Pearl Buck says much in few words

Pearl_BuckIn one of the biggest unexpected discoveries of Athenaeum’s history, Pearl Buck’s 1932 Pulitzer winner found generally enthusiastic and appreciative reception. The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy and was influential in her winning of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Written in the style reminiscent of old Bible stories or parables, or perhaps affecting a Chinese storytelling mode invented for western readers, The Good Earth tells the life of Wang Lung, a man who goes from a young poor farmer to an old wealthy city man with all the trappings that go along with it.

She does not judge her protagonist for his misjudgments, compromises, his vanity, his treatment of his wife, or his later quest for peace and quiet. She just tells what happened. Given the fabled style and the knowledge that Buck herself was the child of missionaries in China, one may expect something of a morality tale. But instead she tells the events in concise, unaffected prose, letting the reader think about what it means.

Jordan’s nomination was given introduction by his cogent essay in which he pointed out that the Chinese culture was portrayed by Buck as universal and timeless, yet realistic. The land is a character all its own in the book, and it is a source of salvation. His criticism was that Buck seemed captive to a romantic notion of the final goodness of land, an idea with real merit but possibly overplayed in the story. Nevertheless it is an ideal shared by farmers for millennia on every continent, from the banks of the Nile, to the Promised Land of Israel, from vineyards of Tuscany to the fruited American plain.

goodearthEveryone admitted their love for O-Lan, Wang Lung’s boxy, globe-faced bride who bore him sons and daughters, yea, bore in isolation, without a cry, and then returned to the work in the fields before the day was over. Matt went to far as to suggest that the book is really about O-Lan, so prominent was her role. She is always noble in her own moral structure. She is the strong one in the family, and Wang Lung weeps at her death, unable to process the loss of her. She is always practical (she picks up the pork strip that Wang Lung throws in the dirt and washes it off), and his guilt is usually about how he’s treated her.

Finally, status and position seem to be the things to concern characters the most after their bellies are filled and the land is free of famine and pestilence. When Wang Lung takes Lotus as a concubine (followed later by Pear Blossom), O-Lan’s anguish is not over his sexual preference for Lotus’s youth, but for the loss of her status. “I bore you sons,” she protests, “I bore you sons!”

Along the same lines, Wang Lung’s grasping for status is seen in the classic conflict between the country bumpkin and the city slicker; we look on knowingly at his new haircut, his fancy new clothes, his new habit of regular bathing.

This book does not submit to easy analysis or dismissal. It treats many complex subjects at a deep level. Some in the group said that the book failed to reach them, and that is fair enough. Others, myself included, were touched by the book, and I recognized uncanny familiar feelings and attitudes experienced by the characters.

The vote for August was tied in the vote and the runoff, and it came down to a coin toss. The coin was lost in the dark for some seconds and was eventually discovered in Randy’s seat, head’s up. The coin decided in favor of Moby Dick, a book that we are reading for the second time, the first time being near the time of the founding of Athenaeum.

Next meeting: In The First Circle.

The Count of Monte Cristo in comments

Now is your chance! Your chance to contribute to the Austin Athenaeum CMCblog. The May 2016 book was Dumas’ perennial serialized favorite, The Count of Monte Cristo.

I cannot find my notes for CMC and so this will be the first ever Athenaeum blog post where the real meat of the discussion is to be found in the comments section.  As I recall, although the book was generally enjoyable, it took a lot of heat from our discriminating literary group.

Nevertheless, scroll on down, sharpen your pen (or tongue, or whatever), and post your recollections of CMC in the comments section!

Come on. Don’t be shy. We need some record of the evening. Remember how we compared it to David Copperfield? Remember that sense of realizing that you had spent an entire month reading what was essentially a young boy’s adventure story? 1100 pages or something for Pete’s sake! You could have been reading Alasdair MacIntyre or Alvin Plantinga, but instead you were following Messer Dantes on his overweening quest for revenge.

Now it’s your turn to say what you thought. So get started.

PS. Book for June: The Good Earth – Pearl Buck. Book for July, In The First Circle, by Solzhenitsyn

Oscar Wao gets warm applause

OscarWaoThe book for April which was nominated by yours truly was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the bestselling and Pulitzer Award winning novel by Dominican novelist Junot Diaz.

I commend to the reader my essay, the link to which can be found in the left column if you are viewing this on a computer screen. Those comments deal with why we should not shrink from reading admittedly coarse and contemporary novels such as this one. Oscar Wao is indeed packed with vulgarities and descriptions of brutalities that are difficult to stomach at times. But I argue that we should still read them, and that is in the essay.

