Thursday, April 24, 2008


PBS is showing a production called Primo, which is a one-man performace by Antony Sher of Primo Levi's Survival At Auschwitz, aka If This Is A Man. (See my review of the book here).

Very cool. Check your local listings. It's replaying Friday, April 25, 3:00 a.m. and Thursday, May 1, 2:30am. It's also available on DVD.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather is a surprise for me…the type of author I wouldn’t expect myself to like. But I do, and I do so consistently. Death Comes for the Archbishop (hereafter DCftA) is the third Cather novel that I have read. I picked up O Pioneers for some reason while in high school. I don’t remember much about it except that it was the story of Scandinavian immigrants in Nebraska. A few years ago, I read My Antonia, another tale of turn-of-the-century Nebraskan immigrants, this time of Bohemian origin. I don’t know what draws me to Cather, but I find myself seeking out her writing again and again.

DCftA is very different, however, from those two immigrant-on-the-prairie novels. Instead, it’s the tale of two French priests sent to establish a diocese in the newly annexed New Mexico territory. The novel is picaresque-like in its episodic depiction of the conflicts and allegiances between the Americans, the Mexicans, the Natives, and the priests. It is the story of the priests’ friendship and of their faith at work in the barren desert. “The cheerful acceptance of the physical hardships and the joyful conduct of the missionary labors” is as good a description of the “plot” (see below) as any.

The main characters of the book, Latour and Valliant, are based on real life Father Jean Baptist Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, and Rev. Joseph Priest Machebeuf, the first Bishop of Denver. I think an appropriate epithet (like in the movies) would be “inspired by true events,” as Cather took liberty with their stories and experience, meshing it with her own visit (on a wagon) to the Southwest in 1912, where she met another Catholic priest who shared with her many of the traditions and legends of the area’s long-time inhabitants.

DCftA is one of Cather’s later novels, coming almost a decade after My Antonia. It is also her most critically acclaimed work. Cather called DCftA a “narrative” as opposed to a novel, which I agree with. It isn’t written in the traditional novel form, relying on (often unrelated) vignettes rather than plot. It is called an anomaly in Cather’s fiction, though Robby over at Blogging the Canon mentions that My Antonia didn’t have much of a plot either. It had more of a plot than DCftA, I assure you. So, if you’re looking for conflict, psychological development and change in the characters, etc. – don’t bother with this book. You won’t find that here. DCftA is something entirely different, to be appreciated in an entirely different way.

Cather’s use of symbolism is rampant throughout the novel, and Biblical tales and sacred myth, medieval philosophy and miracles are all included, but not necessarily noticed on first reading. "A close reading of the text reveals intricate patterns beneath a disarmingly simple surface. As with other Cather novels, the unsophisticated can read it with pleasure for its stories and characters, its wonderful use of setting, and its elevating themes. Below its smooth face, however, the novel resonates with allegory, symbol and allusion.” I ran across this article, which gave the following example of the subtle mysteries depicted:

“…Bishop Latour and Jacinto take refuge in the cave to escape an oncoming blizzard. They enter through a rock formation that suggests stone lips and find themselves in a lofty cavern shaped something like a Gothic chapel. The Bishop feels an instinctive distaste for the place, for the presence of evil. He is in the secret chamber used by the Pecos Indians for their ancient pagan rituals. After his Indian guide seals up a mysterious hole in the wall of the cave and builds a fire, the Bishop sense a vibration in the rock. Jacinto takes him to a fissure in the floor where he can put his ear to the roar of an underground river, ‘a flood moving in utter blackness under ribs of antediluvian rock.’ ‘It is terrible,’ he said at last as he rose. This frightening scene, superbly managed, and for those fond of seeking Christian motifs in the novel, the Bishop, who suffered as Christ on the Cross in Chapter One, now has descended into hell after the crucifixion.”

