Sunday Ramble and Two Books I Didn’t Like. Sorry.

Visited the local Friends of the Library book sale yesterday, in the rain, where C.J. and I managed to spend much more than we intended.  He got several art books and a couple of books full of house plans while I nearly completed my Jane Austen collection. Can you name the book I still have to find.

I’ve decided it’s a good time to re-read all of Jane Austen’s six novels in order.  So, I’m looking for good second-hand copies of each.  I’d like to have all in the newish Vintage Classics paperback editions.  The top middle book is a Vintage Classics edition. I like them for the cover art.

Apparently, true Janeites re-read all six novels every year or so I read somewhere.  I’m not that big a fan, but I am a big fan.  Once I find Mansfield Park I’ll be ready to begin.

I had two near DNF’s this week, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Repetition  and Ray  by Barry Hannah.  While I am a fan of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Repetition did not hit the spot for me.  All of his work, the two other novels I’ve read so far at least, is experimental in ways I find interesting once I figure out just what is going on.  Repetition concerns an agent sent on a mission to Germany during the Cold War, I think.  The book opens with him on the train trying to get through to the other side when he enters a compartment to find himself already sitting there. The man, who looks just like him except he is not wearing a fake mustache, appears to be a better version of himself.  Also an agent on a mission, this doppelgänger is one step ahead of the novel’s hero so much so that at times they appear to switch places in the narrative. I’m not sure. I was confused.

I was confused with the other two Robbe-Grillet novels I read, but I enjoyed trying to figure things out. Confusion is a part of reading as far as I am concerned.  But this time,  because I couldn’t quite make out what was going on, I began to lose patience with the whole thing. Additionally, while the other Robbe-Grillet novels I read struck me as inventive and original, this one seemed like a re-tread of ideas Paul Auster has already done in his New York trilogy.

The other book I didn’t really like was Ray by Barry Hannah. Ray was on one of the Brilliant Novels You Can Read in a Day lists that I found a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a little TBR list of them on one of the tabs at the top of this blog.  The other one’s I’ve read so far have been knock outs so I had high hopes.

Ray  is a long rant about the title character’s life, his loves and the people he knows.  A former pilot who flew fighter planes in Vietnam, Ray is a southerner, through and through.  Which, I’ll be honest, was part of the problem for me. I know there are people, not just in the south, who use racist language freely.  I know depicting this is an honest way to depict them. I understand the argument that “realistic” language gives fiction authenticity.  I know, I know, I know.

But I just don’t have patience for it anymore.  If I never read another book with racist, homophobic or sexist language in it as long as I live, I’m okay with that.

So parts of Ray were very tough going.

It’s supposed to be funny, the way Flannery O’Connor is funny.  I like Flannery O’Connor a lot. While I do find her funny, she’s not laugh-out-loud funny for me the way Eudora Welty is.  All the little blurbs on the back mention how funny Barry Hannah is, how he’s the best southern writer since Flannery O’Connor, etc., etc. None of them mention Eudora Welty whom I think is better than Flannery O’Connor.

But I just didn’t see it.

I’m going to keep both books, though, just in case.  Maybe a future re-reading will reveal things I missed the first time around.  While I didn’t really like either one, I do recognize both are well-written books.

Maybe next time….

Meanwhile, I’m still making my way through Kevin Starr’s Eight volume history of California. I’m nearing the end of the first book Americans and the California Dream which covers 1850 to 1915.  I’ve mentioned before how C.J. and I plan on retiring to the Gold Country where we’ll give  walking tours for the local historical society of whatever town we end up in.  So we’re both reading up on California history.  We’re big fans of the stuff.

And I’m reading an import from China called The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei.  The cover promised a modern noir tale covering 50 years of Hong Kong history, but so far it’s a very old-fashioned story. The opening section, set in modern-day Hong Kong, featured what is usually the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel.  All of the suspects were gathered in a single room while the chief detective reviewed the case hoping one of the suspects would crack and reveal too much.  I completely enjoyed it.  It was a fresh take on this old trope to avoid all the business about gathering clues for three-fourths of the book. Why not just skip to final chapters where all the good stuff is.  That a surprise murderer was revealed came as no surprise really. That he turned out not to be the real killer did.  That he turned out to be someone else’s killer did, too.

Each part that follows is set back in time about ten years or so, with the same set of detectives, just in their younger days.

It looks promising.

