mistake and married the wrong man, thus forever ending her chances for societal-sanctioned love:

Ammu watched her husband’s mouth move as it formed words. She said nothing. He grew uncomfortable and then infuriated by her silence. Suddenly he lunged at her, grabbed her hair, punched her and then passed out from the effort. Ammu took down the heaviest book she could find in the bookshelf—The Reader’s Digest World Atlas—and hit him with it as hard as she could. On his head. His legs. His back and shoulders. When he regained consciousness, he was puzzled by his bruises. He apologized abjectly for the violence, but immediately began to badger her about helping him with his transfer. This fell into a pattern. Drunken violence followed by postdrunken badgering….”

Ammu divorces “the wrong man” and does the best she can. She loves her children terribly:

To Ammu, her twins seemed like a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs. Ammu watched over them fiercely. Her watchfulness stretched her, made her taut and tense. She was quick to reprimand her children, but even quicker to take offense on their behalf.”

Arundhati got off to a wonderful start. Her narrative style and the cadence of her words are poetic, but then from time to time she slaps us around with bad/vulgar words.

OK, I realize that bad words have their place. They can convey feeling, tone, loss of emotional and rational control, and social background. They are valuable. But when one is talking about something sensitive, smooth, and touching, and a four-letter word is tossed down, there’s a question. What exactly is the motivation behind this sudden jolt of cold water? Why this smack in the face? If that question can’t be answered in terms of advancing the plot (congruence with overall philosophy or tone isn’t enough), then I think the bad word needs to go. It’s too jarring.

This book, like a person who delivers sensitive information too soon, runs the risk of being cast aside. For me, the foreshadowing was so intense and offensive that I nearly closed the book forever; I nearly discarded the deftly crafted tale, the intricacies, and all the strands of information that would be eventually woven back together and understood. The story seemed like it might be too horrible to read; the characters too innocent; the demons too demonic; then Arundhati coaxes us back in. But don’t be fooled, she is determined to make her point.

Did I like the book? Yes and no. Would I read it again? Well, parts of it to help me with my own writing. (Arundhati is so tremendously talented.)

I won’t again ignorantly hand a book to someone based on the pretty flower/lily pad theme on the cover or the very charming PBS interview given by the author. Reading books with friends, like sharing art with friends, might not be my thing.

The God of Small Things was wonderful in so many ways, I hate to say anything bad about it. Still, it wasn’t the book for me. I wanted something else from this book; I wanted a closer connection to at least one of the characters, and yet, I thought it was very well done.

It was interesting in the end to know that The God of Small Things is The God of Loss.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Howl Track 4
Howl Track 4 (Photo credit: filmresearch)

So a friend of mine at work says: Word Wabbit, you gotta read “Howl.” And I’m all like: I have a million books—I can’t afford to buy another!

He says, No it’s really short. You can read it in an evening. But you might be depressed after.

So I go online, there it is for free at Poetry—simply a great resource.

So for anyone who’s interested, here’s Howl:

Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nien Cheng; Grove Press, New York, @1986; 544 pages.

Life and Death in Shanghai
Life and Death in Shanghai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life and Death in Shanghai  is wonderful—outstanding. Over and over, it made me ask: how could this happen? and Could this happen again?

Life and Death in Shanghai is an account of the Cultural Revolution that took place in China under Chairman Mao. It opens on a summer evening in 1966 when the author, Nien Cheng, is summoned to attend a struggle meeting. A large crowd of her former coworkers has been assembled to struggle against one of her former colleagues from Shell. Since Shell was a foreign firm that had operations in China and because during the Cultural Revolution all things foreign were deemed against the state, anyone who had worked for such a company was automatically suspected of espionage, or so it seemed.

What in fact was going on was a struggle within the Communist Party in China, with people serving as pawns.

As the revolution progressed, everything that reminded the leadership of the old ways was under attack. Art was destroyed; books were destroyed;  possessions were confiscated; people who had any educational training were deemed enemies of the state; anyone who could be considered a capitalist was under attack.

Nein Cheng, soon after attending her first struggle meeting, was visited by the Red Guard. The Red Guard amounted to a gang of young people who went house to house and ransacked, pillaged, confiscated, and destroyed.

Not too long after this event, Nien herself was seized and taken to a prison for political prisoners. Armed only with the advice to never give a false confession, her intellect, and her will to survive, Nein endured 6 1/2 years in solitary confinement, subject to temperature extremes, medical emergencies, and torture.

As I read this book, I was stunned by the character of its author, Nien Cheng. Through all that she had to endure, she is the most self-assured personality I have ever encountered. She comes to conclusions about her surroundings and the people who populate her life without question, without any kind of self-reproach or self-doubt. I am amazed. I wish I could have known this woman. To have met her would have been an honor.

Even though English was Nien Cheng’s second language, this book is effortless to read. She has great skill for the craft of writing. I looked, and I don’t think that she wrote anything else. It’s a real pity.

I bought this book on a whim for $3. In it I learned more about courage and perseverance and honesty than I think I have in any other place. Even after she was released from prison, she remained under the watchful eye of the party. Nearly everyone who came in contact with her had an agenda and sought to trick her into saying something that could send her back to jail.

For all the trouble they went to, I found myself often wondering, why they didn’t just make up a lie? Why go to the trouble of baiting her to say something against the party and then becoming disgruntled because she didn’t?

Maybe I’m revealing my Western way of thinking here. But for a system that wasn’t above torture and trickery, why were certain lies off limits?

There is so much in this book. It is probably one of the best books I have ever read. I highly recommend it.

Fight Club

By Chuck Palahniuk; W W Norton & Company; @ 1996; 218 pages.

Call me a child of the short attention span generation, but 218 pages is about as long as I like my novels to be. I get the experience, and it ends at about the time I want it to.

This is a book club book for me. I voted for the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami but didn’t get my way. That’s OK—it’s a lot longer—Fight Club was my second choice. I’d seen the movie, but it’s been years.

I’ve read Palahniuk before—he’s a Northwest writer, revered by the students in my writing classes when I was in school. The only other book I’ve read by him was Rant. How do I describe Rant? Hmm, “insane” is the first word that comes to mind. The second is “creative.” It’s been my experience that Palahniuk is edgy. He makes me a little uncomfortable. At the same time, I’m impressed by his imagination and delivery. He’s definitely a writer who stands out.

Fight Club begins very near the end with the protagonist losing all his worldly possessions. I like this structure. It definitely sustained my interest.

“The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”
That’s also the second rule.

Our protagonist has a severe sleeping disorder. Until he found fight club through a friend, he was visiting various support groups. This is an example of Palahniuk’s extraordinary (twisted?) creativity, so for anyone who hasn’t read him, I’ll stop there.

As our protagonist incorporates fight club into his schedule, his life view changes:

“Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer….Maybe self-destruction is the answer.”

“You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. Fight club isn’t about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn’t about words. You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread. You see this guy here six months later, and he looks carved out of wood. This guy trusts himself to handle anything. There’s grunting and noise at fight club like at the gym, but fight club isn’t about looking good. There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.”

I thought our protagonist’s relationship with Marla, the woman who stole his support groups, was hilarious (-ly dark). Very funny.

Marla and his friend Tyler become lovers, further irritating our protagonist.

“’If you lose your nerve before you hit bottom,’ Tyler says, ‘you’ll never really succeed.’
Only after disaster can we be resurrected.
‘It’s only after you’ve lost everything,’ Tyler says, ‘that you’re free to do anything.’”

I love Palahniuk’s pacing, part of which is accomplished by random haikus. (5,7,5)

Flowers bloom and die
Wind brings butterflies or snow
A stone won’t notice

Fight Club started as a short story “just an experiment to kill a slow afternoon at work.” (The original story is chapter 6 of the book.) Palahniuk says he was just writing The Great Gatsby updated a bit. He needed a technique. “Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just—cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.”

Personal History

a photograph of a woman
a photograph Katharine Graham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Katharine Graham; @ 1997; Vintage Books, a Division of Random House; 625 pages.

This is the story of Katharine Meyer Graham (1917–2001), the woman who led The Washington Post as its publisher for more than two decades. Personal History is her autobiograhy and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. It is also a history of The Washington Post, the newspaper that shaped the course of Katharine’s life.

Katharine writes in an incredibly straightforward, self-confident style. Reading her makes me think anything is possible with a little organization and planning.

Katharine begins by telling about her parents, who they were and how they met, and how her father acquired his vast fortune. Graham grew up fabulously rich, but she says she never knew she was rich. While her family owned vast assets, property, and huge houses, she and her siblings were not showered with lavish toys or clothes. They seemed to grow up without parents, as they were raised by governesses while their parents attended to business and social matters.

Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, was a very powerful man and during the Great Depression was appointed by President Hoover to be governor of the Federal Reserve Board. He guided the banking policies of the United States both domestically and abroad from 1930 to 1933. He was also the first president of the World Bank, serving for 6 months in 1946. (She never explains how he shielded or held onto his wealth during this time when the average American was losing everything. That would have been very interesting.)

In 1933 Meyer bought The Washington Post. He had attempted to buy The Post at an earlier time for $5 million and had failed, but during the Depression sale, he was able to anonymously bid and win The Post for $825,000. Knowing nothing about the newspaper business, Meyer stepped in and turned the failing paper around, transforming it into the prestigous paper it is today. A republican in political ideology, Eugene Meyer made it his goal to run an independent nonpartisan paper. To this end, he outlined and followed seven principles:

  1. That the first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.
  2. That the newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world;
  3. That as a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman;
  4. That what it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old;
  5. That the newpaper’s duty it to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner;
  6. That in the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifice of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good;
  7. That the newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.

What great principles/aspirations for a newspaper! (Though not completely followed by his son-in-law, we find out later.)

Just like the other books I’ve been reading and writing about, I am paying particular attention to what I can apply to my own writing. Katharine does a great job at reflection. After she shares an incident in her life, she tells us how she felt, why she thought things happened as they did, and what impact they had on her at the time or on her or others moving forward. Anyone struggling with this part of memoir writing should study this book.

I also noticed that the fact that Katharine was born wealthy diminishes my level of sympathy for her. And I think anyone who sets out to write a memoir should be aware of this factor. Maybe it is human nature to want our heros (protagonists) to have truly earned their hero status; we want to know that they have suffered. This is harder to get that across when all basic needs are met with abundance from the beginning.

But I do feel sympathy for Katharine. The fact that her parents were absent during most of her childhood lend greatly to this—her difficult relationship with her self-absorbed mother, her distant relationship with her wildly successful father all help to build my sympathy. The fact that she is so humble as she tells her story and that she tells us about her self doubt. The fact that she wasn’t incredibly beautiful and didn’t simply get by on her looks. It helps too, that she really did master the skill of writing as evidenced by her career and her autobiography. She is able to laugh at herself in several places.

One example is when Katharine humourously critiques herself as a mother: “One week when she [the nanny] was away, Donny fell out of his crib because I had left the side down, and out of his swing while I was weeding the yard. He ended up looking like Donald Duck, with his swollen upper lip sticking out an inch. That was the same week I put the nipples for his bottles on to boil and forgot them while I took time out to call people for a party. When the smell of burning alerted me, I found flames a foot high shooting out of the pan, threw it into the sink to put out the fire, and turned the water on, only to have the pot explode glass all over the place. I couldn’t help wondering how the children would fare if I took care of them all the time.”

Also funny is her comparison of childbirth to moving.

Katharine lived through the time in our country where women were expected to put their husbands and their families before themselves, all the time, and it appears that she did this. When her father handed over the management of The Washington Post to her husband, Phil, Katharine said she knew a man was needed to run the publication. It never occurred to her that she had been passed over. And even with all the cushion of her wealth, the values and expectations of the time didn’t sheild her from the average woman’s martial experience: “It was typical of our marital relationship that Phil conceived the idea of a country house for summers and weekends, and I did the actual work.”

And while that statement seems slightly bitter, on the whole, Katharine’s account of her husband is very loving and gentle. Looking back on her life, Katharine discovers the clues of her husband’s depression, clues she wishes she had understood better at the time. She says that because she had very little knowledge of the disease that she didn’t make the best choices to deal with it. And certainly in the whirlwind of their lives, with their relationships with people like Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, the social pressures must have been enormous for both Katharine and Phil.

For someone like me, who does not have massive wealth at her disposal, it does seem that a different life could have been had. Unbridled ambition and haunting self doubt seem to have been Phil’s undoing. But who am I to say. If I were rubbing elbows of the President of the United States and in a position to influence the course of our nation, I’m sure I could be tempted by this trap as well.

I marvel at how kind Katharine remained toward Phil, even after he lost complete control of his manic depressive disorder and even after he had a very open affair during which he wanted to divorce her. When Phil wanted to come back, she accepted him without hesitation, even with all the hurt, even knowing what his future bouts might bring. Even so, she hadn’t guessed that he would commit suicide as soon as he had the opportunity. But Phil, I guess, in realizing the enormity of his depression and his utter inability to control it fell into extreme hopelessness. That, coupled with his very public affair which he finally came to realize had hurt the woman who had given him everything, his whole identity at the Post. The fact of these two insolvable problems plus the weight of the depression must have led him to the conclusion that there was only one way out.

Not to appear unsympathetic, but this part made me think of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, in which he says that even with all the pain of depression, the one thing that kept him from committing suicide was that he couldn’t bare what it would do to his family when they found him. For Phil, this doesn’t seem to have been a consideration. He shot himself in their bathroom.

After Phil died, Katharine decided to run The Washington Post. Having grown up with the paper and having watched both her father and husband build it up, she felt she had no other choice. She had hardly worked a day in her life in the business world and recounted that she had much to learn. Her endless questions annoyed some of the people she would rather have befriended, but she perservered.

And it’s a good thing she did because life for Katharine Graham only got better. She recounts tales from this exciting new adventure of active participation in the publishing of the Post. Here is one example of her relationship with LBJ:

“As he was yelling at me, he started to undress, flinging his clothes off onto a chair and the floor—his coat, his tie, his shirt. Finally, he was down to his pants. I was frozen with dismay and baffled about what to do. I remember thinking to myself: This can’t be me being bawled out by the president of the United States while he’s undressing. Suddenly he bellowed, ‘Turn around!’ I did so obediently and gratefully…”

Katharine tells about the Nixon years, The Post’s role in Watergate, the changes in the roles of women over her lifetime, her friendship with Warren Buffett, and the union strike at The Washington Post. It’s wonderful to see how strong and confident she became once she became publisher of The Washington Post. It’s sad too to think that neither her father nor her husband had any inkling that she could do it. It just goes to show that you should never let anyone judge you or what you can do.

