Category Archives: Books of the 21st century
Last post was a stupid experimental thing about doodling while reading Chomsky, so I thought I’d follow up with a more conventional post now that I’m nearly finished with the audio book. I can’t guarantee this one is much more intelligent, but at least it doesn’t involve doodling. After this I promise I will get back to the serious business of discussing Victorian novels.
And by the way, Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Sorry I don’t have a more St. P’s oriented post. The closest thing I have to something Irish is a post on Phineas Finn Redux by Anthony Trollope.
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I am driving to work so early that the sun will not rise for another two hours, listening to an audio book called Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, a collection of talks and discussions by Noam Chomsky the famous MIT professor of linguistics. I have never read anything by Chomsky before except one article – an interview by David Barsamian in the June 2014 issue of The Sun called Noam Chomsky: On How the U.S. Breeds Inequality at Home and Instability Abroad. The article interested me enough to seek out a Chomsky audio book. I read for one purpose: to further my understanding of truth. I do not read to relax – reading always stimulates me. If a book relaxes me I fall asleep. Nor do I usually read to entertain myself, although entertainment is almost always a fringe benefit.
I am 97 percent done with the audio book, which is like 22.5 hours long, and I must say it is causing me to see the world differently. The world Chomsky describes is scary and getting scarier all the time. These talks occurred in the late 1980s through around 1999, so it is interesting to hear his perspective on events and decisions that immediately preceded the world we are living in now. As Chomsky describes it seems there is a web of power spreading like an interconnected cloud of darkness over the political globe made up of an insulated class of rich and powerful people getting fatter and fatter while 99 percent of world’s population slowly declines into more or less hopeless poverty. The vast majority of people outside the web of power are considered to be cannon fodder or “consumers” or simply disposable, as in the exploding U.S. prison population. A dark vision indeed, but Chomsky gives too much evidence and speaks with too much plain common sense to simply disregard it.
Very early morning is my best time to contemplate. I contemplate if all the disposable products that are marketed at us tend calibrate ours minds to disposable mode – disposable people, disposable time. Or if we are conditioned to think of all things, even time, as product – i.e., those neatly scheduled blocks of quality time we are supposed to plan with our children. It makes me think of Erich Fromm, his concept of having vs. being. Everyone has part of the puzzle. Perhaps the puzzle is not that hard. It’s just that – perhaps – and God knows I am not quick to leap to judgment – the web of power has an interest in obscuring the clear truth from the 99 percent. Because the truth would make us angry, as in French-Revolution angry.
I may be mistaken, but I get the idea Chomsky believes this world is all there is. He seems to see religious faith as a symptom of lower, less advanced society, at least when he talks about the American south. He thinks the only hope is for the people of the world to organize social activism groups and international unions. I do believe there is a power higher than the world’s web of international finance but I understand where Chomsky is coming from. It’s like people sense they are getting screwed. We know there are powerful organizations working daily against our personal interests, as evidenced by all our conspiracy theories. But most of us do not understand the details: things like how international currency values work and how trade deals are made that further enrich the wealthy while shutting down factories in towns or how deals are made that enable the manufacture of chemicals for short-term profit that destroy the atmosphere and God knows what else.
Even when we do understand the outlines of how these things work we feel helpless to do anything about it. We don’t have the money or the access to the fancy dinners and golf courses and conferences and schools where these deals are made that are sucking the life out of our little economies. So some of us go to church and pray. Chomsky might say this faith energy would be better devoted to organizing some action. And who am I to say he is wrong? That might be exactly God’s intention. My guess is that doing while praying would be the most productive plan.
So far I think the book has lived up to its title. It is furthering my understanding of power.
Einstein: His Life and Universe is a treasury of Einstein stories and quotes. Einstein was a very quotable guy and this surely enhanced his popularity. Here are a few of my favorites:
In an interview shortly after his 50th birthday, a journalist named George Sylvester Viereck asked Einstein if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus. Einstein’s response: “Unquestionably. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”
I was just impressed that Einstein had taken the time to read the Gospels. In the same interview, Veireck asked him if he believed in God. He was asked this question or some version of it many times during his life; this was one of his best answers.