 

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu Translated by D.C. Lau

51oyteatncl-_sx323_bo1204203200_For many years now, I have taught Daoism as part of my 7th grade history unit on China.  I wish I could call back my previous classes and correct all the mistakes and misrepresentations I have made over the years.  Fortunately, what 7th graders take away from a lesson on Daoism isn’t all that deep, so I probably haven’t done much damage.

Still.  It’s symptomatic of the general practice in American schools to provide lots of professional development on pedagogy but none at all on content knowledge. I’m probably one of a handful of teachers in California, probably the country, who has taken the trouble to read Lao Tzu, beyond what’s in the text book, if they even have a text book anymore.

For several years now, I’ve been enamored of Lao Tzu’s idea that one should be like water.  Water takes no action, resists nothing, simply goes where it is easiest to go, yet water exacts terrific change on the world in spite of this.  Be the water, is a mantra that gets me through many a staff meeting lately.

This year, for some reason, I decided to get a copy of Lao Tzu’s book so I could read it for myself.

I read it like my mother used to read Guidepost magazine, just a little daily meditation to think about. Much of the Tao Te Ching strikes me as very wise, though I’m not sure how one could truly follow The Way in 2017 America.  Much of it confused me to no end.

I’m going to have to read it again.

The book is a set of 81 writings, some poetic in form some expository.  If they come together in a single argument, it escaped me.  Rather, each describes one general idea about what Lao Tzu called “The Way”.  Some apply to the individual, some to the empire, some to both. The Way is the way of heaven, I’m not sure I can define it nor that I would know it if I saw it.  But I like this idea from LXXVII:

Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?

The high it presses down,

The low it lifts up:

The excessive it takes from,

The deficient it gives to

It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient. The way of man is otherwise  It takes from those who are in want in order to offer this to those who already have more than enough.

Lao Tzu wrote this in the fourth century BCE, but it’s still profound advice both for individuals and for governments.

According to legend, Lao Tzu grew tired of China because the government and the people refused to take his teachings to heart, so he decided to retire to the south. On his journey, he encountered a border guard who refused him passage until he wrote down all of his teachings.  The 5000 character document he gave to the guards before he vanished from history became the Tao Te Ching.

Whether or not Lao Tzu was actually a real person is a subject for debate.

Whether or not he still has something to say about how to live is up to individual readers.  I’ve been focused on the final page for several days now:

Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good.  He who knows has no wide learning, he who has wide learning does not know.

The sage does not hoard.

Having bestowed all he has on others, he has yet more.

Having given all he as to others, he is richer still.

The way of heaven benefits and does not harm; the way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend

It’s a bit like a puzzle, yes.  Just when I think I understand, I realize there is more to it than first met the eye.  Compare it with John Keats who wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all. Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

While I admire Keats, while I think Ode on a Grecian Urn is terrific, Lao Tzu strikes me much closer to the bone.  Truthful words are not beautiful, beautiful words are not truthful.  In a time when manipulation of language is so prevalent in public and in private life, Lao Tzu’s ideas could prove very useful.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

91cr7sy43slSometimes it’s very hard to pin down why you love a book.

Denis Johnson’s very short novella, I found it on a list of brilliant books you can read in a day, tells the story of an abbreviated life.  Robert Grainier is a day laborer in the American West circa 1910.  He never amounts to much.  There isn’t much to tell about his life.  He works very hard, he marries a woman he loves and has a daughter only to lose both in a wildfire.  Afterwards, he retreats into a smaller and smaller world becoming, by the end of his life, the hermit in the woods.

Through his life he is haunted. He is haunted by the memory of the Chinese man whose near murder he participated in, though he was just passing by at the time.  Why he so willingly joined in with the mob of men who were attempting to throw the Chinese laborer off of a bridge and what became of the young man who managed to escape with his life become obsessions that bother Grainier even during the short time he is a happily married father.

After the fire destroys his life, Grainer returns to the site of his cabin searching for the remains of his family.  Though the fire destroyed the area completely, he decides to stay on his small piece of land where he builds a shelter though never anything as nice as the cabin he lost.  A stray dog appears and keeps him company until another dog takes over a few years later but he has very little human company.

It’s a very simple story, really.  The focus is entirely on the character of Robert Grainier who is not a complex man.  While he is haunted by memories of his past, he basically lives by living without much time for self-reflection.