Was I really supposed to catch that on a first reading? The same article goes on to mention that the Biblical motif is taken even further by the parallel that the Bishop is initially rejected by those he came to save. Even the seven deadly sins are represented, and the characters that embody them are shown in the “Medieval manner in which appearance reflects moral nature.” Garden imagery appears time and time again, as the Bishop’s cultivation of the garden is an allegory for his cultivation and nurturing of souls, with his orchards and gardens filled with European vegetables and fruits taking hold in the desert symbolizing the European religion taking hold in the New World. This rich symbology, which is prevalent in many pieces of literature, such as Moby Dick, is why I am a fan and proponent of re-reading. Some of this stuff you just can’t get on a first read.

Sometimes, you read stories and you can tell that the author has some sort of animosity towards the characters that he or she is writing about…you can tell that there just isn’t much love there (Sinclair Lewis comes to mind). But Cather: you know that she admires, loves, and is invested in her characters and her story. They are treated with care. I won’t discuss Cather’s beautifully evocative descriptions of the Southwest landscapes, or the high quality of prose…for that you’ll have to read DCftA yourself.

What I find interesting is that Cather was writing at the same time as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among others of course. DCftA was published in 1927…two years after The Great Gatsby and a year after The Sun Also Rises. She was telling such different stories than they were, and is much more on par with what Sinclair Lewis was writing about at the time. The contract between the two cultures (the Jazz Age and the Prairie stories, as I’ll call them) is so stark…they are two different worlds entirely.

DCftA was always the Cather book I wanted to read, as my high school English teacher had told me it was her favorite of Cather’s works. Personally, I prefer My Antonia, but then again, DCftA is a very different novel.

On a slightly related note, let me tell you a very funny (though perhaps exaggerated) story. Truman Capote, age 18, has noticed a woman that came frequently to the New York Society Library. One day, when unable to get a cab, she asked young Capote (exiting the library) if he wanted to go around to the corner and have a hot chocolate. (She had a hot chocolate, he a martini.) He mentions that he is a writer, and she asks what American writers he likes. He says, "I really like Willa Cather. Have your read My Moral Enemy?" She responds: "Actually, I wrote it." Can you imagine?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

April Update

As April comes to a close, so does most of my monthly reading. There is always a feeling of anxiety about this time of the month regarding books. It’s an anxiousness to finish the damn things already, and also the feeling of saying goodbye to someone with whom you’ve spent the last month.

I’m plodding along through Dance to the Music of Time (2nd movement) but not as wearily as I did in the first movement. I’m starting to figure some things out in this book:
  1. New people are often introduced so that they can reintroduce people Jenkins already knows. For example: Heather Hopkins shows up at Norah and Eleanor’s apartment to borrow an egg. It is casually introduced that she has an upcoming piano gig with “that queen” Max Pilgrim – the one that Deacon yelled at at Milly Andriadis’s party in “A Buyer’s Market.”
  2. The plot is driven along SOLELY because Jenkins keeps getting invited to parties. He is at work, then his co-worker Chips takes him to his aunt’s house, where there’s a party going on. At her house, he runs into Mrs. Conyers, an old friend of the family. She invites him over to her place. There, he meets Frederica Tolland, who takes him to see her sister and his old friend Eleanor. Other than his dinner with Widmerpool, that’s all that has happened in the first 100 pages of the 2nd movement. Jenkins just ran into Quiggin and was invited to his cottage, so I imagine that the third chapter will be about that.

I think, however, that TIME magazine’s description of the appeal of this “dodecahedral masterpiece” sums up what makes it enduring and actually better than one (myself included) might originally think:

“Beginning in the 1920's, A Dance to the Music of Time follows the lives of a group of English friends and acquaintances as they make their various ways through life: meeting and parting, succeeding and failing, loving and hating, living and dying. There is ample room for both comedy and tragedy in this capacious, large-hearted work, but Powell's real triumph is the way he catches the rhythm of fate itself, the way it brings people together, only to spin them apart, then reunite them later as near-strangers, transformed in unexpected ways by the intervening years."

