Monday, November 12, 2018

The Possessed by Elif Batuman


Source of book: I own this.

The Possessed should not be confused with Dostoevsky's book of the same name. Okay, the “Book Formerly Known As The Possessed” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The title is usually translated Demons these days, or The Devils. It also should not be confused with the movies of that title in 1977, 2009, and 2018. This book is a memoir written by Elif Batuman, and is named in reference to the novel, which does make an extended appearance in the book.

My wife bought this book a number of years ago - probably close to when it came out, although I don’t remember exactly how she discovered it. She read it, and found it interesting, so I put it on my list of books to eventually read. It seemed to fit in between other books this year. (I try to avoid reading books on the same topic consecutively. I prefer to have a balanced diet. And, to be sure, this book was like nothing I have read this year.)

Batuman is the child of Turkish immigrants, graduated from Harvard and Stanford with an eventual doctorate in comparative literature, and wrote extensively for the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. This year, she released a novel (which is kind of ironic, considering her musings on novel writing in the memoir.) 



The book is about her time as post-grad student studying Russian literature. It is a rewrite of several essays in magazines, along with some new material.

In what is a pretty ironic twist, Batuman failed in her primary goal, which was to get paid to study Russian literature in Russia. Instead, she ended up settling for studying Uzbek literature in Samarkand. In some ways, this made sense. Batuman is fluent in Turkish (although perhaps in Russian too now), and Uzbek is essentially a Soviet amalgam of Turkish dialects from the area.

What follows in this book is her story of her adventures and misadventures on this trip. From her host, who pretty systematically cheated her out of any amenity including working plumbing, to her visits to sites connected with the great Russian novelists, to the eccentric and interesting people her area of study brought into her life, the book is filled with engrossing incidents. There are also sections where she discusses different Russian classics (including the title work) and how they fit with both her experiences and her evolving view of life, literature, and writing.

I’m not even going to try to summarize it beyond that. It is a fairly rambling, episodic memoir - which is kind of how life is anyway. I would say it helps to be familiar with the major Russian writers: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, and their major works. It also doesn’t hurt to have some knowledge of literary theory, as well as history.  I am by no means an expert (and have yet to read some of the books mentioned), but I have spent some time with many of the books. I would say that this book has been some incentive to make sure I put some Russian authors on my list every year.

One thing that I learned from this book was that Turkish and Russian are related - I am not a language scholar, so this connection wasn’t something that I was aware of. Apparently, the Soviets (the Russian ones, naturally), weren’t eager to acknowledge this fact, and tried to cover it up.

Also fascinating in this connection was the origins of the various countries which seemingly magically appeared after the fall of the USSR. (I remember sitting with my brother, going through our very first version of Microsoft Encarta and reading about all these “stans” which constituted south-central Asia. Kyrgyzstan had both the best paucity of vowels and the most interesting tune for its national anthem.) These never really showed up on a map before the rise of the USSR. So where did they come from?

Batuman explains at the time that England was colonizing India, Tsarist Russia decided it needed to make a countermove. It took over the fringes of the Ottoman Empire - a region of tribal groups speaking various Turkish dialects known to outsiders as “Turkestan,” and classified the residents according to a fairly fictional and arbitrary set of groups. The “Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz” didn’t really exist in any recognizable way, but the Russians nonetheless pounded these round pegs into square holes, and annexed the whole thing. These groupings became geographical SSRs, and when the Soviet Union disintegrated, these newish nations emerged as the closest thing to modern nations these regions had known. As part of this, the Uzbek language (and others, I believe) were essentially created from an awkward mashup of dialects, and forced on the people. Not that this is much different from the way national boundaries in the Middle East were drawn by the Allies after the world wars.

I’ll mention a few passages that I particularly found amusing, although these are by no means all of them.

One concerns Isaac Babel, who I wasn’t familiar with - probably because he was exterminated in Stalin’s Great Purge, despite being part of the Communist revolution, and his name and works removed from Soviet records. (This came to light in the 1990s. Also, he ran afoul of the regime primarily because he had an affair with the wife of an NKVD boss. Not his most intelligent move.) Anyway, Babel’s works are mentioned throughout the book. One really stuck with me. Batuman was reading Red Cavalry while baking a Black Forest cake. Apparently, the cake was a disaster.

As Babel immortalized for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, so he immortalized for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat and which, after I had optimistically treated it with half a two-dollar bottle of Kirschwasser, produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup.

Leaving aside the great word picture, I noticed it because my wife makes a fantastic Black Forest cake, complete with a more moderate amount of Kirschwasser, which is pretty much everything this cake was not.

There are a number of quotes from Uzbek (for lack of a better word) poets in this book. After all, Batuman was ostensibly in Samarkand to research Uzbek literature. As noted above, this was a total misnomer, and she had to settle for the writers native to what would eventually become Uzbekistan. One of these is the poet Navoi. I am not sure exactly how these poems sounded in the original language, of course, but there is a certain unintentional comedy factor as Batuman renders them. And I am someone who has a love for poetry. Here is an example that made me smile.

Was it my heart - a bird - that was caught in your locks that unfortunate night,
Or was it bats of some kind?
Remember, the sultan dooms to death even his closest friend
If he learns the latter has secreted away money from the treasury.
Speak, Navoi, if love has not yet crippled your soul -
Why do you spew blood whenever you sob?

There are a few more quotes throughout the book, and they are a bit unusual to say the least, to someone who is more familiar with the English poetic tradition.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of this book. It was interesting, amusing, and kept my interest. But it is also not for everyone. There are certainly moments where I think she might have been a bit more concise. And also moments when I think she wallows in her personal feelings and romantic drama. But it is a memoir, so you expect that along with the fun stories.

***

For what it’s worth, I read a bunch of Tolstoy short stories in my teens - mostly the parable or religious ones. Since then, I have continued to read from my collection. You can read my impression of his stories about the Crimean War here. A couple years ago, I finally got to War and Peace. I hope to read Anna Karenina one of these days.

But, the strongest impression was when I read his three best known novellas. The Death of Ivan Ilych was good, but it was Family Happiness and The Kreutzer Sonata which marked me deeply, upending a lot of what I had thought about sex and marriage. It was really my first introduction to a viciously anti-sex and anti-woman philosophy - except that after I read it, I couldn’t help noticing how much negative influence Tolstoy (and St. Augustine) had on Evangelical teachings on sex and sexuality. These books also rather confirmed my suspicions that marriage wasn’t just a matter of following the right formula or gritting one’s teeth and being loving. Compatibility - sexual and otherwise - was crucial. It is no accident that I intentionally talked about the philosophy of sex before I ever asked my wife out. Fortunately, she is both a good sport and a fellow lover of books, literature, and deep discussions. We are, shall we say, a match.

