Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971)

I’ve finally found my reading mojo and so have been finishing a few titles which I thought I would review. I’ll start off with this one…

Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971, Pulitzer Prize winner).

I do love some Stegner every now and then – typically very well written with true-to-life characters about whom you end up caring for the duration of the read. 

This one, Angle of Repose, has elderly protagonist Lyman Ward researching the life of his grandparents who had both gone to the American West as part of the pioneering mining-for-gold industry. 

Ward is trying to understand his grandparents via these old papers (including letters and diaries) which he has gathered from a local library, and interestingly, this novel is written as a mix of both a straightforward narrative looking back in time (from Lyman to the grandparents) and also as an epistolary novel (in that Stegner includes some slightly-fictionalized diary entries and letters from his grandmother character). 

So, this is the plot and the reader tracks along with Lyman as he ploughs through all this historical paperwork from his family. The reason why Lyman is doing this is fairly hidden until the last third of the novel, but this doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the book but does clarify a lot of what’s come before when you do learn this. (So, hold tight if you read this. Patience, my friend. It pays off.) 

The novel switches back and forth between his grandparents’ lives and times and Lyman’s current life, where he is now an elderly retired history professor who lives by himself and whose son believes that Lyman should really be living in an assisted living home. The old man is helped by various assistants who come in, and his observations about these people are sharp as a tack, so he’s obviously still got his intellect. It’s his physical body that is failing him, so it’s rather a race against time in some ways. 

What was really so interesting about this novel was the actual story of how Stegner obtained and then utilized the background materials for the historical underpinnings of the story. Let me tell you – it’s a corker… 

You may (or may not!) have heard of a real-life American woman called Mary Hallock Foote who was a nineteenth-century writer and illustrator of pioneer life in the West. She has left behind a bounty of handwritten materials about the early mining life for many Victorian pioneers, and she had the industry connections as well since her husband had been the mine superintendent for some time. Stegner’s two main grandparent characters closely mirror this same lifestyle in the book, although they are not portrayed in a very flattering manner (especially the grandmother).

Stegner, as a real-life English professor at Stanford University, included one of Foote’s stories in his American Literature class that he was teaching in 1946, and a grad student in that same class decided to write his dissertation on Foote. The grad student had learned that Foote had a granddaughter who was living quite close and so this student visited the family with the dual intention of both asking the family for the collection of papers to be donated to Stanford Library and also for using them for his academic work. 

The family gave the grad student permission to use the papers with the understanding that he (the grad student) would publish from their content and also supply the family with typed transcriptions of the actual letters. Years passed with no dissertation, but when the grad student gave up that goal, he passed the transcriptions on to Stegner who took them with him to read over a faculty summer. 

A few years pass and Stegner comes up with the book idea (very influenced by the transcript materials and also by some of the people he knows), and thus Angle of Repose is scribed. By this time, Stegner is familiar with one of Foote’s granddaughters and it is she who gave Stegner the go-ahead to use the family paperwork however he wished. 

The trouble arrived when the rest of the Foote relatives found this out and learned that the plot was very heavily based on Foote’s own life and times, and when you look at the parallels, it’s obvious.

The Foote family had believed that Stegner would follow Foote’s history more closely and give her credit where credit was due. Instead, Stegner really carbon-copies the Foote life but with his own characters and in doing so, ends up being accused of plagiarism. (The book’s introduction states that just over 10 percent of the actual novel uses Foote’s letters in toto but with no credit to the original author.)

Stegner does give his thanks and credit to a J.M. at the start of the novel, writing: 

“My thanks for J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.” 

So, it seems to me that both parties were working under varying definitions of what a novel is (or “should be”) and exactly how much Stegner relied on the papers. Perhaps it’s more of a communication problem than anything, because I can’t see this misunderstanding happening nowadays since a legal representative would more than likely be present in a similar situation. 

In the end, Stegner stuck to his guns saying his novel was “based” on the historical papers, but how much is too much? Needless to say, the Pulitzer committee gave him the prize in 1971 (which probably did not help things between Stegner and the family!) 

