Saturday, April 04, 2009


A funny thing happened while reading Neil Stephenson’s newest (and best) book, Anathem. Over the last year or so whenever I have thought of Neil Stephenson’s work, and I probably have thought about it more than was good for me, I kept seeing him as a contemporary Jules Verne, crafting rip-roaring adventure stories employing technology and ideas that were (or are) on the cutting edge of science. And then hundreds of pages into Anathem, literally, there is a not-so-subtle reference to who else but Jules Verne? This causes me to believe that Stephenson, as well, sees himself as a kind of contemporary Verne, which gave me an even deeper respect for not Stephenson-the-writer, but Stephenson the man. It seems a rare thing for an author to catch a sensible—not grandiose—glimpse of themselves in the literary annals.

Anathem itself cements Stephenson’s place as a great writer. This is the book where he appears to fully break with early Stephenson and the Stephenson that his fans usually allude to—i.e. punk Stephenson with an obsessive love for technology, science, and aerobatic violence. Stephenson had already shown greater range in his strange yet fascinating trilogy of 17th Century Europe, the Baroque Cycle. However, even in these books his penchant for cutting-edgeness (monetary systems and the rise of empirical science) and action (think rapscallions in love, war, and on the high seas) dominate. But in Anathem, despite a number of really good action scenes and the technological descriptions of another world, the focus finally lies elsewhere. Stephenson overcomes technology built in the physical world and the punches also taken there to explore something far more exciting and human—the world of ideas.

Philosophy has taken a beating in the last century with people leaving it aside for the greater ‘certainty’ of religion or science. Those who study philosophy in college are largely looked at by our society as being little more than useless (we, English majors, can relate)—they will probably end up working at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. Literature, as well, has largely eschewed philosophy. In fact the last great philosopher-novelists I can think of were Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the latter who just barely saw the 20th Century. Therefore, it is quite daring, for a writer beloved for his speculative fiction and tech-savvy, to take on thousands of years of philosophical ideas. And take them on he does from Plato’s forms to Wittgenstein’s language-games.

Stephenson opens his sprawling novel in an otherworldly monastery—called a ‘concent’—only rather than being devoted to the worship and study of God, the monasteries in Stephenson’s world are devoted to what we might call a liberal arts education, focusing on science, math, music, and most importantly philosophy. It is truly an education Plato-approved. Despite the fact that this monastery system has different aims than our monastery’s (current and past), the two share certain similarities: both are set apart from larger society, members devote their days to study and ritual (here song), strict rules—which change depending on the order—apply, and time passes differently, rather than measured in lunch breaks or sitcom-length, Stephenson’s monastery measures time from years to millennium depending on the members, reflecting the slow and thoughtful life of real monks. Stephenson portrays a beautiful world inside these ‘concents’ where an outside society reliant on technology and materialism is left to focus on something far more profound: the human mind. While technology has a role in Stephenson’s monasteries, it is a largely controlled one, the primary fixation belonging to wisdom and learning.

There are few examples in our world that truly reflect Stephenson’s, although the closest would be the university. Yet Anathem’s ‘university’ is a place where students are more interested in books than beer (but fortunately they still drink); it is a place that lacks materialism, the Internet, television, and debt. Another important distinction: most of us will never have the chance to spend our whole lives in academically hallowed halls (tenure is increasingly difficult to obtain—thank you societal priorities). With the monasteries in Anathem it’s as though Stephenson wondered what would happen if Plato’s Academy had continued indefinitely while shutting itself off from the exterior world.

Currently, I am fortunate enough to be in a graduate program at St. John’s College in the Great Books. St. John’s probably reminds me more of the ‘concents’ than anywhere else I have been and Stephenson’s monks certainly embody the spirit of many of my tutors, enamored with wisdom, education, and the world of ideas. But St. John’s is not a closed society, though there are moments when it feels like it is: such as leaving class when you realize how little the ‘real’ world takes its time to really think about what you just spent any number of hours discussing.

The largest theme in Stephenson’s book is both relevant and largely ignored: what is the role of the educated elite in society? In a great passage, Stephenson explores the multiple ways of how the uneducated world views the educated, using examples from his created universe that directly correlate with Socrates execution, Captain Kirk’s gut-instinct versus Spock’s logic, and the fear of the ‘mad-scientist’, i.e one driven crazy by too much knowledge (perhaps a contemporary recreation of Faust). The book is really about these kinds of stereotypes and conflicts: what happens when the professors leave their academic stations and are forced by events to enter the world as built by those largely unconcerned with philosophy and higher wisdom.

Should philosophers rule, as advised by Plato’s Republic? Or should they hide away and be left to their own devises? How far should science and technology go? What is the role of the religious in society, especially those who may be called ‘fundamentalist’? Can the educated and the uneducated ever live peacefully—can they ever understand one another?

While Stephenson does come down on one side or the other of a couple large philosophical debates, he mostly leaves the discipline where it appears most comfortable—unanswered. The study of philosophy has always been more about experiencing the varied ways in which the world can be interpreted rather than discovering any truth with a capital ‘T’. There may be some suggestion at the end of what the author thinks, but it is a story not a lecture, and Stephenson makes certain to keep the tension between educated-uneducated present even as the novel closes.

The only place where Stephenson perhaps becomes too preachy is his view of the religious in the novel. He appears to forget that most high education throughout Western and Eastern history has been done largely by ‘Deolaters’, i.e. those who believe in a God of some kind. Even today, as society has become more skeptical, many incredibly intelligent, curious, and reasonable people still believe in a deity. While I think Stephenson is attempting to show not the folly of faith itself, but the folly of fundamentalism—or those who are ‘certain’ of their God—the book at times comes across as shaming the religious for irrationality. Still usually this is softened and the critique more reasonably focused.