The other books that I’m finishing up are Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. My step-mother-in-law loaned me Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. I had seen this book in stores over the last year or so, but never thought much of it (another 'popular' book)...but since she loaned it to me, I've been researching a bit and it sounds really interesting. I'll be trying to read that between the end of my April books (hopefully before Friday) and the beginning of my May books (Conrad's Nostromo, O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, and Water for Elephants for book club).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A long book and challenging book meme

This is a conglomeration of a few different book memes that I found, mostly here, and a few of my own questions. :-) (Updated September 2011)

The books we buy:

1. Hardback, Trade Paperback, or Mass Market Paperback? Trade paperback is my favorite, with mass market a distant second, especially if the book is long. I like to carry multiple (as in, typically five or more) books around at a time, and hardbacks are much more cumbersome.

2. Buy or borrow? I typically buy, but borrow occasionally. I use the library mostly for books under 250 pages or for inter-library loans of long out-of-print books I can't find elsewhere.

3. Buying choice: Book reviews, recommendations, or browse? I get a lot of books based on recommendations from The Millions (my favorite book-related site) or NPR. Otherwise, I will only take recommendations from people who have read and liked books similar to others that I like (which is, pretty much, no one).

4. New or Used? Usually new, but I like used also. Sometimes it's nice to have a book that someone else broke in for you (like my copy of Jane Eyre)

5. The five most recent books you’ve bought for yourself? McEwan's Enduring Love and Saturday, Don Delillo's White Noise, Edouard-Levé's Suicide, and a story collection by Borges.

6. Books you’ve been hunting for years without success? I would say The Green Hat but I wouldn't say that I've been very active in hunting it. A tip: when hunting for books you can't seem to find, make sure you have the title that it was published under in your particular country. I spend a year or two investigating If This Is a Man. It wasn't until I got it through interlibrary loan that I realized it was readily available in the US as Survival at Auschwitz. Big *DURF* on my part!

7. Books you need to go with other books on your shelves? I have Regeneration by Pat Barker…there are two other books in the series.

The books we own…

1. Bookmark or dogear? Bookmark typically. I have a bookmark collection, and frequently make my own, sometimes to fit one particular book. I have already gone on a massively panicked search when I thought I had lost my favorite bookmark (which is a St. John's College one, in case you were wondering).

2. Alphabetize by author, by title, or random? Most are arranged randomly by whether I read them or not. Other books are typically arranged by shelf, by category. Beat literature and related texts are grouped together on their own shelf. I will not allow my Kerouac to mingle with the hoi polloi :-)

3. Keep, throw away, or sell? I mostly keep...probably about 95%. I usually donate the rest, though I've been known to throw away occasionally (like The Ginger Man – that copy went right in the garbage).

4. Books that filled you with a sudden, inexplicable curiosity, not easily justified, such that you had to have it? I have those weekly.

. Books that you own (or want to own) so they’ll be handy just in case? I have about 6 or 7 volumes of Will Durant's Story of Civilization (there are 11 total). I've never read a sentence out of them, but one day I'm sure they'll come in handy, right?

The books we read….

1. First book to leave a lasting impression? Though I had read a lot prior to this, the book that probably had the most impression was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. That and Voices After Midnight are my childhood favorites.

2. Name the book that has most made you want to visit a place? The English Patient made we want to visit North Africa. Maybe know, when they aren't revolting

3. Which book would you recommend to a teenager reluctant to try “literature”? If he is a teenager that has anything in common with me, I would always recommend Confederacy of Dunces. Kafka's The Trial would also be a good one. Others might be Catch-22, Crime and Punishment, On the Road, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, etc. The youngsters also seem to like Catcher in the Rye, though I never did.

