"The Swerve" by Stephen Greenblatt

Friday, December 19, 2014

Subtitled: How the World Became Modern

There are several salient truths about Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: it serves as a highly instructive history about remarkable events of six hundred years ago and persuades us of the inexpressible importance of those events; from beginning to end it presents its observations in highly engaging language, which never even veers close to academic jargon; the combination of these and other characteristics won for it the 2011 National Book Award for non-fiction and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. I exhort you to take it up and find out why.

On a chill January day in 1417, an out of work scholar and former secretary to a disgraced pope, a man named Poggio Bracciolini uncovered a musty manuscript in a German monastery, and altered history in ways and to an extent he could never have foreseen. For he had unearthed Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). Published around 50 BCE, this long, challenging, and stunningly beautiful poem expounds some remarkably modern-seeming concepts: matter is made up of atoms, that these atoms cannot be destroyed, that they are constantly in motion, that nature is always experimenting, that the universe was not created for or about humans, and that human society began in a primitive battle for survival.

The logical ends of these ideas put Lucretius’ adherents into some terribly hot water in the 15th and 16th centuries: Lucretius held that the soul died, that there was no afterlife, that all organized religions are superstitious delusions, and that nothing generates a deeper sense of wonder than understanding the true nature of things. These ideas would generate controversy even today, but they opened the way for and informed the most glorious flowerings of Renaissance art, for Copernicus and Galileo, and for Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, to mention only the merest few.

The other salient truth about this book is that it focuses us on the recovery of a long-forgotten poet and his long-suppressed ideas and the massive and irreversible influence they have wielded on the world. Mr. Greenblatt’s accomplishment matches his concept: it is as grand as it is accessible, as persuasive as it is engaging. For anyone interested in the traditions of Western thought, this is a must read.

"Other People's Lives" by Johanna Kaplan

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On the outs. One point of view dominates the novella and five short stories of Johanna Kaplan’s Other People’s Lives. And most often, this outside-looking-in stance results from a combination of culture and self-imposed exile. This tension plays out with pathos, and often laugh-out-loud humor in this remarkable collection.

The title piece is the novella, and it contains the story of Louise, who is placed in the apartment of a famous dancer’s family. It establishes the collection’s tone and point of view and theme right away, and goes further: it puts the story in the consciousness of a mental patient, Louise, who sometimes can’t trust what she sees and hears. She apparently has hallucinations, and may have petit mal seizures. A healthy portion of the energy of this story comes from Maria, the German wife of the famous dancer, who manically mangles English, to terrific comic effect.

Other stories feature girls in junior high or high school, at camp, or home sick from school, or babysitting. They have in common an intelligent, if a little eccentric, female Jewish protagonist, who sees and approaches the world on her own terms. Often there is a wise-cracking vulnerability to these appealing creatures, and few have any problems speaking up to the frequently addled adults they live with or near.

Other People’s Lives rides a groundswell of endearing, exposed, nervous humanity. Its mouthpieces already have a couple of strikes against them, being Jewish and female (except for one Chinese girl in Vietnam), and they stake out their ground in ways that range from sassy to cranky to plaintive. This is a highly assured collection for a debut piece, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976, and won the National Jewish Book Award. Reading this collection was a delightful experience and I recommend it highly.

"Pomegranate Soup" by Marsha Mehran

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Not everyone in Marsha Mehran’s Pomegranate Soup is sweet-tempered, but the story itself bursts with the sweetness of family, charity, and excellent food. Capturing the harrowing history of three Iranian sisters who just manage to escape the country during the revolution of 1979, the narrative finds them, seven years on, in what seems like their last chance at refuge, on the west coast of Ireland.

The citizens of this town fit into some fairly straightforward types: the town magnate/bully; an old gossip-monger, bitter and incontinent; the friendly, nonconforming hairdresser. But these props serve the story of the more nuanced sisters, who struggle with haunting memories and the pressures of establishing a café. Dramatic tension builds as the pushy entrepreneur does everything he can to run them out of town, and his dull, pushy son nearly succeeds when he assaults the youngest sister, only 15 years old.