The task here is to record some little trifle in memoriam of our April 2016 meeting. And the plums of the evening tended to be the various observations of the ways in which the Dominican Republic parallels Mordor under the dictatorship of Trujillo, the contemporaneous Sauron. In Oscar’s obsession with fantasy role playing games, fantasy novels, films, comics, etc., we find an epic fantasy world version of the horrors of 20th century tyranny.

Adding significant dimension and depth to the book, we see that Oscar adopts a new persona at the end. He goes to his own Mordor, the DR, on his own quest, for love perhaps, or at least for the physical act of love—a broken man on a broken quest of self-realization of the Dominican male stereotype of the poon hound.

An even more erudite observation made by first-timer Gerry was the striking parallel to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Oscar himself goes to the heart of DR darkness where at the end of the book instead of “the horror”, he is saying “the beauty…”

Most everyone conceded that the book was very good. Absent were encomiums of the highest tenor, elevating the book or its author to some pinnacle of immortality. It may have been the barrage of sex-laden vulgarities. Or the subject matter. Or something requiring greater introspection.

I grant myself the license as curator of this blog to wonder out loud if the psychology of interacting with universally acknowledged heroes of literature does not predispose us to favoring their work (Dickens and Dumas for example, authors whose ascendancy we routinely debate), while recent novelists, people with whom we share space and air, people appearing in the media, who could conceivably one day soon appear on Oprah, people whom death has not yet sealed away from sight so that their work so that it can be the topic of dissertations, these novelists do not have the mindshare of the lovers of classic books in advance. What if, instead of Dickens, Junot Diaz had just written David Copperfield? Would we be more ready to pan it than we were last year when we read it?

Or are we living in a post-literary time when our fully deconstructed culture is simply no longer capable of producing heroic writers? Or even if it were still producing great writers, they are not given a platform and publicity by publishing companies who historically had the tacit duty of selecting the pantheon of writers? Why? Because the enormous heard of wonky New Yorker-opinions in every publishing house that must sign off on a new book? Because of financial risk that incurs when one writer becomes too famous, thus too powerful to control?

Whatever the reason, the book was mostly applauded and enjoyed by all. Few expressed intention to seek out more Diaz fiction.

Winning the vote for June’s book was long-shot proposal The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck.

Catching up on two months

I’m afraid I have fallen behind with this blog so I will record two meetings with this entry.

MailerThe February meeting enjoyed more pleasant temperatures for the discussion of The Naked and the Dead, a very young Norman Mailer’s novel about World War II in the South Pacific.

This was the first novel in some time in which opinions were sharply divided on the virtue of the book, probably not far from 50/50. Even Tony who proposed the book opened with a concession about “the perils of recommending a book one is not familiar with” and lamented what many felt were cardboard and stereotypical characters.

Nevertheless discussion drew out the implicit satire of the book bitterly critical as it nakeddead1was of how the US military conducted the war. Perhaps the nugget of the evening was the observation that victory came not because of heroism, nor because of brilliant leadership or strategy, but because of soldiers with training doing what they were told in the combat manuals. Obedience. Like a cog in a wheel, blindly doing what they had prepared for. In Mailer’s vision, there was no greatness among the troops or the leadership. It was anything but the “greatest generation.”

As discussion developed, opinions also warmed up. Characters were realistic to some, fake to others. The psychology of characters was a good representation of how soldiers would act some said, others decidedly not. It was agreed that the first 2/3 of the book frequently dragged while the last 1/3 picked up.

LowryUnder the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry was the book for March. While I personally read the book, I was not present at the meeting. However reports are that for the second month in a row, many found the book hard going. No doubt. Lowry’s book falls in a small category with Joyce’s Ulysses for it’s stream of consciousness style, dizzyingly long sentences, sections of verbal opacity, vast quantities of allusions to history, literature, film, war, astronomy, and so on, and so on.

And yet it must be acknowledged that it is a great book. Indeed, it was reported that upon a second reading the book becomes much more lucid and can be read in less time. A second read will also make the work more enjoyable and enriching.

One personal comment: I think nowhere in literature have the idiosyncrasies, the degradations, the mannerisms, the thought patterns of alcoholism been better portrayed. For all of its first-reading obscurities, Volcano is a marvelous book.

The venue switched back to Gourmands this time where it will remain for the time being. This was due to the crowded quarters, the constant near traffic, and the death metal/biker bar across the street that drove us out.

The book for April is Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The book for May is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Updike delights, obfuscates in Rabbit, Run

updike2Warmed by wisdom’s holy flame against the fierce cold and abominable gusts, the doughty men of the Austin Athenaeum met in January to discuss an author new to our tribe: John Updike.