Stephenson is not a writer of characters or poetic phrases; instead he is a plotter and a lover-of-ideas. His books are page-turners in the same way as 19th Century adventure novels—Dumas, London, and Verne. Unlike most contemporary writers, I would say his greatest influences—despite his largely ‘sci-fi’ aspects—actually come from these writers and others like them (I’d add Charles Dickens to the list) who weren’t afraid of writing terrifically long novels (Anathem comes in at just under 900 pages) and weren’t afraid of creating large sprawling worlds or extraneous details and side-stories, in fact, these great authors felt such details actually enrich the narrative, instead of sinking it.

Rather than write with eloquent and powerful language, Stephenson plays with language, shapes it, pummels it, and makes it into something new, yet still recognizable. For Stephenson usually this works, but sometimes I feel his prose just doesn’t hold up to his ideas. At times, instead of his writing feeling original and punchy, it comes across as juvenile and sloppy. Still, this is a small criticism in a work of literature that isn’t really about the writing. Instead, Anathem is a wonder of ideas and concepts. Like philosophy it makes one feel as though their world has expanded rather than contracted.

There are few writers today whom I feel are really moving literature forward and creating something unique and perhaps even classic (time will only tell). But Stephenson is one of them. Anathem is the kind of book one often despairs of reading in our world where writers appear increasingly obsessed with sounding clever rather than being wise. They forget: cleverness is soon forgotten, but wisdom always stays in print.

Borrowed from a friend.


By: Neal Stephenson

HarperCollins, 2008

Hardcover, 935 pages


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Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Iliad

Allow me to give credit where credit is due. I am currently enrolled in St. John's graduate program in Santa Fe. The graduate program is unique in this country in that it does not increasingly focus one's mind on a specific topic, but rather it forces the mind to expand, to reach, to go further than it ever has. It is a 'great books' program, meaning that we read the 'great books' of our cultural inheritance and then discuss them in small groups at length. It allows for conversations with intelligent and passionate fellows about a portion of the greatest thoughts and ideas ever put forth. It's kindof perfect.

I currently toil amidst the literature segment (every semester provides a different topic: Philosophy/Theology, History, Mathematics/Natural Science, Poltics and Society, and Lit), and am now reading The Odyssey and The Canturbury Tales. But last week we finished another book, one of the world's greatest pieces of literature: The Iliad, or literally 'the story of Ilium (Troy)'.

The Iliad's essential theme is what war makes of men. It should not be read as a simplistic reflection of the 13th Century B.C. Greek culture (since that is when the actual war took place and conceivably shortly thereafter the poems about it were first sung), but rather what war makes of every man in every culture. It's like Tolstoy's famous line: Every happy family is happy in the the same way, but every unhappy is unhappy in their own way. Every war causes the same changes in every culture and individual, but in peace cultures vary widely.

How is it that war's grasp is similar throughout cultures? In war, the primary objective is to win, whether for personal survival and/or personal and societal glory. War involves the wholesale destruction of the enemy by any means available, it requires a psychological divide between foe and friend. Comrades in war become incredibly close through the constant sharing of intense situations and the intimacy wiht death. War is a condition of life that stands outside the normal rules. One can kill others without punishment, in fact one's job is to kill others. The constant appearance of death simultaneously raises and lowers the importance of life. Life is easily taken, but perhaps more than ever treasured. The Iliad captures all of these universal facets of warfare, which is one reason for its brillance--there are many others.

It is the ninth year in what will be a ten year war. A war so brutal that it becomes the comparitive war for all of western culture. Whenever a city falls there is somewhere an echo of Troy. The story begins with wrath. Achilles, the greatest of the Greek's warriors, is angry. He has refused to fight because Agammenon, leader of the Greeks, has stolen Achilles' woman (he took her as booty from a raid). Achilles stands against what is obviously an unjust action by the Greek's leader. By choosing passivity, he condemns the army to suffer great losses against the Trojans. He is a kindof twisted Gandhi, choosing passive resistance to fight injustice, yet at the same time praying for his comrades' destruction to prove his righteousness.

Achilles, born of a goddess and a mortal, is stuck with a dilemna: he knows his destiny (it's definitely better not to know). He has been told by his mother that if he stays at Troy, eventually he will achieve great glory but will perish there never to return home. However, if he returns to his island-home he could live out a long life, but die without glory and infamy. He is already half-way to his destiny by being at Troy, but it is here--as he sits in his tent while other battle--when he seems for the first time tempted by the other option: a prosaic long life at home full of unremarkable deeds. He is the only character in the work who openly questions the point of this war, and the point of glory and honor all together. This is not common (either in 13th century BC or 21st century AD). Rarely do soldiers question the war while in it. Number one: they have survival on their mind. And number two: fighting a war one does not believe in is far more difficult than fighting a war one accepts. It's much easier to survive the horrors of war when one is not questioning its validity.

Many have commented on how ridiculous it is for the Greeks and Trojans to spend ten years and countless lives on a woman, Helen. However, there is more to it than that. The Greeks are fighting, because the abduction of Helen goes against the deepest part of their society. Quite simply, one cannot steal one's wife and get away with it. This is a flagrant violation of social rights. What if it was your wife? The Trojans--who never give Helen, although that seems the best way to avoid ruin--are fighting for something much clearer: home and country. The Greeks are threatening to destroy them and their city, wipe them off the face of the earth (which they eventually do). For the Trojans the posture is defensive, of course as the war goes on--as any war progresses--men start fighting for other reasons, personal, deep reasons. Namely that, how can one not fight when they have seen their comrades killed, when they have seen the bloodshed, grief, and terror caused by the other. This is depicted in Achilles when he finally re-enters the war due to Patrolocus' death. His grief becomes as insatiable as his wrath.