4. Name your best recent literary discovery? Erlend Loe's Naive Super

5. The last book you read? Billiards at Half Past Nine by Heinrich Boll

6. The last five books that have been really meaningful to you? Wow, this is really a challenge. If I get one really meaningful book in a year, that’s a good year. Last year it was The Age of Innocence. This year I’ve read a few – Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams and Noel Coward’s play Still Life being two.

7. Your five favorite books? The Great Gatsby, On the Road, The English Patient, Confederacy of Dunces, and...The Awakening, I suppose. Honorable mentions go out to The End of the Affair, Crime and Punishment, Virgin Suicides, Unbearable Lightness of Being, Nausea, The Stranger, and Lolita.

8. Favorite book of which nobody else has heard? There is a short story I read once called "The Hounds of Tindalos". I don't remember who wrote it, but it was insanely awesome and I was able to track it down in an obscure sci-fi anthology.

9. Books read long ago that it’s now time to re-read? Kafka's The Trial

10. The best non-fiction title you’ve read this year? I don't remember the last nonfiction I read.

The books we want to read…

1. Top five books on your “to be read” pile? Allison Pearson's I Think I Love You, Huxley's Point Counter Point, Leve's Suicide, Obrecht's The Tigers Wife, Hans Keilson's Comedy in a Minor Key and Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I also want to finally get around to Franzen. I feel like I'm completely missing the conversation.

2. Bottom five books on your “to be read” pile? Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, The Jungle, Ivanhoe, Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc.

3. Books you’ve been planning to read for ages? It’s almost become a game to me as to how long I can go WITHOUT reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m up to 15 years.

4. Books that if you had more than one life you’d certainly read but unfortunately your days are numbered? Proust. I sometimes have lofty and unrealistic reading goals, but I don't go there.

5. The next book you will read? I Think I Love You.

The characters we know…

1. Which fictional parents do you most wish you had? Atticus Finch came immediately to mind. And I love Ma Joad. I know she's poor and uneducated, but she's awesome.

2. Which fictional character has the most balls? I was going to write Dr. Frankenstein, because he has the balls to create life, but I think Hester Prynne (Scarlet Letter)takes the award, IMO. An honorable mention to Lena Grove from Faulkner's Light in August. She walks from Alabama to Mississippi to find her baby daddy. Oh yes, and Edmond Dantes.

3. To which fictional character’s house would you most like to be invited for dinner? Gatsby. Or someone from Dance to the Music of Time. Those people know how to have a dinner party.

4. If you could invite 3 fictional couples to your home for dinner, who would they be? I can't think of any couples, but I wouldn't mind having a drink with Brett Ashley, Jordan Baker, and Holly Golightly and maybe Sabina from Unbearable Lightness. And maybe Mrs. Erdleigh from Dance to the Music of Time could come and read fortunes.

5. Which fictional character frightens you the most? Madame de la Rougierre from Sheridan LeFanu's Uncle Silas still gives me the creeps. Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca) is also frightening. I don't like old women stalking around, apparently. The Dust Witch and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes also frighten me.

6. Which fictional character could probably entice you into his/her bed? I'm going to go with Almasy from The English Patient.

7. Which fictional character would most likely have broken your heart? Ah, Mr. Rochester...*sigh* Which is funny, really, because Bronte doesn’t hide the fact that he looks like a horse and has his wife locked in the attic.

8. Three characters you wish you could meet? Well, Meurseult, Binx Bolling, Antoine Roquentin and myself could all get together and talk about our existential crises

9. Three fictional characters you're heartily glad that you'll never have to meet? Definitely Ignatius from Confederacy of Dunces. He's hilarious but absolutely the last person I'd like to run into anywhere. Rabbit Angstrom and Tom Buchanan (Gatsby) are the other two that come to mind immediately. Michael Henchard is a great big asshole as well.

10. Three characters you would like to be? This is perhaps toughest of all. I never much thought of it... I don't know that I'd like to be any particular character. Most people in the books that I read don't have such great lives, so perhaps I should leave well-enough alone, if you know what I mean. I always did identify with Alice (in Wonderland), though.

