Month: April 2015

Book Review – Herta Muller The Land of Green Plumbs

Ayn Rand wrote something to the effect that “people who praise communism never lived under it.” Herta Muller has done an outstanding job expressing the same thoughts through her fiction. Similar in style and tone to The Appointment and The Passport, The Land of Green Plumbs presented another dystopian, yet believable, view of her native Rumania during the Ceausescu years.

I really liked the narration. The author chose a nameless narrator to present the story. The lack of a name created a sense of distance from the character closest to the reader. I interpreted this as a parallel for social relations in Rumania under the Communist Party. In Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible, he described how living in a totalitarian state—in his case, China– impeded normal emotional relations between men and women. A fear that anyone could be an informer prevented it. I got this same sense of Ceausescu’s regime from the exposition in The Land of Green Plumbs.

Unlike so many ‘political’ novels, I found Muller’s prose outstanding. Her writing style reminded me of Cormack McCarthy and Ernest Hemmingway. The author preferred the use of nouns and verbs as opposed to modifiers. With that acknowledgement, she used adjectives and adverbs at the proper places. This method didn’t diminish the impact of the story at all. Here’s the narrator’s description of a discussion with her hairdresser. Like just about every scene in this book, it contained upsetting material…and this is just a trip to a hair stylist!

I stayed with my hairdresser as long as I could and told him everything I knew about my father’s life.

In this tale of death, my father’s life began at a time I knew best from the books of Edgar, Kurt, and Georg and least from Father himself: An SS-man who came back from the war, who had made graveyards and left places in a hurry, I told the hairdresser. Someone who had had to make a child and always keep an eye on his slippers. As I talked about his damn stupid plants, his dark, dark plumbs, his boozy songs for the Fuhrer, and his swollen liver, I was getting a permanent wave for his funeral.

            Before I left, the hairdresser said: My father was at Stalingrad. (65 – 66)

In spite of her minimalist approach to language, Muller still populated the book with lyrical flourishes. She used simile very well in the following line:

Hate was allowed to trample and destroy. To mow the love that sprang up in our closeness like long grass. (Page 75)

Here’s another great passage.

The world hasn’t waited for anyone, I thought. I didn’t have to walk, eat, sleep, and love someone in fear. (Page 34)

With beautiful albeit dark language like this, it didn’t surprise me that the author included poetry throughout the work. The tone of it surprised me even less. The Land of Green Plumbs included the most troubling poem I’ve ever read.

He who loves and leaves

Shall feel the wrath of God

God shall punish him

With the pinching beetle

The howling wind

The dust of the earth. (Page 153)

In 2009 the Swedish Academy awarded Muller the Nobel Prize in Literature for works such as this one. The version of the book I have included her Nobel Lecture. In it she discussed her life in communist Rumania. Some of the things she mentioned made it into The Land of Green Plumbs. The fact the author based the story on true events made the book that much more disturbing.

Theater Review – Kimberly Akimbo at 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Treading the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy challenges any thespian. The cast and crew of 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters did so brilliantly this April. They selected the perfect script in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo (directed by Gabrielle Affleck) to showcase their skills.

Phyllis Josephson delivered an inspiring performance as Kimberly: a teenager suffering from an incurable disease. The nature of the disorder compounded the tragedy of her situation. This malady caused her to age four-and-a-half times as quickly as a normal adolescent. Ms. Josephson flawlessly expressed the mannerisms and speech inflections of a 16 year old. In an exhibition of her range, she also acted the part of a heart attack victim. After the show I didn’t know if it more appropriate to send her flowers or take her out for ice cream.

Ms. Josephson unveiled her true forte in the emotional scenes with Kimberly’s alcoholic father, Buddy. (Very convincingly played by Zach Palmer.) She cowered like a scared little girl, but also lashed out venomously when he asked embarrassing questions to her love interest, Jeff. (Exceptionally played by Tim Schumann) Palmer’s comedic tirade against the evils of Dungeons and Dragons evened out the scene nicely.

After witnessing Kori Rife’s portrayal of Buddy’s hypochondriac wife, Pattie, I could understand his issues with the bottle. Ms. Rife played the role of a narcissistic, self-obsessed, pregnant woman while still delivering solid comedic chops. In her first appearance on stage she revealed the depth of her talent. Pattie struggled to dictate a message to her unborn child into a tape recorder. The bandages which covered her fingers, due to perceived carpal tunnel syndrome, prevented her from hitting the record button. She slapped it with her hands, and then tried her tongue, and eventually her chin.

Lisa Croce played an exceptional Aunt Debra. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I know Ms. Croce personally.) I haven’t witnessed a devious character played with such humor. She mixed the comedy and criminality very well. I liked how she dragged a mailbox involved in Debra’s scheme across the length of the stage.

2nd Stage featured an unusual set-up. Upon entering, the audience walked through the performance area to their chairs. Seating was limited, and the room got cramped, but I didn’t mind. I liked being up-close. At times I felt part of the show.

