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"Babylon" by Paul Kriwaczek

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Subtitled “Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization”


By some quirk, many Westerners habitually think of the Nile Valley in Egypt as the birthplace of civilization. I may be projecting a little, but until not too long ago, I operated from that point of view. With only slightly more exposure to archeology, we learn that that honor belongs to Mesopotamia. In a highly readable, persuasive text, Paul Kriwaczek recounts the beginning of what’s called the Urban Revolution, through the multiple cultures and empires that arose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to a final absorption by Cyrus the Great of Persia in about 323 BCE.


Near the shore of the Southern Sea, what we now call the Persian Gulf, many miles north of its current location, at some point prior to 4000 BCE, some people thought about the earth in a new way. Rather than try to adjust to seasonal and annual lotteries of rainfall, flood, and drought, they decided they would become the earth’s master, and improve it to further their own ends. So at a place called Eridu, they built a permanent edifice, visible above the sandy and windswept expanse of the surrounding steppe, a shrine to kingship which had descended from heaven. It was the first permanent signal of a modern human culture still alive in various ways and manifestations today.


Called the Urban Revolution, the making of cities was actually the least of this sea change in human affairs. As Kriwaczek says, 


With the city came the centralized state, the hierarchy of social classes, the division of labour, organized religion, monumental building, civil engineering, writing, literature, sculpture, art, music, education, mathematics and law, not to mention a vast array of new inventions and discoveries, from items as basic as wheeled vehicles and sailing boats to the potter’s kiln, metallurgy, and the creation of synthetic materials. And on top of all that was the huge collection of notions and ideas so fundamental to our way of looking at the world, like the concept of numbers, or weight, quite independent of actual items counted or weighed, that we have long forgotten that they had to be discovered or invented. Southern Mesopotamia was the place where all that was first achieved."


Kriwaczek provides his stamp on his history, asking us to update our understanding of ancient civilized humans—what they believed, what they aspired to, how they reacted to stresses. Much of his narrative is given over to successive empire builders, the Sumerians, the Akkadians, and the Assyrians, among others, and to who was skilled and who bungled archeological digs, and how Assyrian and Babylonian geopolitics is reflected in the various books of the Old Testament.


If you are interested in Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, this is an excellent entry point. Written by a lay person for lay people, it is a very useful and concise recap of the fateful moment when people decided to socialize in permanent settlements, and the broad sweep of human history which followed. There are probably other, more detailed speculations about Babylon’s precincts, architecture, and plan, but they will be just that, speculations. As Kriwaczek laments, the truly glorious city was wiped away in a flood, and its foundations are lost to history.




"The Swimmer" by Laury Egan

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In The Swimmer we encounter Bess Lynch, a sixty-something psychotherapist, as she retreats to a cabin on Cape Cod, trying to disengage from the presences crowding her life. Her practice already handed off, she needs to make some important decisions about family, her will, and particularly her marriage. She’s on borrowed time. She has already survived much longer than a patient with Stage IV pancreatic cancer can normally expect.

As determined as Bess is to follow her plan, she’s caught up when a stunningly attractive man disrupts her solitude and proves a delightful - and desirable - distraction. As if that weren’t enough, her troubled and unreliable son crashes this groupe de deux with a surprise visit. The shock of this unannounced intrusion releases some pent-up acrimony and recrimination between mother and son. Stephen, the mysterious and handsome stranger stays (mostly) on the sideline as some long-stagnant air is cleared between Bess and her son.

The mystery of Stephen only deepens as Bess’s condition takes a sudden and nasty turn. He has knowledge of symptoms and conditions in extremis that is only vaguely explained. His solicitousness never flags, however; he is always there for Bess, doing his best to relieve her pain and her fears.

Laury Egan has delivered a touching and well-rounded performance. First, I must honor her for the skill and sharp professionalism with which she portrays her heroine. With a long career as a counselor, Bess’s observations are all expressed in terms which would be used by such a professional. She deals with two men in her lonely vigil, Stephen and her son, and she observes and interacts with them as would a doctor of psychology.

Additionally, Egan challenges herself to render a plot featuring very difficult subjects; requiring technical and emotional mastery. This is very accomplished work, of a deceptively difficult kind, and Laury Egan makes it look easy. The pacing, the exactitude of emotional tenor, and the mystery at its heart, all recommend this author, and this book very highly. Sterling work!