A number of years later (and before the book’s publication), a scholar received funding to publish Foote’s actual reminiscences and although this was great news for the Foote family, it put Stegner on tricky ground since it would be apparently obvious upon whom his novel’s main protagonist was based upon.

To his credit, Stegner got in touch with the family and offered to change character names and action in the novel (to protect the anonymity of Foote as author), but the family member didn’t want that nor did she want to read the manuscript. So, the printing went ahead…

Another issue that cropped up was that some thought that Stegner co-opted the life of the Victorian female writer. As a privileged white male who worked in a university, there was some umbrage about this…

As for what I thought about the book: I thought it was a really solid straight-forward read. It kept my interest throughout (although there was some wandering in the middle third of the novel), and I did become attached to the central characters (even if I didn’t particularly like them as people). 

I can see why the Foote family was disenchanted with Stegner’s portrayal: the grandma in the book is petulant and immature throughout her ENTIRE life on earth, holding her husband responsible for taking her away from her cultured East Coast friends and the letters which are quoted provide evidence of her small-mindedness and resentment (that NEVER goes away). 

I suppose in Victorian times, marital separation (let alone divorce) was very frowned upon but the couple were out West where laws only played a secondary role in life, so why didn’t she just up-sticks and move back East? And her husband was portrayed as a big dreamer in business without the skills to follow through on his ideas, but Heavens to Betsy – leave him. Instead, there are years of moaning and complaining about the life they lead (which, TBH, does sound hard), but then again, no one has a gun to his (or her) head. 

Apart from the niggling irritation with the couple, the actual writing and descriptions of the Western mining camps and their inhabitants was lovely. Stegner was a great writer – I have no doubts about that. 

I do wonder what he was thinking when he took this Victorian figure, unknown but hallowed by her immediate family, and then twisted her story very slightly (and not always in a positive light). I suppose he thought that he’d given the family the chance to review the manuscript and they had chosen not to, so it was a done deal. 

But don’t let all this drama overshadow the fact that Angle of Repose is truly a good novel. Think of it as an interesting sideline. 

And, I learned that the phrase “Angle of Repose” is from physics and is the actual angle at which material, when it’s piled up in a cone shape, actually stops moving – it reposes. Imagine a pile of sugar – the angle at which it settles and finally stops moving – that’s the angle of repose. 

The title (and its meaning) also opens up another can of worms, as the grandparents live an itinerant life moving from mine to mine — so do they actually reach their own “Angle of Repose”? You’ll have to read to see.

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (1952)

As part of this year’s JOMP recognition and celebration of the U.S. Black History Month (BHM) which occurs every February, I pulled this title off my BHM TBR which I had pulled together here. I had bought this a while ago at one of our trusty FoL Book Sales, and, as part of the aforementioned Black History Month and also as part of my TBR focus, I thought that this book, although a little intimidating in some ways, would do the job as my next read.

It’s a little like what I had expected, but then also nothing like I expected but overall was a significant read. Did I enjoy it? Umm. Let me say this: I think it’s an important part of the American canon; I think it’s a valuable contribution to African-American literature and it’s an on-the-boots look at life for one African-American character in mid-twentieth century American society.

Ellison was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, but pieces of an earlier draft were published as short stories across the literary landscape as far back as 1947. (Thus, there can be some debate as to when this story was actually published.)

I found it to be a very powerful read – full of passion and anger (rage, really) of the protagonist as he (justifiably) rails at the unfairness of his life and times. It’s also an intellectual journey into one African-American person’s experience and journey through life before the Civil Rights Movement, and as such, it was a tough read – not just from the intellectual/philosophical approach, but also because daily living was so hard for people of color at that time in the U.S.

However, don’t let this mention of high-falutin’ intellectualism make you turn from this novel. It’s also a strong narrative and bildungsroman of a young man’s experiences in the South and what happens when he ventures north to NYC.  I’d also argue that it meets the definition of a Kunstlerroman (which is a subcategory of bildungsroman but recounts the coming-of-age of an artist figure. I just learned that the other day, so thought I’d share.)