“I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written this books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”
About America he most admired the freedom to express individual ideas, even unpopular ones, without fear. “From what I have seen Americans, I think that life would not be worth living to them without this freedom.”
Einstein’s appreciation of freedom, his natural tendency from birth, was greatly energized by his experience of living in Berlin and witnessing the rise of the Nazis. He publicly announced that he “would not live in a country where people were denied the freedom to hold and express their own thoughts.”
It is Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and wouldn’t you know, just this morning I finished listening to A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, one of the best novels about a veteran I have encountered. One of the best things about the reading life it that it is rich in coincidence and mysterious connections. I don’t care one bit that the book is about a British veteran and not an American. Wars, when they begin, are all about sovereignty, national pride, or righteous indignation, but in the end they are about the shared misery of the human experience. Then after a few years, when the mess is cleaned up, the rubble cleared away and shiny new buildings erected, when the bodies become memories or neatly mowed graveyards, the war is revived as a heroic story, at least for the victors. If you want to read a novel about the impact of war upon the mind and soul of a decent human being you can hardly do better than this one.
A God in Ruins is “a companion rather than a sequel” (according to the author) to Life After Life, Atkinson’s wonderful novel about Ursula Todd’s continual life do-overs. Ursula keeps dying and starting over, each time improving her life from felt rather than remembered experience. A God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, the fourth of the five Todd children and the family darling. The novel tells Teddy’s story in non-sequential chapters that alternate between his life as an RAF bomber pilot in the World War II and his more prosaic post-war life as a husband, father, and grandfather.
Teddy’s life as an RAF pilot is described in detail with just enough technical detail to make it real without boring the non-technical reader. He is acutely aware that the bombers are “birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.” During a short leave, Teddy allows himself to become engaged to marry Nancy Shorecross, his childhood sweetheart, but only to indulge a momentary fantasy. He does not really believe he has a future. This is very realistic. Of the RAF pilots who were active at the beginning of the war, only 10 percent lived to see the end of it.
In Life After Life we come to know Teddy as a sweet sensitive boy who loves nature. In A God in Ruins, he is bored stiff working in the bank with his father when war breaks out with Hiltler’s Germany. He joins the Royal Air Force (RAF) and becomes a bomber pilot. His mission is to fly the planes that bomb German cities to smithereens. He witnesses horrible training accidents, loses most of his crew members in crashes, and hears of the horrible deaths of other friends and also lovers. (In the post novel interview with the author, Atkinson says that most of the incidents described in the book were based on historical accounts of things that actually happened.) To some extent he walls himself off emotionally, clinging to firm belief that he is serving his country and that his country is in the right. He keeps his humanity in tact, especially in his relationship with his sister Ursula and his dog Lucky, the dog that Ursula rescues during the London Blitz in Life After Life and then gives to Teddy. The plucky little dog stays with Teddy throughout the war and even stows aboard on one of the bombing ops.
Though he must give up all qualms or even thoughts about turning cities full of women and children into fiery bowels of hell, he resolves that if, by some miracle, he should survive the war, he will be kind. It’s the only feather he can offer to the balance of good and evil. After the war he keeps that promise and returns, though scarred (“a god in ruins”), to a new more somber version of his nature-loving self, like Candide, cultivating his own garden. Although this novel is more traditional than its predecessor – Teddy get to live only one life with its terrible decisions and irretrievable losses – there are hints that things could have been different and perhaps in some parallel universe, are different. He could have gone down on his final flight with the Halifax and his daughter Viola and his grandchildren would never have existed. I got the sense that with the millions of youthful deaths World War II there were born millions of alternative stories that might be happening in millions of alternative worlds. The novel presents the morality and non-morality of war from several angles, letting readers draw our own conclusions.