Should this make for a moving read?  Is there enough there to make the reader feel for Robert Grainer? I think the honest answer to both questions is no, but I was moved, I felt for Robert Grainer.

Just past the halfway mark, Grainer goes to a county fair where he takes a ride in an early bi-plane.  Almost no one else at the fair has the nerve to go for a ride in this contraption, but Grainer takes it in stride, with little thought for any dangers involved.  The plane climbs higher than Grainer has ever been before then begins

 to plummet like a hawk, steeper and steeper, its engine almost silent, and Grainier’s organs pushed back against his spine. He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their cabin on a summer’s night, then another cabin he’d never remembered before, the places of his hidden childhood, a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, and a woman’s voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered.

This plane ride is the most momentous thing that has happened to Grainer in many years and the most momentous thing that will happen to him in the years he has left.  The memories it summons for him are simple moments, still moments recalled through stupendous movement: sitting quietly sharing a soda with his small family; hearing his mother’s voice comforting him as she holds him in her arms.

I think that sums up why I loved this little book. Most people would have expected that first plane ride to be the big event, but it was ultimately that soda on a hot evening that haunted Robert Grainier’s memories.

So, I’m looking forward to the next book on my list of brilliant books you can read in a day and I’m going to be looking for more by Denis Johnson.

Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson

It was a little un-nerving to be reading Blood Done Sign My Name right now.  America really should have moved beyond this issue by this point in time, the opening years of of the 21st century.  William Faulkner got it right when he said, “The past isn’t done with us; it’s not even past.”

Blood Done Sign My Name is Timothy B. Tyson’s memoir/reflection on racism in America.  He takes as his starting point the 1970 murder of Henry Marrow, a 23-year-old veteran gunned down as he pleaded for his life by Robert Teel and two of his sons.  The Teels were neighbors of young Mr. Tyson, then in his early teens.  None of the Teels were found guilty in spite of ample evidence against them.  I was shocked to find out that as late as 1970 a white man could still kill a black man with impunity in parts of the United States.  I shouldn’t have been.  I knew that public lynchings continued well into the 1960’s.

But I was just as shocked as I am by recent events in Florida.  The situation is not the same, I know, but that said it’s still the same.

Mr. Tyson provides enough detail in his account of Henry Marrow’s murder and the subsequent trial to satisfy anyone looking for a true crime story, but his goal in Blood Done Sign My Name is much greater than that, much more profound.  Mr. Tyson seeks to expose the history of white supremacy in America and its long lasting legacy on our culture.  He does an admirable job.  There is much food for thought in Blood Done Sign My Name–it will prove difficult for many readers to get through it without taking a close look at their own position in American society.  It’s not a comfortable thing to do, but it’s something we all should do now and then.

I stated in a recent Sunday Salon post that American history can be seen as the history of racism and the struggle against it; I think Mr. Tyson would likely agree.  His book traces the myth of white supremacy back  through the civil rights struggle, the Jim Crow era to reconstruction and the days of slavery.  Much of the territory he covers has been left out of the official versions of U.S. History.  For example, Mr. Tyson lays out a convincing case that it was not the peaceful non-violence of the 1950’s and 1960’s civil rights demonstrations that ended segregation.  He does credit them for moving the country and the courts towards landmark actions like the Brown V. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of Lyndon Johnson’s first year in office.  However, Mr. Tyson argues, these did not bring about actual change on the ground until resistance began to turn violent in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  It was only when blacks began to riot that real change happened in places like Oxford, North Carolina where Henry Marrow was killed.  This is not a reading of history we are comfortable with.  We like to believe that peaceful demonstration was all that was needed, all that is still needed.  Blood Done Sign My Name tells a different story.

Mr. Tyson, now a professor of African American history, comes from a long line of preachers, men who advocated for greater acceptance between white and black America often at great personal risk.  So if Mr. Tyson strays close to preaching now and then, I can forgive him.  A good sermon is a form of entertainment worthy of a donation.

I hope someone is using this book in a high school class somewhere, or at least with college undergraduates.  It’s a well written book and an excellent way to begin looking closely at an issue that has haunted America since before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and one that continues to haunt us to this day.

 

I first ran this review back in March of 2012, but I don’t think I’d have to change much to make it current today.  Just refer to a more recent killing than Trayvon Martin.  This year, I’m embarrassed to admit it took that long, I became a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center which is devoted to tracking and combating hate crimes and hate groups.  Here is a link to them just in case you’d like to find out more about them and their work.

