Book Reviews

Book Review – A World in Disarray by Richard Haass

Dr. Haass hit on a serendipitous trifecta with A World in Disarray. Talk about putting out the right book, at the right time with the right title. This tome delivered a brief yet trenchant analysis of international relations from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia through the present day. The author explored how the world progressed from the development of nation states to an era of globalization then reverted to a period of isolationism.

Unlike many works on foreign relations, I found this book rather lucid. The author expressed his ideas in plain language. Here’s his analysis of the modern era.

Populism and nationalism are on the rise. What we are witnessing is a widespread rejection of globalization and international involvement and, as a result, a questioning of long-standing postures and policies, from openness to trade to immigrants to a willingness to maintain alliances and overseas commitments. (Location 107)

It impressed me that the President of the Council on Foreign Relations could describe world affairs without resorting to jargon. It allowed me to focus on his ideas instead of struggling through a challenging vocabulary.

A World in Disarray contained many definitions. That allowed me to understand precisely what the author meant. I liked that Dr. Haass provided them even for common words.

Order is…a measure of the world’s condition. (Location 259)

’Legitimacy,’ defined by Kissinger to mean ‘international agreement about the workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. (Location 307)

Terrorism often proves a challenging concept to define. There’s an adage that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The author provided an understandable description of terrorism. He used the one that emerged following the 9/11 attacks: “the intentional killing of innocent men, women and children by actors other than states for political purposes.” (Location 1355)

Many modern phenomena do not respect borders. Countries can affect each other in manners that previous generations never encountered. Technological advancements such as the internet and scourges such as ebola and climate change expand the scope of foreign policy. Dr. Haass used the book to advance a new approach towards it in the shadow of these threats. He called it “sovereign obligation.” He termed it as:

It is about a government’s obligations to other governments and through them to the citizens of other countries. (Loc 2498)

The author also provided examples of a poor approach to foreign policy. As Dr. Haass worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department at the beginning of George W. Bush’s Presidency, I’ll use his thoughts regarding the goal of the Iraq War.

The motive that most captured the imaginations of the upper reaches of the George W. Bush administration, though, was a belief that a post-Saddam Iraq would become democratic, setting an example and a precedent that the other Arab states and Iran would have great difficulty resisting. (Location 1724)

I thought it interesting that at an earlier point in the book, he wrote:

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Germany and Japan stand out as among the few successful examples of what today would be called regime change followed by nation or state building. (Location 441)

A World in Disarray provided a comprehensible and concise analysis of the globe’s current state and the events that led to it. George Santayana once wrote that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. Let’s hope modern leaders study Dr. Haass’ work so they don’t repeat the present.

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Book Review – The Bow and the Lyre by Octavio Paz

Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world, it creates another. (Location 70)

As one can discern from the quote above, Octavio Paz held poetry in pretty high regard. In his explication on the nature of the poetic, the author presented a high-minded analysis of the reasons why:

…the struggle between prose and poetry, consecration and analysis, song and criticism, latent since the birth of modern society is resolved by the triumph of poetry. (Location 3404)

A heady analysis bracketed these citations.

It is somewhat unusual for a literary figure to write an intellectual tome on his/her field. As Mr. Paz was a poet of great renown, I wanted to explore his take on the topic. Since this April 19th marks the twentieth anniversary of his passing, this month seemed a good time to do so.

The author derived the title from a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He wrote, “The universe is in tension, like the bowstrings or the strings of the lyre. The world ‘changing, rests.’” (Location 2932) That seemed a solid choice. It referenced the bow and the lyre that poets used to accompany their work during ancient times. It also gave an indication of the book’s heavy philosophical leanings.

Some of author’s more thought provoking observations included:

By means of the word, man is a metaphor of himself. (Location 361)

…–the poem is something that is beyond language. But that thing that is beyond language can only be reached through language. A painting will be a poem if it is something more than pictorial language. (Location 229)

The myth is a past that is a future ready to be realized in the present. (Location 804)

Are you still with me, reader? Okay. I’ll continue.