 


 

"Some Tame Gazelle" by Barbara Pym

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Jane Austen said of her novels concerned themselves with “two inches of ivory,” in which everything is so small that everything matters almost too much. Much the same can be said, and I’m sure has been said, about Barbara Pym’s novels. Setting them in rural England, Pym concerns herself with the lives of proper English women, who have lived to a riper age then Austen’s heroines, and who live lives closely circumscribed by faith and close-knit village society.

“Some Tame Gazelle,” which, when I started reading, I had no idea was the first of Pym’s published novels, illuminates the concerns of Belinda and Harriet Bede, sisters of a certain age. These sisters live near the village vicarage and its inhabitants - the dear Archdeacon Hoccleve and his wife, and the tender curate, just ordained and on his first assignment. The sisters have perhaps more offers of marriage than one might expect - certainly they don’t expect them. The touch is frequently arch, as we’re expected to be in on the joke when the sisters make fun of people, or react with shock to unexpected behavior. The contrast between the sisters is amusing and endearing; the narrative is given by Belinda, the older, less interesting and purportedly less attractive, of the two.

The surname Bede strikes me as a wink and a nudge. The resident archdeacon quotes too much literature from obscure English poets, delivers sermons based on obscure secular texts, and expects his parishioners to comprehend obscure points derived therefrom. Or says he does. Belinda herself, loving and loyal to the Archdeacon, is no stranger to English literature, and she knows the difference between a poet worthy of mention and other, less suitable poets.

So: men, suitable and unsuitable, arrive in the village and cause a stir among the sisters and the other women; some make unwelcome marriage proposals to one or the other sister, and these cause major shifts in emotion, outlook, memory, and mood, at least in Belinda. You will not find action or much mystery or any life or death here. I revere Pym for her humor, the style and substance of which she shares more than a little with Austen’s. As delightful as this is, I might suggest “Excellent Women” (1952), or “Quartet in Autumn” (1977) as more accomplished offerings, and perhaps more worth your while. I can assure you of a gentle touch, a little melancholy, wonderful, well-meaning characters, and the consistent charm of a wise storyteller who finds herself arching an eyebrow at the behavior she observes in the world.



 

"Adventure by Chicken Bus" by Janet LoSole

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Traveling the dicey, dangerous countries of Central America, Janet LoSole and her family undergo one harrowing adventure after another. Sometimes they literally defy death, and sometimes their efforts to stay healthy and in one piece fail, because of the ubiquity of toxins and other hazards. And one asks Why? Why would a Canadian couple - rational, by all outward signs - subject themselves and their two sweet daughters, still shy of their middle school years, to such misadventures?

LoSole provides a book-length answer. Janet and her husband Lloyd share a severe wanderlust, always agreeing on this point, and they couple this restlessness-on-steroids with a deep personal concern for the ecology of their home planet. The travel bug they feel has a conscience, too: they believe in and strongly advocate a responsible sort of travel that most effectively supports native families and cultures. They manage to perform well in this area; however, the reception they get from the natives ranges from open arms to surly to the downright fraudulent.

As travelogues go, this one is effective. It offers an honest and vivid look at an attempt to negotiate the challenging - and oftentimes dangerous - Central American tourism infrastructure. By some alchemy LoSole manages an expository piece on 19 months of intrepid Third World backpacking in some 220 pages. About three quarters of the way through I found myself fatigued by the pace and the ever-building litany of worry, illness, and baffling obstacle while navigating through the realm of unrelieved tropical heat and poverty.

They make it through, however, living to tell the tale, and tell it well. They satisfied their need to see an intriguing part of the world on their own terms. That is an accomplishment in itself. But the far greater accomplishment is this book: not only is it an impressive how-to - and more importantly, how-not-to - guide, but it is also an exhortation to pursue the sort of travel that treats local inhabitants and Mother Earth with equal respect and considered fairness.

If you are able and hankering for adventurous travel, take this book up first. It’s such an unblinking, thorough guide to engaging Central America on these terms, that it makes itself indispensable.


Twitter Feed Running

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 In my ongoing endeavor to have a more and more rewarding conversation with myself, I have begun a Twitter feed. You can see the icon on the column to the right. So far I am Tweeting memorable passages (not to exceed 280 characters) from the wonderful books that I have read.


Luke

"The Canon" by Natalie Angier

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Subtitled: “A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.”


I read Natalie Angier’s The Canon because I wanted to bone up on areas of science where my knowledge and understanding lag behind. I’m a motivated layman when it comes to astronomy, but the other chapters here: 1. Thinking Scientifically; 2. Probabilities; 3. Calibration; 4. Physics; 5. Chemistry; 6. Evolutionary Biology; 7. Molecular Biology; and 8. Geology (Astronomy is the 9th and last chapter) promised a wealth of material to fulfill my desire. They held a lot more than that.