In addition to the impact of the war on Teddy’s soul, another theme was the contrast between the war experience and the post-war world. This experience is mostly expressed through Teddy’s messed-up daughter Viola. Viola is a trip: she considers herself a free spirit but is really confused, angry, and irresponsible. In her young adult years she hooks up with a blue-blood drug addict named Dominic and lives a counterculture life, squatting in a group house or living on a commune farm. She and Dominic have two children who they name Sun and Moon, but who end up being called Sunny and Bertie (Roberta is Moon’s middle name). Sunny and Bertie pretty much end up being raised by Teddy.
Throughout most of the novel Viola was utterly unlikeable. She is a horrible mother, narcissistic, and rude and insensitive to her father (“Here we go. Another history lesson.”) In a charmingly humble way Atkinson makes this horrible woman a successful novelist. You realize gradually that Viola’s problems have a lot to do with losing her mother to brain cancer at the age of nine. Toward the end of the novel Viola manages to come to a painful point of self-understanding and honest reckoning that made me almost want to like her.
I enjoyed the many references to poetry, literature, and children’s stories especially since some of my favorites get prominent mentions. Teddy is such a fan of Anthony Trollope that that Barchester Towers is what his granddaughter reads to him on his deathbed. Bertie keeps a bag of “lovelies” with her to help keep her perspective when she works in the advertising world – mostly quotes from favorite poets such as Emily Dickinson. The grandchildren, Sunny and Bertie, to deal with some scary childhood experiences, turn to fairy tales for understanding and comfort. And of course there are references to the fictional Adventures of Augustus, a children’s book series Teddy’s Aunt Izzie wrote years before, supposedly based on him.
One additional point: this novel has a lot to do with death, is in fact permeated with death, like the shadow that haunts us all our lives and also in the sense of its painful prosaic reality. Teddy lives to the age of 98 and we find out how each of his family members dies. His wife Nancy, an atheist and scientific pragmatist, face her cancer death in 1960 with unflinching stoicism” “And then Nancy was no more.” This uncompromising ceasing to exist is the scariest conception of death I know but there is also talk of angels and dogs in heaven. It’s as if Atkinson gives each character a death according to their own expectations and beliefs. And who knows? Maybe that’s exactly how it happens: atheists experience nothing and believers experience what they believe in.
The novel takes us all the way to 2012, so we have mentions of the terrorist attack of 911, smartphones, and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee. The final chapters, which include Teddy’s final moments, are beautiful and surprisingly whimsical. I liked that when I finished the novel I felt a sense of possibilities opening rather and a door (coffin lid) clanking shut.
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NOTE: I listed to the unabridged audio version of this book, read by Alex Jennings.
I guess it’s because Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is now a hit HBO miniseries that this 2008 “Novel in Stories” popped up on my Audible screen. The book description, hinting I suppose at revelations about human nature, attracted my attention enough to download it. Also it was on sale for $4.95. With the number of audio books I listen to a sale price is always a great attraction. This brilliant collection of 13 connected short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 but of course I did not know that until I had nearly finished the book.
The stories are about the residents of a quirky seaside town called Crosby Maine where Olive Kitteridge is a retired high school math teacher and her husband Henry a retired pharmacist. The town is a little quaint, almost foreign, and a bit self-enclose; at the time it is a perfect microcosm of the current world. I guess that’s what struck me the most: how honest and realistic the characters seem. All are living outwardly ordinary lives and yet they deal with a full range of life issues, each specific to the particularly character and yet achingly familiar.
Olive appears in each story but to different extents and from various points of view. It is a bit like a camera zooming in and out and over to the side. In some stories see the world through her mind and in others she plays a small role or makes a Hitchcock-like cameo. Other characters seeing her pass by and having a thought or memory about her anchors the book.