Ralph Ellison.

So – to the story itself. The narrator, an unnamed man, is introduced at the start as living in a cellar below-ground in a large city, his home lit by hundreds of light bulbs powered by energy that he has pilfered from the municipal electric company, payback (he feels) for society and those around him who do not see him as a human or as a valid member of society. It’s this idea of invisibility which is the dominant theme throughout the novel and it’s this idea of being uncounted and ignored that is the motivation for most of the protagonist’s actions throughout the narrative.

Since this novel is a coming-of-age project, the action flashes back to the narrator’s childhood in the South and his early educational years. As a college student, he attends a black institution and while there, is tasked with escorting a campus VIP around the grounds and the college’s environs. It’s here where things rather go off the rails for this poor protagonist as he tries to please the VIP guest while also exposing the visitor (as requested) to more unsavory aspects of African-American life in the area.

The ramifications of this visit lead to the protagonist moving up north to a large city in hopes of a better life, and he gets heavily involved with the Brotherhood, an organization of other black men with the expressed goal of improving conditions for African-Americans in the city. Our hero becomes rather a local celebrity, giving speeches for the group, but it’s not without its problems, including his own doubts about the true goals of the group.

Things turn to a head in the city, for both the narrator himself and for those African-Americans not affiliated with the group. Riots ensue, looting happens and by the end of the novel, the narrator is back by himself, completely isolated from others and back to being invisible. The final piece of the conclusion is where you, as the reader, can see the growth of the narrator.

It’s not an easy novel to read. The plot is linear for the most part, but the last third is composed of a stream-of-consciousness internal conversation for the narrator. Reading about this part I’ve learned that it’s reflective of jazz music (very loose and free structurally speaking), but from my own reading perspective, it was pretty confusing. Now I’ve read it, I can go back and see what the narrator was explaining but when I was actually reading it, there were several times when I needed to reread different passages to try to keep up with what was going on.

One of my own problems in appreciating this read is that Ellison hearkens back to lit influences with which I’m not familiar (or don’t really appreciate): T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (bleugh), William Faulkner (yuck) and Ernest Hemingway (double yuck),

Again, don’t let this stop you from reading this book. It’s a powerful read and an important title to experience. Just know that it’s got this non-linear tendency in places and good luck at the end…! 🙂

I am very glad that I’ve finally read this now I’ve finished the novel. It plays an influential part in African-American literature and political thought. It’s also highly unlikely that I’ll read this again though. :-}

Note and FYI: There are two different “Invisible Man” books out there: this one (called Invisible Man – no “The”) is the Ellison one. The other one is very different and titled “The Invisible Man” a scifi novel by H.G. Wells published in 1897. (Haven’t got to the Victorian one yet.)

Nonfiction November: Week 2 – Fiction/NF Pairing:

With Week 1 of Nonfiction November now completed, we’re on to Week 2. The task: to pair up a NF title with a fiction title. 

Wanting to come up with choices that perhaps may be off the beaten path a bit, this was actually a little more challenging than I had first realized, but putting my Thinking Cap on, I came up with the following:

The 1936 edition of the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (the actual book itself, not the movie based on it) and Native Son, the 1940 novel written by Richard Wright. 

The obvious connection between the two titles is that they are by (and about) persons of African descent who live in North America, but what’s less obvious is that they were both written within four years of each other and when one reads these as a package or sequentially, they add depth to each other, different though they may be. In my mind, it’s similar to the difference between watching something on normal TV and then watching it again in high definition. (Or it could even be compared to an experience in virtual reality (VR) if you’d like to move it to an even more digital plain.) Reading the two of them just adds so much more detail and depth to what would otherwise be a fairly superficial literary experience.

Let’s look a little more…

Wright’s Native Son has a narrative arc that follows a journey (of several types) undertaken by protagonist Bigger Thomas, born and living on the South Side of Chicago and whose journey is both literal (the story’s main catalyst is linked with his job as a chauffeur) and psychological (in terms of how the action impacts Bigger and his entire life, as well as that of the people who surround him). 

