Twelve Odd Books
We've probably reviewed
three thousand books over
the last twenty years.
Here are a handful that struck us at the time with
a radical view of humanity that is all too intriguing.
They make us feel that if we just shut up and paid attention,
we could use these to change the future of the world . . .
if not ourselves.Presence in The Flesh
The Body in Medicine
Remember --- the only strangers that can get us to take off all our clothes without protest are doctors and prostitutes (or, under protest, someone with a gun or a knife.) Lovers and morticians can get us to strip, too, but the former aren't strangers, and the latter get to our bodies when we are beyond caring.
Young is concerned with showing us the techniques that are used to keep the patient's dignity quiescent while he or she is being dehumanised in the physicians office. The writer is concerned, for example, with the structure of the clinic: cubicles, offices, desks (patient on one side, secretaries on the other --- desks which "guard" the entrance to the inner rooms.) And then there are the uniforms white jackets, or green or pink or black uniforms.
You and I will take off part or all of our clothes (often with the exception, she notes, of socks) while physicians will add a layer of clothing: a knee-length white coat. Listen to her observation on this discrepancy:
The archeology of these artifacts is suggestive here: the layering of an outermost and predominant role over a complete social person as opposed to the reduction of a complete social person to a diminished role.
Physicians make their initial appearance already in costume for their role, whereas patients change costume in the course of the performance.Seeing Like a State
How Certain Schemes to Improve
The Human Condition
James C. Scott
(Yale)Seeing Like A State is that kind of a go-back-and-get-it book, because it has a combination of good writing (the author is an excellent stylist --- he should have been a Nabokovian novelist), a sense of fun, and articulate good sense. Scott can look at German forestry practices during the 17th and 18th Centuries, and tie them together with government use of census (to get a handle on potentially taxable subjects) along with the history of grid layout of land (an easy source for interchangeable information for ownership and tax records, plus the easy divisibility of the land for speculative purposes):
The aboveground order of a grid city facilitates its underground order in the layout of water pipes, storm drains, sewers, electric cables, natural gas lines and subways --- an order no less important to the administrators of a city. Delivering mail, collecting taxes, conducting a census, moving supplies and people in and out of the city, putting down a riot or insurrection, digging for pipes and sewer lines, finding a felon or conscript (providing he's at the address given), and planning public transportation, water supply, and trash removal are all made vastly simpler by the logic of the grid.
This kind of writing and insight, like love, should turn our world upside down, and yet keep it glued together so, as we are reading along, we'll be saying, "right" and "o yes" and "wow" --- just like a baptist prayer meeting (and Scott's the preacher). Most of us suspect that planners and experts, given the force of government power and government money, will blow it --- no matter what. For instance, what they did with Brasilia --- a chance to build a whole capital for all time, but the building of which destroyed the street-life found in all other Brazilian cities and towns. They didn't kill it all. They couldn't, because of the natural slum created alongside the "planned" city --- the slum where most of the workers lived --- began to be the place where they transferred the street life and hope.
He calls these errors of construct a "tragic episode" of state development of the last hundred years, and refers to it specifically as "high modernism." It has three elements. The first is a weakened civil society "that lacks the capacity to resist these plans." The second: an unrestrained use of "the power of the modern state as an instrument" for achieving change. The final ---- an "aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, raised to a "comprehensive and ambitious level." His Hall of Fame of 'high modernist' figures are those who are the universally accepted villains of ruination and statism including Le Corbusier, Robert McNamara, Robert Moses, Vladimir I. Lenin, David Lilienthal, Walter Rathenau, and Julius Nyerere.Bound and Gagged
Pornography and the Politics
Of Fantasy in America
(Duke University Press)Ms. Kipnis is a hell of a good writer; even better, she has a very important tale to tell. For this reviewer, the high point of Bound and Gagged was the excellent chapter "Disgust and Desire: Hustler Magazine." Remember --- to report is not to love; Kipnis walks the fine thin line of telling the truth without hectoring, scorning, or idolizing. She points out that it was Larry Flynt --- not The Washington Post, or Time, or even Playboy --- who forced the courts to make far-reaching and significant rulings opening the doors to freedom of the press. And she is not shy in pointing out that for the rest of the magazine/newspaper establishment in America, it is a embarrassment to having Flynt carrying the torch for them. But even more interesting to contemplate, there is the revolutionary aspect of Hustler:
The catalog of social resentments Hustler trumpets, particularly against class privilege, makes it by far the most openly class-antagonistic mass-circulation periodical of any genre. (After all, class privilege is the dirty little secret of all national and electoral politics: face it, no welfare moms, homeless, unemployed, no blue-collar workers represent the nation in those hallowed legislative halls of our 'representative' democracy.)
Ms. Kipnis compares Flynt and his magazine to the 16th Century satirist, Rabelais. For, in opposition to the Playboy/Penthouse body, "the Hustler body is often a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body..."
Ms. Kipnis says that we are in a strange place with our pornography, or ersatz pornography: "Museum curators are put on trial. Parents are arrested for taking naked pictures of their kids. Sex and AIDS education are under assault. The National Endowment for the Arts is defunded by Congress..." She calls it a panic --- and sees it as a particularly ironic one, since movies, TV, and advertising are constantly stealing the techniques of pornography to sell their wares.We're All Doing Time
(Human Kindness Foundation)The American prison system works poorly, if at all. The rate of recidivism runs between 60 and 80% --- not because the cons are so enamored of prison life, but because their experiences outside the walls are so futile: employment is non-existent, and the prison schooling of technique becomes the only discipline that they can depend on. As one of the correspondents says in We're All Doing Time,
You can be in a year or ten years, it don't matter. You get out and you don't really know anybody, you don't know where to go, so you just start getting as many things as you can. And you start drinking and you get on the phone and call Joe Blow who's in the same predicament, and pretty soon you're sitting together somewhere half-drunk, and deciding that the only way to get ahead is if you just burglarize this place or rob that place, and neither one of you really wants to do it. Most people in prison just wanted to pull that one big score and then live like everyone else.
