Posted in Fiction

World and Town by Gish Jen

Who are we, indeed. I cannot say you have convinced me, and if you will forgive me for putting on my scientist hat, I must point out that we humans are prone to superstition. We’re wired to seek cause and effect whether it’s there or not – to make “sense” of things even if the result is nonsense. But never mind. Insofar as your thinking appears to have little to do with the less tenable tenets of Confucianism, and more to do with tradition and hope and humility and coping…I will meet the bone picker this weekend.

The intricate plot of Gish Jen’s novel World and Town doesn’t seem to be anti-religion but it does point out what might be considered inconsistencies, hypocrisies and nonsensical aspects of the way many religion-followers go about their religion. The criticisms also are equal opportunity. More than just one religion come together for critical analysis.

Hattie Kong, the 70 year-old protagonist and scientist, considers herself Unitarian but is a member of a walking group with ladies of varying faiths: an ex-nun, a fundamentalist Christian, an evangelical Christian who is quick to point out she is different from fundamentalists. Hattie gets new neighbors in the form of a Cambodian family who are Buddhist and deals with her Confucian relatives in Hong Kong who want the remains of Hattie’s parents to be brought back to Mainland China to be buried.

While the combining of all these religions can seem a little forced at times, I have to give the author credit for making the characters all fully realized and not just stereotypes used to fit her purposes and ultimately telling a story worth telling.

Posted in Fiction

The Resisters by Gish Jen

While there is all kinds of social commentary in Gish Jen’s dystopian novel The Resisters, for some reason it reminded me of the Saturday morning cartoons I used to watch as a kid. In spite of the seriousness of the ideas presented, Jen uses subtle and not so subtle humor to make the science fiction aspects fun. However, the science fiction is so close to non-fiction that the dystopian parts become anything but fun.

At the center of it all is baseball, a game that had been eliminated from public life but the Surplus (poor people) start an underground league. Gwen, the daughter of Grant, the narrator, has a pitching gift that her father works hard to develop in secrecy.

Meanwhile, the Netted part of society (rich people) decide to bring baseball back as the Official American Pastime – mostly to compete with ChinRussia in the Olympics. Gwen is discovered and tons of blackmail, manipulation, fights for freedom, suspense, betrayal and thrills ensue.

To me, the best humor came in the form of the house belonging to Gwen and her family. With AI pushing full steam ahead, their house talks to them and interrupts their conversations and acts like an unwanted relative.

More than occasionally, Jen throws in fun literary references such as Gwen’s teammates being named Joe March and Warren Peese and the serious references that tie to the the story and themes:

Like have you ever heard of this book, Michael Kohlhaas? – which Coach says is his favorite book because Michael Kohlhaas is just so stubborn! And when I said he sounded like Bartleby the Scrivener, he said that was exactly right, and isn’t it amazing how interesting we find characters who say no? In life we like people who say yes, but in books we like people who say no, he said. Which is just so true, don’t you think? I think maybe he used to be a professor.

 

Posted in Fiction

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

British journalist Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American reminds me of a Humphrey Bogart character: street smart, witty, cynical, not playing to anyone’s side but his own, more depth than one might initially give him credit.

Contrast that to the American business man/spy Alden Pyle: exuberant, naive with an innocent type of arrogance. In fact, innocent is the way Greene (through Fowler) frequently describes Pyle.

When the two initially meet in Vietman in the 1950’s, Pyle immediately dubs Fowler his best friend – and then immediately says he wants to marry Phuong, Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress. Pyle never varies from these traits while Fowler thinks long and hard about their political and social situation.

As the plot thickens into a political spy thriller, the suspense as to how Fowler will finally handle Pyle’s task at hand increases along with the amount of opium Fowler puts in his own pipe. The title of the novel is from a joke of sorts: The only quiet American is a dead American.

As one might already tell, Greene does not paint Americans with high regard and is one of the reasons this novel has been frequently banned over the decades. Published before the United States had fully escalated it’s involvement in Vietnam, one could say that Greene had a knack for understanding the future as Fowler surmises:

Perhaps there is a prophet as well as a judge in those interior courts where our true decisions are made.

Posted in Fiction

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

In the middle of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, Sarah Miles makes a promise to God. She promises that if her lover, Maurice Bendrix, lives through a German bombing of London, she will give him up and stay with her husband – even though she loves Maurice.

Maurice lives. And she gives him up.

This premise allows for the both of them to deal with God in their own way. Sarah moves ever closer toward converting to Catholicism and Maurice runs farther and farther away from any religious thought. In a way, God seems to be a nemesis to both of them.