Katharine answers the necessary memoir question of “why am I writing this” towards the end. She has several reasons, but the one that stands out for me is that she hoped to gain some understanding “of how people are formed by the way they grow up and are further molded by the way they spend their days.”

Ours: A Russian Family Album

By Sergei Dovlatov; translated by Anne Frydman; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York; @1983; 135 pages.


I went online searching for videos of Dovlatov. There don’t seem to be any from when he was young. The ones I found show him as a hulking man, not really the writer type, more the heavy weight boxer type. Very masculine. And as I ponder that for a while, I realized the striking difference that I found between Russian and American culture. In Russian culture, men were very masculine and women were very feminine. I’m sure there were exceptions. But there, the difference between the sexes seemed to be celebrated and rigidly defined. In America, there seems to me to be some blurring. So that for me a man who seems to really own his manhood, who makes a point that there is a very clear distinction between the sexes, like Dovlatov, almost seems scary. I’m not sure I would be wrong in saying it was a very sexist culture and much of what Dovlatov says in his books seems sexist.

For some reason, like so many things Russian, I find that forgivable—there, although I would never stand for it here. Confused? Me too.

But, to the book. So I found one more thing to like D for. In the end, when his whole family left the USSR for the United States, he also took his dog, Glasha. In fact, Glasha has her own chapter in the book. He says that she was a very Russian dog and never quite adapted to America. This was the funniest chapter in the book for me.

With each passing year she looked more like a human being. (I can’t say as much for most of my friends.) I felt embarrassed changing my clothes in front of her. My friend Sevostyanov used to say, ‘She’s the only normal member of your family.’”

Glasha was such a cool dog that one of Dovlatov’s friends tried to steal her. He had to go get her back. Glasha even saved a family’s life and for this was awarded 400 grams of tenderloin—“the first time in the history of the Party that exclusive privileges were awarded to someone worthy of them.”

Dovlatov tried to arrange some “marriages” for Glasha, but none of them worked out. He explains in hilarious detail why each of them failed.

“Alas, Glasha did not become an American. What is the main quality of Americans? I immediately decided it was their optimism….My dog had a different psychological makeup….She didn’t even wag her tail very often. If a stranger moved to pet her, she snarled….In brief, Glasha had little talent for democracy. She was short on kindheartedness and loaded with neuroses. The sexual revolution never touched her. A typical middle-aged woman émigré from Russia.”

That wasn’t my personal experience, but I accept that much was lost in translation.


Bebel Gilberto – Samba de Bencao

Sorry bookworms, I’m on a music and poetry kick. Below is a song I have loved forever.

É melhor ser alegre que ser triste
Alegria é a melhor coisa que existe
É assim como a luz no coração

Mas prá fazer um samba com beleza
É preciso um bocado de tristeza
Senão não se faz um samba não

Fazer samba não é contar piada
E quem faz samba assim não é de nada
O bom samba é uma forma de oração

Porque o samba é a tristeza que balança
E a tristeza tem sempre uma esperança
De um dia não ser mais triste não

Põe um pouco de amor numa cadência
E vai ver que ninguém no mundo vence
A beleza que tem um samba não

Porque o samba nasceu lá na Bahia
E se hoje ele é branco na poesia
Ele é negro demais no coração

É melhor ser alegre que ser triste
Alegria é a melhor coisa que existe
É assim como a luz no coração

Porque o samba nasceu lá na Bahia
E se hoje ele é branco na poesia
Ele é negro demais no coração


It’s better to be happy than sad
Happiness is the best thing there is
It is like a light in the heart
But to make a samba with beauty
It’s needed a bit of sadness
If not the samba can’t be made

To make a samba is not like telling a joke
And who makes samba like this is worth nothing
The good samba is a kind of prayer
Because samba is the sadness that sways
And sadness is always hopeful
Of one day not being sad any more

Put a little love in the cadence
And you’ll see that in this world nobody wins
The beauty that a samba have
Because samba was born in Bahia
And if today it is white in it’s poetry
It is very black in it’s heart

Sewing Factory

Rev engine
Avert eyes
Watch fingers
Drone songs
Carried on
Threaded needles
Under pressure
Fix machines
Screaming out “Roberta!”

Stops cost
Peppermint pains
Shoulders and backs
Bundle the day
Minutes catch the hours.

The day
at last
is sold.
Like children freed
Grin. Stampede.
Sew sheets to pillow
Wake confused

Cows are headed for slaughter.

The Little Prince

Cover of "The Little Prince"
Cover of The Little Prince

By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; @1943; 101 pages.

I read The Little Prince when I was a child—and hated it. The boa constrictor swallowing the elephant put me off on page one. I got really caught up on the plight of that elephant. How cruel to have him swallowed on the first page. We need to get him out. Now!

I was too young for this book. I remember that I argued with everything the author presented. Was I a horrible child?

The best excuse I can offer is that my mother raised me on her own. With suitors coming and going, I developed a keen suspicion of any attempt to gain my trust or good will. So when Saint-Exupéry tries to identify with me on kid terms, explaining that he sees things like I do, that he’s writing from a child’s point of view (and certainly not in agreement with the often erring adults), he lost me. I was on to him. What was next? Was he going to grab me by my ankles and toss me into the air repeatedly until I socked him in the jaw?

Since then, a couple of people have said this is their favorite book—of all time!

My silent response has been: really???? But when someone identifies a favorite book or author, I tend to notice. I have to know why.

So I purchased The Little Prince through iTunes and read it on my iPod.

As an adult, the first thing I notice, oddly enough, is a number: 1943. This was the date of the book’s first publication and an important number for me.

The story goes something like this. The little prince has left his home planet, which is very small. There was a unique flower there that somehow went to his planet as a seed and grew there, but she was foreign to that planet.

She was very vain and had all sorts of requirements. The prince grew weary with her and disillusioned and decided to leave the planet and her forever. As he left, she admitted that she loved him. She said it was her fault for never letting him know. (Had he ever told her about his feelings for her?)

The prince then travels to other planets. On one of them, he finds a lonely king. I suppose the king’s planet is also pretty small and he is glad to finally have a subject, our little prince. To get the prince to stay with him, the king offers the prince a position as a minister of justice. The prince points out that there is no one to judge, since the king is the only person on his planet. The king offers that the prince can judge himself. That’s the hardest person to judge anyway. But the prince says he can judge himself anywhere. He doesn’t need to live on the planet with the king.

Well, well! the king said. “I have good reason to believe that there is an old rat living somewhere on my planet. I hear him at night. You could judge that old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. That way his life will depend on your justice. But you’ll pardon him each time for economy’s sake. There’s only one rat.

Then the little prince visits Earth. He lands in the desert. When asked why he came, he answers that he was having trouble with a flower. He is lonely and wanders upon a fox. The little prince wants to know if the fox will be his friend. The fox says no because he’s not tamed.

“For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…”

“…The only things you learn are the things you tame,” said the fox. “People haven’t time to learn anything. They buy things ready-made in stores. But since there are no stores where you can buy friends, tame me!”

Then the fox says this: “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

A long time ago a French girl informed me that the young man I liked so much was “wild.” This was such an odd idea for me. What did she mean? He must have liked her quite a bit because he often hung around with her. Even to my jealous eye, I couldn’t see why. And here she knew this detail about him that I had never guessed, that he was wild. Did she mean that he formed no ties? That he was not in the habit of taking on responsibilities? That he would have no friends?

“What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere…”

“…whether it’s a house [and it’s hidden treasure], the stars [the lost flower], or the desert [the hidden well], what makes them beautiful is invisible!”

And then: “you risk tears if you let yourself be tamed.”

It’s really odd, but I get the meaning of this book in a way I never had before. The little prince will return to the stars, but because he won’t point out which star he is returning to, his friend (our narrator) will forever find significance in all the stars. Every star will remind him of the little prince, just as every visitor from England reminds me of one particular friend and every smart ass remark reminds me of another.

[Saint-Exupéry wrote several successful novels, including Night Flight; Wind, Sand, and Stars; Flight to Arras; and Letter to a Hostage. He was a pilot and flew missions in World War II. In July of 1944, he set out to fly over occupied France. He never returned.]

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

By Nick Flynn @ 2004 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 347 pages.

An estimated 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States in a given year.  Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, gives us insight into that way of life.

This is the story of Nick Flynn, a caseworker at a homeless shelter in Boston, who wound up running into his estranged father as one of his “customers.” This book is the recipient of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir and was on the list of books I was encouraged to read in grad school.

Flynn’s memoir is very well written and at times is poetic. He does a wonderful job creating scenes and reflecting. His pacing is good. Timing is good. Structure—good.

Flynn as the protagonist is a sympathetic character. I respect his ability to hold it together during these difficult times and I also respect his literary accomplishment. I can relate to the internal turmoil he feels about a parent who doesn’t always do as society expects.

I’m not sure I understand why Flynn didn’t offer his father a place to live—with Flynn. At the same time, I feel like I should understand this, knowing how hard it would be for me to live with either of my parents. All the same, with the stakes so high, I’m not sure how I would react given a similar situation.

Mental illness is a tough one, not to be taken lightly, not to be passed on. It’s hard to admit it when someone you love is afflicted. Intelligence offers no immunity, and surprisingly, increases the risk.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is an honest, brave examination of a very difficult and complex family situation. I’ll be keeping it close, trying to learn from it. I recommend it to anyone who has their own parental problems (few of us don’t) and/or wants to learn the craft of memoir.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Cover of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:...
Cover via Amazon

By Hunter S. Thompson; Vintage Books; @1971; 204 pages.

Since I’m soon to be off to Las Vegas to see my father on Father’s Day—and to experience this iconic city, I thought it would be appropriate to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’ve heard about this book (and movie) for years, but somehow never got around to it, sort of how I never got around to Las Vegas.

Like Thompson, I am in search of the American Dream. I want to know what the American Dream means to me.

Hunter S. Thompson (and Jack Kerouac) would have us believe that the American Dream is about taking what you can get. There is an absence of responsibility and a love of indulgence. (Look at Las Vegas—enormous fountains of water in the desert dancing with lights.)

If the drug culture scene bothers you, don’t read this book.

So, on a sleepy Sunday morning (cue Johnny Cash music which might have been appropriate but was never referenced in the book), while the cold Spring wind whips through the trees and cancels out any warmth the sun could possibly offer, the following paragraph, the first paragraph in fact, makes me chuckle:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.

Our protagonist, Raoul Duke, is on his way to Las Vegas to write a news story about the Mint 400, “the richest off-the-road race for motorcycles and dune-buggies in the history of organized sport.”

I won’t give the details of what was in the trunk of his car. Suffice it to say that he and his attorney were very thorough:

The only way to prepare for a trip like this, I felt, was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy, then screech off across the desert and cover the story.

From there the story descends into drug-addled mischief. I thought the part about the hitchhiker was outstanding. The voice of the novel was strong. Whereas Keroac really put me off with his irresponsibility, with Thompson, it’s somehow forgivable, understandable, and endearing. I think this is because throughout the book, there is the thread of personal reflection that this might not really be the best way to behave, but since he has chosen this path, he’s going to do his best—to excel. The guy is an overachiever in this realm. Maybe that’s what I like. He’s no slacker once he’s chosen his course.

By the end of the book, Raoul Duke has broken every Vegas rule: burning the locals, abusing the tourists, and terrifying the help.

Except for the strength of the narrator’s voice, I don’t see much reason to read this book. It was ok, but that’s not quite enough these days.

I’m not sure this book got me much closer to the American Dream; I don’t really have that much hope for Vegas either, but maybe. Here’s a quote from the end of the book that I thought would be interesting to ponder, or come back to:

…This was the fatal flaw of Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously….But their [acid freaks] loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.

In the middle of reading the book, I watched the movie. Even though I enjoyed Johnny Depp’s performance, I don’t recommend the movie. The book somehow was less offensive.

Number of words in a novel and another list

I love lists and am always intrigued by “must read” book lists. Have I read “the right” books? Have I read “the necessary” books? So this morning as I was writing my morning pages, I started to wonder how many words are in a novel. I did a quick search and found an interesting article in the Huffington Post: Average Book Length: Guess How Many Words are in a Novel.

They included a great list! What I like so much about this list is that it was created to show one thing, but also shows another. It was created to give us an idea of how many words are in various novels, but while doing so has picked out famous novels that we’ll recognize. So, it is, at least to me, a “to read” book list as well.

  • Animal Farm: 29,966 words
  • Ethan Frome: 30,191 words
  • The Crying of Lot 49: 46,573 words
  • Slaughterhouse-Five 5: 47,192 words
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle: 53, 510 words
  • Lord of the Flies: 62, 481 words
  • Brave New World: 64,531 words
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: 70,570 words
  • Portnoy’s Complaint: 78,535 words
  • Lolita: 112,473 words
  • Madame Bovary: 117,963 words
  • Mansfield Park: 159,344 words
  • Moby Dick: 209,117 words
  • East of Eden: 226,741 words
  • Ulysses: 262,869 words
  • Middlemarch: 310,593 words
  • War and Peace: 544,406 words

I think the average comes out to around 64,000 words. I think I enjoy novels that are more on the short side. Although I loved Anna Karenina, so I guess if you use a lot of words, they better mean something.

My challenge to myself starting today is to write 2,000 words a day for the next 32 days. I’ll worry about editing later. Join me if you want and let me know how it goes. It can be any style. It can even be several styles. Completely disjointed is what I’m trying for. The bar is low. The only requirement is to show up.

Happy writing!

Anna Karenina

Cover of "Anna Karenina (Oprah's Book Clu...
Cover of Anna Karenina (Oprah’s Book Club)

By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; @ 2000 by Penguin Classics; First appeared serially from 1875 to 1877; 817 pages.

Anna Karenina is an 817-page study of the consequences of adultery. But it isn’t just about adultery; it’s also social commentary on everything from marriage, maternal love, having children, the education of the workers, farming practices, faith, and the moral implications of not actually working for a living. It’s about human relationships, love, birth, and death. Tolstoy forces us to look at Anna, the adulteress, as a person. He keeps us from judging her out of hand. He shows us the terrible consequences of choosing security over love and then again of choosing love over security. And he shows us all the jealousy, insecurity, and fickleness involved in human relationships.

Anna Karenina is set against the backdrop of the Russian aristocracy in the 1800s. Tolstoy provides great insights into human nature that ring true even today, more than 100 years later. He explains that some adulterous liaisons were excused by society while others were not.

The story is wonderfully crafted (for the most part—I felt like the ending was tacked on) and easy to read. None of the explicit details are given that modern readers are accustomed to. It’s all very classy. Tolstoy very subtly gets the point across on page 149, saying simply “…this desire had been satisfied.” With the romance out of the way early on, let the tortuous tale begin.

Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula province of Russia. He studied oriental languages and law but did not complete a degree. He faught in the Crimean War and afterwards wrote Sevastopol Sketches in 1855. He married at the age of 34 to Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, and together they had thirteen children. For much of his life, Tolstoy was active in efforts to educate and emancipate the serfs. His most well known novels are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karinina (1877).

Leo Tolstoy 1848
Leo Tolstoy 1848 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anna Karenina is a novel written in eight parts and told through the omniscient narrator. With this format, Tolstoy is able to explore the thoughts and motivations of all his characters. The story begins in Moscow, Russia. Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky’s affair with a former French governess has been found out by his wife, Dolly. Stepan’s married sister, Anna Karenina, who lives in St. Petersburg has been summoned to his house to console his wife and put their marriage back together. Meanwhile, Stepan has two friends, Konstantin Dmitrych Levin and Count Alexei Krillovich Vronsky, who are rival suitors for the same young lady, Kitty Tcherbatsky. Kitty is Dolly’s sister.

(Confused? You won’t be once you get going.) To get it all started, Tolstoy puts Vronsky’s mother and Anna Karenina in the same train car to Moscow from Petersburg.

The biggest problem for the western reader not used to Russian naming conventions is keeping track of the names and nicknames. If you can get that straight, this novel is smooth sailing. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, have done a fantastic job.

The first thing that struck me about the story was how unfair Stepan Arkadyich’s (Prince Oblonsky’s) view of his wife, Dolly, was.

He could not be repentant that he, a thirty-four-year-old, handsome, amorous man, did not feel amorous with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he.

So this guy is older than his wife, and yet she is too old for him, now that she has “done her womanly duty” and given him seven children!

It even seemed to him that she, a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent.

Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, seems the opposite of the other men in this story. Tolstoy described Levin’s love for eighteen-year-old Kitty in a very charming way:

He [Levin] knew she was there by the joy and fear that overwhelmed his heart. She stood at the other end of the rink, talking to a lady. There seemed to be nothing very special in her dress, nor in her pose; but for Levin she was as easy to recognize in a crowd as a rose among nettles.

I love this too for being such an accurate description of love, or I suppose, of infatuation:

He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.

Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909
Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tolstoy writes about the younger generation rebelling against the norms of the older generation. The previous generation had consented to having their marriages arranged by their parents. This generation was moving away from that practice. More and more young people were arranging their own marriages. To that end, I love this description of Kitty’s mother’s feelings on the topic:

And however much the princess [Kitty’s mother] was assured that in our time young people themselves must settle their fate, she was unable to believe it, as she would have been unable to believe that in anyone’s time the best toys for five-year-old children would be loaded pistols.

And yet, Kitty’s mother’s interference caused much grief.

This novel turns around the love affair that develops between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. It must have been shocking reading indeed, for not only is Anna married to man with whom she has a son, it also seems that she might be older than Count Vronsky. Tolstoy illustrated for us from the beginning how Russian society viewed wives who were even slightly younger than their husbands—as unattractive throwaways who should be understanding of their diminishing status. I love how he pushes this social value when he sets up Anna with Vronsky.

Early on, we suspect that Anna may be getting in over her head as Vronsky’s views of love are a bit liberal even by today’s standards:

In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and for whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.

And this is Vronsky’s friend’s opinion of why people get married:

For this there exists one means of loving conveniently, without hindrance—that is marriage…it’s as if you’re carrying a fardeau (burden) and doing something with your hands is only possible if the fardeau is tied to your back—and that is marriage. And I felt it once I got married. I suddenly had my hands free. But dragging this fardeau around without marriage—that will make your hands so full that you won’t be able to do anything.

Anna’s husband is onto her straying feelings immediately. Tolstoy is wonderfully wise about this:

She [Anna] looked at him [her husband], so gaily, that no one who did not know her as her husband did could have noticed anything unnatural either in the sound or in the meaning of her words. But for him who knew her, who knew that when he went to bed five minutes late, she noticed it and asked the reason, who knew that she told him at once her every joy, happiness, or grief—for him it meant a great deal to see now that she did not want to notice his state or say a word about herself. He saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.

Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, is twenty years older than she. He doesn’t seem capable of passionate love, but we see that he does love her. He would rather ignore the whole thing, save his reputation, and keep Anna as his wife. One can see that they are fundamentally a bad match. Alexei, with all his flaws, eventually becomes a sympathetic character, at least to me.

He felt that he could not divert people’s hatred from himself, because the reason for that hatred was not that he was bad (then he could have tried to be better), but that he was shamefully and repulsively unhappy. For that, for the very fact that his heart was wounded, they would be merciless towards him; people would destroy him, as dogs kill a wounded dog howling with pain.

As much as this story is about Anna Karenina and her love affair with Count Vronsky, it is also the story of Konstatin Dmitryich Levin and his love for Kitty Tcherbatsky. Levin seems to symbolize all that is good in men. He lives in the country, mows the grass with a scythe along with the muzhiks, and wants nothing more than to have a loving family. He is also a good tool for Tolstoy’s exploration of the pros and cons of the education of the muzhiks and the rise of a working class.

One really big hole in the story, for me, was the absence of Levin’s reaction to Anna’s death. He has only met her once, but his awareness of Count Vronsky has been high throughout the story. He was charmed by Anna when he met her. It seems really odd that we don’t get Levin’s take on either Anna or Vronsky at the end of the story. Levin becomes consumed with the idea of death and the meaning of life. One can infer that this is one of the consequences from Anna’s death, but with the omniscient narrator, it seems that Tolstoy missed a big opportunity to draw the whole thing together.

At the end, we also get insights into faith. Levin is not a believer at the beginning of the story. His view of the universe and how it operates could be summed up as follows:

In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is—me.

But later, he has an epiphany. People must live for goodness, live for the soul, and that goodness is revealed by God.

If the good has a cause, it is no longer the good; if it has a consequence—a reward—it is also not the good. Therefore the good is outside the chain of cause and effect.

He also makes the argument that faith and love are outside the bounds of reason.

Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.

…faith in God, in the good, as the sole purpose of man.

At over 800 pages, I was prepared to trudge through this novel. It was quite a relief to find it so engaging. I came away from this book wanting to throw out all my Russian novels and re-buy them as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They did a brilliant job.

A New Earth: Awakening Your Life’s Purpose

A New Earth
A New Earth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Eckhart Tolle; A Plume Book; @2005; 313 pages.

I read this a while back when it first came out, and thought it was ok—I don’t think I was awakened. I opened it up again to see if maybe this time would be different.

The first thing that surprised me was how fast I zipped through it. I can’t pinpoint where the content was particularly compelling, but one word seamlessly led to another and away I went!

Toward the beginning, Tolle says that mankind is in the process of awakening. This book isn’t meant to convince, it’s meant to awaken.

You cannot fight against the ego and win, just as you cannot fight against darkness. The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.

[I’m feeling better already.]

Tolle gets my attention when he says this: “The first part of that truth is the realization that the ‘normal’ state of mind of most human beings contains a strong element of what we might call dysfunction or even madness.”

He goes on to say: “Certain teachings at the heart of Hinduism perhaps come closest to seeing this dysfunction as a form of collective mental illness. They call it maya, the veil of delusion.”

“According to Buddha, the human mind in its normal state generates dukkha [not to be confused with dookie—my words, not his, but still fitting, I think], which can be translated as suffering, unsatisfactoriness, or just plain misery.”

The great Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi, says: “The mind is maya.”

[My mind is maya.]

Tolle says that “sin” is a word that is greatly misunderstood. “Literally translated from the ancient Greek in which the New Testament was written, to sin means to miss the mark, as an archer who misses the target, so to sin means to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly, and thus to suffer and cause suffering.

Science and technology have magnified the destructive  impact that the dysfunction, that collective insanity, can be most clearly recognized. A further factor is that this dysfunction is actually intensifying and accelerating.


Another aspect of the collective dysfunction of the human mind is the unprecedented violence that humans are inflicting on other life forms and the planet itself—the destruction of oxygen-producing forests and other plant and animal life; ill-treatment of animals in factory farms; and poisoning of rivers, oceans, and air. Driven by greed, ignorant of their connectedness to the whole, humans persist in behavior that, if continued unchecked, can only result in their own destruction.

In our destruction. I like how Tolle sets himself apart: “in their own destruction.” Almost out of harm’s way.

Tolle says: “If the history of humanity were the clinical case history of a single human being, the diagnosis would have to be: chronic paranoid delusions, a pathological propensity to commit murder and acts of extreme violence and cruelty against his perceived ‘enemies’ —his own unconsciousness projected outward.”

Who is this Tolle guy anyway?

The back of the book says he is a contemporary spiritual teacher who travels extensively. The inside cover doesn’t reveal much more. An enigma, I suppose. Is “traveling extensively” credential enough to diagnose the collective of humanity with insanity? Sure, I was thinking it too, but I’m just a wabbit who has only traveled marginally.

Reading on…Gautama Siddharth (Buddha) is said to be the first to come to this conclusion, 2,600 years ago in India. Or, maybe it was China’s Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching.

I admit, I’m liking Tolle. He doesn’t hide behind “culture” to excuse suffering. He is a proponent of self evaluation and change.

He says that through organized religions, people “could make themselves ‘right’ and others ‘wrong’ and thus define their identity through their enemies, the ‘others,’ the ‘nonbelievers’ or the ‘wrong believers’ who not infrequently they saw themselves justified in killing.”

A dim little light came on for me when I read the following paragraph:

He [Jean-Paul Sartre] looked at Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am” very deeply and suddenly realized, in his own words, “The consciousness that says ‘I am’ is not the consciousness that thinks.” What did he mean by that? When you are aware that you are thinking, that awareness is not part of thinking. It is a different dimension of consciousness. And it is that awareness that says “I am.” If there were nothing but thought in you, you wouldn’t even know you are thinking. You would be like a dreamer who doesn’t know he’s dreaming. You as identified with every thought as the dreamer is with every image in the dream. Many people still live like that, like sleepwalkers, trapped in old dysfunctional mind-sets that continuously re-create the same nightmarish reality. When  you know you are dreaming, you are awake within the dream. Another dimension of consciousness has come in.

Tolle explains that complaining works to strengthen the ego (not a good thing) and when someone or something is wrong and you recognize that, it makes you feel you are right. Tolle echos the ideas expressed by Dostoevsky when he says that “by far the greater part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in the service of the collective ego.”

Here “normal” equates to “insane.” And what lies at the root of insanity? “Complete identification with thought and emotion, that is to say, ego.”

While reading this, I continue to think back to my questions regarding the economy of New Guinea and how it was disrupted by discovery by the outside world in the book Lost in Shangri-La. My question was, and is, is war really necessary? Economically? Also, I can’t help but think about recent news events. The two brothers who devastated so many lives in Boston, but also ruined their own. And for what? For ego? In the service of their unconscious pain body? What could they have hoped to accomplish with that act? It makes no sense to me. I see the face of that 19 year old and my heart goes out to his parents, and yes, to him as well. What happened? I want so much to think he didn’t do it and we have convicted him too soon (outside the courts), but then if it wasn’t him, it was someone. Someone did this. But why? And how?

Tolle has this to offer:

A collective ego manifests the same characteristics as the personal ego, such as the need for conflict and enemies, the need for more, the need to be right against others who are wrong, and so on. Sooner or later, the collective will come into conflict with other collectives, because it unconsciously seeks conflict and it needs opposition to define its boundary and thus its identity.

Tolle’s discussion of the pain body and how it feeds the ego is interesting. I think I struggle with some of this stuff. I liked and identified with what he had to say about time:

Time is what the ego lives on. The stronger the ego, the more time takes over your life. Almost every thought you think is then concerned with past or future, and your sense of self depends on the past for your identity and on the future for its fulfillment.

The main way to disable the ego, according to Tolle, is to accept what is and what comes, regardless of whether your reaction makes a judgement of good or bad.  Since the ego identifies with stuff, it would also seem that cutting back on one’s belongings might help. But Tolle doesn’t say this. It’s just my idea.

As I read Tolle, I slip into a reverie of what life might be like to live closer to nature, with significantly fewer belongings and significantly fewer obligations. Would my world be enlarged or depleted? And my ego?

To awaken from the dream is our purpose now. When we are awake within the dream, the ego-created earthdrama comes to an end and the more benign and wondrous dream arises. This is the new earth.

This is a lot for my Western mind to take in. But if I understand Tolle correctly, the idea is to be present in each moment. Experience “now,” no matter what is happening now. Right now, you are reading my blog. There is a strange temporal relationship between my thoughts and yours. I am communicating with you from the past. You are reading my thoughts in your now. I am thinking about your actions and reactions in my future.

When I picked up this book, I came to it with the assumption that everyone’s life purpose is different. But not so per Tolle. Everyone has the same internal purpose in life—that is to awaken. Awakening means to be able to distinguish between the constant inner dialog we all experience—thoughts—and ourselves as the thinkers. Basically, we are not our thoughts. If your purpose is anything other than that, it will be thwarted by time and will eventually result in sadness.

So, curing cancer, ending poverty, building a fortune—anything of that nature no matter how altruistic, is the work of the ego. Anything you are doing in the present moment is your purpose, even if you’re sharpening a pencil. When you move on to something else, that will be your external purpose. And so forth. The point is to be conscious of what you are as you do whatever it is. Tolle says that whatever you do you should do it in a state of acceptance, enthusiasm, or enjoyment; otherwise, stop doing it.

I recommend this book for anyone having a problem with excess seriousness. It’s a lot of food for thought. I’m not sure I got it all. When I was in college and having a rough day, I would often go to a certain fountain and stare at the water. My mind would clear and peace would descend. Sort of like a serving of broccoli, everyone probably needs a serving of peace, so many grams a day.

The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story

The ZoneBy Sergei Dovlatov; Translated by Anne Frydman; Russian edition @1982; English edition @1984; My edition @2011; Counterpoint Press; 182 pages.

Perhaps Dovlatov is the Soviet version of George Carlin, sans the vulgar tirades and the four letter words.

Here is the introductory statement by the author:

The names, events, and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential.

Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.

Dovlatov always had an excellent structure for his books. In The Compromise, it was a series of increasingly absurd compromises. In The Suitcase, the chapters were organized by what he found in his suitcase and the relevance of each item to his life.

In this book, Dovlatov has come to America. He has written the book, The Zone, while still in the USSR, but couldn’t risk taking it with him when he left. As a result, several of his friends have smuggled small parts of the book out while traveling to various places in the free world. Dovlatov is now trying to reassemble his book. The serious content of The Zone is tempered by Dovlatov’s letters to his editor talking about his current life in the U.S. and commenting on the manuscript he is now submitting in parts.

As one might imagine, being a prison guard was pretty horrible not to mention shocking at times.

Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect—being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.

young dovlatovThis is the darkest of Dovlatov’s books. But while dark, it still contains his philosophical bent which I enjoy so much. I thought his strategy for dealing with his job was very interesting:

I felt better than could have been expected. I began to have a divided personality. Life was transformed into literary material…I began to think of myself in the third person.

Dovlatov says he doesn’t agree with the ancients—that a sound body means a sound mind. Instead, he says that people who are physically healthy are most often spiritually blind and morally apathetic.

He says he was very healthy.

Since the time of Aristotle, the human brain has not changed. What is more, human consciousness has not changed.

Dovlatov rails against not being able to get his work published in the Soviet Union, but really, what did he expect when he said things like this:

… a prison camp is a pretty accurate representation of a country in miniature, the Soviet state in particular. Within a camp, you have a dictatorship of the proletariat (which is to say, the camp administration), the people (the prisoners), and the police (guards).

Dovlatov says that literature has historically portrayed the prisoner/guard relationship in one of two ways. Either the prisoners are to be pitied or the guards are. To him, both views are wrong:

Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.

For anyone wanting to read Dovlatov, I wouldn’t start with this book. Even though I really liked the book and appreciated what Dovlatov had to say and his characteristic humor, I’m not sure I would have been so compelled to keep reading him if I had started here. (The order I suggest? The Compromise, The Suitcase, A Foreign Woman, The Zone.)

So has the spell been broken? (Will I be rushing out to buy more D?)

Well, as I finish this book, I think about how jaded and disillusioned a person might become after having similar experiences. Here is a man who didn’t graduate from university. He trained as a heavyweight boxer. He saw horrific things and experienced ongoing fear.

Yet, through it all, (not having had everything given to him, not having had a pampered existence and the best education, freedom for travel throughout his life, money, etc.) through it all, he retained his humanity. He retained his capacity for mercy and compassion. How did he do this? Do these kinds of circumstances breed empathy and emotional maturity?

It makes you think, especially on days like today with all the crazy news stories—the Boston Marathon bombing, an NPR story about a company you can hire to get the kidnapping experience, and other more horrific things I don’t want to get into.

(This post is also available on my portfolio blog.)

The Suitcase

the suitcase dovlatovBy Sergei Dovlatov; Counterpoint Press; @ 1986; 129 pages.

The premise of The Suitcase is simple. Sergei Dovlatov finds the suitcase that he carried from the Soviet Union to the United States in the back of his closet in New York. Each chapter of the book tells the story behind each item he rediscovers inside.

I really like this structure. I’m trying to figure out how to “repurpose” it for my own needs. And, I really like Dovlatov. I’ll be reading along, interested enough to keep going, and then all of a sudden I’m laughing. It’s nice. It reminds me of Russia and the friends I met there, and makes me sorry I left and glad that I did at the same time.

I like how Dovlatov describes his relationship with his wife, Lena. He says the main things a wife should do for her husband are 1) feed him, 2) believe he is a genius, and 3) leave him alone. And she can’t just do one of these. She has to do all three. So I’m ticking off these things in my head. Am I doing my part? It was touching—for all his tough-guy rhetoric, you can tell he really loved his wife. The kind of love that is too real and painful to talk about.

Dovlatov died relatively young (Not suicide—but what was it? I don’t know.), and it makes me really sad. But he left behind several books that I haven’t read.

The New York Times said this about The Suitcase: “Readers will soar through the first two-thirds of this novel, then…stave off finishing it. The final chapters will be hoarded and cherished, doled out one at a time as a reward after a bad day.”

That’s exactly how I felt. I have a bad day, I reach for Dovlatov. That’s why I need to have enough on hand. Fed up with life? Lost your sense of humor? Take two Dovlatov’s and call me in the morning.

Some words on love

Wud—like someone as a friend
Wajd—strong emotion
Futun—infatuation and fascination
Ghazal—flirting or wooing
Lawaa—suffering from love
Sabwa—sensual love or captivation
Hub—love (in general for family members, books, spouses)
Sababa—ardent love
Tatyum—obsession with loved one
Ghamart—overwhelmed with love
Ishq—passionate love
Wala’—deep love, when you miss your partner when you’re apart
Hiyam—the last level of love, when you’re never able to leave your lover

Arabic has a surprisingly large number of words for love.

Twenty Letters to a Friend

svetlana petersBy Svetlana Alliluyeva; @1967; Harper & Row Publishers; New York and Evanston

Svetlana Alliluyeva was the daughter of Joseph Stalin. In her memoir, Twenty Letters to a Friend, she struggles to come to grips with her childhood and in particular her relationship with her father, who he was a man, father, husband, and leader. According to Wikipedia, Svetlana caused an international stir when she defected from the Soviet Union in 1967. Interesting that this is the same date her memoir was published. Svetlana was born in 1926 and passed away in 2011. (Stalin died in 1953.) Wikipedia says as of 2010, she was living in Wisconsin.

This book came to me from my grandmother. She didn’t give it to me, but rather, I inherited it when she died. My grandmother was a member of the Book of the Month Club, and this was one of the books she received. My grandmother was very well read, but I don’t think she ever had the same kind of fascination with Russia that I developed.

As I read this book, I felt a wave of compassion for Svetlana. After all, it’s hard to top having Stalin for a father. For one, there is the mysterious death of Svetlana’s mother. Was it really a suicide? Did Beria do it? Could Stalin have? How culpable was Stalin in the terror? She seems to want to shift the blame, painting Stalin as a man whose passions could be manipulated, a man with tremendous paranoia that worsened over time. What is touching is that she loved him, and I suppose the monster that I have read about in my history classes must have loved her too.

There are a couple of things that could have improved her memoir. She didn’t say much about the Soviet gulags that her father worked so hard to populate. She also didn’t write much in scenes. Most of her letters were strictly telling, not much showing. The letters she wrote about her mother and her first husband were the most gripping, where I actually forgot I was reading and lost myself in her story.

Svetlana is extremely self-conscious throughout her memoir, always watching what she says, always crafting an impression. And this is certainly understandable given the very public nature of her life. Unfortunately, in this writing, she hasn’t unraveled her own denial, even though I have the feeling that she sincerely tried.

The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems

By William Stafford (1914–1993); Graywolf Press; @ 1998; 254 pages.

All the poets I know have said they like William Stafford. The book everyone knows is Writing the Australian Crawl. It’s the inspirational how-to book for poets and writers. Stafford is from the Midwest. He was a conscientious objector during World War II. He moved to the Northwest and taught and wrote and traveled. Some might say he was a workaholic, and certainly he was prolific, rising every morning around 4 a.m. to write. He wrote more than 50 books and more than 3,000 poems. He won the National Book Award for Traveling Through the Dark.

I like William Stafford too, but after a full book of poems, he remains an enigma. After I read Mary Oliver’s poems, I felt I knew Mary Oliver; the same was true for Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, and even Tomas Transtormer. But William Stafford, for me, is just out of reach. Maybe the complicated simplicity of Collins has me spoiled. All the same, when I read Stafford, I remember cicadas, open fields of diverse species (not monocultures), and why I once thought of Oregon as a magical paradise. I become wistful and want to hit the road.

Poems I especially liked included:

  • Easter Morning

    American poet William Stafford (1914-1993)
    American poet William Stafford (1914-1993) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • You and Art
  • One Evening
  • Afterwards
  • Sayings of the Blind
  • The Way It Is
  • Big Bang
  • Wovoka’s Witness (3)
  • Things in the Wild Need Salt
  • Accountability   !!!
  • At the Playground
  • The Little Girl by the Fence at School
  • At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border!
  • As Me
  • One Home
  • (Plain black hats rode the thoughts that made our code.)
  • Ceremony
  • Circle of Breath
  • At the Bomb Testing Site
  • Outside
  • In the Oregon Country
  • In Response to a Question
  • Lit Instructor
  • Glances
  • Some Shadows
  • Back Home
  • Fifteen
  • Recoil
  • The Animal That Drank Up Sound
  • Bess
  • Holcomb Kansas
  • A Sound from the Earth
  • Things That Happen
  • So Long
  • Freedom
  • The Coyote in the Zoo
  • Meditation
  • West of Here
  • Coyote
  • That Year
  • Dropout
  • Some Remarks When Richard Hugo Came
  • A Wind From a Wing
  • Old Prof
  • Poetry
  • Men
  • In the All Verbs Navaho World
  • Malheur before Dawn
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Is This Feeling About the West Real?
  • Through the Junipers
  • It Still Happens Now
  • Objector
  • How It Is
  • My Life
  • A Course in Creative Writing
  • Things I Learned Last Week
  • Incident
  • Our Kind
  • We Interrupt to Bring You
  • Pegleg Lookout
  • Burning a Book
  • Thinking About Being Called Simple by a Critic
  • Waiting in Line
  • An Oregon Message
  • Why I Am Happy
  • The Sparkle Depends on Flaws in the Diamond
  • How It Is with Family
  • Run Before Dawn
  • Remarks on My Character
  • How These Words Happened

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

very-inspirational-bloggerThank you to Khaula Naxir (My Invincible Spirit) and Kelli Beck (Wordsmithing Ain’t Easy) for nominating me for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. It was very nice of you to think of me. One thing that I have already discovered about this award is that it is a great way to discover other interesting blogs. Thank you!

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award is awarded to a blogger who makes blogging fun and cheerful.

The Rules:

  • Display the award logo on your blog.
  • Announce your win with a post and link back to the person who nominated you.
  • State 7 interesting things about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 bloggers for this award and link to them.
  • Let them know you have nominated them.

My 15 Amazing Nominees (in no particular order and OMG, it was so hard to limit the list to 15!):

  1. Road Tripping Europe (
  2. Ink Paper Pen (
  3. Misbehaved Woman (
  4. Silver Threads (
  5. LatinOPen (
  6. Human Writes (
  7. Hovercraft Doggy (
  8. Depression Time (
  9. Unbound Boxes Limping Gods (
  10. Ratiocinativa (
  11. Grass, Roots & Grains (
  12. Wanton Ruminating (
  13. Jenny Jaybles (
  14. Food Flavor Fascination (
  15. Traveling Cookie (

7 Things About Me:

  1. I would like to take some serious time off and hike the Pacific Northwest Trail.
  2. I work as an editor/proofreader/writer.
  3. I would like to visit every continent before I die.
  4. I would like to get to know an elephant.
  5. I’m trying to learn Spanish and Russian.
  6. My great grandfather was a stowaway on a ship that sailed from Denmark to the U.S.
  7. I love the beach. Sometimes I think I want to live there.

Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985

By Ted Kooser; @1980, 1985 University of Pittsburgh Press, 142 pages.

This is the one. This is my favorite book of poems by Ted Kooser. Ted has tremendous talent for evoking vivid scenes with simple, unassuming language. My favorite poems include:

Selecting a Reader
Christmas Eve
Sitting All Evening Alone in the Kitchen
The Man with the Hearing Aid
How to Make Rubarb Wine
A Widow
So This Is Nebraska
After the Funeral
Shooting a Farmhouse
Late September
Looking for You, Barbara
Abandoned Farmhouse
A Goldfish Floats to the Top of His Life
They Had Torn Off My Face at the Office
Year’s End
Flying at Night
Just Now
A Birthday Card
A Room in the Past
Decoration Day
At Nightfall
The Voyager II Satellite

In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing

By Lee and Bob Woodruff

When ABC News journalist Bob Woodruff began the day of January 29, 2006, he had it all. Married with four children, he was healthy, handsome, and successful. At 44, Woodruff had been promoted to the position of co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight opposite Elizabeth Vargas. That day in January as Woodruff rode with his ABC new crew on an embed mission with Iraqi and coalition soldiers, he was doing what he loved to do, reporting the news from a foreign war-torn land. Everything was going well until Iraqi insurgents detonated a roadside bomb, throwing rocks and shrapnel into Woodruff’s head, neck, and back. Everything was fine until the moment that it wasn’t.

The dual memoir In an Instant, written by Lee and Bob Woodruff, began as Lee’s personal therapy. Lee and Bob tell the story of Bob’s traumatic brain injury and his uncertain path to recovery. Told from alternating points of view, In an Instant is set against the relationship backgrounds of marriage, career, family, and friends. It shows the place of hope, courage, devotion, and commitment amidst the anxiety of impending loss.

The story begins with Lee on vacation with her children at Disney World. Bob is in Iraq. As the events unfold, and interesting structure evolves. The story of Bob’s injury and the details of his recovery are juxtaposed against the story of Lee and Bob’s relationship, the first time they met, their courtship, and marriage. It traces Bob’s career as a foreign war correspondent up to the point where he succeeded Peter Jennings, becoming a co-anchor at World News Tonight. The technique of recounting their story from the alternating viewpoints of husband and wife, as well as from alternating periods in time, provides a contrast that lends depth and perspective to the memoir.

Lee’s honesty is commendable as she bravely paints a complex picture of married life and motherhood, both the good and the bad. She shows the difficulty of attending to all the pressing details and logistics that go hand and hand with caring for someone who is critically injured. She describes how she conquered her emotional state as she managed travel, child care, and medical decisions while assuming the responsibilities of guardian and caretaker for her injured husband.

Lee describes the fear and anguish that come from not knowing if or how her husband’s recovery would progress—if he would ever wake up, if he would speak, what he would look like, and if he would remember he loved her. Lee talks about the importance and difficulty of controlling what was said about Bob’s condition in the press and praises Bob’s colleagues for respecting the family’s privacy. She navigates her story through territory fraught with the potential for sentimentality, and only slips once when she veers off on a tangent describing the intense love she has for her sister, Nancy.

Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, co-anchors ...
Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, co-anchors of World News Tonight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bob provides fascinating insights into his career as a foreign war correspondent. He recounts how he first became interested in journalism while he was teaching law in Beijing during the events of Tiananmen Square. He explains his passion for journalism and what drew him to dangerous situations.

“Wars revealed so many horrible stories and injury and death. But in the midst of that landscape, there was always powerful evidence of hope. Among the violence were people who had learned something profound about life. Places of war allow you to witness extremes, the highs and lows of life, people starving and defeated, people victorious and surfeited.”

Ultimately, Bob’s assertion that his family always came first is hard to believe. While it seems apparent that Bob made a genuine effort to balance his love of journalism with his love for his family and felt torn and guilty many times, the sacrifices that were made seem to have rested heavily upon Lee. Having supported him while he climbed his career ladder, Lee took care of their home and their children, allowing Bob to pursue his life’s passion for journalism and travel the world.

At times the book strays dangerously close to the unflattering terrain of which spouse sacrificed the most, but the Woodruff’s story never deteriorates to that level. It does, however, leave the reader with lingering questions regarding the place of sacrifice in marriage. How do spouses balance the sacrifices they make for each other? When is a sacrifice commendable, and when is it simply loving too much?