Most cons on the outside manage to break back into prison:
Hell, the worst that could happen is when you succeed. You don't know what to do with the money anyway. The easiest thing is you'll be back in the joint, listening for the door to crack, hanging out on the handball court. It's a slow suffocation, that's what it amounts to; you suffocate. The great majority of people who get out of prison, break back in.
Bo Lozoff has written a book for prisoners, and it is a good one indeed. The writing is simple, wise, direct; it overflows with honesty. The book came out of the Prison-Ashram Project started by Ram Dass --- and it is subtitled (correctly) "A Guide for Getting Free," and the freedom described can be within or without. It is in no way preachy, or arrogant, or "we're-
up- here- and- we're- gonna- help- you- down- there." It is an honest recounting of the methods that one can use to get free while one is in the most unfree place in American society. It makes no excuses for the specific methodology it offers to those who are, after all, in a violent war zone:
Going to prison is one more opportunity to come closer to Truth, God, Self, Freedom --- whatever we want to call it. Prison life is so negative and intense, prisoners sometimes get the chance to work out karma and build strength in a period of months that might have taken fifty years on the streets, if they could have done it at all. What a blessing!
This is the tone of the whole book. Grace, godliness, and the topsy-turvy concept that being in prison can contrarily be considered "good fortune." After all, says Lozoff --- where else can we get all our bodily needs taken care of, and have a regular schedule each day to work on our spirituality. The assumption --- the key assumption --- of this book is the very existence of the holiness that each of us holds within ourselves. Such Grace is hidden from us by our ignorance, but it can be accessed by meditation, by touching "the blue pearl" within. As part of the process, one has to leave behind violence, hate, anger, superiority, cruelty. Once one has the courage to embark on such a course --- either inside or outside the joint --- freedom is one, but not the only, dividend.
We're All Doing Time is divided in three parts. The first is an overview of prison and spirituality. Number Two --- "Getting Free" --- introduces the reader to Yoga and diet and breathing and the chakras. Book Three consists of letters sent to Bo by prisoners all over the country. Lozoff has been working on this project for many years now --- and he publishes here material, including letters of praise, of questioning, of triumph, of hope, of hopelessness, of terror --- gathered from his correspondents.Family KaleidoscopeImages of Violence and Healing
(Harvard University Press)Family Kaleidoscope could be considered as one expert's description of his technique of family therapy --- but it's more. For Minuchin is a dramatist --- one who works with the real plasma of real people --- and reading the dialogues is not unlike reading Shakespeare. The characters formulate themselves on the page; their own words (Minuchin tapes many of the transactions he is involved in) delineate their prejudices, the very locks on their thoughts that prevent them from interacting with the people they live with and love:
LORETTA: I'm the bad person in the family. I'm the black sheep of the family simply because I stand up and say what I feel. The other kids are always good. They're always your little sweethearts because they don't open their mouths.
MOTHER: No Loretta, nobody is sweetheart.
LORETTA:They agree about everything with you and Daddy. Whatever you say is all right with them.
MOTHER:When you want something I can't buy you, you cry for three days, you get nervous. You stop eating. Right away --- no food. Not get up from the bed. You don't want to see nobody. You don't want to talk to nobody. And Mama cries.
Minuchin has chosen exact passages to include --- and they read much as if we are reading from Macbeth or King Lear (or All's Well That Ends Well). We have here a sixteen year old girl of a working class Italian-American family. She goes on binges of non-eating. Her brothers and sisters are sweethearts because they won't open their mouths, and so Loretta refuses to open her mouth. To take nourishment. She is what they call an anorexic.
Minuchin has been treating anorexics for thirty years. In between the angry dialogues that he presents us with (Loretta against Mother, Mother against Father, Father against Loretta) he inserts commentaries --- as rich as any from Bradley or George Kittridge --- to let us in on the workings of the characters:
I am listening to what the family is saying, but I am triggered by the parents' persistence in replying to questions posed to Loretta. I know from previous experience that Loretta's symptoms may be expected to improve as she begins to gain the autonomy proper to a sixteen-year-old. I also know that Loretta's dependency and her mother's concern are interacting elements of the same pattern: whenever I touch one, I will touch the other.
Systems theory suggests that all elements of the family --- "good" or "bad" --- are necessary to insure the stability of the system. Alcoholics, dominant mothers, passive fathers, child abusers, martyrs --- all of what we call "antisocial behavior patterns" are necessary to the continuation of the perceived structure. It is required that Loretta be anorexic for the family to survive --- no matter how painful and destructive that particular survival mechanism.Music of Another World
(Northwestern University Press)And then came the old question, after he was freed: "How is it that you managed to survive Auschwitz?" he was asked again and again.
I still answer now: "I don't know how it happened. It seems to me that since a small number of survivors returned, someone had to be among them. It turned out that I was one of them. That's all. I see no other explanation."
But he does have another explanation. He tells us that the Germans --- even the brutes --- have a singular madness for music. He calls it "an example of a rarely encountered association...of unbridled criminality and the heights of artistry."
By the end of his second year, he had not only organized a fair orchestra, because of the lack of sheet music, he had composed many pieces that would utilize the musicians and the instruments that he had available to him (three "Polonaises" are included at the back of Music of Another World.)
And, oh! --- the stories! Pery Brod, of his camp, so brutal that he was brought before the War Crimes Tribunal in Frankfurt after the war. But when this same Brod played the accordion,
Only then did we become aware of what heights the mastery of this artist could reach when he found himself in his element, that is, when he played on an instrument with which he was familiar.