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

If you’re a reader but not an English major, or just anyone who’d like to fill in the holes in your knowledge of the subject, you could do worse than John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature.

 Divided into 40 short chapters, Mr. Sutherland’s book covers all the greatest hits from Beowulf to Borges and most of the main topics covered in graduate schools from What is Literature to Literature and Race. This is a book aiming to introduce readers to the topics covered, so you’ll get a solid grounding in each issue along with all the cannonical authors. If you’re looking for something more advanced, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Mr. Sutherland’s style is brief and breezy.  He never wades so far into any topic that he risks becoming lost in controversy or risks going over anyone’s head in analysis.  He’s like a very knowledgeable grandpa explaining carpentry to his grand children in terms they can understand.  He’s not talking down to his audience at all, he’s just showing us how to build a basic bird house, not how to construct a full set of dresser drawers.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Sutherland since graduate school when some professor recommended we all get a copy of his The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction.  It’s a must have if you’re a fan or a student of the genre.  In the years I’ve had it, nearly two decades now, it has never failed me. No matter how obscure the reference I come across, it’s in Sutherland’s book be it obscure household magazine or novelist lost to time.  They’re all there.

So I was primed to enjoy A Little History of Literature and enjoy it I did.  I can’t say that I learned anything new, but I had good time none-the-less.  Mr. Sutherland loves his topic, reads everything, references everything from children’s literature, to Ray Bradbury, to Dan Brown, to Mrs. Gaskell, to Mrs. Dalloway.  Though it probably should be titled A Little History of Literature in English he does cover a wide swath of the non-English speaking world enough to satisfy most, though not all, readers.

The end paper biography refers to The Lives of Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives which sounds like something I simply must have.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

This is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.

My definition of pornography is probably different from yours.  Pornography offers its viewers a fantasy depiction of something they cannot have, usually a sexual fantasy.  At some point in life, one finds  that Playboy, or Blueboy, or whatever, has been largely replaced with Architectural Digest– pictures of beautiful people give way to pictures of beautiful homes.  Middle-aged pornography.  But at heart, you’re still lusting after things you’re not going to get.
Some readers fantasize about owning a bookstore devoted to the kinds of books they love, especially readers who’ve never worked in a bookstore like me.  (My own fantasy bookstore is called Wuthering Heights Books–it carries a wide range of books, arranged geographically by original language, on a wide range of topics but is best known for it’s section devoted to books by and about the Brontes.)  Most of us will never work in our fantasy bookstore, let alone own it.  Frankly, we’re lucky if we’re able to shop in it now and then.
So, under my definition of the term, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Ivan and Francesca meet in an little known bookstore in an Alpine resort town.  Ivan runs the store which he stocks with the novels he admires instead of the current best sellers.  While his sales never amount to much, he does develop  devoted followings who seek him out in between runs on the ski slopes to ask if he has discovered anyone new they should be reading.
When Ivan is eventually fired in favor of someone who will stock best-sellers, he and Francesca, one of his more devoted customers, join forces to open up their dream bookstore,  The Good Novel, which will not only sell just novels, it will sell just “good novels.”  The rest of the book describes how the two set up and run their bookstore in spite of a publishing establishment that is not only against them but apparently willing to resort to violence to stop them if necessary.
I don’t know if Ms. Cosse has ever worked in a bookstore, but reality is beside the point in A Novel Bookstore.  The  day to day operation of The Good Novel is of interest because it is a fantasy.  We don’t care how real bookstores are run; we want to know how our dream bookstore would work.  Francesca and Ivan allow Ms. Cosse to give her own book snobbery free reign.  The two select a committee of eight authors whom they admire. This committee will operate in secret, the eight do not even know who the other members are, to select 600 novels each.  Their combined lists form the initial stock offered for sale at  The Good Novel and is added to each year as new books come out and as the committee finds unfamiliar titles they deem worthy.
Rival bookstore chains and jilted authors set out to sabotage The Good Novel from the start, but enough readers find the store to make it a hit.  That’s it’s located in Paris helps both the store and the book’s readers.  Isn’t your fantasy bookstore in Paris?
A Novel Bookstore is a novel, and there is enough romance and mystery to make up an engaging plot, but I was most interested in the operation of the bookstore.  It was nice to find out who really loved who and all, but things like store’s initial advertising campaign interested me much  more.  It’s best bit, a full page ad featuring
a background of the type of Restoration painting that is often too hastily described as ‘a minor oil’: a patch of Roman countryside with a Tilbury briskly trotting by and in it’s window you would recognize, if you had any literary background at all, the profile of Stendhal” with the words “All the books no one is talking about
across the front.
All right, I’m a bit of a snob, but not enough of one that I didn’t have to look up Tilbury.  It’s a type of carriage with one seat and two large wheels.  So, if you’re someone drawn to the books “no one is talking about,” A Novel Bookstore may bring you more pleasure than a year’s subscription to Architectural Digest.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in August of 2011, I have discovered that Laurence Cosse is a woman. I have changed the pronouns above to correct this error. I really should look these things up before I press ‘publish’.