The plot also clearly demonstrates the dichotomy between the interior (i.e. Bigger’s life and thoughts) and how they are necessarily impacted by the exterior (cultural, judicial, social/economic)… 

But even if this is all sounds too academically intimidating for you, please don’t be put off by the literary criticism side of things: I have no qualms recommending Native Son for just an excellently good read. (This novel is a rollicking experience to leave you with lots of thoughts, even if you don’t notice or see these same aspects.I understand that not everyone is lit crit nerd! :-} ) 

As a complementary read to this powerful title, I suggest the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (1936) which is a NF title* published as a guide book for African-American car drivers traveling throughout the U.S. at a time when it was dangerous and challenging for travelers such as themselves to find somewhere safe to eat, drink and stay when they were on the road. 

So, allow me to set the stage for both of these reads. 

Historically speaking, the later 1930s and early 1940s marked the middle-to -the-end of World War II and were a time of radical change for America in many ways. American soldiers (of all races) were returning home after military service armed with new job skills and experiences which would enable them to earn their entrance to the middle class, socio-economically speaking – a fact that particularly impacted African-Americans upon their return stateside. 

For many African-Americans, their military service years had given them experiences abroad where they were given training and responsibilities far different than their lives had allowed prior to the battles. For the first time, quite a few African-Americans had been placed in battalions and given the same job duties (with similar levels of respect) as their white brothers-in-arms were given. 

War impacted every soldier, regardless of what color his skin was, and so, when these servicemen (and they were mostly men, in terms of enlisted soldiers) returned home at the end of their military commitments, they had just survived life-changing experiences only to be expected to re-enter a Jim-Crow era of laws and cultural mores that had remained untouched from before they had left to fight abroad. Soldiers had just risked their lives for a country that now anticipated them to (re-)fit quietly back into the same old molds as before. Of course there were problems for all involved.

You can’t give a prisoner a taste of freedom and respect, and then expect them to squeeze back into their old cells without issue, and yet this was the case with these returning GIs.  (If you’re interested in more details about African-American soldiers serving in the armed forces, you might try The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, a 2014 graphic novel about an all-black regiment who served in WWI. This link takes you to Goodreads since I don’t have a personal review for this (regrettably).)

So, despite the Negro Motorist travel guide being mentioned as published in 1936, it was actually updated and published every year between 1936 and 1966, so there would have been a new edition published in the same year as Native Son – the country had not changed that much for the average African-American, despite the ongoing war, and there would still have been the related Jim-Crow concerns for those with cars who travelled across the nation. Where to eat? Where to stay? How to stay alive when the sun went down to drive tomorrow? 

So, to me, Native Son pairs well with the Green Book since it would have been a guidebook with which Bigger would have been familiar, particularly since his job was as a chauffeur, at least for a while.  It also is a clear demonstration of some of the restraints and rules to which these returning soldiers would have had to bend, rules which impacted every aspect of the life of an African-American at that time. 

When you read Bigger’s story and then fit it into the national and cultural landscape of the Green Book and of America at that time, it’s no wonder that the novel ends as it does. How could it have any other ending without turning it into a fantasy tale? 

If your interest is at all piqued by this post, I highly recommend you take a delve into the history of African-Americans (and other POC/disenfranchised groups) in the U.S. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole with repercussions still echoing in the world of today. 

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Many thanks to the hosts:

  • I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t speak to that just now. Perhaps others have?

Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank (1959)

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I’m not sure where I found this title, but I was just tootling around thinking about how I’d like to some sci-fi, when I saw it on a shelf in a local thrift shop and picked it up. It’s more speculative fiction than hard sci-fi, I would say, but it’s certainly set in a world that is far different from our own. Written in the late 50’s, it’s an apocalyptic novel which is set in the small town of Fort Repose, in central Florida, and follows the town inhabitants as they try to survive after a nuclear war starts and their area is hit. How would people react in this new world? …

Since it was published in 1959, one needs to cast one’s mind back to those times in history, and remember that this was smack in the middle of the Atomic Age and nuclear devastation was a very real concern for the Americans, especially from the threat of Russia. (Those darned Russkies.) School children were being taught safety drills if a nuclear bomb did explode in their neighborhoods, and although there’s a lot of embrace for modern inventions of the time, it was tempered by fear of “what if…?”

