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.

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.  

Murder in Memoriam by Didier Daeninckx

On October 17, 1961, thousands of Algerians took to the streets of Paris in a peaceful demonstration against a curfew that had been imposed only on them.  At the time, Algeria was engaged in a struggle for Independence from France which had long held the nation as a colony.

The demonstrators were met with extreme violence from the police who opened fire on them without provocation.  Unofficially, the deaths numbered in the hundreds.  Officially, they numbered three.

This is the background for Didier Daeninckx’s detective novel Murder in Memoriam.  It’s also the occasion for the first murder in the book.  While on his way home from an early matinee, Roger Tiraud is shot and killed during the opening moments of the police violence.  Officially, his death is the result of his participation in anti-government pro-Algerian movements.  Unofficially, his death remains a mystery until two decades later when his son is killed in a nearly identical manner.

What links the murders of father and son?  The son was just a baby at the time of his father’s death.  His father was a simple history teacher, he was a student working on a degree in history.  Why would anyone want to kill them?

Mr. Daeninckx’s detective Inspector Cadin’s investigation will reveal the cover-up that occurred after the violence of October 17, 1961 and implicate high level government officials in crimes dating back to the Nazi deportation of France’s Jewish population.  That Mr. Daeninckx’s murderer bore a striking resemblance to a real life high-ranking official in the Paris police department led many people to conclude that Murder in Memoriam played a significant role in bringing that man to justice, several years after the book was first published in France.

And it’s a darn good book, too.  If you like your detective stories stripped down to the actual work of the detective, if you don’t care who the various officers are sleeping with or which ones bear psychic scars from a deeply troubled childhood and just want the author to get on with the business of solving the crime which really ought to be interesting enough anyway, then Murder in Memoriam is a book you should check out.

While Mr. Daeninckx’s book is concerned with exposing a particular set of injustices that really occurred, these do not work against the story telling.  Instead, actual events become part of the book’s plot which works to entertain the readers as it works to educate them.  The author clearly has two goals in Murder in Memoriam, but neither undermines the other.  It’s a perfect piece of agitprop in that one can still read it, now  almost 30 years after its initial publication, and enjoy it.

And it has a really cool cover, too.

 

Since first running this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2012, I continue to look for these cool covers, books published by Melville House.  They are known for being good books, but also for having very cool cover designs like the one here.  They’ve led me to many author’s I would not have read and enjoyed otherwise. So, yes, go out there and judge books by their cover, at least pick up the ones with good covers, certainly the ones published by Melville House  

The Appointment by Herta Muller

Honestly, I think Nobel Prize Winner stickers should include the word ‘warning.

Warning: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

Put it in bold face red type as well.  Buyer beware.  Difficult literature ahead.  “Sit bolt upright in that straight back chair and get set,” as Laurie Anderson said in her song “Difficult Listening Hour.”

Herta Muller, born in Romania, lived under the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.   She lost her job as a teacher because she refused to cooperate with the secret police and eventually emigrated to Berlin in 1987 where she now lives.  She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009 for a body of work depicting life under one of the worst communist regimes of the late 20th century.

The Appointmentt is a good book, make no mistake.  The Nobel Prize is not given lightly, which may be part of its problem.  (Can you name an essentially comic writer who’s won it?)    It’s also given for a body of work instead of for a single piece of literature.  Since the entire world is eligible for the award, the entire printed world anyway, the Nobel tends to go to authors who represent the best of a nation, sometimes the best of a language.  Highly significant writers.  Important people.  People who tend to write difficult books.  You won’t find much in the way of easy, entertaining reading.  An author like Philip Roth, who is no slouch, is a controversial choice for the Noble Committee:  he just isn’t serious enough.

All this is a long-winded, round-about way of distracting you before I bring myself to admit that I just couldn’t follow Herta Muller’s The Appointment well enough to write a decent review.  The premise is simple: a woman receives notice from the government that she is to appear at police headquarters for interrogation.  Her crime is putting notes into the pockets of men’s slacks in the factory where she works asking for someone to marry her and take her away from Romania.  The pants, bound for Italy, are intercepted by her boss who turns her in.  During the course of the novel the woman rides the tram from her apartment to the police headquarters.  She observes the people around her as she reviews key events from her own life through an extended series of flashbacks.

I found the extended tram-ride premise wore thin about halfway through the novel and the flashbacks became too difficult to follow since they were not in chronological order.  In my defense, I will point out that this is the basic structure for The Day Last More than a Hundred Years which I reviewed earlier this month and which I’m probably going to put on my yearly list of favorite reads.

I’ve no way of knowing how accurate Ms. Muller’s portrayal of life in Romania under Ceausescu is–I’m willing to take the Nobel Prize committee members recommendation as proof it’s accuracy; they are very serious people–but its is an interesting one.  What struck me was how ordinary everything was. People go to work, ride trams, try to live their lives in an situation of extreme poverty but not in one that felt at all socialist or dictatorial.  A man sells illegal T.V. antennas on the black market but everyone pays rent to a landlord, and works for wages they can save or spend as they choose.  The cast of characters would have felt right at home in a novel by Emil Zola depicting the poorer classes of 19th century France.  It’s not until one takes action to leave the country, even a feeble one like leaving notes in the pockets of soon-to-be-exported pants, that the state begins to clamp down.