Angier is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist covering science. She’s also quite a card. She presents her material not only with a strict, sensible logic, but she leavens it throughout with breezy throw-away lines, like: “power lines … fastened onto high-tension towers that loom phantasmically over the highway, like a procession of giant Michelin Men with arms of aluminum lace,” or in reference to the snout of the star-nosed mole: “Ringing its snout are twenty-two fleshy, pinkish-red, highly sensitive tentacles that … look like a pinwheel of earthworms, or children’s fingers poking up from below in a cheap but surprisingly effective horror movie.”

It’s easy to see why - and highly appreciated - that Angier included multiple throw-away phrases on nearly every page: she set herself a gigantic task, which would feature untold facts and theories, and she needed a way to engage general readers. As often as she quips throughout her book, it never descends into anything seriously jokey, or ironic. Her science, as you would expect, is quite up to snuff, her passion is real, and her hope for scientific literacy is fervent. These attributes add up to a very worthwhile book. If your interest extends to modern science, here is an excellent way to fill in any sketchy areas you feel you have. Take it up!


 

"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

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What is Anna Karenina? It is considered by its author to be his first novel, an interesting claim, since it was published ten years after War and Peace (1867 vs. 1877). For Tolstoy the novel had a more limited definition than a “fictitious prose narrative of considerable length” (quoting the very helpful introduction by Richard Pevear, one of the translators, along with Larissa Volokhonsky). Pevear goes on to cite Tolstoy’s framing of Anna Karenina: he would portray a small group of main characters (seven, all of whom are related by birth or marriage), set in the present and dealing with personal lives of upper-class family and society.

What else is Anna Karenina? It is:
- a marvel of energetic, unflagging story, paced beautifully over 700-800 pages
- a supremely realistic treatment of the mental and emotional states of its characters
- an especially brilliant exposition of the internal dialogues of its co-main characters, Anna     Arkadyevna Krenina and Konstantin Dmitrich Levin
- a report of the current affairs of the time: cultural, geopolitical, artistic, social, and literary
- an unblinking look at society’s subjugation of women in Czarist Russia at that time

The heart of Tolstoy’s enduring genius: he triumphs by setting forth the recognizable and relatable urges and decisions of human characters. And he follows these trails faithfully to their logical ends. No decision, no statement, no concern, no aspiration ascribed to any character deviates from obvious and understandable motives, with the possible exception of Anna toward novel’s end. (Although even those fractured and desperate calculations ring tragically true.) Of course this is not unique among novels, but Tolstoy manages it through so many events, major and minor, draws out the evolution of each character’s progress through so many thresholds and experiences - it’s awe-inspiring.

He also honors his characters; he’s generous but he doesn’t let his indulgence bleed into the maudlin or sentimental. He forgives no one. He sets his characters in motion and they play their roles to perfection, leading to not one, but two, perfect denouements. This novel deserves every accolade it has received.


 

New In-Depth Page Published

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 Please look to the Pages sidebar to the right for a link to the new in-depth piece on three novels, by John Burnside, Anne Enright, and Lydia Millet - Thanks!!

"A Children's Bible" by Lydia Millet

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Travel to the not-too-distant future and witness the calamities befall a group of families in Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible. The families - parents and children - have assembled at a rented coastal mansion for Millet’s frightening parable in which children are forced to supplant their parents in an apparent dress rehearsal for the End Times. She includes natural disasters which make modern-day services impossible; lawless behavior by gangs of armed men; the righteous natural world pushing back against the ruination of the planet in seeming outrage.
 

Millet includes a touch of the supernatural when the owner of the farm to which the children eventually escape and are holed up: a young boy has fallen into a pit and suffered what might be a compound fracture. The farm’s owner, a no-nonsense woman accompanied in her helicopter by a SWAT team, apparently cures the boy and he’s no worse for the wear. This perhaps lays the groundwork for the episode a little later in the narrative where all the parents simply disappear, apparently having lost their will to live because the children are so self-sufficient.

This book takes up serious issues: the exhausted planet, the broken culture, the teetering infrastructure. Whether it does these issues justice, and whether it’s possible to do all these issues justice in so short a work, is fully open to question. The hurricane sequence is the best in the book. The noise, the dark, the violence of nature, the fragility of man-made structures - all these are so vivid and immediate that I cringed for everyone’s safety. The children have surprising moments of worldly wisdom among all the complaining and desultory disrespect.