Or the journey made to the woman's section of Birkenau, to a ward for the sick, in which he says, "I would rather not describe the sight that spread out before our eyes or the stink that blew on us when we crossed the threshold." At any rate, he and the other musicians begin a Christmas program, which was greeted with quiet weeping, and then a "generally uncontrolled sobbing that completely drowned out the celestial chords of the carol."
I didn't know what to do; the musicians looked at me in embarrassment. To play on? Louder? Fortunately the audience itself came to my rescue. From all sides spasmodic cries, ever more numerous, ever shriller --- in Polish which I alone understood --- began to roll in on me: "Enough of this! Stop! Begone! Clear out! Let us croak in peace!"Go to the full
reviewSailing Alone Around the World
Captain Joshua Slocum
(Shambhala)Captain Joshua Slocum set out in April 24, 1895 to sail around the world. He departed from Boston in a sloop called the Spray. He returned, as he says with his usual laconic accuracy, "at 1 A.M. on June 27, 1898, cast anchor, after the cruise of more than forty-six thousand miles round the world, during an absence of three years and two months, with two days over for coming up."
He is kind enough, through his book, to take us along with him --- and it is a bountiful, charming journey. We travel part of the way with a goat (who eats all his charts); we get to meet the governors of innumerable colonial island outposts in the Pacific; we are chased by pirates off the coast of Africa; we have to pass through the Strait of Magellan not once but twice (we are blown back the first time); we eat flying fish that fall on the deck (in butter, yet); we encounter a few lulls but enough storms to cure us of sea-travel forever. And, most wonderful of all, during a bout of desperate sickness, between the Azores and Gibraltar, we find
a tall man at the helm. His rigid hand, grasping the spokes of the wheel, held them as in a vise. One may imagine my astonishment. His rig was that of a foreign sailor, and the large red cap he wore was cockbilled over his left ear, and all was set off with shaggy black whiskers. He would have been taken for a pirate in any part of the world. While I gazed upon his threatening aspect I forgot the storm, and wondered if he had come to cut my throat. This he seemed to divine.
"Señor," said he, doffing his cap, "I have come to do you no harm." And a smile, the faintest in the world, but still a smile, played on his face, which seemed not unkind when he spoke..."I am one of Columbus's crew, he continued, "I am the pilot of the Pinta come to aid you. Lie quiet, señor captain," he added, "and I will guide your ship tonight. You have a calentura, but you will be all right to-morrow."City Requiem, Calcutta
Gender and the Politics of Poverty
(University of Minnesota Press)Trying to sum up City Requiem, Calcutta is about as easy as coming up with an adequate precis of The Brothers Karamazov or a Dickens novel. On one level this is an attempt by a serious student of poverty, land-use, and gender to explore all three in terms of a city that has become the universal symbol for foulness and poverty.
But City Requiem, Calcutta is far richer than some graduate-student's thesis on Indian urban life. Roy's citations not only come to us from major works on urban use, planning, feminism and the sociology of the poor, but from such unlikely sources as Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Kurosawa, Joyce, Eliot, Mozart, Márquez, Baudelaire, Sartre:
Chetla was a miserable place. The shanties were tightly sandwiched between a putrid canal and a busy road. Within the settlement, amidst the maze of walkways, often only a few feet wide, it was hard to tell whether it was day or night. The only open space was a concrete platform along the canal, where bloated bodies of dead animals frequently washed ashore. Vultures circled overhead while the settlement's children played amidst the rotting carcasses. During my first few visits to Chetla, I had to muster up every strength in my body to stop myself from throwing up. It was a nausea that was as Sartrean as it was physical: an unbearable sense of my existence.
In reporting her interviews, Roy emerges as a character --- a powerful, engaging one --- in her own study. Amidst the formal citations of "rural-urban linkages," "enabling the poor," "distress migration," "the rural landless," and "poverty as negotiated access," we get a picture of an author in search of her many characters.
Roy refers to her family in America that lives in "an old, middle-class and small house [with] a car that was a cranky Ambassador." But one day she is introduced by a busybody politician to the very people she is interviewing, and they are told that she is "a visitor from America, the richest country in the world, a country on whose aid the entire world survives."
Mukherjee then turned to me and asked, "How much is a maid's salary in America?" I stuttered to explain that there weren't that many maids in the United States and that I definitely did not employ one.
"By this time, I was mortified," she tells us.
Suddenly I felt as if I had betrayed them, as if I had lied ... My subjects had assumed that I came from a middle-class Calcutta family, and I had left it at that. Ethnographies are always performances ... and I had always been conscious of my own performance strategies. But I now felt that I had deceived my subjects.
"Here it was," she concludes: "the burden of my class position suffocating me with existential weight."
It is this willingness of the author to expose herself that makes this book so winning. This is not some dry technocrat from an American university making a dry study of the very poor in Calcutta. She is there in the midst of the dust and the stink, giving the reader a worthy study of the soul of poverty... not some facile narrative with charts and figures but a you-are-
In the process, she is able to sort through all the clichés that we have been handed over the years about India, Calcutta and the very very poor. She does this by calling up tangential issues: land-use, political reality, the vagaries of squatting, the invisibility of the workers, the patriarchy of the political process, and what she calls "unmapping."Tumbling After
Pedaling Like Crazy After
Life Goes Downhill
(Crown)Tumbling After is crawling with quotable lines, lines like:
- On people looking at Ralph. I knew what they were thinking. They were thinking, if it were I, I'd shoot myself. But they didn't know that was impossible. Shooting Ralph was my responsibility, because Ralph couldn't lift a gun to his head. I'd have to do it.