In terms of the play itself, I thought it extremely well-written. It began with a family on the verge of disintegration. In spite of the alcoholic father, the self-absorbed mother, terminally ill child, and homeless aunt with a criminal record the comic yuks didn’t stop. That’s an astounding accomplishment from a gifted playwright.

I’ve got bad news and good news. I’ll give you the bad news first. Unfortunately for theater goers, Kimberly Akimbo completed its run at 2nd Stage this past Saturday. Now the good news: the performers actively participate in other community theater projects. Based on the range they showed in this play, you can’t go wrong seeing them in either a comedy or tragedy. I hope we’re lucky and get to see them in a show that fuses the two like Kimberly Akimbo.

Restaurant Review – The Robin’s Nest in Mount Holly, NJ

Nestled a few blocks away from Mount Holly’s historic district, the Robin’s Nest treats patrons to an outstanding dining experience. In addition to the food, customers have the option of feasting on a breathtaking outdoor view of the creek. This establishment got the complete dining experience right.

While a beautiful spring day, I opted to dine inside. From the cozy layout I suspected the building rather old. I read a historical marker on the edifice next to the main dining area indicating it served as a jail in the early 1900s. I suspected someone constructed the building where I ate at least that long ago. I didn’t count, but there couldn’t have been more than 15 seats at the bar. I did volunteer work in an ‘historic’ home for several years. Due to the age of the various edifices in the area, the compactness didn’t bother me.

After perusing the menu an interesting dish stood out. The Robin’s Nest offered a lasagna entrée made with goat cheese. I’ve had many Italian dishes, but never that. As one only lives once, and with the knowledge of a hospital located a few blocks away, I ordered it. Much to my chagrin my server returned from the kitchen to inform me they didn’t have any more. Readers of this column know: not receiving what I order really strains the limits of my patience.

My love of visiting historical places may have alleviated my temper. I’d been to the county court house in Mount Holly, but never to any of the historic sections. I’d had the pleasure of seeing the oldest fire house in the U. S. on this trip. Taking a sense of pride from my surroundings, I opted for the town’s namesake. This time I ordered the Mount Holly Melt.

Had I not read the other meal on the menu I would’ve requested it, anyway. The menu described it as, “Chicken Salad with Celery, Onion and Mandarin Oranges in a Creamy Dill Mayonnaise Dressing topped with Melted Cheddar Cheese, served on Toasted Fresh Baked Sourdough Bread with a Side Salad.”

What the server delivered surprised me. The salad came with the meal. The preparer placed it on the plate to the left of the sandwich. The latter only had one slice of bread on the bottom. This forced me to cut it with a fork. After my initial misgivings, I tried and enjoyed it. I liked both the leafy salad and the chicken salad sections of the meal. The sizable portion made for an excellent lunch. I didn’t see the bottom of the plate until I finished eating.

I liked the price even more. The on-line menu advertises the Mount Holly Melt as $9.50. They charged me $8.95 for it as a “lunch special.” That’s a very economical cost for the quantity served.

I mentioned before that ambiance defines this establishment’s core competency. Even the rest room impressed me. The series of men’s ties adorning the gilded colored walls gave it the air of an old time washroom. The series of aphorisms that appeared throughout also added to its uniqueness. I’ll quote the most memorable.

“A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.” Sir Francis Bacon

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Ambition is the last refuge of failure.” Oscar Wilde

At first I thought this an odd place for philosophical ruminations. Then I realized: a rest room is one of the few places in today’s world where a person is alone to think. I guess the management strives to expand consumers’ intellectual horizons as well as their waist lines.

The sign over the commode made for the most striking feature, though. It read, “Please be seated. Waitress will serve you.” I normally don’t applaud ‘bathroom humor’ at a fine dining establishment, but I did chuckle while reading it.

It’s rare to see a unique combination of good food, great scenery and wit. There’s a lot of history in the Mount Holly area. I hope that the Robin’s Nest remains part of its present for a long time to come.

Lenape Libertarianism

Peace. Tolerance. Autonomy. If asked who established these concepts on the North American continent, I’m sure many would respond the Founding Fathers. Those more familiar with the history of the Delaware Valley would say the Quakers. While great guesses, historical ‘myth buster’ Dr. Jean R. Soderlund of Lehigh University asserts that the Lenape Indians established these ‘American’ values prior to the other groups’ respective arrivals. She elucidated her ideas at the Annual Meeting of the Historical Society of Moorestown on April 9th.

The parallels between Lenape society and modern day libertarian thought amazed me. The Lenape opposed the concept of a central government. They lived in small autonomous villages. A ‘sachem’ led each town. These villages would ally only for purposes of war and diplomacy. I interpret this act as forming a de-facto central government for the purpose of foreign affairs.

Freedom served as the core value of their society. They permitted their children to ‘run free’, in Dr. Soderlund’s words. Women had a much higher status in society than their European counterparts. They even had the authority to divorce if they so choose. These socially liberal ideas didn’t exist among newcomers to the region.

The Lenape supported free trade. Corn, beans and squash served as their major agricultural products. They would exchange these items with Europeans in return for cloth.