There is of course another way of looking at the Trojan war in general: men will use pretty much any excuse to have an enemy and to fight that enemy. A wife is stolen gives an excuse for war. We love war too much, for it paints the world in uncomplicated terms, black and white, making the majority of wars unneccessary. They happen simply because without war a man becomes restless. Witness the current war in Iraq: entered in under false pretenses, no objective but to destroy the regime, and accepted by the American people because, well, we wanted to fight some more and kill some more. Our bloodlust was not satiated with Afghanistan. To begin war all men need is an excuse, not a reason.

Amid all this bloodshed and warfare, The Iliad displays great empathy. There is probably no other war story that displays both sides with such great understanding. You see the war from both perspecitves, equally. Your allegiance shifts with the page. Though composed by the victors, it is a uniquely balanced account. As well, every man who dies on the field is named and described, we discover who their father is, where they grew up, what stories attend their childhood, and why they are here. No one is allowed to be an annoyomus enemy. Despite, the truthfulness of this, most war stories (from then on through today) depict warfare entirely from one side or other, but such perspectives are more propaganda than great literature. Great literature raises questions, propaganda exults in certainity. Here is a great lesson implicit in this epic poem: there is no enemy, there is only men killing men. War is tragic. Inherently, indisputably tragic. Yet, we still have not learned that to protray war from a single side (the 'so-called' good side) is inherently and simply wrong.

Homer's empathy extends even beyond the war. In his wonderful similes, he shows empathy for the sheep slain by the lion, and even for the enemy of man--the lion--surrounded by spears. Nothing escapes his empathy, no character is fully despicable. Even Agamemnon, who is probably the closest thing to a complete jack-ass in the book, displays numerous moments of self-reflection, of realizing how terribly he has acted, not to mention his heroics on the battlefield.

There is a moment in the final chapter of this amazing epic when Homer's narrational empathy displays itself in two of the work's greatest characters: Achilles and Priam. Achilles has killed Priam's favorite son, Hector, and then dragged his body around behind his chariot for days. So, Priam secretly goes to Achilles to ask for the body of his beloved son back, so his son may have a proper burial. In their meeting, which can only be described as heart-breakingly beautiful, two enemies see each other anew. A father sees his son's killer as a man of power and intensity. A soldier sees his enemy's king as a man of leadership and gracefulness. They admire each other. As someone in my class said, they see each other's humanity. If their is hopefulness in The Iliad, it is here: in these great men's improbable encounter.

Just because The Iliad is nearly 3,000 years old does not mean it is aged and stuffy. The violence, the brutality, is just as shocking and stark as I imagine it was when first recited. It remains one of the most violent books I have ever read and makes most Hollywood war movies look tame in comparison (did I say most? I meant all). On one level, The Iliad is the world's greatest 'action' book. Heroes slaying heroes, gods fighting gods, spear fights, sword fights, and chariot races. Heroes even fight gods. It's action is so non-stop and relentless that one almost becomes tired of battle after battle, death after death (and I think that is apart of the point), yet this is not some Arnold Swarzenegger souless action piece. The Iliad is a 'great book' because it tackles innumberable themes and questions without providing easy (or any) answers. What is the role of war in society? Is war inevitable? Is this the first anti-war book? What is fate? How much power does one man have over his fate? What is worth dying for and what is worth killing for? What is glory? What is honor? What is our relationship to the Gods (or God) and how does this propel us into, or keep us from, war? Is all fair in love and war, or only in war? Or only in love? Do men love war too much? Could their ever be a war-less society and what would that look like? What is death? Where does it lead? Can anything good come from war? Are war and peace apart of life's cyclical nature?

In some ways The Odyssey, which I am currently reading, is a direct answer to The Iliad. Or at least takes many of the themes from The Iliad and works with them, stretches them, plies them out for more truths and observations. Do not mistake The Iliad as an accurate and full representation of society, just as future historians will hopefully have more material to contemplate our era than Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan. The way men act in war should never be confused with how they act in peace.
A final note: don't confuse the movie Troy as a substitute for The Iliad. Troy is the bad action movie version of a work of genius.
By: Homer
Trans: Robert Fagles

Penguin, 1991
Paperback, 683 pages
ISBN: 0140445927

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Peter Pan in Scarlet

I am a Peter Pan purist. It is my favorite children’s book, although I didn’t read it until I was legally (and practically) an adult. To my mind J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan stands with the greatest works of world literature. It is a brilliant book, but even more importantly it subtly takes on an incredibly large number of themes in wonderful and imaginative ways: the nature of time, mortality, violence, and love, while dealing with childhood’s inborn innocence, arrogance, and cruelty, as well as the fear (and ridiculousness) of adulthood. It is a comedic, tragic, and adventure-filled book. It insists on life’s impermanence, but through the sprite, trickster, or near-god Peter Pan, it believes in immorality.

It is not just the themes of Peter Pan that allow it to shine so brightly, but the characters. Peter is as powerful as a demi-god, as petty as a Greek God, and as childish as a child. He is full of arrogance, petulance, confusion, and unbridled joy. Everything is forgotten by him, yet he loves everything in its moment. Paired with Pan is one of literature’s greatest villains: Captain Jas Hook. How does one describe such a personality? He possesses the complexity of a character out of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, yet remains still a rugged piratical children’s villain. He kills without conscience, yet goes to elaborate lengths to steal Wendy to be his mother. He is obsessed with time, appearance, and power, but mostly he desires to stand by the code of his early days in British boarding school. He can be a foppish clown and a brilliant adversary. J.M. Barrie does not shy away from making him sympathetic, as well as ridiculous. Yet with all his dualities one still believes in him fully, in fact he seems even more real through his contrasts; he is not allegorical—like Peter representing childhood—but a full-fledged larger-than-life persona persisting in a children’s book.