The authors we love (or hate)…

1. Who is your all-time favorite author? Jack Kerouac, if only for purely sentimental reasons.

2. Who is your least favorite author? Henry James, by a looooooong shot

3. Three authors you want to read more by? Margaret Atwood and Don Delillo come to mind.

4. Author you definitely want to read, but haven’t yet? Jennifer Egan is one. Franzen also, and David Foster Wallace.

5. Which contemporary author will still be read in 100 years? I’m so behind on contemporary literature that I really couldn’t say. I hope Foer continues to write.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Jeanette Winterson Quote

"Mrs Winterson [Jeanette's mother] always objected to book-reading on the grounds that, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.’ How true. Anybody who spends time with real books knows that they are dangerous objects likely to blow up in your face. Good books are detonating devices, and able to trigger something in the mind of the reader – a memory perhaps, or a revelation, or an understanding not possible by other means. Not for nothing was Madam Bovary kept away from trapped French housewives…. I have argued before that it is this unaccountability to external authority that makes reading both defiant, and an act of free will. The CCTV and the Webcam, the bugged phone, and the surveillance systems can do nothing about the private dialogue between reader and writer. When books are banned or censored we concentrate on their content, forgetting the more sinister implications of what reading stands for, and why it poses a threat...

"Freedom of choice, as it is called, floods the market with trash, so that readers are genuinely bewildered about what is and isn’t worth the time, and books are marketed as five-day-wonder disposable objects. Bookshops are no longer places to browse. Reading itself has been downgraded from something that matters, to something you might do when your iPod is broken or there is nothing on TV.

"We are not supposed to say that some books are better than others, or that reading those books can make a difference to the way we understand ourselves, and ourselves in the world.

"The fact is that real books teach us how to read between the lines. That is a skill that everyone needs these days. You may think that the better newspapers can do that for us, but I don’t believe in passivity of any kind. Thinking for yourself is not only an intellectual exercise – it is an imaginative leap. Books make the leap."


Monday, April 7, 2008

Another Book Meme

I found this really fun book meme. I love these things:

One book that changed your life: There have been so many books that have affected me over my reading life, but one especially come to mind as having actually influenced actions in my life: The Awakening by Kate Chopin. When I read it in high school, I thought it was fabulous. But it wasn’t until I was in an emotionally/psychologically abusive marriage that I realized The Awakening’s full power. Suddenly, I saw myself completely as Edna, and I saw Edna’s end as my own. That was the turning point for me: the realization that I didn’t have to be Edna…that there was an alternative path for me as a woman of the 21st century that was not available to Edna at the turn of the 20th. Taking full advantage of that was the best decision of my life…and The Awakening was a major factor in that decision.

One book that you’ve read more than once: I reread a lot (though not recently), but the book that most clearly illustrates the joys of rereading is The English Patient. Everytime I read it, I find something new, or a different passage means something other than what they meant before. Over the course of my life, I have identified wholeheartedly with Almasy, Katherine, and Hana. In fact, identifying with Hana made me come to terms with a “relationship” I was sort of having with a German. It wasn’t meant to be and The English Patient helped me realize and accept that fact. Rereading that book has also shown me how much I have grown and changed since I first read it 11 years ago, so it’s as much a biography and measure of myself as it is an exquisite piece of art.

One book you’d want on a desert island: My first reaction to this is to say Robinson Crusoe, as it might give me some ideas for survival techniques. My second reaction is to want The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, simply so that I could be reminded of complete futility, repetitiveness and meaninglessness of all life, not just life on a desert island. My third reaction is to want a very long, classic tome, such as Don Quixote, War and Peace, Moby Dick, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or even "Paradise Lost", as it would take a lifetime to fully comprehend these great works, and being on a desert island, I would have all the time in the world.

One book that made you laugh: The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The Funniest Book Ever. I often see those, “If you could invite any three literary characters to lunch…” questions, and I can never really think of anyone specific. But Ignatius always immediately comes to mind as THE literary character that I would NOT want to invite to lunch.