- On a possible intruder in their house. I stood frozen in the dining room. Ralph, of course, was permanently frozen.
- On her new friends in the ghetto. Collectively, the ages of my new girlfriends totaled approximately 2,000 years. They all appeared 150 years older than I, but that didn't matter to them. I was the one with the car and some spare change.
- To the supervisor at the DMV who says her husband has to file papers on his own for a disabled license plate. "But he can't write... he can't move his legs, he can't move his hands, he can't even take a shit on his own."
- On charity being offered to her. I didn't mind accepting charity once in a while. In fact, I wouldn't mind accepting a lot of charity: a few free movie tickets; someone else to drive the van and fight for a parking spot; enough money to redo the bathroom, buy an electric door, pay off the credit-card bills; a new house with wider door frames and no steps; a van that was reliable and had a radio; extra cash to buy a plane ticket and leave Ralph at home with Harka and Jerry.
Great grief, great tragedy, demands great writing. Many who try collapse into bathos --- where drippy sentiment, ill-kempt sentiment, rules. Or, worse, they try to convey the reality of it in a style that is icy, dispossessed, well separated from the heart.
There are very few who have learned to merge the agony and the comedy and the woe of it. Suzy Parker has figured out how to do it. Rather than reading my words about it, you should be reading it.
Breath Sweeps Mind
Jakusho Kwong Roshi
(Sounds True Audio)He tells many a tale out of traditional Zen. There's the one about the young seeker who goes on a journey to find a roshi and it is night --- this is hundreds of years ago --- and it gets so dark he has to crawl on his hands-and-knees and he develops a burning thirst and he thinks that he would give anything for something to drink and he stumbles over a cup and the cup is full and so he drinks it and then he lies down and goes to sleep.
When he awakens he sees that he was drinking from a skull, and what he thought was water was, ugh, bugs and blood and creepy-crawlies and he throws up ... and finds himself enlightened.
Actually these tapes get to where you have to ration yourself --- you grow so fond of Kwong you want to go through them all in one day. I ignored his directive telling me to listen to these in a quiet room, not while doing anything. I commute three hours a day so I figured I would have to break my teacher's rule rather than miss out on anything he had to tell me. Sometimes the car noise would blot out his words --- he mumbles a lot --- but it doesn't make that much difference because what he says and the way he says it is so soothing and hypnotic that I sometimes would catch myself nearly running off the road.
Even when he gets to the paradoxes, they make good sense, in a paradoxical sort of way, if you know what I mean. "The Sourceless Source," for example. He tells us that if he just called it "The Source," we'd figure, "OK. I know what that means." But "The Sourceless Source." It's not so easy to grab on to.
Of course, Zen is built on paradox. And intense meditation with its very specific rules sounds to some of us to be overdoing it: there are rules on how you should sit, how you should walk, how you should cook, how you should make rice gruel, how you should beg, how you should serve tea and how you should sew. They are so exacting, Kwong says, neither to punish us nor to give us pain but so that we will know that this is serious business.
The job of Zen is to get us away from "what our education, what our culture teaches us --- that is, duality." When you begin, says Kwong, you think of "the mountain over there." But when you say that you are separating it from you even though, in truth --- you are it, it is you. "If you see the mind and the body as one, you are wrong," he says. "If you see the mind and the body as two, you are also wrong."
And when sitting, he tells us, remember "It's not you sitting, it's the Buddha sitting." When you sit, he explains, if you have one thought that's a thought. But if you have two thoughts, that's thinking. That is the time to return to counting the breath, and even when one becomes calm, one must always continue to count the breath. On the exhale: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 --- and then back again to 1, although, for most, if you get to 5, you've made good progress.
Our Own Devices
The Past and Future
Of Body Technology
There is an unseen epidemic in the industrial world: the rate of myopia --- nearsightedness. It runs to 20% in those older than sixty-five, but 60% in those between twenty-three and thirty-four. The reason? Schoolwork. "Among children enrolled in U. S. Orthodox Jewish secondary schools, males studied sixteen hours each school day ... and had an 81.3 percent myopia rate ... Asian societies with rigorous school programs are similarly affected. In Hong Kong 75 percent of high school students and 90 percent of college students are now myopic."
One of the great (and profitable) inventions of the 19th Century was the "metallic pen" with a split nib. One factory in England was sending out "32,000 gross each week." The invention inspired classes in penmanship, created different scripts in different countries --- France had a cursive script that "is still visible on some restaurant menus," and even poetry:
Give me a pen of steel!
Away with the gray goose quill!
I will grave the thoughts I feel
With a fiery heart and will ...