Finally, Peter Pan is a dark, violent, and morbid book. Our first view of Neverland includes every group—lost boys, pirates, Indians, and beasts—pursuing the other with intent on bloodshed. And blood is shed. Hook kills a member of his own crew on his opening; Wendy is shot by a very real arrow. Later, there is a great war between the Indians and pirates that results in several casualties, and Peter has no moral difficulty killing pirates one by one. Finally, when Peter confronts his own mortality, he proclaims: “To die will be an awfully great adventure!” If only we could all have this view. Hook’s more adult response to death is to go into the gaping jaws full of egotistical love and self-righteousness by proclaiming, “Bad form!” as his last words. The darker tones of Peter Pan usually finds its way OUT of adaptations—very unfortunately. As a culture we believe children don’t, or shouldn’t, think about death. Moreover we do not want to recognize the callousness and cruelty of children.

I hope in proclaiming the various reasons why I love this book so well, I am not making more of Peter Pan than is warranted. I hope I am not bullshiting (as is susceptible to English majors), for this is a book that should bring joy not overtly analytical triteness. This is a fun book to read, never numbing or trying.

With my love and admiration for Peter Pan declared, I came to reading its first ‘official’ sequel with some expectations. I came with hope, though not necessarily confidence, that it would preserve the spirit of Peter Pan—I had heard Geraldine McCaughrean on NPR and was impressed—but I also preserved a hefty amount of doubt. I pretty much figured it would dumb down the content of Peter Pan and bastardize the characters as every rendition/sequel/offshoot of Peter Pan does, from Disney’s beloved film to Spielberg’s Hook, from the popular musical to the most recent live action film.

Geraldine McCaughrean came to write this sequel through unusual circumstances. The children’s hospital which owns the rights to Peter Pan (given them by Barrie) held a contest, which Ms. McCaughrean won against innumerable other writers based on an opening chapter and a rough outline. From this first chapter it is immediately obvious why Ms. McCaughrean won. She displays an uncanny knack for resurrecting both the style and tone of Peter Pan. It is quite remarkable. Of course, there are times in the book when one can see that McCaughrean is trying altogether too hard to make the book Barrie-ish, but for the most part her style represents his well. I found this unexpected; I was surprised a children’s publisher would be open to a style so witty, intelligent, and wry, so full of truths hidden in fantastic images and ideas. Many children’s books today are written in straightforward, simplistic, action-oriented language that this throwback to the turn-of-the-century was a relief.

I don’t want to give away too much about the book, in case you have a mind to read it. But the first few chapters—pre-Neverland—are hilarious. McCaughrean captures the ridiculous in adults facing childhood, and I love that instead of the Lost Boys they are now the Old Boys. As well, her use of a children playing dress-up is employed extremely well (a theme throughout this novel). The action in Neverland I will not comment on too greatly, so as not to give away much, but I will say that her use of Neverland is wide and varied, and, of course, as with every sequel she creates new places to visit. Some of these feel too stretched from Barrie’s original, others fit perfectly.

What about the characters? With much relief, I discovered that McCaughrean cared greatly for Barrie’s originals. The plot she creates is fully wrapped around the personalities of Peter and Hook; in fact from the arrival in Neverland to the end of the novel there is no turn that doesn’t involve these adversaries. Peter Pan’s journey—with the Lost Boys and Wendy—is extremely interesting, because McCaughrean is able to produce temporary change in the unchangeable boy, and she does it without breaking any rules (namely: Peter Pan doesn’t grow old and doesn’t change of his own will). Her characterization of Peter throughout is well done; I felt it wasn’t always as strong as it should be, but still proved admirable.

But it was her portrayal of Hook that surprised me most. When I heard on NPR that she would be bringing Hook back for the sequel I scoffed. The man was eaten by a giant crocodile! I imagined she would have him reappear wit a flimsy excuse like: “he threw me up” or “I never actually fell in its mouth, it just looked like I did” or “the crocodile didn’t want to eat me; it just wanted to play”. I thought it would be better to leave Hook as was (dead) and recreate some new adversary. But, I was very wrong. I still marvel at how she did it. Hook returns and slithers his way into the story, and when we finally discover how it is that he has survived, it is a moment of great believability and completely coherent with the darker natures of Neverland. McCaughrean’s Hook is a marvel. He has lost some of the ridiculousness and pomposity he has in Peter Pan (i.e. he has grown up a bit), but he keeps the obsessions, the grim self-centeredness, and the pathetic inadequacies; he retains both his villainy and his sympathy. Incredibly, McCaughrean not only preserves Hook (amazing in itself), but also matures him through suffering. Hook plays such a role in the plot of Peter Pan in Scarlet that the book becomes almost more about Hook than Pan. This is surprising again, but just as well: Hook is rich enough to carry the novel. And his ultimate demise (or is it?) proves so poignant, so perfect that one feels as though J.M. Barrie whispered it in McCaughrean’s ear.

Finally, as shown by Hook's ressurection, Peter Pan in Scarlet does not shy from Neverland’s dark side. It is a grief ridden island, still filled with pointless violence and bloodshed. Still perfectly dangerous while perfectly adventurous. McCaughrean brings a new element to Neverland’s darkness, however; she brilliantly brings post-World War I England into the story, touching its tragedy and allowing No Man’s Land to run into Neverland. One of the most moving moments is one line in the middle of nowhere regarding one of the original characters.

I read this book in three days while staying in a cabin in the Minnesota north woods. To get to the cabin we had to walk across a frozen lake, which every morning sported new wolf tracks. Snow blanketed the ground and shadowed the trees. Cinnamon-colored squirrels chased one another competing for seeds. It was a beautiful place in which to read any book. But a perfect place for the first quality depiction of Neverland since Barrie's original.

**My copy (in photo) is entitled Peter and Wendy (Barrie's original title in 1911), but now it is almost always published under Peter Pan.

Borrowed from the library.

