Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Single Pebble by John Hersey

 Source of Book: I own this. Purchased used as a library discard

Most people know of Hersey from his unforgettable non-fiction work, Hiroshima, which still stands as an extraordinary work of journalism. It is unlikely that any one person affected our perception of atomic an nuclear weaponry more than he did. Furthermore, journalistic writing today continues to imitate his style and aspire to his impact.

Hiroshima was effective for two reasons. First, the subject itself made for a compelling story. Second, Hersey chose to write the story in clear, stripped down prose, consciously avoiding sensationalism. Instead, he let the horror of the facts themselves tell the story – perhaps one of the best cases of the writer getting out of his own way.

It would not be much of a stretch to claim that Hersey is partially responsible for the fact that the cold war never became thermonuclear. Both sides were left with a lingering fear that has never left. In addition, we all remember the name Hiroshima. Fewer remember Nagasaki, which is a shame, because it was bombed on my birthday, August 9.

(Odd digression: August 9 is not an auspicious date. In addition to numerous trifling battles over the centuries, it was also the date of the Charles Manson murders, Nixon’s resignation, and the trade of Wayne Gretzky . On the plus side, the Sistine Chapel was opened on that date, and Thomas Edison got his patent for the two-way telegraph. Not that you really wanted to know all that. You’re welcome anyway.)

In addition to Hiroshima, I became acquainted with Hersey through another non-fiction work, Life Sketches, published late in his life in 1989. This book is worth seeking out for its essays on John F. Kennedy, Sinclair Lewis, Henry Luce, and others.

I decided to try some of Hersey’s fiction. A Single Pebble is best described as a short novel. Like his non-fiction, it is written in a spare, compact manner. Hersey preferred the shorter form to the longer as a general rule, and kept his narrative directly on point. In essence, this book is a short story on a larger scale.

Hersey was born in China to missionary parents. He learned Mandarin before he learned English, but came to the United States when he was ten years old. Thus, it was natural that this book was set in China in the 1920s. The protagonist is a young engineer sent to survey the Yangtze River for a possible dam site. He travels by Junk, hauled upstream by human power alone. Called “Trackers”, these persons were paid a pittance in exchange for brutally hard work, danger, and the knowledge that they were as more expendable than the cargo on the ship.

Hersey keeps his character list short. There is the engineer who narrates the story in the first person. The old and cynical owner of the junk is married to a much younger wife, who is in love with the head tracker, nicknamed “Old Pebble” despite his youth. The engineer also comes to have feelings for the young wife, making this not a love triangle, but a love tetrahedron, perhaps. Finally, there is the cook, who would like to own the boat, and seems to dislike everyone.

One of the things Hersey does well in this book is strike a balance between the East and the West. Many modern authors have a tendency to romanticize ancient cultures and methods. Thus, they would mourn the loss of the old ways in China, and vilify the West for bringing modern technology and its benefits. Conversely, the Victorian author would consider the Chinaman to be a savage, lacking the essential humanity of the civilized European. Both extremes are avoided deftly by Hersey, as he allows his protagonist to wrestle with both points of view.

Hersey’s experience in China gives him an understanding of the culture, which in turn causes his Chinese characters to be recognizably human, despite the cultural differences. As the engineer (who is never given a name) interacts with the others, they become to the engineer and to the reader complex and sympathetic characters. His own prejudice and clumsy interpersonal skills cause sparks, and ultimately contribute in a small way to the tragedy that ensues.

On the other hand, Hersey does not sugar coat the problems with the ancient ways. We tend to forget in this era of multiculturalism that throughout most of history and most cultures, the poor were considered more expendable than animals. In this case, the work that we now do with machines was done directly by humans. By humans thought of as sub-persons. Should a tracker fall in the river and drown, well, there were thousands waiting at the next village.

In this respect, the engineer’s goal is noble. If the river is dammed, it could prevent the destructive floods that formerly killed hundreds of thousands in a bad year. Likewise, the river would be more safely navigable, and there would be no need for the trackers to be worked harder than any animal.

This tension underlies the well written narrative. Hersey chooses not to resolve the issue in the end. The narrator, like the reader, is left with food for thought, but no clear idea of the “right” decision.

In this, Hersey has certainly been justified by history. The Three Gorges dam was completed as envisioned by the engineer in 2006. It has inspired controversy both in and out of China. Its effects have been both positive and negative. Only time will tell which will prevail in the long term.