"Paradoxically," says Tenner, the helmet is "one of the oldest external modifications of the body, possibly older than the chair." The first helmets appeared in the 3rd Century, B.C., made of leather, felt, and boars' tusks. The main task of a modern helmet like the earlier ones is protection, but it must be of such a nature so as to not cause undue discomfort, else the user will abandon it. During World War II, GIs found their helmets not only worked for protection but as "a seat, pillow, washbasin, cooking pot, nutcracker, tent-peg pounder, wheel chock and ... popcorn popper." Current helmets are made of Kevlar, used not only by soldiers, but by construction workers, football and baseball players, police and --- increasingly --- by demonstrators. Flip-flops --- zori sandals --- are produced at a rate of 125,000,000 a year. Calvin Klein has a pair for $245. But it is the cheapest and most comfortable footware for millions of people over the world. Regular thong sandals cost 30 - 40 cents to manufacture. Havaianas has sold over two billion pairs of its brand flip-flops. But "discarded plastic footware is a major component of the world's flotsam, washing up in surprising places. In 1996 the Australian Cocos and Keeling Islands, home to a number of endangered species, were assaulted by hundreds of thousands of discarded flip-flop sandals, rejects of Indonesian manufacturers ... One Australian member of Parliament said, The beaches are the home of the green sea turtle and the blue rubber thong. One of them has to go. And the surfer Allan Seymour said, We call them go-aheads, because you can't walk backwards in them." NASA determined that the most natural angle between upper body and thighs is 135-degrees, but a century before, Nature magazine found that "the bamboo veranda chair of colonial India, with its W-shaped profile" was the most optimal seating. Architects consider the Persona, a body-conforming chair built by Mario Bellini to be "a style leader in its category." Gordon Hewes, the anthropologist found that the most comfortable static position is "the Indian technique of squatting on [one's] heels. "By varying it --- changing foot positions and resting his chin, his armpits, or his elbows on his knees --- he discovered that he could stay in one spot for hours while relaxing every muscle ... Of human postures," says the author, "this deep squat may be as widely distributed as chair sitting, being used by about a quarter of humanity when Hewes wrote."Our Own Devices is, on its own, so elegant that to write about it feels not quite right. I am reminded of Diderot's statement about coming up with a perfect map of the world. He wrote, "It would have to be the world." How can we write about such seminal works as this one (and Understanding Media and Seeing Like a State) except to tell others to take it whole.
The best I can do is to give a few choice samples, as I did above; explain that this is one you want to mull over for weeks if not months, as I did. Pick it up, and join the author in investigating the world of simple things, and in the process find out how complex they are: desks or chairs or shoes or keyboards or helmets or glasses:
The pince-nez, kept in place by spring pressure alone, was the first eyewear to become a fad among both men and women. Many opthalmologists and opticians considered it difficult to fit, and the glasses fell off repeatedly. Yet ... contemporaries thought the design avoided the "elderly appearance" of spectacles with temples.
Tenner is genius, pure and simple, his writing is a pleasure, and Our Own Devices is the fascinating world around you brought to life in a thousand thousand details. Get it. Got it? Good.
(HighBridge Classics)Pepys is caught from time in his philandering. He vows himself to get Deb's "maidenhead," but too soon, the maid is put out of the house by an angry spouse. Pepys spends much time --- vexing himself even further --- trying to locate her. One night, his wife, still insanely jealous, probably a bit potty, wakes him by trying to burn him on the ass with fire-tongs. At the same time, we find him sending off a letter the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, advising him not to make a spectacle of himself with "a wench," suggesting that he be more careful in his indiscretions.
The code within the code is interesting to those of us who enjoy lightly-spiced pornography. On February 5th 1667, Pepys manages to cook up some fairly intricate stimulation with a lady friend, all the while plumped down next to his own wife:
"I did come to sit avec Betty Michell, and there had her main, [hand] which elle did give me very frankly now, and did hazer [do] whatever I voudrais avec l', [would with her] which did plaisir me grandement" [pleasure me greatly]
At another time,
I took coach and home, in the way tomando su mano [taking her hand] and putting it where I used to do; which ella did suffer [she put up with] , but not avec tant de freedom [not as freely] as heretofore, I perceiving plainly she had alguns [some] apprehensions de me but I did offer natha [nothing] more then what I had often done. But now comes our trouble, I did begin to fear that 'su marido' [her husband] might go to my house to enquire pour elle [ask about her], and there, trouvant my muger [find my wife] at home, would not only think himself, but give my femme [wife] occasion to think strange things. This did trouble me mightily, so though 'elle' would not seem to have me trouble myself about it, yet did agree to the stopping the coach at the streete's end, and je allois con elle [I walked home with her].
This reading on disk by Kenneth Branagh is steady, competent, fun, and lends itself to a leisurely listening. The diary form always allows one to start and stop in various random places, and so up and to the office I pleasured myself with this not vexatious rendering yet I by entering it again and again was meanwhile looking again to make sure that I was not observed, as one might think it strange that I had come to be so obsessed with the intercourse between Mr. Pepys and his wench Deb.
Pepys can be very funny (often not meaning to be so), gives us an acute view into the life and customs of the Restoration and London city life --- all jammed in with politics, scheming, greed, joy, piety, and a markéd marital infidelity. It is a lovely mix, testimony to the never-ending juxtaposition of lust and grace, scheming and generosity, the trickery and honesty to be found in most of us.
It is a testament to one who, like Johnson, could never stop scribbling. Yet by the end of Volume Twelve, when Pepys tells us of his inability to write further, because of approaching blindness, this particular critic found himself stricken. Here is a man from so many years ago, like many of us, a lively sort who is all of a sudden to go through the pain of near blindness (a time when glaucoma or cataract could easily have devolved into sightlessness), with no relief in sight.
We know that Pepys was to live on another thirty-three years, yet we are distraught to find ourselves losing a friend, one who had come to be a charmingly honest, a confessional buddy, from 350 years ago, with all the frauds, foibles, pride, lusts, and larks of the rest of us:
And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand; and, therefore, whatever comes of it, I must forbear: and, therefore, resolve, from this time forward, to have it kept by my people in long-hand, and must therefore be contented to set down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know; or, if there be any thing, which cannot be much, now my amours to Deb. are past, and my eyes hindering me in almost all other pleasures, I must endeavour to keep a margin in my book open, to add, here and there, a note in short-hand with my own hand.Of Kids &
Marek Tomin, Translator
(Twisted Spoon Press)Of all the unlikely venues for a story, this has got to be it: a tantalizing, suck-you-in, lay-you-out, haunt-your-soul moment-by-moment of a father and son walking the streets of the city, talking of the grandfather who made toys and mannequins; ladies they knew ... wanted to know ... never got to know; favorite airplanes --- not model airplanes, the real McCoy --- including the Corsair F4, one WWII favorite that I hadn't heard of --- or certainly not thought of --- for sixty-five years.