Among the many issues the Crosby characters deal with two stand out: mental health and secret love. Suicide figures prominently. Olive’s quiet father killed himself and her mother was most upset that he did not leave a note. He’d leave a note even to run to the grocery store but not this time. In the story in which she reveals this, Olive is conversing with a former student, now a psychiatrist, who has returned to town intending to kill himself in the woods near his childhood home. Olive recognizes him sitting in his car outside a diner and on some instinct simply invites herself to sit in the passenger seat and chat. She knows something of his background.
This is the second story in the book and one of my favorites. Of course, most of them are one of my favorites. But in all I’ve read I have never quite seen the reasons the young psychiatrist, Kevin Coulson, wants to die expressed so clearly and with such pungency. We discover that Kevin’s mother, also a doctor, killed herself when he was a child, and after he left home for college his now-deceased father made no effort to keep in touch with him. Kevin has also lost touch with his brother who is living on the streets of Berkeley as a drug addict. All his efforts to find meaning and to establish a family life for himself have failed and he has become tired of the hurt, disappointment, and alienation he continually feels wherever he goes, so much so that he wants only to come home to a place with horrible memories but where at least he once felt like he belonged. This story ends dramatically but not tragically when a waitress from diner, a girl Kevin once knew, falls into the sea.
The initial story in the book focuses on Henry Kitteridge, Olive’s husband, and takes place earlier in their lives when Henry still owns the town pharmacy. It is the perfect place to start. We get to really find out who Henry is and the secret love theme is established in the story of his relationship with his young assistant, Denise Thibodeau . This story shines light and adds depth to the subsequent stories dealing with the marriage of Henry and Olive. An article on the NPR website by Eric Deggans is headlined “HBO’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ May Be The Best Depiction Of Marriage On TV.” I have not yet watched the mini series but I’m glad to know this because that is exactly what I thought about the book. Henry and Olive are one of those couples you see in town or at church or at work events who seem happy and solid. Other townsfolk in the book see them around and figure they are just a happily married couple,devoted to each other, true to the template. And they do have a reasonably healthy marriage.
But the question is this: is it possible for happily married people to spend years and years in love with someone else, living an alternative life if their minds? Yes it is. Not only is Henry in love with a woman he hasn’t seen in years but Olive is in love with a man who died in an automobile accident years ago, so much so that she is still thinking of him when she is 72 years old and widowed. They both know about each other’s loves and they don’t talk about it. It is not even a source of tension. Olive points to the annual birthday card for Henry from Denise on the table with a sort of shrug.They just keep having their marriage in the sphere where it lives.
Aging is another beautifully portrayed theme in this book but it is aging in the context of a rich history of life and love. I like how Olive is so accepting of difficult facts such as one’s husband having a stroke and one’s own time on earth drawing short. Also many of the stories deal with relationships between parents and their adult children. Henry and Olive have one son, Christopher, who grows up to become a podiatrist. Olive knows he has problems with depression and gets him treated, but it is only years later on a disastrous visit to see her son and second wife, that Olive has some painful realizations about herself and Christopher’s childhood.
All of these themes: mental health, family life, love, especially longstanding love, and aging come to life through the stories of many other characters. Some are dramatic: the son of one prominent couple in town murders a woman. Some are less outwardly dramatic: the piano player and local tavern, Angie O’Meara, lives a quiet lonely life, but the story of her inward transformation is a thing to treasure.
If you like books that really try to get to the core of what this strange life as a human is all about, you will like this book. It treats people and their problems with honestly and compassion but is never mushy or sentimental. The writing is fantastic: graceful prose and realistic dialog with plenty humor. I often found myself laughing out loud. And it ends on a life-affirming note. I am looking forward to watching the now Emmy award winning mini series and will do that as soon as I figure out how a non-HBO subscriber can get it.
Note: I listened to the unabridged Brilliance audiobook beautifully narrated by Sandra Barr.