My brother and I both read The Brothers Karamazov in our late teens, and both enjoyed and found ourselves a bit bewildered by it. I listed the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” as an honorable mention in my list of most influential books. I have returned to that chapter multiple times, and think that it is still the best thing ever written on toxic religion. I have also read Crime and Punishment and Notes From Underground, both of which were fascinating.

I still have yet to read Gogol and Pushkin. They are on my list.

Whatever my deficits in Russian Literature, I have played a fairly good number of the great Russian classical works, both 19th Century and Soviet era. Comparing the literature to the music is a fun exercise.

Probably the oddest Russian book I have read, though, is The Master and Margarita.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bus Stop by William Inge (Empty Space 2018)


Bus Stop is one of those plays that you know exists, at least in the form of a Marilyn Monroe film which borrows the name, setting, and very little of the plot. We decided to go see it at local theater The Empty Space this weekend. William Inge, who was once heralded as the next Tennessee Williams, had a few hits, but not many after the 1950s, wrote this one in 1955, and set it the quintessential 1950s location: the diner. The idea is a bit of a classic too: random strangers are thrown together in a single location by bad weather.

There are eight total characters, and none of them are minor. Each has his own story, and role to play in the drama. The characters are divided up into the locals, and the strangers. Grace is the owner of said diner, and a “grass widow,” as she describes herself, meaning a woman whose husband is away most of the time. She employs Elma, a naive high school girl. Since the bus route stops in town, and the diner is about all there is, Grace knows the bus drivers really well. In some cases, extremely well, wink and nod. Carl is the driver on duty at the time of the action. Will, the local sheriff, is kind of an Andy Griffith sort, but in a town that isn’t as whitewashed and “wholesome” as the fictional Mayberry.

The bus contains four strangers, on their way west. Gerald, a former professor, is, it turns out, was run out of Kansas City for his attempts at seducing young girls. He is also urbane, smooth, and a lush. Young rancher Bo is accompanied on his way back to his Montana ranch by the other two characters. Virgil is an older farmhand, who has kind of taken care of Bo after he was orphaned. He is the voice of reason and experience in the play - although Will plays that role to a degree as well. The final character is Cherie, a young lounge singer who has had a hard and promiscuous past. She finds herself dragged against her will by Bo, who is convinced that since they had sex (his first time), they were going to marry.

There are, therefore, three romantic/sexual pairings with their own tensions. Grace and Carl, who get more than the customary 20 minute quickie. Elma, the object of Gerald’s less-than-honorable advances, and Bo and Cherie, whose story arc probably played better in the 50s than it does now. These three threads to the story are interwoven, and each comments on love and human nature.

The two young characters are the ones with the most to learn. Bo needs to figure out how to treat women like humans, not as property. He needs to figure out how to apologize for the first time in his life. And he, for the first time in his life, loses a fight, and has to learn that he can’t always get what he wants.

Elma gets a crash course in real life. Older men who seem a bit too interested and nice usually aren’t looking for an adopted child. Not everyone is happily married like her parents. People have affairs that are sexual but not romantic. Domestic violence and coercion are real. Life is complicated.

There are, as I hinted, a number of things about the play that seem a bit dated. In the era of #metoo, the tolerance of coercion and threats seems an off note. Kind of like much of the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, come to think of it. Both plays are worth performing in part because of these dynamics. We like to pretend that we are better - and we are in some ways - but we also have a long way to go in overcoming the sexism of the past. There were also a number of lines that assumed a certain gender essentialism - fairly benign, but still wince-worthy.  

On the other hand, a lot of this play felt relevant and modern. The problem of old (usually) men preying on vulnerable young people certainly hasn’t gone away. (Hmm, thinking of people from Bill Gothard to Doug Phillips to Roy Moore…) The messiness unhappy marriages remains a timeless theme, as does infidelity. And, in its own way, the problem of men who feel entitled to women. Bo would play well as an “incel” these days. He is (or considers himself) good looking, reasonably wealthy, educated enough to read and write, and as he insists, “kinda tidy.” He deserves the woman of his choice, right?

The play combines serious moments with humor, and at the moments of greatest discomfort, shifts to a gentler, philosophical bent. In this sense, I think it was a good one for the kids (who went with me), as it didn’t go over the line, but also looked some difficult issues square in the face.

My favorite line in the play is by Virgil, who may be quiet and soft spoken, but probably knows more than everyone but Will combined. Bo is stewing over his rejection by Cherie, and Will’s intervention preventing him from coercing her.

VIRGIL: ...Now why don’t ya go over to the counter and have yourself a drink...like the perfessor.
BO: I never did drink, and I ain’t gonna let no woman drive me to it.
VIRGIL: Ya don’t drink. Ya don’t smoke or chew. Ya oughta have some bad habits to rely on when things with women go wrong.

The kids liked the terrible rendition of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, with the drunk and overacting Gerald paired with the not particularly talented Elma. They also liked Bo’s insistence on raw hamburgers, and his ludicrously long food order.

The acting was quite good in this production - it was all Empty Space regulars, and since each part was significant, each actor got his or her chance to shine. The actors seem to have found parts that fit their preferred styles.

Cory Rickard went with her signature sassy and flippant style in portraying Grace. It came off as both worldly wise, but a little goofy and unpredictable. It has to be well over a decade that I have been enjoying Rickard’s work in local theater, and I always smile to see her in a cast list. (The Two Gentlemen of Verona earlier this year, and as Friar Lawrence last year come to mind.) 


 Carl (Jared Cantrell) and Grace (Cory Rickard)

Victoria Lusk has played a number of memorable characters over the years, from the hilarious Launce (in Two Gentlemen) to the sexy Inga in Young Frankenstein. Her short stature worked well for the teen character, and she certainly made the balcony scene hilarious. She’s another actor that I love to see on a cast list because she makes any part she is given come alive.

Speaking of Frankenstein, the last time I saw Steve Evans, it was as the Monster. I would not have recognized him in this play - the makeup does make a difference. Playing the straight man is never easy, but Evans was thoroughly credible as the good natured, even tempered, and wise sheriff. Our real life law enforcement could sometimes take a lesson in how to defuse a volatile situation. I also loved the bit near the end where he casually mentions Carl’s boots left outside Grace’s apartment. It wasn’t mean-spirited, but it was a good dig. 