Peter Pan in Scarlet

By: Geraldine McCaughrean

Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007

Hardcover, 310 pages


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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Brothers Karamazov

After much thought and examination, I proclaim: the greatest novel ever written is The Brother’s Karamazov.

Now, a few caveats: with this statement I do not mean that it is the greatest work of literature, for I would state that Hamlet is the greatest play and The Odyssey the greatest epic, while The Brothers Karamazov rests solidly as the greatest novel; but don’t ask me about poetry; I have not read enough poetry, nor do I understand poetry well-enough to attempt an answer as to its apex; next, while I would describe myself as well-read, I have, in truth, read very very little, and I can only state that The Brothers Karamazov is the greatest of the novels I have actually read (how can one measure anything against the unknown?), and among these unread books are a goodly number which are often classified among the greatest, including War and Peace, Middlemarch, and Don Quixote; finally every such classification is arbitrary and therefore nothing more than a curiosity in a sleepy museum in a town no one has ever heard of. That being stated I will reiterate: The Brothers Karamazov is the greatest book ever written.
After such a proclamation I suppose I should explain why I believe The Brothers Karamazov rises above all rivals. But here is the difficulty: a work of art as complex and beautiful (and I use both words to their fullest meaning) as The Brothers Karamazov cannot be properly described, words and analysis fails: making the following paragraphs rather useless. Such a book calls to be experienced; then whispers may be made of it between conspirators. Still, having read it now twice, I will try and whisper a bit about it before signing off.

In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky continuously addresses life’s most pressing and prevalent questions. What is love? Does God exist?—and if so or if not what are the ramifications? What is goodness? How shall we view suffering? What is to be made of joy? In whom can we place our trust? Are we weighed down with sin or an imprint of divinity? Finally, in what should the individual seek meaning: romantic love, family, faith, or relenting despair? In other—and less—words: the novel addresses both the personal and metaphysical state of being human. Dostoevsky presents these questions, his characters wrestle with them, but answers will not be found. Dostoevsky possessed too much wisdom to put much stock in answers; rather he illuminates how the press of these unknowns makes life burdensomely beautiful.

The Brothers Karamazov is both comedy and tragedy; suffused with drama and passion, it is a book that does not deserve classification. The book is full of Pandora’s box: violence, sickness, despair, hateful love, pride, rape, and murder. Yet, ultimately the The Brothers Karamazov celebrates life, but without denying all its misery, pettiness, and mendacity. The accomplishment is all the more important in that the book denies not one moment of human kind’s misery, pettiness, and mendacity, its closed-minded squalor.

Dostoevsky is a realist. We are what we are, and the world continues to spin. Within our acts and souls there is goodness and there is evil, contrary to our President’s bombast no human can escape either quality entirely. Murderers are as human as saints, and vice versa. In The Brothers Karamazov’s seeming perfection (if it were ‘perfect’ it would not be nearly so potent) as a work of art and a passionate depiction of the state of being human is a book that both affirms our existence and tests every moment of it. In this duality lies the power and hope of The Brothers Karamazov.

Still, these words are but words. While it may be impossible to state why The Brothers Karamazov is the greatest of novels, perhaps I can make a bit of a case for why it matters. So much of our lives as twenty-first century Americans is spent on being entertained by some outside force, and very little of the entertainment addresses any of the issues that The Brothers Karamazov presents on ever page—questions so integral to being human. As a culture we seem to collectively shun such questions; some glibly believe the easiest answer, while others just don’t care. Americas despise doubt, and worship certainty, even preferring apathy or dogmatism to uncertainty. We are the culture that does whatever it wants without thinking about consequences or responsibility. As our illuminating president—and I use that adjective without sarcasm—stated regarding global warming: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation”.

Yet what have we created with this brutal optimism, this innocent destruction? An age of superficiality, more concerned with gossip than any pursuit of truth. Our celebrities are not those who labor under questions: writers, artists, scientists, or holy men, instead we worship mediocre actors and starving models; we love the heiresses and the talking heads. We raise high the businessman, and ignore the philosophers. Is it any wonder that we believe that the possession of material stuff is far superior to the possession of thought or imagination? We don’t want geniuses and great thinkers; we want loveless sex, pointless violence, easy religion, and lots of commercials. And we have pressed our entertainment-oriented and material-obsessed society to nearly every corner of this globe. But there are those that rebel against this single-minded materialism, this love of superficiality. Dostoesky—and others like him—still lay on many bookshelves and that means something, doesn’t it? It must. A book such as this, a work so full of life, can never prove infertile.

That is why this matters. So, reaching an end of sorts, I must admit that it’s probably impossible to state anything truly illuminating regarding a work as full as Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov in 200 words, but then again it may be just as impossible in 200 pages. With this then let my paean to The Brothers Karamazov conclude: it is a book that everyone should read at least once in their life. Maybe twice.

I bought this translation--long sought--at a little used bookstore in the Village in New York City. Miss that store. Oh and in the process of reading the back cover tore off: well-loved.

The Brothers Karamazov

By: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translated by: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Vintage Classics, 1991

Paperback, 796 pages


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Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness

When one thinks of travel writing, one thinks of a writer engrossed, enthralled, in love with the countries through which they go, enamored with traveling itself. We always imagine these people as gregarious, positive, and more-than-ready for the next adventure. They are the intrepid wanderer, air underneath their soles. Peter Matthiessen is a wanderer, but he is the chain-smoking, cynical, pig-headed Western wanderer, and to his credit he is only partially intrepid. It took me a long time to become accustomed to his demeanor. But first I had to understand: ‘Okay, so this is what the book is about’: a grumpy man backpacking through South America in the early sixties, who has no trouble complaining, judging, disliking, or disregarding. Such a style can be seen as refreshing. There's no upbeat assessments when traveling prospects are gloomy; he does not leave out the frustrations involved in such a rigorous trek; he worries a lot, and who wouldn’t on such a trip? He grumbles and complains. He dislikes some people for no real reason, and likes others for the same. In fact, he’s quite human. That’s great…but still, one always feels as though they are missing something with Matthiessen, like he's hiding beneath the print. He is a taciturn and private writer; he shows you places in South America but remains an odd enigma himself.