Updike’s first novel, Rabbit, Run (1960), reads like a cautionary tale. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom is 26 and, due in part to his celebrity as a high school basketball star, he is almost entirely oblivious to the feelings of others. He is feckless, a coward, and worships his own desires. He is also, at least nominally, a Christian, although he relates to the church in the same way he relates to everyone else around him: never with sincerity, never with depth or engagement or investment, but only as something from which he can get something he wants.

Remarkably however, the reader does not loathe him. Rabbit is looking for something, for “it,” but he does not know what “it” is. Unsatisfied with his elbow-bending, boring, “stupid,” pregnant wife, he leaves home one day with no intentions to return. But 24 hours later he is back in his home town trying to find “it” in the company and attentions of Ruth, his new mistress. By the end of the book, he has bounced around between women like quarry and fleeting good intentions only to utter the most cruel words to his estranged wife at his newborn child’s funeral.

Yet for some reason we are interested in his plight, as apparently modern readers were in view of the series of Rabbit books that Updike produced, one even garnering a Pulitzer. We are all puzzled by our interest in him.

Updike apparently knew of what he wrote being a serial adulterer himself. Rabbit, Run was at least somewhat autobiographical and therefore self-deprecating.

updike1One theme common to literature is nature, and that is certainly true of this book. Here, nature is symbolized in at least two places: Rabbit’s brief employment as a rhododendron gardener for Mrs. Smith, and at the end in his running through the forest at the end. He is wrestling with his human nature vs. animal nature, the side that responds only to appetites and instincts.

Updike’s reputation was as a writer of Christian themes and sympathies, although his liberality with themes of sexuality and his lackluster portrayal of churches and clergy ensured that he was never warmly received by them.

It is worth mentioning the observation about the repeated references to the light in the church window that Rabbit sees from Ruth’s apartment. Each time the description of the light declines, starting with “transcendent” and steadily darkening until it is “a dark hole in the limestone facade.” What could Updike mean by this obvious bit of symbolism?

More than one opinion was offered. But whether it was Rabbit’s eroding connection to the church and faith by his failure to repent, or suggestive of the general decline in the plot and character, his abandonment of the search for “it,” clearly Updike used this and other significant moments and objects effectively in this book.

With the exception of the usual minority of detractors, the book was praised and enjoyed by the group.

February’s book: The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer

March’s book: Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry.

A noir twofer with Chandler and Hammett

BigSleepDecember was the month in which the Austin Athenaeum read two books from the noir genre: The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, a divergence from our normally more heady fare, but an opportunity to branch out into new territory however so low-brow.

On the one hand, Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (a street euphemism for death), the former cop who didn’t play by the rules and had to become a private detective. He chases down multiple threads, dodges bullets and dames, tells law enforcement where to get off, and in the end reveals just about every other character in the book to be a shyster.

Raymond Chandler

On the other hand, Sam Spade, detective of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the slightly more gentlemanly shamus who blows up the whole intrigue over the bogus statue and sends the greedy artifact collectors back to the Middle East to find their quarry.

In our lively discussion it was noted that Flannery O’Connor was famously harshly critical of the noir genre. No question that the 1950’s sensibilities and manners of the books are howlingly sexist and un-PC by today’s standards. The provenance of the books was alcohol-fueled and tinged by Hollywood bouncing gleefully nearby waiting to turn the books into movies.

maltesefalconSome interesting aspects were brought out. The sheer Americanism of the heroes, for example. The noir genre seems largely borrowed from the British gentry such as Father Brown and Sherlock Holmes, and coupled with the pent-up cynicism toward institutions that bloomed in the United States following World War I. It was then taken into an alley, forced to drink bourbon, and pistol-whipped into something fiercely individual, jaded, disillusioned, and cynical, just the ticket for American audiences.

In the United States, law enforcement isn’t enough. It’s too corrupt. It’s like it’s all a game, see, you have to go outside the system, see, if you wanna get things done and get to the bottom you gotta break some rules, crack some skulls, smack some yeggs around, see.

Finally, two interesting features in Maltese Falcon were discussed at length. First, the parable of “Charles Pearce”, the guy who is almost killed by a falling beam and is stirred thereby to change his life view from one of personal control of one’s own destiny to one of surrender to the randomness of fate. The real life Pearce was a philosopher who emphasized the importance of randomness in nature, and the parable seemed a clever commentary on Sam Spade himself.