In an Instant graphically and almost horrifically illustrates the kind of damage caused to the human body from an improvised explosive device (IED). The magnitude of Bob’s injuries is described, including the detailed description of his brain swelling outside his head. The Woodruffs are careful to remind their readers that these types of injuries are becoming typical for vast numbers of U.S. troops serving in Iraq. Pictures of Bob’s crushed skull bone and his head after the left side of his skull was removed are included. The Woodruffs spare no ink when they lavish praise on the Army medical doctors both in Iraq and in the United States who treated Bob.

In an Instant is a brave and timely book that examines not only the signature injury of the Iraq war, traumatic brain injury, but also fearlessly dissects a marriage, accepts its imperfections, and lays bare the sacrifices, bitterness, and love. It is unclear whether Bob Woodruff will reach a point in his recovery where he will be able to reclaim the pinnacle of his journalistic career. What is certain is that Bob’s life has provided him with a wealth of fascinating stories. The writing team of Lee and Bob Woodruff is undoubtedly well equipped to tell them.

The Trial

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Franz Kafka; @ 1925, 1998 by Schocken Books, Inc.; 266 pages.

After finishing The Trial, my first response was to go online for a professional analysis of what this novel was all about. Unsuccessful, I decided to see what I could come up with on my own. I knew when I began reading The Trial that it was unfinished, and normally that would put me off, but since it has been called one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, I was interested to read it anyway.

The story opens as Josef K., (or K.) the CFO of a bank, wakes up without the breakfast that his landlady normally gives him. He opens his door to find strangers waiting for him and is placed under arrest. Thus, his trial begins. From that point forward, he tries unsuccessfully to discover what charges have been brought against him and to defend himself against an impersonal, bureaucratic legal system.

Metaphor for Realization of One’s Own Mortality?

To me, the theme of “the trial” seemed to be a metaphor for life, especially man’s relationship with religion and his quest to enter Heaven. Many symbols supported this view for me. In the beginning, K. was not taking his trial seriously (just as children don’t take their lives seriously; their consciousness of life is a dreamworld of possibility). Later, as the book progresses, K. takes his trial (life) more and more seriously; this seems to escalate as everyone tells him his trial is going badly.

K. was arrested within the boundaries of his everyday life (just as one who has the realization of their own mortality would be arrested, unable to think of anything else for a while). K. isn’t detained in a prison, but instead is allowed to go on living just as he always had, only now with the shame (metaphor for knowledge of original sin) of being on trial (life). He had to report to hearings from time to time (metaphor for going to church on a regular basis), and was promised that no one would know about his trial (shame attributed to life through original sin), however, many found out about it.

He doesn’t know the higher judges, can’t find them, can’t communicate with them directly (God), and is never free again, as he was in his innocent childhood.

There were two ways to avoid conviction (death). One was the “extension option” (extending the trial indefinitely) and the other was “temporary acquittal,” which amounted to working really hard to get acquitted and then forgetting about the trial until the judges found your paperwork again and you were tried again. (This idea seemed to mirror the illnesses we get during life. We get sick and then get well again, until finally one day, we get sick and don’t recover.)

The way K.’s lawyer treated his other client, the merchant, as a dog, and that the man allowed him to do so, served to illuminate K.’s character. The merchant had chosen the “extension option” and in so doing had lost every ounce of self respect he ever had. He was turned into an obedient “dog,” always begging for approval (Kafka’s view of the obedient churchgoer?). The reader could see that this was not something K. was willing to do as his own trial (life) progressed, and K. fired the lawyer.

The options given K. for avoiding a verdict, that of extending the trial (by going to court (church) on a regular basis) or seeking a temporary acquittal (forgetting about the trial (nature of life) for a while), were ultimately rejected by K. The option of “temporary acquittal” seemed like it would buy K. some peace until the next time the court noticed his paperwork, which could be years, or minutes. However, the knowledge that the court would one day discover him and try him again, would keep K. from ever being free (like the looming knowledge of death. Eventually death will catch up with us all, so we are never really free.)

Some people take actions to avoid judgment or to postpone it. This progresses differently for everyone, depending on how predispositioned they are for obedience. This is illustrated by the merchant and how he acted as an obedient dog, giving up the rest of what shreds of freedom existed for him to serve his lawyer in an effort to postpone the inevitable, obediently reading texts he didn’t understand (metaphor for the scriptures/Bible?) in a dark room with very little light.

I found K.’s romantic relationships with women interesting. Other than his landlady, the women were all a little slutty, even the young girls who waited outside the painter’s apartment (women are the tempters of men). So, for a while, I thought K. might be on trial for his boorish treatment of women. All of the women except for Fraulein Brustner were already involved with other men (even the little girls could be said to have been involved with the artist). K. himself was involved with a woman that the novel didn’t say much about, and he cheated on her without thought or apology. He was told not to stop enlisting the help of women, but K. disagreed with this. He believed that women could help him (in the end, they didn’t.) This seemed like a loose end attributable to the novel being unfinished.


For a high ranking officer at a bank, Josef K.’s living quarters seemed inconsistent with his status. He was a boarder in a house with a landlady. Wouldn’t a CFO have his own place? This was odd. The writing at the beginning of the novel was much more vivid and engaging than at the end. Of course, this wasn’t a finished novel, and Kafka had left instructions for it to be burned. To further the religious metaphors, K. was sentenced in the cathedral (perhaps symbolic of the courtroom of God), and his execution took place in a quarry.

Parable of the Law

In the parable of the law told to K. by the priest in the cathedral, I figured that the priest was represented by the gatekeeper of the law (priests can be thought of as gatekeepers to God), and K. was represented by the merchant who waited his whole life to enter the gate to the law (the everyman waiting outside the Pearly Gates of Heaven). The merchant (like K.) was afraid and was advised that he could not gain entrance to go through the gate to the law (Heaven) even though we later learn that this gate was made especially for him (Jesus died for our sins). I thought this might be the key to the entire novel. K. never figured out a way to get justice (to get to Heaven).

Free Will

Kafka’s references to freedom (free will) were interesting. How the gatekeeper’s post (the priest) restricted the merchant’s freedom, while the merchant, in fact, restricted his own freedom by seeking what he couldn’t have, or could he have it? (entry into the law (into Heaven)). Inside or outside the law, the man still had a choice to pursue his desires (free will). He could have chosen not to seek (Is Kafka saying that the only free men are those who are not religious? Those who seek nothing?) Yet, I don’t think the merchant was free, since he was enslaved his whole life by his desire to enter the law (Maybe this is Kafka’s point—seeking God one’s whole life is a form of slavery). Or, is it that believing what others tell you can prevent you from having what is easily attainable? Or, is it that the desire itself is enslaving. Or, is it that forgetfulness is good?

This book was much more fun to analyze than it was to read. 🙂


By Toni Morrison; Signet, Penguin Books USA @1987; 338 pages.

I had heard of Toni Morrison, but had never read her books. I won’t rehash the story here because I don’t want to spoil it for you, not even the first chapter.

Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Briefly, the story is about Sethe, a woman who escaped from slavery and who continues to be haunted by her past.

Toni Morrison is amazing. She is the most skilled writer I have read in a very long time. I am in awe. The story she tells, the details, her execution, her command of language, suspense, knowledge and understanding of human nature, scene, dialogue, imagination! And while I’m not drawn to sad stories, this one is a must read. This one, that I’m reading so soon after having read Doris Lessing’s Prisons That We Choose to Live Inside, strikes me as another example of the horrific behavior of our species.

Slavery is a topic so painful that we still can’t talk about it. There is so much I didn’t know. So much I need to find out. How terribly awful our past is. But Morrison has created art here. She has brought beauty, humanity, and strength to a situation so horrible, so shameful, so intense that it is just unimaginable to me that it really happened. Of course, this story is fiction, but the details here revive the real-life actions of the past. We know that people, other than the characters of this story, real people, lived through a lot more. Morrison tells a story that must be told, must be read, and must be acknowledged.

Here is an example of Toni Morrison’s writing:

Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let along loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. Halle she was able to keep the longest. Twenty years. A lifetime. Given to her, no doubt, to make up for hearing that her two girls, neither of whom had their adult teeth, were sold and gone and she had not been able to wave goodbye. To make up for coupling with a straw boss for four months in exchange for keeping her third child, a boy, with her—only to have him traded for lumber in the spring of the next year and to find herself pregnant by the man who promised not to and did. That child she could not love and the rest she would not.

I find Baby Suggs’ strategy for getting though the final chapter of her life compelling. She decided that she wanted to think about something that didn’t have any pain involved, no hurt, no evil. She went to bed and contemplated color. She started with blue, then went on to yellow and then pink.

Was Morrison meaning to be ironic? Because it seems that color does have a lot of pain associated with it.

On the front of my copy, there is a quote from Newsweek:

“A masterpiece … magnificent … astounding … overpowering!”

Yes—All of the above.

——–The BBC World Book Club interviewed Toni Morrison. You can listen to that interview here:

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside

English: Doris Lessing, British writer, at lit...
English: Doris Lessing, British writer, at, Cologne literature festival 2006, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Doris Lessing; Perennial, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers; @1987; 78 pages.

This book addresses one of my primary questions about human history and human behavior. How is our species capable of doing the horrible things that it has—and is? Why do we do it? Can we stop?

A few months ago I watched somewhat recently discovered film footage (A Film Unfinished) which documented the living conditions of the Jews in the Warsaw slums during World War II.

Horrified does not begin to approach my reaction. I have seen photos before, but the film footage and the fact that it was filmed, and staged, and shot over and over, was so callously heartless, I guess, I had not conceived of this possibility before.

What horrible evil. How could anyone participate in such a thing?

We know that this kind of behavior is not limited to World War II or to the Germans.  It can be found in many societies and at many times in human history, and undoubtedly some iteration of it is happening right now.

Lessing, thankfully, does not go into graphic detail, but does give us anecdotes and references some psychological experiments, including the famous Milgram experiment, in which it takes shockingly little to convince people to torture others and excuse themselves by saying they were just following orders.

Lessing maintains that humans (any of us), because of our psychology, are highly susceptible to acting in horrible ways in certain situations and can be influenced easily in groups. It is very rare for any of us to go against (disagree with, challenge) our groups.

She asks how is it that we have this information about ourselves but have not yet incorporated it into our institutions of government so that we don’t repeat these kinds of horrible actions? If we can just admit that we are wired in certain ways, we can put safety measures in place to stop ourselves.

This is a great book and an easy short read. I highly recommend it.

Doris Lessing is a prolific author and is most famous for her novel The Golden Notebook. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors, and Readers and Set Up Your Novel For Success

019By Jeff Gerke; Writers Digest Books; @2011; 226 pages.

I’ve got a few how-to books for writing novels, but this one is the best one I’ve read in quite some time. The author, Jeff Gerke, has worked as an acquisitions editor and offers his insights for what needs to be done in the first 50 pages of your novel.

I was so inspired by this book that I started making notes for my own novel while reading it.

For the longest time, I’ve felt constrained about how to begin a novel. Should I just free write and see what happens, or should I outline the thing to death and start writing from my outline?

Thus far, I’ve done nothing.

Jeff Gerke gives me a third option. Think about a structure and the key things you need to accomplish (he tells you what they are), and then write to satisfy that structure. It’s sort of like playing the blues. You learn the blues scale and then improvise. That, I can do.

This isn’t to say that I’m not still feeling a lot of angst about my novel. I am. But I’ve got a lot of notes going now and a feeling about how to proceed.

As you might expect, Gerke harps on about showing and not telling, but he does a whole lot more.

He says the point of writing a novel is to show us a character’s transformation. He says that the hero has to have a “moment of truth.” He (she) has to acknowledge that he hasn’t been true to himself and that something has to change.

Fiction is about someone who wants something—and the thing that would keep them from getting it.

I like Gerke’s analogy of a character sitting on a fence (makes me think of the Flowers album by the Rolling Stones). The character has been sitting on a fence. As storytellers, we have to set fire to that fence, and our character has to jump off. The only question is: will he chose the path to his destruction (his status quo up to this point) or will he be true to his nearly forgotten core self?

Gerke reminds us to establish a normal before we violate normal. Begin with action, but not the main action.

He talks about the “hero’s knot.” What’s our hero’s deal? What’s his issue?

The more you, as the author, push him to unravel his knot, the more he resists.

Then Gerke talks about four ways (devices you can use) to begin your novel.

He also gives guidance for what the villain is supposed to do. He says that although some novels don’t have villains, in the publishing world, it’s better to have a villain than not to have a villain.

He talks a bit about the three-act structure, and explains how this works in a fresh and understandable way. Since Act 1 takes place in the first 50 pages, he gives you everything you ought to have in Act 1.

I was really inspired after reading this book. I now have quite a few notes on my first 50 pages. And, I’ll probably refer back to the book as a whole once I’ve written my first draft.

The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

By Tim Flannery; Grove Press, New York; @ 2005; 360 pages.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the back page of this book: “Tim Flannery is an internationally acclaimed scientist, explorer, and conservationist.” He is a professor at Macquarie University in Australia. He has made numerous appearances on various news outlets. And he just might be my new hero. Well done Flannery. Well done.

I bought Flannery’s book back in 2007. It’s got a pretty cool cover photo, and the subject matter interests me. For some reason, I felt intimidated by this book when I first tried to read it in 2007.

This book re-emerged after Super Storm Sandy crashed into the East Coast.

I flipped to a section that interested me: Time’s Gateways. Finding it incredibly engaging and easy to read, I read another section. Then I flipped to the beginning and dug in.

Flannery fills this book with detail after interesting detail—adult humans require 30 lbs of air every day of their lives; elephants colonized every continent on earth except for Australia; our time address today is Cainozoic Era, Quaternary Period, Holocene Epoch.

I feel like I should read it again and again. But probably I will read it only once.

You can pretty well guess which side of the issue Flannery is on just by reading the title of his book. While he confirms that “skepticism is the lifeblood of science,” he follows that idea a few pages later with: “If, for example, we wait to see if an ailment is indeed fatal, we will do nothing until we are dead.”

Many if not most of the people I associate with these days, do not accept the possibility of a human-induced climate change. The earth is simply too big, and humans are simply too small.

Unlike my acquaintances, I am swayed by the massive amount of evidence: disappearing glaciers, melting polar ice caps, destroyed coral reefs, massive extinctions, stronger weather events, rising ocean temperatures, acidifying oceans, the Keeling curve. I also recognize that over the last 40 years, science has made enormous strides in its ability to analyze the world (computers). I don’t think scientists are always right or that they know everything, but Flannery makes some interesting points.