As indicated in the opening, Mr. Paz had a very high opinion of poetry.  He reasoned:

The spoken language is closer to poetry than to prose; it is less reflective and more natural, and that’s why is easier to be a poet without knowing it than a prose writer. (Location 207) … The poet sets his matter free. The prose writer imprisons his. (Location 212)

He added, “When a poet acquires a style, a manner, he stops being a poet and becomes a constructor of literary artifacts.” (Location 140)

Mr. Paz didn’t just like poetry; he used this book as its apotheosis. He believed poetry played a vital role in any community. This is where I found the author drifting from adoration into pretention. He wrote:

Without an epic no society is possible, because there is no society without heroes in whom it can recognize itself. (Location 3302)

At one point, he even suggested the poem on a superior plane to the person who created it.

The poem is not a literary form, but a meeting place between poetry and man. A poem is a verbal organism that contains, stimulates or emits poetry. The form and the substance are the same. (Location 97)

He later wrote:

Poetry is not the sum of all poems, Each poetic creation is a self-sufficient unit. The part is the whole. (Location 114)

I also thought one of Mr. Paz’s observations odd. He noted: “Poetry is the hunger for reality.” (Location 859) That seemed a strange statement as the author wrote surrealist poetry himself.

Mr. Paz displayed both practical and intellectual proficiency in the topic he presented. I still found The Bow and the Lyre a very difficult read. The complexity of thought and amount of information would benefit academics. I wouldn’t suggest this book to people with a general interest in poetry, however. For those readers, I’d advise them to check out a volume of the author’s own poetry. Mr. Paz just may have agreed with that. As he explained:

The poem is a work that is always unfinished, always ready to be completed and lived by a new reader. (Location 2964)…A poem is fully realized only in participation: without a reader, it is only half a work. (Location 437)

Book Review – Protecting New Jersey’s Environment by Thomas Belton

Environmental policy makes for a very clinical topic. History can read like a very dry subject even to those harboring a profound interest in the subject. One wouldn’t expect a combination of the two to make for an entertaining read. Enter Thomas Belton. He drew on his background in classical languages to craft an engaging book accessible to lay people. Utilizing his training as scientist for the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, he crafted a technical analysis of various environmental issues that impacted the state. Applying his skill as a story teller, he crafted a work of history that made for a pleasurable read. He joined these elements together in the form of Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State.

I met Thomas Belton a few weeks ago. I attended an address he delivered based on this book at the Moorestown Library. (See my review of the lecture.) The talk impressed me so much that I purchased a copy of the book that the author signed for me. I informed him that I enjoyed his lecture and looked forward to reading his book. It didn’t disappoint.

Protecting New Jersey’s Environment encompassed a wide array of environmental topics; many of which Mr. Belton had personal involvement with during the course of his career. He reviewed topics ranging from the debate over “cancer clusters”, to the environmental justice movement, to New Jersey’s wildlife and a variety of other subjects.

I found the scope unexpectedly broad for a 230 page book. It also surprised me that the topic of environmental history in just one state could be so wide-ranging. After all, the modern environmental movement didn’t really begin until 1970. At any rate, I do credit the author for bringing together such disparate facets of New Jersey environmental history together in one tome.

As a lifelong South Jersey resident, I enjoyed reading about locations I’m personally familiar with. The author described how “brownfields initiative” provided funds to clean up moderately polluted sites. It allowed for the renovation of the old Victor Records building in Camden, NJ. It also provided the impetus for building of the Salvation Army Ray and Kroc Corps Community Center at Harrison Avenue in the same city.

The best sections of the book contained the author’s personal recollections. Mr. Belton took part in a study that discovered unhealthy quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in several species of fish. In 1982, the New Jersey Department of Health along with the NJDEP issued an advisory regarding their consumption. The author wasn’t lauded for his efforts. He recalled getting “personally” pilloried by the media as “an unprofessional Chicken Little screaming, ‘The sky is falling.’” (Page 47)

I cannot convey how gut wrenching it is to see your professional reputation slandered in the press, to see your competence called into question in the midst of a swirling national debate. However, I did not have the time to worry about it. I had to forget about personal reputation for the moment because the critical issue was that the accuracy of our study was being questioned. And more important from my perspective, the consumption advice we had given the public might be ignored. The advisories were in danger of being drowned out by media sound bites, resulting in a pregnant woman or a nursing mother making an ill-informed choice to eat contaminated fish. (Page 43)

This book contained some extraordinary writing. Mr. Belton expressed many of his ideas poetically. Here’s my favorite passage.