 Will (Steve Evans) confronts Bo (Carlos Vera)

Jared Cantrell has been a couple of eccentric characters lately: Uncle Jack in Dancing at Lughnasa, and Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace. Carl was obviously not as over-the-top, but it required some skill at getting the bus driver persona right. Which he did: I half expect to see him driving the GET one of these days.

Trayvon Trimble Fletcher (he has used various combinations since his debut as Othello) brought his understated style to the part of Virgil. Soft spoken, homespun, and a man of few words but deeper thoughts. 

 Virgil (Trayvon Trimble Fletcher)

For the part of Bo, it was pretty inevitable that Carlos Vera would end up playing the part. He has been in far too many local productions over the past few years to name, but he brings a kind of simmering rage and aggression to most of his parts. The Empty Space is a small venue, but he can fill larger ones as easily. I won’t blame Vera for this, but he was more believable as the violent and controlling Bo than as the softer, gentler version. But that’s the fault of the script - it is too unbelievable to think that someone would change that fast or that the change would be permanent.

As the former professor, Daniel Korth was a bit disturbing. That’s a compliment. Korth is one of my favorite actors, and was brilliant in both The Woman In Black and in Angels In America. Korth just sounds naturally sincere, urbane, charming, likeable, and genuine. He’s super at doing that. But then, you watch him putting the sincere charming moves on a teen girl, and...ick. Which is the point. It was far too easy to see how Gerald kept getting these young girls - and that too is true to life. 

 Gerald (Daniel Korth) puts the moves on Elma (Victoria Lusk)

Finally, there is Ellie Sivesind, who has taken over for her husband Brian as executive director of TES. (Brian is teaching theater at Bakersfield College, and doing a fine job, so I imagine he is busy.) Ellie has a knack for playing innocent characters - hence Desdemona in Othello and Harper in Angels in America. She has a rather young and innocent looking face, and portrays vulnerability well. That’s an art as much as playing a stronger female. I enjoyed her work in this one as well. 

 Cherie (Ellie Sivesind)

Really, looking at that list again, just a solid list of reliably excellent local talent, which is what brought this play alive.

I should also mention that my youngest was quite impressed with the set. TES is a small venue, so space is at a premium. Nevertheless, they had a diner with a counter and kitchen and everything. And real food. I liked all the vintage details - my wife knows her antiques, and I have gotten a bit of an education about period glassware and similar items. This is standard fare for TES: small space, modest budgets, but careful attention to detail, high artistic values, and strong acting.

Bus Stop runs two more weekends, so locals may wish to make reservations and go see it.

Esonline.org for more information.

Friday, November 2, 2018

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather


Source of book: I own this.

It has been far too long since I read some Cather - before I started this blog, actually. My Antonia was thoroughly enjoyable, so I really should have gone back and read another of her books. Too many things to read, too little time.

O Pioneers was Cather’s first real hit. She had written a few short stories, mostly about “bohemian” young people in the city. She didn’t really find her voice until she went back to her roots and wrote about her immigrant pioneer ancestors and the communities she grew up in. The genesis of O Pioneers was a set of three short stories, which were eventually blended into a single narrative to make the book. In some places, the seams still show just a little, and having read My Antonia, I think that this book shows some signs of being a first novel. That is not to say it is bad, just that it isn’t as polished as her later books. 



As soon as I started it, I realized that I had read the first chapter back in high school as part of American Literature. (Along with a chapter from So Big by Edna Ferber.) It is that iconic scene with Emil and his cat, and his first introduction to Marie, which will turn out to be all too fateful.

The true hero of the book is Alexandra, the big sister who is competent, visionary, and has a deep love for the land. Soon after this opening scene, their father dies, and the kids (well, Alexandra is in her 20s) and mom are left to fend for themselves. As drought forces other neighbors to leave, she sees the potential and scrapes together enough to buy several other farms. When the story resumes later, we find that she has prospered. Two of her brothers are not thrilled with this, even though they too have gained from her efforts. Emil, in the meantime, is in love with Marie - who is unhappily married to another man.

Alexandra remains alone as she grows older. She has a thing for Carl Lindstrom, who left with his family years ago. When he returns for a visit, they have chemistry, but he has nothing financial to offer her. This freaks out the brothers, who think that “the land should stay in the family.” Meaning they should get it rather than Carl. Because a married woman doesn’t count as a person, obviously.

Oscar spoke up solemnly, “The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title. If anything goes wrong, it’s the men that are held responsible.”

The utter disrespect Oscar and Lou have for their sister is astounding. They bring up that she didn’t do the level of fieldwork they did - as if she just sat around. She certainly did not, any more than my farming pioneer ancestors did. If anything, she probably outworked them. It is clear enough that she was the real brains behind the success anyway, and that seems to rankle their egos.

The book ends with both a tragedy and a positive ending. In essence, the circumstances of the land and of love affect different characters in unique ways. Some, like Alexandra, thrive in the task of taming and working the land. Others, like her brothers, succeed, but do not thrive in any true sense. Others, like the violent and morose Frank Shabata, become embittered by both the land and love.

Still others, like the eccentric Ivar, who understands the land instinctively, and protects the wild birds which visit his farm, exist as part of the land as much as anything.

It’s not original with me, but I agree that Cather uses groups of three throughout the book, reflecting the three threads of the story. In particular, there are three types of love and lovers. Emil and Marie have a destructive passion that cannot last, but only destroys. Two of the farmhands have a love that is full of possessiveness and fear - it is based on roles and patriarchy, not mutuality. Finally, there is the love of Carl and Alexandra, that lasts in the face of difficult circumstances. I particularly enjoyed the way this love story was written. Despite their feelings, circumstances keep them apart until Alexandra is nearly 50. Yes, you read that right. A middle aged romance where the author assumes that passion is as genuine as it is for younger people. But it is also counter to expectations. Alexandra is a bit older than Carl, and she is far wealthier. Carl isn’t a gold digger by any measure, however. Their mutual love and respect for each other is delightful.