For that depiction of life in a totalitarian state, Ms. Muller’s novel is worth the effort.  But make no mistake–effort is required.

You have been warned.

 

I’m not purposely posting articles based on current events in America, but it’s starting to look that way. This is the second Soviet influenced book this week.  I must have been going through a phase back in 2011 when I first posted this review on my old blog Ready Whey You Are, C.B.  

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov

Do you read to understand yourself or to understand other people?  If what you’re looking for can be boiled down to what you have in common with others, does that mean you are essentially reading to understand yourself?

Burannyi Yedigei, the hero of Chingiz Amitiov’s novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, has spent his entire adult life on  the steppes of Central Asia in Soviet Kazakstan.  The small village where he lives with his wife and children is made up of railway workers, there to maintain an important junction connecting the east with the west.  Trains run past their small homes day and night, rarely ever stopping at all, and when they do not for long.

The novel opens with the death of Yedigei’s life long friend Kazangap. Yedigei insists that Kazangap will have an honorable funeral in his ancestral cemetery a full days trip from their small village.  He manages to get enough people and equipment released from work on the railway to give Kazangap the burial he deserves.

Yedigei leads the procession atop his prized camel, Karanar, which is fully adorned for a ceremonial parade.  He is followed by a second villager who rides a tractor with a trailer carrying the body of Kazangap as well as Kazangap’s son who has returned to the village from his life in the city to bury his estranged father.  They are followed in turn by a final villager who drives an excavator which will be used to dig Kazangap’s grave and by Kazangap’s yellow dog who trots along refusing to leave the side of his master.  This odd procession starts out one morning across the desert steppes of the Soviet Union.

Along the way, Yedigei recalls the major events of his own life– friends he lost, women he loved, sons he might have raised.  And here and there the narrative is interrupted by accounts of a Soviet/American space mission which has made contact with an intelligent race from another solar system.  The rockets light up the night sky interrupting Yedigei’s life at several key points because they are launched from bases hidden in the steppes of Kazakstan.

Does this have anything to do with your life?  Is there any part of it you can identify with?  If you answer yes to these questions are you more likely to read The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years than you would have been if you had answered no?

It’s my belief that most readers are looking for themselves in what they read.  Even when they read about a culture alien to their own, what delights us is finding out how much we have in common with other people.  How much alike we all are.  But what if we don’t have much in common?  What if the book represents a culture not just alien to ours but in opposition to it?

Yedigei is not concerned with philosophical questions like this.  He is a man dedicated to the problems in front of him.  How to bury his friend properly, how to keep the trains running,  how to be a good husband, how to keep the members of his village safe and sound, how to preserve the memory and traditions of the past.  He rarely thinks of anything or anyone beyond the horizon unless it is to tell a village child about his own youth spent fishing on the Aral Sea or to wonder whatever happened to those villagers who moved away.

So do I like him as a character because of what we have in common or because of how we are different?  Do I admire the book because it leads me to better understand a culture different from my own or because it leads me to see how much I have in common with a lifestyle so alien to mine?

I know I like it for the image Mr. Aitmatov has painted of Karangap’s funeral procession– a camel in full ceremonial regalia, a tractor pulling a trailer with a coffin on it, an excavator and a yellow dog as they all cross an endless desert.  Nor can one disregard the image of Yedigei on his camel at night shocked to find the sky aflame with Soviet rockets heading towards space and first contact with intelligent alien life.

That’s pretty darn good, if you ask me.

And it carries my question out away from earth itself.  If contact was made with life from other solar systems, would we continue to look for what we have in common, seeking to find ourselves in others as we’ve done here on earth for so long?  Could we accept a culture that shares nothing in common with our own?

 

It feels a little strange to revisit this book today when so much of America is focused on how much the Russian government has done to influence our recent presidential election. Whether or not Putin and Trump have been in collusion has nothing to do with this story of life on the steppes of central Asia, but it can’t help but cloud things a little.  I’ve had The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years on my “To re-read in retirement” shelf for several years now, but I find my eye drifting towards it of late.  I may not be able to wait another five to ten years before I give it another go. I loved it.

This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011.

Memory: A Novel by Philippe Grimbert

A young boy, an only child, believes he has an older brother.  He carries on imagined discussions with his brother, building him into a real person.  One day he finds an old plush toy, a dog, in his family’s attic.

A man meets the love of his life on his wedding day. He manages to keep this secret from his wife, even though the woman he loves is her sister-in-law.

A man who has never considered himself a Jew is forced to abandon his business and flee Paris after the Germans invade.  He prepares a home for his wife and son who await their chance to escape.  All goes well until his wife’s sister-in-law arrives ahead of her own husband.

A desperate woman commits a Medea like betrayal.

What if the sequence of events that led you to unite with the love of your life included your own family’s death?

Philppe Grimbert’s novel Memory is not really about memory, nor is it really about secrets though its French title is The Secret.  It’s really about how much damage love can do.

Surrender to it at great risk.

 

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2011.  It’s kind of a mysterious review, drops a few hints but gives no clear view of the story. Sounds kind of good to me.