Looking up, I noticed the sunset was a strange reddish-green color, the dim coastline a brown smudge on the horizon. And a weird feeling came over me in my lethargy; a sense that I was hovering high above and looking down at the water’s surface, which had turned to a scrim of crystal glass and the fathoms beneath turned transparent with all the billions of creatures moving about unaware and unconcerned with our passage. And as I dreamed, our boat was flying over this translucent sea, I envisioned the shark and tuna chasing millions of tiny prey fish, which fled in huddled schools, maneuvering to avoid the serrated teeth, and current-borne jellyfish ballooning out in bulging pockets of water to eat phytoplankton, the tiny algae sunning themselves and growing larger with each packet of sunshine that fell into the nurturing water. And all along the bottom, worms slithered and crabs scuttled about, cuttlefish rocketing across the vast sandy spaces, tiny wavelet dunes on the bottom mimicking those ashore, the silent sucking of the planetary currents pulling finless cells into the mouths of filter-feeding sponges and coelenterate anemones who needed them most. (Page 212)

Mr. Belton presented a readable take on the issues effecting New Jersey’s environment. While it covered an array of topics, many of them would be of interest to any resident of the Garden State.

As beautifully as the author expressed his reflections on the sea’s inhabitants in the passage above, the paragraph that followed shifted the mood. Without explicitly doing so, he still summarized the need for books such as Protecting New Jersey’s Environment.  

But I was pulled from this reverie as we entered Barnegat Inlet and drove into the bay beyond, noticing the green and red shroud moving off the land to swallow the sunset was actually photochemical smog—a pea-green soup of particulates, ozone, nitric and sulfuric acid—all the air pollutants refracting the setting sun into its extraordinary color. And this frightened me. Knowing that smog was an airborne killer, a soup of chemicals soon to be deposited on the bay and ocean, absorbed by all the creatures swimming beneath our feet, I was frightened for them, frightened for the people ashore who would eat these poisoned fish, and frightened for the future of the seas as waves of pollutants washed off the continent, mimicking in reverse the ocean waves protecting us ashore. (Page 212)

 

Drama Review – The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

In The Bonds of Interest Jacinto Benavente presented a farcical tale of a pair of unconventional seventeenth century conmen. This disadvantaged duo duped everyone they met into believing the quiet member of the team a prestigious nobleman. Because of this, everyone granted them luxuries on credit. When part of the scheme entailed marrying the one off to a nobleman’s daughter, the two would discover whether or not the “bonds of interest” could overcome the desire for retribution.

Even though the comedy described an improbable story, the playwright still adhered to sold writing principles. Whenever a narrative focuses upon the exploits of two main characters, one is always portrayed as the dominant of the two. Benavente employed this method to brilliant effect while applying a twist to it.

The tale presented a scheme concocted by Crispin. While the dominant character, he masqueraded as Leander’s servant. When they encountered people, Crispin delivered most, and sometimes all of , the dialog. He touted the praises of his “master”, while serving as the outfit’s mastermind. The playwright balanced this character’s roles through his words very well.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but the playwright crafted a brilliant plot twist regarding Leander. He did so by making him a well-developed character. While a fugitive from justice, he still behaved nobly in regard to his love interest, Silvia. Even though he participated in a large scale scam, he allowed his feelings for Silvia to allow him to express himself honestly.

The playwright used a clever technique to express this inner decency. He did so in the form of an insult. Crispin told Silvia’s father:

And after all, the only trouble with my master was that he had no money; no one could out do him in nobility of character; your grandchildren will be gentlemen even if that quality does not extend up to the grandfather. (Location 1683)

Leander’s transition illustrated exceptional writing ability on Benavente’s part. I applaud him even more for working it into a farcical story.

The Bonds of Interest included several memorable lines. My favorites included:

Men are like merchandise; they are worth more or less according to the salesman who markets them. (Location 1779)

It is as foolish to trust a man while he lives as a woman while she loves. (Location 661)

Love is all subtleties and the greatest subtlety of them all is not that lovers deceive others—it is that they so easily can deceive themselves. (Location 1240)

I had rather deal with a thousand knaves than one fool. (Location 1550)

With the understanding that the play was a farce regarding an unbelievable series of events, I only had one criticism of it. I admit it’s not a fair one, either. The drama premiered in 1907 and the writing style reflected that of the early twentieth century. At times I read some excessive exposition.