The author’s core message is that we currently have the knowledge and the tools to act wisely. Climate change is occurring rapidly and will soon become not just a big issue, but the only issue.

Scary words. Sensational language. This is usually the time I put the book down to see what’s in the fridge.

But I try to be better than that and read on to learn that some power plants burn through 550 tons of coal per hour. Wow. I mean…Wow. Really, that’s quite a lot. Did you catch that? Not per day. Per hour.

Other interesting tidbits. The Great Smog of 1952 in London killed 12,000 people.

Time’s gateways are occasions when one age, and often one climate gives way to the next. They are marked by faunal turnover; species suddenly appear or disappear.

I learned that the Earth formed 4,500 million years ago during the Hadean era. (That’s quite a long time ago.)

Around 100,000 years ago, humans were as rare as gorillas are today, at about 2,000 fertile adults.

For 90,000 years we were nothing but hunter gatherers. It hasn’t been until the most recent 10,000 years when the Earth’s climate has stabilized that we began to farm and build civilizations.

Our planet has experienced massive extinctions on five occasions.

The current climate change may bring an end to our current era, the Cainozoic. (Climate change can happen really fast; like in a hundred years; really really fast.)

I learned that the English used to think coal was a living organism that would grow if covered with manure.

Also, in 1986 “humans reached Earth’s carrying capacity, and ever since we have been running the environmental equivalent of a deficit budget, which is sustained by plundering our capital base.”

Beyond the failure of the Gulf Stream, now I can be afraid of the warming of the oceans and the sudden release of clathrates. Although, this should not happen for another hundred years.

Flannery puts it all together more logically than I have, but you get the picture. This guy has done a lot of research and is quite smart.

And, we’re all doomed.

I mean really; let’s face it.

But, it’s a great story.

The Stranger

Albert Camus
Albert Camus (Photo credit: Mitmensch0812)

By Albert Camus; Vintage International; @ 1942; 123 pages.

This book won the Nobel Prize in Literature. My edition was translated by Matthew Ward. There was a lot of build up about how great this translation is and how it was specifically directed at the American audience. I noticed a couple of grammatical errors and wondered if those were in difference to us Americans.

I couldn’t sympathize with Meursault, the protagonist. I didn’t understand why he did what he did during Part One. That he did not cry at his mother’s funeral didn’t bother me (I cried beforehand), but that he supported his acquaintance in beating up a woman who he didn’t even know—well, that lost my sympathy.

I know. I know. I should think about the time in which it was written. Blah, blah, blah. I don’t care. I am tired of crimes against women. And there was no way I was going to see it as justifiable.

Meursault couldn’t say that he cared about anything. His girlfriend would ask him if he loved her, and he would say: well, I don’t think it matters, but no, I don’t think so. I kept getting stuck on “it doesn’t matter.” To whom? To Meursault? To the girl? To life in general?

The narrator did seem very genuine in Part Two, and I was thankful for the honesty of Camus here, especially the part where Meursault is thinking about escape. That rang true for his character. But the whole story felt like a vehicle to raise a discussion of the existence of God or the afterlife or lack thereof at the end.

To put it mildly, I felt short-changed. Maybe if I had read it in French I would have formed a different opinion. Or maybe it would have seemed like a breath of fresh air if I had read it in the 1940s or 50s. Who knows.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the beach and the heat. The murder irritated me, because I wasn’t buying the motivation for it.

The cover art was cool… Probably I’m missing something important.

A friend of mine said she LOVED this book, but sadly it was lost on me.

Heart of Darkness

Cover of "Heart of Darkness (Norton Criti...
Cover via Amazon

By Joseph Conrad; Wordsworth; Editions Limited; @1995; first published before television in 1899; 74 pages.

At 74 pages, this may be the longest book I’ve ever read in my life. Whereas the story of the Heart of Darkness has some interest in it, the telling is excruciating. I’ve heard about this story for as long as I can remember, so I was convinced there must be something to it.

You would think it would be interesting what with the setting in the Congo and the ivory, the mysterious Kurtz, and cannibals on-board a tin can of a boat going down a river. And the fog. I love fog!

But the terrors do not come in the suspense of the story, but in the awful drudgery of wading through it, rather like wading through a muddy river bottom after a soaking rain and having to struggle for each step forward until the muddy bog finally releases your rubber boots with an awful sucking noise—thwup!

Save yourself; find the movie and watch it.

Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus

By Mary Shelley; Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.; @ 1818; my edition is 2004; 284 pages.

Believe it or not, Frankenstein shows up on many of the “to read” book lists.

I picked up Frankenstein because I’m tired of love stories. The story begins in Russia as our first narrator tells of his ambition to explore the North Pole. While in Archangel, he has a bit of boat and ice trouble and runs into Victor Frankenstein, a man who has a tragic story to tell. The rest of the story takes place in Switzerland.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 21.

And it appears she was quite scandalous for her time. She and Percy Shelley had an affair while he was still married. His wife, Harriet, not too long afterwards, committed suicide by drowning herself in a lake. Mary and Percy Shelley married soon thereafter. A few years later Percy Shelley also drowned in a boating accident. Quite a lot going on for a young female author of the early 1800s.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as the result of a bet to see who out of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and she could write the scariest story. Byron and Shelley never finished a book-length story, and Percy urged Mary to complete what she had started.

At its core, Frankenstein is a story about unchecked ambition and the consequences of disturbing the order of nature. In explanation of the subtitle, in Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to enable human progress and civilization. He is credited with the creation of man from clay. He was punished for his theft by Zeus, who sentenced Prometheus to eternal torment. Prometheus was bound to a rock, where every day an eagle was sent to feed on his liver. His liver would grow back every day, and every day the ordeal would be repeated. Nice, eh?

And while I didn’t want to think about love, the story shows the consequences of the deprivation of love. The monster turns evil because there is no one on Earth who can love his hideous form, not even his creator.

I found the structure of the story interesting. We have the first narrator, who has his goal of visiting the North Pole. He meets Victor Frankenstein, who then begins telling his tale in the first person. Then the monster Frankenstein’s story is told through Victor and also is portrayed in the first person. Then we come back out as Victor begins speaking again, and finally the first narrator takes over. The monster Frankenstein was very well spoken. That didn’t seem to ring true to me, even though it is explained in the story.

I have not seen the Frankenstein movies, so I have nothing to compare this to other than Young Frankenstein with Gene Wilder. So this book is nothing like that. It’s a pretty good read. I wasn’t scared, but I was intrigued.

The Flower in the Skull

Sonora Desert, Mexico
Sonora Desert, Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kathleen Alcalá; Harcourt Brace & Company; @ 1998; 180 pages.

This novel was a nice diversion. And what a tear jerker! Oh my goodness. I was so sad to see our main character, Concha, leave the Sonoran desert. Here’s a nice description of her homeland as told by the last female narrator in the book:

I realized that I missed the intense light of the Sonoran Desert—light unaccompanied by a proximity to water. The light in Sonora reduced every item on which it fell to its elemental self—light and dark, substance and shadow, reflection and absorption.”

Concha, a young girl from the now extinct Opata tribe, is forced to flee with her family from their tribal lands in the Sonoran desert of Mexico. She left everything behind, even her real name. The story follows her journey to Tucson, Arizona, and the course of her life and also the first part of her daughter Rosa’s young adult life. This is the story of their “legacy of dislocation.”

I loved this book until the last section, which brought the reader into the present. I was so involved with the characters in the first and middle sections that I had really high hopes for the ending. There were elements of magical realism sprinkled around in various places that I just love anyway, but to me, the ending missed its mark. The imagery of the sea could have been brought in and tied to the beginning, and I really wanted a stronger idea of how the last character related to the first two.

I couldn’t understand the final female protagonist. She seemed weak. She did things that I didn’t want her to do and that I didn’t understand. I get where she was coming from (trying not to be a spoiler here), but I guess I needed to understand more about her before I could accept her weakness, her perceived lack of options, and at least one instance of really poor judgement.

The last line threw me too. I didn’t understand it. I think I missed a huge point. As I turn it over in my mind, I still don’t know for sure.

Kathleen Alcalá creates a interesting structure for this novel. The point of view changes several times and for several reasons throughout the book. I found it interesting and risky, but it works.

Alcalá uses Spanish to make many of her main points. If you don’t speak Spanish, get out your dictionary or you’ll miss some things. There were only a few words I didn’t know, so I got a kick out of it. But for non-Spanish-speaking readers, I’m not sure the context is enough to give the meaning of the Spanish words.

And maybe that’s the point, but it’s a risk to leave your reader in the dark.

I definitely want to read more from this author. She also wrote Spirits of the Ordinary.

Here is a quote from the beginning of the book that I found interesting, and it seems to directly relate to the relationship between Concha and Rosa:

Amid those internal changes
Your skull fills with a new life,
and instead of thoughts, has flowers.”

Manual Acuña, from “Before a Corpse”


Y en medio de esos cambios interiores
tu cráneo lleno de una nueva vida,
en vez de pensamientos dará flores.”

Manual Acuña, de “Ante un cadaver”

I think it’s prettier in Spanish.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Delacorte Press @ 1965; 217 pages.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater promises to be a satirical science fiction story about money. It’s ok; I wouldn’t race out to buy it or read it. Eliot Rosewater (our protagonist), heir to the vast Rosewater fortune, a man with total love for humanity and thus teetering on the verge of raving lunacy, has destroyed the word “love.”

One of the characters complains: “Eliot did to the word love what the Russians did to the word democracy. If Eliot is going to love everybody, no matter what they do, then those of us who love particular people for particular reasons had better find ourselves a new word.”

Kurt Vonnegut is very odd. Of course I knew this. I have read several of his books. Here is an excerpt I found interesting. Apparently, when people want to do something nice for Eliot Rosewater, they come by his office to help him get rid of flies. Vonnegut describes two methods for doing this. Here is the second:

The tumbler-and-soapsuds technique worked like this: A woman would look for a fly hanging upside down. She would then bring her tumbler of suds directly under the fly very slowly, taking advantage of the fact that an upside-down-fly, when approached by danger, will drop straight down two inches or more, in a free fall, before using his wings. Ideally, the fly would not sense danger until it [the tumbler] was directly below him, and he would obligingly drop into the suds to be caught, to work his way down through the bubbles, to drown.

Of this technique Eliot often said: ‘Nobody believes it until she tries it. Once she finds out it works, she never wants to quit.’”

But about money:

It’s still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own.

Sure—provided somebody tells him when he’s young enough that there is a Money River, that there’s nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is.

[Of course, this is not my view. I am merely relating the bitterness of Vonnegut, who himself worked hard and did pretty darn well.]

For me the story finally picks up with the tale of Fred Rosewater, the long lost relative of the Rosewater clan, who lives in poverty, not knowing that he is the heir to millions—the American dream.

He learns of this, just as he is about to be caught in the embarrassing act of killing himself.

I wasn’t sure what Pearls Before Swine meant, but after researching the phrase, it seems to have particular significance. Food for thought anyway.

Matthew 7:6 “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”

The Compromise

Cover of "The Compromise"
Cover of The Compromise

By Sergei Dovlatov; Academy Chicago Publishers; @1990, first copyright Alfred A Knopf, Inc @1981; 148 pages.

While reading about Kurt Vonnegut, I noticed this guy, Sergei Dovlatov. Apparently, Vonnegut said some nice things about Dovlatov, so that peaked my interest.

The story unfolds as Dovlatov, a Russian living in Estonia, takes a job writing satire for the newspaper, On Watch for the Motherland. Turns out he isn’t a party member—which I found odd; I thought you would have to be a party member to write for a Soviet newspaper and that basically everyone was a party member anyway, but apparently not. Also, his articles weren’t satirical. Hmm, or were they?

Each chapter opens with a short newspaper article that Sergei has written—and that must be written in a certain way or changed to satisfy his bosses—a compromise. Basically, the typical writer’s life. But in this case, it is a writer’s life under Soviet rule. And it seems, every aspect of Dovlatov’s life.

One amusing anecdote is about an article that is needed for Tallinn‘s liberation anniversary. Dovlatov is given the assignment to tell the story of the 400 thousandth inhabitant born to the city. This number isn’t accurate, or even close, but no matter; it makes for a good story. Dovlatov goes to the maternity ward of the hospital in Tallinn and waits for a male child to be born. The 400 thousandth child needs to be a boy because a boy is more symbolic for the occasion.

Dovlatov waits. The first child born that day is a boy, but he doesn’t meet all of the publicizable requirements; he is half Ethiopian. Then another boy is born—also unacceptable; he is Jewish. Dovlatov has to explain to the father that the paper is looking for a boy from a “worker-peasant family.” No intellectuals. Too bad, because the father has already written a poem for the occasion.

“This means that anti-Semitism really does exist, doesn’t it?”

“Looks like it.”

“How could it appear in our country? Here, in a country where it seems—”

I interrupted him. “In a country where the ‘founding corpse’ has still not been buried…”

(I can see why Vonnegut liked Dovlatov.)

A suitable boy is finally born, but now the newspaper, still seeking to tell a good story, wants Dovlatov to convince the father to name the child Lembit, a name out of Estonian folklore. They are willing to pay him. So for 25 rubles, a would-be Volodya becomes a Lembit.

Sergei Dovlatov is immediately engaging. He captures my attention by talking directly to me; I find out who he is as he’s telling the story and I feel sympathetic to him (I have to think more about why). I like his tongue-in-cheek style. He’s absurd, honest, and subtlely humorous.

I liked several of his lines, but especially this one: “Lying without hope of gain is not lying, it’s poetry.” Seems right, considering how much poetry pays.

So probably, there are some things I missed, references, etc. that I didn’t understand because I haven’t ever lived in the Soviet Union. But, overall, The Compromise, was a good read and makes the interesting distinction between the facts and the truth.

I found myself giggling through the last two compromises, high praise indeed.

Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky in 1863.
Dostoevsky in 1863. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Fyodor Dostoevsky; Bantam Classic; First published in 1866; this edition published in 1981; 472 pages.

At the risk of sounding like Alistair Cooke, it seems this is the best way to start my entry:

The stakes are high for Dostoevsky as he contemplates writing this novel. It’s been five years since his return from exile in Siberia (1850–1860). He had been sent there as punishment for alleged subversion against Tsar Nicholas I. He spent four of these years doing hard labor. At one point, he was even led before a firing squad, but was pardoned at the last second. After his return from Siberia, Dostoevsky worked with his brother to produce two literary-political journals (you’d think he wouldn’t have wanted to touch politics after his stint in Siberia). In April 1864, his wife died of tuberculosis. His brother died a few months later. The journals failed, and Dostoevsky’s debts increased by the day.