In contrast is the toxic marriage of Frank and Marie. He had a woman who loved him, and he completely poisoned the relationship. By the time the narrative introduces him, he is a jealous, controlling wreck. An extended quote is fantastic:

Frank's case was all the more painful because he had no one in particular to fix his jealousy upon. Sometimes he could have thanked the man who would bring him evidence against his wife. He had discharged a good farm-boy, Jan Smirka, because he thought Marie was fond of him; but she had not seemed to miss Jan when he was gone, and she had been just as kind to the next boy. The farm-hands would always do anything for Marie; Frank couldn't find one so surly that he would not make an effort to please her. At the bottom of his heart Frank knew well enough that if he could once give up his grudge, his wife would come back to him. But he could never in the world do that. The grudge was fundamental. Perhaps he could not have given it up if he had tried. Perhaps he got more satisfaction out of feeling himself abused than he would have got out of being loved. If he could once have made Marie thoroughly unhappy, he might have relented and raised her from the dust. But she had never humbled herself. In the first days of their love she had been his slave; she had admired him abandonedly. But the moment he began to bully her and to be unjust, she began to draw away; at first in tearful amazement, then in quiet, unspoken disgust. The distance between them had widened and hardened. It no longer contracted and brought them suddenly together. The spark of her life went somewhere else, and he was always watching to surprise it. He knew that somewhere she must get a feeling to live upon, for she was not a woman who could live without loving. He wanted to prove to himself the wrong he felt. What did she hide in her heart? Where did it go? Even Frank had his churlish delicacies; he never reminded her of how much she had once loved him. For that Marie was grateful to him.

While Marie bears some blame for cheating, Frank destroyed the marriage long before. In our own time, she likely would have left him years ago - they had no children, so why not? But back in the 1800s, this wasn’t an option for her.

Speaking of the past, this book is to a degree about my past. My family’s past. The Bergesons - Alexandra and family - are part of the same great migration that my own family participated in. They are Swedish, like my paternal grandfather and his family, and came to the Great Plains to farm under the Homestead Act. The branches of my family settled in Montana and Kansas - the story is set in between, in Nebraska.

There, like in the book, there were multiple communities within the greater community. The Swedes. The French. The Germans (again, my ancestors). The Czechs. What is particularly enlightening about the stories in this book is that they accurately reflect the immigrant experience. A common complaint by xenophobes today is that “the new immigrants aren’t assimilating.” But this charge was leveled at past immigrants too - particularly the Irish, but also the Swedes, and the Germans, and….

But guess what? Things were about the same back then. As Cather tells it, the first generation didn’t learn English. Their native languages were spoken at home, church, and at stores owned by the same language groups. The second generation (Emil and Alexandra, for example) was bilingual, speaking Swedish at home, and English at school and everywhere else. By the third generation, Swedish was largely forgotten.

That is exactly how it was with my ancestors. My great-great grandparents spoke Swedish or German, respectively, and never really learned English. My great-grandparents (one of which I got to know a little) could still speak a bit of the “old country,” while my grandparents had completely forgotten what little they once knew. Thus it is with today’s immigrants. The real “assimilation” issue is that immigrants from Latin America or Africa can’t just blend in with the whites like my ancestors eventually did with the other European Americans. Even the Irish were eventually accepted as “white,” rather than “white n----rs” as they used to be called.

I found this book to be thoroughly enjoyable. I really do need to read more Cather. I like her gentle perspective, and keen perception of human nature. This book is a good place to start, but definitely read My Antonia as well.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is part of our somewhat random and unsystematic project of reading or listening to Newbery Award winners and finalists. Bud, Not Buddy was the winner in 2000. This book was also part of my goal that my children experience books by authors of color. I believe it is crucial to moral development to hear a variety of voices - particularly those who have historically (and too often in the present) been marginalized.



Bud, Not Buddy tells the story of an orphan boy, Bud (not Buddy - that is important) living in the Great Depression. After his mother dies when he is age 6, he bounces around between an orphanage and various foster homes. After one final disastrous experience in a foster home where he is tormented by the son and disbelieved by the parents, he runs away, and strikes out to find the man he believes is his father: the famous touring musician Herman E. Calloway. After trying to locate his favorite librarian (who has married and moved far away), he finds the local Hooverville, fails at jumping a train, then attempts to walk 200 miles to Grand Rapids. He is picked up by Lefty Lewis, a “red cap” who is out making an emergency delivery of blood to the hospital. Lewis assists him in finding Calloway, after which Bud discovers the truth of his family history.

That’s a pretty vague summary, and intentionally so. There are some fun twists along the way, which I didn’t want to completely spoil.

However, I do want to mention a few things about the book. First, just like I mentioned in my review of How To Create The Perfect Wife, in times of economic stress, the number of abandoned children skyrockets. During the Depression, parents literally had to choose which of their children to watch starve to death. So many did the “compassionate” thing and dropped a child or two at an orphanage, with the hope that they would at least survive, even if they never saw each other again. Pregnancy could literally mean death for someone when there is insufficient food. Bud notes this - he was literally orphaned, before the Depression, so he sees the rapid influx. As in other times past, this led to a push to place children with families, as this was cheaper than building more orphanages. Families might take on a foster child for the money. It wasn’t much, but it was steadier than employment at the time. This led to some unpleasant situations, as Bud experiences.

Bud has clearly lived a hard life for the last few years. One of the central recurring elements in the book is the collection of wisdom that Bud intends to publish some day: Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having A Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.

These little aphorisms are sprinkled throughout the book, and every kid - or former kid - knows just how true they are. How to know when bad things are going to happen from stuff adults say - many have this theme. Others have to do with street smarts, common sense, and above all, the difficulties of navigating human relationships when you are relatively powerless and a mere child. The author shows deep perception of human culture and society in writing these. I’d almost say they were the best part of the book. Almost.

Before I mention the best part, there are a few other things that struck me. The description of the “Hooverville” was outstanding. In our own time, Hoovervilles are proliferating (Los Angeles is believed to have between 50,000 and 100,000 homeless), although low wages and high housing costs are driving the increase this time, rather than catastrophic unemployment. (With an assist from untreated mental illness and addiction - although those are a constant, not a new problem.) During the Depression, these sprang up all over as well. People do what they can to stay alive. What was particularly interesting in this book was the way that people worked together in the encampment. For the most part, everyone pitched in, shared, and formed, well, a society. Which is what humans do, in pretty much every situation. It is our one trait that has enabled us to survive and thrive where most primates struggle.

But not always. One of the most haunting scenes in the book is of the one family which refuses to join the rest of the group. They are not thriving, and the baby is dying of starvation and illness. They lack the things that the rest of the group has, and would clearly benefit from sharing with others. But they refuse. Why?

Because they are white and racist - they won’t contaminate themselves by sharing with “negroes.”