While establishing a reputation for welcoming others into their society, they resorted to force when necessary. Dr. Soderlund used the Swanendael Massacre of 1631 as an example. The tragedy germinated from a communication gap between the Lenape and the Dutch. The latter asked the former to turn over a sachem. He’d defaced a sign defining the area as Dutch territory. The Lenape killed the chief and provided his head. The Dutch had a much more benign punishment in mind, but the language barrier complicated their request. The sachem’s family executed 32 members of the Dutch settlement as retribution.

Dr. Soderlund asserted that the Lenape resorted to violence to encourage the settlers to go elsewhere. They recognized European encroachment in the region. This act sent a message. In 1687 the Lenape wouldn’t allow cartographer Thomas Holme access to their lands to complete his map, either.

The Walking Purchase of 1737 concluded the professor’s lecture. An unscrupulous negotiator inveigled a large tract of land in Eastern Pennsylvania from the Lenape. Their distrust of government and the settlers turned out well-founded.

Dr. Soderlund delivered a well-researched presentation on Lenape life. I’m still amazed by their libertarian value system. The professor discredited various myths surrounding Native American life. Unfortunately no historian can include the narrative of them getting cheated out of their land among them.

Book Review – Crabwalk by Gunter Grass

RIP, Mr. Grass.

Kevin Stephany's Critique Compendium

In his opus German History 1770 – 1866 historian James Sheehan defined German history though its: “diversity and discontinuity, richness and fragmentation, fecundity and fluidity.” While feeling generous Gunter Grass referred to it more simply as a “crabwalk”; meaning “scuttling backward to move forward.” While in his protagonist’s point-of-view he elucidated it as such:

History, or to be more precise, that history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising. (Page 122)

I attended a class in German history while an undergraduate. This might explain why the professor didn’t add Crabwalk to the required reading list.

Grass’ historical novel presented a take on the recent German past from the Second World War through the book’s publication date. (2002) He used his protagonist, Paul Pokriefke, to express it.

At times Crabwalk read like a history book. Grass did his research…

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Book Review – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

What John Dillinger was to the American outlaws of the 1930’s Ned Kelly was to the ‘bushrangers’ of 1870’s Australia. Folk hero to some, vicious killer to others, his legacy is hotly debated to this day. In this creative tome of historical fiction, Peter Carey presented his take on this controversial figure.

Carey’s presentation reminded me of Mario Vargas-Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt. The author immerged himself in Kelly’s frame of mind. The narrative consisted of various ‘parcels’ written from Ned Kelly’s perspective. The entries included bad grammar, poor subject-verb agreement and downright awful writing. While difficult to understand and at times very tedious to get through, it gave the tale an element of authenticity. I felt like I read words written by Ned Kelly, himself. This made the choice of title an excellent one.

In real life Kelly faced execution before having the opportunity to meet his daughter. The protagonist recorded the memoirs so she could get to know him. For this reason, the author excised the bad language in the text. The word adjectival appeared numerous times. (As most reading this post are adults, I don’t feel the need to point out what four letter word it represented.) Once again, this made the writing even more realistic.

The book’s main strength also served as its major weakness. I found the text very difficult to get through. Keep in mind that I’m a guy. I like ‘bang-bang shoot ‘em up’ action stories. True History of the Kelly Gang didn’t lack any of that. The writing made it very hard for me to follow. I thought the transitions too abrupt. Various scenes ran together. I had to go back and see if I missed something. Most of the time, I hadn’t.

With the use of a first person semi-illiterate narrator, there weren’t many lyrical flourishes in the test. Carey did manage to include a few.

The memory of the policeman’s words lay inside me like the egg of a liver fluke and while I went about my growing up this slander wormed deeper and deeper in my heart and there grew fat. (Page 12)

These things are like the dark marks made in the rings of great trees locked forever in my daily self. (Page 19)

In the heat of the furnace metals change their nature in olden days they could make gold from lead. Wait to see what more there is to hear my daughter for in the end we poor uneducated people will all be made noble in the fire. (Page 265)

At one point the bushranger even added some alliteration to the narrative. He described the morning as a “damp, dripping, dawn.” (Page 231)

The other major criticism I had of this book concerned its one-sidedness. Most of it came entirely from Kelly’s perspective. The author did include a few newspaper clippings, but the story portrayed the protagonist as a victim and a martyr. I would suspect Carey had a political agenda in presenting the story this way. Most writers do (John Steinbeck comes first to mind) so I don’t fault him. I do think he would’ve developed more sympathy for Kelly if he’d presented the other side’s position. If the British provisional government persecuted people for no other reason than their Irish descent, Carey could’ve explained that easily by showing their point-of-view.

I would also add that the author included a colorful cast of characters in this story. I found Ned Kelly’s mother to be the most interesting. How can I put this delicately? She didn’t make the best choices when it came to men. In fact, they were so bad that I wondered if some of the original ‘your mamma’ jokes began in reference to her. But still: one has to respect a woman raising young children while incarcerated.

Peter Carey demonstrated an authentic use of voice in True History of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately, he made it a very poor writer with little grasp of syntax. Because of this, an interesting story with unending action became a challenging slog. I’m hoping someone will publish a ‘normal English’ translation of this book in the near future.