Hounded by creditors, in 1865 he wanted to leave Russia to find some peace in Europe where his ex-mistress, Apollinaria Suslova, was currently living and whom he wanted to see very badly. To raise the money, he obtained a loan from the Literary Fund. He also approached several periodicals with an idea for a new novel.

He was rejected. Finally, he made a deal with a publisher named F.T. Stellovsky. Dostoevsky promised to give Stellovsky a novella-sized work by November 1866. (Looks like he made his deadline?) If he failed, he would have to give Stellovsky the right to publish all of his future work without compensation for the next nine years! (I have the feeling that Dostoevsky really wanted to go to Europe.)

So Dostoevsky took an advance from Stellovsky, paid his debts, and traveled to Wiesbaden, Germany. His plan was to replenish his funds by gambling what he had left. He lost everything. He could not even afford to eat.

During this time as tension and desperation continued to build, Dostoevsky developed the idea for Crime and Punishment. He swallowed his pride and wrote to an old enemy, Mikhail Katkov, a powerful editor. He pitched the story, and Katkov liked it.

Now Dostoevsky was indebted to two publishers. The introduction to my edition tells me all this and the whole plot of the novel (which I turned a blind eye to because I would rather experience it myself), but did not explain how Dostoevsky resolved these two debts. Leave it to me to fixate on something no one else finds interesting. And what happened with Apollinaria?

Only three years before his imprisonment in Siberia, Doestoevsky published his first novel, Poor Folk. (Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821.) His prison memoir is Notes From the House of the Dead.

Crime and Punishment begins with a scene of a hot July evening in St Petersburg. Our protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (Родиóн Ромáнович Раскóльников), is leaving his tiny apartment and trying to avoid his landlady because he is hopelessly in her debt. He is off to see his pawnbroker to pawn something else. He isn’t from St. Petersburg but is living there to attend the university. He has dropped out due to lack of money. Crushed by poverty and in need of nice clothes, he has also given up on the only way he can earn a small living, by working as a tutor. It doesn’t pay enough to seem worthwhile. He is incredibly handsome. (Well, of course. Protagonists have to be handsome don’t they?)

The name Raskolnikov is derived from the Russian word “raskolnik,” which means schismatic, and according to Wikipedia this alludes to the Old Believer Movement (Old Believers aka старове́ры or старообрядцы), which I don’t get because it seems like Rasknolikov was intended to be the poster boy for the new Socialist movement of the day.

In 1652, Nikon, the then Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, noticed discrepancies between Russian and Greek rites and texts and introduced ritual and textual revisions to create uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices. He did this without gaining consensus among the clergy. Those who did not accept Nikon’s changes were persecuted from the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 20th century as schismatics or Old Believers (Old Ritualists) (старообрядцы). Old Believers rejected all innovations and the most radical of them believed that the Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist.

In 1666, the Church officially suppressed (anathematized) the old rites and books and those who wished to stay loyal to them, and stripped the Old Believers of their civil rights. Persecution, arrests, torture, and executions followed.

(This is pretty cool to me because when I was in Russia, people would sometimes whisper to me: he’s an Old Believer. I had no idea of the significance of that.)

I really don’t think that Raskonikov is supposed to represent the schism of the Church. At one point with Sonia (the 18-year-old girl who has been forced into prostitution as a way to keep her family from starvation, or worse), he questions the existence of God. I think, rather, that Raskonikov, was named for the schism between his motivations and his actions. He is driven by this idealistic view of what good is or should be and, because of this, views himself as above the recognized moral code of what is always good and always evil, allowing himself to believe that he is entitled, justified, even duty-bound to commit a crime if his crime would end evil actions of the one murdered. Or, maybe more accurately, it is the schism that happens when one believes with all one’s heart and soul that to do a particular thing is wrong, but does it anyway.

Raskolnikov’s mother (Pulcheria Alexandrovna) and sister (Avdotya Romanovna) want desperately to help him escape his poverty, misery, and depression. (His father has already passed away.) In this society, it seems the only help from women can come from an advantageous marriage (one for money [in this case of Raskonikov’s sister to the “supercillious” Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin]) or through prostitution, a way to thoroughly and forever destroy a girl’s reputation. So basically, it’s condoned prostitution (holders of a yellow passport) or uncondoned prostitution (holders of a marriage certificate). Raskolnikov’s mother, at 43, is too old to be of any use.

Dostoevsky indicates Raskolnikov’s feelings of helplessness with his gruesome and upsetting dream about a mare. Clearly, Dostoevsky has observed how stupid and cruel humans can be once they get an advantage over something that can’t fight back.

Part I, Chapter VII is riveting. Every sentence was a tense extension of the one before it. I was on the edge of my seat. I haven’t read writing so thoroughly engrossing in years. Dostoevsky’s skill is phenomenal. The proofreader of my edition, however, should have been shot. I’ve never seen so many misspellings!

And I suppose it’s the penny-pincher in me, but every time Raskolnikov gave away his rubles (typically to help someone else), I cringed.

Writing this in his 40s, Dostoevsky demonstrates superb skill. He conveys time and space with ease. I am right there with Raskolnikov in his tiny room or walking in the street or along the Neva. I don’t see his face, but I’m in his head. I sympathize with him and yet I’m repelled. Dostoevsky pulls me back and forth as he examines Raskolnikov’s complex character from all directions.

Raskolnikov has a good friend, Razumihin, who sees after him during his “illness.” Just as you might suspect, there is an opportunity to discuss the nature of crime in this novel. According to Socialist doctrine, “crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social organization.”

…if society were properly organized, all crime would cease at once.

This strikes me particularly now as I have been reading about a different Russian, a billionaire Dmitry Itskov, and his idealistic (and rather terrifying) 2045 project aspirations. As humans use technology to achieve immortality, Itskov expects all of humanities’ problems will miraculously disappear.

Are Itskov’s views a reincarnation of the socialist ideas present in Russia in the 1860s?

…there will be nothing to protest against and all men will become righteous in one instant. Human nature is not taken into account, it is excluded, it’s not supposed to exist! … They believe that a social system that has come out of some mathematical brain is going to organize all humanity at once and make it just sinless in an instant…

…they don’t want a living soul! The living soul demands life, the soul won’t obey the rules of mechanics…

These words seem hauntingly relevant today.

Raskolnikov discovers that an article he wrote while a student has been published. In it, he discusses the psychology of a criminal before and after a crime. He suggests that some people have a right [even a duty] to commit crime.

He explains that all men are either ordinary or extraordinary. Ordinary men live in submission and have no right to break the law. Extraordinary men have an right to decide their own conscience and to “step over obstacles … for the benefit of humanity.” [pre-emptive strikes?]

For example, posits Raskolnikov, if the discoveries of Newton and Kepler could not have been made known without sacrificing the lives of a hundred or more people, they would have been duty-bound to eliminate those men.”

And there you have it. There is the reasoning behind the atrocities committed in the name of scientific advancement (chimps in space, gorilla head transplants, introducing animal genes in to plant DNA, etc.) And of course, behind the atrocities committed between nations in the name of “security.”

Raskolnikov goes on: “…all great men … must … be criminals…”

Ordinary people live their lives in a rut and stay there. They are inferior. They preserve the world and the people in it.

Extraordinary people do not. They move the world and lead it to its goal. They have the gift or talent to utter a new word.

Funny how one collects memories and impressions throughout one’s life. So much is discarded and yet some experiences, however irrelevant, linger and come to the surface as the result of some reminder. Maybe some experiences are so extraordinary that one is compelled to pay attention to every detail. The following passage struck me in such a way:

For a minute they were looking at one another in silence. Razumihin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and intent eyes grew more penetrating every moment, piercing into his soul, into his consciousness. Suddenly Razumihin started. Something strange, as it were, slipped, something awful, hideous, and suddenly understood on both sides.

One thing that always interests me when I read these types of stories, stories in which the reader is set up to judge the protagonist, is order. My impressions of Raskolnikov would have been different if I had learned more about his character before I was exposed to his crime. I would have felt more sympathetic towards him. As it is, I find myself struggling, which I think is exactly what Doestoevsky intended. It’s easier to forgive someone you know and love, but not so easy to forgive a stranger, even if you do know his thoughts.

Then at last, there is the idea of redemption in suffering.

I finished this novel on the same day that the leading story in the news was about the murder of Chris Kyle, the 38-year-old former Navy SEAL who wrote a memoir about his 150 confirmed sniper killings in Iraq. His wife explained on TV that he did what he loved. Both Kyle and Raskolnikov made the same decision about human life, though Kyle apparently was less bothered by it, but then I haven’t read his book, American Sniper. Sanctioned killing versus unsanctioned killing. It’s important, it seems, to get the rubber stamp.

Was Raskolnikov’s deepest regret the self awareness that he was not, in fact, and extraordinary man?

Several times in my life, I’ve been accused of thinking too much. I’ve always thought that was odd. I think now I finally get what that means. For the truth of things isn’t really so complicated.

At the end, like at the end of Anna Karenina, we are left with the hint that our protagonist will make the conversion from atheism to Christianity.

Death and the Penguin

Death and the Penguin
Death and the Penguin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Andrey KurkovThe Harvill Press, London; @ 1996; 228 pages.

When the Kiev zoo gave its smaller animals away because it could no longer afford to feed them, Victor, a struggling writer, adopted a depressed penguin named Misha. The story unfolds with Victor and Misha living together in an apartment in Kiev. For both of them, it’s a rather unnatural environment.

This book did a great job of grabbing my attention early on. Page one and I was into the story.

Kurkov subtly examines the nature of choice. There is a tension that develops and a contrast that is set up when the main characters have different kinds of situations to deal with: ones they have freely chosen for themselves and ones they have happened into. I enjoyed the way Misha’s predicament mirrored Victor’s internal struggle. I also appreciated that Misha wasn’t turned into a cheesy kid’s character. Misha was always his own penguin. Enigmatic at times, but after all, he was a penguin.

I found Death and the Penguin to be very entertaining. And it ended exactly the way I wanted it to.

One question remained for Andrey Kurkov. On the last page, the last line is the date range: December 1995–February 1996. What is this? The time it took to write the book? Bragging?

[Thanks to the Internet, I was able to find out. Mr. Kurkov was very kind to answer my question and said that this was the time it took him to write the book, although he said that it took him two years to nail down the plot.]

There was something that happened to me while reading this book. Misha the Penguin had a health problem. The resolution to this health problem, when I read it, was like flipping a switch for me. I can’t explain it. I don’t really understand it, but it’s as though a weight was lifted. The shock. The laughter. The immediate understanding. It was all very personal. I’m not promising a cathartic experience for anyone who reads it, but for me, it helped. Sometimes the stars align with literature and this was the case for me.

Death and the Penguin is a quick, fun read.

Sailing Alone Around the Room

Cover of "Sailing Alone Around the Room: ...
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By Billy Collins; @ 2001 Random House; 172 pages.

Sailing Alone Around the Room is one of the books I bought when I was on my Billy Collins kick. I’m not sure if Collins is my favorite poet in the whole wide world, but there is no doubt that he is talented. Reading him always gets me in the mood to write, and I envy those who were/are so lucky to have him as a professor. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Sailing Alone Around the Room includes new poems as well as selected poems from The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), Questions About Angels (1991), The Art of Drowning (1995), and Picnic, Lightning (1998).

The poems out of this book I most responded to were:

  • Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House
  • The Lesson
  • Winter Syntax
  • Advice to Writers
  • Introduction to Poetry
  • Schoolsville
  • Questions About Angels
  • Candle Hat
  • The Dead
  • Vade Mecum
  • Purity
  • Days
  • Workshop
  • Piano Lessons
  • Some Final Words
  • Aristotle

The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems

Cover of "The Great Enigma: New Collected...
Cover of The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems

By Tomas Tranströmer; Translated by Robin Fulton; @ 2006 by New Directions Publishing Corporation, 257 pages.

Tomas Tranströmer was the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Prize for literature “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”

Born April 15, 1931, in Stockholm, Sweden, Tomas Tranströmer has been translated into 50 languages. The Great Enigma is the complete collection of Tranströmer’s published poetry, a compilation of his 12 poetry books. Tranströmer’s subject matter often focuses on the Swedish natural landscape and on the poet’s observations from daily life. One gets a sense of the cold, salty sea air when reading his poems.

I came to Tranströmer’s poetry, having never visited Sweden and knowing very little about life there. I found his poems very difficult to penetrate. Often they seemed to be talking about one thing, only to stray completely from the topic at hand. Tomas Tranströmer has a lot to offer. His poems need to be read and digested slowly. They deserve many reads. There are many wonderful lyrical phrases, but taken as units, I found them hard to decipher.

Poems from this book that I plan to come back to are as follows:

  • Ostinato
  • Agitated Meditation
  • Elegy
  • Epilogue
  • Weather Picture
  • The Four Temperaments
  • Secrets on the Way
  • After an Attack
  • The Couple
  • The Tree and the Sky
  • Espresso
  • The Palace
  • The Half-Finished Heaven
  • A Winter Night
  • From an African Diary
  • Winter’s Formulae
  • Morning Birds
  • Alone
  • Downpour over the Interior
  • In the Open
  • By the River
  • Preludes
  • Sketch in October
  • Along the Radius
  • Baltics
  • Schubertiana
  • The Gallery
  • A Place in the Forest
  • Icelandic Hurricane
  • Dream Seminar
  • Early May Stanzas
  • Leaflet
  • The Indoors Is Endless
  • Madrigal
  • Golden Wasp
  • April and Silence

Lines I especially liked:

“Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.”

“A dog’s barking is a hieroglyph painted in the air above the garden”

“I stood in a room that contained every moment—a butterfly museum.”

“There’s a tree walking around in the rain, it rushes past us in the pouring grey.”

“It helps perhaps with handshakes like a flight of migratory birds.”

“The lake is a window into the earth.”

“In the daylight a dot of beneficent black that quickly flows into a pale customer.”

I looked at the sky and at the earth and straight ahead

and since then I’ve been writing a long letter to the dead

on a typewriter with no ribbon just a horizon line

so the words knock in vain and nothing sticks.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Cover of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"
Cover of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

By Mohsin Hamid; @ 2007, Harcourt Books; 184 pages.

It is late afternoon, and you are an American on the streets of Lahore, Pakistan. Perhaps you are lost. Maybe you are seeking the perfect cup of tea. That might be your excuse if anyone should ask. A Pakistani man approaches you.

“Excuse me,” he says. He wants to know if he may be of some assistance. “Do not be frightened by my beard,” he says. He tells you that he is a lover of America, and you appear to be on a mission.