One book that made you cry: Miracle in the Rain by Ben Hecht. The movie of the same name makes me sob uncontrollably as well. The saddest, yet most uplifting story ever about the undying quality of love. *Sigh*

One book you wish had been written: I wish the John Kennedy Toole would have lived long enough to write more novels, because I’m sure that I (and many others) would have thoroughly enjoyed them.

One book you wish had never been written: The Ambassadors. Or maybe we should just make a clean sweep of James’s entire catalog and save the next generation of readers from having to read that crap.

One book you’re currently reading: A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. My book club's topic for April is Jane Austen, so rather than read a bio of her, I thought I would be completely unconventional and read Woolf instead. It discusses Austen after all, and the miracle that her works were written in the first place, so that sort of counts, right?

One book you’ve been meaning to read: My TBR list is about ten miles long, so I will go with Possession by Byatt. It's been on the pile for too long. Hopefully I'll get to it this year. I can't imagine how free my book list will be in 2011, when I am finished with the Modern Library's list. Oh wait, it won't be free because I'll probably be getting through Time's list. By the time I'm finished with all the top 100 lists of the 20th century they will be writing them about the 21st century. IT WILL NEVER END!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

If This Is A Man - Primo Levi

“Architects calmly design the gates meant to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Burger, a German worker, Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam, Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow, and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away. One day their quarters are ready. All that’s missing is them.” – Night and Fog

Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man was released in the U.S. as Survival at Auschwitz, but If This Is A Man fits the theme of the book much better. The question, “if this is a man,…” can be asked in two ways: If the prisoner of the camps is a man, why is s/he treated in this manner? and If the officers, the Kapos, the soldiers are men, how do they find it within themselves to treat other human beings in such a manner? “The personages in these pages are not men. Their humanity is buried, or they themselves have buried it, under an offence received or inflicted on someone else. The evil and insane SS men, the Kapos, the political, the criminal, the prominent, great and small, down to the indifferent slave Häftlinge, all the grades of the mad hierarchy created by the Germans paradoxically fraternize in a uniform internal desolation.”

Levi, an Italian Jew was brought to Auschwitz III (Monowitz, the labor camp) in early 1944. By a stroke of fortune, he was sent to the Ka-Be (the infirmary) because of scarlet fever just before the forced march out of Auschwitz in January 1945 (Eli Wiesel’s Night tells the story of the march). He and a few others left behind in the sickbay forage for food, batteries, and a furnace…(“like the story of Robinson Crusoe in hell” – Phillip Roth)…enough to keep themselves and the others alive until the camp is liberated by the Russians a few days later. Over the course of the book, Levi and the other prisoners lose their humanity, and are able to gain it back. Humanity, according to Levi’s narrative, is gratitude, kindness, generosity, and unselfishness: “When the broken window was repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and at that moment Towarowski…proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. And so it was agreed. Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager said: ‘eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor,’ and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead. It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died slowly changed from Häftlinge to men again.”

Levi also describes what he terms the “Drowned” and the “Saved.” The saved “develop ways of surviving” in the camp, mostly through connections and official and unofficial positions within the hierarchy of prisoners. The Drowned, also called musselman are the weak, those who are unable to adapt and survive. “One knows that they are only here on a visit, that in a few weeks, nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some near-by field and crossed out number on a register…they suffer and drag themselves along in an opaque intimate solitude, and in solitude they die and disappear, without leaving a trace in anyone’s memory.” The stories that have come out of the Holocaust are the stories of the saved. The drowned will forever remain in that unnamed solitude. Levi sums up life in the camps in the following, stark way: “here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone.”