The scene is set in a very traditional small-town values community, filled with “typical” Americans working and living side by side, as one does. A few of the townspeople are retired military and a couple have had some military training from the earlier WWII, but overall, the town is very run-of-the-mill in its demographics. Husbands work, wives stay at home, and kids are white and well-behaved. Residents (and the rest of America) are concerned about nuclear bombs, but it’s more of a concern for other cities and states who have more important resources to worry about. Fort Repose wouldn’t get it, would it?

As you can probably surmise, Fort Repose does get impacted by a nearby explosion and a lot of their community dies, either on that day (now called The Day) or from radiation sickness and other ailments linked to the fallout. Just a small handful of people are left alive, and after their initial shock about the bomb, they need to work on getting food, water, power, housing… And health. Who will die from the after-effects? There are so many unknowns for this community, and it’s pretty Lord of the Flies after a few days.

However, as is perfect of a 1950’s story, a manly man perks up to save the day and the womanly women stand around and do as they’re told and cater to the men. (It’s pretty interesting to read this through a feminist twenty-first century lens. Did people really feel this way? …)

This was a pretty interesting read, especially through a lit-crit lens, so I was glad I found it in the thrift shop the other day.

(The title, just so you know (and I didn’t as I’m a heathen…), is based on a saying from the biblical book of Revelations, which is (according to Wiki): “Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that might city! For in one hour is thy judgement to come” (or similar). The phrase “Alas, Babylon” is a code phrase between two now-adult brothers and only used in a big emergency. Obvs, such a day as a nuclear explosion counts…!)

Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented – Thomas Hardy (1874)

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I started this read thinking that I hadn’t read it before, but in actuality, I’ve now read it twice, once in school about thirty years ago (but I have no hope of ever remembering that), and once a few years ago when I blogged about it on JOMP.  However, despite my gappy memory, I still enjoyed this read this time around, picking up on different aspects as I went through it again.

Hardy is not typically thought of as a “happy” read, but Tess is not too tragic – at least in my opinion. It’s not happy, that’s true – but I think if you view the narrative arc through the lens of a Victorian reader (especially a female middle class Victorian reader), Tess is certainly one of the more flawed characters, having a checkered less-than-spotless past.

At the same time, she is such a good person that, with modern eyes and a modern sensibility, it’s hard to see the objections that some readers in the nineteenth century came up with. (Sorry – ending with a preposition there.)  

Not much to say that hasn’t been reported before, did find this little nugget for you from Goodreads:

The term cliffhanger is considered to have originated with Thomas Hardy’s serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873. In the novel, Hardy chose to leave one of his protagonists, Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock that has been dead for millions of years. This became the archetypal — and literal — cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.

Other Hardy reviews on JOMP are here:

Under the Greenwood Tree Thomas Hardy (1872)

Far From the Madding Crowd  Thomas Hardy (1874) (earlier review)

Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy (1891)

Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

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Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

A Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl (1946)

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“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Nietzsche

So, I finally picked up “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy,” Viktor Frankl’s mesmerizing autobiography about his time and thoughts when he was captured as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, one of the most notorious concentration camps in Germany during WWII. I’d been meaning to get to this for a very long time, but I felt that I needed to psych myself up to read it as I know it was not going to be an easy time.

Now that I’ve finished it and can reflect back on the experience, I see that it was a tough read in both the subject matter and also the philosophical discussion that is in the second half of the book, but it was hard mainly because it was true – that people had treated each other in this manner. What. The…. ?

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna during the 1930’s when Hitler came to power and instigated the horrendous concentration camps that tortured and killed millions of Jewish people (and others) at the time.

It’s a time that I find incredibly hard to understand as it’s so completely removed from anything that I would choose to do (I hope), that there seems so little overlap between the life I choose to lead and the lives of the people who ran these camps. It’s easy to judge over time and distance, but I hope to god that I would have tried to stop this whole genocide if I’d had the chance, but who’s to know? The human condition is a strange one at times.