In the following example, Crispin explained his and Leander’s back story.

…But more than this, have you forgotten that they are searching for us in other parts and following on our heels? Can it be that all those glorious exploits of Mantua and Florence have been forgotten? Do you recall that famous lawsuit in Bologna? Three thousand two hundred pages of testimony already admitted against us before we withdrew in alarm at the sight of such prodigious expansive ability! (Location 1261)

To paraphrase Stephen King: everyone has a backstory. Most of it isn’t very interesting. It becomes even less exciting when a character keeps making the same point through consecutive sentences.

While first performed in 1907, The Bonds of Interest contains humor that still resonates. Combine that with the story of two people struggling to advance their station in life through a preposterous “get rich quick scheme.” That makes it just as entertaining today. To borrow a lesson from the play: don’t believe everything I wrote just because I wrote it. Read Benavente’s drama and decide if it bonds to your interest.

 

Book Review – Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 masterpiece, Babbitt, told the story of a closet liberal living in a world of conservatives. This group of right wingers pursued conformity for conformity’s sake. And here I thought that Lewis’ 1935 work It Can’t Happen Here was a prescient harbinger of twenty first century America.

The story progression read like a bildungsroman. Many times such tales feature a young protagonist. George F. Babbitt aged into his mid-40s during this one. On the surface, the character appeared to experience what we now call a mid-life crisis. Lewis’ prose dug much deeper into the character’s psyche for such a glib description. The novel explored his personal awakening. It progressed into a classic of American tragedy.

The author selected the perfect setting for Babbitt’s conflict. Aside from his inner struggle, Lewis “institutionalized” him, if you will, in the homogenous community of Zenith.  It contained a very conservative social atmosphere.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. If it was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it. (Location 2246)

The residents of Zenith adhered to a circumscribed belief system.

All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Location 6163)

The book contained the best examples of Lewis’ satirical wit that I’ve read. The best included:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor -speeding. (Location 729)

He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted all the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (Location 632)

The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. (Location 850)

My personal favorite read as follows.

“Just the same, you don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ‘em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness,” said Virgil Gunch.

“Yes, that’s so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement,” insisted Howard Littlefield. “Congress didn’t understand the right system. Now, if I’d been running the thing, I’d have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights—with the personal liberty—of fellows like ourselves.” (Location 1827)

In spite of Babbitt’s moral shortcomings and self-delusion, I still wanted him to succeed. His struggle between individuality and conformity contains relevance almost a century following the book’s publication. That shows the timeless nature of Sinclair Lewis’ work.

 

Book Review – White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum presented a fictitious account of the most heinous war crime ever committed. The book detailed one character’s ordeal with the use of rape as a weapon during the largest scale use of it in history. The story also explored the effect of this inhumane practice on those not personally victimized by it. An engrossing read that sears into one’s consciousness resulted.

The book’s title derived from the white chrysanthemum representing a symbol of mourning. It established the tone prior to reading the story.

Mary Lynn Bracht crafted a heartrending tale involving two sisters affected by Japan’s occupation of Korea during the Second World War. The scenes set in the 1940s described Hana’s ordeal after the Japanese military abducted her. In order to protect her younger sister, she gave herself up to a group of soldiers who wandered onto her home island. They transported her into distant Manchuria to serve as a “comfort woman”; the Empire’s choice euphemism for “forced prostitution.”

The scenes that transpired during the modern era (2011) described how Hana’s sister Emi struggled to achieve peace with her past. The historical events plaguing the nascent state of South Korea impacted her on a personal level. A larger part of her emotional battle emanated from her guilt over her sister’s selfless sacrifice.

I liked the author’s choice of structure. The chapters alternated between one that depicted Hana’s suffering in the 1940s with one that told Emi’s journey in the 2010s. Ms. Bracht deftly crafted endings to each story line that kept me interested in learning more. Her suspenseful writing style made it very difficult for me to stop reading.