When I began listening to the audio book We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (beautifully read by Mare Winningham) I really had no idea what I was getting into. I’m not sure how I got it on my reading list except that I am making an effort to read more contemporary literature and I think I saw it on a list of notable new books. I had the vague notion it was a family drama about immigrants, which it was, but the drama was both more and less dramatic than I expected. The novel is basically the story of a life, that of Eileen Tumulty, a woman born in 1941 to working class Irish immigrant parents living in Queens New York. The story follows Eileen’s life, through her childhood, education, career as a nurse, marriage, and parenthood until 2011, leaving her alive at the end.
Eileen’s parents have a troubled marriage and are disappointed with their lot in life, especially her mother who falls into a long illness and then alcoholism after suffering a miscarriage when Eileen is nine years old. Eileen’s father is a hard worker who works a second job at a bar, the place where he is most happy, so Eileen takes over the cooking, cleaning, and care taking of her mother. Fortunately, Eileen is a smart, resourceful, resilient girl who does well in school despite her difficult home life. At thirteen she gets Alcoholics Anonymous on the telephone and hands it to her mother, opening the door to her mother’s recovery, just one of the redemptions that happen throughout this novel.
Eileen’s childhood and teen years set the stage is set for her over-developed sense of responsibility and a persistent desire for a respectable stable upper middle class life, the main ingredient of which is a house in a good neighborhood. Eileen is slim and attractive enough to get a job as a dress model in a department store while attending nursing school. I found it interesting that department stores used to employ dress models for wealthy shoppers. Anyway she has lots of dates with interested men but holds out for one who she thinks will help her get to dream house and lifestyle she dreams of.
Ed Leary is different from the others. He seems smart and ambitious. He studying neuroscience and plans an academic career. But when Eileen buys him an expensive engraved watch before their wedding he refuses to wear such an extravagant item. Eileen nearly calls off the wedding. Eileen’s father, Big Mike Tumulty, tells her he is not surprised because Ed’s family has been in this country for three generations and none of them owns a house. “That’s a sin,” he says. Eileen however loves Ed and marries him anyway.
The book resonated with me on several levels. It’s about what it means to have expectations in life, especially when living a life in a certain period in American history. How sharply defined was that vision about what it meant to have a good life and how many people shared that vision! It was difficult, I suppose, not to see it as universal. The lush neighborhoods we see from past decades as well as the ones we see still being built are witnesses to the size of the market for this vision. Also, Eileen’s life roughly coincides with the life of my mother, who was born in 1939, the daughter of second generation immigrants, also working class. My Mom also dreamed of a better life that involved a house in the suburbs and also achieved that dream. And Like Eileen she also faced many disappointments.
Actually Eileen faces more than garden-variety disappointments. Her husband, always unusual, becomes more and more eccentric. Though he is never in sync with her ambitions she works hard to make their life work. After 10 years of marriage Eileen finally becomes pregnant at age 35, long after she and Ed have given up hope of becoming parents. Their only son Connell is born in 1977 and joins the novel as a major character, going through his own up and downs, being profoundly changed by the end of the book. It was interesting how the author showed the development of Connell’s character: wavering between strength and weakness, good and evil. At the end he 34 years old and we see get an idea of what kind of person he has become.
Eileen is able to buy the house where they have been renting an apartment on the second floor. But things never quite work out as she hopes and Ed keeps getting weirder and weirder: turning down great job opportunities, insisting on teaching community college students for a lower salary, wearing old clothes, freaking out over odd things, never wanting anything to change. But he is great father to Connell and the sex is always good. Until something worse happens and the family faces a dark challenge that changes everyone.
I ended up loving this novel. Eileen is a wonderful character, a strong courageous woman but with some serious flaws. The way Thomas portrays her is both deeply compassionate but completely honest. I found her development as a character to be a fascinating look at the intersection between personal character and cultural influences. The last couple of chapters are especially beautiful as the novel comes to bittersweet resolution. But the book was also quite long and parts of it were painful to read. There are characters who appear rather suddenly without any past history, such as Bethany a former co-worker who leads Eileen to the edges of a spiritual cult. You are just told that Eileen knew the person the past.