Characters sometimes act from motivation that strains credulity: the middle sister runs off without a note or a call on fairly flimsy grounds. A dim and hopeless shopkeeper believes in leprechauns because of miscreant teenagers, and the attempted aggression against the young girl honestly seems a bolt from the blue. But: this is a generous story about healing; each chapter opens with a recipe for a traditional Iranian dish; the parish priest writes a ribald and very funny play; the café’s grandmotherly landlady looks after the girls with sage advice and minestrone.

This is a lovely confection on balance. Take it up, and follow a small interlude in the lives of these young lovelies, one that promises that the best is yet to come.

"The Descartes Highlands" by Eric Gamalinda

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Since finishing The Descartes Highlands I have been trying to feel qualified to review it. Multiple parallel threads, set in two time periods, laden with high choler and sometimes mysterious motivations – these are the initial challenges of this book.

Mr. Gamalinda tells the story of two young men, born to two Philippine women but fathered by one American man, who pursue answers to their mysterious pasts through different channels. One was adopted by married French filmmakers, the other by a woman who operated an abortion clinic near New York. The uncertainty of their origins, and their resulting mistrust of everyone around them, puts them at odds with their lives. The energy generated by this tension drives the narrative forward.

Well – it partly drives the narrative, because the most abundant element here is rage. The anger comes through so strongly and unremittingly that I think it can only be authorial. He directs it at American imperialism in the Vietnam War era, state corruption and oppression under Marcos, and the hopelessness still rampant in Manila. He also trains his anger at the selfish modern approach to love.

The story builds in an organic fashion, and for me, keeps the reader at a distance from the hints that would most clearly reveal plot and thematic intent. Mr. Gamalinda has produced a plaintive novel, dense with emotion and the high stakes of loving someone, in which victims abound and solutions come at staggering cost. This book focuses the reader on some demanding, timeless issues, and challenges her to bring high energy to a story crying for resolutions. I recommend this book to those with large, giving hearts, who can afford to spend the emotional capital demanded here.

"Dexterity" by Douglas Bauer

Sunday, November 23, 2014

In one brief scene in Douglas Bauer’s majestic debut, Dexterity, a secondary character recalls her mother losing track of a sharp knife in sudsy dishwater. She cuts her finger on it, the suds become pink, and she eventually suffers permanent nerve damage, even after her husband tells her such cuts are never as severe as they first seem. This is a perfect symbol of the poor chances waiting in life for Dexterity’s characters: they treat each other with a toxic combination of self-centeredness, verbal bullying, and violence.

In an Upstate New York village not far from the Hudson River, Ed King’s young wife Ramona turns her back on her abusive husband and the infant son she has not learned to love, and walks off – literally. She heads down the highway on foot, in her flip flops. The village focuses on Ed’s troubles, and this focus is exceedingly uncomfortable for him. For Ed is his generation’s main bully, and knows the town and its culture of gossip and scandal better than anyone. When he enters the crosshairs of the town’s attention it makes him paranoid, delusional, and ever more violent.

Dexterity exhibits the mental states and thought processes of its main antagonists Ed and Ramona – that is its main calling and raison d’être. Mr. Bauer convinces us of these internal processes so completely – his triumph here is utter and complete. We can only wonder at such assurance in a debut work of fiction.

This was a bit of a slog for me. The relationships between the townspeople rest on old habits of invective and falsehood; the relationships between individuals and their own memories and consciences rest on much the same. The caring or giving individual is rare – Ramona meets a few after she gets out of town – and there is a tension in the possibility of Ed going in search and finding Ramona. Overall, however, this is a very commendable entry. It sets forth a magisterial justice for us to reflect on, and engages us with its exact and dispassionate eye for the town’s endemic emotional stuntedness.

But chiefly and particularly, we witness the tortured considerations of Ed and Ramona, whose marriage and psyches are cracked and trampled. This I highly recommend, and I’m very glad I found this author.

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