Much of the book is observation rather than interaction. Especially before his journey into the Amazon, Matthiessen sees South America, but does not involve himself. All right, so maybe this is what we do when we travel: we see a lot of stuff, we connect to it in our heads (or don’t), but we rarely participate; we remain voyeurs. On the other hand, after spending months and months in South America, you’d think he’d have a few more stories to tell, something entertaining like a night in a bar or getting sick from contaminated food or a girl he met or…er…well…something. Most of the book is long descriptions of places, and if you’ve never been there it can become dull. The sections on Peru and the Amazon proved the most interesting to me because I’ve been there; the rest, while they sound like incredible places, I couldn’t relate to in the same way.

There are moments that jar you from the slow rocking of his prose and description, but many of these have to do with dismay. Matthiessen is a true white Western male. He disdains the natives, and even when he seems to treat them or their lives with some appreciation, he never shows respect. They are not his equal. One has the sense that he believes the Spanish conquest was not at all a bad thing, and that Westernization of South America has had a good civilizing affect on the either child-like or eternally-depressed natives. He states that the Peruvian Quechua (the natives of the Andes and the descendents of the Incas) “neither smiles nor scowls, and this deadness of face seems incongruent with the gaiety of dress” (65). But perhaps, they didn’t smile for Matthiessen because they had been oppressed for centuries. The Spanish brought to the Quechua inescapable poverty, endless toil, political disenfranchisement, and alcohol. And this was after their population was almost completely wiped out by disease. However, I also think Matthiessen is just not looking very hard; while in Peru I found that the Quechua were incredibly friendly and warm; I will never forget the night a Quechua Shaman from a mountain village kept hugging and kissing. Since we could not communicate, this was how he showed his joy at meeting a traveler.

The respect Matthiesen lacks for natives seems to be counterbalanced in his love for wildlife. On his journey from New York to the mouths of the Amazon, he lists every wildlife sighting. He is enamored of birds and knowledgeable. But once he finally enters the jungle, and begins his white-man’s quest, he seems to lose all the respect he had. The jungle can do strange things to a man. At this time it is a hobby with natives and travelers to take pot-shots at every caiman they see (it’s no wonder the black caiman—the larger of the two caiman species—is practically extinct). And while Matthiessen states how the caiman have lessened in the Amazon due to this reasonless killing, he eventually joins in. It’s a weird moment when our narrator picks up the gun and starts firing; he states his duplicity quite openly: “I am as much a hypocrite as the next man, and eventually my itchy trigger finger got the best of me” (234). Then one of the books strangest and most pathetic moments begins with a capybara appearing at the river’s edge. Now let me preface this by stating that the Capybara is the world’s largest rodent—the size of a large dog, but bulkier. It is a magnificent animal, beautiful and truly strange; spending its life in the water, eating the Amazon's plentiful grasses, it is in some ways the hippo of the Amazon. Also, let me state that up to this moment Matthiessen has not seen a large mammal—except for American suburbs, the rain forest is the hardest place in the world to actually see wildlife—he has spent hours searching the river sides for a sign of mammalian life: capybara, tapir, river otter, or jaguar. Nothing. Then he enters the Amazon itself and spends grueling days trekking amidst the endless green and many more days on a small native raft in its rivers, and now—now he finally sees a large mammal and what happens? He shoots it dead. A bullet through the neck, and then the slain sinks into the river. The one defense Matthiessen may have at this point is that had the men been able to get hold of the body, they probably would have eaten it. However, it seems particularly symbolic to me that the first land animal he sees—after frigging months of searching and despairing—he shoots dead: thusly our relationship with nature.

Words should be stated in Matthiessen’s defense, for throughout this entry I have been rather smug and righteous. We must remember this is the very early sixties; times were incredibly different and mindsets regarding the natural world and the natives of America were nearly the opposite of what they have become. I believe this transformation in our regards to the natural world and native peoples is one of the major credits to the human race during the past century (though these beliefs have yet to progress to any action). Matthiessen is a man of his time: he is at once aware of the growing plight of the animals and the horrible history that the natives have suffered under Spanish rule, yet his words and deeds are still that of one who believes himself superior to…well pretty much everything. He is not the big-game hunter of Ernest Hemingway-styling nor is he the hippie Buddhist who loves and respects all living things. He sits at the very cusp of a great re-thinking of many cultural norms for the white Westerner. So, he’s just an intelligent white guy who does some stupid things then feels guilty about them later.

All of the above is definitely a very negative review of what has become a classic of Nature and Travel writing. Yet despite my many issues with the work (and not just ethical ones), I must say that I actually kind of enjoyed it. It was one of those books that was difficult to get through—mostly because I was not interested enough—it definitely wasn't what I expected or hoped for. However, it has proved one of those rare books where I don’t really know why I like it but I still do. Either that or it’s a book I didn't particularly enjoy reading, but only well after finishing realized its brilliance; I had this experience the first time I read Thomas Hardy. Still Matthiessen is not Thomas Hardy, not in this book at least. Nor is he anywhere close to the greatest travel writer I have read, Patrick Leigh Fermor; though I cannot claim to be widely read in travel narratives, Fermor outdistances what I have all by miles. So let us just say that I don’t regret reading The Cloud Forest, but wouldn’t recommend it unless the person has a specific interest in South America and pig-headed narrators.

I plan on someday reading Matthiessen’s travel/nature work The Snow Leopard, which won him the National Book Award. Mostly I want to read it because I am obsessed with snow leopards, and the premise of traveling to the Himalayas with the goal to see one in the wild—they are famously elusive—proves to hard to resist. But hopefully, if he does see one he won’t shoot it.