I also applaud the way the author returned to each character’s tale after just one chapter. Ms. Bracht built tension and engaged the reader without dragging out the story. She executed this balance exceptionally.

The author made a great decision to write in the present tense. It gave me a sense that the events occurred while I read. The story possessed a sense of immediacy that enhanced the tension. Hana’s torment took on much more impact; as did Emi’s suffering.

I found sections of this book extraordinarily well written. Here’s an excerpt from one of the best:

The doorknob squeaks as it turns, and Hana feigns sleep. The door swings open and a stream of light shines on her shut eyelids. She relaxes the muscles in her face and mimics the deep breaths of slumber, forcing her chest to rise and fall in a slow, steady rhythm. The flashlight flicks off. The room falls back into darkness. Footsteps pad inside. The door clicks shut. Hana stops breathing.

A ghostly wind howls through the rafters above their heads. The brothel seems to gasp, and the wind rushes through the window. Hana opens her eyes and stares into the darkness. A black shape stands by the door. For a long time, it doesn’t move. The crickets have stopped chirping, and the mice seem to have frozen midstep. The intruder’s shallow breaths fill the void left by their silence.

He takes a step toward her, and she clutches the blanket tighter. He takes another step and before she can stop herself, she sits up and backs away from him, cowering in the corner.

“Do not be afraid,” he whispers. “It’s me.” (Location 1885)

I could stop writing this review at this point. After reading that passage I’m sure some have clicked off of this blog and are buying the book.

For those still reading, the author included some other exceptional usage of language.

His face hovers above her, cloaked in shadow, and she fills in the black void with the man in her memory. The one who raped her first and called it a kindness, before condemning her to this unimaginable life. Not life, but purgatory in the underworld. (Location 1903)

Sometimes old wounds need to be reopened to let them properly heal…(Location 1344)

People these days seem content to search for happiness in life. That is something her generation never fathomed, that happiness is a basic human right, but now it seems like a possibility. (Location 2817)

While an exceptional story and a difficult book to put down, I did disagree with the author’s approach from the denouement through the ending. While Ms. Bracht crafted a conclusion that fit with the narrative thread, I found it unbelievable. Part of that may stem from the other portions being so realistic by comparison. At any rate, I do acknowledge it as a legitimate artistic choice on the author’s part.

Ms. Bracht brought out the plight of the “comfort women” through White Chrysanthemum. Someone once observed that Japanese war criminals benefited from there being no Simon Wiesenthals in the country following the war. Let’s hope there are more Mary Lynn Brachts to continue illuminating this dark chapter of human history.

Book Review – Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in new chapters, fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages. I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble. (Page 24)

Through Waiting for the Barbarians J. M. Coetzee illuminated the darker side of Empire. The author eloquently showed how the distinction between the savage and the civilized could become blurred when cultures find themselves in conflict. A timeless literary event resulted.

Mr. Coetzee’s novel told the story of an unnamed narrator living in an outpost in the “Empire.” The author never identified the country. He never provided the protagonist’s name; he only identified him as a “magistrate.”

This character possessed a much more realistic view of the society than his countrymen did.

There is a time of year, you know, when the nomads visit us to trade. Well: go to any stall in the market during that time and see who gets short-weighted and cheated and shouted at and bullied. See who is forced to leave his womenfolk behind in the camp for fear they will be insulted by the soldiers. See who lies drunk in the gutter, and see who kicks him where he lies. It is this contempt for the barbarians, contempt which is shown by the meanest ostler or peasant farmer, that I as magistrate have had to contend with for twenty years. How do you eradicate contempt, especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid? (Page 50)

While critical of the way his people treated the barbarians, this narrator also questioned his own behavior towards them. Here’s an excerpt where his “barbarian” girlfriend confronted him about his lack of fidelity.

“You visit other girls,” she whispers. “You think I do not know.”

“I make a peremptory gesture for her to be quiet.

“Do you also treat them like this?” she whispers, and starts to sob.