The author is correct about this, by the way. At the very bottom of society, racial prejudice is a luxury that most can’t afford. And during the Depression, there was a lot more racial cooperation in the Hoovervilles than many realize. (For what it’s worth, Doctor Who had a great portrayal of this in “Daleks in Manhattan.”) I love that Curtis isn’t heavy handed about this. He just shows a hurting family that would benefit if they would just swallow their pride and racism long enough to be helped.

I also love that the author found ways of showing basic human decency among many of the characters. There is the family (I forget the name) who lies and says that Bud is their son, so that he can share a meal at the soup kitchen, even though he is late. There is the white librarian who helps Bud research stuff, smuggles him some food, and shows the sort of compassion that is all too rare. There is Lefty Lewis, who, along with his sister, takes care of Bud during Bud’s darkest hour. They are realistic, memorable, and inspiring characters. Curtis has a knack for writing characters and dialogue; it was sad when Lewis left the story for good as the narrative moved on.

As a musician, I also found the description of the band to be fascinating. Calloway is a bit of an archetype: the jazz musician who got his start in the Harlem Renaissance, and managed to make a decent living even in the depths of the Depression. As with many bands of the era, the fictional “Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression” had one white member so as to escape some of the restrictions of Jim Crow. The white member would make the arrangements - and the musicianship of the band would smooth over the hurt feelings. It’s also a reminder that one of the first and most important breaches of the Jim Crow barriers came through music. Art recognizes art, and artists have always been the consciences of humanity. While I give due credit to the integration of the military, the Civil Rights Movement (and the laws that resulted), and the many decent people who fought segregation, I believe music played a crucial role in bringing about the end of Jim Crow.

Let me end with the best part of the book. Whether you read or listen, be sure to include the afterword by the author, which is fantastic.

The story itself is purely fictional, although it is certainly historical fiction. However, there are two characters who are based significantly on real people. Curtis based Lefty Lewis and Herman Calloway on his own grandfathers - who were indeed a Redcap (and Negro League pitcher) and a musician, respectively,  during the depression. The personalities are drawn from those men, not just their professions. Also, the name of the band - which is pretty awesome. Curtis laments that he was too young and stupid to take time to listen to the old stories these two men told - now, he would have written as much down as he could. But he nevertheless did remember some, and he incorporated what he remembered into the story.

In my opinion, this is the best part. No wonder these two men seemed so real. They, in many ways were real, even though the story is fiction. I thought this was a worthy book, with good writing and characters, and a compelling story. It is yet another example of the rather excellent children’s literature published in the last 20 years.

***

The late James Avery narrated the audiobook. Solid job, well suited to the book.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling


Source of book: We own all the Harry Potter books...but this one was the Stephen Fry audiobook version borrowed from a friend.

I AM NO LONGER A MUGGLE!

Yep, I finally have had my Harry Potter initiation, and can now take my place in Hufflepuff.

How did I manage to miss reading Harry Potter back in the day? Well, the first book came out when I was age 20, and at the time wasn’t really reading kids books. More like classics and law related stuff. As the tail end of Gen X, HP wasn’t really my generation’s thing. That was the most important factor.

The other was that in the Fundie subculture I was in, Harry Potter was looked on (at first) as amusing but suspect for the magical content or even (as the series went on) as the gateway into the occult. Yeah, it was an interesting time and place. To be clear, my parents were never as Fundie as many, even if we did spend time in Bill Gothard’s cult. But we did have some embarrassing moments, such as burning a few Tolkien books. (Yeah, I wince about that a lot. At least they were trade paperbacks which were falling apart anyway. And my parents changed their mind and went to the LoTR movies with us when they came out.) So, at least in the circles I ran in, HP wasn’t cool. So I just never read them.

In hindsight, of course, I missed out on what is probably the most important cultural touchstone of Gen Y - and indeed of just about everyone younger than me. My wife has gone so far as to say that understanding HP is going to be crucial for understanding Millennials. And I agree.

Just to give one example: I adopted the moniker “The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named” to refer to a certain white nationalist narcissistic sociopath who somehow ended up rising to power. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one. A couple months ago, a few of the kids and I went to see the Punch Brothers down in LA - and Chris Thile, who has been outspoken against TTWSNBN - used “He Who Shall Not Be Named” as well. So I am in good company. (Seriously, if you haven’t discovered Chris Thile, he is a freaking musical genius, and may have actual wizard skills on the mandolin. Not All Who Wander Are Lost is one of my favorite all-time albums, and his latest solo effort, Thanks For Listening, has been a godsend for explaining the experience of people like me trying to navigate family and friendship in the era of emboldened racism, hate, and fascism - which a distressing number of friends and family support. And the Punch Brothers are simply astonishingly good in concert. Worth every penny.)

Anyway, I finally did it, and started with Harry Potter.

Astute HP fans will notice that I used the original British title. That is intentional. We listened to the UK version of the book, with that title, and a lot of Britishisms which were changed for the US version of the book. It is difficult to get UK versions here in the US, while the US versions are ubiquitous. My kids have read (and re-read) the US versions, so they were fascinated by the differences in the UK. Such things as the gratuitous use of “queue” and “lorry” and such - and also “trainers” for what we call “sneakers” here. This wasn’t really a problem for me or the kids, though, as we all read British literature avidly. Such luminaries as P. G. Wodehouse come to mind as excellent sources of Britishisms.

The most important difference, though, in my view, is suggested by the title. Apparently, the publishing powers that be didn’t think that American children were smart enough to know what the Philosopher’s Stone was. I suspect that a generation of much-maligned Millennials would be happy to disagree with that assessment. My children, certainly, were irate that they were disrespected so.

In any case, the UK version is great. Stephen Fry should be enlisted to narrate as many audiobooks as possible, because he is fantastic. And Harry Potter was fun.

Just a few comments. First, as my brother (who read the books long before I did) pointed out, the writing is a bit uneven - particularly in the earlier books. There were a few moments where I felt things could have been done better. Overall, the writing itself was decent, but not transcendent. The characters felt a bit underdeveloped, although that is the risk in any shorter kids book. It is my understanding that it gets better as the series goes on. The story, though, is indeed highly imaginative, suspenseful, and engrossing. Harry is believable, Hagrid is delightful, and by the standards of the time, Rowling went against stereotypes. In particular, Hermione took the role as the nerdy sidekick often reserved for males. And Ron wasn’t the dumb jock - he combines a certain street sense with knowledge of chess and other “nerd” signifiers. It’s not that Rowling was the first to do this or anything, but she deserves credit for bringing a more feminist and less gender essentialist viewpoint to mainstream - nay, superstar - pop culture.

I also want to mention that having read the first book, I do have to agree with another ex-fundie writer (I can’t remember who at the moment) pointed out that the real reason Fundies freaked out about the books wasn’t so much the magic, but the fact that the books support the idea of going against authority when that authority is wrong, or even evil. Having lived through Gothard, and his fundamental idea that obedience to authority was “god’s way” and that failing to obey in every respect - including adopting one’s “authority”’s cultural preferences - I can see why books like this would be problematic. Which leads me to the final point.

I think that it was a line near the end of the book which really was the most important. It comes from Professor Quirrell, who has been possessed by Voldemort. After Harry tracks him to the hiding place of the Stone, Quirrell explains to Harry what he has learned from Voldemort:

“There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.”

On the one hand, this is nothing new to literature. I mean, villains since time immemorial have combined a lack of morality with a lust for power - it is pretty much part of the villain union contract. Whether historical figures (say, Julius Caesar, or Hitler, to pick two examples) or the movies (Star Wars - to use MY generation’s cultural touchstone), or theory (pick your myth…), this is part of human nature. Specifically, there have always been people like Voldemort - and people like Quirrell, more than willing to kiss the dirty ass of the powerful and cruel to gain their own advantage.

In fact, that is the real story both in the book - and in reality the last few years. (And believe me, many of the younger folk see the parallel really well.) The story isn’t that people like Voldemort and Trump (and Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell for that matter) exist. Of course they do. The real story is who the Quirrells are.

Just as Harry and friends are rather startled to discover that it isn’t the unpleasant Snape that is the traitor, many of us have been disappointed to realize that it is the white Evangelicals in our life that are willing to overlook every kind of evil in exchange for the chance at power. (Well, that and the change to further their no-longer-hidden racism…) If any line exemplifies what I see happening, it is the one above. After a lifetime of being told that good and evil matter. And that racism is evil, adultery and rape are wrong, and slandering others is wrong...well...it turns out that for white Evangelicals… “there is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” As soon as there was the smell of power, all morality went out the window.

Baby Boomers, you might want to take note. Despite the endless onslaught of articles bitching about how horrible the Millennials are, they actually read more than you do. And Harry Potter is a huge reason why. When they see you selling your souls for political power - and for the opportunity to harm people outside your tribe (don’t get me started on the racist shit I keep hearing from Trump supporters I know) - they are seeing it through this lens. The lust for power trumps (pun intentional) everything else, from the morality we were taught, to basic human decency.

I look forward to experiencing the rest of the Harry Potter books. It appears that Stephen Fry narrated all of them, so I hope to continue that trend. 

***

My second daughter (age 14 - and snarky as heck) still thinks I am a muggle. She's the one who just called "good night old man" down the hall. But don't get me wrong, she is a great young lady who is one of the hardest working and most helpful people ever, and we have a mutual sarcasm thing going here. She is very much a Ravenclaw - and she wears her Ravenclaw gear to school regularly. She will probably read this post and tell me all the things I got wrong. 

***

When I was in Jr. High, I had a huge crush on Anne of Green Gables. If I had been born later, I can tell that I would have crushed so hard on Emma Watson. And really, as a grown woman, she is damn hot, and apparently smart as heck. So there you have it, one of my celebrity crushes. My wife can dream of David Tennant. ;) I'll go with Emma Watson and Megan Follows...




Monday, October 22, 2018

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin


Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Every October, we pick a spooky book, and dress up for the occasion. (My wife made me a scrabble board shirt…)

This is one of those classic horror books that I hadn’t read. Actually, I haven’t read any Ira Levin - his other major work was The Stepford Wives, which has certainly become part of our cultural background. 



The basic plot is fairly simple. Young couple moves to new apartment in an old building with a history of tragic events. They become friends with an eccentric older couple on the same floor. The wife becomes pregnant under odd circumstances, has a painful and difficult pregnancy, and ends up giving birth to the Devil’s spawn.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the way that, until the very end, there are multiple explanations for the events that do not involve the supernatural, and these explanations are actually more plausible.

It is apparent, for example, that Rosemary’s husband, Guy, is a self-centered jerk. As the book goes on, his behavior definitely veers into abuse and control. I am not sure how this would have played in 1967, but it seems pretty creepy now.

Added to that is the fact that Rosemary seems to be going somewhat crazy throughout the pregnancy. In fact, if it weren’t for Guy’s suspicious actions, it would be hard to come to any other conclusion. Well, that and the fact that nobody takes her pain seriously. My wife the nurse, however, pointed out that even now, women’s pain is all too often dismissed with a pat on the head as what they used to call “hysteria” - insanity from the uterus. (A friend suggested we need to use “testerical” for guys acting nutty. I like it.)

The book itself had some odd quirks. For example, an inordinate amount of time was spent on things like the layout of the rooms, the process of selecting furniture, and a certain closet. I assumed that these would, in some way, play a part in the story. Except they didn’t. There was never really any explanation in the second half of the book.

Another weird thing was the character of Terry, who briefly appears, then is killed off. One assumes that she was the original choice for the Devil Baby, but either kills herself or is killed. Again, practically no explanation later in the book, which seemed odd. Maybe I am just used to authors who don’t mention details that aren’t important to the story. Kind of like Chekhov and his guns - you know if one appears, it will be fired.

One final detail led me to a bit of a rabbit trail, which I figure I will inflict on you as well. “Tannis Root” plays a big role in the plot. It is the stinky core of a charm which is initially worn by Terry, then by Rosemary. As I suspected, it doesn’t actually exist in reality, but does have a symbolic meaning. The association of the city of Tanis, Egypt, which does exist, has long been associated with the Devil and demons in general. This association dates back a long time, to the 2nd Century CE and the works of Justin Martyr. In developing a fairly detailed system of demonology, Martyr cites both the iconic story of the Fall of Lucifer in Isaiah (which is a fairly obvious appropriation and reuse of the root story that also became the Greco-Roman myth of Phaethon) and other passages in Isaiah which purport to tell of evil rulers in Tanis. Thus, Martyr builds the idea that the fallen angels congregate in Tanis. This whole edifice depends on a mistranslation of the Hebrew text in the Septuagint. You can read a rather long explanation here if you like. But essentially, you have a story of earthly rulers taking on divine titles (hubris, yes?) and suffer a catastrophic fall (nemesis), which is then made into proof of the idea of rebellious angels, then a mistranslation placing them in Tanis, and then the use of Tanis as a shorthand for demonic activity. From there, you can look at a long history of the Tanis/Satan connection in literature and theological writing. The final connection here is the “tanna” plant, another fictional plant used in early mummy movies. It isn’t clear if this was expressly a reference to Tanis or not, but the similarity certainly could (and did) lead to a conflation of the Tanis/Devil connection and the Tanna/Devils Weed idea. So there you have it.

This was a fairly light read, which is kind of the idea for Spooky Lush - something even the less serious book nuts in our club can enjoy, and one which gives a good theme for food and costumes. Given that the book - and even more so the movie - are part of our culture, it is a good thing that I read it. I should probably do the same for The Stepford Wives one of these days.

***

For those who care to follow along, here are the books that I have read for our club. Camping and music schedules have made me miss a number of months, although my wife has attended more - she started first as well, before talking me into going. It’s been a blast.


One of the best things about the club is reading books that probably would never have come to my attention otherwise.

***

By popular demand: the Scrabble Board costume.

 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller


Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was my selection for Banned Books Week. At 415 pages, it took longer than a week, but I did start it during Banned Books Week.

Just as a reminder, I use the week to read books which have been banned, which means that a government has outlawed sale, publication, or possession of the book. I do not count challenged books - those which citizens or parents have sought to keep out of school curricula or libraries. This isn’t because I think challenges are interesting, but because I wanted to focus my once a year project on those where the power of the state was employed in censorship. I believe that is a different level from a challenge. After all, any library has limited space and budget, and decisions must be made. (Personally, I would have preferred an extra - and local - copy of The Rest is Noise rather than one of the 20ish copies of Eat, Pray, Love.) Likewise, students can only study so many books, and the choice of which to study is a judgment call.

Here are my past selections, plus the introduction to Banned Books Week.


***

This is another book which was - believe it or not - banned by a Western democracy during my lifetime. Several states banned it during the 1970s, as did Dallas, TX (1977) and Snoqualmie, WA (1979.) Ostensibly, the book was banned for referring to women as “whores.” This seems a bit specious, since the women in question were, strictly speaking, prostitutes. While there is sexual content, it isn’t particularly graphic, and it certainly isn’t gratuitous. For the 1970s (seriously, watch a movie from that era…), it is pretty tame. I suspect that two facets of the novel were what really drove the bans: it is somewhat anti-war - and it raises uncomfortable theological questions. With the 1970s as kind of ground zero for the fundamentalist Religious Right, I suspect that a novelist who raised the still-unsolved and debated Problem of Evil was unwelcome.

What Catch-22 is, without question, is one of the most important and influential novels of the 20th Century. I am kind of surprised that I didn’t end up reading any of it in high school, honestly, because at least one chapter seems like a perfect selection. I guess they can’t have you read everything. I can see the influence of the book on our perception of military life. Written in 1961, it is ostensibly set in World War II, but was intended by the author as a commentary not on that war, but on the Cold War - and even more so on the McCarthy hearings. To that end, there are multiple references to loyalty oaths and specific incidents from the hearings.

Catch-22’s vision of military life permeates so much of what was written or filmed thereafter. As a kid, I loved the Beetle Bailey comic strips - which draw a lot from the book, although the comic is more lighthearted. My dad’s favorite TV show, M*A*S*H, reuses a number of tropes - and the idea of using a satire of one war to critique another. As others have pointed out, The Office is to a certain degree Catch-22 without the blood. I suspect that having read this book, I will see even more references in popular culture.

The book isn’t a linear narrative. Rather, the first part of the book essentially tells a portion of the story (which is really the middle of the plot) from the point of view of various characters, filling in the missing pieces. As the story then progresses, more and more is told, but again, not in chronological order. It is rather like building a jigsaw puzzle from the center out, except you can’t figure out what stuff is until near the end.

The setting is the liberation (or invasion...take your pick) of Italy during the height of World War II. At that point, D-Day was in the future, and the outcome of the war was still in doubt, even though the tide had turned. The characters are part of an airborne bomber group flying B-25s. Unline the better known B-17 (one of the best looking bombers of the era, in my view) and the B-24 (much larger, and with a longer range, this was used in the Western Europe and Pacific theaters), the B-25 was a smaller two-engined bomber. The B-25 had a good reputation as one of the most durable aircraft of the war, reliable, and versatile. Because of its roles, however, it ended up being used for lower level bombing runs, which made it vulnerable to anti-aircraft flak, even if (as was the case in the book), there was no opposition from enemy fighters.

 B-25 operated by the Commemorative Air Force, at the Miramar USMC Station, 2018

One of the great things about this book was the realism in the airborne scenes. This is because Heller, like his anti-hero Yossarian, was a bombardier/navigator on a B-25 in Italy. In that sense, the book draws heavily from Heller’s own experiences. I’m a bit of an aviation buff - my dad was was an amateur pilot in his younger days, and was an air traffic controller before his retirement - and I grew up around aircraft. I still love flying (although airport security not so much), and my wife snickers at the way my head swivels whenever I hear or see an airplane.

However, Heller was quick to point out that while his experience in war helped him write the technical aspects of this book, he most certainly did not base his characters on his experiences. Heller said that his fellow soldiers and commanding officers were, by and large, exemplary men, and, while he suffered trauma as the result of war, he had nothing but positive feelings for those he served with. The book was therefore, not primarily a working out of his own baggage from the war, but a veiled commentary on the 1950s - specifically the McCarthy era, as noted above.

Catch-22 doesn’t have a hero in the traditional sense. There are a few more or less admirable minor characters, but for the most part, everyone is badly flawed or outright malevolent. And the central character, Yossarian, is a classic anti-hero. He is a coward, a lazy bastard, an insubordinate son-of-a-bitch, and more. (His commanding officers are certainly right to call him these things.) But, there is some mitigation. At the outset of the story, all personnel are supposed to be furloughed after a certain number of missions. That is the official policy. But Colonel Cathcart, who commands the unit, is determined to get his name into a magazine back home with a glowing story. And so he keeps raising the number of missions. So Yossarian and the others never get to go home. Here is the classic scene which explains the...well… “catch-22.”