Anyone who has ever been assailed by kindness, trapped in a conversation or situation on the pretense of maintaining good manners can relate to the dynamics constructed by Mohsin Hamid in the Reluctant Fundamentalist. Page one hooks the reader by offering an intriguing interpersonal dynamic. Who is our narrator? Is he an ordinary man or out to do someone harm? Who is he addressing? Is his American conversant an innocent tourist, a businessman, or a spy?

As readers, we can only eavesdrop on the conversation from the narrator’s point of view. No matter, because it appears that the narrator, Changez, is happy to do most of the talking. Changez escorts the American to a café where they can have a perfect cup of tea. Changez begins to tell the story of his time in America. Why does Changez need to tell this story? Why is tonight a “night of some importance”? Will this be the American’s last meal?

The story of Changez in America begins around the time of his graduation from Princeton. To celebrate, he goes on a trip to Greece with a group of Americans. In Greece, he falls in love with Erica, an American girl his group. Changez takes the relationship slowly. He wants more, even marriage, but there is something holding Erica back.

Changez soon lands a coveted position at an American valuation company called Underwood Samson. At 22, he is making $80,000 a year. It is intense work, but after three years, Changez can depend on acceptance to Harvard Business School. At Underwood Samson, success requires employees to focus on the “fundamentals.” Only the fundamentals of companies are acceptable measures to determine their value. Underwood Samson’s assessments often result in job losses, and empathy for employees can only impair the assessment. Changez excels at his work. He focuses on the fundamentals.

Shortly after Changez is hired, the terrorist attacks of September 11 compel him to re-evaluate his identity. He goes home to Pakistan to see his family. Nuclear tensions are high between India and Pakistan after September 11, and Changez is concerned war will break out between the two countries. He feels guilty about returning to his job in New York instead of staying with his family through this crisis. On his flight back to the United States, he notes:

I found it ironic; children and the elderly were meant to be sent away from impending battles, but in our case it was the fittest and brightest who were leaving, those who in the past would have been most expected to remain. I was filled with such contempt for myself…

After Changez returns to the United States, he sees things differently. He is no longer eager to please his employer. He becomes defiant and stops shaving his beard. People mistake him for a terrorist. He is angry and begins to realize that something is wrong with Erica.

As afternoon becomes evening, and evening turns into night, Changez and the American eat at the café. The courses of their meal, served by a large, ominous waiter, pace the story. Eventually, it becomes clear why Changez gave up his career in the United States and returned to Pakistan.

Mohsin Hamid is a master of psychological introspection. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is filled with unexpected developments and metaphors. Questions arise, such as: How should we make decisions about our world? and Is it possible to separate the fundamentals from the big picture? Goals and aspirations are weighed against loyalties and ways of seeing the world. Do Changez’s experiences in the United States lead him to embrace religious fundamentalism once he returns home? The reader isn’t sure. This creates great suspense.

Because of Changez’s journey and knowing what he has decided to give up, the reader expects Changez to act decisively. During dinner, Changez tells the American, “Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.” What is the result of this one-way baring of souls? What will happen after dinner?

The Reluctant Fundamentalist illustrates the difficulties encountered when trying to bridge the gap that has been widened by cultural distrust. When fear is a factor for both sides, one can only hope it is not too late.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Moshin Hamid’s second novel. His first novel, Moth Smoke, won a Betty Trask award and was a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist.

————–The BBC World Book Club interviewed Mohsid Hamid about the Reluctant Fundamentalist. You can listen to that interview here:

In the Land of Invisible Women

Cover of "In the Land of Invisible Women:...

By Qanta Ahmed, MD; @2008; Sourcebooks, Inc.; 437 pages.

I came to this book with very little knowledge of Islam or of Saudi Arabia. This was a fascinating read, and I highly recommend the book. While structurally the book reads like a series of ideas that the author felt compelled to cover, the book is loaded with interesting factual information—it is a must read for anyone planning a trip to the Kingdom.

What is certain from the very beginning is that Ahmed did not like to veil. I came away from the book thinking that veiling might be ok if it weren’t mandatory. The fact that women can be harrassed if not properly veiled offends my Western sensibilities. Also, what’s up with men wearing white (a heat repelling color) in a hot climate and women having to wear black (a heat attracting color)? That ain’t right.

I was shocked to learn that women are not allowed to purchase music. I love Arabian music, and I simply can’t imagine not being allowed to listen to it or purchase it on my own.

Throughout the book, I was haunted by the question of what does a woman do if she has no male figure in her life to drive her, accompany her, or do all the other things that only men are allowed to do? Women are like possessions.

Ahmed’s writing is engaging, and every night I looked forward to sitting down and reading more about her experiences. I was fascinated by her spiritual experiences during Hajj, but also upset that only Muslims are allowed entry. The recurring theme of this book seemed to be: “you’re not in the club.”

Ahmed’s coverage of the relationship between the Muttawa and the Saudi royalty was very interesting.

One thing is certain, I would not do well in the Kingdom. I’d slip up and get into some kind of life-threatening trouble.

In the Land of Invisible Women was a fascinating adventure into a place I will probably never go. I give it two thumbs up and a wiggle.


gloryBy Vladimir Nabokov.

Glory is the first book I’ve read by Vladimir Nabokov. (I couldn’t bring myself to read Lolita.) Nabokov displayed a great ability to write into and out of reality. The main character, Martin, drifted in and out of reveries. Most of the time I could understand what was what, but sometimes I had to reread.

Martin is part Russian, part Swiss. We follow him from his youth through his college days during the time of the Bolshevik revolution.

I didn’t really enjoy this book. It was fun to read about things Russian, but I didn’t care about any of the characters. Nabokov writes in the omniscient narrator, so that might account for my lack of caring. Not sure. The end was startling and got me thinking, so that’s always nice.

The History of Love

The History of Love
The History of Love (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Nicole Krauss; @ 2005 by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 252 pages.

The History of Love is an engaging page turner. I laughed out loud once and cried twice.

Krauss shows incredible skill in handling the different narrators in this book. She writes convincingly as both of her protagonists, Leo Gursky and Alma Singer. Krauss also writes from the point of view of Bird, and for a brief time, I believe, takes on the omniscent narrator.

If the whole thing were written from Leo’s point of view, I guess Krauss couldn’t have introduced the twists and turns she did, but Leo felt the most authentic to me.

Krauss also has many memorable poetic insights that I found especially interesting:

At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.”


Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree a castle.”

I recommend The History of Love. I could understand the motivations of the characters, but I also found it frustrating. I had a hard time relating to the choices that Leo made—choices that made him unhappy. I don’t think he realized that he was making choices, but he was. Happiness is a choice, and sometimes a hard one. Despair is also a choice, one I’d rather my protagonists not make. Maybe Leo’s character had to make the choices he did, but I’m not entirely convinced.

[Re-reading my entry, I find myself a bit preachy above. Happiness is a choice, I say so easily, so knowingly. And, I suppose you can rid yourself of those things/people who make you unhappy. Ground yourself in routine. Put on your blinders and refuse to notice those things that make you think and bring you down. Now, however, I’m more inclined to believe that Unhappiness is the choice, but happiness—well, that is a gift.]

Have Space Suit—Will Travel

Have Space Suit—Will Travel
Have Space Suit—Will Travel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Robert Heinlein;

@ 1958 by Ace Books, 255 pages.

Written by Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) and published in 1958, the story is set some time in the future, at a time when the elite and well-educated live and work on the moon.

High school senior Kip wins a second-hand space suit in a contest, fixes it up, and goes on a wild adventure, lending an opportunity for all kinds of cool (if not outdated) space travel ideas to be explored along the way.

Not much as space suits go these days. It was an obsolete model that Skyway Soap had bought as surplus material—the tenth-to-hundredth prizes were all space suits. But it was a real one, made by Goodyear, with air conditioning by York and auxiliary equipment by General Electric. Its instruction manual and maintenance-and-service log were with it and it had racked up more than eight hundred hours in rigging the second satellite station.

It was my childhood dream to go to the moon. I think I really would have liked this book if I had read it when I was a bit younger. As it was, I almost lost interest. While it’s not my favorite book, it has redeaming qualities. You can depend on Heinlein for big ideas, and he does deliver, even if it’s towards the end.

Although I am a fan of Heinlein, I’m not so fond of this book. I can’t recommend it to the busy reader, but for someone who would get a kick out of comparing physics ideas of the 1950s to those commonly accepted today, it would be a nice diversion. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about either to benefit from all the amusing factoids offered here.

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

Cover of "Failed States: The Abuse of Pow...
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By Noam Chomsky; 2006; Holt Paperbacks.

I saw a coworker reading this book and asked to borrow it. I remember hearing about Noam Chomsky while I was in college. He has one of those names that some people yelled while others whispered. He was never on any of my reading lists. Noam is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT and has a long list of publishing credits beginning in the 1960s. A radical, some might say, Noam claims to be a conservative—following the dictionary definition. I’m all ears.

While Failed States discusses many important issues, Noam’s writing style, which employs frequent sarcasm and irony, was greatly distracting to me. Noam expects his readers to be thinking every word of the way and to already have a strong grasp of the subject matter, that of U.S. foreign policy from roughly 1776 to 2005.

As a concerned citizen, I found the premise of the book, that the United States is a failed state, worth examination. It’s certainly not anything I would ever hope for, but I think to solve a problem, you should be willing to think it over. What many in our country call the “liberal news media,” Noam calls the “elite news media.” It seems many of us are unhappy with the job done by the news media. I hate to be too critical of the media, of the individuals involved. I know it must be a hard and dangerous job for many. Perhaps, I tend to blame the owners of the media more than the people working in its ranks.

Noam is interested in rhetoric, as am I. He cites the rhetorical framework of John Quincy Adams that has been “inherited and elaborated on by successive generations of American statesmen…[It] rests on three pillars: the assumption of the unique moral virtue of the United States, the assertion of its mission to redeem the world, and the faith in the nation’s divinely ordained destiny.” I see this in every election, often in the place of any real discussion.

One of the many tantalizing points Noam brings up but provides little explanation about has to do with social security:

“According to official statistics, the ratio of working people to dependents (under twenty, over sixty-five) hit its lowest point in 1965 and is not expected to reach that level through the projected period (to 2080). The propaganda image is that the retirement of the ‘baby boomers’ is going to crash the system; as repeatedly pointed out, their retirement had already been financed by the Greenspan-led increase in payroll taxes in 1983. That aside, the boomers were once children, and had to be cared for then as well. And we find that during those years there was a sharp increase in spending for education and other childcare needs. There was no crisis. If American society was able to take care of boomers from ages zero to twenty, there can be no fundamental reason why a much richer society, with far higher output per worker, cannot take care of them from ages, sixty-five to ninety…no major crisis looms in the foreseeable future.”

While on the surface, this argument seems like a good one, I tend to think that taking care of a person in their later years is going to cost more than taking care of that person as a child, what with medical bills, nursing home costs, debts, etc. But who am I to say. I am just someone who is likely to need social security payments and who wants them, having paid into the system since my first job. Noam doesn’t bring it up, but I don’t understand why the rich would collect social security payments, being rich and all. But again, what do I know. It also seems to me that there are many major crises that potentially loom in our foreseeable future.

Noam ends with a suggestion that “facts, logic, and elementary moral principles should matter.” I think that’s fair. I can agree with that. It would be nice if we could put our egos aside and stop arguing. I don’t see it happening, but it would be nice.

I’m always disappointed when a book that focuses so heavily on gloom and doom ends on a positive note. I’m sorry, but the last paragraph is way too late to hint that there is still hope. Apparently, I should keep my chin up because there are so many ways I can become engaged in democracy aside from voting and attending the random demonstration. Noam has already banished any hope that my elected politicians will pay much attention to my emails, that I have an electoral system that’s fair and representative, or that without a substantial amount of money I can make an impact. So how? I’m too dim to know, and Noam, already retreating to his ivory tower, is not bothering to say.

The Bell Jar

The Bell JarI didn’t think I would like this book. It’s on the “snob list,” so I picked it up. I mean what is a bell jar anyway? But Sylvia surprised me. Her writing, even though the story line didn’t really interest me, was so vivid and the details so interesting and original that I really enjoyed spending time on the page.

It also promised a bit on mental illness and shock therapy, which have held a morbid interest for me lately. Sylvia Plath, aside from her poetry, is famous for sticking her head in an oven at the age of 30. Maybe this isn’t so remarkable except that she was divorced (separated?) and had guardianship of two small children at the time—and she was becoming a successful writer. Life wasn’t easy. It seems she was suffering from depression or possibly schizophrenia.

And it’s too bad. I found her writing very accessible and her personality very likable and easy to relate to, at least in the beginning of the story. In the introduction, it says she includes a lot of roman-a-clef elements, which was a new term for me and means The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical. I related strongly to her protagonist’s reactions to her trip to New York and to the structured events she had to attend there and to her social group.

From Sylvia’s description of what it was like for a woman to live and work in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I find it understandable that an intelligent woman especially with Sylvia’s drive and ambition would be depressed.

Sylvia’s, I mean Ester’s (the protagonist acting as a straw man for Sylvia), depression begins with a rejection letter from a writing program that she had counted on attending. It was a big let down. Some kind of mis-wired biochemistry must have played a part in that too, or possibly it was all compounded by Sylvia’s intelligence and drive in a society that only rewarded women for childbirth.

The way Sylvia eased her story from the tale of a young twenty-something experiencing New York to her rapid decline into fantasies of suicide, unemotionally considering and discarding each method was quite masterful. It is interesting to note here that psychologists have coined the term “Sylvia Plath syndrome” to describe the high incidence of suicides among female poets.

After reading the book, I watched the movie, Sylvia, and it occurs to me that as much as Sylvia railed against the male-dominated culture of that time, in the end she succumbed to it miserably. Had she truly believed in the equal value of women and men, she would not have ended her life over the loss of a man. At the bottom of her tailspin and depression over Ted Hughes, her love or even sense of responsibility for her children did not see her through those dangerous moments.

Ultimately, I came away thinking that Sylvia was extremely self absorbed, so much so that she was unable to consider how her actions affected others, and treated others badly as a result. Granted she wasn’t sleeping well or thinking well, but she killed herself while her children were sleeping in the next room!

A spark by those entering the next day to find her could have sent the whole flat in flames. Couldn’t she have left the children with friends, claiming to have a date that night? And she locked the children in their room. What if something else had happened that night and the children needed to get out of their room? What if there had been a fire in the building? What if they had woken up and needed to go to the bathroom? What if they had found her dead on the floor?

In the end, Ted Hughes retained publishing rights over all her writing and made money from it. Her suicide seems to have reinforced the ideals of her society, basically that women were worth less.

But of course, she didn’t reason her way through all of this, and her biochemistry probably made all rational thought impossible.

Wrestless Word Wrestler

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