But such minor flaws are easy to forgive because the writing is generally wonderful and you care so much about the characters. In the end I am a better, more aware person for having read it. The story sticks. I have learned things and become more sensitive to the sorrows and struggles people may be living through. I have increased insight to my own family past – new things to consider as I sift through the history and the memories. All these things are priceless gifts and therefore I must consider this novel a keeper.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the first heartwarming book I’ve read in a long time. My heart was in dire need of warming and this book did the trick. How it is I end up reading a particular book at the time I read it is an endlessly fascinating question to me. Is it mere coincidence that each book seems to come into my life for a precisely-timed reason, giving me the exact message or inspiration I need? Are books, in some sense, the way the Divine chooses to communicate with me? That does seem to be the case, yet my rational mind insists it is only my fanciful imagination that makes it seem that way. Anyway, I think I found The Storied Life…. on a list of good books published in 2014 and felt like I needed to read it.
If books were the divine conveyors of inspiration, then I suppose book stores or libraries would be the temples. This novel takes place primarily in a book store called Island Books. A.J., the owner, is a depressed literature lover, aged 39 when the story begins, who is grieving the loss of his beautiful wife and business partner Nicole, killed two years previously in a car accident.
Island Books is located on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, a fictional place very like Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, cold and isolated in the winter and flooded with tourists in the summer. It is important to the story that the island is not an easy place to get to – it can only be reached by ferry. Island Books is important to the town of Alice because it serves as a social center for the townsfolk with its book events and book club meetings. It also lends the town an aura of educated classiness, as book stores tend to do. The isolated location of the town provides a sense of cozy boundaries and forces the characters to make definite decisions about things like getting married and pursuing careers.
When the story begins A.J. is grumpy, unfriendly, and self-destructive. But he loves books so of course we know he is inherently redeemable. In the first chapter, Amelia, a new rep from Knightly Publishing Company, makes the long trip to discuss the winter catalog. A.J. is in a bad mood. He is rude to her and doesn’t even order any books, but somehow we know Amelia is going to play a role in his redemption. But first a couple of other life-changing things happen to A.J.: one bad and one good.
I saw at least one review that compares this book to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, one of my other favorite heart warmers. Both novels have rather long titles and both celebrate the healing power, joy, and social connectivity of books. But The Storied Life is a much simpler, quieter book than Guernsey. Rather than being set during and after a war with bombs and Nazis, it is just about a small group of lovable characters who read a lot and draw strength and guidance from books.
A.J. has a marked preference for short stories, and refers to lots of them, so I enjoyed the added benefit of being able to accumulate a list of stories I have yet to read. I enjoyed A.J.’s commentary about several short stories I have read including The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain, and several by Edgar Allen Poe, A.J.’s literary specialty. I am glad I recently read Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find because that story comes up several times in the course of the novel.
Of course there is a charming cast of quirky supporting characters, especially the kindly Chief Lambiase. I wish all cops were like Lambiase, who slowly develops from a non-reader to an enthusiastic book lover through his friendship with A.J. I really think reading books leads anyone to become a better person in general. Also there is Ismay Parrish, the sister of A.J.’s deceased wife, a high school English and drama teacher who is depressed about her bad marriage to Daniel, a philandering writer. By the end on the novel Ismay experiences a redemption of her own.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an excellent read for book lovers, especially book lovers who prefer the old-fashioned paper kind. A.J. is repelled and horrified by be e-readers. I enjoyed how the author deals with the issue of e-readers versus traditional (i.e., “real” books). There is a rumor going around that brick and mortar book stores are going the way of the horse and carriage. This novel makes a valiant and romantic case for their continued survival. I certainly love nothing better than a book store and want to believe such places and their literature-loving book sellers will be around to grace our cities and towns for many years to come.
Just for fun I checked to see if this novel is available for Kindle. It is! In fact you can download it free if you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited.