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.

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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.

Nesbit

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.

Two-fer: Dickens and The American Revolution

DickensSince it has been a busy summer and I’ve gotten behind, this blog entry will have to cover the last two books we have read at Athenaeum.

David Copperfield was the book for May (June 13th meeting). Noted to be Dickens’s own favorite novel of his canon, this book was lengthy and it is easy to imagine how an author can become enamored with characters that he spends so much time thinking and writing about.

The group opinion was somewhat predictably divided along party lines. Some (I can’t remember who else besides Tony) were not pleased with the book, feeling that it was longer than necessary and kept us in Dickens’s sentimental and peculiar world for too long. In short, it was too Dickensian—the all-too-convenient resolutions to hard problems, chance encounters between key characters as if London only had a population of about 150, elaborate Victorian prose, etc.

CopperfieldMost agreed, however, that if these idiosyncrasies can be overlooked and the book read from the perspective of a 19th century reader, then the story itself was heart-warming, it contained many wise and memorable phrases, the characters were usually delightful, and it touched on many important societal themes. And it is left to the tastes of each reader whether they enjoyed the elaborate English narrative prose.

The book for July’s meeting was The Radicalism of the American Revolution. This book generally enjoyed favor with the group, although the opinion prevailed that the last third of the book was the most interesting.

Some of the topics discussed include:GWood

  • Did Wood prove his point?
  • What were some differences between the American and French revolutions?
  • Too little about slavery
  • Washington’s concern for his own reputation
  • How the American Revolution and the years surrounding it are a classical example of the law of unintended consequences.

Most attendees where thankful to have read the book and felt they learned a great deal.

The next book (for this coming Saturday’s meeting) is The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, followed in September by Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis.

Magical Realism in the Indian Style

rushdie1The book is Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie.

I should have written this post when the book was fresher in my mind. Though it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The book was lengthy, and so densely packed in every sentence with outlandish imagery, with so many characters, and stretching over three generations to boot, that I can never do it justice in a summary blog post like this one.

I shan’t even try to describe it here except to say that it was one of the most universally enjoyed and praised books that the Austin Athenaeum has ever read. The book rightly received the awards it received, and launched Rushdie into literary stardom in 1981.

Winner of the Man Booker Award, and then the “Booker of Bookers,” Midnight’s Children is the story of the Sinai family during The Partition of India in 1947, beginning with the narrator’s grandfather and telling a story full of magical realism which is highly complex although apparently masterfully planned in every detail as dozens of references continually reappear from beginning to end.

None of us could remember coming to the table with as much enthusiasm for a book in a long time. rushdie-MC

We met in Randy’s company warehouse and brought in about 8 pizzas, and several coolers of beer. We enjoyed the peacefulness, the freedom to drink whiskey we’d brought if we wanted without waiters giving us shit about it. And it was only a little warmer than would be ideal. Comments in emails sent in the following days however expressed wistfully the loss of being out in the community, chance conversations, the buzz of a venue. We will continue to consider where we will settle.

The vote for July’s book was Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a Pulitzer winner, and a copy of which Randy bequeathed to everyone present at the December meeting as a gift.

Christopher Marlowe’s enigmatic play ‘The Jew of Malta’

[Many thanks to Eli, who graciously offered to compose this write-up of the April meeting in my absence. Tony’s opening essay is available in the left margin of this page as usual. -Jeffrey]

marloweThe men of Athenaeum met once again at Radio Coffee & Beer to discuss the merits of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. The first and unavoidable observation made by most is that Marlowe is no Shakespeare. The point was made over and over, to the annoyance of some, and the defenders of Marlowe are right in their assertion that The Jew of Malta is not without it’s own merit. But no matter how talented a writer may be, to write plays in the Elizabethan era in London is to write in a shadow.

Much was said of Barabbas’ commitment to selfishness and evil. Many noted that Machiavelli opened the action of the play, and Barabbas picked up his baton and carried it with calculated and brutal effect until his own end in a boiling vat of pitch. The government of Malta committed the original perfidy when they confiscated all of Barabbas’ wealth to pay tribute to the Turks. Barabbas then turns all of his energies to reclaiming this wealth, and revenging their misdeed. Murders abound in the story, including a convent full of nuns and Barabbas’ own daughter. As the play carries forward it seems everyone who comes in contact with Barabbas ends up dead with a single line and turn of the page (the clumsiness of the “flow” of the narrative was oft pointed out.) Other characters like the slave Ithamore, the prostitute Bellamira and her pimp/thug Pilia-Borza, and Calymath the Turk seem to be clawing their way through the plot trying to one-up the other, only to succumb to Barabbas’ vengeance. Even the friars lack decency. It’s a free for all, where the most sinister man wins.

The table also fell into a discussion of whether Marlowe was anti-Semitic. And the general consensus is that The Jew of Malta is certainly anti-Semitic. But one outstanding point was made, that at the time Marlowe published in the 1580s Judaism had been outlawed in England for at least 200 years, and that Marlowe had probably never met a Jew. So it surprised none that the stereotype of the money-grubbing and sinister Jew would be laid so thick upon Barabbas, and that probably did not discount The Jew of Malta as a legitimate work of literature in its time. Marlowe was simply playing to his audience, all of whom were in the same fog of ignorance as the author. This doesn’t make it right, but if we trim off every work of literature throughout history that looks awkward when viewed through the lens of 21st century sensibilities, our reading list would be quite small.

As always the discussion was lively, the weather was perfect, the brews and ‘baccy delicious, but most important was the fellowship around the table. If there was a downside to the evening it was the intolerably loud music, and so when we next meet to discuss Midnight’s Children it will be at a different place.

At the evening’s close the winning vote was cast for Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.

Adeiu~

[UPDATE: Randy has volunteered his business facility to host the next meeting. Bring a six-pack or a bottle of hooch, and get some to-go cuisine, and we’ll have a great and PEACEFUL meeting. I wont post the address here for security reasons. Members should have it in an email.]