Human Acts by Han Kang

I suppose I’m like most Americans in that I know little of Korea’s history.  We know the war, at least the version of it we saw on television’s M*A*S*H, and the Korean miracle–the economic powerhouse South Korea has become.  But anything in between, certainly the dark chapters many South Korean’s would like to keep buried, we don’t know.

This has begun to rapidly change lately, for me in part because of Korean literature like Shin Kyung-sook’s wonderful novel Please Look After Mom and Han Kang’s equally wonderful book The Vegetarian. Add to this list Han Kang’s new novel Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith, which sheds light on the Gwangju Democratic Uprising and the massacre that followed.

Never heard of it?  Me either. But don’t let that stand in your way.

Like The Vegetarian, the story in Human Acts is focused on a character we never get to see first hand or through a first-person narrative.  Here that character is a middle-school boy Dong-ho who is killed in the aftermath of the uprising when hundreds of protesters were massacred by South Korea’s military in the city of Gwangju.  Dong-ho should not have been there.  He was too young, the youngest among the protesters and the youngest of those killed.  Those who knew him, and a few others who simply saw his photograph afterwards, tell their stories through a series of narratives–first, second and third person by the way.

Human Acts shattered some of my illusions about South Korea.  I did not know that at least up until the 1980’s when the massacre took place that South Korea was a full-fledged military dictatorship rivaling North Korea in its oppression of free speech and free assembly and the use of torture to ensure compliance with the state.

One thing I admired about Human Acts was the portrayal of torture’s aftermath, the way it affects victims for the remainder of their lives.  There is no escaping the fact that it’s value does not lie in gathering information but in suppressing dissent.

This is the second time Han Kang has kept her readers from direct contact with the central character of her novel.  In both The Vegetarian and Human Acts the reader circles around the character we are most interested in.  We hear from those who know Dong-ho slightly and those who knew him well, but just as it was with Yeong-hye in The Vegetarian we never hear from Dong-ho directly nor do we ever witness him alone.  This frustrates many readers but its a device at least as old as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights wherein we never once witness Catherine and Heathcliff unfiltered through the eyes of someone else.  Theirs is a great romance that the reader never gets to see first hand as neither character is ever presented except through someone else’s first person narration.

What is Han Kang up to in her books?  I think this could make for an excellent book club discussion or perhaps a paper for a graduate seminar.  Does not seeing the central character first hand make it more possible for the reader to insert whomever we want to, or need to, into that role? If we knew exactly who that character was, would we be more or less likely to identify with that character or to identify that character with someone we care about outside of the book.

While Shin Kyung-sook follows this structure for most of Please Look After Mom, she does give the title character a portion of the book–the reader does see a bit of what happened to the vanished mother.  Her book is no less memorable or moving for doing so.

I will say that I found this worked better in The Vegetarian than it does in Human Acts.  It may be that there were too many different points of view in Human Acts while there were just three in The Vegetarian.  Han Kang has a wider ranging thesis in Human Acts–the personal story of Dong-ho, the suppressed history of the uprising and the massacre that followed, the effects of torture, the collective societal denial of history.  Dong-ho becomes a tool for bringing all of this together while Yeong-hye, in The Vegetarian, always remained a person in the reader’s mind.  It was Yeong-hye who haunted me after finishing The Vegetarian. It’s history that haunts me after reading Human Acts.  One book asks how this could happen to one woman, while the other asks how this could happen to us all.

If you have not read Han Kang yet, you really should.  She’s very good; so is Shin Kyung-sook.  But, in the end I’d recommend The Vegetarian over Human Acts.