Levi stated in an interview with Phillip Roth that his model for the style of If This Is A Man was the “weekly report” used in industry. This comes across clear, as his prose is distant, simple, and objective. I did not find Levi’s narrative as moving as Wiesel’s Night, though I read that in ninth grade so my remembrance of it might be skewed by my age at the time of my reading as well as the passage of time since then. But Levi’s prose style is effective, and gives the reader a contrast, in that what is described is horrific, but it is told in the manner of an everyday, “everything as usual” manner.

“Even a peaceful landscape…even a meadow in harvest, Even a peaceful landscape...even a meadow in harvest, with crows circling overhead and grass fires...even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass...even a resort village with a steeple and country fair can lead to a concentration camp.” – Night and Fog

The French film Night and Fog (see my previous post) is also about Auschwitz, and I timed my Netflix delivery of the documentary to coincide with my finishing If This Is A Man. It is an extremely moving piece of film, in which there is no dialog, just images of Auschwitz in color, with birds and grass, and black and white footage of the camps, probably of both Allied and German origin. It’s not a film about Hitler (in fact, there is only one shot of him); it’s not a film about Nazis. It is just images with a voice-over. But the images: train tracks leading to the camp, now covered with grass. Decapitated bodies. People with stars of David on their jackets, waiting with their luggage beside the train. A bulldozer pushing bodies into a pit. The fingernail scrapings on the inside of the gas chambers. It is all horrendous. The film brought horrible reality to Levi’s slightly distant prose. The images of the prisoners’ shoes was especially poignant after reading Levi’s account of the problems they caused. Two lessons are taken away from the film: Who is responsible? and will we let this type of tragedy happen again by our complacency…by our belief that this horror happened at time and place that is now passed? This is a film everyone should see.

“Today, I think that if for no other reason than that an Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of Providence.” – Primo Levi

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Night and Fog

"Who among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower to warn of the arrival of our new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own? We pretend to take up hope again asthe image recedes into the past, as if we were cured once and for all of the scourge of the camps. We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity's never-ending cry."

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Have you ever seen those commercials for Adovart, the enlarged prostate medicine, in which the person in the commercial has a "going problem"? Well, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom seems to have a similar problem. Rabbit, a 26-year-old former h.s. basketball star one day decides to leave his pregnant wife. So, he just leaves. He ends up living with part-time prostitute Ruth. After essentially forcing her to have oral sex with him as punishment for her "treatment" of him at dinner ("I need to see you on your knees"), he gets a call that his wife (Janice) is in labor. So, he leaves Ruth and goes back to Janice. They are in marital bliss until one night, shortly after the birth, Rabbit wants to have sex with Janice. She's not really feeling it - after all, she just had a baby - so Rabbit tries to force her to have anal sex with him. When that doesn't go his way, he leaves again. While he's gone, Janice (who's an alcoholic of sorts...) gets drunk and accidently drowns the baby while giving it a bath. Back comes Rabbit. He sticks around until the funeral, where he kindly tells his wife, "Don't look at me like wasn't me who killed the baby." Obviously, people aren't really happy about that, so Rabbit turns around and does what he does best, which is run. He ends up back at Ruth's house. There he learns that she's pregnant, and has been thinking about getting an abortion. He tells her it's great that she's pregnant...he's left his wife for good and now they can be a family together. She gives him an ultimatum: get a divorce from Janice, or I'll have an abortion. Rabbit leaves to get sandwiches. But he isn't really going to get sandwiches. Guess what's he's really doing?

Rabbit is essentially an asshole. I don't know that I've ever come across such an irresponsible character before. Or one that I have disliked so much. Granted, the women in his life are always willing to take him back, no questions asked. They are also all pretty two-dimensional. There is Janice, his horribly stupid, drunk, childish wife; Ruth the not-quite-hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (but close enough); the Mother-in-Law with the evil eye, etc. I read a couple other reviews on the web, many of which praise Rabbit as an individualist and someone who looks out for his own interests. Sure, that's true: he's an individualist, and he'll be damned if he lets anyone come in between him and his sense of freedom, or whatever it is that keeps him running away from everything. One essay I found even argued Rabbit's philosophy is akin to Thoreau's:

Updike’s intention for writing the novel is the same as the philosophy Thoreau presents: live life to find what is right, even if it means going against the norms of society.