Walking the streets of Prague, long after the fall of Soviet Russia, memories of friends who became members of the SS, KGB, or (worst of all, for those living in that part of the world) the much-dreaded Ustashi. A day spent on the streets, going in and out of taverns, the 71-year-old Ivan, the 44-year-old Honzo, and their thoughts, fears, delights, delusions, loves ... and their strange Czech drinks: "Magic Eye," "V-2 Rocket," "Pond Scum," "Chumbawamba," "Bamboo Shoot with a Motor" which is, gag, "Red wine and cola, half-and-half, with a large shot of Fernet, an atrocious drink."In the course of our stroll through the late August streets, we slowly come to know Ivan and Honza Benes [a carat over the "s" --- my keyboard doesn't make it], he a scientist, grew up rich, spent it all, now living in a "bedsit, in Prague-Sporilov,"
The rotten wardrobe, the mouldy bathroom, the cheap mass-produced furniture, the rows of dusty bottles amongst the piles of grime beneath the kitchen sink.
§ § §
Of Kids & Parents is an up-to-date "My Dinner with Andre," funny, sad, all the tensions built-in, the old man, a scientist, always asking the who and the why and the what, always doubting until proven wrong. Once, inquiring about Honza's new lady-friend, "hope you're not being unfaithful to her!"
Goddamn it, what business is that of yours ... the demon in my head roared, rattling my spinal cord and kicking the walls of my cranium: None of your fucking business...!Then the quick switchback. Old Ivan going into detail about a love affair from forty or fifty years ago, perhaps before Honzo was born, "a woman of Ljubljana, she was a real woman that one, thin, but what a figure, just a glance at her was enough to give me a belly-slapping erection."
I know father and son shouldn't be talking to each other like this, but who's left in the world for me to tell it to.
Then another quick switch, and we are in Klánovice, in 1956, the Russian have just moved in, Ivan's father takes ten-year-old Honzo out to "the road that goes from Újezd by the viaduct, along which tanks had been rolling from morning till night for about four days."
Grandfather says, "See that? Remember it!" He throws a stone at one of the tanks. But for Honzo, it was the first time he'd seen real tanks. "What a rush! The motors roared, smoke hung above the woods, the tanks rumbled along one after another, and still there was no end to them!"
We stood there until the afternoon. Granddad shook his fist at them but I waved at them, secretly so he couldn't see me.
One threatening, the other waving, the two-in-one, the Janus-face, one mad, another happy, the two conjoined, grandfather-grandson, father-son...
...Father and son, different, perhaps, but revealed here to be cronies, old cronies, who get pissed at each other, open up, shut down, confound us (and each other) with their memories, their tall tales, who can believe Honza's whopper about Johan/Lazarus Batista Kollendero, "who were born in London and they were formed in such a way that Johan was growing out of the chest of his normally developed brother, so throughout their lives they were looking at each other's faces. Lazarus was the one with the legs so Johan had to go from one party to another against his will."
Apparently they always argued about it, and Johan would end up offended, staring at the ceiling all night, while Lazarus would fool around, tell jokes, and in between he'd reason with his brother in a quiet, friendly voice.
A Woman's Journal of
Struggle and Defiance in
Barbara Mellor, Translator
(Bloomsbury)Résistance is everything you and I could want in an autobiography. The author is a smart, funny, gentle, brave, insightful French woman who ends up in jail for four long years.
In 1941, she and some friends decide to put out a newspaper --- strictly illegal in Nazi-occupied Paris. For them it's a bit of a lark, but then they get caught in a German dragnet. They lock her up, first to Cherchi-Midi prison in Paris ... then ultimately in Germany.
§ § §
There's prison literature and prison literature. Most of it can be as boring as prison itself. But Résistance is different: Humbert is hardy, foolhardy, smart ... and such a sterling character you want to call her up on the telephone just to tell her to cool it.
She is breath-takingly brave. In her trial, when the prosecutor asks if she knows who wrote the anti-Nazi newspaper, "'Why yes, of course,' I reply, 'I know exactly who wrote it.'"
"So?" he asks, with an expression of triumph in his evil little eyes like lottery balls. "So...?"
"So, what would you do in my position?"
He wants her to rat on her soul-mates, that's what he wants, and as he waits for her to do so, he smiles.
"You're smiling, so I'll do the same. I'll smile too."
"You do not want to change your mind in any respect?"
"Well, bringing you here was a complete waste of time, then!"
For almost a year, she's been in a dirty little cell with no vista of trees or streets or greenery of any kind, so she replies that it was not a waste of time at all: "By no means. I saw the place de la Concorde, and I am grateful to you for giving me this pleasure before I leave France." And so she gets shipped off to Germany.
§ § §
Not only is the writing in Résistance good, we grow quickly to care about Humbert. Fear and curiosity are her constant companions, and they become ours too. She's such a spark that we fear that she's going to get whacked just for being so defiant. We are curious to see just exactly how she survives.
Every book of survival comes with a Moment of Truth. It is the moment one learns what it will entail to survive. In this case, it's that moment when Humbert realizes that despite her good-humor and wit, she is faced with something truly grotesque: jailers that are capable of great and appalling cruelty. It's the moment when she realizes that she is without recourse, that she's in a place of no escape, and those running the show are dyed-in-the-wool, no-kidding, without-a-doubt beasts --- capable of any and all violence, to the body; to the soul.
Sometimes A Great Notion
Tom Stechschulte, Narrator
(Recorded Books)Kesey is now best remembered for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a book that began to redefine "the mad" (and the caretakers of the mad). Kesey was also famous for crossing the United States in a mad, Day-Glo bus, zonked on acid, a play on wheels as scripted by Tom Wolfe.