I work now at an independent (dare I work for any other?) bookstore in Minneapolis; I purchased the book there

The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness

By: Peter Matthiessen

Penguin Books, 1996 (originally published in 1961)

Paperback, 280 pags



Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Wheel of Time: Knife of Dreams

I broke in our new apartment with this book. Every reading space was utilized: the couch, the loveseat, the dining table, the bathtub, the bed. I read leaning against the kitchen counter waiting for the tea to boil, I read at my computer desk, I read to avoid my inevitable next step in life: looking for a new job. There are few things worse than looking for a new job, and few things I like more than sitting around reading, cooking, going for long walks and generally being a housewife without kids. So, that is what I have done for the past month.

Going from New York City to Peru and finally to Minnesota left me exhausted, and so I chose a book that would keep me entertained and easily distracted, something I could sink into without effort. That said, I finally picked up the latest (and eleventh) volume of the Wheel of Time Series. I discovered this series in high school where I was an avid, though particular, reader of fantasy. I have since kept up with each new volume as they have appeared, and each time I have had to re-read the preceding the volume in order to reinsert myself into the world.

What a world it is! I wouldn’t say Robert Jordan is the greatest craftsman when it comes to the nitty-gritty of actual writing, but he is a magnificent storytelling, a master inventor. He has created an alternative world of such size and complexity that I think few writers (aside from Tolkien) could compare in that regard. The Wheel of Time Series, eleven volumes (so far) ranging from 600-1000 pages each, incorporates a cast literally of thousands. These thousands, however, are not just masses of soldiers like in a William Wyler epic, no when I say a ‘cast of thousands’, I mean characters who have names, purposes, personalities. I have no idea how Jordan keeps track of all of this. I imagine he has reams of paper with each character cataloged alphabetically, or perhaps by their first appearance in the story. So far, the world consists of, as I can remember, five major cultures: the main European-like one, the Aiel (a Bedouin, Native American-like culture), the Seanchan (think Vikings and ants, literally), the Sea Folk (a nautical society), and the Ogier (here is the only non-human culture, most similar to Tolkien’s Ents). This is not the end however. The main Euro-culture is split off into numerous kingdoms, each with their own complex society and cultural norms. There are in turn many separate societies based on magic (the Aes Sedai and the Asha’man are the most significant) and there are rogue cultures like the Children of Light (zealots not unlike early American pilgrims) and the Tinkers (similar to the British Isle’s travelers). These brief descriptions do not do Jordan or his creations justice and are merely meant to give one a sense of the largeness of this epic. The cultures are complex, vital, and when they act (or react)—as individuals or in a group—they do so in incredibly realistic ways and within their singulars culture’s parameters. I have no doubt Jordan must be a passionate student of history.

If one studies history, one knows that most of history is not about cultural stagnation, but rather about change. One of my favorite aspects of this series is how adeptly Jordan portrays a world undergoing great, tumultuous change. In the beginning of the series, Jordan sets up numerous rules (big and small) for his world, its cultures, and their relationship(s) to magic. Then he proceeds with beautiful adeptness to stretch these rules, to break them altogether, and finally shatter the world he has created. And how do his characters react to their once stable world becoming new, bright, terrible? As all humans act when confronted with what they thought not only would never occur, but could never occur: disbelief, terror, denial, finally grudging almost desperate acceptance (that is until the next great change is wrought). The Wheel of Time is the fall of the Roman Empire, the Mongol horde, World War II; it is civilizations under incredible distress and pressure.

In Jordan’s mileu there are characters who not only rise above this change, they cause it. Egweme, Mat, Elayne, and Perrin: each inflicts change where they must, but it is Rand Al’Thor, the protagonist of the series if there is one, who unleashes the greatest changes. Rand is the Dragon Reborn, which means he is the classic Chosen-One of fantasy literature and mythology. He must do battle with the Shadow, and in doing so break the world and himself. He is as much Christ and Buddha, as he is Achilles, Seigfred, Cuchulain, Arthur/Merlin, Aragorn, and Luke Skywalker. Throughout the epic, we watch Al’Thor go from a young village boy, naïve and likeable, to a tormented cold-as-steel demi-god. This process, slow (which is one of its great pleasures: the time Jordan takes to wrought it) yet inevitable, is fascinating to watch. Whenever I begin a chapter is centered on Rand, I get giddy. As interesting and engrossing as nearly all the characters are, Rand stands out. Perhaps, it is because his story is set upon at least five thousand years of ‘Chosen-One’, ‘Self-Sacrifice’, ‘Resurrection’ tales. It is a tale that never gets old.

Just this year Robert Jordan has been diagnosed with a rare and often fatal blood disease. It is incredible to think that the man who has spent the last fifteen years writing and creating his magnum opus may not be able to finish. He is currently undergoing treatment at the Mayo Clinic, and he is nothing if not a fighter. In fact his response to his diagnoses is truly inspiring (see He is optimistic he has decades of life before him. I join many others and take this moment to say: “Mr. Jordan, keep fighting!”

Purchased at a thrift store in Brooklyn for an amazing price

The Wheel of Time: Knife of Dreams

By: Robert Jordan

Tor Fantasy, 2005

Hardcover, 784

ISBN: 0312873077


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bleak House

I read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House while traveling for six weeks in Peru. I probably should have spent that time reading some South American master, like Borges or Marquez, or most importantly Llosa, since he is Peru’s most celebrated writer, but instead I chose Dickens. I think it was because I liked the idea of reading something completely distinct from where my travels lead me, to sit in Chesney Wold while sitting on the cold, desert Peruvian shore, to walk through grimy, smoky 19th Century London while walking in the clear pampas of the Andes, to roam the dark, labyrinthine rooms of Chancery while roaming the dark, labyrinthine, yet living, jungles of the Amazon Basin. In the chance of encountering a squirrel monkey not unlike Jo, a tapir for Tulkinghorn, a spectacled bear for George, lay a certain mystifying joy, a kind of realization of the wideness of the world.