I suppose some people see their liberation in Rabbit: running away to solve one's problems. But there is a big difference between finding and doing what is right even when it conflicts with societal norms and just being an irresponsible asshole. And Rabbit is all of the latter, and none of the former.

Updike said in an interview that Rabbit, Run was his reaction to Kerouac's On the Road:

"Jack Kerouac’s On the Road came out in 1957 and, without reading it, I resented its apparent instruction to cut loose; Rabbit, Run was meant to be a realistic demonstration of what happens when a young American family man goes on the road – the people left behind get hurt."
I take great issue with this. On the Road is not an instruction to cut loose, though many (wrongfully) assume it is so. Sal Paradise is on essentially a hero's quest: to be transformed by America into a man, and also, pragmatically, to get material for a book. Sal (like Kerouac) wasn't the "American family man." His first marriage (childless) had been annulled and he lived with his mother. Hardly leaving behind the wife and kids. Kerouac, a deeply religious (Catholic), Republican mama's-boy (I say that out of love, Jack) never eschewed most of the social conventions of the time (other than a little sex and a little drugs), such as his strong belief in order, piety, and "white picket fences and the honey at home", as he so often reiterated. But of course nobody listened...they kept confusing Kerouac with Dean Moriarty, the Neal Cassady doppleganger of On the Road. Now there is a person who could be seen as the inspiration for Rabbit's action. Here was a "family man" (the term only loosely applies to Cassady - he was married and had children but was hardly what you would imagine as a typicaly family man). He married one girl (literally - I think she was 16), they got divorced, and he married again (while continuing to sleep with his first wife), then they divorced after a few kids, and he married again, had another kid, then went back to his second wife. Moriarty, had he been from a Pennsylvania, middle-class, stable family, might have been Rabbit. Rabbit, had he been a slightly schizophrenic son of a hobo alcoholic, who spent his entire childhood drifting across the country, might have been Moriarty. I would therefore classify Rabbit, Run as less of a reaction to On the Road as really showing what would happen if an actual family man took up the Moriarty torch. One also must keep in mind that at the end of On the Road, Paradise leaves Moriarty behind in favor of the traditional life. But then again, Updike states clearly that he didn't read On the Road. I wonder if he had, if he would have written Rabbit, Run in the same context.

I HATE Rabbit, like I hated the jocks in high school who got everything they wanted because they were superstars. But now they'd be 26, like Rabbit, and I wonder if any of them have similar "going" problems (and not the kind caused by prostates, though...). I truely, deeply hate Rabbit Angstrom. But to Updike's credit, I want to find out what happens to Rabbit in the subsequent Rabbit books. Hopefully, he gets his comeuppance.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Game of Humiliation

Another "How Many of These Books Have You Read"...This one is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years from the NY Times
From here

Beloved–Toni Morrison
Underworld–Don DeLillo
Blood Meridian–Cormac McCarthy
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels–John Updike– Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest
American Pastoral–Philip Roth
A Confederacy of Dunces–John Kennedy Toole
Housekeeping–Marilynne Robinson
Winter’s Tale–Mark Helprin
White Noise–Don DeLillo
The Counterlife–Philip Roth
Libra–Don DeLillo
Where I’m Calling From–Raymond Carver
The Things They Carried–Tim O’Brien
Mating–Norman Rush
Jesus’ Son–Denis Johnson
Operation Shylock–Philip Roth
Independence Day–Richard Ford
Sabbath’s Theater–Philip Roth
Border Trilogy–Cormac McCarthy— All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain
The Human Stain–Philip Roth
The Known World–Edward P. Jones
The Plot Against America–Philip Roth

This really was a game of humiliation! Blood Meridian, The Things They Carried, and Housekeeping are on my list, though.