But he was much more than that ... and the pity is that American literature lost him to acid and foolishness at such a tender age. He looked to be a tough logger but it is said that he was compellingly sweet and he wrote like a dream. His problem was not his life nor his LSD nor getting busted for pot (and spending time in jail) but his attempt to open the soul of America. He lost.
Sometimes a Great Notion was completed before he was thirty years old. It is so all-comprehending, all-embracing and at the same time all-bewitching that I found myself obsessed, in the way that books --- and their narrative --- can get inside you and obsess you. For a time there, I was a logger in the Pacific Northwest or an angry neo-suicidal college student or a suave union organizer or a drunken tough ... or even a wise barkeep. We have here all you could ever want to know about felling trees, bear hunting, the life and language of a small-town bar, juvenile delinquents in small-town America, music of the 50s and 60s, shamans, Indians, evangelists, Captain Marvel, small-town justice, union organizing, revenge, old age, dying, death.
What Kesey does is make you love all his characters, even the disgraceful ones, forever disgracing themselves (and us): lovely Vivian being seduced by Leland (while she is married to his half-brother Hank); old man Henry Stamper so rustic and profane and salty that his own son Leland wonders where he can have come from. And along the way, getting immersed in small town life; bears in the woods; hounds chasing bears in the woods; the tide coming in; the tide going out.
The only sour note in the book --- at least in my book --- comes when Kesey decides to kill off Hank's cousin, Joby. I scarcely thought I would end up loving a Bible-toting evangelist logger --- but he's the real thing. The worst of it all is the way that Kesey chooses to do him in. It's a scandal: slow death by drowning. A log has trapped his legs at the water's edge; the river is rising slowly; he cannot escape; Hank stays nearby, ducks under water to feed him air (by mouth!) as long as he can. There is no help this far outside of town, the river is not going down, the sun is, though, and we are dreading the inevitable. We want to ring up Kesey, tell him, "Don't let it happen!"Hank and Joby laugh about things that happened to them so long ago, skating on the frozen pond (they call it being "pond-monkeys,") stories of girlfriends, wives, children, high school evenings out, Joby's pledge to never drink coffee ever again (his fundamentalist minister told him it was sinful). They joke and carry on until they can joke no longer: "Even after his little scarred face had been submerged Hank could still hear sputtering giggles, and when he ducked his face under still feel that goofy half-wit grin against Joe's lips. The situation seemed so bizarre to them both that for a time they felt silly and foolish and made the job of transferring the air more difficult and dangerous with their laughing, both realizing it, but unable to stop."
This funny thing swimming up out of the dark. Like something'd been there all along and just waiting for it to get dark enough. Now, in tight silence beneath the water, Joe feels it trying to fit into the skin of him, trying to take over the shell of him.
"He doesn't like it." And we don't either. We figure Kesey had no right to kill off the one character we had come to know and to love out of this whole bunch of hard-assed tough-talking Oregon loggers. Joey's demise comes at the end of disk 21. You may ... like me ... not want to go on to disk 22. Not for a few days, anyway. Just to try to let it pass.The Patagonian Hare
Frank Wynne, Translator
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Lanzmann tells us "I have a naturally epic writing style." You can say that again. He started off as a philosopher and traded that in on journalism. Like most journalists (at least those whom are looking for readers), his writing is alert and punchy ... and everything is going somewhere. No noodling around here.
Whether he is writing about smuggling guns in 1940s Nazi-occupied France, almost drowning in the surf off Alexandria, making love to this or that princess, eating (and sleeping with) de Beauvoir while Sartre writes next door, getting lost in the massifs of Switzerland, having the Communists take out a contract on him ...
... in all of this there comes a breathtaking feeling of we-are-there and he-may-not-get-out-of-it alive. And the undercurrent, the Lanzmann-set: what I am doing right now is the most important thing in the world; if I don't do it now, and if I don't it right, all will be lost. No small potatoes here. Every one of Lanzmann's adventures has the feel of ultimate import.
There is a danger in this for all concerned. David Bromwich writing in a recent issue of the LRB speaks of Obama's similar sense of personal (and world) drama:
It is dangerous for a person ... to regard every action as significant. It means that you consider yourself an embodiment of a symbolic purpose which floats free of the content of actions; a purpose that requires any disturbing break to be viewed in the light of an as yet undisclosed terminus.
It is this kinetic force that makes a reader like me stay up until three in the morning with this book. I have to get up to go to work soon, I can't stay up any longer with this, just ten more pages before I shut it down, please ... until one gets quite sick of being seduced by such a bold, gracious, I've-done-it-all lug.
"I would like to spend an hour with this son-of-a-bitch," we think, and then: the switch, as Lanzmann tells us, so wrongheadedly, about the time he began to surmise that the only leg some of us have to stand on is status: To lose one's status could result in being abandoned by all one's friends, that there comes a moment when no one will help you, that it is possible to die of starvation, of cold, of loneliness, I was extraordinarily sensitive to anything that, to my eyes, concerned naked necessity, anything that exposed the violence underpinning all human relationships.
Those of us who grew up feeding on the Existentialists will be in our glory here, for we get to spend quality time with Sartre and de Beauvoir. De Beauvoir! Sartre and Lanzmann call her Castor, and here she is in a snit, ones "that never were associated with some wrong done to her nor some misfortune."
It translated into an utterly unpredictable explosion. Sitting, standing, or lying down, in the car or on foot, in public or in private, she would burst into violent, convulsive sobs, her whole body wracked with gasps, with heartrending cries punctuated by long howls of incommunicable despair.
Lanzmann would "try to comfort her" but
nothing worked, the convulsive overpowering dread had to progress through every stage until, after a considerable time she would manage to calm herself, but always at the cost of an acute, excruciating awareness of the fragility of human happiness.