Aspiring writers would do well to read Hersey as an example of doing more with less. His works, both fiction and non-fiction, show that writing can be both clear and deep. He also, like Henry James, demonstrates that the short novel fills a niche and can achieve something that neither the long novel nor the short story are suited to do.

Everyone should read Hiroshima, preferably at various ages. A Single Pebble likewise induces thought, and can be recommended for a short, if not exactly light, read.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer

This is the review that started it all.
Date originally posted: April 29, 2010
Source of Book: Originally borrowed from the library. I eventually purchased a hardback set of I.B.S.'s stories.

This collection contains 47 short stories, about 1/3 of the total written.

I read this book because my wife Amanda was familiar with the author and collection, and checked it out from the library for me. As it turned out, I had read a couple of them before, probably during High School.

Singer was a Polish born Jew who wrote primarily in Yiddish, although he was fluent in several other languages. Many of these stories were translated into English by Singer himself.

Those who know my literary tastes will not be surprised that I am fascinated by the short story form. I feel that it forces the author to distil his thinking into a compact, efficient space; jettisoning the unnecessary, while focusing on the essential.

Singer shows influence from Maupassant, among others, both in the descriptive details, and the pessimistic outlook he brings to many of the stories.

The stories can be roughly assigned to four categories:

1. Naturalistic stories of Jewish life in Poland. These resemble Fiddler on the Roof in many ways, although the subject matter is grittier as a general rule.
2. Stories of the supernatural, as seen through the lens of the Kabbalah and other Jewish myths. Dybbuks, visions, and miracles are mixed with realistic details, somewhat in the style of Magical Realism.
3. Stories of Jewish life in the United States. I couldn’t help but think that this is how O Henry would have written if he were a cantankerous old Jewish man. The hustle and bustle of the city, the tenements, the poverty. It is all there. Now add apartments piled to the ceiling with books and papers, a general dislike for contact with the outside world, an isolation (by language and culture) from greater society leading to an ever shrinking community of old men who speak Yiddish and discuss the Talmud.
4. “Autobiographical” stories. These are written from a first person perspective, using pseudonyms for the secondary characters. It is impossible to tell whether these are really true to Singer’s life, or merely told from the perspective of someone like him. In any case, these are fascinating studies of love lost, or perhaps never really found. It is never stated when exactly these were written, but the perspective is that of an old man, who has lost much of his potency, desire, which has been replaced by indecision and occasionally even apathy.

As a general rule, Singer does an excellent job of drawing you into the world of his stories, making you care about his characters, even when they seem of a different world. He resists the temptation to get preachy (although his characters sometimes do preach), and allows the reader either to draw his own conclusions, or wonder if there is a real solution at all.
He also writes well in all four of the categories above. The differences between stories are so great that you could easily assume that they were written by different authors. Yet each one draws you in.

I also appreciated that there were very few weak stories in this collection, and very little repeating of scenarios or plot devices. The collection was well selected and arranged so that you did not feel that you were getting bogged down.

I would recommend this book for those who enjoy short stories, realistic (and yet often fantastic) characters, and those who are looking for something a bit off the beaten path.

A word about my Blog

Back in 2009, when I first signed up for Facebook, I played around with a couple of "Bookshelf" applications with the intent of sharing with friends what I was reading. Unfortunately, none of them really facilitated either the writing of reviews or discussion.
After a few attempts at writing public reviews, I decided to start posting my reviews as notes on Facebook, tagging friends that I knew enjoyed reading. While this worked reasonably well, it also was somewhat limited in scope to my immediate friends.
In starting this blog, my intent is that the discussion be opened up to anyone who wishes to discuss and comment, whether friend or stranger.
I have been an autodidact from birth, with a particular focus on the printed source of knowledge since I learned to read. Even though I have no desire to return to higher education at this time in my life, I have no intent to let my mind stagnate. Thus, I read.
My interests are varied. I read what interests me at the time. Ok, so I also read what my wife brings me from the library and what friends lend me. Either way, the books mentioned here will cover a wide range of subjects and eras.
In general, I read books from three categories simultaneously: Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Poetry.
I will be posting old reviews on this blog as well, with a note as to its original publication date.
Feel free to comment or argue civilly - the intention is that we all can learn from each other.