Though my heart goes out to her, there is nothing I can do. Yet what humiliation for her! She cannot even leave the apartment without tottering and fumbling while she dresses. She is as much a prisoner now as ever before. I pat her hand and sink deeper into gloom. (Page 54)

When he stopped sharing his bed with her, he explained:

She adapts without complaint to the new pattern. I tell myself she submits because of her barbarian upbringing. But what do I know of barbarian upbringings? (Page 54)

Later in the story, he expressed the following thoughts on another one of his “barbarian” women.

Only days since I parted from that other one, and I find her face hardening over in my memory, becoming opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself. Plodding across the salt I catch myself in a moment of astonishment that I could have loved someone from so remote a kingdom. (Page 74)

The author chose to write the book in the present tense. Because of that, it made the narrative much more engaging. It gave the story a sense of immediacy while increasing the tension.

I thought the book very well written and without flaw…until just before the end. I didn’t like the way the author chose to insert Mai as a character. I won’t give away spoilers, but will comment that I found the introduction too abrupt. The character’s presence did contribute to the story’s progression, however.

The narrator made a curious comment towards the book’s conclusion.

Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is every anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian. (Page 102)

That statement made me think this book a veiled reference to the author’s take on his native South Africa at the time of its 1980 publication.

Book Review – Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Aside from the years of his birth and death, Sinclair Lewis’ grave marker reads: “Author of Main Street.” That shows the importance the author placed on this one particular work. In it, he presented a critical portrayal of the provincialism he found in small town American life. An unflattering masterpiece resulted.

Main Street introduced readers to Carol Kennicott. An ambitious woman who worked as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she married a small town doctor, Will Kennicott. She began her new life with him in his home town, a small community called Gopher Prarie; a location the author based on his own birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

I liked how the author established the conflict at the very beginning of the story. Carol harbored the following ambition:

“That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I supposed I’d better become a teacher then, but—I won’t be that kind of teacher. I won’t drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie books. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.” (Location 114)

When introduced to the residents of Carol’s new home, one would certainly have thought this would be a rather easy quest for the young protagonist. After all, the community featured some elite organizations such as the Jolly Seventeen and the Thantaposis club. Under her leadership, they even agreed to present a theatrical show. They would undoubtedly have shared the dream of making Gopher Prarie more sophisticated. Not with Sinclair Lewis writing about it they wouldn’t.

The author compared small town American life to a disease. That’s an interesting metaphor coming from somebody who grew up in one. Here’s an exchange between Carol and Mr. Pollock.

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I shan’t pester you with my dolors.” (Location 2400)

Main Street didn’t include as many examples of sardonic wit as some of Lewis’ other books. It did contain a few good ones, however.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be. (Location 2365)

It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization. (Location 4134)

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly…sometimes. (Location 1136)

And the most memorable:

Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn’t get the Widow Bogart’s permission to enlist, he’d run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he “hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he’d die happy.” Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pouchbauer for being a ‘damn hyphenated German”…This was the younger Pouchbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war. (Location 4216)

I did concur with the usual criticism of Main Street. I found the book very long. At times the author provided excessive details when describing the setting. Had he not done so, the story would have progressed at a better pace.

I also thought Lewis restrained his vitriol in this book. Aside from referencing the “Village Virus” and detailing the variety of characters that moved out of the community, he didn’t deliver too negative an attack on his subject. In Elmer Gantry, he didn’t hold back. I expected a similar tone in Main Street.

It seems ironic that the author of Main Street’s final resting place is in the community he satirized in the book. That’s interesting since he passed away in one of the world’s most popular cities, Rome, Italy. Even death couldn’t prevent Mr. Lewis from succumbing to the Village Virus.

 

Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano Translated by Barbara White

It seemed ironic, yet fitting, that Jean B. made documentaries about lost explorers. He was, after all, a lost explorer himself. Driven by his desire to discover the reason for an old acquaintance’s death, he embarked on a journey. This quest would transcend time and location. He traveled from present day France back to the era of the German Occupation. He did so alone as his wife feared he would “involve her in an adventure that leads nowhere.” (Page 114)

For those not familiar with Modiano’s work, Honeymoon would serve as a good introduction. It included many themes common to the author’s books. It included the elements of memory, the German Occupation and a protagonist searching for the past. He weaved them together to craft an engaging narrative.

As a young man, Jean B. spent a brief period of time with a couple named Rigauld and Ingrid. He discovered the latter’s death several decades later. At the time, he’d felt disillusioned with his own life. He embarked on a search to discover what happened to these two people.