As much as God is involved in this novel, it seems to have been written with both the believer and the non-believer in mind. Numerous thoughts and comments occur to which someone who does not believe in God might say “Yeah, I get that”! But then, there are ideas to which someone who does believe in God could say the same thing. This gives the novel more of an honesty than if Greene simply were proselytizing for his own religious agenda.

It’s somewhat humorous the way Maurice talks to the God he doesn’t believe in:

I thought with anger and bitterness, You might have left poor Henry alone. We have got on for years without You. Why should You start intruding into all situations like a strange relation returned from the Antipodes?

With all of this talk of God, Greene doesn’t really let anyone off the hook – and that probably includes God.

Posted in Fiction

Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok

“I believe that there is always a ram in the bush,” he heard her say.

He turned to face her. Small white expectant features. Wide unblinking eyes overlaid with a transparent yellowish film flecked with pinpoints of golden light, probably from the sun. A serpent’s eyes, they almost seem. The eyes of a story writer?

“A ram in the bush, you say,”

“I believe that.”

“How very nice to think so.”

Old Men at Midnight rounds out my reread of Chaim Potok’s novels that I started sometime in the spring of 2018. This is also his final published work from 2001. Potok died in 2003.

This novel differs in structure from Potok’s other novels in that it is three novellas that connect through Ilana Davita from Davita’s Harp at various stages of her life. In each story, she plays the restorer of memory for three different male characters – all Jewish and all affected by World War II.

But these male characters are not necessarily the “Old Men” mentioned in the title. The stories each one tells Ilana contains an old man such as a Polish Rabbi enlisting the help of the youth of his community to repaint his synagogue, a doctor who saves the arm of a Jewish soldier turned KGB agent in Stalin’s Russia, and a trope teacher who purposely returns to Germany during World War II.

The “Midnight” in the title perhaps has a dual meaning. These men are in the midnight of their lives in that they are nearing the end and they are also in an extremely dark and dangerous time in history.

Most of Potok’s novels have at least a glimmer of hope as Ilana states in the quotation above; however, her male friends seem to think differently. As Ilana grows into an accomplished novelist, I like to think that Potok somehow finds memory-keeping and story-telling to be part of this hopefulness.

Here are links to my posts about Potok’s other novels:

The Chosen

The Promise

My Name is Asher Lev

The Gift of Asher Lev

I Am The Clay

The Book of Lights

In The Beginning

Davita’s Harp

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction

Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok’s novel Davita’s Harp centers on a young child growing up in 1930’s Brooklyn. Based on this, one would not say this is a departure for Potok because almost all of his novels begin with a young child growing up in 1930’s or 1940’s Brooklyn. The departure in this novel is that the protagonist is female as opposed to the male protagonists in his other novels.

What one might also consider a departure is that in most of Potok’s novels, the young child is born into a faith community that as he grows up he moves away from (although never completely leaving) to embrace at least some cultural and societal aspects that are outside his faith in the secular world; however, in Davita’s Harp, Ilana Davita Chandal is raised by Communist parents of the 1930’s who disavow all religion and as she grows up she explores Judaism from the outside moving in.

Using a female protagonist from a secular family sheds some light on the role of women in Jewish culture. As Ilana decides to say the Kaddish at her friend’s synagogue for a loved one who has died, she is told that women don’t say the Kaddish, only men. As the reader has gotten to know Ilana, it doesn’t come as a surprise that she says it anyway. What is more of a surprise is how several of the Jewish women from the synagogue actually support Ilana in her prayer.

The loved one for whom she is saying the Kaddish died in the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. When the new Guernica painting by Pablo Picasso visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ilana’s class takes a field trip to see it and she becomes slightly overwhelmed by it:

…I did not know what I was saying. I ran back and forth through the town, holding the bird to me…Fires and bombs and airplanes and screams and a bridge somewhere and a river. He was here and I could not find him. I turned a corner – and there was the bull, staring, and the horse screaming. I held the bird, felt its warm and terrified pulsing.

…I wondered if all the rains in all the world could ever put out the fires of Guernica.

As she grows up, Ilana takes an interest in telling stories – from her imagination as opposed to the Talmud, something else that sets her apart from her Jewish friends. This imagination,this place inside her mind, comforts her from the distress and disillusion she finds in the world in which she lives. Many of the adults in her life make comments such as “this has been such a century”.

Interesting perspective from a story set almost 100 years in the past from our present time.