“Daneeka was telling the truth,” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen admitted.” Forty missions is all you have to fly as far as Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters is concerned.”
Yossarian was jubilant. “Then I can go home, right? I’ve got forty-eight.”
“No, you can’t go home,” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen corrected him. “Are you crazy or something??”
“Why not.”
“Catch-22.”
“Catch-22?” Yossarian was stunned. “What the hell has Catch-22 got to do with it?”
“Catch-22,” Doc Daneeka answered patiently, when Hungry Joe had flown Yossarian back to Pianosa, “says you’ve always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to.”
"But Twenty-seventh Air Force says I can go home with forty missions."
"But they don't say you have to go home. And regulations do say you have to obey every order. That's the catch. Even if the colonel were disobeying a Twenty-seventh Air Force order by making you fly more missions, you'd still have to fly them, or you'd be guilty of disobeying an order of his. And then Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters would really jump on you."
Yossarian slumped with disappointment. “Then I really do have to fly the fifty missions, don’t I?” he grieved.
“The fifty-five,” Doc Daneeka corrected him.

“Catch-22” is never actually stated, but its effects are explained. Here is another mention of it:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to.

Every absurdity in the book comes back to “catch-22.” Yossarian eventually decides that it doesn’t actually exist - it is just the justification for the impossible situations that abound. The source of the term is fascinating. When Heller first started writing the book, he released a draft of the first chapter as “Catch-18.” His agent, however, requested that it be changed so the book wouldn’t be confused with Leon Uris’ new book, Mila 18. “Catch 11” was suggested - the repetition fit the repeated, circular conversations which abound in the book. Except that Ocean’s Eleven had just been released. (The original, Rat Pack version, not the Brad Pitt and George Clooney remake.) “Catch-17” was too close to Stalag 17, a mostly forgotten WWII movie. Finally, someone realized the obvious: “Catch-22” was the perfect number. Repetitive like 11, but even more fun to say.

And now, nobody can imagine it being anything else.

For those of us who came of age at the end of the 20th Century, it is impossible to imagine life without this idiom. But without Heller’s book, it wouldn’t even exist.

I hesitate to actually try to summarize the book beyond saying that Yossarian is determined to stop flying missions, particularly after one of his crewmates is disemboweled and dies in his arms. He finds excuses, from a vague medical issue to strategic insanity. But even though he is utterly without scruple, there is one thing he won’t do to get discharged. (I won’t spoil it.)

Pretty much all of the characters are major. (And that includes Major Major - see below.) Everyone is important in some way, and each story is developed. The characters are memorable, and you care about them - even as they are systematically killed off. At least the ones you like. The loathsome commanding officers survive, of course - they don’t have to fly missions.

The book is pretty dang dark - particularly in the last fifth. But, at the same time, it is one of the funniest books I have read. There are many lines that are indeed laugh out loud hilarious...and then you feel guilty for laughing. It is that sort of a book. On the one level, it is a mockery of politics and power. The greed of capitalistic sorts - exemplified by Milo Minderbinder’s smuggling racket (another hilarious chapter) - and the lust for power and prestige of the various commanding officers is on full and amusing display. We all know people like this.

But there is something deeper than this. Yossarian eloquently takes on the fates - God himself - for the absurdity of human suffering. This exchange occurs between Yossarian and the wife of Lt. Scheisskopf (one of several not-particularly-subtle names in this book.)

“I bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one you can name to be thankful for.”
“Be thankful you’re healthy.”
“Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.”
“Be glad you’re even alive.”
“Be furious you’re going to die.”
...
“And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling over her objections. “There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about—a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did he ever create pain? … Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He? … What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. …”

This was a particularly sobering passage. I’ll admit this has been on my mind a lot lately. In particular, why God remains silent when a majority of those who claim his name continue to express hate and cruelty toward other human beings. But, really, this has been a major theme of our scripture: why the wicked prosper and are allowed to harm others, and why justice is delayed. And why God delays purging the filth from what claims to be his church.

On a somewhat related note, I was stunned to see a particularly cogent analysis of Right Wing views - and Calvinism - in this book. I mean, this is 67 years later, but it is exactly what I see going on right now.

Major Major is an, um, major character in the book. In a really hilarious way. He manages to avoid actually seeing anyone or doing anything. But his back story is also funny. His father names him, literally, “Major Major Major” when the mother is recovering from a difficult childbirth. And then, he is promoted to the rank of Major, so….Major Major Major Major. Yeah, it’s terrible. But an amusing terrible. But it isn’t this farce which is the most interesting part. Major Major’s father was a recognizable sort. Here are some excerpts of the description:

He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing freedom-loving, law abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down.

As it turns out, he is part of the racket whereby he is paid by the federal government to not grow alfalfa. I won’t quote the whole section, but it is both accurate and freaking hilarious. And also a great description of how the Right LOVES socialism...for certain white people. Oh, and it gets better:

Major Major’s father had a Calvinist’s faith in predestination and could perceive distinctly how everyone’s misfortunes but his own were expressions of God’s will.

Can I use “amen” here? Because this is so amazingly true in our own time. The resurgence of Calvinism parallels the embrace of Social Darwinism by the Religious Right. And the two are absolutely connected - as Heller notes here. (This could be an entire blog post.) Basically, the misfortunes of, say, the working poor, or brown skinned people, or those born outside of the United States - all these are God’s will - and judgment on “those” people for being wicked. But the misfortunes of Calvinist whites, well, those are due to the depredations of those dirty poor people, or the dirty brown-skinned people. Heller was right on. Socialism for certain middle or upper class white people is fine. It’s just when you extend that to the less privileged that it becomes “socialism.”

I’m going to end with a lighter note. Yossarian is hardly an admirable character. But he is such a force of chaos and divergent thinking that you can’t really hate him - unless you lack a sense of humor. There is this delightful exchange between him and Major Sanderson:

“Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?”
“Yes, sir, it has.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“To assuage my fears of sexual impotence.”

I literally am laughing out loud just typing that one again. This is classic Yossarian: refusing to play the game, turning the rhetoric back on its user, and cutting to the heart of the issue. This is why he is a wonderful anti-hero. You really should hate him...but you can’t, because he is all too right. He sees through the rules of social behavior, the lies of honor and duty, and says what we think, but can’t bring ourselves to articulate. Yossarian (and Heller) tear away the mask, and show that protocol has replaced principle, “alternative facts” have replaced truth, and reason is now just a rigamarole to justify presupposition. It is largely how I feel about the sophistry that has been unmasked within my own religious tradition. Truth and human decency and the needs of real human beings are subordinated to power, culture wars, and self aggrandizement.

I probably wouldn’t have appreciated this book as a teen, and definitely appreciate it more in my 40s, with the sort of experience to make one a cynic, despite my generally sanguine tendencies. I can say for certain that this book is more humorous than I expected, even if dark and philosophical. It was definitely worth reading, and I think it earns its place as one of the best novels of the last century.