I also wanted a large, hefty book that would last most of the trip, something epic in scope to alleviate all the children’s literature I had read recently. And having worked at the bookstore during the Bleak House miniseries on the BBC, I listened to many Bleak House-centered conversations. One patron exclaimed that Charles Dickens was the world’s greatest writer—only, of course, after Shakespeare—and Bleak House his masterpiece. Such effusive exclamations certainly made the decision to make Bleak House my Peru book easier.

Enough on decision-making (although that is one of the great pleasures of reading!) and onto Bleak House. During the first three weeks of my trip and the first half of the book, I found myself disappointed. Or perhaps a better word is confused. I kept wondering where was this novel going? How would Dickens tie all these disparate characters together? Really, what was the point of all this? Sure, the writing was wonderful, the characterizations excellent, and many of the scenes were very funny, but I felt as though I struggled through the pages looking for a through-line, grasped in the dark for a string to get me through this seeming labyrinth of a book (if you haven’t guessed it already that is the word of this entry: labyrinth). Perhaps, I was too distracted by the stressors of the trip to catch on to the groundwork Dickens was laying. Perhaps, I was too accustomed to children’s literature where the first chapter always contains significant movement on plot and theme. I found myself almost bored.

I have read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and Hard Times, so it’s not like I came into this unaware that much of Dickens work is stuffing—and that is also one of the great joys of Dickens and many other 19th Century artists; they throw everything into their artistry, every bit of fluff, scrap, and rags they can manage. How different, and more perfect, a scarecrow looks when he is filled out, when he looms in a cornfield like a fat man after a satisfying meal than when he is nothing but an empty shirt, empty pants, and brainless bag for a head, which is how I often view contemporary literature: all plot, no stuffing; all action, no nuance; all bold strokes, no details. So why wasn’t Bleak House speaking to me? Perhaps, too much stuffing, so that it’s spilling out of the book, like a scarecrow split open by crows’ beaks? Or maybe I was simply too dim-witted.

Whichever way it falls, the light bulb between my head and the work eventually did go on. It was almost five hundred pages though before it fired. A few chapters before Esther becomes sick, the light began to come in fits and spurts, shedding a little illumination into the shadows. And then once she fell ill, it came on full, and for the rest of the book I was engrossed, I was devouring, I was in awe at Dickens’ ability to take all these disparate elements and make, dare I say it, a masterpiece. I remember, mid-day in the Amazon, laying on my mosquito-netted bed, and tearing through the revelation of Esther’s parentage. In fact, this is one of my favorite memories of the trip!

Now, looking back, the first half of the book makes complete sense. It is the set-up, the introduction of all these elements, characters, and plot points that really began to interconnect and play themselves out through the second half in such surprising and ultimately satisfying ways. It is a dark book, but beautifully so. I found myself surprised as to where Dickens would take so many of his characters (death, ruination, corruption, despair, murder, spontaneous combustion).

It is a book really about the society’s impact on the young, on the innocent, on those just coming into the world. In the micro version of this, you have the effect of parents (or guardians) on their children, Esther and her Aunt, as well as Esther and her birth parents, Mrs. Jellyby’s effect on Caddy (and on all her offspring), Mr. Jarndyce influence over Ada, Esther, and Richard (though he ultimately rejects it), and subsequently Mr. Skimpole and Mr. Vholes parentage over Richard, and finally George and Mrs. Rouncewell. Presiding over both Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife are those illustrious aristocratic ancestors. As they move along the Ghost’s Walk, they remind us of the pressures on these two characters left to them by parental figures long dead. Sir Leicester Dedlock’s sporadic gout is another indication of his deeply ingrained inheritance. It is so delightful then when at the end of the novel he throws off much of his parentage and strikes a new, though still constrained, path. Finally you have those characters entirely without guardians, such as Jo and Nemo. Very little good can come to them.

At the macro level all the characters in the Bleak House have one patriarch, a stern, unyielding, and absurd father called Chancery Court. This is societies answer to bad-parenting: create a far worse, almost omnipotent monster. Ridiculous though the court may seem, it is ruthless, destructive, devouring. It eats not only money, but hope, youth, innocence, and entire lives. Only the few characters that are able to cut themselves truly off from Chancery Court, and subsequently Jarndyce and Jarndyce, come off well. The rest meet dim, pathetic ends. To tie one’s self to this Cronus means to meet repetitive humiliation, and eventually ruination.
Dickens seems to be making a comment, or many comments, on parenting. Children must break free of bad parents and strike out on their own. If the parent is good however, a certain degree of closeness is not only all right, but necessary (witness George and Miss. Rouncewell, as well as Richard’s demise after rejecting a ‘good parent’). This may seem quite a simple lesson, but it is not. It is a condemnation of every aspect of 19th Century British society, which in Dicken’s view had created a terrible, many-headed parent. The only comfort were the few individuals, like Mr. Jarndyce and Esther, who were able to offset some of society’s, and parent’s, wrongs through acts of selflessness.

Bleak House remains topical. Chancery Court could be the American Health Care system, or the trappings and ridiculousness of our Senate, Congress, and President. We too live in a time of bad, bad parenting. Obscurity remains: absurdity is taken for rationality, rule of law is merely rule of the indifferent, and a sense of hopelessness—of an inability to escape our dissembling parents—descends on us all. To quote the justly famous opening chapter of Bleak House: “Fog everywhere”.

Book purchased from Amazon.

Bleak House

By: Charles Dickens

Penguin, 2003

Paperback, pages 1037

ISBN: 0141439726