 

Posted in Fiction

Another Country by James Baldwin

During a scene in James Baldwin’s Another Country, Vivaldo Moore gets high on a New York City rooftop with some people he just met and makes this observation:

The sky looked, now, like a vast and friendly ocean, in which drowning was forbidden, and the stars seemed stationed there, like beacons. To what country did this ocean lead? for oceans always led to some great good place: hence, sailors, missionaries, saints, and Americans.

Amidst a group of friends in Greenwich Village, Harlem and Paris, France, Baldwin lays bare the racial and sexual landscape of late 1950’s New York City which isn’t really that much different from the America of today.

In smokey bars, bistros and bedrooms, these characters have some of the most honest and viscerally raw conversations I’ve read in a long time – its an honesty that cuts so deep its difficult to not feel the pain of everyone regardless of race, gender and sexuality.

The rocky interracial relationship between Vivaldo and singer Ida Scott is interspersed with music from Bessie Smith’s blues to Mahalia Jackson’s gospel of which many of the lyrics talk of a better place than these current situations which is possibly where the title of the novel comes from. They are all looking for another country where differences don’t tear people apart.

Whether this country is physically geographical or spiritually in another realm is scattered throughout the characters’ conversations and Ida’s singing. Both concepts are brought together at the novel’s end when Eric’s French boyfriend, Yves, lands in the Big Apple:

…even his luggage belonged to him again, and he strode through the barriers, more high-hearted than he had ever been as a child, into that city which the people from heaven had made their home.

The novel references numerous song lyrics of which one is “Up Above My Head” written by Sister Rosetta Tharpe:

Up above my head, I hear music in the air
Up above my head, I hear music in the air
Up above my head, I hear music in the air
I really do believe, I really do believe there’s a Heaven somewhere…

Check out Rhiannon Gidden’s amazing version of this song right here. And also check out Baldwin’s amazing and highly relevant novel.

Posted in Fiction

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

At the end of James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, David, the white American protagonist/narrator comes to a spiritual conclusion of sorts:

I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.

From what exactly is David trying to find redemption?

While he lives in Paris, he develops a relationship and moves in with Giovanni, an Italian bartender, while his fiance is away in Spain. He lies to both of them, and perhaps to himself, setting in motion a tragedy that ends with the execution of Giovanni.

One can look at the story line and determine that David wasn’t at fault in the legal sense but the spiritual guilt gnaws at him right up to the novel’s end. There is a part of Giovanni’s death that doesn’t get carried away from David by the wind – neither the winds of change nor the winds of time.

The guilt of a white American plays center stage in this novel pushed to full literary force by Baldwin’s incredible writing:

Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either,or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.

Maybe Baldwin, himself, is one of these heroes.

Posted in Fiction

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

dutch house

I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.

The plot-driven but subtle story of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House gets pulled along not just by Danny Conroy, the narrator, and his older sister Maeve but by a wealth of supporting characters that are just as intriguing even if they don’t get the page time that the brother and sister do.

Over the course of several generations, those before Danny and Maeve and those after, the novel offers a kind of rags to riches to rags to riches story. I’m not aware of many stories in which a brother and sister relationship takes center stage the way it does in this one. And its Danny and Maeve who go from riches to rages to riches in one generation even if their lawyer tells them it takes three generations for all that to happen.

You can’t really talk about the novel without at least mentioning the house. It’s the title of the book after all. For those who find the idea of a physical location as a character to be a little cliche, I understand; however, I wouldn’t say the house is treated as a character. It’s simply the catalyst that moves the story along. For some characters, it’s the love of their lives, for others it means loss and longing, and for at least one character, it represents everything they despise. And, yes, as with most good novels, the characters’ feelings can change and evolve and the house serves to provide this also.

 

Posted in Fiction

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

She slipped down in the chair and leaned against the dusty plush, closed her eyes and faced for one instant that was a lifetime the certain, the overwhelming and awful knowledge that there was nothing at all ahead for Adam and her. Nothing. She opened her eyes and held her hands together palms up, gazing at them and trying to understand oblivion.

According to wikipedia, Katherine Anne Porter did not like the term “novella” applied to Pale Horse, Pale Rider. She preferred the term “short novel”. At 48 pages, I’m more than willing to acknowledge the author’s preference and shamelessly count it as an entire book when counting the number of books I’ve read.

It’s 1918 and Adam and Miranda are in love – both in the emotional romantic sense and in the “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” sense. The story’s backdrop is World War I and the Spanish Influenza epidemic. As readers we don’t root for Adam and Miranda’s love because it’s already there. We root for their survival.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider was published at the outset of World War II in 1939 but that post World War I American disillusionment shines bright.