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Back to the book: it’s basically a book in two parts, the first part detailing the three years of his life (and those of others) when Dr. Frankl was picked up and sent to Auschwitz, and then the second half, which is more of a philosophical discussion of how he made sense of the whole ordeal and came up with his school of treatment called logotherapy.

It’s an intense read, and if you’re feeling remotely sorry for yourself when you start to read this, I can almost guarantee that you will have your perspective shifted by the time you finish it. How could one compare the minor trials of life today with the lives of these prisoners who had *nothing*? Literally nothing.

It’s not an easy read, but how could it be when one considers that topic matter? What’s amazing is that anyone survived long enough to walk out of the camps when the final day of freedom arrived. (You’ll need to read Frankl’s description of how some of the prisoners reacted when the gates of the camp were first opened…. It’s incredibly powerful to read.)

So, Frankl discusses his ideas on the meaning of life for himself and others, and concludes that life has meaning to be found in every moment of living and that it never ceases to have meaning, even when one is suffering profoundly.

This is the concept of “tragic optimism” — that no matter how terrible life can be, it only ceases to have meaning when there is no hope for change in the future. Once the hope is gone, then life is over – that love is the ultimate and highest goal that (hu)man can aspire to.

To me, the book seems to be about the importance of deriving meaning from suffering – that one suffers only so that you should learn from it to be a better person and if one loses sight of that goal, then one is doomed. If one feels a sense of control over one’s environment, then you will fare better than those who are physically strong but do not have that sense, and the existential angst that people may feel at some point in their lives is due to the lack of personal agency they may feel in their lives.

I’m not sure. It’s hard to write about this clearly without babbling and sinking into a morass of blather, but it seems to me that perhaps the key to a good life is to serve others. If one looks outside oneself to help someone else, therein lies the meaning of life.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

I urge you to read this for yourself and to draw your own conclusions. My vague personal ones are above, but I think this book is too important for you to try and draw your conclusions from my version of things. It’s a hard book, yes, but it’s an extremely important book and frequently in the top ten lists of influential books for people. It’s an astonishing read. Don’t miss it.

 

Sozaboy – Ken Saro-Wiwa (1985)

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One of the acclaimed pieces of African literature, “Sozaboy” is a rather harrowing tale that follows Mene, a young tribal man who enthusiastically signs up with the army to protect his country from the enemy, a term that evolves throughout the book. (Who is the real enemy? I wondered at the end.)

Mene (or Sozaboy – “Soldier boy” said in the book’s dialect of “Rotten English”) grows up in a decent-sized town in Nigeria and as a young man, hears the siren song of military service when he learns of an invading group of soldiers coming their way. He is very impressed by the smart uniform and formation marching of the soldiers who come through town, and so he signs up to serve. Eastern unrest in the country had led to military intervention, and he is delighted (or “prouded” as the dialect phrases it) when he puts on his new togs and gets his own gun.

However, as Sozaboy is exposed to brutal NCOs and hard training exercises, his dream of being a soldier starts to get tarnished. Later, when he is exposed to war horrors and death, he really starts to question if he has done the right thing. As one of his older friends had said in the village earlier, “war is war.”

So, Sozaboy continues to serve and describes his time, and it’s an involving reading experience (at least for me). The whole book is written in what the author describes as “Rotten English” which is a strong dialect comprised of Nigerian words, English slang words, and then some British English (which means that it uses “big grammar words” that sound very official).

This dialect takes some getting used to, but it is really an effective tool to enable the reader to experience what Sozaboy experiences. The POV is through Sozaboy’s eyes and thoughts, and as the book progresses, we learn and then understand how his opinion changes as he spends longer and longer with the army. This read rather reminded me of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque (1928) which also follows a naïve soldier recruit as he is exposed to mental and physical stress during his time at the front. (This time, the front was WWI.)

“I do not know. Praps they will set us free. Praps they will come and kill us all one time. Everything is in the hand of God. Because war is war. Anything can happen.”

As mentioned, the dialect can be hard to decipher but you learn to get the hang of it and there is, thankfully, a glossary at the back which I found to be invaluable. (You’d be ok without using the glossary, but it definitely helps you get the full picture as the narrative continues.) In researching this further, I learned that the author created this dialect as a way to reflect the feelings of dislocation that Sozaboy (and others) were feeling.

At this time in Nigeria, there were the Biafran Wars when the eastern part of the country was fighting for its independence which led to much conflict, corruption and unrest. Some Nigerian people felt that the country was falling apart and being split into two and families were cleaved by which side of the fight you were on. Sozaboy’s language is really an effective tool to show this split: it’s not Nigerian, it’s not English, it’s not British English. It’s a mix of several languages and yet it’s not the same, just as Nigeria was now a mix of tribes, separate and with conflicting beliefs and values.

Nigeria gained independence from colonial Britain in 1960, so this new situation unbalanced governmental forces leading to several military coups in 1966. By the time that the civil war was officially over, estimates of the number of dead ranged between 1 and 3 million, from warfare, disease and starvation.

Ken_Saro-WiwaThis was such a powerful read, but can’t deny that it was a book that needed some effort to complete due to the dialect mostly. What also threw me off was the occasional appearance of an African spirit who would impact Sozaboy’s actions and world. This got *slightly* confusing, but sorted it out in the end.

Author Kenule “Ken” Saro-Wiwa was a writer and activist who became very visible for organizing a non-violent campaign against the oil businesses in Nigeria and for openly criticizing the Nigerian government (which did not go over well). He was eventually tried in a military tribunal and then hung in 1995 which created an international outcry.

This was a powerful read for me and I enjoyed it (if “enjoyed” is the right word there).

(And if you’re interested in reading some other African books, LitHub has a great list of titles in an article by Aaron Baby.)

The Haunted Bookshop – Christopher Morley (1919)

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 “Haunted by the ghosts of books I haven’t read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”

This novella is the enjoyable sequel to Morley’s first novella, Parnassus on Wheels  and this one was just as fun and bibliophilic (as the book terms it) as the previous read. Written two years after the publication of the previous installment, Morley here further develops the storyline of the couple who go off to be traveling booksellers across the countryside.

At the starting point of “The Haunted Bookshop,” the couple (now married) are settled and running a fairly successful (but still modest) second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn, but even though the story has moved along, what remains the same is the author’s tender heart for books, bookselling, and all things to do with words. For a book nerd, this read is gorgeous.

The bookshop, now called The Haunted Bookshop (see quotation above for details), is run by Roger Mifflin and his now-wife Helen, and they live a quiet bookish life. Located on Gissing Street (ref: George) and near Clemens Place (ref: Samuel) and Shakespeare Street (ref: you know who), the shop is close to other neighborhood-based businesses including a pharmacy, a few modest boarding houses, and a small café of sorts in a neighborhood of working class people (some of whom are immigrants).

“People need books, but they don’t know they need them… Just give them the book they ought to have even if they don’t know they want it.”

So, what we have here is a shortish novel (longish novella) that is part paean to the love of books and reading whilst also being, rather unexpectedly, a caper novel along the same lines as John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” (1915) with clear goodies and baddies. (Wow. Bet you weren’t expecting that.)

Being written so close to the end of World War One (which officially ended in 1918), the obvious baddie is, of course, Germany, and so when puzzling events happen, the German pharmacist is the number one suspect. It’s the set up of quiet and unassuming book people vs. a spy ring hiding in plain sight. But who can stop it, and what does it all mean?

Close to the beginning of the novel, the Mifflins agree to host a friend’s daughter, Tatiana (ref: Midsummer Night’s Dream) to give her a taste of being a bookseller, an appropriate occupation for a rich and unfettered bright young woman, and through this apprenticeship is brought in a young inquisitive newspaper reporter (the love interest) and the strange events happening around a particular book titled “Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches…” by Thomas Carlyle (1845). (Don’t worry – I’d never heard of it either.)