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

The second feature was the uncanny similarities between Wilmer Cook, Casper Gutman’s punk hitman, and Rhea Gutman, Casper’s daughter who appears is only one scene drugged and barely conscious. Could these be the same person? The evidence grew as we considered it: his feminine features, his relating to Gutman as a father, his resistance to looking directly at Spade. Why would Hammett do that? It was odd. It didn’t seem to advance the story, and Rhea was the most minor of characters.

The final opinion of the group toward the books was both general enjoyment but a sense that it is not a genre that we would return to. Compared to the wealth of reward we generally receive from our selections, these two had less to offer beyond an atavistic imagination informed almost unavoidably by Humphrey Bogart.

The book for February was voted to be The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer.

Doctorow’s Ragtime delights most

RagtimeShould we be surprised that political matters entered the discussion so trenchantly when we came to discuss E. L. Doctorow’s famous novel Ragtime? It certainly was not what I expected but perhaps I am naive. We did spend much of the evening talking about the literary aspects of the book, the striking style, the pleasure of meeting famous figures from history fictionally presented: JP Morgan, Freud, Houdini, Roosevelt, Ford. Even Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Thaw, and Stanford White, we learned, were historical characters.

We did indeed reread aloud several favorite passages and marveled at how Doctorow could leave behind the terse, journalistic style to pour on the brilliant prose.

And we enjoyed hearing the little-known backstory behind the naming and history of the character of Coalhouse Walker—the character lifted from a 19th century German tale that bore striking resemblances to Doctorow’s character, a feature that raised eyebrows at first until we agreed that the practice is not uncommon in literature.

Still, it was surprising to me to learn that Doctorow’s own progressivist politics were behind so much of the plot. Even more surprising was to hear the charge that “there was nothing historical about the book,” a statement that seemed to the rest of the table as exaggerated in the least.


Evelyn Nesbit, the first sex symbol

But it was more or less agreed upon by the conclusion of the night that the figure of Father symbolized the old world of imperialism, flags and patriotism, and white male privilege. He died emaciated and empty. Mother’s Younger Brother, maker of weapons and bombs, was the 20th century. But Mother and Tateh, the Jewish immigrant she eventually married, represent the new progressive world of rising multiculturalism, feminism, overcoming traditional limitations of class, and of westward movement. Tateh becomes rich by getting in at the beginning of the era of moving pictures and took the new family to California. It becomes apparent that the book is substantially about the transition from the 1800’s to the time of the First World War.

Many other features were observed, too many to annotate here. But one that cannot be overlooked is the significance of the little boy. He sees what no one else sees. He collects cast off things and retrieves them from the trash. He told Houdini to warn Archduke Ferdinand when he saw him. Is he Doctorow himself? Growing up in the early 1900’s, living in Doctorow’s own house in New Rochelle? Almost certainly.

All of this, and the many more lines I could compose about this book, reveal a work of almost unimaginable research formed into a masterful work of genius, with numerous symbols, numerous connections. It is a deeply intricate tapestry.

DoctorowDoctorow died last July, which is what prompted his appearance at our table. In Ragtime and other novels some of us read, we have found him to be a writer of great skill and imagination.

For next month, we are reading a noir twofer: The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. And don’t forget the Christmas book exchange.

Unanimous praise for Invisible Man

Ellison1Educating the majority of the populace about the real experiences of minorities is an issue that is gaining currency in our time in view of the numerous nauseating high-profile cases of police brutality against unarmed blacks, black church burnings throughout the south, racist attitudes on the lips of viable presidential candidates, and also, on the positive side, the rise of writers such as Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Award, and Ta-Nahisi Coates, journalist, writer, and activist.

I personally need such education and have been seeking to know and understand the everyday lives of those who do not experience the privilege I have simply because of skin color.

But as they say, be careful what you ask for, or at least be prepared for the story to be more devastating than you expected.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man opens with what may be one of the most harrowing and memorable sequences ever put to paper: our nameless hero, beaming with pride and purpose, is to give the commencement speech at his school. But before the “ceremony” he is rounded up with other black men and forced to participate in a Battle Royal for the enjoyment of the white administrators. Summary here cannot do it justice. The abuse and mockery and degradation of the black men in the scene was unlike anything I’ve ever read.

The book goes on to describe his eye-opening experiences at college, his unjust expulsion from the institution, and the months immediately following, again, all scenes that leave the reader gasping for breath unable to put the book down.

The remainder of the book describes his residence in Harlem, his appropriation by the Communist Party, and many subsequent encounters and upheavals.lightbulbs

It was pointed out early, immediately following Jordan’s opening essay, that a major theme of the book was identity: we never know the protagonist’s name, he is mistaken for Reinhart, he is “invisible”. The brotherhood even gives him a new identity.