The book included some superb writing.

She took my arm because of the sloping road. The contact of her arm and shoulder gave me an impression I had never yet had, that of finding myself under someone’s protection. She would be the first person who could help me. I felt lightheaded. All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm, and the pale blue look from time to time—I didn’t know that such things could happen, in life. (Page 24)

Unless the line of life, once it has reached its term, purges itself on all its useless and decorative elements. In which case, all that remains is the essential: the blanks, the silences and the pauses. I finally fell asleep, turning all these serious questions over in my mind. (Page 36)

It does also happen that one evening, because of someone’s attentive gaze, you feel a need to communicate with him not your experience, but quite simply some of the various details connected by an invisible thread, a thread which is in danger of breaking and which is called the course of life. (Page 88)

As one can tell from the passages, Modiano’s writing is pretty deep. It may not suit all readers’ tastes. My version of the book contains 120 pages. It took longer to read than I anticipated. I found myself re-reading numerous passages because of the writing style.

For my personal preference I don’t mind reading works that challenge me. For that reason I enjoyed Honeymoon and would recommend to others.

In 2014, Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Academy cited his work: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Honeymoon serves as a good example.

 

Book Review – Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow achieved a remarkable feat for a writer. He managed to craft an engaging tale centered on a pathetic protagonist. Just how pathetic was the main character in Seize the Day? Compared to Tommy Wilhelm, Willy Loman would be in the same category as Tom Brady. That’s quite a feat.

I prefer to avoid the use of negative pejoratives when describing even fictional people. Still, it’s difficult to avoid the term failure when describing Mr. Wilhelm. Unfortunately, that would be the kindest way to do so. As the author explained:

This was typical of Wilhelm. After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times. Ten such decisions made up the history of his life. He had decided it would be a bad mistake to go to Hollywood, and then he went. He had made up his mind not to marry his wife, but ran off and got married. He had resolved not to invest money with Tamkin, and then had given him a check. (Page 19)

Wilhem’s father even told him:

“I don’t know how many times you have to be burned in order to learn something. The same mistakes, over and over.” (Page 105)

Aside from giving Mr. Wilhelm the trait of consistency, Mr. Bellow balanced out the character very well. The protagonist made a point to take his sons to Brooklyn Dodgers games on weekends. (Seize the Day was published in 1956.) On one weekend when team travelled, he visited his mother’s grave.

I liked the author’s method of introducing the character. The book opened with the line:

When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought, and there was certainly a lot of evidence to back it up. (Page 1)

Once more I have to extend kudos to Mr. Bellow. He spent the book’s full 133 pages explaining those sentences in detail.

Like many of Mr. Bellow’s works, I found Seize the Day a very difficult read. That made its ‘brief’ length deceptive. I thought the con-man’s, Dr. Tamkin’s, philosophizing very erudite and challenging. The doctor recited an esoteric poem called “Mechanism vs Functionalism Ism vs Hism.” Fortunately, he explicated to Wilhelm which helped me follow its meaning.

As much as the book challenged me, I found it worth the effort. Throughout the story, I kept hoping that Wilhelm would get that one break that would allow him to maneuver his life into a positive direction. I attribute that to great writing on the author’s part.

I did find the book very well written. Mr. Bellow included the following memorable lines:

Mr. Perls put in, “He could be both sane and crazy. In these days nobody can tell for sure which is which.” (Page 37)

Everyone was like the faces on a playing card, upside down either way. (Page 59)

I was the man beneath; Tamkin was on my back, and I thought I was on his. He made me carry him, too, besides Margaret. Like this they ride on me with hoofs and claws. Tear me to pieces, stamp on me and break my bones. (Page 102)

The following description of an old man demonstrated sublime attention to detail.

How old—old this Mr. Rappaport was! Purple stains were buried in the flesh of his nose, and the cartilage of his ear was twisted like a cabbage heart. Beyond remedy by glasses, his eyes were smoky and faded. (Page 82)

So did Wilhelm eventually “seize the day” or did the day seize and strangle him? I’ll allow future readers to experience either that joy or sorrow compliments of Mr. Bellow’s prose. So seize the day and read it.