Mrs J Graham Menzies in the role of Titania, Queen of the FairiesAs the story continues, it turns out to have three main threads: the love of books and reading, the love interest of the young couple, and then the potential cloak-and-dagger spy ring (so there’s quite a bit going on). Add to that an impressive array of vocabulary and literary and classical references, and this book is not for sissies. At first, I was taking notes of all the new words and refs that I came across, but there were so many that, in the end, I realized that if I was ever going to finish the read in a timely manner (and also thoroughly immerse myself in the plot) that the note-taking would have to calm down. I’m pretty sure that you can follow the plot without knowing all the meanings, but I think you’d probably miss quite a few of the clever references. Still, you’d have a good idea of what was going on, action-wise, so it depends on how nerdy you’d like to be, really.

(Actually, just noticed that Wikipedia (I know, I know) has a list of all the literary books that are referenced throughout the novel which looks a fun way to spend some time. Or not. :-))

Morley was a writer and journalist who had a maths professor for a father and a literary and musically talented person for his mother. It’s obvious that he grew up in an educated and literate household, and he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where he studied from three years.

He moved in literary circles and, out of his enthusiasm for the novels and stories of Sherlock Holmes, co-founded the “Baker Street Irregulars”, an exclusive and rather prestigious club at the time. By the time that he died, Morley had written more than 100 books and even had a movie made out of one of his novels (Kitty Foyle [1939]) which I’m interested in tracking down.

So, not only does his writing reflect his life, but the book is also quite autobiographical in that his real-life wife was also called Helen, they lived in several of the cities mentioned in the plot, and he really did hang out with a social group that used to spend time at another bookshop in Greenwich Village. This bookshop had the tradition of having all its authors, publishers et al. sign the door as they entered and/or left the premises and in fact, when it closed, the signed door was shipped and sent to the Harry Ransom Center (UT) for safekeeping. “A door to the past” indeed with its more than 240 signatures on it.

So – really enjoyed this read once I understood that this was going to include a caper or two, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about books (and who doesn’t, TBH?)

(With this said, expect a “New Words to Me” post coming up in the next week or so.)

Catch Up Time

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Just wanted to do a catch-up post so that I could mention some things that I’ve been reading. These are still good reads, but just didn’t merit a huge detailed review of the experience. As I mentioned, they’re still good (for the most part).

The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide (2014)book366

Slightly strange slight novel about a young couple who live in a house where a neighborhood cat drops by with some regularity. As the (glacial) pace of the narrative continues, the couple become fond of their guest cat, but the whole thing is written with such surgical distance that it was rather difficult for me to become glued to the story. I’m not sure if it was me or the book, but this was a toughie to enjoy.

Leaf – Daishu Ma (2015)

book367A wordless graphic novel that has a narrative that’s very open to interpretation. The arc follows a young person who lives in a rather stark black and white world (illustrations are great, btw) where the only color comes from a few blue lights that stand out in the darkness. And then one day, he finds a large yellow glowing leaf and the remainder of the narrative is focused on trying to find out more about the leaf.

It’s a fairly simple message and yet so open to interpretation that the meaning could be different from one reader to the next. I’m on the edge about books with a message this diluted: does that narrative have enough meaning in the end or is the author/artist expecting the reader to do much (too much?) of the heavy lifting? It’s an interesting thought to pursue.

I’m probably making much more of it than it’s intended, but it would be interesting to read this and then hear how others from very different backgrounds (socio-economic, cultural, heritage, age) may interpret it. Is it a message similar to The Lorax (Seuss) or is it something else?

book363And I really enjoyed Oliver Twist, but didn’t have enough time in the end to get a proper post about it. However, don’t let that deter you. It’s a brick of a book (go me!) and is worth every page. I just adore Dickens’ writing and sense of humor.

And now I’m back at work which is a mixed bag of blessings: I enjoy it and yet it’s hard to beat three weeks of total messing around. But you know – at least I have a job I enjoy so if I do need to spend a lot of my time doing something, this ain’t too bad. 🙂