Noah very helpfully pointed out that southern racism, at least within the 1952 context of the book but certainly ongoing today, is very apparent and obvious. It is seen in language, in laws of segregation, prejudice, inability to get justice or protection from the magistrate, in the poverty and marginalization of black people in general. Northern racism, on the other hand, as portrayed in this book, is more insidious—denying race, denying identity, and suppressing awareness of the centuries-long oppressive black experience which is largely invisible and not understood by whites.

But I cannot finish this entry without hailing the exquisite style and sheer writing brilliance of Ellison that comes out in this book. A fan of symbolism, I personally enjoyed how rich and ubiquitous were his use of clues, cyphers, and symbols. The flow of his narrative was all his own, extremely creative and strikingly original in many sections. What a shot in the arm this book was!

For November the book is Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.

For December, the winners of the vote were noir two-fer of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

One man’s satire of 1920’s American Evangelicalism

sinclair+lewisNobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis was the author of September’s book, Elmer Gantry, the biting satire of one 1920’s Baptist/Methodist preacher whose overweening ambition for total self-glorification and disregard for the people whose lives he must crush under his heel to rise to stardom is told in a very humorous, and in many ways very accurate and perceptive tale.

It is quite telling however, as someone pointed out at the meeting, that we talked less about Elmer Gantry than about the many other characters in the book. Gantry himself was such a cartoon character, that his bombastic and crass ways became a sideshow while many of the other characters were more three-dimensional and interesting to consider.

We were hard pressed to name one character who was positive, although most at least found Sharon Falconer to be a favorite even if she was a nutcase herself. Frank Shallard, plagued with doubts, at least was not a hypocrite like so many of the other clergy in the book; he was just weak. AND, he got the shit beat out of him, which was actually a very gripping, dramatic scene.

gantryDiscussion hovered for a while over whether Father Pengilly, in view of his discourse with Shallard, was not the most authentic Christian in the book. He made some very strong faith statements that were completely free of cynicism and personal ambition, declaring boldly that Jesus Christ is different and the real deal. However, some felt that his message was compromised by over-influence from the social gospel movement popular at the time of the writing.

I feel constrained to record my own observation that the so-called Christianity portrayed in the book was unrecognizable to any Christian at the table, in that it was rank moralism, which is actually the antithesis of Christianity. It is a valid question whether Lewis, in writing a satire, was obliged to give any credence to the actual Christian message, Christian people, or authentically Christian institutions. But for those at the table who gantry2enjoyed the book while feeling constantly unsettled by it, I think this is the locus of our discomfort: our institution may be flawed and full of idiots, but it seems disingenuous to criticize by portraying one’s opponent in terms that the opponent would not recognize.

Finally, there was the obligatory discussion about whether this book can be considered “great literature,” a discussion which seemed not to go anywhere, except to say, it’s not Dostoyevsky. Joe asked if the book “rises about the level of taking shots at the silos of Christianity in this country.” And it is agreed that there is a generally low opinion of Christians in the book.

But, having read Wendell Berry some months ago, I guess everybody gets their turn.

The book for November was my proposal, Ragtime, by the late E. L. Doctorow.

The Consolation of Philosophy


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boetius1In August, we read a book that stirred philosophical passions and summoned strong opinions, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. Matt, brimming with swagger, gave an extempore’ opening ‘essay’ that simply hailed the book’s status as an essential western work that bridges the ancient and medieval periods.

Philosophy is portrayed as a female counselor, though it was decided that this was not unusual. She counsels the imprisoned Boethius that suffering is relative. Misery is only so if one thinks it to be so.

Without a doubt the most heat-generating conversation was over the consideration of Boethius’ treatment of predestination, with a customary wrestling over words such as “foreknowledge” and “mystery,” that eventually settled into the recitation of reformed talking points that it was not clear to this writer whether Boethius was saying.

Some was said about “fortune,” another female character. She has not changed; she has always been fickle. “Have nothing to do with her dangerous games.”

What is the Ultimate Good, Philosophy asks? And after enumerating the usual answers—pleasure, wealth, fame, power, etc.—she goes on to debunk each. Several admired Philosophy’s advocacy of the stoic ideal as an attitude by which to consider good and evil, vain hopes, and sentimentality. The observation was made that modern Christianity is frequently sentimentalized.

Jimmy pointed out that the book was an exercise in theodicy, or absolving God of human suffering, by means of reasoning.

There was some good poetry in the Modern Library version. I advise readers to shun the Oxford Classics paperback for it’s deliberate bowdlerizing of the poetical sections.

The vote for October’s book was for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, nominated by Jordan.