And here is the center of the narrative. The younger generation, teens mostly, going into junior and senior year of high school (plus a few younger siblings), energetically revile the assembled parents. It’s clear from the start that the teens are and will be on their own, and to their credit this holds true, and they do a creditable job … except for the key event of their rescue at the farm. The parents play a central role in that, and it’s very difficult for me to accept the way they simply wander off forever.

Readers interested in Millet, and you very well should be, please take up Millet’s 2016 novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven.
 


"Jack" by Marilynne Robinson

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 Marilynne Robinson’s novels continue to demonstrate her utter mastery, and advance her to the very top rank of current novelists. She reigns over all others currently publishing in English. Her characters have more life and depth. Her themes flow from exalted planes, and her diction hews closely to the divine. In her latest, “Jack,” she explores the thoughts and impulses of Jack Boughton, a down-on-his-luck son of a preacher. Jack  falls in love with a “colored” woman (the term used in the book) in St. Louis, shortly after World War II.

Jack wrestles with so many contradictions. Something in his strict yet loving upbringing gave him a compunction to wreck fragile objects; he habitually steals things, out of a kind of curiosity; he’s an inveterate liar, and goes on drinking binges, and so obviously can’t hold a job. Be all that as it may, when Della comes into his life, it all changes. The light in Jack’s heart comes on for the first time; he curtails his drinking and stealing habits in honor of her; instead of an urge to destroy this fragile love he has, he works devilishly hard at protecting Della, at making sure their illicit and illegal love doesn’t ruin her. He’s a marvelous, touching, and very real character.

Jack and Della are son and daughter of preachers. Jack’s Dad is a Presbyterian minister, and Della’s father is an important Baptist bishop in Memphis. Their backgrounds determine their approaches to life, like everyone’s, and each in their own way rebels against that background. Jack’s mysterious battle against his upbringing embraces his conclusion that he’s an atheist, not needing God’s guidance to live (eventually) a scrupulous life. Della’s rejection of some of her indoctrination rests on an independence of mind, from a bone-deep fatigue at a life so full of strictures.

And this brings me to one of my favorite aspects of this novel. Jack worries constantly  that he will end by ruining Della’s reputation and life. Their love, after all, is socially unacceptable and legally proscribed. He decides several times that to treat her right he must leave her. However, Della overwhelms his determination with her own, deeper resolution to have him as her husband, and in the face of that he cannot tell her no. In this way, Della exists in full depth and rounding, a creature to love, for Jack and the reader.

“Jack” is that most challenging of writing: it sustains a full and accessible exploration of the character Jack’s inner dialogue from the first page to the last. And in what a lovely fashion. Consider this, at page 250:

Dear Jesus, what was he doing? This was not what he promised himself. This was not harmlessness. He was sure he had no right to involve her in so much potential misery. How often had he thought this? But she had the right to involve herself, or had claimed the right, holding his hand the way she had. She was young, the daughter of a protective family. She might have no idea yet that embarrassment, relentless, punitive scorn, can wear away at a soul until it recedes into wordless loneliness. Maybe apophatic loneliness. God in the silence. In the deep darkness. The highest privilege, his father said. He was usually speaking of death, or course. The congregant’s soul had entered the Holy of Holies. Jack sometimes called this life he had lived prevenient death. He had learned that for all its comforts and discomforts, its stark silence first of all, there was clearly no reprieve from doing harm.


Or this, at page 292:

… it had seemed to Jack that his father proposed a sort of Promised Land where troublesome categories did not apply. ‘Night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.’ Those words nullified a very primary distinction. ‘God separated the light from the darkness,’ in the very first moments of creation. Verse 4. Then how was anyone to believe that any distinction was absolute, not secondary to a more absolute intention, the luminous reality concealed behind the veil of experience? He thought he should write this down, to show it to Della, maybe to her father. He and Della had been there, in that luminous absence of distinctions, in that radiant light.


So memorable is the character Jack: the exacting principles of his upbringing wage a constant battle with his reprobate adult self; under the benign influence of Della, his principles metamorphose into the higher calling of love.

“Jack” completes and reinforces the “Gilead” cycle of stories. At least as the cycle now stands. Take it up. Take it up, and marvel again at the artistry of Marilynne Robinson.

 Page citations from

Jack: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson (Author) Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020), 320 pages