There is a wonderful moment in which he explains how it all started with her, and memory, and he then spins a tribute to memory that only a French intellectual could bring off: "Simone de Beauvoir has already described how our love affair began. She did it her way, I will do it in mine: we don't remember the same things, which is normal."
(New Directions)This new edition has been published with the book's original cover. It was first published by Horace Liveright ... which promptly went into bankruptcy.
We may never know how it got published at all, back there in the spring of 1933, in the very worst of the Depression. If you needed further depression in the early 1930s, West's novel was the ticket. I found it in my sister's bookshelf a few years later.
The print was large, the book short, and I --- beginning my new adult career as a reader --- thought it to be just right for me. A strange book on an even weirder subject: agony writer meets his destiny. I got to read and learn (really!) how to be depressed
It was 1946. We had just gone through an exhilarating war and I was edging into flowering, full of piss and vinegar ... and I remember wondering how a writer could give a novel the name of a woman who was in truth a man working at a job in a newspaper where every day he got inundated with letters like the one from a girl who "was born without a nose"
although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes. I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself so I cant blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she crys terrible when she looks at me.
She asks her father why she had "such a terrible bad fate" and he says he doesn't know but
maybe I did something in the other world before I as born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?
And it is signed "Sincerely yours, Desperate." And I remember being fascinated by the wonderful awful letters in Miss Lonelyhearts with the columnist reading them and trying at the same time to light a cigarette: "The cigarette was imperfect and refused to draw. Miss Lonelyhearts took it out of his mouth and stared at it furiously. He fought himself quiet, then lit another one."
§ § §
West created a perfect novel, as perfect as three of his peers: Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio; Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby; William Faulkner's Sound and the Fury. Like these, West's book is perfect and perfectly sad and profoundly strange, peopled by the lonelyhearts, the thousands of suffering puzzled wondering wounded who find agony enough to seek him out, thinking somehow with his newspaper wisdom they can be cured, or at least become eased and tempered, made to understand how in the world a god (we suppose) or if not at least humanity (we hope) and maybe even with just words we can somehow find an answer. Miss Lonelyhearts even looked the part, for "even without a beard no one could fail to recognize the New England puritan."The letters are unremitting. Harold S. writes about his sister Gracie who is "deaf and dumb, not very smart"
and last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her. She told me about it and I don't know what to do as I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being lible to beat Gracie up. I am afraid that Gracie is going to have a baby and I listened to her stomack last night for a long time to see if I could hear the baby but I couldnt...
At first Miss Lonelyhearts thought his job was a joke but then he sees "that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering." In other words, he is in the paradoxical position of needing his own Miss Lonelyhearts to help him with the pain of being a helper in a world in which there is no help at all for Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.
The art here is in the letters --- each of them a small, perfect poem of pain. Juxtaposed is Miss Lonelyhearts and his jagged, poisoned, merciless days and nights of misery (both spiritual and secular. With his final cross to bear, Shrike.)
Shrike has the "Dead Pan," is the one who gave him his column and the wisdom that goes along with it ... and lives in perfect counterpoint to him (and his readers). Miss Lonelyhearts tries to hide ... but Shrike always finds him out, even gives a party where selected agony letters are handed out as favors and the guests challenged to write responses. "From your answers, Miss Lonelyhearts will diagnose your moral ills. Afterwards he will lead you in the way of attainment."
Miss Lonelyhearts disappears, hides in his room but Shrike --- as always --- visits to compose, on the spot, several poems of possible escape --- poems as fine as any in this book. For instance, he says that Miss L can dedicate his future life to "pleasure," "knowing that your body is a pleasure machine;" or he can take on the life of an artist ("When you are cold, warm yourself before the flaming tints of Titian"); or, lastly, he could consider going to the South Seas, where he "could live in a thatch hut with the daughter of the king, a slim young maiden in whose eyes is an ancient wisdom. Her breasts are golden speckled pears, her belly a melon, and her odor is like nothing so much as a jungle fern."
In the evening, on the blue lagoon, under the silvery moon, to your love you croon in the soft sylabelew and vocabelew of her langorour tongorour. Your body is golden brown like hers, and tourists have need of the indignant finger of the missionary to point you out. They envy you your breech clout and carefree laugh and little brown bride and fingers instead of forks.
"But you don't return their envy, and when a beautiful society girl comes to your hut in the night, seeking to learn the secret of your happiness, you send her back to her yacht that hangs on the horizon like a nervous racehorse. And so you dream away the days, fishing, hunting, dancing, swimming, kissing, and picking flowers to twine in your hair." What the author has done here is to create a Miss Lonelyhearts for the Miss Lonelyhearts, and we know that the editor, like the columnist (like the author) is a poet for at that time when the words turn impossible, as they always must (especially for those who are paid for their words), they devolve into doggerel: "blue lagoon ... moon ... your love you croon" ... and then further into the vocabulary of impossible nonsense nonwords: the soft sylabelew and vocabelew of her langorour tongorour.
In his thirty-seven years of life, Nathanael West wrote several plays and novels, but none of these even begins to match Miss Lonelyhearts. It is an Odyssean poem, an adventure taking us deep into the center of all our agony souls. The divine appears throughout, not only as Lonelyhearts' love "Betty the Buddha," but with Shrike's invocation on the wall, taped above his desk,
Help me, Miss L, help me, help me,
In sæcula sæculorum. Amen.
But the Christ is nailed (with real nails in hands and feet) on the wall of his bedroom; and appears only in the final passion in the dark stairwell where Miss Lonelyhearts falls, failing to succor disillusioned, hopeless, broken-hearted with his love, spinning downwards in the embrace of a man who must crucify him in despair and no-love.